Russia Is Reading Again, But Without Tutors

This spring, it appeared that Russians were returning to bookstores. At first, this seemed to be just a subjective judgement, since I myself had not been buying books for some time. But my conversations with book buyers, sellers and literary critics convinced me that I was not mistaken. People are buying classics, dictionaries and children's literature.

The same thing could be observed at the Moscow book fair this September: Very few buyers were gathered around the stands of publishers who specialize in cheap mass reading matter. For now, I can only guess at the reasons for this marked shift in literary tastes. One reason is already clear though: The often cursed democratic policies of the government has led to a certain stability in people's lives. Many people are spending money not only on groceries but on rather expensive editions of Faulkner, Tolstoy and Pushkin.

These changes have corresponded to a turning point in the publishing business. If between 1980 and 1993 the supply of books on the market dropped by one half, then already in 1994 there was a noticeable growth of 1 percent. And today, several independent observers confirm that in fact supply has risen by between 30 percent and 40 percent from 1993 levels.

Publishing policies have changed considerably. Detective stories and romances still make up the largest part of the industry. Now, however, these books are written not by American or French authors but by Russian ones. The most popular novels today are written by such Russian writers as Nikolay Leonov, Viktor Dotsenko, Daniil Koretsky and Eduard Topol. There has been a Russification of the book market. Even heroines of erotic and pornographic fiction have hastily changed names: Luisas have become Natashas.

There is another new tendency that has emerged this year: Publishers have started to turn to contemporary Russian literature despite the high financial risks that are still involved. Moreover, they are not only publishing classic living authors like Grigory Baklanov, who was among the first Soviet writers during de-Stalinization to depict World War II in a non-idealized way, or Viktor Astafiev who is well known for his stories on the Siberian wilderness; publishing houses are also printing young avant-garde writers such as Viktor Pelevin or Dmitry Lipskerov, whose novels "Chapayev i pustota" ("Chapayev and the Void") and "Gorod Chanchzhoe" ("The City of Chanchzhoe") are among Russia's best-selling books. When their works were recently released, they were literally snatched up in bookstores. One or two years ago, this would have been inconceivable.

The book publishing industry has also been revived in the provinces, for example in Voronezh and Chelyabinsk. The demand for Russian books is growing in Kazakhstan, Belarus and Ukraine. In Kharkov, for instance, there are several successful publishing houses that have put out bestsellers in the Moscow and St. Petersburg markets.

Moscow has ceased being the exclusive legislator of literary fashions, although, of course, the most powerful publishing houses are still concentrated here. This year, these houses have begun to operate much more effectively and on a wider scale. This was the first year advertisements for books appeared on television. (And the cost for a one-minute prime-time commercial can run to $10,000.) It is namely in Moscow that authors of popular books -- detective novels as a rule -- can receive an honorarium of between $20,000 and $80,000, which is good not only by Russian standards.

I wouldn't want anyone to think that I have an overly optimistic view of the Russian book market. It is far from perfect. And pulp fiction still makes up the bulk of the sales.

But this is not the most serious problem. In my view, there are three main problems that threaten the book trade. The first is weak laws. And although recently, especially this year, the purchase and sale of authors' rights has begun to take on civilized forms, piracy remains a trademark of the Russian publishing business.

The second problem is the absence of a strong system of book promotion. Only two or three specialized weeklies and two or three national newspapers regularly publish articles on books. And the three or four television programs devoted to books are clearly too few for Russia, especially given the continued decline of newspaper circulation. (This summer, I could not find either Izvestia or Literaturnaya Gazeta in Kasimov, just 250 kilometers outside Moscow.) The attempts of the so-called glossy magazines such as Itogi and Ogonyok to fill this niche also cannot be called successful, if only because the magazines are circulated almost entirely in Moscow and never reach the provinces.

Finally, Russia lacks firms that could distribute the books throughout the country. The assortment of books in stores in the Ryazan Oblast, which I recently visited, is astoundingly poor. And this region is only a three-hour ride from Moscow by electric train.

As before, the Russian book market is characterized by the so-called thick journals, which still greatly influence book publishers. And although the support of the Soros Foundation is being cut by one half every six months, the traditional journals continue to set literary trends. The writers who are published in such journals as Znamya or Novy Mir receive something like a certificate of quality and automatically become more competitive on the publishing market.

But this year, the powerful publishing house Vagryus took the lead by publishing the works of its young and popular writers at the same time they appeared in journals. This testifies to the independence of the publisher, which is trying to compete in defining literary tastes and edge out journals to the periphery. (This is entirely possible given that journal circulation this year is only 1 percent of the levels of 1989.)

Russia has stopped being a literary country, and the writer is no longer a national tutor who teaches society the rules of political and moral decorum. The readers no longer look to books and journals for political discoveries. Instead they seek publications that are useful or amusing. For the first time in post-October Russia, private life has become truly private. Literature is only one sphere of culture among others such as television.

And the writer is a private person who works for a living, most often as a journalist, a university professor or even a businessman, as in the case of Dmitry Lipskerov, who owns a restaurant and does not complain about his life.

Therefore, when I am told that Russian culture is dying, that it is perishing under the onslaught of Western cultural standards, I can only shrug my shoulders in response: Building something new -- at least in Russia -- always takes place in the part of the building in which it is impossible to live.

Yury Buyda is on the editorial board of Znamya and Novoye Vremya. He contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.