Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Osip Mandelstam: The Admiralty

In the Northern capital, dusty populus,Sighing, mantles the time’s transparency,
And, through green dark, a frigate or an acropolis,
Brother to water and sky, glows distantly.
A boat of air, its mast like a touch-me-not –
To Peter’s progeny, this rule declares
Beauty was never the whim of a demi-god,
But a simple carpenter’s calculating stares.
Governed by four kind elements of creation,
We, as free people, order the fifth a place:
What is this ark of ours but the abnegation
In cleanly crafted lines of the tyrant, space?
Cranky medusas consolidate a position,
Anchors’ abandoned ploughs are adrift in rust,
But look, the three dimensions burst from their prison
And all the world’s seas are open to us at last.

Translated by Yuri Drobyshev and Carol Rumens

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Maya Plisetskaya: A life in art

Even during the era of the Cold War and the Iron Curtain, it seemed impossible that the mercurial talent of the great Russian ballerina Maya Plisetskaya could be contained by any walls. Now, long after the end of the Soviet Union, her life and work continues to unite and inspire admirers of high art in countries and continents around the world. 

An example to emulate for dancers starring in Swan Lake or Don Quixote, she is recognized by the whole world as the paragon of Russian ballet. It was thanks to her that the likes of Maurice Béjart and Roland Petit were able to bring their ballets to Russia. 

But even if she was half a century ahead of her time in ballet, Plisetskaya was not simply a ballerina – she was a woman of oustanding personality, a star that drew the most remarkable people of her time into her orbit. The stage – even one as great and grand as the Bolshoi – was simply not enough for her. 

Plisetskaya's artistic skill manifested itself very early in her life. As she herself recalled, back when she was too young to even go to school, she was once drawn away from her home by the sounds of a waltz from Léo Delibes' ballet Coppélia,playing from a PA loudspeaker.

But the most fascinating thing about this story is that her mother (who was a silent film star and a member of one of Moscow's most prominent stage actor families) found her surrounded by a crowd of fascinated onlookers who were enjoying little Maya's impromptu dance number.

The girl's aunt, the Bolshoi star Sulamith Messerer, gave young Maya her first ballet lessons and choreographed her first production of The Dying Swan when she was seven – and even at that time, Messerer praised the girl's incredibly flexible arms and her huge, dazzling dark eyes.

Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni once broke in backstage after a performance of Swan Lake, just to declare tearfully: "Actors are so poor: All we have is our facial expressions and gestures, but you, Maya, you use your whole body to act."

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Tuesday, 17 November 2015

The Same Old Story by Ivan Goncharov

That’s a good title for a first novel, you might say, combining world-weary ennui with a touch of chutzpah; but actually it’s the translator’s own – Ivan Goncharov’s book is more often rendered into English as A Common Story. But the new title makes sense, with the phrase “the same old story” being uttered early on by Uncle Pyotr, one of literature’s more remarkable characters.

It isn’t translated into English very often, though. Indeed, Goncharov refused to have his novels translated in his lifetime. If he is known in the UK it is as the author of the 1859 novel Oblomov, the justly celebrated story of a Russian patriarch who simply can’t be bothered to get out of bed. Its success has eclipsed his other works, which is a pity, and also rather mystifying as he only wrote three novels, all of which, incidentally, begin in Russian with the syllable “ob”.

The Same Old Story begins in the middle of the 19th century in the provincial estate of 20-year-old Alexander Aduev, a spoiled only son being fussed over by his silly, widowed mother as he prepares to leave for St Petersburg. (We don’t get to see much of the mother, which is probably just as well, for she reminded me of Jennifer Aldridge in The Archers.) Alexander doesn’t exactly know what he’s going to do in St Petersburg, other than, you know, live – the kind of living that involves writing poetry and becoming famous on the back of it.

He is taken up, with some degree of reluctance, by the aforementioned Uncle Pyotr. When we first meet Pyotr he is reading a fawning, wheedling letter from someone who claims to have had a long friendship with his late parents. There is about a page of this before Pyotr “slowly tore the letter into four pieces, and threw them into the waste-paper basket under the desk”. When I read this I thought: I’m going to enjoy Uncle Pyotr’s company.

I was not proved wrong. His nephew is completely hopeless: a romantic idiot who believes in greatness of soul and the imperishability of true love. Uncle Pyotr’s job, as he sees it, is to drive all this rubbish from Alexander’s head, and from the start we are very much on his side.

Goncharov’s genius resides in the way he makes us root for Uncle Pyotr who, as a hard-headed factory owner concerned only with the bottom line, is the kind of character Dickens might have turned into a villain. Here we applaud him, especially when he lights his cigar with a sheet of paper that has one of Alexander’s recently composed poems on it. But Goncharov makes us root, too, for Alexander, even when we’ve read some of that poetry. There is a good deal of autobiography in Alexander; Goncharov also went to St Petersburg as a youth in pretty much the same spirit, writing in his spare time while employed on trade journals. When Alexander kisses the young woman he has fallen in love with, the scene is described in such a way as to bring a sigh to anyone who has been in love, aged 20, on a summer evening.

It all goes horribly wrong, of course: this is the same old story. What happens to Alexander is shocking. I won’t spoil it for you, but suffice to say that the brilliant comedy of the first half is subverted in a way that is almost painful. This mastery of tone is also a sign that the translator, Stephen Pearl, has done his job extremely well.

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Friday, 13 November 2015

The centuries surround me with fire - Osip Mandelstam, Documentary, 1976.

New secrets of Malevich's ‘Black Square’ revealed

Kasimir Malevich, Black Square (1915)

Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery has published the results of the latest research carried out on Suprematist artist Kazimir Malevich’s revolutionary avant-garde painting Black Square. It turns out that a color image is hidden beneath the painting – and not one, but two. The discovery was made just over a month ago.
"It was known that there was some underlying image beneath the image of Black Square," said Yekaterina Voronina, a researcher in the Tretyakov Gallery's department of scientific expertise.
"We found that there was not one such image, but two. And we proved that the original image is a Cubo-Futuristic composition, and the one lying beneath Black Square, the color of which is visible in the craquelure, is a proto-Suprematist composition."
In the X-rays, the outlines of Malevich's other painting are clearly visible onBlack Square. Under the microscope, it can be clearly seen that another layer of paint shines through the craquelure, i.e. through the cracks inBlack Square.
The authors of the research – the Tretyakov Gallery's Voronina, Irina Rustamova and Irina Vakar – also spoke about their other discovery: They have deciphered an inscription on Black Square that they consider to belong to the author. More precisely, they have almost deciphered it: Three letters are missing.
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Saturday, 7 November 2015

Vasili Grossman: A report from Stalingrad, 1942

During the Great Patriotic War, Vasili Grossman was a correspondent for the army newspaperKrasnaya Zvezda. As such, he was an eye-witness to and participant in the historic Battle of Stalingrad. Years later, in his novels For A Just Cause and Life and Fate, Grossman would present a somewhat controversial view of that battle. But in 1942, his views were less ambiguous, celebrating the unquestionable courage of Soviet troops and highlighting the horrors of this hideous war.

In the Main Line of Attack describes life and death in a division of Siberian troops who had to bear the brunt of the most frenzied period of Nazi attacks on Stalingrad, withstanding 80 straight hours of bombardment, and more.

In the night, Colonel Gurtiev's Siberian troops took up defensive positions. A factory always looks rather stark and gloomy, but one could surely find no scene in the world more gloomy than the one these men saw on that October morning in 1942: the dark mass of the workshops, the wet, gleaming rails, already rusted here and there, the wrecked goods wagons, the piles of steel tubes scattered around the vast yard, as large as a city square, the brown slag heaps and mounds of coal, the great factory pipes, damaged in many places by enemy shells. The asphalted yard was pock-marked with bomb craters and scattered everywhere were steel splinters torn off by explosions, like thin shreds of material. The Division was to take up positions in front of the plant and stand to the death. Behind was the cold, dark Volga. 

During the night the sappers broke up the asphalt and dug trenches with picks in the hard, stony ground, cut firing-holes in the strong walls of the workshops, and made shelters in the cellars of the ruined buildings. The Barricades Plant was to be defended by Markelov's and Mikhalyev's regiments. One of the command posts was set up in a concrete-lined canal that passed beneath the main workshops. Sergeyenko's regiment was defending the deep ravine which ran down to the Volga through the Barricades Garden City. The officers and men of the regiment called it the Ravine of Death. Yes, behind was the dark, icy-cold Volga,behind was the fate of Russia. The Division was to make a stand and fight to the death. 

The First World War was a terrible ordeal for Russia, but then the fiendish foe had had to divide his forces between the Eastern and the Western fronts. In this war the whole crushing weight of the German invasion had fallen on Russia. In January 1941 the German armies were advancing along the entire front stretching from sea to sea. This year, 1942, the Germans were concentrating their attack in the south-eastern direction. What in the First World War had been spread over two fronts manned by several great powers, what last year struck Russia alone along a two-thousand-mile front, crashed down this summer and autumn on Stalingrad and the Caucasus. Moreover, here in Stalingrad the Germans had renewed their onslaught on the northern and central districts of the city. The Germans showered the murderous fire of countless mortars and thousands of guns on the northern part of the city, on the industrial area in the center of which stood the Barricades Plant. The Germans reckoned that no human being could stand up to such punishment, that no hearts or nerves in the world could fail to crack up in that inferno of fire, screaming metal, quaking earth and seething air. The whole fiendish arsenal of German militarism was concentrated here--tanks and flame-throwers, six-barrel mortars, armadas of dive-bombers with wailing sirens, and personnel and demolition bombs. The tommy-gunners were supplied with explosive bullets, the artillery and mortar teams with incendiary shells. Every kind of German artillery was concentrated here from small-caliber anti-tank guns to heavy, long-range pieces. They fired mortar shells that looked like harmless green and red balls, and air torpedoes, that made craters the size of a two-story house. Here the night was as bright as day from the glow of fires and rockets, while in the day-time it was dark as night with the smoke from burning houses and the German smoke-screens. The din was as solid as the earth itself, and the brief moments of silence seemed more terrible and threatening than the din of battle. And if the whole world bows its head to the heroism of the Russian armies, if the Russian armies speak in pious tones of the defenders of Stalingrad, here in Stalingrad itself, Shumilov's men say with deep respect: 

"It's not us. The lads who are holding the plants, they're the ones. It's an awesome sight: there's a solid cloud of fire and smoke and German dive-bombers above them day and night, but Chuikov's still holding out." 

These are grim words for a soldier; "the line of the main attack" are grave, terrible words. There are no more terrible words in war, and it was naturally no accident that the men of Gurtiev's Siberian Division were sent on that dismal autumn day to defend the plant. The Siberians are tough, sturdy people, used to cold and privation, fond of discipline and order, reticent and gruff. The Siberians are solid .and reliable. In tight-lipped silence they struck at the stony ground with their picks, cutting firing-holes in the workshop walls, making dugouts, entrenchments and communication trenches, preparing for the fight to the death. 

Colonel Gurtiev is a lean man of fifty. When the First World War broke out in 1914 he left the St. Petersburg Polytechnic where he was studying in his second year to volunteer for the army, and fought as a gunner at Warsaw, Baranovichi and Chartoriisk. 

Gurtiev has been in the army for twenty-eight years, seeing active service and training officers. His two sons went off to the front as lieutenants. He has left his wife and daughter behind in far-away Omsk. On this terrible and solemn day he thought of his lieutenant sons, his daughter and his wife, and the many young officers he had trained, and his whole long, hard, Spartan life. The time has come when all the principles of military science, morale and duty which he taught his sons, his pupils and fellow soldiers will be put to the test, and he looked anxiously at the faces of the Siberians--the men from Omsk, Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk and Barnaul--the men with whom it was his destiny to repel the enemy onslaught. 

The Siberians came to the Volga well-prepared. The Division had been well-trained before being sent to the front. Colonel Gurtiev had trained his men thoroughly and wisely, had never stood for any nonsense and if anything had been over-exacting. He knew that however hard military training might be--the night practice raids, the lying in trenches and slits being "ironed" by tanks, the long forced marches--the real thing was far grimmer. He had faith in the fortitude and stamina of his Siberians. He had tested it on the way to the front, when throughout the whole long journey there had been only one incident: one of the soldiers had dropped his rifle from the moving train, and had leapt down, picked it up and run three kilometers to the next station to rejoin his regiment. He had tested their stamina in the Stalingrad steppes, where his men had had their baptism of fire and calmly repelled a surprise attack of thirty German tanks. He had tested their endurance during the last leg of the march to Stalingrad, when they had covered two hundred kilometers in forty-eight hours. Yet he still looked anxiously at the faces of the men, now that they were there on the front line, where they would be bearing the brunt of the main attack. 

Gurtiev had great faith in his officers. His young Chief of Staff, Tarasov, did not know what tiredness was: he could sit for days and nights in a dugout that was constantly being shaken by explosions, poring over maps, planning the complicated battle ahead. His uncompromising judgment, his habit of looking life straight in the face and getting to the bottom of a situation to know the truth, however bitter, were based on unflinching faith. There was unshakable strength of mind and spirit hidden in that thin youth with the face, speech and hands of a peasant. The Colonel's political instructor Lieutenant Svirin was possessed of aniron will, a sharp mind, and a tremendous capacity for self-denial. He could remain calm, cheerful and smiling, where even the calmest and most cheerful would lose their smile. Markelov, Mikhalyev and Chamov, the regimental commanders, were the Colonel's pride and joy. He had as much faith in them as in himself. The whole Division spoke with love and admiration of Chamov's silent courage, Markelov's grit, and the fine qualities of Mikhalyev, the darling of his regiment, who was like a father to his subordinates, a gentle, good-natured soul, and completely fearless. Even so. Colonel Gurtiev now looked anxiously at the faces of his regimental commanders, for he knew what bearing the brunt of the main attack meant, what it meant to hold the line in Stalingrad. "Will they stand up to it?" he wondered. 

Hardly had the division had time to entrench itself in the stony ground of Stalingrad, hardly had the command post moved into a deep gallery cut in the sandy escarpment above the Volga, the communications lines been laid and the transmitters begun to tap out their messages to the artillery positions on the other side of the river, hardly had the first pale light of dawn pierced the darkness, than the Germans opened fire. For eight hours solid the German Junkers dive-bombed the Division's positions,for eight hours, without a moment's pause, wave after wave of German planes passed over, for eight hours the sirens wailed, the bombs whistled through the air, the earth trembled and what was left of the brick buildings crashed to the ground.For eight hours the air was dark with smoke and dust and deadly splinters zipped everywhere. Anyone who has heard the whine of the air rent by falling bomb, anyone who has experienced an intense ten-minute bombing raid by the Luftwaffe will understand what eight hours of solid aerial bombardment by dive-bombers means. For eight hours the Siberians kept up a constant barrage of fire at the enemy aircraft, and the Germans doubtless felt something like despair as the whole area of the plant, burning and shrouded in a black cloud of dust and smoke, crackled with rifle shots, rattled with machine-gun fire, the short thuds of anti-tank rifles and the regular, angry fire of ack-ack guns. It would seem that everything living must be broken, annihilated; yet there were the Siberian Division, dug into the ground, uncowed and unbroken, keeping up a continuous deadly barrage of fire. The Germans had thrown in their heavy mortars and artillery. The monotonous hiss of mines and the crash of shells merged with the whine of sirens and the roar of exploding bombs. So it continued until nightfall. Then in solemn silence the Red Army men buried their dead comrades. That was the first day, the "house-warming". The German mortar-batteries kept up their racket all night, and few of the men got any sleep. 

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Parade on Red Square on November, 7th, 1941