Carl and Ellendea Proffer first visited the Soviet Union on a university exchange program in 1969. He was a Gogol and Nabokov scholar, she a graduate student writing the first dissertation on Bulgakov. Two meetings during that visit proved to be fateful: Nadezhda Mandelstam, widow of the great poet, and Joseph Brodsky, the future Nobel laureate. A few years later Ardis Publishers came into being with the reprint of Mandelstam's Kamen' (Stone) and the journal Russian Literature Triquarterly. Little of these humble beginnings would predict the enormous significance the press would acquire: Russian publisher of Nabokov and Brodsky, not to mention the scores of literary works by Aksyonov, Bitov, Iskander, and the Metropol almanac, none of which could be published in the USSR. Ardis has recently attracted a lot of attention from the Russians, not just on account of Brodsky and Nabokov, but the Cold War legacy of Ardis itself.
From Cynthia Haven's review in The Nation:
Eventually, [Nadezhda Mandelstam] led [the Proffers] to Brodsky. The Proffers would fear for the poet’s safety from the beginning of their friendship: Teasley writes that “it is hard for us to think about him without resorting to the words destiny and fate, because those words seem to be in the air around him.” Of her and Carl’s first meeting with Brodsky, in Leningrad in 1969, she says: “The poet is quick to say that he is no dissident—he refuses to be defined in any way by opposition to the Soviet government; he prefers to act as if the Soviet regime does not exist.” She adds: “He talks we are nothing in the face of death, but he exudes I will conquer.”
The Proffers would learn of his tenderheartedness and vulnerability as well as their contraries: his insolence, arrogance, boorishness. Teasley writes, “I am reminded of what Mayakovsky’s friends said about him—that he had no skin.” Brodsky lived in a world of absolutes, and his animosities could be adamantine. In Leningrad, speaking of America, he had insisted that the Black Power movement should be crushed, student protesters beaten by the police, and Vietnam turned into a parking lot. Time would modify these judgments, but it wouldn’t eliminate the thinking behind them: Brodsky arrived in the West with a Soviet template and continued to apply it to the world around him. He possessed a dangerous credo and a magnetic presence. “The most remarkable thing about Joseph Brodsky is his determination to live as if he were free in the eleven time zone prison that is the Soviet Union,” Teasley writes. “In revolt against the culture of ‘we,’ he will be nothing if not an individual. His code of behavior is based on his experience under totalitarian rule: a man who does not think for himself, a man who goes along with the group, is part of the evil structure itself.” Hence, he refused to consider himself a dissident—a label that would have defined him in terms of the government he loathed. “If you had fame, you had the power to affect a culture; if you had fame you were showing the Soviets what they had lost,” Teasley writes. Brodsky was determined that they know what they had lost.
Her book is particularly welcome news for Russians eager to hear about Ardis, for its story is their story, too, and the story of their literature. They were seeing a reflection of themselves they didn’t recognize, like a fairy-tale princess looking into a mirror for the first time—and the image they saw excited them.
Photo from left to right: Joseph Brodsky, Carl Proffer, Ellendea Proffer (1972).