Tuesday, 29 November 2016

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

Rossiyskaya Gazeta: On the subject of the “Barnes phenomenon”: Critics usually call you “the apostle of postmodernism” or “the chameleon of literature,” meaning that as soon as they try to identify your creative work you immediately change “color” and write something completely different. In the 20th century, in the 90s, postmodernism was the most popular literary trend in Russia, yet we failed to identify it. At last, someone suggested a formula of postmodernism, an attempt to specify what postmodernism is. How would you define postmodernism?
Julian Barnes: It's the critics, not the writers, who give labels to literature. I've been given many labels over the years – an American critic called me a “pre-postmodernist” – which I'm still trying to work out. But in any case, we seem to have run out of labels – the modernists were working a century ago, the postmodernists (of the generation of Borges, say) are also long dead. Are some of us now post-post modernists? I hope not. My novels, as you have mentioned, are very different from one another: Some are more formally inventive, some more traditional. My loyalty is to the individual book I'm writing, rather than to any overall notion of a literary school. Perhaps we should call it Post-Label Fiction.
RG: You surprised audiences with A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, where you offered an alternative look at the history of civilization. The Great Deluge from the point of view of a woodworm… the Chernobyl disaster as seen by a mad woman… There was also Flaubert’s Parrot, a tradition-breaking novel in the biography genre. Then came The Porcupine with its surprising image of the Eastern European dictator, a nominal Zhivkov, a novel in which you inherently foresaw the trial of the real leader of the Bulgarian Communist Party. Excuse me, but I have a feeling that you consciously provoke your readers, not letting them live in their usual frame of cultural, political references, etc. And then there is your latest novel The Noise of Time… We, Russians, were even a bit offended that a novel about Shostakovich was written by an English and not a Russian writer! Surely, we can only blame ourselves for this… And yet, how would you define your literary strategy, if you have one?
J.B.: I'm sorry if any Russians were offended by the fact that I wrote a novel about Shostakovich! He did, after all, die in 1975, and so your novelists have had 40 years to write about him if they wanted to…As far as my “literary strategy” goes, I suppose I would say this. That – as all writers do, or at any rate should – I write about what most interests me, and in the form that best suits the idea. (Flaubert: “There is no idea without a form, and no form without an idea.”) I think that the novel is a very generous and flexible form, and I follow the story wherever it leads me, often across the old-fashioned borders; so I am happy to mix fiction with history, art history, biography, autobiography – whatever tells the story in the best way. I also don't feel myself obliged to offer my readers the same sort of book I gave them previously (and they've got used to that by now). At the same time, the making of the bond between writer and reader on the page is of maximum concern to me. I may take readers to unexpected places, but I want them to follow the path without unnecessary trouble.
RG: Your novel England, England struck me with a contrast: You can always feel the author frowning at the topic, and at the same time it is a very serious novel about national identity. How possible is national identity today? Is it time to admit that it’s easier to fake it with modern technology – these “national heritage parks” both for foreign and local tourists? There is a lot of tension around the issue of national identity in Russia and other former USSR republics. In Ukraine it has already become a central issue. And the latest referendum in the UK was won by supporters of Brexit; that is, let’s be honest, by admirers of “good old Britain.” So this novel once again is of great current interest. And I’m not talking about politics but about your ability to search for themes that appear at an unexpected time and in an unexpected place. How do you do that? Do you follow the media, talk to people a lot, or are you some kind of a literary anchoret and visionary?
J.B.: Yes, I'm rather glad that England, England has turned out to be topical in 2016. I wrote it in 1998 at as kind of warning, or “poisoned present” to my own country as the new millennium arrived: Look what you are turning into! Not just England, obviously. If you walk down a street in the middle of any capital city in Europe, you see the same shops, and similar habits of living. Europe is becoming homogenized. Of course, if this is the price to pay for not having wars – and there have only been small ones in Europe since 1945 – it's worth paying. But I also felt that, as a response to the homogenization, the old European countries set up instead various totems of their nationality and originality, as if to say that this homogenization wasn't happening. Look, we have cricket and Big Ben and the Beatles! And then self-delusion sets in. As for being a visionary – I think it's a mistake for a writer – at any rate, my sort of writer – to imagine themselves a visionary. But sometimes the things we write about turn out to be true. In my History of the World of 1989, I allowed myself to imagine the football team I have supported all my life, Leicester City, finally to win an important trophy. And in 2015 they finally did so. It's tempting, as you can imagine, to try and turn the trick again.
RG:  You received the Booker Prize for The Sense of an Ending. Frankly speaking, they could have awarded it to you earlier. But I can’t understand what this novel is about. It is a first-class psychological thriller with a twist in the tail. But what is it about? Is it about love, and the mysteries of female psychology? Or is it about the absence of time?
J.B.: I'm sorry you don't understand what it's about. I think it's about responsibility and remorse. What exactly is our responsibility for our actions, and how precisely can we measure it? (Compare historical responsibility, as in the first part of the book). And when – sometimes, many years later, we discover that our responsibility is not what we thought it was, we may suffer guilt, or, worse, remorse. The novel is also about time and memory, yes. And it's also, as you say, a kind of psychological thriller. I am pleased when some readers tell me that after finishing it, they went straight back to the beginning and read it again, to see what really happened, and the work out the clues they'd missed. 
RG: How did you come upon the idea to write a novel about Shostakovich? Was it your interest in music or in the main character of the novel as a significant personality of his time? It seems you don’t pay much attention to the era itself. What lies beyond the noise of time – music or even the sound of three glasses being moved together, the eternal trinity of sound – seems to be the only thing left, doesn’t it? What will there be beyond the noise of our time?
J.B.: I've loved his music since I first heard it about 55 years ago. And then – though usually I'm not very interested in the lives of composers – I realised, about 35 years ago, that Shostakovich was not just a great composer, but also “a case” – a potent example of what happens when Art collides with Power. And that set me off. But as you can see, some of my novels take a very long time from the original idea to the final making of the novel!
Beyond and above the noise of time, as the novel suggests, there is the music of history. But of course, the noise lasts a very long time, unfortunately.
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Friday, 25 November 2016

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

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

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

Pushkin was an aristocrat, born in 1799. French was his first language, but the Russian he learned from his nanny captivated him, instilling a profound love for the vernacular. A talented misfit, he seemed to identify with his great-grandfather, General Abram Gannibal (1696–1781), Peter the Great’s African foster son. He was a ladies’ man and a hothead, admired but not especially liked; he put people off, but seemed to be sensitive to every flash of their personalities. Pushkin needled foes with his verses and twitted the powerful, but, unlike Gannibal, whose patron tsar protected and promoted him, he was for several years clamped down under the direct censorship of Nicholas I.

When he was 31, he married a beautiful 18-year-old, about whom he was continually jealous. They had four children over the next six years, before he was shot in a duel over her honor; he died a few days later, mourned by the literary nation, which was not, however, surprised by his fate. If he hadn’t been killed then, he would’ve died in a duel sooner or later.

Even in his lifetime, Pushkin was regarded as Russia’s supreme lyric and narrative poet, and his verse-novel Eugene Onegin remains a European classic. Unfortunately, most translations of his lively, quicksilver poetry have not been successful. He only took up narrative prose on a whim, but, as this collection makes clear, he mastered it gloriously. American readers are more likely to have read Chekhov’s stories than Pushkin’s; after all, Chekhov wrote several hundred, and their sympathy and humor have been admired and imitated by so many 20th-century Anglophone masters. Pushkin completed very few stories, but the five he collected as The Tales of the Late Ivan Petrovich Belkin (he pretended that a fictional Belkin, not he, had written them) are perhaps the best collection of short fiction in the history of the world.

The Captain’s Daughter and Dubrovsky are not novels but novellas — just in terms of length (95 pages and 66, here). But they are two of the greatest novellas ever written, both of them exciting, romantic racehorses of prose. He finished “finished” The Captain’s Daughter, the better known of the two, and to criticize it is to criticize a Mozart symphony: let’s say the first two-thirds are more excellent than the last. Dubrovsky is like a Heinrich von Kleist story; it gallops along on the hooves of righteous revenge, but is also full of romantic love — Pushkin’s specialty — which lightens the terror:
Marya Kirilovna sat in her room, embroidering on a tambour by the open window. She did not confuse the silks, as did Konrad’s mistress, who, in amorous distraction, embroidered a rose in green silk. Under her needle, the canvas unerringly repeated the original pattern, even though her thoughts did not follow her work but were far away.
How is that for a description of unconscious routine action? Dubrovsky is officially “unfinished” but is as polished as the rest of the fiction.

I read The Tales of Belkin and The Captain’s Daughter with surprising ease in my passable Russian before taking up Pevear and Volokhonsky’s new translations. The most popular translating couple of this century have taken their lumps for supposedly hogging the limited market for translations of the Russian classics — see, for instance, Janet Malcolm’s “Socks” in The New York Review of Books — but I wouldn’t presume to complain about them myself. In nearly 500 pages, I queried and checked maybe a dozen words or phrases of theirs, down to the pettiness of “Wouldn’t we say ‘went’ rather than ‘came’?” or “Wouldn’t ‘annoyed’ here be a little better than ‘bored’?” Quibbling over translations is perhaps only amusing for translators and people who claim to be experts in the original tongue. We’ll try a set of comparisons, but first I’ll declare that the best new old fiction you’re going to read all year is between the covers of this book. If we start with a quotation from The Captain’s Daughter, we can visit a moment with the captain’s wife, Vasilisa Egorovna, who domineers over the dilapidated fort on the Bashkir steppes west of Orenburg. Her husband, the captain, is competent enough, but she always knows best, and he, a wise man, agrees. When he tries to persuade her to leave before the arrival of the real-life rebel Emelyan Pugachev, who is leading an army that can and will overwhelm the captain’s puny and incompetent forces (some of whom will even defect), she refuses to go. She only concedes to sending away their daughter for safekeeping:
“Very well,” said his wife, “so be it, we’ll send Masha off. But don’t dream of asking me to go: I won’t. Nothing will make me part from you in my old age and seek a solitary grave in strange parts somewhere. Together we’ve lived, and together we’ll die.”
My version of the same:
“Fine,” said the commandant’s wife, “let it be so, send Masha away. But don’t dream of asking me: I won’t go. Not in my old age am I separating from you and looking for a single grave in a strange land. Together we live, together we die.”
Natalie Duddington, Vintage Russian Library:
“Very well,” said the Commandant’s wife, “so be it, let us send Masha away. But don’t you dream of asking me — I won’t go: I wouldn’t think of parting from you in my old age and seeking a lonely grave far away. Live together, die together.”
Alan Myers, Oxford World’s Classics: “All right,” said his wife. “So be it, we’ll send Masha away. But don’t even ask me in your dreams: I shan’t go. I’m not going to part with you in my old age and seek a lonely grave in some strange place. We’ve lived together, we’ll die together.” Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, NYRB Classics:
“Very well,” said Vasilisa Yegornovna. “We’ll send Masha away. But I’m not going anywhere myself — so don’t you dare ask me again! Why should we part in our old age? I don’t want to go looking for a lonely grave far from home. Live together — die together.”
Is it a wash? I think so. But is it “different” in Russian? Of course! This is from Volume Five, “Stories, Tales,” of the 1975 10-volume Soviet edition of Pushkin’s works, cited by Pevear and Volokhonsky as their source:
— Добро, — сказала комендантша, — так и быть, отправим Машу. А меня и во сне не проси: не поеду. Нечего мне под старость лет расставаться с тобою да искать одинокой могилы на чужой сторонке. Вместе жить, вместе и умирать.
In the Russian we hear the captain’s wife’s distinct voice, without trying. But there are so many things going on in the tale itself, so much action, so much momentum, that the English almost can’t help but come to life. Pushkin’s the cook of this feast and translators are the waiters. If one of them sticks his bare thumb in while serving it, I remind myself to blink and go on chewing. It’s still good!

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Thursday, 24 November 2016

The Many Faces of Ivan Aivazovsky

A great marine painter who left a vast artistic legacy behind him, Ivan Aivazovsky was himself often portrayed by his contemporaries, while as a talented portraitist himself, the artist also created around 10 self-portraits over the course of his long artistic career. He was painted by a whole host of his fellow artists including friends from the Academy of Arts such as Vasily Sternberg and Mikhail Scotti; older contemporaries such as Academician Alexei Tyranov and the “patriarch” of the Moscow School of Painting, Vasily Tropinin;[1] the chief ideologue of the “Peredvizhnik” (Wanderers) movement, Ivan Kramskoi; and the “apologist” for salon painting, Konstantin Makovsky. Two marble busts of Aivazovsky survive, one by Alexander Belyaev, depicting the artist as a young man, the other by Leopold Bernhard Bernstamm, created in the painter’s old age. After Aivazovsky’s death, a bronze statue was erected in Feodosia, designed by the sculptor Ilya Ginzburg. Despite all this, Aivazovsky’s depiction in art has never been the subject of significant study. How did the great artist perceive himself, and how did he wish to be seen by future generations? How, indeed, was he viewed by his contemporaries? 

The Portrait with a Secret

Aivazovsky was first painted in Rome in 1841 by Alexei Tyranov.[2] Now part of the permanent collection of the Tretyakov Gallery, the work shows the painter in a seated pose, his face turned towards the viewer. We see a black-haired Armenian man with a characteristic nose, large expressive eyes and a dark beard. At that time, the 24-year-old artist had finished his studies at the Imperial Academy of Arts and was in Italy to perfect his painting.[3] The young man from St. Petersburg quickly gained a significant reputation. The painter is shown seated against a neutral background, his figure depicted from the waist up. The angle is not a simple one, yet Tyranov executes his task perfectly. Aivazovsky's hand is portrayed in minute detail - the hand of an artist, it is graceful and majestic, with slender, sensitive fingers. In its colour scheme, the painting is reminiscent of Karl Bryullov, with the elegant black-and-white of Aivazovsky's costume and the red of his cravat setting the tone.

We do not know at whose instigation this portrait was created. It is not unlikely that the idea came from Tyranov himself, since he frequently painted his fellow artists. A naturally talented painter from Bezhetsk in the Tver Province, subsequently a pupil of Alexei Venetsianov and Bryullov, in 1839 Tyranov was made an Academician. Thanks to the Cabinet of His Imperial Highness, he was able to continue working on his art in Italy. His address in Rome was “at the Spielman brothers”, Via della Croce. As his contemporaries noted, his lodgings could only be accessed by climbing 125 steps, a feat which obviously did not discourage the young Aivazovsky.

In the summer of 1842, the portrait was still in Tyranov's studio, where it caught the attention of Vasily Grigorovich, Conference Secretary of the St. Petersburg Imperial Academy of Arts. Whilst visiting Tyranov in Rome, Grigorovich especially noted the painter's biblical canvases, as well as the portraits of “Aivazovsky, Nikolai Botkin and the Countess Gagarina”, also “10 women's portraits and three portraits of our friends”.[4] In the autumn, the yearly exhibition opened at the Academy of Arts: in preparation for that event, Aivazovsky selected a number of his paintings to send to St. Petersburg. In his report to the Academy Board, he wrote: “Besides these, I am sending to be shown at the exhibition the portrait of myself by Tyranov.”[5]

Well-pleased with Tyranov's portrait of him, Aivazovsky, it seems, wished to use it in order that the public of St. Petersburg could form an opinion not only of his paintings, but of his person, too. In November 1842, Aivazovsky received an enthusiastic letter from the well-known art collector and philanthropist, Alexei Tomilov. “Wonderful, dear Ivan Konst[antinovich]! I have seen the paintings, together with the portrait of you, and the paintings of the Chernetsovs, and several others: Hurrah, Aivazovsky! Hurrah, dear Ivan Konstantinovich!”[6] Tomilov's account confirms that Tyranov's portrait of Ivan Aivazovsky was indeed shown in the autumn exhibition of 1842 at the St. Petersburg Imperial Academy of Arts.

Combining a sensitive approach with exemplary execution, Tyranov's portrait of Aivazovsky was purchased by Pavel Tretyakov in 1875. Later, the canvas became the best-known likeness of the great marine painter, reproduced in dictionaries, encyclopaedias and academic publications (as well as on stamps). Familiar to all, the image appeared not to possess any unusual details, although the artist did perhaps appear somewhat older than his years.

However, careful study of the canvas in 2002 showed that the portrait had been repeatedly altered.[7] X-rays revealed earlier versions with shaved cheeks and chin, and a different hairstyle: instead of the later thrown-back look, the artist's hair had been carefully smoothed down. To the right of his face, a playful curl revealed Aivazovsky's ear. Looking at the painting through a powerful microscope, researchers noted grey hairs in the painter's thick black beard: the earlier version had shown a younger, more modest-looking man. Other parts of the painting had also been changed: the right shoulder and arm were different, and the signature and inscription had been added at different times. Who could have altered the painting, and at what time?

A somewhat contradictory account is offered by Vera Ziloti, the daughter of Pavel Tretyakov: “I remember him telling us how he bought Aivazovsky's self-portrait with greying sideburns, [the artist dressed] in a coat with ribbons and decorations. Whilst recognizing Aivazovsky's talent, Pavel Mikhailovich did not like his ‘official's' mentality. With that sixth sense so typical of him, Pavel Mikhailovich felt that there was something suspicious about the painting. He began to wash away the layers of paint, gradually uncovering something brown, with some red in the centre. The grey hair gave way to black, and soon a young Aivazovsky was revealed, in a velvet jacket with red cravat. In the corner, the portrait bore the signature ‘Tyranov'. The following morning, our father called us to his study in between our lessons, in order to show us his discovery: ‘Aivazovsky will not thank me for this.' And indeed, he did not thank him. They did not see each other for a long time. Pavel Mikhailovich's efforts at restoration often brought extraordinary surprises, many of which I can no longer even recall.”[8]

Tretyakov is not known to have purchased a self-portrait by Aivazovsky. The story of his buying the canvas by Tyranov, however, is well-known. In December 1875, a solo exhibition of Aivazovsky's work opened at the Academy of Arts. Tyranov's portrait, it seems, was part of this extremely successful event. In anticipation of a visit from Pavel Tretyakov, on December 2 Aivazovsky wrote to the collector: “You will, it seems, be visiting St. Petersburg, so I will give you my portrait when you are here.”[9] The painter was referring to Tyranov's work. Around that time, Tretyakov had decided to create a “national” portrait gallery from part of his collection: the two considerations of which he was mindful in this task were the historical role of the figure portrayed, and the artistic merit of the work.[10]

Tretyakov was proud of the likeness of the famous marine painter in his collection. Writing to Ilya Repin on December 22 1884, he noted: “Tyranov is excellently represented with his portrait of Aivazovsky.”[11] It could be that, when selling the portrait to Tretyakov's gallery 34 years after its creation, Aivazovsky decided to “update” his appearance a little, to take account of his current age and status. He may have added the greying sideburns, coat and awards mentioned by Vera Ziloti - details which, according to her, Tretyakov then proceeded to “wash away”.

“Tomfoolery on Paper”

Alexandre Benois's description of the album “Drawings of the Russian Artists in Rome” (1843, Tretyakov Gallery) is characteristic of the critic, and the piece does indeed merit such an appraisal. Created as a joint effort by the architect Nicholas Benois and the artists Vasily Sternberg and Mikhail Scotti, the album was offered to Pavel Krivtsov, who was in charge of the Russian artists in Rome, on the occasion of his departure for St. Petersburg. The strip-cartoon documented the artists' life in Italy in the 1840s, including a number of key official events such as an audience with Pope Gregory XVI, and the Grand Duchess Maria Nikolayevna's visit to their impromptu exhibition.

The album is filled with everyday scenes of Italian life, drawings of the interiors of the artists' studios and cartoon portraits of the Russian painters themselves. Special comic effect was achieved by exaggerating or otherwise stressing the characteristic features of their fellow artists. Occasionally, unexpected comparisons and parallels were made, to be enjoyed by those familiar with the Italian environment. These were complemented by amateur poetry by the sculptor Nikolai Ramazanov and the architect Alexander Rezanov.

The page entitled “Visit to the Pope” by Mikhail Scotti shows a scene at the Vatican, with five “chosen artists” receiving the Pope's blessing. Who were these fortunate five? The painter Josef Haberzettl, one of the longest-standing members of the Russian artists' community in Rome; the portraitist Jan Ksawery Kaniewski from the “Kingdom of Poland”; the architect Alexander Kudinov; Ivan Chernik from the Black Sea Cossacks; and Ivan Aivazovsky. The marine painter is depicted standing by the Pope's throne and pointing at a canvas with a magnificent carved frame, resting on an easel. “Chaos. Creation of the World” had made Aivazovsky famous, virtually overnight. The Pope had been told of the existence of this unusual work, in which the Russian romantic artist addresses the weighty topic of the creation, and had evinced the desire to see it. The canvas was duly brought to the Vatican, and the Pope expressed great satisfaction, desiring to purchase it for his collection. Aivazovsky refused any payment, prompting the Pontiff to offer the artist a gold medal as a sign of special favour. Congratulating his friend on this momentous occasion, Nikolai Gogol came up with a nice wordplay: “You came to Rome from the shores of the Neva, little man, and immediately brought ‘Chaos' to the Vatican.”[12]

In Scotti's caricature, Aivazovsky's black beard and smooth, neatly parted hair recall the portrait by Tyranov. If in that painting, however, Tyranov had sought to laud the rising Russian star, Scotti's aim was to create a different, distinctly ironic impression. Aivazovsky's bent knee and obsequious expression show him to be a man with “ambitions, sick with desire for fame”. Aivazovsky's productivity and the exceptional speed with which he painted caused many of the artists in the Russian community in Rome to feel jealousy. In their “Notes”, the brothers Chernetsov, for instance, chided Aivazovsky for his haughtiness, self-promotion and pushiness. Following a meeting in Florence, however, they finally “made their peace,”[13] and Aivazovsky was even included in Grigory Chernetsov's group portrait “The Russian Artists at the Roman Forum” (1842, National Art Museum of Belarus). The artist is portrayed as a rather small figure with a bearded profile and dandyish top hat, barely visible in the background amid the classical columns of the ancient site.

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Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Love and Death in Revolution Square - Svetlana Alexievich

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

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

What did I expect? A Soviet person has no time for those who have not suffered. War, displacement, hunger, and forced labor underpin Alexievich’s work like the pulsating ostinato in Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony. “We know how to suffer and talk of suffering,” she wrote in her first book in the series, War’s Unwomanly Face, a collection of testimonies from women about their experiences of what is still known throughout the former Soviet Union as the Great Patriotic War. “Suffering justifies our hard and bitter life. For us, pain is an art.” Delayed by the censors for two years until it was finally published in 1985, War’s Unwomanly Face contained no overt criticism of the Soviet government. However, the book proved incendiary because of Alexievich’s refusal to focus on, as she put it, “how one group of people heroically killed and triumphed over another.” Instead, she chose to write not about war itself, but about “the person at war . . . thrown from normal life into the epic depths of a massive event, into Big History.”

Writing may not be the most appropriate way to describe the making of these texts, which contain almost no authorial interventions and consist nearly exclusively of recorded conversations. Alexievich’s profound achievement, over three decades of visits to her interviewees across the Soviet Union, was to coax out the intimate outpourings of individuals who have undergone profound shock and revelation, weaving them, strand by strand, into a grand tapestry. The plight of the individual caught up in the Soviet Union’s utopian project permeates Alexievich’s work. Chernobyl Prayer (1997) about the 1986 nuclear disaster, and Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War (1989), which chronicles the experiences of conscripts in the Soviet war in Afghanistan and their families, reveal the almost comic senselessness of such concepts as heroism, glory, and sacrifice in the face of radiation and war. And yet, despite having experienced its horrors firsthand, and irrespective of whether they were for or against the regime, one by one Alexievich’s interlocutors express their loss and regret at the fall of the USSR. Why?

Ever since its adoption by Russian president Vladimir Putin as an ersatz official ideology, Soviet nostalgia has been dismissed by Western commentators as a hankering for strongman leadership and great power status. Certainly, that is how it has been cannily deployed by the Kremlin: through the revival of militarized Victory Day parades, irredentism in Ukraine, and revived alliances with former client states such as Syria.

However, as Alexievich shows in Secondhand Time, for many of its former citizens—often derided as sovoks, a cruel pun on the word for dustpan—what the Soviet Union represented most was not geopolitical but moral superiority. This may seem a strange way to describe a state that imprisoned and executed millions of its own citizens. But as one woman reminds Alexievich, “socialism isn’t just labour camps, informants, and the Iron Curtain, it’s also a bright, just world: everything is shared, the weak are pitied, and compassion rules. Instead of grabbing everything you can, you feel for others.”

The spiritual aspects of socialism are rarely discussed in Western accounts of the Soviet Union. As the Russian-born anthropologist Alexei Yurchak showed in his book Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More, the USSR had a distinct moral order broadly shared even by those who disagreed with the regime or its politics. A cornerstone of Soviet ethics was the belief that, as one man tells Alexievich, “it’s shameful to love money, you have to love a dream.” Other values included altruism, self-sacrifice, a concern for the weak, the elevation of group over individual concerns, and the rejection of wealth and materialism. The country’s sudden dissolution proved to be more traumatic to many of Alexievich’s characters than the suffering they had endured at the hands of the USSR.

Soviet times were a period of exalted poverty. When Margarita Pogrebitskaya, a doctor interviewed in the book, married her husband, “he had a blanket, I had a cot, and that’s how we began our life together.” My own parents were no different; as his wedding present, my father leveraged all his connections to procure a nearly unobtainable luxury: an ironing board (this was the early 1980s, not the 1920s). I remember my childhood fear of this menacing contraption; painted dark green and requiring the strength of two adults to lift and assemble, it could only have been produced at a munitions factory. To this day, my mother talks about that ironing board as if it were a Cartier solitaire.

But the most important piece of furniture in Soviet times was always the bookshelf. “We grew up in a country where money essentially did not exist,” one man recalls. Literature was the only real currency. “If someone got their hands on a new book, they could show up at your door at any hour—even two or three in the morning—and still be a welcome guest,” says another. As Alexievich writes in her prologue about the Soviet person (in whose ranks she includes herself), “‘reader’ is our primary occupation.” A girl talks about her Soviet parents: “They got by with one set of linens, one pillow, and one pair of slippers” because all they cared to do was “spend their nights reading each other Pasternak.”

For the cultured middle classes, the prison camp that was the Soviet Union of the 1930s and ‘40s had, by the 1960s, become more akin to a university campus. Known as the kitchen intelligentsia, this was Alexievich’s tribe, and perestroika was their moment. Finally, their beloved silenced writers could be read out in the open. People queued all night to buy a copy of Bulgakov’s unbanned The Master and Margarita. Poets commanded packed stadiums. Strangers exchanged newspapers on the Metro.

“The word was the deed,” says one, describing this incredible renaissance. It seemed at the time that simply believing was enough to will democracy into being. Another remembers how the country turned into a debating society, with “buses idling outside waiting to take us away to democracy.” When hardliners arrested Gorbachev in Crimea and attempted to turn back the clock, the liberal intelligentsia took to the barricades to defend Yeltsin and the democrats. Their hopes that literature could save the world were quickly and cruelly dashed. Suddenly, words and ideas lost their power. Emptied of poets, the stadiums quickly filled with faith healers, hypnotists, and pyramid schemers. “The discovery of money hit us like an atomic bomb,” says a former Yeltsin supporter.

Unsurprisingly, the intelligentsia was quickly elbowed out by square-jawed men in tracksuits with altogether more pragmatic attitudes to democracy and capitalism. The revolution cast aside its own makers. As one man laments, “We turned out to be ill-suited for the new world we’d been waiting for.”

The plight of the once proud elite, forced to pawn its libraries and turn to cleaning offices and collecting and selling jars of cigarette butts, is a tale of monumental betrayal and humiliation. “Russian novels don’t teach you how to become successful, how to get rich,” Alexievich is told. An entire generation suddenly discovered, as the old joke goes, that everything the party told them about socialism was a lie, but everything it told them about capitalism turned out to be true. “Life is better now,” one woman notes, “but it’s also more revolting.”

Compared to this new order, the Soviet Union emerges as a state of both intense cruelty and grace, often coexisting simultaneously. When Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015, her writing was hailed as “polyphonic.” That refers not only to the panoply of voices that people her books—the product of three decades of tape-recorded conversations, their cadences deftly rendered by Bela Shayevich’s sensitive and confident translation. It applies in equal measure to the ambivalence and even contradictions contained within the accounts of individual witnesses.

Time after time, we see victims of the regime refuse to renounce the banner of socialism. Having barely survived the war, Marina Isaichik was barred from attending a teaching college because she had lived under German occupation in Belarus and was therefore classified as an “unreliable element.” Instead, she was forced to spend her youth at a brick factory, digging for clay with her bare hands. Yet this woman later volunteered to go to Siberia “to help build communism.” Margarita Pogrebitskaya’s father was a Bolshevik jailed during the purges of 1937. In prison, while his interrogators—fellow party members—cracked his skull and knocked out his teeth, his daughter wrote in her diary “pages and pages about how much I loved Stalin.” Yet he remained a communist to the end of his life. As did eighty-seven-year-old Vasily Petrovich N., who was arrested and tortured on the basis of a false report compiled by an informant: their neighbor, who was in love with his wife. They beat him with bags of sand until everything would pour out of him. His wife died in the gulag. Yet his final wish, he tells Alexievich, is to die a communist.

“You have to ask how these things coexisted,” one woman asks Alexievich. “Our happiness and the fact that they came for some people at night and took them away. Some people disappeared, while others cried behind the door.” Her own father was one of those taken away in 1937. “For some reason, I don’t remember any of that. I don’t! I remember how the lilacs blossomed in the spring, and everyone outside, strolling; the wooden walkways warmed by the sun. The blinding mass demonstrations . . . the names of Lenin and Stalin woven from human bodies and flowers on Red Square.”

The poet Anna Akhmatova spoke of two Russias, that of the jailed and the jailers. But Alexievich’s interlocutors speak instead of a single Russia, one in which perpetrators and victims were frequently one and the same. One man recounts how his ex-girlfriend’s father, a terminally ill war hero, confessed to him one drunken night that he had served as an executioner with the NKVD, the precursor to the KGB. By the end of a workday, his trigger finger so sore that it had to be massaged by medical staff, he would retire to his room. Under the bed, he kept a packed suitcase ready for his own inevitable arrest.

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Saturday, 19 November 2016

Mikhail Lomonosov: The 'Russian Da Vinci'

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

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

The academy's administration easily believed that the young man was an aristocrat, since he knew how to read and write and had a solid understanding of mathematics. Officially, Lomonosov received his noble title in 1745, along with the rank of Chemistry Professor.

Lomonosov's education spanned decades. He studied in Moscow, Kiev, St. Petersburg, and in the German towns of Marburg and Freiberg, mastering dozens of subjects, from philosophy to metallurgy. In all his later activity, the scientist maintained this diversity of disciplines, simultaneously pursuing many fields of research. He considered chemistry his main vocation, though.

Lomonosov is known as a polymath and is often compared to Leonardo da Vinci, so broad was his sphere of interests and activities. He perfected glass-making technology; developed physics and chemistry theories; worked in the fields of astronomy and geography; wrote grammar textbooks, historical works and odes; translated poetry; and created mosaics.

The scientist also founded Moscow University (1755), which today bears his name and is considered one of the best universities in Russia.

In 1901, 136 years after Lomonosov's death, geology professor Vasily Dokuchaev, encountering one of the scientist's papers, said in amazement, "A long time ago, Lomonosov described in his research the theory I defended in my PhD dissertation, and he described it in a broader manner."

There are other examples of how Lomonosov was ahead of his time. In 1761, he discovered that the planet Venus had an atmosphere, which he observed through a telescope. In 1754, after reviewing documents at the Academy of Sciences, he developed a working model of a proto-helicopter, a flying apparatus that could take off vertically with two propellers. And his corpuscular-kinetic theory of heat in many ways anticipated ideas of atoms that appeared one hundred years later, just like his theory on rotating spherical particles.

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Friday, 18 November 2016

What was so ‘Great’ about Catherine?

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

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

Describing the empress, historian Alexander Orlov wrote: "All her life, she was burning with ambition, and, having reached power, she tried to keep it by all means.” Once on the throne, the Empress quickly concentrated all power in her hands: she reformed the Senate, reducing its lawmaking power, and took away land and peasants from the church, depriving it of its economic base.

However, like other European sovereigns of the 18th century, she was committed to the concept of enlightened absolutism — in which the monarch rules single-handedly, but for the sake of the people and for their own good.

One of Catherine's large-scale projects taken on “for the good of the people” was the convening of the Legislative Commission in 1767.

This temporary legislative body was supposed to develop a new comprehensive law that would reconcile the interests of all classes. Even the abolition of serfdom was discussed. In the end, however, the commission had to be disbanded due to fears that disgruntled nobles might revolt against the empress, according to Orlov.

The rule of Catherine can justifiably be called the golden age of the Russian nobility. Noblemen were exempt from military service and paying taxes, and they were granted the right to open their own factories and to trade. They made up the country’s military and political elite, and were known as much for their extravagant parties as for their excellent education.

Peasants, on the other hand, had little to thank Catherine for. During her reign, they lost the little freedom they had — they were forbidden to complain about their landlords, and the landlords were given the right to force peasants to do hard labor. Peasant revolts, the best known of which was Pugachev’s Rebellon, broke out across Russia in the 1770s. They were all suppressed.

Catherine successfully waged wars abroad as well as at home. One of her major goals was to increase Russian influence in Europe. She incorporated Crimea, seizing it from Turkey, and, with the leaders of Austria and Prussia, partitioned Poland out of existence, incorporating into Russia the territory that today makes up Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania and Latvia.

Catherine primarily owed her military victories to her brilliant generals. Alexander Suvorov was one of the best generals in Russian history, and Grigory Potemkin, one of the empress’s favorites, reformed the army along European lines.

Catherine prioritized the arts and sciences as well as the military. She put together the collection of paintings, drawings and sculpture that formed the beginning of the Hermitage, now one of the largest museums in the world. She also invited to St. Petersburg a number of important European architects who created the famous palaces and churches of Russia’s northern capital. During her rule, a system of schools was created, and the Smolny Institute, Russia's first place of higher learning for women was opened.

The empress herself published the satirical magazine Vsyakaya Vsyachina ("Odds and Ends") made up of her own writings and also wrote morality plays. She was a regular correspondent of the Enlightenment philosophes Voltaire and Diderot.

"It was he, or rather his writings, that shaped my mind and my beliefs," Catherine wrote of Voltaire. The philosopher, in turn, spoke of Catherine with great respect and promoted the empress in Europe.

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Thursday, 17 November 2016

The troubled friendship of Leo Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky.

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

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

Attempting a friendship with one of your heroes is always a risky undertaking. Some cherished illusions have to be sacrificed to reality, some disenchantment unavoidable. Maxim Gorky was thirty-two when he befriended Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, who was seventy-two and well into his heretical-prophet phase after a prolonged spiritual crisis decades earlier. The first night they met in 1900, Tolstoy took him into his study, criticized his stories in a torrent of expletives (while arguing that fifteen was the age of consent), and then gave him a hug and kiss, declaring: “You’re a real muzhik! You’ll have a hard time rubbing elbows with our writers, but don’t let anything intimidate you. Always say what you feel—if it comes out crudely, don’t worry.” Gorky left the encounter with mixed feelings. “It was as if I had met not the author of The Cossacks, ‘Strider,’ and War and Peace, but rather a condescending nobleman who felt constrained to speak to me like ‘an ordinary fellow,’ in ‘the language of the street,’ and this tended to upset my idea of him.”

Gorky had recently become famous after the publication of his first fiction collection, Stories of the Steppe, which depicted the hobos and tramps, itinerant populists, and lumpenprole dregs he had encountered during his youth. He had tried to meet Tolstoy years before, when he was just a vagrant with a distinctive face that one commentator noted stuck out among intellectuals but blended in with a group of workers. Back then he had made a pilgrimage to Yasnaya Polanya to ask the prophet for a small plot of land—any foundation upon which to build the stable foundations of a life. Leo Tolstoy was not around, but Sonya Tolstoy fed him tea and buns, complaining that all kinds of sketchy individuals had been asking for favors from her husband, before sending him on his way.

Gorky was acutely aware that his fame was less a result of what he had written than what he represented. Born in Nizhny Novgorod in 1868, his parents died young, leaving him in the care of his newly declassed maternal grandfather, a ruthless and abusive disciplinarian. When he won a book prize at age nine, he sold it to buy food for his ailing grandmother. His grandfather forced him out of school at eleven, and kicked him out of the house soon after. He wandered and worked all kinds of jobs—shoe clerk, icon-maker’s apprentice, cook’s assistant—eventually falling in with revolutionary populists and becoming a writer. The orphan autodidact, the populist revolutionary with an arrest record, the bard of the underworld, became a token for Russia’s highborn literary elite. They could believe they had discovered a new type of Russian writer, that the sphere of cultural production was diversifying. “Here was a writer who actually emerged from ‘the people’ who wrote of and for them with none of that pious sympathy for suffering traditional among the intelligentsia,” the scholar Donald Fanger noted in a brilliant introduction to his fine translations of Gorky’s literary sketches and ephemera, Gorky’s Tolstoy and Other Reminiscences.

Gorky and Tolstoy were at crosscurrents, representing separate and opposed phases of Russian political radicalism. The aristocrat Tolstoy was a great romanticizer of peasant and country life, along with the late nineteenth-century populists and Narodniks who moved to rural villages to organize and agitate. After his well-documented spiritual crisis, he fled the salons and renounced his class, reinventing himself as an ascetic peasant and heretic. Gorky grew up bathed in the populist and Socialist Revolutionary milieu but became disenchanted with the dogmatic, peasant-fetishizing populists who tokenized him as a “man of the people.” He drifted from job to job, eventually becoming a Marxist not from reading Marx but from actually working, as a baker’s assistant in Kazan. There he met locals who “spoke with hatred about life in the countryside, thus contradicting his mentors, the populists,” Tovah Yeldin wrote in Maxim Gorky: A Political Biography. After despair over the death of his beloved grandmother led him to attempt suicide, he gave small-town agitation one last try, moving to the tiny village of Krasnovidovo to work at a radical store where proto-Maoist populists were organizing around issues of police brutality. The experiment was an unmitigated disaster. The local authorities and kulaks burned the store to the ground. Gorky was driven out of town and nearly killed, according to Yeldin. For the rest of his life, he loathed the peasantry and the countryside. He spent the next five years writing short stories and wandering, surveilled and periodically arrested for propagandizing among students, before landing a job at the Samara Gazette in 1895. The position allowed him to write commentary and polemics—often against the populists—from within the populist fold. Gorky’s stories and commentary garnered him cult status among the young Marxists and the attention of important editors, critics, and writers. In 1902 the thirty-four-year-old iconoclast was nominated to the Imperial Academy of Sciences, to stand alongside Gogol and Pushkin. It was a cultural coup on par with Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize in Literature. Tsar Nicholas II personally annulled the nomination, writing, “He is under police surveillance. And the academy is allowing, in our troubled times, such a person to be elected!” There is a romantic idea that certain editors or literary people have of the “true” self-contained genius who spends all his or her time alone writing one brilliant novel after another, floating like a snowflake above the vulgar world of politics, petty journalism, and reviews. But Gorky was immersed in the battles of his time, too contrarian and idiosyncratic to be fully contained by a party and periodically lashing out at all factions to remind them that intellectual vanguards were worthless compared to the will of the people. First a partisan for the populists, he eventually fell in with the Marxists, and soon thereafter the nascent Bolshevik faction. Perhaps more than with any other writer, Gorky’s life paralleled the rise and spread of Marxism in Russia, his fate intertwined with those of his contemporaries who would eventually come to power in 1917. Yeldin wrote that Gorky was referred to as “the herald of the coming storm,” adding that “it was as if Gorky and the Russian proletariat had been born at the same time.” While Tolstoy fled to the countryside, away from the world of culture that was his birthright, Gorky, an outsider and a poor kid, crashed the literary party uninvited, charmed everyone, and became the guest of honor. He cherished culture with a zeal that only someone not born into it can possess, perhaps accurately sensing that it was all he had. In the late 1920s he wrote in a half-finished draft letter to an unknown correspondent, “For me, culture is something dearer and more intimate than it is for you. For you it’s a habit of yours, something into which you were born and as necessary as trousers.” Gorky avoided both introspection and narcissistic self-disclosure in his writing. In all of his memoirs and sketches, he appears as a roving eye, a distant first-person voice without internality. He viewed literature as a vocation and himself as an industrious, if not particularly talented, worker. This sense of himself as a laborer fit in with his later Bolshevism and his professed belief that art was not only for the elect and that all people had talent. Yet there was a harder side of his personality that could write off whole groups in defense of the regime, calling for the “enemy to be exterminated ruthlessly and without pity, paying no attention to the gasps and groans of the professional humanists.” (He also was responsible for the literary whitewashing of the White Sea Canal, Stalin’s notorious Great Pyramids–like forced-labor project.) His life and work were eaten through with still-unresolved contradictions—hating and resenting the intelligentsia while wanting to be part of it, he was both the humanist Bolshevik and the anti-Bolshevik Bolshevik. He was also the writer who ignored his own genius to support and even save the lives of other writers, the gulag lover who was always the first to weep at poetry readings. Fanger quotes Anna Akhmatova’s comment from the 1960s: “It is customary these days to curse Gorky. But without his help at that time we would all have died of hunger.” In his work, he occasionally could be masterful in depicting moral gray areas. But the constant suppression of his own internality and soul led to accusations that he was a shrewd operator and opportunist. He was ultimately more interested in communication in service of an ideal than in individualistic self-expression, a primary tenet of the socialist realist literary tradition he helped found. At one point, the poet Alexander Blok confronted him for sacrificing his idiosyncratic artistic vision in order to build socialist realism: “You hide yourself. You hide your ideas about the spirit and about truth. What for?” Gorky had no good answer. Fanger quotes the scholar Shentalinsky, who concluded: “Gorky’s constant waverings between the desire to preserve his spiritual independence and the fear of falling behind the locomotive of revolution…these are the contradictions that run through his whole life and constitute his tragedy.” Late in life, when Gorky gave in to the decadent act of scribbling down a few fragments explicitly about himself, he wrote, “Sometimes I feel an urge to write a critical article about Gorky as artist. I am convinced that it would be the most malicious and the most instructive article ever written about him.”

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Saturday, 12 November 2016

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

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

Source: Press photo

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

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

Eventually, however, Russians began to develop their own musical theater culture. The first original musical produced at the Operetta Theater was “The Count of Monte Cristo.” This musical, based on the novel by Alexandre Dumas, premiered in 2008.

In 2012, this musical was replaced in the theater’s repertoire by “Count Orlov,” which tells the story of a courtier of Catherine the Great who falls from grace. The librettos for both productions were written by Yuli Kim, a popular Russian singer-songwriter and former Soviet dissident. The music was composed by Roman Ignatyev. This same team worked on “Anna Karenina.”

The main character of the new musical is the train. It blinds the audience at the very start of the show and in the finale, Karenina falls under its wheels. Throughout the night, a huge wheel suspended from the ceiling turns, a reminder of inescapable destiny and wicked fate. The action of the musical takes place against a backdrop of symphonic rock — as the critics have characterized the production’s musical style — performed by a live orchestra.

“Tolstoy’s novel like no other is suited for a musical because it has all the necessary ingredients; most importantly, a love story,” said Bolonin, explaining his choice of material. “We, of course, cannot address his philosophical ideas, as this is not the right genre for that. But some things that were important for Tolstoy are reflected in the sets or in the lyrics, and there are some direct quotes from the novel, too.”

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Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Rasputin still refuses to die

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

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

This was on the eve of the first world war, when the wild-eyed charlatan of Pokrovskoye appealed directly to Nicholas II: ‘You are the Tsar Father of the People; don’t allow the madmen to triumph and destroy themselves and the people. Yes, they’ll conquer Germany, but what of Russia?’ Had Nicholas listened to Rasputin, Smith says, there would have been no revolution, and the Romanovs would have died in their beds. As it was, they all — including poor little Alexis, the haemophiliac Romanov heir — were shot by the Bolsheviks in Yekaterinburg. When they were stripped and hurled into a mass grave, the only thing they had on them were the little amulets they wore round their necks, each bearing Rasputin’s image.

Life at the top is lonely — which is how and why world leaders often find themselves with surprising companions. Queen Victoria had John Brown and Abdul Karim, and not everyone understood why. She was a fundmentally sensible person, however, whereas Nicholas and Alicky (as her grandmother Victoria called her) were heartbreakingly thick.

Two years ago, Short Books published a truly excellent life of Rasputin by Frances Welch. It contained all that you could possibly want to know about this fascinatingly unsavoury character; it was extremely funny; and it also spoke volumes about Russia. The present book is a very different matter. Addicts of the Rasputin story will certainly be glad of it, but it is pompous and verbose.

The author of a biography needs to ask how long a reasonable reader might wish to spend in the subject’s company. Rasputin was a grotesque phenomenon. He was, however, a skein of repellent simplicities which, stretching over nearly 700 pages, becomes simply tedious. To read a book of this length at a sensible pace would take you a week. Who wants to spend a week with Rasputin, with his ponderous mumbo-jumbo, his easy seduction of nursery maids and religiously inclined Grand Duchesses? It does not seem, even from this exhaustive study, as if he ever said anything remotely interesting.

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Monday, 7 November 2016

The Wicked Uncle - Stalin

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

In Oleg Khlevniuk’s view, too many sources for biographies of Stalin have been made available over the last twenty years, if one bears in mind the need to sift their sheer volume. In his words, the dilemma consists either of covering the hero without the context, or the context without the hero. He emphasises that many of the documents on which Stalin worked directly are in the former archive of the politburo, now the Russian Presidential Archive, which has not yet been completely opened to researchers. Pending such opening, perhaps a fully definitive biography cannot yet be written. For the time being we’ll have to content ourselves with the results of research on the documentation available, of which these are the most notable. Khlevniuk is liberally acknowledged as an important source of assistance in the other two works. It is difficult to imagine that his own work, which admirably covers both the hero and the context, will be surpassed except in matters of less important detail.

Stalin was one of the great monsters of the twentieth century, quite on a par in this regard with Hitler. The challenge is to understand how the son of an obscure cobbler, born in a small town in Georgia on the margins of the then Russian empire, could in the course of his life become the master of half of Europe and the creator of what became a superpower. He was indeed born into a humble family. For all that, there is no evidence that he suffered from oppression. His father became a drunkard and did eventually leave his mother to raise him alone. This she did, earning a living as a seamstress. While doing this, she evidently was especially solicitous of his education. She managed to have him schooled in the Georgian Orthodox church system, at first at primary level and then at the church’s junior seminary in Tiflis, the capital. In the course of this education, he acquired fluent Russian, although he always spoke the language with a strong Georgian accent. The surviving documentation shows him to have been a model student, until the fourth year, when he became associated with rebellious movements in the seminary, arising evidently from the spartan regime, an atmosphere of constant investigation, searches, denunciations and punishments. He got involved with the illegal railway workers’ movement in Tiflis, and began to read Marx at a time, the late 1890s, when his revolutionary teaching had become widely popular among dissidents in the Russian empire. It is also clear that this experience gave him a first taste of conspiracy ‑ a conspiratorial outlook would mark his take on things for ever after. He left the seminary in 1899 after four years under unclear circumstances. Although he was excluded on the formal grounds of not turning up for examinations for unknown reasons, remarkably, at the end, he was certified by the seminary authorities as having been of good conduct. It seems more than likely that both young Jugashvili, as he was at the time, and the seminary authorities were at one in concluding that he was not good raw material for a church career.

Jugashvili gravitated to the radical wing of the social democratic organisation, organising strikes and demonstrations at first in Tiflis. Under threat of arrest, he left his formal place of employment and lived illegally as a professional revolutionary, thus early entering into a conspiratorial mode of life. His hatred of the establishment was firmly founded on his experience of arbitrariness and obscurantism in the junior seminary. His revolutionary activities extended to Batumi in western Georgia, and then to Baku, on the Caspian Sea, the former a port on the Black Sea important for the export of the oil produced in the area around the Caspian centred on Baku. He was arrested several times and exiled to Siberia, escaping easily under the rather lax Tsarist oversight of exile. In the course of this activity, he rose in the revolutionary ranks of the Social Democratic Party, and joined the more radical, Leninist, wing of the party, called the Bolsheviks, devoted to the acceleration of the process of history through a vanguard party which would advance the proletarian cause through creating an elite of professional revolutionaries. In the course of the 1905 revolution provoked by the defeat of the Russian navy by Japan, the Tsar made some concessions, including the convocation of the parliament, or Duma. This led to a superficial reunification of the Social Democratic Party, as a result of which the Menshevik faction became the majority of the party delegation from Georgia to its convention in Stockholm, and Jugashvili was the only Bolshevik delegate from Transcaucasia. In the course of this trip, he would get to meet Lenin in Berlin, and also visit London and Paris, (apart from a short trip to Vienna, his only trips outside Russia until he went to Tehran for the Allied conference of 1943 and the Potsdam conference two years later). All this experience went to reinforce his conspiratorial approach to affairs; at the same time, his allegiance to Lenin accentuated his sense that he was part of an elite charged with steering history towards a predetermined end.

After the gradual petering out of the 1905 revolution, Jugashvili attained prominence in the Bolshevik wing of the social democratic movement, becoming one of its leaders in 1912, when he was elected to the central committee of what had now become the Leninist party. His field of activity now extended to the whole empire, where he exerted himself mightily in underground agitation and the propaganda of revolution. At this stage too he adopted the revolutionary name Stalin, which sounded more Russian, the name by which he would henceforth be known. He showed outstanding organisational and propaganda abilities, as well as daring, decisiveness, stamina, lack of pretention and devotion to Lenin. But a shattering event, which changed his circumstances profoundly, occurred in 1913. He was arrested once again, but this time he was betrayed to the authorities by Roman Malinovsky, one of the Bolshevik leaders, and a favourite of Lenin, who had already for some time been collaborating with the police. This time he would be exiled to Siberia, but the pattern of early and easy escape was also broken. He was sentenced to four years exile in. In 1913, the prospects for Bolshevik revolution seemed to have been reduced to almost naught: the party’s leaders were either imprisoned, exiled or abroad, there was internal dissension and with other parts of the social democratic movement and the party, and Stalin personally, had been betrayed by one of its own leaders. He was thirty-eight years old.

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Friday, 4 November 2016

Alexander Blok: On This Sad Earth

O courage, O achievement, O fame,
I forgot all those on this sad earth,
when, in front of me on the table,
your face shone in a simple frame.

But the hour struck, you left the house.
I flung the dear ring into the dark.
You put your fate in another’s hands,
and I forgot your lovely face.

Days went by, circling, a cursed swarm…
Passion and drink tormented my life…
I remembered you before the altar,
I called to you, as if to my youth…

I called but you never looked back,
I wept, but you didn’t relent.
You wrapped yourself, sad, in a blue cloak,
from the house, to the wet night, you went.

O dear and gentle one, I don’t know
where you found shelter for your pride…
I sleep, I dream of that blue cloak
in which you entered the wet night...

I no longer dream of tenderness, fame,
that’s all over, my youth is past!
From the table, with my own hand,
I removed your face in its simple frame.

Mikhail Piotrovsky - Director of the State Hermitage Museum

Image from www.fontanka.ru

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

Mikhail Piotrovsky was born on 9 December 1944 in Yerevan, Armenia, into a family of archeologists. Later the family moved to Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg). Mikhail’s father, Boris Piotrovsky, was head of the State Hermitage for 30 years, from 1960 to 1990. Brought up in an atmosphere of admiration for science, Mikhail decided to uphold the family tradition, following his father’s path of a scientist. In 1967 he entered the Department for Oriental Studies at the Leningrad State University. Charmed by oriental languages and culture, Piotrovsky decided to major in Arabic philology. Very soon he proved himself as a talented young scientist. He underwent training at the Cairo University, taught history to the students of Yemen, and finally returned to his hometown to graduate from the University with honors in 1967. Piotrovsky spent the next 23 years working in the Leningrad Department of the USSR Academy of Sciences at the Institute for Oriental studies. He defended his Associate of Arts thesis in 1973 and obtained a doctorate degree in 1985.

Since 1983 Piotrovsky has led a number of Soviet-Yemen historical expeditions. He has participated in archeological research in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Based on the results of these expeditions, Piotrovsky has written over 150 scientific articles. His most well-known articles include “Islam. Encyclopedic Thesaurus,” “The Basic Features of Arabic Islam Artistic Culture” and “Koran Legends.”

After the death of his father in 1990 Mikhail Piotrovsky was recommended for the position of Deputy Director of the Science Department of the State Hermitage. In 1992 he was appointed Director of the Hermitage. Piotrovsky introduced a number of reforms at the museum. New storage areas for the collections were constructed and subsidiaries were opened in Kazan, the Republic of Tatarstan, Las-Vegas (Guggenheim Hermitage Museum), Amsterdam (Hermitage Amsterdam) and London (rooms in the Somerset House). Items from the Hermitage collections began to be exhibited abroad, as the Saint Petersburg museum established cooperation with a number of large foreign museums and exhibition halls. However, an incident occurred in November 2006 that reduced the number of foreign exhibitions displaying Hermitage collections. During an exhibition in Switzerland of a collection belonging to the Pushkin Museum, there was an attempt by the Swiss company NOGA to confiscate 54 paintings as a means to put pressure on the Russian government to resolve a financial conflict. NOGA accused Russia of defaulting on its obligations to deliver oil products in exchange for provisions and fertilizers. It claimed that Russia owed the company 23 billion dollars. The Russian government did not recognize the debt and accused NOGA of contract violations. The conflict culminated in the confiscation of the Russian masterpieces during the exhibition in Switzerland. Later the masterpieces were returned. But following this incident Piotrovsky declared a moratorium on foreign exhibitions of the State Hermitage collections.

In August 2006, Piotrovsky was forced to do away with another exhibition. This time the cause was an unprecedented scandal: during an inventory of the Hermitage storage areas 221 exhibits, including jewelry and icons, were found to be missing. Some called for Piotrovsky’s resignation. However, the Russian Minister of Culture, Mikhail Shvydkoi, stood up for Piotrovsky, who maintained his position. Still, the Attorney General's Office filed a suit to find out who was responsible for the losses. Vladimir Putin, the Russian President at the time, ruled that a commission to examine and control the museum’s funds be established. Some items of the Hermitage collections were later found abroad, but not all. Three items were even discovered in a railroad luggage room in Saint Petersburg. It was ascertained that the precious items had been stolen by a former Hermitage curator. She died several years ago, but her husband and son were arrested for their involvement in the crime.

In 2009 Petrovsky had another scandal to deal with. Tax authorities audited the Hermitage’s accounts from 2003 and discovered that approximately five million dollars had been spent on museum employees’ trips abroad, some of them allegedly personal. However the accusations were later overturned in court.

Recently Mikhail Piotrovsky prohibited the transfer of icons from the storage areas of museums to churches. He believes that icons can be safely kept only in museums, as it is much easier for collectors to appropriate the precious items from cathedrals and temples, and take them abroad. This opinion was criticized by representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church, but Piotrovsky took a firm stand. He is known as a good diplomat, but on some important issues Piotrovsky has shown great rigidity. Sometime he says to tough critics, “Our conversation is out of the cultural field,” which means that he is not going to argue any longer.

Experts call Mikhail Piotrovsky “one of the world’s most efficient managers in the museum sphere.” He has already initiated the foundation of Hermitage chapters abroad, organized quite a number of exhibitions in the halls of the museum and founded the Hermitage Orchestra and the Hermitage Kindergarten. One of Piotrovsky’s forthcoming plans is to open a gallery of modern art in the State Hermitage.

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