Showing posts from November, 2016

Julian Barnes: Russians had 40 years to write Shostakovich novel but didn’t

Rossiyskaya Gazeta: On the subject of the “Barnes phenomenon”: Critics usually call you “the apostle of postmodernism” or “the chameleon of literature,” meaning that as soon as they try to identify your creative work you immediately change “color” and write something completely different. In the 20th century, in the 90s, postmodernism was the most popular literary trend in Russia, yet we failed to identify it. At last, someone suggested a formula of postmodernism, an attempt to specify what postmodernism is. How would you define postmodernism? Julian Barnes: It's the critics, not the writers, who give labels to literature. I've been given many labels over the years – an American critic called me a “pre-postmodernist” – which I'm still trying to work out. But in any case, we seem to have run out of labels – the modernists were working a century ago, the postmodernists (of the generation of Borges, say) are also long dead. Are some of us now post-post modernists? I hope not. …

A Brilliant Mind’s Pauses: The Fiction of Russia’s Greatest Poet

PUSHKIN IS A TERRIBLE MODEL for writers: the prose is lively, amusing, idiomatic, clear, charming. Nobody can write as beautifully as he, so why bother?

When Tolstoy reread Pushkin’s tales, novellas, and “fragments” (as they’re called), in March 1873, he immediately abandoned a painstaking historical novel and started one that became Anna Karenina. Okay, for Tolstoy, Pushkin was a wonderful model. Pushkin’s fictional fragments, by the way, are only incomplete, not unfinished; they’re brilliant up to their last phrase. Pushkin, unlike Tolstoy, was not a compulsive reviser. He never even completely closed off Eugene Onegin, his verse-novel, because he was continually getting distracted by women and his literary disputes. His fictions concern love and youth, parents and children, the elderly, war and books, the city and country. His asides are not cute or especially intimate. They are a brilliant mind’s pauses for reflection, the observations of a great man. “To follow a great man’s thoug…

The Many Faces of Ivan Aivazovsky

A great marine painter who left a vast artistic legacy behind him, Ivan Aivazovsky was himself often portrayed by his contemporaries, while as a talented portraitist himself, the artist also created around 10 self-portraits over the course of his long artistic career. He was painted by a whole host of his fellow artists including friends from the Academy of Arts such as Vasily Sternberg and Mikhail Scotti; older contemporaries such as Academician Alexei Tyranov and the “patriarch” of the Moscow School of Painting, Vasily Tropinin;[1] the chief ideologue of the “Peredvizhnik” (Wanderers) movement, Ivan Kramskoi; and the “apologist” for salon painting, Konstantin Makovsky. Two marble busts of Aivazovsky survive, one by Alexander Belyaev, depicting the artist as a young man, the other by Leopold Bernhard Bernstamm, created in the painter’s old age. After Aivazovsky’s death, a bronze statue was erected in Feodosia, designed by the sculptor Ilya Ginzburg. Despite all this, Aivazovsky’s dep…

Love and Death in Revolution Square - Svetlana Alexievich

Svetlana Alexievich’s father became a communist after Yuri Gagarin flew into space. “We’re the first! We can do anything!” he told her. She too became a believer. “Disillusionment came later,” the 2015 Nobel laureate for literature writes in Secondhand Time, the final installment of her five-volume exploration of the Soviet soul.

Like nearly every child growing up in the USSR, I also dreamed of meeting a real, live cosmonaut. Yet my wish came true only a quarter century after the fall of the Soviet Union. Last September, Valentina Tereshkova, the world’s first woman in space, addressed the inaugural gala for the London Science Museum’s exhibition Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age. As Tereshkova came off stage, I seized the moment. Tripping over my words, I told her that for a child growing up in faraway England while his country was falling apart back home, her achievement was one of the few things that kept me proud of my once great motherland. Tereshkova glared at me. “It must have …

Mikhail Lomonosov: The 'Russian Da Vinci'

Mikhail Lomonosov was born in 1711 in the Arkhangelsk Region in the far north of Russia (615 miles north of Moscow). His father was a wealthy peasant fisherman who, like his ancestors, was involved in maritime commerce. Lomonosov remembered his father as a kind man but "brought up in extreme ignorance," which no one would say about Lomonosov himself. He enjoyed studying even as a child, and mastered several scientific textbooks while still living in his village.

Gradually, village life became unbearable for the youth, He quarreled with his stepmother, and rebelled against his father's desire for him to marry. In 1730, he ran off to Moscow with a string of fish carts and entered the Slavic Greek Latin Academy. Peasant children were not admitted to the academy, so Lomonosov introduced himself as a "nobleman's son."

The academy's administration easily believed that the young man was an aristocrat, since he knew how to read and write and had a solid understa…

What was so ‘Great’ about Catherine?

Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg was born on May 2, 1729 in Stettin, Prussia, which is today Szczecin, Poland. Her father was a minor German prince, but he had married well, and his wife’s bloodlines opened numerous prospects for his daughter. She charmed Russia’s Empress Elizabeth, who was in search of a bride for her nephew and heir, the future Peter III. The young princess took the name Ekaterina (Catherine) when she was baptized into the Orthodox faith in order to marry Peter.

Modest and charming, young Catherine was popular with the noble elites — but Peter himself was not. He reigned only six months, from January-July 1762, before abdicating in favor of Catherine. Only a week after abdicating, he was killed. Although there is no proof that Catherine knew of the murder, she has long been rumored to have ordered it.

Describing the empress, historian Alexander Orlov wrote: "All her life, she was burning with ambition, and, having reached power, she tried to …

The troubled friendship of Leo Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky.

Let me tell you my life; it won’t take much of your time—you ought to know it.
I am a weed, a foundling, an illegitimate being.”
—Maxim Gorky, 1908

“As a writer, I am not ‘great’; I am simply a good worker.”
—Maxim Gorky, 1928

Attempting a friendship with one of your heroes is always a risky undertaking. Some cherished illusions have to be sacrificed to reality, some disenchantment unavoidable. Maxim Gorky was thirty-two when he befriended Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, who was seventy-two and well into his heretical-prophet phase after a prolonged spiritual crisis decades earlier. The first night they met in 1900, Tolstoy took him into his study, criticized his stories in a torrent of expletives (while arguing that fifteen was the age of consent), and then gave him a hug and kiss, declaring: “You’re a real muzhik! You’ll have a hard time rubbing elbows with our writers, but don’t let anything intimidate you. Always say what you feel—if it comes out crudely, don’t worry.” Gorky left the encount…

Leo Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina’ turned into a musical

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This, the opening line of Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” is just as much a classic as the novel it begins. The book, first published in 1875-1877, has inspired more than 30 screen adaptions, a stage play and a ballet, but it is only recently that the tragic love story has been to music and expressed in lyrics. The Moscow Operetta Theater’s musical version of the novel opened in October. “

Anna Karenina” is the third original Russian musical to be staged at the theater. The show’s producer, Alexei Bolonin, spent a number of years staging licensed Western musicals. He was instrumental in bringing “Metro,” “Notre Dame de Paris” and “Romeo & Juliette” to Russia in the 2000s.

“Back then, we did not yet have a culture of musicals; the very word itself sounded strange to the Russian ear. Now an understanding of this genre has developed. We realized that we can create something of our own,” Bolonin said.


Rasputin still refuses to die

When he first came to public notice, Rasputin was described in a Russian newspaper as ‘a symbol. He is not a real person. He is a characteristic product of our strange times.’ With his hypnotic eyes, long hair and peasant simplicity, Rasputin was as mesmerisingly attractive to upper-class and royal women in his 47 years of life, as, in afterlife he would be for biographers.

Who can resist the story of the Siberian peasant, leaving his wife and nippers to wander the roads of Russia, imbibing, and then dispensing, a mixture of spiritual truths and claptrap, and worming his way first into the salons of gullible St Petersburg ladies and finally to the court itself? As Russia sleepwalked towards disaster, however, Rasputin — sometimes held to be a symptom, sometimes a cause of its sickness — was not to blame. Indeed, according to his latest biographer, the distinguished historian Douglas Smith, there was actually a moment when Rasputin might have saved Russia from itself.

This was on the eve…

The Wicked Uncle - Stalin

There is a very rich memoir literature covering Stalin’s life and times, written after his death by those centrally involved. The most prominent part of these works are the memoirs of Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva. Like all memoirs, these sources have to be treated carefully – self-interest or failing memory affects all of them, although it is accepted that Svetlana’s memoirs are in a separate class in this regard. After the fall of the Soviet Union, many Russian archives relating to the Soviet period were opened, providing new material on that period, and in particular on Stalin himself. These lives of Stalin and his entourage draw on this, as well as drawing carefully on the memoir literature.

In Oleg Khlevniuk’s view, too many sources for biographies of Stalin have been made available over the last twenty years, if one bears in mind the need to sift their sheer volume. In his words, the dilemma consists either of covering the hero without the context, or the context withou…

Alexander Blok: On This Sad Earth

O courage, O achievement, O fame, I forgot all those on this sad earth, when, in front of me on the table, your face shone in a simple frame.
But the hour struck, you left the house. I flung the dear ring into the dark. You put your fate in another’s hands, and I forgot your lovely face.
Days went by, circling, a cursed swarm… Passion and drink tormented my life… I remembered you before the altar, I called to you, as if to my youth…
I called but you never looked back, I wept, but you didn’t relent. You wrapped yourself, sad, in a blue cloak, from the house, to the wet night, you went.
O dear and gentle one, I don’t know where you found shelter for your pride… I sleep, I dream of that blue cloak in which you entered the wet night...
I no longer dream of tenderness, fame, that’s all over, my youth is past! From the table, with my own hand, I removed your face in its simple frame.
A. S. Kline  © 2002-2011

Mikhail Piotrovsky - Director of the State Hermitage Museum

Mikhail Piotrovsky is a Russian scientist and the Director of the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, one of the largest and the most famous cultural and historical museums in the world. The collections of the Hermitage include precious objects from the Stone Age up to the end of the 20th century and boast paintings by Rafael, Michelangelo, Titian, Renoir and other great masters.

Mikhail Piotrovsky was born on 9 December 1944 in Yerevan, Armenia, into a family of archeologists. Later the family moved to Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg). Mikhail’s father, Boris Piotrovsky, was head of the State Hermitage for 30 years, from 1960 to 1990. Brought up in an atmosphere of admiration for science, Mikhail decided to uphold the family tradition, following his father’s path of a scientist. In 1967 he entered the Department for Oriental Studies at the Leningrad State University. Charmed by oriental languages and culture, Piotrovsky decided to major in Arabic philology. Very soon he proved…