The Russian Booker
Chapter Seven in Memoirs of a Russianist, Volume II
My time serving as chairman of the Russian Booker literary prize extended across the four years covered in the two previous chapters, 1998-2002. But it was an activity quite distinct from the day to day business issues that my jobs and consultancies entailed, and for that reason I have decided to devote this special chapter to the Booker.
To be sure, I was appointed chairman in 1998 ex officio, that is to say because I was the Managing Director of the UDV/Diageo operations in Russia and the company was paying the costs of this competition as general sponsor. However, I was retained as chairman for more than two years after I left Diageo, so long as the company remained general sponsor, at the explicit request of the UK Booker because of what was perceived as my outstanding contribution to the award’s growing renown within Russia. Why this perception was justified I will explain shortly by describing exactly what initiatives were undertaken under my direction to reach out to additional stakeholders in the literary establishment, namely libraries, publishers, book sellers
Before proceeding to recount my experiences running the Booker Prize within Russia, I propose to take a step back and explain what the Booker meant to me and why.
If the reader is at a loss as to what the “Booker” Prize for Fiction was all about, I am forgiving. More than that, I offer the comforting admission that I had not a clue about this literary competition before I was named to take over its Russian offshoot. The fact is that the Booker Prize occupied a place in British cultural life out of all proportion to its standing in the United States or on Continental Europe. As regards the USA, the administrators of the Booker had decided from the beginning of its existence to exclude American authors from competing out of fear they would overwhelm British and Commonwealth authors. Consequently the competition attracted only specialist attention there. I note that this has very recently been overturned, and Americans are now eligible for the Prize. As regards the Continent, the prize competition that captured top of mind was the Prix Goncourt in Paris, which was much older and better established among cultural elites.
However, once I was introduced to the concept and procedures of the UK Booker Prize during meetings with the administrators in London, once I participated for the first time in a Prize dinner, when the suspense of waiting for the jury’s decision electrified a very privileged audience of predominantly businessmen and politicians in the prestigious Guildhall in the City of London, I understood that the Booker plc under its chairman Sir Michael Caine had created a brilliant cultural institution that had no equal anywhere.
The history of the Prize is all by itself quite remarkable. The public versions I have seen in Wikipedia and on the Prize’s latest website are incomplete or air brushed in favor of those who have controlled the prize after Booker plc was gobbled up by the Icelandic Group and lost control of its creation to a succession of other corporate sponsors. Here I wish to set down in brief the version I heard from Sir Michael Caine and his assistants, and most especially to record what they said motivated them.
Booker plc traced its roots to the “colonial” trade in the first half of the 19th century when it estrablished itself as the controlling force in sugar production and export from British Guyana. In the 1990s, it had turned itself into a major food wholesaler in the UK. As from the 1960s, it had used tax loopholes to invest in author’s copyrights. Per Sir Michael, the first success in this vein was its purchase of the rights to royalties from Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond novels, in his final years when he was ailing and in need of cash. The company later bought the rights to the works of Agatha Christie and others. These investments produced a cash stream well above expectations and Sir Michael decided to return these funds to the literary establishment by setting up the Booker Prize for Fiction at the end of the 60s.
Over time he and his collaborators at Booker set rules for conducting the literary competition which generated public excitement in the process of selecting the Long List, then the Short List and finally the jury vote on a winner announced during the aforementioned splendid dinner event. The rules specified that the prize would go to a work of fiction in English published in the preceding year and that every year there would be a new jury consisting of literary critics, people in the arts and eminent political personalities named by the advisory committee. The idea was that literary excellence has many dimensions and only by changing the jury could you avoid staleness and partiality to one style at the expense of others having equal or greater claims to talent and originality. Unlike so many competitions in the arts where awards go to friends of friends, or are given for lifetime accomplishments, the Booker Prize sought out excellence in one year’s harvest of literature without prejudice. Indeed, in the 1990s, the juries could show great courage in resisting political correctness. The result was to make the competition suspenseful and socially exciting.
The prize money reserved for the winner of the prize was substantial, but the still greater value to the shortlisted six and to the single winner was the prominence given to their works in every bookstore in the UK upon publication of the Short List. For his part the winner could expect sales numbering in the hundreds of thousands of copies. At the three prize dinners which Larisa and I attended, the top level business executives seated at our table may not have read the shortlisted books, but their wives all did. To my experience, the Booker Prize in the late 1990s succeeded in generating great interest in contemporary English language literature, far greater than the hoary Prix Goncourt did for French language literature, as measured in book sales.
For that matter, my experience with the U.K. prize changed entirely my own view of modern fiction in the English language. Reading the shortlisted books year after year, I came to appreciate that among them were works in no way inferior to the “classics” from the 19th century and early 20th century that I had read in secondary school. Just to name a few of the Booker winners that attracted my great admiration during my time in the milieu, I direct attention to Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee (1999), Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (2000) and Life of Pi byYann Martel (2002). I had little doubt that a couple of them are works of genius. Whether they become “classics” only time will tell.
The decision of Sir Michael in 1992 to set up a Russian Booker Prize also had a logic to it that I heard from him and his associates but do not see anywhere today on the internet. Booker plc had business dealings with Russia (Soviet Union) going back decades relating to tinned salmon caught and produced there, distributed in the UK by Booker. So the country was on the corporation’s map. But it was also in the consciousness of Sir Michael, the intellectual, who was known to have great admiration for the Russian literary traditions going back to Dostoevsky, Gogol and Pushkin. Watching the devastation of the Russian economy and the hardship that all of Russian culture was undergoing, Sir Michael and his team decided to lend a helping hand to Russian authors by setting up a Booker prize competition in Moscow.
I did not see very much of Sir Michael in the months following my appointment as chairman of the Russian Booker in December 1998 to his death in March 1999. But I did see his team of prize administrators who were an impressive lot and who spoke very well of the founder. For that reason, I was pleased to pay tribute to him for his generosity of spirit towards Russian literature by proposing that a bronze bust be sculpted in Russia and donated to the UK. The bust was duly executed by a very talented and today very prominent sculptor, Gyorgy Frangulian. It is now on display in one of the colleges of Oxford University.
The Russian Booker Prize that I took over in December 1998 had little in common with the original other than the name and worthy ambitions. The impartiality and professional excellence of the administration and jury were questionable. The advisory committee choosing the jury was very conservative and, I would say, small-minded. They tended to choose juries in their own image. However, the biggest problems were not on our side but lay in the deplorable state of Russian publishing. As I recall, almost all of the novels presented for the prize competition had been published in Russia’s “fat” literary journals, not as self-standing books from a commercial publishing house. Then there was the near absence of authors delivering quality fiction. The field was demoralized by the economic chaos in the country and depleted. The few authors who were exciting, even scandalous, were not recognized by our conservative juries. I think in particular of Victor Pelevin and Vladimir Sorokin.
Russians had been writing a great deal over the preceding decade that began with Glasnost under Mikhail Gorbachev. But they were writing and reading non-fiction. What little fiction was published tended to be in the genre described not very sympathetically as чернуха, which one dictionary describes as “a gloomy genre of Russian horror, everything negative in everyday life (e.g. cruelty, poverty, violence).” Needless to say, this is not a genre which sells many books. Otherwise, the most popular fiction of the time was the series around detective Fandorin written by the author Boris Akunin. Fine literature was hard to find. Accordingly it was a great task to identify enough published novels for the Long List to appear presentable.
Meanwhile, book distribution was in a parlous state. Books which were being sold in the capitals never made it out to the country at large, not even to the cities with populations over one million.
The first Russian Booker winner under my chairmanship was a case that fits perfectly the situation described above, Strange Letters by Alexander Morozov. The author had just published a novel written thirty years previous but which had remained in his desk drawer all that time because it was a scathing critique of Soviet domestic life.
Over the next several years, the Russian Booker was more successful in identifying currently active serious authors. In my second year, 2000, the jury recognized as winner Mikhail Shishkin, then as now living in Switzerland, for his novel The Taking of Izmail [Взятие Измаила]. The work was truly a credit to the national literature.
In my third year, 2001, I had the pleasure of presenting the award to Ludmilla Ulitskaya for her socially engaged work The Kukotsky Case. A photo of the two of us on the dais proudly hangs on the wall of my Brussels home office. Ulitskaya now lives in Israel, has many friends and admirers in the USA, and visits Russia often. Her winning did more credit to the Prize than added luster to her name.
I tried hard to raise the excitement surrounding the Russian Booker by inviting onto the jury well known and loved personalities from the Russian arts. Over the years these included the actor Sergei Yurski, cinematographer Valery Todorovsky,as well as the director of the Helikon Opera in Moscow and Dmitry Bertman.
To the advisory committee I brought the former dissident and satirical novelist Vladimir Voinovich, who was then living in Germany, and Yuri Belyavsky, editor-in-chief of the influential Kultura weekly newspaper. Belyavsky was the one who put us together with our next sponsors, the Open Russia Foundation of Khodorkovsky, thus providing for financial continuity at a crucial moment. We knew him from Larisa’s publishing some of her music and theater reviews in his paper. I also saw to it that a prominent librarian from one of the larger provincial cities was added to the advisory committee.
Within our budgetary constraints we staged glamorous, socially significant awards dinners in the grand ballroom of the Metropole Hotel in Moscow, inviting in well-known and popular performers, like Bolshoi tenor Nikolai Baskov, and featuring live music by high quality chamber orchestras. We successfully attracted media to our events. To be sure, there was no live television coverage as in England, but we won time on the evening news broadcasts and in the print media.
My work on the Russian Booker included some important new initiatives. One was to take the Booker prize winners to the regions. I accompanied Morozov to several of these remote book presentations, in Yekaterinburg and St Petersburg. Another was to meet with the book publishing trade, which was in formation at the time to see what could be done to get new Russian novels into print and into circulation in book stores, which were badly undercapitalized like all of the Russian economy. We hosted a seminar that brought together industry leaders. Among the booksellers, the lady managing director of the landmark Dom Knigi bookstore on Nevsky Prospekt in St Petersburg, Samokhvalova, was an enthusiastic supporter of these measures.
I wish to extend a bouquet to the British Embassy which contributed significantly to the success of my initiatives by lending its prestige and physical assistance to Russian Booker activities. Ambassador Andrew Wood and his wife kindly hosted luncheons at their residence for our visiting colleagues from the U.K. Booker. His successor David Gowan also lent a hand to some of my Booker activities.
The total budget of The Russian Booker was $250,000 per year during my time in charge. Of that $15,000 was given to the first prize winner. Runners-up in the Short List got nominal compensation. Meanwhile, the jury and advisory committee received no compensation for their time, only reimbursement of travel and lodging for out-of-towners. While Diageo was sponsor, the administrative charges to the Prize were minimal. Our significant costs were the hospitality to journalists and guests at each of the events in the awards process and costs relating to the seminars for booksellers and others that we organized. Then there were typography costs for our printing the novels of our laureates as self-standing books in a retrospective collection
The second half of my tenure as Chairman of the Russian Booker was complicated by administrative and financial problems that had their origin on the British side. We had been receiving a good deal of advice and assistance from the Booker organization which came to a halt when Booker plc was taken over by the Icelandic Group and the ownership of the Prize for Fiction was hived off, landing after some time in limbo in the hands of the investment management Man Group, who eventually carried it forward for several years but had no interest in the Russian Booker. Accordingly we applied our energies to seeking out new sponsors once it was clear that Diageo would not continue its support indefinitely.
We were compelled to set up a Russian legal entity in order to continue to manage the prize ourselves according to our precepts while soliciting new sponsors. Together with our Literary Secretary, Professor Igor Shaitanov, I incorporated the Russian Booker Foundation and assumed its presidency and responsibilities of financial director.
The management of the Russian Booker logically was going to be made fully “native” once the foreign sponsor was replaced by a local Russian sponsor which happened in mid-2002, when Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s Open Russian Foundation took over from Diageo. That set the stage for my departure after the awards ceremony in December.
I present in Part Two a verbatim transcript of a meeting that Shaitanov and I went to at the headquarters of the Open Russia Foundation in downtown Moscow in August 2002. The reason of our visit was the sponsor’s withholding of funds that we urgently needed to move on from the Long List presentation to the next stage in the competition, the Short List presentation. These events were costly, entailing rental of hotel premises and equipment for a press conference, as well as sizable catering costs for our generous feed to journalists.
My purpose in including the transcript was less to show how our sponsors were ordering us to falsify expense documentation for their convenience than to show their open contempt for the independence of jury concept that made the Booker such an exceptional and praiseworthy literary competition.
A fish rots from the head, and this contempt for the bottom-up principles of civil society came from Khodorkovsky and his colleague and fellow oligarch Nevzlin. What kind of chap was Nevzlin is fairly clear from my mention of his words of welcome at the given meeting. He did not bother to repeat to us the claptrap about building Russian civil society that Igor offered to be ingratiating. No, Nevzlin talked about his interests in getting to know the new patrons of the Booker in the U.K., the financial advisory group.
I was therefore not in the least surprised when I heard from friends within the Booker advisory committee that in 2003 the Prize was awarded to the winning author on direct instructions from Mikhail Khodorkovsky who overrode the wishes of the jury. Khodorkovsky gave these instructions from his prison cell. He had been arrested for financial crimes in October 2003 and would eventually be meted out a lengthy prison term.
The charges against Khodorkovsky and the scandal which enveloped Yukos led the Russian Booker’s administrators to search for a new sponsor of the prize. Eventually the eminently respectable U.K. firm British Petroleum stepped in and took over the financing of the prize for several years.
Before closing this chapter, I wish to add a word about who was running the day to day operations of Khodorkovsky’s charitable foundation. Irina Yasina, Maria Orzhonikidze and the other mainly female managers were the offspring of Communist nomenklatura going back to Stalinist times who held on to their privileges and elitist views under the new regime of “democratic” Russia forged by Boris Yeltsin and his entourage.
This brings me to draw attention to an article from the Exile that is also presented in Part II where the author remarks how unfortunate it is that Westerners view the political contests going on in Russia in their elections as a fight between good and evil, between democracy and autocracy, when it is nothing more than a fight between contending interest groups for power. Regrettably from the end of the 1990s to present in 2021 our mainstream media and political classes have not become more enlightened and reasonable in the way they describe politics in Russia and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union.
©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021
[Memoirs of Russianist, Volume I: From the Ground Up is now in print and available on all national websites of Amazon.com, as well as from other leading online retailers including Barnes & Noble. Volume II: Russia in the Roaring 1990s will go to press in one month]