Russian literature, with its frequent themes of suffering and sadness, has always been widely read by Iranian book-lovers. Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Anton Chekhov and Alexander Pushkin are as familiar to Iranian readers as Hafez, Ferdowsi or more contemporary Persian novelists such as Sadegh Hedayat or Simin Daneshvar. Perhaps, though, Russian contemporary literature has been largely eclipsed and neglected in Iran’s intellectual circles. Tehran International Book Fair 2016 sought to remedy that.
Now in its 29th edition, Tehran International Book Fair chose Russia as the guest of honour, a country whose vast reservoir of rich literature has long fascinated Iranian readers with tales of human alienation, great suffering, and philosophical and psychological questions.
Iran-Russian relations date back to the 16th century. Such historical ties are intertwined with a long-standing tradition of cultural, political and social interaction, giving both countries even more reason to step up cooperation in as many fields as possible. It may come as a surprise to know that Russian President Vladimir Putin listed a book of poetry by Persian poet and mathematician Omar Khayyam among his top nine favourite books. In 2008, Russia even published the first edition of Khayyam and Putin, a book containing Putin’s favorite Khayyam quatrains and interviews with news networks around the globe regarding his admiration for the Persian poet.
“…the history of our countries [Iran and Russia] and the interaction of our cultures goes much deeper and has much stronger roots than specialists sometimes think. This is a guarantee that we will always find a way of solving any problems that arise, because we understand each other,” he said in a 2007 interview.
To find more about Russia’s involvement in TIBF, I had a discussion with the Director-General of Russia’s International Book Exhibitions and Fairs, Sergey Kaykin, who believes that Russia’s presence can serve as a turning point in bilateral relations, helping them reach a better common understanding on cultural grounds.
Russia was chosen as the guest of honour for the 29th Tehran International Book Fair. How did that decision come about?
Officials of the two countries held several rounds of talks for nearly one year until they arrived at the decision to further boost cultural ties between Tehran and Moscow by giving the publishers more room to introduce their works, and allow the two nations a chance to get better acquainted with each other’s culture. As a result of the negotiations, Iran attended Moscow’s International Book Fair 2015 as a special guest, and now it was our turn to bring snippets of Russian culture to this ancient land.
What did you think of Iran’s presence at 2015 Moscow Book Fair?
Iran had a very interesting presence at the fair. It had a very organized schedule with various interesting cultural programs. They compiled a list of Iranian contemporary writers and their literary works for the specialists interested in this field. Furthermore, they had a list of foreign works translated by Iranians as well.
Iran’s programs were not limited to books, however. There were a number of special programs designed for visitors interested in Iranian culture. Some symbols of Iran were put on display. Perhaps the most praise was lavished upon the Iranian traditional music that was performed during the four-day event. Other interesting programs included a traditional performance of Persian marionettes, or Kheimeh-Shab-Bazi, and Naqqali, an epic narration inspired by Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh (Book of Kings).
During the fair last year, Iran and Russia signed an agreement on exchanging stands in one another’s exhibitions. That is, every time there is an international exhibition in Moscow, Iran’s stand will be secured and in turn, Russia can have a stand in Iran’s international exhibitions, all without any costs.
What about Moscow’s special programs at Tehran’s Book Fair for introducing Russian culture to Iranian visitors?
We came to the festival with a full schedule of programs running for ten days. We held several lectures on Russia’s contemporary literature, introducing a number of key authors and books, as well as several round-tables for discussing issues of mutual translations, and the two countries’ prospects in the publishing industry. In order to have a permanent program for introducing Russia to Iranian people, a centre was recently opened in Iran called ‘Visit Russia’ which gives useful information about the country’s culture. If visitors at the fair plan to visit Russia, they can coordinate their trip through this cultural centre.
What do you think the biggest current challenge facing the publishing industry is in Russia?
The number of active publishing houses and bookstores in Russia has declined in recent years, and people have become less invested in reading.
Why the decline in interest, though? What is to blame?
Well, that question is not very easy to answer. I think people nowadays have less time for reading. Either that, or even when they do get some free time, they have now more options on how to spend it, such as going to the theatre, the cinema or surfing the internet. All these factors may lead to a decline in interest in book-reading. I think the decreasing number of bookstores is more to blame, though. Last year, the Russian government implemented a plan in support of promoting book reading and started constructing bookstores in parts of the country where there was a shortage of stores, so that people’s interest in books would be rekindled.
Interview by: Marjohn Sheikhi