I WALK IN ON a minor crisis at Samokat, a children’s publishing house in Moscow. The commercial director, Gleb Kochnev, is telling the editor-in-chief, Irina Balakhonova, that there is a problem in a book they have just published.
The book is called Say Hi to Me, it is a primer on refugees for elementary school children, and it contains a map of Russia and its neighbors. One of the countries on the map is Georgia, which Russia invaded in 2008, biting off two small regions. The regions have since declared independence, which is recognized only by Russia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and the island microstates of Nauru, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu (though Tuvalu later reneged and Vanuatu seems to have had second thoughts). The map in the book shows the regions as being part of Georgia — the way most of the world sees it. But federal law dictates that any published map must reflect Russia’s official view of the world, which is that these tiny regions are independent. It is not clear what the penalty for violating this provision may be, but it’s clear that it spells trouble.
Kochnev is a large bearded man who towers over the tiny Balakhonova, making it look like he is reading her the riot act. She briefly appears contrite. In fact, though, Balakhonova is the founder of the publishing house and Kochnev’s boss, and she has taken bigger risks than this.
You would think that publishing a book for 6-year-olds wouldn’t entail political risks, even in a country where political risks abound. You would be wrong. Most of the restrictions Russia has placed on speech in the last few years have been framed as intended to protect the innocence and purity of children. A law that went into effect in 2010 is called the law “On Protecting Children from Information Harmful to Their Health and Development.” Publishers and editors generally refer to it simply as the “law for the protection of children from information.”
At first, the law had publishers in a panic. If you believed what it said, Russian children were to be protected from reading in general. Children under the age of 6 could read about violence only if it was not described in detail, the author’s sympathies were clearly with the victim, and good triumphed over evil. There, apparently, went Little Red Riding Hood, Hans Christian Andersen, and the Brothers Grimm. Between the ages of 6 and 12, children were allowed to learn about illness but not death. Violence continued to be off limits. So, obviously, did sex, and indeed any “naturalistic” description of the human body. Little Red Riding Hood, in other words, would still be too much for older kids, to say nothing of adventure novels and just about any contemporary Western books for this age group.
Children between the ages of 12 and 16 were allowed to encounter the mention of violence and drugs as long as they were condemned and not described. Sex could be mentioned but not described, but at least the law did not require it to be condemned. Little Red Riding Hood, with its graphic references would still be too much. Children between the ages of 16 and 18 were allowed to learn a little more about violence, sex, and drugs, as long as none of these were described in detail or encouraged. In other words, Russian citizens under the age of 18 were to be protected from the details of sex and drugs and any information at all about serious illness and violent death, including suicide. A 2013 amendment famously forbade any and all information about “nontraditional sexual relations.”
The good news was, no one rushed to ban Little Red Riding Hood or to rebuild every library and bookstore in the land to put a distance of over 100 yards between the adult and children’s book sections, as the new law required. This law, like any other absurdly restrictive law, could not and would not be enforced as written. The bad news was, it would be enforced in other ways, selective and unpredictable. Impossible and implausible laws serve as signals rather than rules, especially in a society like Russia, which has been conditioned to be supremely sensitive to signals from up top. Soviet-era laws banned so many things — for example, the resale of goods, making too much money, not making any money, spending the night away from one’s official residence — that most people were in breach of the law most of the time. To know how to act, or to create the illusion of knowing, citizens looked for subtle, between-the-lines messages from the top.
As soon as the law was passed, self-styled enforcers swung into action. In Yekaterinburg, a group of parents formed a committee to demand that a number of books be removed from stores and their publishers and authors prosecuted. The books included Israeli author David Grossman’s young adult novel Someone to Run With, in which one of the characters is a teenage heroin addict; American authors Lynda and Area Madaras’ What’s Happening to My Body books, marketed in the U.S. for grades four through nine; and three other books about puberty. The prosecutor’s office acted on the parents’ complaint, but a court eventually threw out the case. By this time, though, the books had been removed from bookstores and, in the case of one of the three publishers affected, pulped.
In the small town of Ulyanovsk (which bears Lenin’s original surname), a probe was launched into a book on families around the world and throughout history, which contained only a brief section on homosexuality. Most recently, the consumer authority and the prosecutor’s office have separately moved to ban a book called Fifty Days Until I Kill Myself, which, with 5 million e-book downloads and over 100,000 paper copies sold, happens to be one of the most popular books in Russia. Written by a teenager for teenagers, the book was an online self-publishing sensation before a major house picked it up late last year. The publishing house, AST, has publicly argued that the book conforms to the law perfectly: It is marketed to teenagers over the age of 16, and it condemns suicide unequivocally (at its end, the protagonist, a teenage girl, renounces her risky lifestyle along with the accompanying dark thoughts).
THE LAW’S MESSAGE is simple: Books are dangerous to kids and publishers need to be put in their place. This message has empowered parents, would-be politicians, and more than anyone else, says an editor at a publishing house (who asked not to be identified), it has empowered bureaucrats. The enforcers of obscure rules, many of them left over from Soviet times, started flexing their muscles. The rules, for example, state that books for young children can be set only in san serif fonts, books for elementary school children must be set in large type, and boldface, italics and condensed fonts are banned for children of all ages. Each book must be issued a certificate by the Institute of Health and Hygiene, where a small army of unsmiling women examine the typefaces, kerning, and leading. Publishers conform, often doing ridiculous things like using large type for translations of Judy Blume, whose books are geared to tweens. Worse, publishers have to endure arguments with the newly empowered bureaucrats. “She fancies herself an expert,” the editor complained about one bureaucrat. “And so she says to me, ‘Are you going to come in here and tell me this is a book for a 6-year-old?’” As a matter of fact, this editor would like to tell the bureaucrat that and a lot more — like that the editor is a recognized expert in her field, that the book in question has been read by and to 6-year-olds all over the world, but she can’t, for here she is a supplicant.
Sometimes the task appears impossible, because charts, illustrations that come with translated books and other graphic elements refuse to conform. There is a way out: A commercial agency will issue the certificate, but it will cost the publisher four times as much and will be valid for only one year (whereupon, if the publisher wants to continue selling the title, the certificate needs to be renewed). In addition, the commercial certificate, while it is accepted by printers and bookstores, is of questionable legality: The law is very specific on the process of “certification by an accredited certification organ” but says nothing about the accreditation procedure itself. This places the publishers where the government wants them: outside the law.
Publishers choose different strategies, or mixtures of strategies. Some try to focus on popular science books for children in the hope of avoiding controversy (this strategy is hardly foolproof, with death and violence often making appearances in science). Some opt for feel-good books that are safe. Some test the limits of the regulations — and Balakhonova does this brilliantly. She has launched a series of books that are sold in adult book departments, shrink-wrapped, with plain black-and-white covers marked “Books not for children.” Once the plastic is removed, one can see that the cover is perforated. Peel off the cover at the perforations — and it will reveal another cover underneath, in full color, of a book clearly geared to teenagers, and it will leave in your hand a bookmark-shaped piece of cover stock that says, “Book for children.” The strategy works by drafting parents as co-conspirators in buying the camouflaged books for their children, although this also limits the audience for the series.
But when Balakhonova and her staff were putting together the map for the refugee book, they were not trying to flaunt any regulations. They had racked their brains on how to draw recently annexed Crimea — the law would demand that it be shown as part of Russia, but the editors’ own sense of right and wrong told them the region belonged to Ukraine. In the end, they decided to shade it, to indicate subtly that it was neither here nor there. They were so busy thinking about Crimea, they forgot all about the potential trouble with Georgia. The book went on sale in December, and so far there have been no repercussions.