The ARB at the Moscow International Book Fair

VDNKh, Site of the Moscow International Book Fair VDNKh, Site of the Moscow International Book Fair

It can be hard to know what is going on in the Russian world of writing and books due to barriers of language; one only really knows what leaks for one reason or another into the English language press. In this regard, Chinese and Russian literature bear some similarities, at least from an English-language perspective looking in. Unfamiliar languages and undecipherable scripts leave both relatively inaccessible; English-speakers usually only view the worlds of Chinese and Russian literature through the tiny keyhole of a small number of not necessarily representative translations.

A visit to the Moscow International Book Fair pulls back the curtain at least a little.

Chinese and Russian literature—and publishing—bear another similarity in that both had to rediscover themselves after a hiatus. Russian writing went through a severe downturn in the initial post-Soviet 1990s. “In the 1990s, real life in Russia was more interesting than literature,” recounted medievalist-turned-novelist Evgeny Vodolazkin, author of the award-winning Laurus. “Writers turned to journalism.”

Vodolazkin went on to say that literature has benefited from the relative stability of the more recent past. Russian writers have a reputation for being philosophical and Vodolazkin doesn’t disappoint: he says he is exploring “non-historical novels” in which the past is used to illuminate the present. Visitors to Russia might well agree with the New Yorker, which wrote in reference to Laurus that “Russia and Russian life seem to be especially prone to existing on several planes of time at once.” A new novel about a man recovering from amnesia—again, an exploration of past, present and memory—is due out soon.

Russia, not unlike China, has had some recent international successes in what might broadly be called science fiction. Dmitry Glukhovsky’s series of dystopian novels set in a post-apocalyptic Moscow Metro began as a free Internet publication, based on the success of which were formally published. The first, Metro 2033, was a Russian best-seller and was translated into several languages including English and Chinese, spawning sequels, a video game franchise and other spin-offs.

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Current Sino-Russian rapprochement extends to more than geopolitics and energy. China is also one of the largest markets for Russian literature in translation, according to Eugene Reznichenko, Executive Director of the translation grant-giving NGO Institut Perevoda. This is partly due to official encouragement, but also—it seems—from genuine interest. Dmitri Kosyrev, a Russian journalist, commentator and Asia specialist who also writes Asia-based fiction under the pseudonymous surname Chen, says that Russians share many characteristics with Asians. He noted that the ancestors of the Russians were one of the many peoples who moved back and forth over the steppes.

Guzel Yakina
Guzel Yakina

A great deal of Russia of course is Asia, a reality only now beginning to be reflected in literature. Guzel Yakhina is an outgoing, intense young writer from Kazan and is herself of Tatar origin. Her debut novel Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes has already won several major accolades. Zuleikha is a Muslim Tatar who lives in a pre-modern world of “ghosts and spirits”. In 1930, Zuleikha is sent, along with a great many of her people, to Siberia—a trip made by Yakhina’s grandmother. There Zuleikha meets and falls in love with Ivan, an ethnic Russian and committed Communist. It is a novel about personal transition, changing worldview and the conflict “between maternal and romantic love”. Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes is due out in English in 2018.

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The Russian publishing industry has entirely transformed itself in the past two decades; a more accurate term might be “recreated”. Not only is the industry populated by entirely new publishers and, some venerable urban bookstore properties aside, new retailers. The production values have improved: covers come adorned with spot lamination and foil stamping. Booksellers estimated that some 40-50% of the books sold are titles in translation.

It should perhaps come as no surprise that Russian firms are busily applying technology to the book business. T8 publishing technologies has brought print-on-demand services to Russia, at price points for a single book equal to offset print runs of 2000-3000 copies, according to company Director Boris Makarenkov, in an industry where average print runs are still below 2000 copies. Furthermore, T8 is integrated via “the cloud” with the primary print-on-demand companies outside Russia, allowing Russian books to be printed and delivered globally and single copy orders of foreign, particularly English-language, books to be produced and fulfilled entirely within Russia.

LitRes, meanwhile, is a leading e-book publisher and distributor. Amazon is as yet not active within Russia, which has allowed domestic firms the opportunity to generate both user bases and economies of scale; it also means that Russian e-books don’t have quite the end-to-end ecosystem provided by the Kindle. Electronic publishing is, as in the West, for the most part now a matter of essential publishing strategy for essentially all titles. LitRes, which also offers audio books, has been actively pursuing a number of revenue models, said Sergey Anuriev, the company’s CEO, including a recently launched subscription service which provides access to most, if not quite all, titles for monthly fee.

Revenues in these technology-based publishing services are healthy and growing, according to the companies. Bricks and mortar book chain Bookvoed also reported large increases in the number of outlets. Profits may be another matter, but Russian writing and the book industry seem to display both depth and resilience.

Peter Gordon is editor of The Asian Review of Books. In the late 1980s and 90s, he worked on developing East Asia-Russia business, trade and investment.