In 2015 we started with a simple idea: to make a couple of video courses on the history of culture by prominent national specialists in the field of humanities, however delivered in an easy-to-understand and modern language. Our goal was to get as wide audience as possible linked with the scientific world – historians, art critics, anthropologists, literary critics, – and tell them the story about what they do in a way nobody dared to do before.
We decided to take every single course as a separate complex composition, a series of sorts – be it a course with lectures by Yurii Berezkin, one of the world-renowned anthropologists, about the South American mythology or, let’s say, a combined course by several experts from different areas of expertise covering one overarching subject, like the history of the 20th century Russian literature. Every single course is a series of episodes, with each of those episodes containing a 15-minute video-lecture.
We have also arranged a whole set of additional materials to go with each course: starting from tests, games and movie clips to different tips, galleries and timelines. Here you have all available and unavailable for media genres that are instrumental for us to tell the story, continue the conversation launched by an expert in question. The lectures themselves could quite often be of a narrow and specific nature, for example, the anthropology of communal apartments or the culture of dandyism, while additional materials provide more generalised context for the subject matter, like chronicles of the approaches Soviet authorities applied to solve the housing crisis starting from 1917.
Quite unexpectedly, it turned out that not only the courses themselves but those supporting materials did resonate rather significantly with the audience – those interested in the matter, – their interest ran much deeper than we expected. The monthly attendance rates averaged at 800 000 people.
This way, in 3,5 years the implemented idea of creating an unusual Arzamas museum of humanitarian heritage turned into a full-fledged source about history of culture in its multitude of forms.
The use of media and the search for new formats
We are doing our best to cover different audiences. For each of them we are looking for their specific language and their own formats of communication. Arzamas aspires to be a connecting link between science scholars and the general public, who might even have no idea that it would be interesting for them to hear about, let’s say, entertainment in a medieval town, or the smell of Paris in the historical period of Restoration, or homosexual subculture in pre-revolution St. Petersburg. We are indeed interpreters translating unique knowledge into an easy-to-understand language.
Podcasts and audio content start to play ever more significant role. There are so many exciting things happening in the world of partner materials and native advertising. We find ourselves in such an interesting moment of history, when everybody is in a constant search for something.
Video is an outstanding format. If one paraphrases a well-known saying: “Never say no when offered sex or invited to a TV show” into “Never say no whenever there is a chance to create a video”. However, it takes us about eight months to make our video products. It’s a massive production effort with numerous people involved and with a managing expert who launches and finalises the whole process. Moreover, without strong and indeed amazing partners like Potanin Fund and Yandex Publishing platform, we would not have made it. We do not have resources money and timewise to produce as many videos as we would like. Apart from that, we are in a constant search for new formats and forms. As the stories we want to tell the world often are more convenient and easier to be conveyed in an alternative way – thus, video format is no “magic bullet”.
Watch, play and recognise
Audiences love interaction. Many materials of ours with over 300 000 views come in a form of tests and games. If it’s easier for somebody to consume information in the form of games, then why not? In our case, every single game on offer contains certain knowledge package embedded into the game and to be delivered. While playing you are learning main names, dates and other details of the most important events of the world history. One of the dearest projects of this kind to me personally is Emoji Poetry mobile application. It’s a wonderful gateway and a method to learn by heart the works of Pushkin and Mandelstam, Derzhavin and Tsvetayeva, and so many others. A player has to put in an emoji instead of words that are missing in the masterpieces of the world poetry. Together with our beloved partner the British Council we have produced a sequel of this app – Emoji Shakespeare, as a best fun way to learn what William Shakespeare is made of.
We also create short films where in a course of 18 minutes you can learn about the history of Ancient Greece or Ancient Rome or the 20th century Russian Art. They just as well come in English. These videos on Youtube have millions hits.
Some part of those who did this or that game or have watched our short film get hooked and want to learn more. Then, they have a chance to go even deeper – to read or listen to our lectures. In this way, for instance, they subscribe to our jointly produced with the British Council course about Shakespeare. I call this type of content approach – an entrance winning ticket to the world of knowledge.
There’s always something to listen…
Based on the multitudes of our audio content we have produced a mobile app Radio Arzamas, where you can find all our lectures along with the plethora of unique audio content: podcasts, unique archive audio materials and new courses you won’t find on our website. It’s over hundreds of hours of educational recordings! Many of them are available free of change, though all the content plus the updates are made available only through subscription. For example, we have created a podcast on the 20th century Art by joint production with the director of Tretiakov Gallery and another podcast on the history of Russian language (What is classical Russian obscene language? How would ancient Slavic language sound like?)
I have a bot that informs me daily about the number of new app users. For instance, today we got 146 021 people who downloaded and installed our app on their phones. Yesterday statistics level was at 145 612 new users. That means we keep getting new users every single day. I feel grateful and privileged to work for every single of them.
The University like no other
These are more or less awareness-raising projects. However we also have an educational direction as well – it’s Arzamas online University. Everyone seeking systematised knowledge on some big subjects register and go for our first super course The History of Russian Culture. The course is a joint creation of 50 humanitarian scholars from all around the world. This is an unprecedented humanitarian undertaking, indeed one of a kind. Apart from 56 lectures the course is so much more with the wealth of additional materials: from timelines to bibliographies. At the end of the course you can take a test and write an essay to be further reviewed and evaluated by distinguished academics. Authors of the best essays are getting a chance to continue their studies – to work for three months with one of the course lectors and to do some scientific work under his/her guidance.
The news that will never become outdated
We are no news agency or a news platform, which is exactly why we can work with the promotion both on our website and in social networks with the materials produced a year ago or even earlier. They proved, and not once, that they do deserve to exist and are just as popular as the brand new products. In practice any material produced by us even three years ago is capable of becoming a today’s hit. The reason for that is that we are telling extraordinary and interesting stories that never become outdated.
Working simultaneously with the production of multiple projects by one small editorial team can have one big challenge. We are doing so many projects that are failing to keep up with adapting our website to the new content we produce. If I wouldn’t be here talking to you right now, I would have been busy working with our art director Peter Sutupov on the new category outline and updated navigation means for our website.
We will continue to grow our presence, invent new themes and formats, communicate with different audiences. One of the dreams I have is to have a Georgian version of Arzamas. In other words, to tell the story about Georgia – a great country with its reach culture told by its amazing experts.
The power of knowledge and culture
We have quite a complicated production chain: starting from an idea and right to the publication of a product the process goes through a multiple stages of open discussions, photo editing, design development, fact checking, production editing, corrections, again editing and design updates and so on so forth. There might also be some additional requests from a partner unit or logotypes. The bottom line is – it’s a massive and complex team undertaking that clicks together and in the right places so much more efficiently when you do it together.
We spare no efforts to fact checking. I have read somewhere that the most outstanding encyclopedias allow as little as 3% of errors. The same level of error we adhere to. Unfortunately, mistakes are inevitable. We are extremely grateful to our readers who provide us feedback like: ‘Dear friends, you write over here that it happened on June 11, while in reality this was the night of the 11th and the early hours of June 12th’.
Nowadays people can spend their spare time in so many exciting ways. With that in mind, the things we do and the stories we want to tell are by far the most extraordinary and exciting there is in the world – it’s the history of culture. The knowledge Arzamas helps to transfer from a scholar to the rest of the world is so powerful, through its ability to unite those divided by social, age, legal, religious or what not barriers. I feel deeply appreciative knowing, if I’m not mistaken, that about 10% of our audience is from Ukraine. I feel grief and shame seeing how my own country deeply cherished by me presently chooses to speak in a language of militarism, aggression and idiocrasy. One of the reasons I am in the business of popularizing culture – I sincerely want to destroy the walls erected by narrow-minded, uneducated and dull people. I dare to say that it is life, beauty and knowledge that constitute real values. And the entire history of humanity confirms the verity of culture conquering wars.