Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Women on the Verge - Love Stories by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

For years, acceptable portrayals of Soviet women in art were limited to the ideal proletariat, a strong-jawed woman with flashing eyes and scythe in hand, or the fairy tale Snow Queen in furs.

It’s no surprise that the realistic short stories and pessimistic plays of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, who began writing in the 1960s, were banned until glasnost. Her bleak fictions depicted Soviet women as the human workhorses they were. They did not live in castles or picturesque garrets but in mini-gulags, subdivided apartments, which deprived the generations of families and strangers forced to cohabitate of any sense of privacy. (As a child, Petrushevskaya and her mother lived under a desk in her mentally ill grandfather’s room.) Her work was suppressed because she matter-of-factly described the horrors of domestic life in a society that abolished the self.

Many of Petrushevskaya’s stories can be considered fantastic. Her breakout book in America, “There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby,” was cheekily marketed as “Scary Fairy Tales.” These stories teemed with grotesque and supernatural elements that masked the real terror: how unrelenting misery transforms human beings into monsters.

The new collection, “There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself,” is slyly subtitled “Love Stories.” These 17 tales, selected and translated by Anna Summers, who herself grew up in those “cramped, ghoulish blocks of apartments,” follow Petrushevskaya’s writing career from her first published story in 1972 to one published on her 70th birthday in 2008. They are deeply unromantic love stories told frankly, with an elasticity and economy of language. The characters are often pathetic, incomprehensible. “Doctor Zhivago” this ain’t.

The first lines of the first story, “A Murky Fate,” establish the tone and themes of the book: “This is what happened. An unmarried woman in her 30s implored her mother to leave their studio apartment for one night so she could bring home a lover.” The lover turns out to be her co-worker — a slovenly, narcissistic married man. The next day she discovers that despite their dispassionate and perfunctory encounter, she is madly in love. Is it possible that she truly desires this toad? Or does she just want to enter the kingdom of tragic women who have loved and lost? Does it matter? Is it so wrong to want to have a love story?

A few stories capture a character in a Chekhovian moment of clarity; some read like family lore, recounted without fanfare or urgency; others echo the gossip women exchange like currency. What is consistent is the dark, fatalistic humor and bone-deep irony Petrushevskaya’s characters employ as protection against the biting cold of loneliness and misfortune that seems their birthright.

Even when a story ends with the narrator suggesting that a couple lived happily ever after, it rings false. We suspect the teller has tired of the story and is deliberately concluding on a mawkish note. What one can cling to is reward enough — a home, even if shared with a host of other miserables; children, even if they are scheming to steal your money and your home; a man, even if he is unfaithful, abusive and unpredictable.

Read more >>>

Anna Akhmatova: A Word about Pushkin

May 26, 1961 - Komarovo

MY PREDECESSOR, PAVEL SHCHEGOLYOV,1 concludes his work on Pushkin's duel and death with a series of speculations about why society and its spokesmen hated the poet and expelled him as an alien being from its midst. It is now time to turn this question around and speak aloud not about what they did to him, but what he did to them.

After an ocean of filth, deceit, lies, the complacency of friends and the plain foolishness of the Poletikas and non-Poletikas,2 the Stroganov clan,3 the idiot horseguardsmen, who made the d'Anths affair une affaire de regiment (a question of the regiment's honor), the sanctimonious salons of the Nesselrodes, et al.,the Imperial Court, which peeked through every keyhole, the majestic secret advisors-members of the State Council- who had felt no shame at placing the great poet under secret surveillance-after all of this, how exhilarating and wonderful it is to see the prim, heartless ("swinish" as Alexander Sergeyevich himself put it) and, to be sure, illiterate Petersburg watch as thousands of people, upon hearing the fateful news, rushed to the poet's house and remained there forever with all of Russia.

"Il faut que j'arrange ma maison (I must put my house in order)," said the dying Pushkin.
In two days' time his house became a sacred place for his Homeland, and the world has never seen a more complete or more resplendent victory.

Little by little, the entire era (not without reluctance, of course) came to be called the Pushkin era. All the beauties, ladies-in-waiting, mistresses of the salons, Dames of the Order of St.Catherine, members of the Imperial Court, ministers, aides-de-camp and non-aides-de-camp, gradually came to be called

Pushkin's contemporaries, and were later simply laid to rest in card catalogues and name indices (with garbled birth and death dates) to Pushkin's works.

He conquered both time and space. People say: the Pushkin era, Pushkin's Petersburg. And there is no longer any direct bearing on literature; it is something else entirely. on the palace halls where they danced and gossiped about the poet, his portraits now hang and his books are on view, while their pale shadows have been banished from there forever. And their magnificent palaces and residences are described by whether Pushkin was ever there or not. Nobody is interested in anything else. The Emperor Nikolai Pavlovich in his white breeches looks very majestic on the wall in the Pushkin Museum; manuscripts, diaries, and letters are valuable if the magic word "Pushkin" is there. And, the most terrifying thing for them is what they could have heard from the poet:

You will not be answerable for me,
You can sleep peacefully.
Strength is power, but your children
Will curse you for me.

And in vain do people believe that scores of handcrafted monuments can replace that one aere perennius (stronger than bronze) not made by hand.5

From "Anna Akhmatova, My Half Century" Selected prose edited by Ronald Meyer, © Ardis Publishers

Sunday, 24 May 2015

M.A. Sholokhov by C.P. Snow

It (The Quiet Don) was immediately an enormous success. We all read it at the time. It reached a very wide public. This was true all over the West. It seemed to many of us not only the first great novel written in the Soviet time, but a great novel by any standard. Many years later, it still seems so.

The critical reception was as near unqualified warmth as a modern novel can achieve.

It isn't for a foreigner to make predictions about which Russian works are going to be permanent classics, but my ghost will be restless unless this is one.
Tikhy Don (The Quiet Don) is a great novel, but under the lucid brilliant surface a mysterious and difficult one. On the surface it speaks of the bafflement of ordinary men--passionate men of flesh and bone--living in a particular time in history, a particular tempest of the world. If that were all, however, it wouldn't be read by young foreigners today, to whom that tempest, if they know about it at all, is a passage in their history book.

But under the surface of Tikhy Don there is a subjective passionate sense of life. A tragic sense of life. I have written that deliberately. Sometimes, as we say, an outsider sees most of the game. The superb end of the work, one of the starkest in literature, is an acceptance of death. Almost all the people who lived their lives through the long narrative are now dead. Death is the certainty with which there is no arguing. Gregor Melekhov is himself dying. The wonderful animal vitality is no good to any of them. Melekhov's only remaining link with life is with his infant son. This is his only hold on the future. He can hope that the child will have a better life in a better world. For himself, the end.

This is very much harsher than, for instance, the end of War and Peace or Karamazov. Only a writer of stern regard for the truthwould have finished so. It leaves us, curiously enough, on a note of something like exaltation.

That final volume was published in 1940 when Sholokhov was thirty-five and was acclaimed and read as the first part had been. He had, we have to remember, been world famous within months of the first part appearing. That is unusual, but not unprecedented. In the West, there are several comparable cases. The best known, perhaps, is Dickens, who was twenty-three when he began serializing the Pickwick Papers, even younger than Sholokhov in 1930, and became a national figure in England within weeks. Some writers seem to be born ready-made, so to speak, and have only to grow up to say what they have to say. Writers mature at different ages, and those less lucky envy the few who have gained great success when young.

May I put in a personal note? I suppose I am one of the comparatively few Westerners who can claim Sholokhov's acquaintance. He has called at my house on each of his visits to England. He sat at my bedside, cheering me up while I was waiting to go into hospital for an eye operation. I had the pleasure of seeing him receive an Honorary Degree from one of our oldest universities. He was the first Russian writer, we think, to be recognized in that way since Turgenev. In turn I have met Sholokhov frequently in the Soviet Union, and have enjoyed his open-handed hospitality at Veshenskaya, down on the Don. It was magical to spend summer days in that countryside, when one had read Tikhy Don so many years before.

(From the Anglo-Soviet Journal, December 1975).

Mikhail Sholokhov: Quiet Flows the Don

Holding the reins, Grigory watched the old man and was surprised at how easily he hurled his old, bony body into the saddle.

“Follow me!” the general ordered abruptly, his gloved hand gently pulling the reins.
Holding his head like a rooster, the four-year-old stallion surged under Grigory and started walking sideways. He was not shoed on his back legs, and when he stepped on the smooth ice, he slipped, squatted, and spurted on all his legs. In a slouchy, but stable position, old Master lulled on Krepysha’s back.

“Where are we going?” asked Grigory.

“To the Olshansky gully,” Master responded in a thick bass.

The horses walked harmoniously. The stallion pulled at the reins, bending his neck like a swan, squinting his convex eye towards his rider and attempting to bite his knee. We climbed the hill and Master let Krepysha trot. The dogs ran behind Grigory spreading out in a small arc. The old black bitch was running and sweeping the end of the horse’s tale with her humped muzzle. The stallion squatted, heated up, wanting to kick the intrusive bitch, but she just lagged, catching the eye of Grigory with a yearning anile gaze.

Russian literature — RT

Saturday, 23 May 2015

The Soviets’ Cold War Choreographer - Leonid Yakobson

To create modern art in a classical mode is to face forward and backward at once, yoked to the past while inching toward the future. Only a fool or a genius would attempt it. So I had heard of the Soviet ballet choreographer Leonid Yakobson, whose modernist advances took place on hostile home territory. I had seen Vestris, the solo he created for a young Mikhail Baryshnikov that compressed an early ballet master’s mercurial life into a few minutes; it was the only contemporary work the superstar brought with him when he defected in 1974. I knew that the best dancers in Leningrad and Moscow had deemed the choreographer a God-given genius and a rebel to boot.

But whom did these artists, trapped behind the Iron Curtain, have to compare him with? Their praise could easily be dismissed as nationalist hype. After all, the standard American view is that the Soviet vanguard of ballet barely outlived Lenin. The ferment was in Paris, where the young Russian émigré George Balanchine collaborated with Stravinsky on the groundbreaking Apollo for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Then the action traveled west, with Balanchine. Thanks to him and his New York City Ballet, angular, plotless, modernist works replaced silly story ballets as the art form’s pride. Without Balanchine, the thinking goes, ballet would have buried itself in the past—and indeed, since the master’s death, in 1983, it has struggled to chart a future.

In Like a Bomb Going Off: Leonid Yakobson and Ballet as Resistance in Soviet Russia, Janice Ross soundly rejects this self-congratulatory and ultimately self-defeating account. A dance scholar at Stanford, she delivers on her claim that “during the initial years of the Cold War, the West did not have an exclusive purchase on experimentation in dance.” The book’s timing could not be better: for the past decade or so, the Russians have been rehabilitating works from the Stalinist era that brilliantly debunk the notion that Soviet ballet slept out the 20th century. And Yakobson is the ideal figure on whom to focus a corrected and expanded ballet history. Other choreographers also experimented fruitfully and were periodically squashed by the state, and their work might have been even better. But the Leningrad Jew who was raised with the revolution, and who died before its whole edifice collapsed, is the peerless Balanchine’s perfect complement—the yin to his yang. Enlarging the parameters of ballet that Balanchine laid out, Yakobson’s example justifies the ecumenical spirit spurring on the art form today.

Both Yakobson and Balanchine were formalists. Both understood choreography in essentially modernist terms—as a process of distillation, or “abstraction,” as it is more commonly known. But Balanchine began with the danse d’école, the movement lexicon inherited from the French court, while Yakobson started with the world, even if that meant setting the women’s pointe shoes aside and abandoning the standard turnout of the leg. Russian Orthodox to the end, Balanchine often presented the classical idiom as a veil through which to glimpse the metaphysical. The secular Yakobson saw ballet as a chance to illuminate our irrepressible natures and the eccentricities they breed. For an artist living through the most-repressive years of the Soviet regime, ballet’s penchant for idealization held no appeal: it reeked of ideological obfuscation. Feisty in temperament and fearless on principle, Yakobson homed in on what the Marxist marching orders “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” left out: unaccountable want.

Leonid Yakobson was born in St. Petersburg in 1904, the same year—in fact, the same month—as Balanchine. He too left home early, not to become a ward of Theater Street, as Balanchine did, but simply to eat. With the civil war spreading famine, his widowed mother sent her three sons to a children’s summer colony that promised food. But hunger and panic soon overtook the idyll, and caretakers fled. The children wandered until the American Red Cross gathered them up to transport them to Vladivostok, on the Pacific Ocean. The summer stretched into years. When it was finally time to go home, the weary tribe traveled by sea—15,000 miles.

Read more >>>

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Mikhail Vrubel - Biography

Mikhail Vrubel - selfportrait

Appearing at the end of 19th century, the paintings of Mikhail Vrubel represent some of the most significant and mysterious phenomenon of Russian art. A talented and tragic artist, Vrubel managed to convey his complex and inaccessible inner life through the medium of his unusual works.

Mikhail Vrubel was born in Omsk, into the family of a military lawyer. Due to his father’s work in the army, the family had to move often. Mikhail studied in different cities such as Omsk, Astrakhan, St. Petersburg and Odessa.

Vrubel first began taking painting lessons in 1864, in Saratov. After completing his gymnasium studies in Odessa, he entered the Saint Petersburg University, specializing in law. At the same time he attended lessons at the Academy of Arts.

Following his graduation from the university, Vrubel served in the army and worked in the war shipping administration. But, his artistic nature could not bear a routine military job and Mikhail entered the Russian Academy of Arts. As a student, he was noticed for his unorthodox style and original interpretation of classical themes. From 1884 to 1889 Vrubel worked in Kiev, having been invited by Professor Andrian Prakhov to restore about 150 elements of ancient frescoes and create new compositions for St. Cyril’s Church, built in the 12th century. Vrubel spent about 18 months in Venice, learning about the art of medieval painters and used this experience for creating four icons at St. Cyril’s Church. Vrubel used the image of Prakhov’s wife, Emilia, as a prototype for the Mother of God in one of these icons.

Demon Seated in a Garden, 1890

One of the most talked-of events in Vrubel’s career was his participation in creating paintings for St. Vladimir’s Cathedral. After the cathedral was built in 1882, Professor Prakhov was put in charge of its inner decorations. Prakhov gathered a team of painters, including Mikhail Vrubel. The artist spent a great deal of time making sketches for wall paintings, such as “Resurrection,” “Lamentation” and “Angel with Censer and Candle.” His sketches, however, were not approved by the executive commission, which stated that the works were made in an unusual, innovative manner and didn’t correspond to religious canons.

But Vrubel’s biographers say that the painter was also dismissed from the project because he was in love with Prakhov’s wife Emilia. The jealous professor didn’t want the artist to do any large works in the cathedral and replaced him with another famous painter, Viktor Vasnetsov. However, Vrubel wished to continue his work and asked Prakhov to at least let him do simple jobs. As a result, only a few ornaments made by Mikhail Vrubel can be found in the cathedral.

According to experts, if the artist had realized his initial sketches, the entire cathedral would look much different, with a much more mystic and cosmic character. Interestingly, Vrubel’s name was not even mentioned on the annotative board listing those who worked on the project.

Some biographers also mention the painter’s early symptoms of mental disorders among other reasons for his dismissal from the St. Vladimir’s Cathedral project. Over a period of time theses symptoms grew into a serious disease. Mikhail Vrubel distanced himself from Christ and gradually devoted his art to a different subject – the devil. The image of Satan later became the dominating theme of his numerous works. While living in Kiev, Vrubel also created his secular works “Self-Portrait” (1882), “The Oriental Tale” (1886) and “Portrait of a Girl against a Persian Carpet” (1886) among others. These paintings showed the artist’s skill in working with bright colors and floral motifs.

Mikhail Vrubel created several decorations for Savva Mamontov’s theater (for instance, the curtain “Night in Italy”). In 1890 the artist began his work in ceramics and made a few sculptural works on subjects from Russian and Slavic mythology such as “Lel,” “Kupava,” and “Berendey.” Within two years Vrubel became the head of the ceramic workshop.

Savva Mamontov invited Vrubel to join him on a tour of Europe and the artist visited Rome, Florence, Venice, Milan and Paris. The journey inspired Vrubel to create bright and heart-warming paintings and watercolors, including “Spain,” “Fortune-teller” and “Venice.”

Read more >>>

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Leonid Leonov: The Tramp

The tea was like brewed hay, and the sugar tasted like kerosene. Chadaev tossed the unfinished cup down onto the table and listened absentmindedly to the hubbub in the inn. By midday, as always during the Sunday bazaars, the commotion was growing louder, but Chadaev was wrapped in total silence. Suddenly he stood up, and with his arms extended forward, he moved toward the tavern's rear door. Valuing the irreproachable reputation of his establishment more than his single eye, the tavern-keeper came out to follow Chadaev, but his suspicions were in vain.

In the greenish, strong-smelling dusk of the courtyard that was streaked with light coming in through the cracks, the lodger harnessed his mare. Soft and straight-haired, the mare reluctantly pulled away from the abundantly filled feeding trough. The lodger didn't get angry; he didn't even notice. However, he picked up a crust of bread that someone had dropped on the dirty straw. He gazed at it for a long time before placing it into his traveling bag. Disappointed in the secret of Chadaev, the tavern-keeper came out of his hiding place. Chadaev became embarrassed.

"The dogs will probably be happy to see this," he said quietly about the bread.

"And who will be happy to see you?" the tavern-keeper responded; and winking his malicious, smirking eye, he went back into the tavern.

Chadaev rode out of the courtyard.

The April midday was filled with the short warbling of larks. Water puddles rippled with dazzling light; an illusive murmur filled the world. Filtering through to the heart, it instilled a pleasant, almost intoxicating lightness; but to Chadaev, this spring, his forty-fifth, seemed like an excess of nature gone mad. Pulling his wife's letter out from his bosom, a letter for whose sake he was prematurely and against all common sense leaving the district center, he again attempted to fathom its worrisome scribblings. "My dear husband," he read mainly from memory, "I am pining. My dear husband, I cry every day. My dear husband, I don't know how to pass the time. My dear husband, we...." The artful words rustled on the wind and lashed at Chadaev with a cruel and joyful laughter. With an equal force he lashed his horse with the whip, and the cart runners began to sputter depressingly in the well-worn rut.

To the envy of the world, good fortune had accompanied him his entire life. In the year before he was called up for service, he had married the ever-cheerful Katerinka; Katerinka's boisterous youth did not fade even in his ancient, creaking home, where every spring the incessant warbling of starlings sounded in the windows. Provided with everything needed for conquering life, Chadaev lacked only the gift of laughter; but even this bitter injustice of nature brought an advantage to him: he was feared. The war spared his tall, reddish body, which looked like a pine tree against the sunset; he returned intact, having received not so much as a black-eye. But then suddenly, petty misfortunes, like mice, began to plague him. He fought with them for a whole year, getting crazy from the battle, but still hordes of them attacked to gnaw at his celebrated prosperity. On days of respite, he bitterly looked into himself but could find no cause for his ruin. Only now, traveling to this latest punishment of fate, did he recall one adventure at the front...and although a muzhik is not ashamed of any sin that is covered in a soldier's greatcoat, this recollection burned and gnawed away at Chadaev's very essence, and there was no way to root it out.

During a lull in the war and the revolutionary liberties, his inglorious regiment languished under the southern sun. There, Chadaev took up with a Moldavian woman, a peasant just like himself. She was as comforting as his own Katerinka and, in fact, she went by the same name. She was pining over her husband, who was languishing in captivity. She was attracted to Chadaev's restless northern strength. He spent his days and nights in her little home under the acacias, he ate her chickens and drank her wine, and he often discussed the hidden charms of this little Moldavian with his circle of friends. He took a temporary delight in her Moldavian love. Chadaev left her without regrets, and the woman's tears prevented her from seeing that, along with her brief happiness, he was carrying away to the north her sewing machine, which he had taken a fancy to during one of their tender moments.... Chadaev could still not forget how he traveled for seventeen inclement days on the train, lolling in a typhoid-induced drowsiness, firmly clenching the stolen treasure between his knees. For him, it became more dear than bread or life because he was bringing it as a present for his northern Katerinka, whom he decided was the basis of his essentially dreamlike happiness. But when in the evening, as the cattle were being driven home, he stepped up onto the porch of his home, hungry and sweaty, swaying under the weight of his cherished burden, Katerinka began to cry. Halting, Chadaev gazed with turbid eyes at the crying woman, and his beard became like fire, as if he were carrying someone else's blood in it from the war.

His illness and awakening to life opened for him strange treasures, which had hitherto stood outside of his meager, antlike way of life. He looked with sorcererlike eyes all around himself and, in a non-muzhik way, he admired everything--from the flying midge to the growing tree; however, the muzhik in him won out over the man. All winter he worked with great energy to put the decrepit farm back to rights--clearing out the garden and erecting a number of starling houses in front of the home, as if attempting to lure happiness itself into the moss-covered walls. But the starlings never settled in, the apple trees were wormy, and Katerinka's gaiety left with the snows. Then he worriedly awaited children; but although there were dreams of fertility, there were no children. Katerinka flailed about like nettle-grass against a bathhouse window. She often ran from their home to the neighbors, and began to look older than her mother. But once she came back from hay-mowing looking light and young; she was silent and sat by the window all evening. During the night, when everything in the Chadaev household--cattle and possessions--was slumbering, Katerinka began to laugh in her sleep. Descending from the stove, Chadaev gloomily studied her as she tossed and turned, illuminated by the thieves' light of the moon. No matter how hard Chadaev peered through this small crack into Katerinka's secret, he could perceive nothing that night. It was quiet all around, with not even the smallest wind outside the window.

By dawn the rains abated, days of good weather rushed in, and the lost smile returned to the home. Alone with her thoughts, Katerinka sang the old songs of young women; and although she lacked the voice to sing them to the end, her husband excitedly rejoiced in her transformation. Abundance again visited this creaking place, and birds sang in the trees, as if purchased specially for this purpose. Chadaev slumbered on like a mountain, lullabied by the wind, and only this last letter from his wife, this splash of another's happiness, aroused his cumbersome torpor. Abandoning his business in the district town, where he had gone on the matter of an arrears payment, he was returning home, like to an inevitable grave.

The innkeeper had foretold the truth--even the dogs had all run off. No one greeted the master. Tying the mare to the wattle fence, Chadaev intently gazed at the unanswering holes of the windows, corseted with the luster of sunset. An icicle under the awning let fall tiresome drops. Chadaev furiously whipped it with his knout, and again waited; but his wife was not there. Then a boy sailing boats on a melted pond shouted to him through the paling that Katerinka was at the settlements with Seryoga. Chadaev shuttered and looked around: the neighbor's mare, looking for a stud, was scratching herself by a tree, and two old women at the well were unabashedly studying him and his confusion.

Then, in his caftan and with his knout, Chadaev set off for the settlements, and again his hands themselves stretched out in front of him, as if hurrying to some villainy.

Read more >>>