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Preparations for the Red Square Book Festival in central Moscow on June 2, 2020.

‘There are probably literature lovers in the Kremlin’ Moscow’s annual ‘Red Square Book Festival’ goes forward despite ban on mass events

Source: Meduza
Preparations for the Red Square Book Festival in central Moscow on June 2, 2020.
Preparations for the Red Square Book Festival in central Moscow on June 2, 2020.
“Moscow” Agency

This year, Moscow is hosting its annual Red Square Book Festival over the weekend of June 6–8, despite the fact that the capital has yet to lift lockdown restrictions. The festival’s visitors will have to undergo temperature checks, wear gloves and masks, and practice social distancing. Nevertheless, the majority of Russian publishers have refused to partake in the event, out of fear of the spread of COVID-19, and anticipation of small crowds.

A smaller festival with the same price tag

The Red Square Book Festival is one of the biggest book events in central Moscow — it has taken place across from the Kremlin each June since 2015. Last year, it lasted six days, drew a total of 300,000 people, and was attended by well-known writers like Evgeny Vodolazkin, Edvard Radzinsky, and Sergey Lukyanenko, as well as high-profile journalists Vladimir Pozner and Tina Kandelaki.

That said, this year’s festival will take place while Moscow is still on lockdown: the city has yet to lift self-isolation restrictions, so attendees will require additional QR-codes, as well as their usual digital passes needed to leave the house during the pandemic. Children under the age of seven and people over the age of 65 will also be refused entry.

Admission is free, but Russia’s public health watchdog, Rospotrebnadzor, has recommended that no more than 18,000 people visit the three-day festival, and entry be limited to 1,000 people at a time.

Temperature check will be conducted at the entrance, and all visitors are expected to wear masks and gloves, and maintain a social distance of 1.5 meters (approximately 5 feet). The festival grounds will also include disinfectant stations, and all festival participants are expected to undergo coronavirus testing. 

This year’s festival will cost its organizer, Russia’s Federal Agency for Press and Mass Communications (Rospechat) 45 million rubles (that’s $657,450), according to data from the government’s public procurement website. This money will go towards paying the contractor, the Russian Book Union, to organize four main attractions: Fiction, Non-fiction, Children’s Literature and the “Museum Line.” According to last year’s contract, there were eight of these attractions — but the price was exactly the same, 45 million rubles.

The majority of publishers backed out

According to the organizers, there will be half as many publishers attending this year’s festival — meaning that there will be only 200 publishers, instead of the usual 400. However, as of June 2, the Red Square Book Festival program only included events involving eight publishers, and most of them are smaller companies, with the exception of Russia’s largest publishing company, Eksmo-ACT. Moreover, the majority of the publishers attending are from Moscow, which is a far cry from last year’s festival, which drew publishers from 52 Russian regions.

The list of authors expected to attend includes Andrey Rubanov, Sergey Shargunov, and poet Dmitry Vodennikov. Other authors are opting to tune in online — like Darya Dontsova and Oleg Roy. Many of the planned sessions will be led by the employees of state institutions, including the Russian State Children’s Library, the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, the Vladimir Dahl Russian State Literature Museum, as well as teachers and employees of the government newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta. 

In an interview with Novaya Gazeta, Deputy Press Minister Vladimir Grigoryev said that they did not postpone the festival, because it is “very important to support literature and the entire book industry.” Publishers don’t have to pay to participate in the Red Square festival, but the majority of Russia’s most well-known publishing houses refused to attend this year (a number of publishers confirmed their refusal for Meduza, as well as the BBC Russian Service). 

Pavel Podkosov, general director of the imprint “Alpina Non-Fiction,” told Meduza that the date of the festival is usually announced several months in advance, giving publishing houses time to prepare. But this year, the decision to hold the festival was announced just 10 days before the start date.

“There are so many minuses that the pluses aren’t even visible,” Podkosov said. “And mainly, we don’t understand the motivation — why carry it out right now?”

“When the letter came from the organizing committee [saying] that the festival will take place on June 6, I assumed that they mixed up the months and were either talking about July or August,” said Alla Shteynman, the director of “Fantom-Press.” 

Fantom-Press is one of the many publishers that will not make an appearance at this year’s festival. “Absolutely not, despite my tender love for this festival,” Shteynman said. “I don’t want to risk my life, or the lives of my colleagues. To spend two months in quarantine, which, by the way, isn’t over yet, and then go out first thing and work at a three-day festival, where the risk of infection is very high, is a farce, in my opinion.” 

Russia’s largest publishing house, Eksmo-ACT decided to participate in the event despite the aforementioned difficulties. They will be presenting about a dozen new products at this year’s book festival, including Margaret Atwood’s new novel The Testaments (a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale). 

For the sake of the Kremlin’s literature lovers

Even though bookstores reopened in Moscow on June 1, mass events are still banned under quarantine restrictions, and will likely be the last on the list for authorization. On Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin’s blog, it still says that any recreational activities involving citizens are prohibited, including open-air events. 

According to the BBC, the Mayor didn’t give permission for hosting the festival, but it turns out that doesn’t matter. “It’s not needed. [Red Square] is federal land,” a source from the mayor’s office said.

When asked why the event was allowed to go forward during the lockdown, Deputy Press Minister Vladimir Grigoryev told Novaya Gazeta that it’s “probably because there are literature lovers in the government, and in the Kremlin and the State Duma.” 

In response to Meduza’s request for comment, the festival’s organizing committee suggested that we join its online press conference on June 4. 

Story by Anastasia Yakoreva

Summary by Eilish Hart

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