It seems to me that the increased range of titles available to the Russian market and the easy availability of books almost everywhere you look in Russia more than compensates for the decline in the total number of copies printed. When the USSR still existed, much printed material qualified as "books" simply because it consisted of paper with words on it, bound between covers. I can't imagine that there was much real demand for the multi-volume sets of the collected speeches of Leonid Brezhnev or weighty tomes on Leninist aesthetics that seemed to be the only things you could find at Dom Knigi in those days. I'm sure they were great for propping open doors or ballasting ships, but there's no way anyone even so much as cracked the spines on any of them. To my mind, it makes little sense to talk about a decline in the number of books produced since 1991, because there are probably more actual books--in the sense of something that somebody, sometime, might actually read--printed in Russia today than at any time in Russian history.
It is very regrettable that some segments of the Russian publishing industry, notably scientific and technical publishing, seem to have fallen on hard times, but this seems to reflect the overall decline in Russian science, and in any case does not detract from the thriving market in literature. Even taking into account the fact that a lot of what's being printed is little more than chtivo, high-quality literature is far more widely available than it ever was under Communism. Books may be priced more relative to salaries than they were fifteen or twenty years ago, but given that Russians were generally happy to pay much, much more than the cover price for titles that were in actual demand (an acquaintance of mine once sold a volume of Akhmatova at a markup that would make a Superbowl ticket scalper blush), it's possible that their cost in real terms has actually fallen. There might be a danger of consolidation of the publishing industry that would lead to less diversity, but right now, by supplying a product that a lot of people want at a price they can afford, the steadily growing Russian publishing industry has become one of the few unambiguously bright spots in an otherwise grim economic and political picture. It's a pity the rest of Russian industry hasn't followed a similar pattern.
John E. Squier
Program Officer for Russia and Ukraine
The National Endowment for Democracy
1101 Fifteenth St. NW, Suite 700
Washington, DC 20005
Work: (202) 293-9072 x632
Fax: (202) 223-6042