REALLY,” SAYS ILYA DANISHEVSKY. “I do anything I want.”
Really, he insists. Danishevsky has an I’m-on-top-of-the-world demeanor that is rapidly going out of style in Moscow. He wears a hipster beard and a most daring combination of stripes in his shirts and jackets, and he schedules his meetings at an ostentatiously overpriced central Moscow cafe frequented by celebrities of the vaguely oppositional ilk. At 25, he may be forgiven for being a little slow to realize that the era of fabulous flaunting is ending: The oil boom in Vladimir Putin’s Russia is the only life he has known. This makes him all the more remarkable — at his age, he is editor of his own imprint at one of the country’s publishing conglomerates, and he takes more literary and political risks than all of his mainstream colleagues combined. He says that this is because no one tells him what to do.
“Not even the lawyers?” I ask.
“I consult with the lawyers, but they’ve never said ‘no’ to me on a project,” he replies.
These are not the answers I expected, both because I think I know a bit about the workings of Russian book publishing and because I have a personal stake in the matter. I am a Russian journalist who writes books in English. Only one of my books, about a mathematician, has been translated into Russian. The rest, it seems, have struck publishers as politically risky. Several publishers have inquired about buying the rights to a biography of Putin that has done very well in another 20 or so languages, but each time, negotiations have ended with a vague, “Well, you must understand,” often followed by an even vaguer “Maybe some day.” About a year ago, Danishevsky bought the rights to some of my old books — but not the biography of Putin. Now he is sitting there sipping his cappuccino, telling me that he does whatever he wants.
“So, could you publish my Putin book?”
“No,” he says simply. “That’s not possible.”
“Have you asked the lawyers about it?”
He is very patient with me.
“That’s just not possible. But some day.”
There we have it. Publishing in Russia is the art of the possible. That is not the same thing as censorship. Or is it?
The Soviet Union had censorship. Every publishing house and media outlet had its own censor, accountable to the censorship authority, who read every manuscript before it could be published. The censor worked with a complex but intelligible set of criteria. Some writers, both Soviet and foreign, were off-limits because they had been critical of the Soviet Union. Some topics were off-limits — one might argue that most topics, from state secrets, which included most of the country’s history, to sex, which included so much as the mention of genitalia, were off-limits. Literary styles were scrutinized, and whatever was not “socialist realism” was usually off-limits.
In other words, publishing in the Soviet Union was the art of the impossible. Some editors sometimes tried to get some things past the censors, but trying too hard or too often would have cost them their jobs. On rare occasions the relationship between the censor and the censored was adversarial, more often it was cooperative, but most often of all it was virtually nonexistent, which is the way both sides wanted it.
Prior censorship was outlawed in Russia when Danishevsky was a toddler. In the last 15 years, though, Russia has introduced a slew of laws and practices that have restricted publishing in ways that are much less clear than the old Soviet system. Danishevsky swims in murky waters. Like all editors, he engages in constant negotiation. It quickly emerges that all sorts of people are constantly telling him what to do, and he has resisted their instructions often enough that his initial claim of being able to do anything he wants was not exactly a fiction — it was a description of his position relative to most other editors. “I can’t tell you anything horrible,” he warns. “It’s all just disgusting.”
THE FEAR OF THE CENSOR has been replaced, to a great extent, by the fear of losing money. If a publishing house puts out a book that stores will not sell, it will face losses. Like when Danishevsky was readying an edition of the Russian emigre classic Romance with Cocaine, from the 1930s, and could secure no pre-orders. None. Booksellers were worried about the ban on the propaganda of drug use, which has been used to confiscate even harm-reduction booklets put out by AIDS organizations. In the end, Danishevsky published Romance as an e-book only. Online and e-book publishing is subject to most of the same laws as print, but it cuts out the fearful middleman that is the bookstore and the enforcer that is the casual passerby.
Other controversial classics have fared better. Danishevsky published the first full translation of Jean Genet’s Notre Dame de Fleurs, which had been abridged beyond recognition in the only existing Russian edition. The book was so famous that bookstore buyers — “they are all educated people,” Danishevsky points out — ordered it in spite of the gay content. It sold only about 1,500 copies, perhaps because it could not be prominently displayed for fear of violating the ban on “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors.” It could also be that the audience for a new Genet translation into Russian is that small.
This is where things get complicated. The Russian reading public’s tastes have distinctly narrowed in the last few years: All the publishers I interviewed for this series mention that readers increasingly reject serious topics, be they politics or, say, cancer, in favor of escapist entertainment (so Danishevsky has named his most serious series Anhedonia). Then again, the Russian public’s tastes have been heavily influenced by the onslaught of official propaganda of which the censorship laws are but a small part. The ban on “homosexual propaganda,” for example, was a minor component of a major anti-gay campaign. As it turns out, bookstores fear their customers more than the law — or, they fear their customers before they fear the law. One customer, for example, walked into one of the city’s largest bookstores last year and saw a book with a swastika on the cover. He protested the perceived scandal of displaying a book like that on the eve of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. The book was Art Spiegelman’s Maus, and in the ensuing hue and cry it was removed from display or taken off sale altogether in most Moscow bookstores.
Around the same time, the communications authority, Roskomnadzor, which enforces laws that concern media and publishing, issued a clarification, stating explicitly that Nazi symbols displayed for purposes other than propaganda do not constitute “extremism.” This did not matter: With but a couple of exceptions, the bookstores wanted just to stay out of Maus trouble. Also, bookstore managers know that the definition and limits of “extremism” are ever shifting.
Last year, Danishevsky published a collection of articles by a young reporter named Elena Kostyuchenko. One of the pieces was called “Putin Has Pissed Himself,” the name of a song by Pussy Riot, whose trial the article documented. The lawyers flagged the piece, and the title in particular: Their practice had taught them that a critical mention of the Russian president was generally classified as “extremism.” The charge can turn into a criminal trial for the editor or publisher, but more than anything else, it can cause a book to be banned — in which case the press run can only be pulped, and money will be lost. When Danishevsky showed my own book on Pussy Riot to his publishing house’s lawyers (who have declined to speak to me), they discovered that Putin is mentioned on Page 3, by a 4-year-old: The daughter of one of the group members says Putin sent her mom to prison. That would be extremism too. Danishevsky decided to hold off on publishing my book, but in the case of Kostyuchenko’s collection, he and the author opted to cut the Pussy Riot article, running blank pages instead. They stamped each with the words “political censorship.”
BY THE STRICTEST definition, it was not censorship: It was a commercial decision by the publishing house itself. But Danishevsky proposes a new definition: “Censorship is the monopolization of cultural space.”
A more accurate word may be homogenization. Book publishing is dominated by two large publishing houses and a handful of bookstore chains, which are private but take pains not to run afoul of the state. Smaller publishers take bigger risks, but the big booksellers reject their wares, marginalizing them further. Last year Danishevsky wanted to publish a small book co-written by the iconic Polish former dissident Adam Michnik and the Russian activist and Kremlin arch-foe Alexei Navalny. But the lawyers told him it wasn’t a good idea because the stores would be afraid to sell it. Before Danishevsky could press his case, a tiny publisher called Novoe Izdatel’stvo picked it up and put it out. But Danishevsky’s lawyers were right: The stores refused to carry it.
In Moscow, a city of 12 million people, there is only one bookstore where you can buy the Navalny-Michnik book.
The store is called Phalanstere, the name for an imaginary communal dwelling in the socialist utopias of 19th-century writer Charles Fourier. You can find anything in Phalanstere, except you can’t find anything in Phalanstere because there are so many books there and so little room. Also, you can’t find Phalanstere itself unless you know exactly where it is: in the unremarkable courtyard of an unmarked building on a small side street, up a flight of stairs, behind a closed door. It’s a couple of small city blocks from the posh cafe where Danishevsky holds his meetings, but it feels like a tiny place that time forgot, because it is a rare uncommercialized block of Moscow. The director of Phalanstere, a large bearded 43-year-old named Boris Kupriyanov, would probably hold all his meetings outside in the back alley, smoking, except I protested that it was too cold to take notes.
Kupriyanov co-founded the bookstore with a half-dozen other people in 2002. It is run as a collective, but the law requires one person to be the nominal boss, and Kupriyanov is it. He points out that the story of the Navalny book gives the lie to publishers’ and other bookstores’ ostensible profit motives: Navalny is hands down the best-known and most popular opposition figure in Russia, “so if they were interested in money, they would be selling the book.” Instead, Phalanstere is selling it, briskly.
But trouble can take all sorts of shapes. For example, Moscow bookstores generally reject a new, lavishly published multi-volume edition of the collected writings of Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader. The reason: someone has been vandalizing the very expensive books wherever they have been displayed. Or take printing plants that reject orders of books that may appear risky, from The Anarchist Cookbook (which elicits this reaction all over the world) to an academic queer-studies book I was asked not to name for fear of getting its publisher into trouble. Running a printing plant requires a special license, which can be revoked by the authorities, and this keeps the fear alive. It’s insidious, says Kupriyanov, because “it’s hard to tell censorship apart from personal preference. We, for example, reject books that are stupid, bad, and right-wing. But that’s not censorship, it’s personal preference. But if someone rejects a book out of fear of getting into trouble, then that’s not personal preference, that’s censorship-readiness.”
The strange setup, in which the objects of potential censorship are running ahead of actual censors, has turned unlikely citizens into enforcers. These are library patrons who demand that certain books be banned, policemen who regularly visit Phalanstere to take books “for inspection,” the anonymous people who called the police to report certain books in the first place, and, of course, those who self-censor. For instance, the police came to Phalanstere a couple of months ago and removed a book on the Koran and an academic book on the period of the Khrushchev thaw, probably because its cover featured a classic Russian and Soviet protest slogan: “For your freedom and ours.” The police never return the books, Kupriyanov says, even though Phalanstere, unlike some booksellers and librarians, has not yet been dragged into court.
In 2005, someone set fire to Phalanstere, badly damaging the space and destroying the bulk of its books. During an unrelated trial a few months ago, one of the defendants, a member of a far-right nationalist group, testified that he had taken part in the arson along with a member of the Kremlin-affiliated youth movement Young Russia. This confirmed what Kupriyanov had suspected all along.
If a government-supported youth group sets fire to your bookstore, is that censorship? Kupriyanov screws up his face. It’s the same expression Danishevsky had when he told me that things weren’t horrible so much as they were “just disgusting.”