The letter was met with silence, and soon the extent of the Soviets’ hostility toward Hersey and “Hiroshima” became clear. Not long after Hersey’s own reporting trip to Japan, Oskar Kurganov, a journalist for Pravda, the official newspaper of the Soviet Communist Party, was dispatched to Japan. He wrote a report about Nagasaki downplaying the devastation and denying the existence of “atomic fever.”
American occupation officials were promoting a false story of decimation, he wrote; he claimed that he had interviewed a witness who had survived the blast merely by taking refuge in a ditch.
Hersey was also attacked directly in Pravda, which accused him of writing “Hiroshima” to spread panic and get rich in the process. Another Soviet publication called Hersey an American spy who embodied his country’s “military spirit” and had produced a “propaganda of aggression” akin to that perpetrated by the Nazis. News of these developments trickled back to The New Yorker, dousing the editors’ hopes of a Russian translation of “Hiroshima.”
In 1949, the Soviets successfully detonated their first atomic bomb, ending the United States’ nuclear monopoly — and arguably stripping Hersey’s “Hiroshima” of its perceived propagandistic menace. It remains unclear why it then took another 71 years for it to be published in its entirety in Russia.
“The book is highly relevant in today’s Russia,” said Mika Golubovsky, the editor in chief of Bookmate Originals. The “harsh militaristic rhetoric of many politicians and threats to reduce America to ‘radioactive ashes’ on national television — there are many reasons why people should read a book like ‘Hiroshima.’”
The phrase “radioactive ashes” refers to a statement made by the television anchor and Putin confidante Dmitry Kiselyov, who said on his weekly current affairs show in 2014 and again in 2016 that “Russia is the only country in the world that is realistically capable of turning the United States into radioactive ash.” As Putin accelerates the country’s nuclear program — including reported development of a hypersonic missile system — the prospect of a new arms race and a possible nuclear confrontation with America have once again become urgent topics there.
“Our readers are receptive,” Golubovsky said, “to Hersey’s general anti-militaristic message.”
Lesley M. M. Blume is a journalist, historian and New York Times best-selling author, most recently of “Fallout: The Hiroshima Cover-Up and the Reporter Who Revealed It to the World.”
Anastasiya Osipova is an assistant professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where she teaches and writes on Soviet and post-Soviet culture. She was Blume’s research associate and Russian translator for “Fallout.”