Because of this article in the New York Times this weekend, it is now a matter of public record that the Russian government is handing over the school textbook market to Arkady Rotenberg, a friend of President Vladimir Putin’s who heads the board of directors of a major publishing house, Prosveshcheniye (Russian for Enlightenment). It’s easy to portray Russia as a shameless kleptocracy where any and all principles are sacrificed to the enrichment of Putin’s clique, but the story is more complicated. It’s also worse.
The Russian book market is a familiar subject to me: in 2010 and 2011, I ran the business-book division of Eksmo, then one of the country’s two biggest book publishers and now undisputed market leader. Back then, the company’s chief executive, Oleg Novikov, kept out of the textbook market on principle — because it was not really a market, and because every Russian publisher knew how dangerous it could be to get involved in it.