What does Moscow read during the war?  Between fantasy and history Orwell triumphs

MOSCOW – There is a crowd among the pavilions set up in Red Square for the homonymous Book Festival. Younger people flock to the presentation of the new Avant-garde fantasy series Yevgeny Gagloevas adults listen to “fighting writer” Zakhar Prilepin, and co-chair of the Righteous Russia party, discuss why he has published a new edition of his books on the Donbass. “Nobody imagined it would turn out like this,” he says. “Our books on shamanism are in great demand”, exults the Jakut Sardana Gabysheva, commercial director of Ayar, one of the 400 publishing houses from 60 regions of the Russian Federation present in Moscow for the eighth edition of the Moscow Book Festival. Alexei Pinchukeditor of Nizhnaja Oreanda, arrived by car from Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula annexed in 2014: “Many ask for history books or about famous people”. The organizers celebrate record numbers, but someone has the courage to tell the truth. Like the weekly tabloid Nasha Versija who comments: “Due to today’s well-known circumstances, sanctions, inflation and other problems, the big party didn’t happen.”

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Very few foreign authors were present. Ever since Russia launched the so-called “special military operation”, dozens of writers – from Stephen King to Neil Gaiman up to Jk Rowling – they decided to boycott the Russian market. Also absent are many Russian writers who in recent months had condemned the armed intervention in Ukraine. There are those who, like Dmitrij Glukhovskij, ended up on the wanted list for spreading fakes about the Russian army.

Even a harmless event about the philosopher Epicurus was canceled only because one of the speakers, on the eve, had written on Facebook: “I do not understand what there is to say in public in times of conflict”. It is precisely the interruption of relations with foreign partners and the threats of censorship that, in an interview with the economic newspaper Kommersant, make Aleksej Ilyin, editor of Alpina, say that the situation of the Russian bookseller market is comparable to “a ‘nuclear explosion “. He is also worried about the rise in the price of paper and the shortage of spare parts and paints in printers due to Western sanctions.

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Yet in March alone, in the wake of the Russian offensive in Ukraine, book sales jumped 30 to 75 percent on Russia’s two largest e-commerce platforms, Ozon and Wildberries. The Russians have begun to seek escapism in detective stories, fantasy or romance novels. “They try to get away from reality or at least to color it a little with the help of literary worlds”, comments Viktor Levchenko, executive director of the holding company T8 Izdatelskije Tekhnologhii which brings together several publishing houses.

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Among the most searched books there are also dystopias, first of all 1984 by the British writer George Orwell. Volumes of self-help and psychology, such as Being kind to yourself by Olga Primachenko or Saying yes to life, despite everything by Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, the best-selling book on Ozon, are in great demand. Surprisingly, among the bestsellers in non-fiction also appeared All the men of the Kremlin and The Empire must die by Mikhail Zygar, founder of the independent TV Dozhd, says Aleksandr Kryukov of the labyrinthine “Biblio-Globus” bookstore behind the Lubyanka, headquarters of the ‘ex KGB.

According to Ilyun, however, there is little to gloat. Continuing his comparison with a nuclear catastrophe, the publisher warns: “We all wait for a shock wave, then the radiation will continue. It will be a rather difficult time.”

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