A Soviet ‘Lord of the Rings’ Is Unearthed, Epic in Its Own Way

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Arseny Bulakov, the chairman of the St. Petersburg Tolkien Society, called the production “a very revealing artifact” of its era: “filmed in destitute times, without stage settings, with costumes gathered from acquaintances — and at the same time with great respect for Tolkien and love for his world.”

Mr. Bulakov said it reminded him “of the early years of Tolkienists” in Russia. “Not getting paid for half a year, dressed in old sweaters, they nevertheless got together to talk about hobbits and elves, to rewrite elvish poems by hand, to try to invent what was impossible to truly know about the world.”

Tolkien’s books were hard to find for decades in the Soviet Union, with no official translation of “The Hobbit” until 1976 — “with a few ideological adaptations,” according to Mark Hooker, the author of “Tolkien Through Russian Eyes.” But the “Rings” trilogy was “essentially banned” for decades, he said, perhaps because of its religious themes or the depiction of disparate Western allies uniting against a sinister power from the East.

In 1982, an authorized and abridged translation of “Fellowship” became a best seller, Mr. Hooker said. Translators started making unofficial, samizdat versions in the years that followed — translating and typing out the entire text on their own.

“Khraniteli” was broadcast at a moment of “great systemic turmoil” as the Soviet Union was dismantled, and part of “the flood of ideas that rushed in to fill the vacuum,” Mr. Hooker said. “For the average Russian, the world had turned upside-down.”

Irina Nazarova, an artist who saw the original broadcast in 1991, told the BBC that in retrospect, the “absurd costumes, a film devoid of direction or editing, woeful makeup and acting — it all screams of a country in collapse.”

Mr. Hooker compared the production itself to a samizdat translation, “with all the rough edges.” Among them are wobbling cameras, as though the hobbits were filming their journey with a camcorder, and sudden cuts to a narrator who, smoking a pipe or smiling silently, sometimes seems content to leave his audience in the dark.