Russian Literary Classics Televised

In recent years, social commentators in Russia have been bemoaning the fact that Russians have lost their interest in books. Echoing complaints from other countries, including the United States and most of Western Europe, these analysts are worried about the trends, especially among youth, to focus on video games and television and ignore the printed word.

Russia: A Nation of Book Lovers

In Russia, these changes are especially noticeable. The Russian people have had a passion for reading that goes back to their recent past. For a country that was largely illiterate at the time of the Russian Revolution in 1917, the shift to almost universal literacy by the 1980s was a dramatic change. This is a nation of book lovers.

The reading boom reached its peak in Russia in the 1990s, with book sales hitting an all-time high. The year 1990 saw the release of some 1.6 billion books, or 12 books per person. Fiction and children’s books accounted for more than half of the avalanche of reading materials. Periodicals and journals also set records in terms of circulation. These were exciting days for the Russian publishing industry.

One of the sad and unexpected consequences of the period of democratic reform in Russia in the mid-1990s was the collapse of this appetite for books and journals. A book-loving nation suddenly gave up its favorite pastime. Fewer Metro riders are now seen reading their favorite authors on the way to and from work.

Part of the reason for this dramatic shift is the price of new books. Books in Russia are generally much cheaper than in the West, with the average cost of a new book at $3-4, as opposed to $15-20 in the West. However, even this low price became prohibitive to many Russians struggling to survive in an economy that went through several Great Depression-scale shocks in the 1990s.

Last year, an opinion poll commissioned by the Federal Agency for Print Media and Mass Communications reported that more than half of the Russian people do not buy books, one-third do not keep any books in their homes, and 37% of the population do not read any books at all. The head of the agency that funded this survey noted that “slowly but surely books are becoming something obsolete and irrelevant to the ordinary family.” He continued, “This is really scary. The consequences will have horrendous impact on the society.”

Startling New Developments Through Television

In light of these negative trends, it is remarkable what has happened over the last year with the serialization by Russian television of some of the country’s greatest literary treasures. This trend began in 2004 with Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, which was adapted for television and watched by a large Russian audience. Then, in December 2005, nearly half of the Russian viewing audience watched Mikhail Bulgakov’s beloved classic, The Master and Margarita.

Even more surprising, in January and February 2006, a ten-part television series based on Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s book The First Circle was presented on Russian television, and the first episode in the series was the most watched program in the nation. As the series went on, the audience diminished some, but it was still attracting 15 million viewers a night.

Not only are these developments unexpected, they are just the beginning of a new cultural phenomena in Russia. Coming soon to Russian television are Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and the Russian version of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, which will be filmed entirely in Russia with the Russian winter as a backdrop, not central Spain.

Solzhenitsyn’s “The First Circle”

This remarkable interest in viewing Russian literary classics on television is a surprise to many observers and an encouragement as well. The fact that the majority of these newly televised literary works are books that were banned in the Soviet era is also of significance. Solzhenitsyn’s The First Circle is one of his mostly fiercely anti-Soviet novels. This once-exiled writer, often ignored after his return to Russia in 1994, is now back on the national stage. He smuggled this book out of his country forty years ago, and it is now reaching an audience he never could have imagined, through television.

The ten-part series on The First Circle, to be shown on commercial television for seven and a half hours without commercial breaks, is the first film based on any of Solzhenitsyn’s writings. In an environment where there are deeply divided views about the Soviet era, this scathing indictment of some of the worst features of Stalinist rule is significant. The author served as a consultant during the filming of this series and his wife remarked that “there is not one drop of falsehood” in the filmed presentations. The producer reported that Solzhenitsyn had tears in his eyes when he viewed the edited version of his book.

The First Circle chronicles three days in the lives of prisoners at Mavrino, a “special prison” set up in a country estate outside Moscow after World War Two. In the novel, the political prisoners selected for this camp, who have special expertise, are assigned a research project to benefit the intelligence services of the Communist Party.

Concluding Thoughts

Given the decision to show this series on Rossiya, one of Russia’s two state-owned television networks, it is reasonable to conclude that the Kremlin has supported this project and is willing to re-examine Stalin’s legacy critically. Just when I think I am beginning to understand this country after fifteen years of work in Russia, major shifts like this occur and I am surprised. This shift was a cultural one, but the political overtones are obvious. One Russian publisher commented that “it is very helpful that television has begun to use this form [of serialized literary classics], rather than showing all those soap operas, Mexican serials and that American show, ‘E.R.’” I can easily agree with this.

But there is more at work here. Like in Germany, the younger generation wants to understand what happened to their country. These literary classics, even in a televised format, will help Russian citizens to learn about their true past and will give them hope for the future. There is much truth to be found in the writings of these Russian giants of world literature, and it is an encouragement to see the interest generated by their televised work. One can also hope that the renewed cultural interest in these authors – an interest generated by television adaptations of their great works – will ultimately direct some Russians back to the source material: the printed word.