Reader's Digest Toasts 5 Years of Brevity

Sipping champagne and eating pastries in an elegant conference room of a five-star hotel, the founders of the Russian edition of Reader's Digest recalled more uncertain times as they celebrated their fifth anniversary.

"Our magazine was founded on Aug. 14, 1991. Five days later, there was a putsch," said Elenora Medvedeva, editor in chief of the Russian Edition. "We all stood in our office at Park Kultury, watching tanks roll past our window, and we all thought: 'If they start closing down the press, we'll be first.'"

Medvedeva and her colleagues feared the worst on that August afternoon because the Russian Reader's Digest was the first major U.S. publication to appear in a Russian edition.

It was also one of the most American of American publications, a magazine built on the premise that detail and depth can be profitably exchanged for brevity and entertainment value.

"It looked bad for us," Medvedeva said. "But here we are, still."

Reader's Digest, despite its small size and innocuous appearance, is a monster in the publishing industry.

Its smorgasbord of condensed book excerpts, health tips, topical reporting, pages of jokes and its trademark "Word Power" vocabulary lists have proved enormously successful worldwide. In fact, its monthly circulation of 27 million has earned it a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records as the biggest magazine in the history of the planet.

Today's Russian Reader's Digest has a mail subscription base of 115,000 readers, who are offered much of the same self-help, health and pseudoliterary material that their American and European counterparts are reading. The latest issue offers help on "Losing Weight -- Once and For All," advice on what to do "When a Man Lies to a Woman" and an outlet for people who have a "Passion for Volcanoes."

It's a far cry from Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, but it sells.

Paul Von Williams, managing editor of the American Reader's Digest, said that the success of the Russian Edition indicated that both Russia and the publishing industry had undergone significant historical changes.

"Frankly, I'm a little surprised that it caught on here," he said, when asked why a company dedicated to keeping things short had succeeded with a public famous for its love of long books. "But you have to understand, we're entering an era when Reader's Digest stories aren't shorter than everyone else's anymore. Now, they're longer. People are looking to us for in-depth information."

The triumph of condensed reading in Russia might strike some literary purists as a national failure of spirit, but Williams insists that his magazine is misunderstood. Even Leo Tolstoy, he said, would have read Reader's Digest.

"No question, he would have read it," he said. "There's a lot of information in there he could have used."