The world’s biggest country, in a magazine. Since 1956.
Author: Paul E. Richardson
Page 42 ( 8 pages)
2016 is the fortieth anniversary of the release of Hedrick Smith’s pathbreaking book, The Russians. The first book to truly take readers behind the Iron Curtain and into the everyday lives of Russians, it soared to the top of The New York Times bestseller list and influenced a generation of Americans (and not only Americans) in their views on Russia. When Hedrick Smith came to Vermont in May to give a talk sponsored by the Vermont Humanities Council, Russian Life Editor Paul Richardson sat down with him to talk about the book and its legacy.
Russian Life: Did you have any inkling when the book first came out that it was going to jump to the top of the bestseller list?
Hedrick Smith: Oh no. It was my first book, Christ. I didn’t even know if I could write a book. Seriously. I persuaded myself I could do it because I figured a book, a book was a hundred thousand words and I had written a bunch of New York Times Magazine pieces, which were typically 5,000 words, so I said I’ve got to write 20 pieces, right? That is not —
RL: That’s not how it works.
HS: My editor very quickly disabused me of that notion. He said, “No, a book is not a string of circus elephants holding each other’s tails. A book has to have an architecture, a structure of it’s own. So you’ve got to create that.” And he helped me. The one thing I did know, from the interest in the reporting that I’d done for the Times, was that there was this tremendous hunger on the part of Americans to understand Russians. And I was lucky because before I went, I was a Nieman Fellow [at Harvard] and Dick McAdoo, who was the head of Little Brown Publishing, came out to speak. And he knew I was going to Russia and he wanted me to sign a book contract right then. Which I was smart enough not to do. He said, “But you ought to write a book on why they behave like Russians. Sort of, what makes Russians tick?” I just stuck that in the back of my head.
And I knew that I wanted to write a book. I had started to write a couple of different books. When I was in Egypt, I started to write one and then I got involved in some major reporting projects for the Times in Washington. I wrote very long stories for the Times. On presidential decision-making, the Cuban Missile Crisis, other things like that. And the war in Vietnam. And so I was thinking about that. So I was geared towards thinking about a book. But, did I have any idea what would happen to me? No, of course not.
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