Artwork by Melanie Ottenstein, Florida

Russia: The Nation of the Book

By Bailey Mezan

In Saint Petersburg reading is more than an intellectual pastime, books are for privacy and quiet


During our first meeting Katya Grife, a 25 year old living in St. Petersburg, presented me with a concept that boggled my techno-drunk mind. An idea that I know existed once, but that seems as archaic as phone booths or paying to see a movie. Katya explained proudly: everyone in Russia reads on public transportation… just because they want to (gasp!). She herself reads three books at a time and is the heir to a small family library. This woman knows her books and she has a thing or two say about how Russians have clung to their favorite past-time in the wake of a global techno-overload.


Our conversation began with a quick anecdote by Katya’s husband Bruno Grife. Though not from St. Petersburg, he has become very much attuned to the culture which marks this city: reading. ‘Lets put it this way,’ he says, ‘I was in the metro on my way to [band] rehearsal and I saw that 30-50 percent of the passengers were reading. Everyone was scattered about the seats reading magazines, books, Kindles, anything to keep their brains stimulated and to make the most of their hard-earned ‘free time.” People riding the trains aren’t chatting on their cellphones. In fact, very few people are talking at all.


Reading, however, isn’t just an intellectual pastime, it is one imbued with the need for privacy, individualism and quiet. Katya explains, ‘In St. Petersburg books are a way of making other people less present, they are a way to disconnect.’ Walking in the underground stations of SPB, the silence is striking – the experience is deafeningly quiet. You will see 10,000 people and hear very little noise – hardly anyone is talking and almost no one is on their phones. Katya explains, ‘If you scan the surfaces in SPB what you will find is order and sterility. Everything is well manicured and polished.’ It is a matter of seclusion that you should find things this way, it fits into the cultural code of conduct that urges the practice of discretion. Even when people walk together you can’t hear them speaking – there is a universal reservation. It’s just in the blood – it’s rooted in the culture.



Reading on the Subway


‘Life in St. Petersburg is crazy,’ Katya tells me, ‘Most Russians don’t have the luxury of going home and reading a nice book. Many young people in SPB are not from the city and when they move to this cultural capital, they struggle to support themselves.’ Russians work many hours, until very late and are exhausted by the end of the day. The commute to and from work (usually between 30-60 minutes each way) is their only time for comfort and an intellectual re-fueling, so they read. The metro is a place where everyone can experience quiet and a good book.


The corner streets in St. Petersburg are littered with cheap book shops. Little trucks are scattered throughout the city for people to sell their used books for almost nothing. On the streets of St. Petersburg such a thing exists as young women walking while peering into the pages of a worn book – no, not an Ipad, an actual hard copy of a book. But reading as a pastime is not a recent phenomenon – it is as old as the culture that it belongs to. Russia has a long heritage of literature. While the country itself has undergone serious upheavals and revisions, reading has stayed very much intact.



Book Cart in SPB



Katya recalls the library of her grandma and grandpa. ‘It’s a crazy story,’ she muses, ‘They really liked books and they bought new ones all the time. My grandpoppa was in the army during the communist era and he was sent to many countries where they would sell Russian literature. He would take the books that he liked for his wife and children.’ Their family, along with most other families in Russia, were reading books because this was their only form of entertainment, their only escape into an imaginary world.  After some time Katya’s family had so many books that they couldn’t fit them all into their home. Her grandpa, a well liked officer in the Russian army, was given a space to build a small library as a gift from his commanders. Since many buildings at the time were government property and it was much easier for high ranking officers to take out a building order, they graciously gave his collection of books a home. Katya remembers, ‘On books that my grandmother urged me to read, I would see a small stamp bearing the family name.


‘Russia has been and remains the Nation of the Book,’ Katya points out, ‘Reading will remain profound in St. Petersburg and Russia.’ This is very much because it provides a unique language only for this region, a language which fits into the standards of quietness and individualism. Reading allows for people, and St. Petersburg itself, to remain closed off from the rest of the world. ‘The Russian language is rich with words,’ Katya says, ‘One english word can be said in many Russian words. For example the word Dream can be said in 14 different Russian words, these words themselves have a minimum of 10 variations.’  It’s clear that the Russian language has a much deeper use than to simply be spoken. Written words are the puppeteers of the Russian imagination.




Katya and Bruno

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