Sergey Shargunov: “The writer’s life’s work should receive social support”

The creation of an association of almost everyone in Russia related to literature and book publishing, new and old launch pads for creativity, topical aspects of legislative provision of cultural policy in the country … These and other issues were disclosed as “Invest-Foresight” interviewed the First Deputy Chairman of the Committee on Culture of State Duma of the Russian Federation, member of the Presidential Council for the Russian Language, chairman of Association of Writers’ and Publishers’ Unions of Russia, laureate of the Prize of the Government of the Russian Federation in the field of culture and of the National Prize “Big Book” Sergey Shargunov.

Professional Status Support

— More than a year has passed since the Association of Writers’ and Publishers’ Unions (ASPI) was established, “the need for which was long talked about” by both writers and publishers. As chairman of this organization, how would you appreciate its first steps?

— First of all, I would like to emphasize that the ASPI — contrary to all rumors and speculation — is not then another bureaucratic structure. Its main idea is to maintain status of professional writer and publisher. If you operate with understandable terminology of labor law, the profession “writer” should be included into the labor book, no matter what it will be: old, paper, or electronic one. The life’s work that the writing person chooses for himself should receive real social support — and this is the main content of the created institution. All the issues related to this are certainly not easy, but they are now in stages of development and solution.

The association is not designed to teach someone how to live or to write, but to help creative people, of different ages and generations. This applies, for example, to so called creative residences, as if “forgotten”. The association plans to conduct an audit of those that may be operable in the coming month or two, and soon — plans are to have at least one such house in each federal district.

Further, an important point of activity of the ASPI is direct material assistance to writers. Union of Theatrical Workers has long worked out this direction, as well as a number of other creative unions did. But the writers in this regard have been for a long time, as they say, on the side of the road. The issue of medical support is also being worked out.

— Did polyclinics of Litfond remain?

— Everything needs to be revived, in fact. Legal assistance to authors in defense of their rights and interests — including those related to copyright — will also be provided.

In addition, in our intentions — to recreate the great Literary Fund of Russia. But I would note that all this is not only plans or just useful undertakings. It is practice; to realize it, we managed to get funds from the state, and it will be implemented already in 2022.

About our structure — ASPI was established by 5 major literary organizations: Union of Writers of Russia, Union of Russian Writers, Union of Writers of Moscow, Union of Writers of St. Petersburg, and the Russian Book Union.

Another important point on which the Association also emphasizes is the trips of writers all around the country, without which in Soviet times the life of the Union of Writers could not be imagined. Main achievement, and it is expressed in the very fact of the emergence of such an organization, is, on my view, that for the first time in more than 30 years of history we managed to unite into one structure people so different in their views and in creative techniques that they previously, did not even shake hands with each other. And we have in the creative council from now on both bright, but diverse names.

— Surely there are youth projects?

— Here literally for the next three months there are planned rallies of young talents from all over the country in Moscow and rally of talents of school age (in February 2022) — at Artek. We will support the meetings of young writers that have become regular.

There can be no civilizational property with holes in the budget

— Martyrologue of paper magazines is only lengthening every year: on this sad list there were “October” and “Literary Study,” “Film Scripts.” “Our legacy” (“Nashe nasledie”) could not stay on the market float, despite all the brilliance of social advertising and the name of academician Dmitry Likhachev in the founders. More recently, “Spark” (“Ogonyok”), a cult magazine in all previous political eras, has been added to this series

— I will say without false modesty: and “Youth” (“Yunost”) would have expected the same fate if I had not came there in May 2019. Here you need to understand that every such magazine is, in fact, personal will of a person who — accidentally or not accidentally — takes the rudder. I see my own task in saving our civilizational heritage, such as, undeniably, “thick” magazines and generally literary publications.

I had to speak on this topic at the Presidential Council of the Russian Federation on Russian language; I believe that the Literary Fund, which we plan to revive, should also take on itself a share of the financial burden in supporting “thick” magazines. At least we should return to the mechanism in which the provision of libraries with literary periodicals would follow calculation: 50% of the necessary funds come from the federal Ministry of Culture, and the remaining half would be subsidized by regional budgets. After all, it is not well known what if such publication enters the libraries, it already survives.

What is the continuing value of literary magazines for the Russian culture? This is a unique alloy of genres, it is still high-quality editing, and it is not a museum, not something frozen, but living and constantly developing. You communicate with 20-year-old authors and sometimes you get ahead of them with the question: “And where can they go further?” Their site for the first step and springboard for the development of a writing career can be (as it was before, actually) thick magazines.

Yes, even for eminent masters, they are still sometimes in greater price and more honor than other new-fashioned publishers. For example, if the living classic Oleg Chukhontsev writes two or three poems in a year, where will he quickly give them: to a publishing house or to a magazine?

— Honoraria in such magazines today, of course, are often not that symbolic good if they exist at all.

— I agree, there is a problem; and we can not abstain from reacting. What regards the same “Youth,” then I, as the editor-in-chief, did everything to ensure them.

“Youth” is for young people. But not only for them

— Sergey Alexandrovich, continuing the theme of “Youth,” I can’t help but ask: how happened you managed to reload the magazine?

— In our editorial policy, my colleagues and I try, nevertheless, to provide lion’s share of publications for 20–30-year-olds. In full accordance with deeds of the hero of my recent book “In pursuit of eternal spring,” classic of Russian literature Valentin Kataev, when he stood in 1955 at the foundation of the magazine. By the way, I dreamed of him when I wrote his biography (even before the book was released): in the editorial office of Youth, he shook my hand from the ceiling (laughs. – Auth.). But the most surprising thing is that very soon they called me and made an offer to lead the magazine.

In general, priority is still given to those who come to us, on the one hand, from Artek, and other literary forums, such as Tavrida, Lyceum. And on the other hand — the same young people but coming “by themselves.” At the same time, the magazine is always open to presenters, iconic writers of any generation. As it happened under Boris Polevoy, and under Andrei Dementyev, and under Valery Dudarev (previous chief editors of “Youth” — auth.)

Now the editors pay a lot of attention to critical and essayistic publications. The layout has completely changed — it has become much brighter than before; we attracted new, truly creative artists. In addition, we established the modern coolest site where we post almost all of our texts. And that’s just the beginning. The task before us is to turn “Youth” into the leading literary magazine of modern Russia.

— How do you feel about the fact that often when eliminating the old format of publication many serious media, “dying” in paper, and do not switch to digital?

— I vote definitely for preservation of both old and new versions of publications. Although I am convinced that electronic versions of paper magazines do not always compensate in their digital appearance completeness of their content. And personally, I prefer paper: when you read the same electronic version of the text, sometimes you do not finish it.

YouTube, TikTok and artistic word

— On the TV channel “Culture” you are not only a TV presenter, recently you have almost become its face. Therefore, I think you care about all kinds of “rating measurements,” albeit not in to everyone inspiring their reliability, but which are almost always disappointing for ascetic educational TV…

— Speaking about the work on “Culture,” I cannot but admit that, of course, big joy for me is making the Open Book program. It is actually the only one on the current federal television, where the conversation is with modern writers about what they wrote. But frankly, this is not enough for me: I would like to really popularize such a program in extra-television space. Then, I’m sure, I would not have to complain to anyone about the size of the ratings.

— Within what limits does this space extend?

— From YouTube to TikTok. And in our Association all projects related to popularization of artistic word, are prioretized. We intend to make both artists and writers, and just novice writers (just from the generation of the audience of advanced gadgets) talk brightly and interestingly about both classical and modern literature, and provide stories about “forgotten” literature. Such, for example, as “The Tale of a Real Man” or “Son of the regiment.”

In this regard, social media is extremely important for the literature. Let’s admit that literature is still in deficit there for now… And today’s students or philology or journalism (which, understandably, as well as their colleagues from other faculties, could hardly be detached from computer, including from social networks) simply lack operational information on literary and book publishing topics. And this information, when included in social networks, will be here, “at hand” — according to their direct, so to speak, profile of education.

Without “residual principle”

— Question to you as deputy chairman of the Duma committee on culture: how insurmountable from the Soviet period is the notorious “residual principle” of culture funding? How to learn literature, cinema, theater, museums at least to some extent to survive on their own? And is it all about “inconsistency” of the Ministry of Finance, because the state has funds, and considerable ones, despite constantly occurring difficulties?

— Unfortunately, yes, and now the industry is terribly underfunded. But something can be done even in these difficult conditions. I must say, our committee is very fundamentally attuned to the so-called optimization of rural and district cultural houses, libraries, and bookstores. What we approved for them in the last parliamentary convocation — this is a fact, namely: giving institutions of this category status of socially significant objects and their exemption from tax burden. In the situation with coronavirus, we also managed to help them — sending sums necessary for survival, despite all known culture funding barriers, including the notorious 44th Federal Law.

For me, in general, work in the State Duma is inheritance, I will say loudly, of the activities undertaken a century ago, by Vladimir Korolenko. We are talking about everyday help to suffering persons. And I am happy that for hundreds of our fellow citizens it has become productive, and some were literally saved from trouble. I combine the deputy request with the publicity of the move checks or investigations on previous requests — including those in my second author’s program “Twelve” on the TV channel “Russia 24.”

According to lawmaking: personally, for me as a deputy it was important to make a contribution to correction of Art. 282 of the Criminal Code. Fortunately, it was possible to at least decriminalize it.

— “Rossiyskaya Gazeta” wrote that film director Alexander Veledinsky began filming yours novel “1993.” Are you at least somehow attracted to filming as an author?

— I read the film director’s script. And I know that there was already a casting of actors. The release of the film, most likely, is scheduled for autumn 2023, closer to the anniversary of those dramatic events in Moscow.

— If you can, diclose: what lies on your writer’s desktop?

— I am finishing a new novel, I will not talk about details yet; I will only say that the time of action is our days, and the main character is a young man graduating from school, entering adulthood.

Interviewed by Alexey Golyakov

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