Secrets of Russian Literature
In autumn 2022, the Total Dictation project team launched a free cycle of lectures titled ‘The Secrets of Russian Literature’. Pavel Surkov, writer, producer, and pedagogue, became the concept author and lecturer. The lectures will be interesting and useful to not only schoolchildren but also students, teachers, and all those interested in literature. Olga Rebkovets, Head of the Total Dictation project, told us more about the new initiative.
founder and Director of the Total Dictation Foundation
The Total Dictation is one of the most ambitious public initiatives. It has gone beyond Russia and its basic format long ago. The project team constantly invents interesting modern ways of interacting with the audience. Leading experts from different fields of activity support the project actively. Many of them take part in the project events willingly and organise some activities themselves.
‘The Secrets of Russian Literature’ cycle of lectures is the result of such support from the external expert and populariser of the humanities named Pavel Surkov.
– How did the idea to launch a cycle of lectures on literature appear? What is the main difference of those lectures from school or university classes?
– Total Dictation provides many different lectures, online marathons, and other educational activities. However, this is the first time for us to launch a cycle of lectures on literature. That experience is very interesting for us and we are sincerely enthusiastic about that project.
The idea of creating such an initiative appeared when we met Pavel Surkov at the SKOLKOVO business school. That’s where I was taking a course for non-profit sector leaders from the Presidential Grants Foundation. Pavel Surkov was the programme moderator. One day we started talking about literature. That topic captivated us and several other colleagues so much that later we started having evening events within our small ‘literature club’. I listened to Pavel Surkov with great inspiration. He managed to show me many classics in a completely new light.
Pavel Surkov offered to support the Total Dictation project and record a series of original lectures on literature.
‘The Secrets of Russian Literature’ cycle included lectures on the works of Alexander Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov, Nikolai Gogol, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Leo Tolstoy. Everyone in Russia knows those authors, however, few people study their works with the proper depth despite the fact that they are full of interesting thoughts, images, references, and parallels.
Before launching the project, I conducted a survey among my social media followers. I asked them about the topics interesting for them in the context of literature. Most respondents said that they would like to update their knowledge of the classics, to recall the school curriculum, and to review the points that were once misunderstood or missed due to their age. The project’s idea coincided with the demand of the audience fully. That motivated us even more to bring our initiative to life.
The cycle’s uniqueness lies in the fact that the lectures are not limited to retelling the works or describing the biographies of literary classics. Pavel Surkov invites us to consider the work of familiar writers from an unconventional and non-academic perspective. He proposes to discover the real mysteries and riddles of Russian literature and to reflect on the meanings hidden in the texts.
– A teacher’s personality is always crucial in the educational process. In many ways, the students’ understanding and love of the subject depend on him or her. What can you say about Pavel Surkov as a person and what makes him interesting?
– Indeed, the personality of a teacher is extremely important. That applies to our story even more because the lectures are based on the cycle author’s reflections on literary classics.
In my opinion, the first thing that catches your eye when you meet Pavel Surkov is his charisma. I was just fascinated by it. One can listen to his stories for hours without getting tired of the overload of information. He knows how to present even complex topics in a simple and interesting way. That quality is particularly important for lectures.
Pavel Surkov is not only a teacher, lecturer, and writer but also a producer and musician. Interestingly, he wrote the musical cues for the video lectures himself. We can say, he is the author of the course in all its aspects.
Extensive and deep knowledge, charisma, and passion for the subject are the main tools making it possible for the lecturer to capture the audience’s attention and thoughts.
Undoubtedly, Pavel Surkov is involved in all areas of his work sincerely and thoroughly. For example, as a musician, he has seriously researched the work by Queen. His lectures on that subject have been repeatedly held at the Direct Speech lecture hall and have received a great warm response from the audience. Pavel Surkov always talks about what he loves and appreciates himself. Of course, the audience always feels that from his first sentence.
– Why is it important to read books? Why is literature particularly valuable and useful?
– On the one hand, that’s a rhetorical question. Everybody understands that reading is important and necessary. On the other hand, speaking about the value of literature is really useful for recalling once again the richness of that source of knowledge about the world, life, humanity, norms of morality, and ethics.
Literature is a source of information that can teach us almost anything.
I mean not only textbooks, reference books, and encyclopedias. Thanks to works of fiction, we can get experience even without encountering certain situations in real life.
Reading develops literacy, enriches vocabulary, and improves a person’s ability to express his or her thoughts clearly and concisely. Unlike many other modern sources of information, a book shapes imaginative thinking. When we watch a movie, our brain is largely relaxed: we see a picture that someone else has already made for us. When reading a book, on the contrary, we have to transform the text into vivid images by our own efforts. That gives us a great deal of room for imagination. Interestingly, when reading the same book several times, we can perceive and imagine the work in completely different ways.
Books will live forever despite the rapid advancement of digital technology and the emergence of increasingly more new sources of information. One can hardly imagine a technology that could replace all the functions of books at once.
Another interesting question is about what every educated person must read compulsorily. There is a phrase that one can become a sage by reading just a few books. It echoes greatly in my heart. However, to find those proper books, one will probably have to read thousands.
– You interact with people of all ages within the Total Dictation project. How do attitudes towards literature and the Russian language differ between young people and the older generation?
– The interests of the generations are always different as well as their attitudes to almost everything. This is natural because the world is changing rapidly. Each new generation is living, growing, and being shaped in conditions different from previous ones.
As part of the Total Dictation project, we can see that today’s schoolchildren and their parents or grandparents perceive information very differently. The older generation can remember many of the school-period rules of the Russian language by heart even after so many years. Younger people who have grown up in the digitalization epoch are used to the fact that any information can be found on the net quickly. That’s neither good nor bad. That’s just a peculiarity of our life.
Today, the flow of information is so great that school students find it difficult to select something from the mass and retain it in their memory. On the other hand, the younger generation is able to find information quickly and efficiently.
If speaking about literature, the generational difference is most evident in the choice of formats. I can’t call myself an expert in that field because I do not have specific statistical data but I can focus on my own feelings and draw conclusions from my observations. In my environment, the older generation prefers to read books in their classic paper form. Young people increasingly often choose digital formats. That also reveals a peculiarity of the mindset shaped by modernity. Young people are not just able to use technology and do so but also promote conscious consumption and eco-friendliness and avoid littering of space.
Generally speaking, the modern generation likes to read. It has respect for the classics and an interest in new literature. Today, there are many young authors who find their audience among their peers.
I would say that Russian contemporary literature and culture of reading are being actively developed. Of course, that brings me much joy.
I believe that our project has an important mission: to promote Russian contemporary literature. Every year, we select one outstanding contemporary writer for the dictation and invite him or her to create an original text for the action. That is how we manage to acquaint our audience with new authors. For example, in 2023, we will invite Vasily Avchenko, writer and journalist from Vladivostok.
– Do you plan to continue the cycle of lectures with Pavel Surkov? Or will it be a completed series consisting of five parts?
– I don’t yet have a definite answer regarding the continuation of the lecture cycle. However, as for the collaboration with Pavel Surkov in general, it will certainly continue. It is an inspiring partnership for both parties.
In addition to ‘The Secrets of Russian Literature’, we have other interesting joint projects. For example, Pavel Surkov is also Head of the Virtual Art Theatre. That project has taken true theatrical action into the online space. The idea of that format appeared during the pandemic. However, it is still popular and has its own audience to this day. Within one of our special projects, the actors of this theatre recorded videos of reading the texts for the Total Dictation. It should be noted, works of fiction sound fascinating, emotional, and bright when voiced by professional actors.
– The Total Dictation has a large number of branches and educational formats. The lectures on literature are just one drop in the ocean. What other areas of activity are the most important for the project team today?
– We have several courses on the Russian language. They are aimed primarily at maintaining literacy among the adult population.
We all learn the rules at school. However, in adult life, we often forget them without teachers' supervision. It is important to be literate not only at dictations but also in everyday life. That’s the only way to establish the most effective written and oral communication.
We have a project called ‘Something in a Language Spoken in the Office, or the Norms and Rules of Business Spelling’. It can help you refresh the knowledge you need for business correspondence. Within that project, we talk about modern tools for editing and formatting documents. In addition, we have courses on the history of Russian spelling and the rules of spelling and punctuation.
Another area of our activity is called the Literacy Library. Within that initiative, 85 libraries from 18 regions of Russia cooperate with us. We regularly select and provide them with high-quality modern literature on the Russian language: reference books, popular science books, and business literature about the language, which helps one develop literacy in order to communicate in business and online environments. More importantly, we teach librarians how to work with that literature and conduct quizzes, quests, workshops, and other activities that engage readers.
Another area of our work is focused on not only selecting quality literature about the Russian language but also publishing such books. For instance, we have recently published two volumes under the general title ‘One Hundred Texts about the Russian Language’. These are collections of popular science articles not for philologists and linguists but for the widest audience, all those interested in the origin of words, the compilation of dictionaries, and the interaction of languages with one another. You can read at least one text every day and thus broaden your horizons.
And of course, the dictation itself is the key element of the Total Dictation project. We conduct it every year across Russia. Since 2016, we have had a TRuD test, a version of the dictation for those studying Russian as a foreign language. We use the same text as in the main classrooms. At the same time, we offer not to write it down from dictation but to perform special tasks on it. This makes it possible for those still learning to speak and write Russian but already treating it with care and interest to take part in the action.
– You are a representative of one of the largest educational projects in Russia. What would you wish people of the world?
– I would like to wish people all over the world never to lose interest. Interest is the main driver of our lives. It helps us move forward, learn something new constantly, and broaden our horizons.
In my opinion, reading books and travelling are the best ways to cognize the inner and outer world. When we get to know new cities, countries, or literary universes, we begin to understand ourselves better. Simultaneously with learning more about other people’s cultures and languages, we explore our own language and culture deeper. Such interrelationships are amazing.
Viktoria Gusakova, Global Women Media news agency
Translated by Nikolay Gavrilov