MOSCOW -- Five years after Soviet censorship ended, Russian cities have well-stocked bookstores that are constantly mobbed. Street-corner book vendors do a brisk business from portable card tables, even in remotest Siberia.
But the Russian reading renaissance isn't what would be expected in a nation where everyone from the president to the elevator operator can quote from memory Dostoevski, Tolstoy and Pushkin.
Instead, millions of Russian are buying "Russky Trillers," a new pulp fiction genre vying with with bodice-rippers by Western romance writers. Fewer than 10,000 Russian classics, such as "Crime and Punishment" or "Anna Karenina," are published in a year.
"We have to publish this trash -- this basically is what feeds us," says Gleb Uspensky, director of the Vagrius publishing company, tossing his dozens of best sellers on a table.
Uspensky suggests that you really can judge these books by their covers -- they're all bad. Guns, knives, babes in various states of undress and steroid-studs in sunglasses spice the covers of Vagrius books.
"We thought we'd be publishing good books. God knows we tried, but they don't sell," he says.
It's the tough lesson learned after what he calls the "heady" days for publishers after the fall of the Soviet Union, when anything would sell, from transcripts of Mexican television soap operas to the foreign best sellers Russians couldn't get their hands on during 70 years of communism.
The best sellers in recent weeks in Moscow include three "Russky Trillers," the Russian criminal code, two books on the top criminals in Moscow and St. Petersburg, a primer on how to cheat on college entrance exams and a Yellow Pages-style phone book. The steady, long-term sellers, book stores report, are foreign encyclopedias and how-to books on business and computers.
Topping the list of runaway best-selling "Russky Trillers" is a Vagrius series called "Beshenovo" ("The Mad"). They are ghost-written from television versions by screen writer Victor Dotsyenko. The seventh volume of the series, "Commando Mad," had a first printing of 350,000 and sold out immediately in October.
The Mad is about a veteran of Russia's war in Afghanistan who constantly breaks the law to obtain justice. This Russian Rambo is a free-lance assassin, avenging the mafia's murder of three of his wives while breaking up drug and arms smuggling rings.
The fascination with "Russky Trillers," the criminal code and biographies of criminals, caters to a wounded national pride and a new macho criminal class, says Uspensky, the director of Vagrius.
"For 60 years Homo Sovieticus was a great race, a people apart. And these books give them the illusion they are again," says Uspensky, who adds that 10 percent of each print run is sold in prisons and 40 percent are bought by law enforcement officers.
"If you are a criminal, this is your Tolstoy," Uspensky says. "And 40 percent of the readers [for The Mad] are police, because many of them are involved in crime. And 10 percent of our print run is sold to corrections institutions."
But such steady sellers as business and computer books and translated encyclopedias show a deeper strain of thought, says Boris Yesenkin, director of the huge Biblioglobus bookstore here.
"We're a culture in transition. And I think everyone is looking for knowledge to educate themselves on computers and in business so they can understand the future."
Many also want to understand the past. Biblioglobus sells many books that give Russian readers information about history that was either distorted or not covered in Soviet-era history books. His store is pushing a 25-volume set of the complete Pushkin, advertising that it includes poems banned in Soviet times.
Some popular books are plainly practical. The Yellow Pages-style directory, published by a Russian-German group, is a bible for businesses in a country whose phone company offers virtually no reliable way to find a phone number.
Literary classics by the likes of Tolstoy, Shakespeare, and Hemingway are still available. But new Russian writers must publish in literary journals whose subscribers have dwindled from the millions in Soviet times to only a few thousand now.
As a public service, Vagrius does publish "good" books but at a loss, says Uspensky. There was, for example, a 50,000-print run of President Boris N. Yeltsin's official biography. "Five years later we have 48,000 sitting in a warehouse. Nobody wants Yeltsin, and nobody knows it better than we do."
His publishing house, one of the nation's largest, chooses one new Russian writer a year to promote. But royalties for an unknown author typically amount to only about $2,000 -- hardly enough to live on.
And this year Vagrius is publishing a series of 24 classics, including works by J. D. Salinger, Shakespeare and Dostoevski. But these books amount to just two of the company's 30 titles published each month, and print runs are only 5,000.
"There is some demand for these books, but distribution and economics don't work in their favor," he says.
The more intellectual audience that would buy them, he says, are usually in professions hardest hit by the nation's crisis caused by unpaid salaries. To pay $3 for a book is a luxury purchase for many.
Also, most of this nation's book sales take place at the folding tables of small booksellers who need rapid turnover.
These sellers come to central distribution points and pick up plastic-wrapped packets of 10 books. They sell them where the readers are -- bedroom communities and major metro stops. The "Russky Trillers," printed on newsprint but hard bound, can quickly be sold for $10 each on the street, though they cost only $3 at a big bookstore.
Uspensky's theory of why a $10 book will sell in this economy is that the buyers are largely from the criminal class -- buyers who make more money than the average consumer.
A large part of the problem is that major Russian bookstores keep their books behind counters or under glass. To read the cover of a book, a customer has to coax an often uninterested clerk to hand it over. Huge lines form, and book-buying becomes a nightmare.
Biblioglobus, one of Moscow's five major general interest bookstores, has begun what Yesenkin calls "an innovation" he learned while visiting American bookstores: a room where customers have free access to books.
Customers love it. His clerks think he's crazy, says the bookstore's director.
"It's so much better than before -- it's pleasant," says Anatole Selivekin, a 60-year-old science professor and businessman standing in a line 15-deep at the sales counter.
His "impulse" purchases?
"Politics and the Kremlin" and "The Psyche of Stalin."
Pub Date: 12/19/96