Russian Book Industry Pivoting to the East?
January 29, 2024
Publisher Vladimir Kharitonov discusses the growing popularity among Russian youth of books translated from Japanese and Chinese. Yet this was not the result of the Kremlin’s turn away from the West, but rather part of a global trend. Now, the fashion for “Eastern” genres is worrying the Russian authorities.
Heaven Official’s Blessing by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu. Source: VK
The Russian book industry is indeed pivoting to the East. But not because Russia has been “canceled” by the West and Western publishers are not selling rights, but rather because book culture follows what is fashionable among young people across the world. And this does not make the Russian state very happy.
After the start of the full-scale war between Russia and Ukraine, when major Western copyright holders, one after another, began to refuse to license Russian translations of their books, the “generals” of the Russian book industry – quite in a laddish manner – in effect said, “we didn’t want it that much anyway, we can live without you, we have the East.”

The pages of the few specialized industry publications are full of news about trips of delegations of Russian publishers to book fairs in China, Korea and Indonesia. The editor-in-chief of Russia’s largest publishing house, Eksmo, proudly wrote at the beginning of March 2022: “the Iranians invited us to meet, they said, ‘43 years [we have been] under sanctions and it is nothing, life goes on’... They invited us to Tehran for a book fair. In fact, we have outlined ways to collaborate; we will do it.”

Uptick in sales of Japanese and Chinese books

I do not know how Eksmo’s collaboration with the Middle East worked out, but it seems to be going well with the Far East. The list of 50 bestselling books, which once a year is loudly presented by the largest publishing holding EKSMO/AST, along with the largest chain of bookstores Chitai Gorod-Bukvoed, the largest online retailer of paper books OZON and the largest e-book store LitRes. They basically all have the same owner: Oleg Novikov, a cofounder of Eksmo.

As many as 10 out of the 50 bestsellers are books from Japan and China. Among these 10 “books from the East” are all three volumes of the extremely popular (by Russian standards – i.e., with sales of more than 100,000 copies) Chinese fantasy Heaven Official’s Blessing by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu.

The “fashion for the East” and the accompanying increase in sales of Chinese and Japanese books are hard to miss.
The visibly increasing interest in anime subculture, of course, cannot but please Russian publishers, especially those that have printed oriental comics for years and raised an entire generation of manga and graphic novel readers.
Data on book production collected by the Russian Book Chamber generally confirms the growing interest in translations from Chinese, Korean and Japanese. Over five years – from 2018 to 2022 – the assortment of books translated from Chinese grew by more than 50%, while the print circulation of Chinese translations exploded 280%. For translations from Korean, the respective figures jumped 170% and 235%, and 110% and 280% for Japanese translations.
The Moscow International Book Fair at Gostiny Dvor. Moscow, 2023. Source: VK
Note, however, that this growth, firstly, started before Russia found itself severely sanctioned by the West and decisively reorienting toward the East, and secondly, translations from English and other European languages still make up the overwhelming majority of the production of translated literature in Russia.

The total circulation of books translated from English is approximately 15 times bigger than that of the circulation of books translated, for example, from Japanese. And this is the largest circulation of books translated from a foreign language over the past five years. Finally, in the top 50 bestsellers more than half of the books are English translations.

This is not surprising: since the 18th century, books translated from European languages take up a very large share of Russian book publishing. In the USSR, even during the years of particularly high tensions with the West, European translations – of both fiction and nonfiction – were published very actively and valued highly by readers.

No matter how much the state tried to protect the people from the “pernicious influence of Western culture,” it not only penetrated, but also became an integral part of Russian culture. Translated books are a significant part of the market. From 2018 to 2022, the share of translated books overall has increased in the assortment of new books from 14% to 18%, and in terms of books in circulation from 17% to 21%. The list of top five bestsellers for the first half of 2023 includes two Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling and two books by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu.
Even the about-turn by the largest Western publishing houses has not had (so far, at least) a significant impact on the niche of translated literature. The Russian book market, of course, suffered as a whole and shrank considerably in the first half of 2023, owing to sanctions-related problems with consumables (in particular, thread used to sew hardcover books), printing equipment (spare parts for printing machines) and rising prices amid the general economic downturn in the country. Still, the market’s overall structure has stayed the same, as has the share of translations as one of the most important categories of books.

The “Eastern trend” from the West

The surge in popularity of anime and manga among Russian youth, oddly enough, is also quite “Western.” There is nothing in it that is specifically Russian or connected with the ideological fuss kicked up by the Russian state. This popularity is an international phenomenon, as is the growing niche of manga and anime fans among older generations.

Japan, South Korea (and China somewhat) are major centers of cultural influence and big magnets for young people around the world.
If you do not know what webtoons are, or South Korean K-pop, or Chinese doramas, then you do not really understand what modern youth around the world are interested in and passionate about.
Vladimir Sorokin, one of the most popular writers in modern Russian literature, is under attack again. In January, a complaint was filed with the Investigative Committee demanding that his most recent novel be investigated for "LGBT propagandа" and child abuse. Source: Wiki Commons
There is one more point that is important for understanding the real state of the book market. Modern youth are more liberal and tolerant than their fathers or grandfathers. Russian youth are no exception, even judging by official sociological surveys. Tolerance implies not only toleration of other opinions and ways of life, but also an understanding that in this complex world there can and should be a place for different languages and cultures.

That is why cultures that showcase freedom – in particular, the mass youth cultures of East Asian countries – turn out to be more interesting and “normal” for young people. Russian “traditional values” zealots took note of this long ago and were even able to bring it to the attention of law enforcement. Over the past few years, Russian courts have banned several dozen anime “and similar manga” – as usual, for promoting violence, cruelty, LGBT culture and child pornography. But the popularity of this literature in Russian bookstores is only growing.

Today, due to laziness and/or lack of awareness on the part of government officials about modern culture, young people have the opportunity, at least through anime and manga, to live in the world of love between a demon and a celestial being, or that of non-binary samurai (with publishers providing them with such an opportunity). However, the events of recent months – with the persecution of famous writers, in particular Vladimir Sorokin – suggest that the times when the state practically did not interfere in book publishing are, unfortunately, in the rearview mirror.
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