Thursday, 27 January 2011

Mikhail Lermontov: Borodino

Battle of Borodino, by Peter von Hess, 1843

– HEY tell, old man, had we a cause
When Moscow, razed by fire, once was
Given up to Frenchman's blow?
Old-timers talk about some frays,
And they remember well those days!
With cause all Russia fashions lays
About Borodino!

– Yea, were there men when I was young,
Whose songs your tribe is not to 've sung:
They'd fight,– you 're none as good!
An evil lot have they been drawn:
Few left the grounds to which they had gone...
Had it not been God's will alone,
Old Moscow should have stood!

Retreating this day and the next,
We wonder'd when 's our battle, vext;
The veterans talk'd upset:
"What then? we 're off to winter dorms?
Go the commanders by new norms;
Daren't they rip foreign uniforms
On Russian bayonet?"

And then we had come upon a plain:
Here 's room to fight with might and main!
There built we a redoubt.
Our troops are curt on high alert!
Soon as sun's beams on cannon spurt,
And on the bluish wood-tops squirt –
The Frenchmen march right out.

I drove the shell in tight: well isn't
It meet our guest receive a present!
Hold off, my friend Moosue!
Who needs these games, why not begin;
Those left alive will wall you in,
If this be what it takes to win
Our motherland from you!

Why give of that too many thoughts?
We waited third day on.
Words started then to fly to the ear:
"'Tis time we use the grape-shot, hear!"
And now the field of carnage sheer
The pall of night does don.

Then I dozed off beside our gun,
And not until the dawn, was done
The revel of the French.
But quiet was our open camp:
His shako with a brush one 'd scamp,
Cross-hearted, would another tramp,
His sharpen'd bayonet clench.

And once the sky lit from its border –
Formations, gleaming, pass'd in order,
With shouts all took its berth.
Our colonel's mettle did you feel:
Czar's servant, soldiers' father real...
Yea, 'tis a pity: slain by steel,
Now sleeps he in black earth.

And eyes aflame, he spoke his mind:
"Hey lads! is Moscow not behind?
By Moscow then we die
As have our brethren died before!"
And that we'll die we all then swore,
And th' oath of loyalty ne'er tore
Neath Borodinian sky.

Some day it was! Through flying smoke
Set out in swarms many a French bloke,
And e'er for our redoubt.
The lancers in their motley guise,
Dragoons with horse-tails with loud cries –
They all would flash before our eyes,
They all were near about.

You 're never to behold such fights!..
The banners would fly by like sprites,
In smoke would glimmer fire,
The blade would sound, the grape would shriek,
The fighters' hand to thrust grow weak,
And muzzles have no space to seek
O'er bloody heaps e'er higher.

The foe that day had many ways
To feel what daring combat weighs,
Our Russian hand-to-hand!..
As did our chests – earth's hollows trembled;
The steeds, the men all disassembled,
And cannon volleys' sound resembled
A moaning o'er the land...

Dusk fell. We all were ready to
Next morrow start the fight anew
And stand till none were left...
Of drums we heard far off the rattle:–
The pagans left the field of battle.
To count then we began the sad toll
Of wounds and comrades reft.

Yea, were there men when I was young,
Bold tribe of whom shall songs be sung:
They'd fight,– you 're none as good.
An evil lot have they been drawn:
Few left the grounds to which they had gone.
Were 't not the will of God alone,
Old Moscow would have stood!

Translation from Lermontov. BORODINO
M. Iu. Lermontov 1814-1841

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Matilda Kshesinskaya

Mathilda-Marie Feliksovna Kschessinskaya

Kshesinskaya was born to an artistic family. Her grandfather was a famous violin player, singer and actor and both her parents were ballet dancers although her mother abandoned the stage after marriage, dedicating herself to her family.

At the age of eight Matilda enrolled in the Imperial Theatre School, where her brother and sister already studied.

Her life and artistic career were closely linked to the Czar’s family. She would always remember the day of her graduation exam, which became a turning point in her life. The exam was traditionally attended by Czar Alexander III, the Empress and the successor to the Russian throne, the future Emperor Nicholas II. After the show, the Emperor told her: “Be the fame and decoration of our ballet!”

Later in her memoirs she recalled how excited and impressed she was with these words: “I said to myself that I must live up to these hopes!”

But it was the meeting with 21-year-old heir to the throne Nikolay Aleksandrovich, future Czar Nicholas II , that changed her life. After the exam, she sat next to Nicholas at the reception. She recalled later that “at the end of the evening they looked at each other not like they did jut several hours ago.” That’s how their romance began.

Their dates were no secret to Alexander III but for some time he preferred to turn a blind eye. However, when the time came for the heir to the throne to tie the knot, the romance could no longer be permitted.

Nicholas married Alix of Hesse in the spring of 1894 and half a year later ascended the throne after the death of his father. Both Matilda and Nicki – as she called him – would always remember their love. Kshesinskaya never missed an opportunity to dance before the Czar and it was always a special occasion for her, as she recalled in her memoirs.

But Matilda was not left alone. The Czar’s cousin, Grand Duke Sergey Mikhailovich, favoured Matilda and took charge of her, becoming her patron. But it was another member of the royal family, Grand Duke Andrey Vladimirovich, with whom she ultimately found true happiness and built a family.

However, it was not all thanks to her highest patrons that Kshesinskaya got the first parts on the Imperial stage. From her childhood her greatest passion was dancing. She amazed her colleagues by her fantastic obsession with work, spending hours at the bar. She was the first Russian dancer to perform 32 fouettés, a quick whipping movement of the raised leg usually accompanying a pirouette.

On stage she was irresistibly charming and feminine. Her dancing was a combination of the technically irreproachable Italian style and the lyricism of the Russian school. From her father, Kshesinskaya inherited a talent for pantomime and dramatic interpretation.

Her repertoire included among others, Fairy Dragee in The Nutcracker, Odette-Odile in Swan Lake, Pakhita, Esmeralda, and Princess Aspicia in The Pharaoh's Daughter.

Matilda Kshesinskaya was convinced that a dancer with academic training is capable of any style. She proved this by participating in experiments by Mikhail Fokin (Butterflies, 1912; Eros 1915). ...

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Mikhail Larionov

A Soldier Resting 1911

Mikhail Fiodorovich Larionov was born in Tiraspol, Moldova on June 3, 1881 and died in Fontenay-aux-Roses, near Paris, on May 10, 1964. He was the son of Fiodor Mikhailovich Larionov, a doctor and a pharmacist, and Aleksandra Fiodorovna Petrovskaia, but he grew up in his grandparents' home in Tiraspol. He attended the Voskresenskii Technical High School in Moscow and in 1898 entered the Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture. Here he met Natal'ia Goncharova, who remained his lifelong companion. His imaginative work soon caught the attention of colleagues and critics and in1906 he was invited to exhibit with the Union of Russian Artists and to participate in the Russian Art exhibition at the Salon d'Automne in Paris. When Larionov met Nikolai Riabushinskii, editor of the Zolotoe runo (the Golden Fleece), the famous art mecenas became the artist's chief patron and in 1908 helped him organize the "Golden Fleece" exhibition of the modern French painting in Moscow. As a result of this exhibition, many artists, including Larionov, turned away from Symbolism and started to experiment with Post-Impressionism. In 1910, Larionov was expelled by the Moscow School of Painting for organizing a demonstration against the school's teaching methods. He was the founder of the Jack of Diamonds group, and with them he exhibited a remarkable series of paintings, among them the Soldiers (1910), created during his military service. The artist soon deserted the Jack of Diamonds for the more radical Donkey's Tail, which held an exhibition in 1912. In 1912 he initiated two very important movements: Rayonism (Rayism) and Neo-primitivism. Rayonism was inspired by Italian Futurism and Neo-primitivism and represented a development of the artist's Fauvist and Expressionist interests. ...

Friday, 21 January 2011

Death of the Leader - Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (22 April 1870 – 21 January 1924)

Farewell to the chief. The crowd in front of the Mausoleum at the time of the introduction of Lenin's body in the crypt.
"Today is the anniversary of the untimely death of Lenin, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, one of the greatest men of the XX century" writes Colonel Cassad - death of the leader and brings lots of photos like this one.

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (22 April 1870 – 21 January 1924), born Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, was a Russian Marxist revolutionary and communist politician who led the October Revolution of 1917. As leader of the Bolsheviks, he headed the Soviet state during its initial years (1917–1924), as it fought to establish control of Russia in the Russian Civil War and worked to create a socialist economic system.

Friday, 14 January 2011

The big chill: Yakutsk's market

Yakutsk's market

Think our winter's been a bit grim? Try visiting Yakutsk – the Russian city where 'a bit nippy' means minus 50C, and a quick dash to the corner shop could end in frostbite.

More photos here.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Maxim Gorky: The Cemetery

In a town of the steppes where I found life exceedingly dull, the best and the brightest spot was the cemetery. Often did I use to walk there, and once it happened that I fell asleep on some thick, rich, sweet-smelling grass in a cradle-like hollow between two tombs.

From that sleep I was awakened with the sound of blows being struck against the ground near my head. The concussion of them jarred me not a little, as the earth quivered and tinkled like a bell. Raising myself to a sitting posture, I found sleep still so heavy upon me that at first my eyes remained blinded with unfathomable darkness, and could not discern what the matter was. The only thing that I could see amid the golden glare of the June sunlight was a wavering blur which at intervals seemed to adhere to a grey cross, and to make it give forth a succession of soft creaks.

Presently, however--against my wish, indeed--that wavering blur resolved itself into a little, elderly man. Sharp-featured, with a thick, silvery tuft of hair beneath his under lip, and a bushy white moustache curled in military fashion, on his upper, he was using the cross as a means of support as, with his disengaged hand outstretched, and sawing the air, he dug his foot repeatedly into the ground, and, as he did so, bestowed upon me sundry dry, covert glances from the depths of a pair of dark eyes.

"What have you got there?" I inquired.

"A snake," he replied in an educated bass voice, and with a rugged forefinger he pointed downwards; whereupon I perceived that wriggling on the path at his feet and convulsively whisking its tail, there was an echidna.

"Oh, it is only a grassworm," I said vexedly.

The old man pushed away the dull, iridescent, rope-like thing with the toe of his boot, raised a straw hat in salute, and strode firmly onwards.

"I thank you," I called out; whereupon, he replied without looking behind him:

"If the thing really WAS a grassworm, of course there was no danger."

Then he disappeared among the tombstones.

Looking at the sky, I perceived the time to be about five o'clock.

The steppe wind was sighing over the tombs, and causing long stems of grass to rock to and fro, and freighting the heated air with the silken rustling of birches and limes and other trees, and leading one to detect amid the humming of summer a note of quiet grief eminently calculated to evoke lofty, direct thoughts concerning life and one's fellow-men.

Veiling with greenery, grey and white tombstones worn with the snows of winter, crosses streaked with marks of rain, and the wall with which the graveyard was encircled, the rank vegetation served to also conceal the propinquity of a slovenly, clamorous town which lay coated with rich, sooty grime amid an atmosphere of dust and smells.

As I set off for a ramble among the tombs and tangled grass, I could discern through openings in the curtain of verdure a belfry's gilded cross which reared itself solemnly over crosses and memorials. At the foot of those memorials the sacramental vestment of the cemetery was studded with a kaleidoscopic sheen of flowers over which bees and wasps were so hovering and humming that the grass's sad, prayerful murmur seemed charged with a song of life which yet did not hinder reflections on death. Fluttering above me on noiseless wing were birds the flight of which sometimes made me start, and stand wondering whether the object before my gaze was really a bird or not: and everywhere the shimmer of gilded sunlight was setting the close-packed graveyard in a quiver which made the mounds of its tombs reminiscent of a sea when, after a storm, the wind has fallen, and all the green level is an expanse of smooth, foamless billows.

Beyond the wall of the cemetery the blue void of the firmament was pierced with smoky chimneys of oil-mills and soap factories, the roofs of which showed up like particoloured stains against the darker rags and tatters of other buildings; while blinking in the sunlight I could discern clatter-emitting, windows which looked to me like watchful eyes. Only on the nearer side of the wall was a sparse strip of turf dotted over with ragged, withered, tremulous stems, and beyond this, again, lay the site of a burnt building which constituted a black patch of earth-heaps, broken stoves, dull grey ashes, and coal dust. To heaven gaped the black, noisome mouths of burning-pits wherein the more economical citizens were accustomed nightly to get rid of the contents of their dustbins. Among the tall stems of steppe grass waved large, glossy leaves of ergot; in the sunlight splinters of broken glass sparkled as though they were laughing; and, from two spots in the dark brown plot which formed a semicircle around the cemetery, there projected, like teeth, two buildings the new yellow paint of which nevertheless made them look mean and petty amid the tangle of rubbish, pigweed, groundsel, and dock.

Indolently roaming hither and thither, a few speckled hens resembled female pedlars, and some pompous red cockerels a troupe of firemen; in the orifices of the burning-pits a number of mournful-eyed, homeless dogs were lying sheltered; among the shoots of the steppe scrub some lean cats were stalking sparrows; and a band of children who were playing hide-and-seek among the orifices above-mentioned presented, a pitiful sight as they went skipping over the filthy earth, disappearing in the crevices among the piles of heaped-up dirt.

Beyond the site of the burnt-out building there stretched a series of mean, close-packed huts which, crammed exclusively with needy folk, stood staring, with their dim, humble eyes of windows, at the crumbling bricks of the cemetery wall, and the dense mass of trees which that wall enclosed. Here, in one such hut, had I myself a lodging in a diminutive attic, which not only smelt of lamp-oil, but stood in a position to have wafted to it the least gasp or ejaculation on the part of my landlord, Iraklei Virubov, a clerk in the local treasury. In short, I could never glance out of the window at the cemetery on the other side of the strip of dead, burnt, polluted earth without reflecting that, by comparison, that cemetery was a place of sheer beauty, a place of ceaseless attraction.

And ever, that day, as though he had been following me, could there be sighted among the tombs the dark figure of the old man who had so abruptly awakened me from slumber; and since his straw hat reflected the sunlight as brilliantly as the disk of a sunflower as it meandered hither and thither, I, in my turn, found myself following him, though thinking, all the while, of Iraklei Virubov. Only a week was it since Iraklei's wife, a thin, shrewish, long-nosed woman with green and catlike eyes, had set forth on a pilgrimage to Kiev, and Iraklei had hastened to import into the hut a stout, squint-eyed damsel whom he had introduced to me as his " niece by marriage."

"She was baptised Evdokia," he had said on the occasion referred to. "Usually, however, I call her Dikanka. Pray be friendly with her, but remember, also, that she is not a person with whom to take liberties."

Large, round-shouldered, and clean-shaven like a chef, Virubov was for ever hitching up breeches which had slipped from a stomach ruined with surfeits of watermelon. And always were his fat lips parted as though athirst, and perpetually had he in his colourless eyes an expression of insatiable hunger.

One evening I overheard a dialogue to the following effect.

"Dikanka, pray come and scratch my back. Yes, between the shoulder-blades. O-o-oh, that is it. My word, how strong you are!"

Whereat Dikanka had laughed shrilly. And only when I had moved my chair, and thrown down my book, had the laughter and unctuous whispering died away, and given place to a whisper of:

"Holy Father Nicholas, pray for us unto God! Is the supper kvas ready, Dikanka?"

And softly the pair had departed to the kitchen--there to grunt and squeal once more like a couple of pigs....

The old man with the grey moustache stepped over the turf with the elastic stride of youth, until at length he halted before a large monument in drab granite, and stood reading the inscription thereon. Featured not altogether in accordance with the Russian type, he had on a dark-blue jacket, a turned-down collar, and a black stock finished off with a large bow--the latter contrasting agreeably with the thick, silvery, as it were molten, chin-tuft. Also, from the centre of a fierce moustache there projected a long and gristly nose, while over the grey skin of his cheeks there ran a network of small red veins. In the act of raising his hand to his hat (presumably for the purpose of saluting the dead), he, after conning the dark letters of the inscription on the tomb, turned a sidelong eye upon myself; and since I found the fact embarrassing, I frowned, and passed onward, full, still, of thoughts of the street where I was residing and where I desired to fathom the mean existence eked out by Virubov and his "niece."

As usual, the tombs were also being patrolled by Pimesha, otherwise Pimen Krozootov, a bibulous, broken-down ex-merchant who used to spend his time in stumbling and falling about the graves in search of the supposed resting-place of his wife. Bent of body, Pimesha had a small, bird-like face over-grown with grey down, the eyes of a sick rabbit, and, in general, the appearance of having undergone a chewing by a set of sharp teeth. For the past three years he had thus been roaming the cemetery, though his legs were too weak to support his undersized, shattered body; and whenever he caught his foot he fell, and for long could not rise, but lay gasping and fumbling among the grass, and rooting it up, and sniffing with a nose as sharp and red as though the skin had been flayed from it. True, his wife had been buried at Novotchevkassk, a thousand versts away, but Pimen refused to credit the fact, and always, on being told it, stuttered with much blinking of his wet, faded eyes: "Natasha? Natasha is here."

Also, there used to visit the spot, well-nigh daily, a Madame Christoforov, a tall old lady who, wearing black spectacles and a plain grey, shroudlike dress that was trimmed with black velvet, never failed to have a stick between her abnormally long fingers. Wizened of face, with cheeks hanging down like bags, and a knot of grey, rather, grey-green, hair combed over her temples from under a lace scarf, and almost concealing her ears, this lady pursued her way with deliberation, and entire assurance, and yielded the path to no one whom she might encounter. I have an idea that there lay buried there a son who had been killed in a roisterers' brawl.

Another habitual visitor was thin-legged, short-sighted Aulic Councillor Praotzev, ex-schoolmaster. With a book stuffed into the pocket of his canvas pea-jacket, a white umbrella grasped in his red hand, and a smile extending to ears as sharp and pointed as a rabbit's, he could, any Sunday after dinner, be seen skipping from tomb to tomb, with his umbrella brandished like a white flag soliciting terms of peace with death.

And, on returning home before the bell rang for Vespers, he would find that a crowd of boys had collected outside his garden wall; whereupon, dancing about him like puppies around a stork, they would fall to shouting in various merry keys:

"The Councillor, the Councillor! Who was it that fell in love with Madame Sukhinikh, and then fell into the pond? "

Losing his temper, and opening a great mouth, until he looked like an old rook which is about to caw, the Councillor would stamp his foot several times, as though preparing to dance to the boys' shouting, and lower his head, grasp his umbrella like a bayonet, and charge at the lads with a panting shout of:

"I'll tell your fathers! Oh, I'll tell your mothers!"

As for the Madame Sukhinikh, referred to, she was an old beggar-woman who, the year round, and in all weathers, sat on a little bench beside the cemetery wicket, and stuck to it like a stone. Her large face, a face rendered bricklike by years of inebriety, was covered with dark blotches born of frostbite, alcoholic inflammation, sunburn, and exposure to wind, and her eyes were perpetually in a state of suppuration. Never did anyone pass her but she proffered a wooden cup in a suppliant hand, and cried hoarsely, rather as though she were cursing the person concerned:

"Give something for Christ's sake! Give in memory of your kinsfolk there!"

Once an unexpected storm blew in from the steppes, and brought a downpour which, overtaking the old woman on her way home, caused her, her sight being poor, to fall into a pond, whence Praotzev attempted to rescue her, and into which, in the end, he slipped himself. From that day onwards he was twitted on the subject by the boys of the town.

Other frequenters of the cemetery I see before me--dark, silent figures, figures of persons whom still unsevered cords of memory seemed to have bound to the place for the rest of their lives, and compelled to wander, like unburied corpses, in quest of suitable tombs. Yes, they were persons whom life had rejected, and death, as yet, refused to accept.

Also, at times there would emerge from the long grass a homeless dog with large, sullen eyes, eyes startling at once in their intelligence and in their absolute Ishmaelitism-- until one almost expected to hear issue from the animal's mouth reproaches couched in human language.

And sometimes the dog would still remain halted in the cemetery as, with tail lowered, it swayed its shelterless, shaggy head to and fro with an air of profound reflection, while occasionally venting a subdued, long-drawn yelp or howl.

Again, among the dense old lime trees, there would be scurrying an unseen mob of starlings and jackdaws whose young would, meanwhile, maintain a soft, hungry piping, a sort of gently persuasive, chirruping chorus; until in autumn, when the wind had stripped bare the boughs, these birds' black nests would come to look like mouldy, rag-swathed heads of human beings which someone had torn from their bodies and flung into the trees, to hang for ever around the white, sugarloaf-shaped church of the martyred St. Barbara. During that autumn season, indeed, everything in the cemetery's vicinity looked sad and tarnished, and the wind would wail about the place, and sigh like a lover who has been driven mad through bereavement . . . .

Suddenly the old man halted before me on the path, and, sternly extending a hand towards a white stone monument near us, read aloud:

"'Under this cross there lies buried the body of the respected citizen and servant of God, Diomid Petrovitch Ussov,'" etc., etc.

Whereafter the old man replaced his hat, thrust his hands into the pockets of his pea-jacket, measured me with eyes dark in colour, but exceptionally clear for his time of life, and said:

"It would seem that folk could find nothing to say of this man beyond that he was a 'servant of God.' Now, how can a servant be worthy of honour at the hand of 'citizens'?"

"Possibly he was an ascetic," was my hazarded conjecture; whereupon the old man rejoined with a stamp of his foot:

"Then in such case one ought to write--"

"To write what?"

"To write EVERYTHING, in fullest possible detail."

And with the long, firm stride of a soldier my interlocutor passed onwards towards a more remote portion of the cemetery--myself walking, this time, beside him. His stature placed his head on a level with my shoulder only, and caused his straw hat to conceal his features. Hence, since I wished to look at him as he discoursed, I found myself forced to walk with head bent, as though I had been escorting a woman.

"No, that is not the way to do it," presently he continued in the soft, civil voice of one who has a complaint to present. "Any such proceeding is merely a mark of barbarism--of a complete lack of observation of men and life."

With a hand taken from one of his pockets, he traced a large circle in the air.

"Do you know the meaning of that?" he inquired.

"Its meaning is death," was my diffident reply, made with a shrug of the shoulders.

A shake of his head disclosed to me a keen, agreeable, finely cut face as he pronounced the following Slavonic words:

"'Smertu smert vsekonechnie pogublena bwist.'" [Death hath been for ever overthrown by death."]

"Do you know that passage?" he added presently.

Yet it was in silence that we walked the next ten paces--he threading his way along the rough, grassy path at considerable speed. Suddenly he halted, raised his hat from his head, and proffered me a hand.

"Young man," he said, "let us make one another's better acquaintance. I am Lieutenant Savva Yaloylev Khorvat, formerly of the State Remount Establishment, subsequently of the Department of Imperial Lands. I am a man who, after never having been found officially remiss, am living in honourable retirement--a man at once a householder, a widower, and a person of hasty temper."

Then, after a pause, he added:

"Vice-Governor Khorvat of Tambov is my brother--a younger brother; he being fifty-five, and I sixty-one, si-i-ixty one."

His speech was rapid, but as precise as though no mistake was permissible in its delivery.

"Also," he continued, "as a man cognisant of every possible species of cemetery, I am much dissatisfied with this one. In fact, never satisfied with such places am I."

Here he brandished his fist in the air, and described a large arc over the crosses.

"Let us sit down," he said, "and I will explain things."

So, after that we had seated ourselves on a bench beside a white oratory, and Lieutenant Khorvat had taken off his hat, and with a blue handkerchief wiped his forehead and the thick silvery hair which bristled from the knobs of his scalp, he continued:

"Mark you well the word kladbistche." [The word, though customarily used for cemetery, means, primarily, a treasure-house.] Here he nudged me with his elbow--continuing, thereafter, more softly: "In a kladbisiche one might reasonably look for kladi, for treasures of intellect and enlightenment. Yet what do we find? Only that which is offensive and insulting. All of us does it insult, for thereby is an insult paid to all who, in life, are bearing still their 'cross and burden.' You too will, one day, be insulted by the system, even as shall I. Do you understand? I repeat, 'their cross and burden'--the sense of the words being that, life being hard and difficult, we ought to honour none but those who STILL are bearing their trials, or bearing trials for you and me. Now, THESE folk here have ceased to possess consciousness."

Each time that the old man waved his hat in his excitement, its small shadow, bird-like, flew along the narrow path, and over the cross, and, finally, disappeared in the direction of the town.

Next, distending his ruddy cheeks, twitching his moustache, and regarding me covertly out of boylike eyes, the Lieutenant resumed:

"Probably you are thinking, 'The man with whom I have to deal is old and half-witted.' But no, young fellow; that is not so, for long before YOUR time had I taken the measure of life. Regard these memorials. ARE they memorials? For what do they commemorate as concerns you and myself? They commemorate, in that respect, nothing. No, they are not memorials; they are merely passports or testimonials conferred upon itself by human stupidity. Under a given cross there may lie a Maria, and under another one a Daria, or an Alexei, or an Evsei, or someone else--all 'servants of God,' but not otherwise particularised. An outrage this, sir! For in this place folk who have lived their difficult portion of life on earth are seen robbed of that record of their existences, which ought to have been preserved for your and my instruction. Yes, A DESCRIPTION OF THE LIFE LIVED BY A MAN is what matters. A tomb might then become even more interesting than a novel. Do you follow me?"

"Not altogether," I rejoined.

He heaved a very audible sigh.

"It should be easy enough," was his remark. "To begin with, I am NOT a 'servant of God.' Rather, I am a man intelligently, of set purpose, keeping God's holy commandments so far as lies within my power. And no one, not even God, has any right to demand of me more than I can give. That is so, is it not?"

I nodded.

"There!" the Lieutenant cried briskly as, cocking his hat, he assumed a still more truculent air. Then, spreading out his hands, he growled in his flexible bass:

"What is this cemetery? It is merely a place of show."

At this moment, for some reason or another, there occurred to me an incident which involved the figure of Iraklei Virubov, the figure which had carpet slippers on its ponderous feet, thick lips, a greedy mouth, deceitful eyes, and a frame so huge and cavernous that the dapper little Lieutenant could have stepped into it complete.

The day had been a Sunday, and the hour eventide. On the burnt plot of ground some broken glass had been emitting a reddish gleam, shoots of ergot had been diffusing their gloss, children shouting at play, dogs trotting backwards and forwards, and all things, seemingly, faring well, sunken in the stillness of the portion of the town adjoining the rolling, vacant steppe, with, above them, only the sky's level, dull-blue canopy, and around them, only the cemetery, like an island amidst a sea.

With Virubov, I had been sitting on a bench near the wicket-gate of his hut, as intermittently he had screwed his lecherous eyes in the direction of the stout, ox-eyed lacemaker, Madame Ezhov, who, after disposing of her form on a bank hard-by, had fallen to picking lice out of the curls of her eight-year-old Petka Koshkodav. Presently, as swiftly she had rummaged the boy's hair with fingers grown used to such rapid movement, she had said to her husband (a dealer in second-hand articles), who had been seated within doors, and therefore rendered invisible--she had said with oily derision:

"Oh, yes, you bald-headed old devil, you! Of course you got your price. Ye-es. Then, fool, you ought to have had a slipper smacked across that Kalmuck snout of yours. Talk of my price, indeed!"

Upon this Virubov had remarked with a sigh, and in sluggish, sententious tones:

"To grant the serfs emancipation was a sheer mistake. I am a humble enough servant of my country, yet I can see the truth of what I have stated, since it follows as a matter of course. What ought to have been done is that all the estates of the landowners should have been conveyed to the Tsar. Beyond a doubt that is so. Then both the peasantry and the townsfolk, the whole people, in short, would have had but a single landlord. For never can the people live properly so long as it is ignorant of the point where it stands; and since it loves authority, it loves to have over it an autocratic force, for its control. Always can it be seen seeking such a force."

Then, bending forward, and infusing into each softly uttered word a perfect lusciousness of falsity, Virubov had added to his neighbour:

"Take, for example, the working-woman who stands free of every tie."

"How do I stand free of anything?" the neighbour had retorted, in complete readiness for a quarrel.

"Oh, I am not speaking in your despite, Pavlushka, but to your credit," hastily Virubov had protested.

"Then keep your blandishments for that heifer, your 'niece,'" had been Madame Ezhov's response.

Upon this Virubov had risen heavily, and remarked as he moved away towards the courtyard:

"All folk need to be supervised by an autocratic eye."

Thereafter had followed a bout of choice abuse between his neighbour and his " niece,"while Virubov himself, framed in the wicket-gate, and listening to the contest, had smacked his lips as he gazed at the pair, and particularly at Madame Ezhov. At the beginning of the bout Dikanka had screeched:

"It is my opinion, it is my opinion, that--"

"Don't treat me to any of YOUR slop!" the long-fanged Pavla had interrupted for the benefit of the street in general. And thus had the affair continued....

Lieutenant Khorvat blew the fag-end of his cigarette from his mouthpiece, glanced at me, and said with seemingly, a not over-civil, twitch of his bushy moustache:

"Of what are you thinking, if I might inquire?"

"I am trying to understand you."

"You ought not to find that difficult," was his rejoinder as again he doffed his hat, and fanned his face with it. "The whole thing may be summed up in two words. It is that we lack respect both for ourselves and for our fellow men. Do you follow me NOW?"

His eyes had grown once more young and clear, and, seizing my hand in his strong and agreeably warm fingers, he continued:

"Why so? For the very simple reason that I cannot respect myself when I can learn nothing, simply nothing, about my fellows."

Moving nearer to me, he added in a mysterious undertone:

"In this Russia of ours none of us really knows why he has come into existence. True, each of us knows that he was born, and that he is alive, and that one day he will die; but which of us knows the reason why all that is so?"

Through renewed excitement, its colour had come back to the Lieutenant's face, and his gestures became so rapid as to cause the ring on his finger to flash through the air like the link of a chain. Also, I was able to detect the fact that on the small, neat wrist under his left cuff, there was a bracelet finished with a medallion.

"All this, my good sir, is because (partially through the fact that men forget the point, and partially through the fact that that point fails to be understood aright) the WORK done by a man is concealed from our knowledge. For my own part, I have an idea, a scheme--yes, a scheme--in two words, a, a--"

"N-n-o-u, n-n-o-u!" the bell of the monastery tolled over the tombs in languid, chilly accents.

"--a scheme that every town and every village, in fact, every unit of homogeneous population, should keep a record of the particular unit's affairs, a, so to speak, 'book of life.' This 'book of life' should be more than a list of the results of the unit's labour; it should also be a living narrative of the workaday activities accomplished by each member of the unit. Eh? And, of course, the record to be compiled without official interference--solely by the town council or district administration, or by a special 'board, of life and works' or some such body, provided only that the task be not carried out by nominees of the GOVERNMENT. And in that record there should be entered everything--that is to say, everything of a nature which ought to be made public concerning every man who has lived among us, and has since gone from our midst."

Here the Lieutenant stretched out his hand again in the direction of the tombs.

"My right it is," he added, "to know how those folk there spent their lives. For it is by their labours and their thoughts, and even on the product of their bones, that I myself am now subsisting. You agree, do you not?"...

from 'Through Russia' collection

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Vassily Aksyonov: Victory, a Story with Exaggerations

In a compartment on an express train, the grandmaster was playing a game of chess with a casual fellow-traveler.

When the man stepped into the compartment, he had immediately recognized the grandmaster, and he was immediately set aflame with an unthinkable desire for an unthinkable victory over the grandmaster. "Who knows," he thought, casting crafty, calculating glances at the grandmaster, "Who knows? He doesn't look so tough."

The grandmaster immediately understood that he had been recognized and, with a twinge of melancholy, he resigned himself to his fate. He wouldn't get away without playing at least two games. He also immediately recognized this man's type. From time to time, while gazing from the windows of the Chess Club on Gogol Boulevard, he had seen the pink round foreheads of such people.

When the train began to move, the grandmaster's traveling companion stretched himself with a naive cunning and asked indifferently:

"Care to play some chess, comrade?"

"Sure, okay," mumbled the grandmaster.

The traveling companion stuck his head out of the compartment and called the conductor. A chess set appeared. He snatched it a bit too hurriedly to suit his indifference, spilled out the pieces, grabbed two pawns, clenched them in his fists, and extended them to the grandmaster. Tattooed on the bulge between the thumb and index finger of his left hand were the letters "G.O."

"The left," said the grandmaster and he knitted his brow slightly, imagining blows from these fists--the right or the left.

He got white.

"A good way to kill the time, isn't it? On the road, chess is a sweet deal," G.O. said in a good-natured manner as he started setting up the pieces.

They quickly started playing the Northern Gambit, but then everything got mixed up. The grandmaster stared attentively at the board, making small, insignificant moves. Several times, mating paths for the queen flashed before his eyes like lightning, but he extinguished these flare-ups, slightly lowering his eyelids and submitting his sword to the wearisome note of compassion, sounding inside him like the buzzing of a mosquito.

"Khas-Bulat the Bold, poor is your hut..."* G.O. drawled out in the same note.

The grandmaster was the embodiment of correctness, the embodiment of severity in dress and manner that is so characteristic of those who are uncertain of themselves and easily wounded. He was young, dressed in a grey suit, light shirt, and simple tie. No one, except the grandmaster himself, was aware of the fact that his simple ties bore the trademark of the "House of Dior". This little secret always gave comfort and a warm feeling to the young, t aciturn grandmaster. His eyeglasses often came to his aid, hiding the uncertainty and timidity of his gaze from strangers. He complained about his lips, which characteristically were stretched out too far in a pathetic smile or quiver. He would be happy to hide his lips from the gaze of strangers, but, unfortunately, this would not be polite in society.

G.O.'s play startled and distressed the grandmaster. On the left flank, the pieces were amassed in what resembled a throng of charlatanlike kabalistic symbols. The entire left flank was permeated with the smell of a lavatory and bleach, the acrid scent of a barracks, wet kitchen rags, as well as castor oil and diarrhea from early childhood.

"You're a grandmaster, aren't you?" G.O. asked.

"Yes," the grandmaster answered in confirmation.

"Ha-ha-ha, what a coincidence!" G.O. exclaimed.

"'What a coincidence'? What coincidence is he talking about? It can't be! Can it? I resign. Accept my resignation," the grandmaster thought rapidly in a panic. But then he realized what it was all about and he smiled.

"Yes, of course, of course."

'"Here you are a grandmaster, and I'm forking your queen and rook," G.O. said. He raised his hand. The knight-provocateur hung in the air above the board.

"A fork in the rear," the grandmaster thought. "There's a fork for you! Grandpa had his own fork, and he didn't let anyone else use it. Private property. His personal fork, spoon, and knife, personal plates and a bottle for water. And remember the 'lyrical' fur coat, a heavy fur coat made of 'lyrical' fur. It was hanging by the entrance. Grandpa almost never went outside. A fork for Grandpa and Grandma. It's a pity to lose old people."

While the knight was hovering above the board, the shining lines and points of possible pre-mating attacks and sacrifices again flashed before the eyes of the grandmaster. Alas, the crupper of the knight with its drooping dirty-violet flannel blanket was so convincing that the grandmaster shrugged his shoulders.

"You're giving me your rook?" G.O. asked.

"What else can I do?"

"You're sacrificing the rook for an attack? Have I guessed your plan?" G.O. asked, trying to decide whether or not to put the knight down on the desired square.

"I'm just saving my queen," the grandmaster muttered.

"You're not going to ambush me?" G.O. asked.

"No. You're a strong player."

G.O. made his cherished fork. The grandmaster hid his queen away in a secluded corner beyond the terrace, beyond the crumbling stone terrace with its carved, decaying columns, where in autumn it smelled sharply of rotting maple leaves. Here you can sit in a comfortable pose, squat down. It's good here; at any rate, the ego doesn't suffer. Rising up for a second and glancing around the terrace, he saw G.O. taking the rook.

The intrusion of the black knight into the senseless mass on the left flank, or, at any rate, its occupation of the b4 square, gave rise to reflection.

The grandmaster understood that in this variation, in this spring, green evening, he lacked only youthful myths. It's true, there are all sorts of fools abroad in the world--Billy-boys, cowboy Harrys, beauties like Mary and Nellie, and brigantines raise their sails...but there comes a moment when you feel the danger and very real proximity of the black knight on the b4 square. A difficult, subtle, fascinating, careful struggle lay ahead. Life lay ahead.

The grandmaster won a pawn, pulled out his handkerchief, and blew his nose. The few moments in total isolation when his lips and nose were covered by the handkerchief put him in a banal-philosophic mood. "That's how we achieve something," he thought. "But then after that? Your whole life you're achieving something; victory comes to you, but there is no joy from it. Take, for example, the city of Hong Kong, distant and highly mysterious–I've already been there. I've already been everywhere."

The loss of a pawn did not upset G.O.; after all, he had just won a rook. He answered the grandmaster with a move of his queen, causing heartburn and momentary headache.

The grandmaster grasped that some joys were still in store for him. For example, the joy of long bishop moves along all the diagonals. To draw the bishop, even ever so slightly, across the board would, to some extent, substitute for gliding swiftly in a dinghy along the sunny, slightly colorful water of a suburban Moscow pond, from light to shade, and from shade to light. The grandmaster felt an indefinable, passionate longing to seize square h8, for that was the field of love, the knoll of love, above which hung transparent dragonflies.

"Smart move to take my rook like that; and I was cheering," G.O.remarked in his bass voice, with only the last word giving hint of his irritation.

"Forgive me," the grandmaster said quietly. "Perhaps you'd like to take back the move?"

"No, no," said G.O. "No exceptions, I beg you."

"I'll give my dagger, I'll give my horse, I'll give my rifle, too..."* he began singing, immersing himself in his strategic cogitations.

The stormy summer holiday of love on the field brought no joy to the grandmaster; in fact, it troubled him. He felt that soon there would be a massing of forces in the center that was outwardly logical, but essentially absurd. Again he heard the cacophony and smelled the bleaching powder just as in the long corridors of his damned memory on the left flank.

"It's curious. Why are all chess players Jews?" G.O. asked.

"What do you mean all?" said the grandmaster. “Take me, for example. I'm not a Jew."

"Really?" G.O. said in surprise, then added, "But don't think I'm like that. I don't have any prejudices on that score. It's just interesting."

"And there's you, for example," said the grandmaster. "You're not a Jew, are you?"

"Me? What are you talking about?" mumbled G.O. and again he immersed himself in his secret plans.

"If I do that, he does that," thought G.O. "If I take him there, he takes me there, then I go here, he answers with this... All the same, I'll beat him. All the same, I'll smash him. Just think, grandmaster–ballet-master, you're dangling on a thin thread in front of me. I know all about your championships--you decide those things ahead of time. All the same, I'll teach you a lesson. I'll bloody your nose!"

"Yes, I lost that exchange," he said to the grandmaster. "But it's still not over."

He began an attack in the center, and, of course, as was expected, the center turned into a field of terrible, senseless operations. This was no-love, no-meeting, no-hope, no-greeting, no-life. Flulike shivering, and again yellow snow, post-war discomfort, whole body itching. The black queen in the center cawed like a crow in love; crow love, moreover, scraped like a knife over a tin basin in the neighbors' apartment. Nothing has ever so definitely shown the senselessness and illusoriness of life as this position in the center. It was time to end the game.

"No," thought the grandmaster, "certainly there is more than just this." He put on the tape of Bach piano pieces, calmed his heart with the sounds, pure and monotonous like the splashing of waves, then he exited the dacha, heading toward the sea. Pine trees rustled above him, and below his bare feet was a slippery and bouncy crust of pine needles.

Recalling the sea and imitating it, he began to understand the position, to harmonize it. It suddenly became pure and light in his soul. Logically, like a Bach coda, mate approached for black. Dully and beautifully a mating situation shone out, perfect like an egg. The grandmaster looked at G.O., who was sitting silent, like a bull, staring at the farthest rear of the grandmaster's ranks. He didn't notice the mate threatening his king. The grandmaster kept silent, not wanting to disturb the enchantment of the moment.

"Check," G.O. said quietly and carefully, moving his knight. He was barely able to contain an internal roar.

...The grandmaster cried out and started to run. Behind him, stamping and whistling, came the owner of the dacha, the coachman Evripid, and Nina Kuzminchina. Outpacing them and overtaking the grandmaster was the unleashed dog Nochka.

"Check," G.O. said again, repositioning his knight and swallowing air with agonizing lust.

They led the grandmaster through the silent crowd. Following behind him, someone was lightly poking his back with a hard object. Up ahead, a man in a black coat and S.S. lightening bolts on his epaulets was waiting. A step. A half-second, another step. One second, a step. One and a half seconds, another step. Two... Steps going up. Why up? These things are supposed to be done in a pit. Must be brave. Is this necessary? How long does it take to put the disgusting-smelling bast sack over the head? It became dark and hard to breathe. Somewhere far off, an orchestra was playing Khas-Bulat the Bold with bravura.

"Mate!" exclaimed G.O. like a brass horn.

"There, you see," muttered the grandmaster. "Congratulations!"

"Oof!" said G.O. "Oof, ooo, I'm all sweaty. I can't believe it. I have to...what the heck! Unbelievable, I stuck mate to a grandmaster! Unbelievable, but a fact!" he laughed. "Good boy!" He jokingly patted himself on the head. "Oh, my dear grandmaster, grandmaster," he began buzzing as he placed a hand on the grandmaster's shoulder and gave it a friendly squeeze. "My dear young man. Did your nerves give out? Admit it!"

"Yes, I fell apart," the grandmaster hastily confirmed.

With a free, expansive gesture, G.O. swept the pieces off the board. The board was old and pockmarked; the polished surface veneer was torn off in places, exposing the yellow, tortured wood, and there were fragments of round marks left, in days long-gone, by glasses of railroad tea.

The grandmaster gazed at the empty board, at the sixty-four absolutely impassive squares, all capable of whirling up not only his own life, but an endless number of lives, and this endless succession of light and dark squares filled him with a reverence and quiet joy. "I guess," he thought, "I have committed no terribly disgusting acts in my life."

"I'll tell people, but no one will believe me," G.O. sighed distressfully.

"Why won't they believe you? What's not to believe? You're a strong, tough player," the grandmaster said.

"No one will believe me," G.O. repeated. “They'll say I'm crazy. What proof do I have?"

"Please," said the grandmaster, slightly offended as he gazed at G.O.'s pink, round forehead. "I'll give you irrefutable proof. I knew I was going to meet you."

He reached into his briefcase and pulled out a large, hand-sized golden medal on which was beautifully engraved: "The bearer of this medal defeated me in a game of chess. Grandmaster So-and-So."

"I just have to put on the date," he said pulling an engraving device out of his briefcase and artfully embossing the date on the edge of the medal. "It's pure gold," he said, presenting the medal.

"Really?" G.O. asked.

"Absolutely pure gold," the grandmaster said. "I've ordered a lot of these medals, and I'll always keep them in supply."

February 1965

Translated by Eric Konkol