Showing posts from May, 2016

Julian Barnes and the Shostakovich Wars

On the evening of January 26, 1936, Joseph Stalin and several other Soviet leaders went to the Bolshoi Theatre, in Moscow, to see a performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s opera “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District.” Shostakovich, only twenty-nine years old, was a rising star among Soviet composers, and his show was a hit; when Stalin came to see it, it was enjoying its eighty-fourth performance at the Bolshoi, after a successful première in Leningrad in 1934, and appearances in several European and American cities. A portrait of the desperate life of the Russian lower-middle class, the opera was sardonic, nervy, and violent, veering constantly between satire and vaudeville and naturalism.

The plot, based on a short story by the nineteenth-century Russian writer Nikolai Leskov, tells of a bored and frustrated housewife, Katerina Ismailova, who begins an affair with a clerk, Sergey, when her merchant husband leaves on a business trip. When her overbearing father-in-law discovers her trans…

Sholokhov and the riddle of ‘The Quiet Don’

The Quiet Don was published in four parts between 1928 and 1940. (The earlier sections were formerly better known in English as Quiet Flows The Don, the later ones as The Don Flows Home To The Sea.) It is one of the greatest of twentieth-century Russian novels, and when Mikhail Sholokhov was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1965, the Swedish Academy cited its “artistic force and integrity”. But ever since the end of the 1920s there have been rumours that Sholokhov was not the only, or even the main, author. These suspicions have recently received fresh support in the form of an unfinished manuscript by a Russian critic, no longer living, which was published last month in Paris by the YMCA Press under the title Stremya “Tikhovo Dona” (The Current of “The Quiet Don”), with an introductory essay by Alexander Solzhenitsyn which appears here in English for the first time.

From the time when it first began to appear in 1928 The Quiet Don has posed a whole series of riddles which hav…

Anna Akhmatova: Grey-eyed king

Inconsolable anguish, I hail your sting! Yesterday died the grey-eyed king. The autumn evening was stifling and red, My husband returned and casually said: “Back from the hunt, with his body they walked, They found him lying beside the old oak. I pity the queen. So young! Passed away!... In the span of a night, her hair became grey.” He found his pipe and wandered outside, And went off to work, like he did every night. My daughter’s asleep. I’ll bid her to rise, Only to gaze at her grey-colored eyes. Outside the window, the poplars unnerved, Whisper: “Your king is no more on this earth”

Translation by Andrey Kneller

The Forgotten Russian: The Genius of Nikolai Leskov

Like fossil fuel, the amount of great Russian literature still underground has to be limited. So here is Nikolai Leskov (1831-1895). Not an unknown writer, but an ignored one. His crude waits in underground caves, reeking of profit. We don't read him because he's the opposite of what we're taught to like. He's a longwinded miniaturist, a man of vague loyalties. He's vague about where he's going. He regales us. His stories pound Chekhovian humanity into a quixotic pulp. He's boring where any competent MFA grad would be interesting. And interesting precisely where all of us are boring.

Leskov was a wounded moderate. Incurring the wrath of the nihilists early, he feinted right. He limped behind Tolstoy and Dostoevsky; he was not a man to keep up a totalizing vision; nor could he, after he reached artistic maturity, put forward a novel of any length. He did everything wrong. He wrote countrified yarns of yawning length. He composed in a style called skaz, which…

The Discovery of Chance - The Life and Thought of Alexander Herzen

In the mid-19th-century photographs of Alexander Herzen, he looks appealing: a rumpled Russian nobleman with a straggly beard streaked with gray, his watch chain and waistcoat straining against a full stomach, a look of wistful and gentle melancholy in his eyes.

Tolstoy thought Herzen (1812-70) was one of the finest prose writers of his time, and so did Turgenev and Dostoyevsky. He was also an editor, a political activist and a scathing and ironical polemicist, castigating equally the Russian despots in Petersburg and his fellow socialists in exile in London, Geneva and Paris. In the years between the European-wide revolutions of 1848 and the czar’s brutal suppression of the Polish insurrection of 1863, he was one of the most provocative revolutionary minds of his time. When he was buried at Père Lachaise in Paris in 1870, a mourner exclaimed: “To the Voltaire of the 19th century!” That is not how he has been remembered.

The eclipse of his reputation is a loss, since his greatest works,…

Tatjana Vassiljeva -Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations

Described as a ‘phenomenon’, Tatjana Vassiljeva is known as a musician possessing an irreproachable technique and irresistible range of sonorities, whose superlative virtuosity is of only minor importance beside the strength of musical personality and ideas, and her ability to communicate them. Tatjana’s innate musical curiosity is reflected by her extensive repertoire which ranges from baroque to contemporary music and includes several works of which she has given the world première.

Aida Garifullina: Casta Diva

Aida Garifullina, Russian opera singer and Honored Artist of the Republic of Tatarstan, was born and grew up in Kazan. Her mother Laylya Ildarovna was choirmaster, and gave first music lessons to Aida. Later, when she studied at the Nuremberg University of Music, she was taught by Siegfried Jerusalem, and then her teacher was Claudia Visca, the professor of the University of Music and Performing Arts, Vienna.

In January 2013, Aida was invited to the Mariinsky Theatre by Valery Gergiev and made the first appearance there as Susanna in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. Then she played Gilda in Rigoletto and Adina in L'Elisir d'Amore. In 2014 she took part in first nights of such operas as War and Peace (Natasha Rostova) and The Golden Cockerel (the Queen of Shemakha). War and Peace performance staged by British director Graham Vick was shown at European cinemas, thus, thousands spectators managed to witness its uniqueness and magnificence, and to notice young soprano’s the talent…

The disease of theory: “Crime and Punishment” at 150

One hundred and fifty years ago, when Dostoevsky published Crime and Punishment, Russia was seething with reform, idealism, and hatred. Four years earlier, the “tsar-liberator” Alexander II (reigned 1855–1881) had at last abolished serfdom, a form of bondage making 90 percent of the population saleable property. New charters granted considerable autonomy to the universities as press censorship was relaxed. The court system, which even a famous Slavophile said made his hair stand on end and his skin frost over, was remodeled along Western lines. More was to come, including the beginnings of economic modernization. According to conventional wisdom, Russian history alternates between absolute stasis—“Russia should be frozen so it doesn’t rot,” one reactionary writer urged—and revolutionary change. Between Peter the Great (died 1725) and the revolutions of 1917, nothing compared with the reign of Alexander II.

And yet it was the tsar-liberator, not his rigid predecessor or successor, who w…

Denis Matsuev: My piano contest was ‘a triumph for the younger generation’

RBTH: What are your impressions of the competition? Denis Matsuev:It was a triumph for the younger generation! The finals were seen by both the Moscow audience and the rest of the world – the concert was broadcast on We’ve collected hundreds of thousands of views in a few days. Representatives of different piano schools – Russians, Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, Belarusians, British and Georgians – were on stage. The Russian school was a little stronger, because it still sets the bar. Despite their age, the participants performed very complicated parts. It's amazing how such concerts can be played at the age of 11 or 12. You could hear mature playing, a unique vision and the experience of playing with an orchestra. The new generation is very rational in a good way. So I have confidence in them. Tomorrow they will get up after their resounding success and go to a rehearsal. And what's the most interesting is that with their talent, they remain normal children. RBTH: You’ve a…

‘On Generalities’ Vladimir Nabokov

Was it insouciance or insight that led the young Vladimir Nabokov, already pathologically contrarian, to predict in 1926 that “the exceedingly dull Mr. Ulyanov” would by 2016 require glossing as Lenin? Father of the newborn Soviet Union, Vladimir Ilyich “Lenin”, though embalmed and on display on Red Square since 1924, still exerted an unrivalled influence from “the beyond” (as much a geographical as a spiritual category) on the close to one million Russian exiles sent into diaspora by the October Revolution and subsequent civil war. In “On Generalities”1, a talk delivered in 1926 at an evening gathering of the Tatarinov-Aykhenvald Circle (and now appearing for the first time in English), Nabokov addressed fellow émigrés on the subject of one of their deepest concerns: what did it mean that their Russia was irretrievable, and how could they make sense of their exile? Nabokov resists the idea of absolute breaks in history – and this at a time when, following the First World War, entire e…

From Second-Hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich

A citizen of Belarus who was born in Ukraine and writes in Russian, Svetlana Alexievich takes as her subject the “history of the Russian-Soviet soul”. Second-Hand Time is the concluding book in a cycle of five, “The Red Man. Voices of Utopia”. Gathered from interviews carried out between 1991 and 2012, Second-Hand Time will appear in English for the first time later this month, published by Fitzcarraldo Editions. Our first extract comes from the short opening section, in which the author addresses the reader in her own voice. The second, a complete chapter, suggests the breadth of Alexievich’s canvas and the originality of her method. “I am often told, even now, that what I write isn’t literature, it’s a document. What is literature today? Who can answer that question? We live faster than ever before. Content ruptures form. Breaks and changes it […] There are no borders between fact and fabrication, one flows into the other” (Nobel Lecture, 2015). Remarks from an accomplice We’re paying…

Rimsky-Korsakov: The Tsar's Bride