Found in Translation
by Virginia Lindauer Simmon
A fascination with all things Russian, a family background in printing, and a chance encounter in Moscow brought this magazine to Vermont
Paul E. Richardson is the publisher of Russian Life, a 64-page, color, bi-monthly magazine of stories on Russian culture, history, and life. His Montpelier company, Russian Information Services, bought the magazine — then nearly 40 years old — in 1995. Along with the magazine, RIS publishes works of fiction, maps, cards, an annual calendar, a cookbook, and branded wear.
As unlikely as it might seem, a small suite of offices above Montpelier Pharmacy is home to an elegant bi-monthly magazine on Russian culture, history, and life. “We’re sort of a ‘Man-bites-Russian-dog’ business, because it’s kind of odd to find us here in Vermont,” says Paul Richardson, the publisher.
Russian Life is the central product of Richardson’s company, Russian Information Services, which he co-founded with David Kelley in 1990 as Soviet Information Services. RIS bought the magazine in 1995, but Russian Life had its start in 1956 as The USSR, at the same time its sister magazine, Amerika, debuted in the Soviet Union — the result of an intergovernmental agreement aimed at seeding mutual trust.
It was renamed Soviet Life a few years later, and it continued publishing under that title until December of 1991, when the Soviet Union ceased to exist. A little over year later, through an agreement between the government press agency, Novosti, and Rich Frontier Publishing, the magazine was reborn as Russian Life.
In hindsight, it seems like destiny that Richardson ended up owning the publication. He was born in San Pedro, Calif., and grew up in Laguna Beach. Planning to study journalism, he met a recruiter for Central College in Pella, Iowa, which offered him a Rolscreen Scholarship funded by the company that makes Pella windows — “an offer I couldn’t refuse,” he says, laughing. He spent summers working for his father’s printing business in Santa Ana, Calif., running the presses and selling printing.
Central College had an exchange program in Carmarthen, Wales, says Richardson. “This extraordinary professor named Malcolm Gilbert did a year-long Soviet studies, which culminated in a trip to the Soviet Union. It was at that time very exotic, and I got bitten by the bug.”
The bug of love also bit him at Central College when he met Stephanie Ratmeyer, whom he married in 1986.
He entered graduate school at Indiana University at Bloomington, which had a strong Russian program, where he earned his master’s degree in political science and a certificate in Russian area studies. “I finished most of my Ph.D.,” he says, “although I was just using it to get support for language study.”
Following graduation, Richardson found a Canadian company — Phargo, based in Toronto — that was setting up a joint venture in Moscow to open up print shops. “That was a big thing then. It used to be printing presses were under lock and key. I called the company and said, ‘You have to send me over there.’”
His background and training paid off and, in 1989, he was hired to run the venture and headed to Moscow. Stephanie followed a few months later. “There weren’t many American businesses there,” he says. “This was a Canadian-Soviet joint venture, so we were over there when the wall came down.”
Part of Richardson’s job was opening bookstores in hotels. One day, he met an American — David Kelley, a lawyer from Montpelier — with his own joint venture doing screen printing on T-shirts — setting up a shop right next to his. “He had set up Project Harmony in Vermont,” says Richardson. “We became good friends, and after a few months, we wrote the Moscow Business Survival Guide.” This later morphed into the Russia Business Survival Guide and spun off the cult hits Where in Moscow and Where in St. Petersburg.
By the end of 1990, they wanted to return to the States, Richardson says, “and Vermont sounded like a nice place to come. We kind of co-located with Project Harmony the first year.”
Partners from the outset, they had set up a company called Soviet Information Services in March 1990 and were consulting, Richardson says. “We helped set up some trade groups and did some work together with the Sister State Association, facilitating exchanges and such.”
By 1992, the year the Soviet Union fell apart, Richardson realized he wanted to focus on publishing, and Kelley returned to practicing law. Richardson renamed the company Russian Information Services and incorporated it.
“We published books,” he says, “and soon thereafter maps and newsletters.” RIS became the distributor of the Moscow Times International Edition outside of Russia, and for eight years, from 1993 to 2001, had a catalog business called Access Russia. “We would review all the books and items related to Russia and sell them to the same people who subscribed to the magazine.”
In 1995, the opportunity arose to purchase the rights to Russian Life. “I thought, ‘How hard can it be running a magazine?’” Richardson laughs at the memory. Shortly after acquiring the rights, RIS switched the magazine from monthly to bi-monthly, a more practical schedule considering its nature.
Asked about challenges, he laughs again. “Oh, yeah! As with any business getting started up, we always had cash flow issues, and there are always difficulties with publishing. We’ve had whole books printed wrong and had to be cut apart and rebound. We’ve had tangles with the Russian courts; tangles with all kinds of things.”
About a year ago, he was contacted by an agent who was coming out with a book of Russian stories in Russia. “The authors had donated everything for Russian hospice care,” says Richardson. “I said, ‘That sounds interesting,’ and said we’d see if we couldn’t find translators and bring it out in English.” It only took a couple of weeks until he found translators to donate all their services, and the book, Life Stories, came out Sept. 1.
This month marks the release of The Little Golden Calf, a novel by Ilf and Pegrov — the first translation since 1961. “It’s our first self-standing novel,” says Richardson.
Although the magazine takes up the largest amount of time, the company produces beautiful maps, cards, an annual calendar, a cookbook, and branded wear in addition to books. “We have published a literary journal — a quarterly — the last two years called Chtenia: Readings from Russia. It is fiction in English translation, plus some poetry, nonfiction, and photography, designed as a supplement to Russian Life.”
Through a 10-year relationship with the Russian National Orchestra, RIS has consulted on everything from website development to publication development. “We store and send out all their CDs, do fulfillment for those, just little things that coincide with my expertise,” says Richardson. “It’s the only Russian orchestra to ever win a Grammy.”
For a long time, RIS maintained a full-time office and staff in Russia, says Richardson, until overhead costs became prohibitive and technology made it unnecessary. Now, things are handled digitally from Montpelier, where Richardson works with Kate Reilly-FitzPatrick, the office manager.
“We have a person on staff in Russia,” he says, “an editor, but she also works for The Moscow Times. She generates our whole news section, maybe one article per issue, some photography; but it’s not a full-time thing.
“We have a really good group of translators and freelancers — Russians, Brits, Americans. A Russian ex-pat in L.A. is a writer for the current issue; one is British, one American down at the University of Kentucky. People contact us asking do we want to do a story about this, and at least half of our articles are suggested by freelancers.”
Volunteering their time and expertise are members of a six-person advisory panel. “Paul occasionally asks me to review articles in my area of expertise,” says Denise Youngblood, professor of Russian history at the University of Vermont. “My particular area is Russian cinema.”
Youngblood praises Richardson’s “rare ability to bridge the gap between academics and the public. A magazine primarily intended for a non-specialist audience is important to what I do. No general interest magazine is scholarly enough for me to consult,” she says, “so he really does understand how to make what is scholarly interesting for general readers — a very rare gift.”
RIS prints 18,000 to 20,000 copies of Russian Life, many of which are distributed free to schools that teach Russian, thanks to a one-year sponsorship by the Russkiy Mir Foundation. “The foundation also sponsored a language-learning insert that ties in to the content of this issue,” he says. “We work with a couple of Russian teachers in Philadelphia to do that.” The Mir Foundation sponsorship is due to end after the first of the year, but Richardson hopes he can find ways to continue financing it.
In general, the magazine is supported by paid subscribers. “That’s shielded us over the years, but also makes it a very interesting magazine.”
The virtue of working for yourself, he says, “means you can work a 16-hour day or choose which weekend days you want to work on.” Some of those weekends are spent with family, of course. He and Stephanie have twins, Sarah and Christopher, who are seniors this year in high school. When he’s not spending time watching them play basketball or tennis, he enjoys reading. “I like to run, but haven’t done much of that lately,” he confesses. “I also enjoy hiking and traveling.”
He gets to Russia these days only once a year, because he can no longer justify it from a business perspective — it’s more efficient to deal with it electronically. On the home front, he is vice chairman of Project Harmony’s board of trustees and sits on the stewardship board of Bethany Church.
Asked if he’s ever pondered another career, he’s quick to reply. “Well, until somebody buys my novels ...” — he laughs — “or something comes along, publishing is always fascinating. There’s always something new.
“And it’s great to be in a small town where I can walk to work and do business with local establishments. Even internationally focused, we still buy supplies locally.” •