Saturday, 30 April 2016

On Stalin’s Team by Sheila Fitzpatrick

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

Two myths lie behind Stalin’s rehabilitation in Russia. One is that he won the second world (or “great patriotic”) war – though many historians conclude that the Russian people, helped by generous US supplies, won despite Stalin’s vacillation between inaction and wasteful enterprise. The other myth is that of Stalin as a great personnel manager. Although Fitzpatrick often notes the “energy” and “efficiency” with which Stalin’s men approached their remits, she perhaps underplays the appalling uselessness of those remits: in the early 1930s, shooting, starving, freezing or working to death 10 million peasants; in the Great Terror of 1937-8, executing some 700,000 people and sending two million to die in the gulag, among them the Soviet Union’s most accomplished citizens – technologists, scientists, artists – then decapitating the army by shooting most of the senior officers; and in 1944, while war still raged, dispatching over a million people of “traitor” nationalities to the deserts of Central Asia. Stalin’s “team” members certainly worked long hours, mostly at night, and trembled with fear lest their leader find them underachieving – but a more counterproductive way of governing a state would be hard to imagine.

Let us look at the permanent, core team members – known to Stalin from the revolution, who went on to die of old age in their beds. Stalin’s criteria for choosing his team was certainly original: he often took men who had blotched escutcheons – services to the tsars, acts of treachery or cowardice – because it made them blackmailable. One instance is his chief show-trial prosecutor, Andrei Vyshinsky. He chose not the alpha but the omega males, who could not possibly be employed by, or loyal to, any of Stalin’s rivals: Kliment Voroshilov was the worst marshal in the Soviet army (and he knew it: when the others were arrested, he told the equally dimwitted Marshal Budionny, “Don’t worry: they’re only arresting the clever ones”). Vyacheslav Molotov, who was Stalin’s chief executive in the 1930s and – when a common language had to be found with Hitler – foreign minister, was the worst such appointment in the history of diplomacy. He worked hard and loyally, in the mid-30s typically perusing the lists of 44,000 people whose executions were sanctioned by the politburo and scribbling “Prostitute, scum, death penalty” against their names. (It helped that his initials, VM, also stood for “highest penalty”, ie death by shooting.) Lazar Kaganovich may seem more remarkable: he was the token Jew in a politburo from which, as the revolutionary Karl Radek joked, Stalin had removed the Jews, like Moses removing them from Egypt; the efficient Moscow metro was built under his supervision. Anastas Mikoyan had a greasy charm and gave furtive help to victims of Stalinism. Fitzpatrick omits mention of Stalin’s worst “fixer”, the indestructible Lev Mekhlis, whose interventions in the war probably cost half a million lives. These men had less team spirit than Hitler’s gangsters (few of whom, no matter how disloyal or incompetent, were repressed by Hitler). No historian talks of Hitler’s “team”.

Apart from torturing and then shooting (or driving to suicide) his associates, Stalin had another method for controlling poets, musicians, scientists and ministers he thought better kept alive: to take one of their relatives hostage. Thus head of state Mikhail Kalinin had a wife who spent decades in a bathhouse in Kazakhstan, delousing prisoners’ underwear; and Molotov’s wife, after having greeted the Israeli ambassador Golda Meir effusively, also ended up in the gulag. Sometimes the team anticipated Stalin’s measures: Kaganovich made his elder brother kill himself; Nikolai Ezhov did the same to his wife. Stalin controlling his ministers is like the Chinese dowager empress Tzu-Hsi (Cixi) whose ministers had to present their genitals for inspection – in a glass jar.

Just as today Putin reminds us “there are no ex-secret policemen”, so Stalin’s team had no provision for resignation or retirement. Even former ministers of the tsarist or other anti-Bolshevik regimes could find safe new jobs in the USSR: the best being a morgue, one workplace in the USSR where nobody was accused of sabotage. Under Stalin, even if, like the doomed Nikolai Bukharin, you had a hinterland and some humane instincts, there was no relenting: your family were the “cogs in the machine” that ensured you kept working.

One of Fitzpatrick’s most interesting sections is her final chapter, “Without Stalin”. It covers a period during which the team reduced the number of internecine murders, introduced amnesties and admitted errors. Yet, under Khrushchev, executions (for speculation or industrial action) were undiminished. The only team member who attempted any radical turnaround was the vilest of murderers, Lavrenti Beria. In his 100 days of power from March to June 1953, there were no executions: only proposed reforms that made this priapic sadist a premature Gorbachev. Therefore the team shot him.

In other circumstances, they might have made a competent chamber ensemble: Stalin, Voroshilov and Kaganovich all sang church music; Molotov was a fair violinist; Andrei Zhdanov, the repressor of postwar culture, played the piano. There were in the early 1930s “team-bonding” outings at Stalin’s dacha in Abkhazia, where they fished (with dynamite) and barbecued sheep. But, as the helpful 50 potted biographies at the end of this book imply, alliances between members were pragmatic and short lived, formed to oust those who threatened them and to protect themselves from Stalin’s wrath.

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Wednesday, 27 April 2016

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

Dominic Lieven’s book Towards the Flame: Empire, War and the End of Tsarist Russia has won the 2016 Pushkin House Prize, an annual award given for non-fiction books about Russia.
In the book, Lieven, a senior Cambridge research fellow, looks back to the eve of revolution and sets the start of the Soviet era in a “broader context of global history.” The author places Russia where it belongs, as he writes in his introduction, “at the very center of the history of the First World War.”
At the award ceremony in London on April 25, one of the judges, London professor Geoffrey Hosking, described the book as “a uniquely perceptive account of the opinions and mentalities of leading Russian statesmen … set against the geopolitical opportunities and dangers, which Russia faced at the time” and added that we have “much to learn from this book today.”
Towards the Flame was one of many books in this year’s exceptionally strong shortlist, chosen from among nearly 50 books, that draws on decades of research and expertise.
Unprecedentedly, the judges also gave a second award to Oleg Khlevnuik’sStalin: New Biography of a Dictator, which explores the historical context of Stalin’s reign rather than his personal life and habits. Nora Favorov’s translation has brought this book, already published and reprinted in Russia, to English-speaking audiences.
Andrew Jack, co-chair of Pushkin House, said: “These two books perfectly encapsulate our mission: to showcase and encourage the best in scholarship from and about Russia. They are exemplary winners.”
The 2016 shortlist, judged by a panel that included the director of St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, Mikhail Piotrovsky, was rich in books about the Soviet era, which included The Maisky Diaries, edited by Gabriel Gorodetsky.
Oliver Ready translated this extraordinary journal of a 1930s Soviet ambassador and Ivan Maisky’s impressions of life in London are fascinating. At one point he describes the “terribly excited” young Princess Elizabeth, now Britain’s 90-year-old queen, in a light pink dress, giggling and misbehaving.
Alfred Rieber’s Stalin and the Struggle for Supremacy in Eurasia explores attempts by the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan to control the boundaries of Eurasia.
In The End of the Cold War: 1985-1991Robert Service analyses the roles of key players, among them Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev and recalls some crucial turning points in recent history.
At one point, Service quotes Margaret Thatcher telling the BBC, after a 1984 meeting with Gorbachev at Chequers, that they had “two great interests in common”: avoiding war and building trade and cultural connections.
The most recent events covered by any book on the shortlist took place just a couple of years ago. Russia and the New World Order by Bobo Lo examines Russian foreign policy, including the annexation of Crimea. Lo looks at historical, ideological and international contexts in an erudite analysis of events that are still unfolding.
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Ballerina Diana Vishneva: ‘Valery Gergiev let me divide my life in two’

RBTH: What was harder – preserving a connection with the Mariinsky Theater or achieving autonomy from it?
Diana Vishneva: Obviously, in life nothing was as easy and smooth as it seems in words. I had to fight for my position in the theater, since its organization does not help the individual path. Just like political and economic factors also do not help the individual path. But I fought for my ideas, defended them, discussed and explained why certain things were necessary for me, and in the end obtained a favorable response.
When I was 20 years old I received a serious proposal through the theater. But it was hidden from me and I only learned of it many years later. Now I think it was good that they hid it. The period of maturing and mastering of the repertoire are very important. In a ballerina's youth she builds experience that will last for the remainder of her life. Only systematic work in her youth makes a first-class ballerina. And despite the opportunities that arise in front of you, you must maintain your concentration.
I was lucky that in the following phase the Mariinsky's director, Valery Gergiev, let me divide my life in two. He understands that for the art of dance, as for music, one of the key reference points is New York. He therefore approved my desire to work simultaneously in Berlin with Vladimir Malakhov and then in the ABT. This bilateral collaboration gave me freedom and incredible possibilities to dance that which I would never have been able to do at home.
My appearance in New York was timely. I’d already established a name and had experience as a prima ballerina, so I could work in the troupe and bend the general rules a little. I could expand my repertoire with the performances I was interested in.
RBTH: How did you come up with your solo programs?
D.V.: When the repertoires in both theaters were exhausted, I thought of doing individual projects. Despite their creative nature, they need to be backed by a serious producer. For me this is Ardani Artist. I’ve been working with its director Sergei Danilian ever since he awarded me with the Bozhestvennaya (Divine) Prize in 1995.
Sergei was inspired by my idea, it encouraged him. But this is dangerous and difficult swimming. I had a lot of experience, I knew that I was really interested in the performance. The challenge is in convincing the choreographer to collaborate with you, since they’re used to working with theaters, not with individual ballerinas.
RBTH: Do you do this by yourself or do you have assistants?
D.V.: The story with William Forsythe, which occurred during the staging of his ballets at the Mariinsky, taught me a big lesson. Now I speak to choreographers only by myself. But of course when we finally agree to something, then my team steps in. Especially when you have no state financing, someone has to take care of the organizational work. That’s how I thought of creating my own foundation, which became one of the instruments for realizing my ideas.
RBTH: You are one of the few classical ballerinas to begin dancing modern dance at the height of your career and not in order to postpone retiring. How did you arrive at this idea?
D.V.: The most important thing is to avoid extremities: "Today I dance the classics but then someday I'll dance modern dance." It doesn’t work that way. Without having the classical eight-year education, one will never be able to dance the classics. On the other hand, people with a classical education will be able to dance modern dance. You just need to do this early and gradually, avoiding excessive injuries. But it is also important what all your application leads to.
The result has never been a priority for me. It's the creative process that I value most. Sure, there’s a ballerina in me who, when faced with pain, hardship and everything new that the body repels says: "You don't need this, just dance your Giselle." I then need to cultivate, tame and transform this ballerina. Breaking her is very painful. People say about the ballet that our daily physical routine is like working in a coalmine.
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Sunday, 24 April 2016

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

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

In one of his first photos, you can see a nine-year-old boy in a sailor suit sitting in front of a piano. On the music sheets there is a clearly distinguishable inscription: “The opera Giant by Sergei Prokofiev.”
Two years later a successful young composer, Reinhold Glière, was invited to teach composition to the child. The composer’s mother, who was a great musician herself and firmly believed in her son’s great future, brought Prokofiev at the age of 13 from a remote Russian province to St. Petersburg. He entered the Conservatory, where he studied under the best musicians of his time, among whom was Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, an icon of Russian opera.
At the age of 16 he graduated from the Conservatory’s music composition department (a few years later, he received the diploma of pianist). His diploma was accompanied by not only a gold medal (summa cum laude), but also by several major works and the reputation of one of the main hopes of Russian art.
Soon he came to the attention of the largest Russian music publisher Boris Yurgenson, and after a few years Sergei Diaghilev, legendary ballet impresario, ordered him to write the score for the Ballets Russes in Paris.
This meteoric career might have been ruined by World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution. In that era, this fate befell many young talents who were destined for a great future. Nevertheless, Prokofiev had a talent for creating his musical universe as well as the ability to protect and defend it.
While his peers hesitated over a choice – what to do and where to live - Prokofiev decided that his goal was America. It was the only place where the composer could devote himself solely to creativity. New music, with its dissonances and unusual harmony, seemed overly complicated for many. Even his magnetic personality couldn’t always help Prokofiev promote his music.
So he resorted to pianistic virtuosity: Having received a contract for a piano concert, he would insert his own compositions into the program. In this period some of his most popular works were written: a few piano concertos, the operas The Love for Three Oranges and The Fiery Angel, Symphonies No. 2 and No. 3, and the ballet The Prodigal Son.
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Wednesday, 20 April 2016

The rake's progress - Pushkin

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

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

On the one hand, they admit with hospitable precision an enormous amount of the prosaic (if not exactly the ordinary) world: 'Strasbourg pies', and beaver collars, and several of Pushkin's old schoolfriends, and the marks that Onegin makes in the margins of his books, and Veuve Clicquot, and English pantaloons. Sylvia Plath once longed to write a poem that might be roomy enough to include a toothbrush. But Pushkin anticipated her: his marvellous picture of Onegin's dandyish bedroom sees brushes 'of thirty kinds -/ these for the nails, those for the teeth'.

Everyone who reads Eugene Onegin delights in the novelistic density of its life, and immediately understands how carefully Tolstoy must have studied it. There is Onegin's Vronsky-like existence in St Petersburg: how he comes late to the Bolshoi Theatre and treads on the toes of those already seated; how his minimal Latin allows him to add 'vale' to a letter and remember two (precisely two) verses of the Aeneid.

And there is his dusty existence on his country estate, where the unopened cupboards contain fruit liqueurs, 'a book of household calculations', 'the calendar for 1808', and where the billiard table is equipped with a 'blunt cue'.

On the other hand, Pushkin once wrote that 'poetry is a fiction and has nothing in common with the prose of real life,' and the paradox of Eugene Onegin is that it is self-confessedly a poem simultaneously of real life and of pure fiction. These stanzas that select so much of the real constantly remind us of the fictive status of those selections - fictive because they have been so carefully selected, so artistically compiled.

Pushkin frequently observes that Onegin and Tatiana are his poetic creations; in the first chapter he enters the poem as a character and recalls evenings spent loitering with Onegin by the banks of the Neva. In Chapter 5, he interrupts a description of winter to point out that two other poets have written much better about winter than he can.

He digresses at will - about the state of Russian roads, about Tatiana's dreadful grasp of the Russian language, about the English word 'vulgar', about how much he loves women's small feet - and then digresses on his digressions: when he comes to write up a country ball, he says that he meant, earlier in the poem, to describe a proper Petersburg ball but got distracted by 'the recollection/ of certain ladies' tiny feet', and promptly chides himself for such digressions.

This high-spirited self-referentiality, so different in tone from the programmatic self-exposés of Postmodernism, performs nevertheless a somewhat similar, alienating function: it is always telling us 'this is a poem,' rather as Rossini often tells us 'this is an opera.' Tchaikovsky would make heavy weather of these feathery cirruses.

If Eugene Onegin begs for Rossini's treatment, then Pushkin's life seems to have resembled a libretto by Stendhal with music by Mozart. The extraordinary wealth of Binyon's research - his biography represents a true lifework, a long simmering of scholarship - only confirms the sense one already had of Pushkin's maniacal libidinousness, his swaggering fondness for duels, his feverish bursts of creativity and his ambivalent love of high society.

Just as his most famous poem is both sincere and arch - or both passionate and ironical - Pushkin himself was both a Romantic and an Enlightenment classicist, born at the very end of the 18th century (1799), and, like Karl Kraus's definition of the historian, something of a prophet facing backwards. Romanticism, properly seen, was 'the absence of all Rules but not the absence of art'. Hence Shakespeare, 'our Father', was a Romantic.

Pushkin certainly came under the sway of Byron, but by the time he was at work on the later chapters of Eugene Onegin, he was having second thoughts. Though by the end of his life he had enough English to read some Wordsworth and Coleridge, his intellectual formation was most indebted either to 18th-century novelists (Sterne, especially, whom he read in French), or classical poets (especially Horace).

Pushkin's intellectual background was traditional; both his parents spoke excellent French, and all his early reading was in that language. His social background was much less traditional. His mother, known in Petersburg as 'the beautiful Creole', was the granddaughter of a black slave, traditionally thought to have been a captured Ethiopian, though Binyon, with customary care, thinks Cameroon the likelier origin. He was a gift for Peter the Great, and rose from servitude to become a general in the Army, responsible by the end of his career for all military engineering in Russia.

Pushkin's father belonged to a family that had distinguished itself in public affairs in the late 16th century, though it had apparently been in gentle hibernation for most of the 18th. He was weak, not very interested in his children, and neglected his finances; perhaps Pushkin was thinking of him when he wrote that Onegin had read his Adam Smith - unlike his father, who 'could not understand him,/and mortgaged his lands'.

Pushkin's father was dilettantish and literary; Pushkin's uncle, Vasily, was an established though mediocre poet, most remarkable, it seems, for his last words, recorded by his cheerful, slightly sardonic nephew in 1830: 'coming to, he recognised me, was melancholy and silent for a little while, then: how boring Katenin's articles are! and not another word. What about that? That's what it means to die an honourable warrior, on your shield, your war-cry on your lips!'

It was Uncle Vasily who took the little Pushkin, in 1811, to his admission interview at the new lycée at Tsarskoe Selo, fifteen miles south of Petersburg, where the boy would make several enduring friendships, and where he wrote 29 poems, five of them published in the newspaper the Herald of Europe.

He was also writing much less lofty verse, however. At school, the milieu he joined was lecherous, aristocratic, boyish, jokey and clever. Pushkin was nicknamed 'the Frenchman' because of his knowledge of French literature, but Binyon speculates that the name might also have honoured his scatological tongue. Binyon helpfully reproduces several of Pushkin's salacious ditties, such as 'You and I', which contrasts the poet with the Tsar, and gets in a dig at Dmitri Khvostov, a talentless and prolific poet:

Your plump posterior you
Cleanse with calico; 
I do not pamper
My sinful hole in this childish manner
But with one of Khvostov's harsh odes, 
Wipe it though I wince.

In the early 1820s, in Kishinev, he fell in love with an innkeeper's daughter, and wrote her a naughty poem, 'Christ is Risen', in which he promised, today, to kiss her like a Christian, but tomorrow, if requested, to convert to Judaism just for another kiss, and even to put into her hand 'That by which one can distinguish/A genuine Hebrew from the Orthodox'.

Some of Pushkin's light verse, especially the poems aimed, Lovelace-like, at women he had fallen for, is unpleasantly crude. Later, there would be people, like the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz, who found Pushkin's ribaldry coarse. Everyone agreed that he was conventionally ugly. He was short, just under 5'6", with black curly hair, a broad nose and blue eyes, 'the ugly descendant of Negroes', as he described himself. Some women found his arrogance and the blatancy of his sexual need offensive, though many succumbed, and the woman he eventually married was famously beautiful.

He was the kind of man who, when he started writing Eugene Onegin in earnest, would write to a friend: 'Fuck fame, it's money I need.' He became a heavy gambler, fond of faro (Casanova's favourite game, too, Binyon murmurs), and several times was forced to hand over manuscripts of his poems in payment of his debts; at least two chapters of Eugene Onegin were sacrificed in this way.

There must have been many Petersburg Salieris, envious of the apparently uncouth effervescence of his performance and the quick genius of his creativity, its speedy sublime. (He would write a one-act play, one of his best works, about Mozart and Salieri, in which Salieri, maddened by Mozart's genius and 'idle wantonness', poisons him. One of the four so-called Little Tragedies, it is too brief to have been often staged, and is difficult to find in English. Besides, it has been splashily obscured by Peter Shaffer's Amadeus.)

Binyon's biography has the populousness of Tolstoy. An astonishing number of major and minor characters are introduced - and thickly introduced, with a paragraph or two of data - and kept in patient sight over hundreds of pages. Even very minor figures, who appear only once, get a packed footnote. A French chef called Tardif, for instance, cooks a meal for Pushkin when he is down in the Caucasus. A footnote reads: 'Formerly proprietor of the Hôtel de l'Europe, a luxurious establishment situated at the bottom of the Nevsky Prospect, he took to drink, got into financial difficulty and was ruined when his wife absconded with his cash-box and a colonel of cuirassiers. He fled to Odessa and, after various vicissitudes, ended up in Kishinev.'

Binyon thus honours Pushkin's gossipy style; Pushkin's own published notes at the end of Eugene Onegin contain such gems as: 'A periodical that used to be conducted by the late A. Izmailov rather negligently. He once apologised in print to the public, saying that during the holidays he had "caroused".'

Indeed, Binyon's book, which is full of narrative and almost empty of detailed literary analysis, seems to want to get as close as possible to the world, the insouciant style, even the bright prose of Pushkin. Binyon furnishes his prose with little gleaming antiquities: he uses the old English word 'rout' (for 'dance'; Pushkin used it, too), 'sensible' in the Austenesque way ('to be sensible of something'); refers to Pushkin being in 'a brown study' and suffering from 'the ague'; and mentions that Pushkin and his boisterous mates one night 'kicked up a terrible bobbery'. This is a big book, but it has a rakish, propulsive air, not unlike Pushkin's glittering short novels and stories, such as The Captain's Daughter and 'The Queen of Spades'.

Binyon's style of storytelling also honours the small, tight-knit, highly social nature of the Russian elite in Pushkin's day. Pushkin corresponded with several of his lycée chums until the end of his life. When the Decembrists made their failed coup attempt in 1825, he knew 11 of the ringleaders, and feared that he would be rounded up, guilty by association.

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Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Crime and Punishment

Sheltering from the evening drizzle on a grey Maundy Thursday in London, a crowd packed into the National Portrait Gallery’s Ondaatje Wing Theatre for a talk on Dostoevsky’s great novel of resurrection, Crime and Punishment. The latest in the gallery’s "In Conversation" series, the talk was part of a varied programme of events complementing a newly opened exhibition: Russia and the Arts: The age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky. The legacy of Dostoevsky’s novel, which was published a century and a half ago this year, was the subject for a panel composed of the literary specialists Oliver Ready (the TLS's Russia editor), Sarah Young and Lesley Chamberlain.
Ready, who is also the novel’s most recent translator, playfully opened the discussion by noting that the typical question of a classic work’s "relevance today" can often sound threatening, laying the onus on the novel to engage us rather than on us to engage with the novel. So Ready invited his co-panellists to look through the other end of the telescope and consider not what the novel can tell us about our world, but rather how similarities in our world might bring us to a closer understanding of Dostoevsky’s novel. Young painted a vivid picture of the St Petersburg to which Dostoevsky returned from his period of Siberian exile. The city he saw as he began work on Crime and Punishment was radically changed: there was overcrowding, a sudden influx of migrants, strange foreign ideologies floating around, and a surge in urban poverty and vice. The novel that he would go on to write – one that he intended to be "current", very much of the year of its composition – abounds, Chamberlain reminded us, in newspaper details and topical references. It was a book, Young surmised, written about "the world of today, but also fearful for the future".

The talk meandered through the philosophical quagmires of the novel (deftly outlined by Chamberlain) before considering Dostoevsky’s reception in the West. The fact that doom and gloom is so closely associated with the author – Marcel Proust claimed that Dostoevsky’s entire opus could be titled "Crime and Punishment" – is, it would seem, somewhat unfair. The panel commented on his brilliant flashes of humour, an oft-forgotten aspect of his writing. (Actually, Dostoevsky’s skill as a humorist was one of the few merits as a writer that Vladimir Nabokov, his most infamous critic, was willing to concede.) Comparing the author of Crime and Punishment to his erstwhile mentor Nikolai Gogol, Ready further remarked that while Gogol’s oeuvre succeeds in bringing out the tragic in comedy, Dostoevsky’s great skill is showing the comic in tragedy.
One of the most fascinating moments in the discussion was the brief but beguiling consideration of Dostoevsky’s manuscripts, with their doodles and illustrations. Here, as we were shown, may be seen the very texture of Dostoevsky’s writing in visual form – subplots sprouting in all directions around the main plot, adorned with the author’s calligraphy, sketches of high Gothic architecture, and haunting portraits.
Questions followed. The audience was keen to know whether Dostoevsky had any modern literary heirs. The three names touted by the panel were the recent Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich; winner of the Russian Booker Prize, Vladimir Sharov; and, the ostensible outsider in the group, J. M. Coetzee.
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Friday, 15 April 2016

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

Nikolai Gumilev had many guises in his life: romantic, leading light of Russian Silver Age poetry, officer, intrepid traveler, explorer and womanizer. He went from being a war hero in his younger years to an enemy of the state, falling foul of the Soviet authorities in the prime of life.

1) Travels far and wide

Gumilev was born in Kronstadt near St. Petersburg. Living next to the sea filled him with wanderlust from an early age, and he travelled extensively around Europe, before making several expeditions to Africa, where he visited Egypt, Somalia, Ethiopia and Djibouti. These trips were very dangerous, with the threat from wild animals and aggressive tribes compounded by food and water shortages. The party of Petersburg intellectuals even had to hunt for food at one point. In 1914, however, an expedition led by Gumilev brought a large collection of local works of art and items back to the Tsarist capital. Africa inspired Gumilev to write several poems and songs, including “The Galla”, “The Giraffe” and “The Sahara”, quoted below:

All deserts are one tribe, from the beginning
of time, but Arabia, Syria, Gobi —
they’re only ripples of the vast Sahara
wave that roared its satanic spite.

The Red Sea heaves, and the Persian Gulf,
and Pamir stands thick with snow,
but Sahara's sand-floods
run straight to green Siberia.
(Translated by Burton Raffel and Alla Burago)

2) Founder of the Acmeist movement

Several literary movements emerged in Russia in the early 20th century, and in 1912 Gumilev declared the foundation of Acmeism – a reaction to Symbolism’s extreme and abstract elements. Acmeism centered around direct expression through images and the accuracy of the word. The movement was joined by major Silver Age poets, including Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam and Sergey Gorodetsky, and it grew to encompass painting and music as well as literature. 

3) Anna Akhmatova’s husband

Gumilev was without doubt a ladies’ man, and his love affairs included an actress, poet, dancer and even a revolutionary. He had a checkered love life that included a duel, several suicide attempts, three children and two marriages.
His first wife was the famous Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, who he met as a young man. They had a passionate romantic and literary life, dedicating numerous lyric poems to each other. The marriage lasted eight stormy years before finally breaking down. The pair had already split up by the time Gumilev was declared an enemy of the people, but Akhmatova did not denounce him and helped preserve his poetic legacy.
Their son, Lev Gumilev, went on to achieve multi-disciplinary success as a scientist, ethnographer, historian and writer.

4) Talented translator

Gumilev greatly enriched Russian literature by his incredibly varied translation work. As well as European poets such as Shakespeare, Baudelaire and Southey, he translated Chinese poetry, The Epic of Gilgamesh, and Abyssinian folk songs that he encountered while travelling in Africa.

5) War hero

When the First World War broke out, Gumilev volunteered immediately. He proved himself to be a brave soldier with a keen desire for glory and was decorated twice with the Cross of St. George, ultimately becoming an officer.
Although many renowned poets from that era composed poems with a patriotic or military theme, only two volunteered to fight: Gumilev and Benedikt Livshits.
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Thursday, 14 April 2016

Alexander II Liberator - Biography

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

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

A painful feeling of failure was widespread. Alexander felt the time was ripe for reforms. Censorship was relaxed, new education programmes drafted, independent press flourished. But the Tsar realised he had to go far beyond that. The war proved Russia was no longer a great military power and couldn’t compete with industrialised European nations.

Alexander now began to think of bringing an end to serfdom – an immense task advocated by many liberal intellectuals but fiercely opposed by landowners. But he pushed ahead with the reform and in 1861 Russia became one of the last countries in Europe to shake off serfdom.

The emancipation law itself was an enormously long document of nearly 400 pages. Trying to balance the interests of both the proprietors and the peasants, it stated that Russia’s 22 million serfs were now free but didn’t make them land owners. Instead, they had to buy or rent the land from their former masters. In the end, few were pleased. For the nobles, the step was unwelcome, for the peasants the long-awaited freedom brought disappointment. The land was often priced higher than its real value and millions found themselves in hopeless poverty and debt. Still, the change spurred other innovations – education and judicial reforms followed, an elaborate scheme of local self-government in large towns and rural districts was set up. The economy was boosted, railway construction boomed, trade soared, banks and factories sprang up across the country.

But together with political openness the Empire saw the rise of the nationalistic movements. In 1863 the so-called January Uprising flared up in Poland. It was suppressed after eighteen months of fighting, thousands of Poles were executed or deported to Siberia, many estates were confiscated and a much tighter Russian control over Poland was imposed.

Meanwhile, on the international arena Russia’s weight was at an all-time low. Remembering the embarrassment of the Crimean War, Alexander dreamt of restoring his country’s status and influence. Military spending sky-rocketed but the army was restructured and rearmed to fit European standards. And the Tsar soon got the chance to test his brand new military might against the power that dealt him a humiliating defeat two decades earlier.

It was Bulgaria, at the time a part of the Ottoman Empire that propelled Russia to war. In 1876 a Bulgarian revolt against the Turks was brutally crushed causing a public outcry in Russia.

Alexander was reluctant to fight but saw himself as champion of the oppressed Orthodox Christians and declared the war the next year. It took him another year to win – 200,000 Russian soldiers were killed, but after 500 years of Turkish rule Bulgaria was back on the map. The country still remembers Alexander II as the Liberator Tsar and one of its founding fathers.

But after a military triumph Russia faced a devastating diplomatic defeat. The Tsar initially dictated the terms of the peace settlement. The Ottoman Empire conceded the creation of a large Bulgarian state. But many European powers, most of all England and Austria-Hungary, anxious about Russia’s increasing influence gathered in Berlin calling for another treaty. Not able to afford another war, Alexander could only watch as much of his efforts were erased. He later called it one of the darkest pages of Russian diplomacy.

The war took its toll on Alexander. His interest in politics weakened, he felt exhausted and sought refuge in his private life. By that time he had embarked on the greatest and last love-affair of his life – a passionate romance with Princess Catherine Dolgorukova. Their 14-year-long relationship began in the summer of 1866. The love between a 47-year-old Emperor and an 18-year-old schoolgirl was condemned by the court and the royal family but it didn’t stop Alexander. His wife’s health was failing and in 1880, less than a month after her death, Alexander married his long-time mistress. By that time Catherine had bore him four children. But their morganatic union proved short-lived.

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Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Modigliani and the Russian beauty: the affair that changed him

Modigliani’s drawing in black crayon of Anna Akhmatova, Woman Reclining on a Bed, c1911 (GETTY)

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

One such artist was the 25-year-old Amedeo Modigliani, who had arrived from Italy four years before. With an aristocratic Roman nose, a strong jaw and a mop of jet-black hair, he enchanted Anna, and the two became inseparable. “This was a meeting of hearts and minds,” says Richard Nathanson, who has helped put together an exhibition of Modigliani’s drawings at London’s Estorick Collection, which opens this week. Modigliani drew her 16 times, according to Nathanson, but many works have been lost in the intervening years; three of the 28 drawings in the show are of Akhmatova. “Once you look at the connection [between them], you see it everywhere in his paintings.”

Born Anna Andreevna Gorenko in 1889, Akhmatova belonged to an upper-class family of landowners. She grew up in Tsarskoye Selo (Tsar’s Village), a fashionable area on the outskirts of Saint Petersburg and near one of the royal summer residences. It was here that she met her husband, Nikolai Gumilev, while shopping in a large department store. He pursued her for years, even attempting suicide in the name of unrequited love (although, Nathanson says, Gumilev had tired of Akhmatova by the time he finally married her).

In 1906, when Modigliani moved to Paris, Akhmatova was making a name for herself in Saint Petersburg, reciting her works in the infamous literati hang-out known as the Stray Dog Café. Her father insisted she wrote under a pseudonym so as not to disgrace the family name, and she chose Akhmatova, after a Tartar ancestor. Love was her favourite subject, and her voice intoxicated readers from the start. The writer Kornei Chukovsky said that her first book, titled Evening, “accompanied the next two or three generations of Russians whenever they fell in love”.

Poetry united Akhmatova and Modigliani. While Akhmatova’s new husband caught up with old friends in Paris, Akhmatova took to visiting Modigliani. By day they would take walks or sit in the park. Years later she wrote in her memoirs, “Whenever it rained (it often rained in Paris) Modigliani took with him a huge old black umbrella. We would sit together under this umbrella on a bench in the Jardin du Luxembourg in the warm summer rain. We would jointly recite Verlaine, whom we knew by heart, and we were glad we shared the same interests.”

They must have made a funny pair – he almost a foot shorter than her, in a three-piece suit of corduroy that had a distinctly raffish air; she in her Belle Epoque finery. She compared him to the Greek demi-god Antinous, who was the Emperor Hadrian’s lover and impossibly beautiful. “In his eyes was a golden gleam,” she said. “He was unlike anyone in the world.”

“All his dreams came together in this woman,” Nathanson says. “She had an otherworldliness and such sheer physical beauty and grace.” When she left for Saint Petersburg with her husband a few weeks later, there followed a torrent of letters. Modigliani didn’t usually bother writing to his paramours – and there were a great many, both before and after Akhmatova – so the exchange was rather extraordinary. His feelings must have been reciprocated, because the following year Akhmatova came back to Paris by herself. She stayed for several months this time, renting an apartment near the church of Saint-Sulpice, and wrote a poem about their love, Heart to Heart Is Never Chained. The final stanza reads, “Why, oh why, should I find you/Better than the one I chose?”

On one occasion she visited Modigliani, but found him absent. “We had apparently misunderstood one another so I decided to wait several minutes,” she said. “I was clutching an armful of red roses. A window above the locked gates of the studio was open. Having nothing better to do, I began to toss the flowers in through the window. Then without waiting any longer, I left. When we met again, he was perplexed at how I had entered the locked room because he had the key. I explained what had happened, 'But that’s impossible – they were lying there so beautifully.’”

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Monday, 11 April 2016

Ian Frazier: Travels in Siberia

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

Now Frazier has set his sights on another region of wide-open spaces and violent history: the Russian East. Shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he joined some Russian artists he’d met in New York on a trip to Moscow, where he became infected, he writes, with “dread Russia-love.” In particular, Frazier was enthralled by Siberia, that vast, forbidding region that stretches across eight time zones, running from the Ural Mountains to the Pacific Ocean, bordered by Mongolia and China to the south and the Arctic Circle to the north. Frazier learned Russian, immersed himself in the literature and history of the territory, and embarked on more journeys across the taiga and tundra. The result is “Travels in Siberia,” an uproarious, sometimes dark yarn filled with dubious meals, broken-down vehicles, abandoned slave-labor camps and ubiquitous statues of Lenin — “On the Road” meets “The Gulag Archipelago.”
“For most people, Siberia is not the place itself but a figure of speech,” Frazier remarks at the beginning of the book: a metaphor for cold, remoteness and exile. (The Russian word Sibir derives from two Turkic words roughly translated as “marshy wilderness.”) Turning metaphor into reality, Frazier made the first of several exploratory trips via Nome, the Alaskan port a hundred miles south of the Arctic Circle — and a short hop from Siberia across the Bering Strait. Arriving in Alaska during the post-Soviet Union diplomatic thaw, Frazier found a flurry of unlikely activity: intrepid Christian missionaries planning snowmobile expeditions across the frozen sea, and an eccentric entrepreneur, the sole member of the Interhemispheric Bering Strait Tunnel and Railroad Group, dreaming of building a 72-mile-long Chunnel across the strait.
Touching down in an airport near the Siberian city of Provideniya, Frazier was instantly enraptured by the aromas of “the tea bags, the cucumber peels, the wet cement, the chilly air, the currant jam. . . . The smell of America says, ‘Come in and buy.’ The smell of Russia says, ‘Ladies and gentlemen: Russia!’ ”
Eventually, the Russian scent enticed him back on a far more ambitious adventure: a trans-Siberian journey in a used Renault delivery van. Accompanied by a pair of raffish guides, Sergei and Volodya, Frazier set out from St. Petersburg and traveled east. He forded giant rivers, waded through piles of trash, overnighted in mosquito-plagued campgrounds and met scientists, poets, scuba divers, sales ladies and many, many others whom fate had tossed to the far end of the Russian frontier. The Renault broke down repeatedly, beginning on Day 1, when “the speedometer needle, which had been fluttering spasmodically, suddenly lay down on the left side of the dial and never moved again.” The two guides came to exemplify a very Russian mix of unreliability and resourcefulness, gregariousness and gloom — miraculously repairing the dying van, then disappearing to party all night with the locals.
In his many visits, Frazier experienced Siberia’s highs and lows. In Tobolsk, the former capital, where Christian knights defeated the Muslim khan in the mid-17th century and put Siberia under the control of the czars, he gazed admiringly at the kreml , a medieval walled city. Perched on a promontory at the confluence of the Tobol and Irtysh Rivers, it “rises skyward like the fabled crossroads of Asiatic caravan traffic that it used to be.” On the other hand, the modern industrial city of Omsk, a symbol of Siberian desolation in the post-Soviet era, is little more than “crumbling high-rise apartment buildings, tall roadside weeds, smoky traffic and blowing dust.”
As he demonstrated in “Great Plains,” Frazier is the most amiable of obsessives. From his first encounter with Russian authority — a tense face-off with a boyish-looking border guard at Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow — he peels away Russia’s stolid veneer to reveal the quirkiness and humanity beneath. The staring contest ends when the guard breaks into a big smile. “It was a kid’s grin,” Frazier concludes, “suggesting that we had only been playing a game, and I was now a point down.”
Frazier has the gumption and sense of wonder shared by every great travel writer, from Bruce Chatwin to Redmond O’Hanlon, as well as the ability to make us see how the most trivial or ephemeral detail is part of the essential texture of a place: the variety of TV antennas on Siberian rooftops, the giant bison skull in the paleontology museum of Irkutsk. Frazier never fully explains the nature of his “dread Russia-love,” though he clearly sees himself as the spiritual descendant of a long line of Russophiles. These include John Reed, the author of “Ten Days That Shook the World,” the classic account of the Russian Revolution, and George Kennan — not the diplomat but the 19th-century American adventurer of the same name, who followed the Siberian Trakt, “Russia’s great trans-Asian road,” along which goods and prisoners passed for centuries.
Frazier suggests that the country’s opaqueness has given it a twisted appeal. “Russia is older, crookeder, more obscure,” he writes, experiencing a “shiver of patriotism” on a flight back to the United States, just days after 9/11. He’s also fascinated by the role Siberia has played in the Russian psyche, recounting in bloody detail the exploits of the Golden Horde, the Mongol conquerors who rode out of the Asian steppe and reduced Kiev and other cities to smoldering ruins strewn with corpses. “Russia can be thought of as an abused country,” Frazier notes. “One has to make allowances for her because she was badly mistreated in her childhood by the Mongols.” The horror of that conquest, he observes, was enough to turn the attention of the czars to the East, and led to the gradual colonization of Siberia. Most of all, this region has served as a place of exile, an end-of-the-world dumping ground for everyone from petty criminals to visionaries and would-be reformers.
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Sunday, 10 April 2016

Vasily Ivanovich Surikov: Morning of the Execution of the Streltsy

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

1881. oil on canvas 223 x 383,5
The State Tretyakov Gallery

Hermitage Museum Revealed (2014) BBC Documentary

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

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

Alexander Pushkin: To*** Kern

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translated by  Dmitri Smirnov

Read: Anna Petrovna Kern (1800-1879)

Saturday, 9 April 2016

The Fountain of Bakhchisarai

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

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

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

Brodsky: The Last Poet In The Russian Heroic Tradition

Valentina Polukhina - David Bethea - An Interview

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

Do you remember your first encounter with Brodsky's poetry?
- I recall my initial strong feelings about Brodsky arose in connection with his startling "blank verse" classicism in the early "Aeneas and Dido" (Enei i Didona) poem as well as with the moving equine parts of "There was a black horizon" (Byl chernyi nebosvod..."). It became clear to me as an advanced graduate student and young assistant professor that Brodsky brought something special to the issue of exile and emigration I had studied in connection with Khodasevich and Nabokov. However, it was at the time I reviewed Less Than One for the New York Times (July 1986), as I was finishing my big Apocalypse project (The Shape of Apocalypse in Modern Russian Fiction, 1989), that I decided to turn seriously to the study of Brodsky and his understanding, largely metaphysical, of exile. I proposed to Princeton University Press that a book on the recent (1987) Nobel laureate would be appealing and, fortunately, they (in particular my acquisitions editor there, Bob Brown), agreed.

Have you ever attended a Brodsky poetry reading?
- Three times: once in Middlebury (summer 1987, a few months before the Nobel), a second time in Milwaukee in the late 1980's or early 1990's, and a third time in Chicago in the 1990's. Each reading was magical, especially the way JB began to "take flight" (slowly) in connection with the audience response and his own feelings about his words and their infectiousness. He was like some huge 747 that needed a long runway to take off. The entire nexus of words, reader, and listener was nothing short of mesmerizing. JB's ways of muting his tone and lowering his register at the end of poetics lines struck me as being "cantor-like" (not the first time someone has drawn that analogy).

At what point did you become aware of Brodsky's greatness?
- When I read carefully, over and over again, and began to understand the John Donne elegy.

Can you recall where you met Brodsky for the first time?
- The first time I met JB was in the summer of 1987. He gave a reading at the Middlebury College Russian School, which I was directing at the time. His close friend Lev Loseff, poet and Russian professor at Dartmouth College, brought JB over from Hanover, New Hampshire. The three of us sat in a room in the Gifford Dormitory on campus and talked about Russian йmigrй literary politics and the current state of Russian letters. JB was in a good mood and laughed frequently but also seemed somewhat guarded and distracted - it may only have been that he was tired from the road. His poetry reading followed and it was a great success. I have a photo of myself, JB, and the late Michael Kreps, another poet and Russian professor (at Boston College), taken right after JB's poetry reading. Before saying goodbye, JB thanked me for my review in the NYT and then said he looked forward to more meetings, either in this world or the next (his way of joking about his heart problems).

You interviewed JB several times on the phone and personally in South Hadley in March 1991. What memory do you have of Joseph's house in South Hadley?
- I conducted my interview of JB in 1991 as I was researching my book. We met over a two-day period; on the first day we sat in JB's home in South Hadley - it was a typical college house in a New England college town: a small frame affair, probably rust colored, woods to the back, modest floor-plan, older kitchen (where we sat and drank during the interview), everything maintained I'm sure by the college work crew. I don't recall much about the furnishings except that reigned a kind of casual chaos. JB was generous with his time with me and, while he never seemed to answer a question directly (that was his way, he did not like to be "pinned down"), he did end up providing very interesting and far-reaching "takes" on my various questions' points of departure. We both were drinking hard liquor, it seems scotch or bourbon, out of glasses, and of course JB was constantly smoking. As strange as it sounds, the smoking, as bad as it was for him, was part of his breathing, and therefore thinking, process. We didn't get drunk, but the more we drank the broader and deeper his conversation ranged. The thing that impressed and stuck with me the most was the depth and intensity of his intellectual life: this was someone who lived with his ideas as though they were three-dimensional, palpable, "load-bearing" personalities. I came away exhausted and invigorated at the same time even though the alcohol should have had the effect of closing down my own "receptors."

Did you have regular contact with Joseph after that interview?
- Yes, I would call him, not often but probably 2-3 times a year after that, especially if I had specific questions about his work or his thinking about something. Again, he would always answer me something, but oftentimes after a conversation I wouldn't feel that I understood more about what I had been asking than before I contacted him.

Is it possible to detect a single theme in what Brodsky said to you during the several conversations you had with him?
- That genuine poetry does not come out of an identifiable biographical matrix (i.e. this set of circumstances "caused" that set of themes or that predisposition to form or genre), but rather it comes in an existential process where, despite the human suffering of the individual and those around him, the poetry is what is real life and life in the so-called real world is always and only "background." JB was consistently inspired by the lives of poets, say Mandelstam's or Akhmatova's or Frost's or Auden's, but he would never dare to explain how a moment of verse came to their tongues by referring to their individual biographical triumphs and tragedies. I thought that that principle was at one and the same time brave (or stoical), wrong-headed (or intentionally riddling), and in its own way deeply (needfully, vulnerably) true even if at some level it thwarted what I was trying to get at in my study.

Did Brodsky feel at home in America, or a foreigner?
- I suspect JB felt as at home in America, especially in NYC, as he did anywhere in the world. He realized he could "be himself" in America and that that was truly his choice. He also realized, and never took advantage of this fact, that the "mantle of exile" was not something that he could don in good conscience once he had earned his way to the top of the NYC (and USA) intelligentsia pecking order. By the last decade of his life, still more of a globe-trotter than any other Russian poet (with the possible exception of someone like Balmont), he knew he was more of an йmigrй traveller than a politically defined exiled writer. Indeed, works like Watermark attest to the fact that for JB his travels had from first to last more of a metaphysical than political cast to them. Yet, despite his travels, I still suspect JB came back to America, and NYC, more as to a "home" than to any other destination.

In what sense was Brodsky a troubled man?
- I don't think JB was a troubled man. To the extent that his poetry and his writing came first in his life, and to the extent that his personal relations were not always happy and suffered because of this, he had his troubles. An incredibly gifted individual, let's call him a genius, who is a practicing poet and man of letters, is not by definition going to have a personal life in ideal balance. Something has to give. Having said that, JB did a rather admirable job over his lifetime with his personal and professional responsibilities (there are of course exceptions, some relating to the gender divide, which could be argued until doomsday). JB could be impolite and abrupt if he felt he was in a somehow "false" (too much "nice talk") situation. He was also a dyed-in-the-wool contrarian and would almost never agree with the opening formulation in a discussion, as if out of principle. But that all goes back to his essential character vectors and to his almost congenital urge to wrestle with the existing world order. For me, JB was less "troubled" than on "a mission," and he was until the end of his life working to fulfil that mission.

Is Brodsky's character relevant to the quality of his poetry? 
- Absolutely. You can sense "JB" in his poetry, like a strong verbal scent or even body odor, as much as in any poet I know. His words almost always carry his signature.

In your book on Brodsky you introduced the concept of "triangular vision". What do you mean by this concept?
- I mean that JB, being a very "belated" poet and a very sophisticated reader of others, was one of the first, if not the first, in the Russian tradition, to consistently construct a persona for himself that is an amalgam of a great western forebear (say, Dante) and a great Russian precursor closer and in important ways more influential to him (say, Mandelstam), so that the speaker that emerges from these two exile exemplars and their "places" in history (corrupt medieval Florence, tragic Soviet Leningrad/St. Petersburg) is both a composite of them and something "third," something himself - the contemporary "man in a cape" (chelovek v plashche) of "December in Florence" (Dekabr' vo Florentsii").

When JB talks about Auden as 'new kind of metaphysical poet', his 'indirect speech', his 'clinical detachment and controlled lyricism', you said: 'All these qualities could be, in one form or another, be imputed to the speakers of Brodsky's mature works' (p. 137). Don't you think that Brodsky attributed his own poetic qualities to other poets, such as Rein. Kushner, or Novikov?
- I think JB would freely admit he learned a lot from contemporaries like Rein (he was generous that way, generous like Pushkin), but by the time he reached maturity, with some of the poems in Ostanovka v pustyne, he uses that learning in his own, very specific way. In works like "Bol'shaia elegiia Dzhonu Donnu" or "Isaak i Avraam" one might be able to tease out phrases that others could have invented, but the intonation, the sustained fierceness and forward momentum, is already only JB's.

You talk of Brodsky's authorizing tone. Where does this authority come from?
It comes from his version of God; something outside him, something that encourages and underpins his language but does not make his personal life easier, that speaks through him even when he might like to let it go.

How does Brodsky's stoicism (p. 19) reveal itself in his poetry?
- It reveals itself everywhere where the words add up to the final lines of his poem commemorating his 40th birthday: "Chto skazat' mne o zhizni? Chto okazalas' dlinnoi./ Tol'ko s gorem ia chuvstvuiu solidarnost'./ No poka mne rot ne zabili glinoi,/ iz nego razdavat'sia budet lish' blagodarnost'" (What should I say about life? That's it's long and abhors transparence./ Broken eggs make me grieve; the omelette, though, makes me vomit./ Yet until brown clay has been crammed down my larynx,/ only gratitude will be gushing from it). The "vomit" (not in the Russian by the way) is there to balance out the potential sentimentality of "gratitude." The psychological positioning also reminds one of what he said with regard to his father: "He was a proud man. When something reprehensible or horrendous was drawing near him, his face assumed a sour yet at the same time a challenging expression. It was as if he were saying 'Try me' to something that he knew from the threshold was mightier than he." That "vomit" is the son's version of "Try me."

What did Brodsky teach you that you couldn't have learnt from other poets?
That he found a way to make not only poetry per se but "poetic thinking" (especially in Less than One and On Grief and Reason) crucial, meaningful, at a time when poetry itself seems to be dying. His language, whatever its genre or "voice zone," is a powerful, won't-let-you-alone swan song to what can still be, even in our age.

Were do you see Brodsky's origin?
- Pushkin, Baratynsky, Dostoevsky, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva, Auden, Polish metaphysicals (Herbert), Slutsky, Rein, the Bible.

What kind of challenge did the study of Brodsky's poetry present to you?
- His language is extremely difficult for a non-native (indeed, I can't imagine how it could be easy for natives), and my Russian is not bad after almost 40 years of living with it. There are poems, especially later ones, that I still have trouble fully "getting inside of" because the language has become so nuanced, so full of the syntactic and semantic equivalent of a high-rise. Sometimes I think JB becomes so complex that the deep emotional "choric" quality gets lost. On the other hand, the complexity of this thinking, his metaphysical striving, is one of the great joys of reading him. English-language critics who accuse him of charlatanism or poetic impostorship don't "get," or perhaps don't choose to get, the extent to which JB educated himself to a very high level and "lived" that learning in an almost physical, metabolic sense. 

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