Kurt Vonnegut in the U.S.S.R.
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Since the mid-twentieth century, Kurt Vonnegut has enjoyed a permanent spot on the list of history’s most widely read and beloved American authors. Science fiction classics like Cat’s Cradle (1963) and Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) turned Vonnegut into a domestic counter-cultural literary sensation in the United States at mid-century. The presence of a loyal Vonnegut fan base in America, and in the west more broadly, is a well-documented fact. What is less well known among scholars and those familiar with Vonnegut’s work is his popularity in a far more distant place: the Soviet Union. Beginning in the late 1960s, Soviet citizens developed a voracious appetite for Vonnegut’s. Translations of his novels appeared regularly in daily newspapers and highbrow literary journals alike; a play adaptation of Slaughterhouse-Five enjoyed a multi-season run in the Moscow Army Theater; average citizens competed for membership in Vonnegut’s karass. These examples are suggestive of the ways that Kurt Vonnegut’s science fiction literature can serve as a gateway for scholars seeking to understand the Soviet Union during the 1970s. This report contends that Soviet interest in Vonnegut’s dystopian science fiction reflected larger shifts in Soviet attitudes towards pacifism, technology, individual wellbeing, human rights, and past and present wars. It situates these ideas in the context of domestic and global events to illustrate how the peculiar political conditions of the 1970s made this ideological convergence possible. It employs original American and Russian language sources, including Russian newspapers and journals, letters written by Vonnegut’s Russian translator, and Kurt Vonnegut’s own fan mail. At its core, this report challenges the assumption that political and ideological differences precluded Soviet and American citizens from identifying the conditions necessary for ensuring social and technological progress and a future without war.