There was a time when Americans wanted to read about Russia – dramatic politics, gangsters and other exotic ingredients from the enigmatic former adversary made for a best-selling recipe.
But these days, aside from the politicians and specialists whose duty it is to keep informed, few Americans show much interest in reading about Russia’s trials and tribulations. This, however, hasn’t stopped five works examining why Russians live so miserably from appearing on bookstore shelves.
One is Boris Yeltsin’s latest memoirs, published under the title "Midnight Diaries." Yeltsin’s nocturnal work costs $26 and attracts only the interest of Kremlinologists whose job it is to read the memoirs of retired Kremlin occupants.
Yeltsin’s neighbor on Washington bookstore shelves moved from the Kremlin to just next door in the Mausoleum long ago, but he gets new treatment in a biography from English Lenin specialist Robert Service. By market laws, this has the ingredients of a bestseller – Vladimir Lenin emerges from Service’s "Lenin: A Biography" as a sadist and gangster with a burning passion for women.
The traditional Russian question "Who’s to blame?" gets an answer in three new but typically bleak works. In "America and the Tragedy of Post-Communist Russia," Stephen Cohen tells readers willing to pay the $22 for his 160-page book about how the Clinton administration backed the wrong man in Russia, did all the wrong things and is still paying for it today.
While Cohen heaps blame on America, another more mudraking work, "Godfather of the Kremlin," by Paul Khlebnikov, paints a portrait of Boris Berezovsky as having done more to rob Russia than anyone else. The book has been in central Washington bookstores for more than two months now, but salespeople say they’ve sold only two copies. Either Americans don’t want to read about thieving oligarchs, or they don’t want to pay $28 for the privilege.
Better value for money at $27 is perhaps journalist Christia Freeland’s 400-page opus "Sale of the Century," in which the former Financial Times Moscow chief correspondent describes how she watched the unprecedented cynical pillaging of Russia. In Freeland’s book, oligarchs grow fat as the Russian provinces die. She replaces the other classic Russian question "What is to be done?" with today’s popular "Who lost Russia?" The problem is that Americans just don’t really seem to care.
As for more positive, optimistic works on Russia, books on art or history, say, or literature, nothing makes its way to American bookstores. The little there is continues to paint Russia in dismal tones as a decaying state in the process of falling apart. Perhaps this is Russia’s fault for not providing more upbeat material, or perhaps it’s just that Western authors make little effort to search for brighter moments in Russian life. But then again, even if they made the effort, they’d have a hard time persuading the publishers to print their works. Russia just doesn’t sell these days, and "Russian" books languish on the shelves, despite their eye-catching titles.
The reality is that people read about what concerns them more directly. Americans read about Russia when Perestroika opened the Iron Curtain to their curious gazes, but these days, the average American is more interested in getting drugs out of schools than in learning the numbers of the foreign bank accounts to which the Russian nouveaux riches transferred their stolen billions.
One clever man once said that "Whatever you say about Russia, it will all be true."
Americans today don’t show much demand for a dose of "truth" about Russia.
(Yury Sigov is Washington bureau chief for Noviye Izvestia and a regular columnist for The Russia Journal.)