ussr in Bodo 2014
d, the free press stifled and schools and universities politicized, literature became the
unique source of moral truth for the population. Writers were considered teachers and prophets.
The Soviet Union was a reading culture: in the last days of the USSR, a quarter of the adult population
were considered active readers, and almost everyone else categorized as an occasional reader. Book
prices were low, alternative forms of entertainment were scarce, and people were poor, making reading
one of the mos
the creations of its own citizens but also publishing large numbers of copies of
the works of Western authors both in translation and in the original language.” (Newcity, 1980, p 6.)
Looking simply at the aggregate numbers of published books, the USSR had an impressive publishing
industry on a scale appropriate to a reading nation. Between 1946 and 1970 more than 1 billion copies of
over 26 thousand different work were published, all by foreign authors (Newcity, 1978). In 1976 alone,
more than 1.7
ued by their employers. “Only university educated readers
were enrolled and only those holding positions of at least junior scientific workers were allowed to read
the publications kept by the spetskhran” (Ryzhak, 2005). In the last years of the USSR, the spetskhran of
the Russian State Library—the largest of them with more than 1 million items in the collection—had 43
seats for its roughly 4500 authorized readers. Yearly circulation was around 200,000 items, a figure that
included “the his
ort information on readers and
suspicious reading habits.
Soviet economic dysfunction also severely limited access to printed works. Acute and chronic shortages
of even censor-approved texts were common, both on the market and in libraries. When the USSR
joined its first first international copyright treaty in its history in 1973 (the UNESCO-backed Universal
Copyright Convention), which granted protection to foreign authors and denied “freedom of
translation,” the access problems only got worse. Soviet concern that granting protection to foreign
authors would result in significant royalty payments to western rightsholders proved valid. By 1976, the
yearly USSR trade deficit in publishing reached a million rubles (~5.5 million current USD) (Levin, 1983, p.
157). This imbalance not only affected the number of publications that were imported into the cashpoor country, but also raised the price of translated w
e (writers, scientists, composers,
etc.) were difficult to buy. You could not, as far as I remember, just go to a bookstore and buy complete
works of Chekhov. It was published once and sold out and that's it. Dostoyevsky used to be prohibited in
the USSR, so that was even rarer. Lots of writers were prohibited, like Nabokov. Eventually Dostoyevsky
was printed in the USSR, but in very small numbers.
And also there were scientists who wanted scientific books and also could not get them. Mathematics
books, physics - only very few books were published every year, you can't compare this with the market in
the U.S. Russian translations of classical monographs in mathematics were difficult to find.
So, in the USSR, everyone who had a good education shared the idea that hoarding books is very, very
important, and did just that. If someone had free access to a Xerox machine, they were Xeroxing
everything in sight. A friend of mine had entire room full of Xeroxed
lic institutions that supported the core professions
of the intelligentsia fell into sustained economic crisis.
Digital technologies were embraced by these practices as soon as they appeared:
"From late 1970s, when first computers became used in the USSR and printers became available,
people started to print forbidden books, or just books that were difficult to find, not necessarily
forbidden. I have seen myself a print-out on a mainframe computer of a science fiction novel,
printed in all caps! Sami
et-Lemarié, I. (1997). P. Otlet’s mundaneum and the international perspective in the history of
documentation and information science. Journal of the American Society for Information Science,
Ryzhak, N. (2005). Censorship in the USSR and the Russian State Library. IFLA/FAIFE Satellite meeting:
Documenting censorship – libraries linking past and present, and preparing for the future.
Sezneva, O., & Karaganis, J. (2011). Chapter 4: Russia. In J. Karaganis (Ed.), Media Piracy in E
ussr in Constant 2009
the Sub Rosa label. He writes fragmented fictions and notes on aesthetics (some of his texts have been published by Editions de l'Heure, Luna
Park, Leonardo Music Journal etc.).
Dmytri Kleiner is a USSR-born, Canadian software developer and cultural
producer. In his work, he investigates the intersections of art, technology and political economy. He is a
founder of Telekommunisten, an anarchist technology collective, and lives
in Berlin with his wif
ussr in Mars & Medak 2019
culture and really useful knowledge
352 | article
Marcell Mars and Tomislav Medak
necessary for the self-development and self-organization of the masses (Johnson,
While universities across the modernizing Europe, US and USSR would see their
opening to the masses only in the coming decades later, they shyly started to
welcome the working class and women. And yet, universities and schools were
intense places of experimentation and advancement. The Moscow design school
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