Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Julian Barnes and the Shostakovich Wars

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

The plot, based on a short story by the nineteenth-century Russian writer Nikolai Leskov, tells of a bored and frustrated housewife, Katerina Ismailova, who begins an affair with a clerk, Sergey, when her merchant husband leaves on a business trip. When her overbearing father-in-law discovers her transgression, she murders him; when her husband returns, she murders him, too. Controversially, Shostakovich portrayed Katerina’s murders and sexual liberation as justifiable responses to the awful environment of Tsarist Russia. The music is often more scandalous than the moral it points to: at one point, the orchestra whips itself into a mechanistic, pounding fury to accompany the lovemaking of Katerina and Sergey, before declining over a long trombone glissando, mimicking a post-coital comedown.

Though the opera had pleased audiences, it did not please Stalin. Somewhere during the third act, he and his comrades conspicuously departed the theatre. Two days later, Stalin’s displeasure was made manifest in an unsigned editorial in Pravda, titled “Muddle Instead of Music”—possibly the most chilling document of philistinism in music history. The author of the review begins by lambasting Shostakovich’s opera for its obscenity, both musical and dramatic (“The music croaks and hoots and snorts and pants in order to represent love scenes as naturally as possible”), and suggests that its success abroad came from the fact that “it titillates the depraved tastes of bourgeois audiences with its witching, clamorous, neurasthenic music.”

After detailing Shostakovich’s musical sins, the article proceeds to make political threats. “Left deviationism in opera grows out of the same source as left deviationism in painting, in poetry, in pedagogy, in science,” the critic writes, finally denouncing Shostakovich for “trifling with difficult matters.” If he continued to play this “dangerous game,” the critic concludes—in what can only be imagined as an icy whisper—“it might end very badly.” It was the beginning of a season of terror for Shostakovich, as well as for other artists and composers. His works were no longer performed, and he lived under the threat of arrest, and possibly murder, for nearly a year. Only after a wildly successful performance of his Fifth Symphony, in 1937, did he undergo a partial rehabilitation, eventually resuming his path toward becoming the U.S.S.R.’s favorite musician. Still, he never fully escaped the shadow of persecution, and suffered criticisms and official bans in the following decades.

Julian Barnes’s new novel, “The Noise of Time,” is about Shostakovich, and it begins with the composer enduring the humiliation and misery of his exclusion from musical life, in 1936. “All that he knew was that this was the worst time,” the first part opens. Barnes has Shostakovich repeat it twice more, at the beginnings of the novel’s two other sections, in response to fresh sources of persecution in 1948 and 1960, bringing to mind Edgar from “King Lear”: “The worst is not / So long as we can say, ‘This is the worst.’ “ The novel’s title comes from the nineteenth-century poet Alexander Blok, who used the phrase to describe history. The Soviet poet Osip Mandelstam chose it for the title of his memoir, published in 1923—Mandelstam, who would indeed suffer Stalin’s worst. For Barnes’s Shostakovich, “the noise of time” is counterposed to “that music which is inside ourselves—the music of our being—which is transformed by some into real music.” Real artists, Barnes has Shostakovich say, protect that private part of themselves against history, but if the music “is strong and true and pure enough to drown out the noise of time” it is “transformed into the whisper of history.” So we watch as Shostakovich struggles to live a life devoted to music, with history constantly intervening.

What Shostakovich’s music had to do with history has been one of the most fraught questions in the history of music. He lived through the most terrifying decades of the Soviet Union to become its most celebrated composer. Despite his transgression with “Lady Macbeth,” many of his compositions—such as the Seventh Symphony (“Leningrad”), performed in 1942 in the midst of the devastating siege and broadcast over loudspeakers into no man’s land—served the purposes of official propaganda (though the music itself was more multilayered than its use would suggest). The result of Shostakovich’s confrontation with the apparatus of Stalinism, and of his subsequent reassumption, was that his music has become impossible to interpret outside of historical circumstances. Debates over the actual meaning of his pieces have taken on the quality of titanic political arguments; they have even been dubbed the Shostakovich Wars.

In 1979, a book purporting to be Shostakovich’s memoir, entitled “Testimony,” appeared in the West, depicting a frustrated composer who despised Communism and hid veiled critiques of the Soviet regime in his music. Scholars such as Laurel Fay, Shostakovich’s biographer, eventually discredited the book as a forgery, but not before it had given license to somewhat crude allegorical readings of the music, showing how this or that musical cue clearly represented a parody or critique of some aspect of life under Stalin. The late Ian McDonald, in his book “The New Shostakovich,” became an exemplar of the form, writing about a passage in the Fifth Symphony in which, over a “thrumming rhythm, flute and horn now converse in a major-key transposition of the second subject: two dazed delegates agreeing that the rally had been splendid and the leader marvelous”; elsewhere, writing about the first movement of the Fourth Symphony, he claims that an ascending scale depicts the secret police “audibly climbing the stairs . . . and bursting through the door on a triumphant crescendo.” Shostakovich is known to have derided the Soviet form of this criticism. Speaking before the Union of Soviet Composers in 1933, he complained, “When a critic . . . writes that in such-and-such a symphony Soviet civil servants are represented by the oboe and the clarinet, and Red Army men by the brass section, you want to scream!”

Barnes, who acknowledges “Testimony” as one of his major sources, gives us a mournfully sarcastic, frustrated Shostakovich, at once mocking of his Soviet patrons and stymied by his inability to break with them fully. In a sort of third-person monologue of impressions, vignettes, and diaristic reflections, he comes off as neither heroic nor craven, though he exhibits both traits on occasion. A trip with the Soviet delegation to the United States is a “public success,” attended by huge audiences, during which he feels “nothing but self-disgust and self-contempt” for having to give canned speeches and warmly praise Stalin. He is given to dry aphorisms (“He lit another cigarette. Between art and love, between oppressors and oppressed, there were always cigarettes”), and he reflects with gallows humor on how Hitler’s invasion led to a period of unprecedented security for him (“A disaster to the rescue”). In one anecdote, his plane is diverted by bad weather from Frankfurt, forcing him to go to Stockholm. Swedish musicians enjoy the sudden visit, but then embarrass Shostakovich by asking him to name his favorite Swedish composer. “He was about to cite Svendsen when he remembered that Svendsen was Norwegian.” His humiliations and sense of injury are at once more tense and miserable than any we can imagine, but also, as Barnes handles them, similar to a kind of high-toned grumbling that one associates with artists forced to do things that they feel are beneath them.

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Thursday, 26 May 2016

Sholokhov and the riddle of ‘The Quiet Don’

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

From the time when it first began to appear in 1928 The Quiet Don has posed a whole series of riddles which have not been satisfactorily answered even today. The reading public found itself confronted with something unprecedented in the history of literature. A twenty-three-year-old beginner had created a work out of material which went far beyond his own experience of life and his level of education (four years at school). A young member of a grain-requisitioning detachment, who had later been employed as a labourer and then as a clerk in the office of a Krasnaya Presnya housing-block in Moscow, had published a book which could have been written only by someone closely acquainted with many sections of pre-Revolutionary society in the Don region, a hook whose most impressive quality was its deep insight into the way of life and the psychology of the characters it portrayed.

Although in terms of his origins and his personal record he himself was an “outsider”, a non-Cossack, the emotional force of the young author’s novel was directed against the influence of “outsiders” and its destructive effect on the traditional culture of the Don— a message which he was never to repeat in later life or in any public statement however, remaining faithful to this very day to the mentality of those who requisitioned produce from the peasantry by force and served in “special purpose” units. He described vividly and with apparent first-hand knowledge the World War, in which he had been far too young to take part (he was only ten or so at the time), and the Civil War, which was over by the time he was fifteen.

The critics commented at once that here was a novice who wrote as though he had a great deal of literary experience behind him, that he “possesses a rich stock of observation and is not sparing in the way he disposes of those riches” (Zhizn iskusava [The Life of Art], 1928. No 51—et al). The book revealed the kind of literary power which can normally be attained only after many attempts by a practised and gifted author—and yet the finest sections were those which came first. The first volume was begun in 1926 and delivered complete to the editors in 1927; the splendid second volume was finished only a year after that; the third volume was ready within even less than a year of the second, and it was only on account of the “proletarian” censorship that this astonishing output was held up. So what are we to conclude—that we are dealing with an incomparable genius? But neither the level of achievement nor the rate of production has been confirmed or repeated in the subsequent forty-five years of his career!

Too many miracles !—and even when the early volumes first appeared there were widespread rumours that the novel had not In fact been written by the author who had put his name to it, that Sholokhov bad found a complete manuscript (or, according to other version, a diary) belonging to a Cossack officer who had been killed, and had turned it to his own use. In Rostov-on-Don, where I then lived, this was talked of with such assurance among adults that it impressed itself clearly on my mind, although I was only a boy of twelve.

The true story of this book was apparently known to, and understood by, the Don writer Alexander Serafimovich, who was by then well on in years. Because of his passionate enthusiasm for everything to do with the Don, however, he was primarily concerned to see that the way was open for a brilliant novel about the region: any revelations about its having been written by some “White Guard” officer could only have prevented it being printed. And, once he had overcome the opposition of the editors of the magazine Oktyahr, Serifimovich insisted that The Quiet Don should be published, clearing a path for it with a glowing review in Pravda (April 19, 1928).

In a country with a different political system, an investigation might still have bean started. But the possibility of any such development was nipped in the bud by a “fiery” outburst in Pravda (March 29, 1929) from five “proletarian” writers (Serafimovich, Averbach, Kirshon, Fadeyev, Staysky): they declared that those who were spreading doubt and suspicion were “enemies of the proletarian dictatorship” and threatened to “bring them to cowl” — a very decisive step in those days, as we know: And all the rumours were immediately silenced. Soon afterwards Stalin himself, the unchallengeable, described Sholokhov as an “outstanding writer of our time”. There was no arguing with that.

There are in fact people who were alive then and are still living now who are convinced that Sholokhov did not write this book. But, restrained by the general fear of a powerful man and of his capacity for taking revenge, they will never speak their minds. The history of Soviet culture in general can show a fair number of instances of important ideas or literary and scientific works being plagiarized, for the most part from people who had been arrested and perished (by people who had informed on them or been their students), and in virtually every case the true facts remained concealed, while the plagiarists continued to enjoy all their rights unhindered.

Nothing was done to confirm Sholokhov’s authorship or to explain either the speed or scale of his achievement by the accounts of him which appeared in print, whether they were concerned with the way in which he did his creative writing (Serafimovich on this subject: he worked only at night, because in the daytime he was overwhelmed by visitors); or with his method of gathering material—“he often arrives at some Collective farm, and gathers the old men and the young people together. They drink and dance, and tell in-numerable stories about the war and the Revolution . . .” (quoted from [p.7 of the book by I. Lezhnev, Mikhail Sholokhov, Sovetsky pisatel, 1948); or with his handling of historical material, or with his notebooks. And here is another point: no rough drafts or manuscripts of the novel are preserved in any archives, none has ever been produced or shown to anybody (apart from Anatoli Sofronov [Soviet writer and literary official; editor of the popular weekly Ogonyok], who is too biased a witness for his evidence to count). In 1942, when the battlefront came close to the village of Veshenskaya; Sholokhov, as the most important man in the area, could have obtained transport even before the district Party committee did, and evacuated his precious archives. But through some strange indifference, this was not done. And the whole of his archives, we are now told, were lost in the bombardment.

A careful examination of The Quiet Don itself reveals many odd features. Coming from a major literary artist, there are instances of inexplicable slovenliness and forgetfulness: some of the characters simply disappear (the author’s favourite characters, too, the vehicles of his cherished ideas!). There are breaks in personal story-lines; insertions of substantial episodes which have no connexion whatever with the main narrative, and differ in quality; and finally, in a work which displays great literary sensibility, places where passages of the crudest propaganda have been inserted (literature had not yet become accustomed to this in the 1920s).

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Saturday, 21 May 2016

Anna Akhmatova: Grey-eyed king

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



The Forgotten Russian: The Genius of Nikolai Leskov

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

Leskov was a wounded moderate. Incurring the wrath of the nihilists early, he feinted right. He limped behind Tolstoy and Dostoevsky; he was not a man to keep up a totalizing vision; nor could he, after he reached artistic maturity, put forward a novel of any length. He did everything wrong. He wrote countrified yarns of yawning length. He composed in a style called skaz, which apparently was Russian for narratological lumpiness. To make matters worse, his heroes were square. Think Gogol's "Ukrainian Tales" redone by a Boy Scout who doesn't believe in magic. Leskov's genius lies in the modesty of his narrators, their helplessness before the art of narrative. One character speaks of a storyteller's "complete frankness, which he was obviously quite unable to abandon." "There was no special story," a narrator will say, before falling into a lengthy narrative. One character complains that another "started telling me an enormous story"—as if the size of the story was not a choice of the storyteller.

Subjects that even a kindred 19th-century storyteller like Heinrich von Kleist or Giovanni Verga would burnish for human interest and high moral passion get wonderfully clouded in Leskov's telling. Consider "Singlemind," the story of a cross-country courier who, reading the Bible between towns, becomes a kind of self-taught saint, a stubbornly honest man who improbably rises, becoming a sheriff and finally a decorated nobleman. The whole thing seems like a joke. But not a joke with a point.

Leskov's greatest ambition was to write "stories of righteous men"—not because he was Pollyanna-ish, but because he resisted (and resented) the closure of satire. Insofar as he refused to clarify his politics, or at least was wounded by being labeled (as right-wing), he stood up for the jolliness of muddledom, and equated confusion with innocence.

Subjects that even a kindred 19th-century storyteller like Heinrich von Kleist or Giovanni Verga would burnish for human interest and high moral passion get wonderfully clouded in Leskov's telling. Consider "Singlemind," the story of a cross-country courier who, reading the Bible between towns, becomes a kind of self-taught saint, a stubbornly honest man who improbably rises, becoming a sheriff and finally a decorated nobleman. The whole thing seems like a joke. But not a joke with a point.

Leskov's greatest ambition was to write "stories of righteous men"—not because he was Pollyanna-ish, but because he resisted (and resented) the closure of satire. Insofar as he refused to clarify his politics, or at least was wounded by being labeled (as right-wing), he stood up for the jolliness of muddledom, and equated confusion with innocence.

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

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

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

The eclipse of his reputation is a loss, since his greatest works, “From the Other Shore” and “Letters to an Old Comrade,” struggle with an issue of enduring relevance: how to reconcile passionate political faith with unsparing lucidity about history’s cold indifference to human conviction. As someone who lived through the intoxication of the 1848 revolution, only to see his hopes crushed, and who supported the cause of Polish freedom in the uprising of 1863, only to be execrated by Russian friends who turned into anti-Polish xenophobes, he wrote with poignant insight about a perennial theme in politics: how to sustain political hope when your dreams are repeatedly shattered.

While Turgenev sank into misanthropic pessimism when his liberal dreams came to nothing and Dostoyevsky transited from revolutionary agitation to deep-dyed conservatism, Herzen remained true to the revolutionary dreams of his youth, without ever losing what Isaiah Berlin was to call his unsparing sense of reality.

After Herzen’s death, he had the misfortune to be praised by Vladimir Ilych Lenin for his “selfless devotion” in exile to the cause of revolution. Praise from that tyrannous quarter has damaged Herzen’s reputation ever since.

Berlin, who did more than anyone to resurrect Herzen, pointed out how absurd it was to see him as a Communist precursor. Herzen loathed revolutionary violence, and he rejected the argument, first articulated by Karl Marx, that Communism was “the solution of the riddle of history.” He thought this ludicrously hubristic, but Herzen’s reputation has struggled ever since to break free from the iron embrace of the very doctrine he repudiated.

Aileen M. Kelly has devoted her life to the resurrection of Herzen’s reputation, a cause bequeathed to her by Berlin, her mentor and friend. Kelly, now retired, was a fellow of King’s College, Cambridge (we intersected there in the 1980s when I was a research fellow). “The Discovery of Chance” — all 592 pages of it — is her gripping biography of a tragic if courageous life. Kelly chronicles Herzen’s desperate marriage, his guilty infidelities and his grief at the frightful deaths of his children, but also widens her narrative out into a history of the 19th-century Russian intelligentsia and their struggle with a question that engages us to this day: whether Russia’s future is to rejoin the river of European liberty or to follow a separate, Asiatic destiny.

In this debate between Slavophiles and Westernizers, Herzen took a characteristically idiosyncratic position that alienated both camps. He was a convinced Westernizer in his belief in science, knowledge and human freedom, a cluster of convictions that owed a great deal to his contemporary John Stuart Mill. Unlike many Slavophiles, he hated the Russian traditions of despotism and the Russian Orthodox worship of czar and throne. At the same time, like them he was convinced that Russia had to find its own distinctive route into the 20th century. The heart of his socialist faith was a lifelong commitment to the ideal of the Russian peasant commune. He hoped that the emancipation of the serfs in 1861 would lead to the emergence of a network of self-organizing peasant cooperatives. Contemporaries like Ivan Turgenev thought Herzen’s embrace of the peasantry was sentimental foolishness, but in hindsight, Herzen’s instincts were farsighted. He understood that the most urgent task in Russian politics was to find some alternative to capitalist wage labor as the only road into the future. In the event, of course, the road actually taken was catastrophic: forced collectivization of agriculture by the Soviet regime and the ruthless destruction of the Russian peasantry.

Herzen matters today because he thought about the cruel dialectic between hope and history in politics and because he struggled to find Russia its own way into the 20th century. He also matters, Kelly argues, because he was the 19th-century thinker who thought most deeply about the implications of Darwinism for the theories of history that the European intelligentsia inherited from the Enlightenment. Kelly pays attention, as her mentor Berlin did not, to Herzen’s lifelong fascination, begun in his university days in the 1830s, with the science of Darwin’s precursors — Buffon, Cuvier, Lamarck and now forgotten Russian popularizers like M.G. Pavlov. Thanks to his exposure to Darwin’s predecessors, Kelly argues, Herzen was the only Russian socialist who immediately grasped the implications of Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” when it appeared in 1859. He realized that evolution overturned the idea of history as a purposive story of progress guided by human intention.

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Friday, 20 May 2016

Tatjana Vassiljeva -Tchaikovsky's Rococo Variations

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


Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Aida Garifullina: Casta Diva

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

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

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Monday, 16 May 2016

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

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

And yet it was the tsar-liberator, not his rigid predecessor or successor, who was assassinated by revolutionary terrorists. The decade after he ascended the throne witnessed the birth of the “intelligentsia,” a word we get from Russian, where it meant not well-educated people but a group sharing a set of radical beliefs, including atheism, materialism, revolutionism, and some form of socialism. Intelligents (members of the intelligentsia) were expected to identify not as members of a profession or social class but with each other. They expressed disdain for everyday virtues and placed their faith entirely in one or another theory. Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin were typical intelligents, and the terrorists who killed the tsar were their predecessors.

The intelligentsia prided itself on ideas discrediting all traditional morality. Utilitarianism suggested that people do, and should do, nothing but maximize pleasure. Darwin’s Origin of Species, which took Russia by storm, seemed to reduce people to biological specimens. In 1862 the Russian neurologist Ivan Sechenov published his Reflexes of the Brain, which argued that all so-called free choice is merely “reflex movements in the strict sense of the word.” And it was common to quote the physiologist Jacob Moleschott’s remark that the mind secretes thought the way the liver secretes bile. These ideas all seemed to converge on revolutionary violence.

The hero of Crime and Punishment, Rodion Raskolnikov, discusses disturbances then in progress, including the radicals’ revolutionary proclamations and a series of fires they may have set. But by nature he is no bloodthirsty killer. Quite the contrary, he has an immensely soft heart and is tortured by the sight of human suffering, which he cannot and refuses to get used to. “Man gets used to everything, the scoundrel!” he mutters, but then immediately embraces the opposite position: “And what if I’m wrong . . . what if man is not really a scoundrel . . . then all the rest is prejudice, simply artificial terrors and there are no barriers and it’s all as it should be.” (All quotes from the text are taken from Constance Garnett’s Modern Library translation.) He means that man cannot be a “scoundrel” because that is a moral category, and morality is simply “artificial terrors” imposed by religion and sheer “prejudice.” There is only nature, and nature has causes, not moral purposes. It follows that all is as it should be because if moral concepts are illusions then things just are what they are.

As the novel begins, Raskolnikov alternates between horror at evil and assertions that evil does not exist. When he encounters a girl who has been made drunk and raped, and is being followed by another predator, he summons a policeman and gives his last kopecks to get the girl home. We know that Raskolnikov can’t pay his rent and eats only when the landlady’s servant brings him food at her own expense, yet he gives away the little he has to help a fellow creature. Nevertheless, a moment later Raskolnikov turns into a complete Darwinian amoralist: “let them devour each other alive.”

We wonder how Raskolnikov manages to hold such contradictory positions. Perhaps, as he surmises, he simply can’t shake the “dead weight of instinct” inculcated by religion in childhood. Or maybe his extreme sensitivity to suffering when he is powerless to alleviate it makes a doctrine denying evil’s existence attractive. From extreme moralism to absolute nihilism is but a step.

Raskolnikov asks: is there really any such thing as crime? He has in mind the sort of thinking familiar to us from Nobel Prize–winning economist Gary Becker and other “rational choice” theorists. In a classic article entitled “Crime and Punishment: An Economic Approach,” Becker relates how he once found himself late for a meeting and wondered whether to park illegally. Multiplying the potential fine by the likelihood of being ticketed, he arrived at the “expected value” of the punishment, and concluded it was less than the potential benefit of timeliness. Then he reasoned: what if that is all there is to crime?

If so, there is no essential difference between illegal parking and murder. There are just different punishments. How many parking tickets equal a murder? Becker and Raskolnikov have decided, on “scientific” grounds, that there is no such thing as moral crime, just legal crime, however horrified benighted souls, clinging to nuns and religion, might be.

Even after confessing to murder, Raskolnikov does not think he did anything wrong: “Why does my action strike them as so horrible?” he asks himself. “Is it because it was a crime? What is meant by crime? My conscience is at rest. Of course, it was a legal crime, the letter of the law was broken and blood was shed. Well, punish me for the letter of the law . . . and that’s enough.”

Raskolnikov is mad for rationality. In addition to radical amoralism, he has also invoked another form of rationalism, then called utilitarianism, as a justification for the murder he plans to commit. His victim is to be an old pawnbroker, a greedy, cruel woman who not only preys upon her poor customers but also mistreats her kindly, simple-minded sister Lizaveta. Logic itself, he decides, prescribes her death.

According to utilitarianism, the fundamental criterion of morality is the greatest happiness of the greatest number. What if that entails murder? Sitting in a tavern, Raskolnikov overhears two students posing that very question. “On the one side,” one student explains, “we have a stupid, senseless, spiteful, ailing, horrid old woman, not simply useless but doing actual mischief, who has not an idea what she is living for and who will die in a day or two in any case. . . . On the other hand, fresh young lives thrown away for want of help by thousands.”

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Sunday, 15 May 2016

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

RBTH: What are your impressions of the competition?
Denis Matsuev:It was a triumph for the younger generation! The finals were seen by both the Moscow audience and the rest of the world – the concert was broadcast on Medici.tv. We’ve collected hundreds of thousands of views in a few days.
Representatives of different piano schools – Russians, Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, Belarusians, British and Georgians – were on stage. The Russian school was a little stronger, because it still sets the bar.
Despite their age, the participants performed very complicated parts. It's amazing how such concerts can be played at the age of 11 or 12. You could hear mature playing, a unique vision and the experience of playing with an orchestra.
The new generation is very rational in a good way. So I have confidence in them. Tomorrow they will get up after their resounding success and go to a rehearsal. And what's the most interesting is that with their talent, they remain normal children.
RBTH: You’ve also come up with a new competition format in order not to have any losers.
D.M.:Yes, I can’t stop enjoying the successful format that we came up with. Those 15 lucky ones, who were selected in the qualifying round – all of them are winners, the musicians did not fly off between the solo and orchestral rounds. We've got seven winners and eight diploma recipients. But we decided to give two grand prizes – to Alexander Malofeyev and Sandro Nebieridze. It was impossible to choose!
RBTH: What's next for the winners?
D.M.:After the competition, the guys have been already invited by our legendary masters – the MariinskyTheater's artistic director Valery Gergiev, the chief conductor of the Academic Symphony Orchestra at the St. Petersburg State Philharmonic, Yuri Temirkanov, violist and conductor Yuri Bashmet and others. I will invite them to all my festivals. They have become in demand.
RBTH: Is there still a difference between piano schools around the world?
D.M.:All foreigners are very different. For example, Shio Okui, a 11-year-old Japanese girl, is already a star, a winner of dozens of prestigious awards. I’ve known her for three years, and she has fantastic achievements. Shio played Grieg's concerto: This fragile girl gave out so much power and strength, it is difficult to imagine!
The 12-year-old Chinese pianist caused an absolute sensation, bringing everyone to tears with his performance of Schumann's concerto. The Korean pianist played Chopinbrilliantly. In general, the Korean school is very strong, there is a lot of talent there.
And we shouldn’t fail to mention the Georgian school. For example, our winner Sandro is not only a pianist but also a composer. His sonata can be compared with Prokofiev's. Englishman George Harliono is also very talented, he's got a phenomenal career ahead of him. He was not afraid to play Tchaikovsky's concerto at the age of 15.
RBTH: How will you develop the competition?
D.M.:It will take place every two years in Moscow, alternately with my competition in Astana [the capital of Kazakhstan]. We will organize both exchange concerts and festival events all over the world – in France, Switzerland and other countries.
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Friday, 13 May 2016

‘On Generalities’ Vladimir Nabokov

Was it insouciance or insight that led the young Vladimir Nabokov, already pathologically contrarian, to predict in 1926 that “the exceedingly dull Mr. Ulyanov” would by 2016 require glossing as Lenin? Father of the newborn Soviet Union, Vladimir Ilyich “Lenin”, though embalmed and on display on Red Square since 1924, still exerted an unrivalled influence from “the beyond” (as much a geographical as a spiritual category) on the close to one million Russian exiles sent into diaspora by the October Revolution and subsequent civil war. In “On Generalities”1, a talk delivered in 1926 at an evening gathering of the Tatarinov-Aykhenvald Circle (and now appearing for the first time in English), Nabokov addressed fellow émigrés on the subject of one of their deepest concerns: what did it mean that their Russia was irretrievable, and how could they make sense of their exile?
Nabokov resists the idea of absolute breaks in history – and this at a time when, following the First World War, entire empires such as Russia had changed hands, or name, or shape. In contrast to the Iron Laws of the Soviets and Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West, the lesson of European history for Nabokov is the cyclical nature of time and trends, and above all the fundamental inability of the present to comprehend itself historically.
Nabokov implies that behind historicist pessimism, with its complaints about a new barbarism, lies simple curmudgeonliness – perhaps even of an ugly, reactionary kind, wilfully misreading the latest fashions (in sport, dance, or dress) as harbingers of decadence, rather than simple surface signs, capricious and ephemeral. Nabokov resented the past’s imposition on the present: his perspective is if anything future-oriented, looking to the future reader, future historian, and even future biographer.
This condition – what we might call a ­poetics of the future perfect – treats the present as it will have been remembered or memorialized. In the story “A Guide to Berlin” (1925), Nabokov’s narrator imagines “some eccentric Berlin writer in the twenties of the twenty-first century, wishing to portray our time”, for whom “everything, every trifle, will be valuable and meaningful”. For Russian émigrés of the 1920s, tipped by ­Trotsky into the dustbin of history, the notion of an eventual vindication was comforting. After all, a posthumous critical redemption had long been the imagined asylum of ­under-appreciated artists, gifted and talentless alike.
Yet the goal of “On Generalities” was less a self-help guide for exiles than a manifesto for Nabokov’s poetics. Nabokov’s apology for the 1920s – and we should remember that, as he was born in 1899, these were in both senses his twenties – avoids the commonplace myths of the Roaring Twenties and Weimar Berlin. Instead, Nabokov makes chance and the coincidental combination the defining characteristic of his early fiction.
Although a stateless aristocrat may be expected to make a virtue of independence, Nabokov’s stance of apparently boundless optimism was a conscious choice to combat the paralysing despair of grief and loss – of his abandoned inheritance, his aborted future, and his murdered father. A Nabokov character of those years writes to a former lover in Russia that he is “ideally happy” in exile: “The centuries will roll by, and schoolboys will yawn over the history of our upheavals; everything will pass, but . . . my happiness will remain, in the moist reflection of a streetlamp . . . in the smiles of a dancing couple, in everything with which God so generously surrounds human loneliness”.
For all his anti-Soviet scorn and counter-philistinism, one should not imagine Nabokov holding his nose alongside the hermit of Croisset, holed up in their ivory tower, surrounded by Flaubert’s famous swelling tide of shit. Instead, shovel in hand (is that the tide or the tower he is removing?), Nabokov everywhere challenged the exile’s distemper. In “A Guide to Berlin”, one émigré tells another: “I think that here lies the sense of literary creation: to portray ordinary objects as they will be reflected in the kindly mirrors of future times; to find in the objects around us the fragrant ­tenderness that only posterity will discern and appreciate in the far-off times when every trifle of our plain everyday life will become exquisite and festive in its own right: the times when a man who might put on the most ordinary jacket of today will be dressed up for an elegant ­masquerade”.
Luke Parker
There is a very seductive and very dangerous demon: the demon of generalities. He captivates man’s thought by marking every phenomenon with a little label, and punctiliously placing it together with another, similarly carefully wrapped and numbered phenomenon. Through him a field of human knowledge as changeable as history is turned into a neat little office, where this many wars and that many revolutions sleep in folders – and where we can pore over bygone ages in complete comfort. This demon is fond of words such as “idea”, “tendency”, “influence”, “period”, and “era”. In the historian’s study this demon reductively combines in hindsight the phenomena, influences and tendencies of past ages. With this demon comes appalling tedium – the knowledge (utterly mistaken, by the way) that, however humanity plays its hand or fights back, it follows an implacable course. This demon should be feared. He is a fraud. He is a salesman of centuries, pushing his historical price list.
And the most awful thing, perhaps, happens when the temptation of completely comfortable generalities seizes us in contemplation not of past, well-worn times, but of that time in which we live. No matter that the spirit of generality in its striving for ease of thought has christened a long series of perfectly blameless years the “Middle Ages”. That is still pardonable; it has perhaps saved modern schoolboys from worse disasters. No matter that in 500 or so years the twentieth century, plus several other centuries, will in turn also fall into a folder with some imaginative little label or other – for example, the “Second Middle Ages”[2]. This does not concern us, although it is amusing to consider the twentieth century that will present itself to the imagination of a history professor in 500 or so years – and the Homeric laughter that would seize us were we to glance through textbooks of the future. But one wonders, are we really obliged to name our century in some way – and will these attempts of ours not play a nasty joke on us, when in thick little books they go arousing the fantasy of future wise men?
One such wise man, a penetrating historian[3], was working one day on the description of some ancient war, when suddenly a noise reached his ears from the street. A crowd was separating two fighting men. And neither the very sight of the scuffle, nor the expressions of the scuffling men, nor the explanations of the onlookers could give the curious historian an accurate picture of what exactly had happened. He pondered the fact that it was impossible to get to the bottom even of a chance street scuffle, which he had personally witnessed; he reread the description of the ancient war that he was working on and understood how arbitrary and haphazard were all his profound arguments about that ancient war. Let us admit to ourselves, once and for all, that the notion of history as an exact science is just for convenience – “for simple folk”, as the museum guard used to say, showing two skulls – in youth and old age – of one and the same criminal.
If each of man’s days is a sequence of chance occurrences – and in this lies its divinity and power – then the history of mankind is even more so mere chance. You can combine those occurrences, tie them into a tidy bouquet of periods and ideas; but the fine scent of the past is lost in the process, and we are now seeing, not that which was, but that which we wish to see. By chance a commander has an acute stomach ache – and now a venerable royal dynasty is replaced by the dynasty of a neighbouring power. By chance a restless eccentric gets the impulse to sail across the ocean – and now trade is transformed and a maritime nation made rich. Why indeed should we take after those paradoxical enemies of risk, who sit for years at the green baize in Monte Carlo calculating how many spins will fall on red and how many on black, all in order to find a fail-safe system? There is no system. History’s roulette wheel knows no laws. Clio laughs at our clichés, at our speaking with daring, skill, and impunity about influences, ideas, trends, periods, and eras, and at how we deduce laws and predict the future.
That is how history is treated. But I repeat, it is a hundred times more terrifying when the demon of generalities worms his way into our judgments about our own era. And what exactly is our era? When did it begin, in which year, which month? When people use the word “Europe”, what exactly do they have in mind, which countries; only those at the “centre”, or are Portugal, Sweden, and Iceland also central? When newspapers with their particular love for shoddy metaphors head an article “Locarno”[4], I see only mountains, sun shining on the water, and an avenue of plane trees. When people pronounce the word “Europe” with the same metaphorical, generalizing intonation, I see precisely nothing, since I cannot imagine simultaneously the landscape and history of Sweden, Romania and, say, Spain. And when in connection with this non-existent Europe people talk about some era, then I am at a loss to understand when this era even began – and how exactly it could have the same bearing on me, and Ivanov, and Mr. Brown, and Monsieur Dupont. I digress. I am forced to conclude that my interlocutor is speaking about the last two or three years, that the action is taking place in the same town where he himself lives – say, Berlin – and that the barbarism under discussion dates only to the appearance of the dance halls on the Kurfürstendamm.
As soon as I understand this, suddenly everything becomes simpler. We are not talking, then, about something general, hazy, and collective. We are talking about a dance hall in the city of Berlin in the twenty-fourth, fifth, or sixth years of this century. Instead of a cosmic spirit, simply an arbitrary fashion. And this fashion will pass as it has already passed many times before. It is interesting that these faux-black dances [5] were in fashion in the days of the French Directory . . . . Now, as then, there is no more eroticism in them than there was in the waltz. It is interesting that in those days when ladies wore freakish feathers in their hats, morality shed a tear over scandalous blackness. And so, if we are to talk about fashion, the talk could be an interesting and informative one. We could talk about the arbitrary nature of fashion, about how fashion is in no way tied to other phenomena in man’s life – about the fact, for example, that in the days when Madame de Sévigné was writing her letters, so-called Bubikopf haircuts were worn[6].
“Chance, Doña Anna, chance”, as it is said in The Stone Guest[7]. Fashion is arbitrary and capricious. The fashion in Berlin does not at all resemble the fashion in Paris. An Englishman is confused seeing so many Berliners stroll about in plus fours: surely half of Berlin is not playing golf all day? And again, if our talk turns to sport, then we need to establish which people, which country, exactly which years we have in mind. And here one should call on someone well versed in the history of sport. He will explain that in Germany sport is only now coming into being, and somewhat rapidly, and for that reason is so striking. Football takes the place of the goose-step, lawn tennis replaces war-games. If we turn our attention to sport in other countries, we find, for example, that in England football has been exciting the crowd in exactly the same way for five centuries now; and that in France the huge halls are still preserved where they played tennis starting in the fourteenth century. The Greeks played hockey and hit a punching ball. Sport – whether hunting, a knightly tournament, a cockfight, or good old Russian lapta[8] – has always amused and entertained mankind. To search for signs of barbarism in it is inherently senseless, because a real barbarian is always a bad sportsman.
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From Second-Hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich

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

Remarks from an accomplice
We’re paying our respects to the Soviet era. Cutting ties with our old life. I’m trying to honestly hear out all the participants of the socialist drama…
Communism had an insane plan: to remake the ‘old breed of man’, ancient Adam. And it really worked … Perhaps it was communism’s only achievement. Seventy-plus years in the Marxist-Leninist laboratory gave rise to a new man: Homo sovieticus. Some see him as a tragic figure, others call him a sovok [1]. I feel like I know this person; we’re very familiar, we’ve lived side by side for a long time. I am this person. And so are my acquaintances, my closest friends, my parents. For a number of years, I travelled throughout the former Soviet Union – Homo sovieticus isn’t just Russian, he’s Belorussian, Turkmen, Ukrainian, Kazakh. Although we now all live in separate countries and speak different languages, you couldn’t mistake us for anyone else. We’re easy to spot! People who have come out of socialism are both like and unlike the rest of humanity – we have our own lexicon, our own conceptions of good and evil, our heroes and martyrs. We have a special relationship with death. The stories people tell me are full of jarring terms: ‘shoot’, ‘execute’, ‘liquidate’, ‘eliminate’, or typically Soviet varieties of disappearance such as ‘arrest’, ‘ten years without the right of correspondence’ [2], and ‘emigration’. How much can we value human life when we know that not long ago, people died by the millions? We’re full of hatred and superstitions. All of us come from the land of the Gulag and harrowing war. Collectivization, dekulakization [3], mass deportations of various nationalities…
This was socialism, but it was also just everyday life. Back then, we didn’t talk about it very much. Now that the world has transformed irreversibly, everyone is suddenly interested in that old life of ours – whatever it may have been like, it was our life. In writing, I’m piecing together the history of ‘domestic’, ‘interior’ socialism. As it existed in a person’s soul. I’ve always been drawn to this miniature expanse: one person, the individual. It’s where everything really happens.
Why does this book have so many stories of suicides instead of more typical Soviets with typically Soviet life stories? When it comes down to it, people end their lives for love, from fear of old age, or just out of curiosity, from a desire to come face to face with the mystery of death. I sought out people who had been permanently bound to the Soviet idea, letting it penetrate them so deeply, there was no separating them: the state had become their entire cosmos, blocking out everything else, even their own lives. They couldn’t just walk away from History, leaving it all behind and learning to live without it – diving head first into the new way of life and dissolving into private existence, like so many others who now allowed what used to be minor details to become their big picture. Today, people just want to live their lives, they don’t need some great idea. This is entirely new for Russia; it’s unprecedented in Russian literature. At heart, we’re built for war. We were always either fighting or preparing to fight. We’ve never known anything else – hence our wartime psychology. Even in civilian life, everything was always militarized. The drums were beating, the banners flying, our hearts leaping out of our chests. People didn’t recognize their own slavery – they even liked being slaves. I remember it well: after we finished school, we’d volunteer to go on class trips to the Virgin Lands4 and we’d look down on the students who didn’t want to come. We were bitterly disappointed that the Revolution and Civil War had all happened before our time. Now you wonder: was that really us? Was that me? I reminisced alongside my protagonists. One of them said, ‘Only a Soviet can understand another Soviet.’ We share a communist collective memory. We’re neighbours in memory. […]
The Soviet civilization… I’m rushing to make impressions of its traces, its familiar faces. I don’t ask people about socialism, I want to know about love, jealousy, childhood, old age. Music, dances, hairdos. The myriad sundry details of a vanished way of life. It’s the only way to chase the catastrophe into the contours of the ordinary and try to tell a story. Make some small discovery. It never ceases to amaze me how interesting everyday life really is. There are an endless number of human truths. History is concerned solely with the facts; emotions are outside of its realm of interest. In fact, it’s considered improper to admit feelings into history. But I look at the world as a writer and not a historian. I am fascinated by people. […]
I asked everyone I met what ‘freedom’ meant. Fathers and children had very different answers. Those who were born in the USSR and those born after its collapse do not share a common experience – it’s like they’re from different planets.
For the fathers, freedom is the absence of fear; the three days in August when we defeated the putsch. A man with his choice of a hundred kinds of salami is freer than one who only has ten to choose from. Freedom is never being flogged, although no generation of Russians has yet avoided a flogging. Russians don’t understand freedom, they need the Cossack and the whip.
For the children: freedom is love; inner freedom is an absolute value. Freedom is when you’re not afraid of your own desires; having lots of money so that you’ll have everything; it’s when you can live without having to think about freedom. Freedom is normal. […]
From a conversation with a university professor: ‘At the end of the nineties, my students would laugh when I told them stories about the Soviet Union. They were positive that a new future awaited them. Now, it’s a different story… Today’s students have truly seen and felt capitalism: the inequality, the poverty, the shameless wealth. They’ve witnessed the lives of their parents, who never got anything out of the plundering of our country. And they’re oriented toward radicalism. They dream of their own revolution, they wear red T-shirts with pictures of Lenin and Che Guevara.’
There’s a new demand for everything Soviet. For the cult of Stalin. Half of the people between the ages of nineteen and thirty consider Stalin an ‘unrivalled political figure’. A new cult of Stalin, in a country where he murdered at least as many people as Hitler?! Everything Soviet is back in style. ‘Soviet-style cafés’ with Soviet names and Soviet dishes. ‘Soviet’ candy and ‘Soviet’ salami, their taste and smell all too familiar from childhood. And of course, ‘Soviet’ vodka. There are dozens of Soviet-themed TV shows, scores of websites devoted to Soviet nostalgia. You can visit Stalin’s camps – on Solovki, in Magadan – as a tourist. The adverts promise that for the full effect, they’ll give you a camp uniform and a pickaxe. They’ll show you the newly restored barracks. Afterwards, there will be fishing…
Old-fashioned ideas are back in style: the great empire, the ‘iron hand’, the ‘special Russian path’. They brought back the Soviet national anthem; there’s a new Komsomol, only now it’s called Nashi [5]; there’s a ruling party, and it runs the country by the Communist Party playbook; the Russian president is just as powerful as the general secretary used to be, which is to say he has absolute power. Instead of Marxism-Leninism, there’s Russian Orthodoxy…
On the eve of the 1917 Revolution, Alexander Grin wrote, ‘And the future seems to have stopped standing in its proper place.’ Now, a hundred years later, the future is, once again, not where it ought to be. Our time comes to us second-hand.
The barricades are a dangerous place for an artist. They’re a trap. They ruin your vision, narrow your pupils, drain the world of its true colours. On the barricades, everything is black and white. You can’t see individuals, all you see are black dots: targets. I’ve spent my entire life on the barricades, and I would like to leave them behind. I want to learn how to enjoy life. To get back my normal vision. But today, tens of thousands of people are once again taking to the streets. They’re taking each other by the hand and tying white ribbons onto their jackets – a symbol of rebirth and light. And I’m with them.
I recently saw some young men in T-shirts with hammers and sickles and portraits of Lenin on them. Do they know what communism is?
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