Saturday, 28 June 2014

Nastasya Filippovna: A Woman Scorned

Of the many characters we see in Dostoyevsky's novels, few of the principal characters are female. However, in one of his more famous novels, The Idiot, we find perhaps one of the strongest female characters of most nineteenth-century literature, if not of Europe, then at least of Russia. Nastasya Filippovna, a proud, yet exploited woman, is by far one of Dostoyevsky's most intriguing characters. She has an instantaneous and dramatic affect on the characters surrounding her. Nastasya Filippovna has been systematically destroyed by her surroundings. She finds she is unable to survive in the society of her time. Valued by men only for her beauty or her possessions, feared by jealous women, Nastasya Filippovna succumbs to insanity and finally, her own murder. Believing herself to be guilty and in need of punishment and purification, Nastasya Filippovna fights yet, finally, submits herself to destructive forces that surround her.
Nastasya Filippovna, defined by her sensual beauty and remarkable looks, is already mentioned by page ten. Her presence remains strong throughout Book One and we may learn a great deal from this section about the proud Nastasya Filippovna. The most dominant feature of Nastasya Filippovna is her beauty. Even the Prince, who at first we may believe is not inclined to notice sensuality of women, is overwhelmed by her great beauty. Looking at her picture he calls her"astonishingly pretty"; he notes her"exquisite simplicity", her "dark, deep eyes" (31). Even from her youth Nastasya Filippovna's beauty has caused her to become the object of men's sexual desires. There are three men who are particularly dominant in Nastasya Filippovna's life prior to the arrival of the Prince: Afansy Ivanovich Totsky, Gavrila Ardalionovich (Ganya), and Parfion Semyyonovich Rogozhin.
Totsky is the first of the three men to become enchanted with Nastasya Filippovna. Living on Totsky's land with a German family, the orphaned Nastasya Filippovna developed into a "delightful little girl of about 12, a clever little thing, winsome and spirited" (42). Apparently she was also already showing "promise of extraordinary beauty; in this regard Afansy Ivanovich was an infallible judge" (42). Around sixteen, she was moved into her own home,"[a] fortnight later Afansy Ivanovich himself came visiting...After that he seemed to develop a particular fondness for this remote, steppe-land hamlet of his,..." (43). It appears Totsky engaged himself in an affair with her, taking from her her childhood, her innocence and her self respect. In a society in which female virginity prior to marriage and the chaste life is prized, Nastasya Filippovna has already been robbed of the decision to take control of her own sexuality.
It is this first sexual encounter that has fueled the intense self-destructive activities of Nastasya Filippovna. Resting quietly for four years, the young girl becomes a woman. Upon hearing a rumor that Totsky is to be married, the fierce fury of Nastasya Filippovna is wakened. Up until this point we have accepted the ³Totskian² version of who Nastasya Filippovna is. However, like Totsky, we find Nastasya Filippovna is no longer a girl, but
[a]ll of a sudden she exhibited unusual resolution and a most unexpected strength of character. Without the slightest hesitation she abandoned her little country house and suddenly appeared in Petersburg all on her own, and went straight to Totsky "(43).
To Totsky, who probably never thought to speak to Nastasya Filippovna in her own terms, this change would indeed be sudden. His condescension and objectification of Nastasya Filippovna is apparent in his treatment and his expectations of her emotional, intellectual, and mental capacities. He found in front of his a "new" woman. A woman who:

...knew and comprehended a great deal, so much in fact, that it was a matter of profound astonishment whence such knowledge could have proceeded and how she could have worked out such precise formulations for herself (44).
It is his"new" and resentful woman with whom Totsky must deal now. Totsky finds him self face to face with a young woman who he thought he had tailored so well to fit society. A " woman [that] declared that she was perfectly indifferent whether, when, or whom he married, but that she had come to prevent this union out of sheer spite, for the sole reason that she felt like it.." (44). Nastasya Filippovna is indeed resentful of Totsky's under estimation of her intellect and her emotions. She resents his exploitation of her sexuality and the objectification of her femininity. Her bitterness is evident in her violent verbal attacks on him. Nastasya Filippovna will not allow this man to feel justified nor will she free him from his guilt. She will prevent this marriage "'if only so that [she] can laugh at [him] to [her] heart's content, because now [she] wants to laugh as well" (44).
Nastasya Filippovna has been so fueled by the intense feelings of worthlessness and contempt for Totsky that she has arrived at the point of not caring about anything,
least of all herself...Nastasya Filippovna was quite capable of ruining herself scandalously and irrevocably, risking hard labor in Siberia, just so long as she could jeer at this man for whom she harboured so inhuman and aversion (47).
Nastasya Filippovna had accumulated so much resentment, hatred, and anger against the man who took her virginity, apparently against her best interests and before she could have been emotionally ready for such relations; he, an old man, and she, a young girl just beginning to experience life. The match was far from perfect. Upon her return to Petersburg, Totsky is struck, yet again, by Nastasya Filippovna's beauty and "...seduced by the novelty of the situation, thought he might exploit this woman once more" (46). Nastasya Filippovna attaches herself to Totsky, not living with him, but preventing him from living any other life. Allowing him to pay for her comforts, yet without allowing herself to"...succumb to any financial matter how large" (47), Nastasya Filippovna is able to control Totsky at the same time she is able to maintain what is left of her pride and her self-respect.


Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Weber Invitation To The Dance Nadja Saidakova Vladimir Malakhov

Anna Netrebko's interview to Andrey Malakhov (with English subtitles)

Ana Netrebko " From Janitress to Opera Diva" - Documentary

Subtly Worded, and Other Stories by Teffi - a traditional Russian form is given a good hiding

Pushkin Press has done it again: made me fall in love with a writer I've never heard of. It was the first paragraph of the first story here, "A Radiant Easter", that did it. I hope it has a similar effect on you:

"Samosov stood there gloomily, watching the deacon with the incense and thinking, 'Go on, swing that incense, swing that incense! Think you can swing yourself into a bishopric? Some hope!"
Written more than a hundred years ago, "A Radiant Easter" takes a traditional Russian form – the "uplifting" religious story – into a quiet alleyway and beats it to death. Like many of the stories here, it is so brief as to be almost a joke. It illustrates the way we pick on those lower than us in the social order. We see the misery being handed down all the way to a cat by a dustbin: "But what did the dustbin care? It said nothing." Yet each person is granted some humanity, some character. There is a very thin but discernible kind streak in Teffi's stories, which is not the same as having a soft heart.
Born in 1872 to a smart St Petersburg family, Teffi, the pseudonym of Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya, was the kind of writer who got stopped in the street by fans and could count among them Lenin and Tsar Nicholas II. (I get these facts from the excellent introduction by Anne Marie Jackson, who, with five others, translated these stories.) This, of course, was a recipe for trouble, and very soon after the revolution Teffi realised that staying in the country would be unwise. There's a fascinating – and true – account in this volume of her meetings with Rasputin, which demonstrates that writers were the only people Rasputin was scared of; and also that Teffi was utterly clear-eyed and her writings trustworthy as testimony.
That sort of writer doesn't last long in a dictatorship, so she went off to fire barbed shots at the revolution from Paris. The title story, "Subtly Worded" is itself a joke as hilarious as it is grim –that is, very funny, very grim – about the damage being done to language and thought by the Bolsheviks. "Everything's splendid here," says a correspondent from Russia to his brother abroad. "Anyuta has died from a strong appetite ..." I won't spoil the rest of the jokes for you, but they get better.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Inside the Soviet Union's Secret Erotica Collection

In the depths of the Russian State Library, Marina Chestnykh takes the creaking elevator up to the ninth floor. She walks past stack after stack of books behind metal cages, the shelves barely visible in the dim light from the frosted-glass windows. This is the spetskhran, or old special storage collection — the restricted-access cemetery for material deemed “ideologically harmful” by the Soviet state.
She arrives at a cage in the floor’s back corner. When she inserts a key in the padlock, the door swings open to reveal thousands of books, paintings, engravings, photographs and films — all, in one way or another, connected to sex.
It was the kinkiest secret in the Soviet Union: Across from the Kremlin, the country’s main library held a pornographic treasure trove. Founded by the Bolsheviks as a repository for aristocrats’ erotica, the collection eventually grew to house 12,000 items from around the world, ranging from 18th-century Japanese engravings to Nixon-era romance novels.
Off limits to the general public, the collection was always open to top party brass, some of whom are said to have enjoyed visiting. Today, the spetskhran is no more, but the collection is still something of a secret: There is no complete compendium of its contents, and many of them are still unlisted in the catalogue.
“We chose to preserve it intact, as a relic of the era when it was created,” Chestnykh said.
Chestnykh, who traverses the drafty stacks in a purple knit poncho, is the collection’s main overseer. After joining the library in the 1980s, she only learned of its existence in the 1990s, when she was asked to help reassign its holdings to a different department.
Did its contents come as a surprise?
“Yes and no,” she said. “There was a special collection, so I knew something pretty special had to be kept there.”
The collection’s story begins in the 1920s, when the Bolsheviks turned what was once the Rumyantsev arts museum  into the country’s national library. As the newly anointed Lenin Library began amassing new literature, it also opened a rare book department to house compromising materials, acquired primarily from confiscated noble libraries.
One of the most stunning items seized from an unknown owner is “The Seven Deadly Sins,” an oversized book of engravings self-published in 1918 by Vasily Masyutin, who also illustrated classics by Pushkin and Chekhov. Among its depictions of gluttony is a large woman masturbating with a ghoulish smile.
Before the revolution, it was fashionable among the upper classes to assemble so-called knigi dlya dam, or “Ladies’ Books,” a kind of bawdy scrapbook. Anostentatious leather-bound album with “Kniga Dlya Dam” embossed in gold on the cover opens to reveal a Chinese silk drawing of an entwined couple. Farther on, dozens of engravings show aristocratic duos fornicating in sumptuously upholstered settings.
Erotica was also consumed by Russia’s masses, as evidenced by a set of pamphlets from the 1910s. A pamphlet labeled “Pikantnaya Biblioteka,” or “Naughty Library” containing a tale from the 14th century Italian classic “Decameron” and a story titled “A Consultation,” retailed for 50 kopeks. On the cover, a satanic figure grips a silky-tressed damsel in distress.
In the 1930s, increasing control over books led to hundreds of new additions. Items deemed inappropriate now extended to Soviet writings on sexuality from the previous decade, when abortion was legalized and Alexandra Kollontai, the most famous woman in the Bolshevik government, called for the destruction of the traditional family — a movement reversed under Stalin.
One 1927 publication provided a round up of scientific research into birth control methods. Another title from the same year looked at “Delinquency in the Sphere of Sexual Relations,” with charts on subjects such as “The Social Composition of Sex Criminals.”
The collection got its biggest boost from Nikolai Skorodumov, who began collecting books while at school, and eventually became the deputy director of the Moscow State University library. The librarian led a quiet personal life, taking on his maid as a common-law wife, but his appetite for books was voracious. Interested in rare Russian material as well as foreign acquisitions from France, Germany, the U.S. and beyond, Skorodumov kept collecting until his death in 1947.
Among Skorodumov’s treasures was a portfolio of drawings and watercolors by the avant-garde titan Mikhail Larionov. Made in the 1910s, they are no less scandalous in today’s Russia. One pencil sketch features a happily panting dog standing in front of a human, who is engaged in much more than petting. A watercolor depicts two soldiers having an intimate encounter on a bench.
How did Skorodumov amass such a collection when owning a foreign title could result in a Gulag sentence?

Friday, 20 June 2014

Pasternak Bound

In the 1970s and 1980s there was a 'shop' in Pimlico where visitors to - and from, if they were daring - the USSR could select free of charge any number of books, largely Russian poetry, fiction and history banned by the Soviets, as long as they promised to distribute them to Soviet citizens. The books were often intercepted by customs, but corruption was then no less widespread than today and confiscated books would soon be selling on the black markets of Leningrad and Moscow. Not just the distribution but the publication and, often, the editing of this material, which shaped the minds of Soviet dissidents (and diplomats), was down to the CIA. The Soviet authorities were thus pushed into producing their own editions of the work of poets such as Nikolai Zabolotsky and Osip Mandelstam, whom they would rather have consigned to oblivion. The CIA's use of 'soft power', subsidising Russian-language journals and publishers in the USA, Germany and France, as well as providing an outlet for tamizdat ('publish over there') literature and for writings that had fallen foul of changes in the Party line, is more than enough to expiate its mistakes and sins.

Peter Finn and Petra Couvée have had access to the files that show how the CIA secured publication of the Russian text of Boris Pasternak's novel Dr Zhivago. (Why the CIA doesn't proudly declassify all files on its defence of Russian literature, I do not understand.) The CIA, naturally, got some things wrong: Pasternak's text was printed from an uncorrected draft, and one of the printers chosen failed to conceal the CIA's involvement, putting Pasternak in even greater danger.

The Russian files dealing with the Zhivago affair are, perversely, more accessible, although they show the Party, the KGB, the Writer's Union and Nikita Khrushchev acting with great stupidity. (When Khrushchev, ousted from power, found time to read the novel, he declared that he could see no reason to ban it.) Pasternak had, ever since the false dawn that deceived many Soviet intellectuals during the Second World War, when church bells rang and English magazines circulated, been childishly frank about the existence and tenor of his novel, with its ambivalence towards the Bolshevik revolution and Soviet values. The secret police were well placed to take action; so many fellow writers had been shown excerpts from the novel that the police must have been swamped with denunciations.

The Soviets' miscalculation was to think that Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, an Italian communist to whom Pasternak had entrusted his manuscript, would obey instructions from the Party not to publish. An Italian communist was a loose cannon, particularly if he was also a publisher with the world's most notorious manuscript in his hands, and he published the novel in Italian in November 1957. The CIA, recognising the value of the novel, soon arranged for it to be published and distributed in Russian.

Feltrinelli and a cabal of European translators and publishers, together with the CIA and the Nobel Committee, combine to make an often farcical plot, as they try with maximum speed and with the appearance of maximum innocence to put Pasternak's text to the public and yet ensure his inviolability. The author was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in October 1958, but rejected it under pressure from the Soviet government. The drama that unfolded in Moscow, meanwhile, shows a vindictiveness that did the Soviet image as much harm as the invasion of Hungary two months earlier, but brought it not the slightest political benefit. The Soviet authorities used Olga Ivinskaya, Pasternak's mistress, both as a hostage and as a lever and turned his fellow writers, even those who professed love and admiration for him, into a pack of baying jackals.


Friday, 13 June 2014

When writing doesn't pay the bills: Russian authors as laborers, doctors and taxi drivers

Being a serious writer in Russia has never paid well. In Tsarist times a lack of widespread education confined the market for complex, challenging literature to a very small circle of readers. Then, in the USSR only authors loyal to the state ideology could live off their writing – others were forced to take on second jobs.

Anton Chekhov worked as a doctor for 15 years and never regretted his decision. Most of his patients were peasants, servants and the poor. Chekhov joked, “I practice in aristocratic houses. Right now, I’m heading to Countess Keller to treat her cook and then to the house of the noblemen Voeykovs to attend to their maid.” Many of his patients couldn’t afford a doctor, so Chekhov treated them for free. Chekhov wasn't drawn to medicine by the money. He said, “The wish to serve the common good must be a requisite of the soul, a necessity for personal happiness,” and he stuck to this belief. In 1890 he traveled to a penal colony on Sakhalin Island to conduct a census and investigate the sanitary conditions of the prisons, hospitals and barracks there. He published his findings in a non-fiction work “Sakhalin Island,” which led to an improvement in the convicts' appalling conditions. In 1892, when a cholera epidemic hit central Russia, Chekhov organized medical relief for victims at his own expense. Chekhov once said, “Medicine is my lawful wife, and literature is my mistress.” But medicine also contributed a lot to his writing: his work contains detailed descriptions of his characters' health, illnesses and deaths. What's more, he heard a great deal of stories and learned a lot about human nature while practicing medicine – a valuable experience for any writer.

Mikhail Bulgakov, who came from a family of medics, worked as a doctor for several years in the 1910s and even took part in World War I as a field surgeon. After the war, Bulgakov took a post as a doctor in a remote part of the countryside. He was the only doctor on hand and had to see dozens patients a day. Recently, Bulgakov’s experiences in those years have become widely known due to the 2012 British TV series “A Young Doctor’s Notebook” – a loose adaptation of the collection of stories of the same name. Bulgakov’s other works often have doctors as characters too. For example, the brilliant protagonist of “Heart of a Dog,” Professor Preobrazhensky, is an accurate portrayal of an intellectual facing the absurdity and brutality of the early Soviet state.


Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Anna Akhmatova: This cruel age has deflected me

This cruel age has deflected me,
like a river from this course.
Strayed from its familiar shores,
my changeling life has flowed
into a sister channel.
How many spectacles I’ve missed:
the curtain rising without me,
and falling too. How many friends
I never had the chance to meet.
— Anna Akhmatova, The Complete Poems

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

In Search of Forgotten Artist Vladimir Izenberg

The name Vladimir Izenberg does not say a lot in and of itself. It's not one that calls up images or eras, great schools or great events.
Izenberg was an artist. He was born in Petersburg in 1895 and he died in Leningrad in 1969. There is no entry about him in Russian Wikipedia and he is not listed in John Milner's prodigious "Dictionary of Russian and Soviet Artists, 1420-1970," a spectacular volume that in a flush of inexplicable generosity was given to me years ago by The Moscow Times editor-in-chief Marc Champion, and for which I remain eternally grateful. Many an obscure question has been answered for me by this book, but not those I have about Vladimir Izenberg.
One may say that I own an Izenberg work. It's not an original, but it is an item of some rarity and beauty that justifies my distinct pleasure in possessing it. It is a 1926 edition of Yevgeny Zamyatin's play "The Flea," published by Mysl (or Thought) publishers in Leningrad. The lively cover illustration, a collage-type piece executed in three colors, was done by Izenberg and is dated 1925.
"The Flea" was based in part on Russian folklore and on Nikolai Leskov's famous 19th century short-story "Lefty." It tells the tale of an ingenious Russian craftsman who fashioned a microscopic mechanical flea after his English counterparts failed in this task of great national importance and pride.
The play was a success in 1925 at the so-called Second Moscow Art Theater. It closed in 1929 and was effectively buried in the huge pile of banned and semi-banned plays from the first decade of the Soviet Union. This is of some importance to Izenberg's illustration, for the book with his drawing on the cover was the last stand-alone publication of the play. "The Flea" was included in a four-volume collected works edition printed in 1929, and then not published again until 1989
Izenberg apparently saw the notion of national pride as a key element of the play, for his illustration shows a happy, healthy tsarist Russian general doing something of a folk dance as his sabre balances miraculously in the air. Of course, if we think more about this image it is clear that it was completely out of step with the times. Even a year later, when the nation celebrated the 10th anniversary of the revolution, it would have been an impossible topic for a book cover. Not only would the smile on the general's face be gone, the general would have been gone himself, surely replaced by the miraculous Russian peasant.
The little that we know about Izenberg could probably be contained in the same box holding Zamyatin's tiny mechanical flea. He was the son of Konstantin Izenberg (1859-1911), who was also a sculptor and a book and magazine illustrator. The son had no formal training as an artist, but curiously, he began contributing illustrations to Petersburg magazines simultaneously to his father's death. One can't help but wonder if the younger Izenberg had studied at the feet of his father and simply took over his father's commissions when the elder died.
The final sentence in a seven-sentence entry on Vladimir Izenberg in Eduard Konovalov's "Dictionary of Russian Artists" is a loaded phrase. It claims: "Worked as a theater designer in Odessa, Sevastopol and Kuibyshev."