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Moscow book festival: an intellectual picnic

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MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti commentator Anatoly Korolev) - Moscow's First International Open Book Festival is opening on June 30 at the Central Artists House, Krymsky Val, and in the park around it on the Moskva River bank, in the city's heart.

That will be Russia's first try at something like the celebrated Edinburgh International Book Festival-an event that offers for show not fashions as London and not aircraft as Paris' Le Bourget but authors in the flesh.

Muscovites will meet famous writers, household names outside Russia, who are, regrettably, less known here, including France's Frederic Begbeder, Hungary's Gyorgy Dalos, the Britons Tibor Fischer and Graham Swift, and Yuz Aleshkovsky, the living legend of Russia and America, author of one of the most famous dissident songs of the 1950s:

"You are a great researcher, Comrade Stalin,

A genius of linguistics you are.

Now I'm an ordinary Soviet convict,

I howl with the wolves in the taiga."

Side by side with the overseas stars will be Russia's homegrown. Oksana Robsky, businesswoman and society lady, will offer lunch. Dmitry Prigov the shamanic poet will interview Konstantin Ernst, television Channel One boss, in public. Conceptualist Lev Rubinstein will sing his Soviet era hits, such as "Me and Rabinovich," which parodies the underworld songs with sparkling wit.

It will be as much a humor festival as a highbrow literary event. Carpenters are raising high the roofbeams in the Artists House park. It will be an arrangement of merry pavilions, as stylish and fanciful as the far more monumental structures of Moscow's All-Russia Exposition Center. Each will have a Crimean place name-Gurzuf, Kerch, Artek, Bakhchisarai, Koktebel, and so on. The Crimea passed over to Ukraine as the Soviet Union collapsed, so Muscovites are making do with a nostalgic architectural reminiscence of our favourite seaside resort. Vasily Aksyonov, another modern classic, was something of a prophet with his novel, "The Island of Crimea." The people of Moscow and its visitors are now welcome to its own Crimea islet.

All this merrymaking, however, is not an end in itself. Serious ideas certainly underlie it, as they should at a book festival, and there will be serious literary events, too.

Two prizes will be awarded at the festival-one to the best poet, and The Lion and the Unicorn to the best Russian translator of books from Britain and Ireland. There will be roundtables and public debates on video poetry, on the creative aspect of script writing, and on film adaptations of literary works. Historians will gather to discuss the fates and destinies of liberal ideas in Russia.

A formidable team is sponsoring the book festival: the Federal Agency for Press and Mass Communications, several first-rate publishing houses, the MIAN corporate group, the mayor's office, and many others. Next weekend is expected to gather at least 30,000 people in the park. Many will bring their children along, as they have been promised scooter races and a great many other attractions for children.

Fitness fiends are sure to make wry faces at one of the scheduled events-a Smoking Masterclass, with the presentation of Dmitry Gayev's book about pipes and famous pipe smokers. The author and his Moscow Pipe Club friends will demonstrate the intricacies of pipe smoking.

The festival will come as a welcome boost to Russian publishers in their desperate search for pioneer commercial strategies. The Russian book market is in trouble. The choice of books off the press is skyrocketing while sales steadily shrink. Out of every 3,000 titles, only a hundred are bestsellers which live up to the name. The rest are left to collect dust on bookstore shelves-that against a recent fifty-fifty rate, with 1,500 sold off. The plummeting public demand makes publishers shift the focus from marketing to the authors' public image. A book is promoted whether it comes from the pen of a literary maitre, a journalist or a gifted amateur. His work must contain unique information otherwise unavailable to the public at large. That is what counts.

The festival will offer a practical illustration to this book-publishing policy: a Central Asian chef will shine as one of its brightest stars. An Internet cooking site celebrity, Stalik Khankashiyev from Fergana has written a book about the secrets of pilaf making. Titled "The Pot, the Char-grill and Other Manly Pleasures," it was put out by the Moscow-based CoLibri Publishers, who will arrange its public introduction plus the pilaf. The chef and his assistants will make the Central Asian delicacy to feed five hundred hungry guests, and prepare the meal before the gathering's eyes in five huge red-hot coppers.

The park picnic will serve as a symbol of latter-day book selling strategies-the greater the number of eaters the easier it is to make pilaf.

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