Reading Fever and Samizdat Translations

The photograph of me sitting in the Lotus position on the shores of the Black Sea in Crimea is a document of my youth. Like my photo portrait, it was taken in 1979, just before I met Iosif Gol’din and started regularly coming to his ‘salon’ in Iuzhin Lane. Along with a hippie couple from Vilnius whose names I cannot remember, we posed for a beach photographer who took pictures for a fee. The seawater made my hair stiff, so I cut it off.

At that time, everyone was into yoga and endlessly discussing [Carlos] Castaneda. My interest in yoga, however, sparked much earlier, during my school years, and it so happened that yoga has remained my lifelong practice ever since. In the late 1960s–early 1970s, I discovered that some of the Hatha Yoga asanas were explained in the back pages of several issues of Indiia (India) magazine.[1] Later, I became friends with a boy in the same grade who had the same interest in yoga exercises. We used to exchange materials and sometimes went to Gorky Park or other places where philatelists and other collectors of rare books and artifacts gathered. Samizdat literature was also sold there. Such spontaneous book or stamp fairs were often harassed and broken up by the police (militsiia), who made constant raids (oblavy). One of the first samizdat publications I read was a homemade and poorly translated copy of Alan Watts’ The Way of Zen.[2]

Personally, I find yoga an effective way of keeping connective tissue supple and joints flexible, which has become increasingly important as I get older. But I have always been skeptical about prana, chakras, etc., because I know some cases when an obsession with such things brought people to mental institutions, and I have read about similar cases in the US as well. Martial arts, such as karate, were common hobbies. But in big Soviet cities like Moscow and Leningrad, they were severely punished. In the 1980s, some instructors were imprisoned. Yoga training itself was not persecuted, but some practitioners were because they could organize collective training or spread samizdat. Castaneda was available in self-publishing editions, in homemade illiterate “translations.” Fortunately, I soon could read originals – so I had a paperback copy of A Separate Reality (1971) from somewhere. That was the Zeitgeist!

In my final years at the Lomonosov Moscow State University, where I studied theoretical physics, I had an affair with a girl from a group of English philology students. Among them was Aleksandr Livergant, the future translator of Jonathan Swift, Lawrence Sterne, and Evelyn Waugh, whose level of knowledge, of course, was highly professional. So, to keep up with my sweetheart’s friends, I began to learn English seriously. For this purpose, I started listening to radio programs of the Voice of America and reading original English publications. I also managed to get an excellent English course on audiocassettes in the Library of Foreign Literature. And certainly, I took every opportunity to meet foreigners and practice my oral skills.

In 1976, I had just graduated from the Faculty of Physics at Moscow State University, and the “Age of Stagnation” was reigning everywhere, with its sluggishness, apathy, crisis of Soviet ideology, and the advancing senility of General Secretary Brezhnev. I began to work at the Vernadskiĭ Institute as a junior researcher. In Moscow, however, amazing things were happening “underground.”[3] A vivid intellectual life flowed in a kind of ‘salons’ – private apartments of prominent scientists, writers, actors, etc. In those days, since I attended the same prestigious school of physics and mathematics with the daughter of the hosts, I often visited the family of biophysicist and Corresponding Member of the Academy of Sciences Mikhail V. Vol’kensteĭn (1912–1992) and his wife, the Spanish translator Stella I. Alenikova (1916–1992). It was in their apartment in 1979 that I met Iosif Gol’din first.[4] We chatted and found common interests, so he invited me to his enormous apartment in a dilapidated three-story house at 9 Iuzhin Lane (now this has been renamed Bol’shoĭ Palashev Lane).[5] In this, yet another ‘Goldin’s salon,’ I got acquainted with many remarkable people. Who were they? You could easily call them Moscow beau monde.

Iosif Goldin’s apartment on the second floor of a recently restored house in Yuzhin Lane (four windows on the left), 2014. Photograph by Dmitriĭ Fedotov

The house in Iuzhin Lane was visited by academicians, doctors of humanities and natural sciences, astronauts, journalists, television people, artists, healers, self-taught yogis, and theater directors.[6] Although there were various fartsovshsciki, sellers of foreign goods on the Soviet black market, who also came to Goldin’s apartment. Among them, I remember the guys who sold music equipment. I gained their respect with my knowledge of English, so I translated a lot of Yamaha manuals.

Iosif allegedly had a degree in biophysics but no job in his field. Having established contacts with Americans, he then wanted to organize a ‘Moscow branch’ of the American Esalen Institute. For this reason, he tried to attract people who were also interested in human hidden reserves (skrytye rezervy cheloveka) to “develop a (spiritual) potential” and, of course, who were willing to cooperate with foreign people. When I met Iosif, he was officially unemployed.[7] Later, I learned that in 1979, he was nominally given the position of the scientific secretary of the Commission for the Complex Study of Man at the Scientific Council on Cybernetics of the Academy of Sciences,[8] headed by academician Aksel’ Berg. His house in Iuzhin Lane was a kind of headquarters for it. I did not realize this, but Goldin’s apartment became a place of intellectual gravity for me for the next two and a half years.

The decoration of the rooms, which was done by volunteers (I was one of them) and friends, was simply fantastic: One room looked like a huge tent (shalash), another like a ceremonial hall with large mirrors, and the third like an underwater world: the walls were painted with dark blue paint, and all kinds of bright fishes were drawn on them. Two Jules Verne-style diving suits with giant shining copper helmets stood in the corners. Inside these helmets, handy people had managed to place powerful speakers. The sound was terrific. We used to dance in this room.

The incredible abundance of books was the highlight of Iosif’s apartment. In the corners of Joseph’s living room, large, unopened cardboard boxes of books were stacked on each other, piled everywhere. Joseph did not know what for or how many copies he had, but all were rare by Soviet standards: current American New Age literature, occult, popular psychology, and so on. That would not surprise us today, but it was overwhelming at the time! On weekends, I would often stay up late, or even overnight, lying on wooden planks in my stashed sleeping bag to finish a fascinating book without interruption.

Cover of paperback based on the samizdat translation by Dmitriĭ Fedotov (1980). Titled Transformation. The Verner Erkhard Insight Program, Moscow publisher Kazimir (1994)

In Gol’din’s circle, I became acquainted with new trends in humanistic psychology and read some important books in English, such as Erick Berne’s Games People Play (1964). It was in this book that I first encountered the name of the social scientist and systems theorist Gregory Bateson (1904-1980), best known for his double-bind theory of schizophrenia, whose work made a huge impression on me and has kept me going ever since. Then, in 1980, at the request of Iosif, I translated The Book of est (1976) by Luke Rhinehart, which describes the experience of attending Werner Erhard’s famous est-training. My translation was intended for a small number of readers, and I made five typewritten copies to distribute within our reading group. As was customary in those days, the Russian translation found its way into samizdat anonymously. I never distributed any copies because it was dangerous and could have caused trouble. I do not even have a typed copy to keep as my own. I know that one copy was taken by Anatoliĭ Dobrovich, a psychotherapist, when he moved to Israel. The rest of the copies were passed around until the early 1990s, when, quite unexpectedly, some unknown small private publishers began releasing my translation as a paperback. Of course, all this was done without my consent or even knowledge. Surely, my name as a translator was not mentioned on these copies, and I did nothing to prove my rights. None of the many anonymous Soviet translators of the time expected to be rewarded. It was an act of pure idealism, and I wanted it to stay that way.

Joseph consulted me about books I was reading and translating or gave me the floor as an expert in his ‘salon.’ I was eager to speak to a learned audience. We were showering our guests with stories about LSD sessions, psychic superpowers, how all modern science had long been known to Taoists and Kabbalists, and other parascientific fiction literature. All this information was cutting-edge and world-class, making a solid impression on the audience, especially in an ‘informational vacuum’ created by Soviet ideological censorship. I remember academicians Velikhov and Migdal listening to me with their eyes wide open in amazement as I was retelling them chapters from The Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra. Many years later, I learned that the source of such literature was Stanford Research Institute, where fellows like Jack Sarfatti, Fred Wolf, Edwin May, and some others had been working. Another SRI fellow – Russel Targ, came to Moscow in 1984 to perform his ridiculous “telepathic experiments” with Dzhuna – a dubious Soviet healer. With the weakening of state censorship and ideological pressure in the mid-1980s, more and more New Age books appeared in Russian translation. I read everything I could find and came across Gregory Bateson’s name more and more. I saw his references in Alan Watts, Ronald Laing, Fritjof Capra, and Stanislav Grof. He was constantly quoted in the books on Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) that were appearing in Moscow at that time. Once, I came across an American magazine with an article describing the cybernetics of a schizophrenic family. I try to remember the author, but maybe it was Mara Selvini Palazzoli. The article intrigued me, but I could not find anything else on the subject. At that time, our ability to search for information was sparse. The Internet had not yet arrived in Russia. So, I desperately needed an overall coherent picture of Batesonian ideas!

Cover of paperback based on the samizdat translation by Dmitriĭ Fedotov (1980). Titled Liuk Reinkhard, Transformation. The Way to a Fulfilling Life, Moscow publisher Galaktion (2005)

A radical shift in my relationship with Bateson came a few years after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. In 1993, Bateson’s well-known article “Toward a Theory of Schizophrenia” appeared in the Moscow Psychotherapeutic Journal. It was the first Russian translation of an authentic Bateson text and a real culture shock. Through mutual friends, I contacted the translator, Mikhail Papush, a Moscow psychotherapist, who gave me a photocopy of Bateson’s book Steps to an Ecology of Mind. My initial plans were relatively modest. I could not consider translating such a voluminous and diverse book as Steps to an Ecology of Mind in full. I decided to work on just one section, Form and Pathology in Relationship, which is mainly dedicated to the cybernetics of schizophrenia. By the end of 1997, ten articles were ready for publication (Mikhail Papush’s 1993 translation, plus nine others in my translation). I had already lined up a small private publishing house to publish what would be a modest but decent paperback. But then came the economic crisis of 1998. My publisher went bankrupt, as did thousands of small businesses across Russia.[9] The financial and social chaos, the avalanche of bankruptcies, and the galloping inflation that followed the 1998 crisis questioned my publishing plans. I approached the few remaining publishers specializing in psychology, one by one, but no one was prepared to take the risk. They all considered the project to be commercially unviable.

Nevertheless, through trial and error, my search for a publisher finally bore fruit. In early 1999, I was approached by Dmitriĭ Leont’ev, the Director of the Moscow publishing house Smysl. He had rejected my project a few months earlier, but now he was applying for a grant from the Soros Foundation to publish several books, and he wanted to include Steps to an Ecology of Mind in his list. I submitted an excerpt of my translation of Bateson, and of the six books that Leontiev applied to publish, only Steps to an Ecology of Mind received the grant. So, I set about translating the rest of the book. During the first half of 2000, experts from the Soros Foundation and Smysl’s scientific editors reviewed the translated text. Finally, in November 2000, the book was published. What had been unthinkable just a few years earlier was now a reality.

To conclude, I want to pay some tribute to Iosif Gol’din. Who really was Iosif? Some people believe he was a genius, another believe he was an impostor. As for me, I define him as a “social hacker.” In fact, computer hackers look for loopholes in the operating system to get a system to do things it is not supposed to do. Similarly, with his keen understanding of the functioning of the Soviet bureaucratic machine and its “hidden levers,” Josif achieved some amazing things even in the early 1980s. For example, in 1980, he organized a visit to Moscow of Werner Erhard with a presentation of his famous est-training. In 1982, he managed to overcome the isolationist paranoia of hardliners within the Soviet establishment, which made the first Soviet-American Spacebridge possible. In 1984–1986, he introduced Joel Schatz to the right people in the Soviet establishment, which resulted in the appearance of the first Soviet Internet provider. This means that Iosif used his skills to force the Soviet system to do good things, largely against its will. So, rest in peace, Iosif!

[1] Indiia was a quarterly illustrated cultural magazine of the Indian Embassy in the USSR in Russian (1964–1993).

2] Alan Watts’ The Way of Zen, a worldbestseller about Zen-Buddhist philosophy, was initially published in 1957 and distributed in the Soviet underground yet in the 1960s.

[3] In this essay, I refer in several places to my LiveJournal entries in Russian from 2012 and an article in English that I published in 2007. See Dmitry Fedotov. “Struggling for a Russian Bateson.Kybernetes 36, No. 7/8 (2007): 949–955. 

[4] American visitors usually called him Joseph (Goldin).

[5] The address where Iosif Gol’din lived is not the apartment where Iurii Mamleev held his intellectual gatherings, which is known to virtually everyone interested in the mystical underground of the Iuzhin Circle. Many years before I met Iosif, Mamleev’s house had ceased to exist.

[6] Academicians Evgeniĭ Velikhov, Arkadiĭ Migdal, Boris Raushenbakh, the abovementioned Mikhail Vol’kensteĭn, the cosmonaut Georgiĭ Grechko, the fashion designer Slava Zaiĭtsev, the future media magnate Vladimir Gusinskiĭ, the psychotherapist, and writer Anatoliĭ Dobrovich, the naturopath Igor’ Charkovskiĭ, theater director Roman Viktiuk as well as many journalists and cultural figures who were frequent guests in this apartment.

[7] Some sources give us an idea of Gol’din’s life before I met him. Mark (Matveĭ) Khromchenko filled the gap with his testimony on Goldin’s freelance jobs, so he “<…> confirmed this by answering the questions of the questionnaire of an International Competition – where the applicant had worked in previous years: ‘In the years 1969–1977 he worked ‘independently,’ cooperating with the Mosfilm film studio, the Central Television, the Olympic Committee and other organizations.’” See Mark Khromchenko. “Ne ot mira sego (Is Not of This World).” In ĖLIN: Zerkalo dlia chelovechestva. Kollektivnaia monografiia (ĖLIN: A Mirrror for the Humanity. Collective Monograph), 248–301. Red. Alekseĭ Sazikov. Moskva: Russkiĭ mir, 2022, here 257. A few testimonies bring to the understanding that allegedly, due to the tragic death of his wife, Dzhoia Afinogenova, in 1966, he had developed a mental disorder, was committed to a psychiatric hospital, and after his ‘release,’ was registered in the psychoneurological clinic. From then on, he was under medical authorities for the rest of his life. See, for instance, Boris Raushenbakh. Prazdnye mysli. Ocherki. Stat’i. Vospominaniia (Idle thoughts. Essays, Articles, Memories). Moskva: Gareeva, Agraf, 458f.

[8] Compare with the list of organizers and members: James Hickman and Michael Murphy. “Human Potential Interests in the Soviet Union and the Esalen Institute Soviet-American Exchange Program.” November 1, 1980. Mill Valley, CA: Esalen Institute, 17.

[9] Here are a few words about the copyright situation in Russia. The Russian Federation is an assignee to the Soviet Union, a signatory to the Universal Copyright Convention 1974. Hence, books published before 1974 are not copyrighted on the territory of the Russian Federation. This applies to Steps to an Ecology of Mind, initially published in 1972.

Cite this blog post
Dmitry Fedotov (2024, February 29). Reading Fever and Samizdat Translations. New Age in Russia. Retrieved April 19, 2024, from

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1 Response

  1. Anna Tessmann says:

    A good source of information on Joseph Goldin is the Internet Archive (Joel & Diane Schatz):

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