Showing posts from October, 2015

Vasily Grosaman and Andrey Platonov

Among his contemporaries there was only one writer whom Grossman admired without reservation: Andrey Platonov. Fyodor Guber, Yekaterina Korotkova and Semyon Lipkin have all written about the close friendship between the two writers and their admiration of each other’s work. Platonov was six years older than Grossman, but Grossman was the more established figure and he clearly did what he could to help Platonov; in 1942 he asked David Ortenberg, the chief editor of Red Star, to take Platonov under his protection, saying that ‘this good writer’ was ‘defenceless’ and ‘without any settled position’. Ortenberg duly took Platonov on as a war correspondent. Later Grossman invited Platonov to collaborate on The Black Book; it seems that Platonov was given responsibility for all the material relating to the Minsk ghetto. During Platonov’s final illness, Grossman visited him almost daily, and he gave one of the main speeches at Platonov’s funeral. In a 1960 radio broadcast based on this speech…

Sergey Dovlatov - Biography

Sergey Dovlatov (1941-1990) stands out in Russian literature as a most enigmatic man of letter, his works bordering between documentary evidence and play of fancy, between seeming simplicity and inconceivable magnetism, between risque humour and wisdom. His major audiences reside on two continents divided by the Pacific and the oceans of difference. ‘Unlike my friends, American writers, I’ve got not one, but three audiences. I am in a pole position. If I happen not to get on with my Russian publisher in the USA, I say, ok, perhaps I’ll be luckier with this book in English. If that doesn’t happen either, I’ve got Soviet reader on stand-by. Actually all emigrant writers hope that the Soviet readers will understand and appreciate them. It’s a serious test.’ – Sergey Dovlatov wrote. He passed this test for certain. His freedom of thinking was like fresh air for many people in Soviet times and afterwards. Many phrases from his books have turned winged. Though he gained fame only after ab…

A letter by Fyodor Dostoyevsky to future Emperor of Russia Alexander III

Your Imperial Highness, Most Gracious Sire, Allow me the honour and happiness of bringing to your notice my work. It is almost a historical study, whereby I wished to explain how it is that such monstrous phenomena, as the Nechayev movement, are possible in our strange society. My view is that the phenomenon is not accidental, not singular. It is a direct consequence of the great divorcement of the whole Russian education from the native and peculiar mainsprings of Russian life. Even the most talented representatives of our pseudo-European progress had long ago become convinced that it was perfectly criminal for us, Russians, to dream of our distinctiveness. The most terrible thing about it is this, that they are quite right; for, once having proudly called ourselves Europeans, we have thereby denied our being Russians. Confused and frightened by the idea that we lag so far behind Europe in our intellectual and scientific progress, we have forgotten that we, in the inmost problems of t…

The Hermitage


How the Avant Garde Became Agitprop: Art and Film of the USSR at the Jewish Museum

The happy convergence of avant-garde art and revolutionary politics is a utopian dream nowhere more celebrated than in the creative foment of the Russian Revolution. That winsome fantasy—that art is both symptom and fuel of social progress—is everywhere on display in “The Power of Pictures: Early Soviet Photography, Early Soviet Film.”

The show, on view at the Jewish Museum, is filled with fabulously dynamic black-and-white pictures of happy workers and peasants, military parades, the rising modern metropolis, industrial development—all familiar themes of Soviet propaganda photography—composed with the kind of vertiginous perspectives and unusual angles that appear as literal expressions of the upheaval that accompanied the transformation of Russian society a century ago.

This unique survey of some 180 works by Sergei Eisenstein, El Lissitzky, Alexander Rodchenko, Dziga Vertov and another two score lesser-known photographers and filmmakers is open through February 7, 2016.

The portab…

Nicholas II's Library in the Winter Palace. Saint Petersburg.


Andrei Platonov: On the First Socialist Tragedy

‘On the First Socialist Tragedy’ occupies an unusual place in Platonov’s oeuvre. In generic terms, it belongs among his many journalistic writings. But those from his Voronezh period (1921–26) are more agitational in character, while his literary criticism (1937 onwards) focuses above all on aesthetic questions. Philosophical texts, as such, are very much a rarity—though it is possible more may emerge from an archive that is still, sixty years after his death, not fully catalogued. The manuscript of this text was first published in Russian in 1991; a second, typescript version appeared in 1993. The latter, which is what Gorky would have read, places much greater emphasis on the problems facing the USSR’s ‘engineers of the soul’. The translation that appears here is based on Platonov’s original manuscript—terse and prescient in equal measure.

One should keep one’s head down and not revel in life: our time is better and more serious than blissful enjoyment. Anyone who revels in it will …

National Library of Russia - the manuscript department, St. Petersburg,


Ivan Goncharov: Oblomov

More translations of Russian novels? We’ve done our time with War and Peace, what more do you want? Indeed. In the case of Russian literature, the vaults are still being opened, classics are still being unearthed, and new Russian literary works are still making their way to our shores. Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov and Mikhail Bulgakov’s White Guard are a new and noteworthy pairing, and their translations are brought to us by Marian Schwartz, a prize-winning translator of Russian fiction, history, biography, and criticism. Schwartz’s recently published translation of Oblomov is the first time Goncharov’s preferred 1862 edition has been made available in English. The combination of Goncharov’s edits and Schwartz’s translation left me thumbing back to the copyright page to confirm 1862, not 1962, as this translation sparkles with contemporary lyricism and humor. White Guard, though available in Russian since 1966, makes a stirring English debut; it sweeps us into the turbulence of Kiev during …

Pavlov’s parables

For all its engrossing detail, it is hard not to read Ivan Pavlov: A Russian life in science as a parable of modern Russia. In Ivan Pavlov we have the archetypal collision between religion and secular modernity: a priest’s son and seminary boy from the provinces who made the break to St Petersburg University in 1870 and became a defiant positivist. Conditioned not only by the scientistic turn of the 1860s in Russia, but also by the accelerating industrialization of the later nineteenth century, Pavlov adopted factory methods in his own labs, presiding over an elaborate programme of minutely empirical studies. The scale and integrated character of his research secured him international renown with the award of a Nobel Prize in 1904 for his work on the digestive system. By then Pavlov had shown like no one else the benefits of technological innovation and quantitative analysis for overcoming mind–body dualism. Thanks to ingenious surgical methods and hygienic lab conditions, his team was…

Monument To Alexander II Of Russia


Life is Freedom: The Art of Vasily Grossman

The continued obscurity of the Soviet author Vasily Grossman is not easy to understand after one has spent any time with his writing, but a few conjectures come to mind. His masterpiece, Life and Fate, was published in the United States in 1985, and in 1985, the year that Mikhail Gorbachev became general secretary of the Soviet party, Russian literature in America was in a sense “spoken for” by the increasingly umbrageous and controversial Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Both Grossman and Solzhenitsyn had written vast, dense, synthesizing epics about life behind the iron curtain, but whereas Grossman was dead, Solzhenitsyn was very much alive, and in fact a celebrity, periodically sallying out from rural Vermont to fulminate against Western decadence or something else that caused excitement. Life and Fate, on the other hand, could do nothing unless it was read, and with 871 pages and over 160 characters, it was and remains a book that’s easier to tip one’s hat to than read.

And then there is …

Dmitry Merezhkovsky: November

A pale moon, on the wane,
The air sonorous, dead and clear,
And on the naked, nippy willow
Murmurs a wilted leaf. Catches frost, gets heavier
In the abyss of a quiet pond.
Darkens and thickens
The stirless water. A pale moon on the wane
Is lying dead,
And on the naked black willow
The cold ray doesn’t tremble. The sky shimmers, dear,
As the magical earth,
As the inaccessible fields
Of a lost paradise. trans. Edmund Grinbaldt

Maya Plisetskaya: "Romantic Encounter"

Music Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Based on the novel by Turgenev
Choreography: Valentin Elisariev

Maya Plisetskaya, Anatoly Berdyshev


Metaphysical author Yuri Mamleev has died aged 83

The author and philosopher Yuri Mamleev died on Oct. 25 in Moscow. He is considered to have created a new literary style, metaphysical realism, which finds its expression in his philosophical study, The Fate of the Existence. In his book Eternal Russia, Mamleev follows the example of the Silver Age philosophers in creating his own conception of Russian nationalism.

 “A huge number of writers with different views – from the postmodernist Vladimir Sorokin to Mikhail Yelizarov or the right-wing Alexander Dugin – learned their art from Mamleev,” the author Sergei Shargunov told the MK daily.

“Mamleev is, of course, a philosopher, but above all, he is an excellent writer. He continues Dostoevsky’s tradition as he seeks to understand the depths of the human spirit and the mysteries of human nature. This search permeates all his famous short stories and his legendary novel The Sublimes – all of them have become modern classics of Russian literature.”

Mamleev belonged to a group of semi-undergr…

Tsar Nicholas II: Russia tries to prove remains of his two children are genuine

They were murdered by Bolshevik firing squad almost a century ago, and their bodies dumped in a frozen forest in the Urals close to the site of their execution. Now, after finding and verifying the remains of Tsar Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra, Russia is to attempt to prove that the purported remains of two of their children, Alexei and Maria, are genuine so the family can finally be laid to rest together in St Petersburg. The new push to unite the Romanovs will involve exhuming the body of Alexander III, Nicholas’ father, to test DNA against not only his son’s remains but also those reputed to be of Alexei and Maria, which are held in the Russian State Archive. If the tests prove conclusive, Alexei and Maria will be interred at St Petersburg’s Peter and Paul Cathedral beside their mother, father and three other siblings Olga, Tatiana and Anastasia. The exhumation of Alexei and Maria’s grandfather was ordered after a request from the head of Russia’s Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill…

Modest Mussorgsky - Biography

His melodies have a strong connection to Russian history, Slavic mythology and folklore. For many years his works were mainly known through versions that were revised or remade by other composers and it wasn't until his death that his talent was fully understood, with many critics suggesting his style was simply way ahead of its time. Today he is considered a pioneer of Russian opera alongside such musical giants as Pyotr Tchaikovsky and Dmitry Shostakovich. This is Modest Mussorgsky.

Modest Mussorgsky was born in 1839 into a well-known noble Russian family, allegedly related to the legendary Ryurik who, as many historians believe, founded the Russian state in the ninth century. Although one of his grandmothers was a peasant, his father was a State servant and his mother – the daughter of an esquire. At the age of six, his mother, a trained pianist herself, began teaching him piano. Just three years later young Mussorgsky was already able to perform a John Field concerto and work…

Vasily Grossman: In the War

Before the War, Nikolai Bogachev attended a regular ten-year school, after which he found work at a factory. He had a calm, withdrawn personality. He didn't like going to the movies and rarely socialized with his comrades. At school he was disliked because of his quiet nature and disinterest in participating in volleyball competitions. At the factory Nikolai was respected as a good worker, one who masterfully knew his task, but even here he didn't grow close with any of his comrades. No one visited him, and he never called on anyone either. Immediately after work, he would set off for home. His mother would often brag to her neighbors that her son was so serious, so mature: "He'll come home, have dinner, and will immediately occupy himself with some sort of task or he'll read; and he only reads serious things -- technical literature." But deep in her soul it upset her that Nikolai was so introverted and unsociable. True, she did see and feel his kindness. He …

Vladimir Mayakovsky: What became of it

What became of it

More than allowed
And much more than needed -
As though 
disillusioned by the poetic fate -
the lump of the heart grew bigger and bigger,
and big was my love,
and big was my hate!
Under that burden,
the feet
stumbled forward -
I was 
always well built
you know - 
with weight of a heart, I walked awkward,
and the breadth of my shoulders swayed to and fro.
I swelled with the milk of verse -
- it wouldn't leave me -
it overflowed me, with no where to run.
I staggered along,
overwhelmed by the lyric
of the world-nursing imagery 
of Maupassant.

Library of Moscow State University - one of the oldest libraries of Russia


The Realization of Something New: The Life of the World to Come - Vladimir Solovyov

If stones and metals had been its only building blocks, the world would not have woken from its deep sleep. It could rely, however, on the life-will of the most basic bacteria. Although life’s first stirrings cannot be traced to its roots, even by foremost minds such as Charles Darwin, one can observe the apparently unreflective attraction of elementary creatures to light and warmth. Higher up in evolution’s chain, animals are driven by a desire for sensation and free movement. They satisfy their hunger and sexual needs when they can and must. Human beings, Nature’s crowning glory, go far beyond other life-forms in their rationality and self-consciousness. We philosophise and dream in ways plants and animals cannot begin to comprehend. Biologists, however, fail to address the most valuable question of all. What is the point of existence? It is, of course, the world’s perfection into the Kingdom of God. Our Saviour showed the way, and history since then has been a series of small achie…