Thursday, 29 December 2016

'Crime and Punishment' 150 years on

In August 1865, Gerasim Chistov, a merchant’s son and schismatic, was accused of killing two old women in order to rob their mistress. The apartment was strewn with items, and gold jewelry had been stolen from an iron chest. Both victims were killed with the same weapon: an axe. Many critics believe this true story inspired Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment.

Hermann Hesse said that in Crime and Punishment Dostoevsky had managed to capture a whole period in world history, while Albert Camus said that reading the Russian writer’s novels had been a “soul-shaking experience” that informed all his own work. The contemporary Russian author Boris Akunin has written a novel called FM (in reference to Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky), which presents Raskolnikov’s story as a crime thriller, with the main character being the investigator Porfiry Petrovitch.

Since its first movie adaptation in the Russian Empire in 1909, the novel has been adapted for screen dozens of times, including the renowned 1969 production by Soviet director Lev Kulidzhanov. Many modern movies also pay homage to the book, with Woody Allen being known for his admiration of Dostoevsky. His films Match Point (2005) and Irrational Man (2015) show clear parallels to the work.

Crime and Punishment has also greatly influenced the world of theater, too. Stage plays based on the novel were held all over Europe in the 19th century, with Paul Ginisty’s 1888 production at the Paris Odeon theater being among the most memorable. In 2016, the musical “Crime and Punishment” was staged in Moscow, while in London the novel was transformed into a rock musical.

Dostoevsky spent four years in a hard labor camp in Siberia (1850 to 1854) for disseminating a banned letter by the critic and commentator Vissarion Belinsky. He described the horrors of that period in the novel The House of the Dead. The years he spent in Siberian exile had a profound influence on the writer. Dostoevsky felt the ills of the time – widespread poverty, rising crime, heavy drinking – very keenly and wanted to shed light on them in his works.

However, he was constantly prevented from actually setting to work on his idea. He was chronically short of money and was stuck in a cycle of producing work to very short deadlines for a pittance. Finally, in 1865, the writer suggested to Andrei Krayevsky, the editor of the influential literary magazine Otechestvennye Zapiski, the idea of publishing a novella: “a psychological study of a crime.”

Gradually, the novella grew into a full-scale novel. Dostoevsky gave up all other work and spent 1866 writing the novel, which was serialized in the Russky Vestnik literary journal. By his own admission, Dostoevsky worked on Crime and Punishment “like a convict in a labor camp,” without going out or meeting anyone at all. The book swiftly became a literary sensation.

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Thursday, 22 December 2016

How literature was used to 'temper' Soviet people

Nikolai Ostrovsky, who wrote the cult novel How the Steel Was Tempered and died at 32, overcame much in his short life. He survived a difficult childhood, adolescent involvement in underground political groups, combat military service, work as a party functionary and a serious illness at 25 that left him writer bedridden and gradually blinded him. In another era, this biography could have served as a wonderful foundation for a romantic myth. But in Russia in the early 20th century, it became something much bigger. Instead of a story of an individual whose willpower and talent overcame the painful blows of fate, Ostrovsky’s life story was remade by the Soviets into a tale about how a "new man" could be forged from heterogeneous and often worthless "human material." This new man was a participant and co-creator of the new socialist society.

Ostrovsky was not the only writer who helped build the socialist future. In the beginning, radical Russian avant-garde artists Velimir Khlebnikov, Marc Chagall, Kazimir Malevich and El Lissitzky were ardent supporters of the Communist Revolution. Not without reason, they saw in the Bolsheviks the same leftist ideals they embraced.

"To accept or not to accept? For me (and other Moscow futurists) this question did not exist. My revolution. I went to the Smolny. I worked. I did everything I had to," wrote Vladimir Mayakovsky wrote in his 1928 autobiography.

Soviet literature from the Stalinist period is full of stories in which people are likened to pieces of iron out of which Communism, like a hammer, forges new people. The theme is evident even in the titles of works from the period. Alexander Serafimovich's The Iron Flood (1924) is a novel about the Tamask Army's campaign in the summer of 1918 during the Russian Civil War, in which the disconnected and demoralized soldiers transform into a united super-being; Ostrovsky's How the Steel Was Tempered (1932) is a story of a talented yet undisciplined youth who turns into an impeccable "party soldier" — a typical Soviet existence; Mikhail Sholokhov's Virgin Soil Upturned (1932, 1959) uses the same metaphor of something wild turning into something civilized, but in a village rather than on the battlefield; Boris Polevoy's Story of a Real Man (1946), based on a true story, tells the tale of a pilot who despite his broken legs crawls for many days (in the winter, in the snow) to the front lines and is able to return to combat despite having both legs amputated below the knees.

Polevoy’s hero buckles his prostheses to the pedals of his airplane with special spring-loaded clamps that help him feel their movement — the man has literally turned into a machine. Obviously, Polevoy didn't intend this to be the message of the book. He sincerely admired the pilot's courage, but the matrix of socialist realism dominant in art at the time led him to present the story that way. The same transformation can be seen in Maxim Gorky’s novel Mother (1906) in which descriptions of the most intimate human relations, relations between a mother and son, are substituted by descriptions of how a simple "ignorant" woman turns into a "new person," a fighter and a revolutionary.

Alexei Tolstoy was not so naïve when he consciously reworked The Adventures of Pinocchio into his novel Golden Key (1936). Mindful of the times, Tolstoy transformed this moralistic tale into an allegory bubbling with wit. In the modern work, the fairytale protagonists are transformed into bohemians from pre-revolutionary St. Petersburg and expatriate Berlin. And in the character of Pinocchio himself, the wooden boy who, thanks to his innate courage, fast reflexes and incredible purposefulness becomes the leader of his community and the star of the puppet theater, readers recognize a new person who crawls on unbending legs towards a radiant future.

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Sunday, 18 December 2016

Piotr Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker - Ballet in two acts (HD 1080p)

From the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, December 2012
Valery Gergiev - conductor
Vasily Vainonen - choreography

Friday, 16 December 2016

Vladimir Sorokin and the Russian Novel's Identity Crisis

Vast, grand, breathtaking—English-language readers typically associate such words with the 19th-century Russian novel. Bleak, brave, subversive—those go with 20th-century Russian fiction. If it’s epic or dissident, we know how to make sense of it.

Following the Soviet Union’s collapse in the 1990s, however, Russian novels became harder to categorize. If a work wasn’t protest literature, what exactly could it be? This wasn’t a question only for readers of English translations. The collapse posed an identity crisis even for writers who had long avoided protest. Vladimir Sorokin, considered by many to be Russia’s leading novelist, was among those whose writing seemed to be stalled during the Yeltsin period. To find his way forward as a novelist, he had to recreate a relationship to Russia’s new society, to abandon austere detachment and explore the possibility of allegiance to the public. Sorokin’s torturous sense of citizenship, which has reached a fascinating impasse in his latest novel, The Blizzard, is the key to one of the most transfixing bodies of work in world literature.

If anyone had seemed poised to flourish in a postmodern Russia, it would have been Sorokin, born in 1955 and stirring up interest by the time he was 30. Influenced by the Moscow Conceptualists of the 1970s and ’80s, he adopted that group’s vision of artistic creations as wholly autonomous constructs, and in his early work, these constructs aren’t cause for any particular veneration. “Aren’t those just letters on a piece of paper?” he said of his work at the time. His violent, scatalogical, and distinctly unheroic fictions ran jaggedly across the epic and dissident veins of Russian literature. The Queue, first published in Paris in 1985 and composed entirely of dialogue, is set in just that, a queue: one of the long Soviet-era lines of citizens waiting for hours to receive goods—what goods, no one knows. Its satirical take on Soviet dysfunction is probably why it saw English translation in 1988. But The Queue is mostly of a piece with Sorokin’s conceptual mission: His characters standing in line are simply lined up characters on a page.

Perhaps the chaotic Russia of the ’90s—old ideals smashed, no new order emerging—too vividly incarnated Sorokin’s aesthetic. The period evidently thwarted, rather than nourished, his fiction. “There is not always a time for dreams,” he told The New Yorker in 1994, somewhat evasively accounting for a gap in his output that ended up lasting from 1991-’99. He returned to fiction with Blue Lard, a novel that caused him considerable difficulties as Russia began its authoritarian relapse. The novel contains a scene in which a clone of Krushchev sodomizes a clone of Stalin, and several years after publication, it was singled out by Moving Together, a youth group associated with Vladimir Putin, which accused Sorokin of peddling pornography. For the first time, he found himself at the center of a concerted censorship campaign. In 2002, the group picketed the Bolshoi, which had commissioned Sorokin to produce a libretto. Its leaders showed up with a massive mock toilet bowl, into which demonstrators were encouraged to throw copies of his “latrinature.” The protests prompted state prosecutors to open a case against him.

Those charges were dropped, but the episode seems to have thrust a sense of citizenship upon Sorokin. Certainly it discredited the notion that his writing was just letters on paper. “I had a feeling that I had ended up in one of my own stories somehow,” he told The New York Times in 2011. At the same time, the resurrection of Russia’s monarchical and authoritarian political traditions in the Putin era gave new relevance to the previous centuries’ literary traditions. With Ice Trilogy (2002-2005), Sorokin advanced his fiction by swerving away from his early work. Rather than rejecting his country's literary legacy, or rearranging its tropes into conceptual art, he adapted the epic and the dissident strains to his own purposes.

Ice Trilogy offers a parallel, science-fiction inflected history of Russia’s 20th century, in which 23,000 blonde and blue-eyed humans are actually rays of “the Primordial Light.” Once the 23,000 have their hearts awakened—by being hammered in the chest with chunks of meteoric ice—they will return to eternity, and the world of humans will end. The trilogy ranges over decades, includes an enormous cast, and amounts to a searching exploration of cult power and the pitilessness of the elite. Although Ice Trilogy was far too esoteric for mass appeal in America, it betrayed signs of a more accessible vision. Nearing the age of 50, Sorokin suddenly sided with humanity—the “meat machines” disdained and enslaved by the Primordial Light—an oddly tender gesture for a writer used to killing off characters as if swatting flies. His own heart was being awakened to a sense of commitment to the people: “The citizen in me has come to life,” he told Der Spiegel in 2007.

2008’s Day of the Oprichnik marks the apotheosis of Sorokin as social critic, and unsurprisingly, it was his first novel to find a mainstream American publisher. Billed by Farrar, Straus and Giroux as “a razor-sharp diagnosis of a country in crisis,” Day of the Oprichnik envisions Russia in 2028, when the social codes of Ivan the Terrible have been resurrected. Following a day in the life of a henchman to the czar, the novel is a cascade of torture, rape, and murder, punctuated by nauseating scenes of luxury among the uppermost class.

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Thursday, 15 December 2016

Fools and Wise in Russia - Solzhenitsyn and Dostoevsky

Why did the calf butt the oak? No doubt, for a few very special calves, it is in their nature, and thank goodness for the rest of us in the herd that it should be so. Solzhenitsyn is not only a very great writer, but a man whose stand against the regime is unique in the history of great writers anywhere, particularly in Russia. Solzhenitsyn has always been very attached to Russian proverbs, and in The Oak and the Calf gives us a good many of them, such as ‘If trouble comes make use of it too’. That he has certainly done. And kept an account of the trouble in the minutest detail. As a record it is of the highest importance, but for the common reader the perusal is often fatiguing. The reason is partly the provenance of the book, which was written from day to day, under the table, in the years before Solzhenitsyn’s exile from Russia, with the KGB breathing down his neck and with no safe place for papers.

Victor Nekipelov’s Institute of Fools is as much as The Oak and the Calf a scrupulous record, a witness to the truth in Soviet Russia – something that takes both books out of the ordinary class of literature. Since both writers are born novelists however, literature comes in again through the back door. The Oak and the Calf is, essentially, a character study of a man and his work – Tvardovsky and the magazine Novy Mir, and it becomes a kind of elegy for both. Nekipelov’s book’ is about the Serbsky Institute, the asylum in Moscow to which dissidents and criminals are sent to be certified, and it is a treasure-house of contemporary Soviet characters, of all kinds and drawn from every walk of life. Both books remind one of Dostoevsky’s House of the Dead, not so much because the title of Dostoevsky’s book about his Siberian prison, but because the characters he depicts have an extraordinary family resemblance to those encountered in Solzhenitsyn’s books, and in Nekipelov’s.

In The First Circle the student Muza observes:
Have you ever noticed what makes Russian literary heroes different from the heroes of Western novels? The heroes of western literature are always after careers, money, fame. The Russians can get along without food and drink. It’s justice and good they’re after. Right?
Right. Russian moral superiority is connected – rather exasperatingly at times – with the very fact that their institutions have always been so deplorable. The reasonable element of justice and good that we take for granted in society remains for them in a world of passionate idea and aspiration. But it is undoubtedly true that the human beings described by Solzhenitsyn and Nekipelov are more interesting, strange and various than their counterparts would be in a western novel today. Almost automatically, as it seems western fiction adopts a reductive line with its denizens, taking them at a zoological and biological level. Obligatory, for instance, to enter their sex lives and consciousnesses, and to construct these in words that seem both to gloat and to patronise. The Russian ‘convention’, equally with nonconformists and with party-line writers, is to ignore all that, assuming that the communion of language and speculation that books are all about has something better to do. Certainly the characters in these two books seem much more real than those in most western writing today, because they are seen as social beings and not at the infantile and solipsistic level which for us has come to seem the ‘real’ one.

Not that the basic humour, low cunning, and wish to deceive of human beings are in any way left out of this Russian literary perception. Nekipelov’s gallery of rogues and charlatans shows that. They quote poetry, play chess, and speculate about the human soul, while endeavouring to persuade the doctors and psychiatrists of the institute that they are not just murderers, thieves and conmen, but insane, and therefore entitled to the vastly preferential treatment which an asylum affords. In contrast to the Nazi regime, Soviet treatment of the criminally insane has a laborious air of old-fashioned humanitarianism which is surprising: but, as the author is at pains to point out, an essential part of this apparent humanity is that dissidents and independents are in the very nature of things to be judged and counted among the criminally insane. Krasnov’s study of Dostoevsky and Solzhenitsyn has a special interest in relation to these aspects of Russian life and writing. He maintains that Solzhenitsyn writes his novels in the ‘polyphonic’ tradition of Dostoevsky rather than, as has usually been taken for granted, being a novelist in the tradition of Tolstoyan realism. The polyphonic novel is a phrase used by Mikhail Bakhtin, the great critic to whom the book is dedicated, and who in ‘Problems of Dostoevsky’s Art’ argued the thesis that Dostoevsky never ‘makes up his mind’, that all his arguments are open-ended and his characters independent centres of discourse and persuasion. In what Bakhtin considered his essentially Christian world view pluralism and coexistence were taken for granted, positions guaranteed as it were, by the fundamental and non-utilitarian identity of the individual. One significance of Bakhtin’s book is that it was written in 1929, at a time when Soviet literary theory was becoming increasingly subordinate to the Communist world-view.
Any attempt to render this world as completed (he wrote) in the usual monological sense of this word, as subdued to one idea and one voice, is inevitably doomed to defeat. That was enough to doom Bakhtin: he was lucky to survive. As it was both his book and Dostoevsky’s writings in general were banned, and only rehabilitated at the time of de-Stalinization.
Bakhtin implied that Dostoevsky’s was the ‘freest’ voice in great Russian writing – freer than Tolstoy or Turgenev – and that this fluid, polyphonic way of expounding an imaginative situation was the proof of it. I think myself, from what is perhaps too European a point of view, that Bakhtin and the other formalists discount too much the unconscious elements in a great work of fiction; in Russian fiction too, no matter how naturally didactic and combative that fiction has been. Dostoevsky – most brilliantly intelligent of all the great Russian writers – was consciously polyphonic: he was far too brilliant to be ‘monological’. But as Shestov, the Russian Jewish religious philosopher, has so acutely demonstrated, Tolstoy himself is far from being a monolithic, one meaning writer, in terms of the way his art works. Even in War and Peace his ‘meanings’ are far more equivocal than he seems to intend them to be. Equivocation – nothing being exactly what it seems – is Gogol’s hallmark, and what Pushkin, not without a certain slyness, termed ‘a free novel’ was far more the rule than the exception in the spacious days of 19th century Russia. The most striking case would be Goncharov’s Oblomov, where the national inertia is supposed to be sternly taken to task, but is in fact lyricised and celebrated.

None the less Bakhtin was right in taking Dostoevsky as the supreme example of the writer who could not be pinned down in his novels, even though Dostoevsky the commentator was all for such things as the drive to Constantinople and what Herzen ironically called ‘Russland Russland über alles.‘ The Soviet establishment could found their official realistic line on what could possibly be used to bring Dostoevsky to heel. And Krasnov is probably right in suggesting that Solzhenitsyn owes much to the polyphonic method, which he has deliberately adapted and expanded. His analysis of the structure of The First Circle and Cancer Ward is masterful and persuasive; and he brings out the full subtlety with which Solzhenitsyn deploys his symbolic patterns, animating them with an immense richness of naturalistic detail. There is a certain appropriateness in the fact that Dostoevsky, the most modern and most conscious of Russian novelists, should be the model here, for the days when the novel could say one thing and show another have probably gone by.

As it happens, The Oak and the Calf helps to prove Krasnov’s thesis, for the account in it of Tvardovsky, the martyred editor of Novy Mir, is full of Dostoevskian drama and sympathy. If Solzhenitsyn was Antigone, totally uncomprising, his editor was an lsmene figure, hoping to get by somehow, devoted to good literature and to the search for it, but also clinging to the good life which the regime had conferred on him. ‘I owe everything to it’ he said touchingly to Solzhenitsyn, who brings out with the utmost perception and sympathy the tragic division – the nadryv in Dostoevskian terms – which tormented his friend and editor.

A final and highly interesting chapter in Krasnov’s book – ‘August 1914 as an anti-Tolstoyan poem’ – puts forward the thesis that this novel has all the Dostoevskian hidden and polyphonic messages, though its appearance is that of a novel which takes its cue, in terms of research and diagnosis, from War and Peace. Tolstoy is frequently mentioned in August 1914 and even appears in person, taking a dim view of a young person’s desire to write poetry. Once again Krasnov proves his case, I think, but the novel is perhaps more ‘open’ than he allows. There is something wonderfully old fashioned about the way in which Solzhenitsyn can use the whole sweep of Russian culture and consciousness, referring to names, persons and points of view easily and freely in the course of his leisurely narration. To that extent August 1914 has much in common with Dr Zhivago, for both Solzhenitsyn and Pasternak depend, in the last resort, on joining their individual genius with that of the whole of pre-revolutionary Russian culture; thus they show, in the widest possible terms and quite apart from anything they say, where they belong and where the heart is. Krasnov ends with a short chapter on this theme – ‘Solzhenitsyn as synthesiser’. Merezhkovsky, the first Russian critic to contrast Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, did not consider them incompatible, and looked forward to ‘the new religious idea’ which, born of their union, should lead and revive Russia. Krasnov, in an apt phrase, calls this the ‘spiritual realism’ of Solzhenitsyn, and sees him (as he undoubtedly sees himself) as a religious leader and reviver of old values.

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Monday, 12 December 2016

Conversations with Vassily Aksyonov

I didn't realize it then, but the first time I heard his name I was sitting in a darkened movie theater in Fairfax, Virginia. It was 1987, and I was watching the film No Way Out, a political thriller starring Kevin Costner. At the very end of the film, when we realize Costner's character, Tom Farrell, is indeed not only a U.S. Navy officer but also the Soviet double agent Yuri, the following exchange takes place between Costner's character and the Soviet handler to whom he has returned. The handler begins speaking Russian as Farrell/Yuri is being debriefed:
FARRELL: It's difficult for me to follow in Russian--it's been a long time. HANDLER: How thirsty you must be for the sound of our language, Yevgeny Alekseevich. Wouldn't you love to hear Russian again? Imagine Pushkin, Lermontov, Tolstoy... FARRELL: ...Solzhenitsyn, Aksyonov. HANDLER: (Laughing) Even them...always the sense of humor.
Later I would come to understand why the Soviet handler had found the mention of that name--Aksyonov--so humorous.

I encountered Vassily Aksyonov's name a second time via an article in the Washington Post in June 1996. He had come to George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, in 1987 to take a position as a Robinson Professor at GMU, teaching Russian literature and culture. I was soon to be a student at George Mason, where I planned to study English and Russian literature, so I decided to take a look at some of Aksyonov's work. I began with two of his more recent novels, Generations of Winter and its sequel, The Winter's Hero, Aksyonov's epic (1,005-page) saga detailing life in Soviet Russia from 1925 to 1953. "The great Russian novel, the 20th-century equivalent of War and Peace," was the way the Post characterized the novels when they came out. Generations of Winter, "will live for a very long time, and be seen as one of the more significant historical and literary achievements of a terrible century," wrote John Banville in the New York Review of Books. I was amazed by the work. I told everyone I knew to read it. I decided that, if possible, the first thing I would do when I went to GMU would be to enroll in a Russian literature course with Professor Aksyonov. It seemed to me to be the sort of opportunity that very few people had had since the 1950s, when another great Russian literary émigré, Vladimir Nabokov, had taught Russian literature at Cornell University. There was no way I was going to pass it up.

So from the fall of 1997 until I completed my graduate studies in the spring of 2004 I took every class Aksyonov taught, and over that time he became more than a teacher to me--he became something of a mentor and a friend. Over the years I would spend time with him in his office, its walls lined with Chagall and Kandinsky prints as well as a couple of posters of a scowling and pointing Lenin ("Yes, he is still watching me," Aksyonov would laugh) and discuss his life, a life which, upon later reflection, I came to realize encompassed nearly all of the Soviet-Russian experience from the Great Terror of Stalin to the end of the Soviet empire. There I would listen as he settled into his chair, removed his silver-rimmed glasses from their low perch on his nose, and related some of the events of his wholly novelistic life.

Lying several hundred miles east of Moscow, Kazan is a large city divided by the Bulak Canal, a chain of lakes, and two cultural heritages, Tatar and Russian. It was here in August of 1932 that Vassily Pavlovich Aksyonov was born. His father, Pavel Vasilyevich Aksyonov, was head of the City Council in Kazan, while his mother, Evgeniya Semyonovna Ginzberg, was a history professor. In 1937 they were both arrested during the dizzying heights of Stalin's Great Terror, and each was sent to Siberian gulags. In August of that year the Soviet secret police came for young Vassily.

"I remember it vividly," he told me one cool fall day in his book-lined office at GMU, dressed in a dove gray suit over a lilac shirt, a plum tie knotted at the collar, "Very vividly...

1. Sins of the Father

Mother was taken in February of '37; father was taken in July. I still remember quite clearly when they came to take me. The KGB had sealed off all the rooms of our house except my little room where I lived with my babushka (grandmother) and my nanny, two peasant women. Then they came in the night. It was like an arrest, really--the same style black car they had taken Mother and Father away in. I still remember that car as if it were yesterday, a big black car with blinds in the windows. Three people--two men and one KGB woman, in black leather three-quarter length jackets.

I was sleeping. They woke me up. It was three in the morning. Father had just been taken, so it was still summer. During the short, hot summer nights, it was very light--I could see everything. In fact it was near sunrise. This KGB woman gave me candy and said, "Vasya, we have come to take you to your mama and papa."

So they tricked you into thinking they were taking you to see your parents?

No, they were not lying, really, because they were taking me to where they were--to their kingdom, to Stalin's Magic Kingdom. So I went with them to the street, to the car--it was all done very quietly. But then when I was in the car the last thing I heard and saw was two old ladies, my granny and nanny, on the porch of the house wailing, wailing, like only Russian peasant women can wail, just wailing, "Oooohhh, oooohhh!" crying for their Vasya.

I was brought to the special collector of kids of those arrested. On the outskirts of town there was a red brick building which was three stories high, though it is huge in my recollections. There were a lot of kids, lots of them. I was there, all alone without any family, until one day I saw my granny by the fence, by the watchtower.

A watchtower? So it was like a prison?

Yes, exactly, like a prison. There were young kids like me, but also teenagers, and they didn't want them to escape. I found out later that the authorities didn't even tell my family where I was. They found out through some talk in the town. One day Granny came to see me through the fence. Then I noticed my aunt, my father's sister, was standing there also, and I realized they were looking for me. But they didn't let us meet. Instead they took me and two other boys my age to the railroad station with one KGB woman and put us in the compartment of a car, or coupe. The KGB woman locked the door and they took us to the city of Kostroma, an old Russian city, to the special orphanage for kids of enemies of the state, enemies of the people. I was there for a half year, until suddenly my uncle turned up.

Amazingly, he got permission to take me home with him. It was a combination of happy occurrences. Stalin had pronounced something during one of his speeches; he had said that the son is not responsible for the sins of his father. By this time my uncle had been fired--he was a professor of history at a university in Central Asia--because he was the brother of an enemy of the people. He was unemployed, and was expecting his own arrest any day. One day he saw Stalin's address in the paper, and--well, he became very courageous--he had nothing to lose, and he had started drinking, which I think probably added to his courage. He came to where the KGB was holding me, and he started raising a scandal. "Why are you keeping our child!" he screamed and started banging his fist (Aksyonov bangs his own palm on his desk twice)--and they let me out! He looked very much like my father, so when I saw him I rushed towards him screaming "Papa! Papa!" He took me from there to Kazan. Then suddenly he got his job back at Stalinabad, so I was left in Kazan with his sister, my aunt, where I lived until I was sixteen.

Something I will never forget from that period was that, one day when I was eight years old and living with my aunt, I started looking in a chest that she had. I was not supposed to open it, but I did anyway and inside I found a small wooden box. I did not know this at the time, but my father had lost his right eye in the (Russian) Civil War, fighting for the Reds against the Whites. When I opened this box there, staring at me, was my father's spare glass eye that had been left behind when he was arrested....

Something else I found out later about my childhood was that I had been baptized. My father's chauffeur was a KGB man--he wasn't arresting anyone or torturing anyone, but as he was the chauffeur of the Head of the City Council as well as my father's bodyguard, he was of course one of them. But he turned out to be religious, to be a Christian! So he and Granny and my nanny arranged a baptism in a small house, where his friend, a priest--who was a fugitive, of course, an underground priest--was hiding, and he performed the ceremony. And this was right across the street from the original Committee of the Communist Party where my father was working! Neither he nor my mother knew, of course; just Granny, nanny, and my father's chauffeur, the Christian KGB man.

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Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Russian Booker winner: The Berlin Wall was never part of history

This year’s Russian Booker literary prize was awarded to Peter Aleshkovsky for his novel “The Fortress.” The work has also been nominated for another prestigious Russian award, the Big Book prize, whose winners will be announced at a ceremony on Dec. 6. It is no coincidence that the main character of “The Fortress” is an archaeologist, or that its action is set in both the ancient and recent past: Aleshkovsky is a professional historian.

Rossiyskaya Gazeta: The main character of The Fortress, archaeologist Ivan Maltsov, is writing a book about the Golden Horde and at night dreams that he is a great Mongolian warrior. Why did you resort to this device, of a novel inside a novel?
Peter Aleshkovsky: "The Mongolian chapters" are there to realize that the Berlin Wall was never part of history, like the Great Wall of China was, but everybody knows that anyway. It was erected at one point, during the Cold War, but it was such a small and insignificant bit of the history of humankind. The problem is that we are still trying – and at the moment increasingly so – to separate ourselves from other states and cultures. Other spaces were never separated from Rus. Ancient Rus, medieval Rus, Peter the Great’s Rus were always a brew of different influences and trends. We know how many foreign officials there were in Peter the Great’s court.
Do you know how many foreigners there were at the Moscow court of Kalita [Ed.: Prince Ivan I (1288-1340) ]? A lot! Apart from Rurikids [Ed.:descendants of the founder of Rus, the Varangian prince Rurik] and descendants of Gediminas [Ed.: the Grand Duke of Lithuania ], who were eliminated by Ivan the Terrible so that appanage princes were no more, so that there was no longer any blood equal to his, there were numerous Tatars who moved here [Ed. during the period in which the Mongols ruled Rus]. All those were migration processes and mixing of bloods that must have been designed by God. Yes, indeed! So that there is no degeneration, so that there is a constant refreshment of blood!
RG: Your protagonist is perhaps the only person in the novel who has a conscience, yet at the same time he is the most unhappy character in the book. He makes a discovery – finds an ancient temple – but dies, is buried alive at the site of his discovery. What did he do to deserve it?
P.A.: It is, of course, also a metaphor. He dies and he wins. I would not say it is a defeat. There is a spark, a moment of touching the eternal, the truth. You know, death, a seeming defeat, may in fact be a source of strength. I recently had a meeting with readers in Murmansk [Ed.: 1,150 miles north of Moscow].
There is a dreadful monument there, at a spot where Soviet troops during World War II for two years held off the Germans, not letting them move more than two kilometers into Russian territory. There are only rocks there and thin birch trees – there is nowhere to hide. The trenches were just knee deep because it was impossible to dig deeper into the rocks. I found myself there, among those rocks, under that dark and grim sky, and there is a dark obelisk there, with thousands names written on it. That place used to be called “Valley of Death;” it is now called “Valley of Glory.” Although “Valley of Death” is a far more glorious name, and more appropriate too. Because people do know that it is a place of death. And that death makes those who were killed there into glorious heroes. So when somebody tries to put a coat of cheerful paint on it, the blood still seeps through. And there is a feeling of poignancy in that place, just as there should be in a place like that. How insensitive everything is, what “Valley of Glory”… The word does its deed, the word often breaks through. That’s what all this is about.
RG: Can words and books change the world, or at least have a serious impact on it?
P.A.: No, nothing can change the world. Except that perhaps the Bible, the Koran, the Torah have changed the world, but we are speaking not about religion but about the books. A book can change a person’s life; for example, my life was changed by books. Since childhood, my life has been transformed by the word and to this day still I read every day.
R.G.: Back in 1990, Venedikt Yerofeyev, the author of Moscow–Petushki, was asked what ills were the main ones for Russia then. He replied…
P.A.: Perhaps you’d better not tell me and we’ll compare?
RG: What an excellent idea, let's compare!
P.A.: I think our whole conversation was about it but I shall say it once again: an incredible loss of culture, a neglect of culture.
RG: A loss in relation to something?
P.A.: Imagine a sieve, which used to be able to hold flour. Then the car set into motion, the sieve began to shake and everything began to fall through it. We keep shaking and shaking it but the end is near. The first is the loss of culture. The second – absolutely related to the first one – is the loss of science. These things are related, it is a continuation of the loss of culture. Everything else can be rectified. When culture and science are at the appropriate level, then there is accord in society, people speak the same language, there is the right understanding of the economy and of one’s position in the global world… There is a well-known maxim: history never teaches anyone anything; although it should.
And what did Yerofeyev replied to that question?
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Thursday, 1 December 2016

Valery Bryusov - Biography

The poet Vladyslav Khodasevich once said about Valery Bryusov: “He believed himself to be the captain of a literary ship.”

Bryusov is considered to be one of the founders of Russian symbolism. He was a poet, a writer, a scholar, a polyglot and a publisher.

Maxim Gorky called Bryusov “the most refined intellectual” of all Russian writers of his time. Bryusov was the leader of Russian symbolism during the cultural revival known as the Silver Age along with such authors as Konstantin Balmont, Aleksandr Blok, Vyacheslav Ivanov, Andrey Bely, Dmitry Merezhkovsky and others. Bryusov's collection of poetry “Venok” (“The Wreath”) is among the highest achievements in Russian literature.

Bryusov was born in Moscow, Russia. His grandfather, Aleksandr Bakulin, was a poet, and his father, Yakov Bryusov, a wealthy merchant who also published his poems and stories. Young Bryusov grew up in a trilingual environment. He spoke French and German and, of course, Russian. He received an excellent private education. From 1885 to 1893 he studied in private gymnasiums and acted in several school plays. At that time Bryusov was romantically involved with a young and beautiful woman, Elena Kraskova. Her sudden death in 1893 caused him an emotional trauma, and Bryusov tried to find a cure in writing. In 1893 he wrote his first drama, “The Decadents (End of a Century).” At the same time, in a letter to Paul Verlaine, the French representative of symbolism, Bryusov referred to himself as the founder of symbolism in Russia. Symbolism was a late 19th century art movement of French and Belgian origin in poetry and other arts. The label “symbolist” itself comes from the critic Jean Moréas, who coined it in order to distinguish the symbolists from the related decadent movement in literature and art. Symbolists believed that art should aim to capture more absolute truths, which could only be achieved indirectly. Thus, they wrote in a highly metaphorical and suggestive manner, endowing particular images or objects with symbolic meaning.

Bryusov was for years the leader of the symbolist movement. The symbolists saw art as a way to approach a higher reality. The writer was also instrumental in introducing Western works to Russian audiences through his translations of Charles Baudelaire. He also edited the important symbolist magazine “Vesy” (“The Scales”), which was modeled after a similar French publication and showcased the works of Russian writers alongside European symbolists. In 1892 three collections of verse were published under the title “The Russian Symbolists.” Rejecting positivism and materialism as well as the classic approach to literature, Bryusov followed the example of his Western counterparts. He experimented with literary form and valued suggestion, intuition and musicality in his work.

From 1892-1899 Bryusov studied history and literature at Moscow University. After graduating in 1899, Bryusov joined the Moscow Literary Artistic Society, which was the center of the new styles and trends emerging at the turn of the 20th century. Bryusov himself tried a variety of styles in his numerous poems, but his best achievements belong to symbolism. His poetry ranged from sophisticated eroticism to mythology, legends and epic subjects.

Bryusov is probably best known today for his historical novel “The Fiery Angel” (1908). It was published by “Vesy” under the title “The Fiery Angel or the True Story.” Set in 16th-century Germany, it tells the story of a devil who appears in disguise before a girl and tempts her into committing various sins. The introduction in “Vesy” explained that an old manuscript had been given to the editorial board by a collector and was translated into Russian. The publication evoked great interest and was soon translated into foreign languages. The mystery of the authorship did not take long to unravel. The ambiguity was set up by Valery Bryusov, whose remarkable skills and erudition made it possible for the pubic to grasp the bleak era of the Inquisition. The trick was done so professionally that German literary critics did not believe the author was their contemporary - and a Russian. They wanted the name of the collector and they wanted to study the manuscript. This gloomy, sensual book had its origins in a real-life love triangle between Bryusov, poet Nina Petrovskaya and poet Andrey Bely. It was adapted into an eponymous opera by Sergey Prokofiev in 1927.

After the book of Bryusov's poems called “To the City and World” came out in 1903 poet Aleksandr Blok wrote, “The book teases, lures and embraces. I will be reading it for a long time, and I'm happy I haven't read it all yet, haven't smoothed out all the pages, haven't permeated my heart with all the commas.” 

Bryusov found inspiration in the works of Virgil, a Roman epic poet, and Vassily Zhukovsky, a Russian poet of the first half of the 19th century. But his main inspiration was Aleksandr Pushkin. Bryusov was the author of eighty-two articles about Pushkin and edited Pushkin's letters and documents connected with his work.

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