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Books and Bookworms
Ian Mitchell

On Friday 28th January a small but intense crowd of literary folk gathered in the central hall of the Polytechnic Museum, just off Lubyanka Square, to participate in the NOS Literature Prize award ceremony. They participated by arguing, voting and (since there were ten cameras filming the event) just looking cool (-ish). The event is a new one on the Moscow literary scene, having been started last year by the sister of one of Russia’s richest oligarchs, Irina Prokhorova. Irina is a former academic who, in 1993, started the small but highly discriminating publishing house, NLO, which stands for New Literary Observer. Her first project was a journal of that name, which was followed by other journals and a range of interesting books. The award, which aims to “democratise” the process of giving literary prizes, is financed by the Mikhail Prokhorov Foundation. But since Mr Prokhorov is said to be worth $13 billion, the first prize of $23,000 seemed to some observers a little anaemic. The other short-list finalists received $1,300 each.

The commitment of Irina, however, whose idea this is, was much more obvious. She chaired the debate about the merits of the eight books on the short list with wit, grace and proper authority—wielded by means of a referee’s whistle when the arguments started to get too personal or vituperative. The innovation in this event is that the panel of five judges face another panel of three so-called experts who were allowed, along with the audience, to question the judges on why they felt the prize should go, as it did, to Vladimir Sorokin for his novel Медель, or Snowstorm.

“We are still learning democracy,” Irina told PASSPORT. “The judges are not used to having their decisions challenged, and it is good for them to have to justify their decisions, rather than just announce them.” Irina was too polite to add: “as they do, for example, with the Booker Prize in London”, so let me say it. Since in Britain the process of judging in book awards is more like that of the Oscars, in other words a pure media event, than a serious debate about literary merit, Ms Prokhorova’s attempts to introduce elements of accountability and transparency into this area of Russia’s cultural life are entirely to be welcomed. See

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