Here is an interview I gave to Elena Romashova, journalist of Russian media resource «Moscow 24» right before Times and Epochs 2016 festival. It’s quite a summary on my thoughts and ideas concerning the past and future of reenactment movement in Russia and a bit abroad. Feel free to share and discuss.
«One can touch the history»
— Alexey, why has historical reenactment become so popular recently? A few years ago people were engaged in it only in their clubs, and now knights and the Vikings come out in the streets.
— In the 2000s, when we commenced, there had already been some request in the society to analyze history, conceptualize and revive it. There were such periods in Western Europe, we’re not unique in this case. The question is — what are the ways of further development of reenactment movement. In Europe interest in reenactment arose on 1960–1970s, roughly at the same time «The Lord of the Rings» and many other fantasy books gained world fame. Concurrently the interest started to form a movement. Then, talking about European history, it developed on the rise, it became very popular among young people. But then the young started to age, acquire families. As a result, reenactment of many epochs is a lot of «old ones», who are not at all 20 y. o. youngsters nowdays. Then the Soviet Union collapsed, and began our wave. In socialist countries — the Czech Republic, Poland — the same process took place: trying to understand their own roots, approaching to history, desire somehow to reenact it. It was desire for romance, a kind of reunion with nature and traditional society that attended this movement. Such inner wants are normal, because people often suffer under the pressure of urban environment, they just can’t stand it. Hence is the attraction to wild tourism, which is now actively developed everywhere.
— At what point they began an open discussion about reenactors in Russia?
— In Russia the reenactment movement began in the 1980s with the popularity of the «War and Peace», a screen version by Sergei Bondarchuk: a great number of historical costumes had been done for the movie. So the first «fermentation» began, young men who were in extras became very fond of the era of Napoleonic wars. Nowdays the reenactment is indeed very popular, one can say, it is at the peak. And it is pleasant to realize that Russian reenactors set the tone in many ways. There are lots of reenactment events in our capital and Moscow region, and at a fairly high level. Foreign colleagues participate in these festivals and consider them to be prestigious. For example, «Times and Epochs» without any special advertising campaign have become well-known among foreign participants. Even if people do not come to the festival, they talk about it. The fact that reenactors came out to the streets — this is normal, because it has become popular, and popularity can always be converted into something. If the public likes reenactors, they will be in demand and more engaged in urban events. The main thing is not to sink into some profanation.
— Are there any difficulties with the involvement of reenactors in city events?
— The difficulty lies in the fact that the demand exceeds the supply. Reenactment is an elitist movement. This is not something that can be shaped in six months. After all, love of history can not be bought. At first, one becomes interested in some epoch, explores it for a long time, sews his first costume, then alter it, because usually he doesn’t like it, goes to his first festival and so on. It takes a lot of time to reach a certain level, when you can show your reenactment achievments to people. It’s not a sudden click. Now, in my opinion, the demand exceeds the supply. In addition, one must understand that for many reenactors it’s not a work, but a hobby. Of course, there are those for whom public work is important, they consider it to be their mission. But many do not consider it necessary to participate in city events, to which they may be called. Now we are looking for an optimal format of interaction between citizens and reenactors. I think that sooner or later it will be found, and interaction will become comfortable and harmonious. If the reenactment is the center of city events, I’ll be happy as a participant of the movement and as an organizer of such events. I’ll consider my mission to be accomplished. Because, in my opinion, reenactment promotes wholesome values and principles, and it’s good to involve in it as many people as possible.
— You’ve said that it’s a question, how historical reenactment will be developed further. And what may happen, how do you think?
— The first possible variant of development — stagnation and aging. Maybe reenactment is simply arid for the current generation. Now boys at the age of 12–13 are absolutely immersed in the virtual reality. A phone or pad are much more important for them than the rest of the world. This is very clear, because many reenactors work with youth. The generation of 2000s interprets itself through the prism of social networks and virtual reality. In this environment reenactment may be still in fashion, but in a different way. In my time it used to be so: you train, make yourself a costume, make some performances, go to festivals to show yourself. This increases your self-esteem, self-sentiment. Now for guys and girls more important are cool photos, amount of likes in Facebook. They usually don’t go deep into refinements of costumes, don’t make them by hands, but buy to take pictures while wearing.
— And can it be somehow resisted?
— When there is a massive trend, in the same time there is always a group of people who oppose themselves to this trend. And now there are young guys who consider reenactment like an outlet and relief, an opportunity to escape from virtual networks and prove themselves that they’re men of worth in the real life. In any case, the elite will include people who make real decisions and who use virtual reality as a tool, and not as their habitat.
So, the first variant of development is stagnating. The second one — drifting in some kind of scientific activity which is called experimental archeology. There is a thorough work with scientists, some experiments are carried out and so on. It becomes more and more serious and, as a result, somewhat boring for an average viewer. But it really helps science. On the other hand, there is a popular dimension of reenactment, so this movement can evolve, broaden and find at last it’s own niche. Anyway, from the reenactors’ point of view, the explosive phase of development has already finished. So, one should understand: for many people reenactment is a hobby, while they are growing up, it’s not forever. They are engaged in reenactment while they are first, second year students, they visit some festivals, then they get job, family, children, and have to drop reenactment. But for some people reenactment really becomes a way of life, and for some it remains a costly hobby. I have friends who have succeeded in their profession, earn good money, but they still concern themselves with reenactment, in small time gaps they have. And they make costumes of a very high level. I think, if they finish with their hobby, museums would be enriched with some first-class sets.
— Do you work for your part on pulling the youth out of the virtual reality?
— Now we are not working with young people much, for lack of time: we organize a large number of projects. But we support those reenactment clubs that work with youth. By the way, this tendency — to work with young people — is very intensive now, especially in Moscow. Previously, for example, in the 1990s, if you were ingaged in reenactment, you almost certainly used to hang out under some Palace of Culture. You were obliged to supervise a group of youngsters, it was an issued directive. By the end of the 2000s, this activity stopped. Now, many of that guys, who are already grown-ups, return to this practice. Reenactment favours the de-virtulalisation — it’s a fact. There are lots of festivals, where one can participate and communicate with like-minded people. In virtual reality it’s impossible. Of course, many people prefer to become mere vegetables, playing on the web. But reenactment at least gives you a choice.
— Maybe some reenactment schools should be established, that children would visit from an early age? There they will be taught the basics of history, how to sew costumes, somebody will tell about the everyday life of a particular epoch.
— It’s a good idea, we think about it. But it should be a system approach, there is a danger of some excesses. The movement initially was coming from the grass roots, the support was participants’ enthusiasm. And if someone starts to control the movement from above, there will be no benefit. Immediately comes emasculation and youth turns away. Young people don’t like to be bounded. The idea of such schools — it’s very cool. But they should rather be hobby groups. And we will definitely return to this idea, as soon as we have time.
— Do I understand correctly that your agency «Ratobortsy» not only organizes large city events, but also corporate events in the different epochs style?
— Now we make very little corporate events, try to move away from it. In general, I’m disappointed in them.
— There used to be a western fashion in corporations to carry out team buildings and so on. But in fact these events usually turned into booz-ups in costume, after which everyone was very ashamed. So now we are trying to carry out our projects intelligently — with tickets or completely non-commercial, as well as projects with deep immersion. For example, «Alone in the past»: a man lived for half a year as a hermit on a medieval farmstead, he was blogging about his experience. This project has received a great response. Now we are making a sequel — «Seven in the past».
— And you somehow «recruit» new reenactors?
— Many people who come to the festival «Times and Epochs» as viewers, then start to be interested in this theme. Once in the State Historical Museum a security man ran up to me and excitedly told how he and his son had liked «Times and Epochs», which were dedicated to the Ancient Russia, this festival was held in 2011. The man also said that now he visits lectures with his son, and reads history books. At the same time, as it turned out, before his festival experience, he had been working for 7 years as a security at the History Museum and had never found time to walk through the halls. So, one of the functions of such festivals as «Times and Epochs» — to show the history which is alive and interesting, which can be touched.
— What are most popular historical subjects, epochs?
— The most popular and the most clear image for anyone in Russia and abroad is a knight. The nightly theme is therefore a win-win. In addition, one shouldn’t underestimate the influence of Hollywood on the mass consciousness. Why the epoch of ancient Russia is now so popular? Because a number of mass TV products has appeared: the «The Vikings» or «Game of Thrones». And it has given a wave. These epochs are the most understandable. People have clear associations, when they hear about the ancient Russia or knights. The theme of the Second World War is also popular.
— But it is not actively used by reenactors.
— It is used quite actively, but not in Moscow, because the Second World War — it’s always trenches, tanks, etc., and in a city it is impossible to implement. In addition, there are little interactive actions for this epoch, one can mainly watch but not participate in the reconstruction of those events. And if we speak about knights or medieval Rus, one can not only watch. One comes to a festival, and plunges into the epoch: for example, bakes bread in a Russian stove, eats medieval meals, maybe even forges a knife. He gets a whole complex of impressions and leaves with a full sense of immersion into the Middle Ages. The First World War proved to be an interesting epoch. In 2014, we carried out a festival on it. As it turned out, the people practically know nothing about the Great War. They know that there were revolutions of 1905 and 1917, and then Stalin began his persecution. Someone remembers the New Economic Policy and dispossession of kulaks. But the Great War is absent in this line, it’s a forgotten epoch. Nevertheless people who watched our festival, were crying, because many have not turned this page of history still.
— I know that you are very serious about the production of costumes and other artefacts. Where do you manufacture them?
— Our workshops have strongly developed this year, I am very proud of it. We almost ceased producing window dressing for major festivals — our workshops have started to produce copies of the reenactment level. For such big events it used to be unattainable heights. For example, benches were considered as consumables, nobody paid any special attention to them. And now in our workshops guys make replicas of benches close to the original. In reenactment you can’t just forge, for example, an ax as you want. You need to take the original ax, which was forged 1000 years ago, and repeat manufacturing technology, material and form, and it is much more difficult. And there are also large constructions, such as log cabins, which are more difficult to repeat.
— Where do you get fabric for costumes? It must also be original.
— We have three sources, but in fact there are now a lot of places where you can get fabric for reenactors. There are skilled workers who weave wool by hand. If we need flax, more often we use homespun fabric, there is still a stock, especially in northen villages. And the third option — fabric from Belarus. The local factories have become a good hand to make fabric which is very similar in weaving, density and color to the historical specimen. Of course, a specialist of textile industry would distinguish the material from the original, but ordinary people can’t see the difference. In principle, for many reenactors such similarity is sufficient. But sometimes there is some extravagance, which only reenactors can understand. For example, one orders age-old ethnographic patterned silk from Japan paying fantastic prices, or buy silk in Uzbekistan, and other fabric in Italy.
— So, there will be no synthetics in a costume of a Viking?
— Synthetic materials is a bad style. One should understand that besides our expert commission there is also opinion of comrades, and it is even more weighty.
— How often do reenactors not only borrow some external attributes, but also live by the precepts of a particular epoch?
— Someone is ready for such immersion, some do not. The distinction between the reenactment and the spiritual world is very thin. As for me, I try to avoid it. And among reenactors in general it is considered a bad form. It’s rather a symptom of roleplayers.
— And what is the difference between reenactors and roleplayers?
— In role-playing games one chooses a character, historical or fictional, and makes with him everything he sees fit. In reenactment you do not choose a character, but some objects of the material world, which you want to reconstruct. That is, you remain a modern man, but with certain quirks.
— Is it true that reenactors have some prejudices towards roleplayers, who are considered as «subreenactors»?
— There used to be some confrontations, but now there are no. Nowadays these are absolutely different movements, each has its pros and contras. There is a tendency to smooth over the rough spots, communicate with each other. Now many realize that these are simpy different ways and there’s no need to take somebody’s part. Moreover, as an agency, we often use the experience of role-playing games, because there are many interesting organizational models that have already been built and we can adopt them. Guys carry out games where 3–5 thousand people participate. And these people make fees to hold the event, live in forests, build everything by themselves. For reenactors it is nonsense, but we believe that there is a grain of truth in it.
— Do reenactors have a code of honor?
— Reenactors often have certain principles. For example, people tend to keep their word. In addition, reenactors usually think much of traditional family values, this is very important for me. It is not propagated, but among reenactors it is simply accepted that there should be a lot of children, a big family, and so on. Of course, divorces happen, but the basic vector is still aimed at a strong family. Reenactment movement is a section of society, as any other subculture. But its initial premise is not set to destruction. Therefore, there is some healthy set of principles: to keep word, to have an active social position.