Sunday, January 12, 2014

Academy of Questions

In March the 5th Russian Literature Festival – SLOVO 2014 – will be held in London under the auspices of Academia Rossica,  a Russian arts and culture foundation that calls itself an NGO but is in reality a Russian state cultural organization. The organization is headed by Svetlana Adzhubei, a Moscow University arts graduate who is married to the son of Alexei  Adzhubei, Nikita Khrushchev's son in law, and chief editor of the Soviet newspaper Izvestia from 1959 to 1964.

Among the “partners” of  Academia Rossica are the Russkiy Mir Foundation, set up by Vladimir Putin in 2007, the Russian Ministry of Culture, the state-controlled press and media agency Russia Now (an offshoot of the government newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta) , which also operates on the Internet at the website Russia Beyond the Headlines,  and a number of British cultural and financial organizations, including the British Council and Peter Hambro Mining plc.

In addition to holding Russia-related cultural events throughout the year, Academia Rossica also sponsors two Russian literary translation prizes, and – most notably – serves as a hub and social gathering point for London’s expatriate Russian community.

As the Russian government tightens its control of media and sponsors repressive legislation targeting sexual and ethnic minorities, it seems legitimate to ask whether Academia Rossica plays a part in this process. Government exploitation of cultural outlets and activities for political purposes was widespread during the Soviet era, and this lavishly staged project in a foreign capital looks suspiciously like a reanimation of the genre.

While one can see the advantage to the Kremlin authorities of promoting a positive image of Russia through literature and culture, involving British and other Western publishers and cultural groups, it’s hard to see the purpose of the SLOVO events, which are now extended through a period of several weeks. As the BBC's Alexander Kan pointed out last year:
The abundance of Russian –  or more precisely Russian-speaking – Londoners  makes the festival’s success a foregone conclusion. Cut off from their native roots, people are hungry to hear the living word of the man of letters, remembering the traditional Russian phrases "leaders of opinion" (vlastiteli dum) and "in Russia the poet is more than a poet."

The one or two Britons present – most of them specialists in Russian studies –are lost in the crowd of expatriates and visiting guests. In this sense, the disconnection of the latter with the professional community of publishers, literary agents and booksellers  who make up the main audience of the London Book Fair, is perhaps also undermining the chances of success for the project’s original task—  to promote the Russian word in Britain.
It’s perhaps as well to note that this year’s SLOVO festival is to be held separately from the London Book Fair, about a month earlier, from March 8-23. Even so, the event still holds a distinct air of mystery.

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