Total DictationBack to list
Author: Masha Gessen
Sometimes something totally geeky suddenly catches on and becomes truly popular. This is what happened with an event called Totalny Diktant (Total Dictation). Back in 2004, a group of Russian-grammar enthusiasts in the city of Novosibirsk invited other proud spellers and punctuators to join them for an afternoon of taking dictation. Each participant’s text is corrected and the number of mistakes compared with the average from all texts. For the first five years the event drew an average of 200 people each spring. Then it went big. And then it went terribly wrong.
In 2009, after the organizers asked a popular alternative singer-songwriter to give Total Dictation, the turn-out tripled. The following year, 2,400 people gathered in Novosibirsk. In 2011, it was a national event: People in 13 Russian cities participated. The following year, it was global, with 89 cities in 11 different countries hosting the event. This year, on April 6, it was held in 181 cities and more than a dozen countries.
Actors, writers and television personalities have joined the ranks of those who give Total Dictation. For the last three years, bestselling Russian authors have written the text to be dictated. In 2010, it was Dmitry Bykov, arguably the country’s best-known poet; in 2011, Zakhar Prilepin, a popular young nationalist-leaning novelist; and this year, Dina Rubina, a novelist who has lived in Israel for the last two decades. The choice of Rubina made perfect symbolic sense: It is often the émigrés who worry most about losing literacy or not passing it on to their children.
But in increasingly xenophobic Russia, the choice of an Israeli citizen proved controversial. Never mind that more than 2.5 million copies of her books have sold in Russia in the last 10 years. Komsomolskaya Pravda, the country’s largest tabloid widely perceived as one of the Kremlin’s mouthpieces, published an opinion piece by a staff writer titled “Why Is Israeli Citizen Dina Rubina Teaching Us Russian?”
“Don’t we have our own writers?” asked the author, who added that she also objected to black soccer players on Russian teams — not because they are black, but because they are foreigners. “We always have to remember that a foreign agent can be pursuing his own goals, which are different from those of Russians,” she explained, using the catch-phrase “foreign agent,” the contemporary equivalent of the Stalinist “enemy of the people.”
Quoting this article verbatim, the governor of the Ulyanovsk Region ordered the text for Total Dictation replaced with one written by a local writer. Not that the governor had any legal authority to do so. But a Russian official can always exert enough pressure on any public event to make it conform with any demand — or be canceled.
Total Dictation organizers apologized to Ulyanovsk-area participants but refused to recognize the alternative event. There would have been no way of comparing the results to those from the other roughly 180 cities where Rubina’s text was used.
On the face of it, the Ulyanovsk story was a ridiculous blip in an otherwise hugely successful worldwide event. But now that it’s been touched by Russian officialdom, this wonderfully nerdy endeavor will be tainted by controversy. Whom will the organizers ask to write next year’s dictation? Which xenophobic officials will they risk alienating? Will they try to stay safe by picking a proper Russian-born, Russian-citizen Russian?
And all they wanted to do was popularize good spelling and punctuation.
This article is originally published in International Herald Tribune: http://latitude.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/04/08/dictation-partial-dictatorship/