The State Memorial and Natural Preserve "Museum-estate of Leo Tolstoy "Yasnaya Polyana"
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Yuri Saprykin: “It‘s Senseless to Sit in a Train That Isn‘t Going Anywhere“

The journalist Yuri Saprykin made a presentation on How Can We Speak about Classical Literature Today? at the Yasnaya Polyana Cultural Center on March 10, 2018. We talked to him about the popularity of educational projects, about the Shelf literary portal, good books, and the role of museums in the modern world.

A kind of boom is now happening in the sphere of culture: a lot of projects like Arzamas and 1917 have appeared, and there are huge lines to museums. What do you think it is related to? Why did the demand for culture grow so much?

I think there are several reasons here: both on the part of those who do such projects, and on the part of those who are interested in them. There is a certain number of very active people who worked for the media and for various reasons were left out or could not engage in their professional activities with the same degree of freedom, drive, and interest. When those people began to think about what they could do in such a situation, education was the first thing that came to mind: something unrelated to the current agenda, something “hortative” both for those who produce and consume it; some kind of thing that would be noble from any point of view. Compared to practically any media registered in Russia, educational projects have a totally different degree of freedom. On the one hand, here you don’t have to cut corners, and on the other hand, you can do quite modern, effective-looking, user-friendly, non-archaic projects.

You know, I read Andrei Bely’s memoirs, in which he describes the period after the revolution of 1905: when that wave receded, the people who had shortly before been completely preoccupied with ideas of restructuring Russia, ran to lectures and began to study something. It seems to me that we are undergoing a similar process (I hope it won’t lead to another 1917 as happened one hundred years ago). History had a sharp twitch, and then stopped as abruptly. It is senseless to sit in a train that isn’t going anywhere, it’s better to get off, look around and understand how the world is constructed. Also, for the people who went through the system of higher education in the 1990s and early 2000s, all this is aggravated by a general feeling that they were not given enough, or didn’t manage to take enough. The Soviet foundations were destroyed, and the new ones were not yet built. Or they had to earn money at a mad rate, in order to support themselves, and didn’t have time to learn anything. Now there is a need to get what they missed. And so, somewhere at the intersection of these three vectors, such a boom emerges.

Tell us about the Shelf project. You postponed the launch of it several times. When will it finally be launched?

By the way, about where the education boom comes from. I guess the Shelf appeared due to similar feelings. People have, at the same time, both incredible esteem towards Russian classical literature and an equally strong fear of it. A feeling that it is some kind of heavy and incomprehensible contraption, which is scary to approach. It is the after-taste of school education where we are stunned with these not always understandable texts as if with a hammer. And later you live your whole life with a feeling that it is something great and necessary for you, but at the same time it is a priori inaccessible. So we decided to create a normal literature textbook, but for adults. First, we’ll compile this canon anew: we’ll not only rewrite a list of books from the school program, but try to understand what classical literature is today. Secondly, we’ll tell about each of the books through questions that can occur to common readers. The Shelf includes 108 books selected as a result of a complex vote by various philologists, writers, and literature teachers.

When we discussed the date for the lecture, we were 100 % sure that everyone would have already seen the Shelf, and liked it, and that we would be like informal heroes of the day. But once again, it didn’t happen, unfortunately. But it should be expected very soon, it’s a matter of one or one and a half weeks. As usual, it is a little postponed due to technical reasons.

Is there a work of literature from those selected for the Shelf that is special for you?

My answer will be commonplace, especially considering the place where we are now. Among the books I myself wrote about, I was totally overwhelmed by Anna Karenina, which I read, I guess, for the fourth time. It must be a characteristic of any major serious classical work, that when you read it during your life, after an interval of ten years, you not only discover something new, but it is as if you are reading a different book. Karenina completely overwhelmed me for various reasons.

First, I had never pondered the extent to which the book was an esthetic provocation for its time. As soon as you begin digging a little deeper, you realise that Karenina is  not just a polemic work, but literally a provocative one, which goes against the spirit of the time from all points of view. Tolstoy just goes out into a clearing in modernity and begins going against the current concerning all kinds of issues. He argues with the women's question, and he speaks of zemstvos (local councils) and all kinds of initiatives related to education with contempt. Through the very form, the very literary plot, he argues with the literary fashion of that time. The cultural elite around him was in total shock. Saltykov-Shchedrin called it a “bovine novel.” And during the four years when Tolstoy was publishing the novel, he shattered that attitude of the cultural elite and made it understand what he wanted to say, and yield to the greatness of his genius. 

Secondly (here again, I‘m not original, sorry), it‘s how deep inside of all of us Tolstoy can see. He has some kind of scanner installed in his head, and it sees right through the person, at various levels. We can say that literature before him, in the sense of psychologism, is like a black-and-white cinema. At first, very static, where, if you are a character, you initially have certain features you have to demonstrate throughout the work, and those features are unchanged. Then literature realizes that those personalities can change and unfold with time, and then Tolstoy comes and says: “Hey, guys, there are no personalities at all.”

And probably the third thing which amazed me, is how personal this novel is. It looks like you are being told some  high-society story, but if you think about it you understand how much it all tormented him [Tolstoy]. Is happiness possible in the family? It’s the question he asks himself in relation to his own situation. And is it possible, in general, to love? Not in the sense of getting attached to something and making it your own property, but loving and forgetting yourself. Is it possible to love like Levin, or only like Karenina? And is it possible to be free from society, or you anyway are its slave in some sense? A slave of some decorums, conventions, opinions, just like Stiva Oblonsky and Vronsky, for example, are slaves. And how about peasants? All that drudgery about how Levin is trying to make the peasants plough the fields this or that way. It is exactly what he [Tolstoy] was constantly thinking about. These are all traces of his serious reflections. Tolstoy creates those images out of flesh and blood, and they sketch out a pattern for him, which is supposed to confirm or disprove his hypotheses.

Do you think it‘s appropriate with regard to art to use such categories as „good“ and „bad“? And if it‘s appropriate, then could you continue the phrase, „a good book is one that . . . .“?

Despite postmodernism and the destruction of hierarchies, it seems to me that nonetheless it is absolutely appropriate.  A good book does not repeat the generalities of its time, and doesn’t extend to such widespread banalities, and open new territories in the areas of language, genre, and understanding of man. A good book always creates by means of language its own sort of special world. Excuse the melodrama, but we have understood for a long time that literature doesn’t describe and doesn’t reflect reality. It creates some other realities transcending the existing one.

You participated in the conference Museums as a Meeting Place of the City‘s Past and Present. What do you think the role of museums in the 21st century is?

It seems that however many original conceptions we invent, this role remains what it used to be since museums as such appeared. The museum is first of all a store of cultural and historic treasures. Those treasures are located there, and they are displayed to visitors in some, preferably interesting, way. It is a kind of portal where the past is broadcast into the present. It's another matter that modern people are spoiled by various external stimuli, and it’s not enough just to let them into the storehouse. The museum is a place that tells stories in various ways: through exhibitions, guided tours, scholarly activities, or educational or media projects which emerge around it. The talent of a curator or museum director is in fact similar to that of a writer: you have to take this material and compose various stories from it. The more fascinating those stories are, the better for the museum. In fact, whole books have been written about the importance of a curator, but it seems to me that the figure of a tour guide, in the broad sense of the word, is also of great importance. A person who takes you by the hand, shows you around the halls, explains what to look at and enjoy, and creates a situation of joyous learning of something new. I have to say, that my strongest impressions of museums lately have been related to the fact that I encountered, by chance, very talented tour guides. Last year I happened to work as a guide myself at the Tretyakov Gallery. In fact, it’s not necessarily a person who shows you around the room. It can be a person who writes explanations or delivers lectures, but the function remains about the same, whatever it is officially called. I cherish the hope that the Shelf is, in a way, also a good guide.

Will you tell us about your experience as a tour guide? What were your impressions?

My impressions were just brilliant, just amazing. I am thinking of abandoning everything and signing up as a guide. It was a Museum Night, and my friends talked me into creating a guided tour of an exhibition of Zinaida Serebriakova at the Tretyakov Gallery. I like Serebriakova; I didn’t know much about her, but that was just a good reason to immerse myself into the material. And it worked out just fine. I read two books, attended the exhibition two times with other guides. That tour had a fixed duration – an hour and a half, and I conducted two in a row. At some point I realised that there remained just five minutes, but we still had five rooms to see; there was a huge crowd around me, and I myself was in a state of some kind of euphoria from all that was going on. It was awfully interesting.

The lecture took place as part of our Unsystematic Literature Course for Everyone. More photos can be seen HERE >>>

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