A marathon four-day Russian public reading of Leo Tolstoy’s vast classic novel War and Peace kicked off on Tuesday morning, with more than 1,300 people in more than 30 cities preparing to make their contributions to the record-breaking project.
Coordinated by Tolstoy’s great-great-granddaughter Fekla Tolstaya, and featuring a number of cultural luminaries including the Polish film director Andrzej Wajda, the readings are being streamed by Russian state television channel Kultura. One volume of Tolstoy’s fictionalised history of Russia during the Napoleonic campaign will be read each day.
The novel opens in 1805, as Anna Pavlovna Scherer, “maid of honour and favourite of the Empress Marya Fedorovna”, is throwing a party with Napoleon being talked of as the man – and possible military adversary – of the hour. The mission to complete the reading of the novel’s more than half a million words is due to conclude by the end of Friday.
“We’re starting at 10am, and we will go through to midnight or two or three am, depending,” Tolstaya told the Guardian. “They’re extremely long.”
As well as the Oscar winner Wajda, the readers were drawn from across Russia, including schoolchildren, politicians, professors and actors – as well as one cosmonaut. More than 6,000 people applied to be part of the project, said Tolstaya, with the successful candidates each given a two-to-three minute excerpt from the novel, to be read in carefully chosen museums, libraries and institutions across Russia. French readers are also being drafted in to read the many sections of the novel written in French.
“This is the biggest reading of War and Peace in the world – a four-day marathon, uniting the whole country and people all over the world. [And] it is very democratic: we can have a minister of culture reading next to a student from Vladivostok, a great actor then an old lady reading from a library in Siberia,” Tolstaya said.
“For me it shows how we are all equal when we speak about literature, when we speak about books – everyone can find something for themselves in this book. Bearing in mind that my name is Tolstoy, I think you would allow me to say that War and Peace is the number one Russian book. And I say that not only because I am a Tolstoy, but because it is something special for every Russian. For me it is about love, about how the young grow up; and the older I become, the more philosophical I find this text.”
The reading marks the culmination Russia’s “year of literature”, and Tolstoys from around the world are also participating, Tolstaya said. “My family is very big – there are descendants of Tolstoy all over the world, so there will be Tolstoys reading from the US, Britain, Brazil and France.”
The Russian branch of the family will read from the Tolstoy family estate, Yasnaya Polyana, where he wrote War and Peace.
“For me it is extremely important to show the world that it is not only problems, and war and difficult things, happening in Russia, but that we can do something like this too,” Tolstaya said. “People argue with each other when they speak about politics, [but] culture, our cultural heritage, great Russian literature – this is the place where we all unite.”
As well as Wajda, other celebrities taking part include Andrei Konchalovsky, another director; Vladimir Urin, the Bolshoi ballet’s director, and Valentina Matvienko, speaker of the upper house of the Russian parliament.
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