Showing posts from April, 2016

On Stalin’s Team by Sheila Fitzpatrick

“Team” is not the definition I would use for a group of 40 to 50 people (almost entirely men) who, at their captain’s bidding, colluded in murdering over half their fellow members; nor does “team” fit men selected more for their incompetence than their ability as leaders, administrators or planners. In her introduction to this superbly researched, intelligent book, Sheila Fitzpatrick concedes this, inviting readers to substitute the word “gang” if they prefer. Even “gang” is too bland for these “scorpions in a jar”, as observers of the infighting put it. Perhaps “henchmen” is the word.

Two myths lie behind Stalin’s rehabilitation in Russia. One is that he won the second world (or “great patriotic”) war – though many historians conclude that the Russian people, helped by generous US supplies, won despite Stalin’s vacillation between inaction and wasteful enterprise. The other myth is that of Stalin as a great personnel manager. Although Fitzpatrick often notes the “energy” and “efficien…

New study of Russia on eve of revolution wins Pushkin House Prize

Dominic Lieven’s book Towards the Flame: Empire, War and the End of Tsarist Russia has won the 2016 Pushkin House Prize, an annual award given for non-fiction books about Russia. In the book, Lieven, a senior Cambridge research fellow, looks back to the eve of revolution and sets the start of the Soviet era in a “broader context of global history.” The author places Russia where it belongs, as he writes in his introduction, “at the very center of the history of the First World War.” At the award ceremony in London on April 25, one of the judges, London professor Geoffrey Hosking, described the book as “a uniquely perceptive account of the opinions and mentalities of leading Russian statesmen … set against the geopolitical opportunities and dangers, which Russia faced at the time” and added that we have “much to learn from this book today.” Towards the Flame was one of many books in this year’s exceptionally strong shortlist, chosen from among nearly 50 books, that draws on decades of res…

Ballerina Diana Vishneva: ‘Valery Gergiev let me divide my life in two’

RBTH: What was harder – preserving a connection with the Mariinsky Theater or achieving autonomy from it? Diana Vishneva: Obviously, in life nothing was as easy and smooth as it seems in words. I had to fight for my position in the theater, since its organization does not help the individual path. Just like political and economic factors also do not help the individual path. But I fought for my ideas, defended them, discussed and explained why certain things were necessary for me, and in the end obtained a favorable response. When I was 20 years old I received a serious proposal through the theater. But it was hidden from me and I only learned of it many years later. Now I think it was good that they hid it. The period of maturing and mastering of the repertoire are very important. In a ballerina's youth she builds experience that will last for the remainder of her life. Only systematic work in her youth makes a first-class ballerina. And despite the opportunities that arise in fron…

Sergei Prokofiev, the composer who fled the USSR for the U.S. – and back

April 23 marks the 125th anniversary of the birth of Sergei Prokofiev, the outstanding Russian composer. His work today remains among the world’s most popular classical music, along with the Viennese classics and German romantic-era composers. These days “Dance of the Knights” from the ballet Romeo and Juliet or Natasha's waltz from the opera War and Peace are used in computer games, or as phone ringtones, yet only 50 years ago, his music was considered innovative and daring. Prokofiev’s fate seems like a paradox – but only at first glance. Born in an era of global upheavals, he was interested in only one thing – music, his own music. If Prokofiev had lived in our time of never-ending TV shows, he definitely would have had to answer the question: "What would you do, if you weren’t a composer?" And he might reply: "I was an outstanding pianist, I beat Cuban grandmaster Capablanca at chess, but ever since I was young I’ve strived to become the world’s most performed comp…

The rake's progress - Pushkin

It is in some ways unfortunate that Tchaikovsky set Eugene Onegin to music, not Rossini, the composer of deep shallows. Pushkin, according to TJ Binyon's remarkable biography, became 'addicted' to Rossini while living in Odessa, where an Italian opera company was visiting, and though Binyon makes nothing of it, it rather blares at us, as writers' tastes in music so often do (Joyce's love of Puccini, for instance, or Auden's dislike of Brahms).

Tchaikovsky, that great melancholy confectioner, has hardly any temperamental affinity with Pushkin's novel in verse. Eugene Onegin's sparkling 14-line stanzas - little private carriages of plush - simultaneously open art and seal it.

On the one hand, they admit with hospitable precision an enormous amount of the prosaic (if not exactly the ordinary) world: 'Strasbourg pies', and beaver collars, and several of Pushkin's old schoolfriends, and the marks that Onegin makes in the margins of his books, and V…

Crime and Punishment

Sheltering from the evening drizzle on a grey Maundy Thursday in London, a crowd packed into the National Portrait Gallery’s Ondaatje Wing Theatre for a talk on Dostoevsky’s great novel of resurrection, Crime and Punishment. The latest in the gallery’s "In Conversation" series, the talk was part of a varied programme of events complementing a newly opened exhibition: Russia and the Arts: The age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky. The legacy of Dostoevsky’s novel, which was published a century and a half ago this year, was the subject for a panel composed of the literary specialists Oliver Ready (the TLS's Russia editor), Sarah Young and Lesley Chamberlain. Ready, who is also the novel’s most recent translator, playfully opened the discussion by noting that the typical question of a classic work’s "relevance today" can often sound threatening, laying the onus on the novel to engage us rather than on us to engage with the novel. So Ready invited his co-panellists to look…

Nikolai Gumilev: A Silver Age poet who lived a richly tapestried life

Nikolai Gumilev had many guises in his life: romantic, leading light of Russian Silver Age poetry, officer, intrepid traveler, explorer and womanizer. He went from being a war hero in his younger years to an enemy of the state, falling foul of the Soviet authorities in the prime of life. 1) Travels far and wideGumilev was born in Kronstadt near St. Petersburg. Living next to the sea filled him with wanderlust from an early age, and he travelled extensively around Europe, before making several expeditions to Africa, where he visited Egypt, Somalia, Ethiopia and Djibouti. These trips were very dangerous, with the threat from wild animals and aggressive tribes compounded by food and water shortages. The party of Petersburg intellectuals even had to hunt for food at one point. In 1914, however, an expedition led by Gumilev brought a large collection of local works of art and items back to the Tsarist capital. Africa inspired Gumilev to write several poems and songs, including “The Galla”, …

Alexander II Liberator - Biography

Alexander, the eldest son of Tsar Nicholas I , was born in Moscow on April 29, 1818. From the early age the boy was reared for the throne. Tutored by a poet and literary critic Vasily Zhukovsky, the young heir apparent received a broad and thorough education, from arts and languages to sciences and rigorous military training. To complete his schooling at the age of 19 he embarked on an extensive tour of Russia and Europe. During his European travels Alexander met his future wife, Princess Marie of Hesse. The couple married in 1841 and had 8 children.

Alexander became Tsar on the death of Nicholas I in 1855, aged 36, already a mature and experienced statesman. From his father, Alexander inherited a bloody Crimean War with a coalition of the Turkey-led Ottoman Empire, Britain and France. Russia’s serf-based economy couldn’t support the cost of warfare, the loss of life was tremendous and a year on the Tsar began peace talks. The Treaty of Paris ended the bloodshed but Russia lost its dom…

Modigliani and the Russian beauty: the affair that changed him

At six feet tall, raven-haired and ravishingly beautiful, 21-year-old Anna Akhmatova proved something of a sensation when she arrived in Paris on the arm of her husband in 1910 – people would turn to look at her in the street. The couple were on their honeymoon, and, being poets of some repute in their native Russia, headed straight for Montparnasse, then the favoured haunt of the Parisian avant garde. Here they mingled with the penniless painters, sculptors, poets and composers who had moved to the area from the increasingly chichi Montmartre, in search of cheap rent, cheap cafés and run-down buildings that might serve as studios.

One such artist was the 25-year-old Amedeo Modigliani, who had arrived from Italy four years before. With an aristocratic Roman nose, a strong jaw and a mop of jet-black hair, he enchanted Anna, and the two became inseparable. “This was a meeting of hearts and minds,” says Richard Nathanson, who has helped put together an exhibition of Modigliani’s drawings …

Ian Frazier: Travels in Siberia

Ian Frazier’s “Great Plains,” published in 1989, was a tour de force of travel writing: a 25,000-mile jaunt from the Dakotas to Texas that stripped away the region’s seemingly bland facade. From Sitting Bull to Bonnie and Clyde to the Clutter family, whose murder was chronicled in Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” Frazier revisited American archetypes, and in some cases reinvented them. Later, in“On the Rez,” he drew on his 20-year friendship with Le War Lance, a beer-swilling Oglala Sioux, to describe life at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. In both books, Frazier’s skillful storytelling, acute powers of observation and wry voice captured the soul of the American West.

Now Frazier has set his sights on another region of wide-open spaces and violent history: the Russian East. Shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he joined some Russian artists he’d met in New York on a trip to Moscow, where he became infected, he writes, with “dread Russia-love.” In particular, Fraz…

Vasily Ivanovich Surikov: Morning of the Execution of the Streltsy

Surikov’s work was the culmination of Russian historical painting of the second half of the 19th century. The artist was interested in the turning points in the fate of the nation. As he said, “I do not understand the actions of separate historical figures taken apart from the people, without the crowd; I have to pull them out onto the street.” The theme of the painting is Peter the Great’s suppression of the Streltsy uprising of 1698 in Moscow and the execution of the rebels. Peter and his close associates personally took part in the execution. Surikov intentionally defied reality and brought St Basil’s Cathedral closer to the Kremlin walls, making the space of Red Square compacted and oppressive. This enhanced the basic psychological collision depicted in the canvas – the duel of views between Peter and the Strelets with a red beard. But the closer you come to the figure of the tsar, the more obvious it is that the energy of opposition here cancels itself out. The logic of history i…

Hermitage Museum Revealed (2014) BBC Documentary

Hermitage Revealed A Margy Kinmonth Film 'Hermitage Revealed' vividly brings to life the human stories behind one of the world's greatest art collections in its 250th anniversary year, 2014. 

The State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg is one of the largest and most visited museums in the world, holding over 3 million treasures and world class masterpieces in stunning architectural settings. To celebrate its 250th anniversary in 2014, Margy Kinmonth's film reveals the remarkable stories that have shaped the Hermitage's 250 year journey from Imperial Palace to State Museum.

Alexander Pushkin: To*** Kern

I keep in mind that magic moment:
When you appeared before my eyes
Like ghost, like fleeting apparition,
Like genius of the purest grace.

In torturous hopeless melancholy,
In vanity and noisy fuss
I’ve always heard your tender voice
I saw your features in my dreams.

Years passed away, and blasts of tempests
Have scattered all my previous dreams,
And I forgot your tender voice,
And holy features of your face.

In wilderness, in gloomy capture
My lonely days were slowly drawn:
I had not faith, no inspiration,
No tears, no life, no tender love.

But time has come, my soul awakened,
And you again appeared to me
Like ghost, like fleeting apparition,
Like genius of the purest grace.

My heart again pulsates in rapture,
And everything arouse again:
My former faith, and inspiration,
And tears, and life, and tender love.

Translated by Dmitri Smirnov

Read: Anna Petrovna Kern (1800-1879)

The Fountain of Bakhchisarai

The Fountain of Bakhchisarai (Russian: Бахчисарайский фонтан) is a Russian ballet inspired by the 1823 poem by Alexander Pushkin of the same title. With music by Boris Asafyev and choreography by Rostislav Zakharov, the ballet premiered in Saint Petersburg, (then Leningrad) in 1934 at the Kirov Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet (now the Mariinsky Theatre).

Bakhchisarai is in the Crimea, near Yalta. Bakhchisarai Palace was originally built in the sixteenth century and has been repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt since. The fountain, which actually exists, is called the Fountain of Tears.

In the film version the roles were danced by Galina Ulanova as Maria, Maya Plisetskaya as Zarema, Pyotr Gusev as Khan Girey, and Yuri Zhdanov as Vaslav. This is the only known footage of Ulanova and Plisetskaya, who succeeded Ulanova as prima ballerina assoluta of the Bolshoi Theatre, dancing together.

Brodsky: The Last Poet In The Russian Heroic Tradition

Valentina Polukhina - David Bethea - An Interview

Valentina Polukhina: At what stage did you become responsive to Russian poetry?
David Bethea: I began to specialize in Russian poetry in graduate school; it was there, in the years 1974-77, that I decided to focus in my dissertation research on the poetry of Vladislav Khodasevich. As I steeped myself in Khodasevich I also read in some depth Pushkin, Derzhavin, Fet, and the other poets Khodasevich especially admired and to some extent modelled himself on.

Do you remember your first encounter with Brodsky's poetry?
- I recall my initial strong feelings about Brodsky arose in connection with his startling "blank verse" classicism in the early "Aeneas and Dido" (Enei i Didona) poem as well as with the moving equine parts of "There was a black horizon" (Byl chernyi nebosvod..."). It became clear to me as an advanced graduate student and young assistant professor that Brodsky brought something special to …