Sunday, 29 May 2011

Mikhail Zenkevich - Two poems

All that is past appears to us a dream,
All future – a distant wish unfulfilled,
In the present moment only do we live
An immediate life that is fully real.

The uninterrupted moment's lightning flash
into the here and now is what makes us as
indestructible as melded metal seams –
of our wished-for futures, our past dreams.

20 December 1940

How many years now I've silently desired
to trade in my bookcase for a simple shelf
and rebind my poetry books in new covers.
Oh, Muse, forgive a poet's selfish dreams.
Money pans, flashes, and is gone in a blink.
A poet's dreams may never be fulfilled.

10 January 1941

Translated by Alex Cigale

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Images of imperial Russia

Images of imperial Russia When Cornelius Kingsley Garrison Billings, the millionaire founder of petrochemical giant Union Carbide, took his prize-winning trotters on a goodwill tour of Eastern Europe in 1909, he brought along horse-racing journalist Murray Howe to chronicle the trip in weekly dispatches to The Horse Review magazine.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Sofia Kovalevskaya – Two Biographies

An extraordinary woman, Sofia Kovalevskaya (also known as Sonia Kovalevsky) was not only a great mathematician, but also a writer and advocate of women's rights in the 19th century. It was her struggle to obtain the best education available which began to open doors at universities to women. In addition, her ground-breaking work in mathematics made her male counterparts reconsider their archaic notions of women's inferiority to men in such scientific arenas.

Sofia Krukovsky Kovalevskaya was born in 1850. As the child of a Russian family of minor nobility, Sofia was raised in plush surroundings. She was not a typically happy child, though. She felt very neglected as the middle child in the family of a well admired, first-born daughter, Anya, and of the younger male heir, Fedya. For much of her childhood she was also under the care of a very strict governess who made it her personal duty to turn Sofia into a young lady. As a result, Sofia became fairly nervous and withdrawn--traits which were evident throughout her lifetime (Perl 127-128).

Sofia's exposure to mathematics began at a very young age. She claims to have studied her father's old calculus notes that were papered on her nursery wall in replacement for a shortage of wallpaper. Sofia credits her uncle Peter for first sparking her curiosity in mathematics. He took an interest in Sofia and made time to discuss numerous abstractions and mathematical concepts with her (Rappaport 564). When she was fourteen years old she taught herself trigonometry in order to understand the optics section of a physics book that she was reading. The author of the book and also her neighbor, Professor Tyrtov, was extremely impressed with her capabilities and convinced her father to allow her to go off to school in St. Petersburg to continue her studies (Rappaport 564). ...

Sofia Kovalevskaya was the middle child of Vasily Korvin-Krukovsky, an artillery general, and Yelizaveta Shubert, both well-educated members of the Russian nobility. Sofia was educated by tutors and governesses first at Polibino, the Krukovsky family country estate, near Pskov, then in St. Petersburg. She joined her family's social circle which included Dostoevsky (who even proposed to her elder sister Anna, but was rejected).

Sofia was attracted to mathematics at a very young age. Her uncle Pyotr Krukovsky was not the brightest or most educated man, but he had a passion for mathematics and told Sofia about squaring a circle and asymptotes, even before she was old enough to know what these words meant.

When Sofia was 11 years old, the walls of her nursery were temporarily (for a shortage of wallpaper) papered with pages of Ostrogradsky's lecture notes on differential and integral analysis from her father's university days. She noticed that certain things on the sheets she had heard mentioned by her uncle.

It was under the family's tutor Josef Malevich that Sofia undertook her first proper study of mathematics, and she says that it was as his pupil that she began to feel an attraction for mathematics so intense that she started to neglect other studies.

Sofia’s father decided to put a stop to her math lessons, but she borrowed a copy of Bourdeu's Algebra, which she read at night when the rest of the household was asleep. A year later a neighbour, Professor Tyrtov, presented her family with a physics textbook which he had written, and Sofia attempted to read it.

She did not understand the trigonometric formulae and attempted to explain them herself. Tyrtov realised that in her working with the concept of sine, she had used the same method by which it had developed historically. Tyrtov argued with Sofia's father that she should be encouraged to study mathematics further but it was several years later that he permitted Sofia to take private lessons. ...

Monday, 23 May 2011

Innokenty Annensky: Among the Worlds

Among worlds shone, amid glimmers,
A single star whose name I repeat....
Not so that I may come to love it,
But because I am weary of the rest.

And if I find doubt a burden,
I seek only from her an answer,
Not because she shines brightly
But because with her I need no light.

  3 April 1909, Tsarskoe Selo

Translated by Alex Cigale

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Leonid Andreyev - Biography

Ilya Yefimovich Repin: Portrait of writer Leonid Nikolayevich Andreyev
Leonid Andreev was a Russian playwright and short story writer. Considered the first and leading expressionist in Russian literature, Andreev was also one of the most prominent representatives of the so-called Silver Age.

Leonid Nikolaevich Andreev was born in Oryol. His father was the son of the head of the local nobility and his mother a serf girl from the family of a bankrupt Polish landowner. His father worked as a land-surveyor. The family struggled with poverty but shortly before Leonid was born his father had attained a position in a bank and had bought a house. Leonid’s father was famous for his exceptional physical force as well as his strong sense of justice and straightforward character that never failed him even in his most notorious drunken fights and pranks. Later Leonid explained that his own difficult character and inclination to drinking was hereditary. His mother was a simple woman with no education and her greatest merit was her endless and unconditional love for her children. She often told them stories. She was a talented storyteller and it was difficult to discern between what was real and what was made up.

Leonid Andreev remembers his childhood as happy and carefree. At the age of six he learned to read and gobbled up every book he came across. In

1882-1891 he attended the Oryol Gymnasium but was a poor student both in grades and attendance. He discovered his writing talent through cheating: he copied his classmates’ homework in math and paid them back by doing essays for them in different styles. He quite enjoyed writing “in Chekhov’s manner” or “in Tolstoy’s manner,” copying the characteristics of the great authors’ texts. In school, though, he never thought of literature as a career, wanting instead to become an artist. Oryol had no painting school and a fruitless search for a tutor left Andreev with only a few amateur attempts at drawing. Later, after he had already become a famous writer, he often said how unhappy he was that his artistic talent was never developed, even though it made him take up writing in alternative. ...

Russiapedia Literature Prominent Russians

Friday, 20 May 2011

Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin: The idealist carp

How it happened that the carp and the rockfish came together is unknown, but one thing’s for sure, that once they met they began debating straight away. They argued once, then again, and later even began to enjoy it, and started arranging dates. They would meet somewhere under a water burdock and start having intelligent conversations. And the dace-parakeet frolicked around them getting wise.

The carp was always provoking.

“I don’t believe it,” he would say, “that war and squabble are normal, under the influence of which everything living on this earth is allegedly destined to evolve. I believe in bloodless prosperity, I believe in harmony and am deeply convinced that happiness is not an idle invention of dreamy minds, but sooner or later will become a reality!”

“Wait for it!” mocked the rockfish.

The rockfish argued abruptly and restlessly. It was a nervous fish, which evidently remembered a great deal of hurt. It had a lot of weight on its heart! It has not come to hatred, but there was no more faith and naivety. Instead of peaceful living it saw conflict everywhere; instead of progress – universal savaging. And it insists that all who have a claim to live have to allow for it all. The rockfish considers the carp to be “blithesome”, but at the same time acknowledged that he’s good to “relive his feelings” with. ...

Translated by Maria Aprelenko, RT

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Nathan Altman - Biography

Self-portrait, 1912
Nathan Altman (1889-1970)
State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow
Nathan Isaiehvich Altman was born in Vinnitsa, a provincial town in the Malorossiyan part of the Russian Empire, now Ukraine. He lost his father early and had to count only on himself in achieving his goal to became an artist. He studied in Odessa Art School (1902-07), but left it, unsatisfied with the level of teaching. On his return to Vinnitsa, he went on working alone. At the end of 1910, he went to Paris, where he lived for about a year. The trip played an important role in his future career. His natural talent helped Altman to feel and understand the art ideas and trends of his time, and inborn professionalism helped to realize the ideas into artistic and elegant works of art. He was mostly influenced by Picasso and Braque.

At the end of 1912, the artist moved to St. Petersburg, where he painted in Cubist manner, and soon became a popular artist. His famous Portrait of Anna Akhmatova (1914) established his fame. His works in sculpture, graphics and scene designs were also a success. ...

Nathan Altman. Biography. - Olga's Gallery

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Old Moscow Photos Reappear

When Cornelius Kingsley Garrison Billings, the millionaire founder of petrochemical giant Union Carbide, took his prize-winning trotters on a goodwill tour of Eastern Europe in 1909, he brought along horse-racing journalist Murray Howe to chronicle the trip in weekly dispatches to The Horse Review magazine.

In addition to being an able and witty journalist — his wry trotting classics “Stable Conversation” and “The Trotting Horse Excuse Book” are still read in trotting circles — Howe was also an amateur photographer.

Howe snapped more than 400 photographs in Moscow and St. Petersburg with his handheld Graflex camera, a state-of-the-art device that allowed its user to shoot without a tripod. His photographs of pedestrians, street venders and aristocrats are rare glimpses of everyday life before the upheavals of World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution — and sparked huge interest in Russia among history buffs and local museums.

The photographs re-emerged a few months ago when Howe’s great-grandson, Andrew Howe V of Atlantic Beach, Florida, posted about 75 of them on his Flickr account. A link soon appeared on the popular EnglishRussia blog, and the photographs started popping up in the Russian blogosphere. “I never thought it would go this berserk,” Howe said by telephone from Florida, where he works as a real estate developer. The Flickr page has had more than 100,000 hits.

“They’re rare, they’re especially high quality, simply super-quality,” said Irina Levina, an amateur historian, who posted a link to the photos on her LiveJournal blog.

Howe focused on people at a time when most Russian photographers were shooting buildings and monuments. “He loved the people most. … He thought the people of Russia were the most quality people in the world,” his great-grandson said.

In one image, a shoe repairmen dressed in rags cheekily mimes his craft to the delight of nearby children against the Kremlin’s soaring spires. Others capture various venders and vagabonds, while still others are devoted to the aristocrats that filled Moscow’s hippodrome to see Lou Dillon — the first horse to trot a mile in less than two minutes — and C.K.G. Billings’ other prize horses run. (In trotting, horses racing at a trot pull a driven two-wheeled vehicle called a sulky around a track.)

“When I look at these photographs, I want to get in there and talk to these people. Just have normal, everyday conversations with them. It’s easy to imagine,” said Alexander Frolov, a historian with the architecture preservation organization Arkhnadzor. ...

76 of the Moscow series are on Flickr at

The Moscow Times

Arkady Averchenko: Expert in the heart of a female

She was thinking and then decisively turned her face bathed in tears towards Maks.

“Tell me, is Mastakov a good match for my Lida or not?”

“Mastakov? Of course not.”

“You see, I tell her the same thing. But she doesn’t want to listen. She’s completely in love with him. I was even sinful in trying to slander him and expose all his bad sides, but its no use.”

“You know…it all depends on which sides you expose…What did you tell her?”

“Don’t you worry – I said all the bad things: that he’s a gambler, a spendthrift, and that women chase after him, and he himself is susceptible to their charms… I painted it so well that another women would never have a look at him ever again.”

“Mother! Excuse me for calling you mother, but are you insane? You have to be delusional to say something like that!! Do you know that, because of all that slander, and all those defects, you have made her love him even more?! Mother! Excuse me for calling you that, but you were wrong.”

“But I thought it would make things better.”

“Mother! You have made it worse. You have ruined the whole thing. Is that really a way to slander someone? Big deal – a spendthrift, a gambler…Why, it is beautiful! It has charm. Hermann in ‘The Queen of Spades’ was a gambler, but see how much charisma he had… And his relationships with women…Now your Lida is proud of that lousy Mastakov: ‘What a ladies man! No one can resist him, and I have him!’ I can’t believe you! You have to slander, discredit, and degrade in a smart way… If I was to do it, no one would want to look at him again…”

“Maks…darling, talk to her.”

“I will. After all I am a family friend? Yes. That means my responsibility is to take care of it. We will have a talk, where is she now?”

“She’s in her room. I think she’s writing him a letter.”

“To hell with the letter! It will never be sent! Mother! Excuse me for calling you mother, but when we’re done there will be nothing left of Mastakov.”

“Hello, Lidia Vasilevna! Writing a letter are you? That’s a good thing. I just came in to talk. Have you seen my friend Mastakov lately?”

“I didn’t know you were friends.”

“We? We are thick as thieves. I love him more than anything in this world.”

“Is that right?”

“How else? Such a great man. A crystal personality.”

“Thank you, dear Maks. Everybody else criticizes him…Mother, and…everybody. This is so hard for me.”

“Lidochka! My dear child…Excuse me, for calling you that, but…don’t believe anyone! Everything they say about Mastakov is not true! Desperate, stinking lies. I know Mastakov like no one else! A rare individual! A soul amazingly pure!”

“Thank you…I will never…forget…”

“There now! It’s nothing. What shocks me the most is when they say ‘Mastakov is a spendthrift! Mastakov throws away money!’ Mastakov is a spendthrift? When he, before hiring a hackney driver, bargains with him for half an hour! Drives him mad. The driver has steam coming off him, the horse has steam, and the hackney also. And they say he’s a spendthrift! He would turn away three times and come back again, only for a ten-kopeck coin. I love him more than a brother. A wonderful person. Wonderful!”

“I didn’t think he was like that…so economical.”

Translated by Maria Aprelenko, RT

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Yuri Lotman - Two Biographies

Russian philosopher and semiologist. He was born into a family of lawyers. In 1950 he entered St. Petersburg University, where he studied philology under Vladimir Propp. After the defense of his Ph.D. thesis in 1961 he went to Tartu University (Estonia), where he held the post of professor until his death. In 1964 became the first editor of the world-famous journal Sing System Studies and initiated an Annual conference on Semiotics, which still take place every year.

Kristeva considers him to be the first Russian structuralist, who became famous with his book On the Delimitation of Linguistic and Philological Concepts of Structure (1963) and his Lectures on Structural Poetics (1964). His treatment of creative structures of language was close to that of Levi-Strauss; he supposed textual mechanism to be the center of a cyclical-temporal motion of culture. 'Texts created in this way are not, in our sense of the word, plot-texts and, in general, could only be described with great difficulty by means of our usual categories' (The Origin of Plot in the Light of Typology).

He also shared the structural idea that the subject totally belongs to the language that he is speaking and thinking. Culture creates a man, makes a world where he lives; therefore culture has nothing in common with objective reality, but it makes that reality. 'Sound and a language are not one the same. Human culture speaks with us, i.e. communicate information to us, in many different ways' (Semiotics of Cinema). Words create verbal images, which depict reality, they neither reflect nor copy it. 'The verbal image is virtual. In the reader's consciousness it appears as open, uncompleted and not incarnated. It palpitates and counters to the ultimate materialization' (The Structure of the Artistic Text).

He substantively came to the idea of intertextuality, when he considered culture to be a confrontation of texts with anterior and surrounding languages. 'Both groups of texts have their corresponding conception of the universum as a whole. The law-forming center of culture, genetically arising from the original mythological nucleus, reconstructs a completely regulated world, equipped with a single plot and a higher meaning' (The Origin of Plot in the Light of Typology). Basing his argument upon Bakhtin's views, he maintains that in cultural dialog the texts generate the meaning of language. He regarded literature and art as a 'secondary modeling system', which recasts the primary logic of language according to new lingual rules, conferring new mental possibilities. ...

Yuri Lotman (1922-1993)
Russian-Estonian semiotician, aesthetician, and culture historian, founder of the Moscow-Tartu School in the 1960s. Lotman's early studies on literature drew largely on the tradition of formalist structuralism. Later Lotman expanded his structural-semiotic approach to the study of different culture systems.

"Modern science from nuclear physics to linguistics sees the scientist as inside the world being described and as a part of that world. But the object and the observer are as a rule described in different languages, and consequently the problem of translation is a universal scientific task." (from Universe of the Mind, 1990)

Yuri Mikhailovich Lotman was born in Petrograd. His mother, Aleksandra, was a dentist. Mikhail Lotman, his father, was a lawyer, who worked at the Leningradskaja Pravda, formerly the Petrogradskaya Pravda, a daily newspaper, which had been founded in 1918 by the Communist Party. He died during the siege of Leningrad in 1942. Lotman once wrote, that the "history of the city is inseparable from its mythology". Lotman, however, did not refer to the standard Bolshevik mythology, but to the nineteenth-century literature, which had contributed to the creation of Petersburg's fame. Characterized as a "new Rome", its name had been St. Petersburg until it was renamed Petrograd in August 1914, and then changed in 1924 Leningrad after the death of V.I. Lenin.

After graduating in 1939 from the former Peterschule, Lotman entered the Leningrad State University, where he studied philology. His teachers included some of the great names of the Russian formalists - Boris Eichenbaum, Vladimir Propp, Boris Tomashevskii, and Viktor Zhirmunskii. Also the work of Mikhail Bakhtin inspired Lotman, and they both shared the view that in the literary text, conflicting structures have a dialogic relationship. During World War II, Lotman served in the artillery. In 1946 Lotman resumed his studies at the university. His first article, which dealt with the early Decembrist movement, was published in 1949.

In the late 1940s, the Soviet press launched a campaign against "cosmopolitanism", largely targeted at the Jews. Lotman, who was of Jewish origin and was not able to find employment as a researcher, moved in 1950 to Estonia. He worked first as a teacher of Russian language and literature at Tartu Teacher Training College, and in 1954 he became a docent at the University of Tartu. In 1951 he married Zara G. Mints (1927-1990), a teacher and literary historian, who wrote several works on Russian Symbolism.

Lotman's dissertation on Russian literature in the pre-Decembrist period was published in 1960. In 1963 he was appointed professor at the Department of Russian Literature. A year later Lotman launced the series Trudy po znakovym sistemam (Studies in Sign Systems), published a by the University of Tartu, but closely associated with the Institute of Slavonic Studies in Moscow. He also edited the series Trudy po russkoi i slavyanskim literaturam.

During the reign of Stalin, Formalism was opposed to Socialist realism; it was a heresy which could lead to the deportation to Siberia. In 1962, following a revival of structuralist study of literature, the Institute of Slavonic Studies of the Academy of Sciences in Moscow published the report on a Symposium of the Structural Study of Sign Systems. In Tartu the first summer school of semiotics was organized in Kääriku in 1964. Its papers were published in Semeiotike; the word was originally coined by John Locke, meaning "the doctrine of sign". The first volume of the journal included Lotman's lectures on the structural poetics.

In spite of accusations of "Formalism", summer seminars continued and started to attract international fame. However, in the Soviet Union the work of the Tartu-Moscow received only half-hearted recognition on the part of the official Soviet academic world. It was not until 1986, when Lotman was allowed to travel to the West.

A highly prolific writer, Lotman became the leading theoretician of the Tartu-Moscow Semiotic School, first known especially on the Continent and then in America. It has been said, that reading Lotman's writings was common among those who sought to identify with the liberal minded. As a result, the KGB searched in 1970 his home. Occasionally western visitors in Tartu or Tallinn smuggled semiotic texts out of the country to be published abroad. One of the most famous guests in Tartu was the Russian-born linguistic theorist and Slavic scholar Roman Jakobson, who participated in the summer school of 1966.

In 1967, Lotman wrote an article on 'Exact Methods in Russian Literary Science' for the Italian journal Strumenti critici. The Brown University Press published in 1968 Lotman's Lektsii po struktural'noj poetike and in 1976 appeared the English translation of Analiz poeticheskogo teksta (Analysis of the Poetic Text). Although Lohman's writings covered a wide range of subjects, from cinema to poetics, card games to animated cartoons, and mythology to the history of culture, his major interest was in literature. Lotman published studies on such Russian writers as Aleksandr Pushkin, Nikolai Karamzin, Aleksandr Radishchev, Pyotr Vyazemsky, etc. Noteworthy, he did not write much about Estonian literature.

Much of Lotman's early studies in structural semiotics were based on Saussurean notion of the sign, with emphasis on the dynamic interactions which shape cultural sign systems. Lotman rejected Saussure's principle of arbitrariness in the connection between signified to signifier, stating that the "sign is the model of its content." In Semiotika kino i problemy kinoestetiki (1973, Semiotics of Cinema) Lotman made a distinction between two independent and equally important types of signs, which largely correspond visual arts and literature - pictorial or iconic signs and conventional signs, such as words. In general, Lotman did not write much about music, perhaps the most problematic semiotic system, and music is also excluded from this analysis on the film.

One of Lotman's central areguments was that the text is a meaning-generating mechanism: "Nowadays Hamlet is not just a play by Shakespeare, but it is also the memory of all its interpretations, and what is more, it is also the memory of all those historical events which occurred outside the text but with which Shakespeare's text can evoke associations." (from Universe of the Mind) Natural languages are according to Lotman primary modelling systems. The language of art, cultural rules, religion etc. are secondary modelling systems, or more complex languages built upon natural language. Superficially the construction has similarities with the marxist sociological model of base and superstructure, transferred to study of semiotic structures. ...

Monday, 9 May 2011

Alexander Blok: A girl sang in the church choir…

A girl sang in the church choir
Of all who are weary in foreign lands,
Of all the ships gone out to sea,
Of all who have forgotten their joy.

Thus her voice sang, flying up to the dome,
And a ray of sun shone on her white shoulder,
And from the darkness all watched and listened
As the white dress sang in the ray.

And it seemed to all that joy would come,
That all ships had reached shelter in peaceful harbors,
That all weary people in foreign lands
Had found themselves a serene life.

And the voice was sweet, and the ray was thin,
And only above, at the altar gates,
In touch with Mystery, – a child wept
Because no one will ever return…

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Sergey Yesenin - Two Biographies

Sergey Esenin's flamboyant personality, peasant origins, and craving for self-destruction have forever canonized him as Russia's favorite "hooligan poet." Esenin died at the age of 30, tired of life and poetry. His suicide, still a mystery, triggered a wave of suicides among his fervent adepts. The novelty and magnitude of his continues to astonish his readers.

Sergey Esenin was born into a peasant family on 3 October 1895 in the village of Konstantinovo (now Esenino), in the Ryazan region. His parents worked away from home and displayed little concern for their son, who, at the age of two, was put under the care of his maternal grandparents. According to Esenin, no one had a greater influence on him than his grandfather, a member of the Old Believers, a group of Russian religious dissenters who refused to accept the liturgical reforms imposed upon the Russian Orthodox Church by the patriarch of Moscow, Nikon, in the 17th century. Esinin’s grandfather was well versed in religious literature, and successfully fused his spirituality with a practical approach to life; Esenin admired the symmetry of his grandfather’s life and saw him as a true role model.

From 1904 to 1909, Esenin attended the village school, continuing his education in the church boarding school for prospective teachers. It was during this time that he seriously took up poetry.

Upon the request of his father, a merchant's manager, Esenin moved to Moscow in 1912. In March of 1913, Esenin got a job as a proofreader at Sytin's printing house, where he gained access to a great variety of Russian texts. He joined a group of peasant and proletarian poets known as the Surikov Circle, and occasionally presented his works. In the fall of 1913, Esenin subscribed to the Shanyavsky People's University and attended lectures there on history and philosophy for a year and a half as an external student.

Blessed with good looks and a charming personality, he fell in love frequently and entered quite a number of romantic relationships. He married his first wife, Anna Izriadnova, a co-worker from the publishing house, in the winter of 1913 and lived with her for two years. They had a son, Yury, who in 1937 was persecuted and died in a labor camp.

Esenin's first publication appeared in January of 1914 in the Mirok children's magazine. His poem, “The Birch Tree,” is still a part of the Russian school curriculum and is learned by heart by every elementary school student.

In 1915, Esenin moved to Petrograd (now St. Petersburg), where he thought he would have a greater chance of expanding his literary activity.

In Petrograd, he received a warm welcome from another great poet, Aleksandr Blok, who helped him gain entrance to the city’s literary circles. Esenin met Anna Akhamatova and Nikolay Gumilev and formed a close relationship with the peasant poet Nikolay Kluev, with whom he organized recitals of poems at literary salons, dressing in peasant clothing.

In 1916-17, Esenin served in the military as an orderly on a sanitary train. While working in the infirmary, he had the opportunity to read his poems to the Empress and her daughters, who paid a visit to the facility. Esenin defected from the army shortly after the Revolution of 1917. During the years of the Civil War he extensively toured the country, visiting Murmansk, Archangelsk, the Crimea, the Caucasus, and other places.

In 1916, his first collection of poems, “Radunitsa” (the pagan holiday signifying the commemoration of the dead), was published. In it, Esenin described traditional village life and folk culture, the "wooden Russia" of his childhood, and his pantheistic belief in Nature. In his early poems, Esenin portrayed the Russian countryside melancholically or romantically, and adopted the role of peasant prophet and spiritual leader. The Soviet politician and literary theorist, Leo Trotsky, claimed that Esenin “smelled of medievalism.” On the other hand, Ilya Ehrenburg writes in his memoirs “People, Years, Life” (1960-65), that another prominent writer, Maxim Gorky, was deeply moved and cried when Esenin read him his poems.

In March of 1917, Esenin met his second wife, Zinaida Raikh, an actress. With her he had a daughter, Tatyana, and a son, Konstantin. The marriage however, didn't even last a year. ...

Sergei Esenin (spelled also Yesenin)

The "prodigal son" of Russian poetry, whose self-destructive life style and peasant origins marked his work throughout his relatively short career. Esenin died at the age of 30, tired of life and tired of poetry. His suicide in Leningrad triggered a wave of imitative suicides. Esenin became a myth and legend, and he is still one of the most beloved poets in his country.

"There are poets... who have their hour, Aseev, poor Klyuev - liquidated - Sel'vinsky - even Esenin. They fulfill an urgent need of the day, their gifts are of crucial importance to the development of poetry in their country, and then they are no more." (Boris Pasternak in 'Conversations with Akhmatova and Pasternak' by Isiah Berlin, 1980)

Sergei Aleksandrovich Esenin (also transliterated Sergey Yesenin) was born in Konstantinovo (now Yesenino), into a peasant family of Old Believers, who were in Russia considered religious dissidents. Esenin was raised by his maternal grandparents. Already in his childhood, he started to compose verse. From 1904 to 1909, he attended the village school, and then the Spas-Klepiki church boarding school. During this period he started to write poetry seriously. Upon the advice of his teacher, he moved to Moscow to pursue his writing career. Esenin worked for a year in Sytin's printing house. He joined a group of peasant and proletarian poets, the "Surikov" circle, and occasionally he also attended lectures at Shaniavskii University. In 1913-15 he lived with Anna Izriadnova; they had one son. In 1917 he married Zinaida Raikh; they had one daughter and one son.

Esenin's first verse were published in the Moscow journal Mirok in 1914. He moved in 1915 to Petrograd, where he began to achieve fame in the literary salons. Among his acquaintances were Aleksandr Blok, Sergei Gorodetskii and the peasant poet Nikolai Kliuev, with whom he formed a close friendship. In his first collection of poems, Radunitsa (1916), Esenin wrote about traditional village life and the folk culture, the "wooden Russia" of his childhood, and his pantheistic belief in Nature. The title of the collection referred to a folk funeral ritual, the "Commemoration of the Dead". "They say I'll become an illustrious / Poet of Russia soon," Esenin predicted in 1917. In his early poems Esenin viewed the Russian countryside melancholically or romantically, and adopted the role of peasant prophet and spiritual leader. Esenin also composed poems with religious themes - his Christ was a defender of the poor and discriminated. The Soviet politician and literature theorist Leo Trotsky claimed that Esenin smelled of medievalism. On the other hand, Ilya Ehrenburg tells in his memoirs People, Years, Life (1960-65), that Maxim Gorky was deeply moved and cried when Esenin read him his poems.

In 1916-17 Esenin was in military service in Tsarskoe Selo but deserted from the army after the 1917 February Revolution. He returned to Moscow in 1918. Esenin was a founding member of the Imaginist movement, which shocked conservative critics with avant-garde poetry and playful blasphemy. He issued several volumes of verse, and contributed to a number of Imaginist collections. The Imaginist poet Anatolii Mariengof (1897-1962) became his friend; they shared the same apartment and wrote poems at the same table. Their life Mariengof chronicled in his memoir, Roman bez vra'ia (1927). Mariengof's only son, Kirill, committed suicide by hanging, like Esenin, in 1940.

Esenin hoped that the Revolution would lead to a better future for the peasantry, a new age, of which he crystallized his visions in Inoniya (1918). Later, in 'The Stern October Has Deceived Me', Esenin revealed his disappointment with the Bolsheviks. By the 1920 Esenin realized that he was "the last poet of the village". The long poetic drama Pugachyov (1922) was influenced the spirit of the time and glorified the 18th-century rebellious peasant leader. Confessions of a Hooligan (1921) revealed another side of Esenin's personality - provocative, vulgar, wounded, anguished. 'The Black Man' is considered Esenin's most ruthless analysis of his failures and alcoholic hallucinations.

After divorce in 1921, Esenin married in 1922 the famous American dancer Isadora Duncan (1877-1927), who had opened a ballet school in Moscow. He followed her on tour to western Europe and the United States in 1922-23. Mariengof has later written in an essay, that Isadora herself did not fascinate Esenin, but her fame. When he watched her devouring cold roast mutton, Esenin lost completely his own appetite. Their journey abroad was a disaster for Esenin, who wished that his poetry would be well-received. "Only abroad," wrote Esenin, "did I understand how great are the merits of the Russian Revolution which has saved the world from a horrible spirit of philistinism." From America Esenin did not find anything good but the fox-trot dance. In 1923 he returned to Russia, suffering from depression and hallucinations. According to Mariengof, during the journey Esenin became an alcoholic, and his determination to end his life turned manic: he threw himself in front of a local train, tried to jump from a window of a 5 store building, and hurt himself with a kitchen knife. In the cycle 'Liubov' khuligana' (1923) he took distance to his earlier anarchism, and relied on the healing power of love. Some of his most celebrated lyrics - addressed to his family and village - belong to this period. In these works Esenin's major theme was hopelessness. He used straightforward language, without the ornaments of his imaginist lyrics.

Friday, 6 May 2011

Vladimir Sorokin's Coming Out Party

As mentioned on last week’s podcast, and further elaborated on in this week’s one (BTW, you can subscribe to the Three Percent podcast at iTunes), Vladimir Sorokin was one of the authors I was most interested in seeing at the PEN World Voices Festival.

Way back when, I read his short, early novel The Queue in a Readers International edition, and at the time I found it pretty charming and inventive. The entire book is a play-like narrative about an endless number of people waiting in line to buy . . . something. They have no idea what’s for sale, how many will be available, or anything else. But they feel obliged to wait and find out. Out of this sort of dry, Soviet setting, an absurd, Beckett-like story develops in which people fall in love, leave the line, return to line, recite their number in line, stay in line for days . . . In short, a fun, entertaining little book.

Over the ensuing years, Sorokin’s reputation as the contemporary Russian author worth paying attention to has grown in leaps and bounds, mostly due to the portrayal of his books as shocking, offensive, aggressively anti-govermental, all the stuff that we (Americans, literary readers, seekers of the new) tend to gravitate towards.

When Ice came out from NYRB the other year, it was a pretty hotly anticipated book, although in the end, the reviews were fairly mixed, possibly due to its mostly non-political bent. (I’d also blame the fact that this was only the middle part of a trilogy. The book can stand alone by itself, but I think it will benefit from the larger scope of the trilogy.)

So this spring, when both FSG brought out Day of the Oprichnik and NYRB published the complete Ice Trilogy and Sorokin was selected to attend the World Voices Festival, it felt like his time had really come. Add to that this feature in the New York Times and it seemed like this was going to be Sorokin’s coming-out party. His real launch into the American literary scene.

It’ll be interesting to see how this all plays out . . . Day of Oprichnik is interesting, but not exactly what most American’s are looking for. I’m reading The Ice Trilogy
now, and find it more intriguing, but it’s also a complicated book for readers to get a handle on, since there are things about the cult that are simple and good-hearted, and things that are creepy as shit.

But before getting to that, I want to say that I wish the conversation between Keith Gessen of N+1 and Sorokin would’ve gone a bit smoother. Not that it was a bad event, but with Sorokin’s need to be translated and his meticulous, thoughtful, halting style of speaking, the conversation got a bit bogged down and Keith wasn’t really able to get to all the points he had obviously planned on. There was a lot of time spent talking about the beginning of his career, especially about Norma, in which the first 100 pages contain scene after domestic scene in which all the characters end up eating a little package of shit . . . They also talked about the literary underground and The Queue, but most of the new works were left out when time ran out . . .

Hopefully Gessen and Sorokin will do a written conversation at some point. Keith’s a very perceptive reader, and I think he would be able to frame Sorokin’s importance in a very meaningful way that would really help draw people to his works. ...

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Olga Ivinskaya - The Other Lara

When Boris Pasternak and Olga Ivinskaya fell in love in 1946, Stalin was preparing his second assault against the Russian intelligentsia. Ivinskaya became the beleaguered poet's lifeline. By his own account, she was the inspiration for Lara in his novel Doctor Zhivago. She was his typist, his collaborator on translations and his business manager. While the unworldly poet remained on the sidelines, he delegated her to deal with hostile Soviet bureaucrats and, later, with the foreign publishers of his Nobel-prizewinning novel, banned in the U.S.S.R.

Ivinskaya paid cruelly for her 14-year association with Pasternak. In 1949, after refusing to falsely denounce her lover as a British spy, she was imprisoned for five years. Singularly diabolical torture was inflicted on Ivinskaya, who was pregnant by Pasternak at the time. At one point she was led through interminable prison corridors on the promise of a visit from Pasternak. Instead, she was thrown into the morgue. After she came to among the cadavers, she miscarried. Following Pasternak's death, she was again arrested. This time her tormentors tried to extract a confession that she had written Doctor Zhivago herself. When this tactic proved untenable, she was charged with accepting some of Pasternak's foreign royalties and sent to a concentration camp for four years.

Now 65 and living in Moscow, Ivinskaya has had her intimate recollections of Pasternak published in the West, thus risking the further wrath of the authorities in the Soviet Union. She has also made another, perhaps more portentous choice: to expose the human frailty that is the underlay of heroism and the foolishness that may be attendant upon genius. She tells of her endless "female tantrums," provoked by Pasternak's determination not to leave his wife and children but to maintain two households instead. To these outbursts the writer often responded, "this is something out of a bad novel." "I suppose I longed for recognition and wanted people to envy me," Ivinskaya explains in a characteristically unsparing passage.

She is equally unsparing of Pasternak's wife Zinaida, who died in 1966. But she does cite some of Pasternak's letters to third parties that are full of praise for Zinaida: "I owe my life to her," the writer declared after a long illness. At times, Ivinskaya tends to confuse art and life. She often asserts that particular lines in Pasternak's work refer specifically to her. In his overwhelmingly expressive portrait of Lara, Pasternak offered no other physical description of his heroine than a mention of "strong, white, woman's arms." Ivinskaya would have been well advised to allow readers to imagine the rest.

Read more: TIME

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Alexander Blok: Scythians

You are millions. We are hordes and hordes and hordes.
Try and take us on!
Yes, we are Scythians! Yes, we are Asians -
With slanted and greedy eyes!

For you, the ages, for us a single hour.
We, like obedient slaves,
Held up a shield between two enemy races -
The Tatars and Europe!

For ages and ages your old furnace raged
And drowned out the roar of avalanches,
And Lisbon and Messina's fall
To you was but a monstrous fairy tale!

For hundreds of years you gazed at the East,
Storing up and melting down our jewels,
And, jeering, you merely counted the days
Until your cannons you could point at us!

The time is come. Trouble beats its wings -
And every day our grudges grow,
And the day will come when every trace
Of your Paestums may vanish!

O, old world! While you still survive,
While you still suffer your sweet torture,
Come to a halt, sage as Oedipus,
Before the ancient riddle of the Sphinx!..

Russia is a Sphinx. Rejoicing, grieving,
And drenched in black blood,
It gazes, gazes, gazes at you,
With hatred and with love!..

It has been ages since you've loved
As our blood still loves!
You have forgotten that there is a love
That can destroy and burn!

We love all- the heat of cold numbers,
The gift of divine visions,
We understand all- sharp Gallic sense
And gloomy Teutonic genius...

We remember all- the hell of Parisian streets,
And Venetian chills,
The distant aroma of lemon groves
And the smoky towers of Cologne...

We love the flesh - its flavor and its color,
And the stifling, mortal scent of flesh...
Is it our fault if your skeleton cracks
In our heavy, tender paws?

When pulling back on the reins
Of playful, high-spirited horses,
It is our custom to break their heavy backs
And tame the stubborn slave girls...

Come to us! Leave the horrors of war,
And come to our peaceful embrace!
Before it's too late - sheathe your old sword,
Comrades! We shall be brothers!

But if not - we have nothing to lose,
And we are not above treachery!
For ages and ages you will be cursed
By your sickly, belated offspring!

Throughout the woods and thickets
In front of pretty Europe
We will spread out! We'll turn to you
With our Asian muzzles.

Come everyone, come to the Urals!
We're clearing a battlefield there
Between steel machines breathing integrals
And the wild Tatar Horde!

But we are no longer your shield,
Henceforth we'll not do battle!
As mortal battles rages we'll watch
With our narrow eyes!

We will not lift a finger when the cruel Huns
Rummage the pockets of corpses,
Burn cities, drive cattle into churches,
And roast the meat of our white brothers!..

Come to your senses for the last time, old world!
Our barbaric lyre is calling you
One final time, to a joyous brotherly feast
To a brotherly feast of labor and of peace!

© A. Wachtel, I. Kutik and M. Denner

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Denis Fonvizin - Biography

Denis Fonvizin, often referred to as the “Russian Molière,” was the first truly original Russian dramatist of the 18th century. He was born into a noble family in Moscow on 3 April 1744 or 1745. The confusion in year results from the inscription on the writer's grave-stone in the Alexandro-Nevsky Lavra in St.-Petersburg: "Born 3 April 1745, died 1 December 1792, lived 48 years, seven months, 28 days." The apparent mistake in the inscription has been interpreted in various ways, but 1745 is the most likely year of his birth.

The family, although thoroughly Russianized, had an ancestor of German or Swedish origin, known as Von Visin – a prisoner captured in one of Ivan the Terrible’s Livonian campaigns in the 16th century.

Fonvisin's father, a strict disciplinarian with only an elementary education but a great deal of common sense, instructed him in the basics of the Russian language, providing tutors in other fields. In 1756, Denis and his brother, Pavel, were enrolled in the gymnasium at Moscow University, established the year before.

Although he complained of the teaching personnel, some of whom were addicted to booze and a loose lifestyle, Denis, nevertheless, admitted that he acquired a lot from the institution where he studied with diligence and was among the best pupils. In 1760 he entered the university, in the department of philosophy, where he remained until 1762.

That same year, when Catherine II became empress, he joined the Imperial Guard, only to find that a military career held no appeal for him. Soon he entered the civil service, first as an interpreter at the Kollegium (ministry) of Foreign Affairs and then as secretary to the cabinet-minister Ivan Elagin.

Fonvisin's literary career began in the early 1760s with the translation from French and German of works by some European enlighteners. These included Moralizing Fables (1761) by Danish playwright Barin Ludvig Holberg, Voltaire’s tragedy Alzira, or the Americans (1762) and the treatise Short Story about Liberty of the French Nobility and Benefit of the Tiers Etat (1764 - 1766) by an unknown author. In 1764 he started writing his own original works, including Korion which was performed at the Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg the same year and the poem Message to my Servants Shumilov, Vanka and Petrushka.

After moving to St. Petersburg in 1762, he befriended Ivan Dmitrievsky, a prominent actor, and began translating and adapting foreign plays for him. His wit and his knowledge of French and German classics made him well received in the enlightened circles at the court of Catherine II. In 1769 he was appointed secretary to Vice-Chancellor Nikita Panin (1718 - 1783), Catherine II's top diplomatic advisor and a mentor of her son, Pavel Petrovich (who later was enthroned as Emperor Paul I).

Panin was a liberal and an advocate of constitutionalism, with whom Fonvisin shared a hatred of favoritism and the belief that "fundamental laws" were indispensable in Russia. During the 1760s, Panin patronized a group of idealistic young writers, among whom, besides Fonvisin, were the poets Alexander Sumarokov and Hippolyt Bogdanovich.

Fonvizin may well have been the most articulate spokesman of the program for which this liberal party stood. By that time, his enlightened stance had been fully formed: he supported universal schooling, gradual abolition of serfdom and constitutional monarchy as the ideal political system.

Meanwhile, literature (especially playwriting) was becoming the primary cause of his life. In 1766 his play The Brigadier, created a sensation when it was read in the presence of Catherine II. A salon comedy, The Brigadier attacked the nobility's corruption and ignorance, condemned the notion that rank at the Russian court was a sure sign of virtue in the person occupying it, and travestied the “Westernized” provincial parvenus whom Panin so disdained. It also mocked the Russian gentry's "gallomania" (i.e. fashion of aping French manners and speech — or rather of aping them incorrectly).

Without French rules for behavior "we wouldn't know how to dance, how to enter a room, how to bow, how to perfume ourselves, how to put a hat on, and, when excited, how to express our passions and the state of our heart,” one of the characters of the play admits. After reading the play, Panin wrote to Fonvizin: "I see that you know our customs well, because the wife of your general is completely familiar to us. No one among us can deny having a grandmother or an aunt of the sort. You have written our first comedy of manners." In spite of its success, The Brigadier was not published until 1786.

In recognition of his service to the government, in 1773 the Empress presented Fonvizin with a large estate in the province of Vitebsk, inhabited by 1180 serfs. The following year he married a widow, Catherine Khlopova (née Rogovikova). During the Pugachev rebellion in 1774, Fonvisin, at the request of Panin drew up a plan for a constitutional government in Russia but it was permanently shelved by the Empress as she was becoming increasingly wary of allowing limitations on her prerogative powers.

In 1777 - 1778 Fonvizin visited France; in "Travel Letters" (published in the 19th century) he appraised French society on the eve of the Revolution, finding French theatre and love of country admirable but nearly everything else deplorable. The French, he found, were sycophantic, hypocritical, oversexed, and unjustified in their immense pride.

Their cities were filthy, noisy, stinking and overflowing with beggars. Injustice reigned as all French people had "been made to be either a tyrant or a victim." Fonvizin had choice words for other cultures and populations as well, including Poles, Germans, Jews and Italians. "The floors are of stone and filthy," he wrote from Florence, "the linens are abominable; the bread of the sort eaten in Russia by the poor; their clean water is slops for us."

Thus, the genre of travel notes served as a means of making a statement on Russian identity and emerging national consciousness. Russia, traditionally observed by Western European travelers, had now become the observer of the West.

In the “Letters” he presented a scathingly sarcastic, critical view of Western Europe, portraying it roughly in the same manner as Western Europeans portrayed Eastern Europe: backward, uncivilized, and semi-barbaric. Despite his upbringing, education and career being the product of Western-style reform, Fonvizin’s criticism of Western Europe juxtaposed the shortcomings of Europe with Russia, vehemently claiming the superiority of Russia in terms of civility, morality, culture and education.

Fonvizin's approach demonstrates that both the traveler and his readers boast a level of cultural sophistication far superior to that of the average foreigner. On the contrary, “uncorrupted” Russia, Fonvizin believed, had the advantage of being "backward" and could thus foresee a future superior to that of "enlightened" France.

His traveler often engages in conversations that humorously pit the voice of reason (embodied in the traveler) against the stupidity represented by his foreign interlocutors. In these epistolary scenarios, the foreigners reveal startling depths of ignorance and failing, for example, to understand the basic facts about Russian culture: "Many are hearing for the first time that there is a Russia in the world and that we speak a particular language distinct from theirs.” In these letters, Fonvizin’s sarcastic wit and sharp tongue seem extremely biting and humorous. ...

The Russian Novelist Vladimir Sorokin

One thing you can say about the novelist Vladimir Sorokin: He has the hair of an honest-to-God, old-school Russian sage. It radiates in luxuriant white waves around his unlined face, suggesting that he has emerged — half-monk, half-lion — from the sun-dappled glades where Tolstoy once walked.

Beyond that, though, readers in the West will have to let go of whatever expectations they attach to the term “Russian novel.”

Mr. Sorokin, one of Russia’s most celebrated writers, has spent decades puncturing those expectations, typically by confronting the reader with shocking (but, I am sorry to report, unforgettable) visions of violence, cannibalism and scatology. Called upon to address the sanctified role of the novelist in Russian culture, he once responded: “I do not overrate literature as such. For me, it is just paper with typographic signs.”

It should not be necessary to point out, given that response, why it has sometimes been tricky to introduce his novels to an English-speaking audience. Like many of his peers during the years after the Soviet collapse, Mr. Sorokin largely dispensed with moral uplift, marshalling his virtuosic talent with language to create a world devoid of heroes. This path culminated in a savage little fairy tale about Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia, “Day of the Oprichnik,” which suddenly, and for the first time, positioned Mr. Sorokin as a direct combatant in Russian politics.

His admirers in the United States are hoping that an English translation of “Day of the Oprichnik” by Jamey Gambrell will provide an opening for Mr. Sorokin, 55, who is already popular in Germany and Japan. This spring, two American publishers released translations of his novels on the same day, and Mr. Sorokin will appear on Saturday afternoon at the PEN World Voices Festival ( in New York City, discussing his work with the novelist Keith Gessen. This concerted roll-out — as well as a broader effort to make contemporary Russian authors available to English-language readers — feels like an experiment for all parties involved.

“There used to be a simple story about Russian literature, that we thought the good writers were the ones who opposed the regime,” said Edwin Frank, the editor of NYRB Classics, which published Mr. Sorokin’s novel “Ice Trilogy” in March. “Once we don’t have that story about Russia as a competitor, or an enemy, it was much less clear to us what we should be interested in.”

In person, Mr. Sorokin is diffident and thoughtful; a former stutterer, he releases words into the air around him as carefully as a cashier counting out change. In the 1980s, when his writing began circulating as samizdat in Moscow’s avant-garde circles, the central mystery was how such violent material could originate in such a polite young man.

“It was as if an icon painted by Andrei Rublyov from time to time threw up on worshipers,” Pavel V. Pepperstein, an artist, told the magazine Afisha. Using an uncanny ability to mimic language, Mr. Sorokin would lull readers into a reminiscent trance, sometimes by imitating beloved Russian writers. Then he would pull the pin out of the grenade.

“The Start of the Season,” a short story first published in 1985, follows two hunters stalking their prey over quiet, folksy conversation, until it takes a jarring turn: the bait they are using is a recording of Vladimir S. Vysotsky, the singer worshipped by Russian intellectuals, which brings a man galloping through the woods. They shoot him. And then, over quiet, folksy conversation, they gut him and eat his liver.

This pattern was well established by the time Mr. Sorokin published the novel “Blue Lard,” which featured a scene in which a clone of Khrushchev sodomizes a clone of Stalin. It was for this scene that a pro-Putin youth group, Moving Together, filed a complaint against Mr. Sorokin on the grounds that he was disseminating pornography.

One day in 2002, a friend called Mr. Sorokin to tell him that a huge toilet bowl had been erected outside the Bolshoi Theater, and that the public was invited to throw his books into it. “I had a feeling that I had ended up in one of my own stories somehow,” Mr. Sorokin said last week, in a Moscow apartment as spare and white as a hospital room.

But his amusement gradually turned into something like dread. One day a workman rang his doorbell and said he had an order to fit Mr. Sorokin’s windows with prison bars; another time he opened his door to find a sack of his own books, each stamped with the word “pornography,” he said. State prosecutors opened a case against him for disseminating pornography, which could have brought a prison sentence of up to two years. (The charges were dropped.) It became harder and harder for him to write.

“In the end,” he said, “I got in the car with my wife and drove north” to Estonia, where he lived in the woods for a month. ...