SNOB: Billionaire Backs Rebirth of the Russian Literary Magazine

In Europe by Edward Nawotka

It’s difficult to find a Russian author of note who has not written for SNOB, billionaire Mikhail Prokorov’s luxury lit mag.

By Daniel Kalder

Going back to the 19th century literary journals have played an important role in Russian culture. Indeed, no lesser a figure than Dostoevsky edited not one, but two following his return from Siberian exile. After 1917, though the politics changed, the popularity of the literary periodical never waned. Legendary “thick” journals of the Soviet era, such as Novy Mir, enjoyed circulations in the millions -– frankly, there there wasn’t much on Soviet TV -– with readership peaking during Glasnost as hitherto banned works such as Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago first saw print in their pages. With the new found freedoms of the 1990s came the less cerebral attractions of Playboy and Vogue and today, only a few pathetic survivors of an earlier age manage to survive in a post apocalyptic cultural landscape.

Well, okay, admittedly, it’s not that bad. For the last three years the billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, officially Russia’s second richest man, has been publishing the beautifully designed but unappealingly titled SNOB, a luxury magazine targeted at the ever increasing number of Russians hungry for sophisticated pleasures. Today it is is on sale not only in Moscow, but also in Rome, London and New York (but not, apparently across the Hudson River where Prokhorov also owns the local professional basketball franchise, the New Jersey Nets). One of the many pleasures the magazine offers is literary prose by a veritable “who’s who” of Russia’s greatest living authors (and the occasional dead one).

Sergey Nikolaev, a veteran of the Russian magazine industry, now serves as the literary editor of SNOB.

Mikhail Prokhorov

“The SNOB project,” says Nikolaev, “consists not only of the paper version — the magazine — but also a website of the same name. This media project was conceived by its creators for ‘their own kind,’ so to speak…as a rare opportunity for communication between people who are close in spirit, who have a similar background, and who share the same basic values and attitudes. The audience is thoroughly cosmopolitan, and this makes communication truly meaningful, transporting it beyond the parameters of any one country or national culture…As a result, the project managed in record time to gather together a circle of participants of uniquely high quality, including well-known intellectuals and members of the artistic elite, as well as famous business people living both in Russia and outside her borders.”

First, You Must Love Writers

Most issues of Snob contain a mix of journalism and literary content, although some are dedicated to a purely literary experience. The most recent such issue — the December 2010/January 2011 release — centered on the theme “All About My Father.” Nikolaev succeeded in attracting contributors ranging from legends of the soviet underground such as Viktor Erefeev and Yuri Mamleev, to current literary superstars Zakhar Prilepin and Olga Slavnikova and Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. The multiple prize winning author and cultural provocateur Vladimir Sorokin (who’s novels we wrote about earlier this month) maintains a personal blog at the SNOB website.

In fact, it’s difficult to find a Russian author of note who has not written for SNOB. When asked, Nikolaev can think of only one author he admires whose work he has not yet published: Larissa Ulitskaya, a past winner of the Russian Booker Prize.

So: is this list of illustrious contributors just a result of billionaire backing? Although he does not deny that it helps, Nikolaev doubts that it is simply Prokhorov’s deep pockets that draw so much literary star power to SNOB:

“You must love writers. It is complicated. When a relationship is built on love, money is less important. Fortunately it just so happens that I have always stood outside the literary camps, all the different groupings and clans. I love to admire talent and — it seems to me — I am able to admire talent. Maybe it is in this ability that my sole editorial gift lies. And so all this time I have endeavored to keep SNOB away from the extremes of assessment and opinion. As Trigorin says in Chekhov’s “Seagull”: “Why push? There is enough space for everyone. ”

Sometimes SNOB’S literary content is clearly defined and easily identifiable — for instance, each issue contains an excerpt from a novel and also a short story. However Nikolaev also publishes literary non-fiction. How then does he maintain a distinction between the purely “journalistic” content (which has its own editor, the Russian-American author Masha Gessen) and the “literary” non-fiction he commissions?

“Everything depends on the quality and class of text. I think that a professional must be able to do everything. I remember that Lyudmila Petrushevskaya described the fashion shows in Paris for us. And the piece was charming, ironic, smart, and terribly funny. In fact it was great literature, but in reportage format. By and large, I assume that these days it is practically impossible to surprise the reader with some hitherto hidden information, or a stunning exclusive. But you can write with memorable intonation, unexpected insight, paradox, or some original way of thinking. And more: emotion. We have forgotten how it is to be, we are afraid of appearing too sensitive or sentimental. But emotion — it’s the only thing that can be shared, that can easily connect, so as to hold our attention for a long period.’

SNOB’S reputation for unstinting dedication to quality has resulted in some major coups, foremost of which was the first publication anywhere of chapters from Vladimir Nabokov’s The Original of Laura. Literary prose by acclaimed contemporary authors such as Mikhail Shishkin and Alexander Illichivsk which first appeared in SNOB has won prestigious awards. SNOB also published correspondence between Nabokov and his wife Vera before anyone in the West:

“I am proud of the Nabokov we have published in SNOB,’ says Nikolaev.”Obtaining those pieces was so difficult it was torture. But we did it! I am also happy that SNOB was the first to release a CD of the songs of Ludmila Petrushevskaya, which went out with last year’s summer issue. I knew how important it was to her to appear in this new capacity, returning her to old readers and finding new ones. SNOB helped her in this. We persuaded Tatiana Tolstoya to start writing her memoirs. And the first sample of her memoir was published in our November issue last year…probably the most amazing thing is when an independent, original work of art suddenly emerges out of nothing, from a phrase you dropped accidentally, like Shishkin’s prize winning short story. And your task is simply to encourage, to support, to inspire, and well, something else…to obtain money.”

Strong Sales Leads to Book Publishing

However success for Nikolaev is not only measured in prizes and acclaim. The purely literary issues of SNOB sell well, as a result of which he has plans to extend his editorial efforts outside of the magazine:

“This year I want to launch several literary projects: the collection of interviews SNOB-Talk, and the collection of stories SNOB-Story. This month the book All About My Father, based on the December issue of our magazine will be released jointly with the AST publishing house. There are several projects and books written specifically for SNOB which are still in the planning stages. But I’d rather not talk about those in detail while the formalities of contracts and copyrights are incomplete. I can say that the books could become a real cultural event. Their authors are the brightest, most talented and brilliant people of our time, with whom I have been connected through many years of friendship and admiration.”

Given that SNOB has been such a success, Nikolaev might be forgiven for feeling rather proud of his efforts at revitalizing the literary periodical in Russia. All of the magazine’s competitors in this area have comparatively tiny circulations. However when asked if he thinks that there is a link between his magazine and the legendary “thick” journals of the soviet era and earlier, he responds with enthusiasm — but also characteristic humility:

“Oh, yes! Or at least, I would like to flatter myself the illusion that there is some kind of continuity. It’s probably no coincidence that when the first literature issue of SNOB (July-August 2009) was released, Vladimir Sorokin told me that this was indeed a new kind of literary magazine, which has been needed for a long time. Especially since — due to the well-known difficulties with distribution and minuscule print runs — the traditional thick magazines have become ‘magazines for mutual reading.’ I would like to offer our readers a new format, combining intelligent literary content with a striking, glossy form. Hence the theatrically staged photography, games with fonts, numerous book illustrations, advertising pages, etc. A new time dictates a new form for the literary magazine. We tried to find it and test it on the literary issues of SNOB, which found both a large readership and commercial success. They sell well, and advertisers come here gladly with their advertising. And it’s also a kind of alternative to the all absorbing and ubiquitous Internet. In so doing however, we must understand that we will never have a print run in excess of a million, as happened with Novy Mir. Those times have passed without hope of return.”

Revitalizing Patronage of the Arts

The literary journal is not the only Russian tradition SNOB has helped revitalize, however. The magazine is also a sign of the increasing interest Russia’s wealthiest individuals have in supplying patronage to the arts, to culture and beauty, following the general rape-and-pillage free for all of the 1990s. As Nikolaev points out when I suggest that it is strange to see so many ex-dissidents now writing for a billionaire pillar of the establishment:

“At all times and eras, there have been patrons of the arts, who have considered it their duty to support different talents. It seems to me that Mikhail Prokhorov has good taste, or at least he has some very qualified advisers. I am thinking not only about SNOB, but also the publishing house NLO, which is run by his sister Irina Prokhorova, and also the “NOS” literary award, which was established with money from the Prokhorov Fund, and which this year went to Vladimir Sorokin. The mutation of the underground into the establishment – that is a natural and correct process. Snob is merely a graphic example of it. We cannot invent or write another literature, we can only serve it up beautifully and tastefully to you, discovering new talent and new names along the way. So take pleasure in it! Enjoy it!”

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

DISCUSS: Is There a Print Future for Literary Magazines?

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.