On censorship in the Soviet Union


The story of writing Roadside Picnic (in contrast to the story of publishing it) doesn’t include anything amusing or even instructive. The novel was conceived in February 1970, when my brother and I got together in Komarovo, a Russian town on the Gulf of Finland, to write The Doomed City. At odd moments during evening strolls through the deserted, snow-covered streets of that tourist town, we thought of a number of new plots, including those of the future Space Mowgli and the future Roadside Picnic.

We kept a journal of our discussions, and the very first entry looks like this:

A monkey and a tin can. Thirty years after the alien visit, the remains of the junk they left behind are at the center of quests and adventures, investigations and misfortunes. The growth of superstition, a department attempting to assume power through owning the junk, an organization seeking to destroy it (knowledge fallen from the sky is useless and pernicious; any discovery could only lead to evil applications). Prospectors revered as wizards. A decline in the stature of science. Abandoned ecosystems (an almost dead battery), reanimated corpses from a wide variety of time periods.

In these same notes, the confirmed and final title—Roadside Picnic—makes an appearance, but the concept of a “stalker” is nowhere to be seen; there are only “prospectors.” Almost a year later, in January 1971, again in Komarovo, we developed a very thorough and painstakingly detailed plan of the novel, but even in this plan, literally on the eve of the day we finally stopped coming up with the plot and started writing it, our drafts didn’t include the word “stalker.” Future stalkers were still called “trappers”: “trapper Redrick Schuhart,” “the trapper’s girlfriend Guta,” “the trapper’s little brother Sedwick.” Apparently, the term “stalker” came to us in the process of working on the first pages of the book. As for the “prospectors” and “trappers,” we didn’t like those terms to begin with. I remember this well.

We were the ones who introduced the English word “stalker” into the Russian language. Stalker—pronounced “stullker” in Russian—is one of the few words we “coined” that came into common use. Stalker spread far and wide, although I’d guess that this was mainly because of the 1979 film of that name, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky and based on our book. But even Tarkovsky latched on to it for a reason—our word must really have turned out precise, resonant, and full of meaning. It would have been more correct to say “stawker” instead of “stullker,” but the thing is, we didn’t take it from a dictionary at all. We took it from one of Rudyard Kipling’s novels, the old prerevolutionary translation of which was called The Reckless Bunch (or something like that), about rambunctious English schoolkids from the end of the nineteenth to the beginning of the twentieth century and their ringleader, a crafty and mischievous kid nicknamed Stalky. In his tender years Arkady, while still a student at the Military Institute for Foreign Languages, received from me a copy of Kipling’s Stalky & Co. that I happened to pick up at a flea market. He read it, was delighted, and right then made a rough translation called Stullky and Company, which became one of the favorite books of my school and college years. So when we were thinking of the word “stalker,” we undoubtedly had in mind the streetwise Stullky, a tough and even ruthless youth, who, however, was by no means without a certain boyish chivalry and generosity. And at the time it didn’t even cross our minds that his name wasn’t Stullky at all, but was actually pronounced “stawky.”

Roadside Picnic was written without any delays or crises in just three stages. On January 19, 1971, we started the rough draft, and on November 3 of the same year we finished a good copy. In the interim we kept busy with a wide variety of (typically idiotic) pursuits—wrote complaints to the “Ruling Senate” (i.e., the secretariat of the Moscow Writers’ Organization), answered letters (which, sitting side by side, we did fairly rarely), composed a government application for a full-length popular-science film called The Meeting of Worlds (about contact with another intelligence), wrote three shorts for the popular Soviet television series Fitil (or something like it), thought of a plot for the TV movie They Chose Rybkin, worked out a first draft of the plot of the new novel Strange Doings at the Octopus Reef, and so on and so forth—there were no follow-ups or ultimate outcomes for any of these scribbles, and they have absolutely no relation to subsequent events.

Remarkably, the Picnic had a relatively easy passage through the Leningrad Avrora (a Soviet literary journal), not encountering substantial difficulties and sustaining damage only during the editing, and minor damage at that. Of course, the manuscript had to be purged of various “shits” and “bastards,” but these were all familiar trivialities, beloved by writers the world over; the authors didn’t retreat from a single principal position, and the magazine version appeared at the end of the summer of 1972, practically unscathed.

The saga of the Picnic at the publisher Young Guard was only beginning then. Actually, strictly speaking, it began in early 1971, when the Picnic didn’t yet exist on paper and the novel was only being offered in the broadest of terms in an application for an anthology. This putative anthology was called Unintended Meetings, was dedicated to the problem of humanity’s contact with another intelligence, and consisted of three novels, two finished—Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel and Space Mowgli—and one that was still being written.

At the start of the 1980s, Arkady and I were giving serious thought to the project of gathering, organizing, and disseminating, at least by samizdat, “A History of One Publication” (or “How It’s Done”)—a compendium of genuine documents (letters, reviews, complaints, applications, authorial wails and howls in written form) related to the history of publishing the anthology Unintended Meetings, whose key novel turned out to be the Picnic. At one time, I had even begun systematically sorting and selecting the existing materials, but soon gave it up. It was dead-end work, a laborious task with no future, and there was a certain palpable immodesty in the whole project—who were we, after all, to use our own example to illustrate the functioning of the ideological machine of the 1970s, especially against the background of the fates of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Georgi Vladimov, Vladimir Voinovich, and many, many other worthies?

The project was abandoned, but we returned to it once more after the beginning of perestroika[1] in the mid-1980s, during the dawn of the new and even newest times, when there appeared a real possibility of not merely passing around a certain collection of materials but of publishing it according to all the rules, with didactic commentary and venomous descriptions of the main characters, many of whom had retained their positions at the time and were capable of influencing literary processes. We were joined by indefatigable ludens:[2] Vadim Kazakov, a science fiction expert and literary critic from Saratov, and his friends. I relayed all the materials to them—the compendium was for the most part ready—but pretty soon it became clear that there was no real possibility of publishing it; no one had the money for this kind of publication, which was unlikely to be profitable. Besides, things were happening at breakneck speed: the putsch, Arkady’s passing, the fall of the USSR, the democratic revolution—a velvet revolution, but a revolution nonetheless. For a period of literally months, our project lost the most minimal relevance.

And now I’m sitting behind a desk, staring at three reasonably thick folders lying in front of me, and am aware of a disappointment mixed with uncertainty and a noticeable touch of bewilderment. Inside these folders are the letters to the Young Guard publishing house (to the editors, the managing editor, the head editor, the director), complaints to the Central Committee of the All-Union Leninist Young Communist League (CC AULYCL), plaintive petitions to the Department of Culture of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CC CPSU), and of course, replies from all these organizations and our letters to each other—a veritable mountain of paper, by the most conservative calculation more than two hundred documents—and I have no idea now what to do with it all.

At first, I was looking forward to using this afterword to tell the story of publishing the Picnic: naming once-hated names; jeering to my heart’s content at the cowards, idiots, informers, and scoundrels; astounding the reader with the absurdity, idiocy, and meanness of the world we’re all from; being ironic and instructive, deliberately objective and ruthless, benevolent and caustic all at once. And now I’m sitting here, looking at these folders, and realizing that I’m hopelessly late and that no one needs me—not my irony, not my generosity, and not my burnt-out hatred. They have ceased to exist, those once-powerful organizations with almost unlimited right to allow and to hinder; they have ceased to exist and are forgotten to such an extent that it would be tedious and dull to explain to the present-day reader who is who, why it didn’t make sense to complain to the Department of Culture of the CC, why the only thing to do was to complain to the Department of Print and Propaganda, and who were Albert Andreevich Beliaev, Pyotr Nilovich Demichev, and Mikhail Vasilyevich Zimyanin—and these were the tigers and elephants of the Soviet ideological fauna, rulers of destinies, deciders of fates! Who remembers them today, and who cares about those of them who are still among the living? So then why bother with the small fry—the shrill crowd of petty bureaucrats of ideology, the countless ideological demons, who caused untold and immeasurable harm and whose vileness and meanness require (as they liked to write in the nineteenth century) a mightier, sharper, and more experienced pen than my own? I don’t even want to mention them here—let them be swallowed up by the past, like evil spirits, and disappear.

How do you tell the story of publishing the Picnic—a story that is in a certain sense almost mysterious? Because this novel probably wasn’t without its flaws, but at the same time it was also not without evident merits: it was clearly gripping, capable of making a reasonably strong impression on a reader (it did, after all, inspire a remarkable reader like Andrei Tarkovsky to make an outstanding film). At the same time it certainly didn’t contain any criticism of the existing order and, on the contrary, seemed to be in line with the reigning anti-bourgeois ideology. So then why, for what mysterious—mystical? infernal?—reasons was it doomed to spend more than eight years passing through the publishing house?

At first, the publisher didn’t want to enter into a contract about the anthology at all. Then it did but for some reason revolted against the novel Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel. Then it seemed to agree to replace Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel with the previously approved novel Hard to Be a God, but then it categorically revolted against the Picnic. It’s impossible here to even give a brief account of this battle; it turns out to be too long—it was eight years, after all. There were unexpected repudiations of the publisher’s own demands (suddenly, for no reason at all, down with Hard to Be a God!) and five or six renewals of the contract, and even sudden attempts to break off the relationship entirely (all the way up to court!). But mainly, and the whole time, and obstinately and invariably, from one year to the next, from one conversation to the next, from one letter to the next: take the reanimated corpses out of the Picnic; change Redrick Schuhart’s language; insert the word “Soviet” when talking about Kirill Panov; get rid of the bleakness, hopelessness, coarseness, savageness.

I’ve preserved a remarkable document: the page-by-page comments on the novel Roadside Picnic by the language editors. The comments span eighteen (!) pages and are divided into sections: “Comments Concerning the Immoral Behavior of the Heroes,” “Comments Concerning Physical Violence,” and “Comments About Vulgarisms and Slang Expressions.” I can’t allow myself not to produce a couple of excerpts. And keep in mind: I am in no way selecting quotes, not looking for idiocies on purpose. I’m presenting the comments in order, beginning with a paragraph from the explanatory letter that accompanied the pages:

Of course, we [the editors] only copied out those expressions and words that, in our opinion, require either removal or substitution. These comments are first and foremost dictated by the fact that your book is intended for teenagers and young people, for members of the Young Communist League who see Soviet literature as a textbook on morals, a guidebook to life.


[there are 93 comments in all; the first 10 are presented]

  • must stick your fat ass—p. 21
  • I’ll walk on my teeth, never mind my hands—p. 21
  • crawling on all fours—p. 32
  • take out the flask, unscrew it, and attach myself to it like a leech—p. 35
  • suck the flask dry—p. 35
  • I need just one more sip—p. 35
  • I’ll get plastered tonight. I gotta beat Richard, that’s the thing! The bastard sure knows how to play—p. 38
  • And I need a drink—I just can’t wait—p. 42
  • I would have been happy to drink with you to that—p. 42
  • without saying a word pours me a shot of vodka. I clamber up onto the stool, take a sip, grimace, shake my head, and take another sip—p. 43


[there are 36 comments in all; the last 9 are presented]

  • grabbed a heavy beer stein from the bar and smashed it with all his might into the nearest roaring mug—p. 179
  • Redrick felt in his pocket, picked out a nut that weighed about an ounce, and, taking aim, flung it at Arthur. It hit him right in the back of the head. The boy gasped [etc.]—p. 182
  • Next time I’ll knock a couple of teeth out—p. 182
  • kicked Redrick in the face with his free leg, and wriggled and flopped around [etc.]—p. 185
  • convulsively kneading the head of this damned kid with his chest, couldn’t take it anymore and screamed as hard as he could—p. 185
  • Now that cute little face appeared to be a black-and-gray mask made of ashes and coagulated blood [etc.]—p. 185
  • Redrick threw him facedown into the largest puddle—p. 186
  • may those bastards suffer, let them eat shit like I did—p. 202
  • He hit himself hard in the face with a half-open fist—p. 202


[there are 251 comments in all, an arbitrary 10 from the middle are presented]

  • he suddenly began to curse, impotently and spitefully, using vile, dirty words, showering Redrick with spittle—p. 72
  • Put in your teeth and let’s go—p. 72
  • the Butcher cursed—p. 74
  • You’re scum…. A vulture—p. 74
  • asshole—p. 76
  • I’m dying of hunger!—p. 77
  • The Monkey was dozing peacefully—p. 77
  • he was dirty as hell—p. 78
  • To hell with this!—p. 82
  • beeped at some African—p. 85

I remember that upon receipt of this amazing document, I rushed straight to my bookshelves and joyously brought forth our beloved and unsurpassed Jaroslav Hašek. With what unutterable delight did I read:

Life is no finishing school for young ladies. Everyone speaks the way he is made. The protocol chief, Dr. Guth, speaks differently from Palivec, the landlord of The Chalice, and this novel is neither a handbook of drawing-room refinement nor a teaching manual of expressions to be used in polite society.

It was once said, and very rightly, that a man who is well brought-up may read anything. The only people who boggle at what is perfectly natural are those who are the worst swine and the finest experts in filth. In their utterly contemptible pseudo-morality they ignore the contents and madly attack individual words.

Years ago I read a criticism of a novelette, in which the critic was furious because the author had written: “He blew his nose and wiped it.” He said that it went against everything beautiful and exalted which literature should give the nation.

This is only a small illustration of what bloody fools are born under the sun.

Oh, how sweet it would be to quote all this to the gentlemen from Young Guard! And to add something from myself in the same vein. But, alas, this would be completely pointless and maybe even tactically wrong. Besides, as it became clear to us many, many years later, we had completely misunderstood the motivations and psychology of these people.

You see, we had then sincerely assumed that our editors were simply afraid of the higher-ups and didn’t want to make themselves vulnerable by publishing yet another dubious work by extremely dubious authors. And the entire time, in all our letters and applications, we took great pains to emphasize that which to us seemed completely obvious: the novel contained nothing criminal; it was quite ideologically appropriate and certainly not dangerous in that sense. And the fact that the world depicted in it was coarse, cruel, and hopeless, well, that was how it had to be—it was the world of “decaying capitalism and triumphant bourgeois ideology.”

It didn’t even cross our minds that the issue had nothing to do with ideology. They, those quintessential “bloody fools,” actually did think this way: that language must be as colorless, smooth, and glossy as possible and certainly shouldn’t be at all coarse; that science fiction necessarily has to be fantastic and on no account should have anything to do with crude, observable, and brutal reality; that the reader must in general be protected from reality—let him live by daydreams, reveries, and beautiful incorporeal ideas. The heroes of a novel shouldn’t “walk,” they should “advance”; not talk but “utter”; on no account “yell” but only “exclaim.” This was a certain peculiar aesthetic, a reasonably self-contained notion of literature in general and of science fiction in particular—a peculiar worldview, if you like. One that’s rather widespread, by the way, and relatively harmless, but only under the condition that the holder of this worldview isn’t given the chance to influence the literary process.

However, judging from a letter I wrote to Arkady on August 4, 1977:

Medvedev has been dealt with in the following way: a) Fifty-three stylistic changes from the “Vulgarisms” list have been made—it’s explained in the letter that this is done in respect for the requests from the CC AULYCL. b) Interpretations of corpses as cyborgs for investigating earthlings, and of the Sphere—as some kind of bionic device which detects biological currents—have been inserted; it’s explained in the letter that this was done to be left in peace. c) The letter further states that the remaining demands of the editors (concerning violence and so on) are actually an ideological mistake, as they result in glossing over capitalist reality. Everything has been sent with a request for a notification, and judging from the notification, has been received at the YG on the 26th of July of this year. To hell, to hell.

That was the very height of battle. Much, much more still lay ahead: further paroxysms of editorial vigilance, attempts to break the contract with the authors entirely, our complaints and plaintive petitions to the All-Union Agency on Copyrights (AUAC), CC AULYCL, CC CPSU.

The Unintended Meetings anthology saw the light of day in the autumn of 1980, disfigured, massacred, and pathetic. The only thing remaining from the original plan was Space Mowgli; Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel had been lost on the fields of battle more than five years before, while the Picnic had undergone such editing that the authors wanted neither to read it nor even simply to flip through its pages.

But the authors prevailed. This was one of the rarest occurrences in the history of Soviet publishing: the publisher didn’t want to release a book but the authors forced it to. Experts thought that such a thing was completely impossible. It turns out that it was possible. Eight years. Fourteen letters to the “big” and “little” Central Committees. Two hundred degrading corrections of the text. An incalculable amount of nervous energy wasted on trivialities. Yes, the authors prevailed; there’s no arguing with that.

But it was a Pyrrhic victory.

Nonetheless, the Picnic was and still is the most popular of the Strugatsky novels—at least abroad. It’s possible that this is due to Tarkovsky’s brilliant film Stalker acting as a catalyst. But the fact remains: some fifty editions in twenty countries, including the United States (three editions), the United Kingdom (four), France (two), Germany (seven), Spain (two, one in Catalan), Poland (six), the Czech Republic (five), Italy (three), Finland (two), Bulgaria (four), and so on. In Russia, Roadside Picnic is also fairly highly acclaimed, although it lags behind, say, Monday Starts on Saturday. Roadside Picnic lives on and maybe will even make it to the third decade of the twenty-first century.

Of course, the text of the Picnic presented here is completely restored and returned to the authors’ version. But to this day, I find the Unintended Meetings anthology unpleasant to even hold in my hands, never mind read.

From the afterword of the English edition of Roadside Picnic

The movie Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky

[1] perestroika: a reform instituted by Mikhail Gorbachev that, in an attempt to strengthen the economy, created policies to minimize bureaucracy and direct involvement of the Communist Party and to increase local government authority.

[2] ludens: a Strugatsky term indicating a subspecies of humans with superior mental powers.

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