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Showing posts from 2016

'Crime and Punishment' 150 years on

In August 1865, Gerasim Chistov, a merchant’s son and schismatic, was accused of killing two old women in order to rob their mistress. The apartment was strewn with items, and gold jewelry had been stolen from an iron chest. Both victims were killed with the same weapon: an axe. Many critics believe this true story inspired Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment.

Hermann Hesse said that in Crime and Punishment Dostoevsky had managed to capture a whole period in world history, while Albert Camus said that reading the Russian writer’s novels had been a “soul-shaking experience” that informed all his own work. The contemporary Russian author Boris Akunin has written a novel called FM (in reference to Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky), which presents Raskolnikov’s story as a crime thriller, with the main character being the investigator Porfiry Petrovitch.

Since its first movie adaptation in the Russian Empire in 1909, the novel has been adapted for screen dozens of times, including …

How literature was used to 'temper' Soviet people

Nikolai Ostrovsky, who wrote the cult novel How the Steel Was Tempered and died at 32, overcame much in his short life. He survived a difficult childhood, adolescent involvement in underground political groups, combat military service, work as a party functionary and a serious illness at 25 that left him writer bedridden and gradually blinded him. In another era, this biography could have served as a wonderful foundation for a romantic myth. But in Russia in the early 20th century, it became something much bigger. Instead of a story of an individual whose willpower and talent overcame the painful blows of fate, Ostrovsky’s life story was remade by the Soviets into a tale about how a "new man" could be forged from heterogeneous and often worthless "human material." This new man was a participant and co-creator of the new socialist society.

Ostrovsky was not the only writer who helped build the socialist future. In the beginning, radical Russian avant-garde artists Ve…

Piotr Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker - Ballet in two acts (HD 1080p)

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From the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, December 2012
Valery Gergiev - conductor
Vasily Vainonen - choreography

Vladimir Sorokin and the Russian Novel's Identity Crisis

Vast, grand, breathtaking—English-language readers typically associate such words with the 19th-century Russian novel. Bleak, brave, subversive—those go with 20th-century Russian fiction. If it’s epic or dissident, we know how to make sense of it.

Following the Soviet Union’s collapse in the 1990s, however, Russian novels became harder to categorize. If a work wasn’t protest literature, what exactly could it be? This wasn’t a question only for readers of English translations. The collapse posed an identity crisis even for writers who had long avoided protest. Vladimir Sorokin, considered by many to be Russia’s leading novelist, was among those whose writing seemed to be stalled during the Yeltsin period. To find his way forward as a novelist, he had to recreate a relationship to Russia’s new society, to abandon austere detachment and explore the possibility of allegiance to the public. Sorokin’s torturous sense of citizenship, which has reached a fascinating impasse in his latest novel…

Fools and Wise in Russia - Solzhenitsyn and Dostoevsky

Why did the calf butt the oak? No doubt, for a few very special calves, it is in their nature, and thank goodness for the rest of us in the herd that it should be so. Solzhenitsyn is not only a very great writer, but a man whose stand against the regime is unique in the history of great writers anywhere, particularly in Russia. Solzhenitsyn has always been very attached to Russian proverbs, and in The Oak and the Calf gives us a good many of them, such as ‘If trouble comes make use of it too’. That he has certainly done. And kept an account of the trouble in the minutest detail. As a record it is of the highest importance, but for the common reader the perusal is often fatiguing. The reason is partly the provenance of the book, which was written from day to day, under the table, in the years before Solzhenitsyn’s exile from Russia, with the KGB breathing down his neck and with no safe place for papers.

Victor Nekipelov’s Institute of Fools is as much as The Oak and the Calf a scrupulou…

Conversations with Vassily Aksyonov

I didn't realize it then, but the first time I heard his name I was sitting in a darkened movie theater in Fairfax, Virginia. It was 1987, and I was watching the film No Way Out, a political thriller starring Kevin Costner. At the very end of the film, when we realize Costner's character, Tom Farrell, is indeed not only a U.S. Navy officer but also the Soviet double agent Yuri, the following exchange takes place between Costner's character and the Soviet handler to whom he has returned. The handler begins speaking Russian as Farrell/Yuri is being debriefed:
FARRELL: It's difficult for me to follow in Russian--it's been a long time. HANDLER: How thirsty you must be for the sound of our language, Yevgeny Alekseevich. Wouldn't you love to hear Russian again? Imagine Pushkin, Lermontov, Tolstoy... FARRELL: ...Solzhenitsyn, Aksyonov. HANDLER: (Laughing) Even them...always the sense of humor.Later I would come to understand why the Soviet handler had found the mentio…

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…

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 …

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. …

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 thoug…

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 dep…

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 …