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Solzhenitsyn’s cathedrals

In Russia, history is too important to leave to the historians. Great novelists must show how people actually lived through events and reveal their moral significance. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn explained in his 1970 Nobel Prize lecture, literature transmits “condensed and irrefutable human experience” in a form that “defies distortion and falsehood. Thus literature . . . preserves and protects a nation’s soul.”

The latest Solzhenitsyn book to appear in English, March 1917, focuses on the great turning point of Russian, indeed world, history: the Russian Revolution.1 Just a century ago, that upheaval and the Bolshevik coup eight months later ushered in something entirely new and uniquely horrible. Totalitarianism, as invented by Lenin and developed by Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and others, aspired to control every aspect of life, to redesign the earth and to remake the human soul. As a result, the environment suffered unequaled devastation and tens of millions of lives were lost in t…

Red Famine: Stalin's War on Ukraine

My landlord in the early 1960s, a Mr Nikolysyn, was a survivor of the Holodomor (‘killing by hunger’), the famine that Stalin’s policy of collectivisation and grain requisition inflicted on Ukraine, leading to the death from starvation of at least five million peasants and the imprisonment of millions of resisters in the Gulag. But Mr Nikolysyn didn’t blame Stalin or even the Russians: he identified his oppressors as communist Jews avenging the pogroms. When the Nazis invaded, he, like many Ukrainians, happily joined the SS to exact revenge. He was a kindly man, tolerating my pet hare stripping his wallpaper while he read his copy of the newspaper for Ukrainian SS veterans that circulated freely in Britain then, but he was as traumatised as all the survivors of the Holodomor.

Until recently, historians ignored the Ukrainian famine of 1932–3. Accounts compiled in the 1950s by Ukrainians living in Canada were discounted as nationalist propaganda, even though a few Western journalists, su…

The Radical Hopes of the Russian Revolution

Step into a respectable American bookstore today, and you’re likely to find a reflection of America’s version of the twentieth century. German and Russian history currently dominate history sections, but in very specific forms. Books like Andrew Lownie’s Stalin’s Englishman, Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, Martin Kitchen’s Speer: Hitler’s Architect, Robert Jay Lifton’s The Nazi Doctors, Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin—some old, some new, many written for popular audiences—move between the century’s titanic mass-murderers, their motley henchmen, and their masses of victims. Holocaust history often provides a thematic accent and an explicit connection to the present, as with Snyder’s Black Earth: Holocaust as History and Warning. Taken together, these books seem to remind us that any account of the twentieth century that does not emphasize authoritarianism will be complicit in creating a new wave of victims.

One hundred years afte…

Svetlana Zakharova and Roberto Bolle in Swan Lake

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Svetlana Zakharova and Roberto Bolle
Bourmeister production of Swan Lake

Gorbachev: His Life and Times

It is one of the paradoxes of Soviet history that Mikhail Gorbachev, who did more than any other Kremlin leader to show his ‘personal’ side to a watching world, has eluded his biographers. Nobody before William Taubman has achieved an in-depth psychological portrait. Political accounts have been two a penny; economic and ideological studies have come at a discount. But what made Gorbachev tick, as a man and a leader, has always been hooded in speculation. Taubman has dedicated a dozen years to gathering first-hand evidence from the man himself. This cannot have been an easy task. When I met Gorbachev in the early 1990s I ruined my brief chance of getting him to open up by mentioning that I was doing research on Lenin. Gorbachev instantly closed down what he sensed might be an indelicate conversation. Taubman, by contrast, has gained Gorbachev’s full cooperation, even though the man himself warned him, ‘Gorbachev is hard to understand.’

Leaders who speak of themselves in the third perso…

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

At the Firing Squad: The Radical Works of a Young Dostoevsky

At 28, Fyodor Dostoevsky was about to die.

The nightmare started when the police burst into his apartment and dragged him away in the middle of the night, along with the rest of the Petrashevsky Circle. This was a group made up of artists and thinkers who discussed radical ideas together, such as equality and justice, and occasionally read books. Madmen, clearly. To be fair, the tsar, Nicholas I, had a right to be worried about revolution. The Decembrist Revolt of 1825 was still fresh in everyone’s mind, and it was obvious throughout the world that something was happening. In addition to earlier revolutions in America and France, revolutionary ideas were spreading like a virus around the world through art, literature, philosophy, science, and more. To the younger generation and Russians who suffered most under the current regime, it was exhilarating. For those like Nicholas I, whose power depended on the established order, it was terrifying.

So these revolutionaries, most barely in thei…

Osip Mandelstam and the perils of writing poetry under Stalin

One of the most revealing photographs of Osip Mandelstam still in existence is a mugshot taken in the Lubyanka, on the occasion of his first arrest, in 1934. In the side-on view, it’s of little significance: he looks like any balding 1930s labourer from almost anywhere. Face on, though, arms folded and lips firmly pursed, he presents another proposition entirely. In this shot Mandelstam looks directly into the lens as though he is staring down the photographer. His eyes conceal any trace of the fear that must have been coursing through him; rather, his expression is the very manifestation of contempt. It is the face of a man who has never and will never let anyone, including himself, off the hook.

By the time of this first arrest, Mandelstam had already lived for several years with the knowledge that the long-term aim of the Soviet state machine was to take his life – the method and the timescale were all that remained to be revealed. “Only in Russia is poetry respected,” he is quoted …

Hilarion Alfeyev: St Matthew Passion. No 1

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This is the beginning of 'St Matthew Passion' (Страсти по Матфею, Matthäuspassion) by Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev. Conductor: Vladimir Fedosseyev.

Performed in the Great Hall of Moscow Conservatoire on 27 March 2008.

The choir sings: Come, let us sing a holy lament to Christ. Alleluia. O Lord my God, I will sing to Thee a funeral hymn. Alleluia. Thine all-holy Mother weeps for Thee lamenting. Alleluia.

The poet as witness - Anna Akhmatova

TO speak of Anna Aakhmatova (1889-1966) as simply a woman poet is to belittle her achievement. Or to speak of her as a Russian poet of the last century is to confine her artistic range to one country. Akhmatova was neither a woman poet in the narrow militant feminist sense in which the term is understood today, nor just a poet of Russia alone. She inherited the tradition of St Petersburg Classicism which itself derived from the European literary heritage at large. Her poetic involvements went beyond the domesticated lyricism of conventional feminine poetry and embraced larger questions of political and social inequity. Though essentially a poet of ‘the keening muse’, as Joseph Brodsky described her, Akhmatova rose above personal sorrows (too numerous to relate here) to create a disciplined yet many-layered work of haunting reverberation. It is a long-standing belief that out of suffering under totalitarian regimes new forms of literature and art emerge. Nowhere is it truer than in Stali…