Karina Karmenian: “We are opening for our children the door to a new Russian literature”/ Ãëàâíàÿ / Russkiy Mir Foundation / Publications / Karina Karmenian: “We are opening for our children the door to a new Russian literature”
Karina Karmenian: “We are opening for our children the door to a new Russian literature”
The heart and soul of the Russian Children’s World association in London, Karina Karmenian, strives to combine her challenging maternal duties with her work as an organizer of many cultural projects directed at a special audience: children and adults interested in preserving the Russian language for communication and cultural purposes and in developing bilingualism in the children and adolescents with Russian roots growing up in London. Karina agreed to tell Russkiy Mir about the “difficulties in translation” that their parents run into. And of course, she surprised us with her very first response. “London is a layer cake, and Russian London all the more so!” Karina, why is this the case?
- The former USSR is represented in “foggy Albion” in its entirety: every social class and every nationality is present. We don’t much like clichés like “Russophone,” “Russian,” and “Russophone diaspora.” But all the same, we make the best of the situation. When we say “Russian” to each other we mean to see that we are all from the former Soviet Union, from the spaces where they speak Russian. Of course, you’ll say that we can observe this same picture in Russia, but imagine: in London you feel this more acutely.
- Do all parents attempt to preserve the Russian language in their families?
- If you don’t make a special effort, children can lose their language, even if they have two Russian parents and a Russian nanny. Brothers and sisters prefer to communicate in English even after school. This is because, as the psychologists would say, their language of primary functioning becomes English, and this crowds out the “unnecessary” Russian language—they’ll be understood without it. When my son went to kindergarten, he started to play in English at home with the games and toys he used at the kindergarten. He still used Russian for other (domestic, “Russian”) objects or things, which weren’t tied to his learning and play activities. At the moment when a child is immersed in the reality of school, English, of course, “wins.”
- I can imagine how difficult it was for you to find a school.
- We were very lucky. We ended up at La Petite Ecole Bilingue, an Anglo-French school with a Russian elective. It was founded about forty years ago in London (and later expanded with a branch in Paris) by the descendants of Russian émigrés of the first post-Revolutionary wave. All teaching is done in two languages (English and French), and the elective is taught in Russian. The founder and head of this unique school is an astounding woman: Anna Sergeevna Henderson-Stuart. The school has a lot of Russian staff, and the majority of teachers in artistic disciplines (music, dance, and fine arts) are also Russian. Anna Sergeevna has four children and 16 grandchildren! And imagine: they all speak Russian. (And this is the fourth generation living abroad.) The husbands and wives of her children also learned Russian. So it’s a living family tradition.
- Karina, how did you yourself end up in London?
- It sort of came about on its own. By training I am a neuropsychologist. I worked in Moscow at the Institute of Neurosurgery and taught at Moscow State University. And one day in 1998, at a UN conference on the rights of indigenous peoples with low populations in Siberia and the Far East, I met the British demographer and writer Struan Simpson. I went to London for the first time in 2002 and soon started helping Struan in his projects for protecting the surrounding environment and preserving the cultural and natural heritage. I went back and forth, living in two countries. In 2008 Jack was born, and we settled in London. In general, Struan felt a great interest and enthusiasm for Russo-British relations, and we went on to achieve a lot together for cultural exchange. Long before we became acquainted—back in 1994, in Suzdal—he organized the first conference of nongovernmental organizations of the East and West. Struan had a great passion for horses: he was a member of the Honourable Artillery Company horse club, played polo, and joined an action group that had reinstated the light cavalry. Together we organized the trip for English equestrians to participate in exhibitions on Borodino field, and then we made it possible for Russian horsemen to come to a competition among military units in London.
- This is completely stunning, but… I think everyone today is more interested in the goal than in the process.
- Yes, they often asked us, and still ask, what the purpose is. It was always difficult to explain in Russia. It’s hard to admit that there isn’t any particular material benefit, other than a wonderful opportunity to meet colorful people, in friendship and social interaction, with whom one can sometimes propose and realize very interesting initiatives. And of course, it’s no simple thing to explain that one can gain colossal satisfaction from engaging in intercultural exchange.
- Tell us about your website russianchildrensworld.com. What is the reason behind it?
- There are two basic factors: first, my interest in Anglo-Russian cultural cooperation, and second, my own bilingual child. Before, I was more interested in integrating myself into English life. I was a Russian person in an English environment and wasn’t especially looking for Russian interaction. There was one time soon after Jack was born when I had to explain the benefits of wearing wool socks while sick at length to my British neighbors (the mothers of newborn infants) at length. And there were many similar incidents. At these moments I felt acutely the dilemma of differing cultural codes. I’m joking, of course, but every joke contains an element of truth. In a word, I very much wanted to share and exchange with others my parenting experience and useful information from Russia. But it’s impossible to keep sharing endlessly, so I started to send out an electronic mailing. And everything unexpectedly went further from here—much further!
- Tell us what Russian Children’s World is up to now.
- One of the most recent projects I’m participating in is called “Russian Folk Tales Through the Eyes of European Artists.” Natalia Howard thought this up. She found the writer and playwright Niki Orfanou, who, on her request, retold Russian folk tales in English in order to make them comprehensible to European illustrators. The project’s curators, Natasha Howard (England) and Isabella Mazzanti (Italy), labored together on this project for three years, but they met in person for the first time in Petersburg when they were setting up the exhibit in the Boreas art gallery. Natasha and Isabella invited me to open the exhibit, and I’m very proud of this.
- Karina, you participated in the Fourth International Congress of Fiction Translators, which we have written about. What did you talk about there?
- I talked about our Festival of Russian Children’s Books, which has become a yearly event, and about what we are doing in England to support Russian children’s culture and preserve our native language in Russophone families abroad. Likewise, I talked about how we assist in promoting Russian children’s books in an Anglophone environment. This seems especially important to me. For instance, the book Hercules’ 12 Great Labors by Sergei Sedov, which we published in English, is interesting to young readers on its own merits. And that’s great!
- What topics are especially relevant today?
- One of the hottest topics is home schooling. We ourselves, for the most part, were born in the 70s and 80s and were still in time for the late Soviet model of serious classroom education. As a result, we have a lot of questions upon encountering the British education system. For instance, children here begin studying multiplication tables in school at the ages of five or six, before they are able to understand the point of this activity. This results in them spending a lot of time but deriving little value. It’s the same way with reading. Meanwhile, essentially beginning at the age of four, each child has a fairly difficult daily routine: until 15:00, he is in school, without a nap and sometimes with a sandwich in place of a hot lunch. Few people decide on home schooling since they are afraid that their child might end up deprived of their share of English culture. Nonetheless, certain families still transfer their children to home schooling in order to improve the quality of their education or simply to lower their stress.
- Please tell us more about the Festival of Russian Children’s Books
- The occasion for the first festival was the English-language debut of Sergei Sedov’s book, which I mentioned before, Hercules’ 12 Great Labors. In order to celebrate this event, the author himself came to London, as did the prose writer Marina Moskvina and poet Marina Boroditskaya. Our event turned out great: the guests at the festival were a storyteller, a writer, and a poet. In the English schools children who had already read the books of Sergei Sedov and Marina Borodistkaya greeted them as family.
We didn’t overlook the adults—we had a separate evening of fairy tales and animation for them.
The first festival opened with a roundtable for professionals: there was a discussion of mutual influence between Russia and England in the realm of children’s books. We are already well aware of the influence of British children’s literature on the Russian version. But in the process of preparing for this event I was surprised to find out that the Soviet school of illustration had a very powerful influence on British (and all European) illustration. They had “snuck a look” at the first series of picture books in Soviet Russia, and then these were transported and adopted in England.
The results of our first festival were unexpected and pleasing. For instance, certain students of the book illustration department of Cambridge University chose course paper topics connected, in one way or another, to Soviet children’s illustration. In the summer of 2016, London House of Illustration hosted a vast exhibition of Soviet children’s books from the 1920s-1930s. Marina Boroditskaya received an offer to translate the bestselling British poem “The Little Boy or Girl Who Lost Their Name,” and that book will soon appear in Russian. The Guardian newspaper published a large amount of material about Russian children’s book artists. And I was asked to prepare the part devoted to contemporary illustration.
- That’s impressive!
- Yes, it was a surprise, but a very pleasant one!
- Karina, it’s possible to understand formally what a book is about, but in reality many great Russian works are incomprehensible to foreigners. For instance, the novel War and Peace…
- I cannot agree with you there. Readers in various countries know the Russian classics well: from Chekhov to Bulgakov to Dostoyevsky. And after the film Anna Karenina came out, as many as 90 thousand copies of Tolstoy’s book were bought within several days! Incidentally, they also know certain contemporary authors: Akunin, Ulitskaya, Glukhovsky, Lukianenko. The circle of lovers of contemporary Russian literature is gradually growing, and they really are interested in it.
- In order to acquaint children with new names we have proposed our version of the Kniguru in Britain contest: We asked the contestants to read a book in Russian and write a review of it in English. We wanted them to read “with Russian eyes and English brains.” We were interested to find out how our bilinguals would read them—what they would respond to, what they would pick out, what they would discover. The children responded to the assignment so conscientiously that most of them wrote their short reviews in Russian. So we believe that this contest was a success.
- I’m very happy that as a result of our socio-cultural activities we now have lasting partnerships, or really something more than that: comrades-in-arms. They live in Cambridge, Edinburgh, Birmingham, Brighton…They respond among themselves to our undertakings in London and develop them creatively. Sometimes we also pick up on their ideas.
- Karina, why is this activity so important to you personally?
- Because our children, who belong from birth to more than one culture and are raised at a cultural crossroads, will in the future be able to become true conductors of complex and many-layered cultural influences. And I very much hope we contribute a tiny bit to this.