Moscow (AFP) - Russia on Tuesday began a 60-hour marathon broadcast during which celebrities and members of the public are reading aloud the whole of Leo Tolstoy's sprawling novel "War and Peace".
A total of 1,300 readers including actors, politicians, sports figures and ordinary people are taking part in the reading, which began at 10:00 am (0700 GMT) with Alisa Freindlikh, a prominent film and theatre actress, reading the first passage.
Other readers will include cosmonaut Sergei Volkov from the International Space Station and French actress Fanny Ardant.
The reading of the four-volume novel set during Napoleon's 1812 invasion of Russia is being broadcast live on national television and radio as well as on a special website, voinaimir.com, and on popular social networking site Vkontakte.
"Tolstoy draws together our whole country, no less than the state border or our single currency," said television presenter Fyokla Tolstaya, the novelist's great-great-granddaughter, speaking to the RIA Novosti news agency.
The Mayak radio station, which has given over its entire schedule to the novel except for short news bulletins, urged listeners to phone in to talk about their favourite character.
"My favourite character is Natasha Rostova, because like me, she made her own journey from a thoughtless young girl to a mother of a family who has learnt how to be happy," said one listener, 35-year-old Anastasia, referring to one of the novel's main heroines.
The project's website includes an interactive map of the relationships between the characters, such as "love", "conflict" and "marriage". The chart changes to reflect events in each section of the novel.
- Grozny to Vladivostok -
The readings are taking place in locations across Russia including Tolstoy's country estate in Yasnaya Polyana south of Moscow where he wrote much of the novel, as well as in various cities such as the Chechen capital Grozny and Vladivostok in the far east.
Some also are reading extracts abroad, from cities including Vienna and London, where television special correspondent Alexander Khabarov on Monday read his segment while standing on the embankment opposite the Houses of Parliament.
Some are reading from well-thumbed hardbacks, but many have chosen electronic readers.
The marathon reading, part of Russia's Year of Literature, is set to run until Friday, getting through one volume per day.
With its multiple characters, lengthy battle scenes and reams of dialogue in French, Tolstoy's novel completed in 1869 is one of the most challenging in world literature.
Nevertheless the book is considered so vital to the Russian national identity that it is compulsory reading for students aged 15 or 16.
Many Russians are also familiar with Sergei Bondarchuk's Soviet film version that won an Oscar in 1969 and is being shown again on state television to coincide with the reading.
The BBC is making a new television series of "War and Peace" set to air in January, starring Paul Dano and Lily James and written by Andrew Davies. Some of the filming took place in Russia.
A similar online project earlier this year was devoted to Anton Chekhov, titled "Chekhov Is Alive!" to mark the 125th anniversary of his birth.
More than 700 people read from his works including his play "The Seagull". Google was one of the organisers and the readings were shown on YouTube.