Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Zakhar Prilepin: a modern Leo Tolstoy

Russian writer Zakhar Prilepin’s work draws on his experience as a police officer. He fights for social change through his writing and political campaigning. 

Zakhar Prilepin has experienced a meteoric rise, both as a literary phenomenon and as a political activist. At 36, he is one of Russia’s most acclaimed authors, and his novel Sin was voted one of the most important books to come out of Russia in the past decade.

Prilepin’s new work, Vosmerka or “Eight”, is the most anticipated Russian book of 2012. Prilepin says the story shows how friendships fall apart for no good reason. A film of the book is already being filmed by the director Alexei Uchitel.
It is hard to imagine that 10 years ago Zakhar Prilepin, then Yevgeny Prilepin, veteran of two wars in Chechnya, was a poorly paid officer with the special police unit Omon. His salary of 830 roubles (now about £18) a week could not cover the expenses of his first baby. To help keep food on the table, Prilepin took shifts where he checked trucks coming from the Northern Caucasus.
“The drivers never had proper transit documents,” he says. “I let them pass and they gave me bananas, apples and sometimes 50-rouble bills – I was not ashamed.”
The daily pressure to find money and food for his 
growing family eventually pushed him to reinvent himself. In 1999, when Prilepin graduated from university, one of his college friends suggested he apply for a job at the newspaper Delo. He did and quickly rose to become the chief editor. At the same time he wrote his debut novel, Pathologies , which was awarded the National Bestseller prize.
Pathologies portrays Yegor, an immature and frightened Omon commander in Chechnya. “War does not make 
people any different, but it exaggerates the traits the person already has,” Prilepin explains. “If you like people, you are a humanist; if you have maniacal thoughts, you are a total maniac.”
He adds that, while his books are not autobiographical, he relates to his protagonists: Sankya, a National Bolshevik revolution leader in Sankya; and Zakhar, a bar bouncer in Sin .
Today, Prilepin is the editor of the Nizhny Novgorod bureau of Russia’s investigative newspaper, Novaya Gazeta . He lives with his wife, Masha, and their four children in a remote village on the Kerzhenets river with two dogs and three cats. “If only they paid us well in Omon, I would still be a police officer today,” he says.
Critics have compared Prilepin to Leo Tolstoy. Tolstoy’s great-grandneice Tatyana Tolstaya, author of Pushkin’s Children andSleepwalker in a Fog, says Prilepin “is the biggest event in today’s Russian literature; his language reminds us of Tolstoy”.
Prilepin acknowledges that Tolstoy is his idol: “Of course I am a typical follower. If only I could feel safe about the future of my family in Russia, I would have 12 children and never leave my village,” he says.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Tolstoy’s last journey in the eyes of the press - An excerpt from Pavel Basinsky’s Book “Leo Tolstoy: Flight from Paradise”

On the night of October 27, 1910 an unbelievable event took place <…> in Yasnaya Polyana, ancestral estate of the internationally well-known writer and thinker – Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy. The eighty-two year old Count secretly fled from his home in an unknown direction with the escort of his personal physician Makovitsky that night.
The informational space of that time didn’t strongly differ from the present. News of the scandalous events momentarily spread throughout Russia and across the world. On October 29th, urgent telegrams began to come from Tula to the Petersburg Telegraph Agency, republished in newspapers the next day. “News having surprised everyone was received that L.N. Tolstoy escorted by Dr. Makovitsky unexpectedly fled Yasnaya Polyana and left. Having left, L.N. Tolstoy left a letter, in which he announces that he’s leaving Yasnaya Polyana forever”.
Source: Russia Beyond the Headlines -
Tolstoy’s fellow traveler, Makovitsky, didn’t even know about this letter, written by L.N. for his wife who slept and given to her in the morning by their youngest daughter Sasha. He himself read about it in the newspapers.
More operational than any was the Moscow newspaper Russian Word. On October 30ththe newspaper published a report by its own Tula correspondent with detailed information about what happened at Yasnaya Polyana.
“Tula, 29, X (urgent).  Having returned from Yasnaya Polyana, I announce the departure of Lev Nikolayevich in detail.
Lev Nikolayevich left yesterday, at 5am, when it was still dark.
Lev Nikolayevich went to the coachman's quarters and ordered the horses to be hitched.
The coachman Adrian fulfilled the order.
When the horses were ready, Lev Nikolayevich, together with Dr. Makovitsky, having taken the necessary things, lain out earlier that night, went to the Shchekino Station.
The postman Filka went in front of them, lighting the way with a torch.
At the Shchekino Station, Lev Nikolayevich got a ticket to one of the stations on the Moscow-Kursk railroad and left on the first train having passed.
Source: Russia Beyond the Headlines -
When it became known at Yasnaya Polyana about the sudden departure of Lev Nikolayevich, there arose a terrible confusion. The despair of Lev Nikolayevich’s wife, Sofia Andreyevna, defies description”.
This announcement, which the whole world talked about the next day, was printed, not on the front page, but on the third. The front page, as it was acceptable at that time, was for advertisements of all possible products.
“The stomach’s best friend is San Rafael wine”.
“Medium sturgeon. Twenty kopeks a pound”. 
Having received the nightly telegram from Tula, Russian Word immediately sent their correspondent to the Tolstoy’s Hamovniki House (today – the house-museum of L.N. Tolstoy, between the “Park of Culture” and “Fruzensky” subway stations). The newspaper hoped that, perhaps, the Count fled from Yasnaya Polyana to the Moscow estate. But, as the newspaper writes “the old lordly Tolstoy house was quiet and calm. Nothing hinted that Lev Nikolayevich could come to the old hearth and home. The gates were locked. Everyone home are sleeping”.
On the pursuit along Tolstoy’s proposed path of flight was sent the young journalist Konstantin Orlov, the theatrical reviewer, son of Tolstoy’s follower, teacher and populist Vladimir Fyodorovich Orlov, represented in the stories “Dream” and “There Aren’t Any Guilty in the World”. He overtook the refugee already at Kozelsk and secretly escorted him to Astapovo, from where he announced to Sophia Andreyevna and Tolstoy’s children by telegram that their husband and father is seriously ill and is at the central railroad station in the home of its station master, I.I. Ozolin.


Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Sergei Dovlatov And The Hearsay Of Memory

POLITICAL WORK OUGHT TO BE CONCRETE”: this is one of the rousing Soviet mottos recalled in Sergei Dovlatov’s novel, The Zone. Ironically, it is also what is said about good writing, and can one think of a more concrete contemporary writer than Dovlatov? Sentences compacted to aphoristic ingots: “One is born either poor or rich. Money has almost nothing to do with it.” Paradox, sharp wit, and swift one-liners: “Boris sober and Boris drunk are such different people, they’ve never even met.” Or: “What could I say to him? What do you say to a guard who uses after-shave only internally?” Fierce, precise snapshots, illuminated by absurdist flashes: “Cars streamed past us like submarines holding each other’s tails.” Dialogue almost Waugh-like in its tart comedy:
“You’ve just forgotten. The rudeness, the lies.”
“If people are rude in Moscow, at least it’s in Russian.”
“That’s the horrible part.”
And people, things, clothes, memories, stories—all seized and made instantly vivid:
Indistinct memories came to him.
…A square in winter, tall rectangular buildings. A few school-boys surround Vova Mashbits, the class telltale. Vova’s expression is frightened, he wears a foolish hat, woollen drawers… Koka Dementiyev tears a grey sack out of his hand. Shakes a pair of galoshes out onto the snow. After which, faint with laughter, he urinates into the sack. The schoolboys grab Vova, hold him by the shoulders, shove his head into the darkened sack. The boy stops trying to break loose. It’s not actually painful…
Reading Dovlatov is a joyous, thrilling, usually hilarious experience, in large part because he has such a talent for making stories so concrete: he collects vignettes, loud portraits, bitter jokes, comic tales, absurd episodes, black anecdotes, and then delights in bringing them out of the ether of hearsay or memory and giving them new life in print. He captures, and he frees: his work bursts with this captured, freed life. There is the prisoner Makeyev, in The Zone, who climbs onto the roof of the prison camp to watch the woman he has fallen in love with, a schoolteacher named Isolda Shchukina. He is unable to make out her features or even her age. He knows only that she wears two dresses, a green one and a brown one: “Early in the morning, Makeyev would crawl onto the roof of the barracks. After some time, there would be a thunderous announcement: ‘Brown!’ This meant that Isolda had gone out to visit the toilet facilities.” There is the story, from The Suitcase, of the Lenin statue that went wrong. People gather for the unveiling of the new monument; a band plays, speeches are given. And as a drum rolls, the cloth is lifted—to reveal Lenin in familiar pose, his right arm pointing “the way to the future” and his left in the pocket of his open coat. The music stops, and suddenly someone laughs. “A minute later, the whole crowd was laughing… What had happened? The poor sculptor had given Lenin two caps, one on the leader’s head, the other one clutched in his fist.” In the same book, Dovlatov remembers being asked to play Old Grandfather Frost in a New Year’s show for a school. He is promised three days off and fifteen rubles. On stage, he appears in a beard, a white hat, and bearing a basket of gifts. “Hello, dear children! Do you recognize me?” And the yelled reply comes from the front rows: “Lenin! Lenin!”
There are the sparkling sketches, in A Foreign Woman, of Russian emigres in New York—like Fima Druker, a famous bibliophile when he lived in Leningrad, now running a publishing company called Russian Book, which struggles to survive in America, and which is eventually renamed Invisible Book (apparently now specializing in erotica); or Zaretsky, a journalist notorious in the Soviet Union for his “voluminous” work published in samizdat, Sex Under Totalitarianism, “which claimed that ninety per cent of Soviet women were frigid.” At one point in the novel, Zaretsky attempts to do some sex research on the novel’s heroine, an emigre named Marusya Tatarovich: one of his questions involves asking her if she lost her virginity “before or after the Hungarian events.”
Sergei Dovlatov was born in 1941, in Ufa, in the Republic of Bashkiria; his family had been evacuated there from Leningrad during the Second World War. His mother was Armenian, his father Jewish and a distinguished theater director. His intensely autobiographical work—warmly and casually mixing fiction and fact; often jocosely combining fiction with what postmodernism calls metafiction (that is, commentary on fiction-making)—offers the reader a vital picture of the usual bald biographical summary. In his writing, including this book, we learn about the many phases of his short life (he died in 1990, in New York City): about his parents and their work in the theater (the wonderful story, “Fernand Leger’s Jacket”); about the time he spent, in the early 1960s, as a prison guard in the Soviet camp system (The Zone); about his work as a journalist, in Leningrad and Estonia (The Suitcase and The Compromise); the summer he spent as an official guide at the Pushkin Preserve, south of Pskov (Pushkin Hills).
Dovlatov was not published in Russia during his lifetime. During the 1970s, he circulated his writing in samizdat and began to be published in European journals, an activity which brought about his expulsion from the Union of Soviet Journalists in 1976. He left the Soviet Union in 1978 and arrived in New York in 1979 to join his wife and daughter, part of the so-called “third wave” of Russian immigration (an anxious transit anticipated inPushkin Hills and more fully described in A Foreign Woman and the memoir, Ours, which traces the stories of four generations of his family). In New York, Dovlatov quickly became one of the most prominent and popular members of the Russian emigre community. He co-edited The New American, a liberal emigre newspaper, and worked for Radio Liberty. But mainly he wrote: twelve books in the last twelve years of his life.The Compromise appeared in 1981, The Zone a year later, Ours in 1983, A Foreign Womanin 1986, the same year that The Suitcase was published. These books were written in Russian and published by small presses, such as the Hermitage Press in Tenafly, New Jersey, or Russica, in New York. It was only in the mid-1980s, when Dovlatov was beginning to reach a wider audience (partly due to the publication of several of his stories in The New Yorker), that English-language publishers took an interest: The Zone was published in English translation in 1985 (Knopf) and The Suitcase in 1990 (Weidenfeld).

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Anzhelina Polonskaya: The Fish

There’s nothing more powerful than pre-dawn melancholy. It oozes like a dirty light from the east, filters through the shutters, and everything—the trees, the garden, the birds—seems like the survivor of some catastrophe that transforms any beauty into poverty, waste, and irreparable destruction. The evening darkness arises in the east when the west is still pierced by light. Looking to the east you’ll see that it always harbors the taste of death; at least it seems that way to me.
Snow is falling—snow is always falling here, a simulacrum of snow in any case, even during the short summer. That is why the abyss, despite all expectations, is not black. So, from the end of May, a person like me begins to count the days backwards—to make some mental notches. The cherry blossoms are falling (another snow rehearsal). The birch leaves have darkened to a deep green: winter is approaching. Have you ever noticed that in central Russia the sky is white for the most part, without any breaks? There isn’t even a mix of grey, not to mention blue—a straight path to insanity. It’s like spending your days in prison.
You start to contemplate acquiring a dog, a cat. Or even a potted plant. (When you were younger you didn’t think about anything.) You go to the store and think: Do I need another useless thing in the house? What will happen to the cat? How long will it take for the plant to die of thirst?
When I was eleven, I became passionate about fishing. I fished with a fold-up bamboo pole, with goose-feather bobbers that I bought for five kopecks in the local store. I made my own sinkers. I’d hop on my bicycle and head off to the nearest ditch or quarry where there were all kinds of little fry.
In the summer my family packed me off to relatives in the Crimea. My cousin, of whose whereabouts I now know nothing at all, was three years younger than me. We would take our poles, and at around four in the afternoon we’d head toward the reeds beyond the houses.
Of course even then I guessed that the fish suffered, but only in the way a healthy person imagines the sufferings of a sick one, before the tables are turned and they switch places.
Animals! Unwittingly they fall for human ingenuity, which is what we have over them. They come to the bait and we shoot them from blinds. They circle around specially planted pastures and we shoot them from helicopters. The best measure of human development is our treatment of animals.
The silver little minnows almost always bit, regardless of rain, heat, or other angling prejudices. And soon our bathtub was filled with fish. We threw them bread rolled in sunflower oil and we changed the water, but even so every day we would find two or three of them belly up. Long threads extruded from their gentle stomachs, and my triumph was darkened by an instinctive inner chill.
I was getting closer to death, but I could not yet know this—I had still not learned. A wonderful thing about youth is that it gives the illusion of triumph over death, or at least the idea of a temporary escape from it. And my cousin and I continued our expeditions into the reeds, having thought up a simple trick: we would just throw the fish right back into the little lake.
Everything went well until the day I caught a small, shiny carp, about the size of my palm. Its skin was the not the same as on all the others: there were unusual little scales of various sizes, distributed unevenly across its body. I pulled it out of the water, and when I finally managed to grab the fish as it twirled in the air, I jumped backwards as if I’d been burned. The hook had not caught in his mouth but had rather gone through one of his eyes.
It was only years later, having long since read the Hemingway story in which a tribe chases down an old elephant and a little boy, who sees the elephant die, understands everything and comes to hate his father, that I would feel a dull inner howl when I, a grown woman fishing in the Caribbean Sea caught a blue marlin, a proud and gorgeous fish that would not give up despite losing its battle with human meanness. It was only then that I threw away my expensive rods and even began to avoid beetles on the road.
But then I was still too young, which does not give me the right to evade judgment—the actions of children and adults should be weighed equally. And they have to answer equally, without any bargaining or age-based discounts.
An eleven-year-old adolescent tried life on for size and found herself in the midst of a deafening silence. It was an emotional shock, like losing your way in the mountains in a blizzard, or tossing in the midst of a stormy sea when you come to the top of a wave and realize that there’s no way back and you’re left face-to-face with your own fate.
I had to make an adult decision. Either smash the fish’s head against a rock at the water’s edge in order to put it out of its misery right away, or throw it onto the sand, the way a lot of fishermen do, not getting too caught up in the world’s misery. And there it is, right in front of me, freeze frame, my hand reaching out but the victim still untouched. It’s that tiny window of time at the execution which always made the biggest impression on me. The horror not of an action itself, but of the anticipation of the action.
Do it, just one blow. But what if I need more than one? What happens if it doesn’t want to die immediately?
Desperately I grab at the hook. The metal won’t give and with each pull it sinks deeper into the flesh. The fish is sliding in my hand and I drop it several times into the stinking grey algae. By now, although perhaps we haven’t changed places, we’re suffering equally. Frantically I grab at the hook, not even trying to pull it out anymore, only hoping somehow to put an end to this. The flesh gives way and some kind of pinkish-foamy stuff remains on the hook’s barb. Grimacing, sobbing, I clean off the goop on the sand and turn the fish over as if hypnotized. Where the eye should be there is emptiness, a black hole. That wound is my wound. My cousin’s off to the side, leaning forward a little on bent knees. Did he even see what had happened? It looks like he’s carefully watching his bobber.
The moment stretches endlessly in time and space, but I want to dissociate myself from it, to pretend I had nothing to do with it, do you understand? I want to unburden myself of what I did. To hide, to whitewash it all. I grasp the fish and lower its maimed body into the water, sincerely hoping that, perhaps, it will recover. After all, I read that fisherman have caught fish with pieces of harpoons in their bodies.
Translated from the Russian by Andrew Wachtel

Anzhelina Polonskaya was born in Malakhovka, a small town near Moscow. Paul Klee’s Boat, a bilingual edition of her latest poems, has recently been released by Zephyr Press. Polonskaya’s work has also been translated into Dutch, Slovenian, Latvian, Spanish, and other languages. She lives and works in Malakhovka.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Vera Yermolaeva - Biography

Painter, graphic artist, illustrator, theatrical designer, teacher. Born at the estate of Petrovskoe in the village of Klyuchi near Saratov (1893) in the family of hereditary nobleman and liberal landowner Mikhail Yermolaev (1847–1911) and Baroness Anna Unkovskaya von Ungern (1854–?). Named after Russian revolutionary Vera Figner (1852–1942), who was protected and employed as a rural doctor by her parents in the nearby village of Vyazmino (1878). Lost the use of her legs following an attack of polio or a horse-riding accident in childhood, leaving her a cripple all her life. Went to Innsbruck for treatment and attended schools in Paris, London and Lausanne (1902–03). 

Returned to Russia (1904) and moved with her family to St Petersburg (1905), where she attended the Princess Alexandra Obolenskaya Grammar School at 8 Baskov Lane (1906–11), graduating with a gold medal (1911). Inherited over a million roubles following the death of her father (1911). Studied at the Mikhail Bernstein School of Painting, Drawing and Sculpture (1911–14) and the Institute of Archaeology (1914–17). Regularly travelled to Siberia to visit her elder brother Konstantin Yermolaev (1883–1919), who joined the Menshevik Party and was exiled to the Yermakov Iron Mines near Irkutsk (1912–17). Visited Paris (1914), where she studied works of Post-Impressionist and Cubist painting. Returned to Petrograd following the outbreak of the First World War (1914) and rented an apartment at 4 Baskov Lane (1914–18). Founded the Bloodless Murder group with Mikhail Le-Dantiu and Nikolai Lapshin (1915), illustrated the Assyro-Babylonian and Albanian issues of theBloodless Murder magazine (1916) and helped to design the sets for a performance of Ilya Zdanevich’s transrational play Janko I, King of Albania at Mikhail Bernstein’s studio (1916). Founding member and secretary of Freedom to Art (1917), member of Art and Revolution (1917) and To the Revolution (1917). 

Headed the signboard subsection of the Museum of Petrograd (1918–19). Founded the Today cooperative of artists and writers (1918), which published limited-edition children’s books created from linocuts and popular prints (1918–21). Illustrated Walt Whitman’s poem Pioneers! O Pioneers! (1918) and Vladimir Mayakovsky’s play Mystery-Bouffe (1918). Taught at the Vitebsk School of Art (1919–22), where she invited Kazimir Malevich to head the painting department (1919) and replaced Marc Chagallas rector (1920). Lover of Kazimir Malevich (1920–23). Founding member of UNOVIS (1920), contributed to the UNOVIS No. 1 almanac (1920), elected secretary of the creative committee (1920–22). Decorated Vitebsk on May Day (1920) and the third anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution (1921). Designed the sets and costumes for Kazimir Malevich’s production of Alexei Kruchenykh’s Futurist opera Victory Over the Sun at the Latvian Club in Vitebsk (1920) and Nikolai Efros’s production of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s poemWar and Peace at the Latvian Club in Vitebsk (1921). Returned to Petrograd with Georgy NoskovAnna Kagan and Mikhail Veksler (1922). Rented Apartment 2 at 13, 10th Line of Vasilyevsky Island, where she hosted poor students and held Tuesdays attended by Mikhail Matiushin and Pavel Filonov(1922–34). Worked under Mikhail Veksler at the poster workshop of the Decorative Institute (1923). Taught painting in the private studio of Alexei Uspensky and invited to teach at the VKhUTEIN (1923). Joined the Institute of Artistic Culture in Petrograd (1923), where she studied Cubism in the theoretical and formal department (1923–24) and headed the laboratory of colour (1924–26). Collaborated with such children’s magazines as Sparrow(1923–25), New Robinson (1925), Hedgehog (1928–31) and Siskin (1932–33) and such publishing houses as Young Guard (1931–32), Uchpedgiz (1931–32) and Lenoblizdat (1934). 

Worked under Vladimir Lebedev at the department of children’s literature of the State Publishing House (1925–31), where she composed her own children’s books, including The Unfortunate Coachman(1928), Doggies (1929), Down the Nile (1930), Six Masks (1930) and Masks of Wild Animals (1930). Illustrated Nikolai Aseyev’s Top-Top-Top (1925) andRedneck (1927), Boris Zhitkov’s Who Will Win? (1927) and Dress Me (1928), Nikolai Zabolotsky’s The Good Boots (1928), Alexander Vvedensky’s Many Wild Animals (1928), The Fishermen (1929), Run, Jump (1930) and The Feat of Mochin the Pioneer (1931), Daniil Kharms’s Ivan Ivanych Samovar (1929), Yevgeny Schwartz’s The Train (1929), Nikolai Oleinikov’s The Geography Teacher (1930), fables of Ivan Krylov (1929–30) and the fairytales of Mikhail Saltykov-Schedrin (1931–32). Member of Sorabis (1925–34). Worked at the experimental laboratory for the study of modern art at the Institute of the History of the Arts (1927–30) and the experimental lithographic studio of the Union of Artists (1933–34). Member of the Group of Painterly-Plastic Realism, which met at her apartment on Vasilyevsky Island and Lev Yudin’s room in a wooden house on Shamshev Street on the Petrograd Side (1927–34).


Saturday, 5 April 2014

Alexander Terekhov: The Stone Bridge - Excerpt

Alexander Terekhov’s “The Stone Bridge” (Glagoslav Publications) is a whirling novel that collides present times with the grim epoch of Stalin purges. Based on a true story, the novel reconstructs the Stalinist Russia in perfect detail, using real documents and photos – but “The Stone Bridge” is written in vivid, pulsing language that makes it much more than a historical detective. “The Stone Bridge” will be presented by the author in the Read Russia program at the London Book Fair, April 8-10.

The Great Stone Bridge is recognized as the best location from which to view the Kremlin and study Russian life. The bridge has had the best view since the time of Cornelis de Bruijn, a Dutchman and painter, three hundred years ago; in more recent days, images of and from the bridge figured in the title sequences of the Vremya TV news broadcasts which replaced, for the Soviet people, the evening church service.
The Great Stone Bridge was the first stone bridge in the city — and happened to be the last. When it was built, it was considered to be the fourth wonder of Russia after the Tsar’s Bell, the Tsar’s Cannon and Ivan the Great’s Bell Tower.

Ivan the Third cleared Borovitsky Square, moving wooden houses away from the Kremlin thereby nullifying the fires that tended to burn them, and making Tatar sieges difficult. Moscow life, forced thusly outward from the verboten square, crossed the river and moved south, into the Strelets villages, along the road from Veliky Novgorod to Ryazan. Since these new arrangements required that supplies be transported across the river, Tsar Mikhail Fyodorovich summoned the craftsman Jagan Christler from Strasbourg, along with his uncle and his tools, which had names like magic spells: mattocks, bills, cantdogs, parbuckles, trowels, salters. But just as the enormous cubes of white stone for the would-be bridge began to arrive in Moscow from Nastasin, everyone involved in the project unceremoniously died — both Germans and the Tsar.
The seventeenth century bore a striking resemblance to the twentieth. It began with troubles, and ended with troubles: civil war, an uprising of peasants and Cossacks, campaigns to the Crimea, Boyars “chopped to bits” by rebels, doctors who confessed under torture to poisoning Tsars, and Old Believers burnt at the stake during the the stone bridge month known to us now as Bloody April. It was a time when Russians suddenly and obsessively turned to their past, considered their own present, and then decided rather frantically to begin rewriting the books on every historical sore spot: the schism in the Church, the streltsy rebellions, the place of our land on the globe which had just been imported to Russia. Children and women argued about politics in the streets! Suddenly the common people realized: we also exist, we take part, we are witnesses. And how sweet it was to say I.
In the year when Boris Sheremetiev went to the Hapsburg court of Emperor Leopold and Prince Golitsyn led the charge to Perekop, returning from the Konka River with nothing because the Tatars had set fire to the steppe, a monk who was able to read the drafts left by the late German bridge builder finally completed the new wonder of the world — the Great Stone Bridge.

The bridge had eight spans, and was made of white stone. It was four hundred and sixty feet — seventy sazhens — long.
The engravings by Pieter Picart (you can see small huts on the river — mills or bathhouses), the lithographs by Daziaro (poles under the spans, a few people dawdling and a predictable dinghy, its passenger being ferried across with one oar by a warmly dressed gondolier) and the lithographs by Martynov (the latter-day ones, with the two-tower entry gates that were demolished long before the lithographs themselves were actually published) all depicted the Kremlin and captured the bridge in the first 150 years of its life: flour mills with dams and drains, drinking establishments, the town-house of Prince Menshikov, crowds admiring the sight of river ice breaking up and beginning to flow in spring, the triumphal arch raised for Peter the Great’s Azov victory, a pair of horses pulling a sled with two passengers — a priest and the quick-eyed Pugachev in shackles crying out right and left to the presumably silent crowd, “Forgive me, Christians!”
Sideshows brought wax figures, savages from Africa, and a siren fish recently caught by fishermen. Crowds at the shows gnawed on sunflower seeds and bought colorful balloons inflated with gas. Convicts knelt in the dust, with signs — Arsonist, Robber — around their necks. Constables with theatrical halberds, hirsute students smoking casually and short-haired girls in dark glasses, the Wolf Pack tavern in a dirty two-story building, the jetty of the Moscow Fishermen’s Society (nothing more than a hut on a wooden raft with a bunch of boats tied to it) — and everyone seemingly with a sense that this life on and around the bridge couldn’t last (especially when in the flood of 1783 three arches collapsed at once, crushing a fisherman and some washerwomen). Still, when Alexander the Second took the throne and had the great old bridge dismantled — the old masonry wouldn’t yield to hammers and crowbars, it had to be blown up — people would not forgive him this deed and remembered it often and bitterly.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Mussorgsky and the Mighty Handful

They were a fortifications engineer, a research chemist, a naval officer, a pen-pusher in a government office and a gentleman of leisure. They were also all composers – quite a handful, indeed a “Mighty Handful”, to give them the old-fashioned English version of their collective Russian sobriquet: moguchaya kuchka. They were artists with a mission, but they spent more time debating that mission than realizing it. They were, in the order given above, César Cui, Alexander Borodin, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Modest Musorgsky and Mily Balakirev, and the story of their triumphs and failures is told by Stephen Walsh with enjoyable panache.

Walsh spent two decades producing the definitive biography of Igor Stravinsky, a two-volume work of immense thoroughness and narrative skill. Now he can have some fun. When he was dealing with Stravinsky, plotting a course through a long and eventful life that is exceedingly well but often conflictingly documented, he had little space for applying his critical acumen to the music, and not a lot of room for wit. These kuchka people are much more obliging subjects. None of them had anything like the celebrity status Stravinsky enjoyed for sixty years, and so there is much less that can be said about their day-to-day lives. Walsh finds just enough to build deft and often touching character portraits, but he can also exercise his sense of humour, often self-deprecating or ironically lofty, and exert himself in solid and engaging appraisals of the composers’ major works.
It helps that there are not so many of these – indeed, one of Walsh’s leitmotifs is the lackadaisical fashion in which most of the kuchkists applied their gifts. He quotes Rimsky-Korsakov, the big exception, recalling a time in the 1860s when the group could congratulate themselves because Nikolai Lodyzhensky “wrote one romance, Borodin got an idea for something, Balakirev is planning to rework something, and so on”.
The first name here is a reminder that the “Mighty Handful” always had more than five digits. We learn, however, that Lodyzhensky only published – and perhaps only finished – one little volume of six songs. Apollon Gusakovsky is written out of the story with even less ado. And this is probably just, for the composers who command interest are the central five, or at least four of them, leaving out Cui.
There was, however, a highly important sixth figure – not a composer but a critic and, by profession, librarian: Vladimir Stasov. His was the programme of Russianizing the Russian arts, especially music and painting, freeing them from conventions inherited from Western Europe, rooting them in Russian soil – which would mean chant and folk song where music was concerned – and having them grow through treating specifically Russian subject matter. He wanted his composers to warble their native wood-notes wild. These would have to be startlingly new wood-notes, and from this paradox of autochthonous innovation came the kuchkists’ extraordinary achievements – if also their problems, of how to develop as artists when any kind of development was under suspicion for what Lady Bracknell called “tamper[ing] with natural ignorance”.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Leo Tolstoy’s greatest plot of all

Tolstoy is one of the few Russian writers to enjoy phenomenal popularity with Western audiences. But then, he is more than a writer. He is also a philosopher, a founder of a new religion, and a proverbial bearded old mystic who walked barefoot summer and winter. He is the mainstay of numerous jokes. A preacher. A guru. Lenin called him “the mirror of the Russian Revolution.” Tolstoy's entire life is a work of art. It could have constituted a plot at least as intricate as that of his War and Peace.
In his younger years he drilled himself in way a future superman would. No indulgence was permitted. He used to hold heavy dictionaries in his outstretched arms, and flogged himself on his bare back. He trained his willpower to become a man comme il faut, a true nobleman. He spoke perfect French, was gallant with the ladies, and enjoyed a game of cards or two – often running up gambling debts in the process. Once, walking along the street with his brother, he spotted a man coming in the opposite direction. Glancing at him, Tolstoy observed dismissively, “This gentleman is surely a rotten fellow.” “How so?” asked his brother. “He's got no gloves,” replied Tolstoy. Just so. A man wearing no gloves was not good enough. 
Fired by an enthusiasm for new impressions, he went off to battle. He got impressions galore there. In the Caucasus, a grenade once burst out at his feet. Some time later, he was nearly captured by Chechens in the mountains, only escaping by the skin of his teeth after a breathless gallop away on horseback. Scarcely had he returned from the Caucasus than he hurried to the Danube to fight the Turks, taking a detour home by way of Sevastopol. At that time Russia was in and out of war, and so was Tolstoy. No wonder warfare is such a recurring theme in his books.
Back in Petersburg, his works were accepted for publication. Recognition was not long in coming - and at the very highest level. Nicholas I's widow was known to weep over his Sevastopol Sketches and Alexander II had the work translated into French. But Tolstoy then turned his back on everybody and abandoned the high life for his ancestral village. The writer seemed to be more invested in agricultural issues than in his burgeoning literary career.
His serfs were rather fond of him, though they thought their squire a crackpot: “You would come to the squire for your orders and what would you see but the squire himself dangling head-down from a bar by his knees, swinging to and fro; his hair tumbling and the face bloodshot; you never know whether to marvel at him or listen to his words.” This was the manner in which Tolstoy used to carry out his exercises.
In the countryside he was a Jack of all trades: He made hay, he ploughed, and he taught peasant children. Tolstoy even set up his own unorthodox school, featuring neither textbooks, nor copybooks, nor homework. He used to take his pupils for walks in the nearby woods, where, settling them down, he would speak to them of life, telling stories and answering their questions.