‘Oh, Those Russians!': The (Not So) Mysterious Ways of Russian-language Harry Potter Fandom (Part Two)

Yesterday, I ran the first of a two part series from Ksenia Prassolova, who was until just a few weeks ago a Visiting Scholar in the Comparative Media Studies Program. Prassolova was in this country on a Fullbright fellowship, pursuing research on Harry Potter fan fiction as a literary phenomenon. She has now returned to Immanuel Kant State University of Russia (Kaliningrad). In the first section, she described the context in which Russian-language fandom operates including consideration of issues of intellectual property, translation, and the relationship of fandom to other changes in Russian culture in the post-Cold War era. In this next section, she deals directly with various forms of fan creative expression and the picture she paints shows both strong parallels to western fan culture but also significant differences.

For those of you who are just coming to the blog through links on one or another Harry Potter fan site, you might be interested to check out my own thoughts about Harry Potter fan culture from earlier this summer.

“Professor Snape’s Dungeons”

Translation was also one of the channels for fan fiction to find its way into Russian Harry Potter fandom: in 2001 fandom was mostly discussing the available four novels and their Russian versions, but by 2002 it already was busy reading at least two competing translations of Cassandra Claire’s then work in progress, The Draco Trilogy. ‘People’s Translation’ were among the first sites to open a fan fiction section, which hosted both translated fic and the infamous Harry Potter and Phoenix from the Order – written by the author named Constance Ice, this work is considered to be the first honest-to-Merlin Harry Potter fan fiction written in the Russian language (yet some claim that this title belongs to Harry Potter and the Order of the Broom, a parody fic posted by an anonymous author at Harry Potter Research Institute).

Approximately at the same time, a number of Snape fans joined efforts and started an on-line role playing game, which went on for a number of years at a site called ‘Professor Snape’s Dungeons’. The game’s central character, Severus Snape – a brooding, Byronic hero – was mostly busy saving the world at various points in history and all damsels in distress he could find along the way. In the end, Professor Snape (or S.S., as he is referred to throughout the game) ‘rebuilds the Tower of Babylon and finds Light’. This massive on-line project featured not only the text itself, but also some skillful artwork, analytical materials and carefully-collected soundtrack. The project also clearly outgrew itself: in 2003 the game, complete with sounds and fanart, was privately published as a set of 3 multimedia disks, and 2005 marked the appearance of a very impressive velvet-bound volume, Liber Lux et Tenebrae.

The picture below shows the book (part I) in its dust cover, and a random artwork spread; a curious reader will also make out the characters’ names, which, for some reason, were left in English.

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There are three reasons I am mentioning this project here: firstly, it included most of the fandom’s big names of then (and of now); secondly, it set another mark as far as the tradition of publishing fan fiction is concerned; and thirdly, long before the appearance of Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince it established a very specific interpretation of the character of Severus Snape – the one that would gradually become all but canonic for a multitude of Russian Snape fans, even though they might have never heard of ‘Professor Snape’s Dungeons’.

The Shock of Slash

By 2003 fandom was already flourishing: it thrived on sites and forums; it was writing and translating fan fiction; it had its own version of the infamous Restricted Section; and it had discovered slash. As many other fannish concepts, the concept of slash came as is: through reading and translating of Western fan fiction and analytical materials. The new genre immediately acquired both dedicated followers and avid haters, and while it would be wrong to say that it split fandom in two, it did cause some distress along the way. Some people never caught up, and the general level of intolerance to slash and queer readings of the source text is still higher in Russian-language fandom than in English-language one. Intolerance in fandom comes from intolerance in society: until 1991, homosexuality had been a criminal offence; no wonder many still consider ‘queer’ offensive, the ban might have been lifted, but little has been done to promote tolerance and understanding. Slash in Russia is not taken for granted and in most cases requires a very open mind set from its readers, but in the end of the day, it does help to change personal attitude to queer people outside fandom, thus performing this huge educational function that might not be central to this genre as it is perceived by English-speaking fans.


It was not only slash that came into Russian-language fandom through translating fan fiction and participating in English-language communities: most of the terms (in/out of character, Mary Sue, hurt/comfort, etc.), popular pairings and pairing names (Pumpkin Pie; Snape/Hermione; Harry/Draco), clichés and ideas were also borrowed almost instantaneously. In October 2003, in the steps of Nimbus 2003, the first-ever Harry Potter fancon, the Institute of European Cultures at the Russian State Humanitarian University organized an unofficial academic Harry Potter event for adults, entitled Harry Potter and the Prisoner of the Philosopher’s Chamber. No more than forty people gathered for the conference, most of them were presenters, only three people were presenting on the issues of fandom (the rest were deconstructing canon) and only two were not from Moscow. A very subdued and, at the same time, fascinating event, it still remains the only Harry Potter conference of its kind ever held in Russia. This past spring a number of Snape fans did gather in St. Petersburg to discuss their favorite character and present some few papers on the subject, but the event was not exactly advertised or open.

Russians And Global Fan Culture

While fan fiction and translation are thriving, and even vidding has recently become very popular, fanart is virtually non-existent in the Russian Harry Potter fandom. Those Russian-language artists who create something of interest prefer to participate in English-language communities for want of greater audience and appreciation: they may speak Russian or be physically located in Russia, but in reality they do not belong to this particular national fandom. Fans, on the other hand, troll foreign sites and communities for art they like and therefore do not really have the need for fanart that is produced ‘domestically’. Since not everybody can speak English and thus navigate a foreign fanart site, since ‘art belongs to people’ and ‘everything belongs to everybody on the Internet anyways’, until very recently it has been a common practice to share your findings with your part of fandom; normally, the sharing would take the form of mass hotlinking, which brought the wrath of several well-known foreign artists on Russian fandom in general.

Russian fans are gradually catching up with essential netiquette, but sometimes still forget to ask when taking a fan fic for translation, for example: the most recent scandal involving translated fan fiction and Russian fans revolved around the ‘table of proposed translations’ that somebody had fished out off fanrus.com forums. A more detailed account of the run-in can be found here. It is fascinating how quickly Western fandom assumes the position of copyright holders whose rights have been violated and starts issuing C&D disclaimers in Russian against possible offenders. On the other side of the conflict, many of community moderators and site owners who cater to Russian-language fandom try to enforce the ask-first-translate-later and no-hotlinking rules to the best of their ability, and explain as clearly that ‘grassroots communism’ does not really apply to the way fandom operates on-line. In general, however, Russian fans still exercise more collective ownership towards the texts they are fannish about – be it canon or fan fiction: much as translation is a Pavlovian reaction to any text in foreign language (for a variety of reasons, including the language teaching methods practiced in Russia), taking and sharing with their own is a similar type of reaction to any text or piece of art that we are fascinated with; and in this respect translation is central to Russian fandom as it is the ultimate act of possession and making something one’s own, domesticating it.

Potter-Mouthed Jokes

So far, the only popular fannish practice in Russian fandom that falls outside the pattern of translating, role-playing, or borrowing is telling various jokes about characters from canon: a practice that has deep historical roots, since jokes have always been an integral part of people’s popular narrative in this country, and there is hardly a historical figure, popular character, or politician who hasn’t made it into joke. In fact, it is considered that one has not become truly popular until there are jokes made about them. One of such popular Potter-related jokes takes on the connection between Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter:

“Frodo throws The One Ring into the flames. He exhales deeply and turns to go, as a bespectacled boy on a broomstick sweeps by, clutching something in his fist. ‘Got’ ya!’ shouts Harry Potter with glee.”

Another joke explores the complex relationship in the house of Malfoys, raising the theme of infidelity:

“‘Narcissa, a couple of words’

‘Yes, Lucius?’

‘Avada Kedavra!'”

There are countless of other jokes: some original, some of them versions of older jokes with names substituted to fit new canon, some of them popularized sentences from various collections of quotes from badfics. Every fan fiction site nowadays hosts a collection of Potter-related jokes, those jokes are frequently exchanged between fans both on- and off-line constitute a powerful comic relief device: a number of Book Seven jokes are already circulating among the disappointed fans.

Parody is another ‘specialty’ of the Russian Harry Potter fandom and industry. In fan fiction, ‘crack fics’ (humorous stories exploring this or that fannish cliché) are a more common occurrence here than there are in the West, and source text parody is not unheard of: by some accounts, it was exactly the parody of the yet unwritten Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix that became the first ever fan fiction written in Russian for this fandom. A more curious – and somewhat transcending fandom – case is presented when we look at the Harry Potter parodies that are published professionally in this country. There are several books written in the recent years that position themselves as ‘anti-Harry Potter’ or ‘Harry Potter for Russians’, yet there are only two whose authors claim parodies: the Porry Gatter series and Tanya Grotter.

The Strange Case of Tanya Grotter

Although Porry Gatter may not strike just everybody as particularly witty or funny, that it is a parody there can be no doubt; it is Tanya Grotter, first written in 2002 by Dmitry Yemetz and published by EKSMO publishing house that raised serious concerns of J.K. Rowling’s representatives both in Russia and abroad. While there are numerous jokes in the text, Tanya Grotter does look more like a re-write, not unlike those by Volkov or Tolstoy: the first two Tanya Grotter books repeat the corresponding volumes of the original Harry Potter series verbatim, only the school of magic is located in Russia and the main character is a Russian girl. ROSMAN publishing house had initiated linguistic expertise of the text, which concluded that Tanya Grotter was a plagiarized version of Harry Potter, yet EKSMO dismissed all allegations, and no domestic legal action taken against them had ever been completed. EKSMO and Yemetz had to stand trial, however, when they made an attempt to translate the book and sell it abroad. The 2003 trial in the Netherlands ruled copyright infringement and banned the book from being sold outside Russia. Later Tanya Grotter books bore little resemblance to the original series, Yemetz continued in this stead for a couple of more years and eventually started a new series about a different character.

The story of Tanya Grotter doesn’t end here: During the years this book has acquired a small fandom of its own – in parts, it overlaps with Harry Potter fandom (in a sense that a fan of Tanya Grotter is almost always a fan of Harry Potter as well, and the sites that cater for Harry Potter normally have a section dedicated to Tanya Grotter), in parts, it establishes its own presence, but it does exist and it does produce fantext. This past spring EKSMO publishing house had selected several of Tanya Grotter fan fics for publication and printed them in one bound volume that was released under the general umbrella of Tanya Grotter franchise. Whether or not the authors of fan fics were asked or informed about this is still unclear: when confronted about that during the Q&A session held in one of the stores, EKSMO representatives immediately proceeded to answering the other question. Moreover, the fics were published as is – that is, no editing had been done, out of context, and with no introduction save for small blurb (along the lines of ‘fan fiction is fiction written by fans’) on the cover. The book was thrashed by critics and not embraced by fans: a failure by all accounts, but a fine and interesting conclusion of a long-established tradition of published fan fiction in Russia.

Postscript

As I am writing this, the Russian Harry Potter fandom is still in uproar. The anticipation had been extremely charged and with the arrival of the final installment, tensions ran even higher. Some hated the new book, some denied its existence to the point of publicly burning their copy (this last movement raised a little wave of both approval and outrage of its own), yet most of us loved it. Many got their books lining up with other fans at midnight in bookstores across the world: I myself had extended my stay in the U.S. until July 22nd and invited my best friend so we could join the party and get the long-awaited copies. There was a feeling of ‘being in this together’, and in this respect – despite complicated translation games, the history of publishing the ‘unpublishable’, the ‘art belongs to people’ that still governs our attitude to all things fannish – we are not much different from all other Harry Potter fans across the world, not really. We would also like to join all other fans across the world and wish both J.K. Rowling and Harry a very happy birthday:

С Днем Рождения, Гарри и тетя Ро! Спасибо за книгу!

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For more information on the history of Russian-language fandom in general, see fanhistory: it really is a fantastic resource for those who are curious about further details and want to know whether their fandom is represented in Russia. The site is in English.

I also encourage the members of other national fandom to take a look at the new project, fanlinguistics, and contribute to its development.

I would like to thank my speedy betas and everybody who has participated in this somewhat lengthy discussion of the mysterious ways of the Russian Harry Potter fandom. I would also like to thank Henry for this opportunity to talk about my fandom, and for his patience: this article should have seen light long ago.