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At Russian Bookstore, Monopoly Games Amid the Samovars

December 22, 1989

ROCKVILLE, Md. (AP) _ Panicked over finding a Christmas gift for somebody who’s got everything? Why not pick up a Russian-language version of Monopoly, where glasnost-happy capitalists can build hotels on Gorky Street and pay 200 rubles to get sprung from jail.

The trendy tribute to Gorbachev-style openness is available for $29.50 at the suburban Rockville, Md., headquarters of Victor Kamkin Inc., the largest Russian bookstore in the Western world.

The Monopoly game follows the format of the long-popular U.S. version and both are published by Parker Brothers Inc., but the board names are Russian and the play money is rubles.

The most expensive property is not Boardwalk but the Arbat, a fashionable historic district of Moscow, which sells for 400 rubles (about $75).

″The game is bought mostly by our American customers who speak Russian, and is very popular among students,″ said Anatoly Zabavsky, the bookstore’s vice president and general manager. ″Russian emigrees are not familiar with Monopoly. They consider it more a purely capitalist invention.″

Nestled among the samovars, lacquered wooden dolls and balalaikas at the Kamkin gift counter, the Monopoly game is a symbolic reminder of the way that Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev has turned East-West relations upside down.

Not to mention the glasnost’s impact on the Kamkin bookstore, where business is booming.

The store was founded by Russian emigre Victor Kamkin and his wife, Elena, in 1953. Zabavsky, who was born in Poland of Russian parents, moved to the United States from Germany in 1951 and, after becoming an electrical engineer, joined Kamkin nearly 20 years later.

Since Kamkin died in 1974, Zabavsky has shared day-to-day supervision of the business with Elena Kamkin.

The bookstore boasts about 2.5 million volumes and an estimated 250,000 separate titles, as well as numerous Russian magazines and newspapers. It had $2.5 million in sales last year. Its biggest customers are U.S. government agencies, the academic community, corporations and Soviet emigrees.

″I see grandmothers - babushkas - coming in here and spending their pension money on Russian children’s books, to make sure their grandchildren will learn their mother tongue,″ he said.

By all accounts, those figures make Kamkin the biggest Russian bookstore outside the Soviet Union. In Moscow, the four-story Dom Knigi (″House of Books″) a mile from the Kremlin stocks more volumes - many of them obscure, unread political documents - but students of Soviet affairs say Kamkin offers a much wider selection of titles.

Glasnost has meant the end of Kamkin’s role as a clandestine rendezvous point for Cold War adversaries, Zabavsky said in an interview.

Nowadays, he said, U.S. intelligence agents and KGB officers from the Soviet Embassy no longer appear regularly to roam Kamkin’s aisles, spying on each other in the hope of learning what the other side is reading.

Moreover, Zabavsky says he’s astounded by the abundance of Russian books flooding the export market, many of them once suppressed or banned by Soviet authorities.

″We publish a weekly catalog of books for our 18,000 mail-order subscribers, and we offer about 1,000 new titles every month,″ Zabavsky said. ″In the past, a half-dozen of those titles might be bestsellers. Now we have a problem deciding because everything is a bestseller, many of them never been published before.″

He shakes his head as he mentions Soviet exports of works by once-disgraced authors Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Vasily Aksenov, Roy Medvedev, Vasily Grossman and Vladimir Voinovich. Even Vladimir Nabokov’s erotic ″Lolita″ is now published by the Soviets, he says.

″Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would ever see them in print,″ he said. ″This glasnost, it’s really overwhelming.″

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