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

'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)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Barn owls are among species that could be affected
charity appeal
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
cricketEoin Morgan reportedly to take over ODI captaincy as ECB finally wield the axe
Arts and Entertainment
a clockwork orange, stanley kubrick
news... you won't believe how bad their skills were
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas