Mavericks from Moscow take pages out of the West's books: Cowboy publishers are flouting copyright laws. Helen Womack reports from Moscow

Click to follow
The Independent Online
'HOW ABOUT this for cheek?' asked a Western literary agent, producing the first page of a Russian pirated copy of the best-selling novel The Shining on which was printed bold as brass: 'Altruist Publishers apologise to Stephen King for the violation of his author's rights. If you have any queries, purely concerning the translation of this book, please call Oleg on Moscow 170-7231.'

The illegally produced version of The Shining is just one example of thousands of popular Western books that are being brought out in Russia by cowboy publishers without the slightest regard for copyright. The same thing is happening with films and music. Western arts industries are furious but realise there is little hope of persuading the Russian authorities to make pirating a criminal offence while the Yeltsin government is so occupied with its political and economic problems.

For a pirate, Oleg, 26, who prefers not to give his surname, is rather charming. He is a science-fiction fanatic who began his dubious career before the days of glasnost by producing samizdat (underground) versions of Western books for the Moscow Sci-Fi Club. In those days he was a student, not of languages as you might expect but of computer technology.

Now this shambolic figure with fuzzy hair and cracked spectacles earns his living entirely by giving the people what they want to read. He drives his mother mad by playing loud rock music in the living room of their little flat out on Moscow's Ryazansky Prospekt while he pounds away on his computer, translating, with the help of others, up to a book a week. At present he is busy with the second volume of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever by Stephen Donaldson, who has been compared to Tolkien. The murder thriller The Red Dragon, by Thomas Harris, looks as if it might be Oleg's next target.

Oleg, who earns about 40,000 roubles ( pounds 35) a month, is not losing much sleep over the fact that millionaire Western authors are not getting their full royalties. 'As a patriot of my country, I think I am doing something useful,' he says. 'If we were not publishing, ordinary Russian people would never get to read these books.' Russians are tired of 'gulag' authors such as Solzhenitsyn, whose work was highly prized in the days when it was banned, and want something more racy, he adds.

This is how the shady publication operation works. Sometimes Oleg translates a whole book by himself but often two or three translators are involved, each taking a chunk after they have agreed the overall style. They work at speed and Oleg, who is so ashamed of his spoken English that he prefers to conduct the interview in Russian, admits that '60 per cent of the translation is probably lousy'. They then pass their work on to the publishers, usually personal contacts working 'on the side' in official publishing houses. Altogether about 20 cowboy publishing houses are working in Moscow.

Where do they get the paper from in these days of shortage? 'That's no problem at all if you have money,' Oleg says.

In the case of Stephen King's The Shining, a woman called Katya did the translation. Oleg's Altruist group brought out an initial edition of only 500 copies, each of which sold from stalls in Moscow underpasses last summer for 300 roubles, then worth nearly pounds 2, although now a mere 26 pence. Clearly Altruist did not make a fortune from that project. But then bigger Russian publishers re-issued the book in a large print run and much more money would have been made. 'They used our translation but didn't pay us a kopeck,' Oleg says, laughing as he realises he could hardly be outraged about this.

Sometimes Altruist works on a large scale itself. For example, it has just published 100,000 copies of Robert McCammon's Stinger. The profit on a book can be as much as 10 million roubles. However, the cowyboy publishers rarely co-operate, and often there is duplication of books coming on to the market.

The pirates are not opposed, in principle, to paying authors but fear this would push up the price of books to levels the Russian public could not bear and thus put them out of business. 'Basically, either we publish illegally or we don't publish at all,' Oleg says. The other problem is that they have no idea how to contact Western authors. 'It would be great to talk to Stephen King but how do you go about it?'

Russia's black-market publishers have not been greatly harassed by racketeers who terrorise other businessmen to get a cut of their profits. 'You see there's not that much money in books,' Oleg says with a grin. 'We are in it for love of the literature.'

(Photographs omitted)