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Showing posts from March, 2013

Mikhail Shishkin: A revolution for Russia's words

As it creates reality, language judges: it punishes and it pardons. Language is its own verdict. There is nowhere to appeal. All higher courts are non-verbal. Even before he has begun writing, the writer is like Laocoön, pinioned by the language snake. If he is to explain anything, the writer must be freed from language.
It was quite a while after my move from Pushka to the canton of Zurich before the bizarre sense of the unreal, the carnival quality of what was happening to me, was gradually replaced by the tentative and amazed confidence that, indeed, this was no illusion. The trains were not toys, the landscape not painted, the people not planted.
Immediately following the change of scenery, I tried to finish writing the novel I had begun in Moscow, but I got nowhere. The letters I had traced out there had an utterly different density here. In the end, the novel was about something else. Every word is a high step for you to trip over.
Borders, distance and air do wonders with words. A…

A novelist who works miracles with the mundane - Igor Sakhnovsky,

A young man hears the voice of his long-dead grandmother ordering him to go to a nearby town. At the train station, he inadvertently saves the life of a homeless man. This man turns out to be his grandfather, who was thought to have perished in the camps many years ago. These serendipitous events – which the author asserts are true – prompted the then 30-year-old poet and magazine editor to pen his first novel, "The Vital Needs of the Dead."


Sakhnovsky, now 54, writes prose that has the potential to become classic literature: the stylistic originality and opulent language combine with unconventional and entertaining plots where the mundane and the miraculous merge organically into one, becoming seamless and inseparable. Many of the characters are based on real people but are joined by archetypes including a ghost, a wandering Jew, or omniscient sage. The author does not restrict himself to any particular time frame: a single novel can weave together stories of, say, the Middle…

Tatiana Nikolayeva plays Bach Partita No.6 in E minor, BWV 830

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Anna of Russia

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Anna Ioannovna was born in Moscow on 28 January, 1693. After the death of her father, Czar Ivan V, Peter the Great's imbecile half-brother and co-czar for seven years, in 1696 she grew up with her mother, Praskovia Saltykova, and sisters in the village of Izmailovo on the outskirts of Moscow.

Her mother was an ignorant, bigoted, old-style tsarina who neglected and even hated her daughters. A shy and reserved girl, Anna was educated at home. She studied writing, German, French, dancing and etiquette, but never advanced beyond the bare essentials of literacy and grew into a clumsy, grim and gruff young woman.


Contemporaries noted her rough face, dark complexion, bad manners, deep voice, slovenliness and great height; she towered above all the cavaliers of her court. Anna was also famed for her big cheeks, which Thomas Carlyle once compared to a “Westphalian ham.” Still, she had natural good sense and in her more cheerful moments was a true friend and amiable companion.

Peter the Grea…

Poem of the Week: “Boris Pasternak”

Born Anna Gorenko to a wealthy family in Odessa in 1889, Akhmatova was made to adopt a pen name by her father, who cautioned her against shaming the family name by becoming a “decadent poetess”. Yet her first two collections of poetry, Evening (1912) and Rosary (1914), won her instant critical acclaim and popularity. Along with the poets Nikolay Gumilev (Akhmatova’s first husband), Osip Mandelstam and Sergey Gorodetsky, Akhmatova founded the Acmeist school of writing, which emphasized concreteness and craft over the vague, more ephemeral concerns of the Symbolist movement. But after Gumilev was executed by the Bolsheviks in 1921, Akhmatova encountered strong resistance to publishing her work; an unofficial ban on her verse remained in place from 1925 to 1940. In spite of censorship and harassment from the government in the years after the Second World War – a Central Committee Secretary expelled her from the Writer’s Union, calling her “half-nun, half-harlot” – Akhmatova could never b…

The man who held the Russian soul in his hands

Rachmaninoff’s name has long since become a brand. His music haunts the piano students perspiring in music schools no less than it does the covetous, concert pianists rubbing their hands together as they watch their bank balances balloon with every new performance of the great composer’s hits. The music also haunts his rapturous listeners, who freeze like deer in the headlights when they hear the first chords of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2.


Rachmaninoff was fated to have both enormous success and a life in exile. At a time when Vladimir Lenin was doing all he could to rock the boat of Imperial Russia, little Seriozha (common diminutive for the name Sergei) was just learning how to press the pedals on the old family piano. His poetic nature slowly matured in the hush of a Russian village and, in December 1917, he left Russia for good. To the din of church bells being blown up by the Bolsheviks, Rachmaninoff fled to the West. In the frames of a documentary film, we see Rachmaninof…

Mussorgsky - Boris Godunov: Coronation scene

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M.P.Mussorgsky
Boris Godunov. "coronation scene" (prologe, scene 1).
The Bolshoi theater. Moscow.
Boris - Evgeniy Nesterenko.
Cond. B.Khaykin

A Belated Apology to Anton Chekhov

For a man who died at 40, Anton Chekhov left an astounding legacy. Though he worked full-time as a physician—which in 19th-century Russia meant driving horse-carriages around the frigid countryside to visit badly suffering people in the middle of the night—Chekhov completed an unthinkable 600 short stories and 13 plays in his lifetime. His work inspires adoration from readers, including writers as different as Virginia Woolf and Raymond Carver. When asked about his influences, a representative devotee named Tennessee Williams famously said: "What writers influenced me as a young man? Chekhov! As a dramatist? Chekhov! As a story writer? Chekhov!"
Yet Chekhov's charms are subtle, and some readers find themselves underwhelmed after the first encounter. One contrite member this of this camp is essayist and short-story writer Steven Barthelme, who wrote what he told me is an "Apology to Chekhov": an admission that he initially shrugged at a writer who later became an …

Vladimir Nabokov, “Houdini of history”?

IN THE INTRODUCTION to his novel “Bend Sinister” (1947), Vladimir Nabokov writes the following: I am not “sincere,” I am not “provocative,” I am not “satirical.” I am neither a didacticist nor an allegorizer. Politics and economics, atomic bombs, primitive and abstract art forms, the entire Orient, symptoms of “thaw” in Soviet Russia, the Future of Mankind, and so on, leave me supremely indifferent. Nabokov was no stranger to the political atrocities of the 20th century. In 1919, he and his immediate family fled revolutionary Russia on the last ship out of Sevastopol, a vessel aptly named “Nadezhda” (“Hope”). In 1937 he escaped Hitler’s Germany by fleeing to France, and in 1940, just weeks before Paris fell to the Nazis, he boarded a French ocean liner’s last voyage to New York with his Jewish wife and son. So, was his insistence that his art was independent of politics and society fact or fiction? In “The Secret History of Vladimir Nabokov,” Andrea Pitzer suggests that such pronounceme…

Stanislavski was racked by self-doubt

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This year marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of the Russian actor, director and theorist, Konstantin Stanislavski. If the anniversary is remembered at all, it will be with quiet respect. There was a time – not a time out of memory, though it seems distant now – when furious battles were waged in the theatre about acting: what it was and what it should be. In green rooms, in drama schools, and in the fiercely polemical pages of the theatre magazine Encore, the debate raged. It started around the time of the foundation of English Stage Company at the Royal Court theatre in the mid 1950s and continued until some point in the late 1970s, when all ideological and aesthetic discussions were abandoned in the face of economic trauma. The principal figures around whom the antagonists grouped were Stanislavski and the playwright and director Bertolt Brecht who, in the 1920s and 30s, articulated a theory of acting to rival, and indeed to oppose, the Russian's. Broadly speaking, Brecht&…

When writing becomes therapy

Dmitry Bykov is a larger-than-life figure in so many ways. He is a big man and his personality is immense; his unruly hair and casual T-shirts contrast delightfully with his analytical mind and phenomenal memory. As part of the Slovo Festival of Russian Literature, he captivated a crowded, London audience this week with a bravura performance, reciting poetry, cracking jokes and engaging in a relaxed, but impassioned interview.


Bykov has won numerous prizes for his novels and biographies, including the National Bestseller and Big Book awards for “Boris Pasternak” (2005). He is also a teacher, journalist, TV and radio presenter, but he is currently best known for his Citizen Poet project, involving satirical poetry on contemporary themes in the styles of different Russian writers. Most people have come to the sold-out “Evening with Dmitry Bykov” to see the co-creator of Citizen Poet and its new successor, Gospodin Khoroshi (Mr. Good). “I’m not sure if I’m a big fan of his prose-writing,” …

The Enchanted Wanderer and Other Stories by Nikolai Leskov

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In his 1924 History of Russian Literature, the critic D.S. Mirsky complained that Anglo-Saxon readers knew what they wanted out of a Russian writer, and that Nikolai Leskov was not it. But to read Leskov, he continues, is to experience a Russia that Russians themselves would recognize, a vast and haunted steppe populated by vagabonds and righteous men. Mirsky’s judgment is related in the introduction to Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s new translation of The Enchanted Wanderer and Other Stories, stories by a writer who has long been adored in Russia but whose greatness has never been fully acknowledged in English. With Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translation, Leskov should at last receive the recognition he deserves. “Enchanted” is precisely how Leskov’s stories come to us, and enchanted is how we, his readers, leave them. Pevear and Volokhonsky’s ambition in bringing Leskov and all his stylistic peculiarities into English is impressive, and all the more so for how it contrasts wit…

Sergei Mikhalkov: a symbol of the Soviet era

The opening of a memorial plaque, a commemorative concert at the Bolshoi Theater, the presentation of a book of memoirs – Russia is remembering the outstanding Soviet-era writer and poet Sergei Mikhalkov on his birth centennial. His poems are still admired by children just as they were by their parents and grandparents decades ago. And, of course, every Russian knows that Sergei Mikhalkov was the author of lyrics for the Soviet and now Russian national anthem. He lived a very long life of about 97 years. Much-lauded and lavished with awards during Soviet times, Mikhakov regarded himself as blessed and lucky. He was spared the purges and repressions of the 1930s; during World War II, he was a frontline correspondent, and came back alive. He was blissfully happy with his wife Natalya Konchalovskaya, a writer and poetess. They had lived together for 53 years and raised two sons, Andrei Konchalovsky and Nikita Mikhalkov. Both are world renowned film directors.
Sergei Mikhalkov’s grandchildr…

Russia's iconic war writer dies

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In 1954, thirty-year-old engineer Capt. Boris Vasilyev left the army to become a writer. He had a whole war behind him: he had volunteered for service at the age of 17, been seriously wounded, studied at an armored warfare academy and worked as a tank tester. This solid life experience would help Vasilyev in his literary career — especially since he started it with his play “Tank Troops,” which was almost autobiographical. Yet this was not to be the first of his works to see the light of day.


Renamed “Officers,” his play “Tank Troops” was banned after two performances and not published in Theatre magazine. The young dramatist’s new plays were only performed in military command theatres; he wrote screenplays for films that did not become landmarks of Soviet cinematography, while he did other work on the side — writing newsreel stories and jokes for the TV show “KVN” (Russian initials for the full title, “Club of the Happy and Inventive”). Vasilyev’s first book, published in 1968, was, in…

Describing a beautiful nightmare about the Soviet 1930s

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Moscow Chestnova, an orphaned girl, born a few years before the Russian revolution, is named after the city she lives in. Her story strangely mirrors the triumphs and terrors of the new communism. A powerfully alive and beautiful young woman, she marries too young so that “her heart, which had sought heroism, began to love just one sly man…” Leaving him, she tells a stranger that she loves “the wind in the air” and he advises her to enroll in the school of aeronautics; she learns to fly, but plummets to earth after accidentally setting fire to her parachute. Following her “wandering” instincts, she moves through a series of lovers, loses a leg while helping to build the Moscow metro, and finally disappears from her own tale. In parallel, author Andrei Platonov introduces the men who love Moscow: geometrician and town planner, Victor Bozhko, tirelessly writing letters in Esperanto to fellow-communists around the world, who celebrates Moscow as a model of a new humanity; or Sambikin, the …

Anna Pavlova - Two Biographies

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Anna Pavlova was born on January 31, 1881, in St. Petersburg, Russia, the daughter of Lyubov Feodorovna, a washerwoman. Her father's identity is not known. When Anna was very small, her mother married reserve soldier Matvey Pavlov, who died when Anna was two years old. She and her mother were very poor, and they spent the summers with Anna's grandmother. According to Pavlova, she wanted to be a dancer from the age of eight, when she attended a performance of The Sleeping Beauty at the Maryinsky Theatre. Two years later she was accepted as a student at St. Petersburg's Imperial Ballet School. This school for classical dancers offered its students lifelong material protection; the czar (the ruler of Russia) Alexander III (1845–1894) was its main supporter. In return, the school demanded complete physical dedication.

Although the young Pavlova was considered frail and not exactly beautiful, she was nevertheless very supple (able to bend and twist with ease and grace). Her tal…

Letters and secret files reveal the tormented life of Lina Prokofiev

She endured an abusive husband who likened her to "an infected tooth", and torture by Stalin's secret police, who stuck needles in her, threatened her children and drove her to the brink of madness. The tragic life of the wife of Sergei Prokofiev, one of the 20th century's greatest composers, is now revealed in hundreds of previously unpublished letters, as well as secret Soviet files. The cruelty suffered by Lina Prokofiev at home paled against her later torture, but she never stopped loving her husband – even when he abandoned her for another woman – and she never spoke publicly of her suffering during eight years in a Siberian prison camp. Prokofiev (1891-1953) is the composer of masterpieces such as the opera War and Peace, the ballet Romeo and Juliet and the children's fable, Peter and the Wolf. But when Simon Morrison, a British-born music professor at Princeton University and president of the Prokofiev Foundation, was given access to the unpublished document…

Ludmila Petrushevskaya :The Princess With Lily-White Feet

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Translated by Jane Taubman
from Fairy Tales for Grownup Children,Glas 13

Once upon a time there lived a Youngest Princess, and everybody loved her. She had tiny little hands like rose petals, and her tiny white feet were like lily petals. On the one hand, this was pretty, but on the other hand, the Youngest Princess was almost too delicate and sensitive - she'd cry at the slightest provocation. She wasn't exactly reprimanded for it, but the family certainly didn't condone such behavior, either. "You can't let yourself fall apart like that!" her Mama, Papa, Grandma, and King-grandaddy used to say. "You have to keep yourself in hand. You're a big girl now."
This would only hurt her feelings even more, and the Youngest Princess would take to crying again.
Nevertheless, there came a time when a Prince came to woo the Princess, which is the way it's meant to be.
The Prince was tall, handsome, and gentle. "A fine pair!" everybody in the king…

Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov - The Tale of Tsar Saltan

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Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov (Russian: Никола́й Андре́евич Ри́мский-Ко́рсаков, Nikolaj Andreevič Rimskij-Korsakov, 18 March [O.S. 6 March] 1844, -- 21 June [O.S. 8 June] 1908) was a Russian composer, and a member of the group of composers known as The Five.

The Tale of Tsar Saltan

1. Tsar's Farewell and Departure
2. Tsarina in a Barrel at Sea (4:07)
3. The Flight of the Bumble-bee (11:52)
4. The Three Wonders (13:21)

The Rotterdam Philharmonic conducted by David Zinman

Swan Lakes at the Kremlin

In December 2012, Russian social websites were buzzing with a story from a Moscow writer who had been part of a delegation to the Committee of Culture of the Russian State Duma. During the meeting, a young woman with “steely eyes” had suddenly “drilled out”: “You must understand: art should be the expression of party values!”. Since the Committee, like the Duma itself, is essentially an instrument of the policies of United Russia, Russia’s ruling party, this pronouncement caused understandable alarm among those who do not support the party’s views. The parroting of Soviet-era jargon by a person who was probably in primary school when the old regime collapsed served more to threaten than to amuse.

Yet members of Russia’s creative community can probably rest safe in their beds. The current Russian government may hanker for the centrist control and supposed consensus of the Brezhnev era, from which it takes the buzzword “stability”, but it has so far not taken the essential step of provid…