This large-scale meeting of the literary community brought together more than 500 professionals from a wide range of fields: writers, poets, columnists, publishers, literary scholars and translators, school and college teachers of literature, museum and library staff, and theatrical figures from Russia and around the world.
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President of Russia Vladimir Putin: Good afternoon, friends.
I sincerely welcome participants in the Russian Literary Assembly to Moscow. Such a representative forum has not gathered for a long time; I’m not even sure if it has a precedent.
At any rate, writers, teachers, translators, publishers, librarians and artists – in short, everyone who is directly involved in books, in the truly universal phenomenon that is literature – have gathered here for the first time.
It is very important that international experts in Russian literature, from literally the entire world have come here. I would like to ask this auditorium and public: let’s welcome them separately and thank them for the interest they have shown in our work. (Applause.)
They are our compatriots and friends from the CIS countries and the rest of the world. We are all united not only by our love of Russia’s literary heritage, but also by a deep understanding of its educational, aesthetic and moral value, its great influence on the development of world civilisation and culture.
I am sure that among such an undoubtedly professional and engaged audience, we will be able to objectively assess the current state of Russian literature, impartially and openly discuss existing problems and identify future challenges.
The most important and, I believe, shared concern is the declining interest in books today, especially among young people. Our country, once the best read in the world, can no longer qualify for this honorary title. According to statistics, Russians – perhaps you have already talked about this during roundtables – spend an average of only 9 minutes per day reading books, and that figure is decreasing.
This situation is often considered to be the result of the rapid development of digital technology, and the book losing its status as the leading transmitter of information and knowledge. People used to find answers to the questions that interested them in books, whereas now there are other possibilities. In previous times, books were necessary to help people learn to think, analyse and feel, as well as to speak their own language well. It is correct to say that language comes alive and creates itself in literary texts.
The fact that the book has ceased to play an important role in society’s life bears witness to – and I say this with regret – a decrease in the level of general culture, the displacement and distortion of ethical guidelines, and the poverty of spoken language.
Today classical literary language or a rich folk expressiveness are sometimes perceived as an exception, while, unfortunately, flouting the rules of our native language is becoming the norm, including in the media and film industry.
Thankfully, the Russian language is too great for its traditions to be entirely destroyed. But I would repeat that we are increasingly confronted with ignorance and primitivism. Many young people even find it difficult to clearly articulate their thoughts.
This situation must be rectified; in any case we must try to do this, first and foremost by revising programmes teaching Russian language and literature, especially in high school. Today these subjects are allocated too little time, time that is disproportionate to their importance.
However, naturally the problem cannot simply be solved by adding a certain number of lessons per week. Teachers’ personalities, their talents, their ability to mobilise and motivate students to explore the wealth of the Russian language all play a great role.
Recently the founding congress of the National Association of Russian Language and Literature Teachers took place in Moscow. We expect that its activities will help restore the prestige of language and literature teachers, as well as help them convey to students the importance of Russian language, its impact on their own identity, culture, language and communication.
And another very important topic. Russian language has always played a powerful unifying role for our multi-ethnic nation, and established a common cultural and educational context in our country. For this reason it is worth recalling that it was thanks to the Russian language that the whole world learned of Chinghiz Aitmatov, Yury Rytkheu, Ales Adamovich and Rasul Gamzatov. This tradition should not disappear, but with regret we must observe that, unfortunately, it is disappearing.
In Russia, many talented young authors write in their own native, national languages. Their art reflects the originality and beauty of our multi-ethnic country. And today we need to involve our best literary forces in the process of translation into Russian.
Of course we must impart a taste for reading and good literature from an early age, and not only through time-tested classics. It is necessary that young readers recognise new names and new heroes. We established the Presidential Prize in Literature and Art for Children and Youth precisely to support contemporary authors. It will be awarded as of 2014. As you know, next year has been declared the Year of Culture and it will definitely include a range of activities associated with Russian literature. In particular, one initiative will be to give our national wide reading support programme an official status. I think that declaring 2015 the Year of Literature in Russia is worth thinking about.
Of course, in today’s world one might well ask: why should we do this, why don’t we let the market regulate everything? But perhaps this is an area that the market cannot regulate, or at any rate not as it should. Of course, widely promoted books and authors can make their own way in the world, but we must acknowledge that this is far from feasible for quality children’s literature, academic publications and collected works of our classics. The government should also support literature because it always makes the most accurate diagnosis of society’s condition and highlights its weaknesses.
And one more important aspect: there is probably no other country like Russia in the world where literature is held in such a high esteem notwithstanding the problems I talked about, and the well-known declining interest in books. But even if the declining interest in books and reading is a global trend, we cannot simply accept it. Without any undue exaggeration, we have a responsibility to the global civilisation to preserve Russian literature, conserve it and its enormous humanistic potential.
Our challenge is to attract society’s special attention to national literature, and to make Russian literature and language powerful factors in our country’s influence on the development of ideas throughout the world. Along with this, at a national level we must establish an environment in which education, erudition, knowledge of literary classics and contemporary literature are among common decencies. And naturally it is important to focus on resolving critical issues for the literary sphere.
This involves establishing the conditions for writers to create, reviving the traditions of literary criticism, developing balanced editorial policies, and actively using the opportunities offered by libraries, literary museums and writers’ memorial houses. Overall, we need long-term, well-thought-out systemic measures to support our national literature. As I’ve already said, I know that you discussed these and many other questions at roundtables.
I want to thank you for your attention, to wish you success in your work today, and in your creative endeavours.
Thank you for your attention.
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Vladimir Putin: What I want to say in conclusion is as follows. We have already talked about the material aspect of this issue; this affects teachers too. I already said this and will not repeat it. In my opinion, we are taking some steps to improve the situation, and it really is improving, although one problem – housing – still remains. This is the same as, for example, medical staff, especially those in mid-tier jobs and in rural areas. We have many problems.
Some of our colleagues speaking earlier said: “What will happen after our meeting?” We just had a meeting of the Council for Culture and Art and, as you know, there we decided – this was also discussed there – to bring back a literature exam in schools. So I want to say that such meetings do have an impact, and influence the specific decisions that are discussed at such events.
That said, today’s event is undoubtedly unique judged by its participants. Let me repeat that there are teachers here, experts and businesspeople. But even the business they represent is not oil, gas or metals. They said there is a turnover of 6 billion, in the sense of oh, how much! In fact, that is not such a big turnover in business terms.
In general we can say that the people gathered here are devoted to their work. And your work has to do with Russian language and literature, everything that makes Russians Russian. This is what creates a large, diverse, multi-ethnic Russian world and maintains its status. And generally all this is done in fairly modest conditions and for modest – let’s say it openly – financial remuneration, and sometimes not even that.
Just now Mr Lermontov recalled his great ancestor, our great poet Mikhail Lermontov, and remembered that I already cited his words during the election campaign. Now thankfully there are no campaigns underway yet, but I would like to conclude our meeting with his words. Remember how he wrote in a well-known poem [Motherland (Rodina, 1841)]: “I love my Homeland, but with a strange love!”? Why is that? Because each of us has their own Russia, but we all share Russia too.
Thank you for your service to Russia!