Characters from the cartoon The Moomins (Muumit).

Conference reports The Magic of Moomin

The conference on “Moomins and the Others”, was held in honor of the 100th anniversary of Tove Jansson, the creator of the Moomin magic.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 1-2 2015, p 108.
Published on on April 29, 2015

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”Don’t worry!” That was the repeated message from our Russian contact, Sergei, regarding the “International Scientific-Theoretical Conference” “Philosophical Experience of Children’s Literature: The Moomins and the Others” (in honor of Tove Jansson’s 100th anniversary) to be held in St. Petersburg in October of 2014.

And, though everything around the conference seemed shaky at first—Would it happen at all? Where, exactly? Was it actually one of those infamous Potemkin villages that we read about in school?—we needn’t have worried, for this conference, more friendly and easygoing than its spectacular name promised, actually took place, to our great pleasure.

And nothing was quite as we had expected. The conference was a Tower of Babel and an eye-opener to things we had taken for granted.

When I say “we” I include my colleague at Södertörn University, Bengt Lundgren, and well-known Moomin researcher Agneta Rehal-Johansson, formerly of Södertörn, now of the University of Gothenburg. We were part of a small Nordic group, together with a few people from Finland. All the other participants were Russian speakers. The conference language was Russian, which we hadn’t expected. Neither had we expected to be taken care of, from our arrival at the airport onwards, by Mariana, Valeria, and Nikita, three Swedish-speaking Russians students—but we were.

The first venue of the conference was the Finnish Institute, right off the Nevsky Prospekt. In this very “Nordic” environment the conference program was presented: clear, informative, and promising.

In a friendly atmosphere we were told that there had been official resistance to the conference for more than one reason. It seemed like a miracle that it happened at all.

One obstacle was the Ukrainian delegation. The other was contempt for “fairy tales”. I guess the grand title of the conference was a way of counteracting prejudice. That it could take place was mainly thanks to funding from the faculty of philosophy and many committed people.

On the first day all translation between Russian and English was given after the speeches, which meant that everything took longer than planned. One translator happened to say that Swedes and Finns in Finland were at war. That seemed funny, but became understandable when I learned that she was from Ukraine, with her family left in a war zone.

Our next venue was the Institute of Russian Literature (Pushkinsky Dom), with sculptures of Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Chekhov. We stayed for the afternoon session in this wood-paneled place, imbued with tradition.

When Sirke Happonen from Finland spoke of Tove’s illustrations and put her in the context of art history—Doré, Beskow, Bauer, Arosenius, and Picasso—the language issue was no big problem, fortunately. The same went for Ekaterina Levko, a Russian speaking excellent English while using Russian for her video presentation! She also realized that coffee is as important for conference delegates as for the people of Moominvalley. She talked about Moominmamma’s bag, the best survival kit in the world, and pointed out that the magic of Moominvalley is not separate, as in Lewis’s Narnia books, but seamlessly part of our world.

Coffee breaks soon became an opportunity for interaction, despite our tight schedule. Agneta Rehal-Johansson was able to discuss the meaning of the red ruby in Finn Family Moomintroll with Kuisma Korhonen, who talked about interpretations of the Groke, about the Hemulen as a cross-dresser, and of Tofslan and Vifslan (he refused to say Thingummy and Bob) as a secret lesbian couple.

From the second day on, we were in a technically advanced room at the Institute of Philosophy, with simultaneous translation.

There, our host, Sergei Troitskii, talked about children as natural philosophers, wanting to find out the true nature of things. When he showed a sequence from an Andrzej Wajda film about a bearded man surrounded by children, I wondered who that was. (To be continued.)

Elena Burovskaya discussed the relationship between children and adults in the Moomin tales and other books for children and appreciated the fact that Tove Jansson depicts a world where the generations are together.

Natalya Starostina-Trubitsina talked to us from the US via Skype, in Russian, and for me those were too many obstacles, even though the translators did their best. And though I looked forward to hearing Marina Stolyar talk about the chronotope of the Moomin tales, some loud noise between Ukraine and St. Petersburg drowned the translation.

So, it was a relief when Elena Rosstalnaya’s text, dealing with the core plot of quest in Jansson and J.R.R. Tolkien, was read aloud by Burovskaya.

Lada Shipovalova also talked on the lines of quest and journey in an attempt to combine philosophy and children’s literature. She also showed that the characters’ relationship to time is a fruitful tool for analysis. And somebody asked: Is Snufkin an adult? Does he grow older?

On the last day of the conference I learned about several new things. From Maria Majofis I understood that the film Sergei had showed us portrayed Janusz Korczak, who worked with children in the Warsaw ghetto and walked with them to the gas chamber in Treblinka, and is an icon of the Soviet educational system. His death has been treated on stage, but there is nothing about the Holocaust in Soviet children’s literature, Majofis said.

Natalya Charitonova talked about Spanish children evacuated to the Soviet Union during the Civil War and the literature around the occurrence. The reality was worse for them than the propaganda suggested. They couldn’t go home till after Stalin’s death.

Kuisma Korhonen was moved to tell us that, as a child, his mother had been sent alone to Sweden during the war, a traumatic experience for many Finnish children.

We also learned that the evacuated Spanish children are not treated in Spanish literature, where there are only stories of torture by communist perverts(!).

Maria Vorobjeva gave us interesting facts about Soviet-style Moomins (the USSR was known for ”pinching” books without paying the authors).

She talked about the first translation of Comet in Moominland (1977), where she found many “Sovietisms”, words referring to politics and the military. There was an interesting discussion about this, since some delegates contended that this “biased” choice of terms is to be found in the original.

Very obvious changes were made in Soviet animated films, where the Moomin characters were totally made over, infantilized, and humanized: the Hemulen looks more like a monk than a cross-dresser, and so on.

Yaroslava Novikova spoke of a very popular children’s book by Jansson’s contemporary Yrjö Kokko, Pessi ja Illusia. When Jansson drew costumes for a stage production of the book, Kokko, typically, didn’t find them “national” enough.

This is just a taste of what happened in the main sessions. Agneta, Bengt, and I also presented papers, on the transformation of the Moomin suite, on Moomin and Candide, and on the prevalence of Moomin in everyday life. Many other things went on simultaneously. I was told that the young students in a parallel session were particularly interested in fairy tales!

For us Swedes this conference was a peak experience, including a boat trip on the Neva and a visit to the Hermitage. This was my first international conference where the main language was not English. It was difficult, refreshing, and very illuminating.