Saturday, 30 April 2011

Svetlana Zakharova - Biography

Zakharova is the prima ballerina of the Bolshoi theater, La Scala and Grand Opera. She’s been given one of Russia’s top state cultural awards, being named the People’s artist of the Russian Federation. Zakharova is also enjoying international praise, with famous Milan’s La Scala theater claiming her a star in April 2008.

But in all her awards and achievements Svetlana appreciates the fact she’s been given then while she’s still young and is able to prove and “enjoy her merits on stage, rather than taking comfort in these awards when retired”, says the ballerina.

Her path to the international success was not an easy one, and there were a lot of child’s tears on the start. Born in 1979 in Lutsk, an ancient, but small Ukrainian town, Svetlanahad to leave her home at the age of ten. She studied at the Kiev choreography school away from her family and friends, working hard in dance classes. As she admits, she has trained her self-discipline hard as well as her dancing skills, and now thinks her career is worth all the difficulties.

After six years of dancing classes in Kiev Zakharova won the second prize at a ballet dance competition in St. Petersburg and was offered to move to the Northern capital of Russia to study at the academy of the Russian ballet named after Vaganova. On the year when she graduated it (1996) she was immediately approved to the world-famous Mariinsky theatre dance company, and became the prima ballerina of it right the next season. Later Svetlana made her decision to move to conquer the capital’s stage as well, moving to the Bolshoi theatre in Moscow. Overcoming the jealousy of some of the company’s dancers she became its top artist.

Zakharova performs around the world, dancing leading parts in such ballets as Don Quixote, The Nutcracker, Giselle, Romeo and Juliet, The Swan Lake.

She’s on tour all the time and her permanent luggage is 25 pairs of dancing shoes and her teddy bear. Despite the fact, Svetlana is far from being childish. She is the deputy of the Russian State Duma, representing the United Russia party, and a member of the culture committee of the Duma.

Svetlana Zakharova likes shopping, especially in the company of her mother, who’s often by her daughter’s side now, and according to Svetlana has got a perfect taste.

As Zakharova came from a small town and then spent years in the classes wearing mostly her dancing shoes, fashion was far from her priorities. She didn’t have enough money even to think about it. But now she’s been published on pages of the Russian edition of Vogue magazine, posing to a photographer in outfits from the world-famous luxury brands. The ballerina even inspires fashion designers to create gowns exclusively for her.

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Thursday, 28 April 2011

Vladimir Mayakovsky and Lili Brik

Lili Brik and Vladimir Mayakovsky

(Instead of a letter)

Tobacco smoke eats the air away.
The room,--
a chapter from Kruchenykh’s Inferno.
by the window,
that day,
I caressed you ecstatically, with fervor.
Here you sit now,
with your heart in iron armor.
In a day,
you’ll scold me perhaps
and tell me to leave.
Frenzied, the trembling arm in the gloomy parlor
will hardly be able to fit the sleeve.
I’ll rush out
and hurl my body into the street,--
lashed by despair
and sadness.
There’s no need for this,
my darling,
my sweet.
Let’s part tonight and end this madness.
Either way,
my love is
an arduous weight,
hanging on you
wherever you flee.
Let me bellow out in the final complaint
all of my heartbroken misery.
A laboring bull, if he had enough,
will leave
and find cool water to lie in.
But for me,
there’s no sea
except for your love,--
from which even tears won’t earn me some quiet.
If an elephant wants to relax, he’ll lie,
pompous, outside in the sun-baked dune,
Except for your love,
there’s no sun
in the sky
and I don’t even know where you are and with whom.
If you thus tormented another poet,
would trade in his love for money and fame.
nothing sounds as precious to me
as the ringing sound of your darling name.
I won’t drink poison,
or jump to demise,
or pull the trigger to take my own life.
Except for your eyes,
no blade can control me,
no sharpened knife.
Tomorrow you’ll forget
that it was I who crowned you,
who burned out the blossoming soul with love
and the days will form a whirling carnival
that will ruffle my manuscripts and lift them above…
Will the dry autumn leaves of my sentences
cause you to pause,
breathing hard?

Let me
pave a path with the final tenderness
for your footsteps as you depart.


Lili Brik and Vladimir Mayakovsky

Osip Brik, Lili Brik and Vladimir Mayakovsky, 1928.

Alexander Blok - Two Biographies

Blok was born on November 28, 1880, in St. Petersburg. The son of a lawyer, musician and writer, he didn’t remember much of his father as his parents separated soon after his birth.

He grew up in his mother’s family, a richly intellectual milieu, where his talent and potential was generously indulged. His grandfather was the head of St. Petersburg University, while his grandmother, mum and aunts were writers and translators; the little boy was exposed to literature from the cradle.

In 1898 Blok entered the law faculty of St. Petersburg University, but three years later his predilection for literature overcame him, and he switched to Philology. By 1906 he was already a recognised poet.

Blok began writing verse at the age of five, but as he writes in his autobiography, his first serious work came at the age of 18.

His first efforts were inspired by the early 19th-century Romantic poetry of Vasily Zhukovsky and Aleksandr Pushkin. It wasn’t until he reached university that he learnt about Symbolism, a literary trend which became popular in the 1890s and later influenced Blok’s poetry and life.

He spent all his summers in the family’s country house in Shakhmatovo, an estate which neighboured the world-famous chemist Dmitry Mendeleev .

Aleksandr and Lyubov Blok
It was there that Blok fell in love with Mendeleev’s daughter, Lyubov, and married her in 1903. His first book called Verses about the Beautiful Lady (Stikhi o Prekrasnoy Dame, 1904) was dedicated to Lyubov and brought him fame. He was greeted enthusiastically both by patriarchs of the Symbolist movement and also the younger generation.

By this time Blok was already under the influence of the philosophy and mystical poetry of Vladimir Solovyev.

His wife became the main source of inspiration as the unachievable ideal of a woman, a symbol of the World Soul and Eternal Femininity (like Greek Sophia in Solovyev’s philosophy). Blok kept this religious worship of his love for all his life which almost destroyed his family, as the couple rarely had sexual relations.

Instead, he had numerous extramarital affairs, thinking his relationship with his wife must not be spoiled by sex. Their relations even worsened when Blok’s friend and fellow Symbolist Andrey Bely also fell in love with Lyubov Blok. The two friends almost ended up in a duel.

Blok’s early poetry, dedicated mostly to his ideal of a woman, is full of symbols and mysticism. It reflects an impressionistic view of the surrounding world. Rhythm, music and sounds were of huge importance to the him.

His next poetry collections differed markedly from his first one and depicted everyday life, revolutionary events, human psychology and tragic love, in works like Inadvertent Joy (Nechayannaya Radost, 1907), Snow Mask (Snezhnaya Maska, 1907), Faina (1906-1908), and Earth in Snow (Zemlya v snegu, 1908). By this time Blok was established as a leader of Russian Symbolism, though some of his peers accused him of betraying the ideals reflected in his first collection.

The poet’s later works mostly reflected his thoughts on Russia: its past and future, the path it chose and the drastic changes it was undergoing at that time. They included the collections Night Hours (Nochnye Chasy, 1911), Poems about Russia (Stikhi o Rossii, 1915), Motherland (Rodina, 1907-1916) and the epic Retribution (Vozmezdie, 1910-1921). ...

Russian poet, playwright, and essayist, a leader of the Russian Symbolists at the turn of the century, and a disillusioned prophet of the Russian Revolution. Blok is considered by many the most important poet after Pushkin. He believed that the artist's role was to serve as intermediary between this and "other worlds," and reveal the purpose of man on earth. Blok's poetry, produced by "the fever of the heart, the cold of mind", was praised for his musical flow of words, dream-like spontaneity, in which sound and repetition were used to evoke mood.

"The battle of Kulikovo is one of the symbolic events in Russian history. Such events are destined to return. The divination of their true significance is still in the future." (Blok in 1912)

Aleksandr Blok was born in St. Petersburg into an aristocratic family of Russian and German descent. His father, A.L. Blok, was a scholar and professor of law at Warsaw University. Aleksandra Beketova, Blok's mother, was a translator and the daughter of the rector of the University of St. Petersburg. The parents divorced when Blok was a small child and he spent his childhood with his grandfather, Andrei Beketov, whose country estate of Shakhmatovo he inherited in 1902. At the University of St. Petersburg Blok studied law, without success, but then in 1906, he received his degree in philology.

Blok began to write poetry seriously at the age of seventeen. In the early period of his literary career Blok came under the influence of the nineteenth-century philosopher Vladimir Soloviev (1853-1900) and his concept of the Eternal Feminine, Divine Wisdom. In Blok's verse she appeared as the force of good, 'The Beautiful Lady', an abstract ideal of the feminine spirit. "O, Holy Lady, how the candles are gentle, / How Your features comfort me! / I hear neither sighing nor speaking, / But I believe: the Beloved is Thee" (from 'I Enter Darkened Temples', 1902). Soloviev also influenced the Symbolist poet and theorist Andrey Bely (1880-1934), who had an affair with Blok's wife.

Blok's first book, Stikhi o prekrasnoi dame (Songs to the Beautiful Lady), was published in 1904. The poems reflected the mystical experience that he underwent some years earlier, and his relationship with Lyubov Dmitrievna Mendeleeva, the daughter of the famous chemist Dmitry Mendeleyev. Lyubov inspired Blok's poems, he saw her as the incarnation of divine Sophia. At one point in 1902 Lyubov decided to stop seeing Blok, but they eventually married in 1903. However, the marriage marriage turned out to be an error; Blok, who regularly visited prostitutes, had contracted a venereal disease, and Lyubov engaged in extra-marital affairs. Andrei Bely, whom she abandoned, took his revenge in the novel Petersburg (1916), where the Divine Sophia, Angel Peri, has a "real moustache" upon her lips. In the poem 'The Stranger' Blok views a woman in dual terms as Madonna and Whore. "The primary sign that a given writer is not an accidental or temporary greatness," he wrote in 1909, "is a feeling for the road".

Songs to the Beautiful Lady marked the end of Blok's symbolist worship of spiritual beauty. "Are you evil or good? You are altogether from another world / They say strange things about you / For some you are the Muse and a miracle. / For me you are torment and hell..." (from The Heritage of Russian Verse, ed. by Dmitrii Obolensky, 1965). In Vozmezdie (1910-21) the poet described his marital turmoil: "About valour, glory and fame / I was forgetting on the wretched earth... / Your face in its simple frame / With my own hand I removed from the desk."

After 1905 Blok's exalted visions started to give way to irony and pessimism. Blok's growing sense of loss and despair was exemplified in the Kniga vtoraya (1904-08), which his fellow-Symbolists associated with Dante's Inferno. Na pole Kulikovom (1908) turned to the battle on the field of Kulikovo, and celebrated Russian victory over the Mongols in 1380. The image of the Eternal Feminine was now replaced by Blok's native land, heavenly and divine but at the same time suffering from savagery and backwardness. Balaganchik (The Puppet Show) was a satire on symbolism, which parodied Greek classical tragedy and commedia dell'arte. It was staged in 1906 by the avant-garde director Vsevolod Meyerhold at the Komissarzhevskaia Theater, and also produced in New York and Paris in the 1920s. The set was designed by Nikolai Sapunov. Mihail Kuzmin's songs from the play became popular among the Petersburg elite.

In the simple story Harlequin steals Columbine from Pierrot. On a sleigh-ride she tumbles out into the snow. Harlequin continues his adventures and Pierrot is left on an empty stage. From this material Blok and Meyerhold formed a theatrical tour de force, in which illusions are created and exposed, and finally the seemingly haphazard actions are wrapped in a more beautiful and sad dream. One of the great admirer of the play was Marc Chagall. Pesnya sudby, written in 1908, was rejected by Konstantin Stanislavsky – he felt that the audience would be baffled by it.

Poverty, heavy drinking, and disillusionment with life, combined with his love of Russia, influenced the bitter themes of social protest that mark Blok's later works. From 1908 until 1918 Blok returned over and over again to the difference between his mystical, idealized concept of Russia, and the contrast on the other hand with bureaucratic civil servants, spiritually dead merchants and a conservative bourgeoisie. Zemlia v snegu (1908), his fourth book of poetry, received much attention. Blok was considered a true poet, a visionary, although his prophecy of the approaching destruction was rejected. The public started to call Blok the "poet of Nevsky Prospect." Feeling that he has done everything there is to do, Blok even contemplated suicide.

Blok's travels to Italy in 1909 and to France two years later inspired some of his best works, among them his last major play, Roza i krest (1912, The Rose and the Cross), which was based on a medieval French legend. Although it went through more than 200 rehearsals, it was not staged. Despite some objections by the censor, Neznakomka, a social satire based on Blok's poem from 1906, was eventyally staged in 1914 at the Tenishevsky school. Pesnja sudby (1907-1908, revised in 1919) was not produced.

With the advent of Bolshevism, Blok sought an association with the Communist Party. Like many writers, he supported the 1917 revolution as the fulfilment of a dream, but also regarded it in his own special way as a manifestation of the spirit of music. He joined in the army in 1916 and served behind the front lines in civil defence near Pinsk. In 1917-18 he worked for the provisional government in a commission interrogating Czarist ministers.

Blok's greatest poem, Dvenadtsat' (1918, Twelve), was a kind of apocryphal vision, born from two wars, three revolutions and Civil War, and the poet's dream the create a musical poem from this antimusical chaos. A band of twelve Red guardsmen, apostles of destruction, march in the first winter of Bolshevik Russia through icy streets of Petrograd, looting and killing. They are led by an invulnerable Christ figure, "crowned with a crown of snowflake pearls, / a flowery diadem of frost," who appears beneath a red flag. The Twelve was written in two days in January 1918. It generated controversy, but reportedly sold some two million copies in three years. Blok asks in the beginning and in the end of the poem "What's out ahead?" On the Vatican index, the poem was long banned in Fascist countries, including the Colonels' Greece. Along with The Twelve Blok published The Scythians, in which he swallowed his disgust of Western culture and called for help for the socialist government. "For the last time, old world, we bid you come, / Feast brotherly within our walls. / To share our peace and glowing toil / Once only the barbarian lyre calls." (from The Scythians, 1918)

Shakhmatovo, Blok's "corner of paradise", was sacked in November 1917 and finally went with the Revolution. After 1918 Blok spent much time on government editorial and theatrical commissions. In 1919 he was arrested briefly and nearly executed for supposed counter-revolutionary activities. From 1918 to 1921 he translated books for Gorky's publishing house Vsemirnaja Literatura. In 1919-21 he was chairman of the Bolshoi Theatre and the head of the Petrograd branch of the All-Russian Union of Poets in 1920-21. Blok's mental and physical health started to decline. He had lost his faith in the Revolution and stopped writing poetry. "I'm suffocating, suffocating, suffocating!" he complained to the avant-garde artist Yuri Annenkov. "We're suffocating , we will all suffocate."

Lenin, who read Blok's poems, refused to grant him permission to leave the country. At the Pushkin Festival, on February 1921, Blok made a last plea for the "freedom of creation." Blok died in Petrograd on August 7, 1921, of heart failure brought on by malnutrition. In 1914 Blok had written: "He was wholly on the side of freedom, / he was wholly on the side of light!" Along with his death, the "idealistic" period of the Revolution ended.

Besides writing poems and plays, Blok wrote essays and theatre reviews. The majority of his essays were composed in a highly lyrical, impressionistic style with emotive reasoning. A central conception was the "spirit of music", through which every movement and every culture is born. Blok saw himself as a witness of an historic upheaval, but towards the end he regretted: "I have not heard any new sounds for a long time". Several of his essays appeared in Zolotoe Runo, which he edited from 1907 to 1909, when the magazine was closed. In 'Stikhiia i kul'tura' (1909) he connected revolution with the nation's primordial revenge against alien culture. In 'Intelligentsia i revoliutsiia' in 1918 he argued that the violence of revolution is necessary for Russia's spiritual rebirth. As an aesthete Blok felt uncomfortable when he could not address his favorite readers, the elite, and he was said to have outlived his time. Also the Bolsheviks were disturbed by his independent thinking and his symbolic vagueness. Blok's last essays reached an extremely limited public. ...

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Andrei Bitov on "Russian Wealth"

1 Great Russian thinkers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (Alexander Herzen, Mikhail Bakunin, Fedor Dostoevsky, Lev Tolstoy, and others) mused about the dilemmas of late imperial Russia. Some of them penned specific proposals as to what should be done—Herzen's novel What Is to Be Done? ( Chto delat', 1863), Tolstoy's philosophical tract of nearly the same title, So What Are We to Do? ( Tak chto zhe nam delat', 1886), and Lenin's What Is to Be Done ( Chto delat') of 1902. In addition to listing the social ills that they desired to see eradicated, some social critics of the day identified as well what deserved to be protected—those aspects of Russian culture that characterized and enriched the nation. With the late-twentieth-century demise of the Soviet Union, these grand questions occupy the attention of great thinkers once again. Writers cum 'public intellectuals' such as Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Bitov speak and write extensively on the Russia that they have inherited, about what has been lost (as well as jettisoned) over the last two centuries, and what has endured.

2 As an emblem of these polemics, which pursued Russia's essence and the abiding question of "What is to be done?", we might consider the two incarnations of a journal entitled Russian Wealth ( Russkoe bogatstvo; translated also as Russian Riches and Russian Treasures). It was first published from 1876 to 1918 (until the Bolshevik Revolution). It was then "reincarnated" in the post-Soviet period, from 1991 to 1994. Populist editors of the nineteenth-century journal, Nikolai Mikhailovskii and Vladimir Korolenko, identified the wealth of Russian culture and civilization generally from "below." For them, Russia's treasure lay in the common folk ( narod) who had forever fed and clothed the nation. This understanding was not lost in the reincarnation of Russian Wealth in 1991. Yet, the editor and publisher of the late-twentieth-century journal, Anatolii Zlobin, and his editorial board did not strive simply to replicate its populist predecessor from the nineteenth century. They considered Russia's riches as emanating from "above" as well: " Russian Wealth is a major publishing innovation: each issue is dedicated to only one author, offering the reader works created in various genres."1 The editors strove to encompass the wealth of Russian high culture that had long been recognized in the pre-Soviet period by particular iconic Russian writers who had been graced by it. Two members of that pantheon, Russia's national poet Alexander Pushkin (born in 1799) and Vladimir Nabokov (born in 1899), both of aristocratic heritage, bore witness to the decline and fall (respectively) of the Russian aristocracy. Yet, recognizing the contributions of high culture to the Russian "treasure-trove," they gave testimony (figuratively and, at times, even literally) to the particular benefits of privilege for the arts.

3 Pushkin's commitment to aristocratic privilege was decidedly more ambivalent than that of the famously disdainful Nabokov. At various times and in various ways Pushkin called into question the tacit acceptance of social inequality. Scholars have chronicled and have even attempted to reconcile the protean Pushkin with the arrogant aesthete, the dandy, and even the revolutionary. For example, inherent contradiction, which is at the core of Yurii Lotman's understanding of Pushkin's politics and aesthetics, characterizes Pushkin's Eugene Onegin (1833) against the backdrop of the Enlightenment and the Decembrist revolt of 1825. Lotman states: "The proponent of enlightenment, the 'intelligent man,' will inevitably be a lover of freedom."2 Aristocratic privilege provides the opportunity for enlightenment. Yet, enlightened thinking must call into question the very system that provided that opportunity. Onegin's political consciousness remains undeveloped because he chose not to avail himself of the opportunity granted him for enlightenment. Lotman concludes: "The fundamental characteristic of the artistic image of Onegin is the superficiality of his education."3 He squandered his aristocratic privilege.

4 Figuratively, "Russian wealth" connotes even more than the tangible artistic legacy of Russian culture, both high and popular. It is Russia and Russianness, from the beauty of the Russian countryside to that elusive spiritual connectedness of souls (in its layman's understanding)— sobornost'. The term carries here the more social and political, rather than religious, connotation of an "organic union of believers in love and freedom."4 As for the symbolic significance of the Russian land itself, interpreters of Russian art have recognized the expression of Russianness in works of landscape artists such as Ivan Shishkin, Aleksei Venetsianov, Mikhail Nesterov, Isaak Levitan, and others. Their observations provided the impetus to the 2004 exhibit at London's National Gallery "Russian Landscape in the Age of Tolstoy." Thus, Russia's treasures include the real and imagined expression of all that is uniquely Russian.

5 After the Bolshevik Revolution, writers such as Vladimir Nabokov mourned the loss not only of their "childhood," but also of Russian culture, at least as they had experienced it. In his autobiography Speak, Memory (originally published in 1951; revised in 1967), Nabokov laments the passing of the " vie de château" he and members of his class lived: "The kind of Russian family to which I belonged—a kind now extinct—had, among other virtues, a traditional leaning toward the products of Anglo-Saxon civilization ... I learned to read English before I could read Russian."5 He describes, as well, French tutors and music lessons, a devoted mother who taught him to cherish the past, use his imagination, and appreciate "all games of skill and gambling" (42). Nabokov depicts (or projects) his "master's idyll" in his descriptions of others on the family estate. He represents his father as just and beloved by the male peasants of Vyra. The peasant women on the estate, he recalls, led a similarly content existence: "Through the window one could see kerchiefed peasant girls weeding a garden path on their hands and knees or gently raking the sun-mottled sand. (The happy days when they would be cleaning streets and digging canals for the State were still beyond the horizon)" (80). Despite Nabokov's rose-tinted gaze on manor life, his lament on the death of "Russia," or his reference to the Soviet abuses to come, the belief in an elemental Russian way of life has endured. Russian writers and intellectuals, in an ever more globalized new Russia, continue to mourn the loss of "Russian wealth," which they now recognize as existing in the Soviet era as well.

6 It would seem that no Russian can reject every aspect of the Soviet past. Even Viktor Pelevin, Russia's arch-postmodernist, departs in his novel Omon Ra (1992) from his more typical portrayal of the irrelevance of "value." Without irony, his cosmonaut heroes embrace Soviet notions of valor and self-sacrifice. Omon and his friend Mitek come to realize that their childhood dream to fly to the moon requires the "ultimate sacrifice." They learn that the Soviet Union does not have the technology or resources for the round-trip journey. But in order to save face with the West, the government will send a group of astronauts on a suicidal one-way trip. Omon and Mitek accept their fate for the sake of the "greater good." A cynical government exploits the idealism of Russian youth.6

7 As another example of the undervalued "wealth" of the Soviet Union, we might note the nostalgia that some might now experience viewing Ilya Kabakov's installation representing the Soviet-era communal apartment ( kommunalka). The Russian culture that Kabakov's You've Got Something Boiling, Ol'ga Grigor'evna evokes could not be considered part of the Russian or Soviet treasure-trove in any strict sense. In the late Soviet period, the artist took as his subject Soviet kitsch. Only a truly countercultural interpretation, favoring "rubbish" over high culture, could have identified in his paintings a "rich" Soviet culture. However, Eastern Europeans of various "strains" might now recognize in the post-Communist version of Kabakov's installation of a Soviet communal apartment a lost connection—the shared experience of what the Croatian ex-patriot writer Dubravka Ugrešić terms the "East European trauma."7 As difficult as living conditions might have been under Communism, many who lived it cannot help but react to the loss of a shared past life and sense of communality with nostalgia.

8 Still other writers, artists, and cultural historians engage the Russian/Soviet past from another perspective; not simply as Russian wealth or with an ambivalent sense of nostalgia. Within their purview of a broader Russian heritage ( nasledie), we must include, they insist, violence and misery as well. For instance, some landscape artists who conveyed the nation's wealth in emblematic vistas (Shishkin, Polenov, Kuindzhi, Levitan) recognized, even if they did not depict them, tensions and incongruities. Isaak Levitan was struck, while painting his Vladimirka Road (1892), with the realization that it was the road that convicts were forced to march on their way to Siberia. Prominent, and senior, among contemporary writers who confront the disparities within the Russian inheritance is Andrei Bitov.

9 Andrei Bitov's creative life has spanned Soviet censorship in the period of stagnation and the current "freedom" of the pen (albeit with the new limitations set by the "censorship" of the marketplace). If Bitov, in his creative writing and cultural commentaries, has recognized the underbelly of the Russian past, he was born into the tradition of the wealth of Russian high culture: "My big family didn't have to keep up with the latest to consider itself cultured. Its tastes were independent and distant from the times: the most contemporary writer was Leonid Andreev, the most recent composer—Rachmaninov."8 Although it may be difficult to identify direct autobiographical references to Bitov's own life, the writer continually confronts issues and philosophical questions that reflect the concerns of his class and generation. In fact, many of his most significant works qualify as "poetic autobiographies," which, according to William Spengemann's definition, are defined more by autobiographical intent (to define or explore the self) than the inclusion of autobiographical elements.9 The reader can extrapolate from Bitov's exploration of self to a consideration of the stewards and practitioners of Russian high culture.

10 A hallmark of Bitov's poetics is his penchant for intertextual ties to works of the Russian literary canon. In so doing, he reminds the reader of a multivalenced legacy. While paying homage to Russia's great books, Bitov reminds the reader of inherited cultural maladies. It is a practice we recognize early on in Bitov's writing. In 1968, in the story "The Idler" ("Bezdel'nik," published in the collection Apothecary Island), a young Soviet man faces the numbing reality of a scheduled life of uninteresting work. His fantasy life, often fed by alcohol, leads to censure from the boss, and in the end the idler refuses to defend himself. Allowing his mind to wander, not tuning in to his boss's offer of a last chance, Alesha ensures his dismissal. The short text echoes a myriad of Russian classics and their heroes. Alesha's uncreative office work recalls Gogol's "The Overcoat," while his sense of alienation and of being unappreciated suggests that Alesha is a twentieth-century version of the nineteenth-century's "superfluous man." Alesha experiences his own version of Raskolnikov's memory, in Crime and Punishment, of the beaten mare, with the twist that, although in Alesha's version onlookers come to the horse's aid, the symbolic significance of this "literary" happy resolution has no effect on his personal dilemma—he is still unable to achieve his goal of getting a sick-leave pass from work. Alesha is also drawn to the free and mysterious "Islands" of St. Petersburg, just as Raskolnikov was. The connection to Raskolnikov is then mediated by association with another frequenter of the Islands, Nikolai Apollonovich of Andrei Bely's apocalyptic novel Petersburg (1916). Furthermore, the tension between fathers as representatives of the system and sons as "revolutionaries," depicted in Petersburg and descending from Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, reverberates in the idler Alesha's arguments with his own father. And the ties to the past and the heritage of Russian literature do not end there. Whether these allusions recall positive or negative representations of Russian society, they all belong to the Russian "treasure-trove," which Bitov himself attributes to a kind of collective unconscious of Russian literature and culture.10 The heritage of Russian literature provides a richer context for the story. It reverberates with a wealth of perspectives on classic themes.

11 Bitov's monument both to Russian high culture and to intertextual allusions as a poetic device is, undoubtedly, Pushkin House ( Pushkinskii dom, 1978).11 First published in the United States in 1978 and in its entirety in Russia only in 1989, the novel continues to receive considerable critical attention. The narrator of Pushkin House identifies its iconoclastic genre as a "museum novel" ( roman-muzei). The novel is a figurative museum—a concatenation of extra-textual allusions, mostly to works of Russian literature. The book's title suggests from the start the significance of Russian literature for the novel. Pushkin House, the former Customs House in St. Petersburg, houses the Institute of Russian Literature of the Russian (formerly Soviet-Russian) Academy of Sciences. It is also a museum. Yet, Bitov's "Pushkin House" exists on the abstract level as well, much as Andrei Bely's novel Petersburg (1916) refers to both the city and the idea of the city. Pushkin House likewise conjures up the mythology of the Imperial capital. Bitov recalls and laments the faded majesty of the city, in sharp contrast to Bely's condemnation of its imperial splendor. On the first page of the novel, Bitov describes Leningrad as "desolated," isolated, and "in dialogue" with no one. The city is imagined as a letter, "which had once been addressed by Peter 'to spite his haughty neighbor' but now was addressed to no one and reproached no one, asked nothing..." (3). Pushkin House concerns the interconnections of Russian literature per se as much as it does the relationship of the protagonists to Russian literature.

12 To recall the dense fabric of intertextual ties in Pushkin House, we need only consider briefly the overall structure of the novel. The titles of the prologue and three sections invoke famous works of Russian literature: Nikolai Chernyshevsky's What Is to Be Done? ( Chto delat'?, 1863), Ivan Turgenev's Fathers and Sons ( Ottsy i deti, 1862), Mikhail Lermontov's Hero of Our Time ( Geroi nashego vremeni, 1840), and The Bronze Horseman ( Mednyi vsadnik, 1833) by Pushkin. Events within the sections reflect major themes from the works they allude to. Thus, the plot unravels slowly, and the (initiated) reader's attention is constantly deflected by associations that suggest alternative meanings.

13 Bitov's dialogue with Russian literature and its embodiment of high culture occupies center stage in Pushkin House. However, the story reveals to an equal or even greater degree disturbing elements of the common Russian heritage. The protagonist of the novel, Leva Odoevstev, represents the latest generation in a long line of Russian scholars. His line, the intelligentsia, traditionally preserved the legacy of Russian high culture. Yet, his parents' generation betrayed that responsibility in cowardly reaction to the violent assaults of Stalin's henchmen. Leva's grandfather, a renowned linguist, was denounced in the Stalinist purges, arrested, and imprisoned in the gulag. Leva's parents disowned his grandfather, and even if the rationale was to save their own son Leva, they nonetheless collaborated with this evil. The air of secrecy that subsequently descended on the Odoevstev household then had disastrous consequences for the next generation. Cut off from the history of his family, Leva cannot develop a relationship with the past and therefore has difficulty discerning what is real. He also does not receive needed support from his parents. Their deception with respect to the past has destroyed their ability to relate to their son sincerely on any level.

14 The wave of violence under Stalin destroyed the life and career of the patriarch of the Odoevtsev family. Yet, when the grandfather is rehabilitated and returns to Leningrad, Leva is stunned to realize what the old man has become. Leva's formerly refined and long-suffering grandfather has turned coarse and bitter. He cannot now embrace his rehabilitation and the values of pre-Revolutionary culture that the Odoevtsevs represented. The terror not only destroyed the life and heritage that defined Grandfather Odoevtsev. It destroyed the grandfather for that life and heritage. He has been transformed and now better represents the very process of dehumanization against which he stood up. Grandfather Odoevtsev cannot partake of "rehabilitation" or the resurrection of the old ways. ...

Simmons in International Fiction Review

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Anna and Amedeo - Amedeo Modigliani. Nude. (Anna Akhmatova). c.1911.

Amedeo Modigliani. Nude. (Anna Akhmatova). c.1911. Pencil on paper. Private collection. More.
In 1910 Russian poet Nikolai Gumilev brought his young wife, also a poet, Anna Akhmatova, to Paris. The couple came on their honeymoon.

She was tall, slender and very graceful, always and everywhere she attracted glances; Parisiens, a strange folk, openly expressed their admiration of her very uncommon beauty. Gumilev, who adored her but whose love was not reciprocal, was a little jealous, but he understood, that it was a local way and tried to be polite. Only one’s man admiration suddenly aroused open irritation. The man’s name was Amedeo Modigliani.

How did they get acquainted with Modigliani? When Anna recalled their first encounter years later for other people, she always told a different story, she was creating a myth, she liked myths, like her Italian friend. Most probably they were introduced to each other by one of their mutual Russian friends, the community of Russian artists, poets, and writers was rather big and Modigliani had many friends among them. Half a century later in her memoirs she would write that she met Amedeo in the spring of 1910, but saw him only a few times. During these “few times” she fell in love, maybe he too, because he wrote to her in St. Petersburg through the rest of 1910 and the winter and spring of 1911. “I remember just a few sentences from his letters, one of them ‘Vous etes en moi comme une hantise’ (You are my obsession),” remembered Akhmatova. Some art historians date his nudes of her to the spring of 1910. But that seems improbable. Though willful she was, she was afraid of leaving her husband, who loved her so much, she constantly felt guilty for having feelings towards another man. Still, yes, that was a strange honeymoon.
“We both did not understand one very important thing – everything, that happened, was for both of us a pre-history of our lives – his, very short, and mine – very long.” (Akhamatova)

The Gumilevs returned to Russia and Nikolai brought his wife to his mother’s estate. The old estate with its strict order and discipline quite unexpectedly gave peace and freedom to Anna, who could wander in the surrounding woods and fields for hours, thinking and dreaming, turning her feelings into poems. On the contrary, it bored and irritated Nikolai. In two months he left for Africa. And Amedeo wrote her love letters, “You are my obsession’… She wrote love verses about her obsession with him. Those are lyrical Russian verses, they could not be addressed to him as he did not know Russian, he could not understand them, these are Russian verses addressed to an idol with Modigliani’s appearance… “Modigliani was very sorry he could not understand my poems.” (Akhmatova)

As soon as Nikolai returned from Africa, Anna left for Paris. She went to Amedeo. He was occupied with sculpture at the time and was fond of Egypt. “He took me to the Louvre, its Egyptian department… Drew my head in decoration of Egyptian tsarinas and dancers and seemed to be fully occupied with the art of Egypt.”
He adored her long neck and elongated body. Who knows, he was in love because her forms answered his aesthetic ideal, or vice versa, her shape influenced the stylistics of his works, made them so recognizable, “neo-manneristic”?

“Modigliani subjects Jeanne entirely to his style” an art historian, Doris Krystof, writes about the painter’s common-law wife, Jeanne Hebuterne. Yes, on the photo Jeanne looks rather broad faced, in life she was well-built, but short, petite. Anna’s body was not needed to be subjected to the style, it fully answered his future style.

“Modigliani liked to wander about Paris at night, and often, when I heard his steps in the dreamy silence of the street, I used to come up to a window and through jalousie follow his shadow which slowed under my window.” That’s all. Even 50 years later her prose about him is decent and decorous.

The truth is, however, in her passionate verses.

When you're drunk it's so much fun --
Your stories don't make sense.
An early fall has strung
The elms with yellow flags.
We've strayed into the land of deceit
And we're repenting bitterly,
Why then are we smiling these
Strange and frozen smiles?
We wanted piercing anguish
Instead of placid happiness. . .
I won't abandon my friend,
So dissolute and mild.
1911 (Paris)
-- translated by Judith Hemschemeyer

Originally published (in Russian) in the book Evening, 1912

(Unfortunately it’s the mark of any poetry – rendered into another language it preserves the idea, but not melody, music, feelings and, that is why, not the essence of the original. Sorry to say, but we did not find any English version of translation equal to the original poems.)

The truth is in Anna’s jealousy and irritation with all his other women, especially the one, Beatrice Hastings. The strange love affair between Modigliani and Hastings lasted for nearly 2 years. Beatrice was a journalist, a poetess, a circus artist, a follower of Blavatsky, talented spiritual medium… She wrote of Modigliani, “A complex character. A swine and a pearl”. “I read in an American essay,’ writes Akhmatova, ‘that one Beatrice Hastings made a strong influence on Modigliani… I can, and think it’s necessary, to state, that he was well educated long before his meeting with Beatrice… And I doubt that a woman, who calls the great painter a swine, can enlighten somebody.” Anna could not forgive the unknown rival the word ‘swine’. ...

Monday, 25 April 2011

Nikolay Zabolotsky - Biography

Nikolay Alekseevich Zabolotsky, an outstanding Russian author of the Soviet era, was a poet, children’s writer and translator. He was a member of Leningrad’s last avant-garde group, OBERIU (the “Association of Real Art”). Today the books of this once forbidden and suppressed author are shelved among the literary classics.

Who were the Oberiuts? Born in the early years of the 20th century, they were practically children at the time of the 1917 October Revolution. They were the last representatives of Russian modernity; they transformed and completed the entire spectrum of that modernity from mystically disposed Symbolism to avant-garde leftist futurism.

Zabolotsky was born into a family that had only just risen above its peasant origins. His father was a local agricultural advisor and his mother had been a schoolteacher. He grew up in the village of Sernur (now in the Republic of Mari El) and the small town of Urzhum, in the rural province of Vyatka. By the age of seven, he had apparently chosen his future career. After a good but unremarkable education at school, he became an indigent student first of medicine in Moscow, and then of literature at the Herzen Educational Institute in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) during the stricken years following the Revolution. He was briefly tempted by academia, but his desire to become a professional writer prevailed.

Zabolotsky was arrested in 1938 and spent six and a half years in prison and two more in exile. He wrote of this experience in “The Story of My Imprisonment” (not published until 1988). Yet he survived and managed to re-establish himself as a writer.

His first book of poetry, “Columns,” was a series of grotesque vignettes on the life that Lenin's NEP (New Economic Policy) had created. It included the poem “Zodiac's Dimming Every Feature”, an absurdist lullaby that, 76 years later, in 2005, provided the words for a Russian pop hit. In 1937, Zabolotsky published his second book of poetry. With his “Second Book of Verse” he attempted, brilliantly but unsuccessfully, to reconcile his originality with the dictates of “Socialist Realism.” This collection showed the subject matter of Zabolotsky's work moving from social concerns to elegies and nature poetry and is notable for its inclusion of pantheistic themes.

Zabolotsky was a thoroughly professional man who saved his liveliness for his poetry. He also made his mark early with “Scrolls,” a collection of verse distinguished by its pictorial energy and inventive rhyming. A disciple of the painter Pavel Filonov, he transposed the maitre's colorful and grotesque visions into verbal landscapes of urban life, reflecting the tenets of the OBERIU, whose manifesto of 1928 Zabolotsky helped write, and whose key techniques were unexpected transitions, absurd coincidences and brevity of montage. Zabolotsky aimed to free the poetic word from the semantic freight of poetic tradition. Making poetic language strange was a way of rediscovering the world.

A philosophical strain emerged in a second collection that was banned at the last moment in 1932. Influenced by the fashionable utopian doctrines and evolutionary theories of Fedorov and Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, in the 1930s, Zabolotsky developed a complex Naturphilosophie in his long poems, most famously in “The Triumph of Agriculture” (1933) where the speakers, who are animals, articulate a belief in the union of man and environment.

Although not anti-Soviet, this work was hardly in tune with the usual hymns to Stalin's policy of collectivization. The penalty was a decade in the Gulag that left him a broken man. Following his release, he settled in Moscow, where he mainly worked as a translator. What remained of his creative spirit went into translating poetry from Old Russian and Georgian, including Rustaveli's epic poem “The Knight in the Panther's Skin” as well as more modern Georgian poets such as Vazha-Pshavela, Grigol Orbeliani and David Guramishvili. ...

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Boris Pasternak: Easter

There’s still the twilight of the night.
The world’s so young in its proceeding,
That countless stars in the sky abide,
And each one, like the day, is bright
And if the Earth could so decide,
She’d sleep through Easter in delight,
Hearing the Psalter reading.

There’s still the twilight of the night.
It’s far too early. It appears,
That fields eternally subside,
Across the crossroad, to the side,
And till the sunrise and the light,
There is a thousand years.

The naked earth appeared deprived,
It had no clothes to wear
To strike the church bells in the night
Or echo choirs in the air.

And from the Maundy Thursday night
Right through the Easter Eve,
The water bored the coastal side
And whirlpools heaved.

The forest, naked and exposed,
To celebrate the holy times,
As though in prayer, humbly rose,
In congregated trunks of pines.

And in the city, in one place,
Their gathering commenced.
The naked trees sincerely gazed
Above the Church’s fence.

Their eyes were overflowed by rage,
And their concern was heard.
The gardens slowly left their cage,
The earth shook wildly in its range,
While burying the Lord.

A light is seen that dimly glows,
Black kerchiefs and long candle rows,
And weeping eyes--
And suddenly, there’s a procession,
Bearing the sacred shroud of Christ
And every birch, with a concession,
Along the entrance subsides.

They walk around the royal square,
Along the sidewalk’s edge.
Into the vestibule with care,
They bring the spring and springtime flair,
A scent of Eucharist in the air
And vernal rage.

And March is tossing snow around
To beggars gathered on Church ground,
As though a person just walked out,
Opened the shrine, took what he found
And gave it all away.

The singing lasts throughout the night.
Once they have wept enough, at last, they
Walk humbly, quietly outside,
Onto the street, under the light,
To read the Psalter or Apostles.

But after midnight, all will quiet,
To hear the rumor of the hour,
That if we wait for just a while,
His death won’t last, if we defy it
With resurrection’s power.


Boris Pasternak: In Memory of Marina Tsvetaeva

Dismal day, with the weather inclement.
Inconsolably rivulets run
Down the porch in front of the doorway;
Through my wide-open windows they come.

But behind the old fence on the roadside,
See, the public gardens are flooded.
Like wild beasts in a den, the rainclouds
Sprawl about in shaggy disorder.

In such weather, I dream of a volume
On the beauties of Earth in our age,
And I draw an imp of the forest
Just for you on the title-page.

Oh, Marina, I'd find it no burden,
And the time has been long overdue:
Your sad clay should be brought from Yelabuga
By a requiem written for you.

All the triumph of your homecoming
I considered last year in a place
Near a snow-covered bend in the river
Where boats winter, locked in the ice.

What can I do to be of service?
Convey somehow your own request,
For in the silence of your going
There's a reproach left unexpressed.

A loss is always enigmatic.
I hunt for clues to no avail,
And rack my brains in fruitless torment:
Death has no lineaments at all.

Words left half-spoken, self-deception,
Promises, shadows-all are vain,
And only faith in resurrection
Can give the semblance of a sign.

Step out into the open country:
Winter's a sumptuous funeral wake.
Add currants to the dusk, then wine,
And there you have your funeral cake.

The apple-tree stands in a snowdrift
Outside. All this year long, to me,
The snow-clad city's been a massive
Monument to your memory.

With your face turned to meet your Maker.
You yearn for Him from here on Earth,
As in the days when those upon it
Were yet to appreciate your worth


Saturday, 23 April 2011

Maria Guleghina - Biography

Maria Guleghina is one of the most celebrated and acclaimed sopranos of the world. Her performances are invariably rewarded with standing ovations throughout the world’s foremost opera houses. She has been described as the “Cinderella from Russia”, “Russian soprano with Verdi flowing through her veins” and “Vocal Miracle”. She is particularly noted for her interpretation of the title role in Tosca. Her repertoire also includes the title role in Aida, Manon Lescaut, Norma, Fedora, Turandot, Adriana Lecouvreur, as well as Lady Macbeth in Macbeth, Abigaille in Nabucco, Violetta in La Traviata, Leonora in Il Trovatore, Oberto and La Forza del Destino, Elvira in Ernani, Elisabetta in Don Carlo, Amelia in Simon Boccanegra, and Un Ballo in Maschera, Lucrezia in I due Foscari, Desdemona in Otello, Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana, Maddalena in Andrea Chenier, Lisa in Pique Dame, Odabella in Attila, etc.

Maria Guleghina began her professional career at the State Opera in Minsk, and a year later made her debut in La Scala as Amelia in Un Ballo in Maschera under Maestro Gavazzeni opposite Luciano Pavarotti. Her voice of great power, warmth, thrust and with immense acting ability made her a permanent and welcome guest everywhere. At La Scala she has performed in 14 new productions including Lucrezia in I due Foscari, Tosca, Fedora, Lady Macbeth in Macbeth, Lisa in Pique Dame, Manon Lescaut, Abigaille in Nabucco and Leonora in La Forza del Destino conducted by Riccardo Muti in Tokyo. She has accompanied La Scala on two tours to Japan in 1991 and 1999. She also performed two solo recitals at this legendary theatre.

Since her 1991 debut at the Metropolitan Opera as Maddalena in a new production of Andrea Chenier opposite Luciano Pavarotti, she has performed there over 130 times as Tosca, Aida, Norma, Adriana Lecouvreur, Turandot, Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana, Abigaille in Nabucco, Lisa in Pique Dame, Dolly in Sly, Giorgetta in Il Tabarro and Lady Macbeth in Macbeth.

In 1991 she made her Vienna State Opera debut in Andrea Chenier and has returned to perform Lisa in Pique Dame, Tosca, Aida, Elvira in Ernani, Lady Macbeth in Macbeth, Leonora in Il Trovatore and Abigaille in Nabucco.

Before her 1995 stage debut in the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden where she performed the title role in Fedora opposite Placido Domingo, she had already performed in a critically acclaimed concert performance of Ernani at the Barbican with the Royal Opera House company. This was followed by a highly successful recital at the Wigmore Hall. Her other appearances at Covent Garden include Tosca, concert performances of Andrea Chenier, Odabella in Attila and most recently Lady Macbeth in Macbeth.

In 1996 Maria Guleghina’s debut in Arena di Verona was as Abigaille in Nabucco where she was awarded the “Prize of Giovanni Zanatello” for a sensational debut performer. She has since performed there on numerous occasions.

In 1997 Maria Guleghina made her Paris Opera debut with the title role in Tosca and has since been seen in this theatre as Lady Macbeth in Macbeth, Abigaille in Nabucco and Odabella in Attila.

Maria Guleghina has a long standing relationship with Japan, a country where she has become very well known. In 1990 Ms. Guleghina performed Leonora in Il Trovatore, and recorded Otello there with Renato Bruson under the baton of Gustav Kuhn. In 1996 she returned to Japan for performances of Il Trovatore at the National Opera. She subsequently performed Tosca with the Metropolitan Opera in Japan and in the same year took part in the inauguration of the New National Theatre of Tokyo in a new production of Aida by Franco Zeffirelli. In 1999 and 2000 Maria Guleghina gave two solo recital tours in Japan and recorded two solo CDs. She also toured to Japan with La Scala as Leonora in La Forza del Destino and with the Washington Opera as Tosca. In the year 2004 Maria Guleghina toured Japan in her world debut as Violetta in La Traviata.

Maria Guleghina has performed solo recitals all over the world including appearances at La Scala, Gran Teatre del Liceu, Lille, Sao Paolo, Wigmore Hall, Suntory Hall, Mariinsky Theatre, Osaka, Kyoto, Hong Kong, Rome and Moscow to name a few.

Many of the productions in which she has appeared have been broadcast on the radio as well as televised. They include Tosca, Pique Dame, Andrea Chenier, Sly, Nabucco, Cavalleria Rusticana, Il Tabarro, Norma, Turandot and Macbeth from the Metropolitan Opera, Tosca, Manon Lescaut and Un Ballo in Maschera from La Scala, Attila from Paris Opera, Nabucco from the Vienna State Opera and solo recitals from Japan, Barcelona, Moscow, Berlin and Leipzig.

She has numerously performed with the world’s leading singers and conductors including Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, Leo Nucci, Renato Bruson, Jose Cura and Samuel Ramey, Gianandrea Gavazzeni, Riccardo Muti, James Levine, Zubin Mehta, Valery Gergiev, Fabio Luisi and Claudio Abbado. ...

Awesome Vintage Russian Advertising (Gallery)

Vintage advertising prints are a pretty standard easy way to decorate a wall, and I’ve always liked the look myself. But it’s sort of like tattoos, to take it to the next level you need something incomprehensible and yet still graphically gorgeous. Russian fits the bill.

These Russian vintage ads range in time from 1890 – 1915, and mostly are advertising things like tobacco and alcohol, because that was mainly what people bought back when life was miserable and short. (At least that’s what movies have told me about the time period.) Here are 12 awesome vintage Russian ads. I’d hang any of them on my wall.

More here.

Friday, 22 April 2011

Marina Tsvetaeva - Biography

Marina Tsvetaeva was born in Moscow into the family of Ivan Vladimirovich Tsvetaev, a professor of art history who founded the world-famous Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts – the largest museum of European art in Moscow. The project took some 25 years of his life and much of his attention which otherwise could have been devoted to his children.

Marina Tsvetaeva’s mother, Maria Aleksandrovna, nee Mein, was a romantic woman, deeply rapt in music and books, whose maximalist perception of the world and personal unhappiness greatly affected the unfolding talent of her young daughter.

Marina’s childhood was traditional for her class. The family had servants – a cook, a gardener, housemaids and nannies for the children. The Tsvetaev family spent summers in a cottage in Tarusa – a picturesque little town on the bank of the Oka River, and the rest of time they lived in a one-storey house in Moscow’s Trekhprudny Pereulok – “a spacious house full of magic,” “the soul of my soul,” as Marina described it – which is portrayed in many of Tsvetaeva’s poems. The children were well cared for and knew the joy of Christmas parties, theater visits and masquerades.

But a deeper look into the family’s inner world leaves a less joyful impression, and a rather disturbing one. Marina’s parents’ marriage was not a union of love, and moreover, they never overcame the feelings for their loved ones – Ivan Vladimirovich for his first wife, Varvara Ilovayskaya, with whom he had two children, and Maria Aleksandrovna – for the man whom her father forbade her to marry.

As a result, despite the seemingly smooth relations, they lived in separate worlds. Maria Aleksandrovna’s depressed mood was deepened by the fact that she, a gifted pianist, taught by Anton Rubinstein, was prohibited from making a career as a musician by her father, a good but very conservative man.

Maria Aleksandrovna longed for a son but had only daughters, Marina and her younger sister Anastasia. She hoped that at least her elder daughter would become a musician and little Marina whose mighty talent showed itself very early (she started writing poems at the age of six and not only in Russian but also in French and German) had to devote four hours a day to piano exercises.

Marina always associated her mother with perfectly performed classical music, fairy-tales and idealistic values.

After Maria Aleksandrovna contracted tuberculosis in 1902, the family started traveling around Europe searching for milder climates, which at the time were considered helpful for recovery. For three years the Tsvetaevs lived abroad – in Italy, Switzerland, France and Germany; then they moved to Crimea and in 1906 returned to Tarusa where Marina’s mother died that same year.

After Maria Aleksandrovna’s death the family house in Trekhprudny Pereulok no longer had the same charm for Marina Tsvetaeva. She entered a high school in Moscow but never aimed to do well in all subjects, studying only the things she was interested in.

From early childhood Marina Tsvetaeva read a lot on a wide range of subjects – history, art, science. At the age of 16, she went to Paris on her own to attend a course of lectures on Old French Literature at the Sorbonne.

In 1910 she published her first book of verse, “Evening Album” – a book of very personal, unvarnished, confessional poems, which at once attracted the attention of such acknowledged Russian poets as Maximilian Voloshin, Nikolay Gumilev and Valery Bryusov.

It laid the foundation of Marina’s friendship with Voloshin, which played a momentous role in her life. In 1911, in Voloshin’s house in Koktebel, Crimea, she met her future husband, Sergey Efron.

He was a year younger and very beautiful, with a tragic family story – his father had died and his mother had committed suicide – which made him even more attractive to Tsvetaeva. She fell in love with him, and the ideal of nobleness and knighthood that he represented. Marina’s love for Efron was a combination of admiration, spiritual union and maternal care.

Within a year they were married. Marina Tsvetaeva often had affairs, including affairs with women. Perhaps the most widely known is an affair with poet Sofia Parnok which resulted in a cycle of poems which at times Tsvetaeva called “The Girlfriend,” and at others “The Mistake.”

Tsvetaeva needed affairs as a source of stormy emotions necessary for writing her poems. For instance, a passionate connection with Sergey Efron’s friend Konstantin Rodzevich inspired “The Poem of the Mountain” and “The Poem of the End.”

Nevertheless, she always returned to her husband. They had three children – two daughters, Ariadna and Irina, and a son, Georgy.

Marina Tsvetaeva treated all her children differently. She was very proud of her elder daughter whom she always called Alya – as Tsvetaeva confessed, she called her Ariadna for the “romanticism and arrogance that rule my whole life.” Mother and daughter were very close and Alya took after her mother, already in her childhood starting to write poems, which Marina Tsvetaeva considered worthy to be published.

She didn’t have similar feelings for her second daughter and when in hungry post-revolutionary Moscow she couldn’t feed them both, Marina left her younger girl in an asylum where the two-year-old died after about three months, in February 1920.

As for Marina’s son Georgy, who was born in 1925 – she actually didn’t like the name and called him Mur – Marina loved him obsessively and indulged him as she could though he was a difficult and demanding child.

After the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, Sergey Efron joined the White Army of the Tsar’s supporters and Marina stayed behind in Moscow with two small children. As everyone in the city, they lived in terrible poverty. Having no money, Marina had to sell her possessions and books, accept whatever aid she was offered and use furniture for firewood.

Marina Tsvetaeva tried to work but soon stopped, as she wanted to devote as much time as she could to writing. She was desperate but surprisingly, her talent blossomed and during that period she wrote more than 300 poems that were later united into the “Milestones” collection, the fairy-tale poem “The Tsar Maiden” and six romantic plays.

Many of her poems were devoted to Moscow, one of the major themes of Tsvetaeva’s poetry.

In 1921 Tsvetaeva received news about Sergey, who, after the end of the Russian Civil War, found himself in Prague and Marina set off for Europe too. ...

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Watching The Detectives: Popular Russian Crime Novelist Discusses His Craft

Boris Akunin is one of Russia's most popular crime fiction writers. His detective novels featuring investigator Erast Fandorin have won awards and critical acclaim at home and abroad. Bashir Ahmad Gwakh of RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal spoke to Akunin about his work and also discussed the changes that have occurred in Russian literature in recent decades.

RFE/RL: The Soviet Union was involved in Afghanistan for a long time. Did the Afghan war have an impact on Russian literature?

Boris Akunin: Yes, definitely. And not only on literature, but on the country in general. I think it was one of the decisive steps which ruined the USSR and of course it left a very deep scar on the Soviet national mentality. There have been a lot of works of fiction, non-fiction, and cinema dedicated to this painful issue.

RFE/RL: In what different ways was the war portrayed?

Akunin: We have both kinds of descriptions of the war in our literature and in our cinema. Cinema, of course, tends to be more mass-culture-oriented than literature. Of course, we do have Hollywood-style epics which represent Russian soldiers as heroes and Afghan guerillas as the bad guys. But I wouldn’t call it mainstream. For Russia and for Russian art this is mainly a tragic episode in our history. We have a lot of works in which the war is described as it was -- cruel and dirty.

RFE/RL: And do you think the fall of communism changed Russian literature?

Akunin: Yes, it has changed in every possible way. First of all, now literature -- fiction anyway -- is free of censorship. So, any writer can write what he or she wants to write. Secondly, in the Soviet Union, such a thing as a book market didn’t exist. It was a planned economy, so all the print runs of every book were planned years ahead. If a book sold well, it didn’t mean anything. Now of course we are living in a capitalist society so bestsellers are bestsellers. The books that sell, [actually] do sell and [those] that do not sell, don't.

At the same time, the public role of writers and literature in Russian society has become minimal. A writer was a very important person back in the Soviet Union. Now a writer is either an entertainer who writes literature or an artist who writes for a highly qualified audience which would normally be small.

RFE/RL: Speaking about the present, crime fiction has become the most popular genre in Russia today. Why is this the case?

Akunin: There are many reasons for this. First, of course, is the fact that the genre didn't exist in the Soviet Union, which is important. So it was sort of new to the Russian public. Because in a highly ordered and a censored society like the Soviet Union, such a thing as interesting crime could not exist, at least, not in literature.

So, all the detective stories which appeared [in Soviet times] tended to be dull. The cop was always a perfect guy. The criminal was always a bad guy. The cop always used the help of society to assist him in catching the criminal. It was very pitiful.

Now the genre has blossomed. And, of course, another important factor is that there is actually a lot of crime in Russia these days. So this is a theme that interests people. They see it on TV, they read about it in the newspapers, and they are motivated to read about it in novels as well.

RFE/RL: Your novels are mostly about the past -- about detectives working in previous eras. How do you make these works relevant for society today and for the younger generation?

Akunin: Very easily. Human nature does not change quickly and easily. The same sort of moral problems and dilemmas that existed one hundred years ago are still here and are not resolved. Besides, when I write historical detective fiction, the great Russian literature of the 19th century comes to my [aid]. It has this very charismatic flavor, this atmosphere which is such a pleasure to bathe in. And I love to write in this style and my readers love to be reminded of the influence of the Russian classics.

RFE/RL: Critics say your novels have less nudity, less fighting, and less brutality than most modern detective fiction. And yet, your novels are widely popular. Why is this?

Akunin: I should say that there are quite a lot of cruel scenes and violence in my novels. But the difference is that the good guy, my gentleman hero Erast Fandorin, behaves in a very handsome manner. He is a guy who embodies dignity and we lack that sort of personality in modern day Russia. That is why he is so attractive to readers.

RFE/RL: You mentioned Erast Fandorin. Where did you get the inspiration for him as the hero for your detective novels. Is he based on a real life character?

Akunin: Not really. I do not know any detective like him, not in Russian crime history anyway. And I used mostly literary heroes to create the formula of Erast Fandorin. There was a bit of Sherlock Holmes in him and a bit of James Bond. Then again there is a portion of heroes of Russian classical literature like Andrei Bolkonsky from War and Peace and like [characters from Mikhail] Bulgakov and from [Fyodor] Dostoyevsky. So there is a bit from everywhere and there is something that I devised and made by myself to bring this personality to life. ...

Radio Liberty © 2011

The Lay of Igor’s Campaign and the Works It Has Inspired

In A.D. 1185, as the Kievan Rus Empire was starting to deteriorate, a little known prince on the eastern Russian borders led his outnumbered men into battle against Mongolian invaders, the Polovtsians (Kumans). This battle and its aftermath would become the topic of the Russian literary epic, “The Lay of Igor’s Campaign.” Its conclusion was not what one would expect; the hero was not a fearless Beowulf, a mighty Roland, nor even a betrayed Siegfried. Igor Sviatoshlavich's only claim to fame resulted from a bad military decision stemming perhaps from cockiness, pride or stupidity. Yet, its outcome remained true to the great epic form; the ending was not an overwhelmingly happy victory or love affair. Rather, it was subdued with a ray of hope that things would be better in the future.

As a frontier prince, it was Igor Sviatoshlavich’s job to protect his domains (Novgorod-Seversk) and consequently the rest of Russia from invasion. Igor’s defeat and capture in 1185 (he eventually escaped) was not a major military set-back, but for the literary world it would constitute a small but persistent thematic thread in musical presentation after Musin Puskin rediscovered the lost lay in 1792.[1]

The three works inspired by the lay were all named Prince Igor: Borodin’s opera, Serge de Diaghilev’s ballet, and the Soviet musical movie that combined and elaborated upon both the opera and ballet, creating one huge cinematic feat. This paper will examine the changes “The Lay of Igor’s Campaign” has undergone both in the narrative of events and the development of the persona over the last 200 years. Part I, the larger part of this paper, will provide a historical background (on the authors and the works) as well as synopses of all four versions to show the evolution of Igor's narrative. Part II will provide a brief discussion of seven characters that reflect the traditional “Russian soul:” endurance, composure, pride and determination.

There are two translations of Igor’s tale: “The Lay of Igor's Campaign,” which will be used for this paper, and “The Lay of the Host of Igor,” which is more poetical and prone to flourishes while limiting the substance. Although the copy of the lay that Pushkin found was lost when Napoleon burned Moscow, his attempted translation had been published and so survived the War of 1812.[2] Pushkin’s translation contained some confusing passages.[3] In the 1940's, S.D. Likhachev attempted to retranslate “The Lay of Igor’s Campaign,” from Pushkin’s translation, in an attempt to clarify it.[4] One portion that did not need to be clarified was the very beginning where an eclipse is mentioned as being a bad omen. This solar eclipse occurred on May 01, 1185, and was recorded in the Novgorod Chronicle for that year, although, ironically, Igor’s campaign is not mentioned at all.[5] The battle that Igor commanded was part of a larger war headed by his cousin, the Grand Prince of Kiev, Sviatoslav Vsevolodich, who had defeated and captured a large part of the Polovtsians in 1184.[6] Khun Konchak, leader of the Polvtsians, who will center importantly in all the works dealing with Igor, had united the Polovtsians in 1171, and was called “The Wild Polovtsy.”[7] He disrupted Russian life and pillaged towns on the frontier during the 1170's and 1180's.[8] The actual date of the lay’s composition is unknown, but there are two likely possibilities: in 1187, the year Igor returned from captivity, or between 1194 and 1196. The latter period is more likely because Igor, his brother, Vsevolod (d.1196), and Igor’s son, Oleg/Vladimir, are wished long glorious lives, but the Grand Prince of Kiev, Sviatoslav, who died in 1194, is not mentioned.[9]

“The Lay of Igor’s Campaign” is broken down into fifteen parts with each focusing on a different segment of the battle’s story. There are also frequent jumps within the narrative. We are told that Igor is a brave and courageous man preparing his men for battle. But before leaving Putivl there is an eclipse that the people interpret as a bad omen. Igor is apparently not superstitious and he tells his men that it is better to die in battle than to be captured. He then hastens to add that they will defeat the Kumans (Polovtsians) on their own land near the Don River. He is carried away with ambition and invents a ballad in his own honor. Then Igor’s brother, Vsevolod, arrives and tells Igor that his men are ready, and inquires about the readiness of Igor’s men. Igor climbs up onto his golden saddle and leads his men into battle. During the march, other bad omens are seen but again Igor is not concerned. The Russians are led to the Don River by Igor and Vsevolod, while, simultaneously, the Kumans are moving towards them. The Russians easily crush the enemy and take lots of booty. On the second day of battle, there are two Kuman Khuns; Gzu (Gzak) and Konchak, and they attack the four Russian princes (Igor, his son Oleg/Vladimir, Igor’s brother, Vsevolod, and Igor’s nephew, Sviatoslav). The Kumans surround all the Russians. The bravery of Vsevolod is highlighted, and even though his death is implied it is not clearly stated. The narrative then shockingly switches to a history of a feud among the Russian princes led by Igor’s grandfather, Oleg Sviatoslavovich. Again, there is a leap in the narrative back to the battle with the Russians holding out for several days before Igor is forced to surrender and apparently mourn the death of his brother.

The narrative again strays from Igor to a battle from 1183 or 1184 in which Igor’s cousin, the Prince of Kiev, Sviatoslav III, captures Khun Kobiak. Suddenly, we are inside Sviatoslav III’s head where he dreams of his funeral. Another jump in the narrative shows Sviatoslav mourning the defeat and Igor’s capture. Sviatoslav is upset that they were so greedy for honor and did not wait for him to send re-enforcements. Now, for some unknown reason, Sviatoslav is unable to send help and none of the other Russian princes will help Igor. As the lay is coming to an end, the reader learns that Igor is married and his wife is still a pagan. Yaroslavna (she is introduced as Euphrosinia) invokes the three forces of nature (wind, river, and sun) to save her husband. Returning to Igor, we learn that God has helped Igor escape through the assistance of Igor’s servant, Ovlur, who helps him get away from the Kumans. When he and Ovlur reach the Donets River, it speaks to Igor and assures him he will have joy yet, while Igor tells the river how nice and pleasant it is to be near it. Meanwhile, the Khuns, Gzu and Konchak, search for Igor, whose son, Oleg/Vladimir, is still their prisoner. Gzu (Gzak) wishes to kill Igor’s son Oleg/Vladimir, but Konchak thinks it would be better to entice him into marrying one of their maidens. Igor returns home and goes to the church that holds an icon of the Holy Virgin of Pirogoshch. The bard Boyan is quoted as saying that just as much as a body needs its head so does a country need its prince and so all of Russia rejoices when Igor returns home.[10] The lay ends on a very happy note when Igor returns to lead his countrymen again, even though his son remains a captive. After “The Lay of Igor’s Campaign” was translated by Pushkin, it became popular in nationalistic circles and offered vast potential for composers of musical mediums.

In 1890 at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia, the opera Prince Igor, by the then late Alexander Borodin, was staged for the first time.[11] Alexander Borodin was not a composer by profession, but by choice and for leisure. After Borodin's first musical composition
was published in 1862, the critic Vladimir Stasov convinced Borodin to write a nationalistic opera about Prince Igor, with Stasov's assistance writing the operatic outline.[12] It was Stasov who coined the moniker “The Great Five,” of whom Borodin was one.[13] When Borodin died in 1887, he had not completed Prince Igor and so his close friend and fellow composer, Rimsky-Korsakoff, and his two assistants, Liadov and Glazunov, finished it.[14] Because Vladimir Stasov was the man who provided Borodin with a story-line for the opera, it was very likely he, and not Borodin, who drastically changed the opera from the lay. Very little of the lay was included in the opera, except for the eclipse, Igor’s capture, and his escape. The lay’s marginal characters: Igor’s son, wife, and his servant Ovlar, were given greater importance, while the girl that Khun Konchak wanted Igor’s son to marry becomes the Khun’s own daughter. Stasov and Borodin added several characters: Galitsky, the brother of Igor’s wife, who apparently replaces Igor’s brother and nephew; boyars (noblemen); and two deserters from Igor’s army, who provide comic relief. Igor’s cousin, the Grand Prince of Kiev, has been eliminated completely, despite his importance in the lay. The lay gave Igor’s son two names, Oleg and Vladimir, and Igor’s second wife is also known by two names, Euphrosinia and Yaroslavna. In the opera, ballet, and Soviet movie they are known as Vladimir and Yaroslavna. Despite the opera changing almost every aspect of the lay, the feeling remains pro-Igor and sympathetic to the Russians.

The opera starts with a prologue in the town of Putivl and shows Igor and his men preparing to leave. There is an eclipse which alarms Igor’s wife, Yaroslavna, and the people, who beg him to stay. Two men desert. In Act One Igor’s debauched brother-in-law, Galitsky, is seen singing with his followers and the two deserters while bragging how he, Galitsky, abducted a young girl from her house. The girl’s friends enter asking Galisky to let her free. The maidens are mocked and shooed out. Galitsky’s followers claim that they will make him prince and get rid of Igor. Meanwhile, in her room, Yaraslavna is dreaming of evil tidings when the maidens rush in to beg the release of their friend. They leave in a hurry when Galitsky enters. He begrudgingly agrees to his sister’s demand that he return the girl to her home. On Galitsky’s heels comes bad news from Igor’s boyars that they have returned from the battlefield to tell Yaroslavna that Igor and his son, Vladimir, have been defeated and taken prisoner. As they finish delivering this news, an alarm is sounded that Polovtsians are attacking the city. ...

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Grigory Rasputin - Biography

Grigory Rasputin, a wondering peasant who eventually exerted a powerful influence over Nicholas II and Aleksandra, the last Tsar and Tsarina of Imperial Russia, is one of the most mysterious and dark individuals of Russian history.

Grigory Rasputin was born 10 January 1869 in the small and remote Siberian village of Pokrovskoe. Even as a young man he astonished people; there was talk about him having visions and the ability to heal. According to one legend, one day Rasputin was lying in bed sick when a group of peasants walked in to find out who had stolen a horse. Grigory rose from his bed and pointed at the thief among them. The insulted peasant denied it, and Grigory was beaten. That night, two wary peasants followed the suspect and saw him leading the horse out of his shed and into the forest. Rasputin gained a reputation as a visionary, although some were scared of the boy and thought he was possessed by the devil. It was a time and place where all possible magic and heeling powers were a way of life. Grigory himself thought that he was taken over by a higher force. He was also a drunk, got into fights and harassed women. He got married when he was around twenty and had four children.

A visit to a monastery in Verhoturye changed him; it was his first encounter with a ritual form of religion. He ended up staying there for months. Rasputin then left his home to become a ‘strannik,’ a pilgrim or wonderer. His journey took him as far as Greece and Jerusalem. He sometimes walked for days without eating or stopping; he didn’t wash or even touch his body for months and wore shackles to increase the hardship of his journey. It is believed that during his travels he may have encountered a secret sect called the ‘hlysty.’ They organized a particular kind of worship in which there were no priests; in one part of the service they sang and prayed and became almost drunk by spinning; in the other part they indulged in flagellation and orgiastic sex. This type of worship, they thought, would bring them closer to God. ‘Driving out sin with sin’ was the concept that Rasputin later adopted. After his travels of more than two years he returned to his village of Pokrovskoe. The locals saw a change in him; he was perceived by some to have a luminescent religious essence and was even called a ‘staryets’, a wondering holy man, by others.

Even before his arrival in St. Petersburg in 1903, the city was agog with mysticism and aristocrats were obsessed with anything occult. Rasputin met Bishop Theophan, who was at first shocked by Rasputin’s dirty look and strong smell, but he was nonetheless mesmerized by the ‘holy’ man and shortly introduced him to the Montenegrin princesses, Militsa and Anastasia, who also fell under his spell. He was then introduced by the sisters to Nicholas II and Aleksandra (the Tsar and Tsarina). Aleksandra was impressed by him straight away and he became a regular visitor to the palace; she spent hours talking to him about religion. Rasputin would tell her that she and the Tsar needed to be closer to their people, that they should see him more often and trust him, because he would not betray them, to him they were equal to God, and he would always tell them the truth, not like the ministers, who don’t care about people and their tears. These kinds of words touched Aleksandra deeply; she absolutely believed that he was sent to the royal family by God, to protect the dynasty. To her, Rasputin was the answer to their hopes and prayers. The Tsar and Tsarina shared with him their concerns and worries, most importantly, over their son Aleksey’s (the only male heir to the throne) health. He suffered from hemophilia. Rasputin was the only one who was able to actually help their son, how he did it will always remain a mystery, but Aleksey got better. The palace governor wrote in his memoirs: “From the first time that Rasputin appeared at the heir’s bed, he got better. Everybody at court remembers the episode in Spala, when no doctor could help the suffering and moaning child, but as soon as a telegram was sent to Rasputin, and they received an answer that the boy would not die, his pain eased straight away.” Everyone who met Rasputin remarked on his eyes and how hypnotic they were. Elena Dzhanumova wrote in her diary: “What eyes he has! You cannot endure his gaze for long. There is something difficult in him, it is like you can feel the physical pressure, even though his eyes sometimes glow with kindness, but how cruel can they be and how frightful in anger…”

Nicholas also trusted Rasputin. He became his advisor whose one word was enough to place an unknown person as a minister at court. But Nicholas sometimes decided government questions of a higher scale by himself. Rasputin was strongly against the First World War (1914 - 1918) and tried to convince the Tsar to make peace with Germany, but Nicholas held his ground and took Russia to war, which was a disaster for his country, with more than four million Russians loosing their lives.

Rasputin lived in an apartment on Gorohovaya Street. There, peasants and aristocrats came to visit him. Peasants and the city’s poor worshiped Rasputin and believed in his holiness and sometimes asked for help and money, and aristocrats, knowing his influence at court, visited him only to gain his favor and use it for their career growth or just because it was ‘fashionable.’ He also seduced women with his charm, preached and entertained. It was rumored that he organized his own sect performing religious sex rituals. Many reports of Rasputin’s unholy behavior reached Nicholas. But he dismissed these reports of Rasputin’s outings to bathhouses, beatings and violent sex with society women and prostitutes. He laughed them off by saying “the holy are always slandered.” Even Bishop Theophan tried to tell Nicholas to distance himself from Rasputin, but for this he was relieved of his post and banished.

In December 1916 Rasputin sent a letter to Nicholas about his own death: “I feel that I shall leave life before January 1st. I wish to make known to the Russian people, to Papa (the Tsar), to the Russian Mother (the Tsarina) and to the Children what they must understand. If I am killed by common assassins, and especially by my brothers the Russian peasants, you, the Tsar of Russia, will have nothing to fear for your children, they will reign for hundreds of years. But if I am murdered by boyars, nobles, and if they shed my blood, their hands will remain soiled with my blood for twenty-five years and they will leave Russia. Brothers will kill brothers, and they will kill each other and hate each other, and for twenty-five years there will be no peace in the country. The Tsar of the land of Russia, if you hear the sound of the bell which will tell you that Grigory has been killed, you must know this: if it was your relations who have wrought my death, then none of your children will remain alive for more than two years. And if they do, they will beg for death as they will see the defeat of Russia, see the Antichrist coming, plague, poverty, destroyed churches, and desecrated sanctuaries where everyone is dead. The Russian Tsar, you will be killed by the Russian people and the people will be cursed and will serve as the devil’s weapon killing each other everywhere. Three times for 25 years they will destroy the Russian people and the orthodox faith and the Russian land will die. I shall be killed. I am no longer among the living. Pray, pray, be strong, and think of your blessed family. ” ...

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Chinghiz Aitmatov – Biography

Chinghiz Aitmatov was the most celebrated representative of Kyrgyzstan, a landlocked, mountainous nation of five million people in the heart of Central Asia and a Soviet republic until 1991. Aitmatov is revered for building a bridge between the world of traditional Kyrgyz folklore and modern Eurasian literature.

A bilingual and bicultural writer, Aitmatov wrote his prose and plays in both his native Kyrgyz and in Russian. His works have been translated into more than 150 languages. He brilliantly combined elements of Kyrgyz folktales and epics with formally traditional Russian realism. Aitmatov was deeply in love with his native land and lore, but he was also a Soviet patriot and a true internationalist. He urged the Kyrgyz Soviet authorities to treat the Kyrgyz language with dignity and to elevate its official position along side that of Russian, which was at the time described as 'the second mother tongue' of the Kyrgyz people. He endorsed the Kyrgyz language's status in the 1980s, when few schools were teaching in Kyrgyz in Bishkek (formerly Frunze), the capital of Kyrgyzstan.

To understand Chingiz Aitmatov, we must first become familiar with the spectrum of themes placed at his disposal by the Asian culture and to understand his themes, it is necessary to understand the Kyrgyz social milieu from which he emerged, the cultural ties that have honed the Kyrgyz culture over centuries and the evolution of that culture when placed under the strain of new, even alien, Soviet trends.

A major theme in Aitmatov's stories concerns inequality among male and female members of traditional Central Asian society. The sub themes that emerge in story after story include the oppression of women by men, landlords, and mullahs. He writes about the lack of access to education in the region (especially in rural areas and particularly for girls), treatment of women as commodities and polygamy. Aitmatov confronts these issues head on and creates a number of memorable female characters like Jamila in “Jamila,” Jaidar in “Goodbye, Gyulsary!” and Altynai, in “Duishen.” These strong-willed women break with tradition and set forth new trends for their fellow sufferers. The French poet Louis Aragon described “Jamila” as "the world's most beautiful love story" arguing that it was immoral to praise the heroine, who fell in love with someone else while her husband was courageously fighting Nazi Germany during World War II. Aitmatov believed that mankind's socio-political, economic, ideological and even environmental problems would disappear if education could be advanced beyond rote memorization, and if a true communal concern, a true love, could meld humans and nature. Chingiz Aitmatov declared: "In the end, what is right? What should be the standard for distinguishing between right and wrong? I have to believe that it is love for our fellow human beings, a love that wishes all who have been born on this planet happiness and freedom. No ideology or national structure is more important than this. And it is when people love that they become true heroes."

Aitmatov was born into the family of Torekul and Nagima Aitmatov in the village of Sheker (Talas Valley, at the foothills of the Tien Shan Mountains, near the Chinese border in Kyrgyzstan). Village tradition required that he should know seven generations of his ancestors. And he knew every single one. The Aitmatov family was closely knit. Chingiz Aitmatov's paternal grandmother was his closest friend. To teach him about Kyrgyz culture, she took the boy to traditional field festivities, weddings, and funeral repasts. Aitmatov also accompanied her to meetings with storytellers, bards, and akin singers. In order to echo the spirit of a culture, a writer must have an intimate understanding of it. In addition to detailed knowledge, Aitmatov's writing reflects a deep respect for tribal traditions. He wrote on those rare experiences as his writing weaved a masterful tapestry of Kyrgyz traditions.

Aitmatov's father, Torekul Aitmatov, was born into a middle class peasant family. He graduated from high school (gymnasium) in 1917 and was elected secretary of the Committee of the Poor in 1920. Between 1924 and 1935 he worked in a number of positions in the Party apparatus. When Aitmatov was just nine years old, his childhood was marred by a deep tragedy that affected the rest of his life: his father Torekul, just 35 years old, one of the first Kyrgyz communists and a regional party secretary, was arrested in 1937 and executed on a charge of "bourgeois nationalism." Chingiz, the eldest boy, coped with the shame and held the family together. Many villagers assumed that since their father was being punished, he must have done something bad. There were times when the young Aitmatov didn't even want to tell people his last name. But there were some, like his elementary school teacher, who did not allow their vision to be clouded by the swirl of events. One day this teacher said to him: "Never look down when you say your father's name. Do you understand?" These words became a lifelong treasure to him. "That teacher gave me courage. He taught me to hold fast to my humanity and to place utmost importance on human dignity. Even now, my blood boils whenever I see someone being demeaned or insulted."

At the age of fourteen, he abandoned his studies to contribute to the war effort. Aitmatov's mother, Nagima Hamzaevna Aitmatova, was a true product of the Soviet system. In 1924, she met Torekul Aitmatov and devoted herself to promoting women's rights, fighting illiteracy, rooting out vestiges of Islam remaining in the republic and working to put forth land and water reforms. From 1938 until she retired in 1954, she worked in the Kirov Region Financial Department. When World War II began, the Aitmatovs' lives grew even more difficult. They lived in a dilapidated shack. Aitmatov's mother was frequently bedridden with sickness, and he had to quit school at 14. But since he excelled in reading and writing, he was chosen as secretary of the village council. The task he hated most was delivering the army's notices of soldiers killed in action. When he appeared at the homes of those who had lost loved ones at the front, they would peer at him with frightened, anxious faces. He would take out of his bag a piece of paper that bore the seal of the Russian army. He had to read out the brief message.

Before embarking on his writing career, after World War II, Aitmatov graduated from the Kyrgyz Agricultural Institute. Nonetheless he found himself increasingly drawn to creative writing, so at the age of 27, he entered the Institute of Literature. In 1952 he started publishing his first Kyrgyz-language short stories in periodicals and four years later he entered the higher literary course at Moscow's Gorky Institute. His first short story translated into Russian appeared in 1958, the year he graduated. That same year, he published “Jamila,” the tale that brought him international acclaim. ...