Western researchers resurrect legacy

Although he spent a career bringing stories to the masses, Ivan Sytin’s own story might have been lost to history if not for a Western professor emeritus and a PhD alumna.

My Life for the Book: The Memoirs of a Russian Publisher includes the full text of recollections of Sytin (1851-1934), one of his nation’s most successful publishers prior to the Revolution of 1917. The book had never seen the light of day as a complete edition. Until now.



McGill-Queen’s University Press has published the book translated, edited and introduced by two historians, Charles A. Ruud, Western History professor emeritus, and Marina E. Soroka, who earned a Ph.D. in history from Western.

An earlier edition of the book was published in the mid-20th century, although it was heavily edited by the Soviets.

“A lot of the good stuff was simply left out because it was too anti-Soviet, particularly his remarks about religion, about his rise to success,” Rudd said. “These were not acceptable to Soviet censorship authorities. So they excluded them.”

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Sytin’s grandson discovered the original manuscripts languishing untouched and unseen in the archives of the Soviet Publishing Company. He passed them along to the Sytin museum.

That’s when Rudd and Soroka first crossed the book’s path.

The papers were a mess, randomly numbered pages (by whom, nobody knew) where thoughts would continue from one non-sequential page to another.

“It was like a puzzle,” Soroka said.

On top of that, Sytin wrote his memoirs by hand in a language characteristic of old Russia, one that went out of vogue pre-Revolution. The editors have converted to modern English his peasant prose.

“He was not a writer; he was a businessman. So he knew what he wanted to say, but not necessarily – as sometimes happens to all of us – he didn’t know how to put it,” said Soroka, who now teaches at McGill.

Captured was the story of a peasant from the depths of old Russia who rose to great wealth and influence as his country’s most successful publisher. Though never fully literate, Sytin was a shrewd businessman who made millions publishing books for all manner of readers.

He scratched and clawed his way to the top of his profession. And while the Revolution eventually ended Sytin’s publishing career, his resilience and enterprise remain a lasting legacy.

During the process, the editors started to discover a man with razor-sharp memory – names, dates, events, a perfect snapshot of literary and political history and business dealings.

“It’s a different perspective on this period of turmoil,” Rudd said, referring to the documented period between the emancipation of the serfs in 1861 and the Russian Revolution in 1914-17. “We’re still studying that era, trying to make sense of it. And Sytin gives the perspective of a peasant and a businessman, which is a really rare voice.”

Rudd credits Soroka’s unique understanding of the Russian language for unlocking much of the document.

“We were learning about people who people had forgotten. We were surprised this was a side of Russian history that’s not very well known – publishing and how business was done,” Soroka said.

Rudd agreed. “He was at the centre of an enterprise to enlighten the Russian peasant, right at the centre. All these people – writers, artists, engravers, printers – dozens and dozens and dozens of people were brought into this enterprise to help people. And it was an enterprise, a task for enlightenment, in a way the Russian peasant would grasp it, which was completely brushed aside by the Soviets,” he said.

A sharp and ironic observer, Rudd said, Sytin writes about Tsarist Russian bureaucrats, the Orthodox Church, Imperial officials and his dealings with literary icons of his time: Anton Chekhov, Leo Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky. Sytin describes a Russia of small shops, churches, monasteries, deep religious faith and flawed rulers.

My Life for the Book also includes writings about Sytin by five acquaintances.

“One could take a look a Sytin, very superficially, and view him as a man who made a million and cut corners along the way,” Rudd said. “But one misses the penetrating quality of the man’s mind if you stop with that. So, to the extent that you can, by boring into the mental structure of this man, you understand Russian better.”