Readin', Russians, and Romance

So Tolstoy's not Russia's best seller? When was he?


Book sales in post-communist Russia are exploding, reports The Washington Post. Russians are demonstrating a bottomless, virtually insatiable hunger to read. But the paper's story, which appeared in July and was filed by Post correspondent David Hoffman, is told as much in sorrow as in celebration. What Russians are reading these days, he writes, "falls well short of the country's great literary tradition."

The very headline breathes a cultural sigh: "It Isn't Tolstoy, but Russians Are Reading Up a Storm." And what the stuff that isn't Tolstoy is, is a lot of pulp fiction, how-to books, ephemeral celebrity bios, quickie translations of formula romance and science fiction, short-lived computer books, and so on down a list of disposable nonclassics that largely matches what people everywhere seem interested in reading. Yet so deep is the shadow cast by Russia's classic literary canon that even Russian book men sound embarrassed about their emerging popular market. This period of junk reading is only temporary, one wholesaler told the Post rather dolefully; an understandable escape from the continuing social upheaval. "Maybe in five more years," he hoped, "we'll go back to reading Tolstoy."

Uh huh. It would be hard to overstate the status accorded by Russia's cultural establishment to the nation's acknowledged masters of poetry and prose. If you don't recognize Dostoyevsky's or Turgenev's characters by name, or Pushkin's or Akhmetova's poetry by line, you cannot claim to be a cultured citizen. Indeed, many such figures are more than respected writers; they are prized national symbols of aesthetic achievement, resistance to tyranny, even–as in the case of Tolstoy's own later period–spiritual transcendence.

On the other hand, Russia's prestige literature has a very long history of being outsold by books with far more mundane content. And it is this context that makes what is apparently going on in Russia today so interesting: A mass readership is reasserting itself and its interests, and it is taking up largely where it was interrupted in 1917.

As it happens, the Post's own account uses an especially revealing example as its framing device: The story begins and concludes by citing the enormous popularity among Russians of translations of Harlequin Books, the well-known series of Canadian paperbacks that built its fortune on selling carefully packaged fantasies of romance. Harlequin represents a landmark in the marketing of genre fiction: Its devotees don't appear to buy particular stories or particular authors so much as they buy a brand name that promises, over and over again, to provide an entirely predictable but satisfying experience. Uniformly designed and written to the most specific of formulas, Harlequins were intended by their 1970s marketing director–a veteran of Proctor & Gamble–to be to books what L'Eggs were to pantyhose, as publishing historian Thomas L. Bonn has phrased it.

That strategy has worked in Western markets for years, and now it is working in Russia. In fact, the Post account's opening scene features a sidewalk bookseller buying batches of Harlequin titles from her wholesaler by the number: "Number 105–where is it?"

Certainly, this is a very long way from War and Peace. But then in the years before the Revolution, War and Peace was a long way from being Russia's best-selling title. For that matter, War and Peace was not even Tolstoy's own most popular title; his best-selling work was The Kreutzer Sonata, which is about sex. But that and every other Russian novel was outsold by something called The Keys to Happiness, a 1,400-page epic of romance and sexual liberation by the exceedingly flamboyant author Anastasia Verbitskaya. While very much a product of its time, the appeal of Verbitskaya's now-forgotten work has a great deal in common with what sells so many Harlequins.

The six volumes of The Keys to Happiness tell the story of one Mania Eltzova, her search for personal fulfillment in art and love, and the price she eventually pays for her independence. According to synopses (the work seems never to have been translated), the novel is filled with melodramatic encounters and sexual affairs, and lots of talk about art, feminism, and revolution. The eponymous key to happiness, by the way, is a woman's ability to enjoy sex without letting her emotions get in the way.

The work created a scandal, was turned into the most popular movie of the pre-revolutionary era, and inspired a crowd of women novelist imitators who used Verbitskaya to found a genre. In fact, it wasn't the book's sexual angle per se that made the book so popular. The so-called Women's Question had been debated in Russia for decades, and was at the heart of earlier novels, most notably the 1863 title What Is To Be Done?, without doubt the most influential work of 19th-century Russia. Verbitskaya's breakthrough was to turn the subject into pure soap opera.

Furthermore, The Keys to Happiness is very openly indebted for its ideas to other best-selling novels that it assumes its readers are familiar with. It is very closely related to the sensational novel Sanin by Mikhail Artsybashev, which swept Russia during this period; Verbitskaya even has her characters discuss the other novel's ideas.

These and other, related, novels were made possible by the change in censorship laws that followed the upheavals of 1905, and for a dozen years Russia's reading market zoomed in on popular concerns. This was a period in which vast economic changes were occurring in the country, especially in the two cities that, in the end, constituted most of Russia's cultural market, Moscow and St. Petersburg. People from classes that had previously lived extremely constrained lives began to entertain fantasies of social mobility, success, and fulfillment. As scholar Jeffrey Brooks points out, the work of Verbitskaya and her contemporaries lacks any of the folkloric elements so prominent in the country's earlier popular literature, and indicates the rise of a different kind of reader.

That is really the point of this whole body of popular reading: It was an emerging literature not only of escape, but of personal possibility. Of course, it was completely snuffed out in 1917 by the communists, whose 72 years of cultural tyranny are a well-known–and almost total–fiasco.

Now they're gone, and look who is back: Mania Eltzova, now multiplied by the Harlequin hundreds, her life and loves suitably updated and repackaged. Incidentally, Verbitskaya's original heroine eventually pays for her daring choices by committing suicide, an unhappy ending that just doesn't happen in the Harlequin formula. But there's surely a lesson in that, too.

Charles Paul Freund ( is a REASON senior editor.