Russia may be a mysterious country, yet some people have been very proactive at popularizing Russian culture in the West. Today, I am pleased to host an interview with Paul Richardson, an editor of the popular Russian Life magazine.
Russian Life has been informing its audience about the vastest country in the world, Russia, for over half a century now. Since your magazine was born in the Cold War Era, what’s the story behind it? Who was the primary audience back then?
Paul: Well, we actually only acquired Russian Life in 1995, after it had lived out almost 40 years of its history as USSR and Soviet Life. Before us, it was a propaganda instrument of the Soviet government, albeit a relatively watered-down one. We made it a privately run magazine with no ties to any government or media corporation. And we strive to have a broad range of American, European, and Russian contributors, so that it presents a well-rounded, reasonably balanced view on a country that is often rather controversial and mysterious.
The readers if Soviet Life and Russian Life have always been an interesting and rather unusual breed of folk, and, due to the history of the magazine, they are mostly Americans. I say unusual, because as a general rule, most people are more interested in and concerned with local issues, with the history of their own country or locality. But for many people, there is something irresistibly intriguing about Russia (because they have traveled there, studied the language, fell in love with the literature, married a Russian, adopted a Russian, been affected by world events, etc.), and so that is whom we serve…
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has undergone dramatic changes, how did the focus of the magazine change?
I have not analyzed the magazine’s focus pre-1991, but as I noted, the purpose of Soviet Life back then was like Russia Today is for Russia now, as a tool of “soft power” – to spread the government’s interpretation of events to the wider world.
We of course have nothing to do with “soft power.” Ours is an independent journalistic enterprise, and we haven’t changed our focus since taking on the magazine in 1995. Our goal has always been to provide an insightful, informed, balanced view of all things Russian, to tell interesting stories and to provide readers with enough information that they can form their own, independent view of Russia, without the filters of governments and big media companies.
As a wonderfully unique ad-on, Russian Life also regularly publishes a journal of Russian literature in English called Chtenia (Readings), featuring newly translated works of Russian authors. As we both know, Russia has many readers and probably even more writers, only joking. How do you decide on what stories to translate and publish?
Yes, Chtenia is in its eighth year now and it has been quite a departure from Russian Life. We started it because we were helping put together Life Stories – a collection of short stories to raise money for Russian hospice. Through that we met many great writers, translators and agents, and realized just how little Russian literature was getting through. So we decided to take this idea to the readers of Russian Life and see if it was a publication they would support, and we were pleasantly surprised.
What to publish is always a challenge, because there is a sea of material out there and we can only offer a small rowboat. So we decided from the beginning that we would build into the publication a filter of sorts, by making each issue have a theme. That focuses our efforts and helps us find relevant material, from fiction and nonfiction to poems and photography. But of course then it is all about choosing interesting themes!
In the last two years we have moved to a system where each issue has a Curator who helps form the issue along with the editor. We did this as a way to bring in more fresh ideas for content and material. It is creating some amazing issues.
How can one subscribe to/purchase your magazine? What countries is it available for delivery?
Both Russian Life and Chtenia can be subscribed to via russianlife.com (or, more specifically, store.russianlife.com). We have subscribers in over 50 countries and will ship to anywhere in the world that is serviced by mail. Russian Life is also available as a digital publication via Apple iTunes, Amazon and Magzter. All our books can also be purchased via our website.
Everybody has influences that shape our path in life. So what made you choose the path that led you to Russian Life? Any particular books, authors, films?
Personally, I was a child of the Cold War (literally born days before the Cuban Missile Crisis broke out) and developed a fascination for all things Russian in college, after a trip to Moscow and St. Petersburg in 1981. I went on to study it in graduate school, then worked in Moscow for a time before setting up our publishing company 25 years ago this March.
In Russia, about a half of all published books are foreign titles, in the US – maybe a few percent, and those few are completely dominated by Coelho, Murakami and Scandinavian thrillers. Do you believe there are ways to make Russian books, especially those by modern authors, more attractive to American?
Yes, I understand it is about 3 percent in the US. I don’t know if there is a purposeful way to make Russian literature “take off.” Who would have thought that Scandinavian literature would be so big before the Dragon Tattoo series? Something just has to happen. That said, Russian literature has always, I feel, had a rather strong reputation and strong presence in the US market, ever since Constance Garnett began translating Turgenev and Tolstoy and Chekhov.
Think about it: how many Chinese authors can your average informed American name? Yet most can name the three above, plus Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn, Bulgakov and many others. That they are not best sellers is another matter. But then I understand Petrushevskaya’s stories do very well on the best seller lists…
As with anything, making modern Russian authors attractive to Americans is partly about marketing, partly about being in the right (completely unpredictable) place at the right time with the right book, and partly about events. Russia is not the most popular of countries in the US right now (except perhaps as a source for TV and movie villains), so that certainly is a factor that makes things harder…
Do you see any successors of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky in the modern Russian literary world?
As you noted above, there are many many more writers today than there were 100 years ago. And they are far more specialized, I think.
The great thing about Chtenia is that it constantly is introducing us to new writers. It’s also a great way to find someone who you never heard of before (but whom Russians may be well aware of), to be amazed by their skill and perception. For instance, our most recent issue of Chtenia is almost entirely comprised of memoirs, memoirs of literary personages living through very difficult years in the Soviet Union. I was blown away to read the work of Izrail Metter and Olga Bergholz, for instance.
There are so many Russian writers worthy of wider attention, but for each reader the list is going to be very different. I think you need to go in search of Russian writers that write in the genre you are most interested in and see what they have to offer.
And finally, I would like to ask about future plans of Russian Life. What is in store for your readers?
Well, as always, we have many interesting stories in the works. And I am continually amazed how events move in mysterious ways. For instance, we have long been planning to have a few stories on Murmansk, in the Russian North, in our coming March/April issue, and then the Russian movie Leviathan, which takes place in that very region, won the Golden Globe for best foreign film, and there is talk it has a chance at the Oscar. Meanwhile, it is not totally beloved in Russia (where it has yet to be officially released).
Publishing on Russia is always interesting…
P.S. If you are interested to learn about Russian Life’s next exciting project, Red Star Tales, a collection of Soviet and Russian Science Fiction, please visit its Kickstarter page here.
Only a few days left to support the project.