Monday, 28 September 2015

Chekhov’s censored early work finally published

The Prank is the collection of stories that Anton Chekhov hoped would kick-start his career as a writer. Censored in 1882, now, 133 years later, the book he intended has finally been published – in English - with the subtitle “The Best of Young Chekhov”. The collection has never appeared before, even in Russian, although many of the stories in it are well known, and only two of them are new to translation.

This selection of playful tales sheds new light on the young writer, a confident foretaste of recurring themes: misogyny, pretension and lack of compassion. Chekhov appears as a chameleonic jester: here in the guise of a Spanish translator and there as a scientific journalist; a malapropistic, elderly landowner, writing to his educated neighbor, or a cantankerous mother complaining about marriage. By the end of the book, his romantic pastiche swallows its own tail in an ecstasy of meta-fictional, pre-modernist surrealism.

In the 1880s Chekhov was in his twenties and training to be a doctor. To pay the tuition fees of his Moscow medical school and support his family, he wrote a series of comic short stories under pseudonyms like Antosha Chekhonte. Already published in humorous magazines, this was to be his first book, with the revised stories illustrated by his brother Nikolai. The imperial censor rejected the manuscript, and it languished in a dusty office until a Soviet scholar rediscovered it in the 1970s.

Translator Maria Bloshteyn, who has cleverly replicated the freshness of Chekhov’s prose or the deliberate awkwardness of his parodies, explains in her excellent introduction how subversive these stories were. At first glance Chekhov’s flippant fables, some little more than extended jokes, seem inoffensive: an overblown imitation of Victor Hugo’s tempestuous style, an amusing mockery of Jules Verne, a letter from a confirmed bachelor explaining why his many engagements (to “Olya, Zhenya, Zoya”) had never ended in marriage (goose bites, hiccups, literary pride).

But look more closely and these seemingly innocent scenarios expose hypocrisy and corruption: a father tries to bribe a teacher into giving his son a better grade; a train carriage becomes a corrupt and stinking social microcosm, with passengers paying the conductor to dodge the full fare. One traveler observes: “darkness, snoring, stale tobacco and rotgut – this is Russia all right.”

In the opening story, an apartment block full of “artists’ wives” suffers from frenzied, baby-waking singers, sleep-inducing literature or painters who demand their wives pose naked by the window. The protagonist, Alphonso Zinzaga, (Chekhov loves ridiculous names) is a young novelist: “very famous (only to himself)”. The Portuguese setting is transparent as Chekhov gleefully satirizes Moscow’s narcissistic bohemians. Newcomers to Chekhov might find this slim volume an amusing appetizer; for those who already know and love his work, it adds an interesting layer to the portrait of the ironic, melancholic doctor we think we know. Confirmed theatrical Chekhovophiles will scour these pages for a glimpse of the later playwright, with his tragicomic psychological observations. When an old man is abandoned to the elements in St Peter’s Day, a story about a group of drunken hunters, it foreshadows the end of Chekhov’s last play. The Cherry Orchard closes with an elderly servant locked in the deserted house.

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Viktor Astafiev - Biography

Viktor Petrovich Astafiev is one of the best representatives of Russian literature of the second half of the 20th century. Astafiev's colleague, Nobel Prize-winner Aleksandr Solzhenitsin, called him an “adamant truth-lover, one of the first to react to the moral depravity of our life.” Astafiev's life and work is an example of selfless service to people and truth. Every Russian and every foreigner, if they are really concerned with the problems on the Russian national agenda, will find Astafiev’s books most helpful. To many he was more than a talented writer – he was a man in whom they had infinite faith. A war veteran, Astafiev is renowned for his ruthlessly truthful stories about the World War II.

The land where Astafiev lived, East Siberia, is measured not by the hundreds but by the thousands of kilometers. A native Siberian, for a larger part of the year Astafiev lived in the settlement of Ovsyanka on the Yenisey River, where several generations of his ancestors once worked the land. Astafiev also had an apartment in Krasnoyarsk, a city that is at least a four-hour flight from Moscow. “I would like to be back in the village, sitting quietly near the Russian stove, or go to the taiga, to such spots where, I am sure, no visitor will find me. In my 75 years on the day of my birth, 1 May, I remember only five years with such nasty weather. In the evening I like to go out to the Yenisei and sit for a while on a log. This makes me feel stronger. In my vegetable garden I have onions, salad, strawberries. I plant everything and reap the harvest myself. I have also a few trees I brought from the taiga mountain ashes, larches and cedars. One cedar already bears nuts. Perhaps this is the greatest joy in my life after the joy of creation.”

One of the main characters of Astafiev's prose is the nature of Siberia. The pages devoted to nature are so vivid that the reader can immediately imagine the amazing spots that only a few have managed to see with their own eyes. Astafiev has described the powerful Yenisey, and smaller rivers such as the Nizhnyaya Tunguska and the Oparikha, each with its own character.

Astafiev was the first Soviet author to bring up the problem of ecological disaster in his novel “The Tsar -Fish,” which was immediately recognized as a literary masterpiece but also came under criticism. Astafiev spangled the 550 pages of the book with rare dialect words and expressions. Even a native Russian-speaker would find this book difficult to read. But this did not deter translators and publishers, and Astafiev’s book can be found in 27 foreign languages. “The Tsar-Fish” and other of his books have been published in millions of copies in and outside Russia, among them “Theft,” “A Shepherd and a Shepherdess,” and “The Last Bow.”

Astafiev could not imagine human existence without reading books: "I read Cervantes ‘Don Quixote’ not as a young man but much later. This is the book of books, the most merciful book and its main character is the most merciful man. There was a period when I read a lot of Shishkov and Gorky. Then I passed over to Dostoevsky and only at 45 discovered books by Ivan Bunin, who was not available in the Siberian province. And my love for Turgenev’s novel “Rudin” caused me some trouble. During World War Two I served in the communications troops. I spent my every spare minute on my favorite book and used to quote for my comrades my favorite excerpts about the life of the Russian gentry in the mid-19th century and about Rudin’s philosophic strivings. But my comrades thought all this was absolutely out of place and wouldn't listen to me.”

Astafiev became an orphan at an early age. When World War II broke out, he volunteered for the front and fought as a rank-and-file soldier all the way through. He was awarded the Order of the Red Banner and a medal “For Bravery.” In 1951 Astafiev published his first story “Civilian.”

Astafiev’s books reveal what he thinks of the Russian national character and the Russian national idea. In 1995 he published the novel “The Condemned and the Killed,” another book about World War II - probably the most cruel of all. He tried to tell the whole truth, however bitter and unbearable it might be. Death, horror and the madness of war are described without reservations. Astafiev, who has seen action himself, repeatedly addressed the subject of war, trying to say what he knew about the past so that the past might never repeat itself. He had the courage to take a glimpse at the enemy trenches, show the hardships of war experienced not only by Russian but also by German soldiers. Hundreds of documents about World War II have passed through his hands, documents that became available only recently. These documents shocked the writer, made him take a different view of many historical events. He arrived at the conclusion that Leningrad ought to have been surrendered in 1942, and that the storming of Berlin was a mistake of the command. “To my mind, the most important, most interesting and most difficult thing facing Russian literature is a test for truth. Strange as it may seem, it was easier to fight one's way by letting out “grains” of truth. Our literature was only good enough for three minutes of truth. And today, when one needn't lie, it has suddenly proved so difficult. Life as it is, undisguised reality observed and brilliantly recorded by a writer - is the eternal source of literary renewal.”

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Vladimir Vysotsky: A song about a friend

If your friend just became a man,
Not a friend, not a foe, - just so,
If you cannot conclude from the start,
Just what lies in his heart, -
To the peaks take this man -- don’t fret!
Do not leave him alone, on his own,
Let him share the same view with you-- 
Then you’ll know if he’s true.

If the guy on the peak got weak,
If he lost all his care -- got scared,
Just one step on the ice - he flies,
One missed step - and he cries, —
Then the one you held close is false,
Do not bother to yell-- expel, --
We can’t take such aboard, and in short,
We don’t sing of his sort.

If the guy didn’t whine or pine,
He was dull and upset, but went,
When you slipped from the cliff, he heaved,
Holding you in his grip;
If he walked right along, seemed strong,
On the top stood like he belonged, -- 
Then, whenever the outlook seems grim,
You can count on him!

1966

Translation by Andrey Kneller

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Stalin's Man In London

It may seem odd in retrospect, but most historians eagerly anticipated the publication of The Hitler Diaries. Had they been genuine, they would have been revealing. Europe’s “Civil War” of the 1930s and 1940s was vast in scope. It was executed more by machines than men. And its immediate effects were frequently unfathomable. Yet the specific dynamics of conflict — what actually happened, where and when — were often determined by an astonishingly small number of individuals. Those men were only too willing to put their thoughts on these matters to paper. Their memoirs were invariably self-serving. De Gaulle was magnificent in this respect, Eisenhower merely tedious, Speer duplicitous.

However, the contemporaneous diaries of protagonists, especially those composed without obvious intention of publication, have proved to be of quite different value. These often displayed a complexity of motive, even a confusion of purpose (let alone effect), that have served serious study well. No one better exposed the utter cynicism of the Nazi regime than Goebbels. Mussolini’s fake grandiosity was seldom more graphically described than by Ciano. And Britain’s grim determination to prevail still lives in the words of Alanbrooke. But nothing of comparable quality emerged from the ex-Soviet Union. This was scarcely surprising. Stalin’s Terror discouraged all but the most foolhardy from writing much down. Only the suicidal contemplated anything so self-incriminating as a diary. That, at least, is what we thought until now.

Gabriel Gorodetsky is one of the leading historians of 20th-century Soviet foreign policy. In 1993, seeking information on Ivan Maisky’s involvement in the Soviet decision to support the Palestinian partition plan of 1947, he discovered The Maisky Diaries. He has devoted much of the last 20 years to collating, editing and interpreting what may turn out to be the most important contribution of 21st-century historical scholarship to our understanding of the causes, course and consequences of the Second World War. The full, unexpurgated, text runs to about 500,000 words. It will eventually be published in three volumes. This is an abridged edition, reproducing about one-quarter of the original. It is a revelation. It will be read — it will be metaphorically devoured — by anyone remotely interested in understanding the history of humanity’s darkest century.

Maisky was a Soviet diplomat of the old school. He was intelligent, educated and fluent in several languages. He travelled widely before the Revolution. He began as a Menshevik, later shifting his allegiance to the Bolsheviks. He was appointed Soviet Ambassador to London in 1932, remaining there for 11 years. During that time, he set about systematically courting and manipulating anyone who mattered in Britain to Russian advantage. That involved cultivating around 500 of the most influential men and women of the time, beginning with the Foreign Office, then working his way through Parliament and the press. His method, beautifully set out in a nine-page “lecture” to Fedor Gusev, one of Molotov’s moronic yes men, is admirably summarised in this book. It repays the most careful scrutiny.

Maisky was a Marxist. But he never doubted the significance of the individual in history. Thus he took careful stock of its most important specimens in inter-war England. He despised Simon and distrusted Halifax. He loathed, but also feared, Chamberlain. He continually rated Lloyd-George (an “astonishing man”) highest of all, at least before 1941. He did his best to bully lesser political fry, like Butler (with little effect), and to influence sympathetic officials, like Vansittart (with rather more success). He exploited the credulity of indigenous fellow-travellers for all they were worth. Their value varied. Even Maisky was surprised by quite how idiotically Dr Hewlett Johnson interpreted his duty to be useful (“I consider . . . Stalin’s Russia . . . to be the only truly Christian country in our day”). In contrast, the Webbs’ commendable socialist orthodoxy was hampered by their residual “snobbery” (his word). Hence Beatrice’s efforts to hinder his cultivation of Churchill (“He is not a true Englishman, you know. He has negro blood . . . inherited from his mother. You can tell [by] his appearance”).

In these, as in so many other respects, Maisky’s Diaries are endlessly illuminating. But they cannot be taken at face value. There are long gaps in the narrative, witness to those moments when even Maisky felt too frightened to write. The instinct for self-preservation also persuaded him to ascribe his own ideas to others, sometimes to a degree wholly at odds with reality. He was invariably disingenuous in his descriptions of Stalin. That was, no doubt, wise. So what remains must be carefully interpreted. Gorodetsky has achieved this feat by continually placing Maisky’s words in the context of other contemporary documents, both Soviet and foreign. He has also compared Maisky’s private and public accounts of events — his were perhaps the most self-serving of memoirs. The editor’s frequent but discreet commentaries give voice to the silences and correct the misapprehensions. They allow the reader not simply to follow the story but comprehend the text. It is a magnificent editorial achievement.

What The Maisky Diaries, rightly read, reveal is not simply the Soviet perspective but the Soviet dimension to European relations during the decade after Hitler’s rise to power. This has the effect of changing our view on seemingly well-understood events, again and again. We long knew that Hitler was dissatisfied by Munich. We can now appreciate why Stalin regarded that agreement as a disaster. Conversely, the Polish guarantees had the unanticipated effect of making Soviet Russia the pivot of Europe’s balance of power. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was not Stalin’s desperate response to allied procrastination over a Russian agreement. He and Molotov had long since contemplated the greater advantage to be gained from a rapprochement with Hitler. This became their long-term plan. That, rather than asinine self-deception, better explains Stalin’s seemingly craven appeasement of Hitler up to the summer of 1941. By the same token, the Japanese neutrality treaty was not an inspired, last-minute, defence of Russia’s eastern flank. It was part of a premeditated effort “to collaborate extensively with [our] Tripartite Pact Partners”. It took two years hard slog — down to Stalingrad — to reverse the impact of that misjudgement. No wonder Stalin took such pains to conquer Eastern Europe after 1944.

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Sunday, 6 September 2015

Dmitry Bykov - Interview

RBTH: This is your second year as a visiting lecturer at Princeton University. Among other things, your lectures explore how the image of the U.S. changed in Russian and Soviet literature. Could you please tell us briefly what it was like in the 19th and 20th centuries, and what image of America is dominant in contemporary writing?

Dmitry Bykov: Those were one-off lectures that I read at my students' request. And I once delivered this lecture at my favorite Brooklyn Public Library, whose assistance in digging out some rare sources was invaluable.

In modern literature, the prevalent image of the U.S. derives from Anatoly Ivanov's novel The Eternal Call (written in 1971-76). You won't believe it but everything that we are being fed today about a Dulles Plan to destroy Russian spirituality in fact comes from the monologue of émigré Lakhnovsky, a former White Guard officer. [Editor’s note: the Dulles plan refers to a conspiracy theory in which the CIA is attempting to undermine the morality and cultural mores of the Soviet Union.] An America that is undermining our selfhood and sawing away at our spiritual binds was invented by a Soviet reactionary, who must have had some talent after all since his ideas have quite taken root.

Generally speaking, at times of uplift, Russia is always interested in America, is not afraid of America, and is a partner for America, whereas when things are down, it becomes susceptible to conspiracy theories and suspiciousness and is dreaming of shutting itself away from the rest of the world. Incidentally, the same is true of the United States, there is a lot of symmetry between us.

RBTH: Are American students different from Russian ones?

D. B.: When giving an assignment to an American student, you can be sure that it will be done well and on time. Ambition is the best motivation. An American student knows that for their career it is better to be active and to talk a lot. Whereas a Russian student knows that for their career it is better to keep silent, or at least to bide one's time.

RBTH: What is your overall impression of the education system in the U.S.?

D. B.: Very good. The beauty of the Dewey system is that it teaches students to know and learn not facts but sources, not details but the system. An American student selects quite a narrow segment, in which they know everything, and is quite well-versed in adjacent areas of knowledge. Furthermore, they can find material on any question in a matter of 24 hours because they know where to look.

There is much less control in the U.S. education system and no incentives apart from personal growth. Relations between professors and students are more relaxed and friendly, there is less hierarchy.

An American student is like Hermione, while a Russian student is more like Harry: everybody knows that he is a hero and a martyr but it does not show in his studies. He is just different. And he is very good at Quidditch.

RBTH: Which Russian authors, both contemporary and classical, are popular in the USA? To what do you attribute their popularity?

D. B.: Viktor Pelevin's works are translated in the U.S. a lot. Others who are well-known are Ludmila Petrushevskaya, Fazil Iskander, Andrei Bitov. Sometimes some young authors are published too. Readers also remember Yury Trifonov and Vasily Aksyonov.
But Russian literature has for a long time not generated such a surge in new styles, themes and talents as, say, Latin American literature did in the 1960s. That surge had many causes: cultural, historical, partly political. Ours is yet to come.

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