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Stolen identities

Tom Lehrer, the irreverent American songwriter, once had a song called “Lobachevsky.” It was all about mathematicians in the Soviet Union and how they came up with their theories.

The song went, “I had a friend in Minsk, who had a friend in Pinsk, who knew someone in Tomsk… etc.” But the main rule for coming up with mathematical theories was, “Let nothing new evade your eyes – and plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize.”

Little did he know that soviet writers were wont to do the same. At least when it came to children’s books. Jack London and Ernest Hemingway were the popular American heroes of literature, and everyone knew they were American. But the same wasn’t true of kids’ books.

I was reminded of this by a funny headline in Feb. 8, 2003: “Ukrainian Harry Potter lives in village of Krysino, near Kharkov [sic], Ukraine.” The story, written by Yelena Kiseleva, was about a man called Vasyl Zakharovych Kuzmenko, who went to Bohodukhovo to re-register himself officially as Harry Z. Potter. Then he tried to get a Ukrainian publisher to put out his book, The Magician’s Handbook.

The publisher was worried about copyright until he looked at Mr. Potter’s passport. Still, when he wrote to the Moscow copyright holders for the Potter series, he was warned not to even try. The story went on and on in that vein, poking fun at the Ukrainian bumpkin vying for attention as Harry Potter. Even the name of his village means Ratsville.

Right now, though, it’s the Russians who are in trouble for violating copyright. Over a series called Tanya Grotter (!) and the Disappearing Storey, and the Magical Bass, and the Golden Leech. No kidding!

The books are written by one Dimitri Yemets. In his books, Dobby the Elf turns out to be Mr. Putin in disguise. When I read that, I began to suspect the story was in PiK’s “in your face” satirical vein. But when I checked the Internet, there was the book, selling for RUR 84, or about $2.75.

I remember years ago, when I first came to Ukraine, snooping around someone’s bookcase. At the time, most apartments tended to be rented fully furnished. In some cases, that meant a minimum of furniture, but generally, rented apartments had most of the owner’s belongings in their places, from linen and dishes to paintings and carpets. This often included shelf upon shelf of yellow-edged books.

As it happened, I came across what looked very much like a familiar children’s book. There was a girl with a little white dog on the cover and a yellow road made of stone.

“What’s this book?” I asked my landlady.

“It’s called The Wizard of Emerald City,” she told me with a pleasant smile. “It was written by Alexander Volkov.”

“Really?” I said. “Was it about a girl and her little dog who went to visit a wizard?”

“Why, yes, her name was Ella and her dog was Tobi. How did you know? Do you have it in America, too?” she asked with some surprise.

“Well, actually, we do. Only it’s called The Wizard of Oz and it was written by an American, Frank L. Baum,” I said. “The girl’s name was Dorothy. She and her dog Toto were from Kansas during the Dust Bowl of the 30s.”

The woman looked at me in disbelief. I hated to disillusion her, but as a writer, it was an important point for me.

“In fact, there’s a whole series of Oz books, about a dozen or more,” I added firmly. Mr. Volkov, according to the PiK story, was engaged in some “creative translation,” as it was called among soviet writers. This meant, for the most part, that the original story and author were conveniently never credited.

Not long after discovering Ella and Tobi, I found out that there was also a Soviet version of Pinocchio. His name is Buratino. A little wooden boy with a long nose. His author, Alexei Tolstoy, did credit Carlo Collodi with the original creation. He didn’t mind admitting that his work used Pinocchio as a base. But he also added stuff of his own.

It seems that there was an entire industry of soviet authors passing off western children’s books as their own originals. Some were famous, some were more obscure. One argument goes that local writers were afraid to acknowledge the western origins of the stories they translated. They didn’t want to be accused of supporting “bourgeois imperialistic” literature. Personally, I can’t really imagine that the KGB or whoever never traced the stories.

That publishers got out of paying royalties to the original authors – that’s a line I find more believable. It’s a reason that never loses its attractiveness, even in these days of widespread copyright laws and electronic search engines.

Any day now, I expect J.K. Rowling’s lawyer to announce that they are suing someone in Russia. Not that she needs the money, but it’s the principle that counts.

In the meantime, I’ve been thinking of putting out a few series myself. Hanna Honchar and the Vanishing Budget. Hryts Kozhukh and the Chamber of Oligarchs. Lonnie K. and the Golden Parachute. Etc, etc.

Keep your fingers crossed that Ms Rowling’s lawyers don’t notice before I get paid… •

(Originally published in Eastern Economist, 2 March 2003)

Published on 12/11/2005



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