There are aspects of University history that we all know. We celebrate how President John F. Kennedy announced the creation of the Peace Corps on the steps of the Michigan Union in 1960, and brag that Students for a Democratic Society held its first meeting on our campus. Still, there are aspects of University history that are lesser known, but no less important.
While the rich and exciting activism of the ’60s was winding down, another type of civil disobedience — in the atypical form of a publishing house — was just getting off the ground in Ann Arbor. Ardis was a publishing house formed to print and celebrate the works of Russian writers who were not able to get their literature past Soviet censors. While gaining world recognition, Ardis helped to establish the University’s Slavic department as a premiere place for studying Soviet culture.
In 1969, Carl Proffer, a University professor of Russian literature, and his wife Ellendea, a graduate student at Indiana University studying Slavic Languages and Literatures, travelled to Russia on a fulbright scholarship during Leonid Brezhnev’s rule. It was there that the couple met Nadezhda Mandelstam, the widow of the late Russian poet and essayist Osip Mandelstam, through a letter of introduction. In the 1930s, Mandelstam and his wife had been sentenced to exile because of his anti-establishment poetry. It was considered miraculous that he was not sentenced to death or a hard labor.
“She had an intellectual circle that met at her house regularly, and they were the best and brightest in Russian culture,” said Janet Crayne, head of the Slavic division at the Hatcher Graduate Library and friend of the Proffers. “And so when they had this letter of introduction to her, they were invited to participate in these circles. They met just about everyone.”
The famous Russian writers they met included Joseph Brodsky, Lev Kopelev and Vladimir Nabokov. All of these writers struggled to publish their works under the strict censorship of the Soviet government. According to Crayne, this inspired the Proffers to start their own publishing house, devoted to promoting “Russian and Soviet culture by both the younger artists and the older artists that had been ignored or banned or both.”
Because they were initially focusing on translated works, and because the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin called translation the “post-horse of enlightenment,” the Proffers settled on a horse and carriage for their logo and named their publishing house “Ardis” after Ardis Hall in Nabokov’s novel “Ada.”
“They didn’t really look at themselves as being a publishing house,” Crayne said. “It was an organic development.”
The couple typeset and printed The Russian Literature Triquarterly, a journal of Russian literature, in their basement and started publishing translations and reprinting older books. It wasn’t long before they started gaining attention. According to History prof. Ron Suny, the Proffers’s publishing venture became an important instrument for Soviet artists.
“What he did was give this outlet to writers who were being repressed in the Soviet Union,” he said.
Soviet writers began to discover this outlet via word of mouth, and before long, the Proffers were offered the rights to publish original literature that could never get printed under the Brezhnev regime.
“The Russians found out about them, so they began receiving manuscripts of books that had not been published yet,” Crayne said. “So in a way, they became the distributor of uncensored Soviet artistic works.”
In order to help Russian citizens gain access to the censored literature, the Proffers had to smuggle books and journals into the Soviet Union. For many years, they were able to send copies of literature through diplomatic pouch — a marked governmental bag that has immunity from search and seizure.
“There were many ways,” said Ellendea Proffer in a phone interview from California about getting literature back into Russia. “If we had friends going and they were not going to be searched, or there was a good chance they were not going to be searched for one reason or another, we’d send stuff with them, but we were in Ann Arbor, hardly the center for travel to Russia.”
The Proffers often sent literature back with Russian travelers and scholars hoping that, because the government couldn’t search everyone, some of their contraband would get through. Much of their literature was sent to Paris and was sold there. They also used the CIA-funded International Literary Center in New York that helped smuggle literature across borders.
In the Ardis archives that Ellendea donated to the University Libraries, Crayne said there are coded letters that were indecipherable to the Soviet authorities.
“We have extensive correspondence about sneaking things back in, sneaking things out,” she said. “There were all kinds of verbal codes that were used to try and communicate that something had started moving in the right direction or something didn’t.”
Carl Proffer often enlisted the help of his students in the Slavic department to help translate the literature and work in the publishing press. According to Crayne, Ardis was closely tied to the reputation of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, and Carl was a rising star in the field.
“I was in Wisconsin, and I can tell you that one of the professors was screaming at another professor saying, ‘Get this guy over here!’ ” Crayne said. “They wanted him. They wanted him badly.”
When Russian poet, essayist and eventual Nobel Prize winner Joseph Brodsky was deported from the Soviet Union in 1972 for poetry that was considered “pornographic and anti-Soviet” and for “social parasitism,” Carl Proffer helped him adjust to life in the United States. Brodsky came to Ann Arbor and taught at the University. He remained a staple in the Slavic department, teaching poetry and often visiting other universities until 1981.
“That was an amazing thing, that he saved this guy who would later get a Nobel Prize,” Suny said. “And Ardis and the Slavic department, and having Brodsky here — all the things that they did, the publications, all that stuff put Michigan on the map as a center of Slavic Studies.”
Brodsky was met at Detroit Metro Airport by the Proffers and a large amount of press. In order to persuade the United States to let him into the country, they had to create publicity around the possibility of his arrival, according to Ellendea.
“Joseph gave a lecture at Rackham. That was his first act — was to read his poetry — and Carl whipped up some translations,” she said. “Eleven hundred people came to hear a poet that they didn’t really know much about, but the publicity was extreme around this.”
One of their more risky endeavors was the publishing of “Metropol,” a literary anthology of 23 writers. Vasily Aksyonov had organized and submitted the anthology to Soviet censors. It was denied publishing rights in that country, and he resorted to asking the Proffers if they would publish “Metropol.” They obliged, but were punished for their participation and had their visas denied.
“The Proffers were banned from Russia and, actually, the United States banned them from going,” Crayne said. “Ellendea referred to them as revolutionizing Russian culture and universal knowledge of it. The United States saw them as a threat. By that time, Carl was diagnosed with cancer, and he was never able to go back again.”
According to Crayne, this crushed the Proffers. They had never wanted their project to get political: For them, the publishing house was solely about preserving the quality of literature.
“They didn’t start getting involved in politics because they wanted to,” Crayne said. “They loved Russian culture, and politics just had to get played to get done what they wanted to get done.”
Ellendea said their “aim was not to get in trouble and not to get our authors in trouble,” and noted that “there were other political publishers.”
According to Suny, Stalin’s regime was very restrictive when determining what literature could be published. Under Khrushchev’s rule a “thaw” occurred — more freedoms were slowly being allowed and more books were being published. When Brezhnev took control, he began another crackdown on Russian artists. In 1965, the government arrested writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel and sentenced them to labor camps for “anti-Soviet agitation.”
“There was this struggle going on as to how much freedom, how much openness, how much criticism they were going to allow,” he said.
According to Crayne, Ardis was a threat to the Soviet regime because it gave people the power to think critically and creatively.
“Whenever you have a society that’s basically a dictatorship in one way or another, in order to maintain that authority, information has to be limited so that people can’t let themselves think freely,” she said. “Any literature that would encourage freedom of thought would be considered to be harmful.”
Today, Ardis is still well known in Russia. When University Libraries had an exhibit focusing on the publishing house, Russian patrons came to celebrate the publisher’s assistance to the dissident movement. Last spring when The Maly Drama Theater of St. Petersburg came to the University to perform Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya,” many of the performers had heard of Ann Arbor because of its history with Ardis, according to Crayne.
“Ardis was really, really famous in Russia and actually still is,” Ellendea said. “That’s how they know Ann Arbor. To them it only means one thing.”
While Ann Arbor may be known for its Football Saturdays and staples like Zingerman’s Deli, to a large group of people on the other side of the globe, Ann Arbor is a symbol for freedom of creativity.