March 27, 2007
Reading Is Going the Way of the Soviet Union
By Nabi Abdullaev
Yulia Ageyeva, a 14-year-old ninth-grader, grasped for words when asked to name any book that she had read aside from those assigned in school last year.
"Well, I kinda don't remember," she said pensively. "Does Cosmopolitan count as a book?"
Asked the same question, few of her 20 classmates in a southern Moscow school could name more than two books they had read recently and summarize what they were about. The books that they did mention usually featured Harry Potter.
"This is a crying shame for a nation that once boasted being the best-read in the world," said their blushing literature teacher, who asked not to be identified. She said she was among the few teachers actually encouraging schoolchildren to read more.
Her students, however, are not picking up more books. Their excuses for not reading include "It takes too much time, there aren't many good books," and "you can find anything you need on the Internet."
Young people aren't the only ones avoiding books. A voracious reader in her teens, realtor Svetlana Kazakova, 34, said she can't make it past two pages now and that is why she has turned to glossy magazines.
"With books, I start falling asleep in two minutes. I'd rather watch TV," she said. "Anyway, I can't devote hours to reading. A story should be short enough to be read during a metro ride."
As technology advances, many countries are experiencing a sharp decline in reading. But for Russia, which not so long ago prided itself for its well-read and broadly educated population, the decline is being interpreted as nothing short of a catastrophe.
Only 63 percent of Russians read at least one book a year, compared to 79 percent in 1991, according to a survey by the Federal Press and Mass Media Agency. Among young people, the figure has dropped to just 28 percent from 48 percent.
The tradition of families reading together is disappearing as well. Eighty percent of parents read to their children in the 1970s, compared with only 7 percent today.
Newspapers are seeing a decline in popularity. Sixty-one percent of Russians read them every day in 1991, compared with 24 percent now.
Another survey indicated that the number of textbooks that the average student reads in a month has dropped from four in 1991 to one in 2005. "And they entirely forget half of the books that they have read," said Vladimir Sobkin, head of the Center for Sociology of Education, part of the Russian Academy of Education, which carried out the survey.
Sobkin said adventure books and romance novels, which were popular among Soviet teenagers, have been almost entirely edged out by fantasy books and assigned reading for literature classes.
"If this tendency continues, our children will read only what they are told to read in school," Sobkin said.
Fewer books mean less educated generations to come, casting a cloud over Russia's future as an advanced technological power.
"The decline in reading is leading to the mental exhaustion of the nation," said Oleg Poptsov, president of the Eurasian Academy of Television and Radio. "In 10 years, we will have people incapable of carrying out the tasks standing before the country."
Alarmed, the federal and Moscow city governments are seeking to promote a return to reading.
In January, the Federal Press and Mass Media Agency drafted a national program to boost the popularity of reading with a media campaign and the development of more libraries and bookstores.
"We had an effective infrastructure for reading in the Soviet Union. Now we have to restore it," said Vladimir Grigoryev, an adviser to agency chief Mikhail Seslavinsky.
Western Europe has about 60 bookstores per 100,000 people, he said, but Moscow has eight per 100,000 people and the national average is less than four.
The Cabinet is reviewing the program and is expected to offer proposals of its own on May 1, Grigoryev said.
The Moscow city government intends to adopt a two-year program this spring that will spend $24 million on 115 projects, including the publishing of books for the blind and the filming of Russian classical novels for the city-owned TV Center channel.
As City Hall discussed the program last month, Mayor Yury Luzhkov suggested turning the city's 2,000 casinos into bookstores and libraries. The casinos are to be closed under restrictive new gambling legislation.
"Let us transform these centers of gambling addiction into centers of reading addiction," Luzhkov said.
Other countries have adopted reading programs, some as early as the 1980s. In Britain, for example, celebrities speak of their favorite books on the BBC's "Big Read" show, and viewers are encouraged to vote for their favorites.
While the decline of interest in books is a worldwide phenomenon, it has hit Russia harder than some countries due to the difficult economic transition after communism.
"The whole system of values in which literature and reading enjoyed a very high status in Russian society has collapsed. Reading has stopped being a cultural norm," said Valeria Stelmakh, a researcher with the Russian State Library.
Literature has long been closely associated with spirituality and morality in this country, but no longer. Only 1 percent of 1,600 people surveyed in January said reading books would increase morality.
Higher salaries and media censorship fared much better, according to the pollster, the Public Opinion Foundation.
Television and other forms of multimedia that inform and entertain but demand little mental effort have also undercut books, said Alexander Gavrilov, editor of Knizhnoye Obozreniye, a newspaper about literature.
Young people are not as enthralled as their parents were in fiction due to an overall lack of romanticism in the realities of modern Russia, said Natalya Kryukova, a researcher with the Institute of Culturology.
"Fiction no longer prepares young people to live in the very pragmatic modern Russia, so there is no popular demand for it," she said.