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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Rebirth In Publishing

One of the common ideological slogans of the socialist epoch was the affirmation that "the Soviet nation reads more than any other in the world." The Soviet people really did read, and they read a lot, but they spent even more time finding and buying things to read. Under the command economy, the vast majority of books that were of interest to readers were in as short supply as good sausage, fashionable clothing and reliable appliances. The Soviet publishing industry issued "spiritual sustenance" in extremely limited quantities, strictly according to plan, not stinting only on propagandistic literature. It is not surprising that a good home library became one of the attributes of a prestigious lifestyle. Collecting books was considered good taste, though not everyone thought it necessary actually to read them. Quite often, books were sorted not by their content, but by the color of their covers, fulfilling a merely decorative function. Of course, a significant proportion of what was published in those days could not really claim any other function anyway. At that time, the list of publishable subjects was sharply limited. There was no religion, mysticism, erotica or ?migr? literature. There were, however, many "production" novels and epic tales about "the heroes of socialist labor" and the delights of being a worker or a peasant. Perestroika brought some long-awaited changes, including liberation from central planning and the emergence of independent publishers. The book market suddenly came to life. The streets of Soviet cities were filled with innumerable stands, kiosks and stores selling literature for any taste. The Russian intelligentsia was ecstatic. But this blissful period was short-lived. Soon, the cruel laws of the market began to be felt. When the economy was reoriented toward the market, the lowly mass reader, exhausted by economic difficulties and turning to reading only for rest and distraction, became king. Specially for this reader, publishers began issuing large quantities of detective novels, science fiction and fantasy novels, horror novels, erotica, melodramas, books on the occult, and so on. More than half of all this literature was written by foreign authors, as new generations of publishers strove to satisfy their readers' long-suppressed interest in Western culture. The demand for pornography grew dramatically: Citizens who were starving for sexual freedom greedily snatched up any book with an indecent cover. The situation for the cultural elite only got worse. In the early 1990s, the publication of literature for this group fell sharply, and such areas as poetry, the classics and science practically ceased to be published altogether. In 1993, the country's schools and vocational institutes received only one-fifth the normal number of textbooks and reference books that they usually get, despite increased demand. The ever-worsening economic crisis in Russia has had particularly bad effects on the publishing industry. Rampant inflation, expressed as constantly increasing prices for paper, printing and distribution, as well as murderous taxation, has meant that the number of new titles fell from 51,000 in 1986 to 28,200 in 1992. The number of actual books fell from 1.7 billion to 1.3 billion. This difficult situation has affected not only Russia's publishers, which have lost virtually all of their government subsidies, but also public libraries, which have seen a sharp reduction in new materials. Simultaneously, the price of books has increased three to four times in recent years. The inevitable result has been a decrease in reader demand. At the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, Soviet citizens noticeably lost interest in attending films, plays and concerts, preferring crowded discos and dubious night clubs. The entire Russian intelligentsia, seeing this situation, began talking about the nation's spiritual crisis. Recently, the situation has begun to change. Theaters and concert halls have gradually begun to fill up, and the old lines have reformed at museum exhibits. However, the talk of Russia's spiritual crisis continues, as pessimists assert that this nation of readers has lost interest in real literature, and Russian publishing remains in crisis. I think, however, that the rumors of crisis are highly exaggerated. Of course, the publication of books did decrease toward the end of 1992, and Russia fell from being the world's second-biggest publisher to the ninth. However, considering that in terms of per capita productivity Russia is not even in the top 50, its ninth-place publishing ranking can be considered an achievement. Moreover, in 1993, the number of titles released exceeded 36,000. Market competition forced publishers to struggle to attract readers and to study their tastes. After an initial, "omnivorous" phase, Russian readers have become much more selective and demanding. They have adopted a critical attitude toward book advertising and are taken in less by bright book jackets. Readers have become more competent judges of such genres as the detective story, science fiction and the romance novel, because in the last few years many classics of these genres have been translated into Russian. Readers also seem to be becoming more interested in the works of Western philosophers and thinkers, as well as the religious philosophies of the East. The demand for elite literature has once again increased. New scholarly journals have appeared in the fields of philosophy, literary criticism and history. It is already possible to say with confidence that the main dream of the Russian intelligentsia -- that books should be available to the widest possible audience -- has virtually been achieved. Despite all the economic obstacles, the Russian book market is nearly sated. And instead of bemoaning the fate of the nation that "reads more than any other," we should be happy for them. Natalya Timoshkina is a Moscow-based journalist. She contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.