NOVEMBER'S BOOK OF THE MONTH
I Am A Chechen! by German Sadulaev
'"It’s hard to be a Chechen," the author says. But this unique story of legend, memoir and fiction is easy to read ... [Sadulaev] grew up in a village in Chechnya ... He is haunted by the people he loved and left behind, and driven to tell their stories. Tragedy is everywhere here, but the most powerful element is the sheer beauty of the land and the singularity of its people. Excellent.'
Kate Saunders in The Times
ARMCHAIR TRAVELLER: RUSSIA
German Sadulaev, whose book I Am A Chechen! is just out from Harvill Secker, talked to us about publishing in today's Russia
The time of Communist censorship is long gone. These days, the publishing industry in Russia has complete freedom. Everyone can print whatever they wish. Including complete rubbish. Connoisseurs of true literature who are swamped by a flood of printed vulgarity and mediocrity propose to introduce a new censorship – the censorship of taste. But it is unlikely that this can save minds from corruption in the era of global networks, when any text, whether it is published on paper or not, may instantly become available to the public.
There is complete freedom, but real books are becoming fewer and fewer. If you go into a book shop, you feel as if you are in an ordinary supermarket: there are stacks of bright blocks with garish covers, on the shelves everything is arranged according to the laws of merchandising, and by the cash register there is a pile of books designed for 'impulse buying'. You pick up one of these items, open it, and after you try to read half a page, you realize that this is anything but a book. Sometimes it is a piece of film merchandising, sometimes an accessory for a celebrity fan club, and sometimes it is even made to look like a novel, but when you bite into it, you realize that it is not a novel. These are substitutes for books.
The censorship of the market has proved to be stricter than the censorship of the Communist party. Under the Communists, forbidden texts were printed secretly, copied and read at home behind closed doors. With the market, almost no one prints or reads non-commercial books, even if this can be done through the Internet, safely and for free. The market does not forbid anything. The market simply works in such a way that people themselves stop wanting things that are not sold at the nearest supermarket.
In many countries with a market economy, the dictatorship of the cash register is not so noticeable in the book publishing industry, as there are parallel structures that function – universities, foundations, grants and so on. Naturally, bestsellers are printed with great enthusiasm, but non-commercial literature is also published. In Russia, this is all poorly developed at present. And the cash register remains the main censor and editor, replacing the Communist party in this position. While it was sometimes possible to reach an agreement with a living communist, even with Stalin – Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don and even Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita were published, after all – the cash register is a soulless piece of metal, which listens to no one and understands nothing. If Sholokhov had not written under the Communists, but in our times, then no one would ever have heard of And Quiet Flows the Don.
There is no formal censorship, but is there freedom of speech? Freedom of speech means the freedom to speak so that other people hear you. But complete capitalism is the book publishing industry deprives the author who does not fit into a commercial format of this possibility.
But capitalism is not the only problem. In Russia, there is still the problem of pressure on publishers who publish literature that does not show a loyal attitude to the authorities, and there is persecution of opposition authors. There is no censorship and these books can be published. But the consequences can be sad and even tragic. My book I am a Chechen!, which contained harsh criticism of the Russian authorities for crimes in Chechnya, was published by Ultra.Kultura, which was founded by Ilya Kormiltsev. This was not the first time that Kormiltsev had published a book that contained protest. His publishing house came under attack, and was eventually closed down. Kormiltsev himself moved to London, and died shortly afterwards. The whole world knows of Anna Politkovskaya, who wrote numerous reports about the Chechen wars. Politkovskaya was not afraid to tell the truth in her articles and books. She received threats. She did not give in, and did not submit – and she was killed.
The present situation in the book publishing industry in Russia is very difficult. There seems to be complete freedom. But in fact, the industry is clamped in a vice, between the dictatorship of the market, from one side, and the threat of punishment and revenge from the authorities, from the other.