At #11, the YMCA Press (pronounced ‘imca’) still sells Russian language literature having set up shop in 1925 as a combined effort between the Young Men’s Christian Association and the CIA’s ‘soft’ strategy to bring down the Soviet Union.(1) Started “with the help of Russian speaking Americans”(2) the bookstore and publisher was responsible for publishing Nobel Prize winner Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago in Russian.
Called, “the most powerful single indictment of a political regime ever to be levied in modern times” by famed U.S. diplomat George Kennan,(3) the book used verifiable first-hand proof, gathered over many years and at great risk, to prove that the Soviet Union, despite its denials, held and abused literally millions of political prisoners. A catholic nun was just one of the many people who helped smuggle the manuscript out of Russia to Paris in 1971. One Moscow typist who worked on Solzhenitsyn’s handwritten manuscript was caught in 1973 and tortured by the KGB before being found dead in her apartment. Another assistant was beaten and almost killed in a staged car crash. At great cost to his career and health, world famous cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich allowed Solzhenitsyn to live and secretly write in his home for years in the 1969.
Solzhenitsyn was first arrested in 1945 while serving as a 27 year old soldier in the recently victorious Red Army. In a letter to a friend, Solzhenitsyn described Stalin as, “the man with the mustache.” That earned him eight years of manual labor in different prison camps.(4) A journalist tells how Solzhenitsyn was able to record the atrocities he witnessed;
“At Ekibastuz,(a prison camp) any writing would be seized as contraband. So he devised a method that enabled him to retain even long sections of prose. After seeing Lithuanian Catholic prisoners fashion rosaries out of beads made from chewed bread, he asked them to make a similar chain for him, but with more beads. In his hands, each bead came to represent a passage that he would repeat to himself until he could say it without hesitation. Only then would he move on to the next bead. He later wrote that by the end of his prison term, he had committed to memory 12,000 lines in this way”.(5)
After the YMCA Press published the book in 1973, Solzhenitsyn was exiled from Russia and ended up in rural Vermont where he criticized Americans as shallow and callous. With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, he returned to Russia where he died in 2008. Though considered an eccentric and often shunned for holding many unpalatable views, he is still revered as one of the strongest voices of the twentieth century and one who spoke to power.
At #10 rue de la Montagne-Sainte-Genevieve, across the street from the YMCA Press and above the Mexican themed La Lucha Libre bar is an apartment with two windows looking over the street. These windows were used during the Cold War by the KGB to watch the comings and goings at the book store.
(2) “YMCA Press Publishes Soviet Writers’ Press”. UPI. The
(3) “Alexander Solzhenitsyn Speaking Truth to Power” Aug 7th 2008 The Economist.com. 08/08/09. http://www.economist.com/opinion/displayStory.cfm?STORY_ID=11885318
(4) Kaufman, Michael. “Solzhenitsyn Literary Giant who Defied Soviets Dies at 89” August 4,2008. The New York Times. 08/08/09. P. 4 http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/04/books/04solzhenitsyn.html?pagewanted=1&sq=Elizaveta%20Voronyanskaya&st=cse&scp=1