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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Steamy Novels Take On Chekhov at the Book Fair

MTLast year in Russia, 5,000 local publishers printed just under 600 million copies, or about only four books for every person.
They say it's hard to learn about a country from books alone. But could something be gleaned from the way the books are sold?

If so, a trip to the permanent book fair at the Olimpiisky sports complex Friday revealed a complex and unclassifiable society.

The fair, open daily except Mondays on the six floors of Olimpiisky, is a place where Chekhov's "Selected Works" still heroically competes with the titles like "Zavoyevaniye" ("Romantic Conquest") and "Iskusheniye Guvernantki" ("Seducing the Governess").

The playwright could clearly learn something about seduction. Over a 10-minute period, Chekhov found no takers at one of the hundreds of Olimpiisky stalls, while two racy novels got picked up in no time.

This would not be surprising in any country. But not every country has a market that sells alongside the schlock fiction virtually any Russian or foreign classic and reference work imaginable.

Vladimir Dal's 19th-century multi-volume "Explanatory Dictionary of the Living Russian Language" appeared in at least two editions in three different corners of the fair.

A seller at one stand said Bulgakov has been going particularly well lately but is no competitor to bestselling authors like Sergei Dovlatov, a one-time Soviet journalist who emigrated to the United States. "He writes about life," she explained, resorting to the cliche used by readers to describe serious literature.

The market boasts about 700 stands on a typical day, said Yekaterina Khromova, the administrator. She could not say how many books are sold at Olimpiisky.

The shoving crowds found Friday might be misleading. Russians don't buy as many books as they used to. Last year, the 5,000 local publishers printed just under 600 million copies, or about four books for every person, according to the Russian Book Chamber. That compares to almost 14 books per person in Britain in 1999, according to the International Publishers Association, and to 1.3 billion copies (almost nine per person) printed in Russia in 1992.

But at least the publishers know where their bread comes from. Alexei Shekhov, spokesman for the country's top Eksmo-Press publishing group, quickly rattled off the publisher's bestselling titles. In the lead are several by Darya Dontsova, the author of more than 40 so-called ironicheskiye detektivy, whose plots are heavy on Dickensian coincidences (and which critics love to praise, well, ironically).

Irony doesn't stop at literature. A stand of political books near the market's entrance features a wider primer on foreign affairs -- titles explaining "Pochemu Amerika Nastupayet" ("Why America is on the Offensive"), painting "Amerika Protiv Rossii" ("America Against Russia") and enlightening readers about the supposed "Bitva za Nebesa" ("Struggle for Air Superiority") between Russia and the United States.

But it's the Soviet, not American, mentality that appears to be tussling with the modern Russia at the Olimpiisky. The trader cheerfully peddling Bulgakov and Dovlatov turns apoplectic when a reporter asks how many books she sells per day. "It's a trade secret," she grumbles, turning away. "Are you going to buy something or not?"

A third-year English primer carries exercises devoted to May Day. An anthology of "Russian Literature" for 11th graders does include Osip Mandelstam's chilling poem "Leningrad," with its haunting last lines about waiting for the Cheka, but strangely leaves out two of his more famous works, the so-called "Stalin Epigram" and "If our enemies were to seize me ... ," with its bleak view of Russia's future.

On their last weekday of freedom, however, young people were just as busily checking out the stands selling teen magazines as those peddling textbooks.

And although there is no explicit erotica stand, sellers of school supplies try their best. Sultry women with gleaming tans stare from 10-ruble student notebooks. The ubiquitous Britney Spears appears on three-ruble bookmarks, as do the three girls from the U.S. television sitcom "Charmed."

Yet the lascivious women are far outnumbered by school notebooks with the Russian coat of arms on the cover.

The double-headed eagle is not the hammer and sickle of bygone days, and President Vladimir Putin, whose picture graces a 50-ruble spiral pad, does not stare straight into the eyes like his namesake Lenin once did. But the symbols' size on the covers has not diminished.