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Showing posts from July, 2016

Gatchina Palace: Catherine the Great’s lover, her son and other stories

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Gatchina Palace, the imperial residence outside St. Petersburg, is celebrating 250 years since the beginning of its construction.

Primarily associated with Paul I, who was gifted the palace by his mother, Catherine the Great, and lived there for more than 15 years, Gatchina became a stately home after Paul’s accession and maintained this status until the revolution of 1917. Initially, however, the Empress had built the palace not for her son, but for her lover.

Catherine the Great took the throne in a coup. According to the eminent pre-revolutionary historian Vasily Klyuchevsky, she undertook “a double seizure: She both took power from her husband and didn’t pass it to her son, the natural heir of his father” (for this reason, Paul is known as the “Russian Hamlet”).

One of the leaders of the coup was Catherine’s favorite Count Grigory Orlov – a stately man, both resolute and reckless. He was well-known as St. Petersburg’s Don Juan. Three years after her coronation, Catherine gave Orlov a…

Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices

Svetlana Alexievich was born in western Ukraine in 1948 to a Belarusian father and Ukrainian mother, both of them rural schoolteachers. She grew up in Belarus and, after graduating from high school, worked at various newspapers before studying for a journalism degree at Belarusian State University. Alexievich graduated in 1972, but she eventually abandoned the journalistic strictures of chronology and contextualization in her first book, War’s Unwomanly Face, which was published in Russian in 1985, the first year of perestroika. For that book, Alexievich interviewed scores of women rarely given the chance to be heard, and then edited their stories about personal and collective tragedy into a collage of voices that openly challenge the heroic Soviet myths of the Great Patriotic War. More than 2 million copies were eventually sold.

When Alexievich was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature last year, it was an acknowledgment of what she had already proved in each of her five books, collec…

Marc Chagall’s bittersweet impressions of Russian life

Marc Chagall was born on July 6, 1887 in Vitebsk (now in Belarus) into a poor and traditional Jewish family. During his childhood and youth, anti-Semitism and pogroms were common in the Russian Empire. In My Life, which was written in the early 1920s, the artist provides a lighthearted look at his life in Russia.

Chagall shared many pleasant memories and there are interesting historical anecdotes from his childhood, including the time Tsar Nicholas II visited Vitebsk to review regiments that were about to go to the Far East to fight in the Russo-Japanese war.

“Hosts of boys, excited and sleepy, were met along the way, and headed in long lines towards fields covered with snow,” he wrote.

After waiting for hours in ankle-deep snow, the boys saw the train carrying the entourage. From a distance he saw the tsar who wore a private’s uniform and looked “very pale.”

At age 19 Chagall moved to St. Petersburg, where he was a student of renowned Russian painter and theater designer Leon Bakst. He …

Why Nabokov’s Speak, Memory Still Speaks to Us

Earlier this year, when the New York Times asked novelist and essayist Roger Rosenblatt to name the best memoir he’d read recently, he was unequivocal in his reply. “Speak, Memory, recently or ever,” Rosenblatt told the Times.

He was referring to the classic account by Vladimir Nabokov (1899–1977) of his idyllic Russian childhood in a family of colorful aristocrats, the 1917 Bolshevik revolution that banished him to exile, and the path that would eventually lead him to live in the United States.

Rosenblatt is far from alone in hailing Speak, Memory as a gem. “To write superior autobiography one requires not only literary gifts, which are obtainable with effort, but an intrinsically interesting life, which is less frequently available,” literary critic Joseph Epstein once observed. “Those who possess the one are frequently devoid of the other, and vice versa. Only a fortunate few are able to reimagine their lives, to find themes and patterns that explain a life, in the way successful au…