Reading Mother Night in Russia(n) | Phillips on Mother Night

Sarah Phillips


Kurt Vonnegut was the most popular American writer in the Soviet Union in the 1970s,1 and it will not surprise Vonnegut fans to learn that he predicted his own success. In Mother Night (1961), the protagonist Howard W. Campbell, Jr. provides a fictional account of one Stepan Bodovskov’s (plagiaristic) literary success in Russia, in particular the success of Bodovskov’s play “The Goblet” (199–203). Bodovskov (Campbell), who wrote in German, was translated into Russian, Hungarian, Romanian, Latvian, and Estonian (203). In uncanny fashion, the story of Bodovskov/Campbell parallels Vonnegut’s eventual “real life” literary success in the Soviet Union. In 1975, a play based on Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and written by celebrated Soviet playwrights Mark Rozovsky and Yuli Mikhailov (“The Wanderings of Billy Pilgrim”) premiered at the Soviet Army Theater in Moscow. (Recall that Vonnegut had been captured by the Soviet Army at the end of World War II and traded for a Soviet prisoner in American custody.) Like the fictional Bodovskov/Campbell, Vonnegut was translated into Russian, Estonian, Latvian, and “other Soviet languages as well.”2

Sasha Yemelyanova, recent high school graduate in Kyiv, Ukraine, is reading a 2014 Ukrainian translation of Slaughterhouse-Five.

Professor Donald L. Fiene, who earned his PhD in Slavic languages at Indiana University (Hi ho!), chronicled Vonnegut’s popular reception with Soviet readers and critics in a number of popular and scholarly publications, and in the Donald L. Fiene papers.3 Surely Vonnegut appreciated that Fiene did not merely track Vonnegut’s popularity in the Soviet Union; he helped orchestrate it. For it was Fiene who recruited the renowned translator Raisa Rait-Kovaleva (Rita Rait) to translate Vonnegut’s writings into Russian, beginning with Cat’s Cradle in 1969. And Vonnegut in the USSR was no underground phenomenon. Most of his translated writings—both books and short stories—circulated or were excerpted in serious, sanctioned outlets, like Literaturnaya Gazeta and Novy Mir, Molodaia Gvardiia and Komsomolskaya Pravda. His books were reviewed in official state publications, which “signaled to the average Russian reader that he or she was allowed to read and discuss Vonnegut’s books in the open.”4

What about Vonnegut and his writing appealed to readers and literary critics in the Soviet Union? Fiene pointed to Vonnegut’s “genuinely savage attack on Western capitalism and the American way of life,” his “contempt for specifically American values,” and his “sardonic hailstorm of anti‐American gibes.”5 All of this was politically correct to applaud in the USSR. But, says Fiene, Soviet readers also appreciated Vonnegut for his humanity, his views as a citizen of the planet, and even for his patriotism. Vonnegut wanted a better country and a better world.

Critics in the Soviet Union compared Vonnegut to Dostoevsky—both had “preoccupations with the messianic, the apocalyptic and the chiliastic . . . [and] compassion for . . . fictional victims of manipulative rulers and heartless bureaucracies.” Soviet critics also drew parallels between Vonnegut and Nikolai Gogol—both used humor to show “laughter through tears,” and according to Fiene, “behind [Vonnegut’s] most cynical sarcasm they [his loyal Soviet readers] hear a cry of anguish.”6 In a context in which twenty-six million Red Army soldiers perished fighting Nazi Germany, Soviet readers also appreciated Vonnegut’s anti-war stance and his “portrayal of the horrors, emptiness, and downright absurdity of war.”7

Vonnegut was relentless in his critique of utopian thinking, something that had to appeal to Soviet readers, who had been exposed to a lot of utopian thinking, or what historian Richard Stites calls “revolutionary dreaming.”8 Player Piano and Sirens of Titan, and to some extent Mother Night, are cautionary tales: those who commit themselves headlong to utopian thinking end up twisted and wasted, and they twist and waste the world around them. Player Piano’s preoccupation with the effects on society of extreme reliance on technology and machinery had particular resonance for readers familiar with the ironic outcomes of the planned society and economy of the USSR.

Mother Night, the quintessential Cold War satire, challenges the “bipolar framework” and divisive rhetoric of the Cold War.9 Vonnegut’s biographer Charles Shields calls the book a “triumph of ambiguity,”10 and for good reason. In Mother Night, Vonnegut is working through the oases and minefields of moral relativism in the post-holocaust, post-“War to end all Wars” context of the Cold War. As in his other novels, Vonnegut’s characters in Mother Night have complex motivations, moral and otherwise. There is no “good guy” in Mother Night. The American and Soviet protagonists (Campbell and Kraft-Potapov) serve evil while believing themselves to be serving good. Campbell refers repeatedly to his and others’ “schizophrenia” and “separation of my several selves” (179, 184, passim). In narrating his life, Campbell dwells on the difficulties of differentiating “the real from the fake” (57) and the truth from lies (83). In Mother Night, a Vonnegut trait is that multiple and contradictory things can be true.

Elsewhere in Mother Night, however, Vonnegut hints that this “separation of the selves” is an illusion. He knocks the idea that “a very good me, the real me, a me made in heaven, is hidden deep inside” (xiii). Many of Vonnegut’s readers probably locate Mother Night’s central message in the oft-quoted line from the introduction: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be” (v).

Throughout Mother Night, Vonnegut beguiles readers with the idea that good and evil can coexist in a moral grey area and that one person can contain many selves at once. This multiplicity characterizes the American agents Campbell and Wirtanen, as well as the Soviet agents Resi Noth and Kraft-Potapov. Indeed, when he reveals to Campbell that Campbell’s best friend George Kraft (Potapov) is a Soviet agent poised to blow Campbell’s cover and have him arrested, Wirtanen says, “He’s like you . . . He can be many things at once—all sincerely” (197). In Mother Night, Vonnegut illustrates the “many things at once” phenomenon in his compelling description of the totalitarian mind as “a system of gears whose teeth have been filed off at random.” This self-imposed hacking of the mind—people willingly sawing off some thought gears while meticulously maintaining others—produces a “snaggle-toothed thought machine” that lurches around like a “cuckoo clock in Hell” (223–4). It is telling that Campbell describes the American (i.e., not Soviet, and not German) Dr. Lionel J. D. Jones, the “ignorant and insane race-baiter” (69), as the most “sublime demonstration of the totalitarian mind” that Campbell has ever seen (223–5). It’s not only the Soviets and Nazis who have fallen victim to a totalitarian mindset (or political system).

Vonnegut’s Soviet readers (including his most accomplished and prolific translator Rita Rait) are simultaneously beguiled and bothered by Vonnegut’s moral relativism. Rait wrote in a frustrated letter to Donald Fiene, “Good and bad are absolute.”11 The conundrums Vonnegut tackles in Mother Night and his other novels—telling truth from lies, living in grey moral zones, navigating old and new totalitarian systems infused with chaos—are no less relevant in the postsocialist countries of Russia, Ukraine, and other former Soviet states today. I am writing this post during a research trip to Ukraine (one of the former fifteen Soviet republics), where Vonnegut is still a popular author. Used book dealers in the capital city Kyiv tell me that “Vonnegut sells like crazy.” His books in Russian translation are found in mainstream Kyiv bookstores, and in 2014 a new Ukrainian translation of Slaughterhouse-Five was released.12 As during the 1970s, Vonnegut seems especially popular among adolescent and young adult readers.

I doubt folks here would agree with Howard J. Campbell, Jr. that the Russian language sounds “like ball bearings being dropped into wet gravel” (161). From what I can tell, though, Kurt Vonnegut—in Russia(n) or Ukrain(ian), or maybe Tralfamadorian, is still music to the ears.


  1. Donald M. Fiene, “Vonnegut—Big in Russia.” New York Times, April 3, 1977, 247.
  2. Ibid.
  3. The Donald M. Fiene papers are in the Rare Books and Special Collections at the Ekstrom Library at the University of Louisville. Fiene’s manuscripts are housed at Indiana University’s Lilly Library (FIEN). Fiene’s publications on Vonnegut in the USSR include the following: Fiene, “Vonnegut—Big in Russia,” 247; and Donald M. Fiene, “Kurt Vonnegut as an American Dissident: His Popularity in the Soviet Union and His Affinities with Russian Literature,” in Vonnegut in America: An Introduction to the Life and Work of Kurt Vonnegut, ed. Jerome Klinkowitz and Donald L. Lawler (New York: Delacorte Press/Seymour Lawrence, 1977), 258–293.
  4. Yana Skorobogatov, “Kurt Vonnegut in the U.S.S.R.” (master’s thesis, The University of Texas at Austin, 2012), 11.
  5. Fiene, “Vonnegut—Big in Russia,” 247.
  6. All quotes in this paragraph are from Fiene, “Vonnegut—Big in Russia,” 247.
  7. Skorobogatov, “Kurt Vonnegut in the U.S.S.R.,” 19.
  8. Richard Stites, Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991).
  9. Skorobogatov, “Kurt Vonnegut in the U.S.S.R.,” 39
  10. Charles J. Shields, And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, a Life (New York: Henry Holt, 2011), 173.
  11. Skorobogatov, “Kurt Vonnegut in the U.S.S.R.,” 39.
  12. Kurt Vonnegut, Boynya nomer pjat [Slaughterhouse-Five], trans. Volodymyr Dibrova and Lidia Dibrova (L’viv: Staroho Leva, 2014).