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Svetlana Alexievich: ‘After communism we thought everything would be fine. But people don’t understand freedom’

In conversations with Svetlana Alexievich, it quickly becomes apparent that she is more comfortable listening than she is talking. That’s hardly surprising: the Belarusian writer has spent decades in listening mode. Alexievich, now 69, put in thousands of hours with her tape recorder across the lands of the former Soviet Union, collecting and collating stories from ordinary people. She wove those tales into elegant books of such power and insight, that in 2015 she received the Nobel prize for literature.

In today’s Russia, Alexievich’s work is a Rorschach test for political beliefs: among the beleaguered, liberal opposition, she is frequently seen as the conscience of the nation, a uniquely incisive commentator on the disappointments and complexities of the post-Soviet condition. Mainstream opinion sees her as a turncoat whose books degrade Russia and Russians.

When I meet her in a cosy basement café in her home city of Minsk, the entrance nestled in an amphitheatre of imposing, late-So…

Was British spy Somerset Maugham sent to kill Lenin?

The author of Theatre, and The Razor’s Edge was an agent of the British Secret Intelligence Service during World War I, and he was entrusted with a secret mission to Russia, the true nature of which remains a mystery even 100 years later.

The trip to Russia in 1917 was not Maugham’s first experience as a secret agent for British Intelligence. By then he had already worked a couple of years for what later would be known as MI-6. After his first mission in Switzerland in 1915 he wanted to quit for personal reasons – he had divorced and his male lover had been sent out of Britain. However, according to one of his biographers, Maugham was intrigued by the life of a secret agent because he liked pulling strings from behind the scenes.

Nevertheless, when he was approached with the chance to go to Russia, he was uncertain. As he recalled afterwards, he thought that he didn't have the right qualities for the task. In the end, the desire “to see the country of Tolstoi, Dostoievski and Cheko…

Darkness of a drawer - Mikhail Bulgakov

One of the most revealing episodes in J. A. E. Curtis’s Mikhail Bulgakov, in the Reaktion Books Critical Lives series, itself concerns the writing of a “critical life”. In 1932–3, Bulgakov, a man devoted to the theatre, wrote a brief novelized biography of Molière. The book was commissioned for the hallowed Russian series Lives of Remarkable People, but like much of Bulgakov’s work from the 1920s and 30s, it would not see the light of day until decades after his death in 1940. As usual, the Soviet author had taken a thoroughly un-Soviet approach to the topic, presenting Molière as an individual genius – rather than as a product of his era and class – and fitting the facts of his life into a fictional frame. In his rejection, the series editor explained Bulgakov’s error: “You have placed between Molière and the reader some sort of imaginary storyteller. If, instead of this casual young man in an old-fashioned coat, who from time to time lights or puts out the candles, you had given us …

Pushkin for president

The critic Apollon Grigoriev proved to be prophetic when he claimed in 1854 that “Pushkin is our everything”. Nowadays, Pushkin’s face stares out from vodka labels and advertising slogans, his monumental figure dominates public squares in Russia’s major cities, his words in millions of copies of endless editions cram libraries, and his name belongs to numerous cities. At the celebrations of the bicentenary of his birth in 1999 no fewer than thirty-four Alexander Sergeeviches marched as a contingent. How all this came about and what it means is the subject of Stephanie Sandler’s authoritative study. Based on a thorough knowledge of the writer and his cultural legacy, Commemorating Pushkin combines literary criticism, history and cultural history as it traces the impact of the phenomenon both on individual writers and Russia’s cultural institutions.

Although his untimely death laid the basis for the influential myth that Russian poets are doomed to be political victims, Pushkin’s popular…

Lovers and Children: On Marina Tsvetaeva’s “Letter to the Amazon”

“LOVE IN ITSELF is childhood. Lovers are children. Children do not have children,” the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva writes in her Letter to the Amazon. “One cannot live off love,” she continues. “The one thing that survives love is the child.”

While Tsvetaeva’s adult life was riven by tragedy, she maintained a childlike capacity for love. She had passionate epistolary romances with two other legendary poets of her time, Boris Pasternak and Rainer Maria Rilke. She also kept up a lively, often revelatory correspondence with fellow exiles, patrons, literary protégés, scholars, intellectuals, and potential lovers. A case in point is a letter from 1932, addressed from Paris — where Tsvetaeva was living as an impoverished émigré — to Natalie Barney, a glamorous heiress to an American railroad fortune. Translated by A’Dora Phillips and Gaëlle Cogan as Letter to the Amazon, it is exemplary of Tsvetaeva’s intense epistolary style. Vacillating between confrontation and seduction, it poses a cha…

China Miéville’s take on the Russian Revolution is wonderfully dated

Of the many books published this year to mark the centenary of the Russian revolution, this is perhaps the most curious. China Miéville is best known as an imaginative and entertaining writer of ‘weird’ (his word) science fiction and magic realism. October is a narrative history of the two 1917 revolutions in Russia, written from an ultra-left perspective — with a novelist’s eye for a good story and colourful characters. So it’s an examination of why the communist experiment failed miserably — at the cost of much blood — that is also wonderfully well written: smart, witty and full of fresh insight. But it can also read like an A-level essay, regurgitated from textbooks. Weird indeed.

I was brought up on similar Marxist histories that were sympathetic to the revolution and took its idealism as a given: the revolutionaries’ hearts were in the right place, even if ‘mistakes’ (a murderous purge or a bread queue) occurred. But — with a very few Hobsbawmite or Trotskyite exceptions — nothing…

Glazunov Symphony no. 2 in F sharp minor

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Glazunov’s Symphony no 2 was dedicated to the memory of Liszt. It is clearly Russian with a vital spirit and is nationalistic. The Andante movement reflects this composer’s interest in the Orient as it did for many composers. The whole work is magnificently scored and despite some writers’ adverse and ill-judged comments on the finale, it is a tremendous piece. 1 Andante maestoso Allegro 2 Andante 3 Allgro vivace 4 Intrada Andantino sostenuto Finale Allegro The USSR Ministry of Culture Symphony Orchestra Gennadi Rozhdestvensky