Interviews

Zakhar Prilepin, Roly-Poly, et al

The news of Zakhar Prilepin developing Russki Les art center through raising funds by issuing tokens, made many reporters try to locate the well known Russian writer’s mining rig. Invest Foresight has visited Prilepin’s farm Lapino in Odintsovo county nearby Moscow to learn about the projects the writer and public figure is now involved with and to find out if he plans to become a businessman and if writing books can bring enough money for living.

Aleksey Danichev / RIA Novosti

– Mr. Prilepin, can you please tell what is being built here in Lapino?

– Russki Les (Russian Wood) is an art residence and art center. I got the idea of building such a universe after I visited Emir Kusturica a few times. His Drvengrad built for his film Life Is a Miracle has become a location gathering all sorts of strange, amazing, talented and non-mainstream personalities from among the world movie and intellectual elites. The place is frequented by the extraordinary American philosopher Noam Homski, Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp and lots of other people. I believe in Russia, there is no such a universe where people who must meet, who must see each other, who must communicate and come to an agreement or feud once and forever, can meet in a normal environment, not in an a la russe place, but in a true settlement filled with fresh air and warm rain.

I decided to build it to, among other things, please myself. Besides, I had in mind that, say, Emir Kusturica or Manu Chao, when coming to Russia, should have a place to come to meet most diverse Russian people.

We will strive to develop the place’s infrastructure. We will have a hermit of our own, a farm with cows and goats, kids’ playgrounds, etc. We may also have some sort of a museum and art exhibitions. The universe is not intended to imitate Russian culture but to reproduce it in a manner as close to the original as possible.

– So, you want to turn ancient Russia into business.

– We have not drafted any business plans. At the moment, that is a culturological project. In the future, there may appear concerts, exhibitions or other activities which the public will have to pay for.

People kind and fair are everywhere, so we’ve found some investors. In this country, we find ourselves in a situation where each community is one way or another self-involved. I mean, painters would only know other painters. Poets would be interesting to other poets. Business people also form a closed group but they are willing to communicate with other communities. There are entrepreneurs who would love to have a meal with movie director Nikita Mikhalkov, or writer and reporter Sergei Shargunov, or to hear some well known singers playing guitar and singing for a small company. To be able to do that, they are ready to invest some funds.

– Can you explain the project’s economics? Internet was stirred up by the news that Russki Les is after tokenization. Whose idea was that?

– I am totally unaware of that aspect. There are professionals who manage the project. The project needs funding hence they do things they understand perfectly well while I hardly understand at all.

(Dmitry Kuznetsov, Russki Les producer, explained that at the moment anyone can join a partially closed Russki Les club by purchasing Lapino tokens. They can thereafter be used to pay for staying at the farm, visiting sauna or attending a lecture. Before issuing tokens, project managers consulted Mikhail Shlyapnikov, a cryptominer and cryptoenthusiast. Well known businessman and now a farmer Herman Sterligov was advising as a farmlife commercialization expert. Yet, Russki Les intends to sell its homemade bread much cheaper than RUR 1,500 ($24) per loaf as Mr Sterligov does.)

I am not a businessman, I supervise the cultural side of the project. You know, Russian Samovar restaurant in New York was launched by Joseph Brodsky, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Roman Kaplan. I’ve been to the place. Quite naturally, Kaplan was the only one of the three who was there regularly. Yet everybody knew Brodsky and Baryshnikov were also involved, and therefore everyone was eager to visit the place. So I will visit out farm when I have a chance. I believe I can launch the project and make it self-perpetuating, as people can come here to meet each other irrespective of my personal presence here. The main thing is to have plenty of space available. When on vacation, I intend to permanently live here.

– While here, you’ll probably write books. Can a writer make his living by only writing these days?

– Some writers can live on selling their books. In my personal case, there are very many accompanying factors. You know, you first have to make yourself known as a writer. After that, various literature-related things start contributing. Say, you write a new book which is in a while translated into foreign languages. Some of my books have been translated into 20 or 25 foreign languages, and once in a while they are bought by publishers from different countries. Some publishers pay big money, others pay small money, but they pay. Copyrights are also sold to theaters, moviemakers. Besides, I am at times on tour.

Before I moved to live in Donbass in Eastern Ukraine, I used to go on tour quite regularly. It’s much less now, I may once in three or four months have a short tour of three to four performances, and then I am back to Donbass. Yet it is all about life in literature. At some point you can become an analyst on cultural and other issues. You as a writer or a thinker can get a request to write an article or a paper on some issue. Ultimately, all sorts of this revenues from both literature and related items allow me to secure some reasonable living for my family.

– How much of your income is derived from writing books?

– Over the past two years I have not written any books since I moved to Donbass and was involved with other matters. My income therefore nosedived. I have fewer tours, I published no new books, while some foreign publishers terminated our relationships claiming they will never deal with a ‘terrorist’. Nevertheless, their emotions are now cooling down and they have come to realize it’s still better to buy copyrights and sell some of my books than abandoning any dealings with me at all. In a number of countries, my books have been quite successful, in France and Poland, for example. In Italy, I was just awarded a prize in literature.

In my earlier life, before the war in Donbass, I used to be working hard as a writer three or four months a year. I used to go out to the countryside and write a new book there. Over the rest of the year, I used to be involved with other things. The more books you have, the more they work for you.

– Still, you are a successful writer and so you can say a writer can make his living. But are there many people like that in Russia?

– Not really. Generally speaking, it is not literature per se that brings the money. Dmitry Bykov, for example, reads lectures, hosts radio programs and TV shows, and is once in a while on tour. All these things are about literature, but yet they are bordering show-biz. As a matter of fact, that has always been like that. Take SergeiYesenin or Vladimir Mayakovsky. They were not just writing poems, but also touring all the time and having literary concerts. They did not make sizeable money on publishing books. Just like musicians these days, who do not make money on selling their records. Boris Grebenshchikov or Yuri Shevchouk make money by performing their songs. So the situation is comparable in every art. Among Russian writers, Boris Akunin and Lyudmila Ulitskaya can possibly live on just selling their books.

– Do you suffer from piracy?

– I have never calculated the money I lose through piracy. I in fact never even thought about that, apart from one instance when I was asked to sign a paper drafted by a group of writers demanding authorities to fight piracy. I told them, why bother? Possibly, they may steal from us because they are hungry and need food for their kids. My publishers then showed me photos of one of the piracy network owners and his house in Miami, which is probably 12-fold larger than mine. ‘Look how he’s doing and don’t worry about his earnings’, they said. That was about six years ago, and that was the only time I was in some way involved in countering piracy. Generally speaking, what can you do about them? I do not care.

– Do you feel there is a threat to paper books?

– Oh no, the threat has gone away. The e-books sales growth rates globally slow down and are now at 0.3 to 0.8% a year. In France, e-books sales have not been growing recently and have even started going down. Same thing in Germany. Printed books are still popular in Russia. I sell 20 times more printed books than e-books, as people like paper books in Russia, in Europe and elsewhere.

– How do you see the books market in Russia in general?

– My view is not overoptimistic since the number of bookstores has gone down. I do not remember the exact figures, but in the USSR it could be somewhat 20,000 bookshops while now we only have 6,000. Russia’s territory is huge, so not merely small towns in Siberia or Far East, but even large cities often do not get half of the books which really are worth reading.

I remember some time ago I travelled in a train from Nizhny Novgorod to Vladivostok. In Krasnoyarsk, I saw a very good bookstore. Further east, the shops were not as good, while in Ulan-Ude the books selection was really poor. The people who live in Salekhard or Yuzhnosakhalinsk, they can not buy any good books at all. In the USSR, the books distribution mechanism was hundred times more efficient. In every village, and I grew up in a village myself, in every small town, in every minor settlement there were great bookshops where a books selection was even better than in Moscow. It’s totally different now. The government, I think, should take the matter seriously.

– A book is an expensive hobby.

– It is expensive in Europe as well. There, books are three times more expensive than here. A book is a valuable item, it must cost some money.

Besides, shops add a high surcharge. To them, it appears easier to sell one book with a RUR 500 surcharge than selling five books with a RUR 100 ($1.5) surcharge. It looks that is how they see their financial returns and it’s certainly not quite right for them to behave like that. Still, the process may be put under regulation, if there is a will.

– We have discussed distribution, but what about the quality content of the books market? How many participants are there? Are there any new figures?

– I’ve been out of the environment for two years and have not really been following the developments. In my view, the situation in the national literature is fine since there are very good writers such as Alexei Ivanov, Alexander Terekhov, Mikhail Tarkovsky. Oleg Yermakov is regularly publishing new books which regretfully are not read as much as they deserve. There is a new writer Alexei Slanikov who very much deserves attention. There are well known writers and absolute newcomers, there is always some movement. The situation is quite evident when we all meet at large fairs. Over past two years, I have been to two fairs. Vadim Leventhal writes good books, Sergei Shargunov released a brilliant book, Herman Sadulayev published a new novel. Hence there is a good selection available to make a choice for a good reading. So we have a normal situation, which in many respects is better than in Europe, since we have a diverse variety, a broad choice as far as ideology and styles are concerned.

– When are you going to please us with a new book?

– I wish I could. I can possibly take some vacation and write a biography of Sergei Yesenin, because the previously published biographies of Yesenin, in my view, are for many reasons unsatisfactory. So I want to write a biography of my own. I am not going to write a novel now, I will do that some time later. Yet I wish I could write a biography of Yesenin.

– Are you certain there will be publishers interested in Yesenin’s biography?

– Any book I write, even Roly-Poly III replicating Russian fairy tales, will be undoubtedly sold out. Every book I have written has been in demand and quite successful.

– Can you share the secrets of your success?

– I am quite a good writer and I see the life from a specific angle. When I was starting my way in literature, the audience wes evidently a bit tired of postmodernist games and of abundance of aged mid-ranking managers among literary characters. Those characters were all miserable residents of Moscow metropolis, devastated by their despiritualization and everlasting insensibility. With that in the background, I started writing about unusual characters, such as nationalistic extremists, hill folks, crooks, outcasts. So my readers all of a sudden discovered new characters they have never dealt with before. Maybe that’s why I am often compared to Maxim Gorky. Prior to Gorky, Russian literature was about endlessly boring lives of Russian aristocracy. Yet Gorky brought to Russian literature working people, proles, young revolutionaries. And everyone got stunned having discovered there is a different Russia as well, inhabited by lots of diverse personalities, not just by the nobility described by Leo Tolstoy. A similar effect evidently occurred in my case as well.

Who can write about the combatants of Donbass? Apart from me, no other writers have seen them or been there. The public is intimidated by the media and told there are some horrible murderous people in Donbass. But those are astounding and extraordinary people. For Moscow’s residents, they are aliens or strange beings, never known and never seen.

– If all of a sudden you get tired of literature, what kind of business would you pursue then?

– None. I want to do what I am doing now, to write books and get milk and honey for that.

By Anna Oreshkina

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