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.

But it cannot be said that Soviet publishing firms have entirely ignored this demand. Dumas, Maupassant, Conan Doyle, and the sentimental lyrics of Yesenin are from time to time published, and, I might add, they usually put the finances of the publishing firms back in the black. About four years ago the government began a paper drive whereby people would trade in pulp literature in exchange for hard-to-get books. For twenty kilograms of pulp literature you received a coupon which entitled you to buy one book. Publishing houses turned out special “coupon” editions, bound even more unattractively than usual, of Yesenin’s lyrics, Queen Margot by Dumas, and Dear Friend by Maupassant. It was also rumored that this campaign served another purpose—to clear private libraries of old books and periodicals which might not be in accord with the latest ideological winds. Nonetheless, even these efforts failed, for people turned in such a large quantity of pulp literature that there was a shortage of “coupon” books. The line one always heard was, “I’ve already saved up twenty kilograms of coupons alone.”

Soviet publishers love to tell American interviewers about their editions of Russian classics in millions of copies. For Lev Tolstoy’s 150th anniversary last year, thirty million copies of his books were printed. In my opinion, such impressive figures have very little to do with the choices of the Russian common reader. Some reading of classics is obligatory for the more than twelve million high-school students in the Soviet Union. Every day, in 170,000 Soviet schools, millions of bored teenagers mumble such formulas as “well, Lev Tolstoy…he was a mirror…well, a mirror of the October revolution…no, I mean, of the Russian revolution…in his novel War and Peace he showed how capitalists and landowners….” Few children later overcome the view of the Russian classics they absorbed in school, which is not to deny that Russians may read such books for pleasure. After all, when mystery and horror novels are in such short supply Crime and Punishment is not a bad substitute.

The list of foreign authors translated and published in the USSR also seems imposing and does much to create the image of an enlightened country. But only rarely are as many as 100,000 copies of a new translation published—usually there are hardly enough to decorate stylish bookcases in the apartments of those who are more equal than others. For an ordinary citizen the only place to buy a freshly translated book by Salinger or Vonnegut is the black market. Ten nominals!

And there is a technical reason why the intelligentsia in the Soviet Union consume more books than their Western colleagues. Where a Western scholar or writer can refer to just one source book, a Russian must often gather the same information bit by bit from various sources. Information about the history of religion is gleaned from quotes in antireligious brochures, the opinions of modern philosophers from Marxist articles condemning bourgeois or revisionist philosophy, and so on. For many years, for example, the only reference book on modern music was Shneerson’s Music Serving the Reactionaries, which branded Stravinsky, Messiaen, Menotti, and others as agents of imperialism. But at least there one could pick up the names, dates, names of compositions, and a few ideas about these composers.

The writer Andrei Bitov in his remarkable novel Pushkin Home relates the following experience. He was present at one of the movies which are shown to the elite in closed clubs. They were showing Pasolini’s The Passion According to St. Matthew. Everyone who discussed the film afterward viewed the Sermon on the Mount as a particularly moving, very contemporary moment in the film which even sounded rather dissident in the Soviet surroundings. Bitov interviewed many of the spectators—they were writers, critics, directors—and discovered that the majority of them by watching the film had for the first time become acquainted with this text.

Books in the System of Privileges

In a huge number of Soviet books and films there is a scene where an old Party soldier with gray hair on his temples says to his young comrade, “We Communists have only one privilege—to go wherever things are rougher.” Another popular parallel of this touching propaganda piece is a picture of Lenin’s lunch in the Kremlin: a glass of weak tea and a thin slice of black bread.

We have every reason to believe that at the dawn of Soviet power the Communists already had many more privileges than they had opportunities for hardships. In any event, Lenin’s crust of bread is now covered over with a thick layer of caviar. The fact that material benefits are distributed unequally in any society is nothing unusual. Be it in Los Angeles or Omsk, everyone eats bread, few eat caviar. Socialism’s innovation for humanity is the hierarchy of various diets which are strictly regimented by the government. According to Simon Leys, high Party officials in China are called “those who eat meat.” The dietary hierarchy in my country is best explained in the following examples.

Near the editor’s office where I worked on Voinov Street in Leningrad there were four cafeterias which I happened to visit at different times. The nearest one to our office belonged to a small auto-equipment factory. Without risking your health, you could buy only bread and milk there. On the same street was a writers’ club with its own restaurant. Prices were higher there, but the food was almost as inedible (by the way, writers came there as a rule not to dine, but to swallow a glass or two of cognac). Also on this street in a palace which Catherine the Second presented to Prince Potemkin in the eighteenth century is the Higher Party School. In the cafeteria there future Party functionaries could already get a foretaste of the sweet life to come: prices were low, as they were in the factory cafeteria, but food was of high quality, tasted good, and there were always fresh fruit, vegetables, and other rare items.

At the end of Voinov Street is the Leningrad Party Headquarters, Smolny—a remarkable eighteenth-century architectural ensemble consisting of a former monastery and a former institute for daughters of the nobility. This cafeteria offered the menu of a fine restaurant at modest prices, and among the hors d’oeuvres you could find that symbol of the good life—caviar. In order to enter one must have a special pass which is checked at the door by well-fed security guards. An average Communist need only show his Party card to enter Smolny, but without a special pass they will not allow him into the cafeteria, even if he joined the Party a year before Lenin. (I should add parenthetically that leaving the cafeteria is not always so simple either, for it is forbidden to take food out, as this might engender ill-feelings among the average citizenry. I once saw an officer detain a rather high Party official, an elderly woman who was happily carrying two geese. He reminded her respectfully, but firmly, that for such matters there was a special exit through the rear door by the service parking lot.) But the interior of even this cafeteria has its own hierarchy: the main room is self-service, but a smaller room, for department heads and higher officials, has waiters.

As we have seen, the people at Smolny receive the most benefits (food). It follows, then, that their labor, from the socialist point of view—from each according to his ability, to each according to his labor—is the greatest, the most valuable and intensive. What does it consist of? Part of it is the management of production, administration, and ideology by the carrot and stick method, that is, to praise, curse, encourage plans, not to encourage plans, to give out medals, call employees on the carpet, etc. But a large part of these people’s efforts go to strengthening their own position among the elite of society’s upper echelons, and to moving ahead as fast as possible.

Next in the scale of values is the labor of students from the Party school, the future members of the elite (who receive, in a sense, a type of salary advance).

The next is the labor of writers, who are obliged to serve the whole system ideologically, that is, they are to write so that it is clear from their works how perfect the system is and how it is better than any other.

Least valued is the labor of workers in the factory.

Thus, socialism is not a system which uses anarchistic and impartial money as a regulator of supply and demand (money, despite the difficulty in obtaining it, can nonetheless be earned by one’s own hard labor, or it can be inherited, or it can be gotten by theft or won in a lottery), but it is a system of social hierarchy, in which it is nearly impossible for one to change his position.

Food, clothing, medical service, and housing are distributed in socialist Russia in accordance with this social hierarchy and books are no exception. At Smolny there is a small bookstore where a Party official can buy a book which is unavailable to an intellectual or to the mass reader. On business in Smolny I would often drop in. I did not have the right to buy books there, but I wanted at least to glance at these unavailable novelties. Once an elderly sergeant of the Smolny security police was buying a large stack of books in front of me. Among them I saw The Glass Bead Game by Hesse, Within a Budding Grove by Proust, and a large illustrated book of post-Impressionist paintings. The extremely ungrammatical speech of the sergeant excluded the possibility that he was buying these books for his own enjoyment. Most likely, this was where one of the paths to the black market began. (My suspicions were later confirmed when I found out that the director of this privileged bookstore was arrested.)

But in general, normal bookstores, not the privileged ones, supply the black market with books. In order to imagine how this happens one must have a general idea of the Soviet system of trade.

As is known, all stores in the USSR belong to the state and all goods in them are delivered according to the plans and norms of the Trade Ministry and the local trade offices. Their inventories of food, books, and clothing are all filled with low-quality goods, 50 percent of which no one wants. However, every store also receives regularly a small supply of high-quality goods which are in critical demand. But these goods, of course, never see the store counter. The lion’s share of them goes to the store director, then to his assistant, then to his most loyal salespeople. Keeping part of this loot for themselves, members of this socialist trade mafia set aside a larger part of it for an underground trade reserve. Good products are circulated within this trade society: Italian boots = 1/2 kg. caviar = one Siberian fur hat = 1/50 Finnish furniture set = 1/10 of the best Soviet refrigerator ZIL = 1/220 of the car Zhiguli = twenty books of poetry by Andrei Voznesensky, and so forth.

As a result the dealer of average caliber has approximately the same privileges as a Party-careerist—a car, good clothes, furniture, good food, and fashionable books on a Finnish shelf. Granted, he is constantly under the risk of undergoing an investigation and being fired, or even jailed for a certain length of time. But, on the other hand, making a career among the Party elite also constantly involves the risk of being found out and losing everything. After personal consumption and internal trade operations, any goods which are left are circulated to the black market for money through speculators and counteragents.

Thus the source of hard-to-get books on the black market is very simple—they come from those who, under the present system, have access to these books. This is the basic source, but not the only one.

The next most important source are people who send books to the USSR from abroad. These books are not by any means foreign editions of books in Russian, for their distribution is not only a criminal violation but it is also a serious political crime. Besides, such books are distributed without profit among trusted friends in wide dissident circles. A certain number of detective novels in English and art books find their way into the market, but mainly it is books which were published in the Soviet Union, bought abroad, and then sent back into the USSR.

This is a very characteristic process: Soviet books traveling to the West and back. At a meeting of the editors of the publishing firm “Soviet Writer” a high official said, “We published Mandelstam for the purpose of stuffing it down the throats of our ideological enemies abroad.” Someone in the room shouted out, “How about stuffing it down ours!”

There are books whose copies are almost entirely sent away to bookstores in Europe and America, pleasing leftist intellectuals there with the thought that Kafka and Pasternak are published in the Soviet Union. In reality, these books will most likely reach the intellectual reader in the Soviet Union via the black market. Let us suppose you buy a copy of Mandelstam in New York for $8, and send it to the Soviet Union. Somewhere in the postal or customs system there is a leak and your Mandelstam surfaces in the black market for sixty to seventy rubles. (So we get the “Mandelstam currency exchange rate”: one dollar equals eight rubles, which corresponds to reality better than the official rate of exchange, one dollar = .77 rubles). I recently saw the storeroom of a book salesman who sells Soviet books in Michigan, and I told him that with his books he could easily make a million in one day. He could only grimace because here he was unlikely to take in more than one hundred dollars in a day.

There exists a kind of black hole that swallows up books on their way from Western senders to Soviet receivers. The American writer Bel Kaufman twice sent a monograph on Chagall to her friend, a colleague of mine in Leningrad. Both times he got a letter informing him that the book had been sent, but he never received it. In the meantime you could find on the black market a large selection of books on Chagall priced at 200 to 600 rubles a book.

An amusing incident happened to the Leningrad professor A. University professors in the USSR are given an allowance of twenty-five dollars a year for buying books abroad related to their field. This money, of course, is not given directly to the professor—he must present the university administration with a list of books he would like to buy from his quota (a very short list, one may assume). A. was a specialist in nineteenth-century Russian romanticism, and he ordered a few American studies on this subject. Half a year went by and the books did not appear, but the disciplined Soviet professor did not think to complain; if there were no books, that was the way it should be, the authorities know better. But once, when he was making his usual round of the Leningrad used book stores, he was approached by a “book-beetle”—zhuk—a petty speculator who hangs around such stores. “It seems you are interested in literary criticism,” said the zhuk to the well-known literary scholar. “Come with me and I’ll show you a little something….”

The curious professor followed the zhuk to the nearest gate. The first book he was shown put him on his guard: who in all of Leningrad could possibly need an American dissertation published in Iowa about a third-rate Russian romantic poet? But when he saw that the second and third books coincided with his list, he sprang up, and even surprising himself, grabbed the lapels of the zhuk and cried, “Police!” This happened downtown, on the corner of Nevskii and Liteiny, so that a crowd immediately gathered and the zhuk could not escape. On the next day the professor was invited to the police station and they gave him his order of American books without any explanations. But then he did not demand an explanation.

Books under arrest, books in prison, and in hard-labor camps

Why would an intellectual with an average salary of, say, 150 rubles a month regularly buy books on the black market valued at ten, twenty, or even sixty to eighty rubles? (Every volume of Montaigne’s essays, which are so popular among Russian intellectuals, costs eighty rubles, the whole set coming in three volumes.) Why is he not satisfied with the library? The reason for this is very simple: books which enjoy wide popular demand are either not to be found in the public libraries, or if the library has them, they are unavailable. The books which are in shortest supply the librarian holds for his privileged friends.

In the official academic libraries the situation is more complicated. Usually only students and people with university diplomas are allowed in, and even then they must have a letter stating that they are using the library for scholarly work, and not for personal pleasure. But once they have received a steady pass for such a library, it is not so easy to use it. Only a limited number of scholars may take books home. The others must arrive early in the morning and stand in a long line in order to get a place in the reading hall (yet one more variation of the daily lines).

One of the paradoxes of historical research in Russia is this: the more remote in time the period under study, the easier will be access to archival materials and simply to literature. It is much easier for a literary historian to study Aksakov or Turgenev than, say, Gorky, although Gorky founded Socialist Realism and Proletarian Humanism while the first two are seen as representing the interests of the nobility. But they had no occasion to write about the Great October Revolution, the Bolshevik party and its leaders, while the Proletarian Humanist did have things to say, and sometimes they were less than flattering. Not to mention the fact that Gorky carried on a cordial correspondence with other Proletarian Humanists who later turned out to be “enemies of the people” and even later “victims of the cult of personality.” While the USSR publishes superbly documented editions of the Russian classics and interesting historical research, the closer we come to the socialist era, the lower are the scholarly value and reliability of publications. Neither the “complete Gorky” nor the “complete Mayakovsky” is truly complete.

Books in the library catalogue are divided into three categories which are shockingly reminiscent of the Soviet penal system. Although the majority of books are currently free, many of them are still serving time. A few were liberated and rehabilitated after Stalin’s death, some younger books came under lock and key in the last decade, and then there are those which have been in prison for fifty years. From time to time in the card catalogue one sees the notes, “Can be checked out only with special permission,” or “Located in special stacks.” It would be difficult to list all of the categories of books which are read only with “special permission,” but most are periodicals, including almost all of the Western periodicals.

You may, for example, want to read an article in The New York Times about the first test tube baby in the world, but that same edition contains information about attempts to exchange Anatole Scharansky for two Soviet spies, about the diplomatic games of Albania, a review of Stoppard’s play which describes a Soviet dissident imprisoned in a psychiatric hospital, and a great deal of information which the Soviet press lacks or has carefully reworked because official ideology has considered it harmful to the average Soviet citizen.

Consequently you must bring the library a note from your place of work in which your employer guarantees your ideological stability and loyalty, and states that you must read the given article for your line of work. After that, the whole process very closely resembles visiting a prisoner: there is a special room, a limited amount of time, a guard constantly on duty, although it is possible to take a stealthy peek at the other pages of the magazine. Now that copying technology has at last penetrated Soviet libraries, many will give the readers a photocopy of the requested article, lest they glance at those forbidden pages.

It is funny that together with the arrested Western periodicals are a considerable number of Soviet ones from past years, including such official newspapers as Pravda and Izvestiya. This occurs because of changes in Soviet leadership and political zigzags. So what Orwell called “memory holes” have come into existence.

The “special stacks” for Western scientific and technical periodicals require especially Gothic arrangements. An engineering or technical magazine is often locked up because it describes a discovery or invention which is considered a secret in the USSR. Logically, this secrecy was aimed at hiding Soviet research from Western competitors, although Soviet specialists need more information of this type for progress in their own research—but then again, logic and practicality were never strong arguments for the bureaucratic censor.

The note “special stacks” means a significantly greater degree of isolation of the book or magazine from the potential reader, as in a hard-labor camp where visitation is forbidden. Any political writing which is even slightly divergent from the Soviet orthodoxy is sent here. Only especially trustworthy Party ideologists, KGB men, reporters, and writers are given access to these books, even as prison camps for interrogations allow in police officers, court personnel, and (once again) KGB men.

Finally there are books which are formally available to all, but whose circulation is secretly controlled. (This resembles the situation of several prominent scientists, men of letters, and artists in the USSR.) When you ask for these books the librarian will always answer that, unfortunately, the book is at the moment taken out or is being rebound. Throughout my entire five years as a student at Leningrad University (1954-1959) several books of Freud which had been translated into Russian and published in 1910-1920 were being rebound. Not too long ago I requested these books once again from a librarian, who, apparently, was born about the same year I had first become interested in Freud. She smiled and answered, “They are being rebound.” Her tone of voice seemed to imply that it was only a matter of days before Freud would return rebound. I conjured up a picture of a leatherbound volume covered with jewels like an incunabulum (access to which, by the way, is easier than to the pages of The New York Review of Books).

translated by Joseph Denny

This Issue

May 31, 1979