Here is an interesting history of how Russians came into contact with Sri Aurobindo during the time of the Soviet Union. This article was originally posted on the website of Varuna Energy & Water Pvt. Ltd., which is a unit based in Auroville.
When the iron curtain fell and Russia opened up to allow philosophical and spiritual thought to be accessed freely by the public, Sri Aurobindo was one of the first to create an impact in the new realms of mental freedom. Till then one would have gone to prison if one was caught with one of the unauthorised publications of Sri Aurobindo, which were secretly circulated in Russia and its neighbouring countries.
The system was simple: the public was not allowed to have access to any literature which was not in favour with the communist system. There was only a small elite which was having access to the libraries in which all important books were kept. Nothing leaked out to the masses, which were kept away from all philosophical, spiritual or political thought which was not favouring the political system of the communist party.
During this difficult time in the former Soviet Union there developed two openings which brought the public to some extent into touch with Sri Aurobindo. One was a small circle of academics in Moscow, all of them Russian Jews, which had noticed the great essence behind Sri Aurobindo’s writings. One of them was Mira Salganic, head of the Russian Writer’s Union and cultural attaché to India. Then there was Dr. Ribakov, head of the Oriental Institute of Studies, and Prof. Kostuchenko, plus two or three other Professors of Philosophy. They had a daring plan, which was dangerous but clever. Professor Kostuchenko wrote a book on the philosophy of Sri Aurobindo which explained his thoughts and included as many quotations as possible, but which was finally critical of Sri Aurobindo. The Oriental Institute of Studies published this book, and thus Sri Aurobindo became known in Russia. Many people who read the book became interested, and subsequently followers of Sri Aurobindo, in spite of the negative comments which Prof. Kostuchenko had to place inside the book to make its publication possible.
At the same time in St. Petersburg a small circle of people gathered around Piotr Zorin, who was working at the University of St. Petersburg. This circle had established a link to the well-protected libraries in which all philosophical books were kept. They first copied secretly by hand or by photocopy some of the works of Sri Aurobindo and smuggled them out. They then started to translate the books, as well as they could, and started circulating the Russian versions by way of photocopies to a narrow circle of friends and likeminded persons. During this so-called Samizdat period, several Russians went to prison for having been found with an illegal copy of one of Sri Aurobindo’s books.
Finally the group managed to get hold of Satprem’s book “The Adventure of Consciousness” in its French original. This book was not found in the Russian secret libraries; it had to be smuggled into Russia from France. Eight copies were sent to Russia via different routes and methods, of which two finally arrived. It then took the group eight years to translate the book. The translation was completed just as Perestroika and Glasnost opened the country to non-communist thought. The book was then published by Leningrad University and 100,000 copies were printed. They sold out immediately, and another print-run of 100,000 copies was printed and distributed. In other parts of Russia the book also found widespread acceptance, and unauthorised publications started popping up. In Tomsk in Siberia 100,000 pirate copies were published, followed by other editions from several newly created publishing houses.
It is difficult to estimate the final number of how many copies of this book ended up being distributed in Russia, but most probably it crosses half a million. In fact today more Russians have read a book of or on Sri Aurobindo than the total of all other readers from around the world.
At that time, when Russian thought became free, a fresh element was added to the newly arising movement of Sri Aurobindo in the east-block countries. Madanlal Himatsingka had sold All India Press, a unit started by the Mother, to Michael, and he set up a publishing house in St. Petersburg with the aim of translating and publishing all the works of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother in Russian. About 10 translators were employed, amongst them Mira Salganic, who translated books like Foundations of Indian Culture, Hymns to the Mystic fire, Secret of the Vedas and Essays on the Gita. Prof. Kostuchenko wrote an introduction to the collected works of Sri Aurobindo, and Valentina, the wife of Piotr Zorin, translated Letters on Yoga and Synthesis of Yoga. The books were first printed in Pondicherry in All India Press, but finally it became more economic to print the books in Russia itself.
As long as there were many titles still not translated there was a great demand for the original English versions of Sri Aurobindo’s books. Madanlal donated the old stock of All India Press to the project, and a full container of books of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother in English and French was despatched to St. Petersburg.
After a few more years, with more titles available in Russian, sales of English and French versions of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother completely stopped.
By then most of the important titles of Sri Aurobindo had been translated, together with a good part of the volumes of Mother’s collected works. Also some “secondary literature” like ‘Beyond Man’ of Georges Van Vrekhem or his ‘On Hitler’, as well as the first direct translation of Sanskrit texts of Shankaracharya into Russian, had become available.
The project in Russia to translate and publish the works of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother is slowly reaching the point it was first aimed at, and so the focus is coming back to the international market. The team around Varuna then took up publication – in collaboration with the Delhi Ashram – of a photo-book with selected pictures of the Mother. This book was printed in Germany and has been distributed in its English version in India, in its Russian version from St. Petersburg. A similar book with pictures of Sri Aurobindo is in the pipeline. All the old English and French books of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother which had been exported to Russia, but which remained unsold, were re-imported to Pondicherry. Many of them are not available in this particular format – like pocket editions etc – here in India. They are sold now in Auroville, Pondicherry and Chennai Airport.
The really interesting new facet of Varuna’s publication section is working with electronic formats of the books. We are currently working at transforming all the main works of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother into e-pub format, both for the English and Russian texts, and intend to publish them for e-book use as well as for i-pad use. For i-pad we intend also to create an App for download with pictures of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother.
There are still lots of other possible ways we can help open up access to Sri Aurobindo and the Mother’s works, or provide readers with modern solutions and nice tools to remain in touch with them. There are also still many parts of the world where Sri Aurobindo is hardly known or his works are not yet translated. For example China. The composition of nationalities in Auroville mirrors quite well the development of book sales in the outside world. The first books of Sri Aurobindo translated and sold in a systematic way outside India were in France and Germany. Accordingly there are many French and German nationals in Auroville. Many of the Russians who are in Auroville have come following contact with the Russian publications. The fact that there are hardly any Chinese Aurovilians reflects well the fact that Sri Aurobindo’s and Mother’s books have still not been translated and published in China.
So there is still a lot of work ahead of us.