Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Vengerov - Tchaikovsky - Violin Concerto

 Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35
I. Allegro moderato (00:00)
II. Canzonetta: Andante (19:21)
III. Finale: Allegro vivacissimo (25:50)
Maxim Vengerov, violin
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Mstislav Rostropovich, conductor

Alexander Blok: Night...

Night, street and streetlight, drugstore,
The purposeless, half-dim, drab light.
For all the use live on a quarter century –
Nothing will change.  There's no way out.

You'll die – and start all over, live twice,
Everything repeats itself, just as it was:
Night, the canal's rippled icy surface,
The drugstore, the street, and streetlight.
                                             10 October 1912

Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928

It’s hard to write about the great evildoers of history. “Absolute evil” is not a useful concept, at least from the standpoint of a biographer. You can only make the portrait work, as John Milton did in Paradise Lost, by showing the cracks and contradictions that make the monster (his Satan) human. The demonic versions of Stalin and Hitler that most of us have internalised are not helpful in working out what made them tick. The assumption that the man who kills (or causes to be killed) a million people is a million times more evil than the man who kills one is another stumbling block. We can’t imagine a person a million times worse than a cold-blooded axe murderer, so the whole thing becomes unreal. Moral philosophers may be needed to straighten this out, but my own feeling is that the premise is wrong: evil, as a quality of a person, is not quantifiable, and we can’t obtain an index through multiplication. Perhaps the only reasonable way to handle the problem analytically is to postulate what has been called a Power Amplification Factor – if you’re Joe Blow, your actions, however murderous, tend to be relatively local and quantitatively limited in their impact, but if you’re Stalin or Hitler, you get the global impact and multiples in the millions.
Added complications arise when the evil in question is related to a state leader’s responsibility for mass deaths. A general tacit assumption is that wars fall into a special category, in which mass deaths can occur without automatically bringing moral odium on the leaders who gave the orders. But revolutionaries, or leaders who still have revolutionary transformation on their mind, think they fall into that category of exemption, too. They see the deaths they cause in the same “necessary” light as those caused in war. It’s a dilemma for historians, who are likely to have an aversion to letting revolutionaries claim the exemption, especially once the revolution is won and they are in power.
Stephen Kotkin, whose first book, Magnetic Mountain (1995), had the bold subtitle “Stalinism as a Civilisation”, is not one to shrink before challenges. His expansive study is just the first of a projected three volumes. The title gives nothing away: you can’t get much blander than “Paradoxes of Power” as a subtitle, and the brief preface is almost anodyne. He tells us, however, that “accident in history is rife”, dropping a clue that this is not going to be a story of historical inevitability or psychological determinism. “The story emanates from Stalin’s office,” he writes, rather puzzlingly, “but not from his point of view.” Who, if not Stalin, is looking out from his office? Is it Kotkin, an invisible watcher, who has quietly drawn up a chair next to Stalin at his desk? At any rate, the message seems to be that in the intimate relationship between biographer and subject, this biographer is keeping the upper hand.
Stalin makes only cameo appearances in the first 300 pages, which range over the Russian empire, Russian absolutism, the European state system, modernity and geopolitics before getting to the revolution. It’s an expansive interpretation of context, and one of the effects is to make the young Stalin, born in obscurity on the periphery of the Russian empire, look pretty small. Whenever Stalin does make an appearance, however, his aspirations and determination to make something of himself are evident, and quite sympathetically described. Kotkin’s Stalin is a striver and an autodidact of talent and determination. There were setbacks and difficulties as he was growing up, but Kotkin dismisses the idea of childhood trauma: lots of people, including many fellow revolutionaries, had it worse. As happened with many bright young men in late imperial Russia, Stalin’s aspirations for betterment got deflected into the revolutionary movement.
His revolutionary activity doesn’t amount to much. The figure that catches the eye in these early chapters is Pyotr Durnovo, Nicholas II’s interior minister, who saved the empire after the 1905 revolution by savage repression. Kotkin drops another clue here, remarking that this was a moment “in the play of large-scale historical structures when personality proved decisive: a lesser interior minister could not have managed”. As for Stalin, he was out in Siberian exile “battling mosquitos and boredom” for much of the last imperial decade, and thus missed the first world war. The life of a once-promising young man seemed on the road to nowhere. Then came the miracle: the collapse of the Tsarist autocracy in February 1917. Revolutionaries like Stalin could claim little credit, but they were beneficiaries. Still a relatively obscure figure from the underground, “wearing Siberian valenki” – felt boots – “and carrying little more than a typewriter”, he arrived on 12 March 1917 in the capital, St Petersburg, to join the revolution.
From his civil war leadership at the battle of Tsaritsyn in 1918 and the notorious clashes with Trotsky, Stalin starts to claim more of the author’s attention, and what kind of biography Kotkin is writing becomes clearer. Unlike a number of Stalin studies, this is not an etiology of evil. The author does not appear to be watching his subject narrowly for early signs of the monstrous deformations that will later emerge. He tries to look at him at various stages of his career without the benefit of too much hindsight. In contrast to many who have written on Soviet politics of the 1920s, he is not a partisan of Stalin’s opponents, either collectively or in the person of Trotsky or Bukharin; nor does he proceed from the common assumptions that Stalin must be measured against Lenin, and that to a greater or lesser degree he will fall short.
The theme of Stalin’s departure from or betrayal of Leninism has had a long innings, particularly on the non-communist left. But from Kotkin’s standpoint, Lenin is scarcely an exemplary figure. A man with an idée fixe, Lenin is as often wildly wrong as he is right: “deranged fanatic” is one characterisation that the author seems to endorse. Kotkin is not interested in the old argument about continuity or discontinuity between Lenin and Stalin: like Richard Pipes, whose work is often cited in the early Soviet chapters, he thinks continuity is self-evident and wants us to see that much of what is thought of as the worst of Stalin’s rule is present or latent in Lenin. Indeed, when it comes to comparison between Lenin and Stalin, Lenin generally comes off worse in this study. With regard to empire, for example, which is always important to Kotkin, Lenin, who had “never set foot in Georgia, or even Ukraine, for that matter”, compares poorly to Stalin, with his “first-hand experience of the varied realm” and understanding that there was more to inter-ethnic relations within the empire than just Russian oppression.
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Sunday, 19 October 2014

Aleksandr Kuprin - Biography

Aleksandr Kuprin was born on 26 August 1870 in the provincial town of Narovchat, in Penza Province in southern Russia. The only son to survive in a family otherwise made up of girls, he became his mother’s favorite. His mother, Liubov' Kuprina, a strong-willed and somewhat authoritarian woman, was undividedly honored with the title of “supreme creature” by her son. Even at the age of sixty, Kuprin still spoke of his mother with awe and piety. A descendant of a princely Tatar family, the Kulunchakovs, she was proud of her ancestry and instilled like-minded feelings in her son; not surprisingly, one of the persisting themes in his art was the fate of the Tatars. He also very much appreciated his mother’s sense of expression. “How many times would I steal from her, weaving her words and expressions into my own stories,” he wrote. His father, Ivan Kuprin, a clerk for the arbitrator in Narovchat, died of cholera n 1871, at the age of thirty-seven when Aleksandr was barely a year old, and the impoverished Kuprin family was forced to move to the Widows' Home in Moscow in 1874.

In 1876, at the age of six, young Kuprin entered the Razumovsky Pension for orphans of the gentry. He then resumed his education in the Second Moscow Military High School (known as Cadet Corps), which he entered in 1881, and completed his studies seven years later at the Alexander Military Academy.

Reflecting on his cadet childhood, Kuprin saw the general environment of military schools as dreadful. Taught to perceive themselves as superior to civilians, the boys at military schools were however denied any chance for a creative outlet. At the age of ten, the boy was confronted with the raging injustice, encouraged at military schools. Notions of nobility and justice, introduced by his mother, conflicted with the triumph of mindless power over weakness, propelled by the military disciplinarians. The teachers were rigid and physical punishment was common; the most serious crimes were grounds for suspension in the isolation room.

Still, the harsh conditions of the cadet corps developed in Kuprin a craving for writing poetry. When he started writing at the age of ten, he was lucky to secure the backing of an unusually sympathetic and intelligent teacher, Tsukhanov, who helped young Kuprin enhance his literary skills. During his years at school Kuprin wrote approximately thirty poems – of patriotic, satirical, and lyrical character. In 1889, at the age of nineteen, Kuprin published his first serious literary work, a short story entitled "The Final Premiere" in the Moscow “Russian Satirical Paper.” Kuprin based the story on a real incident involving an actress whose unrequited love forced her to commit suicide during a performance. "The Final Premiere" caused a scandal when school officials learned about it as cadets were not permitted to publish unapproved pieces. Kuprin's unauthorized publication cost him several days in the guardroom for unsuitable behavior. The memory of this furor stayed with him and inspired later works, including his long, autobiographical novel “Junkers,” written in 1928-1932 and published in 1933.

Upon his graduation from the military academy in 1890 with the rank of sub lieutenant, Kuprin joined the infantry in Proskurov, near Zhitomir, in southwest Ukraine.

He deeply loathed serving in the military and was constantly possessed by the idea of resignation. The only thing that shelved his decision to quit was a serious relationship with a girl. As a provincial minor officer, Kuprin wasn’t much of a catch for a husband, but the girl’s father promised to go ahead with the marriage if Kuprin entered the Academy of the General Staff. In the fall of 1893, he traveled to St. Petersburg to pass the entrance exams, but it never happened, as Kuprin was almost immediately summoned back to the regiment. He was punished for a row he’d had with a local policeman on his way to St. Petersburg, which ended when Kuprin tossed the aforementioned policeman in the Dnieper River.

Robust as a boy, Kuprin was also strong as an adult. Very emotional and impulsive, he was normally kind and charming, but could become dangerously reckless when put out of temper. This emotional instability played against him many times and hindered his career. One of the bitterest examples dates back to 1908, when Kuprin was almost elected an honored member of the Academy of Sciences but as Ivan Bunin, Kuprin’s friend and an outstanding writer, recalled: the academy did not accept him because its members were afraid he might abuse his privileges when under the influence of alcohol. During his military service in Ukraine, Kuprin started to publish in local Kiev newspapers both as a journalist and as a writer, gradually developing his style and the scope of his themes. He wrote several stories about the human psyche, among them "Psyche" (1892), “On a Moonlit Night” (1893), and "In the Dark” (1893). His frequent but irregular literary experience soon resulted in two collections entitled “Kiev Types” and “Miniatures.”

His work for the Kiev newspapers, writing for the casualties and humor section was a school of writing for Kuprin and he maintained his love for journalism throughout his life.

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Saturday, 18 October 2014

The Passion of Anton (Chekhov)

Chekhov 1898 by Osip Braz
The academy has not been kind to dead white writers lately. But it's a different story on stage and screen, where everyone from Victor Hugo to Raymond Carver has enjoyed a successful run in recent years. Who will be the next hot literary property? One safe bet, for this year and every year, is Chekhov. 

An old New Yorker cartoon makes a comic case for the Russian writer's ubiquity. Three men are asked for their greatest influences. ''Mainly the short-story writers -- Hemingway, Eudora Welty and, of course, Chekhov,'' an author replies. ''There was a teacher in high school, and the owner of the first garage I worked in. Then, of course, Chekhov,'' an auto mechanic says. Lastly, a ballplayer responds: ''I had a great batting coach in the minors, and I try to emulate the great outfielders, like DiMaggio and Mays. And, of course, there's Chekhov.'' Tennessee Williams answered the same question more succinctly. ''Chekhov! Chekhov! Chekhov!'' was his regular response to queries about favorite authors.

Chekhov's lasting appeal lies not just in his writing. His life -- or at least the version of it available up to now -- is seductive in ways that admirers have found hard to resist. ''The good doctor'' is what Neil Simon calls him in his play of that name. Others have been less moderate. ''St. Anton'' is what the critic Richard Gilman calls the Chekhov of literary legend. The modest, gentle creature we first meet in Maxim Gorky's memoirs becomes a stock figure in later accounts of the life.

The outlines of this saint's life are well known. There is the Dickensian childhood, plagued by poverty, disease and the dictates of a tyrannical father, who is the son of a freed serf. There is the young Chekhov who becomes the de facto head of his extended family, struggling to make ends meet as he pursues his dual vocation of doctor and apprentice author. Then comes the growing fame, early for the fiction and later for the plays, accompanied by the first signs of the tuberculosis that will finally claim his life in 1904.

Thoughtful, unassuming and generous to a fault, Chekhov ministers to the needs of an ever-growing circle of friends and family even as he continues the prodigious output that will change the shape of modern writing. And if this weren't enough, he finds time to visit penal colonies, treat gratis countless plague victims and needy peasants, and establish public libraries and schoolhouses for the underprivileged. In his final years, he finds happiness with the actress Olga Knipper, completes several masterpieces and receives international acclaim before dying at 44.

Is this Chekhov too good to be true? Until now, memoirists and biographers -- they've been legion -- have had two choices. They could keep the legend intact -- and there seemed to be little objective reason to challenge it. Or, like the critic Ronald Hingley, they could struggle to find cracks in the myth of ''Chekhov the 19th-century messiah.''

But would-be revisionists not only had to contend with the legacy of two zealous literary ''widows'': both Knipper and Chekhov's sister and lifelong companion, Mariya Chekhova, served as self-appointed keepers of the sacred flame for decades after the writer's death. They were also forced to do battle with a Soviet state anxious to preserve the purity of its prized plebeian playwright, the sharp-eyed critic of an aristocracy in decay and prophet of a brighter coming day. It kept potentially compromising parts of the Chekhov archive under lock and key, and even off-color jokes were bowdlerized out of existence in official editions of his correspondence.

Chekhov himself was no help to future chroniclers. He suffered from an acute form of what he called ''autobiographophobia'' and encouraged would-be biographers to disregard the life itself and ''write what you want'': ''If there are no facts, substitute something lyrical.''

Happily, Donald Rayfield, a widely known Chekhov scholar, has chosen not to take his subject at his word. In ''Chekhov: The Evolution of His Art'' (1975), Rayfield judged that ''all the facts we are ever likely to have for a biography of Chekhov are now at hand.'' In ''Anton Chekhov: A Life,'' he conclusively proves himself wrong. He spent five years scouring the newly opened archives of the former Soviet Union and tracking down evidence in every possible location. The result is a Chekhov radically unlike the paragon of decades past.

Revisionary biographies have become commonplace. It is now standard practice to chastise dead writers for sins committed against current norms of behavior. This is not at all the task Rayfield sets himself. His aim is not to unmask the ''real'' Chekhov -- sexist, imperialist, proto-fascist, whatever -- who lurks behind the plaster bust erected by unenlightened partisans (although the material Rayfield unearths on Chekhov's relations with women in particular could easily have been turned to such ends in less judicious hands).
The life Rayfield describes is no less impressive for having a flawed, at times unsympathetic, figure at its center. And his restraint in presenting his controversial new findings -- along with the sheer quantity of fresh material he has amassed -- is finally what makes his portrait so persuasive. His clear-eyed, critical sympathy for his less-than-perfect subject might have been borrowed from Chekhov's own writing.

What precisely is new about Rayfield's Chekhov? The story of the writer's harrowing childhood has been told before -- although never in such gripping detail. The real revelation in this biography lies not so much, as Rayfield himself writes, in the new light it sheds on Chekhov's relations with family and friends. It is Chekhov's sex life that is the major surprise here.

Chekhov's sex life? The phrase is something of an oxymoron, to judge by earlier accounts. Chekhov's American adapters -- Tennessee Williams, Lanford Wilson, David Mamet -- have noted the sexual charge that galvanizes the plays. And certainly no Russian writer has been more sympathetic to the ways that passion can play havoc with even the most humdrum lives. But Chekhov's own life has hitherto seemed to be remarkably passion-free; he apparently had, V. S. Pritchett thought, an unusually low ''sexual temperature.''
This is not the Chekhov of Rayfield's biography. Rayfield documents what he calls the ''hedonistic elements in Chekhov's makeup'' in scrupulous detail. His evidence is largely culled from Chekhov's previously censored correspondence, and much of it is too explicit to be quoted in a family newspaper. Chekhov's guardians had good reason to fear for their ward's reputation when the unexpurgated letters finally came to light. One thing is clear: Chekhov's sexual temperature was anything but low. Tall, good-looking and witty, he was a magnet to women from an early age, and the attraction was mutual -- ''You have two diseases, amorousness and spitting blood,'' one erstwhile lover jokes -- though he resisted lasting attachments until near the end of his life.

One must be wary of reading an artist's biography directly into the work. But Rayfield's Chekhov, with his wide range of physical and emotional experience, simply makes better sense than the artist-monk of earlier accounts as the author of ''Uncle Vanya,'' ''Lady With a Lapdog'' and the other works that deal so sagely with love and sexual passion.

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Friday, 17 October 2014

Sergei Dovlatov, dissident sans idea

All but invisible in his home country, Sergei Dovlatov became something of a mythical figure among the Russian diaspora of New York. Indeed, Vladimir Yermakov compares the conundrum of Dovlatov's life as writer to the two hands simultaneously drawing one another in Escher's mysterious drawing.
In the Soviet Union I was not a dissident. (Being a drunk doesn't count.) All I did was write stories that were ideological strangers. And I had to leave. It was in America that I became a dissident.
Sergei Dovlatov

Central to the primary meaning of a work of art is the person of the artist, especially if the work contains autobiographical material. Sergei Dovlatov (1941-1990) is a special case in this respect. The writer Dovlatov, and his character Dovlatov, are as dependent on one another as the two hands simultaneously drawing one another in Maurits Cornelis Escher's mysterious drawing. This interdependence doesn't imply anything definite about their identity, however. Those who knew Dovlatov from his works merely imagined they knew the man. Those who knew him personally realized they didn't know him very well. The facts of his biography are all blurred, ambiguous, vague. This should be kept in mind when reading his books. Almost confessionary in form, their content is largely invented. As a great mystifier, he was able to unsettle his surroundings. In the field of gravitation surrounding Dovlatov, reality is distorted and loses its plausibility.

But before focusing on the man himself, we should decide on our criteria. The pathos typical of world literature can be seen as a defence of the human being. How do we evaluate a person? Every one of us has a scale according to which we weigh the social significance of a person. This scale runs between two generalizing definitions, namely "the great man" and "the small man". The megalomania inherent in Russian autocratic rule would acknowledge only statesmen-heroes as great men. Therefore Tsarist censorship was nettled by the entirely inappropriate respect shown for the person of Pushkin in his obituary: what value could there be in a poet, let alone one who, instead of praising absolute power, endorsed mercy toward the fallen? As for the place of the human being in Russian reality, government and society were far from seeing eye-to-eye. Russian literature turned its face from the mighty of this world and gave its heart to the poor, the luckless, penniless outsiders, whom it saw through the magic crystal of art. They were seen as true, genuine people, whereas the lords of life proved to be the charlatans of existence.

The central character in Sergei Dovlatov's prose, the author's alter ego, is a small person. A small man in a great country built by dwarfs. Here is the first confusing point: a great small person. It is a common view that the pathos at the root of Dovlatov's work is a tolerance for human weaknesses, but this is not exactly the case. It is more correct to see in the author a certain cruelty justified by his conclusions. Dovlatov's sarcasm scratches away at the encrustation of context, setting man free from the wretchedness of everyday life. But his all-engulfing satire shows none of an author's self-conceit. Basing his literary experiments on his own person, he cannot be blamed for snobbism.

The great small man is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms, and indeed Dovlatov was something of an oxymoron himself, a huge walking contradiction. Physically big, but inside... not what he appeared to be. Uncertain of himself, yet full of himself. Arousing fierce opposition yet radiating a dour charm. Half Jewish, half Armenian by birth, Sergei Donatovich Dovlatov had more right to represent Russian literature at the level of global civil society than anyone else. And at this highest of levels he is unique. He is an independent thinker without a cause. A dissident without an idea. He managed to merge intellectualism with bohemianism, and life gave him a hard schooling – but he never learnt to live outside the sphere of literature. He was no macho, rather a bear; overwhelming physicality was an expression used by Joseph Brodsky to characterize him. In the bohemian literary circles of Leningrad, Dovlatov was a phenomenon. He also became one in the Russian diaspora of New York. His physical frame enthralled women, and in men his appearance aroused respect. His friendships were neither lasting nor dependable. His love affairs were mindless and unhappy. According to Valery Popov, a long-standing friend, he was touchy, suspicious, apprehensive – and cruel, deceitful and quarrelsome. A true intellectual, he was irresistible and unbearable all at once. Oh, for all those kind-hearted evil deeds that formed the canvas of his biography upon which his words wove literature... With its syncopated rhythm, his life's chronicle resembles a jazz composition. While valuing friendship, he was utterly merciless even to his nearest and dearest. He loved women, but his love stories were tragi-comic. He would marry when a relationship was beginning to fall apart, and women gave birth to children of his after totally breaking up with him.

Dovlatov came from a background of artists: his father Donat Mechik was a theatre director, his mother Nora Dovlatova an actress. Sergei was also an artist by nature, but took his time to choose his field. Nor did life give him a chance to do otherwise. He was born on 3 September 1941 in the town of Ufa, where the family had been evacuated at the beginning of the war. The years of his boyhood and youth were spent in Leningrad. At school he made no particular impression, apart from his physical stature and charm. Lacking both outstanding talent and a careerist intelligence, he chose the humanities for his field and enrolled at the Finnish department of the philological faculty of the Leningrad State University. It was during these years that he became familiar with the underground literature of Leningrad. A passionate interest in Hemingway and a close acquaintance with Brodsky were what decided his fate: he wanted to become a writer. After this, he lost interest in the foreign language he was studying and dropped out of university.

Dovlatov's reckless way of life might have landed him in prison, but instead, he found himself in the army. After three years' service he returned to Leningrad and set out to try to become a professional writer. He worked as a journalist and as an editor for several publishers. He wrote news reports and travel stories for various papers. But he failed to enter the privileged group of established authors. He was plagued by a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness. He set off to look for new opportunities in Estonia, a Soviet state of a slightly different character, hoping to find more freedom there. For anyone with a more ordinary view of life, this slightly less restricted existence might indeed have sufficed, but for a great author it remained painfully limited. In Tallinn, Dovlatov almost managed to publish a collection of short stories, but in the end, the chance came to nothing. The organs of state would not loosen their grasp of the rebel. Dovlatov returned to Leningrad, as to a familiar house where he'd already run his head against every wall looking for a way out. Losing every hope of finding a job in Soviet reality, he set out to be a tour guide at the Pushkin museum reserve at Mikhailovskoye.

The tale of Dovlatov's sufferings becomes an ironic chronicle of his times. Later, in America, the Ardis publishing house published his first book, aptly named Nevidimaya Kniga (1977), The Invisible Book (1979); in his own country, he had only been seen by those whose duty it was to see everything. The organs of state undertook to take care of his fate. After Solzhenitsyn and Brodsky, Dovlatov too was sentenced, but his vanity was wounded by the sentence being merely for hooliganism – an outrageous gesture, he felt. After the sentence, with reproaches and threats ringing in his ears, he decided to leave his home country.

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Mikhail Lermontov’s 13 demons

Mikhail Lermontov’s poem “Demon” was never published during his lifetime due to its excessive “diabolism.” This year, however, “Demon” was published in Moscow in 13 European languages.

“Demon” is based on the biblical myth of the fallen angel who rebelled against God – a story that has been incorporated into the work of many European poets, including John Milton, George Byron and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Lermontov put a new spin on this age-old tale, describing the Demon’s love for the earthly beauty Tamara. It is a love that proves deadly for her. 

Lermontov started writing the poem when he was just 14 years old. The first version described a demon and an angel who were in love with the same nun, but the poet later modified the concept to make the demon fall in love with the nun and kill her out of hatred for her guardian angel. The work was originally set in Spain; the unwritten poetic code demanded that a romantic poem should take place in a faraway land, and the young poet was taken with Spanish motifs because he imagined he was descended from the ancient Spanish Duke of Lerma. It was only years later that he learned of his true roots in the Scottish Learmonth clan.

Lermontov had finished working on his earlier versions of “Demon” by 1834, but he did not consider the work ready for publication. He achieved a breakthrough after his first exile to the Caucasus (1837-1838) for the poem “Death of the Poet,” in which he blamed the court aristocracy for Alexander Pushkin’s death. Just a few months of regimental service in the Caucasus had a strong influence on Lermontov. After returning to St. Petersburg, he set about rewriting the poem again, replacing his weak Spanish motifs with images of the Caucasus, adding powerful descriptions of its wild nature and Georgian feudal life. In the first “Caucasus” version, completed in 1838, the poem was widely distributed and became famous among the high society in Moscow and St. Peterbsurg. However, Lermontov rewrote the ending to avoid censorship; in the new version, Tamara was saved by the angel instead of dying. Even the empress read the poem in this form, and it was approved by the censors in March 1839 – yet it was never published. The “diabolical” subject matter was partially to blame: in an era when the Orthodoxy was the state ideology, such a text raised too many questions. Lermontov’s character also played a part – he was a duelist and a freethinker who was out of favor with the authorities.

Today “Demon” is recognized as a classic. In honor of the poet’s 200th birthday, the Moscow-based Rudomino Book Center under the All-Russia State Library for Foreign Literature has produced a unique publication. In addition to the original text, it also contains rhymed translations of the poem in 13 languages: English, Bulgarian, Hungarian, Greek, Spanish, Italian, Latvian, Macedonian, German, Polish, Slovenian, French, and Swedish. The publication is illustrated with the works of Mikhail Vrubel from the “Demon” series and prints of a handwritten copy of the poem. “Lermontov’s creative work is quite well-known in Europe today,” the publisher’s executive editor Yury Fridstein said. He went on to explain: “In Britain they know him as a Russian poet with Scottish roots. In Poland and Germany they pay great attention to our literature – one should not forget that Lermontov ‘transferred’ the works of Heine and Goethe into Russian. His creative work has a certain German element. Plus, ‘Demon’ was first published in Germany.” Lermontov is also famous in France because an enormous quantity of his poetry has been translated into French. In 2012, on the eve of the poet’s 200th birthday, the Rudomino Book Center released a three-volume collection of his writings translated into three European languages: French, English, and German. The book has a separate section dedicated to French translations of Lermontov by the great poet Marina Tsvetaeva.

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