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Books as Vodka

The Book Market

Not long ago on the Norwich University campus in Vermont I met a young man whose face seemed vaguely familiar. Like myself, he turned out to be a recent Russian émigré and he is now a graduate student at Harvard. For some minutes we stared at each other, searching for some common acquaintances or shared experiences, when suddenly I remembered: the Leningrad book market. There we used to meet regularly, strangers to each other, as are all the customers of this spontaneous trade center which is forbidden by the authorities.

The book market operates on Saturdays and Sundays. In the morning people carrying heavy suitcases and satchels, their eyes furtively glancing about every few moments, come ambling from nearby bus and tram stops to the trading spot. On summer grass or winter snow they stretch out a plastic sheet and display the contents of their satchels and suitcases in near little rows—they are trading new books. These improvised book stalls are set up in two parallel rows for about a quarter of a mile. A dense crowd of customers browse between the rows.

The price of an individual book varies from 10 to 300 rubles, that is, from two days’ earnings to two months’ earnings of an average Soviet salary. These prices have nothing in common with the state-controlled nominal prices indicated on the back cover of every Soviet publication. A peculiar etiquette insists that the book dealers not shock the customers with gigantic figures, so the price is given not in rubles but in “nominals”: five nominals, ten nominals, etc. This means that you multiply the nominal price given on the book cover by five or ten.

With such high prices it is natural that books are more often traded than sold. So it was that several times I had traded books with this Harvard student. Before a deal we would establish the “nominal” equivalents of our books, pricing them so absurdly high that we each secretly assumed the other to be a real black-market book-shark.

Occasionally a wave of fear would roll over the marketplace. Suitcases and satchels would instantly slam shut, and their owners, once respectable elderly people, would grab their heavy loads and break into a run. The police! As a rule these roundups would end with the capture of one of the slower moving intellectuals. The punishment for illegal trade activity is usually limited to informing the violator’s employer. But this in itself can be rather unpleasant: it can hold his career back for a long time, or deprive him of certain privileges. Not to mention the confiscation of his valuable books.

Fleeing from the danger of a police raid, the Leningrad book market constantly changed its meeting place. It was once in a park near a public restroom, then in a garden in a working-class neighborhood by a bust of Karl Marx, then in a suburban park. The final site was chosen according to the best rules of military strategy. (The book market was fortunate in having so many retired officers as its customers!) It was on the outskirts of the city near a small grove in the middle of a huge vacant lot whose soil was stripped and badly eroded with numerous streams. For lack of roads police cars could not approach and a policeman on foot could easily be spotted from afar.

Similar book black markets exist in all large cities. In Moscow the meeting place for a long time was a street by a monument of the first Russian printer, Ivan Fedorov—who, by the way, began bookmaking in Russia in the sixteenth century, but was soon suspected of being a dissident and just barely managed to emigrate to the West. So began the history of the printed word in Russia under the tsar known as Ivan the Terrible.

Lack of Paper

There is a shortage of books mainly because there is a shortage of paper. If a person in a Soviet city finds a middle-aged woman walking down the street proudly wearing a necklace of toilet paper rolls, he will not run to call a psychiatric ambulance. Instead, he will most likely go up to her and ask her how she managed to acquire such a valued prize. Like the other branches of Soviet industry, with the possible exception of the military, the paper industry does not function efficiently. You may judge for yourself by going into any American store that sells Soviet books. There you will find books that are sometimes valuable and difficult to obtain in the Soviet Union, but that are published unattractively, in dingy colors, with unexpressive and monotonous typeface, and are sloppily bound. But even all of the bad paper in the USSR cannot satisfy the domestic market. Paper is purchased in Finland, Japan, and Canada, while printing orders often go out to Eastern European satellites, where the quality of printing is a little higher.

There is also a shortage of books because 80 percent of the book production consists of so-called nonbooks, that is, propaganda books which no one buys or takes out of libraries, which simply do not exist for the reader. Among the numerous economic losses which are caused by inefficient bureaucratic management, this is perhaps the only loss which the state consciously makes.

In a situation where even toilet paper is in short supply, propaganda literature is still published in millions of copies. But even those high Party officials who plan to publish an ordinary speech by Brezhnev in, let us say, ten million copies do not themselves believe that all ten million of them, or even one million of them, will actually be sold. In this case the colossal number of editions is a traditional symbol customary to propaganda image-making. The main task of this giant number is to underscore once again the author’s exceptional position in the hierarchy, his power, authority, and popularity.

Nonbooks are also a large part of the fiction and scientific literature which is published. Here the opportunity to publish and the quantity of copies correspond mainly to the hierarchy within scientific institutions and the Writers’ Union. Although as a whole all publishing houses are concerned with their own economic success (and need I mention here that all of them are under the complete control of Party and state?), those publishing executives who are given the right of production planning are mainly interested in demonstrating their own personal ideological purity and zeal, and in supporting good relations with other influential bureaucrats. Their goal therefore is to maintain such a balance that the publishing firm does not undergo significant losses, but at the same time does not allow any ideological oversights, publishing mostly “proper” people. If one must choose, of course, the latter is preferable, for the bureaucrat does not suffer a personal financial loss if his publishing house does. In his documentary story The Ivankiada Vladimir Voinovich describes how editorial plans are made:

One must separate the needed writers from the unneeded. Needed people are the Secretaries of the Writers’ Union, the directors of publishing firms, editors-in-chief of journals. You do them a favor, they’ll do you a favor: they will publish you (if you have anything), arrange for positive reviews, accept you as a writer, and toss lucrative jobs your way. Needed writers ought to include other people who not only write books, but have the opportunity to grant small favors on the side; a muskrat fur hat; obtaining a discount on a vacation at a privileged health resort, or a season pass to a swimming pool. Unneeded writers are those who do not know how to do any of this, cannot do it, and do not want to do it. The most unneeded writers are Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol and the other classics—you can’t get a single thing from them.

As a man who worked for many years in Soviet publishing houses I can state that this satirist’s description is entirely correct. (In case of doubt, one may go directly to Voinovich’s hero, Sergei Ivanko, who now works in the UN and, according to recent deserters, is a colonel for the KGB. As we see, publishing was only a springboard to a more important career for this official.)

Too Many Readers

Strange as it may seem, amid all the propaganda clichés a few truths can sometimes be found, such as, “The USSR reads more than any other country in the world.” I do not know if this can ever be verified scientifically, but at any rate it appears to be a fact. There is no other place in the world, it seems, where one can find so many people reading books while riding public transportation or standing in lines. Of course, no other place in the world has such long lines.

Propaganda usually interprets this as evidence of the extraordinary blossoming of spiritual life under socialism. But let us take a closer look at the readers sitting in an overflowing streetcar, and let us examine what most of them are reading. If, as many people suggest, the standard American facial expression is one of smiling optimism, then the standard Soviet face expresses fatigue, worry, and hostility. A man rides home from work after a hard day. He knows that all of his efforts will win him only a meager existence. Moreover, the fruits of his efforts will often be brought to nought by senseless management. He has elbowed through the crowd to grab a spot on the streetcar. He is squashed in from all sides and juggles a bag of groceries which he managed to obtain by waiting on a huge line on the way home from work. At home he can only look forward to the futility of trying to relax in a crowded apartment, and the stultifying monotony of propaganda which he finds on the two TV stations. How can he relax? Many regularly drink vodka on the way home from work. About one-third of the men on the streetcar I used to ride were tipsy. Another third read books. Then there were those who read books while they were tipsy—they were especially relaxed.

The books that they read are for the most part not intellectual treasures—they are read for amusement, for titillation, for escape. They include detective novels, adventure novels, erotic literature. In the USSR these avidly read books are published in pathetically small quantities. Copies of Soviet detective novels (not much is written there in this genre) and the even rarer translations of such authors as Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler are read until the copies literally fall apart. A few detective novels from the West are translated and sold illegally in carbon copies for five to ten rubles (the lightest carbon copy costs five rubles). To this day the most alluring adventure novelist is Dumas père, and the most erotic writer is Maupassant.

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