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Showing posts from 2015

‘The Blizzard,’ by Vladimir ­Sorokin

Russians have been trying, and failing, to make their way through blizzards for as long as they can remember, or at least as long as they have been writing. The perilous-voyage-through-the-snow novella might be the Russian corollary to the American road novel. Vladimir ­Sorokin, Russia’s most inventive contemporary author, has written one too, and called it “The Blizzard.” His book alludes to every Russian literary portrayal of snow-­threatened travel, from Alexander Pushkin’s “The Captain’s Daughter” to Alexander Blok, who wrote dozens of poems starring blizzards, to the rock group Nol (“Zero”), which in 1991 sang heartbreakingly of a man and his cat waiting for a doctor struggling through the snow to bring them healing white powder.

The protagonist of Sorokin’s “The Blizzard” is also a doctor, 42 years old, a pince-nez-wearing divorcé, unhappy, flawed, self-absorbed, well intentioned and ready for self-sacrifice in all the classic ways of the Russian intelligentsia, or its male repre…

From translator to novelist and activist - Boris Akunin

In 1970, a geography teacher in a Moscow school was distributing countries among his students for an assignment. The assignment was quite simple: The students had to collect newspaper clippings about specific countries. One of the students got Tunisia, Ecuador and Japan. Soviet newspapers regularly wrote about the first two, mostly about the heroic struggle of the local working class against capitalist exploitation. But they wrote virtually nothing about Japan, until one day the student came across the news that a Japanese writer had attempted a coup. And that’s how Grigory Chkhartishvili became interested in Japan. Or at least it’s how he explains his fascination with the country. Since then, Chkhartishvili has undergone several major metamorphoses. At first, his life looked like that of a typical Soviet intellectual in the humanities: he studied languages at Moscow State University in the Institute of Asian and African Countries and later worked as a translator. He translated from Ja…

Dostoevsky’s carnival - Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics by Mikhail Bakhtin

Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975), a Russian scholar, has recently found translators, expounders, and admirers in the West. In the introduction to a collection of Bakhtin’s posthumous essays, The Dialogic Imagination(Austin, Texas, 1981), Michael Holquist proclaimed him “one of the leading thinkers of the twentieth century.” Bakhtin was indeed an immensely erudite, perceptive, and acute literary scholar. His first book, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Work (1929), was known in the Thirties and after to every student of Dostoevsky who could read Russian. Just after the publication of that book, Bakhtin was arrested and banished to a small town in northern Kazakhstan, where he was made to work as a bookkeeper. Even after he was allowed to return to central Russia and resume his studies, his dissertation on Rabelais was rejected. At last, in 1936, he was appointed to the faculty of a teacher’s college (later made a university) in Saransk, in the remote Mordvinian Republic. Only after his retirement, …

Leo Tolstoy: Papa Panov's Special Christmas

It was Christmas Eve and although it was still afternoon, lights had begun to appear in the shops and houses of the little Russian village, for the short winter day was nearly over. Excited children scurried indoors and now only muffled sounds of chatter and laughter escaped from closed shutters. Old Papa Panov, the village shoemaker, stepped outside his shop to take one last look around. The sounds of happiness, the bright lights and the faint but delicious smells of Christmas cooking reminded him of past Christmas times when his wife had still been alive and his own children little. Now they had gone. His usually cheerful face, with the little laughter wrinkles behind the round steel spectacles, looked sad now. But he went back indoors with a firm step, put up the shutters and set a pot of coffee to heat on the charcoal stove. Then, with a sigh, he settled in his big armchair.

Papa Panov did not often read, but tonight he pulled down the big old family Bible and, slowly tracing the lin…

Has any author's reputation fallen further or faster than Dostoevsky's?

My favourite Russian author is Dostoevsky, whose best books are not just profound examinations of the human soul etc, but also nasty, violent, ironic, caustic, and (at times) extremely funny. Recently I picked up Henri Troyat's Firebrand which is an old-fashioned, novelistic account of FD's life. It's a great read, so much so that I decided to ride the wave of pleasure and seize the moment to simultaneously plough through some of the heavier Dostoevsky tomes sitting on my shelves, including the selected letters and the joyless prose of Konstantin Mochulsky's critical biography. (I'm saving Joseph Frank's five-volume epic for later).

It's fascinating to observe how both the racy volume and dryly critical work were constructed from the same source materials. Meanwhile I have been reminded of Dostoevsky's dramatic life story: his father's murder; his mock execution and exile; his gambling madness; and his calamitous debut on the St Petersburg literary s…

Shostakovich's Leningrad: The symphony that brought a city back to life

On the evening of Sunday August 9 1942, the German artillery guns that had been laying siege to Leningrad for a year were temporarily silenced by a Soviet barrage.

The timing was deliberate. Through loudspeakers that had been hastily rigged up across the city’s frontline, a strange sound could be heard, a classical concert being broadcast live.

It was the Leningrad premiere of Shostakovich’s 7th Symphony, and it was being performed by a ragtag orchestra made up of musicians who were half dead from starvation. It was an extraordinary act of defiance, given that Hitler’s forces had encircled the city and were intent on starving the population to death.

The previous winter, when temperatures had dropped to -31F (-35C), people had eaten soup made from boiled leather belts, that and “siege meat” which included not only cats and dogs but also human flesh taken from corpses lying frozen in the streets.

The siege would continue for another two years and would claim the lives of close to a mill…

Fyodor Dostoyevsky: The Beggar Boy at Christ’s Christmas Tree

I am a novelist, and I suppose I have made up this story. I write “I suppose,” though I know for a fact that I have made it up, but yet I keep fancying that it must have happened on Christmas Eve in some great town in a time of terrible frost. I have a vision of a boy, a little boy, six years old or even younger. This boy woke up that morning in a cold damp cellar. He was dressed in a sort of little dressing-gown and was shivering with cold. There was a cloud of white steam from his breath, and sitting on a box in the corner, he blew the steam out of his mouth and amused himself in his dullness watching it float away. But he was terribly hungry. Several times that morning he went up to the plank bed where his sick mother was lying on a mattress as thin as a pancake, with some sort of bundle under her head for a pillow. How had she come here? She must have come with her boy from some other town and suddenly fallen ill. The landlady who let the “concerns” had been taken two days before t…

Velimir Khlebnikov: There is that smell of honey-clover flowers

There is that smell of honey-clover flowers
Among the forget-me-nots
In which I am
My distracted strict intelligence
The square root of negative one
Melts the division’s dots
Relating that which was
Toward what will be.
At stake. Early 1922

Nikolai Lugansky plays Rachmaninov Musical Moment No.4 in E minor

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'He speaks to us': why Shostakovich was a great communicator

Recently, in a little book by Colm Tóibín about the American poet Elizabeth Bishop, I was struck by phrases that rang a bell: “The music or the power was in what was left out … words in which the emotion seems to be hidden, seems to lurk mysteriously in the space between … Nothing would be said but everything suggested...”

Back in the mid-1980s, I remembered, this was the kind of thing my friends in Moscow used to say about Shostakovich. Of course, such things have been said before and about many different artists. But something in the way Tóibín puts it brought the old song back.

I heard another version of the same idea in a small room in London, during an encounter between two composers who had not met before: Russia-born Alfred Schnittke and Englishman Peter Maxwell Davies.

Schnittke was describing his first visit to the west as an adult – I think in 1979 – when he attended a performance in Vienna of a Shostakovich symphony led by the famous conductor Kyril Kondrashin, who had defecte…

The Blizzard: Chillingly dystopian in true Sorokin style

Perhaps it’s not surprising, given the weather, to find blizzards and snowstorms proliferating throughout Russian literature from Pushkin’s magic tales to Vladimir Sorokin’s mysterious 2010 novel, The Blizzard. Tolstoy’s short story of the same name, published in 1856 and based on his own experience, has clearly inspired the underlying premise of Sorokin’s novella: a man rides on a sledge through a plot-less snow storm with a fatalistic driver. They lose their way, tire out the horses and get side tracked by stream-of-consciousness reminiscences. The classic 19th-century setting is overlaid by Sorokin’s characteristically disturbing, dystopian vision. His protagonist, Doctor Garin, is carrying two bags of vital vaccines to a village infected by a mysterious epidemic that turns its victims into zombies.

In this atmospheric and perplexing work, soon to be available in Jamey Gambrell’s English translation, Vladimir Sorokin has pulled off another unlikely feat of generic fusion. His bizarr…

Koba (1990)

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Mini-Series: Stalin (1990)
→ Revolutionary
→ Despot 
→ Generalissimo
Narrator: Ian Holm
Language: English & Russian
Subtitles: English

Osip Mandelstam: The Admiralty

In the Northern capital, dusty populus,Sighing, mantles the time’s transparency,
And, through green dark, a frigate or an acropolis,
Brother to water and sky, glows distantly. A boat of air, its mast like a touch-me-not –
To Peter’s progeny, this rule declares
Beauty was never the whim of a demi-god,
But a simple carpenter’s calculating stares. Governed by four kind elements of creation,
We, as free people, order the fifth a place:
What is this ark of ours but the abnegation
In cleanly crafted lines of the tyrant, space? Cranky medusas consolidate a position,
Anchors’ abandoned ploughs are adrift in rust,
But look, the three dimensions burst from their prison
And all the world’s seas are open to us at last. Translated by Yuri Drobyshev and Carol Rumens

Maya Plisetskaya: A life in art

Even during the era of the Cold War and the Iron Curtain, it seemed impossible that the mercurial talent of the great Russian ballerina Maya Plisetskaya could be contained by any walls. Now, long after the end of the Soviet Union, her life and work continues to unite and inspire admirers of high art in countries and continents around the world. 

An example to emulate for dancers starring in Swan Lake or Don Quixote, she is recognized by the whole world as the paragon of Russian ballet. It was thanks to her that the likes of Maurice Béjart and Roland Petit were able to bring their ballets to Russia. 

But even if she was half a century ahead of her time in ballet, Plisetskaya was not simply a ballerina – she was a woman of oustanding personality, a star that drew the most remarkable people of her time into her orbit. The stage – even one as great and grand as the Bolshoi – was simply not enough for her. 

Plisetskaya's artistic skill manifested itself very early in her life. As she hers…

The Same Old Story by Ivan Goncharov

That’s a good title for a first novel, you might say, combining world-weary ennui with a touch of chutzpah; but actually it’s the translator’s own – Ivan Goncharov’s book is more often rendered into English as A Common Story. But the new title makes sense, with the phrase “the same old story” being uttered early on by Uncle Pyotr, one of literature’s more remarkable characters.

It isn’t translated into English very often, though. Indeed, Goncharov refused to have his novels translated in his lifetime. If he is known in the UK it is as the author of the 1859 novel Oblomov, the justly celebrated story of a Russian patriarch who simply can’t be bothered to get out of bed. Its success has eclipsed his other works, which is a pity, and also rather mystifying as he only wrote three novels, all of which, incidentally, begin in Russian with the syllable “ob”.

The Same Old Story begins in the middle of the 19th century in the provincial estate of 20-year-old Alexander Aduev, a spoiled only son b…

The centuries surround me with fire - Osip Mandelstam, Documentary, 1976.

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New secrets of Malevich's ‘Black Square’ revealed

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Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery has published the results of the latest research carried out on Suprematist artist Kazimir Malevich’s revolutionary avant-garde painting Black Square. It turns out that a color image is hidden beneath the painting – and not one, but two. The discovery was made just over a month ago. "It was known that there was some underlying image beneath the image of Black Square," said Yekaterina Voronina, a researcher in the Tretyakov Gallery's department of scientific expertise. "We found that there was not one such image, but two. And we proved that the original image is a Cubo-Futuristic composition, and the one lying beneath Black Square, the color of which is visible in the craquelure, is a proto-Suprematist composition." In the X-rays, the outlines of Malevich's other painting are clearly visible onBlack Square. Under the microscope, it can be clearly seen that another layer of paint shines through the craquelure, i.e. through the cracks i…

Vasili Grossman: A report from Stalingrad, 1942

During the Great Patriotic War, Vasili Grossman was a correspondent for the army newspaperKrasnaya Zvezda. As such, he was an eye-witness to and participant in the historic Battle of Stalingrad. Years later, in his novels For A Just Cause and Life and Fate, Grossman would present a somewhat controversial view of that battle. But in 1942, his views were less ambiguous, celebrating the unquestionable courage of Soviet troops and highlighting the horrors of this hideous war.

In the Main Line of Attack describes life and death in a division of Siberian troops who had to bear the brunt of the most frenzied period of Nazi attacks on Stalingrad, withstanding 80 straight hours of bombardment, and more.


In the night, Colonel Gurtiev's Siberian troops took up defensive positions. A factory always looks rather stark and gloomy, but one could surely find no scene in the world more gloomy than the one these men saw on that October morning in 1942: the dark mass of the workshops, the wet, gleamin…