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Showing posts from April, 2015

In bed with Tchaikovsky

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Once more, Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s sexuality has come up for debate, and once more, the discussion has nothing to do with the composer’s time or place but everything to do with ours. Tchaikovsky has no say in the matter, so we feel free to interpret his music, even when fixed to words or grounded in dancers’ feet, however we like. Doing so keeps the music relevant. Apparently relevance means dragging Tchaikovsky into the political and cultural conflict between Russia, as the born-again defender of traditional conservative values, and the decadent, declining, same-sex- marriage-sanctioning West.

 “Who Made the Genius Gay?” asks an article published last November in the semiofficial arts and politics newspaper Kul’tura. Homosexuality is presumed to be something extrinsic, something that has been done to Tchaikovsky. The perpetrators need to be named and shamed, which then allows for the redemption, through purification, of the composer’s reputation.

The historiographic purge is carried out in…

Ivan Goncharov - Biography

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The Russian novelist Ivan Goncharov is one of the greatest realists of Russian literature. His novel "Oblomov" and other works are considered classics of Russian fiction.

Ivan Goncharov was born into the well-to-do family of a grain merchant on 18 June 1812 in Simbirsk (now Ulyanovsk). Although the family background was of the merchant class, young Ivan was brought up in the patriarchal atmosphere of Russian manor life. Goncharov's father died in 1819 leaving Ivan to be raised by his godfather, Nikolai Tregubov, a liberal-minded aristocrat and a former mariner. It was Tregubov who developed in the boy a love for novels about traveling, journeys and adventures – young Goncharov hung upon his stepfather’s lips when the latter recalled his sea voyages and all the difficulties he had to stem.

Goncharov received an excellent private education. At the age of eight he was sent to a private school, where he stayed for two years until, at the age of 10, he was sent to a private boa…

A Strangely Funny Russian Genius - Daniil Kharms

Russia is the funniest country in the world. Some countries, like America and England, are funny mostly on purpose, while others, like Germany and France, can be funny only unintentionally. (But that counts! Being funny is tricky, so any way you do it counts.) Russia, however, is funny both intentionally (Gogol, Zoshchenko, Bulgakov) and unintentionally (Vladimir Putin singing, as he did at a televised event a few years ago, “I found my thrill on Blueberry Hill”). Given the disaster Russian history has been more or less continuously for the last five centuries, its humor is of the darkest, most extreme kind. Russian humor is to ordinary humor what backwoods fundamentalist poisonous snake handling is to a petting zoo. Russian humor is slapstick, only you actually die.

Surveys that measure such distinctions often rate Russians among the world’s least happy people. To judge from the Russians I know, this information would hold little interest one way or the other. To Russians, happiness i…

'The Librarian': Philosophical parable or fascist nostalgia?

Mikhail Elizarov won the prestigious Russian Booker Prize in 2008 with his story of war-like “libraries” and their battles over copies of old novels that give their readers magical powers. The tale is studded with bayonets, broken glass, butchers’ cleavers, spiked clubs, axes, hammers and flails. This is not the sedate ride a reader might expect from a novel called “The Librarian”, which centers on the works of Dmitry Gromov, an invented, second-rate, Soviet author. Translator Andrew Bromfield has calmly waded through the gore to bring us the “Battle of Neverbino” or compound neologisms like “Yeltsinhater”.

Before reaching the main narrative, Elizarov records the lives of early “librarians” including Yelizaveta Mokhova, whose readings from “The Book of Strength” turn a ward full of comatose old women into a bloodthirsty army. These tales form a Silmarillion-style prehistory in Elizarov’s mythopoeic universe and there are moments of fleet-footed humor, like the image of a bedridden eig…

Pasternak, Tsvetaeva and Rilke: Letters and love poems

During the early years of World War I and the following Bolshevik Revolution, Boris Pasternak and Marina Tsvetaeva both lived in Moscow, moving in the same literary circles without catching each other’s attention. 

Tsvetaeva left Russia in 1922 to live in Prague with her exiled husband, Sergei Efron, who had escaped the revolution several years earlier. Later that year, Pasternak read her poetry collection “Versts” and immediately wrote her a letter expressing his deep admiration for her work. This was the spark for an intense romantic relationship expressed through letters brimming with poetry, love, doubt and jealousy.

The two young poets quickly discovered how much they had in common. Aside from their similar ages and upbringing in Moscow, they both had a professor father and a pianist mother. They had also both visited Germany on several occasions and shared a love of German literature.

In spring 1926 Boris Pasternak was going through a period of deep artistic dissatisfaction and …

The Moral Urgency of Anna Karenina

I. The First Sentence Often quoted but rarely understood, the first sentence of Anna Karenina—“All happy families resemble each other; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”—offers a paradoxical insight into what is truly important in human lives. What exactly does this sentence mean? In War and Peace and in a variant of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy quotes a French proverb: “Happy people have no history.” Where there are dramatic events, where there is material for an interesting story, there is unhappiness. The old curse—“May you live in interesting times!”—suggests that the more narratable a life is, the worse it is. With happy lives and happy families, there is no drama to relate. What are you going to say: They woke up, breakfasted, didn’t quarrel, went to work, dined pleasantly, and didn’t quarrel again? Happy families resemble each other because there is no story to tell about them. But unhappy families all have stories, and each story is different. II. Love and Fate We tend to thin…

Russian Art Movement and Magazine Mir iskusstva - Мир иску́сства

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World of Art (Mir iskusstva in Russian) was an artistic movement inspired (and embodied) by an art magazine which served as its manifesto de facto, which was a major influence on the Russians who helped revolutionize European art during the first decade of the 20th century. Few Westerner/Europeans actually saw issues of the magazine itself and so the movement itself is somewhat of a mystery is Westerners and Europeans.

The artistic group was founded in 1898 by a group of students that included Alexandre Benois, Konstantin Somov, Dmitry Filosofov, Léon Bakst, Eugene Lansere.

The first public showing of the group was at the Exhibition of Russian and Finnish Artists in the Stieglitz Museum of Applied Arts in Saint-Petersburg.

In 1899 they founded the magazine in St. Petersburg by Alexandre Benois, Léon Bakst, and Sergei Diaghilev (the Chief Editor). They aimed at assailing low artistic standards of the obsolescent Peredvizhniki school and promoting artistic individualism and other principle…

Nijinsky: a Life

A few tantalising seconds of jerky black-and-white footage are all that survive as cinematic evidence of Vaslav Nijinsky’s balletic genius. But in her enthralling biography, Nijinsky, Lucy Moore helps redress the deficiency by providing an atmospheric lens through which the greatest ballet dancer of all time comes once again to life. Through Nijinsky’s own diary, as well as many other contemporary sources, Moore uses her meticulous and intelligent research to tell the moving story of a professional life that began in triumph and ended in desperate sadness. With a circlet of poppies and cornflowers on his five-year-old head, Nijinsky made his public debut in a Cossack folk dance in 1894. The three Nijinsky children were abandoned at an early age by their father and brought up by their impoverished, self-sacrificing mother, who remained single-mindedly ambitious for her gifted younger son. In 1899, she was rewarded when Vaslav was offered a coveted place at St Petersburg’s Imperial Theat…

Dostoevsky Literary Museum - Omsk

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There are lots of cities on the map connected to F. M. Dostoevsky. The writer visited Berlin and Dresden, Genoa and Paris, Baden-Baden and London, Milan and Geneva, Venice and Cologne.

But only three cities sound in unison to the writer’s biography. There names are: Moscow, Saint-Petersburg and Omsk.

F. M. Dostoevsky was born in Moscow, his childhood passed there.

Saint-Petersburg. Novels of the writer immortalized strict lines of Saint-Petersburg’s streets, endlessness of bridges, closed circumspection of yards, worn out footsteps of old houses. How much did F. M. Dostoevsky write about this city! St.-Petersburg’s life air inspired novels of the great writer, his literary fame came to him in this city, there he lived and worked. There, in Alexandro-Nevskaya Lavra, he is buried.

In the Moscow – St.-Petersburg – Omsk triad our city has its own unique place. Here the writer suffered four years of penal servitude (since January, 23, 1850), stayed here a couple of weeks in the February of 185…

Olga Berggolts – Biography

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Olga Berggolts was a Soviet poet and blockade-era radio speaker; the voice broadcasting on the one working radio station during the blockade of Leningrad, a solitary familiar voice that many survivors have said literally kept them alive during those dark and lean days. From her microphone straight into the barricaded apartments of the besieged city, Olga read her own poems and those of other poets, delivered news about bombings or fires in the city and, above all, encouraged the besieged Leningraders to hold on to their last hope of life.

She survived the terrible ordeal of the German blockade of Leningrad and in 1942 published her “Leningrad Notebook,” which gave tragic expression to the episode with her restrained, ordered treatment lending an almost unbearable poignancy to much of the verse. Olga Berggolts, like the poet Anna Akhmatova who greatly influenced her, is intricately associated with the northern Russian capital. A key figure in the post-Stalin “thaw” in literature, she is…

Realism and Russia’s Fate - Ivan Turgenev

The Russian experience has always made for literature both emotionally moving and intellectually stimulating to an extraordinarily high degree. It is no wonder (and certainly no secret) that the masters of Russian literature, particularly from the 19th century, make up so much of the Western canon. And it is precisely the predisposition to universality that obscures the potential oddity of Russian literature’s place in Western culture, given the question of whether Russia is part of the West at all. For a clear lens through which to view this demand, the beguilingly refined works of playwright and novelist Ivan Turgenev provide critique and admiration of both Russian tradition and the values founded in Western Europe’s Age of Reason. His delicate, incisive play, A Month in the Country, which does just this, has found new life in the hands of renowned translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, who continue their thirty-odd-volume streak of reminding English readers of the grea…

Mikhail Bulgakov: White Guard

Mikhail Bulgakov is best known for his Soviet-era satire The Master and Margarita, although he also has the infamous distinction of writing a favorite play of Stalin’s, The Days of the Turbins. This play and Bulgakov’s 1924 debut, White Guard, were both based on the author’s personal experiences in Kiev during the tumultuous years of the Revolution. While Stalin blessed The Days of the Turbins, White Guard was kept from publication until 1966, 26 years after Bulgakov’s death. The book was then quietly picked up by Russian scholars, meticulously studied, and inserted into its proper place among other works of Russian revolutionary literature. Many years later it has crossed the scholarly seas, and is now translated into English for the first time, bravely offered by Yale University Press. Is White Guard worth the wait? Most definitely. The essay “Writing Judgment Day” by Russian literary scholar Evgeny Dobrenko is included at the start of White Guard, and for those unfamiliar with the R…