Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has more than once been compared to JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings saga.
The attacking forces have often been characterised as “orcs,” and Ukraine ’s president Volodomyr Zelenskyy himself said that “Ukraine is not a bridge, not a pillow between the West and Russia, not a buffer between Europe and Asia…Not the border between orcs and elves”.
Tolkien’s fantasy epic has a historical relationship with Russia – even spawning an unauthorised adaptation in which Sauron and his army of orcs were the good guys.
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The Lord of the Rings is one of the best-selling books ever written, and together with its companion book, The Hobbit, has sold over 250 million copies since the Hobbit was first published in the late 1930s.
But in Russia, a full, authorised translation appeared only in 1992, following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Before that, the best that Russians could hope for was a bizarre Soviet-approved version in which the fantasy lore was swapped for more scientific explanations.
Soviet translator Zinaida Bobyr’s 1966 version – in which five scientists discovered a ring that turned out to be an ancient data storage device – failed to find a publisher.
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A second version, attempted in 1982, retitled the The Fellowship of the Ring as “Watchmen”.
It was well-received in Russia, but publication of the second and third volumes of the saga was scuppered by a speech from then-US President Ronald Reagan’s 1983 speech in which he referred to the USSR as an “evil empire”.
That sharpened the Soviet leadership’s belief that the book was a veiled attack on the USSR.
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“I didn’t have any anti-Soviet ideas in my head,” said translator Alexandr Gruzberg.
“You see, there are many allusions in Tolkien’s writing. Suffice it to say that his forces of good are located in the West and the forces of evil come from the East”.
Next came the hilariously amateurish 1991 made-for-TV adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, Khraniteli, described by one viewer as “as absurd and monstrous as it is divine and magnificent”.
Russians’ next chance to get their Middle Earth fix came in 1999, with Kirill Yeskov’s Last Ringbearer, which gets around the Russian leadership’s paranoid belief that the original book was an allegorical attack on them by turning Tolkein’s work on its head.
“Lord of the Rings is the historiography of the victors,” Yeskov writes. In his book, as climate change threatens to destroy Middle Earth, Sauron VIII, king of Mordor, leads a team of scientists called the Nazgûl in a bid to create an advanced industrial society.
But warmongering wizard Gandalf leads the “bone-headed aggressive West” in alliance with racist elves from across the sea to deliver what he calls “final solution to the Mordorian problem” – a clear reference Hitler’s policies.
In Yeskov’s book, the good guys lose. But it’s made clear they were right all along.
The book is, by most accounts, not great.
American journalist Laura Miller, liked the Last Ringbearer though, calling it a "a well-written, energetic adventure yarn that offers an intriguing gloss on what some critics have described as the overly simplistic morality of Tolkien's masterpiece."
But good or bad, the book's defensive, anti-Western tone is a good barometer of how many Russians, like Yeskov’s contemporary Vladimir Putin, are thinking.
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