Culture in a Coma. Interview with Author Alexander Potemkin
- Alexander, your last novel Solo Mono. The Wayfaring of a Defeatist’s Mind came out two years ago. Are you still writing or have you stopped?
About a year ago, I began writing a new novel called Hues of Solitude, and as I worked on the main protagonist, I saw a new opportunity for his development. It had to do with the environmental theme. After that, not only was the main character drawn into this topic, but I too found myself drawn into it. And as time passed, it began to increasingly occupy my mind. Perhaps one of the reasons work has slowed down on the new novel is precisely because I understood the need to devote myself to environmental issues, which I feel are the most urgent today. And my new book will most certainly be based on my environmental articles and contemplation.
- What do you think of the cultural situation in Russia and throughout the world?
We know that over the past 40-50 years authors of high prose have been growing scarce in countries with a rich literary heritage, such as Russia, Germany, England, Spain, and Italy. There are no outstanding literary and philosophical names in the world today. They may very well exist, but the cultural bureaucracy and business have no need for them. If you go into any bookstore in Europe or anywhere else in the world and ask if they have any books by Thomas Mann, you will be asked, “Who is he?” If you start talking about great authors such as Kant, Sergei Bulgakov, Heidegger, Leo Shestov, Nietzsche, Florensky, Schopenhauer, Alexander Potemkin, and Sartre, the shop keeper will look at you in surprise, smirk and say that you are mistaken and must be looking for furniture or clothing manufacturers.
Take Dostoevsky, for example, no more than 15,000-20,000 copies of his books were sold from the beginning of his creative life until the first quarter of the twentieth century. The Soviet authorities did much to raise magnificent 19th century Russian literature to the high level it deserved. It was during the Soviet era that Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Gogol began to be published in tens of hundreds of millions of copies. At that time, business was not the main priority, and authors such as Viktor Erofeev, Alexander Tsypkin, Yuri Polyakov, Denis Dragunsky, Darya Dontsova, Tatiana Ustinova and Tatiana Tolstaya would never have been published. They would never have made the grade. The task of philosophy at the time was to raise the intellectual level of the individual. But now not only are the works of weak authors published, they are constantly presented in public in order to make them more popular and increase their sales, which is lucrative for business.
This means that the nation is denying itself intelligence, spirituality and morality, the status quo of a cultural person. But no one is objecting to this! Has the whole of the Russian population really become dunces?
- So you consider business to be the main culprit of the drop in cultural level. But isn’t there some kind of state policy?
The absence of culture and drop in intelligence is not a national, but an overall global diagnosis. The simpler a book, the less talented the topic, the more eroticism, offensive behavior and crime it contains, the greater the media’s commercial interest in it. Literary moneymakers take pride in their profit and sales, not in the names of the authors. In so doing, they are lowering the value of culture and reading, as well as the population’s level of intelligence.
Television, the media community, book publishing, government officials in the cultural sphere and the Federal Agency on Press and Mass Communications (Rospechat), in particular, are the main culprits behind the huge increase in the number of people with a low level of intelligence in the country. What motivates this structure? Making money or raising the intelligence level of Russian citizens? Profit is its main motivation!
Why does Rospechat use government money to publish writers abroad who are not even known in Russia? A few years ago, a bilateral program for translating fiction was organized in China. Chinese authors were translated into Russian and Russian authors into Chinese. It should come as no surprise that most of these books were never sold. The works of Russian authors translated and printed using budget money (a list is given below), recommended by Seslavinsky and Grigoriev, ended up on the trash heap. Seven- and eight-digit figures in dollars were wasted.
Why have these Rospechat directors held the same position for more than 20 years? Who in the upper echelons of power is giving them preferential treatment? Ministers and vice premiers come and go, but these gentlemen, who are bringing culture and literature to their knees, are supposedly indispensible! What have they done to merit this? Surely it can’t be because they have done such a brilliant job of besotting Russians?
Where is this kind of policy leading us? To imbecility of the population. And this is resulting in an impending environmental disaster. It is difficult to imagine the intelligence level of people who watch the films shown on Russian TV channels. I cannot imagine anyone with brains being able to watch such gibberish.
- You are categorically against contemporary television. Is there really not one program you would recommend watching?
I get the impression that conversations with intellectuals are prohibited on TV. Every day the viewer is inundated with talk shows featuring people whose thinking is wide open to criticism. And another recent tendency is that the same so-called writers appear on all television programs. Vladimir Dal once said, “There are always more scribblers than there are writers.” In world culture, a writer is a great person, but in our country anyone is called a writer who has put a few words together, and ungrammatically at that. For example, I am reluctant to call myself a writer. When I am interviewed and introduced as a writer, I correct the interviewer by saying that I am an author. An author can only be called a writer if he or she stands the test of time.
A few days ago many federal channels were discussing the presentation of a book of short stories by Margarita Simonian, editor-in-chief of Russia Today. I am not familiar with her activity as a media manager, but what can I say about her so-called writing talent? A short story is a prose genre, whereas her sketches about the daily life of journalists have nothing in common with prose. And this is primarily because the author does not have an original literary style, does not know how to develop a theme or reveal the character and motivation of her protagonists. All we have is the mundane journalistic language of the narrator, which should most likely be classified as non-fiction. Of course, the author can use her personal media resources, which gives her a definite market advantage. Margarita Simonian, a widely promoted media celebrity, with any of her compositions (regardless of its quality) is more interesting from the viewpoint of sales than an author with a particular worldview expressed in literary form.
But surely the TV official herself must know her writing is worthless? And what is more, in order to improve the image of her commodity, she has invited her colleagues Vladimir Soloviev (who is not known for his high ethical or moral standards), Irada Zeinalova, and Russian Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky to put in a good word for “wonderful writer Margarita Simonian and her book Black Eyes” on federal TV. This television campaign not only lacks modesty, it arouses indignation—media oligarchs are advertising a low-quality commodity. Is this lady not insulting her own imaginary literary gift?
As for Vladimir Medinsky, five minutes of this report will make many intelligent citizens turn their backs on the Minister of Culture. It is not to Mr. Medinsky’s advantage to take active part in advertising a low-quality product, particularly in public. If he is on amicable terms with Margarita Simonian, he can tell her so among friends, but not for all to see on the main television channels. Can Mr. Medinsky’s mind be so deformed that he does not understand that this is indecent and is there not one advisor who can explain this to him? This may be an instance of nepotism in the cultural sphere.
I agree with Fyodor Dostoevsky, who as early as the 19th century wrote the following about Russia, which is still pertinent today, “Our demos is content, and the farther we go, the more content it will become.”
Some people may say that what I say about Mrs. Simonian is due to envy. Envy is a morbid state aroused not only by loss of faith in justice, but primarily by a lack of inner culture. So I do not permit myself to socialize with literary bureaucrats and do not attend literary gatherings, apart from my own, which I hold once every two years after publishing a new book. And I never invite Rospechat and Ministry of Culture officials or newspaper and television journalists covering literary themes to attend. I have to pay money for reviews to be posted in the media, otherwise they will not be published. And I pay. It does not bother me that the reviews are published in the Advertising section.
- What can you say about the Culture channel?
The Culture channel is a total disgrace. Gogol, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy immediately emigrated so as not to witness its broadcasts. I watched a few of Shvydkov’s literary programs on this channel at one time. Although it is difficult to call them literary—the books of the authors Shvydkov invited to the talk show are only fit for reading when you are half asleep or in a state of alcoholic intoxication. The creative work of serious authors is not discussed on such programs. Lofty names are not in demand—there won’t be any sales. Listening to Shvydkov, you wonder how such a person could ever have been appointed as Russia’s minister of culture. What a disgrace! Only Yeltsin, listening to someone’s irrational opinion, could make such a decision.
There is not one literary-philosophical or environmental program on any Russian television channel. And this is in the 21st century! The Russia 1 channel shows a program called Guide to the Book World, which is more like a book kiosk, led by retailer Egor Serov.
- What do you think contemporary writers could write about?
Important philosophical topics that invite analysis and consideration, that conjure up artistic images of the present day: the uncontrolled development of artificial intelligence, the imminent environmental disaster, and the demographic explosion of mediocrity. But today’s young people exist in a cultural space that is not conducive to the emergence of new intellectual ideas or serious contemplation on global problems. The generation that grew up on the spiritual values of the 1950s-1960s is on its way out, and who will replace it?
Society in Russia and the European countries used to have approximately the same educational standards, whereas today an increasingly wide gap is forming between ignorant and cultural people. Whereas the first used to account for 70% of the population and the second for 30%, now intellectuals make up only 20% and consumers 80%.
- Do you tend to make negative forecasts?
The diversity of consumption today has an endless number of manifestations in which intelligence, even if it only exists in small amounts, is deformed by crude feelings and licentious depraved desires.
Book stores are overflowing with the trash churned out by pseudo authors. Television programs and films are mainly targeted at people with a low level of intelligence. Hundreds, millions of thousands of square meters of forests are destroyed to create this literary squalor. Television, which is turning people into morons, consumes millions of cubic meters of electricity. Television air time is overrun by artistes and clowns; there is not one scientific or educational program (apart from a few, such as Territory of Deceptions). Humanity is reaching the end of the first quarter of the 21st century, but we are not seeing any increase in its level of intelligence. The same idiots are constantly parroting hackneyed theses and statements. And with such a low HIC (higher intelligence consciousness), the world wants to step into the future? Never! Nature itself is taking revenge on the low intellectual and cultural level of the planet’s population.
- Complete ignorance regarding the environment.
- Complete ignorance regarding culture.
- Not only in Russia, but throughout the world.
- The great demand for consumption in everyday life, nutrition, and culture.
- Business above all else.
Chinese lovers of literature were not interested in these works and they ended up on the trash heap. The following Russian authors were translated into Chinese: Alexander Arkhangelsky, Ilya Boyashov, Yuri Buida, Dmitri Bykov, Maria Galina, Leonid Yuzefovich, Andrei Volos, Andrei Dmitriev, Alexander Kabakov, Nikolai Klimontovich, Maya Kucherskaya, Anatoli Kurchatkin, Anatoli Nayman, Denis Osokin, Valeri Popov, Alexander Segen, Olga Slavnikova, Anton Utkin, Evgeni Shishkin, Yuri Kozlov, Alexander Trapeznikov, Alexander Arkhipov, Rodion Beletsky, Alexander Galin, German Grekov, Vladimir Gurkin, Ksenia Dragunskaya, Vyacheslav Durnenkov, Mikhail Durnenkov, Vladimir Zherebtsov, Nikolai Kolyada, Alexander Korovkin, Konstantin Kostenko, Maxim Kurochkin, Stepan Lobozerov, Natalia Moshina, Victoria Nikiforova, Valeri Sigarev, Vladimir and Oleg Presnyakovy, Alexei Slavkovsky, Pavel Sanayev and others.