Notes from the Underground: Indie Publishing in Putin’s Russia

In Growth Markets by Daniel Kalder


By Daniel Kalder

MOSCOW: Back in 1993 a group of philosophers from the Russian Academy of Sciences formed Ad Marginem Press in Moscow. Their plan was simple: to publish translations of late 20th century Western philosophy that had been unavailable in the USSR, alongside works of contemporary Russian fiction. After 70 years of totalitarianism Russians were hungry for new ideas and even though the country was faced with catastrophic economic and social problems, Ad Marginem’s publisher, Alexander Ivanov, assessed the business situation as “far from hopeless.”

Ivanov was correct: funded by a grant from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ad Marginem’s first book — an anthology of philosophical and psychoanalytic texts on Sado-masochism — sold 100,000 copies in 12 months, although hyperinflation devoured a significant chunk of the profits. Encouraged, Ivanov and his colleagues soon issued texts by thinkers ranging from the Marquis de Sade to Walter Benjamin to Roland Barthes.

Ad Marginem Press LogoSince then the Russian reading public’s interest has shifted elsewhere, and in the last decade it is not Ad Marginem’s philosophy list that has brought the publisher its greatest successes and controversies but rather its fiction. Both the self-proclaimed “literary monster” Vladimir Sorokin and the radical author-politician Edward Limonov have published important books with Ad Marginem. Operating from a basement apartment south of the Kremlin, the publisher is both literally and figuratively “underground.”

Publishing is Not Always Safe

Ivanov says there is a link between the philosophy and the fiction he publishes: “I would say that modern philosophy has taught me to think ‘across’ traditional cultural territories in spite of the literary canon, which was formed in the late-soviet period among the intelligentsia. Hence my choice of writers like Sorokin and Limonov…I am interested in what could be designated by the Kantian idea of ‘expansion’… of the reader’s experience, of the semantic horizons of literature. Unfortunately, this is not always a safe practice –- neither for writer, nor for the publisher.”

Ivanov first discovered how unsafe applied Kantianism could be in 2001, when he published The Lower Aerobatics by Bajan Shiryanov, which was marketed as Russia’s first “narco-novel.” While books about drugs and drug use have long since lost their power to shock in the West, the Russian authorities were much more sensitive to such subject matter: all copies in the Ad Marginem shop were seized and Ivanov was interrogated by the police.

Two years later he found himself in much more trouble over Vladimir Sorokin’s Blue Lard, a heartwarming narrative in which clones of Khrushchev and Stalin enjoy some tender sexual moments together. In fact Blue Lard had been published in 1999 but it was not until 2002 that anybody took offense. Moving Together, a pro-Putin youth movement flushed copies of Sorokin’s works down a giant toilet erected outside the Bolshoi Theater, apparently as part of a battle against “…immorality, cynicism, and the humiliation of our culture.” Sales exploded, reaching a total of 100,000. The down side was that both Sorokin and Ad Marginem were charged with disseminating pornography (although who would be aroused by two fat, middle aged soviet tyrants having sex with each other is difficult to imagine). The penalty: two years in jail.

“Yes, that was the “hottest” moment in the history of Ad Marginem,” says Ivanov. “We were really involved in the investigation of this case, we gave witness statements… The case was ‘to order’ — that is very clear. It was closed six months later apparently on command from above. We did not suffer large financial costs. The lawyer took the case for a small fee, because it had serious social repercussions. We felt danger, but our main sensation was… surprise at the idiocy of the situation, that we had to discuss literary issues with the police. It seemed to me that they themselves were a bit shocked by this investigation.”

Succes de Scandal

Undaunted, a year later Ivanov published Tales of a Kremlin Digger, a memoir by Russian journalist Elena Tregubova in which she variously attacked Putin for his authoritarian tendencies, moaned about food in the Russian provinces, and reminisced about a dinner during which Putin supposedly flirted with her. The succes de scandal shifted 200,000 copies.

Much more interesting — and vastly superior from a literary point of view — are the memoirs of the Russian opposition leader Edward Limonov written while he was in prison on charges of attempting to export arms to Kazakhstan. In Through the Prisons Limonov revealed the bleak lives of inmates in Russia’s penal system. In the prize-winning Book of Water he painted a lyrical, moving portrait of a life lived at extremes, viewed from the perspective of the jail cell from which he never expected to be released (in fact Limonov was set free after two years). According to Ivanov, no attempt was ever made to censor these books and shops stocked them with impunity:

“The powers that be control television, but until now they have been relatively liberal with regard to books. In this area there is more of a “market” rather than ideological or political censorship.”

Ivanov’s commitment to fiction that is socially and politically engaged and yet which crosses philosophical and literary borders has also enabled him to popularize a new generation of exciting writer.

He cites Zakhar Prilepin as an Ad Marginem author whose work should be better known in the West. Prilepin is a 34-year-old Chechen War veteran whose writing has drawn comparisons to Isaac Babel. In 2003 Ad Marginem published his debut Pathology, a documentary novel about a military company in the Chechen War which showed the conflict from the perspective of the young soldiers drenched in blood, cynicism and apathy.

His next novel, Sankya, explored the staggeringly bleak conditions in the Russian provinces, analyzing the forces that drive young Russians to reject “mainstream” society for radical politics. Sankya won the All China prize for best foreign novel in 2007; a year later, Prilepin won the National Bestseller prize in his own country for his follow up, Sins. Prilepin’s books have been translated into numerous languages, but (surprise, surprise) not English.

Yet even with multiple prize winners and controversial bestsellers in its stable, Ad Marginem struggles to survive. The company is tiny and operates with a staff of four. Average sales of a title range from 3,000-5,000, normal for Russian publishing, but a figure which is trending downwards: “Every day we fight for survival,” says Ivanov, “…with no guarantee of success. Of course, our reputation helps keep us afloat, but overall the trend is negative.”

Distribution Troubles, Indie Bookstores Struggling

Ivanov says that while the once rampant piracy of the 1990s is no longer much of a problem, book distribution remains a major issue. In the 1990s many small booksellers which had emerged in the aftermath of the collapse of the USSR were consolidated into mega-firms which were monopolized by large publishers interested only in shifting the maximum number of top sellers, and it became difficult to place his books.

Last year one of these large chains — Bookberry — collapsed, leaving $10,000 unpaid to Ad Marginem. However according to Ivanov the last 18 months have seen a small revival in smaller bookstores, a trend which he hopes will continue. And unlike many other small presses in Russia, Ad Marginem can usually count on getting two to three of their titles into the mainstream marketplace each year and selling 10,000+ copies — although “most of the profit goes into the pockets of intermediaries.” Ad Marginem’s formidable reputation also helps with the sale of foreign rights, and Ivanov has sold books to 15 countries, from Estonia to China, with Germany his biggest market.

Yet however difficult publishing may get, Ivanov is not about to give up.

“We have learned the skills of survival in Putin’s era of glamor and, despite everything, have remained true to ourselves. The main obstacle we face is a primitive corporate-bureaucratic ‘market’ that kills any independent players, and the absence of any mechanisms to support independent publishing at both the private and public level.

“But we also have an advantage: that literature here may still — as it did in the ’50s and ’60s in the West — play the role of a social and cultural ‘irritant’ and, for example, compel a billionaire such as Pyotr Aven (the president of Russia’s Alpha Bank) to write a crushingly negative review of Prilepin’s novel Sanka. Therefore, as Subcomandante Marcos said, ‘the story is not over for us yet.'”

Daniel Kalder’s most recent book is Strange Telescopes. Visit him online at

VISIT: Ad Marginem’s Web site

PERUSE: More about Zahar Prilepin

READ: An excerpt from Edward Limonov’s Book of Water

DISCUSS: Does literature still have the power to irritate the powers-that-be?

About the Author

Daniel Kalder

Daniel Kalder is an author and journalist originally from Scotland, currently based in Texas after a ten year stint spent living in the former USSR where he (more or less) picked up Russian. He has written two books about Russian life and culture and contributes features, reviews and travel pieces to publications around the world.