In 1989 Alexei Svistunov opened a copy of the Guinness Book of World Records and, like the famous phrase from the film White Sun of the Desert, he “felt sorry for the fatherland.” On the page dedicated to the printed word, he was stunned that the world record for a newspaper print run belonged to the Japanese daily Iomiuri Simbun, with 14,474,573 copies of the combined morning and evening editions. “What about Komsomolskaya Pravda with its nearly 19 million print run or Trud daily with almost 20 million?” he thought.
Yet there was another paradox. “As regards negative stuff,” he said, “I found plenty. In the rubric of disasters, epidemics and repressions, Russia had great exposure.” Concluding that many obvious positive achievements were being ignored, Svistunov felt something had to be done. The idea to create a Russian agency of records, PARI, was born (PARI means “bet,” but is also an acronym which stands for “Paradoxes, Records, Information.”)
Today the 38-year-old Svistunov is the head of PARI agency, an independent company which seeks to spread the word about Russian records which the rest of the world ignores.
It is not the first time Svistunov has used publishing to further something he cares about. As a young student, he long had his sights set on attending the prestigious Moscow Institute of International Relations (MGIMO). “I knew it was very hard to gain entry to such a blatnoy [cushy] institute as MGIMO,” he said. “My parents were neither high-ranking party functionaries, nor diplomats. So to break through, I began writing and publishing articles in the 7th grade.” By the time of his entry exams, the 16-year-old Svistunov was able to present the exam commission with a list of some 136 publications on international topics in the press. Needless to say, MGIMO made room for Svistunov in its miniscule and semi-official “quota” for simple mortals (a.k.a. “representatives of the working class and top school students”).
PARI today owns or patronizes many Russian beauty contests and organizes the contest “The Longest Braid.” PARI also earns money on its printed products and sales of CDs, plus earns fees from major Russian and Western companies who want to raise their brand awareness by gaining Russian records. The company has correspondents all over Russia, plus works in archives, with museums, the State Library and research institutes to collect and double-check facts.
The work has turned up loads of unique knowledge otherwise hard to find. For example, Russia’s first handwritten newspaper was called Kuranty and dates to 1621 (while the first printed newspaper, Vedomosti, was published on December 16, 1702); the first Russian pharmacy opened in 1581 (meant only for members of Tsar Ivan the Terrible’s family); the first public pharmacies opened in 1721 …
For some types of records, Svistunov is picky. He registers traditional stuff, like the world’s heaviest woman (from Krasnoyarsk), who recently died, and weighed almost half a ton. But, he said, “I do not respect such things as pushing peas with one’s nose or records of gluttony or the longest spit. We mostly bet on serious achievements, scientific discoveries and inventions. For example, did you know Nicholas II had a color telefax which he could use to communicate with guberniyas? Sure, the fax was huge and occupied two rooms, but it did exist, it worked. It was a very complex galvanic device which printed huge photos.”
PARI also dispels mythical records, like the one about the world’s largest cannon: the world’s largest is not the Tsar Cannon in the Kremlin, but one many times heavier and smelted at the arms factory in Perm. The cannon was used to defend Russia against the Tatars and was fired over 300 times.
Sports and cultural events are not ignored. Last July, PARI registered the record swim of Mikhail Lopatin: “The guy swam almost 150 km in icy water (11o C) on the Lena river. That’s a world record!” Maly Theater veteran actor Pyotr Annenkov acted on stage on his 100th birthday. “We did a big action, sent an application to London [to Guinness] for the record. Zip! Guinness ignored it; it is Russia; why recognize Russia has such theatrical giants?”
At that, the keeper of Russian records feels there is no need to go overboard with one’s patriotism. “So that,” he said, “it all doesn’t sound like in that old Soviet joke: ‘Russia is the homeland of elephants’ ... I do have respect for inventions worldwide, but, on the other hand, out of modesty, Russians often keep their mouthes shut or don’t go to court, whereas they steal from us stuff worthy of a Nobel Prize. And we keep silent about it”.
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