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Books in Russia: Readers Versus Twitts
Elena Rubinova

The Soviet past left us many myths that are hard to believe today. But one of those myths might have been close to reality: Soviets read the most out of all people on the planet. Statistics have confirmed this: research carried out just before the dissolution of the Soviet empire indicated that there were 40- 50 million active readers (at that time about 25% of the adult population) and 161 million occasional readers (72.5%). Less than 20 years ago reading was named as the first priority by the majority. The book used to be a precious object, to own a rare book meant much then, that is why almost every family tried to create a home library and classic literature prevailed on shelves. For generations, Soviet people were taught to extract moral guidance from literature, classical authors were considered not only great literary authorities but also ‘spiritual leaders’. Literature was endowed with a high symbolic status.

New times

In Russia, as everywhere else, reading patterns have changed substantially and will continue to do so. Surveys, reports, and newspaper articles carry alarming claims that Russians do not read anymore. Educators, publishers and even politicians are quaking in their boots: Russia, so renowned for its literature is no longer the reader-leader. Russians have replaced bookshelves with nooks for the internet. Post-socialist transformations have destabilized the status of social groups and cultural practices. According to the latest survey performed in 2008 by Levada Analytical Centre, 46% of Russians do not read books, 54% reveal they do not even read magazines.

Boris Dubin, one of the leading Russian sociologists and the Head of Social and Political research at Levada Centre, outlined the background of the situation in an interview: ‘I would say today’s situation is the bottom line: about 60% of Russians do not buy books on a regular basis and do not borrow them, 70% of households do not have more than a few books. Over the decades, the infrastructure of reading has changed completely: in the 1970s two thirds of books came from libraries, today 81% of Russians do not use libraries at all”.

The issue about Russia parting with its book culture became so pressing that in 2006 a long-term National Program for Promotion and Development of Reading was developed by the Federal Agency of Press and Mass Communications and the Russian Book Union. Furthermore, the year 2007 was announced ‘The Year of Reading’ in Russia.

This became the first all-Russian incentive of this scale in the post-Soviet era and instigated a lot of cultural initiatives. NGOs such as the Pushkin Library Foundation have taken the initiative, and since 2002 has supplied approximately 20 million books to regional library funds from Kaliningrad to the Far East, thus bridging the gap between the center and the provinces and re-establishing cultural links that were lost in the transition period.

Digital future versus paper

But this doesn’t mean that Russians will automatically start reading again. Although practices and formats of reading are changing dramatically, the quest for information via the written word is thriving. It’s just that people no longer want to read paper and ink. Teenagers and young adults spend hours on the internet writing and reading. Valeria Stelmakh, a prominent expert on sociology of reading, outlined in her book Building Nations of Readers that “Everywhere reading moved from the sphere of high culture to everyday environment, it’s a global phenomenon.”

Traditional reading is on the wane, but people are more engaged in communication with words than ever before with the help of the internet, CD-ROM capabilities, searchable databases, interactive resources, multimedia books and chat rooms. Russia is still in the early days of e-books, but elsewhere, the future for publishing and information is digital. Cross-media partnerships and advanced technologies had a vivid presence at last year’s annual Non-Fiction book fair in Moscow. One of the new projects offered, Print on Demand, is expected to revolutionize traditional publishing, and has been booming during the crisis, as publishers only print the number of books ordered, thereby reducing print costs.

Reading Russians: Who are They?

Sociologist Boris Dubin drew a portrait of Russian readers as four figures with a figure of a reading lady in the center. Besides the lady who represents women of active age, the symbolic portrait includes a young professional from a large city with high income level, students and college graduates and, finally, elderly people.

Women love to read novels and everything associated with glamour, fashion and lifestyle. Young professionals consume literature that is trendy and in high demand, they tend to create a trend that then is followed by the majority of their group. Students and university graduates read a lot of professional literature, text-books, everything related to their profession. The ‘aging’ audience is usually composed of people who have always been surrounded by stacks of books, but now read what they can afford to buy or to borrow. While statistics differ, reading preferences of Russians are well-known and in this issue most studies and polls coincide.

Working people are willing to while away the time in a bus or a train with books, but not complicated novels or poems. The lion’s share of fiction read in Russia today is comprised of detective stories, romance novels, adventure novels as well as genre fiction. 17% of Russians are crime-story aficionados, 11% read historical literature of various genres, 13% choose romantic novels (opinion poll conveyed by Levada Centre in August 2009).

Nevertheless, Russia does not follow all world trends: nonfiction, which has been falling off in popularity since the mid- 1990s worldwide, is growing in popularity in Russia. Anatoly Sekerin, the head of Lomonosov Publishing, is fully convinced that nonfiction has a huge potential in Russia. “When we set up our publishing house, we saw that the Russian market had an obvious niche that had to be filled - books for educated but not enlightened people. This is the category we are targeting, and they are the main audience of non-fiction literature in this country,” he said.

Indeed, demand for books on modern psychology, geography, ethnography, history and literature for parents and teachers is growing steadily.

What’s next?

By 2009, turnover on the Russian book market amounted to $2.5-$3 billion. Approximately 110,000 titles are published each year by 100 different publishers, more than 80 percent of which are written by Russian authors.

Despite the economic crisis, publishers and book retailers remain optimistic because the book market has not been as greatly affected by the economic decline as many other market segments. On the contrary, many people who have lost their jobs have turned to reading as a more affordable pastime.

The Levada Centre poll revealed that more than 40 percent of respondents claimed that they would continue to buy books. Any future generation will be just as hungry for knowledge as those who went before. In the contemporary culture of networking, where every rumor is blogged and ‘twitted,’ people won’t stop reading or writing. Furthermore, there are high hopes that with the spread of new technology and media, young Russians will use new resources to keep up their language and culture as fundamental heritage. And maybe then they would become a nation of readers again.

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