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"And no one bans Russian-language literature in Europe, contrary to pro-Kremlin propaganda claims" - Anna Sandermoen, head of the publishing house "Sandermoen Publishing"


Anna Sandermoen is the head of the Swiss publishing house Sandermoen Publishing, which publishes books by Russian-speaking authors in Russian and other languages.

Media Loft correspondent Katya Kobenok talked to Anna about the publishing house, books by Russian emigrants, as well as about Anna's autobiographical book itself - her life in the cult of the pseudoscientist Viktor Stolbun.

“I know how the authors of such books feel”

Since 2014, Sandermoen Publishing has released more than 50 new books, many of which have become bestsellers. Some have even been turned into stage plays or had the film rights sold. Many books published by the publishing house are not published in Russia due to censorship.

Anna says that she herself followed in the  footsteps of the author whose books Russian publishing houses are afraid to publish. After all, only the independent media write about the Stolbun cult. State propaganda practically ignores this milestone in the history of the USSR, and now Russia.

“I know how the authors of such books feel. For example, we recently published a book by Polina Zherebtsova, she is a political refugee in Finland. She writes books about life during the war in Chechnya. In Russia, this topic has never been welcomed, and now, a year after Russia's invasion of Ukraine, even more so,” says Anna.

She remembers what it is like to hold a “forbidden” book in her hands:

“I know how a person feels who really wants to have their own opinion, but cannot develop it, because they are immersed in an atmosphere of fear, manipulation and harassment. I understand the situation when it is simply impossible to create an atmosphere of healthy discussion and free thinking.”

That is why one of the slogans of Sandermoen Publishing is "Books in Russian, impossible in Russia."

“Books that are impossible in Russia literally means that it is impossible to create and write our books while you are a part of this country. You can see and understand a lot only by being able to distance yourself from it. There are geniuses who were able to do this while still inside the system, but they are one in 100 million,” says Anna.

Usually a person can write such a work only after leaving and living for years outside the system. But this also requires talent and a lot of work, says the publisher.

“Good books are never written easily. I have been writing my books for decades and “suffer” from it every single day,” notes Anna.

Now in Russia, the authorities are actively removing books that mention LGBTQ+. Anna believes that a ban on any topic always leads to one thing: people go underground.

“Prohibition always breeds lies, lies always lead to crimes. Therefore, by the way, prostitution and drugs are legalized in the most progressive Western countries. The Russians do not understand this and interpret it absolutely incorrectly.”

“In Europe, nothing can be canceled or banned”

And no one bans Russian-language literature in Europe, contrary to pro-Kremlin propaganda claims.

“In Europe, nothing can be canceled or banned, as I see it. There is a ban on Nazism and symbols of Nazism, a ban on physical violence, as well as unspoken rules that shape Western culture. And (as for) everything else, if you're a fool, that's your own choice. This is the essence of Western democracy,” explains Anna.

Europeans do not particularly attach importance to nationality; a culture of tolerance has long been established here. Anna cites the example of Elena Budagashvili's book and her novel about emigration and adaptation "I am a Man".

“If your book is in Russian, you are a Russian-speaking author and your book is interesting, no one will try to stand in your way. It's just out of the question."

Anna says that Russian-speaking Europeans, as well as parents of bilingual children and teenagers from Russian-speaking families, usually order books from Sandermoen Publishing. These are also European husbands of Russian-speaking wives. Books are ordered from the countries of the post-Soviet space, Canada, the USA, Australia, even from the Arab world.

“We keep the focus on the topic of cultural differences. We believe that understanding exactly how the culture of Russian speakers differs from other cultures is the biggest help when moving to another country.”

Therefore, the publishing house always welcomes manuscripts with stories about integration and emigration. The most popular book in this series - "My Russian Wife" - is about the difference in cultures, typical conflicts in a marriage, where the husband is European and the wife is from Russia. The book was written by Shetil Sandermoen, Anna's husband. Sandermoen writes about how they came to an understanding, using the example of their disagreements and conflicts.

Anna notes that Lyudmila Zotova's book "How to grow up bilingual and not go crazy" is also very frequently purchased. Zotova, a psychologist with teaching experience, uses four languages to communicate with her daughter.

The publishing house will soon publish a book about the psychological problems of bilingualism in children by Alla Barkan. She has two more books - "The Basics of Emigration" and "We Emigrate with a Child", which are based on her many years of work with Russian-speaking emigrants.

“Extremely meaningful books, but absolutely impossible in Russia!” emphasizes Anna.

“I'm afraid that this kind of book is no longer published in Russia, because they seriously believe that only traitors leave Russia.”

The books of the publishing house contain information that helps Russian-speaking readers to prepare as well as possible for emigration and integration at any age.

“To help people integrate into new living conditions as quickly and easily as possible with the help of interesting books - this is our mission. I think we don’t even have competitors in this direction,” says Anna.

“In cults, people consider it normal to depend on the opinions of others”

Anna wrote an autobiographical book and published it in Switzerland in 2020. In this work called "The Cult in My Grandmother's House", Anna Sandermoen describes how she spent 6 years in the cult of the pseudo-scientist Stolbun, from 1981 to 1987. Anna's parents, who lived in Leningrad, handed over the responsibility of raising their daughter to her grandmother. And my grandmother, Dina Chedia, set up a hostel for members of the cult in her apartment in Dushanbe.

The book talks about the terrible psychological experiments that were carried out by both Stolbun and his followers. Children were constantly insulted, forced to take incomprehensible tests, such as “tapping”.

“Somehow one of the adult women called me into the room and said that she would treat me. She “tapped” me and “layered”. At first, she talked to me and asked, "how many points do I have anger."

Then she asked me to close my eyes and put both hands on the table.With For several minutes she tapped out the rhythm, and I had to answer by ear in a certain order with my hands.This is how the level of aggression of a person was measured. She asked me to take off my panties and lie on my side. Liquid chloroethyl was poured on my buttocks and on my toes at certain points. There was a burning sensation. Then the buttocks and fingers itched badly.

Since then, this has been done to me very often. I did not feel any changes, although they explained to me that such treatment is necessary to relieve tension and aggression. Everyone else, both children and adults, were also periodically treated in this way.”

Anna Sandermoen "The Cult in My Grandmother's House"

Members of the "commune" hitchhiked, lived in abandoned houses and gave theatrical performances.

The Stolbun cult "worked" with representatives of the Soviet creative and scientific intelligentsia, nomenklatura families, and often in large cities such as Moscow, Leningrad, Tver and Dushanbe.

Anna was only able to escape from the cult at the age of 13. She says that she had dreamed of writing this book since early childhood, and she managed it in 3 stages over 40 years. At the age of 21, Anna was able to write a draft of the book, at 30, after the birth of her daughter, she found the strength to supplement the text with emotions. And by the age of 40, Anna managed to leave Russia - and only then was she able to complete this work.

“When I left Russia and started living in Switzerland, I no longer had any doubts that I had grown up in a totalitarian cult. This is an absolutely negative experience, and the result of this is one continuous trauma. I realized that if I don’t work through this trauma psychologically, “put everything in order”, it would “kill” both my future and the future of my only daughter, ”says Anna.

Anna recalls that she forced herself to sit down and finish this book. She admits that it was not until she left for Europe that she “learned to breathe and think freely over the years.”

Anna says she wrote the book primarily for herself and for her daughter. She wanted to teach her how to distinguish a cult from a community, and show how such cults look from the inside.

“How to learn to see the line beyond which toxicity, abuse, harassment, the cult of personality begins? How can you recognize this and fight back in time? I also wanted to teach my daughter that if you know exactly what you want, you are not afraid of any manipulators. The main thing is to know what you personally want, ”she says.

The whole horror of the situation lies in the fact that sometimes it is simply impossible to escape from the cult.

“After all, people join cults because they consider it normal to depend on someone else's opinions, thoughts, goals and money. But this is not normal,” says the writer.

Anna has already written a second book about the transition from a cult to a normal life. So far, she hasn't dared to publish it, because for her it is a very personal topic.

“At the same time, we are working on a collection of stories from different people about how they fled from cults,” says Anna.

The writer admits that so far she has only produced autobiographical texts. It turns out that during the time spent in the cult, she simply forbade herself to fantasize.

“Sometimes I think that because my childhood was distorted, I didn’t develop an imagination. I was often beaten, punished, convinced that I was mentally ill, forbidden to “lie”, and I, probably, have forbidden myself any fantasies since childhood, so when I write, it is very difficult for me to invent something. It's just the naked truth."

Anna is also planning to publish a book about how her daughter, after living in Russia, integrated into the European school system and how Anna herself perceived it.

“If I didn’t have the support of my new family in Europe, I would never have dared to speak the truth publicly. I stopped communicating with my family in Russia a long time ago, we don’t go there,” says Anna.

“Most of the people who were with me in the commune still believe that the leader of the cult, Stolbun, is a genius, and they are lucky to be part of his great cause. I am not kidding. Stolbun is a role model for them, and manipulation and violence are right and good, ”says Anna.

Among other things, Stolbun promised to cure schizophrenia, alcoholism, asthma and cancer with his “practices”. In this cult, children and adults were held in slavery, humiliated and beaten. The girls were called prostitutes.

Stolbun's own daughter, Yekaterina, tried to escape from the house through a window after the beatings and becoming pregnant. She fell and was seriously injured - she broke her jaw, lost her child and spent six months in the hospital.

The Stolbun group itself operated for quite a long time in the territory of the former USSR, and now Russia. The pseudoscientist began making claims about himself in the 1970s. The cult began to work actively in the 1980s, and in the 1990s Stolbun even gave interviews in the media. Only in 1996, did the Russian Ministry of Health officially ban the cult and practices of Stolbun. Stolbun himself died in 2003.

"The West and Russia are opposite worlds"

Anna says that you can fall under the influence of a cult in any country and at any age, because people tend to manipulate and succumb to manipulation.

“The difference between Europe and Russia is huge in the sense that in Europe free journalism will quickly pick up on something suspicious and wrong and will definitely cover the problem without encountering any hurdles. In Russia, due to the atmosphere of general fear, most dubious phenomena will be hushed up for centuries,” says Anna.

The writer adds that in Europe, no one is indifferent.

“People in Europe, seeing strange neglected children, would definitely call the police. In Russia, neglected children are the norm. Yes, no one will poke their nose into someone else's business, everyone is afraid that they could make things worse. Everyone looks the other way.”

The third unconditional advantage of Europe over the Russian Federation is in legislation, because children in Europe are better protected by law.

“In Russia, everything is influenced by bribes and buying favors. Do you want to extend your vacation, leave during the school year? This has never been a problem in Russian schools, including in the USSR. Everything can be bought or negotiated in secret from the authorities.”

In a Swiss school, if a child is 5 minutes late, they will already be worried, says Anna.

“The West and Russia are opposite worlds. I am not shocked by the current confrontation between Russia and the West. But I understood and felt its essence only after living as an immigrant, surrounded by and with the support of a family with Western values, ”says the writer.

The Sandermoen Publishing team currently consists of 10 people. The publishing house works with more than 20 authors. According to the statistics of the publishing house, about 5,500 people visit its site per month. Most of the users are from France. The publishing house sells books through its online store. Sandermoen Publishing books are also sold in Russian-language stores in Europe and the USA.

Anna herself declares ambitious plans - to become the largest Russian-language book publishing house outside of Russia. Now the company is actively developing a line of books for children and plans to expand its range.

By: Katya Kobenok

Photos: from the personal archive of Anna Sandermoen

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