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Russia: Thanks To Small Publishing Houses, Literature Throws Up New Shoots

  • Jeremy Bransten

Russia was always considered a country where literature was widely read and valued. But the transition from communism to the free market has hit book and literary-journal publishers especially hard. Print runs have plummeted and critics have expressed fears that the motherland of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky may soon drown in a sea of Harlequin romance novels. Is there hope for Russia's authors and publishers of literature?

Moscow, 12 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Gone are the days when people would line up outside bookstores in Moscow and when the metro was packed with ardent readers of literary journals.

Sidewalk peddlers now hawk English-language dictionaries and, on the metro, harried commuters bury their noses in paperback thrillers and romance novels.

Russia -- which once prided itself on being a literary powerhouse -- has seen its reading habits change dramatically in the new era.

Nationalists have warned for years that the Russian soul may wither, smothered under an avalanche of Western consumer culture -- from Snickers bars to Jackie Collins books.

But now that the economy has stabilized somewhat, there are signs that the doomsayers may have been wrong. Under the glitz and shine of the new Moscow, the Russian soul remains very much alive, and contemporary Russian literature is making a tentative comeback.

While large presses do churn out quantities of poorly-translated Western thrillers or their Russian equivalents, scores of new literary publishers have sprouted in Moscow and St. Petersburg. One of them is the New Literary Review, which began in 1992 as a philological journal focused on the study of Russian language and literature and has since grown into a full-scale publishing house. Founder and director Irina Prokhorova spoke to RFE/RL: "Over the past two years there has been a real growth in interest in contemporary, domestic literature. The market has changed dramatically. If, four years ago, it would not have occurred to a publisher to want to develop a literature series, because it was a loss-making proposition and people were not reading -- neither novels nor poetry -- suddenly there has been this change and it has even become a money-making opportunity."

Numbers tell the story. Between 1995 and 2000, Prokhorova put out 100 books. But since then, in the past 12 months, the New Literary Review has already published half its total output of the previous five years -- some 50 new book titles.

Ad Marginem press, founded by Aleksandr Ivanov, has also seen exponential growth -- from one volume a year at its founding in 1993 to 20 volumes in 2001. At the beginning, Ad Marginem specialized in non-fiction, focusing on philosophy texts, art books, and literary criticism. But since 1998, in response to market demand, Ad Marginem has also broadened into fiction. Ivanov says: "At present, our main focus is a literature series -- modern prose, both Russian and foreign. We are trying to present, in one series, young authors aged 30 to 40 years old, principally Russian but also German, Italian, French, et cetera. The idea is to present young European prose within the framework of one project."

Ivanov says the changing face of Russia's capital city has been a source of inspiration to a new crop of authors, among them satirist Viktor Pelevin.

"If you look at the context of Moscow, there's an attempt to install some attributes of glamour: boutiques, expensive restaurants, expensive cars, et cetera, but it's a superficial aspect and underneath there's something else. The clash of these two worlds has given birth to some very interesting literary techniques. We can see it in Pelevin and other talented authors."

Pelevin, one of the more original voices to emerge from Russia's postcommunist chaos, was among the authors to make his name in the mid-1990s by inventing a new language to suit the times. Ivanov explains: "Pelevin for me is a writer of the '90s. He is one of the few and in this category I would add Vladimir Sorokin, who felt the atmosphere, the speed of change of the 1990s. They were the first to introduce new languages into literature: the language of the street, the language of computers, language emanating from new technologies, from mass culture. [In] this respect, Pelevin was one of the pioneers of this new literary experience, of this new literary space in Russia."

That space is being constantly expanded, Ivanov says, as readers turn to literature to help them make sense of the contradictory realities of modern life: "The problems of good and evil are once again being formulated in today's literature -- not how they were depicted in the past, when writers knew where good was and who represented it. Now, nobody knows. But the search for values will come to define literature, especially youth literature."

Despite the enthusiasm Ivanov and Prokhorova project, running a small publishing house is no guarantee of easy money. Print runs remain very small -- 10,000 copies of a book is considered an exception. Only a handful of literary authors can make a living from their work. Ivanov says: "An author's royalty fees can range from 10 percent to 20 percent of the book price. You can add it up yourself. If a book costs two dollars, the author gets 20 cents per volume sold. Twenty or maybe 30 cents per volume sold. This is what you have to figure on."

In a country where the average salary is still below $100 a month, two or three dollars for a slim volume of literature is considered a high price, meaning potential buyers still rely on libraries for their reading needs. The other main problem for publishers is the lack of a viable distribution network.

Throughout the 1990s, chains of mega-bookstores expanded widely across North America and Western Europe. But Moscow still lacks a single comparable bookstore and Russia has no national network of booksellers. Prokhorova says: "Potentially there is a big demand for our books, but in reality, for now, it's rather difficult to get them to the readers. It's much easier for me to supply foreign readers. In America, for example, my books are very well distributed. They get to whoever needs them. In our own country, this continues to present a problem."

Ad Marginem and the New Literary Review have individual agreements with small bookstores in Moscow and St. Petersburg, but when it comes to getting their titles to Russia's far-flung regions, distribution is very uneven.

Prokhorova says this is an area where she would like to see some support from the government, not in the form of cash handouts, but in changing certain regulation and fees to benefit small publishers, as has been done in many European countries: "Without some decisions by the government, I think a very dramatic situation can occur. This concerns, in the first place, the distribution system. It is not being set up -- not because people don't want to distribute books or read them -- but because the economics of it are so complicated. Transport is expensive, the mail system is monstrously expensive, paper mills do what they want and hike prices at will. All this makes books expensive and unprofitable."

But Prokhorova says a look at other sectors of the consumer market give some reason for optimism: "Until recently in Russia, of course, there could be no talk of long-term investments. But look at the story of cafes. Until the mid-'90s, there were practically no cafes in Moscow. I was always amazed by this and everyone commented on it. But suddenly the climate changed, money was invested, and overnight we see a cafe boom in Moscow. I very much hope that in the near future -- because this has become the main problem of the publishing world -- I hope we will have a breakthrough in this area."

Better government economic policies and a soft touch on freedom-of-speech issues are on Aleksandr Ivanov's wish list. He describes interference on the part of the authorities after his publishing house issued a novel written by a former addict, describing the Moscow drug-scene. "We received a warning letter from the [Press] Ministry in which they told us we had broken the law and could lose our publishing license if we publish books of this type. Our printing press also received a warning, which is inadmissible. And the Press Ministry sent a copy of its warning to the Interior Ministry. Over the past three to four months, representatives of the militia [police] have been constantly dropping by the shop. They have confiscated copies of the book, called us in for questioning, and so on and so forth."

In its heyday, the literary journal "Nash Sovremennik" (Our Contemporary) had a monthly print run of 500,000 copies and served as an incubator for many of the country's leading contemporary authors. Andrei Vorontsov, head of the journal's prose department, recalls: "It was on the pages of 'Nash Sovremennik' that famous writers of the time were published -- and many of them, thank goodness, continue to flourish. We are talking about writers such as [Vasily] Shukshin, Yuri Bondarev, Yevgeny Nosev, Viktor Astafiev, Valentin Rasputin, Vasily Belov. It was on the pages of 'Nash Sovremennik' that many works which became classics of Russian literature or for the study of Russian literature appeared."

No longer. "Nash Sovremennik" is down to a monthly print run of 12,000 copies and times are tough. But Vorontsov says the reduced circumstances of the so-called "thick journals," as "Nash Sovremennik" and similar periodicals are known in Russia, are not an indicator of a nation in decline. Vorontsov says subsidized subscription prices and a lack of choice inflated the journals' readership in Soviet times.

"The popularity of literature in Soviet times -- and none of these magazines came out in editions smaller than 100,000 -- was due to the fact that there was no choice. There weren't even any bad choices. There was no choice between culture and mass culture. Mass culture existed in only very limited forms."

Vorontsov says a dedicated core of 12,000 "Nash Sovremennik" subscribers -- readers willing to plow through lengthy articles plumbing the depths of the Russian soul -- indicates the country remains a nation Pushkin and Dostoevsky would recognize.

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