Winter is coming. A Game of Thrones Conference in Moscow
A Game of Thrones Conference in Moscow’s Bogolyubov Library of Arts in Sushevskaya street
“Winter is Coming,” – says Jon Snow, and we feel it, too. The day when a group of Ph.D historians, psychologists, anthropologists, zoologists and ecologists called a conference on the Game of Thrones at the Bogolyubov library in the centre of Moscow, was cloudy and grey. But it was a full house, the coffee was hot, and the Q&A’s animated. The following is an interview with Roman Shliakhtin, the mastermind behind the Conference and its main organizer.
Interview by Helen Borodina, Photographs by Anastasia Mikheeva
Moscow born, Roman holds a PhD in history, is a journalist and world traveller. Roman is a graduate of Moscow State University and he also graduated from the Department of medieval studies at the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary. His studies on Byzantium eventually led to him to Washington DC, where he finished his doctoral thesis in fellowship with The Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection. Roman is presently preparing for his second postdoctoral project in Istanbul, Turkey, at the Centre for Byzantine and Late Antiques Studies at Koc University
Helen Borodina (H): What makes fantasy interesting to you as a serious professional historian?
Roman Shliakhtin (RS): the main function of a historian is telling stories. I like good stories. Reading was a tradition in my family. We had the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit in our library – my first fantasy books as a child.
H: Everyone starts with these!
RS: Not everyone. I know some people who don’t have this base.
H: How did you come across ‘The Game of Thrones?’
RS: My Tolkienite friends recommended the ‘Song of Ice and Fire’ books to me. I started reading them, and defined them as ‘books for the metro.’ Eventually, I stopped.
H: But obviously, at some point you changed your mind?
RS: Yes. I realized that George R.R. Martin, despite his lack of historical knowledge, his lack of education, knows how to tell stories. And this is why we organized this conference. We, professional psychologists, historians, zoologists, anthropologists, ecologists are all fascinated by this continuum created by Martin, and by the amazing TV series… I’ve been into this for about seven years. Some of my colleagues here just started, and some have been reading and watching since it first came out. Years ago, a friend of mine – he’s a speaker here – had an ICQ name taken from there, and I kept wondering: I could tell it was from some book – but what book?
H: Many Tolkienite fans were enraged when the first Lord of the Rings movie came out, religiously refusing to accept Peter Jackson’s liberties with the original story… How do the Game of Thrones series look to you, compared with George R.R. Martin’s books?
RS: My problem is, I’m spoiled by my education. I took narratology in Budapest. It taught me that you can tell the same story in many ways. I never compared the series with the books. I just sit back and enjoy.
H: What’s the story of how you organised this conference?
RS: As with many of my stories, it started with a Facebook post. A friend was bored on a train from Kiev to Moscow. Never a Game of Thrones fan, he decided to watch some episodes and he sent me a message telling me he loved it. I was planning to get together with my friends before I left for Istanbul for my post-doctorate, so I created a Facebook post calling a themed evening over wine and cheese. But when dozes of comments and a preliminary program of a… conference (!) came in on the same day, I was blown away. Some people told me: ‘This will be an ice-breaker!’ And I thought, ‘OK, let me break the ice!” I found the idea entertaining…
H: Was it in any way inspired by the First International Conference on the Game of Thrones that was held by the University of Hertfordshire in England?
RS: I learned about that conference when our cheese and wine meetup was in full swing and on its way to becoming this event.
RS: I had to squeeze it between two of my post-docs. We had a week. There’s a word in ancient Greek – kairos – which means things that come together at the right moment: we had two big sponsors, one of the speakers suggested the library… We didn’t set our hopes too high. But we did it. It was a real conference, with a program, amazing speakers, with coffee-breaks… I was nervous, of course. It was the first big event I had organized from beginning to end.
H: Why, in your opinion are the ‘Song of Ice and Fire’ books and ‘The Game of Thrones’ series are so popular with Russians?
RS: In a sense, it’s a way of speaking about the problems that they want to talk about, but don’t know how. In the Soviet era, people were limited in their opportunity to speak out. After the fall of the USSR, we didn’t have public discourse. A lot was forbidden and suppressed, a lot went underground. Over recent years, a public discourse has formed, but there are still many issues that have to do with the changing society, power, violence, hatred, life threats…
H: What’s the difference in perception of The Games of Thrones in Russia, Hungary and the US?
RS: Americans and Hungarians are very different. For Americans, it’s all about ‘The Other’. There are prohibitions and limitations, but in Russia and in the US, they are different. I spent the year in the US, I worked in a public library. I observed a bit of society. Of course, not from the inside. I was around highly educated society. My impression there was that the Game of Thrones allowed people to talk about things that are considered impolite, using ‘The Other’, an unreal world of a long ago, or an unreal world of an imaginary universe. Of course, our mentalities are different, our approaches to study are different, but we must understand that there are certain similarities.
H: Isn’t all the cruelty, all the blood too much?
RS: No. Martin is very careful, in fact. He’s a professional journalist, but he knows that blood sells well.
H: However, his lack of education?
RS: No problem. As a professional historian, I would like him to read more about Byzantium. From his text, I can identify the books that he’s read, and in fact, they aren’t very good books. He needed some quick references, and he approached it like a journalist would. Undoubtedly, he has a big library, but that doesn’t do the trick. I respect him and enjoy reading him, but I can’t help noticing things, because I’ve read the books he’s read. He read a couple of books on Mongols, for example, and when it comes to landscape, he starts reproducing clichés…
H: But the readers don’t recognize those things?
RS: They don’t know or care. They dive into the books with their own fantasies – of love, of freedom, of violence, of war… It’s a good platform for imagination. And this is a good reason to study it.
H: Who are your sponsors?
H: Are you into historical re-enactment yourself?
(RS): No, I’m not. Reciting Byzantine texts is probably my way of re-enactment.
H: Sounds impressive. Not too many people can do it!
RS: Yes. This is why I went through so many years at university, but it makes us very little money… I worked with Ratobortsy, and I learn a lot from them about telling stories. I believe that re-enactment events are extremely important, because we all must look at life from a scientific standpoint. Knowledge of history, understanding of tradition is extremely important to society. To get people interested, there must be some kind of entertainment. I see our conference as an event of this sort. Our speakers are university Professors, many hold a Ph.D, and have worked and done their post doctorates in universities in Europe, in the USA… My condition for them all was that they spoke to the audience in a simple language that everyone would understand. The idea was also to show that those university professors weren’t boring strict teachers. And, of course, I wanted to show a new way of watching the series…
When winter comes
RS: Yes. We already have some speakers for the next one. I think it will be in January, when I’m back here on a break from Turkey.
The Conference had two main sponsors: Predanie (predanie.ru, represented at the Conference by Vladimir Berkhin and Mila Geranina). Predanie helps sick children and people in need. The fund started as an Orthodox Christian library. Predanie holds lectures on history, religion, philosophy and culture in Protopopovsky Pereulok near Prospekt Mira. All proceeds raised at the Conference went to Predanie’s charity projects.
Ratobortsy, an agency for historical projects. (http://ratobor.com)
Ksenia Hatsko, (Ratobortsy): The famous Russian science fiction and fantasy author Boris Strugatsky said, ‘Unlike fantasy, science fiction solves existing problems on the base of acute material. It does make allowances for fanaticism, but sticks to reality. Fantasy runs on from reality. Science fiction leads us to reality.’ The Game of Thrones is more of a science fiction saga in this sense than a fantasy saga. In the series, fantastic details work within the context of absolutely realistic social phenomena. It’s about people of all times and places. And, of course, it uses great technology to convey the idea of its authors. We at Ratobortsy love this combination of history and fantasy, innovations and medieval charm… It’s a breakthrough. We are in contact with many academic scientists. We also conduct our own scientific experiments and instigate research. It’s really exciting to do the same for the fantasy world. I used to read a lot of Propp‘s works (Vladimir Yakovlevitch Propp, was a Russian and Soviet folklorist), it‘s beautiful how he scrupulously studies a subject that doesn’t seem serious, and shows how you can find the whole world there…
Of course, every event’s worth is its value to the audience.
Aglae Gerasimova, a student of the Higher School of Economics who was very active during the Q & A, helped me sum up the feedback:
What’s there to young people like yourself in “The Game of Thrones”? What brought you to this conference?
Westeros is unpredictable, cruel and surreal. When I first picked up ‘A Song of Ice and Fire,’ I was hooked on different characters’ stories and allusions to history (archetypes and references that were mentioned at the conference), religion and legends. I was blown away by the Children of the Forest and the worship of the Old Gods. My favourite part of the story was what was happening outside the wall. I really liked the Wildlings. It’s a world that makes you think, and at some point you want to talk about it with someone else… It was terrific to see the presentations in psychology, zoology, history, ecology and anthropology by these renowned professionals, and be able to discuss in a mixed audience.
Useful info and events
If you speak, or are learning, Russian, the videos and audio from the conference can serve as good study material (those who teach Russian as a foreign language are allowed to use it too, with reference to the fund Predanie). The links to the videos are here:
Upcoming events (also in Russian): Jon’s Kingdom: Christian Values in the Game of Thrones (speaker: Yanina Soldatkina, MPGU professor) ://predanie.timepad.ru/event/573932/
Good and Evil in the Game of Thrones (Speaker: Maria Steinmann, RGGU professor, Ph.D)
All Predanie lectures and events are streamed live.
Feel free to contact the author of this article (email below), if you have any questions or suggestions, help finding the Predanie location, if you don’t speak Russian but would still like to check it out, or would like to attend the conference in January.
Helen Borodina. firstname.lastname@example.org
9.10.17 © RussiaKnowledge