28 september 2011

Vladimir Putin meets with Russian writers attending the Russian Book Union’s conference

Vladimir Putin

At a meeting with Russian writers attending the Russian Book Union’s conference

“It will take time for us to become aware of our own value as a great nation, a nation that has developed a great culture it can be rightfully proud of.”

Transcript of the beginning of the meeting:

Vladimir Putin: Good afternoon, again. I am glad to be attending your conference. I know that there are many problems in your field and that you depend, one way or another, on the decisions taken at the government level. This concerns, above all, business elements, auctions, which I have discussed before, the organisation of publishing business, and the provision of paper, etc. In a word, there are the problems as usual, but they are being resolved in one way or another.

I'd like to know which problems are the most important and acute to you and what you can propose regarding their solution. In short, what would you like the bodies of authority and government do for you, above all at the federal level?

Who will be the first to speak?

Mikhail Veller: May I?

Vladimir Putin: Of course, Mikhail Iosifovich.

Mikhail Veller: I know from my experience and general practice that writers mostly talk with the authorities about three things in Russia. First, writers ask for money. Second, writers ask the authorities to publish and promote their books. And third, writers want the authorities to listen to them about how they should govern the country, even though writers themselves are not ready to assume this responsibility. These are the three things I'd like to avoid talking about today because we often forget – although this is assumed – that people become writers not to take, but to give.

In this sense, politically, writers are liberals because they don't need anything from the state other than properly functioning law enforcement agencies and to be left alone. If they have these two things, the rest does not matter. In this regard, everyone in this audience is probably a separate molecule because writers are always individualists in civil society, and because each of them has his or her own opinion and each thinks about what to do next and is doing what he or she can.

In this respect, everything seems to be good and well in modern literature, which may even be the second most successful industry after the mining and commodity exporting industry. Since 1991, or probably some time before that, when absolutely all of the hindrances were removed, literature – both commercial, elite, traditional and post-modernistic (elite) literature – maintained high standards, which I, personally, do not recall happening since 1917.

It is another matter – I can understand businessmen and politician failing to see the difference, but not when the creative intelligentsia do – when people associate their personal welfare with that of the country, the nation, the power... This is in fact not one and the same at all because the people gathered here are successful people one way or another. They are accomplished people who have done it. But the majority cannot do this.

Taking into account that Russian literature started with "The Tale of Igor's Campaign", everything that happens in the country and everything that writers do are inseparable from each other. This brings me to the logical question: "Is it admissible for writers' opinions to differ from official views"? Stalin said in such cases: "I think this is admissible". Some advocate a more rigid policy, while others think it should be more liberal. There will never be harmony. But such things as – sorry for starting with this – as unpardonably soft punishment for trafficking hard drugs or violent murder is absolutely wrong. Understandably, a writer has a mercenary interest in the prosperity of his country because when the people have no money, they don't buy books, which is a shame.

And one more thing. It has been said more than once that a writer is a function of literature and language, and that language is a function of the nation. In principle, all successful people can leave the country and continue working and realise themselves elsewhere. This concerns musicians, artists, farmers, workers and everyone else, possibly with the exception of two categories – politicians, who cannot function outside their country and writers, who cannot exist as writers outside their country because language is a virtual portrait, a virtual form of the nation's existence.

Once journalists – I used to work for a newspaper – said that the decline began at the turn of the 1990s when Almaty officially replaced the traditional Alma-Ata and Tallin was written as Tallinn. The general acquiescence started at the level of language and continued when we started saying "in Ukraine," although for 300 years we said "in the Ukraine". If Ukrainians think this is how it should be said, let them say so, but why should we change the Russian language?

Why have we changed "vocational schools" to "colleges"? Tell me, why? All of this will have grave consequences because first the Gnessins School was renamed the Gnessins State Musical College and 10 days ago Avdeyev (Culture Minister Alexander Avdeyev) signed an order dissolving the Gnessins College and subsequently merging it with the Gnessins Academy of Music. I see this as a tragic mistake because the Gnessins Academy is one of many conservatory-type schools, while the Gnessins School is a global brand on par with the Mariinsky or Bolshoi theatres, or the Soviet circus, and the liquidation of that brand will have a negative impact on the country's international recognition.

Speaking about this recognition… I don't think anyone could imagine that in the Soviet period, Jack London, the best selling foreign author and the only author published in the Soviet Union who was not included in the school programme, was apparently the main figure exercising US influence on the Soviet Union. In a similar way, there is no one who promoted such a negative image of the Soviet Union as Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who was sent into exile and Joseph Brodsky, who got expelled.

But here and now, when we speak about shaping the country’s image, we must not replace the Gnessin School. They should have established something else instead. This is basically what I would like to say to start. Finishing my speech, I want to admit that for many years – for about 10 years – I have had a dream to invite the entire government for an hour or two and speak about the way things are in the country and what can be done about it, very much like in Martin Luther King’s

“I have a dream”.

Remark: You can still do it.

Mikhail Veller: I haven’t done it yet, but thank you very much for this opportunity to speak in a smaller format.

Vladimir Putin: Thank you, Mr Veller. I had a similar intention about four years ago. I wanted to show the Security Council and its permanent members – not the whole government – how the things are. First of all, I invited the scientists from the Academy of Sciences who are competent in the structure of the Universe. But we can step further and discuss the structure of the world in its moral and ethical sense.

Speaking of persons exercising influence, such as Jack London, we have our own figures of influence. They are Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, which means our countries influence each other. The East can influence the West as much as the West can influence the East. We have an equally strong basis.

If I may, I will briefly comment on what you have said. First, I have to disappoint you. Asking for money and giving advice on how to rule the country is not a prerogative of writers and publishers. Everyone does that. Everybody knows how to play football. Everybody knows how to play ice hockey. Everybody knows how to rule the country, to manage the economy and the social sphere. Everybody likes giving advice. I think that it is in fact a positive sign when everyone wants to give advice. It means that people care. I am particularly glad to hear the opinion of the intellectual elite, which clearly comprises people who have their own viewpoints and can formulate them so well that other people want to hear them. It is a good sign when these people want to give advice on how to rule the country. We are always willing to hear it.

Furthermore, it is natural that everybody asks for money. One of the government’s tasks is to dispose of the federal resources wisely. Therefore, there is nothing shameful about this. So, if our colleagues comment on the management of this industry… Clearly, writing poems and fiction is not an industry, but organising this work is. I will be glad to hear any suggestions and recommendations.

I have already said this in my greeting and I will repeat this once more. Mr Veller, you said that the law enforcement agencies must operate properly. It is the most pressing problem today. With the emergence of the Internet and other modern mass media, the protection of intellectual property comes to the fore. This problem exists not only in our country, but also elsewhere in the world. There is no ultimate solution to copyright infringement. I have recently met with the managers of an international organisation that protects intellectual property rights. They too are struggling to find an efficient remedy, especially since the idea to give everything away for free has consumed the world and it is hard to resist. Therefore, we can see certain parties emerge and win the support of the masses. But we need to get this done nonetheless. And we will try to find a civilised solution. As for whether criticisms regarding the authorities should be more or less harsh, I just don’t think there is any point in criticising leadership simply for the sake of criticism. Wouldn't you agree?

Remark: Of course.

Vladimir Putin: First of all, criticism is able to produce the desired effect only if it is done so deftly. In my view, the most important thing is for those who engage in criticism not to do so – and I don't mean to offend anybody – just to satisfy their own vanity. They should instead be motivated by a sincere drive to improve things. Then the odds of receiving a positive reaction will be much higher.

Now on to your point that politicians, as well as writers, cannot emigrate because they are too firmly bound to their native soil. As a matter of fact, self-imposed exile is not an uncommon phenomenon within politics. There’s even the notion of a “government in exile.” Quite often, politicians are simply compelled to leave their country and settle abroad.

Many authors do the same, and for them it’s harder to work away from their native land, of course, because they cannot feels its pulse.

Emigration can be tragic for politicians as well. At any rate, it is something to be avoided. Both politicians and people involved in creative writing need to feel the “chemistry” of their nation from the inside. I hope that in the future, we won’t fall into situations in which our fellow countrymen have to leave [Russia] in order to be able to pursue their literary or political activities.

As for the practice of renaming things, this troubles me a great deal as well. If we rename our schools using foreign conventions, this indicates a lack of self-esteem on our part. It means we don’t think our own standards are good enough. And so we try to “fix” the problem by changing the title to make them seem better, instead of changing their substance in order to improve them. This is obviously not the right approach. But if you bring up this issue before a wide audience every now and then, the situation could eventually improve.

Street signs and billboards are the first things that catch my eye during visits to regional capitals. I notice that for whatever reason, the names of local restaurants, cafes and shops are all written using the Latin alphabet. Why is this? I believe this is due to a lack of self-esteem and an inferiority complex.

It will take time for us to become aware of our own value as a great nation, a nation that has developed a great culture it can be rightfully proud of.

Of course, we have problems, but we are trying to address them, and we are often no less successful in finding adequate solutions than our opponents are.

I agree about the need for dialogue between the authorities and the artistic community. I hope none of my fellow countrymen will feel that they have to emigrate, and that when engaging in criticism, we will do so in a meaningful way, in a way that seeks to make a real difference, not just for the sake of showing off.

Zakhar Prilepin: Then allow me to say a few words in support of Mikhail Veller’s remarks…

Vladimir Putin: What about supporting my remarks? Are you planning to attack me now?

Zakhar Prilepin: My point will also echo your words. I believe that Russian literature is quite competitive, and authors, just like oilmen, make up one of this country’s most important groups in society.

The current situation in Russia’s literary scene is more or less clear to me. One of the most acute problems seems to be the demise of the distribution network that we had in the Soviet era. As a result, new releases remain beyond the reach of the provinces. As a child, I grew up in rural communities in the Ryazan and Lipetsk regions, and the villages there had excellent bookshops in those days.  Now the nearest bookshop is a hundred kilometres or more away. It's clear to me that this problem exists and that it has to be resolved somehow.

But I have absolutely no idea what sorts of problems are facing the oil industry, or some other sector. And there is no one else for me to turn to for an explanation other than you, Mr Putin.

As a Russian author, my attention was caught by your recent remark that Russia now sells as much oil as Saudi Arabia, or maybe more. As I understand it, one of the officials involved in the oil trade is Gennady Timchenko, chief of Gunvor Inc. He made a fortune for himself by selling petroleum, and subsequently applied for Finnish citizenship. He is now a Finnish national. I find this situation somewhat bizarre. 

My second question was inspired by Sergei Stepashin’s remarks. I remember that Transneft found itself at the centre of a big scandal last year, when its executives were accused of misappropriating $4 billion. Almost one year has passed since then, yet not a single suspect has been identified and no legal proceedings seem to be underway. So I find myself wondering whether that $4 billion simply never existed, or the story was invented by some people who wished Russia ill. If we were offered that kind of money, my fellow writers and I would be happy to carry our books from Moscow to the doorstep of our readers in the provinces ourselves.

Vladimir Putin: Which company are you talking about?

Zakhar Prilepin: Transneft.

Vladimir Putin: In response to the first part of your question, I can say that I’ve known Mr Timchenko for some time now, since my service in St Petersburg. In those days, he worked for a Kirishi oil refinery, Kirishinefteorgsintez. When the privatisation campaign was launched in the early 1990s, his team, which was involved in oil exports, broke away from the rest of the company in order to start a private business of their own. This new enterprise has gradually been developed. 

Timchenko is no stranger to the business; he’s been involved in it since the very beginning of the privatisation campaign. Let me assure you that, contrary to allegations in the press, they set up and developed the company all on their own, without any involvement on my part.

But at some point, the turnover became so large that one of their executives had to be sent to arrange work from the other side of the border. And the management chose him for this role.

As far as I know, he has applied for and has been granted Finnish citizenship, but also remains a Russian national. The current visa regulations with Europe make it impossible for our businesspeople to organise exports properly. Many of them have to apply for foreign citizenship to facilitate their operations. Ninety percent simply hide the fact that they hold foreign passports – but not him.

Zakhar Prilepin: Are you saying that holding double citizenship is a normal practice?

Vladimir Putin: I believe it’s normal that in the modern world a person can choose to live outside his or her native country, yet remain attached to it. That’s a perfectly civilised position. For someone such as myself, this would be completely impossible.  The same is true for you, I think. But there are people out there, artists or otherwise, who consider themselves to be citizens of the world, and insist that they should be able to live wherever they choose. Many members of the business community, youth and even religious organisations believe they should not be constrained by any borders or visa regulations.

I believe that this is a civilised approach. Let me emphasise once again: as far as I know, Mr Timchenko remains a Russian citizen; everything having to do with his business interests falls into his private affairs, and I have never tried, nor ever will, to interfere. And I hope he will not try to meddle in my affairs either. 

As for Transneft and other companies – I was at one time chief of the presidential staff’s oversight department, and I had to carry out inspections similar to those that Mr Stepashin currently organises. Not all wrongdoings are the same, you know – there are offenses, and then there are offenses. Those that have to do with the violation of effective legislation – such as theft, robbery, bribe-taking, and embezzlement – are punishable under the criminal code.

There are also violations that are not criminal offences, such as improper use of funds. I’m not referring to Transneft specifically but to any region… Let say, the governor was supposed to spend money on housing construction but invested it in improving healthcare instead. He didn’t use it appropriately but he didn’t steal anything. In principle, this may be the case of Transneft. They were supposed to spend money on one thing but used it differently. This is the first part of Le ballet de la Merlaison and there is also the second one. The Audit Chamber by law must check – and is checking – budget expenditures. Transneft is a commercial company. They may check it and say: “Look guys, something is wrong with your finances.” If they find criminal offenses, they will submit the case to the Prosecutor’s Office. Believe me, if there had been such offenses, these people would have been put behind bars a long time ago.

Roman Zlotnikov: Mr Putin, I have a question. Is this meeting a campaign opportunity?

Vladimir Putin: No, the elections are still a ways off.

Roman Zlotnikov: Really? But the election campaign has already begun.  

Vladimir Putin: No, I simply hold such meetings from time to time.

Roman Zlotnikov: I asked you this question because if it has to do with the elections, it is simply a waste of time.

Vladimir Putin: You see, Mr Zlotnikov, I don’t want to seem impolite, but I don’t need such meetings to campaign. I have agreed to it because questions were raised, primarily about book publishing. They are absolutely specific and some of them are commercial. I’d like to make sure that by taking certain decisions to help some players on the market we would not violate the interests of others. It is important to maintain a balance of interests. This is the first point.

Second, our famous writers also have some questions, for instance questions about copyrights or library services, distribution etc. I’m very interested in all these issues and it would be useful for us to discuss them. I could listen to you and do what I can to set things right.

Roman Zlotnikov: In that case I have a suggestion. I suggest that you stop your no-one-is-left-out method of awarding funds.

Vladimir Putin: I haven’t yet given anything to anyone.

Roman Zlotnikov: Are you sure? We have programmes to support reading, regional theatres, libraries – you name it.

Vladimir Putin: Yes, in this sense.

Roman Zlotnikov: Indeed. I think this is waste of money. Take writers, for one. They are long-term people, so to speak. There is no way we can help you win the coming elections but maybe we can help in five years, definitely in 10 or 15 years. I met with guys from the fifth directorate of the Federal Agency for Government Communications and Information. They invited me to their veteran organisation – I’m an officer myself. I came there and thought to myself: “My God! I’m a sci-fi writer. What shall I tell them?” We started talking. There were five young officers – lieutenants and senior lieutenants, the others were much older. All of them were looking at me – here’s a sci-fi writer, a kind of clown, let’s listen to him and tick the box. A young lieutenant stood up and said: “And do you know that at our college we passed your books from one nightstand to another? Could you please sign this book for me?” But it had black endpapers.  

I’m telling you that we have a tool for working with the future of Russia. This tool is the image of the future. Unfortunately, we don’t have a common image of the future in this country – every stratum has its own. The simplest idea is “we want to live like they do in Europe or America”. But by the time people have the potential to live like Europeans or Americans, they ask: and why just “like” Europeans and Americans? Why not live in Europe or America?

The second issue is the hierarchy of values and motivation. To keep this “like” we must work with people, probably with those who have the potential, I’m not sure. But we should work with those who will become officers, experts, aides to top managers in 10 years (these people make up the reading public). They will become leaders themselves in 20 years and then we will help you build Russia.

Vladimir Putin: What is your question or suggestion?

Roman Zlotnikov: I think that the no-one-is-left-out policy is wrong. It is important to understand that literature, libraries and theatres are tools and to establish a system for using them rather than spending money on collapsing theatres. We must understand how everything works and create a system and only then allocate funds for filmmaking, theatres, libraries and publishing.

There is, for example, a very interesting instrument: the army. We have a strange perception of it, for some reason – we view it either as a prison, or as something that will die for us if necessary, when in fact it is a serious social mechanism that half the nation passes through at some point. This is a training camp. There needs to be a sufficient quantity of men that serve in the army (sorry, ladies, for better or worse, the course of politics in Russia is still determined mostly by men). Occasionally, women complain during elections that there are no worthy candidates to vote for. During their 52 weeks of service, servicemen watch 104 films. They have libraries. There is a crowd in the audience here that I’m sure would be glad to visit these troops, if there were an army support programme in place, and people will read these books. You might say, oh books, people don’t read books these days. Let them read books there. Let them pinch books from the libraries and take them home.

Vladimir Putin: And what? What are you proposing? That they steal books?

Remark: Allow soldiers to steal?

Darya Dontsova (penname of Agrippina Dontsova): Mr Putin, may I ask you a question?

Vladimir Putin: Please excuse me. As for women in Russia not participating in politics, there aren't many women in the government, but that doesn’t mean they don't participate in politics.

Roman Zlotnikov: No, I’m not saying that they don't participate at all.

Vladimir Putin: In terms of voting, women are more active voters than men, and this is a statistical fact. Therefore, in this sense, they do show interest in who is elected and whom they can trust. And their participation in this area of government formation is significant.

Now, as for supporting all areas of culture, you know that if you forget about one of them, it will just wither away. You said that we don't need theatre, cinema, libraries... What do we need then?

Roman Zlotnikov: We need them to be functional.

Vladimir Putin: But how do we make them functional, Roman?.. Many things annoy and disturb me as well. So, if we just sit down together and try to figure out how to organise this single system… I can assure you that everyone will have their own opinions, perhaps even more than one. Defining priorities amounts to a very complicated process.

Roman Zlotnikov: But it needs to be done.

Remark: May I, Mr Putin?

Vladimir Putin: Just a moment. We are in the middle of a discussion with Mr Zlotnikov.

Roman Zlotnikov: It will not come about all by itself. We are now living with the results of what happened to us.

Vladimir Putin: Yes, of course.

Roman Zlotnikov: We don’t like it. I’m telling you honestly...

Mikhail Veller: May I put in my two cents? Two cents exactly. Comrade Stalin, a wise man and a strong politician, understood quite well the ways in which literature should be used. And when writers who aren’t being watched over, thank God – because the issue, let me repeat, is not a matter of what writers want from the government, but rather, what writers can do for their country. So, when a writer shouts, “go on, rule over us with a stronger hand,” stop and think for a moment about what you are actually saying.

Vladimir Putin: As for organising this work – I think you are aware that we have always found ourselves in the same situation as we do now – in other words, we have always had our fair share of problems. However, we still manage to stand more or less firmly on our feet. Mr Zlotnikov, dear friends and colleagues, you understand as no one else does that not long ago, the situation we were in and the problems we faced were quite different. We were on the brink of collapse as a nation. This was our absolute reality. We were facing the danger of the yugoslavisation of Russia. This was on the verge of happening. This is certainly not the case now – we have managed to head this scenario off. The economy has almost doubled since then, and we are dealing with different challenges and issues now.

Certainly, if we want there to be a future for our nation, we should think about the things that you mentioned: ethical support, and the intellectual and ethical foundations of society. The question has to do with how to engrain them in the mass conscience. This is not as simple as it may seem. We have had many disputes and ideas about different ways to support Russian cinema. We have established the Cinematography Board, a new financing system (I don't know whether it will work effectively or not), and saw orders starting to flow in. The VTB Bank is financing some films. There are other, quasi-governmental sponsors. There is certainly a need to come up with some sort of government order, including in the Armed Forces, if we want there to be modern, patriotic education in our country, so that people will be raised to love their Motherland. I'm not talking about some kind of jingoism, but we want our people to have a deep understanding of our nation, to feel proud of it, to be willing to live here and to want to…

Andrei Konstantinov: Mr Putin, may I comment briefly regarding patriotism?

Vladimir Putin: Of course, but I certainly agree with you that this needs to be dealt with.

Andrei Konstantinov: I wanted to buy a toy tank for my son, since both of his grandfathers went to war. They started as lieutenants and ended the war as lieutenant colonels. My son asked me questions about the war, so I wanted to buy him a Soviet tank with a red star on it, and so on. I couldn’t find any. Here is what a friend of mine brought me from Nice in France. It says in Russian, “Kill the Nazi vermin,” and is made in China. I also wanted to show him what his grandfather looked like during the Great Patriotic War. This officer figurine is nicely made, featuring a bag, a pistol and decorations just like his grandfather had… It costs 350 euros, and is sold in Russia at the Grand Hotel Evropa in St Petersburg. However, there are no plain toys like that that would be … In fact, there is a similar situation with patriotic literature.

Vladimir Putin: Listen, Andrei, this is a question that requires ongoing attention. You just mentioned China. It's simply more cost-effective to make them in China. That means we need to proceed in such a way as to make it cost-effective to produce them in Russia. In order to do so, we need to suppress inflation, which was at around 34%-40% some time ago. We now have single-digit inflation of 8%...

Andrei Konstantinov: I understand, Mr Putin.

Vladimir Putin: These things, toy tanks and so on, are being manufactured in China for sale not only in Russia; the entire world is flooded with Chinese-made products and consumer goods. The United States is drowning on Chinese-made goods and they can't do anything about it. The Italian shoe outlets don’t carry Italian-made shoes, even though their shoes are of superior quality. These are the realities of economic life today.

Andrei Konstantinov: Mr Putin, what I want to say is that it’s all right that it was made in China, but it's unfortunate that you can’t find it in stores in St Petersburg. This one was brought from France. And one more thing. I would like to speak about…

Vladimir Putin: These are private stores; we don’t have state-owned stores in Russia.

Andrei Konstantinov: I understand. I’m just bringing up a problem, I’m not blaming anyone.

Vladimir Putin: We are aware of this problem.

Andrei Konstantinov: Here is what I wanted to say. We could all benefit from one simple move that could be carried out by senior officials and all government leaders. Not long ago, President Medvedev was asked what he was reading at the time. He smiled charmingly and said he was reading Stieg Larsson (a fine Swedish author, now deceased). We would very much like to hear Russian officials and government leaders talking often about what they are reading from modern Russian literature, and they should talk about their preferences with their subordinates, because this sharing of information is often perceived as instruction. On our part, we…

Vladimir Putin: I will read Zlotnikov. I will read The Empire with pleasure.

Remark: Don’t forget to mention it.

Vladimir Putin: I just did.

Remark: Gentlemen, let’s give the floor to the ladies.

Darya Dontsova: It’s very difficult to shout over men. I would like to add something to what Andrei has just said. I have two points to make.

The first is that, Mr Putin, I have seen you at the controls of a submarine, with a rifle and with a fishing pole, but I have never seen you at the opening ceremony of a bookstore, not ever.

Vladimir Putin: I have been to such ceremonies.

Darya Dontsova: I just haven’t seen you. I made a specific search on the Internet. I found one short interview where you said that you liked Turgenev and Hemingway, if I can remember correctly, and that’s it. You were at a Moscow Book Fair once. I believe that if our top officials take their cues from you, and I’m sure they will even if only to please you, and finally grab a book…

Vladimir Putin: Why do you think that way about everybody?

Darya Dontsova: You can’t force people to read, but if the boss is reading then perhaps they will start reading books as well. It doesn’t matter whether these are Soviet or Russian authors. Just read any book, grab a book and start reading.

As for my second point – we have here Tatyana Ustinova, Alexandra Marinina, Sergei Lukyanenko and Sergei Minayev (who is not exactly in the same category as the rest, but close enough) who write what are called entertainment books.

Alexandra Marinina (penname of Marina Alexeyeva): The ones that you called light reading.

Darya Dontsova: Exactly. We were offended by this. I was hurt, frankly, because there are millions of people who read our books. To heck with the feelings of the girl writers: no big deal, we'll get over them, no problem. But when you talk about us, you're talking about our readers too.

Alexandra Marinina has 1.2 million copies printed each month, and same goes for Tatyana Ustinova and myself. I'm not sure about Lukyanenko and Minayev, but I assume their numbers are about the same. We are talking about a vast readership. You know, someone may start with Dontsova and switch to Pushkin later when he or she grows accustomed to holding a book. This is already good progress. You divide readers into black and white, clean and unclean, good literature and easy reading. Is that not the case?

Vladimir Putin: No. In his time, people considered Alexander Dumas to be a writer of easy fiction, but that does not mean that his name will be forgotten tomorrow. We all read his books when we are young. I adored his Three Musketeers, I almost went out of my mind as I was reading it. But I didn’t mean to say that this is bad literature. What I meant is that we need to make sure that our readers don’t lose interest in the Russian classics, books that are in their nature deep and philosophical reading. That was the point. I didn’t mean to offend you when I referred to “easy reading”.  Why did you decide that this is something degrading?

Darya Dontsova: That’s the way it sounded. That was my impression…

Vladimir Putin: If it sounded that way, then please accept my apologies.

Darya Dontsova: You may be aware that characters in Marinina’s books often read Russian classics.

Vladimir Putin: Yes, yes.

Darya Dontsova: Ustinova’s characters also read classical Russian literature. People who read our books know a thing or two about the classics.

Vladimir Putin: As I said, if it sounded that way to you then I apologise. As for the media taking pictures of Mr Medvedev or me with a book during a bookstore opening ceremony or at a book fair, I think it’s a good idea that we should move ahead with. Let me assure you that dairy producers ask me to appear in public holding a glass of milk. Meat producers want to see me publicly eating Russian-made meat products, and so on. In all seriousness, that’s what they say and what they ask me to do. We need to think about other things, although this is also important. Any positive example is always good, but we should be focusing on the economic aspects. A printed book costs around 400 roubles, while an e-book costs between 70 and 80 roubles, 100 at the most. These proportions are about the same in the United States, the only difference is in the currency. What we need to do is make printed books even cheaper than their electronic counterparts, which will make the book business a sound economic endeavour. These are the realities. They will no doubt buy even more of your books.

We have to think about how we can accomplish this. Today, this can be done only in the condition of direct subsidies from the government. Is this possible under the current budget? Perhaps not, but we need to think about how we can get there. We will need to subsidise the industry that manufactures the necessary quality of printing paper, as well as some other things. There are many levers that can be engaged. These are things that we all, especially the government, need to focus on.

Oleg Novikov (General Director of Eksmo publishers): Mr Putin, may I say a few words about the industry? Subsidies are exactly what the industry does not need. The industry has a VAT break, which has been quite effective during the past 20 years.

Remark: It should be set at 10% for electronic products, because 18% is…

Oleg Novikov: Thank you for that alone. Let them allow us to work and not interfere with what we do. As soon as they try to help, things only get worse. Mr Putin, please don’t do too much to help us. We will cope on our own. Only don’t interfere.

Vladimir Putin: Fine. We won't any longer.

Oleg Novikov: Let them comply with the laws. The industry is at a point of major change. We have been effectively growing for the past 20 years, have joined the ranks of the top five global publishers in terms of titles, the market was up until 2008 and reached 3 billion roubles in turnover without any outside help. Our national authors are the most popular…

Vladimir Putin: I believe it’s 2 billion. Six billion now, I think.

Oleg Novikov: It’s down now… However, national writers are most popular in two countries: the United States and Russia. The industry should receive due credit for preserving our national literature during the 1990s. Yes, there were certain tax breaks provided by the government, and that’s all we need. Indeed, there are requirements today that seek to protect the industry and comply with regulations, and the industry will do fine on its own. Internet piracy is a global threat to the market. It may be that the authors present here today will stop writing tomorrow, because they won’t be able to make any money from it. Western writers enjoy real protection, and they are not facing this global threat. Internet piracy accounts for 10% of the market, while the legal market in the United States is more than 10% of the overall market. In Russia, the legal market is 10% of the illegal market.

There are laws in place, but these laws are weak and they are poorly enforced. Regardless of how much we talk with officials about it… Yes, the Federal Agency for Press and Mass Media supports us, but in reality, they tend to bring things to a standstill. In the West, responsible parties include both the manufacturer and the consumer, the copyright holder. Things tend to be very tough in Germany: they summon you to a prosecutor’s office or tax office the next day to ask if you used a piece in question. Then they will cut you off and issue a warning… Of course, Russia is not prepared to do this, and we don’t need it right now. What we really need is to have at least a political directive, because people lately keep talking about how information needs to be open. No one is saying that there is no need to pay for it, but then people realise that protection is not mandatory, because they will simply open their Internet browsers tomorrow; information should be accessible, but there is no law enforcement there, which makes things difficult for us… And so on, and so forth – you are well aware of the situation. It’s very important that we at least have a political declaration about the need for copyright protection.

Vladimir Putin: Mr Novikov, that’s exactly how I formulated my position when I spoke today. I fully agree with you – we need protection. We’ll step up our efforts toward that goal. That is probably what Mr Veller must have been referring to when he said that law-enforcement agencies should be efficient in doing their job. I go along with you on this. I won’t cite any specific figures here, so as not to give you information that may prove inaccurate. But let me assure you that the number of offenders brought to justice has increased dramatically in recent time, as has the amount of destroyed piracy CDs and other stuff.

The situation is quite complicated, I agree. And the criticisms we hear from you as well as from our foreign partners are not unfounded. So we’ll continue working to improve our legislation and to raise the efficiency of our law-enforcers.

Oleg Novikov: The Dutch are highly efficient in protecting their market against piracy, but the largest Internet pirate is based in the Netherlands. The lawyers we approached on this told us: “The Dutch police won’t protect you from pirates in Russia. This is the Russian police’s job.”

Vladimir Putin: We’ll work with the Netherlands, as well as with other countries, at the intergovernmental level.

Your comment, please.

Alexander Kondakov (Director General of Prosveshcheniye Publishers): Mr Putin, I’d like to go back to Roman Zlotnikov’s comment. He wondered what unifies us as a nation. I think the main unifying force is our constitution, which proclaims we are a nation united by a common fate. We have a shared system of values, or norms of conduct set by our society. I came across this idea for the first time in the article that you, Mr Putin, had written the day before getting registered as a presidential candidate.

Perhaps our values are not articulated rigorously enough these days, but we’re working to improve this through school education.

One of the speakers wondered earlier today who the real heroes of our times are. Let me remind you of one project we’ve done recently on modern Russian history. When we delved into that period and then looked back at the heroes of our recent past from that perspective, it turned out that our knowledge about Peter the Great, Ivan the Terrible, Alexander Nevsky and other historical figures drew largely from textbooks published in the Stalin era. Our children still learn about these heroes from the books of that period.

Speaking of target support, I think the government should support the authors, theatres and films that try to instil moral, patriotic and family values in our society, especially in the younger generations, values that meet the letter and the spirit of the Russian constitution.

The TV series School, which we mentioned earlier today, is a crime perpetrated with the help of public money, in my view. But if the government finances creative projects aimed at promoting real values, Russian society and each of its individual members will stand to benefit.

Thirty years ago, my father asked the chairman of the Union of Artists of the USSR why the organisation went on financing tens of thousands of members if none of them was good enough to measure up to Rembrandt. The answer was simple enough: For another such great artist to appear, tens of thousands of mediocre talents have to be supported for 500 years.

We don’t have any really efficient writers’ unions these days, unfortunately. Quite a few groups are affiliated with the Book Alliance, though. How many of them have we registered, Mr Stepashin?

Remark: What do we need [such associations] for? To supply them with dachas?

Alexander Kondakov: Opinions may vary on this but they could work as vehicles of target support, you know.

Going back to the education system, I don’t know if other publishers will agree with me but today we cannot employ a single university graduate without retraining. The quality of university education in creative writing also leaves much to be desired. What’s going on at the Moscow Institute of Philosophy, Literature and History and other universities?

If we seek to strengthen our national system of values, I think we should consider the current problems of culture, education and the publishing business in their entirety.  Our mission is to consolidate the nation, passing on its heritage to younger generations.

Vladimir Putin: Thank you very much.

As for government support, we have a system of grants and awards. We could also enhance the system of state commissions at the departmental level. This is realistic. Mr Zlotnikov touched on this briefly earlier today.

Roman Zlotnikov: There’s also a system of awards.

Vladimir Putin: I just mentioned it.

Remark: Awards for what? For patriotism?

Daria Donstova: What are you talking about? If you live in this country, you’re a patriot. What patriotism award?

Roman Zlotnikov: Wait a minute. Awards for literary works, not for patriotism.

Sergei Minayev: Mr Putin, what are those writers talking about? Mr Zlotnikov claims we have problems with patriotism these days. All you need to do is to write a book that sells at least 200,000 copies.

Roman Zlotnikov: I’ve written such a book already.

Sergei Minayev: And then you won’t need the prime minister or the writers’ union because tomorrow some shrewd officials will bring Mr Putin a proposal for the national project Malaya Zemlya-2 and get a million dollar grant because we really need it to boost patriotism.

And us, where do we want to live, in Russia or in America? We’ve answered this question once and for all already, haven’t we? I personally want to live here, in Russia, and all that talk about government incentives for patriotic literature just makes me sick.

I was touched by the remarks of the Russian-language teacher who spoke today about the heroes of our time.  My novel “Dukhkless” sold 700,000 copies in the first year. Zakhar [Prilepin]’s book, too, had a huge print run. He had one type of hero while I had a different type. Along with writing books, I host a television show, Honest Monday, on NTV Channel. A lot of people come to my studio. As you know, writers observe the reality around them and then reflect it in their books. They just cannot make up an honest policeman or an honest bureaucrat if they see no examples in real life.

Daria Dontsova: True, there are no such examples.

Sergei Minayev: And then we watch TV and see an “honest” middle-rank official  or bureaucrat wearing a watch worth $100,000. The reader will say, Minayev, you’re a liar. But Minayev got a state prize for it, then he talked with Kondakov and got the membership in the writers’ union, was given a dacha and everyone is happy. What I’m trying to say is that a writer cannot possibly have a relationship with the state. There is no need to feed him: we’ve been through that already and have seen the results. What we need to do is to support our publishers who help us earn a living.

Remark: Michelangelo and Pius XII collaborated quite efficiently, though.

Sergei Minayev: Sorry, I don’t think there’s another Michelangelo among us.

Remark: Why are you so hard on yourself?

Daria Dontsova: Mr Minayev is right. We don’t need any government handouts, we can provide for ourselves.

Sergei Minayev: That’s right. Our publishers will help us earn a living.

Daria Dontsova: He is right: it is our publishers that need to be supported. As for the Soviet Writers’ Union, it was set up by Maxim Gorky on Stalin’s orders, so that the writing community could be manipulated more easily.

Sergei Minayev: Absolutely.

Daria Dontsova: As a daughter of a Soviet Writers’ Union secretary, I have first-hand knowledge about the organisation’s inner workings. This is why, as a novelist, I’ve always preferred to stay away.

Alexander Kondakov: You are attending a convention of the Russian Book Union, which has managed to become organised and to turn into a self-governing organisation that united publishers, writers and printing companies.

Sergei Minayev: We are holding a round table discussion here today. Mr Putin, I would like to say a few words about the heroes of our time. You know, there are honest people all over the country. This fact should not be doubted. We must eradicate pessimism to the effect that all people in this country are thieves and con artists because there really are a lot of honest people. The problem is that they are smothered by all that virtually omnipresent scum.

The issue of next year and presidential elections seems to have been resolved. The situation is absolutely clear. We can talk about the nature of our elections, specific election returns and a certain level of people’s trust. In the next few years, we must see to it that young people stop saying that they want to become public officials when asked about the careers of their choice because public officials are well placed to steal money. If the upcoming years turn into an instrument of repressions, then I want to state clearly that … 

Tatyana Ustinova: Or gangsters, Sergei …

Sergei Minayev: Gangsters don’t earn that much. Please stop it, Tatyana, gangsters are nothing compared to mid-level public officials.

If the state reacts in the next few years to what you know and the mistakes we perceive… There must be harsh punishment because writers will always be able to make a living, but we don’t know what we will write for them. We must write what we see. To my mind, such a reaction on the part of the state is important in this case. And then we can write about patriotism.

Vladimir Putin: As far as patriotism is concerned, Mr Minayev has stated what I was about to say. Of course, it is possible to support various aspects of work, but this is a very difficult objective because numerous people from various administrative tiers can promptly join this process. Such people will always be able to explain why Ivanov and Petrov, rather than Sidorov, should receive the funding. And this is a very complicated process. Nonetheless, it is possible to discuss ways of providing support through the professional creative community, the way we had done it for the film industry.

Roman Zlotnikov: Please don’t. This would become such a spider nest. This is absolutely out of the question.

Remark: A nest full of writers is worse than a spider nest.

Vladimir Putin: This problem exists.

Roman Zlotnikov: We will earn our own money, please don’t worry.

Vladimir Putin: I am not worried but I am responsible for what has been mentioned here.

Mikhail Veller: I would like to say a few words. There is a fundamental task which was set for political analysts, all creative professionals and writers 15 years ago: formulate the national idea. This issue remains open. When you think about it, you can see that the national idea cannot be created, but one can try and foresee it. Today, the national idea takes on the nature of commercial information. In effect, it is not divulged to outsiders. Personal enrichment has de facto become our national idea in the past 20 years.

When there is a national idea, it is always opposed by some covert anti-idea implying that everyone be expropriated and purged. If you will excuse my triteness, but until such conservative concepts as conscience, integrity, honour, national prosperity, which don’t go hand in hand with profit-making but which are more sublime, become something de facto, we will continue to have the situation where, as one critic put it, none of the protagonists in books work. They are either businesspeople or gangsters, or they have love affairs.

Tatyana Ustinova: Mr Putin, may I say a few words about freedom?

Vladimir Putin: Yes, just a moment please. I’m sorry. Of course, you can talk about freedom.

I would like to say a few words about how and in what areas people want to realise their potential, especially young people. They should not want to become gangsters or public officials. I would like to stress that all of us working together must create an environment that provides more opportunities for self-realisation, so that people can achieve success, earn money in honest ways for themselves and their families and simply for the sake of self-expression. True, we still don’t have enough such opportunities. But the situation will change, if all of us manage to accomplish this. Why should we act together? Because the state must create the required material basis, organisational opportunities, social lifts, as it is now customary to say, and so on. However, a professional community of writers must simultaneously provide moral reference points because we can only do this together. Go ahead, please.

Tatyana Ustinova: I wanted to say a few words about freedom. This is so interesting. Russian literature has been absolutely free in the past 20-plus years of the new Russia’s existence. I mean we have been able to write about everything, and we can write about whatever we want. We don’t have any censorship. At least I don’t. I don’t know what the situation is like with other writers. Mr Minayev, do you have censorship?

Sergei Minayev: I have never had it in my whole life.

Darya Dontsova: Neither have I.

Tatyana Ustinova: No one checks or controls us, all that terrible censorship passes us by. As a writer, I would like to say that all of us suffer from the inferiority complex, we are all a bit mad, and all of us have been flayed to some extent, despite our commercial success … I would very much like this situation to continue in the future and forever, so that we would be free to do anything we want. This is very important, this is far more important than any creative unions and a chance to receive a mandate of the Mass Socialist Literature association. This is far more important, and I hope this is how things will continue in this country. As I return from heaven to the Earth, I would like to ask for forgiveness, like a priest.

Vladimir Putin: That’s perfectly all right. Like a priest.

Tatyana Ustinova: … Like the priest in Alexander Pushkin’s fairy tale of a priest and his worker, the Blockhead. I’ve been telling everyone that the school-level reading system must be overhauled. Only the government can do this. None of us will be able to accomplish this objective. We need to overhaul the system, not just regular reading sessions and their quality, because the parents are absolutely at a loss as to what books their 14-year-old children should be advised to read. Of course, if they are not teachers or educators, and we are certainly not educators. I’m an engineer, we are not teachers or educators, and we are in no position to recommend anything to you. What we need is a school-level reading system. I would like to repeat once again like a parrot that federal TV channels should broadcast some programme about books. Actually, we have only one nationwide TV channel that people watch. I realise that when people hear the words “television programme about books” they fall asleep from boredom but something must be conceived, and only the state can do this. Not a single publisher can accomplish this and air an interesting programme on a federal TV channel. Neither Oleg Novikov (General Director of Eksmo Publishing House), nor anyone else can do this. Only Mr Mikhail Seslavinsky (Head of the Federal Agency for Press and Mass Media) can do it. There is no such programme, but we need it. We really need it. But it shouldn’t be boring or dull, and it shouldn’t put everyone to sleep. It must inspire everyone to start reading. I would like to tell you a story about Alexandre Dumas. I like this story very much. One bookshop owner wanted to please the author, and he stacked all his shelves with Dumas’ books shortly before his visit. When Dumas came in, he was surprised that there were no other books except his own. When he asked the bookshop owner about this, he had nothing better to say that the rest had already been sold. I remembered this story because I would like to support Sergei and Darya in that we do not need help. The industry will help us, it will sell our books, and it is the industry that needs support. That’s why I support freedom with a clear conscience. I would like the school reading system to be overhauled and systematised. I would also like to see some television support for reading.  

Vladimir Putin: Unfortunately, I have to move on but I would like to say this in conclusion. We have heard here remarks about television and a well-known film about school life was described as a crime perpetrated at government expense. I want to say that it was not funded by the state, it was made by a private company which found funding somewhere I don’t know where. Certainly, we have many challenges, both in school, with reading, and in publishing. In conclusion, I would like to say the following. Ms Ustinova has made a lovely closing remark by saying that she supports freedom with a clear conscience. Let us all have maximum freedom, but at the same time let’s never forget about conscience. Thank you.

Tatyana Ustinova: We are the conscience because we are the writers.

Pavel Sanayev: May I raise one more issue? I kept quiet all the time.

Vladimir Putin: You know, unfortunately, I must …

Pavel Sanayev: This is just one last point. Everyone now talks about using the Internet. But once you type in “legal herbal mixtures,” and you get hold of ten absolutely free websites offering to deliver hard drugs that turn people into idiots, to your home. A friend of mine, an actor, bought and smoked some stuff at a café, and his friends had to take him away from that place.

Vladimir Putin: This shows that the agency which is responsible for this is not working well, despite the fact that it has a staff of over 30,000. That’s all.

Pavel Sanayev: Is it possible to make them work better? If they are incapable of doing this, how can we track pirate texts online?

Vladimir Putin: Yes, it is possible, but this is a tremendous problem. You and I both realise that this is a systemic problem that is also linked with the abolition of the former Soviet Union’s state borders. Unfortunately, Russia’s neighbours are unable to effectively protect their state borders, including those with Afghanistan.

Pavel Sanayev: But can one get rid of these links and websites online?

Vladimir Putin: Quite possibly, such hyperlinks can and must be erased. I assure you that they are doing this, albeit not always effectively. You would be surprised if you saw how substantial the increase in criminal convictions is. But this is obviously not enough because this real problem engulfs the entire country. We must fight this. We will persuade the security agencies to do the job better. But the scale is too big, it’s simply colossal. For instance, the United Kingdom gets 90% of drugs, including heroin, from Afghanistan. And Russia possibly gets as much as 100%. They have huge amounts of drugs at warehouses there.

Pavel Sanayev: That’s not heroin, that’s made in the form of fish food. I’m talking about legal development …

Vladimir Putin: This is a problem. I’ll talk about it.

Remarks: Thank you very much.

Vladimir Putin: Thank you. I wish you every success in your creative work. Thank you for your books.