The Pushkin Mob.

Another quote from Marcus C. Levitt’s Russian Literary Politics and the Pushkin Celebration of 1880 (see the Cachucha post); he’s been talking about the government’s nervousness about the approaching anniversary of Pushkin’s death and their attempts to prevent celebrations (which they feared would be a pretext for expressions of liberal opinion):

The actual anniversary day, January 29, 1887, passed very quietly. Prayers for Pushkin were conducted in many churches and in most academic institutions, and universities and scholarly societies held their own special commemorative sessions. On the next day, however, when the fifty-year copyright on Pushkin’s works expired, there was pandemonium at the bookstores. It suddenly became quite clear just how popular Pushkin had become. At Suvorin’s Novoe Vremia bookstore on Nevsky Prospect in St. Petersburg, which had advertised its own, inexpensive new edition of Pushkin, riots actually broke out. Despite extra sales help, prepackaged books, and other precautions, when the doors opened, reported Suvorin’s paper, the store could not handle the mob:

The salespeople and cashiers were run off their feet; some members of the public climbed up onto the tables and over the counters, and grabbed their change themselves. By 11 [A.M.] the store presented a picture of havoc: there were mounds of ripped apart, soiled books that had been trampled heaped up in disorder in the corners and on the counters, books that they hadn’t managed to clear away in time; there was smashed furniture that had been thrown onto the floor; and the cashier’s booth was knocked over, and the financial record books all crumpled and stamped upon. Attempts to reason [with the crowd] had had no effect.

By noon, with the help of the police, the entire stock of six thousand books was sold out and the store was closed. It was a half-day unparalleled in history of the Russian book trade.

He goes on to say that in the half-century since Pushkin’s death no more than 60,000 copies of his works had been sold; more books than that were sold in the single day described above, and “During the next two to three days, five new editions came out, each of about 40,000 copies; the next ones were published in even larger numbers.” In the next year, well over a million (and possibly more than two million) copies of Pushkin works were published: “Spearheaded by the surging demand for Pushkin’s works, Russian publishing by absolute or relative standards expanded at a rate fantastic for any country. By the eve of World War I, the Russian publishing industry, second only to that of Germany, was outpublishing Great Britain, France, and the United States combined.”

Comments

  1. Since no one commented yet, I think I should mention that it is an awesome story (and that any corroborating statistics about the output of book publishing industry in Russia and its dynamics are appreciated)

  2. It is indeed an awesome story. He references his statistics to L. N. Pavlenkov, “Periodicheskie izdaniia i knizhnoe delo v Rossii v 1887 godu,” Istoricheskii vestnik, no. 4 (1888), 240–48; P. N. Berkov and B. M. Lavrov, eds., Bibliografiia proizvedeniia A. S. Pushkina i literatury o nem, 1886–1899 (M-L: AN SSSR, 1949); and Maurice Friedberg, Russian Classics in Soviet Jackets (New York: Columbia University Press, 1962).

  3. My impression is that right through the Soviet period and maybe even today, the Russian publishing industry has been pretty vigorous. Is that true?

    Prayers for Pushkin? He would have scoffed.

  4. Soviet publishing industry published lots of boring trash no one wanted to read.

    Stuff people actually wanted to read (Anglo-American SF, for example) was available at the black market for very high prices (ten times the nominal price was not unheard of).

  5. Also, the Russian publishing industry went through very hard times after the fall of communism, since it had become thoroughly accustomed to existing on government subsidies and publishing what the government/Party wanted, but in the course of the 1990s it figured out how to make a profit (causing much upset among the intelligentsia, who were horrified that the bookstores were suddenly full of detective novels, romance, and other such “trash”).

  6. Fascinating story!
    (Note: it wouldn’t have happened without the combined success of Alexander II liberal reforms and the populists’s movement to improve mass literacy, and of course the growth of middle class, raznotchintsy. And high author’s fees! Suvorin paid Chekhov 5 kopecks per line, roughly 5 words, when 10 kopeck would buy a pound of bacon and 20 a pound of veal)

    /accustomed to existing on government subsidies and publishing what the government/Party wanted, but in the course of the 1990s it figured out how to make a profit/
    not quite, publishing still relies heavily on state subsidies and state orders, especially academic and education material. In fact, there were instances when publishers were assassinated by contract killers in the fight for a share of state-supported orders for risk-free publications, e.g. school books.

  7. Yeah, but that’s an entirely different province of publishing. People aren’t lining up to buy the Collected Works of Lenin, or Gorky for that matter.

  8. Hands off Lenin and Gorky! They’re good for lining the walls. And nice colour.
    🙂

  9. Stu Clayton says:
  10. But volume 37 has his Letter to the American Workers and his Notes on Shale!

  11. No doubt Lenin was calling for shale revolution

  12. 🙂

  13. David Marjanović says:

    Once my sister couldn’t sleep. So I read to her from Lenin’s collected works. It worked.

    (I’m not sure for what kind of research purposes we have them at home, in German.)

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