Russia's proposed book ban How a new law against ‘denying family values’ would spell disaster for the Russian literary market
On July 18, Russian State Duma deputies introduced a bill that would put “denying family values and promoting non-traditional sexual orientations” on par with “inciting ethnic hatred and propagating pornography.” If the bill gets signed into law, it’s sure to do serious damage to Russia’s cultural sphere; it requires, for example, that the government stop granting distribution licenses to films that “promote the denial of family values.” On the print media front, things are looking just as bleak. Meduza literary critic Galina Yuzefovich explains how the proposed law could affect Russia’s publishing industry.
A new bill introduced in the State Duma by a coalition of deputies from Russia’s Communist Party and the party A Just Russia equates the “propaganda,” “popularization,” and even “sympathetic depiction” of LGBT+ people with materials promoting war, extremism, drugs, and suicide. The bill's explanatory note puts a special emphasis on film and Internet materials, but if the law gets passed, the consequences for Russia’s book market could be just as dire.
“If I hadn’t seen the current bestsellers in the major chain bookstores, I would say this isn’t a big deal,” said Ivan Chernyavsky, owner of the comic book store Chuk and Geek. “But the fact is that the two of today’s bestsellers are the Chinese danmei novel ‘Heaven Official's Blessing’ by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu and [the Russian graphic novel] ‘Summer in a Pioneer Tie’ by Katerina Silvanova and Yelena Malisova. Both books came out of fanfiction culture, and both depict gay relationships in different ways and in different settings. ‘Heaven Official's Blessing’ came out at the end of last year and has already sold over 100,000 copies, while ‘Summer’ sold 250,000 before the current scandal. So if you look at the situation from a purely mathematical point of view, pulling those sales from the market is not a great idea.”
In Russia, all books that mention same-sex relationships or certain other things that fall outside of the “norm” (as defined by the government) are marked with 18+ stickers and wrapped in clear plastic film — even books intended for teenage audiences. For now, that packaging is usually enough to avoid fines and legal trouble.
Occasionally, though, it’s not. Recently, for example, traditionalist activists began sending teenagers into bookstores to try to buy “Summer in a Pioneer Tie” and other restricted books without presenting their passports. Each time a store employee let a teen buy a book without showing ID, the activists reported it to the police.
Still, the packaging has generally been an effective way for booksellers to stay out of trouble. “Before, if we saw a kiss on the cheek between two girls in a completely innocent book, we would just go ahead and wrap it up [in plastic] because we knew failing to do that might cost us,” said Chernyavsky. “But if they pass the current bill, that won't work any more.”
The industry members most worried about the ban on LGBT+ content are comic book publishers; it’s their business that’s most likely to be most affected.
“There are only four books in our catalog that mention the topic,” said Dmitry Yakovlev, director of the comic book publishing company Bumkniga. “One of them is [Marjane Satrapi's autobiographical graphic novel] ‘Persepolis,’ one of our longtime bestsellers (currently on its fifth printing). But the only one that features [queerness] as a central theme is Alison Bechdel’s ‘Fun Home.’ Which means [the new law] won’t affect us too much. Or at least not immediately. On the other hand, after this law is passed, we won’t be able to publish comics that even touch on the topic. So we’re thinking about taking our business outside of Russia. But I know that means that we’ll have fewer readers, smaller print runs, and higher prices. And even if we import our books to Russia, who knows if we’ll be able to sell them.”
The popularity of comics featuring LGBT+ characters peaked in Russia in the early 2010s. At that point, some of the most sought-after comics in the market were Japanese yaoi ones, whose plots always feature relationships between young men. “There was nothing shocking in them — it was likely [a result of] the allure of the ban,” said Ivan Chernyavsky.
While the popularity of yaoi and similar comics has begun to decline in the last decade, nearly half of all comic books sold in Russia today mention LGBT+ issues. Publishers and booksellers are unsure how to respond to the issues the new law would present; no matter what the its final version looks like, all of those books are at risk. “Opponents of ‘non-traditional values’ simply can’t imagine how much will be lost if this ban is put in place,” said Chernyavsky.
If the law passes, comic book publishers will have to resort to new ways of circumventing censorship.
“There’s currently a lot of interest in Russia in Chinese novellas, which always feature LGBT elements,” said Dmitry Yakovlev. “They’re published online first, and then a censored version is published as a physical copy. The Chinese copyright holders allow publishers to make changes to the print versions — to rewrite and alter certain sections. Nobody has a problem with it, because the audience reads everything online first anyways. Our colleagues from other publishing companies will likely start relying more heavily on this strategy than they have before. But it will be harder for publishers who work with European and American authors.
And if the law is passed, comic book publishers aren’t the only ones who will take a hit — literature as a whole will. “In modern books, just like in life, issues surrounding homosexuality have long since become commonplace,” said Igor Alyukov, editor-in-chief of Phantom Press. “Bans on mentioning the topic at all are tantamount to severe censorship. On one hand, as publishers, we’ll have to approach our book selection very carefully, and on the other, we’re not going to censor our authors. It’s better not to publish a book at all than to ‘circumcise’ it.”
The Russian publishing market is already facing serious difficulties, including a shortage of paper and printing facilities, a withdrawal of Western copyright holders, and reduced damage for print books; the additional restraints the law would impose could make their work effectively impossible. Publishing a new book will entail finding one guaranteed to sell well enough to compensate for the inordinate cost of its printing that also doesn’t even hint at LGBT+ issues and whose author is willing to work with a Russian company.
Another important question is whether the law will take effect retroactively. Right after the war started, many publishers decided to ramp up printing, hoping to “beat the storm” and create stockpiles of their books as a failsafe against future printing difficulties. If the new law applies to books that have already been published, these extra books — many of which were printed on credit or on a company’s last remaining assets — will be at risk.
“I really hope that books that have already been published and released in stores won’t be withdrawn,” said Chuk and Geek owner Ivan Chernyavsky. “Maybe they won’t get additional printings, but books that have already been printed should be allowed to be sold. I don’t even want to think about what will happen if they’re not.”
The same thing applies to books that are ready for publication. “We’re not going to turn away from writers we’ve been working with for a long time who write about LGBT+ people, like Stephen Fry, John Boyne, and others,” said Igor Alyukov. “We’ve been publishing them and we’ll continue to publish them — at least for now.”
But the bill’s main problem is the ambiguity of the term “propaganda.” At least for now, it’s not clear what the term covers and what it doesn’t, and that, according to Igor Alyukov, gives a lot of freedom to the authorities and to “concerned citizens.” Any mention of LGBT+ people that’s not explicitly disapproving will be fair game for litigation or penalties.
Applying the term “propaganda” to Russia’s book market is, at the very least, a strange use of words. “Books today don’t contain any LGBT propaganda per se,” said Yevgeny Kapyev, general director of the Eksmo publishing group. “Everything is hinted at, and there's nothing obscene — it’s certainly not PornHub. But that’s under the current laws. What comes next is anyone’s guess.”
Leonid Shkurovich, general director of the publishing group Azbuka-Attikus, agreed. “I know for a fact that we’ve never published ‘propaganda,’ and we have no plans to. So I hope this law’s introduction doesn’t affect our work. But we won’t know for sure until we have the chance to study the law’s final text,” he said.
The consequences of the new bill may be unpredictable, but one thing is sure: if it’s passed, there will be fewer books in Russia — and the continued existence of many of the country’s bookstores and publishing companies will come under threat as well.