Saturday, 30 April 2016

On Stalin’s Team by Sheila Fitzpatrick

“Team” is not the definition I would use for a group of 40 to 50 people (almost entirely men) who, at their captain’s bidding, colluded in murdering over half their fellow members; nor does “team” fit men selected more for their incompetence than their ability as leaders, administrators or planners. In her introduction to this superbly researched, intelligent book, Sheila Fitzpatrick concedes this, inviting readers to substitute the word “gang” if they prefer. Even “gang” is too bland for these “scorpions in a jar”, as observers of the infighting put it. Perhaps “henchmen” is the word.

Two myths lie behind Stalin’s rehabilitation in Russia. One is that he won the second world (or “great patriotic”) war – though many historians conclude that the Russian people, helped by generous US supplies, won despite Stalin’s vacillation between inaction and wasteful enterprise. The other myth is that of Stalin as a great personnel manager. Although Fitzpatrick often notes the “energy” and “efficiency” with which Stalin’s men approached their remits, she perhaps underplays the appalling uselessness of those remits: in the early 1930s, shooting, starving, freezing or working to death 10 million peasants; in the Great Terror of 1937-8, executing some 700,000 people and sending two million to die in the gulag, among them the Soviet Union’s most accomplished citizens – technologists, scientists, artists – then decapitating the army by shooting most of the senior officers; and in 1944, while war still raged, dispatching over a million people of “traitor” nationalities to the deserts of Central Asia. Stalin’s “team” members certainly worked long hours, mostly at night, and trembled with fear lest their leader find them underachieving – but a more counterproductive way of governing a state would be hard to imagine.

Let us look at the permanent, core team members – known to Stalin from the revolution, who went on to die of old age in their beds. Stalin’s criteria for choosing his team was certainly original: he often took men who had blotched escutcheons – services to the tsars, acts of treachery or cowardice – because it made them blackmailable. One instance is his chief show-trial prosecutor, Andrei Vyshinsky. He chose not the alpha but the omega males, who could not possibly be employed by, or loyal to, any of Stalin’s rivals: Kliment Voroshilov was the worst marshal in the Soviet army (and he knew it: when the others were arrested, he told the equally dimwitted Marshal Budionny, “Don’t worry: they’re only arresting the clever ones”). Vyacheslav Molotov, who was Stalin’s chief executive in the 1930s and – when a common language had to be found with Hitler – foreign minister, was the worst such appointment in the history of diplomacy. He worked hard and loyally, in the mid-30s typically perusing the lists of 44,000 people whose executions were sanctioned by the politburo and scribbling “Prostitute, scum, death penalty” against their names. (It helped that his initials, VM, also stood for “highest penalty”, ie death by shooting.) Lazar Kaganovich may seem more remarkable: he was the token Jew in a politburo from which, as the revolutionary Karl Radek joked, Stalin had removed the Jews, like Moses removing them from Egypt; the efficient Moscow metro was built under his supervision. Anastas Mikoyan had a greasy charm and gave furtive help to victims of Stalinism. Fitzpatrick omits mention of Stalin’s worst “fixer”, the indestructible Lev Mekhlis, whose interventions in the war probably cost half a million lives. These men had less team spirit than Hitler’s gangsters (few of whom, no matter how disloyal or incompetent, were repressed by Hitler). No historian talks of Hitler’s “team”.

Apart from torturing and then shooting (or driving to suicide) his associates, Stalin had another method for controlling poets, musicians, scientists and ministers he thought better kept alive: to take one of their relatives hostage. Thus head of state Mikhail Kalinin had a wife who spent decades in a bathhouse in Kazakhstan, delousing prisoners’ underwear; and Molotov’s wife, after having greeted the Israeli ambassador Golda Meir effusively, also ended up in the gulag. Sometimes the team anticipated Stalin’s measures: Kaganovich made his elder brother kill himself; Nikolai Ezhov did the same to his wife. Stalin controlling his ministers is like the Chinese dowager empress Tzu-Hsi (Cixi) whose ministers had to present their genitals for inspection – in a glass jar.

Just as today Putin reminds us “there are no ex-secret policemen”, so Stalin’s team had no provision for resignation or retirement. Even former ministers of the tsarist or other anti-Bolshevik regimes could find safe new jobs in the USSR: the best being a morgue, one workplace in the USSR where nobody was accused of sabotage. Under Stalin, even if, like the doomed Nikolai Bukharin, you had a hinterland and some humane instincts, there was no relenting: your family were the “cogs in the machine” that ensured you kept working.

One of Fitzpatrick’s most interesting sections is her final chapter, “Without Stalin”. It covers a period during which the team reduced the number of internecine murders, introduced amnesties and admitted errors. Yet, under Khrushchev, executions (for speculation or industrial action) were undiminished. The only team member who attempted any radical turnaround was the vilest of murderers, Lavrenti Beria. In his 100 days of power from March to June 1953, there were no executions: only proposed reforms that made this priapic sadist a premature Gorbachev. Therefore the team shot him.

In other circumstances, they might have made a competent chamber ensemble: Stalin, Voroshilov and Kaganovich all sang church music; Molotov was a fair violinist; Andrei Zhdanov, the repressor of postwar culture, played the piano. There were in the early 1930s “team-bonding” outings at Stalin’s dacha in Abkhazia, where they fished (with dynamite) and barbecued sheep. But, as the helpful 50 potted biographies at the end of this book imply, alliances between members were pragmatic and short lived, formed to oust those who threatened them and to protect themselves from Stalin’s wrath.

Read more >>>

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

New study of Russia on eve of revolution wins Pushkin House Prize

Dominic Lieven’s book Towards the Flame: Empire, War and the End of Tsarist Russia has won the 2016 Pushkin House Prize, an annual award given for non-fiction books about Russia.
In the book, Lieven, a senior Cambridge research fellow, looks back to the eve of revolution and sets the start of the Soviet era in a “broader context of global history.” The author places Russia where it belongs, as he writes in his introduction, “at the very center of the history of the First World War.”
At the award ceremony in London on April 25, one of the judges, London professor Geoffrey Hosking, described the book as “a uniquely perceptive account of the opinions and mentalities of leading Russian statesmen … set against the geopolitical opportunities and dangers, which Russia faced at the time” and added that we have “much to learn from this book today.”
Towards the Flame was one of many books in this year’s exceptionally strong shortlist, chosen from among nearly 50 books, that draws on decades of research and expertise.
Unprecedentedly, the judges also gave a second award to Oleg Khlevnuik’sStalin: New Biography of a Dictator, which explores the historical context of Stalin’s reign rather than his personal life and habits. Nora Favorov’s translation has brought this book, already published and reprinted in Russia, to English-speaking audiences.
Andrew Jack, co-chair of Pushkin House, said: “These two books perfectly encapsulate our mission: to showcase and encourage the best in scholarship from and about Russia. They are exemplary winners.”
The 2016 shortlist, judged by a panel that included the director of St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, Mikhail Piotrovsky, was rich in books about the Soviet era, which included The Maisky Diaries, edited by Gabriel Gorodetsky.
Oliver Ready translated this extraordinary journal of a 1930s Soviet ambassador and Ivan Maisky’s impressions of life in London are fascinating. At one point he describes the “terribly excited” young Princess Elizabeth, now Britain’s 90-year-old queen, in a light pink dress, giggling and misbehaving.
Alfred Rieber’s Stalin and the Struggle for Supremacy in Eurasia explores attempts by the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan to control the boundaries of Eurasia.
In The End of the Cold War: 1985-1991Robert Service analyses the roles of key players, among them Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev and recalls some crucial turning points in recent history.
At one point, Service quotes Margaret Thatcher telling the BBC, after a 1984 meeting with Gorbachev at Chequers, that they had “two great interests in common”: avoiding war and building trade and cultural connections.
The most recent events covered by any book on the shortlist took place just a couple of years ago. Russia and the New World Order by Bobo Lo examines Russian foreign policy, including the annexation of Crimea. Lo looks at historical, ideological and international contexts in an erudite analysis of events that are still unfolding.
Read more >>>

Ballerina Diana Vishneva: ‘Valery Gergiev let me divide my life in two’

RBTH: What was harder – preserving a connection with the Mariinsky Theater or achieving autonomy from it?
Diana Vishneva: Obviously, in life nothing was as easy and smooth as it seems in words. I had to fight for my position in the theater, since its organization does not help the individual path. Just like political and economic factors also do not help the individual path. But I fought for my ideas, defended them, discussed and explained why certain things were necessary for me, and in the end obtained a favorable response.
When I was 20 years old I received a serious proposal through the theater. But it was hidden from me and I only learned of it many years later. Now I think it was good that they hid it. The period of maturing and mastering of the repertoire are very important. In a ballerina's youth she builds experience that will last for the remainder of her life. Only systematic work in her youth makes a first-class ballerina. And despite the opportunities that arise in front of you, you must maintain your concentration.
I was lucky that in the following phase the Mariinsky's director, Valery Gergiev, let me divide my life in two. He understands that for the art of dance, as for music, one of the key reference points is New York. He therefore approved my desire to work simultaneously in Berlin with Vladimir Malakhov and then in the ABT. This bilateral collaboration gave me freedom and incredible possibilities to dance that which I would never have been able to do at home.
My appearance in New York was timely. I’d already established a name and had experience as a prima ballerina, so I could work in the troupe and bend the general rules a little. I could expand my repertoire with the performances I was interested in.
RBTH: How did you come up with your solo programs?
D.V.: When the repertoires in both theaters were exhausted, I thought of doing individual projects. Despite their creative nature, they need to be backed by a serious producer. For me this is Ardani Artist. I’ve been working with its director Sergei Danilian ever since he awarded me with the Bozhestvennaya (Divine) Prize in 1995.
Sergei was inspired by my idea, it encouraged him. But this is dangerous and difficult swimming. I had a lot of experience, I knew that I was really interested in the performance. The challenge is in convincing the choreographer to collaborate with you, since they’re used to working with theaters, not with individual ballerinas.
RBTH: Do you do this by yourself or do you have assistants?
D.V.: The story with William Forsythe, which occurred during the staging of his ballets at the Mariinsky, taught me a big lesson. Now I speak to choreographers only by myself. But of course when we finally agree to something, then my team steps in. Especially when you have no state financing, someone has to take care of the organizational work. That’s how I thought of creating my own foundation, which became one of the instruments for realizing my ideas.
RBTH: You are one of the few classical ballerinas to begin dancing modern dance at the height of your career and not in order to postpone retiring. How did you arrive at this idea?
D.V.: The most important thing is to avoid extremities: "Today I dance the classics but then someday I'll dance modern dance." It doesn’t work that way. Without having the classical eight-year education, one will never be able to dance the classics. On the other hand, people with a classical education will be able to dance modern dance. You just need to do this early and gradually, avoiding excessive injuries. But it is also important what all your application leads to.
The result has never been a priority for me. It's the creative process that I value most. Sure, there’s a ballerina in me who, when faced with pain, hardship and everything new that the body repels says: "You don't need this, just dance your Giselle." I then need to cultivate, tame and transform this ballerina. Breaking her is very painful. People say about the ballet that our daily physical routine is like working in a coalmine.
Read more >>>

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Sergei Prokofiev, the composer who fled the USSR for the U.S. – and back

April 23 marks the 125th anniversary of the birth of Sergei Prokofiev, the outstanding Russian composer. His work today remains among the world’s most popular classical music, along with the Viennese classics and German romantic-era composers.
These days “Dance of the Knights” from the ballet Romeo and Juliet or Natasha's waltz from the opera War and Peace are used in computer games, or as phone ringtones, yet only 50 years ago, his music was considered innovative and daring.
Prokofiev’s fate seems like a paradox – but only at first glance. Born in an era of global upheavals, he was interested in only one thing – music, his own music.
If Prokofiev had lived in our time of never-ending TV shows, he definitely would have had to answer the question: "What would you do, if you weren’t a composer?" And he might reply: "I was an outstanding pianist, I beat Cuban grandmaster Capablanca at chess, but ever since I was young I’ve strived to become the world’s most performed composer."

In one of his first photos, you can see a nine-year-old boy in a sailor suit sitting in front of a piano. On the music sheets there is a clearly distinguishable inscription: “The opera Giant by Sergei Prokofiev.”
Two years later a successful young composer, Reinhold Glière, was invited to teach composition to the child. The composer’s mother, who was a great musician herself and firmly believed in her son’s great future, brought Prokofiev at the age of 13 from a remote Russian province to St. Petersburg. He entered the Conservatory, where he studied under the best musicians of his time, among whom was Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, an icon of Russian opera.
At the age of 16 he graduated from the Conservatory’s music composition department (a few years later, he received the diploma of pianist). His diploma was accompanied by not only a gold medal (summa cum laude), but also by several major works and the reputation of one of the main hopes of Russian art.
Soon he came to the attention of the largest Russian music publisher Boris Yurgenson, and after a few years Sergei Diaghilev, legendary ballet impresario, ordered him to write the score for the Ballets Russes in Paris.
This meteoric career might have been ruined by World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution. In that era, this fate befell many young talents who were destined for a great future. Nevertheless, Prokofiev had a talent for creating his musical universe as well as the ability to protect and defend it.
While his peers hesitated over a choice – what to do and where to live - Prokofiev decided that his goal was America. It was the only place where the composer could devote himself solely to creativity. New music, with its dissonances and unusual harmony, seemed overly complicated for many. Even his magnetic personality couldn’t always help Prokofiev promote his music.
So he resorted to pianistic virtuosity: Having received a contract for a piano concert, he would insert his own compositions into the program. In this period some of his most popular works were written: a few piano concertos, the operas The Love for Three Oranges and The Fiery Angel, Symphonies No. 2 and No. 3, and the ballet The Prodigal Son.
Read more >>>

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

The rake's progress - Pushkin

It is in some ways unfortunate that Tchaikovsky set Eugene Onegin to music, not Rossini, the composer of deep shallows. Pushkin, according to TJ Binyon's remarkable biography, became 'addicted' to Rossini while living in Odessa, where an Italian opera company was visiting, and though Binyon makes nothing of it, it rather blares at us, as writers' tastes in music so often do (Joyce's love of Puccini, for instance, or Auden's dislike of Brahms).

Tchaikovsky, that great melancholy confectioner, has hardly any temperamental affinity with Pushkin's novel in verse. Eugene Onegin's sparkling 14-line stanzas - little private carriages of plush - simultaneously open art and seal it.

On the one hand, they admit with hospitable precision an enormous amount of the prosaic (if not exactly the ordinary) world: 'Strasbourg pies', and beaver collars, and several of Pushkin's old schoolfriends, and the marks that Onegin makes in the margins of his books, and Veuve Clicquot, and English pantaloons. Sylvia Plath once longed to write a poem that might be roomy enough to include a toothbrush. But Pushkin anticipated her: his marvellous picture of Onegin's dandyish bedroom sees brushes 'of thirty kinds -/ these for the nails, those for the teeth'.

Everyone who reads Eugene Onegin delights in the novelistic density of its life, and immediately understands how carefully Tolstoy must have studied it. There is Onegin's Vronsky-like existence in St Petersburg: how he comes late to the Bolshoi Theatre and treads on the toes of those already seated; how his minimal Latin allows him to add 'vale' to a letter and remember two (precisely two) verses of the Aeneid.

And there is his dusty existence on his country estate, where the unopened cupboards contain fruit liqueurs, 'a book of household calculations', 'the calendar for 1808', and where the billiard table is equipped with a 'blunt cue'.

On the other hand, Pushkin once wrote that 'poetry is a fiction and has nothing in common with the prose of real life,' and the paradox of Eugene Onegin is that it is self-confessedly a poem simultaneously of real life and of pure fiction. These stanzas that select so much of the real constantly remind us of the fictive status of those selections - fictive because they have been so carefully selected, so artistically compiled.

Pushkin frequently observes that Onegin and Tatiana are his poetic creations; in the first chapter he enters the poem as a character and recalls evenings spent loitering with Onegin by the banks of the Neva. In Chapter 5, he interrupts a description of winter to point out that two other poets have written much better about winter than he can.

He digresses at will - about the state of Russian roads, about Tatiana's dreadful grasp of the Russian language, about the English word 'vulgar', about how much he loves women's small feet - and then digresses on his digressions: when he comes to write up a country ball, he says that he meant, earlier in the poem, to describe a proper Petersburg ball but got distracted by 'the recollection/ of certain ladies' tiny feet', and promptly chides himself for such digressions.

This high-spirited self-referentiality, so different in tone from the programmatic self-exposés of Postmodernism, performs nevertheless a somewhat similar, alienating function: it is always telling us 'this is a poem,' rather as Rossini often tells us 'this is an opera.' Tchaikovsky would make heavy weather of these feathery cirruses.

If Eugene Onegin begs for Rossini's treatment, then Pushkin's life seems to have resembled a libretto by Stendhal with music by Mozart. The extraordinary wealth of Binyon's research - his biography represents a true lifework, a long simmering of scholarship - only confirms the sense one already had of Pushkin's maniacal libidinousness, his swaggering fondness for duels, his feverish bursts of creativity and his ambivalent love of high society.

Just as his most famous poem is both sincere and arch - or both passionate and ironical - Pushkin himself was both a Romantic and an Enlightenment classicist, born at the very end of the 18th century (1799), and, like Karl Kraus's definition of the historian, something of a prophet facing backwards. Romanticism, properly seen, was 'the absence of all Rules but not the absence of art'. Hence Shakespeare, 'our Father', was a Romantic.

Pushkin certainly came under the sway of Byron, but by the time he was at work on the later chapters of Eugene Onegin, he was having second thoughts. Though by the end of his life he had enough English to read some Wordsworth and Coleridge, his intellectual formation was most indebted either to 18th-century novelists (Sterne, especially, whom he read in French), or classical poets (especially Horace).

Pushkin's intellectual background was traditional; both his parents spoke excellent French, and all his early reading was in that language. His social background was much less traditional. His mother, known in Petersburg as 'the beautiful Creole', was the granddaughter of a black slave, traditionally thought to have been a captured Ethiopian, though Binyon, with customary care, thinks Cameroon the likelier origin. He was a gift for Peter the Great, and rose from servitude to become a general in the Army, responsible by the end of his career for all military engineering in Russia.

Pushkin's father belonged to a family that had distinguished itself in public affairs in the late 16th century, though it had apparently been in gentle hibernation for most of the 18th. He was weak, not very interested in his children, and neglected his finances; perhaps Pushkin was thinking of him when he wrote that Onegin had read his Adam Smith - unlike his father, who 'could not understand him,/and mortgaged his lands'.

Pushkin's father was dilettantish and literary; Pushkin's uncle, Vasily, was an established though mediocre poet, most remarkable, it seems, for his last words, recorded by his cheerful, slightly sardonic nephew in 1830: 'coming to, he recognised me, was melancholy and silent for a little while, then: how boring Katenin's articles are! and not another word. What about that? That's what it means to die an honourable warrior, on your shield, your war-cry on your lips!'

It was Uncle Vasily who took the little Pushkin, in 1811, to his admission interview at the new lycée at Tsarskoe Selo, fifteen miles south of Petersburg, where the boy would make several enduring friendships, and where he wrote 29 poems, five of them published in the newspaper the Herald of Europe.

He was also writing much less lofty verse, however. At school, the milieu he joined was lecherous, aristocratic, boyish, jokey and clever. Pushkin was nicknamed 'the Frenchman' because of his knowledge of French literature, but Binyon speculates that the name might also have honoured his scatological tongue. Binyon helpfully reproduces several of Pushkin's salacious ditties, such as 'You and I', which contrasts the poet with the Tsar, and gets in a dig at Dmitri Khvostov, a talentless and prolific poet:

Your plump posterior you
Cleanse with calico; 
I do not pamper
My sinful hole in this childish manner
But with one of Khvostov's harsh odes, 
Wipe it though I wince.

In the early 1820s, in Kishinev, he fell in love with an innkeeper's daughter, and wrote her a naughty poem, 'Christ is Risen', in which he promised, today, to kiss her like a Christian, but tomorrow, if requested, to convert to Judaism just for another kiss, and even to put into her hand 'That by which one can distinguish/A genuine Hebrew from the Orthodox'.

Some of Pushkin's light verse, especially the poems aimed, Lovelace-like, at women he had fallen for, is unpleasantly crude. Later, there would be people, like the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz, who found Pushkin's ribaldry coarse. Everyone agreed that he was conventionally ugly. He was short, just under 5'6", with black curly hair, a broad nose and blue eyes, 'the ugly descendant of Negroes', as he described himself. Some women found his arrogance and the blatancy of his sexual need offensive, though many succumbed, and the woman he eventually married was famously beautiful.

He was the kind of man who, when he started writing Eugene Onegin in earnest, would write to a friend: 'Fuck fame, it's money I need.' He became a heavy gambler, fond of faro (Casanova's favourite game, too, Binyon murmurs), and several times was forced to hand over manuscripts of his poems in payment of his debts; at least two chapters of Eugene Onegin were sacrificed in this way.

There must have been many Petersburg Salieris, envious of the apparently uncouth effervescence of his performance and the quick genius of his creativity, its speedy sublime. (He would write a one-act play, one of his best works, about Mozart and Salieri, in which Salieri, maddened by Mozart's genius and 'idle wantonness', poisons him. One of the four so-called Little Tragedies, it is too brief to have been often staged, and is difficult to find in English. Besides, it has been splashily obscured by Peter Shaffer's Amadeus.)

Binyon's biography has the populousness of Tolstoy. An astonishing number of major and minor characters are introduced - and thickly introduced, with a paragraph or two of data - and kept in patient sight over hundreds of pages. Even very minor figures, who appear only once, get a packed footnote. A French chef called Tardif, for instance, cooks a meal for Pushkin when he is down in the Caucasus. A footnote reads: 'Formerly proprietor of the Hôtel de l'Europe, a luxurious establishment situated at the bottom of the Nevsky Prospect, he took to drink, got into financial difficulty and was ruined when his wife absconded with his cash-box and a colonel of cuirassiers. He fled to Odessa and, after various vicissitudes, ended up in Kishinev.'

Binyon thus honours Pushkin's gossipy style; Pushkin's own published notes at the end of Eugene Onegin contain such gems as: 'A periodical that used to be conducted by the late A. Izmailov rather negligently. He once apologised in print to the public, saying that during the holidays he had "caroused".'

Indeed, Binyon's book, which is full of narrative and almost empty of detailed literary analysis, seems to want to get as close as possible to the world, the insouciant style, even the bright prose of Pushkin. Binyon furnishes his prose with little gleaming antiquities: he uses the old English word 'rout' (for 'dance'; Pushkin used it, too), 'sensible' in the Austenesque way ('to be sensible of something'); refers to Pushkin being in 'a brown study' and suffering from 'the ague'; and mentions that Pushkin and his boisterous mates one night 'kicked up a terrible bobbery'. This is a big book, but it has a rakish, propulsive air, not unlike Pushkin's glittering short novels and stories, such as The Captain's Daughter and 'The Queen of Spades'.

Binyon's style of storytelling also honours the small, tight-knit, highly social nature of the Russian elite in Pushkin's day. Pushkin corresponded with several of his lycée chums until the end of his life. When the Decembrists made their failed coup attempt in 1825, he knew 11 of the ringleaders, and feared that he would be rounded up, guilty by association.

Read more >>>

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Crime and Punishment

Sheltering from the evening drizzle on a grey Maundy Thursday in London, a crowd packed into the National Portrait Gallery’s Ondaatje Wing Theatre for a talk on Dostoevsky’s great novel of resurrection, Crime and Punishment. The latest in the gallery’s "In Conversation" series, the talk was part of a varied programme of events complementing a newly opened exhibition: Russia and the Arts: The age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky. The legacy of Dostoevsky’s novel, which was published a century and a half ago this year, was the subject for a panel composed of the literary specialists Oliver Ready (the TLS's Russia editor), Sarah Young and Lesley Chamberlain.
Ready, who is also the novel’s most recent translator, playfully opened the discussion by noting that the typical question of a classic work’s "relevance today" can often sound threatening, laying the onus on the novel to engage us rather than on us to engage with the novel. So Ready invited his co-panellists to look through the other end of the telescope and consider not what the novel can tell us about our world, but rather how similarities in our world might bring us to a closer understanding of Dostoevsky’s novel. Young painted a vivid picture of the St Petersburg to which Dostoevsky returned from his period of Siberian exile. The city he saw as he began work on Crime and Punishment was radically changed: there was overcrowding, a sudden influx of migrants, strange foreign ideologies floating around, and a surge in urban poverty and vice. The novel that he would go on to write – one that he intended to be "current", very much of the year of its composition – abounds, Chamberlain reminded us, in newspaper details and topical references. It was a book, Young surmised, written about "the world of today, but also fearful for the future".

The talk meandered through the philosophical quagmires of the novel (deftly outlined by Chamberlain) before considering Dostoevsky’s reception in the West. The fact that doom and gloom is so closely associated with the author – Marcel Proust claimed that Dostoevsky’s entire opus could be titled "Crime and Punishment" – is, it would seem, somewhat unfair. The panel commented on his brilliant flashes of humour, an oft-forgotten aspect of his writing. (Actually, Dostoevsky’s skill as a humorist was one of the few merits as a writer that Vladimir Nabokov, his most infamous critic, was willing to concede.) Comparing the author of Crime and Punishment to his erstwhile mentor Nikolai Gogol, Ready further remarked that while Gogol’s oeuvre succeeds in bringing out the tragic in comedy, Dostoevsky’s great skill is showing the comic in tragedy.
One of the most fascinating moments in the discussion was the brief but beguiling consideration of Dostoevsky’s manuscripts, with their doodles and illustrations. Here, as we were shown, may be seen the very texture of Dostoevsky’s writing in visual form – subplots sprouting in all directions around the main plot, adorned with the author’s calligraphy, sketches of high Gothic architecture, and haunting portraits.
Questions followed. The audience was keen to know whether Dostoevsky had any modern literary heirs. The three names touted by the panel were the recent Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich; winner of the Russian Booker Prize, Vladimir Sharov; and, the ostensible outsider in the group, J. M. Coetzee.
Read more >>>

Friday, 15 April 2016

Nikolai Gumilev: A Silver Age poet who lived a richly tapestried life

Nikolai Gumilev had many guises in his life: romantic, leading light of Russian Silver Age poetry, officer, intrepid traveler, explorer and womanizer. He went from being a war hero in his younger years to an enemy of the state, falling foul of the Soviet authorities in the prime of life.

1) Travels far and wide

Gumilev was born in Kronstadt near St. Petersburg. Living next to the sea filled him with wanderlust from an early age, and he travelled extensively around Europe, before making several expeditions to Africa, where he visited Egypt, Somalia, Ethiopia and Djibouti. These trips were very dangerous, with the threat from wild animals and aggressive tribes compounded by food and water shortages. The party of Petersburg intellectuals even had to hunt for food at one point. In 1914, however, an expedition led by Gumilev brought a large collection of local works of art and items back to the Tsarist capital. Africa inspired Gumilev to write several poems and songs, including “The Galla”, “The Giraffe” and “The Sahara”, quoted below:

All deserts are one tribe, from the beginning
of time, but Arabia, Syria, Gobi —
they’re only ripples of the vast Sahara
wave that roared its satanic spite.

The Red Sea heaves, and the Persian Gulf,
and Pamir stands thick with snow,
but Sahara's sand-floods
run straight to green Siberia.
(Translated by Burton Raffel and Alla Burago)

2) Founder of the Acmeist movement

Several literary movements emerged in Russia in the early 20th century, and in 1912 Gumilev declared the foundation of Acmeism – a reaction to Symbolism’s extreme and abstract elements. Acmeism centered around direct expression through images and the accuracy of the word. The movement was joined by major Silver Age poets, including Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam and Sergey Gorodetsky, and it grew to encompass painting and music as well as literature. 

3) Anna Akhmatova’s husband

Gumilev was without doubt a ladies’ man, and his love affairs included an actress, poet, dancer and even a revolutionary. He had a checkered love life that included a duel, several suicide attempts, three children and two marriages.
His first wife was the famous Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, who he met as a young man. They had a passionate romantic and literary life, dedicating numerous lyric poems to each other. The marriage lasted eight stormy years before finally breaking down. The pair had already split up by the time Gumilev was declared an enemy of the people, but Akhmatova did not denounce him and helped preserve his poetic legacy.
Their son, Lev Gumilev, went on to achieve multi-disciplinary success as a scientist, ethnographer, historian and writer.

4) Talented translator

Gumilev greatly enriched Russian literature by his incredibly varied translation work. As well as European poets such as Shakespeare, Baudelaire and Southey, he translated Chinese poetry, The Epic of Gilgamesh, and Abyssinian folk songs that he encountered while travelling in Africa.

5) War hero

When the First World War broke out, Gumilev volunteered immediately. He proved himself to be a brave soldier with a keen desire for glory and was decorated twice with the Cross of St. George, ultimately becoming an officer.
Although many renowned poets from that era composed poems with a patriotic or military theme, only two volunteered to fight: Gumilev and Benedikt Livshits.
Read more >>>