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2015 has been declared the Year of Literature in Russia. In an interview with RIAC Web Content Editor Maria Smekalova writer Sergei Shargunov spoke about “Free Press,” quality literature and journalism, as well as shared his insights on the degradation of the educational system and on social networks as platforms for discussion.

2015 has been declared the Year of Literature in Russia. In an interview with RIAC Web Content Editor Maria Smekalova writer Sergei Shargunov spoke about “Free Press,” quality literature and journalism, as well as shared his insights on the degradation of the educational system and on social networks as platforms for discussion.

Your activities touch upon different spheres. Who do you think you are in the first place: a writer, a journalist or a public figure?

I was and still am a writer. Of course, I’m also a journalist and editor-in-chief of a large website. This is an important part of my life. I think that journalist and even reporting activities shape me as a writer and expand my horizons for grasping reality.

Do you think that politics can become your profession?

For me it's a hobby. Modern history has interested me since childhood: many things worry me, filling me with anger and concern. That is why I do not back out from passing judgments on civil issues, and it's OK. I am convinced that everyone should be interested in what is happening in his country.

Your books have been translated into several foreign languages. Is there any interest abroad in contemporary Russian literature?

Modern history has interested me since childhood: many things worry me, filling me with anger and concern. That is why I do not back out from passing judgments on civil issues, and it's OK. I am convinced that everyone should be interested in what is happening in his country.

Yes, there is, but it depends on what Russia is. When Russia is strong, then its writers are seen as messengers of a big country. For example, Mikhail Sholokhov, being a communist and pro-Soviet man, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature because, on the one hand, his novel “And Quiet Flows the Don” deserved it, but on the other hand, the world could not afford to disregard the Soviet Union. I am convinced that in the long run, neither political nor business elites determine everything. Many Europeans are genuinely interested in what is happening in Russia, and what its literature will be. In Europe, they know Anton Chekhov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, etc. And those who have read their works inevitably wonder what the other Russian works, including from modern literature, are like? I can say that in Italy, my book sold very well.

This year has been declared the Year of Literature in Russia. Do you think such initiatives by our authorities bear any fruit?

I hope that things will move forward. It is necessary to stop the degradation happening in the form of closing libraries and bookstores. We have to build some kind of a dam to stop this devastating flow. Perhaps, the Year of Literature will help out.

The degradation of which you speak comes from the top: is it only confined to closing libraries and bookstores? Has it manifested itself in people's attitudes towards literature? Are we reading less?

Yes and no, because people are so put-upon by life that many simply have no time for reading. However, the number of serious readers is growing, as evidenced by sales figures from bookstores: trash fiction is being ousted by serious literature. However, there is an obvious barbarization going on too. It is happening everywhere, and the reasons for this lie in our educational system: it is still unclear what is included in the school curriculum and what is not. One gets the feeling that the people responsible for the reform of the educational system do not know themselves the right answer to this question. Reducing the number of Russian language and literature lessons in schools is the sword of Damocles that hangs over our education.

Is it possible to teach a man to write a book?

Maxim Gorky once said that anyone can write one good book. He was probably right if this book is about oneself.

And what literature can be considered of high quality, in your opinion?

Quality literature, I believe, is written in good Russian. In this regard, I like to read Alexei Ivanov, Alexander Terekhov and Mikhail Tarkovsky. Maybe these names are not widely known today, but I do advise to read these authors.

Is the “Free Press” website an alternative source of news or an information agency in the literal sense of the word?

It is a serious, registered mass media organization, which quickly and professionally covers a variety of current events. Our reporters have their own positions. “Free Press” is a free platform where many people gain the opportunity to argue and participate in discussions. I willingly publish texts from different authors, even if I strongly disagree with them. However, I cannot say that we have some kind of a cozy chat room where anyone can write anything. Naturally, as in any media outlet, we have a production editor, who proofreads the texts.

In your opinion, is there quality journalism in Russia?

Of course, there is. The definition of quality journalism is extremely vague. I believe that knowledge combined with talent is the most important thing. Quality journalism requires an inquisitive mind and an unusual manner of presenting information. However, we do lack investigative journalism. I like the Russian Reporter magazine, but such publications with vivid documentary examples are rather rare.

Why is such journalism missing? Why don’t people take it up?

“Free Press” is a free platform where many people gain the opportunity to argue and participate in discussions. I willingly publish texts from different authors, even if I strongly disagree with them. However, I cannot say that we have some kind of a cozy chat room where anyone can write anything.

Where is it? We shouldn’t idealize the Western media. I read the American and the British press on a regular basis: it’s all very standard and dried up, the same set of stereotypes, referring to the Cold War. Journalism lives by its own laws. Many authors from Tatyana Tolstaya to Dmitry Olshansky write on Facebook and reading them is extremely interesting. Theу generate controversy and quite interesting comments. I always like to read Oleg Kashin, Alexander Kotz and Dmitry Steshin, especially their reports from Donbass.

Plenty of social networks exist, such as the network for professional contacts LinkedIn, which is not so popular in Russia as compared to, say, Facebook. Do you take debates there seriously?

Yes, on the one hand, there is a lot of dirt, vulgarity, stupidity and passing issues in social networks. On the other hand, what is “serious” and what is “not serious”? Should we take seriously the Izvestia newspaper file from the 1990s? There, too, you can find lots of ultraliberal tendentiousness. Should we take seriously, for example, today's publications like Novaya Gazeta, Komsomolskaya Pravda, New Times, Izvestia, etc? It’s a big question. Twitter and Facebook are, at least, something alive, even if they are tactless.

How can one filter the information received?

Every time you have to use your head. I cannot say, for example, that I’m fully satisfied with my website.

Why so? What prevents you from changing it for the better?

Those who make the decisions should realize that not everything is determined by the market, that personal income from the sale of gas and oil is parasitizing the economy, that supreme values exist. Culture cannot always be unprofitable, as we are often told today.

I have to do many things to make the site interesting to the reader as much as possible. I understand that people want a variety of information, including to learn things I am not very interested in, for example, related to cars, real estate, health, the social sphere, etc. I would like to go back to the old times when I was the editor-in-chief of a fat literary journal. I would rather publish good prose, poetry and criticism.

There would be no demand for such a magazine today?

It would enjoy some demand, provided that certain conditions are met, which are out of the question today. For example, those who identify themselves as the elite lack the will and motivation to do something for the good of the people and to share money for publishing a journal. This journal should be glossy, beautiful and attractive, and authors should be paid not 200 rubles, as is the case today in the thick journals, but decent fees for decent literature. Those who make the decisions should realize that not everything is determined by the market, that personal income from the sale of gas and oil is parasitizing the economy, that supreme values exist. Culture cannot always be unprofitable, as we are often told today. I would like to do things that are more fragile, delicate and complex, and hopefully, the time will come for this.

How do you cover the issues of culture in “Free Press”?

Alexander Gabuyev:
We Think Very Locally

When I became editor-in-chief, I immediately started publishing articles on culture. We have just published an article from Vladimir Aleynikov who used to be a member of the SMOG union (in the 1960s there was an informal literary movement humorously called the Union of Young Geniuses). He is a brilliant poet, but I can see that his materials are not in high demand, while passing, short-lived materials dealing with politics, with Ukraine people are ready to watch for ever and ever, although sometimes certain topics just tire out. There's no getting away from it: people want information, they want to receive the hottest news. In the scheme of things, culture does not interest them, which is very sad.

You went to Donbass and were on the scene in 2008. What prompted you to go there? Was it an idle curiosity or a civic stand?

It was definitely not an idle curiosity. I believe that if you want to argue about these issues soundly, you have to see what is happening with your own eyes. Since it is necessary to talk about it, it is important to be in the picture.

Is the purpose of the journalist to know the truth? If yes, everyone has their own version of the truth. Can one get down to the core?

There's no getting away from it: people want information, they want to receive the hottest news. In the scheme of things, culture does not interest them, which is very sad.

Ideally, the journalist has to work on his or her own. Being a writer, I can say much more through a story rather that a report. I think that in contrast to propagandists, journalists should disclose the complexity of the situation. It is the comprehensive approach that makes it possible to get down to the core.

And will this comprehensive approach be of interest to publishers?

There are media owners who prevent an adequate dissemination of information and it is very sad. I always support authors who reveal the complexity of events rather than try to cut corners and simplify everything into propaganda. Another thing is that blood foam blurs the eyes of many, and even the most professional and talented people begin to exhibit belligerence. I agree that a certain level of passion is quite appropriate in journalism, if the case in point is some controversial text, debate or social and political essay. Reporting, however, should be oriented towards presenting the facts in the most objective way.

Now there are a lot of political talk shows. Do they help to piece together the puzzle of the true picture of events?

Such shows should. I would ensure diversity in the participants and give the floor to all those who have something to say. Throughout the world there is such a genre as informational and political talk shows, and there's no getting around it. They get high ratings, people watch them. Hence, they are in demand.

The crisis in Ukraine is the main issue on the agenda. What domestic and international issues, in your opinion, pose a particular threat too?

It's time to engage in production, industrialization, agriculture and the country’s development. Whether we take advantage of this chance is a different matter. This requires a “reset” of the whole economic matrix.

I will begin with domestic policy. It is unclear what will happen to our political parties. Will the party system survive? And if so, in what form? We have virtually no new faces and social mobility leaves much to be desired. In Russia, it is extremely difficult to climb the greasy pole and this is quite a problem. The issue of corruption is also extremely important.

If we talk about international issues, then we can certainly deplore the Islamic State. It is really guilty of tragic events, but everyone knows who brought these people up. First the state is destabilized, hell-raisers appear and then everyone starts to lament this fact. In Europe, on the one hand, migrants will push back, and on the other hand – conservative and leftist movements will gain momentum. The fact is that the current hypocritical elites suit fewer and fewer people, and this leads to a radicalization of the population.

Do falling oil prices pose a threat to Russia?

Yes, they do. But they also offer a chance to finally do something other than pump oil and gas. It's time to engage in production, industrialization, agriculture and the country’s development. Whether we take advantage of this chance is a different matter. This requires a “reset” of the whole economic matrix.

Can Russia’s pivot to the East improve the situation?

I fully support this development. It is high time to pay more attention to Asia, India, and Latin America. They are our strategic allies.

Interviewer: RIAC Web Portal Editor Maria Smekalova

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