In 2020 the London Book Fair was cancelled by the organisers, Reed Exhibitions, due to the escalation of COVID-19 Coronavirus in Europe. Darya Protopopova gives an overview of the Russian presence at LBF from 2009 and suggests what Russian stands could have looked like this year. Inga Kuznetsova, whose poetic image features in the title of this article [1]Alexandra Litvina, Valentina Nazarova, Oleg Shishkin, Lev Danilkin, Oleg Radzinsky, Guzel Yakhina, Alexey Salnikov, Dmitry Bykov, Aleksei Varlamov, among others, were listed as participants. The London Book Fair will be back next year, and the dates are already announced: 9-11 March 2021.

 

In 2009, while finishing my doctorate at Oxford, I volunteered at the Academia Rossica stand at the London Book Fair (LBF). It was the only Russian stand in those days, and a grand affair: Yury Fedotov, then the Russian Ambassador to the UK, gave a speech; the founder of Academia Rossica Svetlana Adzhubei, with the support of Boris Yeltsin Fund, ensured the wide press coverage; authors with considerable media presence were involved, among them Olga Slavnikova, Vladimir Makanin, Dmitry Bykov, Alexander Arkhangelsky, Mikhail Shishkin, and Alexander Terekhov. The government involvement in the Russian presence at LBF peaked in 2011, when Russia was celebrated as the Guest of Honour at the fair, the Russian stand was opened by Sergey Naryshkin, then Chief of Russia’s Presidential Administration, and the Russia Pavilion featured over 60 publishers.

As years passed by, the Russian presence at LBF became more understated, probably for the best, as writers breathe more freely – and present their works less nervously – when there is no added pressure of defending cultural prestige of their motherland. Fast-forward eight years to LBF 2017. That year Read Russia (the project launched by Rossica in 2012, with the support of the Russian Federal Agency for Press and Mass Communications) presented perhaps the most diverse and non-conformist range of authors to date. The official element was still provided, on that occasion by Mikhail Seslavinsky, Head of the Federal Agency for Press and Mass Communications. In 2017 Mr Seslavinsky participated more as an author, than a public official: he presented the film Chastnoe Pionerskoye (My Own Honour Bright, dir. Alexander Karpilovsky, 2012), based on his (Seslavinsky’s) collection of short stories describing the Soviet childhood in the 1970s.

Poster for the film “Chastnoe Pionerskoe”

A stark contrast to the nostalgic stories of the communist adolescence was Read Russia’s most controversial title in 2017, The Devils’ Dance (completed in 2012, published in Uzbekistan in 2016), by the Uzbek author and former writer in residence for BBC World Service Hamid Ismailov. Under threat of arrest on ideological grounds, Ismailov left Uzbekistan for Britain in 1994. The synopsis of The Devil’s Dance begins, in parallel with Ismailov’s own life, with a story of persecution: “On New Year’s Eve 1938, the writer Abdulla Qodiriy is taken from his home by the Soviet secret police and thrown into a Tashkent prison. There, to distract himself from the physical and psychological torment of beatings and mindless interrogations, he attempts to mentally reconstruct the novel he was writing at the time of his arrest based on the tragic life of the Uzbek poet-queen Oyhon.” Devil’s Dance won the EBRD Literature Prize in 2019. Ismailov’s latest book, Gaia, Queen of Ants (2019) is also a story of “political corruption and ethnic conflict” – this time, however, set in England, making it “a tale of universal themes”.

Hamid Usmailov, “The Devil’s Dance”, book cover

The most surprising figure on Read Russia stand in 2017 was Valery Bochkov. A Russian writer based in Washington, USA, Bochkov started as a graphic designer; his first stories were published in 2012. Besides several nominations for Russian shortlists (National bestseller, Big Book, Booker, NOS) he was awarded the Russian Prize 2013, the award for writers living outside of Russia and writing in Russian. His participation in the official Read Russia programme was baffling, considering that his 2016 novel The Coronation of the Beast (part of the trilogy, together with Charon and My Brother Cain, 2016-2017) contains barely concealed, punchy criticisms of the current Russian regime. Maybe the explanation lies in the type of the dystopian world that Bochkov creates: it is so phantasmagorical that the main character’s expostulations upon the real Russian problems get lost in the whirlwind of Bochkov’s imagination. Behold, for instance, the annotation given to Bochkov’s trilogy by a respected Russian website specialising in sci-fi literature Fantlab.ru: “In the ruins of Russia reign, in some parts, the Islamists, in others the newly proclaimed ‘emperor’ […]. The rest of the world ignores them, thinking that the new rulers are too weak to pose a serious threat. However, do not underestimate the usurper’s desire for power: he is prepared to destroy the world – even if it costs him his own life. Can modern Judith, granddaughter of the Soviet general Katerina Kashirskaya, save if not the world, but the best that humanity has achieved?”. I will not spoil the ending by revealing an answer to this question.

As the London Book Fair 2020 was cancelled by the organisers, Reed Exhibitions, due to the escalation of COVID-19 Coronavirus in Europe, we will never know now what Read Russia’s stand would have looked like in 2020, but a brief glance at the list of their envisaged participants suggests a gender-balanced mix of poets and prose writers. Inga Kuznetsova is an example of how modern Russian poets are continuing the acmeist tradition of palpable imagery, combined with the emphasis on intimate, everyday life:

Teach me to swim, embracing the elastic water.

A freedom that reminds me of a rowboat’s oar

rendered into a wooden bell’s clapper,

dried up and bitter as black chokecherries,

as the crack of fallen limbs, an evening stroll’s melancholy.[2]

When it comes to poetic representations of a modern Russian woman, I personally prefer a less highbrow Sola Monova (pseudonym of Yulia Solomonova), who is often compared to the famous figure of the Russian Silver Age Igor Severyanin. Her rhyming verses, however, are deemed too uplifting to fit into the label of “soulful Russian poetry” and attract translators’ interest. Perhaps this situation will change, as the West bids farewell to the stereotypical view of Russian literature as pathologically serious, political, and male-dominated.

If anything, Read Russia’s list of authors in 2020 is dominated by talented female writers. The Apartment: A Century of Russian History (2019), a joint creation by Alexandra Litvina (author), Anna Desnitskaya (illustrator), and Antonina W. Bouis (translator), is promising to be a best-selling gem not only in its category (technically, children’s literature), but among lovers of Russian history in general. Who wouldn’t want to go on a quest for Ilya Stepanovich’s doctor’s bag, when Stalin and Trotsky are lurking in the neighbouring pages? I am in!

Another participant, Julia Goumen, co-founded a successful literary agency (Banke, Goumen & Smirnova) and is currently coordinating The Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia project (published by Fuel Publishing, UK).

Valentina Nazarova is an author of two novels, one of which, The Hidden Track (Russian title: A Girl with a Walkman) now has a 6-part web-series version directed by Brian Lye (2019). “A young woman from Russia travels to London to investigate the disappearance of her older sister, who vanished years ago” – the IMDb annotation will undoubtedly attract a large number of fans among Russian students and expats living in Britain’s capital.

Valentina Nazarova, “The Hidden Track”, book cover

It is fitting to conclude this list of the Russian literary establishment prepared by Read Russia for LBF 2020 with a name that is already famous outside Russia and yet seems to be refreshingly unique every time you mention it. I am, of course, talking about Guzel Yakhina, author of the best-selling novel Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes (2015; translated into English by Lisa C. Hayden as Zuleikha, London, OneWorld, 2019). The Millions, an online magazine offering coverage on books, arts, and culture, defined Zuleikha as one of the most anticipated books of 2019. The Millions’ staff writer, Iľja Rákoš, wrote in one of the best annotations for Yakhina’s book: “It is 1930 in the Soviet Union and Josef Stalin’s de-kulakization program has found its pace. Among the victims is a young Tatar family: the husband murdered, the wife exiled to Siberia. This is her story of survival […]”. Yakhina’s second novel, yet to be translated into English, is even more powerful than the first one, and appears to be more stylistically complex and avant-garde. While Zuleikha is written in short, dynamic sentences reminiscent of a film script, My Children (2019), which deals with the persecution of German settlers on the Volga river in the 1920-1930s, has elements of magic realism and language experimentation, making it a truly artistic feat.

If Yakhina has been hailed, together with another celebrated Russian novelist, Lyudmila Ulitskaya, author of The Kukotsky Enigma (2001, translated into English in 2016), as the voice of “the insulted and humiliated” (to use Dostoevsky’s title) in Russian letters, what about authors whose subjects are not sufficiently controversial or politically provocative to send immediate ripples across the literary scene? Authors who, for whatever reason, did not find a literary agent or a publishing house, not for the lack of talent or trying, but due to the sheer competiveness in modern book publishing? In the past, those authors would have to drown their sorrows in the form of a drink most fitting for their genres. Since 2014, they no longer have an excuse to remain unpublished, since there is Rideró, another Russian participant that was scheduled to take part in LBF 2020. Rideró was the first self-publishing service to appear on the Russian market. To date, the service brings together more than 370,000 authors and micro-publishers. Since 2016, independent authors using the Rideró service publish annually more new titles than any other publishing house in Russia (more than 25,000 titles in 2019). More than 35% of the total volume of books published by independent authors on Rideró now is non-fiction.

Anna Visloukh, “A Thunderous Silence”, book cover

Rideró was launched seven years after their main competitor in the West, Kindle Direct Publishing, Amazon.com’s e-book publishing unit launched in 2007. While both platforms seem equally easy to use, Rideró gives their authors a sense of individual identity, unaffiliated with a tech giant like Amazon. Their interface is extremely easy to use: in minutes, it allows you to turn your text file into a professionally typeset e-book and paper edition. After that, your new book (still gratis) can become immediately available on Russian and international platforms (Amazon, Google Play, Bookmate, Ozon, LitRes and over 30 others). However, if the author takes their work seriously, they are strongly advised to invest at least in a proof-reader and, in the current visually-driven world, cover designer, to ensure their edition is eye-catching and free from errors.

Some titles published by Rideró are so important and topical, however, that they become quick and natural best-sellers. In 2015, A Thunderous Silence (Gromkaya tishina) by Anna Wisloukh became the first published success story of a person with autism in Russia, and in 2018 Knock, It’s Open (Stuchites, otkryto) by Ana Melia, gave a personal account of the fight against cancer. Slushai. Govori (Listen. Speak) by Zhenia Snezhkina is a documentary story of a woman who had been a victim of domestic and sexual abuse for many years, and Stranitsa naidena (Page Found) by Lena Klimova is a book supporting LGBT teenagers and their loved ones: both books touch upon subjects particularly sensitive in Russia.

Lena Klimova, “Page Found”, book cover

Some of my fellow Russians still remember how Soviet typographies and printing factories always specified printing run numbers at the back of a book: 75,000 copies for a two-volume edition of Chekhov in 1960, 150,000 copies for Maxim Gorky in 1970, 200,000 copies for a self-help book by Vladimir Levi in 1980, to mention a few random titles. In 2020 the most easily accessible format for the reader (and the writer) is one copy, in print-on-demand. One copy in a free competitive world against a guarantee of thousands of copies under the Big Brother’s gaze? It is a dilemma.

[1] Quoted from: Inga Kuznetsova, in translation by Christopher Mattison, in Contemporary Russian Poetry: An Anthology, Ed. E.Bunimovich, J.Kates, Dalkey Archive Press, 2008, p.413.

[2] Kuznetsova, p.407.