Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Conceptualism in Literature

The principles of conceptualism were manifested in Russian literature as well. The stereotypes that the Soviet ideology constantly “bombarded” consciousness of people with were revealed in conceptualists’ poetry, which was made emphatically detached, insensible, and mechanized. M. Epstein, the researcher of postmodernism in Russia, considers the creativity of conceptualist poets as one of the two main poles of modern poetry: “Time breaks up into extremes to reach its potential … In poetry of every era there is struggle of convention vs certainty, play vs gravity, reflection vs integrity… In the 1970s the same opposition giving dynamics and intensity to poetry, was finding new forms: metarealism vs conceptualism.

… Distinctions between new poets are defined by how much ideas and realities are blended in their creativity. …. Metareality is the limit of their unity, whereas concept is the edge of their contraposition… They carry out two necessary and complementary tasks: peel habitual, false, jaded meanings from words and impregnate them with new polysemy and deep meaning. The verbal fabric of conceptualism is careless, artly defective, and broken into pieces, since the task of this movement is to show the decay and senile helplessness of the dictionary that we comprehend the world with. 

Metarealism looks for the higher limits of meaningfulness, immersion of an object into meaning, eternal themes and archetypes. Conceptualism, on the contrary, pinpoints ostensibility of any axiological denominations, and therefore is defiantly attached to the current, the momentary, daily round and the lowest forms of culture, to mass consciousness”. (M. Epstein. Postmodernism in Russia).
Development of Conceptualism in Russia was a predicted and natural phenomenon. The Socialist Realism was creating plethora of defective images illustrating overvalued ideas, which turned to be “the fueler” of Conceptualism.

M. Epstein writes: “… Conceptualism does not argue with incendiary ideas, but inflates them to such an extent that they blow out… Any weapon was powerless against the Gorgon Medusa, who struck her opponents ideologically, so to speak – with her look from distance; the one who in the old manner attacked her with his sword, suddenly froze on the spot. There was one way out: not to look directly in the monster’s eyes, but approach it while looking at its reflection in the mirror… Mirroring shield is a reliable weapon against the Gorgons of the 20th century: to double the mighty opponent and win over it with the charms of its own image. Modern Conceptualism is a smart weapon of Perseus in the battle against modern Gorgons …”

Conceptualists deal with concepts – jaded language and visual clichés – which are invariable weapons of totalitarian ideologies. The concept is an idea or abstract concept, a peculiar label to reality that it does not meet, and thus causes alienating, ironical or grotesque effect with this incongruity. Concepts as they appear in texts by the poets Prigov and Rubenstein are reflected images of injured consciousness, which plays with them and thus nullifies them.

More here.

Monday, 28 October 2013

Brodsky Criticizes His Contemporaries From Beyond the Grave

A previously unheard interview with Nobel-prize-winning Soviet poet Joseph Brodsky has been published on the web portal, The interview took place in Vienna in 1972, shortly after Brodsky's departure from the Soviet Union, and was the first comprehensive literary interview Brodsky gave in the West.

"Of course, he is a very bad poet and an even worse person," Brodsky says of Yevgeny Yevtushenko. This pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the half-hour interview, in which he speaks cuttingly and at great length about many of his contemporaries in the world of Soviet culture. He then turned the spotlight on himself and agreed that he could be called a Soviet poet, while saying that he had "a strong aversion to all labels apart from simply 'Russian.'"

Following his denunciation in 1963, Brodsky suffered persecution at the hands of the Soviet authorities and was charged with ''social parasitism,'' for which he was sentenced to five years of hard labor. This sentence was later commuted after several prominent Soviet and foreign cultural figures, including Yevtushenko and Shostakovich, intervened on his behalf. He became known as a symbol of artistic resistance in the West and his works were translated into many languages.

Brodsky left the Soviet Union in 1972, never to return. Although he had been invited to emigrate to Israel, he went first to Vienna and then to the U.S., where he died in 1996.

While in Vienna, Brodsky was interviewed by Elizabeth Markstein, an Austrian translator and literary critic, and her husband, Heinz Markstein. Elizabeth Markstein was closely linked to many Soviet literary figures and translated Solzhenitsyn's ''The Gulag Archipelago.'' Although she was deprived of a Soviet visa in the early 70s, she had traveled frequently to the Soviet Union during the preceding decade and had made the acquaintance of many Soviet writers, including Brodsky. Until the recent death of Elizabeth Markstein on Oct. 15, the audio recording of the interview was kept in her archives.

So what does the interview contain that might be interesting for Brodsky fans? According to, the interview is remarkable not only for the unusual circumstances in which it took place, but also the breadth of topics that Brodsky touched upon and the openness with which he spoke.

More here.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Thousands volunteer for Leo Tolstoy digitisation

A project to digitise the entire works of Leo Tolstoy – named All of Tolstoy in One Click – making them available for tablets and smartphones, turned out to be lighter work than expected for the Tolstoy Museum in Moscow, when thousands of readers from all over the world responded to a call for volunteers.
The full set of Tolstoy's works includes the 90-volume standard collection, plus rare stories, novels, diaries and letters held by the museum and the family estate, Yasnaya Polyana, in Tula.
"Of course we realised there are some novels on the internet," Fyokla Tolstaya, Tolstoy's great-great-granddaughter told The New Yorker. "But most [writings] are not. We in the museum decided this is not good. The museum wants to be more open to people, particularly young people, to help Tolstoy's heritage. We decided to make it really easy to use – compatible with iPad, e-reader, Kindle."
ABBYY FineReader provided the technology, but the cost of proofreading the texts in ebook format threatened to halt the project. Instead, readers from 49 countries – including Russia, the US, Germany, New Zealand, Peru and Thailand – came forward to help transcribe and proofread the works. The volunteers, spanning professions from engineers and IT professionals to doctors, teachers, geologists and linguists, signed up at, and galloped through 46,000 pages in just two weeks.
The Russian State Library had already scanned Tolstoy's 90-volume collected works, but they are not available as ebook downloads, and other writings such as rare stories and letters have not been digitised before. In the UK, English language ebook versions of classics such as War and Peace are sold at low prices, but as yet are not readily available free of charge. The works will in the future be downloadable from the website, (an English-language version is under construction).
"At the end of his life, Tolstoy said: 'I don't need any money for my work. I want to give my work to the people,' " said Tolstaya. "It was important for us to make it free for everyone. It is his will."
More here.

Aleksey Brusilov - Biography

Most noted for his development of new offensive tactics, Aleksey Brusilov is considered one of the most outstanding fighting commanders of World War I. An authoritative general of Tsarist Russia, Brusilov joined the Soviet government, raising doubt among historians as to whether he is to be considered a patriot or a traitor.

Aleksey Brusilov was born in Tiflis into a family of military men. His father, a lieutenant general of the Russian army, died of tuberculosis when little Aleksey was only six years old. His mother died soon afterwards. The boy, together with his two brothers, was brought up by his uncle, a military engineer.

In 1867 Aleksey Brusilov passed his exams and was accepted into the Page Corps, the most privileged military establishment in Imperial Russia. Upon graduation in 1872, Brusilov began his service in the 15th Tver dragoon regiment.

The first test for Brusilov as an officer was the Russo-Turkish war (1877-1878), where his dragoon regiment fought as an advance guard. The future general proved his worth in besieging fortresses and mounting attacks. During the seven-month war he earned three military medals.

Brusilov was one of the best horsemen in his regiment and in 1881 he was accepted into the Officer Cavalry School in Saint Petersburg. In 1883 Aleksey Brusilov started serving in this school as an adjutant; twenty years later he was appointed its head. Brusilov devoted about 25 years of his life to the educational establishment, jokingly called “the horse academy.” He earned a reputation as a strict and considerate teacher and was especially well-known for his on-the-ground maneuvers and war games.

From 1906 to 1913 Aleksey Brusilov held several high military posts, including Head of the Second Guard Cavalry Division, Commander of the 14th and 12th Army Corps and Assistant Commandant. His main achievement during these years was a considerable improvement of the system of battle training for officers and soldiers, who, in his opinion, were not prepared for real battle.

Brusilov became widely known during World War I, when he was a commander of the 8th Army, situated at the left Russian front. In August 1914 he initiated the offensive into the heart of Galicia, the historical region of Central Europe, which marked the beginning of the major battle between Russia and Austria-Hungary. Within two months Russian troops re-conquered vast areas down to the Carpathian Mountains. The Austro-Hungarian army lost more than 400 thousand men. This military operation helped Aleksey Brusilov form his own style of management of large armed forces.

In March 1916 Brusilov was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the South-Western Front. The General Headquarters of the Russian army planned to deliver the main thrust towards the strategic Berlin direction, sing the forces of the Western Front. The armies of the Northern and South-Western Fronts were to make local preemptive attacks.

More here.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Marina Tsvetaeva: It is not fated that, in this world,

It is not fated that, in this world,
The strong join the strong.
Thus, Siegfried parted from Brunhild,
A sword stroke instead of a marriage.In the allied brotherly hatred
--Like buffalos!--rock challenging rock.
Unknown, he left the marriage bed,
And, unknown, she slept.

Apart; even in a marriage bed,
Apart; even with joined fists,
Apart; in the two-pronged language
Too late and apart; this--our marriage!

But there's a more ancient offense than
That: lionlike, crushing the Amazon,
The son of Thetis parted from
Ares's daughter: Achilles

From Penthesilea.
O recall her look
From the ground--the look of a fallen
Rider! no longer down from her Olympus;
Up from the slush, yet still looking down at him!

His only jealousy now is this:
To seize her alive from the dark.
It is not fated that the strong join the strong . . .

--This is how you and I part.

July 3, 1924

Translated from Russian by Nina Kossman

Goncharova Stays Between East and West

File:Goncharova cyclist.jpg

Looking back at the famous names of 20th century art, individuals like Kandinsky, Picasso and Franz Marc all spring to mind. While Natalia Goncharova may not be as well recognized, over the course of her career she mingled with many of the big-name artists of the Western European avant-garde.

Goncharova, who died in 1962, left behind a body of work that acts like a sampler platter for the artistic movements that dominated the first half of the last century. The full range of the artist is now on display at the State Tretyakov Gallery on Krymsky Val, where "Natalia Goncharova, Between East and West" has gathered together about 400 of the artist's works from museums throughout the world and showcases her paintings with an impressive level of breadth.

Goncharova's life and work can be divided into fairly distinct periods, as is done in the Tretyakov exhibit. Born in 1881 in Russia, she was one of the founding members of the Der Blaue Reiter group in Munich, which included Franz Marc and fellow Russian Vasily Kandinsky. She then traveled throughout Western Europe, spending time in Geneva and Paris, while mingling with the artistic styles of Pablo Picasso and doing design work for Sergei Diaghilev's ballets russe.

Indeed, the different influences on Goncharova can be seen in her different periods. Her early work uses religious images, and in paintings of Russian peasants from about 1910, she used the broad shaded shapes of pink and teal commonly seen in Marc Chagall. Her later change of styles in Europe show how a vase of flowers can be changed from a cluster of visible brushstrokes reminiscent of Vincent Van Gogh to intensely detailed petals to cubist squares, to a painting of sunflowers done in the 1950s that looks like black flying saucers surrounded by glowing auras of yellow.

More here.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Done with Tolstoy

"In Crime and Punishment, there is a sentence that goes like this: ‘It was a very simple matter and there was nothing complicated about it.’” Richard Pevear lets the words hang in the air, along with a note of faint bafflement. From his Paris apartment, one half of the world’s only celebrity translation team is recollecting some of the knotty, cross-lingual jumbles that he has spent his working life trying to untangle.
“I came running to Larissa”—Larissa Volokhonsky, Pevear’s wife of thirty years and collaborator on twenty-one works of Russian-to-English translation—“and said, ‘Can that be? Is that what he said?’ And she checked and said yes. ‘It was a very simple matter and there was nothing complicated about  it.’” Reassured, if still skeptical, he jotted it down and moved on to Dostoyevsky’s next syntax-warping creation.
The inconspicuous passage would resurface before long, though. The translation was published and, Richard recalls, “one very eminent reviewer . . said, ‘They occasionally lapse into banalities, for instance.’  And he quotes this same sentence.” First lodged years ago, the complaint is a rare blemish on a generally worshipful public reception, perhaps tempting the duo to tidy up such repetitive, infelicitous wording. Instead, two decades and many printings later, Richard  shrugs off the critic’s jibe and sticks to his guns. “But it’s unmistakable in Russian!”
“It’s very simple,” adds Larissa in her heavy Slavic accent, “so simple, I later found the same sentence in Chekhov.”
But there is nothing simple about the ongoing Pevear-Volokhonsky partnership (known widely in literary circles as PV). Their output, spilling over tens of thousands of pages and encompassing the hundred-fifty-year golden age of Russian literature, rivals even their most prolific forerunners in both quality and quantity. It is easier to list the canonical prose authors they have neglected (only Turgenev and Nabokov, though Larissa has lobbied her husband to turn their attentions to the former) than all of those they have translated. From the Patriotic War against Napoléon to the era of nineteenth-century radicalism and reform, and then on to the October Revolution, the Communist terror, and the postwar period, the Pevear-Volokhonsky project now surveys a cultural expanse as broad as the Siberian frontier.
Even their unconventional division of labor sets them apart from their contemporaries. Occupying separate rooms, husband and wife execute a two-step process that begins with Larissa’s word-for-word English rendition from the original. Richard, who speaks only basic Russian, then shapes Larissa’s special proof into literary English while rejecting anachronistic vocabulary and constructions. After hundreds of chapters, revisions, and personal consultations, the method has resulted in two prestigious PEN Translation Prizes and—as a mark of their uncommon public acceptance—a much-coveted selection to Oprah Winfrey’s juggernaut book club.
Now they have passed another important milestone. In putting their stamp on Lev Tolstoy’s final novel, Hadji Murat, they have at last reached the end of the great author's major writings. But if translating the life’s work of Russian fiction’s foremost master were cause for a certain amount of triumphalism, you wouldn’t know it from talking to P and V.
Asked if he believes they have delivered dispositive English versions of the great works of Russian literature, Richard responds flatly, “I don’t believe in definitive translations.” Larissa similarly demurs: “The thing is that, we cannot set ourselves such a goal. We set ourselves a goal to make a faithful  translation that conveys the style, the voice, the spirit of the original.  . . . Some translations live for a very long time—but that  does not mean that there should not be new  translations. In fact, if there are no new translations, that means something’s wrong. The work is dead.”
The Russian classics were in little danger of falling into neglect before the arrival of their most recent custodians. Aylmer and Louise Maude, another husband-wife team, active at the turn of the century, were friends and admirers of Tolstoy; their translations of his early works won the author’s personal approval. Ann Dunnigan, a stage actress whose love of Chekhov led her to render her own editions of his finest plays, inspired the non-Russian-speaking Tennessee Williams to pen a loose adaptation of The Seagull. British and American linguists have generated an array of creditable offerings, and, ever since the books fell into the public domain decades ago, competing publishers have sought out their own translations.
No figure, however, casts a larger shadow across Russian-to-English translations than Constance Garnett, who was the most important Russian interpreter of her generation and is still widely read today. Her contributions range from the colossal tomes of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky to Chekhov’s vast collection of short stories and the memoirs of Alexander Herzen. Garnett, a gifted student of classics at Cambridge, began studying Russian while enduring a difficult pregnancy in the 1890s. She became acquainted with the exile Sergei Kravchinsky, who fled the Russian Empire, after assassinating the head of the tsar’s secret police, and settled in London. With Kravchinsky’s early assistance and the encouragement of her husband, the editor and publisher Edward Garnett, Constance Garnett began a career that would result in some seventy volumes and introduce English speakers to the flower of nineteenth-century Russian letters. Garnett counted among her admirers Ernest Hemingway and D. H. Lawrence. Joseph Conrad, in a 1902 letter to Edward, lavished special praise on her version of Anna Karenina. “Of the thing itself I think but little,” he wrote, “so that her merit shines with the greater lustre.”
More here.

Friday, 18 October 2013

V. V. Khlebnikov :Invocation of laughter

O, laugh, laughers!
O, laugh out, laughers!
You who laugh with laughs, you who laugh it up laughishly
O, laugh out laugheringly
O, belaughable laughterhood - the laughter of laughering laughers!
O, unlaugh it outlaughingly, belaughering laughists!
Laughily, laughily,
Uplaugh, enlaugh, laughlings, laughlings
Laughlets, laughlets.
O, laugh, laughers!
O, laugh out, laughers!


"Day of the Oprichnik": The fascinating world of Soviet science fiction

During its 70-year lifetime, the Soviet Union was the perfect Other for Westerners: a colossal enigma, alternately dystopian and utopian, onto which we could project all our fears, hopes and dreams; a funhouse mirror in which our own culture was reflected in amusingly warped fashion; an outré parallel continuum from which bizarre messages trickled out at irregular intervals, bearing cryptic hints of off-kilter wonders, quotidian strangeness and kludgy tech. The Iron Curtain was no mere metaphor, but rather an imposing information barrier like the force field around Coventry, Robert Heinlein's land of dissidents, rogue ideologues, criminals and nonconformists.

In this ancient era, science fiction readers and writers had some vague notion that the speculative literature of the Soviet Union represented a bracingly alternate family of narratives, a non-Anglo, non-Euro, non-North American, non-Latin American tradition of proleptic storytelling that sprang from an alien lineage of fabulism.

But solid examples of actual SF from the Communist Bloc were sparse on the ground. A few pioneering anthologies cropped up. Isaac Asimov, himself of Russian birth, introduced "Soviet Science Fiction" and "More Soviet Science Fiction," both appearing in 1962; "Path Into the Unknown," "Last Door to Aiya" and "The Ultimate Threshold" followed over the next eight years. Meanwhile, a few individual authors, such as Stanislaw Lem and the Strugatsky brothers, were plucked by Western translators like beet chunks from the Soviet borscht.

Just when it seemed as if Soviet SF might be gaining a faltering foothold in the consciousness of Western readers, the political empire collapsed, taking the Soviet cultural superstructure with it. Since 1992, interest in -- and access to -- translated SF from Russia and other ex-Bloc countries seems to have fallen nearly to pre-1962 levels. Only the novels of Victor Pelevin ("The Life of Insects") and Sergey Lukyanenko ("Night Watch") appear to have made even a dent in American perceptions. Now, with the publication of two new translations of the remarkable work of Russian satirist Vladimir Sorokin -- jaunty, despairing, cynical, hopeful, traditional and postmodern by turns -- an even more explosive impact seems likely.

In his native country, Sorokin -- born 1955 -- is a figure of controversy and admiration, even occasionally spawning public protests against his bold and irreverent fiction, which was of course mostly suppressed under Communist rule. Reading his newest work, "Day of the Oprichnik," part of a concerted publishing effort to introduce him to English-speaking readers, one encounters a Swiftian writer steeped in globally shared images out of science fiction, but whose sensibility is deeply rooted in Russian culture.

In "Oprichnik," it's the year 2028, and Russia has reinstated the Tsar and the royal family, withdrawn from contact with the West behind new barriers, ceded Siberia to the Chinese in exchange for favorable trade conditions, and, most crucially for our story, instituted a new internal security elite called the "oprichniks," of whom our narrator, Komiaga, is one. Given a free hand to repress dissent, the oprichniks have become a decadent pseudo-SS given to graft and self-indulgence, hypocritically masquerading under the guise of a monastic piety. As we follow Komiaga through the frenetic course of 24 jam-packed hours of brutality, venality, political chicanery and blind absurdism, we watch a country willfully plunge back into the worst excesses and injustices of the 19th century, while maintaining a postmodern, technocratic veneer. The oprichniks drive autonomous "Mercedovs," get their news from holographic "bubbles" and employ ray guns and lasers in their depradations -- as well as the old-fashioned torture rack and knives. The blend of antique and futuristic creates a fascinating literary estrangement, as well as symbolically representing our current global dilemma: tied between retrograde and forward-facing horses of stasis and change.

More here.

William Lyon Phelps: Chekhov

ANTON PAVLOVICH CHEKHOV, like Pushkin, Lermontov, Bielinski, and Garshin, died young, and although he wrote a goodly number of plays and stories which gave him a high reputation in Russia, he did not live to enjoy international fame. This is partly owing to the nature of his work, but more perhaps to the total eclipse of other contemporary writers by Gorki. There are signs now that his delicate and unpretentious art will outlast the sensational flare of the other's reputation. Gorki himself has generously tried to help in the perpetuation of Chekhov's name, by publishing a volume of personal reminiscences of his dead friend.

Like Gogol and Artsybashev, Chekhov was a man of the South, being born at Taganrog, a seaport on a gulf of the Black Sea, near the mouth of the river Don. The date of his birth is the 17 January 1860. His father was a clever serf, who, by good business foresight, bought his freedom early in life. Although the father never had much education himself, he gave his four children every possible advantage. Anton studied in the Greek school in his native city, and then entered the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Moscow. "I don't well remember why I chose the medical faculty," he remarked later, "but I never regretted that choice." He took his degree, but entered upon no regular practice. For a year he worked in a hospital in a small town near Moscow, and in 1892 he freely offered his medical services during an epidemic of cholera. His professional experiences were of immense service to him in analysing the characters of various patients whom he treated, and his scientific training he always believed helped him greatly in the writing of his stories and plays, which are all psychological studies.

He knew that he had not very long to live, for before he had really begun his literary career signs of tuberculosis had plainly become manifest. He died in Germany, the 2 July 1904, and his funeral at Moscow was a national event.

Chekhov was a fine conversationalist, and fond of society; despite the terrible gloom of his stories, he had distinct gifts as a wit, and was a great favourite at dinner-parties and social gatherings. He joked freely on his death-bed. He was warmhearted and generous, and gave money gladly to poor students and overworked school-teachers. His innate modesty and lack of self-assertion made him very slow at personal advertisement, and his dislike of Tolstoi's views prevented at first an acquaintance with the old sage. Later, however, Tolstoi, being deeply interested in him, sought him out, and the two writers became friends. At this time many Russians believed that Chekhov was the legitimate heir to Tolstoi's fame.

In 1879, while still in the University of Moscow, Chekhov began to write short stories, of a more or less humorous nature, which were published in reviews. His first book appeared in 1887. Some critics sounded a note of warning, which he heeded. They said "it was too bad that such a talented young man should spend all his time making people laugh." This indirect advice, coupled with maturity of years and incipient disease, changed the writer's point of view, and his best known work is typically Russian in its tragic intensity.

In Russia he enjoyed an enormous vogue. Kropotkin says that his works ran through ten to fourteen editions, and that his publications, appearing as a supplement to a weekly magazine, had a circulation of two hundred thousand copies in one year. Toward the end of his life his stories captivated Germany, and one of the Berlin journalists cried out, as the Germans have so often of Oscar Wilde, "Chekhov und kein Ende!"

Chekhov, like Gorki and Andreev, was a dramatist as well as a novelist, though his plays are only beginning to be known outside of his native land. They resemble the dramatic work of Gorki, Andreev, and for that matter of practically all Russian playwrights, in being formless and having no true movement; but they contain some of his best Russian portraits, and some of his most subtle interpretations of Russian national life. Russian drama does not compare for an instant with Russian fiction : I have never read a single well-constructed Russian play except Revizor. Most of them are dull to a foreign reader, and leave him cold and weary. Mr. Baring, in his book Landmarks in Russian Literature, has an excellent chapter on the plays of Chekhov, which partially explains the difficulties an outsider has in studying Russian drama. But this chapter, like the other parts of his book, is marred by exaggeration. He says, "Chekhov's plays are as interesting to read as the work of any first-rate novelist." And a few sentences farther in the same paragraph, he adds, "Chekhov's plays are a thousand times more interesting to see on the stage than they are to read." Any one who believes Mr. Baring's statement, and starts to read Chekhov's dramas with the faith that they are as interesting as Anna Karenina, will be sadly disappointed. And if on the stage they are a thousand times more interesting to see than Anna Karenina is to read, they must indeed be thrilling. It is, however, perfectly true that a foreigner cannot judge the real value of Russian plays by reading them. We ought to hear them performed by a Russian company. That wonderful actress, Madame Komisarzhevskaya, who was lately followed to her grave by an immense concourse of weeping Russians, gave a performance of The Cherry Garden which stirred the whole nation. Madame Nazimova has said that Chekhov is her favourite writer, but that his plays could not possibly succeed in America, unless every part, even the minor ones, could be interpreted by a brilliant actor.

Chekhov is durch und durch echt russisch: no one but a Russian would ever have conceived such characters, or reported such conversations. We often wonder that physical exercise and bodily recreation are so conspicuously absent from Russian books. But we should remember that a Russian conversation is one of the most violent forms of physical exercise, as it is among the French and Italians. Although Chekhov belongs to our day, and represents contemporary Russia, he stands in the middle of the highway of Russian fiction, and in his method of art harks back to the great masters. He perhaps resembles Turgenev more than any other of his predecessors, but he is only a faint echo. He is like Turgenev in the delicacy and in the aloofness of his art. He has at times that combination of the absolutely real with the absolutely fantastic that is so characteristic of Gogol: one of his best stories, The Black Monk, might have been written by the author of The Cloak and The Portrait. He is like Dostoevski in his uncompromising depiction of utter degradation ; but he has little of Dostoevski's glowing sympathy and heartpower. He resembles Tolstoi least of all. The two chief features of Tolstoi's work—self-revelation and moral teaching—must have been abhorrent to Chekhov, for his stories tell us almost nothing about himself and his own opinions, and they teach nothing. His art is impersonal, and he is content with mere diagnosis . His only point of contact with Tolstoi is his grim fidelity to detail, the peculiar Russian realism common to every Russian novelist. Tolstoi said that Chekhov resembled Guy de Maupassant. This is entirely wide of the mark. He resembles Guy de Maupassant merely in the fact that, like the Frenchman, he wrote short stories.

Among recent writers Chekhov is at the farthest remove from his friend Gorki, and most akin to Andreev. It is probable that Andreev learned something from him. Unlike Turgenev, both Chekhov and Andreev study mental disease. Their best characters are abnormal ; they have some fatal taint in the mind which turns this goodly frame, the earth, into a sterile promontory; this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, into a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. Neither Chekhov nor Andreev have attempted to lift that black pall of despair that hangs over Russian fiction.

Just as the austere, intellectual beauty of Greek drama forms striking evidence of the extraordinarily high average of culture in Athenian life, so the success of an author like Chekhov is abundant proof of the immense number of readers of truly cultivated taste that are scattered over Holy Russia. For Chekhov's stories are exclusively intellectual and subtle. They appeal only to the mind, not to the passions nor to any love of sensation. In many of them he deliberately avoids climaxes and all varieties of artificial effect. He would be simply incomprehensible to the millions of Americans who delight in musical comedy and in pseudo-historical romance. He wrote only for the elect, for those who have behind them years of culture and habits of consecutive thought. That such a man should have a vogue in Russia such as a cheap romancer enjoys in America, is in itself a significant and painful fact.

Chekhov's position in the main line of Russian literature and his likeness to Turgenev are both evident when we study his analysis of the Russian temperament. His verdict is exactly the same as that given by Turgenev and Sienkiewicz—slave improductivite. A majority of his chief characters are Rudins. They suffer from internal injuries, caused by a diseased will. In his story called On the Way the hero remarks, Nature has set in every Russian an enquiring mind, a tendency to speculation, and extraordinary capacity for belief; but all these are broken into dust against our improvidence, indolence, and fantastic triviality"[1]

The novelist who wrote that sentence was a physician as well as a man of letters. It is a professional diagnosis of the national sickness of mind, which produces sickness of heart.

Essays on Russian Novelists

Thursday, 17 October 2013

View from the Kremlin

Mostly red, certainly a fortress with many secrets, and the heart (in a less than cordial sense of the word) of Russia, the Kremlin has a function, an architecture and a history unlike any place on earth. As with many important books, the reader will wonder why nothing like Catherine Merridale's work (ignoring a sensational account or two, and tourists' coffee-table volumes) has been written before. Secrecy is part of the reason: it affects even archaeologists trying to uncover the endless buried strata beneath today's monstrous complex. There is a particular difficulty in writing about an establishment that has proved so protean and that has, in its 500-year history, undergone so many destructions and resurrections and fulfilled so many different functions, religious, political and symbolic.

The Kremlin has always been best understood by outsiders. Russian poets had to come from as far away as St Petersburg in order to appreciate the full monstrosity of what to Muscovites feels like part of the scenery. Osip Mandelstam reacted typically. On his first visit, he was fascinated by the cacophony of the church bells and the attempt to recreate Athens and Florence in Moscow. Later, when the Bolsheviks had reawoken the Kremlin and Moscow had taken back its powers from St Petersburg, he was struck with horror. One of his late poems begins, 'Today we can dip our little finger into the Moscow River and remove the coloured transfers from that bandit the Kremlin.'

Merridale has succeeded in stripping off the veneer. Most British historians writing about Russia can be classified as either 'people' writers or 'places' writers, basing their histories either on their ability to get witnesses to talk or on their sensitivity to the atmosphere of a town or a battlefield. Merridale established her primacy with the former type of narrative in Night of Stone and Ivan's War. But Red Fortress proves that she can combine both types. She has the skills to get guardians of secret places talking (particularly difficult for a foreigner and, sometimes, a woman) and to negotiate access with Russian archivists (dogs in mangers can be more generous hosts), and thus penetrate the inner workings of the Kremlin. At the same time, she has a feeling for the site that brings dry archaeological and architectural facts to life: few writers can write the biography of a city or a citadel.
Red Fortress is in part a story of constant transformation by fire and rebuilding. Fifteenth-century logs and earthworks give way to limestone blocks and fired bricks; native craftsmen find themselves working for Italian and Scottish foremen. The history of the building works can be seen as an allegory of the Russian state. Reading about the antagonism between workmen content to throw logs together and not worry about perfect perpendiculars or levels, and architects who amaze workers with their precise stone-cutting and pedantic blueprints and measurements, any modern architect working in Russia would give a sigh of recognition. But the recurrent theme is conflagration (through arson or carelessness), collapse and demolition, with new building not so much reconstructing as superseding what went before. Consequently, the Kremlin is situated on top of forgotten churches, offices and residences, and is constantly evolving.

Its purpose has changed, too. Originally a refuge for a population threatened by barbarian invaders, it has been a monastery complex, a bazaar, an aristocratic residence and a seat of government. Nobody would include the Kremlin in a list of the world's most beautiful sites: Mandelstam's word 'cacophony' applies not just to the untuned church bells but to the jumble of architectural styles. Nor do bright, soaring Renaissance frontages and Muscovite grimness or whimsy make for a coherent, aesthetically pleasing fusion. At the hub of Moscow's concentric circles, at the centre of government and religion, even of the country's defence, the Kremlin has now seen its functions settled. Perhaps all that is new is its capacity to paralyse the whole city every time a government convoy speeds out of its gates. The Kremlin creates an impression of controlled chaos, of densely packed, solidified history and, often, of sheer menace that makes a first visit, even when following a tourist guide's flag, hard to forget.

More here.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Without savage joy - Alexander Herzen

Alexander Herzen, leading light of the Russian intelligentsia in the 1840s, lived in exile in London during the 1850s and early 1860s. There, he opened the first uncensored press in the Russian language, including two journals, The Polar Star and The Bell. Gathering news from informants in Russia, he published what could not be printed under conditions of tight censorship. In reward for this vital service, he was attacked from all sides. Secret police agents were commanded to seize all copies and ferret out the networks that smuggled them into Russia. Senior officials in St Petersburg devoured The Bell for its factual content, while denouncing Herzen as an incendiary. Moscow liberals, principally members of Herzen’s own generation, including former friends, reluctantly concurred, accusing him of endangering security in Russia and of preaching revolution. Revolutionaries, principally members of a younger generation, including many who were also in exile, sneered at Herzen for being too much of a liberal. They were all correct.

A Herzen Reader, edited and admirably translated by Kathleen Parthé, explains how and why. For the first time, anglophone readers have the opportunity to familiarize themselves with Herzen’s voice in The Polar Star and The Bell, gaining a sense of the personality behind the words, the priorities and events that motivated him, but also of the dilemmas posed by publishing a free journal under politically tense and rapidly changing circumstances. The early regime of the autocrat Alexander II, liberator in 1861 of Russia’s serfs, elicited hopes and induced despair. Herzen, eternally conflicted, felt both emotions keenly.

The question of which label to assign to Alexander Herzen has long preoccupied scholars, as Robert Harris’s critical essay at the end of the Reader attests. Isaiah Berlin admired Herzen as a staunch defender of individual liberty in semi-scholarly, semi-belletristic essays that first brought Herzen and the Russian intelligentsia to public attention in anglophone countries, and which later appeared in Berlin’s Russian Thinkers (1978). There were, of course, other representations of Herzen, notably Martin Malia’s meticulously researched biography Alexander Herzen and the Birth of Russian Socialism (1961), covering Herzen’s pre-London years, and explaining how a mixture of idealism, nationalism, an abiding hatred of Alexander’s father, Nicholas I, and disillusionment with Western politics prompted Herzen to promote agrarian communalism as the solution to all Russia’s ills. But it is Berlin’s liberal Herzen that has gained the more favourable hearing in the West.

Western readers have had little enough material to form an opinion. Herzen’s most widely known work, his autobiography My Past and Thoughts, has long appealed partly for the brilliance of the author’s style and his gift for capturing individual personalities, with all their heroism and foibles. It was written between 1852 and 1868; sections were soon translated into multiple languages. Herzen portrayed himself, from early years, as an opponent and sometime hapless victim of autocracy. As students, Herzen and his close friend Nikolai Ogaryov attracted the attention of the security police in 1834 and were arrested and sent into internal exile on spurious charges. Herzen emigrated from Russia with his family in 1847 and witnessed the revolutionary upheavals of 1848 and 1849 in France and Italy at first hand. Joined by Ogaryov in London and Geneva in the 1850s and 60s, he used his vast inheritance to found the Russian Free Press. Such varied experiences brought Herzen into contact with political figures and intellectuals of every European country and every political stripe. Herzen knew everyone and spared no one (occasionally excepting himself).

Russian contemporaries, however, were drawn to Herzen’s works much earlier, and for other reasons. Herzen began to publish in the early 1830s, and it was the sense of moral urgency conveyed in his literary works and critical essays that captured their attention. Though these early articles were heavily censored, they invariably expressed forceful judgements about the truthfulness – moral and factual – of the texts, opinions and persons he wrote about. These judgements may have been more intuitive than philosophically and scientifically rigorous, but the rhetoric of immediacy was exactly what his readers required of him. Herzen’s willingness to deliver verdicts and to err allied him with the Russian literary critic of the 1830s and 40s, Vissarion Belinsky, who was revered for the same traits.

More here.

Boris Pasternak: Sparrow Hills

My kisses pour over your breast—as from a pitcher! Not forever will the keys of summer turn. Not every night will we stamp our feet to the low bellow of accordions, and raise the dust off the floor.
I've heard of old age—such blighted forecasts! When no wave will strive to reach the stars. They insist—to deaf ears—there is no face in the meadows, no heart in the rivers, no god in the groves.
Put your soul into motion, stretch it like a sail! The world's midday dazzles—where are your eyes? Look up—thoughts boil in the white spume of woodpeckers, fir cones, clouds, pine needles, heat.
The rails for city trolleys end right here. Further on, pines hold sermons. Further on, pines stop. Furthermore, it's Sunday—snapping of branches, romping of clearings, sliding on the grass.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Sergei Rachmaninoff: Ave Maria

Maxim Gorky: Pushkin: An Appraisal

So long as Pushkin followed the beaten path of romanticism, so long as he emulated Byron, Batiushkov, Zhukovsky and the French bards, society, cognizant of his singular talent, appreciative of the music of his new verse, applauded him. But the moment he rose to his feet and spoke out in accents purely Russian and earthy, the moment he introduced folk motifs into literature, depicted life realistically, simply and candidly, society turned against him, adopting a sneering and hostile attitude, sensing in him a relentless judge, a dispassionate observer of Russian banality, ignorance and servility.

It was said of him that he permitted himself to be flogged in order to gain exile to Odessa instead of Siberia. In Odessa, his talent despised, Pushkin was persecuted, and treated like an exiled petty government official; exasperated, he would flaunt his 'rank and democratic pride of intellect, and six centuries of patrician ancestry.'

In his immediate family the poet was regarded with contempt and suspicion: his father once accused him of murder and threatened him with jail.

He was harassed by Bulgarin, persecuted by Benckendorff, mutilated by the censors. His poems "My Pedigree," "The Recovery of Lucullus" and his vitriolic quatrains aroused implacable fury. Unscrupulous people nurtured the general malevolence toward Pushkin; he fell victim to calumny and finally he was shot to death in a duel.

His fate was like that of all great men who by the will of history are forced to live among petty, vulgar, self-seeking people – recall the lives of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. Pushkin is to Russian letters what da Vinci is to European art. We must be careful to separate him from all that is fortuitous, all that is due to conditions historical and personal. His inherited qualities – the patrician, the temporal – are not ours, are alien and unnecessary to us.

Only when we cast all this aside, only then there rises before us a great Russian, a people's poet, creator of fables of enchanting beauty and reason, atthor of the first realistic novel, Evgeni Onegin, author of our finest historical drama, Boris Godunov, a poet heretofore unsurpassed both in the charm of his verse and in the power of expressing emotion and thought, the poet-founder of our great Russian literature.

What does Pushkin offer the proletarian reader?

First, on the basis of his creative work, we note that the writer, rich in his knowledge of life – laden with experience, so to speak – breaks through the frame of class psychology in his artistic conceptions (Evgeni Onegin, Count Nulin, Dubrovsky) and transcends the tendencies of his class, presenting this class objectively, from its external aspect, as an unsuccessful and discordant organization of a section of historic experience; and internally, as a self-seeking psychologism, replete with irreconcilable contradictions.

Without doubt, Pushkin was an aristocrat – he himself on occasion flaunted the fact; but it is important for us to know that he sensed in his youth the narrowness and stuffiness of aristocratic traditions, realized the intellectual poverty of his class, its cultural impotence, and pictured the life of the aristocracy, all its vices and weaknesses, with unequivocal veracity.

A strictly class writer endeavors to depict his class as the master and sole possessor of incontrovertible social truths which are mandatory to the mass of the people and constitute dogmas demanding unconditional acceptance; this type of writer presents the ideas, emotions and beliefs of his class as the only correct, complete and truthful reflection of all phases of life, as the sum total of human experience.

In the case of Pushkin we have a writer who, filled to the brim with impressions of life, strove in verse and in prose to reflect these impressions most truthfully, most realistically, and who succeeded in doing so with wonderful deftness. His works – precious testimony of of a mind intelligent, truthful and well informed on the mores, customs and concepts of a certain epoch – constitute invaluable material iilustrative of Russian history.

The class writer, arranging his observations to conform to the interests of his class, tells us: “Here is the truth, derived from my observations of human life – there is no other truth, there can be no other truth!”

This is the transmutation of the tendencies of a class into a dogma, forced upon all others; this is the preaching of the necessity of subjecting the mass of the people to moral and orthodox standards beneficial solely to the powers that be; here art is sacrificed to the interests of militant politics, degraded into a weapon of struggle and it fails to convince us, for we perceive its internal falsity.

“No matter what my lineage,” said Pushkin, “my form of thought would not have been influenced thereby.”

These are the words of a man who felt that for him the interests of the entire nation were above the narrow interests of the aristocracy, and he spoke thus because his personal experience was wider and more profound than the experience of the aristocracy.

Maxim Gorky essay on Pushkin

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Russian Authors Face Long Odds for Nobel

Russian literature is a serious business. The books are heavy, the beards are long and the descriptions of women's upper lip hair are detailed. Russian authors from the 18th century onwards are read in classrooms from Tokyo to Buenos Aires and have been lauded the world over.

Writers of more contemporary times, however, may not have been quite as lucky as their 19th- or 20th-century forefathers, however. The Nobel Prize for literature, traditionally awarded in the month of October, is expected to be announced Thursday. While the academy is known for its secrecy, it is very unlikely that the annals of Russian literature will welcome another Nobel laureate this year.

The Swedish Academy, which has been criticized for not awarding talents like James Joyce and Vladimir Nabokov, is almost impossible to read. The Nobel committee does not release the shortlist until 50 years after the prize is awarded and literary critics have been wrong far more than they have been right in predicting the winner each year.

One outlet that has been surprisingly successful at choosing the future laureate is an unlikely source of literary expertise. Ladbrokes, a British sports betting website, did not accurately predict Chinese writer Mo Yan's victory last year but has become an oft-cited authority on the prize, as the author with the lowest odds on the site has won 50 percent of the time since the company opened up its book on the award in 2005. The site does not analyze each author's oeuvre as works of literature, but rather uses a combination of mentions of possible winners from prominent literary figures and the number of bets on each writer to set the odds.

According to the odds for this year, Russian authors have little shot at the prize. The post-modernist writer Viktor Pelevin was listed as a 50-to-1 possibility in 2011, though the prize ultimately went to Swede Tomas TranstrЪmer.

Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the dissident Soviet writer and poet, is perhaps the closest this year, though his odds at winning the award, 100 to 1, are still twice as long as the seemingly ludicrous idea of giving the award to folk legend Bob Dylan.
Alexander Donohue, who runs the Nobel Prize for literature bets at Ladbroke's, told The Moscow Times that at the end of last week, no money had yet been placed on the Russian writer who came to prominence during the Khrushchev thaw. The lack of interest from gamblers, despite the fact that the pot is one of the site's most international, compounds the minimal English-language chatter about Yevtushenko. By comparison, Donohue said thousands of British pounds have been placed on the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami and the American novelist Joyce Carol Oates, at 3 to 1 and 6 to 1, respectively.

More here.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Tchaikovsky - Symphony No. 5 in E minor (Valery Gergiev)

 Tchaikovsky - Symphony No. 5 in E minor op. 64
Orchestra: Orchestra of Mariinsky Theatre
Conductor: Valery Gergiev

Viktor Erofeyev: From Russian Beauty to a French knight

Viktor Erofeyev, who in recent weeks turned 67, has long been a citizen of the world. This elegant intellectual has written for The New Yorker and The New York Times, and he was the anchor of the program "Apocripha" (Erofeyev himself defined its format as “Platonic dialogues”) about literature and life on Russian television.
He is the editor of the acclaimed collection, “The Penguin Book of New Russian Writing.”
The Knight of the Legion of Honor is not the first major foreign award for Erofeyev – in 2006, the writer was awarded the Order of Arts and Letters of France. He has many connections with European culture – and he is no stranger to controversy, the spice of literary life.
His father was a diplomat and a personal translator of Stalin (the writer’s father, Vladimir Erofeyev, translated from French for the Soviet leader, and later was assistant director-general at UNESCO for five years), Viktor spent a good part of his childhood in Paris.
The essay that brought Erofeyev his first fame in Soviet literary circles was dedicated to Marquis de Sade, and the writer chose the theme “Dostoevsky and French existentialism” for his PhD dissertation.
Erofeyev quickly declared himself a rebel at the very start of his writing career, and in 1979 organized the publication of the self-published [samizdat] collection “Metropol”, where he published uncensored works of famous Soviet writers – including Vasily Aksyonov and the popular poet Bella Akhmadulina.
His underground publishing work would eventually cost his father his diplomatic career – a saga Erofeyev would later use as the plot for his novel "The Good Stalin,” which was also excerpted in The New Yorker.
Erofeyev was not published in the Soviet Union for a decade after his involvement with “Metropol.” His popularity coincided with the collapse of the Soviet Union and his first novel, “Russian Beauty,” was published in 1990. It was a huge international success, and was translated into several dozen languages.
“My ‘Beauty’ came to the Frankfurt Book Fair in the form of a typewritten crumpled copy, it was the third copy. And suddenly, it was bought by the best publishers of the world: Viking, Penguin, Fisher, Anagram... I not only was absent at that fair, but did not know anything about such events,” recalled the writer in an interview with Ogonyok magazine.
However, Russia did not quite accept the avant-garde and candid “Russian Beauty” – as well as some other books by Erofeyev. After the publication of the “Encyclopedia of the Russian Soul” in 2009, 19 professors of his alma mater, the faculty of Philology of Moscow State University, from which Erofeyev graduated, repudiated the writer, calling his book a “Russophobe” tome that included “blasphemous” statements about Russian culture.
There were attempts to ban the book. Major cultural figures, including the prominent writer Vladimir Sorokin and film-director Pavel Lungin (“Taxi Blues” and “The Island”), supported Erofeyev.
“If a writer in Russia is doing what he does honestly then surely his books will evoke responses that will be different, whatever may happen,” Erofeyev said in an interview for the 2012 film “Russian Libertine.”
“I understood there are two choices for a writer in Russia,” added Sorokin in response to the pressure exerted on his peer. “Either you are scared or you write.”
The author is not afraid of shocking and challenging his readers with titles like, “The Good Stalin,” “The Russian Apocalypse,” and “The Light of the Devil.” He indefatigably tries to understand the mentality and motivations of the Russian people – he has repeatedly referred to this subject in his works of recent years.
More here.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

The Tyrant as Editor - Joseph Stalin

Joseph Djugashvili was a student in a theological seminary when he came across the writings of Vladimir Lenin and decided to become a Bolshevik revolutionary. Thereafter, in addition to blowing things up, robbing banks, and organizing strikes, he became an editor, working at two papers in Baku and then as editor of the first Bolshevik daily,Pravda. Lenin admired Djugashvili's editing; Djugashvili admired Lenin, and rejected 47 articles he submitted to Pravda. 

Djugashvili (later Stalin) was a ruthless person, and a serious editor. The Soviet historian Mikhail Gefter has written about coming across a manuscript on the German statesman Otto von Bismarck edited by Stalin's own hand. The marked-up copy dated from 1940, when the Soviet Union was allied with Nazi Germany. Knowing that Stalin had been responsible for so much death and suffering, Gefter searched "for traces of those horrible things in the book." He found none. What he saw instead was "reasonable editing, pointing to quite a good taste and an understanding of history."

Stalin had also made a surprising change in the manuscript. In the conclusion, the author closed with a warning to the Germans lest they renege on the alliance and attack Russia. Stalin cut it. When the author objected, pleading that the warning was the whole point of the book, Stalin replied, "But why are you scaring them? Let them try. ..." And indeed they did, costing more than 30 million lives—most of them Soviet. But the glory was Stalin's in the end.

The editor is the unseen hand with the power to change meaning and message, even the course of history. Back when copy-proofs were still manually cut, pasted, and photographed before printing, a blue pencil was the instrument of choice for editors because blue was not visible when photographed. The editorial intervention was invisible by design.

Stalin always seemed to have a blue pencil on hand, and many of the ways he used it stand in direct contrast to common assumptions about his person and thoughts. He edited ideology out or played it down, cut references to himself and his achievements, and even exhibited flexibility of mind, reversing some of his own prior edits. 

So while Stalin's voice rang in every ear, his portrait hung in every office and factory, and bobbed in every choreographed parade, the Stalin behind the blue pencil remained invisible. What's more, he allowed very few details of his private life to become public knowledge, leading the Stalin biographer Robert Service to comment on the remarkable "austerity" of the "Stalin cult.But we should not confuse Stalin's self-effacement with modesty. Though we tend to associate invisibility with the meek, there is a flip side that the graffiti artist Banksy understands better than most: "invisibility is a superpower."

For Stalin, editing was a passion that extended well beyond the realm of published texts. Traces of his blue pencil can be seen on memoranda and speeches of high-ranking party officials ("against whom is this thesis directed?") and on comic caricatures sketched by members of his inner circle during their endless nocturnal meetings ("Correct!" or "Show all members of the Politburo"). During the German siege of Stalingrad (1942-43), he encircled the city from the west with his blue pencil on a large wall map in the Kremlin, and, in the summer of 1944, he redrew the borders of Poland in blue. At a meeting with Winston Churchill a few months later, the British prime minister watched as Stalin "took his blue pencil and made a large tick" indicating his approval of the "percentages agreement" for the division of Europe into Western and Soviet spheres of influence after the war.

More here.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Leonid Andreyev: My memoirs

Those were indeed terrible days and nights when, crushed by the walls, not getting an answer to any of my questions, I paced my cell endlessly and hurled, one after another into the dark abyss, all the great valuables with which life has endowed us: friendship, love, reason and justice.
In some justification I can mention the fact that, during those first and most painful years, a series of events occurred which reflected themselves rather painfully upon my psychic nature. Thus, I learned with the deepest indignation that the girl, whose name I shall not mention and who was to become my wife, married another man. She was one of the few who believed in my innocence. At the last parting, she swore to remain faithful to me till death and that she would rather die than betray her love for me. Yet it was only one year after that she married a man I knew: a man who possessed certain good qualities, but who was far from sensible.
I did not want to understand that such a marriage was natural on the part of a young, healthy, and beautiful girl, who was, in addition, gifted with the special tendency for motherhood. I was sentenced to a lengthy death and wished, for an unknown reason, that she too would share my fate. At the present time she is a happy and respected mother, and this proves better than anything else how wise and entirely in accordance with the demands of nature and life was her marriage, which aggravated me so painfully, at that time.
I must confess, however, that at that time I was far from being calm. Her exceedingly amiable and kind letter in which she notified me of her marriage, expressing profound regret that changed circumstances and a sudden awakened love compelled her to break her promise to me - that amiable, truthful letter, scented with perfume, bearing the traces of her tender fingers, seemed to me a message from the devil himself.
The fiery letters burned my beaten brain, and in wild ecstasy I shook the doors of my cell and called out frantically “Come! Let me just look into your lying eyes! Let me hear your lying voice! Let me just touch with my fingers your tender throat and pour my last bitter laugh into your death cry!”
From this quotation my indulgent reader will see how right were the judges who convicted me of murder: they had truly seen in me a murderer.

Translated by Maria Aprelenko, RT

An Astral Novel: A. Bely's Novel Peterburg

Peterburg no longer exists. The life of this city was a bureaucratic life predominantly, and its end was a bureaucratic end. What has arisen is the unfamiliar and to our ears still strange sounding Petrograd. There has ended not only an old word and in its place arisen a new word, there has ended an entire historical period, and we find ourselves entering upon a new and unknown period. There was something strange and terrible in the rise of Peterburg, in its fate, in its relationship to the whole of enormous Russia, in its being torn off from the life of the people, something at once both powerfully enervating and phantasmic. By the magic volition of Peter, Peterburg rose up from out of nothing, from the marshy mists. Pushkin gave us a feel of the life of this Peterburg in his 'Bronze Horseman'. Peterburg no longer exists. The life of this city was a bureaucratic life predominantly, and its end was a bureaucratic end. What has arisen is the unfamiliar and to our ears still strange sounding Petrograd. There has ended not only an old word and in its place arisen a new word, there has ended an entire historical period, and we find ourselves entering upon a new and unknown period. There was something strange and terrible in the rise of Peterburg, in its fate, in its relationship to the whole of enormous Russia, in its being torn off from the life of the people, something at once both powerfully enervating and phantasmic. By the magic volition of Peter, Peterburg rose up from out of nothing, from the marshy mists. Pushkin gave us a feel of the life of this Peterburg in his 'Bronze Horseman'.The earthy Slavophil Dostoevsky was a peculiar example connected with Peterburg, far moreso than with Moscow, and he revealed in it the irrational Russian element. The heroes of Dostoevsky were primarily Peterburg heroes, connected with the Peterburg damp and mist. It is possible to find in him remarkable pages about Peterburg, about its phantasmic quality. Raskol'nikov strolled about Sadova and the Senna haymarket, plotting his crime. Rogozhin committed his crime at Gorokhova. The earthy Dostoevsky loved groundlessly unstable heroes, and only in the atmosphere of Peterburg could they exist. Peterburg, in contrast to Moscow, -- is a catastrophic city. Characteristic likewise are the tales of Gogol, -- in them is a Peterburg horror. To the Moscow Slavophils Peterburg seemed a foreign and alien city, and they were afraid of Peterburg. There was a large reason for this, since Peterburg -- was the eternal threat to the Moscow Slavophil well-being. But that Peterburg should seem an altogether non-Russian city, this was due to their provincial lack of insight, their limitedness. Dostoevsky made up for this lack of insight.

Andrei Bely’s ‘Petersburg’ finds an English voice in the form of a new translation by John Elsworth.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

What do Tolstoy, Chekhov and Akhmatova have in common?

From the very first Nobel Prize in 1901, epic quarrels have erupted and rarely subsided over which great author or poet was truly worthy of the Nobel Prize in Literature. In his will, Alfred Nobel founded a distinct award for the author “who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” But how that has been interpreted over the past century or so has been the subject of articles, research papers and books.
It’s hard to imagine now that in that first year, Leo Tolstoy was not even among the 25 nominees. The first Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to the little-known French lyric poet and lyricist Sully Prudhomme, sparking indignation in European writing circles. Swedish authors and artists even penned a letter to Tolstoy expressing their objections to the decision of the Nobel Committee.
Later, however, he was nominated four years in a row, but the committee and the secretary of the Swedish Academy, Carl David af Wirsén, could not be moved. Wirsén was generally poorly disposed toward Tolstoy, and maintained that the author “denounced all forms civilization and insisted in replacing them with some primitive form of life, disembodied from every precept of high culture.”
Even though it is now generally agreed that the modern novel was born in Russia, and that Russian literature and poetry in the late 19th century Russian is considered among the world’s finest, there was not a single Russian among the winners before the prize’s award to Ivan Bunin in 1933.
Nominations failed to include Anton Chekhov after he took Russia and Europe by storm. The author of “The Cherry Orchard” and “Uncle Vanya” as well as so many beloved short stories is the most revered Russian playwright in the United States. The Symbolist poet and romantic idealist Alexander Blok was never nominated, and neither was the extraordinary poet Nikolai Gumilev, founder of the Acmeist movement and first husband of Anna Akhmatova.
The author, translator, historian and religious philosopher Dmitry Merezhkovsky was listed on several occasions and is a record holder of sorts: from 1914 there were eight attempts to include him among the candidates, and only in 1937 did the scholars of the committee issue their final rejection, deeming the writer’s “confused” compositions “ to be “mystical religious speculation.”
Another contender was Maxim Gorky, a classic figure of both Russian and Soviet literature. But the Nobel Committee responded unanimously to Gorky’s nomination in 1918 that his “anarchistic and often uniformly grey works do not in any way fit the framework of the Nobel Prize.”
More here.

Friday, 4 October 2013

Anatol Lunacharsky: Essay on Gorky

FORTY years in the literary career of a great writer will always cover a large area on the ever-growing map of world culture. It is only at a distance that such a mountain range can be evaluated as a whole.

The results and full significance of Maxim Gorky's work as concerns our epoch and Russian and world culture as a whole, and his relative place on the great map of human achievement will only become clear at a future date. All the more so since the mountain range that is Gorky has not yet been completed, and we hope to see him grow most wonderfully and gigantically for many years to come.

And yet, forty years is a long time. When a person who has worked for forty years looks back from the vantage point to which life has brought him he sees a long and winding river whose source appears as remote as ancient history, while the ribbon itself acquires an integral significance which such a person wants to discover and establish for himself, and sometimes for others as well.

It was approximately after forty years that Goethe, for instance, felt the irresistible need to comprehend the meaning of his life and his work and tell others about it.

I do not know whether Gorky now has a desire to embark on a similar preliminary summing-up of everything he has experienced and accomplished.... He is not devoid of an inclination to autobiography, and it is responsible for a number of books which are truly the pride of Russian literature.

Neither does Gorky lack a sense of retrospection, for what else is the great structure of Klim Samgin if not a very original panorama, a sum-total of his recollections in the course of several decades?

But we cannot wait until Gorky himself gets down to writing his Dichtung und Wahrheit.

The golden bell of the grand fortieth anniversary is ringing, reminding us literary critics of the great Marxist-Leninist school that we as yet do not have a major work which would at least present a series of clear, concise photographs from all the chief angles of the mountain range Gorky has erected in forty years.

Such a work must be written. It must be written soon. I do not know whether this should be done by an individual or by a group of authors. At any rate some preliminary work has been done.

I am far from the thought of presenting in this article, which finds the allotted space too restrictive, a sketch or outline of this likewise preliminary Marxist book on Gorky.

I am merely pointing here to the far horizon, where Gorky's might mountain range rises above the sea level, above the glades and the forests. I am merely pointing most sketchily to its vital foundation, to the elemental deposits from which it 'grew'.

I am merely drawing an outline for the reader to help him recognise the profile of the mountains lost high in the clouds.


Perhaps the great majority of outstanding literary phenomena and significant writers appear as a result of major social changes, of social catastrophes. Literary masterpieces mark these changes.

Lenin, in his magnificent works on Tolstoi, which no Marxist literary critic can afford to ignore, defines the basic elemental, social, unavoidable reason for Tolstoi's appearance, for the existence of Lev Tolstoi per se, for the scope of his talent, his triumph in Russia and throughout the world, for the immortality of his artistic achievement and the poverty of his philosophical and social ideas: this was the colossal catastrophe which shook Russia at the time. The old Russia of peasants and landowners was perishing under the pressure of the relentless onslaught of capital.

The Russian peasant was the hero and, unfortunately, the passive hero of this terrible bloody and tear-drenched drama.

There arose then a great cloud of tears, grief, moans, destitution, cries of despair and anger, passionate, heart-wrenching bewilderment, a searching for a way out; a fiery question mark rose over the land as a terrible nightmare: where was one to find the truth?

While tormenting the peasants, this crisis dealt the landowners a terrible blow as well, sending them down to the bottom. All the old ways began to shake, as things do in an earthquake.

And a man came forth whose background, education, culture, sensitivity and gift for writing made him capable of transforming the peasants' grief and the peasants' bewilderment into works of art. This man was a landowner, and, therefore, there were many scenes of aristocratic life in his works, although the peasant spirit predominated and the peasants' suffering dominated the Count's every thought. This did not divert Lenin's keen insight to a superficial evaluation of Tolstoi as a writer of the nobility. No, Tolstoi's fiery revolutionary spirit, ready to sweep away thrones, altars and the nobility itself, was not of the nobility; nor of the nobility was the essentially noxious and most harmful spirit of submission, patience and non-violence, which for centuries had been the faithful helpmate of every executioner in the heart of the peasant himself.

In like manner, Maxim Gorky signifies a tremendous step forward in the history of our country at a later date.

The bourgeoisie came to power, it asserted itself as the dominant class, though it still shared its power with the lions of the nobility. But these were new noblemen--the very same ones whose first representatives Tolstoi described with such loathing in Anna Karenina.

On the whole, the moneybag now ruled the country. However, it only fulfilled its rather relative cultural and economic role to a very small degree. It was carnivorous and grasping. Naturally, it created something, but; it destroyed much more.

The historical experience of other countries and its own instincts indicated that the stylish European parliamentary dress which fitted the foreign big bourgeoisie so well was not made for it. And though well-fed Russian capitalism would from time to time mutter something unintelligible about a constitution, it relied above all on the gendarme and the priest.

Nevertheless, this capitalism, which oppressed the country both by its maturity and immaturity, was dangerously ill. It was grieved. It was tortured by terrible premonitions. It was full of fear and divarication. It had its connivers, its oppressors and pessimists, but all of them carried the stamp of doom on their faces. This giant in golden armour, but weak of heart, had not been born to a long and happy life.

The further growth of capital continued to oppress the villages mercilessly. But it was not their groans that filled the new and powerful artistic organ and the many organ pipes of the young Gorky.

His social standing made him more familiar with the stagnant, swampy, tortured society of the city petty bourgeoisie, gripped as it was by rigid routine and overflowing with strange characters.

They were Gorky's first subjects. He chose as his theme one of the city's strangest phenomena, the tramps, and then, in time, turned to the proletariat.

As we listen keenly to Gorky's music, from its very inception, we can but laugh as we reject the superficial and, I would say, silly little theories that Gorky was a writer of the lower middle classes.

Following in Lenin's giant footsteps, we can say that Gorky's indomitable, turbulent, rainbow-bright joy of life, which burst forth from his very first lines, was not of the lower middle classes. Nor is his merciless indignation at the ruling evil of the middle class; nor is his firm belief in man, in his mighty culture, in his coming victory; nor is his bold call for courage and his stormy petrel, heralding the coming revolution, of the middle class. None of this is of the lower middle classes--all is of the proletariat. ...