Leo Tolstoy Museum and Estate Yasnaya Polyana: Karenina.Live

Fekla Tolstoy

Head of Development

Leo Tolstoy Museum and Estate Yasnaya Polyana

Oktyabrskaya St. 12 Tula 300002 Russia



Tula Region, Russia
ICOM Russia Award “The best project on work with the community" 2015

A Live Reading Marathon

Leo Tolstoy’s museums (located in Moscow and in Yasnaya Polyana) fully recognise that their responsibility to preserve the legacy of Tolstoy goes well beyond the physical items and works that they store in the museum collections themselves. This responsibility naturally extends to preserving Tolstoy’s heritage overall – his texts, and his ideas that he developed throughout his lifetime. And so the promotion of reading Tolstoy, as well as, to a degree, XIX-century Russian classical literature as a whole, is also an important area of responsibility for the museums.

There is a well-known type of reading event called the Big Read, when people get together to read a book from cover to cover. Often this is done at universities, libraries or theatres. At the beginning of 2014, Yulia Vronskaya, an employee of the Tolstoy Museum, proposed to hold a Big Read of Anna Karenina from the two Tolstoy museums in Yasnaya Polyana and Moscow. Her colleague Fekla Tolstoy took this proposal further, coming up with the idea to bring people together to read the novel from all over the world, with the help of the Internet.

The idea was to have each page of the novel read by a new reader from a new location, all broadcast live on the Internet. For example, one reader starts from Moscow, then hands over to a reader in St Petersburg, then the floor is passed to Vladivostok, then to Jerusalem, then Yasnaya Polyana, then back to Moscow, and so on.

The project, Karenina: Live Edition, set out to demonstrate that culture in general, and in this case literature, is something that unites people all over the country and beyond. It is of equal value and importance for people in all layers of society, and in all parts of the world. It has the ability to remove borders. At the same time, the Internet has had a similar effect of removing borders from a technical point of view. So the idea of reading one of the world’s most famous novels, all together, from different locations around the world via the Internet, looked attractive and meaningful.
The reading took place between the 3rd and 4th of October. It was a non-stop, 36-hour livestreamed reading marathon, with more than 700 people reading from 10 countries and more than 30 cities around the world.

Google agreed to be a key partner of the project, providing a connection between all of the different locations via Google Hangouts, and the reading was broadcast live via Youtube. Google also invested in the global promotion and marketing of the project. Young stars from cinema, fashion, sport and literature agreed to take part for free in a marketing video, which was viewed by more than six million people around the world.
Three months before the reading was due to take place, a competition was announced where people around the world were invited to submit through Youtube their video applications to take part in the reading. More than 4,000 people submitted applications.

In the end, readers included a mix of those selected from the applications as well as a wide range of celebrities: artists, actors, writers, senior government officials, sportsmen, musicians and of course descendants of Tolstoy living in a number of different countries. It was important for Fekla, as the creator of the project, that it be as inclusive as possible. Tolstoy’s novels, as with all literature, are for everyone, regardless of their age or social or economic standing.

In order to be successful, the project needed support from around the country. The museum employees called their friends and colleagues from different museums, libraries and universities around the country, trying to enlist their support for this initiative. Almost everyone that was approached agreed to take part for free in this non-commercial project. They made available their venues, they took responsibility for logistics at a local level, liaising directly with readers in their location. This included all different kinds of cultural institutions in Russia. Big and famous institutions took part, like the Russian State Library and Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, and the Peterhoff Summer Palace and Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. But there were also applications to take part in the project from small libraries in remote towns across Russia, including some towns the project organisers themselves had never heard of.

For example, there was Elizabeth, the Director of a library in a small town in the Urals called Snezhinsk (translates as ‘Snow Town’). She was the Director, and in fact also the only employee of the library. It was extremely important for Elizabeth, and the 10 readers from Snezhinsk, to be taking part in a project of this scale as equals alongside the largest institutions in Moscow, St Petersburg and other cities across Russia and around the world.
A group from Narianmar, a small city in the North of Russia, prepared extensively. In the weeks leading up to the reading, they initiated dozens of hangout calls with the project director in Moscow to rehearse their parts of the text.

Students from Yakutsk University asked for more and more time slots to be allocated to them in order to accommodate an overwhelming number of volunteers. To strengthen their case, many of them promised to deliver their readings in the distinctive national Yakutsk dress. In fact, there is no connection between this national dress and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. They just wanted their readings to be remembered. And they succeeded.
Museum employees from Vladivostok organised a three-day festival around this event, including exhibitions and lectures dedicated to Tolstoy, as well as discussions about the reading.

Of course, one of the key destinations that was central to the reading was the Leo Tolstoy Museum-Estate Yasnaya Polyana. The broadcast was conducted from Leo Tolstoy’s own home, at the heart of the estate; the 200-year-old house where he lived and wrote most of his works, including Anna Karenina. It was the first time in history that there was a live broadcast from the Tolstoy home.

People read from small Russian cities and large cities such as Moscow, St Petersburg, Vladivostok, Perm, Samara, Irkutsk, Archangelsk and Ekaterinburg.
Anna Karenina is one of the most popular and widely read books in the world, and so it was important for the project organisers for this project to be global. From the beginning, it was decided that the reading would be done, as the text was written, in Russian. But despite this, many applications were received from abroad – from Russian immigrants and from students of Russian, in Tokyo, Seoul, Los Angeles, New York, London and Paris.
Of course nobody expected that anyone would follow the marathon from the first page to the last. But in fact, people watched for considerably longer than expected, in some cases for several hours. Many of them tuned in initially out of simple curiosity about this new format of reading, but they stayed online as they quickly became engrossed in the text itself. They were also impressed by the narrators, each picking up where the previous left off, creating a kaleidoscope of vastly different people, and different understandings of Leo Tolstoy’s novel. It was a real life edition.

The reading reached more than 40% of the entire Russian population, and was viewed in 106 countries, and even set a new Guinness World Record for the largest audience of a live-streamed reading. For the duration of the reading, the number of internet searches for Karenina increased three times. The project also received substantial recognition in the press – more than 500 articles were written, as well as frequent reports on radio and television. And book shops reported a surge in sales of the novel during and immediately following the reading.

After the event itself, a dedicated website (https://karenina.withgoogle.com) was created where the entire reading can now be viewed, searchable by narrator, location and themes of the readings – an entirely new way for people to engage with the novel. All the videos are accompanied by the text, enabling people to read and/or watch Tolstoy’s novel.

In 2015, following the livestreamed format of Karenina: Live Edition, two more readings took place – Chekhov Live (a reading of the writer’s plays and short stories), organised by Google and the Moscow Stanislavsky Theatre; and Tolstoy’s War and Peace, organised by Russian State Television.
It was a tradition in Tolstoy’s home in Yasnaya Polyana, as with many other XIX century homes, to read books together aloud in the evening. The organisers of Karenina: Live Edition, wanted to revive this tradition of family readings. Only now, with the help of Internet in the XXI century, can we share the pleasure of reading a good book without consideration of borders, distances or time zones.


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