Saturday, 31 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, Grossman described Platonov as ‘a writer who wanted to understand the most complicated – which really means the most simple – foundations of human existence.’ Lipkin refers to this broadcast as ‘the first sensible and worthwhile word said in Russia about Platonov.’ In some respects Grossman and Platonov stand at opposite ends of the spectrum. Platonov’s prose is often close to poetry whereas Grossman’s is often close to journalism – perhaps as close to journalism as great prose can be while remaining great prose. Nevertheless, the two writers evidently had a great deal in common. Ortenberg, for example, writes in his memoirs, ‘Grossman, like his friend Andrey Platonov, was not a talkative person. The two of them sometimes came to Red Star, settled on one of the sofas […] and stay there for an entire hour without saying a word. They seemed, without words, to be carrying on a conversation known only to them.’ Lipkin, for his part, describes Platonov as ‘more independent in his judgments’ and Grossman as a ‘more traditional’ writer. He goes on to relate how he used to sit with Platonov and Grossman on the street opposite Platonov’s apartment. The three of them would take turns in making up stories about passers-by. Grossman’s were detailed and realistic; Platonov’s were ‘plotless’, more focussed on the person’s inner life, which was ‘both unusual and simple, like the life of a plant.’ Still more interesting, however, is the extent to which Grossman, throughout the period from Platonov’s death in 1951 to his own death in 1964, seems to have grown more like Platonov. It is almost as if he felt Platonov’s spirit to be something so precious that he wanted to keep it alive. ‘The Dog’ is about a mongrel by the name of ‘Pestrushka’ – the first living creature to survive a journey in space. With her capacity for devotion, her past life as a homeless wanderer, living out on the streets, and her quick, instinctive understanding of technology, Pestrushka embodies all the most characteristic qualities of Platonov’s peasant heroes. In another story, ‘The Road’, Grossman almost outdoes Platonov. Platonov often shows us uneducated people grappling with difficult philosophical questions; Grossman, however, presents us with a mule who arrives at the concept of infinity and successfully resolves Hamlet’s dilemma about whether to be or not to be. ...

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 abandoning his homeland, he is beloved and widely read in Russia and other countries till date. Sergey Donatovich Dovlatov (Mechik) was born on September 3, 1941, in the city of Ufa where his family was evacuated from Leningrad. His father, Donat Issakovich Mechik (1909-1995), was a stage director and his mother, Nora Sergeyvena Dovlatova (1908-1999), was a literature corrector. In 1944 the family got back to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). In 1959 Sergey entered the Philological Faculty (Finnish language department) of Leningrad State University but in two and a half years his studies were cut short by the army draft. From 1962 to 1965 he served in convoy troops, guarding criminals in Komi Republic. This experience is vividly conveyed in his novel The Zone. Upon demobilization Dovlatov studied at the Faculty of Journalism, worked as a journalist in a factory newspaper (which he also used later in his ironical reminiscences) and started writing stories. At that time he was part of the Leningrad group of writers ‘Gorozhane’ (The Townsfolk) together with V. Maramzin, B. Vakhtinov, etc. He also worked as a secretary of Vera Panova, a well-known writer those days. From 1972 he lived in Tallinn and worked as a correspondent of The Soviet Estonia newspaper. Then Dovlatov was a tour guide in Pushkin museum reserve Mikhailovskoye located near Pskov. That part of his life served as subject matter for his brilliant Zapovednik (The Reserve). In 1976 Dovlatov returned to Leningrad, where he worked in the magazine Koster (Bonfire). He also wrote prose, but his numerous attempts to publish stories in Soviet magazines were all in vain. The printed matter of his first book was destroyed by the order of KGB. ...

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 the Russian spirit, contain in ourselves, as Russians, the capacity perhaps of bringing a new light to the world, on condition of our development being distinctive. In the ecstasy of our humiliation, we have forgotten the most immutable historical law, namely, that without the presumption of our own world importance as a nation, we can never be a great nation and leave after us anything distinctive for the good of mankind.
We have forgotten that all great nations have manifested themselves and their great powers just because they were so “presumptuous” in their conceit. Just because of that they have benefited the world, and have, each nation, brought into it something if only a single ray of light, just because they have remained themselves, proudly and undauntedly, always and presumptuously independent.
To think like this at the present time in Russia and to express such ideas means to doom oneself to the role of a pariah. And yet the principal preachers of our national undistinctiveness would be the first to turn away with horror from the Nechayev creed. Our Belinskies and Granovskies would not believe, if they were told, that they are the direct fathers of the Nechayevists. This kinship and continuity of idea, descending from the fathers to the sons, is what I wished to express in my work. I am far from having succeeded but I have worked conscientiously.
I am flattered and elated by the hope that you, Sire, the heir of one of the greatest thrones in the world, the future leader and ruler of the Russian land, have perhaps paid even the least attention to my weak but conscientious attempt to expose in an imaginative work one of the most dangerous sores of our present day civilization, a civilization strangely unnatural and undistinctive, and yet dominating Russian life.
Permit me, Most Gracious Sire, to remain with feeling of boundless respect and gratitude your most true and most devoted servant,
Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Friday, 30 October 2015

The Hermitage

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

Anatoly Belsky's lithograph poster for Five Minutes, 1929. (Photo: Courtesy of the Merrill C. Berman Collection and the Jewish Museum)
Anatoly Belsky’s lithograph poster for Five Minutes, 1929. (Photo: Courtesy of the Merrill C. Berman Collection and 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 portable Leica camera was the technological advance that made possible the hyperactive graphics we now associate with imagery of the Russian Revolution. (The camera was introduced at a trade fair in Leipzig in 1925.) The cheaper Soviet knockoff of the Leica was called the FED; it was actually named in honor of “Iron Felix,” or Felix Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky, the feared head of the Cheka, the Soviet secret police. His Red Terror campaign killed hundreds of thousands of “counter-revolutionaries” during the consolidation of Bolshevik rule. The camera was produced as part of the rehabilitative program on a commune for orphans Dzerzhinsky had founded in Ukraine.

The best-known photographic portrait of Dzerzhinsky, however, on view in this exhibition, is old school. The 1919 headshot is moody and artistic in its soft tones, though it’s easy to see a sinister glint in his eyes. The portrait was made by Moisei Nappelbaum, who before the revolution operated a fashionable photo studio in St. Petersburg. His career flourished in the Soviet era and he died in Moscow in 1958.

The exhibition includes several more portraits, including Rodchenko’s appropriately macho image, from 1924, of the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, and a 1924 portrait by Nappelbaum of the acclaimed modernist writer Anna Akhmatova in profile, looking rather too cosmopolitan in beads and flowered dress. Nappelbaum’s modest gelatin silver print from the early ’30s of Stalin in his trademark worker’s tunic and boots stands in as the sole representative in the show of the cult of personality that characterized the autocrat’s long rule.

The Jewish Museum’s senior curator emeriti, Susan Tumarkin Goodman, who organized the show, points out that its narrative trajectory moves from avant-garde “formalism” to Soviet Realism, from freedom of expression to complete state control. Photography and photo-graphics—a substantial selection of picture newspapers and magazines, designed with a largely illiterate population in mind, is included—increasingly became restricted to Soviet propaganda purposes.

In the end, experimental photographic methods served the regime quite well, Ms. Goodman notes, “as long as the photographer embraced the approved themes of industrialization, collectivization, healthy and happy life, empire expansion, sports and defense.” Despite its design as first and foremost a propaganda tool, “photography became the last bastion of radical visual culture.”

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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 certainly be caught and perish, like a mouse that has crawled into a mousetrap to ‘revel in’ a piece of lard on the bait pedal. Around us there is a lot of lard, but every piece is bait. One should stand with the ordinary people in their patient socialist work, and that’s all.

This mood and consciousness correspond to the way nature is constructed. Nature is not great, it is not abundant. Or it is so harshly arranged that it has never bestowed its abundance and greatness on anyone. This is a good thing, otherwise—in historical time—all of nature would have been plundered, wasted, eaten up, people would have revelled in it down to its very bones; there would always have been appetite enough. If the physical world had not had its one law—in fact, the basic law: that of the dialectic—people would have been able to destroy the world completely in a few short centuries. More: even without people, nature would have destroyed itself into pieces of its own accord. The dialectic is probably an expression of miserliness, of the daunting harshness of nature’s construction, and it is only thanks to this that the historical development of humankind became possible. Otherwise everything on earth would long since have ended, as when a child plays with sweets that have melted in his hands before he has even had time to eat them.

Where does the truth of our contemporary historical picture lie? Of course, it is a tragic picture, because the real historical work is being done not on the whole earth, but in a small part of it, with enormous overloading.

The truth, in my view, lies in the fact that ‘technology . . . decides everything’. Technology is, indeed, the subject of the contemporary historical tragedy, if by technology we understand not only the complex of man-made instruments of production, but also the organization of society, solidly founded on the technology of production, and even ideology. Ideology, incidentally, is located not in the superstructure, not ‘on high’, but within, in the middle of society’s sense of itself. To be precise, one needs to include in technology the technician himself—the person—so that one does not obtain an iron-hard understanding of the question.

The situation between technology and nature is a tragic one. The aim of technology is: ‘give me a place to stand and I will move the world’. But the construction of nature is such that it does not like to be beaten: one can move the world by taking up the lever with the required moment, but one must lose so much along the way and while the long lever is turning that, in practice, the victory is useless. This is an elementary episode of dialectics. Let us take a contemporary fact: the splitting of the atom. The same thing. The worldwide moment will arrive when, having expended a quantity of energy n on the destruction of the atom, we will obtain n + 1 as a result, and will be so happy with this wretched addition, because this absolute gain was obtained as a result of a seemingly artificial alteration of the very principle of nature; that is, the dialectic. Nature keeps itself to itself, it can only function by exchanging like for like, or even with something added in its favour; but technology strains to have it the other way around. The external world is protected from us by the dialectic. Therefore, though it seems like a paradox: the dialectic of nature is the greatest resistance to technology and the enemy of humankind. Technology is intended for and works towards the overturning or softening of the dialectic. So far it has only modestly succeeded, and so the world still cannot be kind to us.

At the same time, the dialectic alone is our sole instructor and resource against an early, senseless demise in childish enjoyment. Just as it was the force that created all technology.

In sociology, in love, in the depths of man the dialectic functions just as invariably. A man who had a ten-year-old son left him with the boy’s mother, and married a beauty. The child began to miss his father, and patiently, clumsily hanged himself. A gram of enjoyment at one end was counterbalanced by a tonne of grave soil at the other. The father removed the rope from the child’s neck and soon followed in his wake, into the grave. He wanted to revel in the innocent beauty, he wanted to bear his love not as a duty shared with one woman, but as a pleasure. Do not revel—or die.

Some naive people might object: the present crisis of production refutes such a point of view. Nothing refutes it. Imagine the highly complex armature of society in contemporary imperialism and fascism, giving off starvation and destruction for mankind in those parts, and it becomes clear at what cost the increase in productive forces was attained. Self-destruction in fascism and war between states are both losses of high-level production and vengeance for it. The tragic knot is cut without being resolved. The result is not even a tragedy in a classical sense. A world without the ussr would undoubtedly destroy itself of its own accord within the course of the next century.

The tragedy of man, armed with machinery and a heart, and with the dialectic of nature, must be resolved in our country by means of socialism. But it must be understood that this is a very serious task. The ancient life on the ‘surface’ of nature could still obtain what it needed from the waste and excretions of elemental forces and substances. But we are making our way inside the world, and in response it is pressing down upon us with equivalent force.

New Left Review

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

Thursday, 29 October 2015

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 the Bolshevik Revolution and, unlike in War and Peace, the reader does not hover safely above the action (or so deeply in the heads of its characters that we can’t feel the strike of a bullet). In White Guard, Bulgakov dives into the heat of the action, and his narrative crackles with sensory details that make the chaos of war personal.
A common complaint about novels translated from Russian is all those unpronounceable names. Though it would be wonderful if these books included links you could click to hear each Russian word in the text correctly pronounced (wouldn’t that be a great feature for an e-book?), each of these translated volumes includes notes from Schwartz and Russian literary scholars. In the case of Oblomov, for example, Schwartz’s notes include a few comments on the novel’s literary themes, an explanation of why she included a “Gastronomical Glossary,” and some words on how she chose to translate the characters’ names. In her final paragraph, she explains her choice to buck tradition and translate the novel’s famous neologism as “Oblomovshchina” rather than “Oblomovism”:
The English suffix –ism is neutral and encompasses all of Oblomov’s characteristics, good and bad alike, whereas the Russian suffix shchina has exclusive negative implications. Oblomovshchina, as Stolz [a character in the novel], who coins the word, explains very clearly in the text, constitutes all the negative qualities of Oblomov’s world view.
Here is why Schwartz makes such a fine translator: she brings the essence of the Russian text into English, letting us understand the narrative in its Russian context without drowning us in footnotes.
Publishers, translators, and scholars aside—is the 1862 edition the better edition? Does the text read more cleanly, more clearly, and less awkwardly? Here is an example from the opening section of “Oblomov’s Dream,” a passage meant to inform the reader of Oblomov’s pastoral roots. This is from the 1859 edition, translated by David Magarshack for Penguin Books in 1954:
It is true there is no sea there, no high mountains, cliffs or precipices, no virgin forests—nothing grand, gloomy, and wild. But what is the good of the grand and the wild? The sea, for instance? Let it stay where it is! It merely makes you melancholy: looking at it, you feel like crying. The heart quails at the sight of the boundless expanse of water, and the eyes grow tired of the endless monotony of the scene. The roaring and the wild pounding of the waves do not caress your feeble ears; they go on repeating their old, old song, gloomy and mysterious, the same since the world began; and the same old moaning is heard in it, the same complaints as though of a monster condemned to torture, and piercing, sinister voices. No birds twitter around; only silent sea-gulls like doomed creatures, mournfully fly to and fro near the coast and circle over the water.
And here is the same passage from the 1862 edition:
No, it’s true, there is no sea, no tall mountains, cliffs, or chasms, no slumberous forests— nothing grandiose, wild, and gloomy.
What is it for, the wild and grandiose? The sea, for example? Never mind about that! It brings man only sorrow; looking at it makes him feel like crying. The heart is flummoxed in the face of the boundless shroud of waters, and there is nothing upon which to rest one’s gaze, tormented as it is by the vast scene’s monotony.
The waves roar and maddened claps do not coddle the weak ear. They are constantly repeating their song, the same song since the beginning of the world, a song of somber and unresolved content. In it one hears the same moan and complaints, as if from some monster condemned to torment, and also piercing, sinister voices. The birds do not chirp around him only taciturn seagulls fly desultorily along the shore, like the damned, circling above the water.
Breaking up the paragraph intensifies the impact of each image; we see the sea as grandiose and wild, then pause, feel the monotony of its vastness, then pause, hear it roar against the silence of the “damned, circling” birds. The subtle shift in the focus, from you in the first version to man in the second underscores the novel’s theme of humanity’s nature. And finally, clichés are replaced with fresher phrases— “shroud of water” rather than “expanse of water,” “coddle the weak ear” instead of “caress feeble ears,” and “song of somber and unresolved content” instead “old, old song, gloomy and mysterious.” Based on this, and other such examples throughout the novel, I’ll stand with the Russian scholars: Goncharov’s editing improved the text.
From the beginning, Goncharov proves Schwartz’s claim that Oblomov’s dialogue is particularly rich in character revelations. Oblomov, “a man of thirty-two or thirty-three, of average height and pleasant appearance,” spends the first 186 pages of this novel in bed; his first line comes on pg 8: “‘What am I doing, in fact?’ he said aloud with vexation. ‘Shame on me. It’s time I got to work! The moment I indulge myself, I . . . Zakhar!’ he shouted.” Oblomov recognizes he should do something and calls for his servant, Zakhar, a man who is at his best when pocketing small change, avoiding work, and arguing with Oblomov. When Zakhar arrives, our sedate protagonist has forgotten why he called him and sends him away. Then Oblomov tries to rouse himself, and naturally calls for Zakhar again.
Zakhar stood there for a minute or two, with poor grace, looking a little sideways at his master, and finally headed for the doorway.
“Where are you going?” asked Oblomov abruptly.
“You aren’t saying anything, so why should I stand here for nothing?” rasped Zakhar.
What follows is a Dickensian cast of Russian characters traipsing through to rouse Oblomov. There’s Volkov, our dandy: “You’re still not up! What’s that robe you’re wearing? No one’s worn those for ages.” Then there’s our busy clerk, Sudbinsky: “I’ve been intending to visit for a long time,” Sudbinsky says. “You know yourself what a devilish service we have! There look, I’m carrying an entire suitcase for my report; and now, if anyone asks for anything, I’ve told the messenger to rush over here. I never have a moment to myself.” Then the intellectual, Penkin, whom Oblomov asks where he’s been: “The bookstall. I went to see whether the journals were out. Have you read my essay?” With each encounter, Oblomov tries to explain his troubles, and it is only the novel’s villain and hero who finally listen.
Our villain, the scurrilous Tarantiev, arrives and bullies Zakhar, helps himself to Oblomov’s snuff (then complains about it), and finally rails against a relative of a mutual friend.
Once I borrowed fifty rubles from him, it must be going on two years. Well, is fifty rubles such a large sum? Wouldn’t you think he could forget it? No he can’t. Every month, whenever I run into him, it’s “How’s about that little debt?” he says. I’m sick of it! Not only that, yesterday he came to our department, “All right,” he says, “you have your salary, now you can pay me back.” I gave him my salary and disgraced him so badly in front of everyone that he couldn’t find the door fast enough.
Tarantiev’s long-term plans revolve around conning Oblomov out of his last rubles, a scheme that Oblomov, of course, remains oblivious to.
Finally Oblomov’s one true friend, Stolz, arrives and, good German that he is, successfully rouses Oblomov from his bed and sets him onto the path of action: his love affair with the young Olga.
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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 able to conduct precise measurements – above all, of the gastric secretions of dogs – that seemed to provide an objective calibration of nervous and even psychic phenomena. Pavlov’s trademark esophagotomy meant that food swallowed by a dog never reached the digestive tract, thus allowing the researcher to isolate the psychic rather than chemical causes of secretion. His key analytical concept, the conditional reflex, soon entered the scientific lexicon and even journalistic parlance. His international prestige only increased in the second half of his life, building to a climax with his hosting of the International Physiological Congress in Leningrad just months before his death in early 1936. Such was the momentum of Pavlov’s project to fuse body and mind in a single explanatory model that it gathered further steam under Russia’s new masters after the civil war. From the mid-1920s, Pavlov had state funding lavished on him. Although he was an outspoken critic of the new regime, his enormous international prestige and the materialistic bent of his research made him effectively a Soviet aristocrat. In 1927, he was assigned a Lincoln and a chauffeur, while in 1935 a bottle of champagne was flown in from Finland to aid his recovery from a dangerous bout of bronchitis. The authorities even paid for delegates to the 1935 congress to be treated to a banquet in a tsarist palace.
Yet, as Daniel P. Todes shows with unremitting perspicacity, Pavlov is too big, complicated and even self-contradictory a figure to be contained by the parable. His aura of exemplar is most obviously tarnished by the messiness of any life as actually lived. His rise to prominence depended as much on chance as on his own irresistible intellectual achievements. In his early career he did not cultivate the most advantageous patrons, and spent a few years training as a physician rather than devoting himself full-time to the research that really interested him. At the age of forty, he faced the prospect of career stagnation, having just failed to land two of the main professorships in his field of physiology. His lucky break came in the early 1890s, when he acquired the lab of his dreams in the newly created Imperial Institute of Experimental Medicine, combining this with a professorship at the Military-Medical Academy.
Thereafter, the breaks kept on coming until they became the routine dividends of fame and power. Pavlov was not an automatic choice for the Nobel Prize – some of his conclusions had come under fire, he had delivered no knock-out single discovery or application, and a sceptic might have said that he had simply got better than anyone else at inserting gastric fistulas in dogs – but by 1904, after a couple of near misses in the preceding years, he had an important advocate on the committee, Johan Erik Johansson, professor of physiology at the Karolinska Institute. During the revolution and civil war, Pavlov experienced acute hardship and uncertainty in hungry, disease-ridden Petrograd, but he soon asserted himself vis-à-vis the new regime, flirting with emigration and lobbying effectively for resources. Under the Bolsheviks, he was able to follow his nose without ever being forced to come up with firm conclusions or (still less) to demonstrate their real-world applications. Funding bodies in liberal countries would hardly have been so open-ended in their commitment. Yet, towards the end of his life, Bolshevik violence was coming very close to home: by the mid-1930s, Pavlov was almost routinely saving his colleagues from imprisonment and likely death. While his personal authority still counted, he found himself increasingly adopting the tone of petitioner that he had proudly eschewed in his earlier dealings with the Soviet state. His visceral opposition to Bolshevism was further sapped by his enduring patriotism, which was heightened by the threatening international politics of the mid-1930s, and his sense of obligation to a state that had provided him with luxurious research facilities for more than a decade.
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Wednesday, 28 October 2015

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 the likelihood that the book was somewhat overshadowed by the extraordinary story of its survival, a story that exposed to the world the irreparable hairlines in the Soviet machinery. Grossman wrote much of Life and Fate after Stalin’s death, in a period that his former newspaper colleague Ilya Ehrenberg called the “Thaw.” Grossman was hopeful, therefore, that the censors would allow its publication. Instead, in February of 1961, four months after he had submitted the manuscript, Life and Fate was “arrested”: KGB officers confiscated all known copies held by the author and his friends. After Grossman appealed personally to Khrushchev, a toadying clerk named Mikhail Suslov told him that the book could not be published for 250 years. One of the sins of Life and Fate was its tacit parallelism between the Nazi and Soviet regimes, and Suslov’s declaration, with its assured disregard for mortality, bore much in common with Hitler’s slogan of a thousand year Reich.

Yet there were two copies of the book still hidden. In 1974, 10 years after Grossman died, his best friend Semyon Lipkin managed to get this tome microfilmed, enlisting the help of the satirical writer Vladimir Voinivich and a nuclear scientist named Andrei Sakharov. The process took months and remarkable temerity. Finally Voinivich smuggled it from the country—and even then it was not published anywhere until 1980.

The story tells a lot about the Soviet government and the inhuman pointlessness of totalitarianism, but the contents of Life and Fate tell much more and do so in the style of an artist who, after years of high-pressured gestation, had arrived at the fullest and most lucid expression of his material. For in spite of its length, Life and Fate is made up of thousands of compressed, angular paragraphs that, at their best, possess the transparency and adamantine luster of diamonds.

This quality of can hardly be overestimated, as it instills the novel with the startling directness of great poetry, and the power of every shaped and polished paragraph intensifies as succeeding passages build upon a theme. When, for instance, we first encounter Lyudmila, the matriarch of the novel’s central cast, the middle-class Shtrum family, she is going to see the grave of her teenage son, Tolya who has been killed in combat. Hours elapse as she sits in the cemetery, alone in her memories and grief:

The people in the hospital had been struck by her calm and the number of questions she had asked. They hadn’t appreciated her inability to understand something quite obvious—that Tolya was no longer among the living. Her love was so strong that Tolya’s death was unable to affect it: to her, he was still alive.

She was mad, but no one had noticed. Now at last, she had found Tolya. Her joy was that of a mother-cat when she finds her dead kitten and licks it all over.

A soul can live in torment for years and years, even decades, as it slowly, stone by stone, builds a mound over a grave; as it moves towards the apprehension of eternal loss and bows down before reality.

The soldiers finished their work and left; the sun had nearly gone down; the shadows of the plywood boards over the graves lengthened. Lyudmila was alone.

There are whole books contained in each of these paragraphs, and still, each informs the next, increasing the pressure of Lyudmila’s agitated delusion to climax at the breathtaking image of a tormented soul gradually accepting a death, and then relieving the moment by moving out of Lyudmila’s mind to observe the departing soldiers and lengthening shadows. ...
Essay by Sam Sacks

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.

Maya Plisetskaya: "Romantic Encounter"

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

Maya Plisetskaya, Anatoly Berdyshev


Tuesday, 27 October 2015

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-underground writers not recognized by the Soviet regime and ignored by Soviet publishers. His early works were distributed through the samizdat system, where banned books were clandestinely reproduced by hand.

Finding it impossible to publish at home, in 1974 Mamleev emigrated to the United States, where he lectured at prestigious universities, including Cornell.

In 1983, he moved to France, where he taught Russian language and literature. During his period living abroad, Mamleev was almost forgotten in Russia – even among dissident intellectuals – but the opposite was true in the West. He quickly established a reputation among writers and Slavist, gaining recognition as one of the foremost Russian writers and thinkers.

In the early 1990s, Mamleev was one of the first literary émigrés to return to Russia, where he garnered instant success, publishing numerous books, articles and essays well into the new millennium. His plays also became a staple of Russian theater.

“Mamleev was the most influential Moscow esoteric thinker,” the author Dmitry Bykov told MK.

“No matter how we regard his creative approach and texts, Mamleev has become the window through which many people have been able to glimpse a totally different culture. This culture was, in part, that of the Silver Age, the world of invisible essences.”

Written in 1966, the mystical novel The Sublimes is one of Mamleev's most famous works. Its protagonist, Fyodor Sonnov, commits a series of murders with the aim of penetrating the mystery of the victim’s soul, and hence the hereafter, to learn the eternal secret of death by “empirical” means.

According to Marian Schwartz, who translated The Sublimes, “Usually a text's intensity is invested in emotions, but in The Sublimes, that intensity was consumed with and by ideas, and conveyed only partly in characters' actions, and rather more crucially in their speech.”

“Yellow glasses, a jacket and a wife who remembered everything that the writer himself forgot,” the author Yury Serebryansky recalls about Mamleev.

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

The Russian Imperial family. Bottom right: Alexander II. Bottom left: Alexander III. Middle left: Alexandra Feodorovna (Alix of Hesse) wife of Nicholas II. Middle right: Maria Feodorovna, wife of Alexander III. Top. Nicholas II, the last Tsar (Rex)
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. “The decision to exhume the remains of Emperor Alexander III was taken upon the initiative of the Holy Patriarch,” said Vladimir Solovyov, the senior investigator in the Investigative Committee’s main centre of forensic criminology. “All of this depends on technical conditions and processes. It’s unlikely that any of this will get started before mid-November.” 
The Romanovs were executed in 1918 by firing squad, a year after they were exiled to Yekaterinburg following the Russian Revolution in 1917, which brought the Bolsheviks to power.
Most of the remains of Nicholas and his family were discovered in 1976 in a forest in Yekaterinburg, but were only excavated in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. 
It took years before the area containing the last two corpses – believed to be Alexei and Maria – was excavated, and doubts have been cast on their remains due to their discovery at a separate site. The fate of the Romanovs was a mystery for much of the 20th century, with the missing remains fuelling conspiracy theories about whether some of the Romanovs had survived.
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Monday, 26 October 2015

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 works by Franz Liszt for family and friends. After acquiring further musical education at the elite Peterschule (St. Peter's School) in St. Petersburg, at the age of twelve Mussorgsky published his first piano piece entitled "Porte-enseigne Polka.” The publication was paid for by his father. But his parents also wanted him to receive a military education, so Mussorgsky ended up graduating from the Cadet School and received a commission with the foremost regiment of the Russian Imperial Guard - the Preobrazhensky Regiment - in 1856. That winter Mussorgsky met Aleksandr Dargomyzhsky, one of the most influential composers in Russia at that time. But the meeting that most influenced Mussorgsky's music career was with Mily Balakirev, the head of the composers’ group known as The Five. With them, he learned to read scores and analyzed the styles of Western composers. Just a few months after studying with Balakirev, Mussorgsky resigned his commission, fully devoting himself to music. The first fruits came fast. In 1958 Mussorgsky composed two scherzos, which were each part of a symphony that was performed eight years later in a concert directed by composer Anton Rubinstein, the founder of Russia's first Conservatoire.

Also known as The Mighty Handful and The Mighty Coteries, The Five was a group of composers in St. Petersburg that was active between 1856 and 1870. Besides Mily Balakirev, it also included Cesar Cui, Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, Aleksandr Borodin and Modest Mussorgsky. Most of them were self-trained amateurs: Borodin made a living by pursuing a career in chemistry and Rimsky-Korsakov was a naval officer who created his First Symphony on a three-year-long voyage around the globe.

The group’s main goal was to produce a specifically Russian kind of music and not an imitation of older European sounds or European-style conservatory training. By using melodies from village songs, Cossack and Caucasian dances, church chants and more – the Five’s music was filled with imitative sounds of Russian life. The group even tried to make their own version of the lyrical peasant song, dubbed by Glinka as “the soul of Russian music” by studying songs from the Volga River in the 1860s. Ironically, The Five’s creativity and style was not welcomed by many old-style musicians and was mocked by the academic circles of the Conservatory and the Russian Musical Society. This lack of support from society ended up causing the dissolution the group. However most of its members continued experimenting in music and looking for new talent on their own.

Mussorgsky began composing romances and experimenting with the opera genre. In 1868 he took on Gogol's “Zhenitba” (“The Marriage”) and managed to finish the first eleven scenes, but abandoned it after reaching the end of Act 1. Nevertheless, this work clearly showed Mussorgsky's extreme pursuit of incorporating the natural accents and patterns of the play's naturalistic dialogue into music. Despite abandoning “Zhenitba,” the composer didn't stop working in the opera genre.

Success came shortly after his opera "Boris Godunov" was performed at St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theater. In 1874 a second version of the opera came out after the theater's repertoire committee scrapped the original, allegedly for being impossible to recite. The new version was performed fifteen times over the next ten years. The opera returned to the stage in 1896 after it was edited by composer and music critic Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, who claimed to have fixed and restructured the whole composition. According to Rimsky-Korsakov, Mussorgsky's version had flaws in its style and orchestration. However, it's important to stress that the original version of “Boris Godunov” became much more popular and better understood in the twentieth century. Many music experts explain this by saying Mussorgsky had a different kind of style, which was just appearing in various parts of the world in the late nineteenth century. That's why the original "Boris Godunov" and its second version were not as popular as they could have been during Mussorgsky's lifetime.

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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 always helped her -- he chopped some wood, he brought in the water. Moreover, Nikolai always gave his mother virtually all of his earnings, only leaving himself a little money for the tram and cigarettes.

"You ought to go and pal around with your comrades," She had said more than once.

"Don't feel like it," he would answer. Sometimes he wouldn't answer at all, and simply grin.

When he was called up for military service he bid farewell to his comrades easily and without any fuss. No one saw him off, and only his mother stood on the platform and waved her hand at him. He waved his cap at her a few times and yelled, "Mama, you'd better hide my tools, so they don't rust." She didn't quite hear him over the droning of hundreds of excited voices and it seemed to her that her son had cried out some particularly kind and caring words. On the way home she walked slowly, barely making out the road through her tears, all the while repeating with deep emotion the words that he never said, "Don't stand in the wind without a shawl, you'll catch a cold." It seemed to her that he yelled out this particular phrase when the train began to move.

He ended up in the tank corps. At first Nikolai was homesick and devised his own calendar, on which he marked off not days, but weeks. He counted how many weeks were left until his service would be over: one hundred, ninety-eight, ninety-six. It upset him that the majority of tankers received letters from their former colleagues: the combine operator Krivorotov from Bashkiria, the Leningrader Andreev from his old factory, Diachenko from the tractor drivers in his home village, with whom he used to plow the Ukrainian earth. He was even asked sometimes, "What's this, Bogachev? You don't get letters from anybody?"

He began to feel as if no one would ever befriend him.

"Well, I don't need them," he thought, all the while looking at his calendar. He was managing the work of a tank driver superbly, he learned the ins and outs of the engine, and bravely drove the tank on the most difficult of roads. Major Karpov took him on as the driver of the lead tank. Sometimes in the evening he would discuss tanks with Krivorotov. Krivorotov was a huge, big-headed, long-armed twenty-two year old; he spoke of his tank with a sort of unusual tenderness. It could easily seem to any bystander that this blue-eyed giant was talking about his sweetheart when he declared, "I mean I never saw her once in Bashkiria, my entire boyhood I had no idea what she was like. But the instant I saw her, I liked her terribly. I loved her so much that I just couldn't take it."

Grinning, Bogachev listened to him. He wasn't friends with anyone here and it seemed to him that the tankers were treating him just as his schoolmates once had. "Fine, fine," he thought. "What's it to me? I guess I just have a cold disposition."

He didn't notice how day after day he grew more attached to his comrades. After all, they were together all the time: at dinner, at studies, they slept next to each other. He already knew very well who snored, who muttered some scarcely audible phrases, and who slept as peacefully as a child.

When the battalion was on the move he could tell who was driving this or that tank by the manner they went over obstacles, bypassed ravines, and rolled over young saplings. It was as if the mannerisms of each man were reflected in the movement of the tank. The guile and cautiousness of Dudnikov; the decisiveness and straight-forwardness of Krivorotov.

Once, not long before the war, Bogachev tore up the calendar that displayed his remaining weeks of military service.

"I'm sick of dealing with this nonsense," he thought. It seemed to him that he tore up that calendar because he had begun to forget about home; Bogachev was not used to it anymore. Rarely, he received letters from his mother; she would ask about his health and worry about how he was doing. His replies to her were not very regular, and the letters were very short. He believed that his comrades treated him coldly and did not like him because of his apathetic personality, which didn't have within itself an attachment to people or places.

The war found Nikolai outside of Lvov. In cruel battles he passed through the entire hard path of our army's summer retreat. This entire path was marked with bombed-out German artillery, smashed wagons, trucks, and crosses marking the graves of fallen German soldiers. These were the signposts of the road of our future advances. Bogachev himself put up these signposts, though he didn't know it. It seemed to him that this was the last time he would be driving on the green streets of Ukrainian villages, past the black ripened sunflowers, the white huts with their straw roofs, and the apple and pear orchards. Through the slit in his tank he could see the immaculate Ukrainian land, coniferous and deciduous forests, bright rivers with their vegetation, and unharvested fields. The wheat grains fell rustling upon the grieving land as if they were a heavy rain. Bogachev of course didn't hear this rustling; it was drowned out by the roar of the engine. He didn't hear old women crying as they watched the retreating troops, didn't hear the bitter pleas and questions. The roar of the tank drowned out all sound. But he saw -- saw, Bogachev saw it all. Nikolai's normally calm heart filled up with such pain, such sorrow; the likes of which he had never known before. Here on these Ukrainian fields he felt the bitterness of separation. He didn't speak to anyone about his feelings, didn't tell them to anyone. Day and night he was with his comrades, tankers Andreev, Krivorotov, Bobrov, Shashlo, and Dudnikov. At night they slept next to him, shoulder to shoulder, and he could feel the warmth radiating from them. During the day they rode next to each other in big metal tanks. He didn't know, didn't suspect, how great the force was that united him with these people through the sweat and blood of battle.

For a while he drove the tank of Lieutenant Kriuchkin. In one battle their tank was next to Andreev's. Five German tanks came out from behind a knoll and stopped to wait. Bogachev really didn't feel like retreating and became elated when Kriuchkin popped out of the hatch and loudly and joyfully cried to his neighbor, "Hey, Andreev, let's both hit 'em!"

"Let's hit 'em," replied Andreev.

Two tanks rode towards five. During the attack German shrapnel hit Kriuchkin in the chest. He died instantly. His blood poured all over the inside of the tank, giving color to the cold, dark metal. When he emerged from the tank, Bogachev was soaked in blood. The tankers were bereaved over the death of Kriuchkin. There were many talks and reminiscences of the Lieutenant's fearlessness. When Red Army men were digging Kriuchkin's grave Bogachev approached one of them and took away his shovel. He dug silently for a long time and finally said to the troops, "What are you guys digging for? I'll dig it myself."

After Kriuchkin's death Bogachev became Andreev's driver. They saw action virtually every day. There was nothing on this Earth more thrilling and at the same time difficult, than this life.

On a dark autumn evening the tanks were supporting a cavalry charge. The rain was pouring and it was very muddy. Andreev's tank rode with a half-open hatch. Horrible mud encompassed the tank, but it kept crawling further and further forward, the strained motor whining all the while. An unexpectedly heavy hit shook the walls of the tank. It seemed to Bogachev as though he was sitting inside a buzzing, vibrating guitar that someone was pummeling with their fists. He suffocated from the terrible richness of the sound. Then all of a sudden it became very quiet except for the bubbling, whistling, and ringing that continued in his ears. His comrades called out to him. He heard their voices but didn't answer. They dragged him out of the tank. He tried to stand up but fell down into the mud. His legs had gone numb from the impact of the hit. His comrades carried him for several kilometers across the sticky mud.

"Bogachev, Bogachev," they called to him, "well, how are you?"

"Fine, its nothing," he replied.

There was only one thing on his mind: "I'm a goner." It seemed perfectly clear to him that he would never return to his battalion. Suddenly, a strong and passionate thought took hold of him. Would he really never see these people, his fellow tankers, again? He began to fill up with a previously unknown feeling.

"My friends, my comrades," he muttered. "Why are you fellows going so fast? Slow down a bit," he cried.

"Does it hurt?"

"Yeah, it hurts, slow down a bit."

But it didn't hurt; he couldn't feel his numb legs. He was terrified, really terrified, to be separated from these people forever, and wanted this sad path to last a little longer. After all, they were next to him, carrying him on their arms, his dear, true friends. They wheezed and quietly argued, stumbling through the mud asking, "Does it hurt, Bogachev?" For the first time in his life he felt the great feeling of friendship, and he felt delighted, joyful, and infinitely sad.

He spent about three months in the hospital. After the horrible stress of battle, after the endless roaring of the tank, it seemed strange to be lying in a calm bed in a quiet, white hospital ward. Thoughts of his fellow tankers nagged at him for hours. "Have they really forgotten about me?" In order to remind them he wrote letters, however it was impossible to mail them. The brigade's address was constantly changing. He wrote a long letter to his mother in which he asked about her health, asked her to describe the streets of his hometown, and inquired about his old factory. His letter included the phrase "Don't stand in the wind without a shawl, you'll catch a cold!"

Sometimes he would wake up in the middle of the night and mutter, "Well, it's clear that the tankers don't remember me. They're probably sitting in the tank with a new driver who's cracking them up with his jokes." Would he really never be able to return to his battalion?

He did return. This happened just recently. Strength once again returned to his legs and he walked back to his battalion. He was passing through a snowy field and everything seemed so odd to him. Everything was painted white. White tanks, white trucks, white artillery haulers.

"Interesting," he thought, "what's the best speed to go over snow this deep?"

He was very tired but didn't stop to rest. He was in a hurry. With a growing feeling of anxiety he walked along the streets of the village. It scared him that there was not a single familiar face. He entered the cabin where a command center had been set up. All strangers, all unfamiliar faces. He looked around for a few moments. What was this? He experienced the terrible feeling of a person who has returned to his home to find a stranger at the door asking, "Who are you looking for?" In these few moments he measured the depth and strength of his love.

A quartermaster paging through a ledger at the table looked up at him.

"Is Major Karpov here?" asked Bogachev licking his lips.

"And what do you need Major Karpov for?" asked the quartermaster. He looked at a half-open door and jumped up.

Major Karpov stood at the door.

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Sunday, 25 October 2015

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.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

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 achievements and big failures. And it will be when we feel shame about our bestiality, pity for all that lives and reverence for the all-powerful God that we can achieve our destiny: a spiritually perfected existence.
Such is the central argument of the 19th century Russian philosopher Vladimir Sergeyevich Solovyov’s The Justification of the Moral Good. First published in 1897 and revised in 1899, this work is Solovyov’s magnum opus, combining lengthy discussions of evolution, anthropology, the social sciences, philosophy and ethics. Although it may be a commonplace, it is true to say that many 19th century Russians ranged both widely and deeply. Solovyov, a friend and correspondent of Dostoevsky, wrote his first major work The Crisis of Western Philosophy aged just 21, going on to explore the nature of freedom and responsibility, evil and divine love, aesthetics and ethics in a series of lectures, journal articles and books.
The Justification of the Moral Good is divided into three parts: The Moral Good in Human Nature, The Moral Good from God and the Moral Good through Human History. Part One considers what makes us spiritual beings, focussing on moral feelings. Part Two moves the argument to a divine level, with chapters on the superhuman foundations of our ethics. With unabashed virtuosity, Part Three, constituting more than half of the work, investigates the individual and society, the historical development of personal-social consciousness, the moral norms of society, the national, penal and economic questions from the moral point of view, the meaning of war and, as a grand finale, the moral organisation of humanity as a whole. One can see why Solovyov tends to be praised as one of Russian philosophy’s most ambitious figures.
Solovyov believes, without question, that we are destined to go from primordial slime to eternal being at God’s side. In his view, human beings are endowed with the capacity to feel shame, pity and reverence; it is by exercising these three fundamental moral feelings that we can shed our animal skin and become our better selves. Biological evolution has given us a more reflective and constructive consciousness, but it is morality that gives this meaning and purpose. It is not all about us, however: our blessedness also gives us a responsibility towards the natural world. We must not treat Nature with either disdain or impatience; we have no right to terrorise it. In discourse that is instantly recognisable in today’s world, Solovyov writes that mankind should not exhaust the world’s resources and show kindness to other creatures. He quotes Arthur Schopenhauer:
Boundless compassion for all living creatures is the firmest and surest guarantee of pure moral conduct…Whoever is inspired by this feeling will surely injure no-one, will inflict no suffering on anyone, and all his actions will bear the stamp of justice and mercy.
Solovyov goes on to argue that such compassion does not exist to make us better people only: it helps and ennobles other creatures also.
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