The Vladimir Putin Book Club…Or Literary Censorship in Russia?

Putin, president of Russia, will follow in the footsteps of fellow mononyms Oprah and Zuckerberg by selecting books for his nation’s reading public. But the owners of Russia’s bookstores are pointing to the government’s new plan as an act of censorship by other means.

According to the U.K.’s Publishing Perspectives, a news release by the Russian Ministry of Science and Education has publicized a new plan by the Russian government to offer rent and tax breaks to booksellers “in exchange for an ‘opportunity’ to provide a selection of titles chosen by the government.” The official goal of the program, as cited by ministry head Dmitry Livanov, is “to increase sales of high-quality literature, as well as books on culture, art, history and education.”

More to the point, Livanov explains that the government tax breaks may “help promote sales of those books which have historical value” and “can contribute to patriotic education of local population.” If this sounds like another example of what Georgetown professor Harley Balzer, writing in the New York Times, calls “Putin’s campaign to stifle civil society in Russia” — well, it might be just that.

In the last year, Putin has strengthened his grasp on the dissemination of ideas in Russia by way of a heightened focus on intellectual culture and the circulation of books. In November of last year, the New York Times reported, the government stripped the nation’s 43,000 schools of “hundreds of textbooks that Russian schoolchildren had relied upon for years.” And, in April, Russian bookstores effectively censored themselves when a “government directive mandating the removal of fascist symbols” caused owners to remove books, like Art Spiegelman’s Maus, that presented such iconography on their covers.

This month’s move to subsidize what amounts to a national Vladimir Putin Book Club comes with characteristically ingenious timing on the part of the Kremlin. Many Russian bookstores, for example, are now shuttering on account of escalating rents. Paradoxically (this is Russia, after all), the rest of the country is in the midst of a nationwide Year of Literature celebration. In other words, Putin’s tax break comes at a time when Russia’s commercial literary culture is in need of a helping hand. Putin, tough man of culture, is more than happy to provide it — with strings attached.

And Putin’s “tough guy” persona is suggestive of the sort of books he will recommend to the Russian nation. Of course Putin has paid lip service to some of the greats of Russian literature; for example, he has cited Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov as favorites. More plausibly, though, Putin sides with a specific sort of macho literature — or, as The New Yorker points out, a literature of the “somber and wounded” man. In a bizarre interview with Gayne C. Young of the American magazine Outdoor Life, Putin cites an array of adventurous, calmly virile books, including Turgenev’s (excellent) A Sportsman’s Sketches, the nature writings of Mikhail Prishvin, the satire of Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, and (of course) no small offering of Ernest Hemingway.

We also know that Putin believes books are instrumental in the formation national identity. (Indeed, they are a useful policy wedge when navigating the rough terrain between fervent nationalists and new immigrants.) This, to be sure, is the sort of thing he has in mind with his forthcoming recommendations. Much in the same way that Zuckerberg’s book club has offered little but the revelation that his mind is governed by petty, neoliberal clichés, Putin’s list will likely unveil the soul of a nationalist who — with or without justification — believes the West is out to rob Russia of its empire. Along these lines, Putin could just as well introduce works by Ilyin, Solovyev, and others. Also a favorite: Mikhail Yuriev’s novel The Third Imperium, the cover of which shows Russia dominating much of Europe.