Showing posts from October, 2014

Sofiya Tolstoy’s Defense

In Tolstoy’s 1889 novella “The Kreutzer Sonata,” an aristocrat named Pozdnyshev tells a stranger on a train the story of his unhappy family. He married a much younger woman, provoked by her youthful beauty and sexy sweater; they had five children, but Pozdnyshev was disgusted by family life. The marriage curdled, and he became jealous of his wife’s relationship with a musician who kept coming over to play duets. In a rage, he stabbed his wife to death. Though there was no evidence that his wife was unfaithful, and although he feels guilty for his crime, Pozdnyshev argues that he and his wife were equal partners in their submission to lust, and equal victims of corrupt sexual standards that turn all women into prostitutes. He concludes that “sexual passion, no matter how it’s arranged is evil, a terrible evil against which one must struggle.… The words of the Gospel that whosoever looks at a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery relates not only to other men’s wives, b…

Louise Bryant: Leon Trotsky - Soviet War Lord

MINISTER OF WAR, Leon Trotsky, has no prototype in history. Therefore, he cannot be compared, he can only be contrasted. He is without question the most dramatic character produced during the whole sweep of the Russian revolution and its only great organizer. No man will overshadow his eminence in the history of the revolution except Lenin. They will remain the two most distinguished personalities. They are complementary figures. Lenin represents thought; Trotsky represents action. Trotsky's genius might have burned itself out in some wild enthusiasm or some consuming rage if it had not been for the cooling influence of Lenin. On the other hand, Lenin's plans, no matter how carefully thought out, could not have materialized withouts a Labor Army better than a fighting army because it makes him happier to build than to destroy.

But all his organizing genius goes for nothing if he cannot have order and discipline. About three years ago Lenin appointed Trotsky Minister of Railways…

Alexander Blok: Night...

Night, street and streetlight, drugstore,
The purposeless, half-dim, drab light.
For all the use live on a quarter century –
Nothing will change.  There's no way out.

You'll die – and start all over, live twice,
Everything repeats itself, just as it was:
Night, the canal's rippled icy surface,
The drugstore, the street, and streetlight.                                             10 October 1912

Translated by Alex Cigale

Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928

It’s hard to write about the great evildoers of history. “Absolute evil” is not a useful concept, at least from the standpoint of a biographer. You can only make the portrait work, as John Milton did in Paradise Lost, by showing the cracks and contradictions that make the monster (his Satan) human. The demonic versions of Stalin and Hitler that most of us have internalised are not helpful in working out what made them tick. The assumption that the man who kills (or causes to be killed) a million people is a million times more evil than the man who kills one is another stumbling block. We can’t imagine a person a million times worse than a cold-blooded axe murderer, so the whole thing becomes unreal. Moral philosophers may be needed to straighten this out, but my own feeling is that the premise is wrong: evil, as a quality of a person, is not quantifiable, and we can’t obtain an index through multiplication. Perhaps the only reasonable way to handle the problem analytically is to postu…

Aleksandr Kuprin - Biography

Aleksandr Kuprin was born on 26 August 1870 in the provincial town of Narovchat, in Penza Province in southern Russia. The only son to survive in a family otherwise made up of girls, he became his mother’s favorite. His mother, Liubov' Kuprina, a strong-willed and somewhat authoritarian woman, was undividedly honored with the title of “supreme creature” by her son. Even at the age of sixty, Kuprin still spoke of his mother with awe and piety. A descendant of a princely Tatar family, the Kulunchakovs, she was proud of her ancestry and instilled like-minded feelings in her son; not surprisingly, one of the persisting themes in his art was the fate of the Tatars. He also very much appreciated his mother’s sense of expression. “How many times would I steal from her, weaving her words and expressions into my own stories,” he wrote. His father, Ivan Kuprin, a clerk for the arbitrator in Narovchat, died of cholera n 1871, at the age of thirty-seven when Aleksandr was barely a year old, a…

The Passion of Anton (Chekhov)

The academy has not been kind to dead white writers lately. But it's a different story on stage and screen, where everyone from Victor Hugo to Raymond Carver has enjoyed a successful run in recent years. Who will be the next hot literary property? One safe bet, for this year and every year, is Chekhov. 
An old New Yorker cartoon makes a comic case for the Russian writer's ubiquity. Three men are asked for their greatest influences. ''Mainly the short-story writers -- Hemingway, Eudora Welty and, of course, Chekhov,'' an author replies. ''There was a teacher in high school, and the owner of the first garage I worked in. Then, of course, Chekhov,'' an auto mechanic says. Lastly, a ballplayer responds: ''I had a great batting coach in the minors, and I try to emulate the great outfielders, like DiMaggio and Mays. And, of course, there's Chekhov.'' Tennessee Williams answered the same question more succinctly. ''Chekhov! C…

Sergei Dovlatov, dissident sans idea

All but invisible in his home country, Sergei Dovlatov became something of a mythical figure among the Russian diaspora of New York. Indeed, Vladimir Yermakov compares the conundrum of Dovlatov's life as writer to the two hands simultaneously drawing one another in Escher's mysterious drawing. In the Soviet Union I was not a dissident. (Being a drunk doesn't count.) All I did was write stories that were ideological strangers. And I had to leave. It was in America that I became a dissident.
Sergei Dovlatov

Central to the primary meaning of a work of art is the person of the artist, especially if the work contains autobiographical material. Sergei Dovlatov (1941-1990) is a special case in this respect. The writer Dovlatov, and his character Dovlatov, are as dependent on one another as the two hands simultaneously drawing one another in Maurits Cornelis Escher's mysterious drawing. This interdependence doesn't imply anything definite about their identity, however. Those …

Mikhail Lermontov’s 13 demons

Mikhail Lermontov’s poem “Demon” was never published during his lifetime due to its excessive “diabolism.” This year, however, “Demon” was published in Moscow in 13 European languages.

“Demon” is based on the biblical myth of the fallen angel who rebelled against God – a story that has been incorporated into the work of many European poets, including John Milton, George Byron and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Lermontov put a new spin on this age-old tale, describing the Demon’s love for the earthly beauty Tamara. It is a love that proves deadly for her. 

Lermontov started writing the poem when he was just 14 years old. The first version described a demon and an angel who were in love with the same nun, but the poet later modified the concept to make the demon fall in love with the nun and kill her out of hatred for her guardian angel. The work was originally set in Spain; the unwritten poetic code demanded that a romantic poem should take place in a faraway land, and the young poet was ta…

Robert Chandler on Russian Poetry

A friend, not a Russianist but a well-read poet and editor, once told me how astonished he had been to discover, many years after first reading him, that Mayakovsky—the Poet of the Russian Revolution—always wrote in rhyme and metre. Every translation my friend had seen was in free verse. And he had taken it for granted that a revolutionary poet would want to be free of the constraints of traditional form . . . Russian poetry, however, has developed differently from the poetry of most other European countries.

In the development of a culture, as in the life of an individual, poetry comes before prose. In the life of a country, the oral epic comes before the novel; in the life of an individual, nursery rhymes come before stories. And poetry arises from many sources. Lyric poetry springs from prayers, charms, and magic spells; narrative poetry from the need to preserve important myths in a memorable form.

In most of Europe, the invention of print made it seem less important that a work of …

Borodin: Polovtsian dances from Prince Igor

Воlshоi thеаtrе 2013

Anna Karenina – the devil in the details

Do we really need another English translation of Anna Karenina? This is a bit like asking whether we need a new recording of Beethoven's Ninth. There is no English translation of the 1970 Academy of Sciences edition of the novel currently in print. This version contained a host of small differences from earlier versions; these may not amount to much individually, but cumulatively they add up to a new reading. And just as conductors and performers can produce revelatory new interpretations after intense listening, so translators have the potential to allow the author to speak more clearly. It's all about the detail.

Take chapter eight of Part Six. By this stage of the novel, Anna and Vronsky have returned from their sojourn in Italy and have retreated to the country, having been ostracised by St Petersburg high society. Levin and Kitty are also spending the summer in the country, surrounded by family and friends, and in one of the novel's most charming interludes, spread ove…

Ulyana Lopatkina - Biography

Ulyana Lopatkina is a renowned ballet dancer and the prima ballerina of the Mariinsky Theater in Saint Petersburg. She has received numerous awards and prizes and is known throughout the world.

Ulyana Lopatkina was born in Ukraine, in the small city of Kerch on 23 October 1973. Her father was a production manager at a shipbuilding facility and her mother was an economist.

When Ulyana was small, her parents decided to send her to an artistic gymnastics and a dancing group. Ulyana’s mother wanted her daughter to become a ballerina and went to great lengths to fulfill her life-long dream.

Ulyana’s interest in ballet developed quite suddenly - she was fascinated by photographs of legendary ballet dancers such as Maya Plisetskaya and Galina Ulanova. Young Ulyana fell in love with the striking beauty of the holds, the graceful movements and the airy tutus and gowns. But looking at the pictures was not enough for the future ballerina and she spent days reading avidly about ballet and studying t…

Leningrad: Siege and Symphony

The Siege of Leningrad, the pitiless epic of the Nazis’ 900-day encirclement of the Soviet Union’s second city, is a story that has drawn many chroniclers — each with a special kind of bravery to attempt a fresh recounting. Brian Moynahan’s entry point is the performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony in the starving and brutalized city on Aug. 9, 1942, Day 335 of the siege and “perhaps the most magnificent, and certainly the most moving, moment ever to be found in music.”

In “Leningrad: Siege and Symphony,” Moynahan weaves back and forth among descriptions of the battlefield around Leningrad, the horror visited upon the starving city, and the galvanizing and piercing work of music Shostakovich wrote to honor his home town (now called St. Petersburg). The first two movements were written before Shostakovich and his immediate family were evacuated in October 1941 to a city on the Volga, and the complete score was flown back in nine months later, the pilot skimming Lake Ladoga…

Galina Ustvolskaya - Composition №1 'Dona mobis pacem'


Music under Soviet rule: Galina Ustvolskaya

Until very recently, the music of reclusive St Petersburg composer Galina Ustvolskaya (born 17th June 1919) had hardly been heard in Russia, let alone in the West. Five years ago, it was impossible to obtain any of it on compact disc; indeed only two of her works had been recorded in the Soviet Union by 1970 and these were known solely to connoisseurs of the nether regions of the Melodiya catalogue. Ironically both of these pieces have since been repudiated by the composer.

Things began to change in 1992-3 with the earliest foreign recordings and the simultaneous appearance of the first Western documentation of her controversial relationship with Shostakovich. To date, Ustvolskaya's compact discography shows her to be an artist of stubborn self-will uniquely unsuited to a career in the Soviet music service. Quite apart from its individual integrity, her work is driven by a spiritual ideal which would have placed her in diametrical opposition to the Communist state.

For one reason or…

Vasily Grossman’s fate: From Stalingrad and Armenia to the West

The translation of Vasily Grossman’s An Armenian Sketchbook, by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, was included in the shortlist for this year’s Read Russia Prize. A memoir written during a trip to Armenia in the early 1960s, the book is an unusually personal perspective on his journey through the country, offering reflections on its people and landscapes as well as nationalism and illness.

An Armenian Sketchbook, an account of a trip Vasily Grossman made to Armenia in the early 1960s, translated by Robert Chandler and Elizabeth Chandler, was made one of the nominees for this year’s Read Russia Prize, which is awarded for the best translations of Russian literature into foreign languages. The most recent translation of Vasily Grossman’s works by the pair, An Armenian Sketchbook (New York Review Books Classics, 2013) is a short memoir written in early 1962 that was not published during Grossman’s lifetime, and which translator Robert Chandler believes offers a rare glimpse into the writer’s…

Lyudmila Ulitskaya - The Weight of Words

About three-quarters of the way through Lyudmila Ulitskaya’s latest novel, “The Big Green Tent,” set in the Soviet Union after the Second World War, a character named Mikha stays up all night reading. In the morning, when he arrives at work late, overemotional from the night of reading and from the discovery that his colleagues have covered for him, Mikha is compelled to share his reading with an older co-worker. It is a set of photographs of manuscripts that could not be published in the Soviet Union, and one look at it is enough for the older man to grasp the gravity of the crime that is being confessed. He reports Mikha to the authorities, setting in motion a series of events that will end Mikha’s career and, ultimately, his life.

Back when many books were banned in the Soviet Union, books had that kind of power. The official publishing houses printed vast quantities of a tiny selection of titles. The underground canon—the samizdat—was also small, chosen nearly at random with questi…