Wednesday, 10 February 2016

The Romanovs’ only loyalty was to absolute power

Tsar Alexander II, Sunday 1 March 1881 began as Sundays often did. He visited his mistress, “toppled her on to a table and took her”, then set out in his bulletproof carriage, followed by six Cossacks and two sleighs of imperial bodyguards, to watch a military parade. A young man stepped out from the crowd and lobbed a bomb under his carriage. Two people were killed but, for the sixth time, the tsar survived an assassination attempt. Ignoring his entourage’s pleas that he leave at once, he crossed the road to remonstrate with the would-be killer. Another terrorist exploded a second bomb, killing himself and shattering the tsar’s legs.

No one thought of applying a tourniquet. Instead Alexander was rushed to the Winter Palace and hoisted up to his study, leaving a trail of black blood on the marble stairs. When the doctor declared him dead his mistress, Princess Yurievskaya, her pink and white peignoir drenched in blood, shrieked and passed out as the heir prostrated himself on the floor beside her, shedding floods of tears. Among the many witnesses in the room was the dead man’s 13-year-old grandson, Nicky, wearing a blue sailor suit.

In 1918 Nicky (Tsar Nicholas II) was murdered, too, along with his wife and five children, and the Romanovs’ rule came to an end in the last of the many violent episodes described in this splendidly colourful and energetic book. As Simon Sebag Montefiore notes, the history of the dynasty is so lurid that “ascetic academic historians find themselves bashfully toning down the truth”. That is not his way. Introducing his narrative, he declares:
. . . this is a world where obscure strangers suddenly claim to be dead monarchs reborn, brides are poisoned, fathers torture their sons to death, sons kill fathers, wives
murder husbands . . . giants and freaks are collected, dwarfs are tossed, beheaded heads kissed, tongues torn out, flesh knouted off bodies, rectums impaled, children slaughtered . . .
The book is structured simply, as a helter-skelter chronological narrative of 300 years. Sebag Montefiore expertly selects the best (most shocking, bizarre, sensationally theatrical) bits from that long history. Trotsky remarked that Rasputin’s career was a “scenario for people of bad taste”. The same could be said of the entire Romanov saga. Sebag Montefiore rises to the gaudy, gruesome subject matter, pulling all the stops out. His vocabulary veers from the modern colloquial – “Napoleon was spooked” – to the arcane – “lethiferous bands of looters haunted the streets”. He can do epigrammatic: Peter the Great’s rapacious minister Menshikov was “like the shark that can clean its teeth only by eating more”. He can do hardboiled: needing to rid himself of an intransigent tsar, one minister “sought men who knew how to drown kittens”.

This is a “family history”. Wars are dealt with cursorily and only from the court’s point of view. Constitutional changes, even those of great significance, are relegated to footnotes. Economics barely gets a mention. But the Romanovs were no ordinary family. Writing about them, Sebag Montefiore is also writing about absolutism, its terrifying power and its paradoxes. “In Russia,” Mme de Staël said, “the government is autocracy tempered by strangulation.” An autocrat’s life was constantly at risk; so was his or her legacy. Peter the Great tortured his son to death, knowing that the young man would reverse his policies should he ever inherit. Absolutism is fragile: it can also, paradoxically, enable progress. In 1861, with 24 cannon standing primed outside the Winter Palace for fear of a reactionary uprising, Alexander II abolished serfdom, liberating 22 million people. Sebag Montefiore argues that no one but a divinely appointed autocrat could have made such a bold move.

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Alexander Pushkin: Winter morning

Cold frost and sunshine: day of wonder!
But you, my friend, are still in slumber -
Wake up, my beauty, time belies:
You dormant eyes, I beg you, broaden
Toward the northerly Aurora,
As though a northern star arise!

Recall last night, the snow was whirling,
Across the sky, the haze was twirling,
The moon, as though a pale dye,
Emerged with yellow through faint clouds.
And there you sat, immersed in doubts,
And now, - just take a look outside:

The snow below the bluish skies,
Like a majestic carpet lies,
And in the light of day it shimmers.
The woods are dusky. Through the frost
The greenish fir-trees are exposed;
And under ice, a river glitters.

The room is lit with amber light.
And bursting, popping in delight
Hot stove still rattles in a fray.
While it is nice to hear its clatter,
Perhaps, we should command to saddle
A fervent mare into the sleight?

And sliding on the morning snow
Dear friend, we'll let our worries go,
And with the zealous mare we'll flee.
We'll visit empty ranges, thence,
The woods, which used to be so dense
And then the shore, so dear to me.

Marina Tsvetaeva: My Pushkin

And ever since then, ever since when Pushkin was killed right in front of me, in Naumov’s picture, daily, hourly, over and over, right through my earliest years, my childhood, my youth, I have divided the world into the poet and all the others, and I have chosen the poet, I have chosen to defend the poet against all the rest, however this ‘all the rest’ is dressed and whatever it happens to be called.

But even before Naumov’s duel, because every memory has its pre-memory, its ancestor-memory, its great-great-great memory, just like a fire escape ladder which you climb down, never knowing whether there will be another rung – and there always is – or the sudden night sky, opening up ever higher and more distant stars to you – but before Naumov’s The Duel there was a different Pushkin, a Pushkin, when I didn’t even know that Pushkin was Pushkin. Pushkin not as a memory, but as a state of being, Pushkin forever and forever-forth, before Naumov’s Duel there was a morning light and rising out of it, and disappearing into it, was a figure, cutting with its shoulders through the light as a swimmer cuts through a river, a black figure, higher than everyone else, and blacker than everyone else, with his head bowed, and a hat in his hand.

The Pushkin Memorial was not the Memorial-to-Pushkin, but simply the Pushkinmemorial, all one word, and the separate concepts of Pushkin and Memorial were equally incomprehensible, and did not even exist without each other. And there it was, standing there always, eternally – in rain or snow, o how I can see those shoulders heaped with snow, heaped with the snow of all the Russias, those strong African shoulders – with its shoulders facing into the sunrise or the snowstorm, whether I am going towards it or leaving it, running from it, or running up to it, there it is, with its eternal hat in its eternal hand: the Pushkin Memorial.
The Pushkin Memorial was the limit and the extent of our walks: from the Pushkin Memorial, to the Pushkin Memorial, the Pushkin Memorial was also the finishing line of our races: who could run fastest to the Pushkin Memorial. But Asya’s Nanny sometimes shortened it for simplicity’s sake: ‘we’ll have a sit-down by Pushkin,’ and that always drew my pedantic correction: ‘Not by Pushkin, by the Pushkin Memorial’.

[...]

The Pushkin Memorial was part of everyday life, as much a character of childhood life as the grand piano, or the watchman Ignat’ev outside, who stood almost as immutable, if not as tall. The Pushkin Memorial was one of two (there was no third) inevitable daily walks: to the Patriarch’s Ponds, or to the Pushkin Memorial. And I preferred the Pushkin Memorial, because I liked to run to it, pulling, and even ripping open as I ran, my Grandfather’s white Karlsbad jacket, and once I’d reached it, to run around it, and then to stand, my head lifted, and to look up at the black-faced and black-handed giant, who did not look back at me, and was unlike anything or anyone in my life. And sometimes I simply hopped around it. And despite Andryusha’s long limbs and Asya’s weightlessness, despite my own plumpness, it was I who ran better than them, better than everyone, simply because my honour was at stake: get there first, and then collapse panting. It pleases me that it was at the Pushkin Memorial I won my first races.

There was another different game at the Pushkin Memorial, my own game, and it was this: placing a tiny white china figure, no bigger that a child’s little finger, next to its pedestal – they were sold in china shops, anyone who grew up at the end of the last century in Moscow will know: gnomes under mushrooms, children under umbrellas – place a tiny figure like that against the giant’s pedestal and then slowly travel my gaze from the bottom to the top of the granite mass, until my head almost fell off, comparing the sizes.

The Pushkin Memorial was my first encounter with black and white: how black! How white! And because black was the giant, and white was the tiny comic figure, and because I definitely had to choose, I chose then, for once and for all, the black, and not the white, blackness and not whiteness: black thoughts, and black possessions, and a black life.

The Pushkin Memorial was also my first encounter with numbers: how many little figures would it take, placed one on top of another, until you had a whole Pushkin Memorial. And the answer was already the same answer as it is now: you could never have enough – still in my modest pride I always added, ‘But if you had one hundred of me, then maybe, because I’m still growing...’ And at the same time: ‘But what if you put a hundred tiny figures one on top of the other, would that be me?’ And the answer: ‘No, because I’m big, and because I’m alive and they’re just china.’

So the Pushkin memorial was also my first encounter with materials: iron, china, granite, and my own.

The Pushkin Memorial, with me under it, and with the tiny figure under me, was my first proper lesson in hierarchy, too. I was a giant next to the china figure, but next to Pushkin, I was – myself. A little girl. But one who would grow bigger. And I was the same for the tiny figure as the Pushkin Memorial was for me. But then what was the Pushkin Memorial for the tiny figure? And after some hard thinking it suddenly dawned upon me: The Memorial was so enormous that the figure simply couldn’t see it. It thought it was a big house, or a rumble of thunder. And the china figure was so tiny that the Pushkin Memorial couldn’t see it either. It thought it was just a flea. But it saw me! Because I was big and plump. And I would soon grow bigger.

My first lesson in numbers, my first lesson in scale and materials, my first lesson in hierarchy, my first lesson in thinking and most importantly, a proper underpinning of all my later experience: that even if you had a thousand figures, even if they were piled one on top of the other, you couldn’t make Pushkin.

...Because I liked walking away from him, down the sandy or the snowy avenue, and walking back to him, along the sandy or snowy avenue, towards his back and his hand, towards his hand behind his back, because he always stood with his back to me as I walked away from him, or as I walked towards him, his back to everyone and everything, and we always walked behind his back, because the boulevard itself with its three avenues approached him from behind his back, and the walk was always so long that every time we forgot, from the boulevard, what sort of a face he had, and every time his face was different, but just as black. (I think with sadness that those last few trees never knew what sort of a face he had).

I loved the Pushkin Memorial for its blackness – the opposite of the white of all our household gods. Their eyes were completely white, but the Pushkin Memorial’s were quite black and quite round. The Pushkin Memorial was completely black, like a dog, blacker even than a dog, because even the blackest dog has something yellowish above the eyes, or something whiteish about the neck. The Pushkin Memorial was as black as a grand piano. And even if they’d never told me that Pushkin was a black man, I’d have known anyway that Pushkin was black.

From the Pushkin Memorial I also have my intense love of black people, which I have carried with me through all my life, and even now, my whole being feels a sense of honour when, quite by chance, in a tram, or some other place, I find myself standing by a black man. My profane whiteness side to side with his divine blackness. In every black man I see and I love Pushkin, the black Pushkin Memorial of my, and all Russia’s, unschooled early childhood.

...Because I liked it that we walked towards him and away from him, but he was always there. In the snow, the flying leaves, the sunrise, the deep blue, the opaque milk of winter – he was always there.

Sometimes, although rarely, our Gods were moved about. And at Christmas or Easter they were flicked with a duster. But he was washed by the rains and dried by the sun. He was always there.

The Pushkin Memorial was my first vision of the immutable, the inviolable.

“Shall we go to Patriarch’s Ponds today, or...?”

“The Pushkin Memorial!”

There were no patriarchs on the Patriarch’s Ponds.

What a strange and wonderful idea – to place a giant amongst children. A black giant, amongst white children. A strange and wonderful idea – to bring down on white children their black kinship.

Those who grew up in the shadow of the Pushkin Memorial will hardly prefer the white race, and I, so very clearly, prefer the black race. The Pushkin Memorial, anticipating what is to come, is a memorial against racism, to the equality of all races, to the supremacy of any race that might bring forth a genius. The Pushkin Memorial is a memorial to black blood poured into white blood, a memorial to the intermingling of bloods, just as rivers intermingle, a living memorial to the intermingling of bloods, and a conmingling of the most remote and the apparently most disjointed spirits of nations. The Pushkin Memorial is living proof of the base and moribund nature of racial theory, living proof of the opposite. Pushkin is the ‘fact’ which confounds all theory. Even before its own conception racism was thrown aside by Pushkin at the moment of his birth. No – even earlier than than – on the day of the marriage between the son of the Negro of Peter the Great, Osip Abramovich Gannibal, and Maria Alekseevna Pushkina. No, no, even earlier than that: on the unknown day, at the unknown hour when Peter turned his black, pale, joyous, terrible gaze on Ibragim, the Abyssinian boy. That gaze was a command to Pushkin to exist. So children growing up in the shadow of the Petersburg Bronze Horseman were also growing up in the shadow of a memorial against racism – and to genius. ...

Marina Tsvetaeva. 'Cardinal Points' literary journal. Tr. by Saha Dugdale

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Erika Mikirticheva, Sergei Polunin: Don Quixote

Alexander Blok: The Factory

The house next door has yellow windows.
In the evening, in the evening
Its pensive bolts screech in their hinges,
And people to its gates come streaming.
The gates are shut to hold them back,
And on the wall, and on the wall,
Someone unmoving, someone black
Counts people in the silent pall.
From high above, I hear each sound—
He calls out in a brassy tone
For all those gathered in the crowd
To bend their crippled backs again.
They will come in, fan out, and then
Heave fardels on their backs once more,
And in the yellow windows, men
Will laugh: what fools these beggars are.

Translated by Max Thompson

Alla Pugacheva: Million Scarlet Roses

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Saltykov-Shchedrin: Satirist, wordsmith and legal terrorist

Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin was born on Jan. 27 1826 and would go on to become one of the most controversial writers of his day. Described by his contemporaries as a “writer of sarcasm and corrosive analysis” and “Russia's legal terrorist,” he was uncompromising in his biting satirical attacks on society and the state.

Although Russia has changed regime twice since Saltykov-Shchedrin was alive, his words seem as fresh now as they did then, as official corruption remains a scourge of modern Russia. Saltykov-Shchedrin was well placed to judge its extent in his own society, as he served as a high-ranking official in the Tsarist regime for a long time, which gives his work an additional edge.

His importance was noted in his own lifetime, too: Leo Tolstoy described him as the “prosecutor of Russian public thought,” while Ivan Turgenev compared him to Juvenal.

The writer’s double-barreled surname, Saltykov-Shchedrin, shows his dual life. For many years he was simply Mikhail Saltykov – a nobleman by birth who had built a successful career as a civil servant and was the vice-governor of the Ryazan and Tver provinces – and Nikolai Shchedrin, a writer and social commentator, Saltykov’s pseudonym.

He caught the authorities’ attention with his first novellas, Contradictions (1847) and A Complicated Affair (1848), which mocked social conventions of the day. The writer was exiled for eight years to the city of Vyatka in north-eastern Russia for his “harmful way of thinking and pernicious desire to spread ideas that have already shaken all of Western Europe” – a reference to the 1848 French Revolution, which had frightened the government and sparked his harsh punishment.

Saltykov-Shchedrin continued his official career in exile, however, gaining an abundance of material for future work from his observations of Russia’s bland provincial life.

Gradually, Shchedrin the writer displaced Saltykov the official. In 1868, when renowned Russian poet and journalist Nikolai Nekrasov invited him to co-edit Russia’s famous Fatherland Notes magazine, Saltykov-Shchedrin dedicated himself fully to literary work.

He gained a reputation as a satirist in 1856 with the publication of his set of stories Provincial Essays, where he described provincial Russian life, condemning and ridiculing social conventions, laws, officials and landowners.

Shchedrin was soon a target for criticism himself; he was accused of scoffing, sneering and pandering to the fashion for “laughter” in literature.

“That a two-time vice governor is criticizing Russia’s state system is a paradox from both a moral and legal point of view,” a journalist noted at the time.

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