The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Big Read Russia

April 19, 2007
Washington, DC

I?d be writing this post from my desk if I could still fit behind it. But after spending four meals last weekend with the 10-person Russian delegation who?ll be running the Big Read in Saratov and Ivanovo this fall, I?m lucky if I can see my toes.

We met them for dinner in Georgetown Saturday night at Old Glory, a noisy barbeque joint that I immediately, to my mortification, found myself looking at through Russian eyes. The enormous platters of meat, with American flags enameled onto them, epitomized conspicuous consumption. (The delegation tucked into them with gusto.) The boxing on television suddenly seemed symptomatic of our violent culture. (Until I pointed the fisticuffs out to make conversation, the delegation didn?t really notice it.) The waitress went a little heavy on the make-up. (The delegation thought her cute and wondered if she might be Russian?)

Mary Chute, Deputy Director of Library Services, IMLS, addresses members of the Russian delegation. Left to right -- Oleg Alalykin, Julia Nossova (translator), and Tatyana Kotlova. Photo by Chloey Accardi

Fortunately I was sitting adjacent to Dmitriy ?The Polymath? Polyvyannyy, as congenial and erudite a fellow as I?ve ever met. Deputy rector at Ivanovo State University, Dmitriy knows Russian literature backwards and forwards, and it?s not even his field. He knows American literature better than I do, and I doubt English is even his second language. By trade he?s a political scientist and student of medieval Balkan history, and probably a lot else he?s too kind to humiliate me further by bringing up. Enough to say that he recommended a Robert Louis Stevenson novel I?d barely heard of, Black Arrow, and an O. Henry novel (!) I?d never thought to read, Cabbages and Kings. Boy, am I glad he?s helping to run the Big Read in Ivanovo and not over here, where he?d only make me look bad.

Sunday was a twofer, with stylish brunch at Lia?s in Chevy Chase and gratuitous but delicious Chinese dinner at Meiwah a couple of minutes later. At brunch I shared a delightful conversation with librarian Olga Tolstikova until I realized that she was my interpreter, and I was totally ignoring the delegates I was supposed to be brainstorming with. Dinner was more productive, with plentiful Big Read talk interspersed with angling tips from Saratov?s first deputy minister of culture, Natalya Tereshina. She fishes the Volga for perch and pike, and pronounces it much tastier since local commerce shifted more toward a service economy, and away from heavy manufacturing.

Monday was the main event, with the entire delegation visiting our office to get ideas about how to run a worthwhile Big Read of To Kill a Mockingbird in Russia. The plan wasn?t to tell them exactly what to do, since what are we going to know about reading in Russia that they don?t? No, we just tried to fill them in on how a concept altogether foreign to them ?-- getting a whole city to read the same book and talk about it -- works in America.

The delegation discusses the U.S. Big Read-Russia partnership. Photo by Chloey Accardi

This way, they can adapt it into something original that we couldn?t have come up with in a million years, the same as all the American communities are doing. I showed them photocopies of Williamsport?s ?Walk in My Shoes? display for To Kill a Mockingbird, and they about flipped over it. Anecdotes were swapped, skepticism voiced -- we weren?t being humored, not for a minute -- and then they had to catch a plane to Asheville and Huntsville to see a couple of Big Reads in action.

Before departing for the airport, we all said our goodbyes over a quick hanger steak across the street, natch?