Ruling Russia in China

William Zimmerman is Research Professor Emeritus at the University of Michigan Center for Political Studies.

In the summer of 2014, Foreign Affairs published a review article by Keith Gessen, “What’s the Matter with Russia? Putin and the Soviet Legacy.” The review was based on two books, one by me (Ruling Russia: Authoritarianism from the Revolution to Putin, Princeton University Press, 2014), the other by Orlando Figes (Revolutionary Russia, Metropolitan Books, 2014). Since then, Ruling Russia has been published in paperback (2016), German (Russland Regieren, Philipp von Zabern, 2015), and, most recently, in Chinese (Truth and Wisdom Press, 2018). Having spent a sizeable fraction of my professional life writing about various authoritarian regimes, the publication of a Chinese version of Ruling Russia strikes me as something of a big deal, one that calls for readers of Slavic Review and NewsNet, myself included, to rethink our expectations about the prospects for a range of book translations in China.

How Ruling Russia came to be published in Chinese takes some telling. The leading advocate for publishing the book was the translator, Hengfu Xin. As I quickly came to realize, she turned out to be both resourceful and purposeful. To my request for permission to cite her, she responded: “Thank you so much for asking! Actually, I’m quite liberal. You can cite me whatever way you like” (email, September 28, 2018). She obtained Ruling Russia the way most of us obtain books: from Amazon. It was her “luck to find the book before it was published three years ago” (email, November 10, 2017). Her “original purpose [in] translating it,” she related “was to show the true history of Russian politics to [the] Chinese people.”

Initially, that aspiration seemed unlikely to progress very far. The publishing house, Truth and Wisdom Press (Shanghai), failed at first to obtain the requisite permission from the national censorship authorities, even though, according to the translator, the President of the Press (Weiwen Fan), had been an advocate for the book and shared her appreciation for it.

That favorable evaluation by the president was initially not enough to receive the endorsement of the censors. The book was rejected by the latter and “shelved for a year,” Hengfu Xin reported in late 2017. A year later, however, the book “was finally allowed for publication, which was our [good] fortune.” Even so, there were still possible roadblocks, as my translator cautioned: “These days, the official media have still been commemorating the October Revolution.” Hengfu Xin worried that this situation might affect the book’s translation and publication. “Right now, we’re just facing the ‘last fight,’ but I believe we’ll also eventually win it,” she wrote in an email (November 10, 2017).

And eventually they did. There followed more than a year of exchanges between me and Hengfu Xin, and meetings between her and the editorial team. Most of our exchanges touched on the meanings of my texts and her disagreements with the editorial team that oversaw the translation of the manuscript. An important example of the latter turned on the word “regime,” a term that appears frequently in Ruling Russia. (The translation was a bit tricky, since “regime” involved going from French to English and then to Chinese.) The editorial team, the translator complained, wanted her to “translate the word ‘regime’ uniformly into a single Chinese word for political power,” whereas she opted to use two Chinese words, one for political power, the other for political system, depending on the context. This was but one of the issues that had to be resolved. Somewhat surprisingly to me, the translator and the editorial committee viewed me as the arbiter when she and the board divided. “I have struggled with the editorial team and you are my best support,” she wrote. Importantly, this was a view endorsed by the Press President as well. When “I handed in my revision of the translation,” Hengfu Xin reported. “I talked to the Press President, who agreed that respecting the original intention of the author is the most important above all” (email, November 9, 2017).

Issues concerning proper translation, both in dealing with me and achieving the approval of the editorial team, occupied the translator for the better part of a year. There were two other matters that might have complicated the whole process of producing a satisfactorily completed book.

One of these involved the interaction between Truth and Wisdom Press and the national Censorship Board, which rendered a decision that might have produced a genuine quarrel had the situation been otherwise. The other concerned the Press editor’s announced plan to add an introduction by a Chinese historian.

The issue between the Censorship Board and the publishing house turned on the question of how to deal with the Russian annexation of Crimea. The Censorship Board had strong views on the matter. The hardcover, English-language version of Ruling Russia (2014) had provided a map of Russia and environs that showed Crimea as part of Ukraine. The 2016 paperback version had recognized the reality that Crimea had become a part of Russia and the map was adjusted accordingly. I think the Censorship Board was working with the hardcover copy of Ruling Russia and was unaware of the updated map in the paperback version. When Truth and Wisdom Press submitted Ruling Russia to the censors for final approval, the Board’s response was to insist that the map of Russia be deleted. This was easily enough done, and the page was deleted. I am pretty sure that the Censorship Board thought it had successfully coerced Truth and Wisdom Press to show that Crimea was a part of Russia by having them omit the map. That show of force accomplished, the Censorship Board signed off and allowed the book to be published with no other changes. 

The other possible impediment to deferring the deal on the publication of the book turned on a decision by the Editor/President of the press. I learned from the translator that Weiwen Fan was planning to get a historian to write an introduction to the book. My immediate reaction was that I had seen this movie before. Forty or fifty years ago, publishers in Russia and in other parts of Eastern Europe typically secured the services of a notoriously reactionary author or specialist to write a preface to a book that otherwise might not pass muster with the censors. That ploy often permitted the published to do an end run on the censors. The author of the preface would receive a tidy sum for exposing the malevolent distortions of the Western author. Readers in the know would simply skip the preface and turn to the subsequent chapters to ascertain what the Western author actually had in mind. My translator had a similar interpretation of what was driving the editor’s plan to have someone write a preface for Ruling Russia. She informed me that the preface writer was a “Russian studies expert [who] has a strong government background, which I don’t like.” 

A full year went by. On the eve of the scheduled publication, it appeared that the President of the press was sticking to the plan of having someone write an introduction. “Even at [this] very late stage,” Hengfu Xin wrote, “the editor confirmed that to me” (September 29, 2018). But for reasons neither my translator nor folks at Princeton Press in Shanghai were able to explain, that decision was abruptly canceled. What happened? “I really don’t know what actually happened,” Hengu Xin wrote in the fall of 2018. “All of a sudden, she [the Press President] told me time was up, the introduction won’t be ready in time.” The editor evidently proceeded with market and publication costs in mind and was considerably less concerned about conforming to Party views that were central to the thinking of the censors in Beijing.

In any event, the Chinese language version of Ruling Russia was published in late fall 2018, with the approval of the censors, without a map, and without a preface. Chinese readers were left with the task of interpreting the book on their own.

What are we to make of this? I am averse to generalizing on the basis of a sample of one. It is, however, tempting to extrapolate a bit. Students of the history of Communism will recognize the ploy of a liberal editor securing a notoriously reactionary Party hack to write a preface exposing the erroneous views of the author. With hindsight, though, what strikes me is that the Publishing House and the Censorship Board did not diverge over conventional literary issues. Rather, what the Censorship Board was most concerned to emphasize had to do with geopolitical territorial issues characteristic of China’s emergence as a major power. The Board was determined to be seen as supporting the changing of borders in Crimea—a view that makes most sense when thought of as being analogous to developments along China’s coastal boundaries, where Beijing has cultivated its own claims. This suggests that Western efforts to publish scholarship in China devoted to Russian domestic politics and history may entail fewer impediments than Western scholarship focusing on the interpretation of Russia’s foreign policy or its role as a major power.