Books: Muscovy bucks: The free-enterprise Moscow literary scene is in a shambles: Western pulp is devoured while serious writers struggle and pirates raid unchecked. Anne Chisholm reports

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The Independent Culture
BOOKS are everywhere in Moscow. The city is much livelier this summer than it was a year ago: more cars, more scaffolding, more paint, more banging, more shops and kiosks, more commercial energy. Every metro station has its market - pretty girls selling long-stemmed roses, shapeless babushkas selling herbs, mushrooms and jars of wild strawberries - and every market sells books. In the dingy underpasses, trestle tables flogging trainers, tapes and pornographic magazines are also piled with luridly-covered paperback translations of Dick Francis, Jackie Collins and Stephen King - probably pirated. But it is also possible, among the sought-after How To books (eg The Way the British Communicate), to pick up Bulgakov's stories and Akhmatova's poems for the price of three imported Guatemalan bananas, or about pounds 3.

Like the battered buildings, the Moscow literary scene is under reconstruction. Among the noise and rubble, the atmosphere is a mixture of confusion, excitement and greed, with the occasional whiff of idealism. Here are six snapshots taken through the dust, selected from a week's encounters.

IN A suburban apartment, a middle-aged former diplomat's wife has just put together the latest issue of a literary magazine. Natasha Perova, small and round, was living abroad in the Sixties when she discovered Dr Spock. After his opposition to the Vietnam war made him acceptable to the Soviet authorities overnight, her translation of Baby and Child Care sold so well that she bought a flat. Spock still subsidises Glas, the Granta- sized magazine of new Russian writing in English that she and her English collaborator, Arch Tait of Birmingham University, have been producing since 1991.

Russians have always had high expectations of their writers, seeing them as custodians of the Russian soul and the spiritual health of the nation. Under Communism, this pattern of thought was maintained; Stalin and his successors kept writers under strict control, while from the other side the dissidents and the proliferation of samizdat reinforced the social and moral significance of writing. Now that the state is out of the picture, the status of the writer is altogether different.

Natasha Perova loves what she does, but it is a struggle. 'We used to have the problem of censorship,' she says, offering tea and toast with honey, 'now we have the terrible economic situation.' Even though Glas's circulation is small - 5,000 copies are printed and sold mostly to subscribers in England and America - Perova, like every other publisher in Russia, has to battle with paper shortages, distribution problems, unreliable and expensive printers, and a confused tax system.

When restrictions began to lift seven or eight years ago, she explained, there was an explosion of interest in previously banned writings. The next phase, which continues, saw a great craving for entertainment and escapism, preferably Western - the literary equivalent, as she remarks, of a McDonald's hamburger: something you gulp down without thought. Serious writing has suffered in consequence. Well-educated young Russians claim still to read Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, but otherwise choose Western thrillers or romantic novels. What they avoid is anything gloomy.

The standard of writing in Glas is high and the translations read unusually well. Perova's younger contributors are drawn, as are their counterparts in the West, to satire and fantasy, and vivid accounts of squalor, drugs and sex. Educated Russians tend to deplore obscenity, and it is only very recently that sex of all kinds (homosexuality is still illegal in Russia) has been openly written about. Alla Latynina, Moscow's leading literary critic, who chaired the first Russian Booker prize last year, says firmly 'there is a limit to ugliness and horror beyond which the writer's imagination should not take the reader.'

Perova is fiercely devoted to unearthing new talent, but recognises that the most brilliant writing she has yet published - Cynics, a novella by Mariengof - was written (and banned) in 1928, and her next issue will concentrate on unpublished material by and about Bulgakov and Akhmatova. 'It is always hard to publish new literary fiction, anywhere in the world,' she says defiantly. 'But there have to be some crazy people like me who don't care about money.'

SOME WAY out of town, an established writer in his fifties, who now has to fight to get his work published, hopes for better times. It is not the loss of income that has caused Anatoly Kurchatkin most pain but the sense of being deprived of his readership. He was never a party hack, but was not a dissident either; he belonged to the Writers Union (you were not published unless you did) and was able to operate within the system without feeling either enthusiastic or compromised. Over the years he had a stream of novels and stories published and was praised for his sombre descriptions of Russian life. Each new piece of work would be assured of a respectable print run, efficient distribution and solid sales. Now, he doubts whether his new novel will appear at all, although he has just had two extracts printed in one of Moscow's leading journals. 'Our literature is broken,' he says. 'Our publishing is ruined. The tide of trash from the West is one destructive force, and the middle-aged professionals and academics who used to buy serious fiction are hardest hit by inflation.' Even so, he would not want to return to the old days: 'We have freedom now, and it is better so. But the situation for writers is like living by a river that has burst its banks in spring and caused dangerous floods. I am just waiting for it to find its proper channel again.'

MEANWHILE, in a large apartment block off Pushkin Square, a London literary agent enjoys informing callers that the dank lift they have just used to reach his newly painted premises was installed for the exclusive use of the terrible Vishinsky, Stalin's public prosecutor. Selling Western authors to the Russians is more fun at the moment than selling Russian authors to the West. Andrew Nurnberg, a dapper, energetic character who has been in and out of Russia for the last 20 years, and represents Kasparov and Yeltsin, made the decision when he set up Moscow's first private literary agency four months ago that for the time being it would not handle Russian writers. Nurnberg, who studied Russian history and then worked in Moscow for the British Council, is blunt: 'Russian literary fiction is going through a terrible phase,' he says. 'The writers are floundering; there is no framework they can work in any more, and their only goal seems to be to get published.' There are, of course, exceptions: he mentions Tatyana Tolstaya and Viktoria Tokareva. But if he took on new Russian writers at the moment, he would be inundated: 'There would be 20 people waiting to see me every day. Many writers are on their uppers: the only way they can survive is to get published and paid in the West with hard currency.' For the moment, anyway, Nurnberg and his two Russian partners, one of them a leading copyright lawyer who used to work for the government, are busy tackling the main problem facing any agent or publisher in the Russian market: piracy. In the past, to get a foreign book published you had to submit it to the State Copyright Agency, which was under the thumb of the KGB and also took 10 per cent of every deal. But that was peanuts compared to what can happen today.

Everyone in the Moscow book world has their favourite pirate story. The Silence of the Lambs was translated in three days by 10 translators working round the clock, the mangled results rushed onto the streets and a million copies sold within a week. The sequel to Gone with the Wind was proceeding towards an orthodox publishing deal when it suddenly appeared outside all the metro stations. Often these coups are one-off ventures, after which the pirates vanish with their money. But the printing houses in Russia are still government funded, and not even a pirate can operate without a licence from the Ministry of Printing and Information. So Nurnberg's team, which has joined a task force formed recently by some Russian publishers, has been lobbying the government to withhold licences and make piracy a criminal offence.

It is a tortuous process, but Nurnberg believes the publishers will win in the end, and is also cheerful about the long-term future in Russia for good writing: 'For the moment I see no point in taking a high and mighty puritanical line about what is getting published here,' he says. 'The Russian public is literate and literary - streets ahead of the UK.' He cites a deal he did a few months ago, when six of Iris Murdoch's books were published in editions of 100,000 each, and sold out within two weeks.

ON THE other side of town, in the stables of the magnificent old Razumovsky country estate, two handsome, fashionably scruffy young Russian publishers are keeping their new catalogue in the safe for fear of pirates. Gleb Ouspensky and Vladimir Grigoriev set up their own company, Vagrius, just over a year ago; now they employ 20 people. Pirates gave them such a hard time that they started the anti-piracy task force (the 'Association of Civilised Publishers') and complain of having been bogged down in lawsuits ever since. They both spent some time in New York at Random House, and dream of one day making Vagrius equally large, respected and diverse. But for now, they concede that they have been kept afloat by two romantic bestsellers; Return to Eden, by the Australian Rosalind Miles, which with the help of a television series has sold two million copies; and what they claim is the first Russian book to be pirated, a popular history called Kremlin Wives, which has sold half a million.

Grigoriev and Ouspensky are worried about the plight of Russian writers, and hope to start a Russian fiction list soon. But they don't set much store by such initiatives as the Russian Booker Prize. The first winner, last year, was Lines of Fate, or Milashevich's Trunk by Mark Kharitonov, which seems to have sunk without trace. This year, the chairman is the distinguished Professor Vyachelsav Ivanov, of Moscow University and the University of California; the list of 50 or so nominations has just been published, and the judges, with a strong international component including Professor Geoffrey Hosking of London University, will produce a shortlist in October and their decision in mid-December. An early front runner, according to Natasha Perova, one of the nominators, is a novel about the Afghan war by Oleg Yermakov. But prizes, like literary organisations, are still overshadowed by the years of state control, when they all had official strings attached.

IN THE grandiose Writers Union Building, all elaborate woodwork and huge chandeliers, and now open to the public as a restaurant, a table full of ageing men spend the afternoon drinking vodka and discussing pornography. Over at the headquarters of PEN, the international writers' organisation that supports writers under pressure, ambitious plans are afoot. But given the widespread suspicion of anything like the old literary establishment, it is perhaps inevitable that Russian PEN should be raising eyebrows. PEN was set up in Moscow in 1989, when the new freedoms made a Russian centre compatible for the first time with the society's aims. Fierce quarrels broke out between writers who had either chosen or been forced to operate outside the Writers Union and others who had stayed inside but now wanted to join PEN. Francis King, then PEN International President, went on a mission to Moscow to urge the writers to look to the future; to illustrate how PEN could and should accommodate writers of very different opinions, he told them that although he worked closely with Harold Pinter on PEN's behalf the only thing they had ever agreed about was that Pinter was a genius.

According to Victor Stabnikov, the amiable, bearded director-general (who himself made the switch from the Writers Union without apparent difficulty), hostility to PEN's new prominence can be ascribed simply to resentment from writers whose political or critical record was not found acceptable by their peers. Stabnikov had just returned from England, where he was staying with John le Carre, whose books he has translated, and discussing funding with the billionaire philanthropist Paul Getty. Moscow PEN has been seeking sponsorship from Russian and international business, and has just launched a series of new literary prizes. 'The difficult times are behind us now,' says Stabnikov happily. 'We are free to publish what we want, free to work as hard as we like. We may be living in chaos but it's better that way.'

IN A desirable, leafy part of old Moscow lives a best-selling and critically acclaimed Russian novelist in his forties, once banned from the Writers Union. His erotic novel, Russian Beauty, has sold half a million copies since 1990 in Russia, and has appeared in 27 languages. He is knocking two flats into one, talking to his German translator on his portable phone and planning his visit to this year's Edinburgh Festival.

A few months ago Victor Erofeev, who enjoys stirring up trouble, propounded in Moscow his new theory of Russian literature. The most interesting writers today, he announced, share 'a fascination with evil . . . The new Russian literature is more than individual flowers, it is a big bunch of fleurs du mal.' This diagnosis is to be expounded fully in his introduction to an anthology of new Russian writing which Penguin is publishing next year, but it seems to crystallise a new and widely shared determination to free Russian writers, once and for all, from traditional responsibilities and expectations. 'Even in the 19th century, our writing was very moral, very black and white,' says Erofeev. 'It is very important for us now to be able to be black. It may not suit the market, but it matters for us.'

Erofeev refuses to join the chorus bewailing the plight of contemporary Russian writing: 'Good writers don't lose their readers.' He knows that his own sudden fame and fortune have not made him greatly loved by his contemporaries; on their feuds and anxieties he remarks, with a broad grin: 'I expect the only thing they all agree about is how much they hate me.'

'Glas' can be contacted c/o Tait, Dept of Russian Literature, University of Birmingham, B15 2TT