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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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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