Showing posts from November, 2014

Zakhar Prilepin: You have to constantly prove your worth in literature

Zakhar Prilepin is a member of the National Bolshevik Party, which is banned in Russia, and a former employee of the OMON (the “Special Purpose Mobile Unit,” or more commonly – the riot police) who took part in the Chechnya conflict.  He announced his arrival on the Russian literary scene in 2004 with his novel “Pathology” and now has more than 10 books and a plethora of prestigious literary prizes to his name. His latest novel, “The Cloister,” tells the story of the Solovki prison camp and was acclaimed as book of the year in Russia. Just a few days ago, it won the Big Book Prize for the best book of any genre written in Russian.
Russia Beyond the Headlines: What is it like to be the author of the book of the year?
Zakhar Prilepin: I’m an adult and react calmly to those types of things. There is a new author of the year every year. Literature is a field in which you constantly have to prove your worth until you’ve gained some kind of critical standing.
RBTH: What is the secret behind “T…

‘The Symmetry Teacher’ by Andrei Bitov

In an autobiographical note accompanying his new novel, the Russian writer Andrei Bitov says his first memory is of the Siege of Leningrad in 1941. Bitov was then 4 years old. In the ’50s, Bitov goes on to say, he took up bodybuilding and mountainteering, and after getting kicked out of college some years later, ended up in the military, where he became part of a construction crew working near a former Gulag labor camp. His first story collection, “The Big Balloon,” came out in 1963. Bitov “was vilified by the Leningrad press,” he writes. Later works — such as “Pushkin House” — were banned in the Soviet Union. “When I was just becoming a serious writer,” he notes, “official censure was the highest form of praise.”

Bitov’s reception by the West has been more welcoming. David Remnick called the writer “an extraordinary novelist.” John Updike described “Pushkin House,” published in the United States in 1987, as “brilliant.” Bitov has received numerous honors, including being named a Cheva…

What Makes the Russian Literature of the 19th Century So Distinctive?

I could cite the wild imaginings of Gogol, who can make the most unlikely event seem not only plausible but convincing.

Trying to answer this difficult question in 650 words or less, I could say that part of what makes the 19th-century Russian writers so distinctive — why we still read them with such pleasure and fascination — is the force, the directness, the honesty and accuracy with which they depicted the most essential aspects of human experience. Not the computer-dating experience, obviously, or the airplane-seat-rage experience, or the “Where is the takeout I ordered an hour ago?” experience. But plenty of other crucial events and emotions appear, unforgettably, in their work: childbirth, childhood, death, first love, marriage, happiness, loneliness, betrayal, poverty, wealth, war and peace.

I could mention the breadth and depth of their range, their success at making the individual seem universal, the fact that — though they inhabited the same country and century — each of “the…

‘Tolstoy’s False Disciple,’ by Alexandra Popoff

In 1910, Lev Tolstoy died of pneumonia in a filthy house at a provincial train station. He had fled home at the urging of his closest disciple, Vladimir Chertkov, a cunning, talentless man. How did the ­mediocre Chertkov come to be beside Russia’s greatest writer as he died, even as Tolstoy’s wife, Sophia, stared through the window, denied entry? In “Tolstoy’s False Disciple,” Alexandra Popoff, the author of the biography “Sophia Tolstoy” and “The Wives: The Women Behind Russia’s Literary Giants,” draws on long unavailable archival materials, including Chertkov’s letters, to examine the relationship that tore apart Tolstoy’s family and threatened his literary legacy.

The wealthy, spoiled Chertkov met Tolstoy, 26 years his senior, because of their shared interest in a Christianity that rejected the Orthodox Church. Chertkov, who didn’t care for literature, convinced Tolstoy that they were soul mates by simply parroting his philosophy. By then, Tolstoy was lost in the thicket of his own …

A life unshackled: Remembering the symbolist poet Zinaida Gippius

Zinaida Gippius was an eminent and significant Russian poet, prose writer and critic. Her poetic and cultural influence went hand in hand with her refusal to conform to prescribed notions of femininity. Admired by writers such as Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein, Gippius was a central figure in the established cultural elite of her day, despite being highly subversive. Yet today, in the West, she is all but forgotten.

Born in Belyov, Tula (112 miles south of Moscow), on Nov. 20, 1869, Gippius started writing poetry at an early age. She moved to St. Petersburg in 1889 after marrying Dmitry Merezhkovsky, who was a significant poet, writer and literary critic in his own right. The pair soon became key figures in St. Petersburg’s literary elite, hosting illustrious salon gatherings and becoming acquainted with leading figures such as Maxim Gorky, Anton Chekhov and Leo Tolstoy.

Following the October Revolution in 1917 and the subsequent civil war, Gippius and Merezhkovsky joined the exodus …

A Point of View: The writer who foresaw the rise of the totalitarian state

The 19th Century Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote about characters who justified murder in the name of their ideological beliefs. For this reason, John Gray argues, he's remained relevant ever since, through the rise of the totalitarian states of the 20th Century, to the "war against terror". When Fyodor Dostoyevsky described in his novels how ideas have the power to change human lives, he knew something of what he was writing about. Born in 1821, the Russian writer was in his 20s when he joined a circle of radical intellectuals in St Petersburg who were entranced by French utopian socialist theories. A police agent who had infiltrated the group reported its discussions to the authorities. On 22 April 1849, Dostoyevsky was arrested and imprisoned along with the other members, and after some months of investigation they were found guilty of planning to distribute subversive propaganda and condemned to death by firing squad. The punishment was commuted to a sentence …

A Georgian Caliban - Stalin

All but a few crumbs of the available archive materials have been studied, every political and psychological theory has been applied, filters of every colour - whitewash, deepest red, pitch black - have been inserted into historians' lenses: after the revelations of the last twenty years, little fundamentally new can be said about Joseph Stalin. Psychopaths of Stalin's order arise so rarely in history that forensic psychiatry has few insights to offer. There is now a general consensus about the death toll and the ghastly heritage of Stalinism. All that is left to dispute is the mechanism by which Stalin grabbed and held on to power and, of course, the various 'what ifs' that arise from considering a scenario in which he failed to do so. Largely on this basis, Stephen Kotkin presents us with nearly a thousand pages which promise to comprise but a third of a definitive work on Stalin and his rule.

Kotkin's book is so long because he sets Stalin against an extensive hi…

Alexander Blok: As I was growing old and fading

As I was growing old and fading, 
A poet, used to streaks of grey, 
I wanted to postpone the ending 
The aged men should face some day. 

A sickly man, a puny creature, 
I’m looking for a lucky star, 
And in my senile dreams I picture 
A lovely image, now so far. 

Perchance I have forgotten something, 
I don’t believe in such a lie. 
This tremor has aroused nothing. 
I’m neither moved nor touched. Not I! 

These old time silly tales and stories 
Have fascinated me somehow, 
But I’ve been bowed by age and worries, 
It’s funny, I am a poet now… 

I don’t believe in books and omens 
Of silly men of our times! 
Damn all those dreams! Damn all those moments 
Of my prophetic dogg’rel rhymes! 

So here I am, alone and lonely 
An angry man, decrepit, sick… 
I stretch my hand and with a quandary 
Bend down to pick my walking stick… 

Whom should I trust? Whom should I doubt? 
Those doctors, poets, priests and all… 
If only I could join a crowd 
And learn to be a trivial soul! 

Translated from the Russian by Alec Vagapov

The Tragic Story of Everyday Life - Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

There is a word in Russian, byt. Roughly translated, it means everyday life. It is also the root of the infinitive verb byt’, “to be,” as though the Russian language itself believes that it is the day to day—waking up, going to work, trying to earn enough to eat, wanting very badly to love and be loved in return—that makes up who we are. Everyday life is the root of being, according to Russian etymology—and to Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, the dazzlingly talented and deeply empathetic author of a new collection of three novellas, There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In.

Born in Moscow in 1938, Petrushevskaya has alternately been proclaimed the greatest living Russian writer and the last of the great Russian writers. (Penguin has been translating and collecting her stories in charming paperbacks with long titles: There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself, There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby.) …

Is God Russian? Dostoevsky Thought So

When Dostoevsky wrote that for man to be saved it was necessary that he should believe in the Russian God, he was speaking not more vaguely than most other professed researchers into salvation who work within a church. It is necessary that we should walk in the Spirit, said St. Paul. It is necessary, stammered St. Theresa in answer to an age when the awakened mind of the world was beginning to ask for clearer formulations, that grace should descend upon the essential of the soul. And past that vague passion of the seraphic doctor, theology has today advanced hardly a step towards finding out on what intellectual bases a man ought to rebuild his life if he wants to be saved from the peril of wasteful drinking or thinking, and become unalterably a part of the glory of the universe, the apprehension of which is religion. The task has been so completely abandoned by the churches that one could write a history of the moral aspirations of England since the death of Wesley without once menti…

Two and a half centuries on, future is bright for expanding Hermitage