Dmitri Prieto

Russians at the Book Fair in Havana. Photo: Caridad

It’s clear that the 2010 Cuba International Book Fair was dedicated to Russia as both a tribute to historic Cuban-Russian relations and the current need for political ties.

The fair is about to end on Sunday March 8 in Santiago de Cuba after traveling to various provinces on the island following the main event in Havana.  It was curious to see on television how local organizers boast of guaranteeing a “Russian presence” at these respective provincial fairs.

The same thing can be said of children who presented the guests with a lengthened pound of bread and salt (a stereotypical and literal Creole interpretation of the Slavic custom of greeting visitors with bread and salt, where the bread should be round and have a small salt cellar secured in a hole on the top).  This was performed —exhibiting great seriousness and vivacity— at an exhibition of crafts produced by the local community of descendants of former Soviets (like just occurred in Santiago de Cuba).

I’m glad that our post-Soviet community that lives in Cuba has finally had a voice at the Book Fair and has at least tacitly been recognized as one of the ethnic ingredients of the Cuban nation.

I was invited to participate on a panel discussion on the influence of the cultures of the former USSR on Cuban culture.  It was a tremendously interesting debate and one that lacked ideological obstacles; people spoke about the positive, neutral and negative influences of the Soviet presence on Cuba.

For example, discussion took place about good and bad literary works, including assessments of the famous campaign literature of the Second World War, as well as on the wonderful testimonial writings of Solzhenitsyn concerning the Siberian Gulags.

The debate broached not only issues of art, but also the effects of censorship, intercultural dialogue, technology and Cuban-Soviet “transculturation.”  Of course mention was made of the famous and controversial Soviet cartoons: a reason for pride, nostalgia and reflection for some, and bad memories for others.

It was clear that Cubans of Soviet origin exist and are increasingly demanding more visibility. Likewise, many of us have already made our personal contribution to Creole culture.

I was surprised to learn of the range of important Russian cultural figures who visited Havana during the segment of the fair held in the capital. It’s a shame I wasn’t able to attend their presentations, though some friends commented to me that the initial program suffered many changes, therefore many debates were canceled and others ended up with empty rooms due to the confusion of the potential public.

Despite the effort of the promoters, I believe that the appropriate interaction was not achieved between the Russian guests and Cubans interested in attending.  But I’m certain there were really important film, television and theatrical presentations and days at the fair, though perhaps they were not promoted in the best way possible.

On the other hand, I did in fact visit the exhibition of Russian books.  There was a quite good selection, but the volumes could not be purchased.  What’s more, all of them were in Russian, a language that many of us Cubans of Russian descent and former students of Soviet universities understand (of which there are thousands here), though most of the fair’s visitors did not.

Maybe it would have been better to bring some special editions translated into Spanish, as I’m for sure these must exist, perhaps ones co-produced by publishers outside Russia.

Cuba did indeed publish and re-publish some books by authors from the former-USSR, including some classic works of Russian literature. I suppose that through those editions Cubans are increasingly introduced to these great literary works.

However, we continue to be denied access to national editions of books like Doctor Zhivago, by Pasternak, or Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago.  It’s too bad works like those have remained outside of debate for generations of Cubans.

Nevertheless, the Russian television presentation of the series Maestro y Margarita (based on Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel of the same name) did speak in depth about the realities of Stalinism. In a similar sense, Cuban cultural expert Navarrese Desiderio delivered presentations at the fair, where he also criticized the detrimental effects in the 1970s of Cuban versions of Stalinist practices.

To recall the dark sides of a reality and a relationship is part of the guarantee that the gray past will not repeat itself.  I’m aware that I’ve just written a triviality, but it is important to keep it in mind today!


Dimitri Prieto-Samsonov

Dmitri Prieto-Samsonov: I define myself as being either Cuban-Russian or Russian-Cuban, indiscriminately. I was born in Moscow in 1972 of a Russian mother and a Cuban father. I lived in the USSR until I was 13, although I was already familiar with Cuba-- where we would take our vacation almost every year. I currently live on the fifth floor of an apartment building in Santa Cruz del Norte, near the sea. I’ve studied biochemistry and law in Havana and anthropology in London. I’ve written about molecular biology, philosophy and anarchism, although I enjoy reading more than writing. I am currently teaching in the Agrarian University of Havana. I believe in God and in the possibility of a free society. Together with other people, that’s what we’re into: breaking down walls and routines.

2 thoughts on “The Book Fair with the Russians

  • You should mention how Solzhenitsyn quickly became persona non grata — and essentially a non person — in the West, when he started criticizing capitalist culture — specifically the U.S. variety. It only works one way with these people, eh? It’s also telling how the relationship you describe here is being stressed, now even more, in purely nationalist terms — even though the supposed (and largely superficial) official connection in the past was always supposed to be internationalist: that is, in terms of socialist internationalism, real or imagined.

    Frankly, I think it would be wrong to consider this development you describe as being an “advance”, generally. It appears to be the exact opposite of an advance, in fact, in the larger sense. Actually, it appears to be a bit of a regression — even if, conversely, individuals can now find themselves freer to express themselves without interference.

  • Dear Dmitri,

    P.S.
    Here is how I usually describe my book in messages to friends and acquaintances: “In dealing with complexity (diary items were composed in the USSR, Poland, France and the US), I am using the so-called spiral approach. A single paragraph about me is in the introduction, then my life is briefly described in Chapter 1. The rest (14 chapters) consists of chronological extracts from my diaries. They describe communist party work, romantic affairs, comments about political events, about my ethnic identity, about scientific work, etc. The book is now available at

    www [dot] amazon [dot] com

    To see customer reviews, search for Ludwik Kowalski, click on the book’s picture, and scroll down a little.

    Chapter 1 is at: http://pages.csam.montclair.edu/~kowalski/chapter1.html

    The diary traces the ideological evolution from one extreme to another.

    Please forward this message to others who might be interested.

    Thank you in advance,

    Ludwik…

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