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Russian Purge: Putin Doesn’t Need to Censor Books. Publishers Do It for Him.

18 February 2016

From The Intercept:

“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?

. . . .

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.

. . . .

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.”

Link to the rest at The Intercept and thanks to Sean for the tip.


3 Comments to “Russian Purge: Putin Doesn’t Need to Censor Books. Publishers Do It for Him.”

  1. Still a totalitarian state. With an iron-fisted dictator at the helm.

    We don’t realize how lucky we are – this young editor is self-censoring – and playing with fire.

    Here we worry about discoverability and finding our ‘tribe’ and satisfying consumers.

    Our politicians have learned to grin and bear it. They haven’t yet learned to behave themselves.

  2. “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”

    Or are they simply more careful of what they’re willing to be caught reading? And of course their choices are somewhat limited by what publishers are willing to risk publishing …

    Then again, Danishevsky only knows what ‘publishing’ knows is read, not what they find and read on the internet, so he might be ‘acting’ as well informed as the US publishers act …

  3. In Russia, books censor you!

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