Tuesday, 26 November 2013

What Crime and Punishment can teach you that the internet can't

At the age of 28, Fyodor Dostoevsky, sentenced to death for revolutionary activities, stood before a firing squad. The young writer and agitator kissed a cross that was passed around among the prisoners. The Tsar’s soldiers raised their guns. Then a rider rushed into the square and announced a pardon: the condemned men, including Dostoevsky, were to be sent to hard labour in Siberia instead.
Very few of us will ever have a terrifying, unreal moment like Dostoevsky’s: convinced he was about to die, then spared at the last minute. When Dostoevsky returned from Siberia and wrote his great novels, his near-death echoed through his work. He felt compelled to imagine killers and their victims in the most graphic, even sickening ways.
Being alone with Dostoevsky and his perverse, troubled characters can be an appalling experience. But still we read on, unable to tear ourselves away from a world so miserable and so alien to our hopes. Dostoevsky shows us what subjecting ourselves to a book whose vision is extreme and uncomfortable can do for us: broaden our knowledge of others.
Increasingly, psychologists and neuroscientists have been focusing on empathy as a crucial part of what makes us human. Moral life is unimaginable without the ability to identify with other people, to feel their experiences. But what about people whose inner lives we can’t bear to think about: the torturers and killers we condemn as evil, even inhuman? Every day we gulp down headlines and lurid, tabloid stories about such bad people, but this is voyeurism, not an entry into another world. Dostoevsky actually portrays bad people in unrivalled depth, and over hundreds of pages: the terrorists, the murderers, the scoundrels. Lately, psychological studies have suggested that reading serious fiction increases empathy, enabling us to stand in the shoes of others. This is especially valuable when we read about those who seem completely unlike us: not just people from a different nation, race or religion, but those who are morally different, who are, to use the inescapable word, evil.
Dostoevsky is not alone among the great realists in his ability to depict evil. When I read Tolstoy’s War and Peace, I am always most intrigued by the novel’s chilling portrait of Napoleon. In Tolstoy’s hands, the Emperor resembles an overgrown child, but he knows only cold satisfaction, instead of a child’s joy. Yet Tolstoy’s Napoleon, who is capable of sending thousands of men to their deaths without hesitation, remains part of the spectrum of humanity. He’s not a monster, but one of us.
When you read a novel seriously, you're alone with the author’s characters, listening and feeling as carefully as you can. Sometimes, as with Dostoevsky, the reader enters a world that may seem foreign and even repulsive, but that also fascinates. We feel exhilarated but uneasy as we find ourselves trapped with the people we usually turn away from, life’s villains. At times a television series like Breaking Bad is able, like a realist novel, to make us sympathise with a hero whom we also want to condemn. But novels, because they demand that we immerse ourselves in the lives of others more slowly and thoroughly than television or movies, give us a fuller portrait of the dark side.
Reading a novel forces us to experience the lives of characters who are radically different from us, something we can't get from other art forms. Only by spending a long time inside the head of a character can we know something of the full range of human life. The more we can do that, the better for how we see the world, because we've spent serious time with otherness during our reading. 
Novels deliver the unlike, the alien, as an antidote to our comforts and our day-to-day prejudices. Increasingly, we are snugly wrapped in our worldviews. Conservatives see everything in blue, progressives in red. The internet seems designed to back up our opinions, because when we’re online we make a habit of seeking out the like-minded. We gang up on those we disagree with, rather than listening carefully to contrary opinions. When the web shows us the horrors of war and domestic violence, we take a quick look and move on. Distracted by snapshots of horror, we think we are following terrible events. But we’re not, because we don’t commit ourselves to finding out about the human actors behind them. Reading a novel means committing yourself, to the author and the characters. Glancing at evil and tragedy, as the internet encourages us to do, lets us avoid the hard questions about motivation and human personality that novels make us confront.
Because the internet molds itself to our whims, letting us go where we want, when we want, it prevents us from really experiencing otherness in the way that a novel, the longest of long forms, can offer. A novel has a structure, while the web doesn’t; a novel pushes back, and demands that we stay involved. Sinking into a book and subjecting ourselves to the author is the shock treatment we need to break out of our habit of online distractions, which can numb our capacity to see how human beings develop over time. Without that capacity, we lose the power to identify with the people around us, especially those we find morally troubling. 
When we read Crime and Punishment, we sympathise against our will with the murderer Raskolnikov. But Dostoevsky, remembering his own near-execution, also makes us watch a murder from the point of view of the victim. Dostoevsky imagines what it's really like to kill someone in a way that movies and television and online games almost never do. Raskolnikov first kills an old woman pawnbroker, and then her sister Lizaveta, who arrives unexpectedly on the scene. As Raskolnikov lifts his axe, the author shows us Lizaveta paralysed with fear. We suddenly see the murder through the eyes of the victim, after having experienced the inner life of the murderer through so many gripping pages.
In ordinary life we tend to choose sides. We wouldn't want to think about a murderer and his victim at once. But Dostoevsky makes us identify with both. We can't push either of them away; our moral judgments get put on hold so that we can really see into the lives of other people. We've spent so much time with the murderer, in our slow, captivated reading of the book, that we can't just reject him now. But we also know that, when he scorns the sacredness of human life, he has done the unforgivable.
More here.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Astapovo: Tolstoy's final station


Leo Tolstoy is one of the world's best know and most beloved writers. His novels have brought joy and wisdom to the lives of untold millions. Yet his final years were a time of personal turmoil and family discord.
Fleeing what he considered to be an intolerable domestic situation in the fall of 1910, the great writer met death not at his estate of Yasnaya Polyana, but at a distant railway station known as Astapovo, some 250 miles southeast of Moscow in what is now Lipetsk Region.
Much has been written about these final days of the writer's life, but little attention has been given to the physical setting in which these momentous events occurred. The nearby village of Astapovo is known to have existed since the mid-17th century.
Its name derives from Lake Ostapovo, in turn related to the name "Ostap," pronounced "Astap" in standard Russian. With its small church, Astapovo had little to distinguish it from hundreds of other such villages in south central Russia.
This rural backwater was transformed in 1889-90 with the building of Astapovo Station as part of the new Ryazan-Kozelsk Railway. By the late 1890s, traffic through the station increased significantly with the development of what had become the Ryazan-Urals Railroad system. The station complex underwent a major expansion, which began in 1898 and extended through the next decade.
By 1910, Astapovo was hardly the tiny station mentioned in some Tolstoy biographies. Quite the contrary, it could be seen as a model project for provincial stations within the rapid growth of Russia's rail system. 
The Astapovo complex consisted of several buildings, including a substantial two-story brick station constructed in 1903 next to the original wooden station. Behind the station buildings and slightly to the right are two one-story wooden structures: a house for the stationmaster and a first aid station, now used as a pharmacy. Nearby is a low brick building that housed the telegraph.
To the right of these buildings was a railway technical school connected to the Church of the Trinity, both built of brick between 1905-09. Used as a warehouse during the Soviet period, the church has been cleaned and reconsecrated.
Behind the station on the left stand two brick water towers, whose size reflects the rapid expansion of Astapovo Station. At the back of the complex across a small square is an attractively designed row of buildings for railway workers.
A park with an entrance gate was laid out next to the station area. Such was Astapovo Station when Tolstoy arrived on Oct. 31 (according to the Julian calendar, which was still used in Russia at that time. The date was Nov. 13 according to the Gregorian calendar in use elsewhere.)
In his latter years, Tolstoy had become increasingly distraught by what he felt was a lack of sympathy for his social and moral views on the part of his devoted wife, Sophia Andreevna (Sonya). This tragic discord was inflamed by some of Tolstoy's closest associates, who encouraged the writer to make a public gesture, such as leaving Yasnaya Polyana.
The most prominent among these associates was Vladimir Chertkov, a controversial figure who gained Tolstoy's trust and engaged in tireless organizational activity to promulgate the writer's late work and teachings.
More here.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Anna Netrebko and Dmitri Hvorostovsky. The Concert in the Red Square, Moscow, June 19, 2013




Verdi, Puccini, Tchaikovsky, Kalman. 
The State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia (Svetlanov Symphony Orchestra).
Constantine Orbelian, conductor. 
Grand Choir "Masters of Choral Singing", conductor: Lev Kontorovich.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

All you’ve always wanted to know about Dostoevsky

RBTH: Were Dostoevsky's views on religion unique? Which works best show his religious convictions? Brice Jordan
Ludmila Saraskina: Dostoevsky's specific view on religion involves the fact that his faith endured the suffering and hardships of doubt. Most clearly his religious beliefs are expressed in the novel “The Brothers Karamazov.”
RBTH: I would like to know about Dostoevsky's attitude to Christianity. Érika Batista
L.S.: Dostoevsky was an Orthodox Christian and viewed Christ with great love.
RBTH: Was Dostoevsky familiar with Catholicism? A critical attitude appears in his works. Paula Almarat
L.S.: When in the forced labor camp, Dostoevsky became acquainted with Polish Catholic convicts. He was offended by their arrogant attitude to the Orthodox prisoners. Later, he wrote many critical things about the Roman Pope Pius IX.
RBTH: Did Dostoyevsky read works of Church Fathers and was he influenced by John Chrysostom? Euthimios Nikrer
L.S.: Of course he read them, both the Fathers of the Church and St. John Chrysostom. And he referred to him many times in his works. He knew his Liturgy and cited his “Word of the Holy Easter, Where, death, is your sting?”
RBTH: Do you think “The Dream of the Ridiculous Man” had a religious/spiritual intent or more humanitarian? Dmitry Groesbeck
L.S.: Dostoevsky’s faith contained an enormous potential for humanity. That is why, in “The Dream of a Ridiculous Man,” religious and humanistic ideas appear inseparable.
RBTH: In what way does Raskolnikov correlate with Dostoevsky’s own "I"?Vinícius Ramos Pires
L.S.: Dostoevsky had a very clear understanding of all the motives and impulses of Raskolnikov, but he never endured such an experience.
RBTH: Did Dostoevsky draw ideas for his works from his own experience? Did he suffer mental illness? Did he have any problems with the law? Al Diri Ahmad
L.S.: Of course, he used his own experience, as does every writer. He did not suffer mental illness; he was perfectly sane. In his youth he suffered strong nervous tension and feared lethargy. As for the law, for his participation in a revolutionary discussion group in 1849, he was arrested, tried and sentenced to death by firing squad. The sentence was commuted to four years of hard labor, and for six years of exile on military service. He was released in 1859.
RBTH: What was the cause of Dostoevsky’s epilepsy? 

L.S.: Most likely the forced labor camp and his time at the prison for convicts in Omsk (1850-1854).
RBTH: Who was he inspired by when he was young? Nicole G. Landry
L.S.: He was addicted to the works of Karamzin, Pushkin, Shakespear, Schiller, and Goethe.
RBTH: Besides Pushkin and Georges Sand, to whom Dostoevsky dedicated a text after her death, which writers and thinkers did Dostoevsky admire, and who influenced his creativity? Mônica Colacique
L.S.: Shakespeare, Schiller, Balzac, Goethe, Hoffmann, and Hugo.
RBTH: Did Dostoevsky study clinical psychology? Mohamed Lami

L.S.: He never studied it formally, but he understood it intuitively.
More here.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Alexandra Kollontai: The Loves of Three Generations

COMING to my office one morning I found, among the pile of private and business letters on my desk, a thick envelope that immediately arrested my attention. Thinking it might contain a newspaper article, I opened it. It was a letter, an extraordinarily long letter. The signature....Olga Wasselowskaya. I looked at it thoughtfully.

I knew Comrade Olga Sergejewna Wasselowskaya as an organizer holding a responsible position in the Soviet Republic. I also knew that she was not even remotely interested in the work among women in which I happened to be engaged at the time. What had prompted her to write this endless letter? Glancing at the envelope once more I noticed the words "Strictly Personal" written in large letters across the corner.

"Personal?" Personal letters from women usually mean family tragedies, with a plea for advice and understanding. Was it possible that Olga Sergejewna, this quiet, self-contained woman...? It was unthinkable!

I could not read the latter at the moment; urgent matters clamored for immediate attention, and the letter was obviously too long and too serious for hasty perusal. But as I worked, my thoughts returned involuntarily to the letter and its writer.

I recalled the few occasions on which I had met her – always in some official capacity. I remembered her dry, impersonal, rather reticent attitude toward others, and her remarkable efficiency – for a Russian woman – in business matters. On one of these occasions I had also made the acquaintance of her husband, a former workingman, whose frank, pleasing appearance made him beloved and popular wherever he went, although she was probably more widely known and respected than he. She was his superior in the organization in which they were both employed. He was somewhat younger than she. Perhaps this marriage ... but they had always seemed to be in such perfect accord with one another that one was impressed with a sense of harmony and perfect comradeship whenever one saw the two together. He admired her unreservedly.

I recalled one occasion when he had said, in my hearing: "But you heard what Olga Sergejewna thinks about it. Why do you continue to argue the matter?" To him she was the supreme authority. ...

Shostakovich and His Fifteen Quartets

First, before we turn our attention to Stalin, to Soviet-era dissidence and to debates about Dmitri Shostakovich’s memoirs, listen. Try the Second String Quartet, from 1944, in which music can veer from somber melancholy to raucous jeers in just a few pages; or trace the coded allusions in the Eighth String Quartet, from 1960, in which the composer uses letters of his name to create a musical motif and invokes phrases from his earlier works that can drift like wisps of smoke; or stay focused through the other­worldly fugal opening of the last quartet, the 15th. “Play it so that flies drop dead in midair, and the audience starts leaving the hall from sheer boredom,” the composer told the players preparing its premiere in 1974.

There is no way to listen to the string quartets of Shostakovich and not wonder about their external meanings. In the Western art music tradition, the string quartet genre has been celebrated for its rigor and coherence. But this Soviet composer, whose reputation has been wrestled over almost since his death in 1975, gave us string quartets without stability. The music is marked by extravagant willfulness, but also by an excruciating sense of futility; powerful assertions collapse in submission or despair; we are not always sure when the music is serious and when it is sarcastic. Dramatic principles of unity are widely violated.

We have few such problems with most Beethoven quartets. We can understand their internal principles; disruptions grow out of latent tensions. But in Shostakovich, forces intrude from outside. I don’t mean the music has no internal logic and coherence, only that its drama does not seem autonomous or self-generated. It reacts to something outside itself, something in the mind of its creator, perhaps, or in the traumas of history. It is, in some mysterious way, program music, telling a story. Its twists come not from unfolding musical ideas but from the traumatic character of its chronicle.

And that is how Wendy Lesser treats these works in “Music for Silenced ­Voices.” This book is a paean to Shostakovich’s quartets and their significance. In her listening, Lesser, an accomplished critic and the editor of The Threepenny Review, is literate, sensitive and imaginative. Her book is an outsider’s perspective — she comes to the quartets as a passionate listener rather than as a musician or analyst — which also gives her considerable freedom to speculate. She hears them as a spiritual autobiography; they are program music about Shostakovich himself.

This is a risky enterprise, though, and there are numerous times when the literate easily turns too literal. Lesser acknowledges the risk: “I realize that to talk about a ‘tale’ at all, in regard to these clearly plotless works, is to do some violence to Shostakovich’s freedom as a composer.” But knowing of the danger doesn’t always prevent it.

“If the Sixth Quartet is in part about the discomfort of happily surviving one’s dear dead,” she writes, “then the Seventh Quartet is (among other things) about the comfort of truly mourning them.”

“If there is a fairy-tale feeling behind this quartet,” she says about the First Quartet, “it is as much the dark story of a small boy wandering alone in a forest . . . as it is the kind of tale that has a happy ending.”

Such allusions seem to constrain the music by giving it artificial frames. But the strange thing is that the music appears to make some such frames necessary. And here we come to the heart of the matter.

NYTimes.com

Zinaida Gippius: Quieter

...Great deeds will be recognized...
Sologub

Poets, don't write before it's time;
Victory is still in God's hands.
Today, wounds are still smoldering.
No, words are not needed tonight.

In the hours of unjust suffering,
Of the yet to be decided fight,
What is needed is wise silence
And, just perhaps, quiet prayers.

August 1914

Vasily Grossman: Small Life

'Small Life’ is immediately recognizable as the work of the mature Grossman; it is as low-key, as unshowy, as ‘In the Town of Berdichev’ is showy. Here too, however, Grossman takes considerable risks – though this seems to have gone unnoticed when the story was first published in 1936. The hero, Lev Orlov, is timid and depressive; even though his first name means ‘Lion’ and his last name means ‘Eagle’, he is the antithesis of the positive hero of Socialist Realist doctrine. In November 1935 Stalin had declared that ‘Life has become better, life has become merrier’, and these words were repeated again and again – on banners and posters, in newspaper articles, in talks on the radio and in speeches at May Day parades and other public events. They were, in fact, the most popular slogan of the time. Against this background, the use of the words ‘merrily’ and ‘merriment’ and Orlov’s lack of interest in May Day festivities are more than a little provocative. During the 1930s the radio was probably the most important medium for State propaganda; Orlov’s lack of a radio is yet another indication of his alienation from Soviet life. Grossman does not, of course, overtly sympathize with Orlov’s feelings, but nor does he explicitly condemn them.
With its delicate irony and its apparent inconsequentiality, ‘A Small Life’ owes much to Chekhov. Life and Fate includes a long hymn of praise to Chekhov as the bearer of ‘the banner of a true, humane Russian democracy’, but it is worth emphasizing that Grossman’s admiration of Chekhov dates back at least to his first years as a professional writer. In ‘A Tale about Love’, a long story written in 1937, a film director and a script writer talk about their joint project in a railway compartment. They agree that Chekhov’s The Steppe – a long story in which almost nothing appears to happen – is ‘real art’. This conversation is not in any way necessary to the development of the plot. In the context of Soviet literature from the 1930s, with its emphasis on class conflict and five-year plans, it is startling – a clear declaration by Grossman of his artistic programme.

Robert Chandler

A SMALL LIFE



Moscow spends the last ten days of April preparing for May Day. The cornices of buildings and the little iron railings along boulevards are repainted, and in the evenings mothers throw up their hands in despair at the sight of their sons’ trousers and coats. On all the city’s squares carpenters merrily saw up planks that still smell of pine resin and the damp of the forest. Store masters use their directors’ cars to collect great heaps of red cloth.
Visitors to different institutes find that their requests are all met with the same answer: ‘Why don’t we deal with this after the Holiday?’
Lev Sergeyevich Orlov was standing on a street corner with his colleague Timofeyev. Timofeyev was saying, ‘You’re an old woman, Lev Sergeyevich. We could go to a beer hall or a restaurant. We could just wander about and watch the crowds. So what if it upsets your wife? You’re just an old woman, a complete and utter old woman!’
But Lev Sergeyevich said goodbye and went on his way. Morose by nature, he used to say of himself, ‘I’m made in such a way that it’s my lot to see tragedy, even if it’s hidden beneath rose petals.’
And Lev Sergeyevich did indeed see tragedy everywhere.
Even now as he made his way through the crowds he was thinking how hard it must be to be stuck in hospital during these days of merriment, how miserable these days must be for pharmacists, engine drivers and train crews – people who have to work on the First of May.
When he got home, he said all this to his wife. She began to laugh at him, but he just shook his head and went on being upset.
Still turning over the same thoughts, he went on letting out loud sighs until late into the night. His wife said angrily, ‘Lyova, why do you have to feel so sorry for the pharmacists? Why not feel sorry for me for a change and let me sleep? You know I’ve got to be at work by eight in the morning.’
The next day she left for work while Lev Sergeyevich was still asleep.
In the mornings he was usually in a good mood at the office, but by two in the afternoon he would be missing his wife, feeling anxious and fidgety and constantly watching the clock. His colleagues understood all this and used to make fun of him.
‘Lev Sergeyevich is already looking at the clock,’ someone would say – and everyone would laugh except for Agnessa Petrovna, the elderly head accountant, who would pronounce with a sigh, ‘Orlov’s wife is the luckiest woman in all Moscow.’
Today was no different. As the afternoon wore on, he grew fidgety, shrugging his shoulders in disbelief as he watched the minute hand of the clock.
‘Someone to speak to you, Lev Sergeyevich,’ a voice called out from the adjoining room. It was his wife. She was phoning to say that she would have to stay on at work for an extra hour and a half to retype the director’s report.
‘All right then,’ Lev Sergeyevich replied in a hurt voice, and he hung up.
He did not hurry home. The city was buzzing, and the buildings, streets and pavements all seemed somehow special, different from how they usually were. And this intangible something, born of the festive sense of community, took many forms. It could be sensed even in the way a policeman dragged away a drunk. It was as though all the men wandering about the street were related – as though they were all cousins, or uncles and nephews.
Today he would have been only too glad to saunter about with Timofeyev. It is unpleasant being the first to get back home. The room seems empty and unwelcoming, and there is no getting away from frightening thoughts: has something happened to Vera Ignatyevna? Has she twisted her ankle jumping off a tram?
Lev Sergeyevich would start to imagine that some hulking trolleybus had knocked Vera Ignatyevna down, that people were crowding around her body, that an ambulance was tearing along, wailing ominously. He would be seized with terror; he would want to phone friends and family; he would want to rush to the Emergency First Aid Institute, or to the police.
Every time his wife was ten or fifteen minutes late it was the same. He would feel the same panic.
What a lot of people there were on the street now! Why were they all sauntering up and down the boulevard, sitting idly on benches, stopping in front of every illuminated shop window? But then he walked up to his own building, and his heart leaped with joy. The little ventilation pane was open – his wife was already back.
He kissed Vera Ignatyevna several times. He looked into her eyes and stroked her hair.
‘What a strange one you are!’ she said. ‘It’s the same every time. Anyone would think I’ve come back from Australia, not from the Central Rubber Office.’
‘If I don’t see you all day,’ he replied, ‘you might just as well be in Australia.’
‘You and your eternal Australia!’ said Vera Ignatyevna. ‘They ask me to help print the wall newspaper – and I refuse. I skip meetings of the Air-Chem Defence Society – and rush headlong back home. Kazakova has two little children – but Kazakova has no trouble at all staying behind. Not only that, but she’s even a member of the automobile circle!’
‘What a silly darling goose you are!’ said Lev Sergeyevich. ‘Who ever heard of a wife giving her husband a hard time for being too much of a stay-at-home?’
Vera Ignatyevna wanted to answer back, but instead she said in an excited voice, ‘I’ve got a surprise for you! The Party committee’s been asking people to take in orphanage children for a few days over the Holiday. I volunteered – I said we’d like a little girl. You won’t be cross with me, will you?’
Lev Sergeyevich gave his wife a hug.
‘How could I be cross with my clever girl?’ he said. ‘It scares me even to think about what I’d be doing and how I’d be living now if chance had not brought us together at that birthday party at the Kotelkovs.’
On the evening of 29th April Vera Ignatyevna was brought back home in a Ford. As she went up the stairs, pink with pleasure, she said to the little girl who had come with her, ‘What a treat to go for a ride in a car. I could have carried on riding around for the rest of my life!’
It was the second time she had been in a car. Two years before, when her mother-in-law had come to visit, they had taken a taxi from the station. True, that first ride had not been all it might have been – the driver had never stopped cursing, saying that his tyres would probably collapse and that, with as much luggage as, they should have taken a three-ton truck.
Vera Ignatyevna and her little guest had barely entered the room when the doorbell rang.
‘Ah, it must be Uncle Lyova,’ said Vera Ignatyevna. She took the little girl by the hand and led her towards the door.
‘Let me introduce you,’ she said. ‘This is Ksenya Mayorova, and this is comrade Orlov, uncle Lyova, my husband.’
‘Greetings, my child!’ said Orlov, and patted the little girl on the head.
He felt suddenly disappointed. He had imagined the little girl would be tiny and pretty, with sad eyes like the eyes of a grown-up woman. Ksenya Mayorova, however, was plain and stocky, with fat red cheeks, lips that stuck out a little and eyes that were grey and narrow.
‘We came by car,’ she boasted in a deep voice.
While Vera Ignatyevna was preparing supper, Ksenya wandered about the room examining everything.
‘Auntie, have you got a radio?’ she asked.
‘No, darling. But come here – there’s something we have to do.’
Vera Ignatyevna took her into the bathroom. There they talked about the zoo and the planetarium.
During supper Ksenya looked at Lev Sergeyevich, laughed and said pointedly, ‘Uncle didn’t wash his hands!’
She had a deep voice, but her laugh was thin and giggly.
Vera Ignatyevna asked Ksenya how much seven and eight came to, and what was the German word for a door. She asked her if she knew how to skate. They argued about what was the capital of Belgium; Vera Ignatyevna thought it was Antwerp. ‘No, it’s Geneva,’ Ksenya insisted, pouting and stubbornly shaking her head.
Lev Sergeyevich took his wife aside and whispered, ‘Put her to bed. Then I’ll sit with her and tell her a story – she doesn’t feel at home with us yet.’
‘Why don’t you go out into the corridor and have a smoke?’ answered his wife. ‘In the meantime we can air the room.’
Lev Sergeyevich walked up and down the corridor and struggled to recall a fairy tale. Little Red Riding Hood? No, she probably knew it already. Maybe he should just tell her about the quiet little town of Kasimov, about the forests there, about going for walks on the bank of the Oka – about his grandmother, about his brother, about his sisters?
When his wife called him back, Ksenya was already in bed. Lev Sergeyevich sat down beside her and patted her on the head.
‘Well,’ he asked, ‘how do you like it here?’
Ksenya yawned convulsively and rubbed her eyes with one fist.
‘It’s all right,’ she said. ‘But I suppose it must be very hard for you without a radio.’
Lev Sergeyevich began recounting stories from his own childhood. Ksenya yawned three times in quick succession and said, ‘You shouldn’t sit on someone’s bed if you’re wearing clothes. Microbes can crawl off you.’
Her eyes closed. Half asleep, she began mumbling incoherently, telling some crazy story.
‘Yes,’ she whined. ‘They didn’t let me go on the excursion. Lidka saw when we were still in the garden… why didn’t she say anything… and I carried it twice in my pocket… I’ve been pricked all over… but it wasn’t me who told them about the glass, she’s a sneak…’
She fell asleep. Lev Sergeyevich and his wife went on looking at her face in silence. She was sleeping without making a sound, her lips sticking out more than ever, her reddish pigtails moving ever so slightly against the pillow.
Where was she from? The Ukraine, the north Caucasus, the Volga? Who had her father been? Perhaps he had died doing some glorious work in a mine or in the smoke of some huge furnace? Perhaps he had drowned while floating timber down a river? Who was he? A mechanic? A porter? A housepainter? A shopkeeper? There was something magnificent and touching about this peacefully sleeping little girl.
In the morning Vera Ignatyevna went off to do some shopping. She needed to stock up for the three days of the holiday. She also wanted to go to the Mostorg department store and buy some silk for a summer dress. Lev Sergeyevich and Ksenya stayed behind.
‘Listen, mein liebes Kind,’ he said. ‘We’re not going out anywhere today, we’re going to stay at home.’
He sat Ksenya down on his knee, put an arm round her shoulder and began telling her stories.
‘Sit still now, be a good girl,’ he would say every time she tried to get down. In the end Ksenya sat still, snuffling from time to time as she watched this talking uncle.
By the time Vera Ignatyevna got back, it was already four o’clock. There had been a lot of people in the shops.
‘Why are you looking so sulky, Ksenya?’ she asked in a startled voice.
‘Why shouldn’t I look sulky?’ Ksenya answered. ‘Maybe I’m hungry.’
Vera Ignatyevna hurried into the kitchen to prepare supper; Lev Sergeyevich continued to entertain their little guest.
After supper, Ksenya asked for a pencil and some paper, so she could write a letter. ‘But I don’t need a stamp, I’ll give it to Lidka myself,’ she added.
While Ksenya was writing, Vera Ignatyevna suggested to her husband that they all go out to the cinema, but Lev Sergeyevich did not like this idea. ‘What on earth are you thinking of, Vera? The crowds tonight will be terrible. In the first place we won’t be able to get tickets. In the second place, it’s the kind of evening one wants to spend at home.’
‘It’s our good fortune to spend all our evenings at home,’ retorted Vera Ignatyevna.
‘Please don’t start an argument,’ snapped Lev Sergeyevich.
‘The girl’s bored. She’s used to being with other people all the time. She’s used to being with her friends.’
‘Oh, Vera, Vera,’ he replied.
Later in the evening they all had tea with cornel jam, and they ate a cake and some sweet pies. Ksenya enjoyed the cake very much indeed; Vera Ignatyevna felt worried, put her hand on the little girl’s tummy and shook her head. Soon afterwards the girl’s tummy did indeed start to ache. She turned very sullen and stood for a long time by the window, pressing her nose to the cold glass. When the glass became warm, she moved along a little and began to warm another patch of glass with her nose.
Lev Sergeyevich went up to her and asked, ‘What are you thinking about?’
‘Everything,’ the girl answered crossly, and once again began squashing her nose into the glass.
In the orphanage they were probably about to have supper. There hadn’t been time for her to receive her present, and she was sure to be left something boring, like a book about animals. She already had a book like that. Still, she’d be able to do a swap. This auntie Vera was really nice. A pity she wasn’t one of the staff. The girls who’d stayed behind in the orphanage were going to spend all day riding about in a truck. As for herself, she was going to become a pilot and drop a gas bomb on this strange Uncle Lyova. There were some quite big girls out in the yard – they were probably from group seven.
She dozed off on her feet and banged her forehead against the glass.
‘Go to bed, Ksenka!’ said Vera Ignatyevna.
‘I butted the glass just like a ram,’ said Ksenya.
Lev Sergeyevich woke up in the night. He put out a hand to touch his wife’s shoulder, but she wasn’t there.
‘What’s up? Where’s my little Verochka?’ he thought in alarm.
He could hear a quiet voice coming from the sofa, and sobs.
‘Calm down now, you silly thing,’ Vera Ignatyevna was saying. ‘How can I take you back at night? There aren’t any trams, and we’d have to cross the whole city.’
‘I kno-o-o-w,’ answered a deep voice, in between sobs. ‘But he’s so very dismable.’
‘Never mind, never mind. He’s kind, he’s good. You can see I’m not crying!’
Lev Sergeyevich covered his head with the blanket, so as not to hear any more. Pretending he was asleep, he began quietly snoring.

1936

Translator's Note


* ‘The Society for the Promotion of Defence, Aviation and Chemistry’ (Osoviakhim or Obshchestvo sodeistviya oborone i aviatsionno-khimicheskomu stroitel’stvu) was a ‘voluntary’ civil defence organization supposed to promote patriotism, marksmanship and aviation skills among the general populace. Founded in 1927, it was described by Stalin as vital to ‘keeping the entire population in a state of mobilized readiness against the danger of military attack, so that no “accident” and no tricks of our external enemies can catch us unawares.’ The Society sponsored clubs and organized contests throughout the U.S.S.R.; it soon had around 12 million members. (RC)

Vasily Grossman. Cardinal Points literary journal.