Showing posts from September, 2014

Malevich: Beyond the Black Square by Robert Chandler

There has never been a better year to look at the work of Kazimir Malevich, a pioneer of abstract art often seen as the greatest Russian painter of the twentieth century. “Malevich: Revolutionary of Russian Art,” first shown in the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, and now at London’s Tate Modern, is the most comprehensive exhibition of his work ever.

Malevich is known above all for his Black Square (1915)—a black square surrounded by a margin of white—the most prominent of the abstract, geometric paintings he called Suprematist, first shown at the now famous “0.10” exhibition in Petrograd in 1915. With Suprematism, Malevich hoped to create “a world in which man experiences totality with nature,” though using forms “which have nothing in common with nature.” He declared the Black Square to be the “zero of form,” claiming that it eclipsed all previous art. This iconoclastic icon was first shown hanging diagonally across the corner of a room, the traditional place for the most sacred icon of a…

Zinaida Gippius (Hippius) - Bigraphy

She thought up new ideas, took an active part in lively exchanges of opinion and played a fundamental role in the religious renaissance of her country. For Hippius, the purpose of art was to promote the moral and spiritual development of human beings. Her activities in the Religious and Philosophical Society in St. Petersburg and later in emigration in Paris enhanced her fame in Russian literary circles. Zinaida Hippius was the only female writer to gain recognition equal to that of her male contemporaries in Russian literature prior to the twentieth century.

Zinaida Nikolaevna Hippius was born in Belev, in the region of Tula. She was the eldest of four daughters of Nikolay Romanovich Hippius, who was super-procurator of the St. Petersburg Senate and later became chief judge in Nezhin, in the district of Chernigov. The family surname, spelled ‘‘Gippius” in Cyrillic, was of German origin. Throughout her life the writer expressed a clear preference for the Latin-alphabet spelling “Hippiu…

The Russian writer who inspired Orwell and Huxley - Yevgeny Zamyatin

The world knows Yevgeny Zamyatin as the author of “We,” a milestone of 20th-century dystopian literature that presents an apparently ideal world where the Single State has suppressed freedom in the name of happiness. Both George Orwell’s “1984” and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” have echoes of “We” in them. However, long before he wrote “We,” Zamyatin himself was influenced by the British writers he translated and the country itself. 

Born in 1884 in Lebedyan, Tambov province to an orthodox priest father and a pianist mother, Yevgeny Zamyatin had a clear talent for writing and a clear weakness for math, which he later ironically claimed was probably why he chose a math-based career. Zamyatin enrolled at the shipbuilding department of the St. Petersburg Polytechnical University, where he showed his nonconformist streak – he spent a few months in jail in 1905 for political agitation. “If I have any significance in Russian literature, I owe this all to the St. Petersburg Secret Police,…

Dostoevsky’s crimes

Fyodor Dostoevsky was forty-three when he began work on what was to become Crime and Punishment. This was just old enough for him to count as an old fogey in the eyes of the young men and women who defined Russia in the 1860s and who found themselves slandered by Dostoevsky’s depiction of them as potential axe-murderers. For his part Dostoevsky felt vindicated when Dmitry Karakozov (aged twenty-five) made an assassination attempt on Alexander II that bore some resemblance to his protagonist Raskolnikov’s crime, just as his novel was commencing publication in the journal Russky Vestnik (The Russian Herald). Dostoevsky always fancied himself a prophet, but the French critic Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé attributed Karakozov’s crime to Dostoevsky’s penchant for stimulating the “demon of imitation”. Indeed, Dostoevsky sympathized with the young people’s desire for social justice, regarding their crimes as born more of impatience than malevolence. Yet crimes they were, and in a letter to his ed…

Tolstoy’s Real Hero - Orlando Figes on War and Peace

In his Lectures on Russian Literature Vladimir Nabokov maintains that “the third, and worst, degree of turpitude” in literary translation, after “obvious errors” and skipping over awkward passages, is reached when a masterpiece is planished and patted into such a shape, vilely beautified in such a fashion as to conform to the notions and prejudices of a given public. This is a crime, to be punished by the stocks as plagiarists were in the shoebuckle days.1 Whether one agrees or not with Nabokov—whose own translation into English of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin sacrificed poetic rhythm, rhyme, and readability for literal word-by-word equivalence—there is no doubt that the practice of translation is strongly influenced by the literary tastes and sensibilities of the receiving culture. When the great Russian novels of the nineteenth century were first translated into English, beginning with Ivan Turgenev’s in the 1870s, they were patted into a Victorian mold of “good writing.” That the first to …

Alexander Grin - Where Simple Miracles Abound

Alexander Grin is the pseudonym of Alexander Stefanovich Grinevsky who was born into a family of an exile Polish living in Slobodskaya Vyatka Province.
In 1896 he finished a four-grade Vyatka college and left for Odessa. The boy lived as a tramp, worked as a sailor, and a fisherman, then washed gold in the Ural, and later served the army, where he joined the Socialist revolutionary party. Following this Alexander was arrested in Sevastopol for socialist propaganda. The writer served his sentence in prison and three exiles. His works were published starting from 1906. The first short story, titled Merit of Private Panteleev (Zasluga ryadovogo Panteleeva was of an agitation character and thus the copies of the brochure were confiscated by gendarmes. Soon Alexander Grin withdrew from direct political activities and started working as a professional man of letters. In 1912 the writer moved to St. Petersburg, mainly writing short stories at that time. After the revolution, which was a very …

Bella Akhmadulina: Rain Flogs My Face...

Rain flogs my face and collar-bones,
a thunderstorm roars over musts.
You thrust upon my flesh and soul,
like tempests upon ships do thrust.

I do not want, at all, to know,
what will befall to me the next - 
would I be smashed against my woe,
or thrown into happiness.

In awe and gaiety elated, 
like a ship, that's going tempests through, 
I am not sorry that I've met you,
and not afraid to love you, too.

Nadezhda Teffi -Unimpressed by Rasputin: A witty female voice in a male-dominated sphere

If you asked most readers for a list of 20th century Russian prose writers, the same names would keep cropping up: Bulgakov, Pasternak, Gorky, Chekhov, Solzhenitsyn. Few people would mention Teffi. And yet in the years leading up to the 1917 revolution, Teffi was a bona-fide leading light, a superstar who was stopped on the streets of Moscow by admirers and counted both Tsar Nicholas II and Lenin as fans. She mingled with high society figures like Rasputin and wrote about them with a searing and uncompromising wit. 

Teffi was born Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya in 1872 to a wealthy St. Petersburg family. She married in 1890 and moved to the countryside to begin a calm and uneventful domestic life. However, Teffi wasn't the kind of person to live up to society's expectations, and a decade later she headed back to the city to make a go of her writing career. She deliberately picked an androgynous pen-name – adapted from the name of a fool, since fools were supposed to be luck…