Going Online: The Pandemic Meetings of a Russophone Book Club

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Author: Angelos Theocharis, PhD (cand) Russian Cultural Studies, The University of Edinburgh. You can contact him at s1792622@sms.ed.ac.uk.

Fieldsite: UK – Waterstones Russian Book Club (central London)

Figure 1 Zoom snapshot from the WRBC meeting with Boris Akunin on April 27, 2020

The Waterstones Russian Book Club (WRBC) is a Russophone book club, which meets on the first Monday of each month at the Waterstones Piccadilly in central London and reads exclusively contemporary Russian literature. The book club was founded in March 2017 as a community initiative, when the bookstore chain was still owned by the Russian oligarch Alexander Mamut. A year later, I started attending as an observant researcher its literary meetings as part of my ethnographic fieldwork for my thesis. Although there is a significant number of in-house or private Russian-speaking book clubs in Britain, the WRBC quickly rose to prominence as the largest club of its kind with over 1000 members today. The book club preserved an online presence mainly through its Facebook page, where the voting for next month’s book takes place and material from the gatherings is regularly posted.

Following the announcement of the lockdown in Britain on March 23, 2020, as a measure to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic, the WRBC considered moving its meetings temporarily to the software platform Zoom and going online for the first time. Although I had already completed my fieldwork in London, I decided to resume it and explore the WRBC virtual meetings as supportive and affective spaces for migrants during a crisis. In a conversation I had with the book club moderator, she revealed to me her intention behind the ‘pandemic meetings’: “Well, many people go into depression, which is why I’m activating them through distraction”. In this short report, I aim to present my preliminary observations from five Zoom book club meetings that took place in April and May 2020.

The first meeting took place on Monday the 6th of April and it was attended by 23 members, all of them female. Usually, the book club attracts 22 to 30 members with males constituting 20% of the participants. The meeting kicked off with a relaxed introduction of the participants and an open invitation to pour a glass of wine and sit comfortably. The majority of the participants were the regular members of the book club, but I noticed that there were also attendees who joined the WRBC meeting for the first time. The moderator announced the rules of the meeting, most of which related to the functions and etiquette of Zoom (i.e. raise a hand, mute the microphone, and unmute only when someone is about to speak). As part of the introductory comments, a member expressed her deep satisfaction with the transition to online meetings since she lives in the outskirts of London and she would be unable to join the face to face gatherings. The book discussion followed the typical structure of the WRBC meetings with the moderator addressing a question inspired by the books and the members taking rounds answering them. Half an hour in the discussion, the writer of the meeting’s book, Sergei Lukyanenko joined them, surprising the WRBC members, who were unaware of the moderator’s communication with him. The discussion with the writer lasted almost 40 minutes and after his departure, the participants continued with the analysis of his book. The presence of a writer is always a highlight for book clubs, and, on this occasion, resembled a ‘treat’, a gift to the WRBC members. At the end of the meeting, a book club member showed a flower bouquet to the camera and said that she was offering it to the moderator as gratitude for all her work. The moderator thanked her and responded that she had bought some chocolate treats for the meeting, but being unable to offer them, allowed her children to consume them. The virtual gestures that mimicked those usually performed during the pre-pandemic gatherings enhanced the sense of familiarity and acted as expressions of attention and attentiveness in a reciprocal way between the moderator and the members.

The book club had planned to meet again two weeks later but the moderator collaborated with the Facebook group Мамы Лондона UK, a diasporic group for Russophone mothers in London, and organized a special meet-the-author event with the Russian writer Marina Stepnova on Friday the 17th of April. The event was the first case of a joint meeting with another Russophone community group and was attended by 47 participants. Due to the number of attendees, the moderator skipped the introductions and moved to the discussion with the writer. Stepnova was often interrupted by her little daughter and had to turn off the camera a few times when her daughter needed her outside the room. Although the writer apologized for her absences, the all-female audience seemed to be very understanding and it was even suggested to end the event earlier, recognizing that they were constantly facing the same issues themselves. The discussion had a more personal character than previous events with the writer talking about how death and family issues have influenced her writing and her career. I speculate that the condition of the gendered audience contributed to the creation of a safe space that allowed Stepnova to share personal information and connect with her readers on a more intimate level.

The planned meeting for Monday the 20th of April focused on Vladimir Sorokin’s novel Manaraga (2017) and was joined by 29 members, both regular and new. Among the pandemic meetings, it has been the only one not attended by the writer, which allowed the book discussion to unfold naturally. As expected, the participation in the book talk of new members influenced the group dynamics and in one case challenged the authority of the moderator. A participant from a peripheral diasporic book club asked repeatedly the moderator “What is your relationship with Sorokin and who chose the book of the month?”. The moderator responded “I did. We didn’t have the time to vote and I chose a book that would appeal to everyone, old and new members”. The new member didn’t engage further in this conversation and the moderator asked the book club “What will your memories be like in a year?”. One of the core members answered, “We have to survive first in order to remember”, and many participants seemed to empathize with her.

Having established the new norm of the weekly meetings, the WRBC gathered on the last Monday of April for an event with the London-based Russian writer Boris Akunin. Akunin, one of the most famous Russophone writers today, first conversed with the director Konstantin Kamenski about theatre and then received questions from the audience. The meet-the-author event joined 100 Russian speakers from Britain and other countries, such as Russia, Italy, Israel, and the U.S.A., an unprecedented number for the WRBC. Many more tried to log in, but Zoom had limited the participants to a hundred. In any case, the event was a highlight for the book club as a transnational community of readers for bringing together a tenth of its members with most of them participating actively for the first time. For this meeting a special ground rule was introduced by the moderator in order to coordinate the discussion with Akunin: every participant who wants to ask a question should either use the Zoom equivalent of ‘raise your hand’ or write their question on the chat. When someone’s turn comes, they should be able to ask it themselves turning on their webcams, otherwise, the moderator would move to the next one. In my view, this rule tackled the issue of participants raising a question and then disappearing. At the same time, it is often a commonplace in large online events that the audience remains inactive over-relying on the coordinator and the main presenters to lead the discussion.

The most recent pandemic meeting took place on Monday the 4th of May and it was dedicated to Marina Arzhilovskaya’s novel Bliki (2020). Arzhilovskaya, a young Russian journalist that recently started writing, joined the meeting but received very few questions from the 22 participants. When she left, the book discussion started. The majority of the WRBC members viewed the novel as lowbrow and therefore, rejected it. The moderator supported that the disruption caused by the pandemic offered a unique opportunity for experimentation with genres and formats of discussion. She asked the members “What kind of literature and which writers should a book club read?” initiating a discussion about the identity of the WRBC. Two members revealed that they are published writers, which allowed them to reintroduce themselves to the group and draw interest in their work. In the last part of the meeting, the members moved away from book talk and share their feelings about the lockdown. One member admitted that “We are all very tired by now. Restriction of freedom is very difficult”. Before leaving, the moderator collected the members’ suggestions for future meetings based on which authors could be available to participate in their events.

I will now summarise my preliminary observations about the pandemic WRBC meetings. First, the pandemic appears as an opportunity for the WRBC to activate its online members, to recruit new and to reconfigure its identity as a transnational reading community. The invitation of writers acts as a significant incentive for the participants to attend the meetings and to engage with the contemporary Russophone literary production. Zooming in on the club’s demographics, the Zoom meetings attract mostly the female members enhancing the gendered character of the book club. The WRBC women are loyal members even though the lockdown has limited significantly their personal time having to care for their children. They regard the meetings as supportive and affective spaces, where they can express in Russian their emotions and thoughts about the pandemic on a weekly basis, as well as distract themselves by reading and discussing novels.

Moreover, from the first meeting, I started observing how participants approached the ‘intrusion’ into their private lives caused by the use of webcams during the Zoom events. In the offline, face-to-face meetings, the WRBC members can control their public image by choosing how they perform their transnational identities verbally and non-verbally. The platform offers the choice to hide your background using some default wallpaper or creating your own. I noticed that an average 10% does not turn on their camera at all or only when they speak, while 20% of those who keep their webcams on, opts for wallpapers. Being able to look for the first time at the interior of the WRBC members’ households gives an insight into their transnational lives and identities. For example, some members choose to show their bookshelves as the background complementing visually their reading identity.

The book club members view the format of the pandemic meetings as a response and a temporary solution to the current disruption expecting to meet in person again in the coming months. In my opinion, the possibly impermanent transition to online meetings significantly enriches the diasporic community experience of the participants who are invited to engage intellectually with their fellow Russian speakers residing not only in London but in numerous places around the world.