Saturday, October 01, 2005


Gulag gets short shrift from Putinland publishers

By Edward Lucas

Imagine a book, well written, accurate and moving, that gives the
first really thorough account of America's slave trade, told through
painstaking research in previously hidden archives.

A Pulitzer prize? Certainly. World-wide syndication? Certainly. Now
imagine that despite all that, no American publisher is willing to
publish it.
Inconceivable? Not if the subject is the equally shameful one of the
Soviet Gulag and the publishers are not American, but Russian. My
friend Anne Applebaum's accuracy, stylish prose and original research
won her a Pulitzer Prize for her history of the camps. It has sold
hundreds of thousands of copies in 28 editions around the world -
except in Russia, where the book is taboo.
Yet there is huge interest in the former captive nations of Eastern
Europe, where the book-buying public tends not to go for translations
of foreign non-fiction (the elite read such books in English, the rest
lack the time, money or inclination to read them at all).
The hardback Gulag alone has sold a startling 70,000 copies in Poland.
Her agent, the worldly wise New York-based Georges Borchardt, says the
level of interest is "really quite amazing".
Yet the country which suffered most from communism, providing
countless millions of victims to the terror machine, has no
local-language version of the best-available account of what really
One reason for poor sales in Putinland might be fatigue. During the
glasnost era (and golly, we miss those days now) memoirs, histories
and other works about the crimes of Stalinism were everywhere. By the
1990s, Russians were bored by miserable accounts of their miserable
history. The new fashion in books was escapist detective fiction. Fair
enough: even in Germany, where VergangenheitsbewŠltigung (conquering
one's past) is a matter of solemn private and public conscience, I can
see people have a limited appetite for yet more books about the Nazis.
But does that explain why no Russian publisher wants to publish Gulag?
As a devout believer in free markets, I concede the possibility that
the book would sell so badly - worse, say, than an Icelandic cookbook
- that translating and publishing it would be irrational. But I think
it is more likely that the Russian publishers are practising
As Paul Baker and Susan Glasser point out in their excellent new book
Kremlin Rising, Russian history is now a matter of high politics,
where the Kremlin intervenes even against specific textbooks that they
think cast the Soviet Union in an excessively (read: any) unfavourable
Anne is trying to raise money to have it published by a brave
non-profit outfit, the Moscow School of Political Studies. But I have
another suggestion. Why not try selling the all-Russian rights to a
publisher in the Baltic states? At a minimum, it could sell among the
new generation of modern-minded Yevrorussky (European Russians) there
who find the cultural and political climate in the motherland
increasingly repellent. Second, it would at least be available to
readers in Russia proper (who mainly order books via the internet anyway).
The best thing would be if Kremlin then denounced the Baltic edition
as a "provocation", or tried to respond by sponsoring a sanitised
account that put the Gulag "in the right perspective". There are too
many lies already. But the more that official Russian history sidles
away from the democratic perspective and scholarly approach of the
Yeltsin years and back to the fawning, distorted junk of the past, the
easier it is to see Vladimir Putin and his "useful idiot" sycophants
in the West for what they really are.

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