Showing posts from January, 2018

The Horror, the Horror - Isaac Babel

On January 17, 1940, Stalin approved the sentences of 346 prominent people, including the dramaturge Vsevolod Meyerhold, the former NKVD (secret police) chief Nikolai Yezhov, and the writer Isaac Babel. All were shot. Babel had been arrested on May 15, 1939, in the middle of the night, and, the story goes, he remarked to an NKVD officer: “So, I guess you don’t get much sleep, do you?”

Grim wit was Babel’s trademark. He is best known for a cycle of short stories entitled Red Cavalry, a fictionalized account of his experiences as a Bolshevik war correspondent with a Cossack regiment during the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1920. Lionel Trilling, who introduced Babel to the English-speaking world, recognized these stories as the masterpiece of Soviet literature.1 Some of Babel’s other stories, especially his Odessa tales, also impressed Trilling and have remained favorites. They offer a tragicomic portrait of Odessa’s large Jewish community, with its rabbis, sensitive schoolboys, and, impr…

Léon Bakst and the Writer: of the Russian Silver Age

A prominent artist of the Silver Age of Russian culture, Léon (Lev Samoilovich) Bakst was also a notable figure in the literary community of his time. He was acquainted with, or a friend of many writers and poets whose portraits he painted and whose books he illustrated.

Lev Samoilovich was familiar not only with the classics but with the latest literary works, too. He explained his literary tastes in a 1903 letter to his fiancee Lyubov Grishchenko, daughter of the collector and patron of the arts Pavel Tretyakov: “I hate Dostoevsky and Leo Tolstoy; I love Gogol, Pushkin, A. [Alexei] Tolstoy, Lermontov, Goncharov, Chekhov, Verlain[e], Musset, Balzac, Baudelaire, Dickens, Bret Hart, Daudet...”[1] Bakst wrote about his first meeting with Anton Chekhov: “Once, as I dropped in on A. Kanaev, in his dimly-lit study on Troitskaya Street, I saw him talking with a fair-haired man of medium height, whom I took for a student by virtue of his costume and the unruly mop of hair over his forehead. I…

Gorbachev: His Life and Times by William Taubman

If Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, the same holds true for its most famous living citizen, Mikhail Gorbachev. From March 1985 to December 1991 he was under an unrelenting national and international spotlight as the Soviet Union’s leader. He wrote several autobiographical books while in power and has written more since retirement. At least a dozen associates have published memoirs in which he features prominently. Yet in spite of all this scrutiny, key questions about the man who did more than any other to change Europe and the world in the last half of the 20th century remain without clear answers.

How did a secret reformist get chosen by deeply conservative elders to be their country’s next leader? Gorbachev felt his country needed fundamental change, so why did he not quickly develop a programme of political and economic action once he had secured the top job? Why did he fail to foresee the rise of nationalist unrest that eventually led to the Soviet Union’s…