by Naohito Saisu
In 2020, many conferences and workshops were cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This included Dostoevsky conferences taking place in Russia. Thanks to the transition to the online format, I was able to attend Dostoevsky-related conferences and events in Russia from Japan. In this article, I will report on them. First, I will discuss the advantages and drawbacks of the online format.
Advantages: 1) Until now, it has been impossible for most researchers—including those living in Russia—to attend every single Dostoevsky conference held in Russia due to physical limitations. It is noteworthy that this is now possible as all conferences in 2020 were held online. 2) Many universities and research institutes in Russia have created YouTube channels where they upload videos from their conferences. It is a great advantage to be able to listen to presentations as many times as you want, whenever you want. 3) In conferences held online, a Q&A session via chat has been introduced. Even after another presentation started, participants could post questions and receive answers in the chat. 4) In virtual conferences as in regular conferences, time is dedicated to presentations of new books. If a book has an e-book version, it is possible to receive an online copy from the author on the spot. This is easier to do than handing over a physical copy of the book in person, since the author does not have to think about the number of copies.
Drawbacks: The number of presenters has decreased in all conferences, including those from overseas. This may seem strange at first since virtual conferences can transcend physical limitations. However, this probably means that conferences are not only a place to present and discuss research, but also an opportunity to visit the conference venue and spend time interacting with people face-to-face. This is the reason why many researchers participate in conferences.
The following is an overview of the conferences I attended as an audience member.
The 35th Staraya Russa International Conference “Dostoevsky and Modernity” (XXXV Международные Старорусские чтения «Достоевский и современность»)
This is an annual Dostoevsky conference held at the Dostoevsky Museum in Staraya Russa in the Novgorod region, the town where Dostoevsky wrote such works as Demons and Brothers Karamazov. Apart from Dostoevsky researchers, the conference included participants that had given brilliant presentations at the conference “Dostoevsky’s Works and the Reception of 21st-century Readers” (“Произведения Ф.М. Достоевского в восприятии читателей XXI века”) attended by high school and university students. Staraya Russa served as model for the fictional town of Skotoprigonievsk, the setting of Brothers Karamazov. Various places mentioned in the novel correspond to real places at Staraya Russa—such as Grushenka’s house—similarly to how places mentioned in Crime and Punishment have been identified in St. Petersburg. In 2018, the Dostoevsky Museum in Staraya Russa expanded with the opening of a second building, the “Brothers Karamazov” Museum (the first museum in Russia to be dedicated to a specific literary work), which has since become the venue for the conference.
Date: May 25-27, 2020
Format: Videos of the presentations were uploaded on YouTube and there was the possibility to ask questions in the YouTube chat. Presenters were asked to send their video presentations to the organizer the day before. As in a regular conference, each presenter’s allotted time was listed in the program, and each presentation was available to watch online.
Number of presenters: around 30 presenters
Online Access: The Novgorod Museum has a YouTube channel, where videos from the conference are still available to watch. Достоевский и современность 2020 – YouTube
Impressions, etc.: I found that it was difficult for people to get excited if conference videos are only uploaded on YouTube and questions can only be asked on the chat. It takes a lot of energy to listen to the videos one by one. Perhaps other participants felt the same way. Other Dostoevsky conferences have moved online since then.
The 8th Darovoe Summer Conference – Dostoevsky: Reception and Interpretation (VIII Летние чтения в Даровом Достоевский: проблемы восприятия и толкования)
Darovoe is a rural area situated in the Zaraysk district in the Moscow region. The estate of Darovoe used to be the property of Dostoevsky’s father, Mikhail. In Darovoe Dostoevsky got closer to nature; he spent summers there between the ages of 10 and 15. He used his experiences in Darovoe as an inspiration in his fictional work, such as in the short story “The Peasant Marey.” The Darovoe Summer Conference conference is held every one or two years at the Dostoevsky Museum there.
Date: August 27-29, 2020
Format: Virtual conference via Zoom. To participate in live events, you had to contact the organizer beforehand. After the conference was over, recordings were uploaded on the website of the Darovoe museum.
Number of presenters: around 30 presenters
Online Access: Only participants could watch videos live, but as soon as the day’s panels were over the recorded videos were posted on the museum’s website. The videos are still available online: http://darovoe.ru/archives/5331
Impressions, etc.: I was impressed by a presentation by a member of the Tomsk Dostoevsky research group, who is collaborating with Hungarian researchers on the reception of Dostoevsky in Hungary. In 2018, in another presentation on the reception of Dostoevsky in Germany, participants showed great interest. I wondered why Russian scholars express such strong interest in the reception of Dostoevsky abroad. The reception of Dostoevsky in Hungary seems to have been influenced to a large extent by the German reception. I was also asked to talk about the Japanese reception of Dostoevsky. At the Dostoevsky conference that followed, the same members gave presentations on the reception of Dostoevsky in Hungary. The conference also had a panel on museum management. Although there were not as many participants as in other panels, there were enthusiastic discussions about nature conservation policy around the museum in Darovoe. The discussions continued for a long time even after the conference time was over.
The 10th Russian Virtual Conference (with international participation) “The Evangelical Texts in Russian Literature” (Ⅹ Всероссийская научная конференция (с международным участием): Евангельский текст в русской словесности)
This is a conference on the subject of Evangelical Texts in Russian literature held in Petrozavodsk University. There were presentations on Russian literature from various periods, from the Middle Ages to the present day. Perhaps because Petrozavodsk University is one of the centers of Dostoevsky Studies in Russia, there is always a panel on Dostoevsky.
Date: September 21-23, 2020
Format: Virtual conference via Zoom. There were about three panels, each with its own Zoom meeting. If you were not a presenter and wanted to attend, you needed to contact the organizer.
Number of presenters: 120+ presenters (35 of which belonged to Dostoevsky studies)
Online Access: Only participants could watch the videos live. When presentations were over, the recorded videos were posted on VK (VKontakte), a Russian social media platform. The videos are still available online: https://vk.com/@kafedrakfrliz-konfer
Impressions, etc.: I read that there were participants from Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan. Including myself, who was only there as an attendee, there were three other participants from overseas. In the discussion during the final panel, I was impressed by the call to think about the current state of literary research, the need to obtain research funds, and the importance to conduct educational activities by appearing on media even if we are busy.
The 45th International Conference “Dostoevsky and World Culture” (XLV Международные чтения «Достоевский и мировая культура»)
A four-day conference on Dostoevsky held every year on Dostoevsky’s birthday at the Dostoevsky Museum in St. Petersburg.
Date and time: November 9-11, 2020 (normally an additional day is added for excursions)
Format: Presenters participated online via Zoom, and a Q&A session was held via both audio and chat. In addition, the conference was broadcasted live on YouTube and VK for non-presenters, who could write questions using the chat function on YouTube and VK. Organizers would pass questions to the presenters, who would then respond in the chat. The number of YouTube views on the first day was 726 (confirmed on January 17, 2021). The overall number of views on VK was slightly higher than on YouTube. Оn the last day of the conference, the number of views on VK was 5682 (confirmed on January 17, 2021). Overall, the number of people who watched the presentations online couldn’t compare to when the conference was held in person. The conference was initially planned to be held in person and include online presentations, but the rapid increase in COVID-19 cases in autumn led to the decision to hold the conference in online format only.
Number of Presenters: There were around 40 presenters. In previous years the number of participants had been increasing. In 2019, there were 80 presenters (more if you included the number of works presented) and the number of panels had increased from two to three. The sharp decrease this year was unfortunate.
Online Access: The conference is available in Музей Достоевского – YouTube
Impressions, etc.: It was groundbreaking that organizers were able to secure a large audience by using both Zoom and YouTube. Video and audio quality in Zoom deteriorate as the number of users increases, so the number of participants is limited (although there is no problem if users do not exceed 100). Using YouTube as an alternative was a good attempt to overcome Zoom’s shortcomings. The one participant from Korea and I were able to talk in the YouTube chat section. In addition, my comments in the chat led to a contact from a director who is planning to make a documentary film about Dostoevsky in 2021 and wants me to film it. It may be that in virtual conferences new acquaintances are born in different ways than in face-to-face conferences.
Among many interesting presentations, I was particularly impressed by presentations on the influence of Freud’s theories on the French reception of Dostoevsky and the fact that Russian scholars consider this influence problematic. In November 2019, there was an international conference organized by Elena Galtsova at the Gorky Institute of World Literature in Moscow titled “The Reception of Notes from the Underground in European and American Culture” (Международная конференция “Записки из подполья” в культуре Европы и Америки). Международная конференция «”Записки из подполья” в культуре Европы и Америки» (imli.ru) In the conference, there were discussions on how Nietzsche, de Vogüé, Girard, Deleuze and Steiner discussed Dostoevsky and on the changes Dostoevsky’s fiction underwent when it was translated into European languages. Participants from France, Serbia, Italy and other countries participated in the discussion. What left an impression on me was when Tatiana Kasatkina mentioned the context of Christianity as an important aspect when reading Notes from the Underground. A participant from Italy objected to this assertion that the Underground Man has an orientation toward faith. I have often noted this kind of discrepancy in perceptions. I would like to keep an eye on how the understanding of Dostoevsky in the West changes as the dialogue progresses.
Finally, I would like to discuss the various events held to commemorate the bicentennial of Dostoevsky’s birth. Since 2021 is the bicentennial year, there were many discussions about it. During the conference itself as well as during other broadcasted events, plans for the 2021 bicentennial were discussed. The Dostoevsky Day festival, which usually takes place in St. Petersburg, was held on July 4th via live-streaming (День Достоевского 2020 – YouTube). Usually, the festival is held on the first Saturday of July, the date when the events of Crime and Punishment start. This year’s main events were a lecture by members of the Dostoevsky Museum research staff (Ashimbaeva, Tikhomirov, Chernova, and Michnovets), a (virtual) tour of St. Petersburg, and a play. The play is usually the main event of the Dostoevsky Day festival. Other events were broadcast on Instagram Live on the same day, including events held at the Pilnyak Center in Kolomna.
As of February 2021, there is no sign of the COVID-19 pandemic ending, but I hope that the XVIII International Dostoevsky Symposium at the Nagoya University of Foreign Studies will be held in person in 2022.
Naohito Saisu is a postdoctoral Research Fellow of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science. His research interests include Russian literature of the 19th century, the history of Russian theology, and the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky. He has written a number of research articles, among them “Tikhon of Zadonsk and Dostoevsky: Stavrogin’s False Humility in the Novel The Possessed” (in Russian) in The New Philological Bulletin 1, vol. 48 (2019) and “The Reception of The Idiot in Japan” (in Russian) in vol. 9 of the new Academic Complete Collected Works of F.M. Dostoevsky in 35 vols. You can find him on Twitter at @naohito_saisu.