How a Book Fair Forever Changed US/Soviet Literary Relations

In English Language by Kevin DiCamillo

Moscow International Book Fair interior

From its origins in 1977 the Moscow International Book Fair has grown into a huge and popular annual event, one that includes many Western publishers.

Martin Levin recounts how the inaugural Moscow Book Fair opened its doors to American and Western publishers, fostering better US/Soviet relations through the years.

By Martin P. Levin, as told to Kevin DiCamillo

Martin Levin

Martin Levin

Martin P. Levin attended the first meeting of the Soviets and the American publishers, which led to the US participation in the inaugural Moscow Book Fair. In addition he set up pioneering joint ventures between U.S. and Soviet companies in the arts and sciences, opened the first U.S. book store in Moscow, and was instrumental in bringing the Russian language version of the Readers Digest to the U.S.S.R. Here is his story…

Next year it will be over half a century since the Soviet hierarchy and a delegation of 10 senior American publishers met in Friendship House in Moscow. The Russian delegation was composed of 60 book publishers, editors, copyright experts from VAAP (the copyright agency), and officials of the State Committee of Publishing, led by Boris Stukalin, a member of the U.S.S.R Counsel of Ministers. The American group was let by Townsend Hoopes, the President of the American Association of Publishers.

The American delegation was attracted, in part, by the invitation and the opportunity to attend the opera Boris Godunov at the Bolshoi, the Don Quixote ballet at the Kirov Theatre, followed by sightseeing in Moscow and Leningrad. Indeed, at the time, it was rare for Americans to be granted visas to visit the Soviet Union. Members of the American delegation were eager to have a dialogue to see what the Soviets would to propose to help assure their attendance at the following year’s inaugural Moscow Book Fair. At the end of the week, after some very dark hours and not without adventure, there was enough progress made that a majority of the American delegation were likely (even with personal reservations) to attend the first Moscow Book Fair on September 6, 1977.

Objections from Home

When the American delegation formally announced their intention to attend the Moscow Book Fair, The New York Times, wrote about it under the headline, “Selling Out at Moscow’s Book Fair”, arguing that American publishers should not attend because of the likelihood of censorship of our books, the unfair treatment of the Russian Jews, and the detainment of major Russian authors in prison camps. Despite the strong objection from American’s newspaper of record, the first Moscow Book Fair opened in 1977 with 1,500 exhibitors — 900 represented Western publishing firms, including 25 from the United States.

To overcome one of the major objections raised by the American delegation at the first meeting, the Israeli Government was invited. The Israeli publishers brought over 500 books to the Fair covering every part of Jewish life, including prayer books in Hebrew and Yiddish that had not been displayed in the Soviet Union since the Stalin era. The Soviets had made a major step forward by inviting Israel, a country with whom they did not have diplomatic relations — and whom they had consistently opposed in surrogate wars.

Mild Censorship, Huge Audiences

The log of the Moscow International Book Fair

The log of the Moscow International Book Fair

The Soviet custom officials refused to clear only 12 books of the 5,000 American texts on display and squelched just two catalogues of the 25 publishers. Independent American journalists estimated that more than 130,000 people from all walks of Soviet life attended that first Moscow Book Fair. Long lines began to queue at 10:00 a.m. although no exhibitor was allowed to sell rights to their books. The Soviet citizens were amazed and delighted at the array of Western literature available for their inspection. They lined up to see and sometimes even read the books.

The amount of hard currency spent by the Soviets was reliably reported at 500,000 rubles, (about $650,000 at that time) for American-published books and 196 contracts that were signed for translation of books and journals. Even the most negative observers agreed the Moscow Book Fair was a commercial and cultural success.

Overcoming Aggravations

While the success of that first Fair provided a platform for hopeful future growth, there were numerous aggravations in the years following. For example: at the second Fair, the Administrator of the Fair somehow “misplaced” all of the Israeli catalogues — and then forced the Israelis to search the storage area on their own. The catalogues were found by sheer luck by the Israelis, avoiding a minor international fracas.

Just before the 1983 Fair, censorship, the trials of Russian dissidents, and the shooting down of the Korean Airline by a Russian fighter-jet caused a number of American publishers to boycott the Fair and hold a Fair in absentia at the New York Public Library. Also, this marked the fourth year of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which led to the American boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics (and the U.S.S.R. retaliated by boycotting the 1984 L.A. Olympics). Robert Bernstein, then President of Random House (and a vehement anti-Soviet), and Jeri Labor, secretary of the Helsinki Watch, were denied passports. Later, the British Foreign Office asked twenty-five Soviet journalists and diplomats to leave London.

However, a thaw began in 1985 — the year Mikhail Gorbachev came to power. The United States Information Agency was allowed an enormous booth to display 350 American books without Soviet censorship. “America Through American Eyes” was the booth’s moniker. The Agency distributed 30,000 books to visitors of the Fair without intervention on the part of the usually watchful hosts. And as of 1985, ever more cordial visits between the Soviets and the U.S. publishers continued in the neutral venue of the Frankfurt Book Fair.

Glasnost had begun and, after years of pleading, the United States was finally granted permission to open an American bookstore — the first in Moscow without any oversight. By now, Perestroika entered the lexicon.

Literary relations between the two nations continued to improve. In 1991, Russia allowed Reader’s Digest to establish a Russian language edition without pre-approval of the content, for distribution within Russia proper. In 1998, distribution spread to the ten former Soviet States, now sovereign nations. To this day the Digest is still published successfully with an all-Russian staff.

Growing Through the Years

The Moscow Book Fair continued to grow and prosper despite the post-Soviet problems (rampant book-piracy, a dicey economy, a war in Chechnya). The Fair had been held biannually, but it was increased to an annual Fair in 1997; this year’s event takes place from September 3 to 8.

In only 20 years, the publishing industry in Russia totally transformed itself, shifting from monolithic state-owned entities to one that is almost completely privatized. While the industry continues to face several serious challenges — beleaguered bookstores, economic issues, the transition from print-to-digital, wavering reading habits — it is not so different from that in the US, EU or other BRIC nations. It’s simply a fact that no nation’s book industry is having a particularly easy time of it during this time of transition from print-to-digital publishing. Still, this same publishing industry faced — and conquered — the challenges of 1976 and pulled off what then looked to be all but impossible: a Moscow Book Fair featuring Western “enemy” publishers. Perhaps even more incredibly, the Fair continued and grew for years thereafter. Thus, the challenges of 2015 are in publishing’s DNA — and well within their reach.

About the Author

Kevin DiCamillo

Kevin DiCamillo is a freelance editor and writer whose most recent work has been on The Pope Francis Resource Library (Crossroad Publishing). He has published three books of poetry, been anthologized in Wild Dreams: The Best of Italian-Americana, and awarded the Foley Poetry Prize from America Magazine. He has edited over 100 books for Paulist Press/HiddenSpring/Stimulus Books, Penguin/Celebra and Crossroad/Herder&Herder. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, he regularly attends the Yale Publishing Course.