Friday, 23 May 2014

Solzhenitsyn’s foresight on Ukraine proves eerily prescient

The great writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn predicted the current situation in Ukraine almost half a century ago. A number of his writings from the Soviet period, including The Gulag Archipelago, contain ruminations on the issue of nationalism and the seeds for potential future ethnic unrest on Ukrainian territory.
Source: Russia Beyond the Headlines -

The great writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn predicted the current situation in Ukraine almost half a century ago. Writing on the issue of nationalism in his masterpiece The Gulag Archipelago, the Nobel laureate wrote: "With Ukraine, things will get extremely painful." Even back in Soviet times he prophetically did not rule out that Ukraine might break away, although with the qualification that "a referendum may be required for each region", given the way lands that had never historically belonged to Ukraine were lumped together by the Bolsheviks.
Written in 1968, published in 1974 (The Gulag Archipelago, Part 5, Chapter 2):
… It pains me to write this as Ukraine and Russia are merged in my blood, in my heart, and in my thoughts. But extensive experience of friendly contacts with Ukrainians in the camps has shown me how much of a painful grudge they hold. Our generation will not escape from paying for the mistakes of our fathers.  
To stamp one's foot and shout: "This is mine!" is the easiest option. It is far more difficult to say: "Those who want to live, live!" Surprising as it may be, the Marxist doctrine that nationalism is fading has not come true.
On the contrary, in an age of nuclear research and cybernetics, it has for some reason flourished. And the time is coming for us, whether we like it or not, to repay all the promissory notes of self-determination and independence, to do it ourselves rather than wait to be burnt at the stake, drowned in a river or beheaded.
Source: Russia Beyond the Headlines -
We must prove whether we are a great nation not with the vastness of our territory or the number of peoples in our care but with the greatness of our deeds. And with the degree to which we plough what we shall have left after those lands that will not want to stay with us secede.
With Ukraine, things will get extremely painful. But one has to understand the degree of tension they feel. As it has been impossible for centuries to resolve it, it is now down to us to show good sense.
We must hand over the decision-making to them: federalists or separatists, whichever of them wins. Not to give in would be mad and cruel. The more lenient, patient, coherent we now are, the more hope there will be to restore unity in the future.
Let them live it, let them test it. They will soon understand that not all problems are resolved through separation. Since in different regions of Ukraine there is a different proportion of those who consider themselves Ukrainians, those who consider themselves Russians and those who consider themselves neither, there will be many difficulties there.
Maybe it will be necessary to have a referendum in each region and then ensure preferential and delicate treatment of those who would want to leave. Not the whole of Ukraine in its current formal Soviet borders is indeed Ukraine.
Some regions on the left bank [of the river Dnepr] clearly lean more towards Russia. As for Crimea, Khrushchev's decision to hand it over to Ukraine was totally arbitrary. And what about Carpathian (Red) Ruthenia? That will serve as a test too: While demanding justice for themselves, how just will the Ukrainians be to Carpathian Russians?  




Sunday, 11 May 2014

Crimea in Russian literature

Bakhchisaray Svyato-Uspenskiy Cave Monastery

Alexander Pushkin was among the first to discover Crimea, albeit unwillingly. He was exiled from St. Petersburg to the south for his poems about freedom. However, Pushkin was either too incorrigible or the Crimean air was too heady, because his exile turned into rehabilitation. “Resurrected feelings, clear mind,” he wrote in the poem “Tavrida” (the Greek name for Crimea).
Pushkin’s discoveries in Crimea included the poetry of Ovid. He learned that his Roman counterpart was also exiled to Crimea at the behest of a despotic emperor. In his Crimean poems, Pushkin compares his asceticism with the fate of the ancient poet.

Source: Russia Beyond the Headlines -
Maximilian Voloshin, poet, artist, and organizer of the creative commune, was also inspired by this breathtakingly beautiful peninsula. Voloshin personified a certain simplicity and naturalness in Russian bohemia. He also owned a house in Koktebel, where he invited diverse guests regardless of their rank or political views. He challenged his friends (among whom were Marina Tsvetaeva, Osip Mandelstam, Andrew White, Maxim Gorky and Alexei Tolstoy) to abandon the conventions of the day and instead revel in creativity.
Crimea’s hot air and the warm welcome of Voloshin’s salon helped poets fight their creative crises. Voloshin became a literary guru for the poet Marina Tsvetaeva, for example, encouraging her to trust the reader and give her imagination free rein.
In Crimea, Tsvetaeva visited Pushkin’s favorite places, including Bakhchisarai and Yalta. In her poem “Meeting with Pushkin,” she imagines she is strolling with the “curly magician.” Tsvetaeva has a conversation with Pushkin in the poem, where she suggests they both recoil from the concept of “leader” and embrace the revelation of personal freedom.
Source: Russia Beyond the Headlines -
In Crimea, Tsvetaeva visited Pushkin’s favorite places, including Bakhchisarai and Yalta. In her poem “Meeting with Pushkin,” she imagines she is strolling with the “curly magician.” Tsvetaeva has a conversation with Pushkin in the poem, where she suggests they both recoil from the concept of “leader” and embrace the revelation of personal freedom.
In 1930, the writer Alexander Grin, another friend of Voloshin, moved to Crimea for health reasons. Green was a great escapist, yet he shunned the “commune” and lived in seclusion. His main source of inspiration was the sea. While living in Crimea, he wrote his most important work, “She Who Runs on the Waves,” a novel about a seriously ill dreamer who is healed by love and travel. Grin is buried in Old Crimea on a hill overlooking the sea.
Source: Russia Beyond the Headlines -

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Osip Mandelstam: Black Earth

Hallowed and black, it’s all under nurture,
all horse’s shoulder, all air and care,
all of it crumbling, one huge choir –
my land and liberty’s clods of damp turf.
The black turns blue while they plough at dawn
in the home of unarmed labour, and a thousand
rumoured hills have succumbed to the foreshare:
something in the circle is not quite round.
All the same, it’s a blunder, an axe-butt, this earth
you can’t beg from however you bang on its leg.
Like a rotting pan-pipe, the ear is alert,
it tills ground for next spring, like a morning clarinet.
How well that rich layer lies on the ploughshare,
how well the steppe sits on a crankshaft in April!
So I greet you, black earth: be steadfast, sharp-eyed…
the black-river silence concealed within labour.
April 1935

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Mayakovsky’s rhythmical roar

In the last section of his autobiographical work, Safe Conduct, written shortly after Vladimir Mayakovsky’s suicide in 1930, Boris Pasternak recalls the extraordinary power of the man and poet in his youth: “whenever Mayakovsky appeared it seemed miraculous . . . . He was gigantic”. The anarchic futurist genius was soon to be displaced by the “drummer of the Revolution”, a poet harnessing his gifts to the cause, and Pasternak began to turn away. But Mayakovsky’s revolution was not exactly the Bolshevik revolution, and he did not easily find a place in the congealing orthodoxy of Soviet culture. It was only after his death that Stalin proclaimed him the poet laureate of the regime, adding that “indifference to his memory and his works is a crime”. Canonized in this way, it is not surprising that with the end of Soviet power Mayakovsky too was toppled, replaced by poets who had been less committed to the Revolution, including Pasternak himself. By 1993, the newspaperLiteraturnaya Gazeta could ask a previously banned poet: “What is there in Mayakovsky’s writing that does not leave you indifferent?” The poet answers by aligning Mayakovsky with Beethoven and Michelangelo; he remains a powerful presence in spite of all the justified ideological debates about his legacy.

James H. McGavran III writes that his new collection of translations “is designed with the goal of moving past these debates and reintroducing Mayakovsky to the anglophone world, focusing instead on his gifts and achievements as a poet”. He is by no means the first in the field, but his volume contains a great deal of poetry, not all of it familiar. It begins with a lively translation of the abrupt autobiographical notes characteristically entitled “I Myself”, though it is a pity that room was not also found for the teasing manifesto “How Verses are Made”. There follows a quite extended selection of the earliest Futurist poems, a rather less full one of the agitprop poems of the Revolutionary years, and a short but representative group of poems from the period 1922–30, including the ode to Brooklyn Bridge and Mayakovsky’s last (and splendid) unfinished poem “At the Top of my Voice”. Most importantly, there are five of Mayakovsky’s long poems, not only the famously inventive pre-Revolutionary “A Cloud in Pants” and “The Backbone Flute”, but two of his most blatantly propagandistic works, “150,000,000” and “The Flying Proletarian”. These are large-scale comic-book epics of the victory of the new Soviet order over the villainies of Woodrow Wilson and American capitalism; the concentrated verbal power of the earlier works is diluted here, even in Russian, and while their presence is justified, they will not do much for Mayakovksy’s posthumous reputation.

As McGavran says, “translating Mayakovsky is a daunting task”, and anyone who has tried (including the present reviewer) will sympathize. Mayakovsky once wrote that the poet’s task is “the constant replenishing of the reservoirs, the barns of the skull, with necessary, expressive, rare, invented, renewed, manufactured and every other kind of words”. To translate demands a similar labour. It is perhaps not too difficult to convey some aspects of the mesmerizingly innovative language – the abrupt shifts of register, the hyperbolic metaphors, the play with sound. McGavran’s translation stays close to the meaning, and often the phrasing, of the original, which gives some striking formulations such as “Wind-drunk, / ice-shod, / the street slipped and slid” in “Being Good to Horses”.
The great stumbling block is prosody. Modern readers outside Russia are sometimes surprised to discover that the revolutionary Mayakovsky cast his poems in rhyming and rhythmically patterned shapes. In “How Verses are Made”, he speaks of the rhythmical roar (gul) that inhabits his poetry; he also repeatedly stresses the power of rhyme. To quote from McGavran’s version of “Conversation with a Taxman about Poetry”: “In our terms, / rhyme is a keg – / a powder keg. / Its fuse is the line. / The line burns down, / the line goes bang!” Rhyme is a clincher, especially if the poem is spoken aloud, and Mayakovsky’s conception of poetry is oral, often oratorical.

The Songs of Sergei Dovlatov

In a less punishing country than Russia, Sergei Dovlatov would have been a popular writer whose revolutionary approach to writing would have been obscured by the lightness of tone, brevity, and apparent simplicity of most of his work. The public would have loved him, but most critics would have been disdainful of the vulgarity of his characters’ language and the apparently autobiographical nature of most of his writing. But Dovlatov lived in the Soviet Union, where his fiction could not be published, so he was denied the popularity he deserved. As for the critics, he often drank with them, and they still found occasion to dismiss him. If Dovlatov lore is to be believed, one of them once praised a story he had been shown by saying, “I dislike this one less than the others.”
Dovlatov was born in 1941 and grew up in Leningrad. By his mid-thirties he had succeeded in having a grand total of two short stories published in Soviet magazines. He worked for a series of obscure newspapers, writing news stories he preferred to sign with a variety of pen names. His first book was finally published by a Russian-language house in the United States in 1977. Having a book published abroad was, from the writer’s point of view, an admission of defeat—he was giving up hope of ever seeing a book or even so much as another short story printed in the USSR—and, from the point of view of the Soviet state, a declaration of war.
A couple of years later, Dovlatov moved to New York, where he had a quick and spectacular success. He launched a weekly newspaper, Novyi amerikanets (The New American), short-lived but popular and influential among Soviet émigrés, tens of thousands of whom landed in the US in the late 1970s. He had roughly a book a year published by the Russian-language émigré presses. But what set him apart from all Soviet émigré writers, except his friend and fellow Leningrad exile Joseph Brodsky, was that Dovlatov was also published extensively, and well, in translation. The New Yorker printed ten of his short stories in the 1980s, and most of his books were translated into English.
Back in the USSR, Dovlatov’s fiction could not be published until the late 1980s, when perestroika and glasnost opened the door to printing both for émigré writers and for writers who did not follow the socialist realist line. The critic who had praised Dovlatov so sparingly, a former classmate and now an editor at a leading literary journal, then published his short stories. Dovlatov’s books started coming out, on gray pulpy paper that frayed at the touch, but with press runs in the hundreds of thousands at first and then in the millions. Just as his work was reaching Russian audiences, in August 1990, he died of a heart attack in New York, ten days before his forty-ninth birthday and one year before the Soviet regime came to an end.
During the following decade Dovlatov’s literary reputation in Russia rose higher and higher: he went from being a writer known to very few to a household name and, finally, to the status of a classic. Dovlatov is to Russian vernacular what Casablanca and Mark Twain are to American speech: many unattributed and unidentified literary allusions and quotes come from his work, while he is often credited with aphorisms he never uttered.

Friday, 2 May 2014

Reasserting Russia’s literary status

Once upon a time it was the greatest literature in the world. When William Faulkner was asked to name the three best novels of all time, he cited the book Dostoevsky described as “flawless”: “Anna Karenina, Anna Karenina, Anna Karenina.”

In rankings of the world’s literary greats, Russia tends to figure more prominently than any other country. Anna KareninaWar and Peace, the stories of Anton Chekhov and Lolita (written in English and self-translated into Russian) are unfailingly on such lists, alongside Shakespeare, Proust, F Scott Fitzgerald, Mark Twain, Flaubert and George Eliot. And that’s without even mentioning Gogol, Pushkin, Turgenev, Pasternak and, of course, Dostoevsky, the writer who did down-to-earth plain-speaking just as beautifully as Tolstoy did lofty spirituality. From Notes from the Underground: “I say let the world go to hell but I should always have my tea.”

Where, though, are today’s equivalents? The question is of more than academic significance. Last December, Vladimir Putin convened a “Literary Assembly” featuring descendants of Pushkin, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy (whose great-great-grandson Vladimir is the Russian president’s cultural adviser). Putin declared that there was “a responsibility to global civilisation to preserve Russian literature” and expressed dismay that Russia could no longer boast of being “the best-read country in the world”. “Russians spend an average of only nine minutes per day reading books, and that figure is decreasing,” he said. “I think that declaring 2015 the Year of Literature in Russia is worth thinking about.” Recent events seem to have put that idea on ice.

Still, some see Russian literature as on the cusp of a recovery, pointing to the success of writers such as Mikhail Shishkin (compared to Nabokov and Chekhov) and Lyudmila Ulitskaya, the first woman to win the Russian Booker, the country’s leading prize for fiction. “Russian literature is healthy. It’s probably the healthiest part of Russian society, actually,” says Vitali Vitaliev, a writer and long-term UK resident (he defected in 1990). “To paraphrase Tolstoy: writers need a bit of hardship. You don’t want to be sentenced to death in order to be creative. But there is a huge internal protest at Putin’s power.”

Perhaps the effects of this are not yet fully evident, though, as many of the popular literary books in Russia at the moment are definitely not critiques of the regime. Instead they come under the awkward label “fantasy”. The post-Soviet dystopias of Viktor Pelevin, Vladimir Sorokin and Dmitry Bykov – all feted at home and with a small but enthusiastic audience abroad – fit into this genre. Other big sellers include Sergei Lukyanenko, the sci-fi author best known for his vampire blockbuster Night Watch (1998), and Boris Akunin, whose literary Erast Fandorin detective stories intentionally channel Sherlock Holmes by way of Dostoevsky.

Akunin is sceptical about claims of a reassertion of Russia’s literary status. This may be because he refuses to read contemporary novelists himself. “I’ve been reading only non-fiction something like 15 years,” he says by email from Moscow. “I believe it’s not healthy to read other people’s writing when you write yourself. But my wife reads everything and she says that, no, we are not in good shape. There is an occasional spark. But as a whole the landscape is depressing.”

“Why don’t I engage with the contemporary context?” Akunin wonders. “I do. But not in fiction. I write in my blog about everything that interests me – directly, without fictionalising.” (Typical extract: “I would enjoy talking to Putin about literature after all the political prisoners are released. Until then, it is not possible.”) “Fiction is for me, well, fiction. A territory for games and imagination, not to be taken too seriously. Probably a lot of my compatriot authors feel the same way, which might be the answer to the question as to why Russian literature is less than great.”