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Russia: Putin-Decreed 'Great Russian' Encyclopedia Debuts At Moscow Book Fair

  • Sophie Lambroschini

The star of this year's Moscow International Book Fair is the "Great Russian Encyclopedia," the long-anticipated successor to the "Great Soviet Encyclopedia," which dutifully served as the country's preeminent scientific and ideological reference source for decades. RFE/RL looks at the past, present, and future of the "great" encyclopedia.

Moscow, 8 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Publishers have already offered several modern replacements to the "Great Soviet Encyclopedia" -- whose red-leather-bound tomes, embossed with the distinctive BSE acronym, were a fixture of libraries throughout the USSR. But Sergei Kravets says only his encyclopedia can lay claim to being the BSE's true successor. (BSE stands for "Bolshaya Sovietskaya Entsiklopediya," which literally means "Big" but is traditionally translated as "Great.")

Kravets is the editor of the "Great Russian Encyclopedia," the first official revamped version of the BSE. With 30 volumes and 80,000 entries, the "Great Russian Encyclopedia" -- or BRE -- will be the largest Russian encyclopedia available. "This," Kravets says, "is what the market has been waiting for."

It has been more than a decade since the collapse of the USSR consigned the Soviet encyclopedia -- at least, its name -- to the dustbin of history. And it will be another decade before the complete set of the Russian encyclopedia is complete. If all goes according to plan, the BRE -- created by presidential decree -- will be issued at a rate of just three alphabetical volumes a year. The publication will begin March 2004 with an introductory volume titled "Russia."

The massive BRE project was introduced at the 16th annual Moscow International Book Fair, Russia's largest publishing event, which opened on 3 September and closes today. Alexander Rodiuk, the commercial director of the Great Russian Encyclopedia publishing house -- which produces a number of scientific dictionaries and textbooks -- explains why the BRE is the encyclopedia to own.

"The colossal experience that was gained [during the Soviet period] was not lost -- it was built upon. We are the only scientific publishing house in the country that can publish encyclopedias at such a high level. And that's why we are considered the successors to the publishing house that produced the 'Great Soviet Encyclopedia,'" Rodiuk says.

The BRE bookstand left much to the imagination, with only advertisement fliers and a single gray-and-black-bound virgin volume available for potential buyers to peruse. Still, potential subscribers elbowed each other for a chance to get a better look. For many, it is the first opportunity to consider buying a personal set of "great encyclopedias." In the Soviet era, only a handful of the Communist Party nomenklatura were granted BSEs, whose presence on living-room bookshelves often said more about the owner's social status than his erudition.

The volumes are available at 950 rubles (about $30) apiece, and will be sold at bookstores and over the Internet. A CD-ROM version will also be available. Rodiuk says he is unsure what the commercial demand will be for the BRE, whose print run of just 100,000 will be partially distributed to public and university libraries.

The BRE owes its existence to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who last October issues a decree ordering the publication of a "great Russian encyclopedia of national significance."

The decree requests the cooperation of the Russian Academy of Sciences -- the country's leading research institute -- on both federal and local levels. Contributors are expected to include leading economists and even members of the parliament.

Publication of the BRE is fully financed by the state, and is not expected to be commercially profitable. Rather, it seems intended to encapsulate a new vision of Russia following what the Kremlin clearly wishes to portray as a successful post-Soviet political and economic transition. When Putin's decree was first published, Dmitry Prokopchuk, the director of the Great Russian Encyclopedia publishing house, was quoted as saying that the publication of a national encyclopedia is one of the "criteria for a developed country" cited by UNESCO, the United Nations' educational, scientific, and cultural body.

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, meanwhile, is available on CD-ROM and is still valued as a kind of "gold standard" of Soviet ideology. In 1953, when Lavrenti Beria, the notorious head of the Soviet secret police, was executed, BSE subscribers received a letter from the editor requesting them to cut out the "Beria" entry and replace it with an extended section on the Bering Strait.

Editor Sergei Kravets says the "Great Russian Encyclopedia" will reflect no ideological beliefs. But at least one potential BRE subscriber at the book fair, Valery Barunov, said it is inevitable that the book's authors will leave an "imprint."

"It will be very interesting and even somewhat frightening to find out what the Great Russian Encyclopedia will be like -- what if it's not what you expect? You'd want it to reflect everything. But that depends on the editorial judgment -- a lot depends on who the editor in chief is," Barunov said.

The general director appointed by Putin for the BRE project is Yuri Osipov -- the head of the Russian Academy of Sciences since 1991. A mathematician, Osipov distinguished himself in Soviet times, receiving the Lenin Award for his research in 1976. Reputed to be a government loyalist, Osipov reportedly joined Putin's Security Council in 2000. But he has also voiced displeasure with government policy, most notably about the country's dwindling financing of science and research. When the 2001 science budget was once again slashed, Osipov is said to have quipped: "If Newton had received that kind of money, he would have eaten his apple."

Barunov, lingering at the bookstand, says the Great Russian encyclopedia should be seen as a sort of "first draft of post-Soviet Russia."

"Nowadays, in these times of openness -- I wouldn't say freedom, more like anarchy -- that we are living in, the encyclopedia should have more [information] than necessary. There should be some excess [information] so that later on we can select, make a choice. And when things settle down a bit, maybe with a second edition, the [encyclopedia] will be more scientific [in nature]," Barunov says.

More than a catalogue of knowledge, Barunov adds, encyclopedias are witnesses of their time.

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