Transmissions from Russia: CEO Steve Bercu Travels to the Moscow International Book Fair

Steve Bercu, International Man of Literature

Our intrepid CEO Steve Bercu is currently in Russia attending the Moscow International Book Fair. He’s sent along the first few entries from his travel log. Stay tuned for more transmissions from Russia as Steve’s adventure unfolds:

August 1–22, 2011—Getting Started

I was very pleased to get an email inviting me to be a member of the Read Russia 2012 Advisory Board.  The advisory board is charged with promoting modern Russian literature in translation in the United States.  Russia is the country that will be honored at Book Expo of America held in New York in early June, 2012.  The invitation included being invited to a meeting of the Board at the Moscow International Book Fair this September (2011).

So I started off reading modern Russian novels as fast as I could to give myself a chance of being able to discuss their merit with Russian authors and publishers in Moscow and then promote them later here.  I quickly moved through The Sacred Book of the Werewolf by Victor Pelevin; Day of the Oprichnik by Vladmir Sorokin; 2017 by Olga Slavnikova; and Paris Weekend by Sergei Kostin.  Paris Weekend was the only one set in a place and time I was familiar with (Paris in the early 2000’s).  The other three took me to a dystopian future Russia loaded with references to Russian history, myth, and folklore that left me wondering whether the old Soviet Union is the common vision of the future for most Russians.  The writing was good, crisp and provocative.  Slavnikova is translated by Marian Schwartz who lives here in Austin.

August 30–Final Preparation

The visas were overnighted to me yesterday and are now in hand.  Now that that hurdle is crossed I only have some packing to do and I can be ready.  I plan to take some BookPeople Tshirts and bumper stickers to hand out to anyone who cares.  I am looking forward to the day of travel.  We got the good news that we had been “upgraded” to the President Hotel in Moscow.  It was built in 1983 and was used for heads of state on their visits to Moscow.  It looks like one of the giant Soviet projects I remember from my trip to Moscow in 1977, but it is being billed as 5 star so we will see.

September 4–Arrival

The flight was uneventful.  We left Austin at 9:00 am and after changing planes in Houston and Washington we arrived in Moscow at 2:00 am Austin time (11:00 am in Moscow). We sat by an American diplomat who gave us lots of tips on  what to expect and what to do.  It was a lucky break to sit there even though the diplomat was not too crazy about living in Moscow.

We were welcomed to Russia a few seconds after getting off the plane.  Crowds of people surged out of all the planes and were directed to Passport Control.  After several turns and winding up and down stairs we got to the large room where they check your passport.  There were probably 1200 people in the room and only 7 posts.  I noticed that the Russians don’t form lines.  Instead everyone pushed forward until they were standing on the heels of the person in front of them and then they started shoving.  It only took an hour and a half to get to the little booth and then we found that after we cleared we had to go to the next “line” for Customs.  30 more minutes and we were in the arrivals hall where we were met by Maria.

Maria had been sent to pick us up and escort us back to the hotel by our hosts, the Russian Federal Agency for Press and Mass Communications.  She was extremely pleasant.  The ride to the hotel was about an hour more through the coolest weather and greenest countryside I have seen since last spring.  It turned out that Maria teaches business management at the university and picked us up because “they called and asked”.  I never found out who called.

Hotel President is swell.  It was built in 1983 as a hotel for heads of state on state visits so it is grand in the Soviet style.  Our room turned out to be great with a view across the Moscow River over to the Kremlin (pretty cool).  We settled in and then headed out to walk a little, get something to eat and look around.  After a short walk we came to “Chocolatanista” and sat down for a snack and some coffee.  That is when I remembered that I had not changed any money so I was kopeckless.  Fortunately they took credit cards so we moved on.  Today is Moscow City Day so lots of roads were closed to traffic and there was entertainment all over the place.

We walked by several parades (thousands of university students with flags from their colleges), street performers, kids’ stuff and finally to a big rock show like ACL except the music was not very good and the bands seemed to just sing the lyrics along to recordings of their music.  Thousands of people were in the streets enjoying the show and the good weather.

I was finally able to change some money in the extra-upscale indoor mall, GUM.  The way that worked was that I tried to pay for some coffee with a credit card but was told they don’t accept them.  So I asked if the waiter knew anywhere I could change money.  He told me to wait and about 30 seconds later returned with a guy who seemed to be prepared to do currency exchanges anywhere out of a leather purse he carried.  10 seconds later I had my roubles.

The we wandered around until we stumbled across the Bolshoi Ballet building.  The building is quite impressive even without seeing the dancers.  My only regret about this trip is that there is no performance scheduled while we are here.  It would have been amazing to see the whole troupe here in Moscow. They are doing a massive renovation of the building so it should be magnificent in the near future.

We concluded the evening with more walking and dinner.  It was 10:00 pm and I was exhausted.  So back to the hotel on the metro to attempt to sleep.  Suddenly it felt like 3 pm and I was awake (Austin time again).  I tried reading, writing, anything but did not fall asleep until probably 1 am.

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