20 years under Putin: a timeline

The largest annual book trade fair in the United States, BookExpo America (BEA), was held in New York City June 4-7, 2012. For the first time in BookExpo’s history, Russia was named the guest of honor. Through the efforts of the Kremlin, over fifty of Russia's most renowned writers and numerous publishers were brought together in an unprecedentedly extensive program. However, questions remain regarding the showcase's intentions.



According to statistics published by BEA organizers, Russia is currently third in the world (after the U.S. and China) in terms of annual book production, releasing nearly 125,000 new titles annually. Last year only, Russians downloaded over 20 million ebooks and purchased nearly 1 million electronic readers.

The ReadRussia 2012 program ran from June 1st through the 8th, longer than BookExpo itself. In the course of these eight days, over a hundred cultural events took place in the trade pavilion and throughout Manhattan. Most of the leading Russian publishing houses, including Eksmo, Ad Marginem, Limbus Press, AST, Molodaya gvardia [Young Guard], Prosveschenie [Enlightment], Iskusstvo [Art] participated. Leading contemporary Russian writers such as Dmitry Bykov, Sergei Lukyanenko, Edward Radzinsky, Mikhail Shishkin, Olga Slavnikova, Vladimir Makanin, and Zakhar Prilepin all presented their recent work to the American public. Also present were Russian writers currently living in the U.S. including Yuz Aleshkovsky, Solomon Volkov, Aleksei Tsvetkov, Boris Paramonov, Lara Vapnyar, and Pavel Lembersky.

The program was sponsored by Russia's Federal Agency of Press and Mass Communications. Its chairman Mikhail Seslavinsky and deputy chairman Vladimir Grigoriev both attended the opening ceremony. Other sponsors were the Yeltsin Foundation and the Renova Group, with additional institutional support provided by Academia Rossica, the World Policy Institute, and the Trust for Mutual Understanding.

The Russian booth was spacious, decorated in a traditional red. ReadRussia’s logo featured inverted R's and the cliche "Soviet" font that Westerners still tend to associate with the country. Huge portraits of Alexander Pushkin, the most important Russian poet whose birthday also happened to coincide with the expo, loomed over visitors’ heads.

Each publishing house strived to stand out with their display, presenting the latest releases in Russian alongside new translations of classics and recent bestsellers. Occasionally, the variety that was intended to impress American readers seemed strange to the Russian eye. Side-by-side, one could  find Putin’s biography, the series Mify o Rossii [Myths About Russia] written by Vladimir Medinsky, Russia's new Minister of Culture, Pushkin’s The Tale of Tsar Saltan, and the anthology Velikie russkie puteshestvenniki i ikh puteshestviya [Great Russian Travelers and Their Voyages]. There were also a surprising number of Boris Yeltsin biographies (presented by the Yeltsin Foundation), and the latest biography of President Vladimir Putin by Roy Medvedev. The latter was a part of the new series Zhizn zamechatel’nykh lyudej: biografia prodozhaetsya [The Lives of Extraordinary People: The Biography Continues], which, unlike the original Lives of Extraordinary People, apparently includes people who are still living.

On June 4th, Read Russia 2012 presented the art exhibit The Experimental Art of Russian Children’s Books which featured a unique collection of works by Ivan Bilibin, Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, Aleksandr Deyneka, Nathan Altman and others. Additional events included a presentation of a digital archive of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's work; an exhibition of photographer Anton Langue’s series Russia Through A Train Window; and Read Russia Roof, a series of readings, performances, and discussions with Russian authors held on the roof of the Dream Hotel.

As Peter Kaufman, Executive Director of ReadRussia 2012 told Publisher’s Weekly in their special report on Russian publishing, the program may have been the largest of its kind since the 1920s. “I find this program a great opportunity to reestablish this connection [between Russia and America] and to promote Russian literature and book culture to the U.S.,” Kaufman said. Despite the forecasted decline in reading (which is projected to decrease 5-7% in 2012 alone), Kaufman hopes that the Internet and other new technologies will nonetheless lead to the growth of the market for Russian translation.


As part of the ReadRussia reading series, art historian Solomon Volkov (left) and historian Edward Radzinsky (right) presented their new work


While ReadRussia 2012 organizers and participants exuded optimism, the large scale of the program raised questions about the program's ulterior motives. Clearly, this pompous showcase of the Russian book market and its writers’ potential is  part of the Kremlin’s strategy for improving Russia’s image abroad. One of the indicators of this was the fact that ReadRussia’s media partners included Russia Beyond the Headlines, a Western audience-oriented version of Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the latter being the mouthpiece of the Russian government.

Apparently, official strategy has changed little since Soviet times, and the Kremlin continues to use the propaganda tools of that era to project the image of a successful and flourishing Russia. To this end, millions of rubles were allocated from the state budget while grave domestic problems persisted unresolved and the living conditions for most of the population continued to deteriorate. In this day and age, it is almost impossible to cover such problems up. Thus, the Russian authorities' actions are evidence either of their extreme arrogance or of the overall inefficiency of the state machine. Most likely, it is both one and the other.

Russia under Putin

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