Thursday, 31 March 2016

Ostrovsky: The great playwright we’ve never heard of

The censor’s report on Alexander Ostrovsky’s first full-length plarovsky'y “A Family Affair” read: “All the characters are first class villains, the dialogue is filthy, the entire play is an insult to the Russian Merchant Class.”

The Tsar banned the play, but later his status was assured and his work is still topical and entertaining. Today he is one of Russia’s most popular and often-performed playwrights.

So why have most of us in the west never heard of him?

Jacqui Honess-Martin, who recently directed the English language premiere of Ostrovsky’s “Bespridannitsa” (“Girl with no Dowry” or “Fiancée without Fortune”) at London’s Arcola Theatre, has several possible answers: “British theatre doesn’t do a lot of foreign classics,” she explained. “It tends to be Ibsen and Chekhov and that’s about it. We’re very comfortable doing drama about the remote upper classes; we’re not so comfortable doing drama that criticizes the middle classes. Ostrovsky is also very difficult to translate. He wrote in a very specific idiom for his time, very colloquial and challenging to put into English.”

Renamed “Larisa and the Merchants,” Honess-Martin’s recent production was an intense and passionate satire focusing on the economic pressures which force Larisa to choose a husband in the brutal world of the rising mercantile class. Honess-Martin said: “it is a huge experiment doing Ostrovsky in this country because people don’t know who he is.” But she emphasized that his work has plenty to say to western audiences.

American theaters are still struggling in their efforts to bring Ostrovsky to new audiences. In 2010, Ostrovsky was produced in New York. "Ostrovsky has mostly retreated to the textbooks outside of his own country," Charles Isherwood said in The New York Times. "Hats off, therefore, to Classic Stage Company’s production of “The Forest,” one of Ostrovsky’s better-known comedies, performed by a talented cast led by Dianne Wiest, who plays the miserly mistress of a large estate, and John Douglas Thompson (“Othello,” “The Emperor Jones”) as her nephew, an itinerant actor who comes to pay a visit."

Unfortunately, the show was not a hit at all—quite unlike many Chekhov productions. "The production is a commendable attempt to shine a light into an obscure byway of the classical canon, but memorably moving or memorably funny it is not. It may be unfair to belabor the comparison, but you could plausibly label it Chekhov Lite." Isherwood said.

This did not exactly open the way for more Ostrovsky, but a year ago, in 2012, an adventurous theater in New York called "Blessed Unrest" tackled "The Storm." In this production, many liberties were taken to create a contemporary and conceptual work. The review in Backstage was both positive and mixed.

The London stage, however, is beginning its own love affair with Ostrovsky.

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Sergej Rachmaninov - Vespers for alto, tenor & chorus, Op. 37

Sergey Rachmaninov - Vespers. Mass for mixed choir, Op 37
Valery Polyansky, conductor

The Romanovs: masterful account of Russia’s doomed royal family

This May will see the release of Simon Sebag Montefiore’s The Romanovs: 1613-1918 in the United States. It is an exhaustive look at the full sweeping arc of Russia’s doomed royal family. The public has an insatiable appetite for the Romanovs, whether in the form of tiny animated bats or Orthodox saints or Pinterest boards swollen with sad, hand-colored photographs of worried children clustered around their parents’ chairs.

That Nicholas II and his family occupy such a prominent place in the American popular imagination has an obvious source: the immense popularity of Robert K Massie’s 1967 biography, Nicholas and Alexandra: An Intimate Account of the Last of the Romanovs and the Fall of Imperial Russia.

Written a decade before the remains of Nicholas, Alexandra and three of their children were exhumed from their hastily selected resting place underneath Koptyaki Road (Marie and Alexei’s bodies were found in 2007, a short distance away from the others), and two decades before the Yurovsky Note detailing their assassination and disposal was officially made public to western audiences, Massie was well-skilled in the art of the write-around. But what Nicholas and Alexandra lacks from a modern historiographical perspective it has always made up for with storytelling élan.

Fans of this book are many, and they can still remember stealing their mother’s book club copies and becoming entranced by the protagonists. Some can still identify the personality and appearance of each of the Romanov daughters (Olga: “shy and subdued”, Tatiana: “the tallest, slenderest and most elegant of the sisters”, Marie: “merry and flirtatious”, and Anastasia: “a short, dumpy blue-eyed child renowned in her family chiefly as a wag”). More can narrate the book’s mildly exaggerated account of the murder of Rasputin, and each admitted to an uncomfortable childhood obsession with their infamously sticky end in the cellar: dresses so heavily stuffed with gems that bayonets proved more useful than bullets to their assassins, a jeweled pillow used as a useless shield, the loyal servants who shared their fate.

Perhaps most poignantly, they remembered Nicholas II’s split-second realization that his family was not being moved to a more secure location, that this was the end, that there would be no ignoble exile to England.

The tragedy of the Romanovs has never merely been their final days at Yekaterinburg, of course, and if one had to to single out one aspect of Massie’s work for criticism, it might be the transformation of a truly inept and periodically malevolent Nicholas II into a sweet, gently bumbling young man who got in over his head. It is fair to say that Autocrat of All Russia has never been a good gig, nor an easy one, but Nicholas II was a disaster by any reasonable standards.

Massie omits, for example, Nicholas II’s quiet support for the anti-Semitic pogroms that swept Russia during his reign, including the Kishinev massacres of 1903 and 1905, overshadowed as they are by his soft, tentative letters to Alix. The “Nicky” of Nicholas and Alexandra is a husband and a father who is having a bad year at the office, the Nicholas II who presided over the disastrous Russo-Japanese war and watched more than 3 million doomed Russians trudge their way through nearly a thousand miles of snow to the fronts the first world war is of greater interest, perhaps, to history.

Nicholas and Alexandra, at its core, is a romance. Not just the love story of its titular characters, although Massie handles it beautifully (their letters are a delight), nor the love of a parent for a sick child, but also the end of a national romance: the Russians and the Romanovs. “It is very high up to God! It is very far to the Tsar!” Massie’s peasants say, and when the Bolsheviks arrive to finish the job, we have already watched wave after wave of delight, disillusionment, human error, and callous disregard rend that relationship beyond repair.

Perhaps the abrupt end of a monarchy is always a love story gone wrong: there are passages from Nicholas and Alexandra that could be lifted from any biography of Marie Antoinette or Louis XVI. Alexandra and Marie Antoinette shared a similar conviction that any anger from the peasantry could be instantly diffused if only the people could see their husbands’ faces. But that was a gambit that worked well until it didn’t.

The emotional fulcrum of Massie’s book, of course, is the brief, tragic life of the Tsarevich, Alexei. Every year, high school biology classes dutifully shade in circles in ancestry charts to depict the hemophilia that slowly worked its way down through the genes of Queen Victoria’s children and grandchildren, a task that remains in the imagination far longer than Mendel’s peas or the vagaries of fruit flies. The inability of the Romanovs to protect Alexei from his disease, despite their wealth and importance, and the lengths to which Alexandra, in particular, would go to save him, hitching her hopes to the cart of a wildly charismatic Siberian starets despite the disapproval of the royal base, gets top billing in its pages.

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Empress Elizaveta Petrovna Romanova

Elizabeth in the 1720s

Empress Elizaveta Petrovna was the daughter of Peter the Great, and ruled the Russian Empire for twenty years (1741-1762). Although she took the throne through a palace coup, her rule of the country was mild and allowed Russia to prosper in the arts and education. Her pro-Russian domestic policies increased the presence of the Russian nobility in the government. She also defeated the strongest warrior of Europe at the time, the Prussian king Frederick II, but died before her victory could be secured.

Elizabeth was born in Moscow in 1709 to Peter the Great and his mistress Catherine (the future Empress Catherine I) before they were officially married. Her education mostly centered on learning French, as her parents envisioned marrying her into the Bourbon dynasty of French royalty.

As she grew up into a lively and beautiful woman, Peter proposed his plan to the French court. However, the young French king Louis XV rejected the possibility. Elizabeth instead took a lover from the guard squad – Aleksey Shubin.

After the death of Peter the Great and his successors Catherine I and Peter II, the throne went to Elizabeth’s cousin Anna Ioannovna who highly favoured Germans, and put them in key positions in the country. She also felt threatened by Elizabeth’s affair with Shubin and her popularity with the guards.

Anna banished Shubin to Siberia, but Elizabeth did not lament her loss for long. Soon she found herself another lover, this time the Cossack Aleksey Razumovsky, who, according to some historians, later became her husband and the father of her children.

During the ten-year reign of Anna Ioannovna and her successor Anna Leopoldovna, the German dominance of Russian politics and culture fostered great discontent within Russian society, especially expressed by the guards. People felt their national identity was being repressed and longed for the bygone times of Peter the Great. Elizabeth, the daughter of Peter the Great, seemed like a logical successor to the throne; a person who would be able to reverse the course of the country.

Ardently supported by the nobility and the guards, Elizabeth organized a military coup and seized the throne in 1741, marking the beginning of her 20-year reign. She generously rewarded all those who helped her by granting them noble titles, lands, and government posts. Naturally her greatest supporter and admirer Aleksey Razumovsky received every possible benefit after his lover’s enthronement.

Just as she had promised, Elizabeth returned Peter’s traditions to the country by dismissing the Cabinet of Ministers and restoring the Senate. Elizabeth replaced foreigners (mostly Germans) with Russians in all government posts. Her guideline was to keep a foreigner at his post only if no Russian could do the job.

She also reduced the term of state service for the nobility and endowed them with lands and peasants that had been taken from the Germans. This generosity, however, practically secured the slave status of the serfs who spilled out in massive uprisings later. Being a very religious woman, Elizabeth also abolished capital punishment – in all twenty years and thirty days of her rule not a single person was executed. All her good intentions to rule the country in a proper manner did not last long however; she soon tired of politics and dived into partying, leaving the rule of the country in the hands of her favorites.

Despite the Empress’ vanity, Elizabethian rule brought a remarkable age of enlightenment to Russia. In 1747, she founded the St.Petersburg Academy of Sciences, and ten years later the very first university in Russia was founded in Moscow by Mikhail Lomonosov.

In 1756, the first public theater was opened in St. Petersburg, and in 1758 The Academy of Fine Arts followed. Numerous other schools and academies also sprang up across the country, and Elizabeth made education freely available to all social classes (except for serfs). Elizabeth (who had been educated by a French tutor) exchanged the prevailing German language for French as the language of the nobility. It became so widely spoken that it remained in use all the way to the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Even Leo Tolstoy wrote pages of dialogues in French, never bothering to translate them in the first edition of War and Peace.

No one described the character and lifestyle of Elizabeth better than the Russian historian Vasily Klyuchevsky.

“Lively and happy, in love with herself, tall, big but with a good figure, with a constantly blooming face, she liked to impress. Knowing that she looked good in a man’s dress, she held masquerades without masques where men had to come fully dressed as females and women as males. She was the most legitimate of all the successors of Peter the Great, however she had to seize the power by a coup. Elizabeth inherited the boundless energy of her father. She could have palaces built in 24 hours and could travel from Moscow to St. Petersburg in 2 days.

Elizabeth was lazy and capricious; scared of any serious thought, and hating any productive work, she couldn’t get herself into the complicated international affairs of Europe or understand the diplomacy of her chancellors.

The throne gave her an opportunity to realize all the dreams she had as a girl. The Empress spent all her money on balls, masquerades, theater, and trips. Her court sometimes resembled a theater filled with French comedy and Italian operas.

However, the living quarters, where Elizabeth and her guests rested from the extravagant ballrooms were astonishingly small, crowded, dirty, and shabby. Doors wouldn’t shut, windows let in a draft, and water trickled down the walls making the rooms damp and cold. There was so little furniture that it had to be transported whenever Elizabeth travelled from one residency to another – mirrors, beds and bedding, and sometimes tables and chairs had to be broken apart in order to be moved.

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Monday, 28 March 2016

Model for Dr. Zhivago's Lara Betrayed Pasternak to K.G.B.

Olga Ivinskaja and Boris Pasternak

There is no more enduring Russian love story than that of the writer Boris Pasternak and the woman who was the model for Lara, the radiant heroine of ''Doctor Zhivago.''
Except that now it seems that the real-life Lara, Pasternak's longtime mistress, muse and literary assistant, Olga Ivinskaya, informed on him to the K.G.B.
In 1961, while a prisoner of the Soviet gulag, where she was sent because of her association with Pasternak, Olga Ivinskaya wrote to Nikita Khrushchev begging for her freedom and reminding him of how she cooperated with the Government's efforts to silence the writer.
Ivinskaya told the Soviet leader how she tried to cancel the writer's meetings with foreigners, worked closely with the Central Committee to try and delay publication in the West of ''Doctor Zhivago,'' the epic novel of an idealistic Russian poet and his lover caught up in the turbulence of the Russian Revolution, and dissuaded Pasternak from leaving the Soviet Union after he was forced to turn down the Nobel Prize he won in 1958. The letter, recently released from archives that once belonged to the Communist Party's Central Committee, was published in extracts by the Moscow newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets earlier this month.
''I did everything in my power to avoid a misfortune, but it was beyond my capacity to neutralize everything at once,'' she wrote on March 10, 1961. ''I would like to make it clear that it was Pasternak himself who wrote the novel, it was he himself who received fees by a method he chose. One should not portray him as an innocent lamb.''
Publication of the letter astounded the literary circles where Pasternak remains a godlike figure. But there was more shock than anger.
Most Russians are all too aware of the compromises and betrayals millions of people were forced to commit to protect themselves and their families from the K.G.B. Few have a clear conscience. Many, including Pasternak's elder son, who described the article as ''insulting and disgusting,'' were appalled that a newspaper had sensationalized a desperate woman's last-ditch effort to save herself.
But a few were delighted by its revelations.
''It is the first concrete evidence that she cooperated with the K.G.B.,'' said Natalya Volkova, 70, director of the State Archives of Literature and Art. The archive is now in a bitter dispute with Ivinskaya's heirs over custody of a batch of Pasternak papers. ''But frankly speaking,'' she added with a sly smile, ''we guessed long ago.''
Mrs. Volkova is part of a small clique of scholars and intellectuals whose views can be summed up as ''Lara-Shmara.'' They readily believe Olga cooperated with intelligence services -- very few in her position did not.
But mostly they feel she vastly overrated her own importance both as a muse and as a lover.
''His second wife Zinaida was Pasternak's real guardian angel,'' Mrs. Volkova said. ''But,'' she added sourly, ''the mistress is always more interesting than the wife.''
Pasternak had a complicated personal life, but there is little question that he at one time loved Ivinskaya, wrote some of his greatest poems about her, and remained loyal to her until his death.
Americans mostly know the love story through the melancholy strains of ''Lara's theme'' from the soundtrack to a 1965 movie version of ''Doctor Zhivago'' that starred Julie Christie as Lara.
Pasternak met the woman who would serve as his model for Lara in 1946, when he was married, 56 and a famous poet, and she was a beautiful 34-year-old widow working at the literary magazine Novy Mir. He began writing ''Doctor Zhivago'' in 1948. It was banned by the Soviets, who considered it a slander of the Russian Revolution. In 1949, she was arrested and sentenced to four years of hard labor because of her association with Pasternak.
In her memoir, she said that while she was in prison, she miscarried Pasternak's baby. ''The relationship ended a few months before she was arrested,'' said Yevgeny Pasternak, who wrote a biography of his father. ''By then, they were not close, but she was in prison, and he helped her children.'' Mr. Pasternak added, ''I am certain that, had she never been arrested, they would not have been close.''
He said that, as a former convict, she was an obvious target for the K.G.B., but that his father, who knew of her weekly meetings with intelligence officials, always believed she defended him. Mr. Pasternak, however, seemed less certain. ''Instead,'' he said, ''she could have said God knows what about him.''
But he said he did not wish to judge her by a letter written when she was in the Gulag. ''When she was arrested a second time, what else could she do but write to Khrushchev?''
In 1953, when Ivinskaya was released from prison the first time, she moved into a small house near Pasternak's dacha in the writers' colony Peredelkino, and became his secretary and literary agent. He spent his days at her house, his nights with his wife and family. Shortly after he died, she was arrested and convicted of smuggling foreign currency -- the royalties she collected for Pasternak from the West.
She served four years, and was officially rehabilitated in 1988, the year ''Doctor Zhivago'' was finally published in Russia. She died in 1995 at the age of 83.
In her memoirs, ''A Captive of Our Time,'' she wrote that the authorities forced her to serve as an intermediary between them and Pasternak, and described how she tried to protect him from persecution.
She did not divulge the kind of informing or contacts with intelligence officers that she described in her letter to Khrushchev.
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Boris Pasternak: Dawn

You meant everything in my destiny. 
Then came war, devastation, 
And for a long, long time there was 
No word of you, no breath. 

And after many, many years 
Your voice has stirred me up again. 
All night I read your Testament, 
As if I were reviving from a faint. 

I want to go to people, into the crowd, 
Into their morning animation. 
I’m ready to smash everything to bits 
And put everybody on their knees. 

And I go running down the stairs, 
As if I’m coming out for the first time 
Onto these streets covered with snow 
And these deserted sidewalks. 

Everywhere waking up, lights, warmth, 
They drink tea, hurry for the tram. 
In the course of only a few minutes 
The city’s altered beyond recognition. 

In the gateway the blizzard weaves 
A net of thickly falling flakes, 
And in order to get somewhere on time, 
They drop their breakfast and rush off. 

I feel for them, for all of them, 
As if I were inside their skin, 
I myself melt as the snow melts, 
I myself knit my brows like morning. 

With me are people without names, 
Trees, children, stay-at-homes. 
Over me they are all the victors, 
And in that alone lies my victory. 

Extracted from Dr Zhivago by Boris Pasternak.

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Vladimir Solovyov: Skeptic

In the evening and in the morning, early,
During the day and in the dead of night,
In great heat or freeze, midst hurricane –
I'm always swaying my head side to side,
Now burying my sight deep in the earth,
Now directing my steady gaze at the sky,
Listening intently to the rustle of trees –
As though to read therein my tea-leaved fate.
What way to choose, where leads my path?
Whom should I love and whom pursue?
Walk toward a temple – to pray to God,
Or into the forest  – to murder passersby?
    Count AE. Heliotropov, 1886

Dmitri Shostakovich: Sonata for viola and piano Op. 147.

Dmitri Shostakovich
Sonata for viola and piano.
Op. 147
Year: 1975
Kim Kashkashian, viola
Robert Levin, piano

The Sonata for Viola and Piano, Op. 147 is the last composition by Dmitri Shostakovich. Completed in July 1975, just weeks before his death, it is dedicated to Fyodor Druzhinin, violist in the Beethoven Quartet.[1] The work received its official premiere in October 1975 with the performing forces of violist Fyodor Druzhinin and pianist Mikhail Muntyan. Appearing at the end of the composer's compositional output, the Sonata for Viola and Piano effectively represents the bleak, mortality-obsessed late style composition of Shostakovich.

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Saturday, 26 March 2016

Joseph Brodsky, Darker and Brighter

In June 1972, a young poet from Leningrad stepped off a plane in Detroit and into a new life. His expulsion from the Soviet Union had won him international fame; yet he didn’t know how to drive, how to open a bank account or write a check, or how to use a toaster. His English, largely self-taught, was almost incomprehensible. He had dropped out of school at 15. Nevertheless, at age 32, he would soon start his first real job, and at a world-class institution: He was the new poet in residence at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Within a few years, Joseph Brodsky would be a colossus on the New York literary scene. Within 15, he would be awarded a Nobel Prize.

At the moment the plane landed, however, Brodsky became the poster boy for Soviet persecution: a “victim,” in other words, and therefore a cliché. He wasn’t the cliché, but publicity would grant him instant power and prestige in his adopted land. The American voices suddenly clamoring around him could not fathom the forces that had shaped him: KGB arrest, prison, psychiatric hospitals, a courtroom trial, and a sentence of hard labor and internal exile near the Arctic Circle. It was the stuff of legend and contributed to a barrage of media coverage. A Cold War Stations of the Cross was easier to package for mass consumption than an accounting of the musicality, metaphorical ingenuity, compression, and raw intelligence of Brodsky’s verse, which had barely appeared in English at all, and only in the most select publications.

Ellendea Proffer Teasley, in her short new memoir, Brodskij sredi nas (Brodsky Among Us), offers a different view of the poet. It’s an iconoclastic and spellbinding portrait, some of it revelatory. Teasley’s Brodsky is both darker and brighter than the one we thought we knew, and he is the stronger for it, as a poet and a person. The book’s reception itself is instructive. Since its publication by Corpus Books in the spring of 2015, Brodsky Among Us has been a sensation in the poet’s former country, quickly becoming a best seller that is now in its sixth printing. Last spring, Teasley made a triumphant publishing tour, speaking at standing-room-only events in Moscow and St. Petersburg; Tbilisi, Georgia; and a number of other cities. The book received hundreds of reviews. According to the leading critic Anna Narinskaya, writing in the newspaper Kommersant, Teasley’s memoir had been written “without teary-eyed ecstasy or vicious vengefulness, without petty settling of scores with the deceased—or the living—and at the same time demonstrating complete comprehension of the caliber and extreme singularity of her ‘hero.’” Galina Yuzevofich, in the online publication Meduza, praised Teasley’s “exactness of eye and absolute honesty,” resulting in a portrait of “wisdom, calm, and amazing equanimity.” Even so, the book has yet to find a publisher in English, the language in which it was written.

The Detroit airport wasn’t Brodsky’s original destination. The Soviets intended to send him to Israel, a place that held no interest for the poet, a secular Jew. At the Vienna stopover, Brodsky was met by Carl Proffer, a professor of Slavic languages and literature from the University of Michigan, who was waiting at the airport with a plan to divert him to Ann Arbor. Proffer, Teasley’s husband, had no authority to offer Brodsky a position at the university. Yet he successfully bluffed the diplomats, embassies, and various bureaucracies.

Brodsky had little notion of what to expect in Ann Arbor, where the Proffers had been living on the edge for some time. Carl was a Nabokov and Gogol scholar; Ellendea was writing about Bulgakov. In 1971, the couple launched an innovative publishing house called Ardis after several visits to the Soviet Union. Ardis published literature that wouldn’t have seen the light of day in its homeland, in Russian and English translation. The venture was started on bank loans, credit cards, and borrowed cash from charitable, if mystified, parents. Eventually, the couple acquired a former country club to house Ardis, Russian Literature Triquarterly (a journal they launched in 1971), and their growing family. A garage was used for inventory, and, over pizza, friends helped with mailings. Ardis ran on a shoestring.

Nadezhda Mandelstam, the widow of the poet Osip Mandelstam, had been the Proffers’ carte d’entrée to a literary world that had reason to mistrust foreign visitors. Eventually, she led them to Brodsky. The Proffers would fear for the poet’s safety from the beginning of their friendship: Teasley writes that “it is hard for us to think about him without resorting to the words destiny and fate, because those words seem to be in the air around him.” Of her and Carl’s first meeting with Brodsky, in Leningrad in 1969, she says: “The poet is quick to say that he is no dissident—he refuses to be defined in any way by opposition to the Soviet government; he prefers to act as if the Soviet regime does not exist.” She adds: “He talks we are nothing in the face of death, but he exudes I will conquer.”

The Proffers would learn of his tenderheartedness and vulnerability as well as their contraries: his insolence, arrogance, boorishness. Teasley writes, “I am reminded of what Mayakovsky’s friends said about him—that he had no skin.” Brodsky lived in a world of absolutes, and his animosities could be adamantine. In Leningrad, speaking of America, he had insisted that the Black Power movement should be crushed, student protesters beaten by the police, and Vietnam turned into a parking lot. Time would modify these judgments, but it wouldn’t eliminate the thinking behind them: Brodsky arrived in the West with a Soviet template and continued to apply it to the world around him. He possessed a dangerous credo and a magnetic presence. “The most remarkable thing about Joseph Brodsky is his determination to live as if he were free in the eleven time zone prison that is the Soviet Union,” Teasley writes. “In revolt against the culture of ‘we,’ he will be nothing if not an individual. His code of behavior is based on his experience under totalitarian rule: a man who does not think for himself, a man who goes along with the group, is part of the evil structure itself.” Hence, he refused to consider himself a dissident—a label that would have defined him in terms of the government he loathed. “If you had fame, you had the power to affect a culture; if you had fame you were showing the Soviets what they had lost,” Teasley writes. Brodsky was determined that they know what they had lost.

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Thursday, 24 March 2016

Vladimir Nabokov: Natasha

On the stairs Natasha ran into her neighbor from across the hall, Baron Wolfe. He was somewhat laboriously ascending the bare wooden steps, caressing the bannister with his hand and whistling softly through his teeth.

 “Where are you off to in such a hurry, Natasha?”

“To the drugstore to get a prescription filled. The doctor was just here. Father is better.”

“Ah, that’s good news.”

She flitted past in her rustling raincoat, hatless.

Leaning over the bannister, Wolfe glanced back at her. For an instant he caught sight from overhead of the sleek, girlish part in her hair. Still whistling, he climbed to the top floor, threw his rain-soaked briefcase on the bed, then thoroughly and satisfyingly washed and dried his hands.

Then he knocked on old Khrenov’s door.

Khrenov lived in the room across the hall with his daughter, who slept on a couch, a couch with amazing springs that rolled and swelled like metal tussocks through the flabby plush. There was also a table, unpainted and covered with ink-spotted newspapers. Sick Khrenov, a shrivelled old man in a nightshirt that reached to his heels, creakily darted back into bed and pulled up the sheet just as Wolfe’s large shaved head poked through the door.

“Come in, glad to see you, come on in.”

The old man was breathing with difficulty, and the door of his night table remained half open.

“I hear you’ve almost totally recovered, Alexey Ivanych,” Baron Wolfe said, seating himself by the bed and slapping his knees.

Khrenov offered his yellow, sticky hand and shook his head.

“I don’t know what you’ve been hearing, but I do know perfectly well that I’ll die tomorrow.”

He made a popping sound with his lips.

“Nonsense,” Wolfe merrily interrupted, and extracted from his hip pocket an enormous silver cigar case. “Mind if I smoke?”

He fiddled for a long time with his lighter, clicking its cogged screw. Khrenov half-closed his eyes. His eyelids were bluish, like a frog’s webbing. Graying bristles covered his protruding chin. Without opening his eyes, he said, “That’s how it’ll be. They killed my two sons and heaved me and Natasha out of our natal nest. Now we’re supposed to go and die in a strange city. How stupid, all things considered. . . .”

Wolfe started speaking loudly and distinctly. He spoke of how Khrenov still had a long time to live, thank goodness, and how everyone would be returning to Russia in the spring, together with the storks. And then he proceeded to recount an incident from his past.

“It was back when I was wandering around the Congo,” he was saying, and his large, somewhat corpulent figure swayed slightly. “Ah, the distant Congo, my dear Alexey Ivanych, such distant wilds—you know . . . Imagine a village in the woods, women with pendulous breasts, and the shimmer of water, black as karakul, amid the huts. There, under a gigantic tree—a kiroku—lay orange fruit like rubber balls, and at night there came from inside the trunk what seemed like the sound of the sea. I had a long chat with the local kinglet. Our translator was a Belgian engineer, another curious man. He swore, by the way, that, in 1895, he had seen an ichthyosaur in the swamps not far from Tanganyika. The kinglet was smeared with cobalt, adorned with rings, and blubbery, with a belly like jelly. Here’s what happened—”

Wolfe, relishing his story, smiled and stroked his pale-blue head.

“Natasha is back,” Khrenov quietly and firmly interjected, without raising his eyelids.

Instantly turning pink, Wolfe looked around. A moment later, somewhere far off, the lock of the front door clinked, then steps rustled along the hall. Natasha entered quickly, with radiant eyes.

“How are you, Daddy?”

Wolfe got up and said, with feigned nonchalance, “Your father is perfectly well, and I have no idea why he’s in bed. . . . I’m going to tell him about a certain African sorcerer.”

Natasha smiled at her father and began unwrapping the medicine.

“It’s raining,” she said softly. “The weather is terrible.”

As usually happens when the weather is mentioned, the others looked out the window. That made a bluish-gray vein on Khrenov’s neck contract. Then he threw his head back on the pillow again. With a pout, Natasha counted the drops, and her eyelashes kept time. Her sleek dark hair was beaded with rain, and under her eyes there were adorable blue shadows.

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Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Sergei Rachmaninoff: Symphony No.3 in A minor, Op.44

N. Järvi
Saint Petersburg Academic Symphony Orchestra

Sergey Rachmaninov - Biography

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"I write the music which I hear playing inside me... I am a Russian composer, therefore my temperament, outlook and music are quintessentially Russian..." - Rachmaninov Sergey

Rachmaninov is widely regarded as one of the greatest 20th century composers and pianists. He left behind a large number of piano concertos, etudes, sonatas, variations and, of course, his world-famous “Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini” for piano and orchestra. Rachmaninov was born on an estate at Oneg near the northwestern city of Novgorod into a noble and musical family of Tatar descent that had been in the service of the Russian tsars since the 16th century. His parents were both amateur pianists, and he had his first piano lessons with his mother on their family estate. His mother pushed him to start playing the piano at age four. His grandfather had been a pupil of John Field. When Sergey was nine, financial difficulties forced the family to sell their estate and move to St. Petersburg, where Sergey took piano lessons at the Conservatory. But, the Conservatory was not a great help to Rachmaninov because of a mix-up in his ability, and he did not learn much. His grandmother noticed this and exposed Sergey to church music, encouraging him to think of music as a pleasure. In 1888 Rachmaninov began to study piano with Siloti and composition with Sergey Taneyev and Anton Arensky. It should be noted that in his younger days Rachmaninov was found to be quite lazy, failing most of his classes and spending much time skating. But his teachers were absolutely amazed by his wonderful memory; he had only to look at sheet music once to be able to play a piece by heart.

In 1891 Rachmaninov graduated cum laude from the Moscow Conservatory and his name was later written in gold letters on a memorial plaque that still graces the conservatory's front wall. Even before his graduation as a pianist in 1891, Rachmaninov had composed what was to become his best-known work, the “Prelude in C Sharp Minor.” With this work, written at the age of 19, Rachmaninov became famous almost overnight. The piano piece also established the general style and mood of his music: rather dark, melancholy, and brooding. His graduation as a composer came in 1892. He was awarded a gold medal for his Pushkin opera “Aleko,” the first of only three operas he ever wrote. Reminiscing about the composition of “Aleko,” Rachmaninov wrote: "The moment I was given the libretto for ‘Aleko’ I ran home as fast as my legs would carry me. I was afraid of losing even a minute… Burning with impatience, I felt already how the music for Pushkin's verses was rising and boiling over in me."

The extraordinary musical gifts of Sergey Rachmaninov and the unique, multi-faceted talent of Feodor Chaliapin (famed for his abilities as an artist and sculptor as well as for his singing and acting) came together many times in both their personal and professional lives. Rachmaninov dedicated his vocal compositions to Chaliapin, accompanied the great singer and was one of the few conductors whose directions Chaliapin followed without demur. As a colleague and a friend, Rachmaninov exerted a great influence on Chaliapin's development as a musician. Reciprocally, Rachmaninov might never have created many of his best vocal compositions without the inspiration of Chaliapin's phenomenal singing. Chaliapin was the first to perform many of Rachmaninov's romances and in 1899 he gave a masterful performance in the title role of Rachmaninov's youthful one-act opera “Aleko,” which six years earlier had enjoyed a brilliant success upon its premiere at the Bolshoi Theater, winning the warm approval of Pyotr Tchaikovsky.

Chaliapin loved to perform with Rachmaninov, who accompanied the singer with particular joy, "enjoying his performance, supplementing it, accompanying him wonderfully. For several years in a row, Muscovites were able to enjoy the unique and unrepeatable concerts of these two artists appearing together and thrilling audiences with their incomparable performing," according to the composer's cousin Satina. At the turn of the century, on a January day in 1900, Chaliapin and Rachmaninov went together to visit Leo Tolstoy, where (though both reportedly were almost paralyzed by shyness) they performed several songs for him. In his book “Man and Mask,” Chaliapin recalled this period of their friendship:

“Destiny threw me in the way of a great many remarkable men. My meeting with Sergey Rachmaninov dates back to the first stirring memories of my life in Moscow… A remarkable pianist, Rachmaninov is, with Toscanini, one of the best conductors I have ever heard. When Rachmaninov holds the baton, he inspires complete confidence in a singer. He interprets the very soul of a composition with the utmost delicacy, and if a pause or a suspended note is required, the singer may be sure that he will indicate them perfectly. When he is at the piano, I am not singing alone, we are both singing. As a composer, he is the personification of simplicity, clarity, and sincerity.”

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Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Marina Tsvetaeva: Elderberry

Elderberry fills the scene!

Elderberry, green and green.
Greener than mould on the vat!
Summer’s birth, greener than that!
Elderberry, till the light dies!
Elderberry, green as my eyes.

And later – at night – with the fires
Of Rostov! – redness in the eyes,
From the bubbling trill of elderberry,
Redder than measles on the body,
In all your days of azure,
Measles sprinkled abroad.

Elderberry, till winter, winter.
What colours, deeper, run
In small berries’ sweet poison!
With red cotton, sealing wax, Hades,
Mix, tiny bright coral beads, baste
With baked blood, just a taste.

Elderberry, fresh killed, killed!
Elderberry – the whole garden filled
With blood, pure and young,
With blood, blazing branches hung –
With the happiest blood, so fine:
Heart’s blood – yours, and mine…

Later – oatmeal in excess
Later – elderberry blackness:
Of stickiness, and of plum,
Over the gate, a violin moan,
Near the house, that is empty,
A lone bush of elderberry.

Elderberry – crazy, so crazy,
I too am one of your berries,
Huns to the Steppe, Georgians to Caucusus, so
I to my elder-bush, by the window,
Grant no palace of art now, for me,
Grant me this bush of elderberry.

Newcomers, to my country!
From the berries – elderberry,
Crimson, my childhood thirst,
From the tree and from the word:
Elder (to this day…at night)
Poison – absorbed by sight…

Elder, crimson, crimson!
Elder, clutched the whole land
In its claw. My childhood in its power.
Almost a crime of passion, from that hour,
Elder, between you and me.
A disease of the age – elderberry,
You, I might name…

September 11th 1931, Meudon  21st May 1935, Van, Armenia

Dimtri Shostakovich: String Quartet No 8, in C Minor, Op. 110

Kronos String Quartet

Dmtri Shostakovich dedicated his music to all his friend and people who were victims in the Nazi holocaust. Each piece of his music is a tombstone to honor their souls.

Mikhail Zoshchenko - Biography

Mikhail Zoshchenko was an iconic figure in Soviet satire. He was a remarkable writer who was particularly popular in the 1920s and 1930s for his satirical depictions of the realities of Soviet rlife. Zoshchenko’s works made him one of the most widely appreciated writers in modern Russian literature.

Mikhail Zoshchenko was born in Poltava, in present-day Ukraine. His father was an artist specializing in historical pieces, whose paintings are still on display in Russia’s Tretyakov Gallery and the Suvorov Museum. The family was of Ukrainian origin, descended from the hereditary nobility. Zoshchenko’s mother was Russian, and worked as an actress. Zoshchenko was the third of eight children, although little is known of his siblings. The sole sources of information on Zoshchenko's childhood are his later autobiographical sketches and comments that appear in his fiction.

He was drawn to writing at a young age, composing poetry by 1902. He attempted his first work of prose in 1907, the same year his father died. By his own admission, he was not a good student – in 1913, he attempted suicide after receiving a failing grade on his final exam for a composition class. Despite the setback, he began studying law at the University of St. Petersburg at age 17, that same year, but was dismissed in 1914 for being unable to pay for his education. He then traveled to the Caucasus, where he worked as a railroad inspector. At the beginning of World War I, he volunteered for service and trained to join the officer corps.

After completing his training in 1915, he earned the rank of ensign and volunteered for the frontlines. Commanding a machinegun team in a grenadier division, he was awarded the Order of St. Stanislav (Third Degree) in 1915. The following year, he received the Order of St. Anne (Fourth Degree) for bravery, and was promoted to lieutenant. That summer, he injured in a chemical gas attack and sent to a hospital. Zoshchenko was later promoted to captain and put in charge of a company. After assuming temporary command of a battalion, he was sent to the reserves in early 1917 due to his poor health. He then served as a commandant in the postal and telegraphs service. After the February Bourgeois Revolution of 1917, he served in Petrograd (St. Petersburg) as commandant of the Main Post Office and Telegraph. Later, in September of 1917, he became an adjutant of the Archangel militia. After the October Revolution, Zoshchenko returned to Petrograd and served in the border guards, in Strelna and Kronshtadt. He volunteered for the Red Army during the Russian Civil War, but served for only a few months because of heart problems.

In September of 1918, he was transferred from the border patrol to the acting army, and was on the frontlines until the spring of 1919, when he was discharged from service in April. After that, Zoshchenko served as an investigator in the Criminal Inspectorate (‘Ligovo-Oranienbaum’). Upon returning to Petrograd in the summer of 1919, he began his first serious efforts at writing and studying literature.

In 1920, Zoshchenko joined the Petrograd Military Port as a clerk. That same year, he took up writing, and joined the Serapion Brothers, a group of Petrograd authors. The name of the group was borrowed from their German colleagues, ‘Die Serapionsbrüder.’ They earned notoriety for their experimental short works, parodies and often graphic and absurd avant-garde accounts of contemporary life.

On August 10, 1921, Zoshchenko married Vera Kerbits-Kerbitskaya. The following year, their son Valery was born.

Zoshchenko’s first book of stories was released in 1921. He made a name for himself from 1923 onwards with his short stories published in the satirical press, which he later combined into books that sold millions of copies.

From the beginning of his literary career, Zoshchenko showed a strong streak of boldness and independence. Over the next 20 years, a large number of the author’s books were published, notably: ‘Sentimental Tales’ (1923-1936), ‘Youth Restored’ (1933), ‘Sky-Blue Book’ (1935) and ‘Historical Tales.’

In 1941, at the beginning of World War II, Zoshchenko worked for Leningrad’s newspapers, radio and the journal Krokodil. In October of 1941, the author was evacuated to Alma-Ata in Kazakhstan. Until the spring of 1943, he worked there in Mosfilm, the country’s biggest film factory, which had been evacuated from Moscow. He also wrote the script ‘Soldier’s Luck,’ which was approved by authorities and put into production in 1943.

Zoshchenko returned to Moscow in March of 1943 to work as a member of the editorial board of the journal Krokodil. In autumn of that year, Zoshchenko published the tale ‘Before Sunrise’ in the journal October, which sparked sharp public criticism.

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Monday, 21 March 2016

Prokofiev - 5 Poems by Akhmatova

Five Poems by Anna Akhmatova op.27
Vishnevskaya / Rostropovich

An intimate survey of Russia at its greatest

The question of where Russia belongs – whether in Europe, in Asia or its own unique sphere – is one that has exercised the world and the country itself for centuries. With relations between Russia and the West at their tensest since the Cold War, these are matters that confront us now every time we hear the news. And they permeate this fascinating exhibition on the period that produced Russia’s greatest writers and composers, 1867 to 1914.

As you walk into the exhibition, the great figures are all there in their most iconic portraits on loan from Moscow’s State Tretyakov Gallery: Chekhov, in pince-nez and goatee beard, looking like an avuncular GP (he was a doctor by profession); Dostoevsky, hunched and haunted in a voluminous overcoat; Tchaikovsky, looking up frowning, his mouth open, as though interrupted in the middle of a grumpy monologue; Tolstoy, thickly bearded, working at his desk.

We encounter figures we know about, but whose appearance we may never have considered: Ivan Turgenev, author of Fathers and Sons and A Month in the Country, belligerently imposing with a full grey beard; Rimsky-Korsakov, in little round spectacles, busying himself over his scores like some diligent music teacher. And we meet notable writers who may be little known here, such as the satirist Alexei Pisemsky and playwright Alexander Ostrovsky, but who feel vividly present in portraits by Ilya Repin and Vasily Perov respectively.

From Tolstoy (War and Peace, Anna Karinina) to Tchaikovsky (The Nutcracker, Swan Lake), here are the creators of some of the central works of the Western tradition. Yet the vexed question of Russian identity makes itself apparent in a slip – or I assume it’s a slip – in one of the first text panels, where the writer Alexander Herzen is described as having “emigrated to Europe” in 1887. While you’d be forgiven for thinking that Russia, or the parts lived in by most of the great writers, always have been part of Europe, the notion of the country’s alienness from the continent’s centre, and what that means to its people, is felt throughout Russian culture during this period – from the longing of Chekhov and Turgenev’s characters to escape the isolation of the countryside to Rimsky-Korsakov’s pride in indigenous musical traditions.

While the latter part of the period saw avant garde painters such as Kandinsky and Malevich, drawing on Russia’s richly decorative folk art, there’s little evidence of that here. The overall impression is of highly competent, slightly dour Western-style naturalism, with the very slightest of Russian twists. The leading painters of the time, the romantic realist Ilya Repin and the impressionist Valentin Serov, certainly thought they were bringing a profound Russianness to the mix. But it’s hard to know if we can sense a genuinely different light and space, the immensity of the steppe beyond the dacha door, or our imagination is filling this in for us. What isn’t in doubt, though, is the way these paintings cover the fundamental base of traditional portraiture in creating the illusion that we’re actually meeting the person.

An eye for detail: Ilya Repin's portrait of pianist Sophie Menter (detail)
An eye for detail: Ilya Repin's portrait of pianist Sophie Menter (detail) CREDIT: STATE TRETYAKOV GALLERY, MOSCOW

Repin’s bright-eyed Pisemsky is an extraordinary, near-photographic tour de force that appears to confirm his contemporaries’ opinion of him as the Tolstoy of the brush, though that idea is let down by his over-egged, sub-Impressionist image of pianist Sophie Menter.

Despite striking full-length portraits of actress Maria Ermolova and society hostess Baroness Varavara Ikskul von Hildenbrandt, the women portrayed here can hardly compete with the men in terms of personality or celebrity-power, though Olga Della-Vos-Kardovskaia’s vividly coloured, art nouveau flavoured image of poet Anna Akhmatova is one of a number of works in the last stages of the exhibition that hint at the impending Modernist revolution, if not the violence of the Russian Revolution itself. It’s chastening to reflect that the lissom and rather haughty 25 year old, who appears framed in a distant golden age, lived on through the abominations of Stalinism, and kept on writing till her death in 1966. Read more >>>

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Prokofiev - Symphony No 5

Symphony No 5 in B-flat major, Op 100
Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra
Valery Gergiev
New York, January 2015

Sergey Prokofiev - Biography

Russian composer Sergey Prokofiev can be easily considered one of the most important composers of the twentieth century.

Prokofiev was born in Ukraine on 27 April 1891, in the farming village of Sontsovka, then part of the Russian empire. However, he was far from being denied exposure to music. He grew up listening to the sonatas of Beethoven and then Chopin and Liszt and his favorite Russian composers were Peter Tchaikovsky and Anton Rubinstein.

While his parents recognized his musical talent early on, they never forced it upon him, only committing him to piano lessons at the age of seven. Nevertheless, Prokofiev was able to produce his first composition at the tender age of five, which his mother dubbed “Indian Gallop.” Because of his parents’ insistence on a rounded education, Prokofiev was exposed to science and mathematics, most likely leading to his life long passion for chess, which started playing at an early age.

In 1900, the young composer made his first trip Moscow and saw two Operas, Charles Gounaoud’s “Faust” and Alexander Borodin’s “Prince Igor.” This experience had such a profound effect on Prokofiev that when he returned home he composed his own opera “The Giant” at nine years of age.

Soon enough, Sergey was receiving lessons from a teacher that would make the trip all the way down to the Ukrainian village from Moscow. By the time he turned 13, Sergey’s mother and teacher realized that his talent was too great to remain in Sontsovka and in 1904 Sergey and his mother Maria moved to St. Petersburg.

Young Prokofiev suddenly found himself at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, where such greats as Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov taught and where students twice his age were studying. Prokofiev quickly gained an arrogance and confidence in his style, while criticizing other students and rejecting criticism of others toward himself. This resulted in Prokofiev earning the reputation of an “enfant terrible,” which to a certain extent he enjoyed. Prokofiev grew tired of the classics that many of his teachers pushed for and was more concerned with driving the art form to new creative levels. Most of his teachers gave him only passing marks, as Glazunov noted:

“Technical preparation exceedingly brilliant. Interpretation unique, original, but not always in the best artistic taste…”

In 1909 he finished his class in composition and shortly thereafter wrote his first two piano concertos. When his father died in 1910 much of his financial backing was lost, but by this time he had made a big enough name for himself that through commissions he was able to support himself.

By 1918 the Russian Revolution was already in full swing and Prokofiev decided to leave Russia and go abroad to further his music career.

Prokofiev had already developed relationships with senior members of the Bolsheviks and when he told of his plans to leave one responded to him:

"You are a revolutionary in music, we are revolutionaries in life. We ought to work together. But if you want to go to America I shall not stand in your way."

When Prokofiev found little success in America, he quickly left for Paris where he was better received.

During his time in Paris and Europe Prokofiev wrote his fourth and fifth piano concertos as well as his first symphony.

By 1928, Prokofiev had finished his third symphony, which one conductor called the greatest symphony since Tchaikovsky’s sixth. Prokofiev was also developing a following in his native Russia and he started to receive invitations to return. The composer himself also started longing for his homeland and frequently chose to premier new works in Russia.

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Vsevolod Meyerhold - Biography

Alexander Golovin's portrait of Meyerhold

Vsevolod Meyerhold was a Russian and Soviet actor and theater director, and the creator of a new acting system called “biomechanics”. It is hard to overestimate his role in the development of the Russian theater.

Meyerhold’s birthname was not Vsevolod, but Karl Kasimir Theodor. He was born in a Lutheran German family which lived in the Russian city of Penza. His father owned a liquor factory and was rather rich, though strict: he controlled the children’s expenses and was never generous with pocket money. He was not much interested in any of the arts, while his wife organized musical evenings regularly and was fond of the theater. Karl and his siblings shared her interest and often participated in amateur plays.

In the gymnasium, Karl was not a high achiever: he had to repeat a year three times to get a certificate of completion. He graduated in 1895, and attended the law department of the Moscow State University. Same year, he did two things that shocked his family: he converted to the Russian Orthodox Church and changed his name to Vsevolod.

A year later he married his childhood love Olga Munt. In those days, students had to receive special permission from the governor to marry, and Meyerhold was persistent enough to write letter after letter to the authorities until he succeeded.

The same year, he went to see Othello as staged by Konstantin Stanislavsky. This simple experience changed Meyerhold's life: inspired by Stanislavsky's talent, he left the law department and attended the Theater and Musical School of the Moscow Philharmonic Society. His tutor, the theater director Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, appreciated Meyerhold’s talent, erudition, and energy. When Nemirovich-Danchenko decided to found a new theater together with Stanislavsky, Meyerhold was among the first students who were invited to join the troupe. Meyerhold accepted the invitation, and in 1898 after graduating joined the newly formed Moscow Art Theater.

The newly created theater was headed by Nemirovich-Danchenko and Konstantin Stanislavsky. In those days, Stanislavsky was working on his acting system based on deep character study and realistic acting, which nowadays is world famous.

Meyerhold had been Stanislavsky’s apprentice until 1902. That year, after playing twenty parts on Moscow Art Theater's stage, Meyerhold announced his rejection of Stanislavsky’s methods, left the troupe and turned from acting to directing. Together with Aleksandr Kosheverov, another actor who left with him, Meyerhold organized The New Drama Fellowship in the city of Herson, Ukraine. His first performances resembled those of MAT, but soon he started experimenting, looking for a new theater style and a new expressive means. Nemirovich-Danchenko called Meyerhold's ideas "the muddle, created by a man who discovers several new truths, pushing another one every day", or also "nonsense", “hell knows what” and "scrambled eggs with onion".

As opposed to Stanislavsky, Meyerhold was usually indifferent to the psychological side of acting, but he was fascinated by its visual side. He made the actors work on body movements, not on character study, and assured them that “buffoonery and clowning are necessary for an actor, and the simplest simplicity should include the elements of the clown”. His performances resembled marionette theater shows. The suburban Herson did not appreciate Meyerhold's innovations, and The New Drama Fellowship had to go on tour as often as possible. The troupe had earned a certain reputation.

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The Writer and the Valet - Boris Pasternak: Dr Zhivago

Isaiah Berlin was on his honeymoon – he married late – when he first read Dr Zhivago. It was the evening of Saturday, 18 August 1956, and he had just made the short journey back to Moscow from the village of Peredelkino, where he had spent the day with Boris Pasternak. Pasternak’s dacha was part of a complex set up on Stalin’s orders in 1934 to reward the Soviet Union’s most prominent writers. One of them, Korney Chukovsky, described the scheme as ‘entrapping writers within a cocoon of comforts, surrounding them with a network of spies’. Periodically, and usually at night, the NKVD would turn over a dacha and bundle its resident into a waiting car. Pasternak’s immediate neighbour and friend, Boris Pilnyak, was arrested in October 1937, removed to the Lubyanka, and killed with a single bullet to the back of the head. The same fate awaited Isaac Babel, who was taken from Peredelkino in May 1939. There were others, less well known, but equals in the manner of their death.

How Pasternak survived the necropolitics of the Stalin era was a mystery. ‘It is surprising that I remained whole during the Purges,’ he wrote in 1954. ‘You cannot imagine the liberties I allowed myself. My future was shaped in precisely the way I myself shaped it.’ Nadezhda Mandelstam (whose husband, Osip, became ‘camp dust’ in 1938) put it down to a combination of sheer luck and Pasternak’s ‘incredible charm’. Others wondered whether Stalin had personally ordered him to be spared – ‘Leave him alone, he’s a cloud dweller’ – after gifting him what were called, in the political slang of the day, ‘madman’s papers’. True, Pasternak had written some boilerplate patriotic verse during the Second World War, ‘civic poetry’ that encouraged some party hacks in the belief that he had finally found ‘the correct path’. And the translations of Georgian poets were known to have pleased the Boss. But in the main, where others, fatally, confronted argument with argument, he replied with the reveries of a yurodivy, a holy fool, marking his distance from the idiom and events of his era to the point almost of vegetal insouciance (‘What century is it outside?’ he asks in one poem).
In his youth Pasternak looked, Marina Tsvetaeva said, ‘like an Arab and his horse’. In older age, he looked the same. Sinewy and tanned from long walks and tending his orchard, at 66 he was still an intensely physical presence. This was the woodsman-poet who was waiting by the garden gate to greet his friend Isaiah Berlin, 19 years younger, bespectacled and pudgy, his indoor skin betraying the rigours of the Senior Common Room and the international diplomatic circuit.
‘The Foreigner Visiting Pasternak at His Dacha’ is its own subgenre of intellectual history. Its principal theme is the excitement of discovering a lost generation who, like ‘the victims of shipwreck on a desert island’, have been ‘cut off for decades from civilisation’ (Berlin). The foreigner, moved by his role as witness to an impossible reality, records every detail of the encounter: the welcome (Pasternak’s handshake is ‘firm’, his smile ‘exuberant’); the walk (oh, that ‘cool’ pine forest, and look, some dusty peasants); the conversation, with Pasternak holding forth ‘as if Goethe and Shakespeare were his contemporaries’; the meal, at which his wife, ‘dark, plump and inconspicuous’ (and often unnamed), makes a sour appearance; the arrival of other members of the Peredelkino colony, the dead undead; the toasts, invoking spiritual companions – Tolstoy, Chekhov, Scriabin, Rachmaninov. And finally the farewell at the gate, at which Pasternak disappears back into the dacha and re-emerges with sheaves of typescript. These are given to the visitor (‘the guest from the future’, as Anna Akhmatova put it), who is now tasked with the sacred and thrillingly immortalising responsibility of carrying Pasternak’s writings out of this place where the clock has stopped and into the world beyond.
Berlin’s reports of his meetings with Pasternak, which cover two periods spanning a decade, conform to the conventions of the genre (not surprising, as he largely invented it) but his published account of his visit of 18 August 1956 is curiously short on colour, and there is no mention of his bride, Aline, who accompanied him, or of Pasternak’s wife, Zinaida. We learn only that the two men convened in a lengthy conversation, which must have vibrated amid the pine trees like some strange antiphon. Pasternak, Berlin once observed, ‘spoke slowly in a low tenor monotone, with a continuous even sound, something between a humming and a drone’; Berlin’s voice was variously described as ‘a low, rapid rumble’, ‘a melting Russian river’, the ‘bubble and rattle’ of a ‘samovar on the boil’. At some point, Pasternak took Berlin into his study, where he thrust a thick envelope into Berlin’s hands and said: ‘My book, it is all there. It is my last word. Please read it.’
Berlin and Aline returned that evening to the British Embassy on Sofiyskaya Embankment, where they were guests of the ambassador. Berlin sat up all night reading the typescript. He was ‘deeply shaken’. He wept. Dr Zhivago was a ‘magnificent poetical masterpiece in the central tradition of Russian literature’, ‘a personal avowal of overwhelming directness, nobility and depth’. It was a ‘unitary vision’ that fused the broken vertebrae of Russian literature, a miraculous retrieval of the past in an age that had outlawed history.
And so Isaiah wept by the bank of the Moskva River. (Forgive the over-reach, but the river did run in front of the embassy, and what we’re talking about here is not so muchDr Zhivago, as the novel of the novel.) Directly opposite (truly), behind the walls of the Kremlin, the Soviet response to Dr Zhivago was being prepared. In an ‘important memo’, the foreign minister, Dmitry Shepilov, was working himself up to an ulcer. Pasternak’s concoction, he wrote, was ‘a spiteful lampoon against the USSR’, and measures had to be taken ‘to prevent the publication of this anti-Soviet book abroad’. The memo, with attachments supplied by the KGB and the director of the Central Committee’s Culture Department (who emphasised his revulsion at Pasternak’s ‘malicious libel against our revolution and our entire life’), was to be circulated to the highest party officials, including the Politburo and First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev.
The last Russian to publish a novel abroad without official sanction was Boris Pilnyak, and in so doing he had assigned himself his own bullet. In 1948, Pasternak warned his sisters in Oxford against printing some early chapters of Dr Zhivago, which he had sent them via an (unidentified) intermediary. ‘Publication abroad would expose me to the most catastrophic, not to mention fatal, dangers,’ he wrote. Since then, the Thaw (taken from the title of a novel by Ilya Ehrenburg) had ushered in a less chilling repertoire of punishments for writers who wandered from ‘the correct path’. Pasternak was nonetheless taking an enormous risk in offering his novel for publication outside the Soviet Union. But this was his resolve. He hadn’t given the typescript to Berlin to enliven a few hours in his Moscow bivouac, but in order that it should ‘travel over the entire world’ and, quoting Pushkin, ‘lay waste with fire the heart of man’.
As he tells it, Berlin tussled with his conscience before reluctantly accepting the mission of smuggling Dr Zhivago out of Russia. Indeed, a few days after his stirring all-nighter, he returned to Peredelkino, determined to rescue the author from his own intentions – Pasternak, he believed, was flirting with martyrdom and ‘probably did need to be physically saved from himself’. At this second meeting, Zinaida begged Berlin to dissuade her husband from damaging himself and his family. ‘Moved by this plea’, Berlin ventured an alternative solution to Pasternak: ‘I promised to have microfilms of his novel made, to bury them in the four quarters of the globe … so that copies might survive even if a nuclear war broke out.’ Pasternak, who was in no mood to be buried alive mid-sentence, rebuked his friend. He had spoken to his sons and they were prepared to suffer, just as he was (Zinaida’s suffering is not mentioned). At which point Berlin’s bubbling samovar came off the boil. He was, he claims, ‘shamed into silence’.
And so Berlin left the forest, his conscience quieted by Pasternak’s determination to break a lance for a greater prize than his own well-being. ‘I may not deserve to be remembered as a poet,’ he had said, ‘but surely as a soldier in the battle for human freedom.’ Furthermore, he told Berlin that he had already given a typescript to an agent of the Italian communist publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, and this copy was now in Milan (a fact that had been duly noted by the KGB, which was trying to get it back). Dr Zhivago had already crossed the line.
The question for Berlin now was not whether but how to smuggle the manuscript out. He could no longer avail himself of diplomatic privilege, as he had done a decade earlier when he served as first secretary in the Moscow embassy. Then, shortly after meeting Pasternak for the first time, he had used the pouch to exfiltrate an early draft section of Dr Zhivago, sending it to his parents in London in October 1945 with instructions to keep it somewhere safe until his return (perhaps this was the ‘somewhat underground route’ alluded to by Maurice Bowra, Berlin’s key ally in establishing Pasternak’s reputation in the West). Berlin’s interest in Pasternak and other members of the lost tribe had not gone undetected – throughout his posting he had been aware of being followed – and he was ever after burdened with the accusation of having endangered them. ‘I saw quite a lot of very remarkable people,’ he later told an interviewer. ‘It didn’t do them any good.’ This was something of an understatement. His meeting with Akhmatova at her apartment in Leningrad in November 1945 had prompted Stalin’s famous remark, ‘So our nun now receives visits from foreign spies.’ Though Berlin always insisted he’d never been a spy, he was sufficiently versed in Soviet sensibilities to know that all diplomats were suspected of intelligence-gathering, and that everybody they made contact with was, ipso facto, an intelligence source. The consequences for Akhmatova were dire: her apartment was bugged, she was denounced by the Central Committee of the Communist Party, expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers, and her son Lev was arrested for a third time.
Berlin’s 1956 visit to Russia was a further tutorial in the Soviet character. Moving among the members of the Politburo at an embassy reception – the ‘spy’ hiding prominently in plain sight – he found them ‘at once smooth and brutal, class-conscious and corrupt’. Here were the thieves of the Revolution, the same men who had supported Stalin in his massacres. The visit reinforced his suspicion that the Thaw was overestimated in Western liberal circles. The Soviet Union, he concluded, was still expansionist and repressive at heart. In this climate, it’s highly improbable that Berlin ever considered carrying Pasternak’s manuscript out of Russia himself. The only secure option would be to ask his host and friend, the British ambassador William Hayter, to send Dr Zhivago to London in the bag. This might explain how the Foreign Office was able to copy the typescript onto two rolls of microfilm and hand it over to MI6, which in turn delivered it to the CIA, with dreadful consequences for Pasternak.
The story of Dr Zhivago’s publication is, like the novel itself, a cat’s cradle, an eternal zigzag of plotlines, coincidences, inconsistencies and maddening disappearances. The book was always destined to become a ‘succès de scandale’, in Berlin’s words, but the machinations and competing energies that went into seeing it into print, on the one hand, and trying to stop it going to print, on the other, make it the perfect synecdoche for that feint, counterfeint round of pugilism we call the Cold War. Some punches were landed, of course, reminding the contestants that this was a real fight and not just a protracted argument about washing machines. But the Cold War was also a great engine of false realities, and the Zhivago Affair (as it immediately became known) is the story of how its protagonists became embroiled in these inventions and, more controversially, enlarged them.
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