Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Queen Alexandra in Russia

Queen Alexandra and Empress Maria Feodorvona
Princess Alexandra of Denmark was born on 1 December 1844. Her younger sister, Dagmar, was born three years later, on 26 November 1847. Throughout their lives, much of what they did followed a pattern. They were born within three years of one another, married within three years of one another, and died within three years of one another.
Something else that the two Danish princesses had in common was their great beauty, which soon had the royal families of Europe competing for their hands in marriage. Both Queen Victoria and Tsar Alexander II hoped to marry Alexandra to their eldest sons. The British side was victorious and, in 1862, Alexandra became engaged to Edward, Prince of Wales. They were married at St George’s Chapel in Windsor on 10 March 1863.
The following year, Alexander II’s eldest son and heir, Tsarevich Nicholas Alexandrovich, proposed to Dagmar. The first to whom Dagmar broke the news was the Prince and Princess of Wales. Edward said: “The wedding will, of course, be in St Petersburg, and I shall certainly come to it.” Up until then, no member of the British royal family had ever visited Russia.
But tragedy struck in April 1865, when the Tsarevich died in the south of France, in the company of Dagmar and his brother Alexander. Unknown to Dagmar, Alexander was secretly in love with her and, the following summer, he proposed to the Danish princess. Dagmar converted to Russian Orthodoxy, taking the name of Maria Fyodorovna, and married Alexander in St Petersburg on 9 November 1866.
The Princess of Wales was unable to travel to Russia for the wedding, owing to her third pregnancy. Queen Victoria believed that “a visit to St Petersburg by one of the Prince of Wales’s gentlemen would be quite sufficient,” but Edward was determined and went alone to the Russian capital. Disturbing stories were soon filtering back to Britain about the playboy prince’s behaviour in St Petersburg, Moscow and at stops en route.
Arriving in St Petersburg three days before the wedding, Edward was greeted by Alexander and his brothers and immediately taken on a tour of St Petersburg’s bars and night clubs. Himself a connoisseur of London night life, the Prince of Wales particularly liked Novaya Derevnya in the notorious “Islands” region of the city. Nothing pleased the Russian hosts more than Edward’s confession that, in terms of vice and depravity, London could not compete with St Petersburg.
Everything Edward did in Russia was applauded. He appeared in Scottish Highland uniform at a ball given by the British Ambassador, taking the floor with Dagmar. Writing home to Queen Victoria, the Prince of Wales said that “every moujik in the streets seems anxious to show me some signs of goodwill.” On his return to England, the Prince of Wales painted his wife a glowing picture of life in St Petersburg.
The next time the Prince and Princess of Wales visited Russia was in 1869, when they called in at the Crimea on their way back from a tour of the Middle East. Alexandra visited the Crimean battlefields of Sebastopole, Alma, Balaclava and Inkerman, while Edward rode on horseback through the Valley of Death, scene of the Charge of the Light Brigade in 1854.
The two families continued to meet regularly in Denmark. In summer 1873, the Prince and Princess of Wales decided to invite the Tsarevich and Tsarevna on an official visit to London. It was even agreed that Alexandra and Dagmar would dress alike throughout the entire visit, which was to last a month.
The Tsarevich and Tsarevna arrived in London in June 1873, bringing their two sons, Nicholas and Georgy. This was the only time that the future Alexander III visited Britain. The Prince and Princess of Wales entertained Alexander and Dagmar at their London home, Marlborough House. Queen Victoria met them briefly at Windsor and wrote in her journal on 21 June: “Bertie and Alix arrived with the Cesarevich and [Dagmar] ... He is very tall and big, good natured and unaffected.”
In London, the guests visited art galleries, hospitals, racecourses and the Tower. The Tsarevich was honoured with a naval review at Spithead and military parades at Windsor, Woolwich and Aldershot. He even visited a debate in the House of Commons, later claiming that he was impressed with the British parliamentary system. Alexander also spent an afternoon in the Court of the Lord Chief Justice, listening to the trial of the Tichborne case. Dining with the Duke of Edinburgh and the Elder Brethern of Trinity House, he delivered a graceful speech of thanks for his reception, expressing the hope “that our cordial and affectionate relationship may continue to the end of our lives.”
While Edward and Alexander attended official functions and openings, their wives went off on a tour of the East End slums, where they visited the various Houses of Refuge supported by the Princess of Wales.

Monday, 24 March 2014

How the Horrors of Crimea Shaped Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy was 26 years old when he first saw the ramparts of Sevastopol. The weather in Crimea in the early winter of 1854—subtropical, cool but not cold—was a paradise compared with the harsh snow and ice farther north. The city itself, though, was in chaos. The heights above the port were ringed with earthworks of woven saplings and packed dirt and stone. Below, the narrow entrance to the harbor was blocked by the hulls of wooden ships deliberately sunk by the Russian navy, placed there to block the invaders. “There are thousands of different objects,” Tolstoy wrote, “thrown in heaps here and there; soldiers of different regiments, some provided with guns and with bags, others with neither guns nor bags, crowd together; they smoke, they quarrel.”

A junior officer in an artillery brigade, Tolstoy already knew something of the exhilaration and horror of battle. For nearly three years, he had been in the Caucasus, the Russian empire’s mountainous southern frontier, in the middle of a grinding counterinsurgency campaign against upland Muslims. He had seen native villages destroyed and besieged, with the great forests of Chechnya whittled down to nothing—a strategy of the Russian army to deny shelter to Chechen raiding parties. Muslim gunmen would wait in the underbrush and aim their long guns at the Russian sappers sent to hack away a clearing on either side of a road. Not that Tolstoy had placed himself in the line of fire. By his own admission, he spent much of his time there in a Cossack stanitsa, or fortified village, hunting, drinking, “running after Cossack women,” and “writing a little,” as he noted in his diary.

When he arrived in Crimea, Tolstoy found himself in the middle of a war that did not yet have a name. For years, tensions had been rising between the two great powers in the Near East, the Russian and Ottoman empires. Czar Nicholas I claimed a right to protect the lives and property of Orthodox Christians inside Ottoman lands, including those who controlled access to the holy sites in Jerusalem. The Ottoman sultan, Abdülmecid I, countered that Orthodox Christians—who formed more than a third of all his subjects—were under no particular threat. The czar’s claims, he said, were merely a pretext for interfering in his domestic affairs.

Diplomacy failed to resolve the dispute, and in the summer of 1853, Nicholas ordered a military buildup in the Danubian Principalities, a Christian buffer zone that would later form much of present-day Romania. Since the principalities were recognized as part of the sultan’s domains—although they had long been under substantial Russian influence—European powers denounced the troop presence as an unprovoked invasion. Démarches and ultimatums flew across the continent. The Ottomans soon declared war. In November, Russia dispatched a squadron of heavy ships-of-the-line from Sevastopol to the Ottoman winter harbor at Sinop, just across the Black Sea. In one of modern history’s most spectacular naval routs, the ships destroyed the Ottoman force and suddenly shifted the strategic balance in the czar’s favor.

Britain, France, and Sardinia came to the Ottomans’ aid. By the time Tolstoy arrived in Crimea, most of the great battles of the war were already past. Russian infantry had been put to flight by an Anglo-French force at the River Alma, the Light Brigade had made its doomed cavalry charge at Balaklava, and brutal hand-to-hand combat at Inkerman had broken Russia’s fighting will and ensured that the rest of the conflict would be focused on the desperate defense of Sevastopol. The war became a siege, with the Russians defending the heights against cannonades and bayonet charges.

Tolstoy was there to witness the results: British and French ships sitting within cannon shot of the Crimean coast; creaking wooden carts being pulled up the steep hills, loaded with corpses; the constant roar of the Russian batteries; and the repeated thrusts of Allied troops, tripping over their greatcoats and slipping downhill in the mud.

Siege of Sevastopol 1855

Crimea became an artilleryman’s war, and it quickly reached its inevitable end: the pummeling of the Malakov redoubt, the last bastion of the city still held by Russians in the late summer of 1855, and the silencing of the cannons on September 9, when the city fell to the Allies. It happened to be Tolstoy’s twenty-seventh birthday.


Sunday, 23 March 2014

Yevgeny Zamyatin's We: A dystopian novel for the 21st century

The 20th century was haunted by literary visions of a future dystopia. In 1905, Robert Hugh Benson published Lord of the World, in which the Earth is governed by the Antichrist. Later dystopias would be more political: George Orwell's 1984 (1949) featured a cold, merciless, Party-dominated tyranny, while Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932) posited a drugged, manipulated, and productive society. The point of writing a dystopian novel is rather straightforward: for the best authors, it is a way of critiquing current trends and actors by drawing out their ideals and actions to their extreme conclusion.
I've loved all of the above, but the dystopian novel most relevant to our time is Yevgeny Zamyatin's We, which predated Orwell and Huxley, and obviously inspired the former.
Zamyatin wrote We within a few years of the Russian Revolution in 1917The novel is set 1,000 years after a revolution that brought the One State into power. Citizens are known only by their number, and the story's protagonist is D-503, an engineer working on a spaceship that aims to bring the glorious principles of the Revolution to space. This world is ruled by the Benefactor, and presided over by the Guardians. They spy on citizens, who all live in apartments made of glass so that they can be perfectly observed. Trust in the system is absolute.
Equality is enforced, to the point of disfiguring the physically beautiful. Beauty — as well as its companion, art — are a kind of heresy in the One State, because "to be original means to distinguish yourself from others. It follows that to be original is to violate the principle of equality."
While 1984 and other dystopias featured surveillance and telescreens, We is the most analogous to the panoptical surveillance utopia being promoted by the tech gods of Silicon Valley, who seem to admire computers more than they do humans. In We, citizens see themselves as part of a glorious, infallible machine. In the One State, the Guardians and Benefactor urge men to live like machines themselves, so as to avoid even the possibility of failure. "One State Science cannot make a mistake," Zamyatin writes. He continues:
Why is the dance [of machinery] beautiful? Answer: because it is nonfree movement, because all the fundamental significance of the dance lies precisely in its aesthetic subjection, its ideal unfreedom. [We]
If men show any signs of rebellion, the part of their brain related to passion and creativity is removed through surgery.
Naturally, Zamyatin faced more harassment and punishment for his political views than any of his peers in dystopian literature, and he faced it in both pre- and post-revolutionary Russia. Born in 1884, his early forays into communism drove him into exile, though he returned to Russia during the 1905 Revolution that brought major liberal reforms to tsarist Russia. His involvement in that uprising saw him sent to Spalernaja Prison, where he endured solitary confinement.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Ekaterina Mechetina - Biography


Ekaterina Mechetina’s voyage as a professional artist is relatively young but already rich in events, and one is struck not only by the swift impetuosity of her upward flight to the musical Olympus, but also by her gradual but irresistible advance to the summits of musical mastery. However, there is one factor that stands out in Mechetina’s journey; although she can boast many successful performances at international contests, she does not owe her well-deserved reputation to these. Her secret lies not only in her constantly maturing talent, but also in her keen interest in the broader musical field – and a relentless desire to expand her demanding music well beyond the limits of the typical competition repertoire. This is rare amongst today’s performers.

Her upbringing was typical of many of her contemporaries; she was born into a family of musicians, and very early it became clear that she had inherited the inclinations and gifts of her parents. Her flair for music became evident when she was a young girl and, in fitting with her talents, she became a pupil of the Central School of Music for the Moscow State Conservatory – probably the most renowned school for gifted children in the world where many of today’s world-famous musicians began their first musical steps. After finishing her schooling, where she was taught by T. L. Koloss, she began her studies at the Moscow Conservatory under the tuition of V. P. Ovtchinnikov. For her postgraduate studies, she was taught by the famous Sergey Leonidovich Dorensky. Dorensky’s students have collectively won over one hundred prizes in competitions across three continents – probably a world record! Ekaterina Mechetina’s prize at the Cincinnati Piano Competition was the hundredth….

Her first landmark in her early career was the Youth Piano Competition and the Mozart Prize, which she won at the age of ten, and for which she received a piano. Six years later, a more serious test awaited her – the International Busoni Piano Completion in Bolzano - one of the most difficult competitions on the circuit. At the time, one ecstatic Italian critic wrote, “Young Ekaterina already now is on the peak of world pianism”. Of course, this was an exaggeration; she still had a lot to learn, and luckily both she and her tutor knew that. Mechetina’s immunity to celebrity status was and is part of her character, and this has enabled her to continue growing in artistic mastery without distraction. Over the next few years, she gave many concerts, toured many countries, and took part in various international competitions. She became the prize-winner in Vercelli (2002), Pinerolo (2003) and at a triumphant performance inCincinnati (2004). By this time, her concert activities were well beyond the prodigy child stage, and had grown very much in scope. Her playing was drawing the attention of the musical public mainly due to the fact that her virtuosity did not drown her musicality. It is a fact of today’s technology that many can play quickly and accurately. But it is only the elite that can render the sincere emotion and deep feelings of the composers. Katia belongs to this elite..

Actually, her success owes itself as much to her meetings with some of the great musicians of our time, as to her competition success. In December 2002, when Russia was celebrating the 70-year anniversary of the outstanding composer Rodion Shchedrin, one of the festival concerts devoted to him was on the verge of failure (the German pianist invited by Shchedrin was unable to come to Moscow). Sergey Dorensky managed to convince the composer – who always demanded absolute perfection from his performers – to entrust his music to a student of his. Mechetina had already played a lot of Shchedrin's music, and the fact that she learnt his new most difficult works at such speed won the heart of the exacting composer. The concert was a great success and Shchedrin was so much enamoured by the pianist that he now entrusts Mechetina with the performance of his new piano works – including his Piano Concerto Nr. 6, whose premiere she performed in the legendary Amsterdam Concertgebouw. Another crucial encounter was with the outstanding and wise Vladimir Spivakov, which resulted in her becoming one of the most often-invited guest soloists of the Maestro’s two orchestras – the National Symphony of Russia and Virtuosi of Moscow. Also, the incomparable Mstislav Rostropovich, who became a guardian angel for Katia: it was Rostropovich who, having credited her years before, invited her to perfume in his concerts in Taiwan, and then allotted her a scholarship in his foundation, which gave her the chance to take classes in France. These meetings, Katia admits “changed my attitude to the profession, and each concert of this kind was for me an unforgettable event”..


Ekaterina Mechetina plays Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Vladimir Makanin: On writing as chess play

We found Makanin at his quiet family home, his second residence, outside Rostov-on-Don. The country house is complete with newly created garden, swings and a cozy veranda, the perfect spot to discuss literature. 
Rossiyskaya Gazeta: You are a mathematician. Does the ability to think methodically help a writer?
VM: Mathematics is beautiful, perfection even, although for me it is also a little cold. I was a diligent and distinguished pupil, but the subject still didn’t touch my heart. My personality was not formed by university, but during my school days and in those warlike games of chess I used to play with grown-ups when I was just a fifth grader.
Close to the moment I had beaten my opponents, they’d start to sweat, wriggle in their chairs and smoke (which was allowed at competitions in those days). Meanwhile, the boy who sat quietly opposite them-me-enjoyed the game and that unique sense of meeting a challenge, which has served me so well in life. Mostly I mean here the demands of writing a text, and its casual, almost playful striving to defeat me.
No longer a boy, now I am the one sweating, wriggling and smoking.
RG: Your first works raced out like new comets, yet you seem to write with such ease. Does this apparent ease belie the process of writing?
VM: Again back to chess: “The victor is he who wins while playing blacks.” To win with whites is to write like other people do, and rack up fast points. But to write a novella or novel on uncharted territory with new types of characters is a game played with blacks.
RG: Do you write your stories from beginning to end?
VM: No, I write in sections. I write key scenes randomly and sometimes I start from the end. It’s a bit like being in the kitchen. In order to fry something, you need a couple of good pieces of meat.
RG: Did you read a lot in your youth?
VM: There were not as many books around when I was young. I was lucky though, because my mother was a schoolteacher. When I was in the tenth or eleventh grade she gave me three authors to read who had dropped out of school: Ivan Bunin, Alexander Kuprin and Leonid Andreyev.
Reading was not a stream but rather a river for me. Remarque’s “Three Comrades” was a massive hit at university. I read the works of Shakespeare, bound in a wonderful edition, but it was stolen and probably flew straight down to the second-hand bookshop - half-starved students and all that, what can you do? I’m not sad about it any longer, of course, but I would love to see that book once more as it contained so many of my old notes. 
RG: Your novels generate a lot of discussion. Is it possible to predict a book’s success?
VM: There are two processes: creation and consumption. An author is only responsible for the first. He can write a novel, a drama, but has no say in how it will be received. It is beyond his influence. Society consumes what you produce and it can regale you tomorrow and trample you a month later. Or give you recognition only after your death, or never. But again, that is not down to you, your job is to create.

Valentin Yudashkin: opening new frontiers in Russian fashion

Designer Valentin Yudashkin is the only Russian couturier who has managed to remain at the cutting edge for more than 20 years, surprising the fashion world with each and every new collection. It appears Yudashkin can handle everything: working on the couture line and prêt-à-porter, releasing jeans, jewelry, and furniture lines, tableware and linens. He regularly presents his collections in Paris and at Moscow Fashion Week, and his boutiques are found all over the world: from France to Hong Kong, America to Moscow. Yudashkin’s couture creations are housed in the Fashion Institute and Design Museum in Los Angeles,  the State Historical Museum in Moscow and the Metropolitan Museum in New York. His services in the sphere of fashion earned him the Order of Arts and Letters of the French Republic. And recently, the tireless Yudashkin has taken on the training of novice designers.  


You founded your fashion house in the late 1980s and presented your first couture collection in 1991. However, you chose Paris as your first platform, not Moscow.
Not exactly, my first display of my first collection with 150 models took place in Moscow in 1987. Then there were a few haute couture collections: “Petrine Ball,” “Primordial Rus,” and “Ecology.” After that, I went to Paris on the invitation of representatives of the company Faberge, who were interested in my work and collection dedicated to the famous Faberge Egg.
Pierre Cardin himself attended your first show. Not many can boast of such a debut.
Yes, it was a wonderful feeling – excitement, elation, joy, pride. After the show, Cardin came backstage to congratulate me. After that he became my teacher, friend, and mentor. He gave me advice and helped me organize the Paris show. I am indebted to him for the support and our friendship has continued to this day.

Your first collection was called “Faberge”. Other collections that have followed it also refer to Russian history and culture. Does Russian folklore still inspire you today?
Sources of inspiration can be various. For instance, an impression got while traveling, like in the “Africa” collection; a book I read, such as in the “Anna Karenina” collection; or paintings, as in the collections “Rothko” or “Russian Avant-Garde”. I often turn to elements of Russian folk costume and Russian history and traditions. So, the bright decoration of Dymkovo toys became the basis for the creation of the forms of the “Russian Heat” collections, Bazhov’s fairy tales gave me the idea for the prints in the collection “Russian Gems,” and the beauty of the Russian winter determined the silhouettes and decorative details for the collection “Northern Expanses”.

There is such a riot of color and luxury in your collections that you have been compared to Versace more than once. Where does this love for wealth and eclectic luxury come from?
I think it is connected to the fact that there was an acute shortage of color and brightness in fabrics in our fashion for such a long time. Now it is possible to find any kind of material in order to embody even the bravest idea. But I still enjoy working on the decorative details of the collections. They bring a unique accent to any model.

Mikhail Bulgakov - Biography

Mihail Bulgakov was born into a Russian family in Kiev, Ukraine on the 15th of May 1881. His father was a Russian theology professor at the Kiev Theological Academy. After graduation from the First Kiev High School Mikhail studied medicine at the Kiev University. In 1916-1918 he worked as a doctor in front-line and military hospitals. Bulgakov described his medical experience in notes of a young doctor called “Zapiski yunogo vracha” written in 1925-1926.

In 1920 Bulgakov abandoned medicine and chose a writing carrier. He organized a sub-department of the arts in the Caucasus and started with writing stories for newspapers. In 1921 Bulgakov moved to Moskow where he worked as a journalist for various groups and papers within the literary department of the People's Commissariat of Education. In 1925 he released an autobiographical novel called “Belaya Gvardia” (literary means the White Guard) depicting lives of a White family in the Ukraine during the turbulent years of 1914-1921.

In 1925 Bulgakov also started working for the Moscow Arts Theatre. Many of his plays were and had a great popularity. Although Bulgakov was known to be a critic of the Soviet system Stalin favoured him and that saved Mikhail from arrests and executions. Bulgakov`s novel “The White Guard” was one of Stalin's favorite plays. However, many of his works were officially banned from being published. Amongst Bulgakov`s most notable works was “The Heart of the Dog” (1925) - a science fiction satire on the Soviet life, “Pokhozhdenia Chichikova” - the protaginist of Gogol's “Dead Soul”s was brought to the middle of the New Economic Policy period in Russia in 1921-1927. By 1930s Bulgakov's works had been rarely published and almost all of his plays were banned from being staged.


Sunday, 16 March 2014

Dostoevsky by Georg Lukacs 1949

It is a strange, but often repeated fact that the literary embodiment of a new human type with all its problems comes to the civilized world from a young nation. Thus in the eighteenth century Werther came from Germany and prevailed in England and France: thus in the second half of the nineteenth century Raskolnikov came from far-off, unknown, almost legendary Russia to speak for the whole civilized West.

There is nothing unusual in the fact that a backward country produces powerful works. The historical sense developed in the nineteenth century has accustomed us to enjoy the literature and art of the whole globe and the whole past. Works of art that have influenced the entire world originated in the remotest countries and ages: from Negro sculpture to Chinese woodcuts, from the Kalevala to Rabindranath Tagore.

But the cases of Werther and Raskolnikov are very different. Their effect is not touched in the slightest by a craving for the exotic, “Suddenly” there appeared from an underdeveloped country, where the troubles and conflicts of contemporary civilization could not yet have been fully unfolded, works that stated – imaginatively – all the problems of human culture at its highest point, stirred up ultimate depths, and presented a totality hitherto never achieved and never since surpassed, embracing the spiritual, moral, and philosophical questions of that age.

The word question must be underscored and must be supplemented by the assertion that it is a poetic, creative question and not a question put in philosophical terms. For this was and is the mission of poetry and fiction: to put questions, to raise problems in the form of new men and new fates of men. The concrete answers that naturally are given by poetic works frequently have – seen from this distance – an arbitrary character in bourgeois literature. They may even throw the actual poetic problem into confusion. Goethe very soon saw this himself with Werther. Only a few years later he made Werther exhort the reader in a poem: “Be a man and don’t follow me.”

Ibsen quite deliberately considered questioning the task of the poet and declined, on principle, any obligation to answer his questions. Chekhov made a definitive statement about this whole matter when he drew a sharp distinction between “the solution of a question and the correct putting of the question. Only the last is required of the artist. In Anna Karenina and Onegin not a single question is solved yet these works satisfy us fully only because all questions are put in them correctly.” [1]

This insight is particularly important for a judgment of Dostoevsky for many – even most – of his political and social answers are false, have nothing to do with present-day reality or with the strivings of the best today. They were obsolete, even reactionary, when they were pronounced.

Still, Dostoevsky is a writer of world eminence. For he knew how during a crisis of his country and the whole human race, to put questions in an imaginatively decisive sense. He created men whose destiny and inner life, whose conflicts and interrelations with other characters, whose attraction and rejection of men and ideas illuminated all the deepest questions of that age, sooner, more deeply, and more widely than in average life itself. This imaginative anticipation of the spiritual and moral development of the civilized world assured the powerful and lasting effect of Dostoevsky’s works. These works have become even more topical and more fresh as time goes on.

Dostoevsky by Georg Lukacs 1949

Leon Trotsky: Alexander Blok

BLOK belonged entirely to pre-October literature. Blok’s impulses – whether towards tempestuous mysticism, or towards revolution – arise not in empty space, but in the very thick atmosphere of the culture of old Russia, of its landlords and intelligentsia. Blok’s symbolism was a reflection of this immediate and disgusting environment. A symbol is a generalized image of a reality. Blok’s lyrics are romantic, symbolic, mystic, formless and unreal. But they presuppose a very real life with definite forms and relationships. Romantic symbolism is only a going away from life, in the sense of an abstraction from its concreteness, from individual traits, and from its proper names; at bottom, symbolism is a means of transforming and sublimating life. Blok’s starry, stormy and formless lyrics reflect a definite environment and period, with its manner of living, its customs, its rhythms, but outside of this period, they hang like a cloud-patch. This lyric poetry will not outlive its time or its author.

Blok belonged to pre-October literature, but he overcame this, and entered into the sphere of October when he wrote The Twelve. That is why he will occupy a special place in the history of Russian literature.

One should not allow Blok to be obscured by those petty poetic and semi-poetic demons who whirl around his memory, and who to this very day, the pious idiots! cannot understand how Blok recognized Mayakovsky as a great talent, and yawned frankly over Gumilev. Blok, the “purest” of lyricists, did not speak of pure art, and did not place poetry above life. On the contrary, he recognized the fact that “art, life and politics were indivisible and inseparable”. “I am accustomed,” writes Blok in his preface to Retaliation, written in 1919, “to put together the facts accessible to my eye in a given time in every field of life, and I am sure that all together they always create one musical chord.” This is much bigger and stronger and deeper than a self-sufficient aestheticism, than all the nonsense about art being independent of social life.

Blok knew the value of the intelligentsia: “I am none the less a blood-relation of the intelligentsia,” he said, “but the intelligentsia has always been negative. If I did not go over to the Revolution, it is still less worth while to go over to the War.” Blok did not “go over to the Revolution”, but he took his spiritual course from it. Already the approach of the Revolution of 19o5 opened up the factory to Blok, and for the first time raised his art above lyrical nebulousness. The first Revolution entered his soul and tore him away from individualistic self-contentment and mystic quietism. Blok felt the reaction between the two Revolutions to be an emptiness of spirit, and the aimlessness of the epoch he felt to be a circus, with cranberry sauce for blood. Blok wrote of “the true mystic twilight of the years which preceded the first Revolution” and of “the untrue mystic after-effect which immediately followed it.” (Retaliation) The second Revolution gave him a feeling of wakening, of movement, of purpose and of meaning. Blok was not the poet of the Revolution. Blok caught hold of the wheel of the Revolution as he lay perishing in the stupid cul de sac of pre-Revolutionary life and art. The poem called The Twelve, Blok’s most important work, and the only one which will live for ages, was the result of this contact.

As he himself said, Blok carried chaos within himself all his life. His manner of saying this was formless, just as his philosophy of life and his lyrics were on the whole formless. What he felt to be chaos was his incapacity to combine the subjective and the objective, his cautious and watchful lack of will power, in an epoch which saw the preparation and afterwards the letting loose of the greatest events. Throughout all his changes, Blok remained a true decadent, if one were to take this word in a large historic sense, in the sense of the contrast between decadent individualism and the individualism of the rising bourgeoisie. ...

Thursday, 6 March 2014

The Bolshoi in Paris: An Interview With Alexei Ratmansky

The Bolshoi Ballet is one of the world's great companies, although it was not always evident from the uneven programmes shown in Paris which disappointed many. The quality of what was seen did not match the legend.

It was less the heavy-handedness of Yuri Grigorovich's production of Swan Lake, with its sad decor, but more because of the way it was danced both by the corps de ballet and by the principals themselves, in this case Nadejda Gracheva partnered by Rouslan Skvortsov, doubtless admirable in more inspiring works, but who showed a total absence of emotional intensity. Where is the style, artistry and the lyricism of this famous troupe, hitherto known for its great dancers and dramatically expressive style? Where is the passion ? Above all, what has happened to the men? The virtues of senior principals Sergei Filin and Nikolai Tsiskardze have been loudly sung by the critics, but one of them was sick, and the other injured. Is there no one else?
The current company is only emerging from years of internal crisis which ended in the firing of Yuri Grigorovitch who dominated everyone and everything for thirty years. It was also around this time that the Bolshoi lost several of its big stars, including Irek Mukhamedov, who joined the Royal Ballet in 1990. The great dancer Vladimir Vasiliev, better remembered for his interpretation of Spartacusthan for reshaping the direction of the lacklustre troupe, took on a thankless task, to be replaced three years ago by the celebrated teacher, Boris Akimov. But it wasn't until after a series of meaningless tableaux, which constituted the second programme, La Fille du Pharaon, that people suddenly sat up in their seats.
With relief, the French public discovered The Bright Stream, a most surprising ballet, full of fun, yet at the same time revealing the fine schooling of the dancers as they revelled in the difficulties of the brilliant choreography by Alexei Ratmansky, up until recently principal dancer of the Royal Danish Ballet.

The Bright Stream was first staged in 1935, but then withdrawn from the repertoire because of its disrespect for the formal academic traditions, while the composer, Shostakovich, persecuted during the Stalin years, was not allowed to write another score. Keeping to Lopukhov's tale of the meeting of three dancers who meet a group of peasants from a collective farm and where everyone falls in love with everyone else, reminiscent of Shakespeare's Forest of Arden, Ratmansky has adroitly created a completely new and enjoyable work which has galvanised the troupe.

Thirty-five-year-old Alexei Ratmansky's appointment as artistic director of the Bolshoi is therefore less of a surprise than it might seem. Already an esteemed choreographer in Moscow, where he was born, he trained at the Bolshoi School and then joined the Ballet of Kiev, where he had a thorough grounding in the classics, before leaving Russia in 1992 to join the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. After dancing both Neumeier and Balanchine, the Bournonville style was learnt at the Royal Danish Ballet, when, simultaneously to his career as a dancer there, he began staging works at the Bolshoi.

"Since creating an evening of works for the Ballet of Kiev, I made three ballets for Nina Ananiashvili* as well as Turandot's Dream to music by Hindemith, and The Nutcracker for the Royal Ballet of Denmark", he told me between rehearsals, relaxing in the cafeteria of the Palais Garnier. "This was followed by Cinderella for the Kirov and The Firebird for the Royal Swedish Ballet".


Monday, 3 March 2014

Alexander Blok: Russia

18 October 1908

Again, as in the golden age,
three breech-straps flogging at the trot
and the painted spokes of the carriage
bog down in a muddy rut.

Russia, my beggarly Russia,
your grey huts in their clusters,
your songs set to the wind’s measure
touch me like love’s first tears.

I cannot offer you my pity,
I carry my cross as I can . . .
You squander your wild beauty
on your favourite magician.

If he seduces and deceives you,
you’ll not be broken or collapse;
though suffering may overshadow
the beauty of your face perhaps . . .

But what of that? Just one more sorrow,
one more tear added to the Don,
and you unaltered – forests, meadows, and the patterned scarf pulled well down . . .

And the impossible is possible,
the highroad is light and long,
and the glint of an eye far off
glances from under the scarf
as sotto voce, sorrowful,
begins the troika-driver’s song.

Translated by Jon Stallworthy and Peter France (1969)