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Showing posts from March, 2015

Fyodor Dostoevsky: Notes from a Dead House

It was for a perhaps peripheral participation in the “Petrashevist” movement that Fyodor Dostoevsky was arrested in 1849 and sentenced to four years of hard labor followed by four years of military service in Siberia; he’d circulated a letter and supported the establishment of a subversive press, all done in resistance to the established imperial power structure with the Church and Tsar Nicholas I at its head.

Dostoevsky immediately began characterizing his impending sentence as a kind of death – with the promise of resurrection to follow. He assured his brother in the most fulsome terms that if he survived his coming ordeal, he’d be reborn.

He got out of the prison portion of his sentence at the beginning of 1854 and began his military service in Kazakhstan by promptly importuning his brother for books, emphasizing “my whole future depends on this.” In this he was, at least artistically speaking, entirely right; prior to his imprisonment, he’d been the author of a listless novel and so…

Is Russian Literature Dead?

Speaking at an event in January to launch the “Year of Literature,” a series of public events and projects extolling the virtues of Russian letters, President 
Vladimir Putin laid out his mission to raise the “prestige and influence in the world” of his country’s writers. Generations of American readers weaned on Leo Tolstoy and Boris Pasternak may see cause for hope in such a revival: They want to return to that magical land they first discovered in books — one of passion and tragedy where vast forces tumble characters like ice cubes in the 11-time-zone-wide cocktail shaker that is Russia. Yet though nostalgic for Natasha Rostova and Yuri Zhivago, those readers might struggle to name a single contemporary Russian writer.

The last Russian novel to become a genuine American sensation was Doctor Zhivago, which was published the year before Pasternak won the 1958 Nobel Prize in literature. The most recent nonfiction book of comparable fame was Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelag…

Tolstoy replays history

The first instalments of the text that would later be known as War and Peace were published 150 years ago in the journal Russkii vestnik (The Russian Herald), under the title 1805. With this title, Tolstoy emphatically shifted his focus away from the novel’s main characters or message to its temporal dimension. In fact, Tolstoy seems to have been the first major author in world history to have tried to make a year the protagonist of a novel (Victor Hugo’s 1793 appeared nine years later). Yet, as was evident to readers from the very beginning, the narrative was always destined to spill over to the following years, and thus the title of the novel was bound to change. The reader’s attention was to be focused not on the isolated period defined in the title, but on the flow of history itself.

Indeed, from the start of his work on the future War and Peace, Tolstoy was particularly eager to distinguish his venture from a conventional novel. In all three variants of the introduction that he dr…

Anna Akhmatova: Solitude

So many stones are thrown at meThat I no longer cower, The turret’s cage is shapely, High among high towers. My thanks, to its builders, May they evade pain and woe, Here, I see suns rise earlier, Here, their last splendours glow. And often winds from northern seas Fill the windows of my sanctuary, And a dove eats corn from my palm… And divinely light and calm, The Muse’s sunburnt hand’s at play, Finishing my unfinished page.
Translated by A. S. Kline

The Diary of Lena Mukhina

"People are not born brave, strong and smart. These qualities must be acquired through perseverance and with determination, like the ability to read and write."

When Lena Mukhina wrote this stern reminder to herself, she was a Leningrad schoolgirl of 16 with two great worries - her end-of-year exams and her secret crush on a boy in her class. Her diary of the summer of 1941 is sprinkled with Soviet pieties, teenage problems and a blithe disregard for anything concerning politics.

All this changed on June 22, when the radio announced that the Germans had invaded. By mid-September, Leningrad was encircled, and its two and a half million inhabitants were under bombardment. The blockade was to last an incredible 874 days, but that first winter was the most harrowing of all. Until late November the city was completely cut off; then a single, fragile line of supply known as "the Road of Death" opened up over the ice of Lake Ladoga. People starved in their hundreds every da…

A brief history of the short story: Varlam Shalamov

“I hate literature,” wrote Varlam Shalamov in a 1965 letter. “I do not write memoirs; nor do I write short stories. That is, I try to write not a short story but something that would not be literature.” Despite Shalamov’s misgivings, his collection of short stories, Kolyma Tales, contains some of the greatest writing to emerge from the gulag.

What he was expressing, in agonised terms, was that everything in his writing serves a purpose. As in the gulag, where survival could come down to receiving the thicker part of the soup or an extra ration of bread, or simply owning your own bowl, there is no room in his stories for the non-essential. What he is also stating, purposefully or not, is that his writing is unique.

The gulag was a vast concentration-camp network that spread across some of the most inhospitable regions of Russia, and of all these regions Kolyma was the most extreme. “In the same way that Auschwitz has become, in popular memory, the camp which symbolises all other Nazi cam…

Sergei Diaghilev: ballet, beauty and the beast

In August 21 1929 a funeral barge set off from the Grand Hotel on the Lido for the little island of San Michele, where the city of Venice has buried its dead since the beginning of the 19th century. The body in the barge, bound for the Greek Orthodox section of the cemetery, was that of Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev, founder and leader of the Ballets Russes and one of the most influential pioneers of modern art in the 20th century.

In the course of a 23-year career, Diaghilev had made his mark in Europe and the Americas, and in this relatively short space of time he transformed the world of dance, theatre, music and the visual arts as no one had ever done before, or since. From 1896 he was active in Russia as a critic, exhibition organiser, publisher and art historian. Through his journal Mir iskusstva and exhibitions, he brought Russian art out of years of stagnation, championed international symbolism, art nouveau, the Arts and Crafts movement and Russian neonationalism, and revived for…

The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry

Russia's proud poetic heritage is revived brilliantly in English in this new anthology from Penguin Classics, which has been edited and translated by Robert Chandler, Boris Dralyuk and Irina Mashinski.

Russian poetry had its so-called 'golden' (nineteenth century) and later 'silver' age (early-to-mid twentieth century), the latter marked by a brave defiance of censorship and repression by poets whose work is valued to this day. Some paid the ultimate price.

But the lives of the best-known poets in the 'golden' age also ended tragically, even if literature may have little to do with it. In 1837, a year after the publication of his much-celebrated verse novel, Eugene Onegin, Alexander Pushkin was killed in a duel.

His fellow poet, Mikhail Lermontov was killed in a duel in 1841, one year after publication of his classic novel, A Hero Of Our Time. Moving forward to the 'silver' age, in 1930, the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky committed suicide.

In 1946, Anna …

Marina Tsvetaeva: On Parting

Mein Herz tragt schwere Ketten. Die Du mir angelegt. Ich mocht mein Leben wetten Dass Keine schwerer tragt Frankfurt song Teasing and tempting and playing We loved like children, us both But somebody, hiding a smile, Set up the ungentle nets - And here we are at the harbor, Not seeing the wished-for abodes, But knowing that I will be yours In the heart, without words, until death. You told me of all things - so early! I guessed them so late! In our hearts A wound is eternal, a silent Question exists in our eyes, The desert on earth is so endless, The heaven, so high, has no stars, Revealed is the tender secret, And frost rules for centuries. I will talk to shades! O my dear, To forget you I do not have might, Your visage can't move under shadow Of eyelids gone over my eyes... It's darkening... Shutters have closed, On all things descending is ni…

The Real Tchaikovsky

Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, with its grand opening chords, is one of the most recognizable and popular pieces in the classical music repertoire. Van Cliburn’s recording of the concerto, made after his victory at the First International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow at the height of the cold war, became the first classical album to go triple platinum, and the first LP that many classical music lovers owned. For many, the concerto is the sound of classical music. Yet the piano’s famous opening chords are not, in fact, what Tchaikovsky wrote at all. The actual musical text of the composition, as Tchaikovsky notated and conducted it on numerous occasions, has been distorted by interventions almost certainly introduced after his death. This year—both the 175th anniversary of Tchaikovsky’s birth and the 140th anniversary of the concerto’s premiere—the Tchaikovsky Museum and Archive in Klin, Russia is publishing a new scholarly edition of the First Piano Concerto, a text that wil…

Yevgeny Yevtushenko: 'You shouldn’t rush to call people lost'

I spoke in St. Petersburg a few days ago, and a wonderful girl from the Pushkin Museum was in the audience. I asked her whether it had ever occurred to her that there is a sector of our society that would kill Pushkin on the spot simply for the color of his skin. She said that, unfortunately, this had crossed her mind, and began to cry.

Then there is what happened in Armenia, where, in spite the long-standing friendship between the Russian and Armenian people, our soldier committed a terrible act [a Russian soldier shot an entire family in the city of Gyumri in January]. Of course, he can’t have been in his right mind; he had lost his humanity and was striking out at all mankind. But what shook me most of all was an awful discussion I overheard about this event when I was traveling to a meeting.

This was an episode that was already full of hatred, but the people I heard were doing nothing but adding to their own accumulated, internal hatred – blind and directionless. Such people are so …

The House That Stalin Built

ANYONE UNFAMILIAR with the quality of Stephen Kotkin’s four earlier books on the Soviet Union might well question whether we need a new, voluminous tome about the first fifty years of Joseph Stalin’s life. Stalin, like Hitler, has been the subject of numerous biographies, ranging from Boris Souvarine’s pioneering work to Robert C. Tucker’s multivolume study. Is there anything important to add?

The answer is an emphatic yes, and not just because Kotkin’s Stalin is the product of a careful review of how a tyrant gained control of a country and exercised power. It dispenses with the myth that he was an intellectual dullard, showing that he was quite shrewd as well as forceful. What’s more, it contains essential background information for policy makers in the world today, illuminating some of the causes of the strife that persists despite the end of the Cold War.

In order to explain Stalin, Kotkin (a former valued colleague of mine at Princeton University) provides a brilliant political his…

Baddies in books: Woland, Bulgakov’s charming devil

Two men, an editor and a poet, walk through Moscow’s Patriarch’s Ponds one afternoon in Stalinist Russia. As the editor lectures his friend on the non-existence of Jesus Christ, a foreigner appears, introducing himself as Professor W, and tells them what he insists is the true story of the meeting of Christ and Pontius Pilate. The man has one eye that is blank and completely black, another that is crazed. What happens next is a mirror of these two eyes: within minutes, the editor is dead; by morning, the poet is mad and locked in an asylum. From the moment we meet the “enigmatic professor” Woland in The Master and Margarita, he is a disorienting figure. Witness reports of the opening accident describe his appearance in confusing, varying detail – “one says he was short, had gold teeth, and was lame in his right foot. Another says that he was hugely tall, had platinum crowns and was lame in his left foot. Yet a third notes laconically that he had no distinguishing features whatsoever.” …