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Showing posts from May, 2011

Mikhail Zenkevich - Two poems

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All that is past appears to us a dream,
All future – a distant wish unfulfilled,
In the present moment only do we live
An immediate life that is fully real.

The uninterrupted moment's lightning flash
into the here and now is what makes us as
indestructible as melded metal seams –
of our wished-for futures, our past dreams.

20 December 1940

How many years now I've silently desired
to trade in my bookcase for a simple shelf
and rebind my poetry books in new covers.
Oh, Muse, forgive a poet's selfish dreams.
Money pans, flashes, and is gone in a blink.
A poet's dreams may never be fulfilled.

10 January 1941


Translated by Alex Cigale

Images of imperial Russia

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Images of imperial Russia When Cornelius Kingsley Garrison Billings, the millionaire founder of petrochemical giant Union Carbide, took his prize-winning trotters on a goodwill tour of Eastern Europe in 1909, he brought along horse-racing journalist Murray Howe to chronicle the trip in weekly dispatches to The Horse Review magazine.

Sofia Kovalevskaya – Two Biographies

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An extraordinary woman, Sofia Kovalevskaya (also known as Sonia Kovalevsky) was not only a great mathematician, but also a writer and advocate of women's rights in the 19th century. It was her struggle to obtain the best education available which began to open doors at universities to women. In addition, her ground-breaking work in mathematics made her male counterparts reconsider their archaic notions of women's inferiority to men in such scientific arenas.

Sofia Krukovsky Kovalevskaya was born in 1850. As the child of a Russian family of minor nobility, Sofia was raised in plush surroundings. She was not a typically happy child, though. She felt very neglected as the middle child in the family of a well admired, first-born daughter, Anya, and of the younger male heir, Fedya. For much of her childhood she was also under the care of a very strict governess who made it her personal duty to turn Sofia into a young lady. As a result, Sofia became fairly nervous and withdrawn--tra…

Innokenty Annensky: Among the Worlds

Among worlds shone, amid glimmers,
A single star whose name I repeat....
Not so that I may come to love it,
But because I am weary of the rest.

And if I find doubt a burden,
I seek only from her an answer,
Not because she shines brightly
But because with her I need no light.

  3 April 1909, Tsarskoe Selo

Translated by Alex Cigale

Leonid Andreyev - Biography

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Leonid Andreev was a Russian playwright and short story writer. Considered the first and leading expressionist in Russian literature, Andreev was also one of the most prominent representatives of the so-called Silver Age.

Leonid Nikolaevich Andreev was born in Oryol. His father was the son of the head of the local nobility and his mother a serf girl from the family of a bankrupt Polish landowner. His father worked as a land-surveyor. The family struggled with poverty but shortly before Leonid was born his father had attained a position in a bank and had bought a house. Leonid’s father was famous for his exceptional physical force as well as his strong sense of justice and straightforward character that never failed him even in his most notorious drunken fights and pranks. Later Leonid explained that his own difficult character and inclination to drinking was hereditary. His mother was a simple woman with no education and her greatest merit was her endless and unconditional love for h…

Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin: The idealist carp

How it happened that the carp and the rockfish came together is unknown, but one thing’s for sure, that once they met they began debating straight away. They argued once, then again, and later even began to enjoy it, and started arranging dates. They would meet somewhere under a water burdock and start having intelligent conversations. And the dace-parakeet frolicked around them getting wise.

The carp was always provoking.

“I don’t believe it,” he would say, “that war and squabble are normal, under the influence of which everything living on this earth is allegedly destined to evolve. I believe in bloodless prosperity, I believe in harmony and am deeply convinced that happiness is not an idle invention of dreamy minds, but sooner or later will become a reality!”

“Wait for it!” mocked the rockfish.

The rockfish argued abruptly and restlessly. It was a nervous fish, which evidently remembered a great deal of hurt. It had a lot of weight on its heart! It has not come to hatred, but there…

Nathan Altman - Biography

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Nathan Isaiehvich Altman was born in Vinnitsa, a provincial town in the Malorossiyan part of the Russian Empire, now Ukraine. He lost his father early and had to count only on himself in achieving his goal to became an artist. He studied in Odessa Art School (1902-07), but left it, unsatisfied with the level of teaching. On his return to Vinnitsa, he went on working alone. At the end of 1910, he went to Paris, where he lived for about a year. The trip played an important role in his future career. His natural talent helped Altman to feel and understand the art ideas and trends of his time, and inborn professionalism helped to realize the ideas into artistic and elegant works of art. He was mostly influenced by Picasso and Braque.

At the end of 1912, the artist moved to St. Petersburg, where he painted in Cubist manner, and soon became a popular artist. His famous Portrait of Anna Akhmatova (1914) established his fame. His works in sculpture, graphics and scene designs were also a suc…

Old Moscow Photos Reappear

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When Cornelius Kingsley Garrison Billings, the millionaire founder of petrochemical giant Union Carbide, took his prize-winning trotters on a goodwill tour of Eastern Europe in 1909, he brought along horse-racing journalist Murray Howe to chronicle the trip in weekly dispatches to The Horse Review magazine.

In addition to being an able and witty journalist — his wry trotting classics “Stable Conversation” and “The Trotting Horse Excuse Book” are still read in trotting circles — Howe was also an amateur photographer.

Howe snapped more than 400 photographs in Moscow and St. Petersburg with his handheld Graflex camera, a state-of-the-art device that allowed its user to shoot without a tripod. His photographs of pedestrians, street venders and aristocrats are rare glimpses of everyday life before the upheavals of World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution — and sparked huge interest in Russia among history buffs and local museums.

The photographs re-emerged a few months ago when Howe’s gre…

Arkady Averchenko: Expert in the heart of a female

She was thinking and then decisively turned her face bathed in tears towards Maks.

“Tell me, is Mastakov a good match for my Lida or not?”

“Mastakov? Of course not.”

“You see, I tell her the same thing. But she doesn’t want to listen. She’s completely in love with him. I was even sinful in trying to slander him and expose all his bad sides, but its no use.”

“You know…it all depends on which sides you expose…What did you tell her?”

“Don’t you worry – I said all the bad things: that he’s a gambler, a spendthrift, and that women chase after him, and he himself is susceptible to their charms… I painted it so well that another women would never have a look at him ever again.”

“Mother! Excuse me for calling you mother, but are you insane? You have to be delusional to say something like that!! Do you know that, because of all that slander, and all those defects, you have made her love him even more?! Mother! Excuse me for calling you that, but you were wrong.”

“But I thought it would make th…

Yuri Lotman - Two Biographies

Russian philosopher and semiologist. He was born into a family of lawyers. In 1950 he entered St. Petersburg University, where he studied philology under Vladimir Propp. After the defense of his Ph.D. thesis in 1961 he went to Tartu University (Estonia), where he held the post of professor until his death. In 1964 became the first editor of the world-famous journal Sing System Studies and initiated an Annual conference on Semiotics, which still take place every year.

Kristeva considers him to be the first Russian structuralist, who became famous with his book On the Delimitation of Linguistic and Philological Concepts of Structure (1963) and his Lectures on Structural Poetics (1964). His treatment of creative structures of language was close to that of Levi-Strauss; he supposed textual mechanism to be the center of a cyclical-temporal motion of culture. 'Texts created in this way are not, in our sense of the word, plot-texts and, in general, could only be described with great diff…

Alexander Blok: A girl sang in the church choir…

A girl sang in the church choir
Of all who are weary in foreign lands,
Of all the ships gone out to sea,
Of all who have forgotten their joy.

Thus her voice sang, flying up to the dome,
And a ray of sun shone on her white shoulder,
And from the darkness all watched and listened
As the white dress sang in the ray.

And it seemed to all that joy would come,
That all ships had reached shelter in peaceful harbors,
That all weary people in foreign lands
Had found themselves a serene life.

And the voice was sweet, and the ray was thin,
And only above, at the altar gates,
In touch with Mystery, – a child wept
Because no one will ever return…

Sergey Yesenin - Two Biographies

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Sergey Esenin's flamboyant personality, peasant origins, and craving for self-destruction have forever canonized him as Russia's favorite "hooligan poet." Esenin died at the age of 30, tired of life and poetry. His suicide, still a mystery, triggered a wave of suicides among his fervent adepts. The novelty and magnitude of his continues to astonish his readers.

Sergey Esenin was born into a peasant family on 3 October 1895 in the village of Konstantinovo (now Esenino), in the Ryazan region. His parents worked away from home and displayed little concern for their son, who, at the age of two, was put under the care of his maternal grandparents. According to Esenin, no one had a greater influence on him than his grandfather, a member of the Old Believers, a group of Russian religious dissenters who refused to accept the liturgical reforms imposed upon the Russian Orthodox Church by the patriarch of Moscow, Nikon, in the 17th century. Esinin’s grandfather was well verse…

Vladimir Sorokin's Coming Out Party

As mentioned on last week’s podcast, and further elaborated on in this week’s one (BTW, you can subscribe to the Three Percent podcast at iTunes), Vladimir Sorokin was one of the authors I was most interested in seeing at the PEN World Voices Festival.

Way back when, I read his short, early novel The Queue in a Readers International edition, and at the time I found it pretty charming and inventive. The entire book is a play-like narrative about an endless number of people waiting in line to buy . . . something. They have no idea what’s for sale, how many will be available, or anything else. But they feel obliged to wait and find out. Out of this sort of dry, Soviet setting, an absurd, Beckett-like story develops in which people fall in love, leave the line, return to line, recite their number in line, stay in line for days . . . In short, a fun, entertaining little book.

Over the ensuing years, Sorokin’s reputation as the contemporary Russian author worth paying attention to has grown…

Olga Ivinskaya - The Other Lara

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When Boris Pasternak and Olga Ivinskaya fell in love in 1946, Stalin was preparing his second assault against the Russian intelligentsia. Ivinskaya became the beleaguered poet's lifeline. By his own account, she was the inspiration for Lara in his novel Doctor Zhivago. She was his typist, his collaborator on translations and his business manager. While the unworldly poet remained on the sidelines, he delegated her to deal with hostile Soviet bureaucrats and, later, with the foreign publishers of his Nobel-prizewinning novel, banned in the U.S.S.R.

Ivinskaya paid cruelly for her 14-year association with Pasternak. In 1949, after refusing to falsely denounce her lover as a British spy, she was imprisoned for five years. Singularly diabolical torture was inflicted on Ivinskaya, who was pregnant by Pasternak at the time. At one point she was led through interminable prison corridors on the promise of a visit from Pasternak. Instead, she was thrown into the morgue. After she came to …

Alexander Blok: Scythians

You are millions. We are hordes and hordes and hordes.
Try and take us on!
Yes, we are Scythians! Yes, we are Asians -
With slanted and greedy eyes!

For you, the ages, for us a single hour.
We, like obedient slaves,
Held up a shield between two enemy races -
The Tatars and Europe!

For ages and ages your old furnace raged
And drowned out the roar of avalanches,
And Lisbon and Messina's fall
To you was but a monstrous fairy tale!

For hundreds of years you gazed at the East,
Storing up and melting down our jewels,
And, jeering, you merely counted the days
Until your cannons you could point at us!

The time is come. Trouble beats its wings -
And every day our grudges grow,
And the day will come when every trace
Of your Paestums may vanish!

O, old world! While you still survive,
While you still suffer your sweet torture,
Come to a halt, sage as Oedipus,
Before the ancient riddle of the Sphinx!..

Russia is a Sphinx. Rejoicing, grieving,
And drenched in black blood,
It gazes, gazes, gazes…

Denis Fonvizin - Biography

Denis Fonvizin, often referred to as the “Russian Molière,” was the first truly original Russian dramatist of the 18th century. He was born into a noble family in Moscow on 3 April 1744 or 1745. The confusion in year results from the inscription on the writer's grave-stone in the Alexandro-Nevsky Lavra in St.-Petersburg: "Born 3 April 1745, died 1 December 1792, lived 48 years, seven months, 28 days." The apparent mistake in the inscription has been interpreted in various ways, but 1745 is the most likely year of his birth.

The family, although thoroughly Russianized, had an ancestor of German or Swedish origin, known as Von Visin – a prisoner captured in one of Ivan the Terrible’s Livonian campaigns in the 16th century.

Fonvisin's father, a strict disciplinarian with only an elementary education but a great deal of common sense, instructed him in the basics of the Russian language, providing tutors in other fields. In 1756, Denis and his brother, Pavel, were enrolle…

The Russian Novelist Vladimir Sorokin

One thing you can say about the novelist Vladimir Sorokin: He has the hair of an honest-to-God, old-school Russian sage. It radiates in luxuriant white waves around his unlined face, suggesting that he has emerged — half-monk, half-lion — from the sun-dappled glades where Tolstoy once walked.

Beyond that, though, readers in the West will have to let go of whatever expectations they attach to the term “Russian novel.”

Mr. Sorokin, one of Russia’s most celebrated writers, has spent decades puncturing those expectations, typically by confronting the reader with shocking (but, I am sorry to report, unforgettable) visions of violence, cannibalism and scatology. Called upon to address the sanctified role of the novelist in Russian culture, he once responded: “I do not overrate literature as such. For me, it is just paper with typographic signs.”

It should not be necessary to point out, given that response, why it has sometimes been tricky to introduce his novels to an English-speaking audi…