Russia set to unveil the world's newest print encyclopedia – and its last?

The Great Russian Encyclopedia is heir to – and corrects the flaws of – the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, last published in the 1970s. It may also be the last general-knowledge encyclopedia of its kind to be put to paper.

Fred Weir
Sergei Kravets, editor of the Great Russian Encyclopedia, stands next to a near-complete edition of the new reference set on the shelves of his office in Moscow.

Some time in the next few weeks the final volume of what is almost certainly the world's last comprehensive, general-knowledge encyclopedia will roll off the printing presses in Moscow.

Initiated by a decree of Vladimir Putin in 2003, the massive 36-volume Great Russian Encyclopedia (GRE) was intended – as encyclopedias tend to be – as a compendium of all fundamental knowledge, a benchmark of truth, and, more subtly, a repudiation of the ideologically-tinged world view of its famous predecessor, The Great Soviet Encyclopedia. During its very long production cycle, the internet age overtook GRE, a reality to which the Russian government is now responding with a massive online project headed by a deputy prime minister.

But the encyclopedia's editor, Sergei Kravets, says it's also a mighty anchor to stabilize Russian minds in danger of being buffeted by the storms of the onrushing "post-truth" era.

"Russia needed a new encyclopedia that reflects modern society and consciousness, so this one is not a continuation of its Soviet predecessor," Mr. Kravets says. "When we began, we lived in the epoch where 'truth' was valued. Now we seem to be going through a time of 'post-truth,' where all sorts of marketing, PR, and other kinds of dark information are circulating. We regard our encyclopedia as the territory of truth and objective assessment. It's where people can go to check their information, and balance their views."

Most of GRE's international analogues have long since retired into cyberspace. In 2010, Encyclopedia Britannica published its 15th and final edition, and has since been available only online. The move was widely praised. Germany's Brockhaus Encyclopedia made the same transition, known as "paper death," a few years earlier. Microsoft's ambitious, interactive Encarta completely gave up the ghost in 2009, bowing out to competitors like Wikipedia.

Kravets insists that the new Russian edition pays for itself, through the 1,900 ruble ($33) price per volume. The Russian government is buying about 20,000 copies, which it provides free to all libraries in the country; another 10,000 go to private subscribers. The GRE, with its 150 employees, occupies part of the huge downtown Moscow complex that once housed its Soviet-era predecessor. The last edition of The Great Soviet Encyclopedia in the 1970s had a massive circulation of 700,000, and its rich, leather-bound volumes are still frequently encountered in libraries and homes all over Russia.

It's not clear what role the Russian government plays in determining the encyclopedia's content. Kravets insists it's minimal, and that editors only refer to officials in order to check facts and statistics. Critics complain that many of the biographies, historical entries, and cultural articles are narrow and biased.

"I'm not at all clear as to why we need this big encyclopedia in the first place. I think it was one of those things decided in the early Putin era as a big prestige project," says Nikolai Podosokorsky, a writer and literary critic. "I've gone through several articles that pertain to my area of expertise, and found them quite superficial. The lists of references at the end were often extremely biased.... On the other hand, I know quite a few scientists who contributed excellent pieces to it. But that still doesn't change my generally negative view of this whole project."

The Soviet encyclopedia is certainly in need of replacement, even not taking into account the some 40 years that have passed since its last publication. Articles on history were all presented through the prism of Marxism-Leninism, while science articles focused on Russian and Soviet achievement. Biographies of notable people would include many Communist and Soviet personalities who wouldn't make the cut now. Articles also could include polemics against Western ideas and behaviors, based on ideological perceptions. Today, most existent editions of the Soviet work are relegated to gathering dust on shelves.

Like its predecessor, the new encyclopedia is mostly science-oriented, but Kravets insists all articles differ in incorporating Western advances as well as Russian achievements, and in scrupulously noting and documenting disagreements. All items go through a lengthy and multi-level editorial process, involving top specialists in each field, and that's why casual comparisons with the online, crowd-sourced Wikipedia – whose Russian edition is very popular – do not stand scrutiny.

"One could prepare for university exams in almost any area using our encyclopedia. It's that reliable and comprehensive," he says. "Of course we're not as fast as Wikipedia, but a lot of people come to us from Wikipedia in order to check the facts. We're a different thing, and we'll never be competitors with Wikipedia."

That's something the people who run Russian Wikipedia agree on.

"We're fine with the GRE, and welcome the project to put it online," says Stanislav Kozlovsky, executive director of Wikimedia-Russia. "It's good that after 15 years they finally have 13,000 articles. But Russian Wikipedia has more than 100 times that number of articles, and many of ours are much longer."

Mr. Kozlovsky says Wikipedia is concerned about the danger of getting blocked by state censors. In recent years, the Russian official communications watchdog Roskomnadzor has moved to close hundreds of websites. It has threatened to ban Google, Facebook, and Wikipedia, and the global networking site LinkedIn has been completely shut down in Russia for several months over its failure to store all Russian users' data in domestic servers.

"If someone decides to help the GRE by blocking Wikipedia, Roskomnadzor already has all the tools at hand to do that," he says. "For the past four years we've been living under a virtual Sword of Damocles, and at any moment the threat can become real."

There is no longer any debate about renewing the printed edition. "This will be the very last paper encyclopedia we ever produce," says Kravets. "The future is online."

To that end, the Russian government is sponsoring an ambitious official encyclopedia portal, just getting started under the supervision of Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Prokhodko. It is expected to grow into one of the world's biggest interactive, free-access, constantly updated compendiums of general knowledge, and it will be built upon the foundation laid by the GRE.

"We will be like Wikipedia, only much better," promises Kravets.

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