Showing posts from May, 2015

Mikhail Sholokhov: From a Cossack homestead to a Nobel Prize

Mikhail Sholokhov is most famous for his epic four-volume novel And Quiet Flows the Don (1928-1932) about Don Cossacks during the World War I and the subsequent Civil War. A must-read of classic Russian literature, its author has sparked mystery, controversy and praise in equal measure.

1) The famous Cossack author was not a Cossack 

Sholokhov spent his childhood on a Cossack khutor – a single homestead or a small collection of homesteads – but it is not known exactly where he was born.

Although Sholokhov wrote so vividly and extensively about Cossacks, he was not actually a Cossack. His father was a middle-class manager of a steam mill, while his mother was a peasant who had been a servant before her marriage. Sholokhov was born as an illegitimate child, since his mother had been forced to marry the other man rather than his father. It was only after the writer’s stepfather died that his parents could finally get married.

2) Sartre gave him a helping hand 

In 1964, French writer and philo…

Marina Tsvetaeva: You who loved me with the falsity

You who loved me with falsityOf truth – and the truth of lies, You who loved me – beyond extremity Of wherever! – Beyond the skies! You who loved me longer Than Time. – Right hand: wave goodbye! You love me no longer: Truth in five words: no lie!

Translated by A. S. Kline © 2010

Women on the Verge - Love Stories by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

For years, acceptable portrayals of Soviet women in art were limited to the ideal proletariat, a strong-jawed woman with flashing eyes and scythe in hand, or the fairy tale Snow Queen in furs.

It’s no surprise that the realistic short stories and pessimistic plays of Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, who began writing in the 1960s, were banned until glasnost. Her bleak fictions depicted Soviet women as the human workhorses they were. They did not live in castles or picturesque garrets but in mini-gulags, subdivided apartments, which deprived the generations of families and strangers forced to cohabitate of any sense of privacy. (As a child, Petrushevskaya and her mother lived under a desk in her mentally ill grandfather’s room.) Her work was suppressed because she matter-of-factly described the horrors of domestic life in a society that abolished the self.

Many of Petrushevskaya’s stories can be considered fantastic. Her breakout book in America, “There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her N…

Anna Akhmatova: A Word about Pushkin

May 26, 1961 - Komarovo

MY PREDECESSOR, PAVEL SHCHEGOLYOV,1 concludes his work on Pushkin's duel and death with a series of speculations about why society and its spokesmen hated the poet and expelled him as an alien being from its midst. It is now time to turn this question around and speak aloud not about what they did to him, but what he did to them.

After an ocean of filth, deceit, lies, the complacency of friends and the plain foolishness of the Poletikas and non-Poletikas,2 the Stroganov clan,3 the idiot horseguardsmen, who made the d'Anths affair une affaire de regiment (a question of the regiment's honor), the sanctimonious salons of the Nesselrodes, et al.,4 the Imperial Court, which peeked through every keyhole, the majestic secret advisors-members of the State Council- who had felt no shame at placing the great poet under secret surveillance-after all of this, how exhilarating and wonderful it is to see the prim, heartless ("swinish" as Alexander Sergeye…

M.A. Sholokhov by C.P. Snow

It (The Quiet Don) was immediately an enormous success. We all read it at the time. It reached a very wide public. This was true all over the West. It seemed to many of us not only the first great novel written in the Soviet time, but a great novel by any standard. Many years later, it still seems so.

The critical reception was as near unqualified warmth as a modern novel can achieve.

It isn't for a foreigner to make predictions about which Russian works are going to be permanent classics, but my ghost will be restless unless this is one.Tikhy Don (The Quiet Don) is a great novel, but under the lucid brilliant surface a mysterious and difficult one. On the surface it speaks of the bafflement of ordinary men--passionate men of flesh and bone--living in a particular time in history, a particular tempest of the world. If that were all, however, it wouldn't be read by young foreigners today, to whom that tempest, if they know about it at all, is a passage in their history book.

But u…

Mikhail Sholokhov: Quiet Flows the Don

Holding the reins, Grigory watched the old man and was surprised at how easily he hurled his old, bony body into the saddle.

“Follow me!” the general ordered abruptly, his gloved hand gently pulling the reins.
Holding his head like a rooster, the four-year-old stallion surged under Grigory and started walking sideways. He was not shoed on his back legs, and when he stepped on the smooth ice, he slipped, squatted, and spurted on all his legs. In a slouchy, but stable position, old Master lulled on Krepysha’s back.

“Where are we going?” asked Grigory.

“To the Olshansky gully,” Master responded in a thick bass.

The horses walked harmoniously. The stallion pulled at the reins, bending his neck like a swan, squinting his convex eye towards his rider and attempting to bite his knee. We climbed the hill and Master let Krepysha trot. The dogs ran behind Grigory spreading out in a small arc. The old black bitch was running and sweeping the end of the horse’s tale with her humped muzzle. The stallio…

The Soviets’ Cold War Choreographer - Leonid Yakobson

To create modern art in a classical mode is to face forward and backward at once, yoked to the past while inching toward the future. Only a fool or a genius would attempt it. So I had heard of the Soviet ballet choreographer Leonid Yakobson, whose modernist advances took place on hostile home territory. I had seen Vestris, the solo he created for a young Mikhail Baryshnikov that compressed an early ballet master’s mercurial life into a few minutes; it was the only contemporary work the superstar brought with him when he defected in 1974. I knew that the best dancers in Leningrad and Moscow had deemed the choreographer a God-given genius and a rebel to boot.

But whom did these artists, trapped behind the Iron Curtain, have to compare him with? Their praise could easily be dismissed as nationalist hype. After all, the standard American view is that the Soviet vanguard of ballet barely outlived Lenin. The ferment was in Paris, where the young Russian émigré George Balanchine collaborated …

Mikhail Vrubel - Biography

Appearing at the end of 19th century, the paintings of Mikhail Vrubel represent some of the most significant and mysterious phenomenon of Russian art. A talented and tragic artist, Vrubel managed to convey his complex and inaccessible inner life through the medium of his unusual works.

Mikhail Vrubel was born in Omsk, into the family of a military lawyer. Due to his father’s work in the army, the family had to move often. Mikhail studied in different cities such as Omsk, Astrakhan, St. Petersburg and Odessa.

Vrubel first began taking painting lessons in 1864, in Saratov. After completing his gymnasium studies in Odessa, he entered the Saint Petersburg University, specializing in law. At the same time he attended lessons at the Academy of Arts.

Following his graduation from the university, Vrubel served in the army and worked in the war shipping administration. But, his artistic nature could not bear a routine military job and Mikhail entered the Russian Academy of Arts. As a student, he …

Leonid Leonov: The Tramp

The tea was like brewed hay, and the sugar tasted like kerosene. Chadaev tossed the unfinished cup down onto the table and listened absentmindedly to the hubbub in the inn. By midday, as always during the Sunday bazaars, the commotion was growing louder, but Chadaev was wrapped in total silence. Suddenly he stood up, and with his arms extended forward, he moved toward the tavern's rear door. Valuing the irreproachable reputation of his establishment more than his single eye, the tavern-keeper came out to follow Chadaev, but his suspicions were in vain.

In the greenish, strong-smelling dusk of the courtyard that was streaked with light coming in through the cracks, the lodger harnessed his mare. Soft and straight-haired, the mare reluctantly pulled away from the abundantly filled feeding trough. The lodger didn't get angry; he didn't even notice. However, he picked up a crust of bread that someone had dropped on the dirty straw. He gazed at it for a long time before placing …

Dmitri Shostakovich - The second waltz


Dmitry Merezhkovsky: The Curse of Love

WITH heavy anguish, hopeless straining,
The bonds of love I would remove.
Oh, to be loosed from their enchaining!
Oh, freedom, only not to love!

The soul that shame and fear are scourging
Crawls through a mist of dust and blood.
From dust, great God, my spirit purging,
Oh, spare me from love’s bitter flood!

Is pity’s wall alone unshaken?
I pray to God, I cry in vain,
More weary, by all hope forsaken;
Resistless love grows great again.

There is no freedom, unforgiven,
We live as slaves, by life consumed;
We perish, tortured, bound and driven,
Promised to death, and to love—doomed.

Deutsch and Yarmolinsky, comps. Modern Russian Poetry. 1921.

The Life of Maximilian Voloshin - Poet of the Inner Revolution

Maximilian Voloshin was a great poet. He was an artist, a visionary, a man insight who stood as one in his allegiance with Truth.

Voloshin is today unknown in the West, untranslated. He is forgotten in a time when neither the artist or the poet are held in esteem, when truth is misunderstood.

Maximilian Voloshin’s clear understanding of the human condition enabled him to see past the thick illusion of events of his own Russian nation – the revolution and civil war that lead to the creation of the Soviet Union.

Voloshin developed a “spiritual and religious world vision” of “a single world witnessing from which everything radiated.”

In self-knowledge and art, Voloshin always chose “the most reasonable way: make oneself an artist, personally experience and realize the differences.”

He clearly sensed the moment of his realization of spiritual essence and his link to the Absolute. “Something has happened.. I have never been so overwhelmed with joy, strength and confidence..., a feeling of joy, …

Fyodor Dostoevsky: Under the Gun

From a letter to his brother. Dostoevsky had been arrested in 1849 for associating with a circle of liberals. After ten years of prison and serving as a soldier, he returned to St. Petersburg, later publishing The House of the Dead, a novel based on his experiences in prison; in The Idiot a character is subjected to a mock execution: for “at least a quarter of an hour, he passed in the undoubted conviction that in several minutes he suddenly would die.” Dostoevsky died at the age of fifty-nine in 1881.

Brother, my precious friend! All is settled! I am sentenced to four years’ hard labor in the fortress (of Orenburg, I believe), and after that to serve as a private. Today, the twenty-second of December, we were taken to the Semyonov drill ground. There the sentence of death was read to all of us, we were told to kiss the cross, our swords were broken over our heads, and our last toilet was made (white shirts). Then three were tied to the pillar for execution. I was the sixth. Three at a…

The Tolstoys today: Tracking down a famous family

The importance of family values was a theme that Leo Tolstoy explored thoroughly in his work. His novel Anna Karenina presents the idea of family as something almost sacred, and one of the central characters in War and Peace, Countess Natasha Rostova, who is first depicted as a flighty and rather promiscuous girl, later finds real happiness with her family and her children. Tolstoy’s autobiographical trilogy, which comprises the novels Childhood, Boyhood and Youth, also revolves around his relationship with his relatives.

A devoted family man, Tolstoy had 13 children. Four died either in infancy or early childhood, while the rest mostly left Russia in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. During Tolstoy’s lifetime, all his family members contributed to the dissemination of his literary work and legacy, a devotion that continued after the author passed away. Tolstoy’s wife, Sophia Andreyevna, copied – by hand, no less — War and Peace in its entirety numerous times; in 1917 his eldes…

The murder of Mayakovsky's poetry

Biographers are amateur private detectives’, Roman Jakobson once wrote. If so, there are few juicier cases than Vladimir Mayakovsky. For even his death presents a double murder: the suicide of the man and the annihilation of his poetry. The crime scene remains intact – preserved for us by Pasternak. The corpse lies, alone in a room, with a bullet through the heart. The murder weapon – a Mauser pistol – was provided by an agent of Stalin’s secret police. The suicide note is a startling poem – with a new pun. ‘Between eleven and twelve the ripples were still circling around the shot’, wrote Pasternak, on 14 April 1930. ‘The news rocked the telephones, blanketed faces with pallor. He lay on his side with his face to the wall, sullen and imposing, with a sheet up to his chin, his mouth half open as in sleep. Haughtily turning his back on all, even in this repose, even in this sleep, he was stubbornly straining to go away somewhere… death had arrested an attitude which it almost never succ…

Marina Tsvetaeva: A kiss on the forehead

A kiss on the forehead—erases misery. I kiss your forehead.
A kiss on the eyes—lifts sleeplessness. I kiss your eyes.
A kiss on the lips—is a drink of water. I kiss your lips.
A kiss on the forehead—erases memory.

Lenin's lover? Picture of woman described as his true love uncovered

A London-based academic has uncovered a photograph of the woman described by some as Vladimir Lenin’s true love and the “primeval force of the black earth” by her contemporaries, after the image was lost for nearly a century.

Dr Robert Henderson, a Russian history expert at Queen Mary University London, uncovered a photograph of Apollinariya Yakubova – a Russian revolutionary who fled to King’s Cross in London at the turn of the 20th century.

Yakubova and her husband were close associates with Lenin and his wife Nadezhda Krupskaya, who lived intermittently in London between 1902 and 1911, although Yakubova and Lenin were known to have a tempestuous and fractious relationship over the policies of the Russian Social Democratic Labour party.

As first reported by the Camden New Journal, Henderson uncovered the photograph in the bowels of the State Archive of the Russian Federation in Moscow in April while researching the life of another young revolutionary, Vladimir Burtsev, for a book.


Legendary Russian Ballerina Maya Plisetskaya Dies at 89

Maya Plisetskaya, widely regarded as one of the greatest ballerinas of her time, died Saturday, Russia-24 television reported citing Bolshoi Theatre director Vladimir Urin.

Plisetskaya is renowned as one of the world's greatest and most charismatic ballerinas. Her slender physique combined with outstanding technique and effervescent personality have enabled her to steal the hearts of Indira Gandhi, Robert Kennedy and Mao Zedong alike. Plisetskaya has revolutionised the world of ballet once and for all, becoming a role model for millions of aspiring artists worldwide. Writing in her autobiography, Plisetskaya says: “a person's character is his fate”. Indeed, more than most, Plisetskaya demonstrated how strength of personality can bring about amazing success. At eleven years old, she was labelled a “daughter of an enemy of the people”. By the time she was eighteen, she was the leading dancer at the most prestigious ballet company in the USSR. Maya Plistetskaya was born t…