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Cultural Life I – Literature

When I lived in Moscow, I noticed that on any day of the week cultural places were packed with any type of people, not as elitist as in Spain which means that people really enjoy going to the opera, theatre, exhibitions. I would like to learn more about cultural life in Russia.

In Soviet times Russian nation was consuming more books than any other nation. In a big part that was due to mandatory school education, so every person in the country learned to read early and did study literature in school.

What you could see on TV mid-day when there was no broadcasting

What you could see on TV mid-day when there was no broadcasting

Also, TV of that time had 3 channels, and broadcasting was far from 24/7. Reading was one of the things we were really proud of – we are the country where people read most. It was true, when taking a subway at that time in Moscow – most people in a subway car were reading and they were reading thick books. You could easily see Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Pushkin and other books of classics. Sci-fi was also very popular, especially among men. 

Collected edition of Theodore Dreiser

Collected edition of Theodore Dreiser

At the time of total deficit of everything good books were also hard to find in bookstores. Especially in demand were collected editions. These series were very well published, intellectual part of population enjoyed them for reading, less intellectual people enjoyed how well they looked when displayed on bookshelves at their homes. Typical collection of a particular writer had book covers of deep colors – blue, green, grey, dark red etc and those collections indeed looked good on shelves.


Bookshelf at my house

Bookshelf at my house

About a year ago my cleaning lady, who comes to my place for 12 years and always strives for improving my life proposed to straighten out my home library, by sorting books by colors of book covers. I have politely declined this offer and managed to hide a smile.   

Paper for recycling

As I said, collections of books were hard to get. Bookstores had long waiting lists of people, who wanted to buy those collections. One could improve chances for faster purchase by donating “makulatura”, paper for recycling (old newspapers, paper and books). Books for kids were in particular demand, kids at that time did read a lot since not much was going on TV and movies were a rare treat. Books developed imagination of kids, kids read them and did plenty of role playing with friends. Great thing about Soviet time was that real masters of word, famous writers rather than translators translated popular books for kids. Quite often translations were better, more entertaining than original stories.

A big part of book culture in Soviet times were “forbidden books” – books that Soviet system did not approve, but people had typed versions of them and exchanged them in secret among friends. My parents had such books at home, which were hidden in our apartment. One example – Master and Margarita by Bulgakov with parts that were censored out in official edition. These parts were highlighted in italic and when reading I kept wondering why this or that part had been wiped out by the official censorship. After Perestroika more and more books were officially published. Also at that time hugely popular were literature magazines, such as Novy Mir or Literature Newspaper. These newspapers and magazines published Solzhenitsyn and other authors who were completely forbidden before.

However, when publishing turned into business – it not only provided availability of great books for Russian audience but also opened channel for sub-par books of various genres. Fantasy and crime stories (easy read literature) became widely popular. Fantasy was especially popular in 90s when it became an escape from reality. Grown up men were reading fantasy fairy-tales, women read romance novels.

I do not have statistics about reading habits of Russians in our time, but I assume that people read less. You can still see people reading in subway (now mostly on e-readers). I always wonder what they read and if I have a chance to have a peak above the shoulder, I do that. I have not seen Turgenev or Dostoevsky on e-readers. And about half of people holding gadgets in subway do not read – they play games or text friends. People who do not use subway do not have time to read – they work a lot and spend too much time in traffic jams. Discussing books among friends has become anachronism. Kids definitely do not favor reading now – cartoons and video games are much more entertaining for small kids and teenagers spend their time in social networks. Very often I find stacks of books near mailboxes in my apartment building – people get rid of them and from time to time I adopt some of these books and bring them home. Finally, books now have become expensive, so although bookstores have great selection of books – there are no lines for buying books any more.

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