ZOiS Spotlight 43/2019

Publishing in Kazakhstan: new ways for writers

by Nina Frieß 20/11/2019
Bookstore in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Nina Frieß

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 also spelled the end of state funding of literature, which for decades had provided numerous benefits for writers loyal to the regime while imposing repressive measures on the less biddable. For post-Soviet writers, this meant not only more freedom but also the loss of state support and the collapse of established production and distribution systems. Unable to survive without government handouts, the former state-owned publishing houses were privatised or shut down. In time, a functioning market-based publishing scene developed in Russia; however, almost three decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the same cannot be said of Kazakhstan. The vast majority of the books sold in Kazakhstan are imported from Russia. Most books produced in Kazakhstan are schoolbooks and textbooks: they account for 90 per cent of works published in Kazakhstan.

In the interviews that I conducted during my research visits to Almaty and Astana (now Nur-Sultan) in May 2017 and October 2019, writers complained about the lack of a publishing infrastructure in Kazakhstan. In practice, many of the publishing houses that do exist are little more than printers, charging fees and publishing books unedited. The writers themselves receive no remuneration; on the contrary, they pay to have their works printed, either out of their own pocket or through sponsorship. In most cases, writers themselves take on the task of storing, distributing and marketing their works. Whether the books sell to a broader audience is of minor importance to the publishing houses since they have already generated their revenues by printing them.

Kazakhstan’s Russophone writers – in other words, those who write in Russian – therefore resort to using the resources available to them in Russia’s literary scene. Besides the traditional publishing houses, these resources include literary journals, which – despite their declining circulation figures – are still considered prestigious and play an influential role in Russophone literary life; there are also online platforms which Russophone writers in Kazakhstan can use to publish (and sometimes sell) their works. Through these channels, they not only reach readers in Russia; they can also make their work available to the “global Russian cultures”.[1] Literature aficionados in Kazakhstan also utilise these channels to read the writings of local authors.

Crowdfunding and language diversity

Of late, however, changes in Kazakhstani authors’ publishing strategies can be observed. On the one hand, efforts are being made to print and sell more works in Kazakhstan. On the other, some Kazakhstani writers are attempting, for the first time, to access a readership that is not part of the Russophone world.

Crowdfunding is becoming a more popular method of funding the printing of books. Yuriy Serebryansky was, by his own account, the first author in Kazakhstan to successfully raise funds to print one of his books using a Kazakhstani crowdfunding platform (Baribirge.kz). His publisher Aigerim Raimbekova reports that this raised more than half the printing costs. The campaign on social media was also good PR for Serebryansky’s Kazakhstani Fairytales. Contributors were able to take part in discussions about the cover of the book, which made for very effective advertising, and received a complimentary copy once it was published. Although the platform that was used for the project no longer exists, other writers are taking a lead from Serebryansky and resorting to similar methods in order to raise funds to print their works.

Kazakhstani Fairytales provides a good example of another publishing strategy that others in Kazakhstan may wish to emulate: alongside the original texts, which were written in Russian, the book includes parallel Kazakh translations. This means that the stories can be enjoyed by almost every reader in this multi-ethnic country, where Kazakh is the official state language and Russian maintains its status as lingua franca. Serebryansky’s fantasy novel Black Star (co-authored with Bakhytzhan Momyshuly, who died in 2012) was published in Russian and Kazakh simultaneously, although not as a single volume. In an interview, Serebryansky explained that publishing his works in both languages at the same time is “a genuine opportunity to safeguard my survival as a writer in Kazakhstan”. Publishing in the country’s two main languages is not just a commercial imperative, however; it may also help to spark a hitherto neglected conversation between Kazakhstan’s Russophone and Kazakh writers.

“A unique event in Kazakhstani culture”

A collection of poems by Aigerim Tazhi was also published in two languages in 2019. The volume of poetry, entitled Paper-Thin Skin/Bumazhnaya kozha, was published by the US-based Zephyr Press and includes not only the Russian originals but also English translations by J. Kates. For the poet herself, it was important to publish the poems in both languages, not just in English translation; this way, the poems are accessible to a local as well as an international readership. Paper-Thin Skin is now available in Kazakhstan, where its advertising slogan describes it as “a unique event for Kazakhstani culture”. But the event comes at a price: 10,000 tenge (around 23 euros), to be precise, making the book far more expensive than locally published works or Russian imports.

These various initiatives are the outcome of determined efforts by individual writers and publishers to make works by Kazakhstani writers accessible to a Kazakhstani readership while also supporting the development of the local literary and cultural scene. They are flagship projects that (potentially) serve as models for other authors. Via its Rýhani Jańǵyrý (Spiritual Rebirth – Modernisation of Kazakhstan’s Identity) initiative, the government of Kazakhstan has, thus far, mainly invested in projects that aim to raise the country’s international profile. In September 2019, for example, two volumes of writings were published – one showcasing “contemporary Kazakh prose”, the other “contemporary Kazakh poetry”, translated into the six UN languages.[2] The books will be gifted to libraries worldwide and can be accessed free of charge online. In recent months, however, Rýhani Jańǵyrý has begun to sponsor individual writers and smaller-scale cultural events in Kazakhstan itself. In Almaty, grants of 500,000 tenge (around 1,160 euros) were awarded to 90 (young) writers and translators and a series of readings by authors was held, mainly showcasing Kazakhstan’s young literature. Whether and how this engagement will continue and how it is likely to impact on Kazakhstan’s literary scene remains highly uncertain, however.

[1] See Kevin M. F. Platt: Global Russian Cultures, Madison 2019: The University of Wisconsin Press.

[2] “Contemporary” is a relative term, however: out of a total of 61 contributors, just six are under 50 and only 12 are female. What’s more, the choice of authors does not properly reflect Kazakhstan’s ethnic diversity.

Nina Frieß is a researcher at ZOiS, specialising in Slavic literatures and cultures. She takes an in-depth look at Kazakhstan’s young literature in her article Young Russophone Literature in Kazakhstan and the ‘Russian World’.