ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA Now that government censorship has gone the way of Lenin and Stalin, what do Russians read?
The choice of reading material here is enormous. A glance at any newsstand reveals a range of newspapers unimaginable ten years ago, representing all stripes of the political spectrum and covering national, regional and neighborhood events.
New to Russians are the financial and business-oriented newspapers, advertising weeklies, and such specialize publications as "The Secrets of Good Health, " "Women's Happiness" and "Rock Buzz" (for information on the local music scene). The latest issue of "The Monarchist" and other far-right-wing papers are available in front of the Gostiny Dvor department store on Nevsky Prospekt, with heated discussions between buyers and sellers thrown in free of charge Even Izvestia is now worth reading.
Books, too, vary greatly ranging from the classics to Russian emigre and foreign literature to pornography. Solzhenitsyn rubs shoulders with Dale Carnegie and Victor Hugo. Bookstands on the street favor textbooks for learning English, romances and detective stories and translations of all kinds, particularly Agatha Christie, Ray Bradbury and Stephen King. "Gone With the Wind" and its sequel are all the rage. Beautifully illustrated children's books, including Bible stories, appear everywhere, with prohibitive prices.
SOME RUSSIANS find the present freedom of the press a little too free. Many complain about the lack of regulation that allows kiosks to display erotic calendars and book covers in plain view of children. But a recent trial, the first of its kind in St. Petersburg, affirmed the right to free speech.
An irate citizen brought suit against the publisher and distributor of a Russian translation of "Mein Kampf," which he'd purchased in front of Gostiny Dvor and which he considered an impermissable affront when Hitler's forces besieged their town during World War II. Despite all the passion and publicity, the judge ruled in favor of the accused, stating that he had not broken any law because there is no list of banned works.
Another form of censorship, however, is alive and well: economic censorship. The high cost of book publishing, now that the state no longer subsidizes the industry, along with shortages of paper and ink, have led to a decline in the production of works by contemporary Russian writers.
Some publishers require the author to pay as much as 350,000 rubles in advance. Even that is no guarantee of success. The most recent work by Valentin Rasputin (who visited KU in March 1985), a lavishly illustrated book on Siberia, was supposed to have a print run of 100,000 copies. But after 38,000 copies had been printed, the publisher ran out of paper. "Siberia, Siberia" vanished instantly on the black market without ever reaching the bookstores.
CONTEMPORARY Russian literature is also scarce because authors are writing less fiction now than before perestroika. Many of them have become involved in politics. Others are delving into the newly opened archives of history and philosophy and have turned to non-fiction genres. Some edit journals, a more-than-full-time job that often involves raising enough cash to keep their publications afloat.
The decline in demand for Russian poetry and prose combined with the difficulties of publishing and the lack of government support have left many of the heirs of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy wondering, for the first time in years, where their next ruble is coming from.
Now that everything is available in a land with one of the highest literacy rates in the world and a tradition of keen interest in the written word, what do the masses actually read?
Many Russians say they have stopped reading altogether, lacking the time and the proper frame of mind for such a luxury. During the first heady days of perestroika, when newspapers suddenly became interesting, readers devoured them eagerly. Now many Russians, jaded by politics, merely listen to the radio for a few minutes before beginning their daily scramble for survival.
READING ON public transportation has declined; instead passengers often simply doze. But some read, oblivious to the crush, engrossed in everything from Baudelaire to trashy thrillers.
The store steps leading to the second floor of Com Knigi, St. Petersburg's largest bookstore, are dangerously worn, grooved with deep depressions by millions of feet. The place is always packed. Even more popular is the weekend book fair at the Krupskaya House of Culture, a dim, cavernous building filled to bursting with book lovers who finally push their way out into the fresh air clutching bags of treasures, antiquarian and new.
Libraries aren't empty either. The Russian National Library, St. Petersburg's main public library, contains 27 million volumes, dozens of card catalogs (with no computers in sight) and a catacomb of dimly lit reading rooms, usually filled. The building itself is a huge classical structure dating from 1796. Between its massive columns tower statues of great men, with Minerva perched on the roof -- a haven for serious readers.
Less formidable are the many branch libraries scattered around town. Most are small, pleasant places conveniently located on the ground floor of apartment buildings. Our neighborhood alone contains three libraries specifically for children.
LIBRARIANS, TOO, believe that the reading public has dwindled. Young people, in particular, they say, read less than they used to and prefer detective stories, mysteries and science fiction to the Russian classics. Librarians actively help the cause of literature; if a teen-ager asks for a good detective story, he is apt to receive "Crime and Punishment."
Adult visitors to the library often request books on Russian philosophy, history, and art, as well as the most popular subjects nowadays: market economics and accounting. Twentieth Century "classics" such as Akhmatova, Mandelshtam, Tsvetaeva and Pasternak circulate regularly.
Once a week, Alexander Kushner, St. Petersburg's most gifted poet (who has been invited to visit KU this October), meets with fellow poets to read and discuss each other's works. They publish mainly in literary journals that don't appear on newsstands. And most of them hold full-time jobs as geologists, professors or engineers.
So the Russian literary tradition hasn't vanished after all, though, like Russia itself, it is struggling for survival. Let's hope it does survive, for the benefit of readers everywhere.