Thursday, 27 November 2014

‘Tolstoy’s False Disciple,’ by Alexandra Popoff

In 1910, Lev Tolstoy died of pneumonia in a filthy house at a provincial train station. He had fled home at the urging of his closest disciple, Vladimir Chertkov, a cunning, talentless man. How did the ­mediocre Chertkov come to be beside Russia’s greatest writer as he died, even as Tolstoy’s wife, Sophia, stared through the window, denied entry? In “Tolstoy’s False Disciple,” Alexandra Popoff, the author of the biography “Sophia Tolstoy” and “The Wives: The Women Behind Russia’s Literary Giants,” draws on long unavailable archival materials, including Chertkov’s letters, to examine the relationship that tore apart Tolstoy’s family and threatened his literary legacy.

The wealthy, spoiled Chertkov met Tolstoy, 26 years his senior, because of their shared interest in a Christianity that rejected the Orthodox Church. Chertkov, who didn’t care for literature, convinced Tolstoy that they were soul mates by simply parroting his philosophy. By then, Tolstoy was lost in the thicket of his own ideals, torn between what he believed and what he desired. He seems to have felt there was something holy in submission to Chertkov’s will, but the bond wasn’t strictly spiritual. Chertkov liked to keep plenty of handsome peasant youths ­nearby; as a young man, Tolstoy had written that he’d loved only men, and never women. He worried, pathetically, about Chertkov not loving him enough, even as friends and family wondered how such a great man could love such a cad.

Soon Chertkov was reading Tolstoy’s diary — a privilege reserved, until then, for Sophia. He was allowed to edit Tolstoy’s work and his papers, sometimes making large cuts and even rewriting sections, including sections of his diaries. He urged Tolstoy to focus on religious writing, and to revise his fiction to make it more didactic. Where major works were concerned, Tolstoy’s literary instincts rebelled, and he rejected Chertkov’s meddling. But most of the time, he submitted meekly. He accepted Chertkov’s writing assignments and revised Chertkov’s poorly written articles. He allowed Chertkov to send him on errands — to hire a wet nurse, to scout real estate, to buy asparagus. (Chertkov complained when the asparagus was ­wilted; Tolstoy went back to the merchant and returned with a fresh box.) Chertkov kept blank sheets with Tolstoy’s signature and wrote letters on his behalf, though his bad Russian betrayed him. He had Tolstoy sign a document stating that he and his wife were Tolstoy’s closest friends. Caring only about money and speed, the spendthrift Chertkov hired hack translators and tried to publish Tolstoy’s unfinished drafts. He pressed Tolstoy to send him rough descriptions of plot ideas, apparently believing that he could cash in on them after Tolstoy’s death. Most important, he persuaded Tolstoy to make him his literary executor.

Chertkov’s motives may have gone beyond greed, obsession or love of fame. Under the pretext of making a compendium of the writer’s thoughts, Chertkov had his scribes copy Tolstoy’s papers, including his diaries. Some of the scribes were also spies, reporting to Chertkov on Tolstoy’s activities. Chertkov became Tolstoy’s private censor, pressing him to tone down his criticisms of the government. He stored his large archive of Tolstoy’s papers — including parts of Tolstoy’s private diary — at the house of a general who was notorious for police brutality, and who had close ties to the secret police. Popoff’s research suggests that Chertkov may have been an agent of the government, which, afraid of Tolstoy’s subversive ideas, kept the writer under surveillance for the last 50 years of his life.

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Wednesday, 26 November 2014

A life unshackled: Remembering the symbolist poet Zinaida Gippius



Zinaida Gippius was an eminent and significant Russian poet, prose writer and critic. Her poetic and cultural influence went hand in hand with her refusal to conform to prescribed notions of femininity. Admired by writers such as Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein, Gippius was a central figure in the established cultural elite of her day, despite being highly subversive. Yet today, in the West, she is all but forgotten.

Born in Belyov, Tula (112 miles south of Moscow), on Nov. 20, 1869, Gippius started writing poetry at an early age. She moved to St. Petersburg in 1889 after marrying Dmitry Merezhkovsky, who was a significant poet, writer and literary critic in his own right. The pair soon became key figures in St. Petersburg’s literary elite, hosting illustrious salon gatherings and becoming acquainted with leading figures such as Maxim GorkyAnton Chekhov and Leo Tolstoy.

Following the October Revolution in 1917 and the subsequent civil war, Gippius and Merezhkovsky joined the exodus of many prominent writers, philosophers and statesmen from Russia, moving to Paris in 1919. They held famous Sunday salons in which Gippius was an authoritative leader, presenting confrontational themes to discuss and directing polemics. In 1927 she hosted the first meeting of the “Zelenya Lampa” – the Green Lamp, considered one of the most important and erudite of the many émigré literary groups during that period.
Gippius was an innovative poet who was firmly at the heart of the first wave of Russian Symbolism, and many subsequent Symbolist poets based their technique on her experiments with rhyme and meter. Symbolist writers saw the written word as a means of apprehending an infinite, transcendental truth, and Gippius played with decadent motifs and themes of the sacred and the profane.
She formulated an ideology that “art should materialize only in the spiritual,” and her spirituality – like many other aspects of her life – was unconventional and linked to a pursuit of spiritual freedom. “My soul is bare, stripped to the purest bareness,” she wrote in her 1905 poem “The Wedding Ring” – “It has escaped, transcended all its bounds.”

Poetry was also a space in which Gippius could escape gender expectations. She often adopted a male persona in her work, and was criticized for using the masculine endings of verbs and personal pronouns. In response she asserted that she wanted to “write poetry not just as a woman but as a human being.”

Gippius treated her life as art and used it as another medium through which to explore her creative philosophy. She had a reputation outside of her circle for being a “decadent Madonna” and was likened to the devil. She did nothing to contradict these labels, associating herself with the gothic figure of the spider and using decadent motifs and imagery throughout her poetry:

The silk flares up in flames,
Then turns to a pool of blood;
“Love” is our paltry word
For the blood language cannot name.
(“The Seamstress,” 1901)

Gippius’s personal style was both elaborate and subversive. She would sometimes wear ostentatiously feminine dress deemed “inappropriate” by many around her, affecting an image and attitude that parodied conventional conceptions of femininity. Andrei Bely, one of the most important Russian symbolists described her as “a human-sized wasp,” going on to say that “a lump of distended red hair … concealed a small, crooked face … the charm of her bony, hipless skeleton recalled a communicant deftly captivating Satan.”

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Sunday, 23 November 2014

A Point of View: The writer who foresaw the rise of the totalitarian state

The 19th Century Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote about characters who justified murder in the name of their ideological beliefs. For this reason, John Gray argues, he's remained relevant ever since, through the rise of the totalitarian states of the 20th Century, to the "war against terror".
When Fyodor Dostoyevsky described in his novels how ideas have the power to change human lives, he knew something of what he was writing about.
Born in 1821, the Russian writer was in his 20s when he joined a circle of radical intellectuals in St Petersburg who were entranced by French utopian socialist theories. A police agent who had infiltrated the group reported its discussions to the authorities. On 22 April 1849, Dostoyevsky was arrested and imprisoned along with the other members, and after some months of investigation they were found guilty of planning to distribute subversive propaganda and condemned to death by firing squad.
The punishment was commuted to a sentence of exile and hard labour, but the tsar's authority to decree life or death was confirmed by forcing the prisoners to undergo the ordeal of a mock execution.
In a carefully stage-managed charade Dostoyevsky and the rest of the group were taken on the morning of 22 December 1849 to a regimental parade ground, where scaffolding had been erected and decorated with black crepe. Their crimes and sentence were read out and an Orthodox priest asked them to repent.
Three of the group were tied to stakes in readiness for execution. At the last moment there was a roll of drums, and the firing squad lowered its rifles. Reprieved, the prisoners were put in shackles and sent into Siberian exile - in Dostoyevsky's case for four years of hard labour, followed by compulsory service in the Russian army. In 1859 a new tsar allowed Dostoyevsky to end his Siberian exile. A year later he was back in the literary world of St Petersburg.
Dostoyevsky's experience had altered him profoundly. He did not abandon his view that Russian society needed to be radically changed. He continued to believe that the institution of serfdom was profoundly immoral, and to the end of his life he detested the landed aristocracy. But his experience of being on what he'd believed was the brink of death had given him a new perspective on time and history. Many years later he remarked: "I cannot recall when I was ever as happy as on that day."
From then onwards he realised that human life was not a movement from a backward past to a better future, as he had believed or half-believed when he shared the ideas of the radical intelligentsia. Instead, every human being stood at each moment on the edge of eternity. As a result of this revelation, Dostoyevsky became increasingly mistrustful of the progressive ideology to which he had been drawn as a young man.
He was particularly scornful of the ideas he found in St Petersburg when he returned from his decade of Siberian exile. The new generation of Russian intellectuals was gripped by European theories and philosophies. French materialism, German humanism and English utilitarianism were melded together into a peculiarly Russian combination that came to be called "nihilism".
We tend to think of a nihilist as someone who believes in nothing, but the Russian nihilists of the 1860s were very different. They were fervent believers in science, who wanted to destroy the religious and moral traditions that had guided humankind in the past in order that a new and better world could come into being. There are plenty of people who believe something similar today.
Dostoyevsky's indictment of nihilism is presented in his great novel Demons. Published in 1872, the book has been criticised for being didactic in tone, and there can be no doubt that he wanted to show that the dominant ideas of his generation were harmful. But the story Dostoyevsky tells is also a dark comedy, cruelly funny in its depiction of high-minded intellectuals toying with revolutionary notions without understanding anything of what revolution means in practice.
The plot is a version of actual events that unfolded as Dostoyevsky was writing the book. A former teacher of divinity turned terrorist, Sergei Nechaev, was arrested and convicted of complicity in the killing of a student. Nechaev had authored a pamphlet, The Catechism of a Revolutionary, which argued that any means (including blackmail and murder) could be used to advance the cause of revolution. The student had questioned Nechaev's policies, and so had to be eliminated.
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Saturday, 22 November 2014

A Georgian Caliban - Stalin

All but a few crumbs of the available archive materials have been studied, every political and psychological theory has been applied, filters of every colour - whitewash, deepest red, pitch black - have been inserted into historians' lenses: after the revelations of the last twenty years, little fundamentally new can be said about Joseph Stalin. Psychopaths of Stalin's order arise so rarely in history that forensic psychiatry has few insights to offer. There is now a general consensus about the death toll and the ghastly heritage of Stalinism. All that is left to dispute is the mechanism by which Stalin grabbed and held on to power and, of course, the various 'what ifs' that arise from considering a scenario in which he failed to do so. Largely on this basis, Stephen Kotkin presents us with nearly a thousand pages which promise to comprise but a third of a definitive work on Stalin and his rule.

Kotkin's book is so long because he sets Stalin against an extensive historical and social background: not just the history of tsarist Russia, but also the histories of its European imperial neighbours and even the USA and China form a panorama against which the young Stalin sometimes vanishes for many pages at a time. A fifth of the book consists of very detailed notes and an invaluable bibliography. The implicit reason for providing such a wide-ranging background is to show Stalin as a product of his times and country, though the next two volumes will almost certainly show, as Kotkin's work on Stalin's industrialisation strategies already has, the times and the country as the product of Stalin.

There are a few new facts and a little demolition of false assumptions. Kotkin's major surprise is his claim, previously put forward by a Russian scholar, that Lenin's famous testament, a sort of headmaster's report critically assessing the six candidates who might inherit the leadership, was probably not dictated by Lenin. It may instead have been fabricated by Lenin's wife, Krupskaya, who had reason to consider Stalin 'too rude', to have gathered too much power and to be a 'cook who will prepare hot dishes'. But this forgery, if that was what it was, matters little. Krupskaya may merely have written what she had guessed the semi-paralysed Lenin was thinking; moreover, many party members wanted a rude and power-crazed leader who would stir things up. Such criticism did Stalin's chances of power no harm.

Kotkin's merit is that he grinds no axes and is polite to his predecessors. His history is, to an extent, old-fashioned, even Carlylean. He believes that great men shape events: had Stalin not existed, then history would have been very different; had Stalin died in the early 1920s (as he might have done when operated on for appendicitis, given that Russian chloroform killed many a distinguished patient), then the USSR might have prolonged and developed the relatively liberal New Economic Policy and avoided 'socialism in one country'. The evidence of Stalin's proactive micromanagement supports Kotkin's theory.

One might disagree, however, with Kotkin's assumption that Stalin's paranoid, vindictive nature was a product of, not a motive for, the pursuit of power and that it was slow to develop. Stalin's youthful sexual liaisons may have been normal ('Stalin had a penis, and he used it,' Kotkin remarks), but his impregnation of the thirteen- or fourteen-year-old Siberian orphan Lidia Pereprygina was, even by the standards of the most unbourgeois Bolshevik, the kind of behaviour to be condoned only in a male stoat. Kotkin omits many of the acts of the young Stalin that mark him as a creature of exceptional turpitude among the thugs, bandits, fanatics and misguided adolescents of the Transcaucasian Social Democratic Party. For example, when General Griaznov was assassinated in Tbilisi in 1906 and a bystander, Joiashvili, was arrested, Stalin composed an incriminating pamphlet to ensure that Joiashvili and not the real assassin was hanged (Stalin admitted this with pride in the 1920s). Likewise, he tried to have fellow party members executed on false accusations of treachery. The best evidence for any semblance of humanity in the young Stalin is not in Kotkin's narrative but in the pictures. The photograph of a dishevelled Stalin standing with his mother and his in-laws by the open coffin in which his first wife lies is the sole picture of Stalin showing anything like remorse, sorrow and embarrassment. Kotkin might also have cited some of the postcards Stalin sent back to Georgia from London, in which he appears as just a laddish adventurer out to have a good time, hoping not to shock his new bride.

Stalin's childhood injuries and illnesses are well catalogued by Kotkin, but he does not pursue them as a possible source of Stalin's sadism (as some have done, on the Dostoevskian principle that the primary desire of a man suffering from toothache is that everyone should share his agony). Medical historians conclude that Stalin was in more or less acute muscular, neurological and dental pain all his adult life. His pain threshold was high - as is testified by his endurance of extensive root canal treatment from the bravest man in his circle, the dentist Yakov Shapiro. But Stalin's brutality towards the medical profession, hitherto sacred to all Russian authorities, hints at the frustrations of a man in unremitting pain. (Kotkin does not mention the first murder of a doctor attributed to Stalin: the death in 1927 of Dr Bekhterev, two days after he remarked that he had just examined 'a paranoiac with a withered arm'.)

Inescapably, the young Stalin's intellectual acumen is as impressive as his ambition. Perhaps the crucial remark (not cited by Kotkin) is to be found in a letter to a girlfriend, telling her that The Tempest was the greatest Shakespearean play. Stalin was a Caliban who, helped by drunken sailors, would overthrow Prospero and seize his kingdom. What emerges well from Kotkin's account is Stalin's activity as a publicist and editor. Books that Stalin annotated reveal that we are dealing with the ultimate proofreader, a man who never missed an author's or an editor's mistake. No wonder Soviet literature's greatest achievement was eliminating misprints, which were considered 'raids by the class enemy' (an attitude one wishes Penguin Press might adopt).

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Saturday, 15 November 2014

Alexander Blok: As I was growing old and fading

As I was growing old and fading, 
A poet, used to streaks of grey, 
I wanted to postpone the ending 
The aged men should face some day. 
 
A sickly man, a puny creature, 
I’m looking for a lucky star, 
And in my senile dreams I picture 
A lovely image, now so far. 
 
Perchance I have forgotten something, 
I don’t believe in such a lie. 
This tremor has aroused nothing. 
I’m neither moved nor touched. Not I! 
 
These old time silly tales and stories 
Have fascinated me somehow, 
But I’ve been bowed by age and worries, 
It’s funny, I am a poet now… 
 
I don’t believe in books and omens 
Of silly men of our times! 
Damn all those dreams! Damn all those moments 
Of my prophetic dogg’rel rhymes! 
 
So here I am, alone and lonely 
An angry man, decrepit, sick… 
I stretch my hand and with a quandary 
Bend down to pick my walking stick… 
 
Whom should I trust? Whom should I doubt? 
Those doctors, poets, priests and all… 
If only I could join a crowd 
And learn to be a trivial soul! 


Translated from the Russian by Alec Vagapov

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

The Tragic Story of Everyday Life - Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

There is a word in Russian, byt. Roughly translated, it means everyday life. It is also the root of the infinitive verb byt’, “to be,” as though the Russian language itself believes that it is the day to day—waking up, going to work, trying to earn enough to eat, wanting very badly to love and be loved in return—that makes up who we are. Everyday life is the root of being, according to Russian etymology—and to Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, the dazzlingly talented and deeply empathetic author of a new collection of three novellas, There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In.

Born in Moscow in 1938, Petrushevskaya has alternately been proclaimed the greatest living Russian writer and the last of the great Russian writers. (Penguin has been translating and collecting her stories in charming paperbacks with long titles: There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself, There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby.) Some fans might have been dismayed when she took up cabaret singing a few years ago, but having a second career is a very “great-Russian-writer” thing to do: Chekhov was a doctor, Dostoevsky and Bulgakov were engineers, and Tolstoy had that whole second stint as a wannabe peasant. And, indeed, in the novellas in this collection (translated by Anna Summers), Petrushevskaya consciously inserts herself into the tradition of great Russian literature.

The first tale, “The Time Is Night,” originally published in 1992, is the story of Anna, a grandmother struggling to take care of her grandson while fending off her predatory grown children. The story does not begin with narration. Rather, it is introduced as writings contained in a folder Anna has left behind—a framing device used by all of the aforementioned greats, including Dostoevsky, who gets a nod in the folder’s label: “Notes from the Edge of the Table.”

The second novella, “Chocolates With Liqueur,” published in 2002, offers a Russian twist on Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado.” But Petrushevskaya infuses her “Chocolates,” about a woman seduced into a dangerous situation by her love of sweet wine, with the Russian literary tradition: The story is told out of chronological order, a technique used so often in Russian writing that there are terms—fabula and syuzhet—that distinguish between the story’s chronology and the sequence in which the events are told.

The last of the trio, 1988’s “Among Friends,” in which a woman goes to extreme lengths to ensure that her son is taken care of by her social circle after she dies, is a satire of the secret salons of the Russian intelligentsia in the late Soviet period. It targets the scientists and writers who cowered inside their communal apartments, fancying themselves intellectual crusaders but unable to be morally decent to each other in their everyday lives. “Kolya, so generous and kind to others, quickly gets bored and irritable at home and yells at Alesha, especially at mealtimes,” reveals the narrator. “In addition, Kolya was preparing to leave us, and not just for anyone—for Marisha.”

But in these stories, Petrushevskaya is not only establishing her place in the Russian literary tradition. She also changes it, and what are considered acceptable literary topics therein. She is not, like Tolstoy, writing of war, or, like Dostoevsky, writing of criminals on the street, or, like poet Anna Akhmatova or novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, noting the extreme suffering of those sent to the camps.

Rather, she is bearing witness to the fight to survive the everyday. The skirmishes with family and friends. The too-small, too-shared apartments. (“Andrey was coming home—where would he sleep? What would he eat? How would we manage? I couldn’t sleep and woke up in a cold sweat.”) The food scarcity. (“She and the children had nothing to live on,” we learn of the protagonist of “Chocolates With Liqueur.”)

In “The Time Is Night,” Anna, a poet, refers throughout to her namesake. Though she never specifies, that namesake is Anna Akhmatova, who composed, among other writings, “Requiem,” a lyric memorial to her son in the labor camps. In “Requiem,” Akhmatova writes of those who were sent to the camps, and those who stayed behind, waiting for them: “I’d like to name them all by name, but the list/Has been removed and there is nowhere else to look./So,/ I have woven you this wide shroud out of the humble/ words/ I overheard you use.”

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Is God Russian? Dostoevsky Thought So

When Dostoevsky wrote that for man to be saved it was necessary that he should believe in the Russian God, he was speaking not more vaguely than most other professed researchers into salvation who work within a church. It is necessary that we should walk in the Spirit, said St. Paul. It is necessary, stammered St. Theresa in answer to an age when the awakened mind of the world was beginning to ask for clearer formulations, that grace should descend upon the essential of the soul. And past that vague passion of the seraphic doctor, theology has today advanced hardly a step towards finding out on what intellectual bases a man ought to rebuild his life if he wants to be saved from the peril of wasteful drinking or thinking, and become unalterably a part of the glory of the universe, the apprehension of which is religion. The task has been so completely abandoned by the churches that one could write a history of the moral aspirations of England since the death of Wesley without once mentioning the name of any man who was not a layman. Roman Catholicism has become more and more a social organization to control the ignorant, and a refuge for those among the educated who desire not so much salvation as an escape from democracy and the teasing discussions of life which are promoted by democracy. Protestantism has partly retroceded into an Anglicanism which is identical with Roman Catholicism in that it exists chiefly to maintain the present social system by inculcating obedience as the prime virtue; and its other part considers the emotions evoked by picturesque phrases about the Saviour on the Cross and the Blood of the Lamb to be magic experiences which automatically save the souls they visit and thus preclude the necessity for intellectual research into the salvation of humanity. That has become the fervent pursuit of the secular intelligence. It is the inquiry that looks over the shoulder of the man of science at every experiment; it is the preoccupation that sits like a judge in every artist’s brain. The discoveries of science and philosophy have opened such magic casements out of the world of appearances that they have attracted men of imagination, whose impulse it is to find out the beauty and significance of material, as strongly as they have repelled those who have staked their existence on the finality of the Christian revelation. And thus it is that the history of the research for redemption is written not in the liturgies but in literature.

It was Dostoevsky’s misfortune that the part of this discussion which came under his notice was the pert atheism and utilitarianism which were the dregs of the draught of ideas brewed by the French Revolution, and that he lacked the education to follow thought into her hidden and wonderful ways. So, just as fervently as he took up the research—and there never was a great artist more consciously preoccupied by it—did he turn his back on the culture which had evolved its technique and vocabulary, and link himself with a church that had never heard of this mental adventure. It was his further misfortune that it should be the Greek church; for though that sect has preserved the naïve grace and kindness of the early church and practices a morning Christianity with the dew still on it, it is a savage institution, and its ritual is blood-brother to the prayers mouthed into the beard round the black rock of Mecca, or any magic words howled under the moon by naked worshippers. Yet although each one of his books proved that the church’s terminology and processes were hopelessly inadequate for the pursuit of his ideal, he clung to it with that feverish obstinacy which comes of unstable nerves. He continued to talk of ikons and venerable elders who dwelt in cells, and this peculiarly, almost comically, Russian God, who seemed to distrust the Pope as a “furriner,” until he left a confused impression that it was his puerile ambition to see the world dominated by priests with pigtails rather than by priests with tonsures. And that is the impression which will remain in the mind unless one turn to the last read and least sympathetically regarded of all his works, The Possessed, one of the most tormented books in literature.

To all of us there comes at times a mood which wakes us up at two in the morning and makes us think quickly and lucidly and despairingly, so that we lie till the dawn watching the world spin down the skies to destruction. That mood fell upon Dostoevsky at the thought of the picking, spoiling hands and minds of the Nihilists, and it stayed with him all the many days of his writing of The Possessed. “The treetops roared with a deep droning sound, and creaked on their roots; it was a melancholy morning,” he writes in his account of the duel which was one of the graceless follies of Stavrogin, the man who might have been great had he not been paralyzed by Nihilism. And he conceived the nineteenth century to be just such a melancholy morning, with Russian life creaking on its roots, and its branches roaring with the wind of doubt and hate which chased across the steppes from godless Europe. At last he becomes distraught by his own gloom, and in one of those still, interminable nights when Stavrogin wanders restlessly about the streets of the little town against whose harmonies his fellows are conspiring, he throws aside the borrowed phrases of the church and cries out his real faith in his own words. He sends out Shatov, the Christian hero, an unstable, untalented thing, redeemed only by his hunger for truth, to pluck Stavorgin by the sleeve and try to recall him to thought and action by restating the idea that had lit up their youth.

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