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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…

The memoirs Brodsky didn’t want you to read

In April, Ellendea Proffer Teasley came to Moscow to present her husband's memoirs about Brodsky, whom the Proffers knew better than anyone else among those closest to the poet. The memoirs also speak about widows of famous writers who preserved their literary legacy in difficult Soviet times. (Corpus publishing house, 2017, translated by Victor Golyshev and Vladimir Babkov)

Together with Ardis, the Michigan-based publishing house they established solely for Russian literature, the young American professor Carl Proffer and his wife Ellendea published literary works in both English and Russian that were banned by Soviet authorities. These included works by Nabokov, Brodsky, Zamyatin and other authors. Starting in 1969, the Proffers, who specialized in Russian literature and had perfect command of the Russian language, traveled to the USSR many times, met legendary people of letters, received "dangerous" manuscripts and sent them to the West. Shortly before his death in 1984,…

Who was Sergei Diaghilev? Trailblazer, visionary and ballet pioneer

Sergei Diaghilev, one of the most influential pioneers of modern art in the 20th century, was born 145 years ago.

He was born in 1872 to a wealthy Russian family and would go on to found Ballets Russes, one of the most influential ballet companies of the 20th century.

Diaghilev is remembered as an art critic, visionary, all-round provocateur and trailblazer responsible for helping turn ballet into a modern art form.

Diaghilev formed the influential Ballets Russes in Paris in 1909 and the company went on to tour Europe and America.

The Ballets Russes were a trailblazing dance company that united talents from the disciplines of art, fashion, dance, choreography, and music, and vaulted them to dizzying creative heights.

From 1909-1929, the Ballet Russes performed on stages around the globe, mesmerising, even scandalising, audiences with its unprecedented costumes, stage sets, compositions, and choreography.

In Schéhérazade, which premiered at the Théâtre national de l’Opéra, Paris, in 1910, …

Rachmaninoff: Piano Concerto no.2 op.18 - Anna Fedorova

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Rasputin: full of ecstasy and fire

As we immerse ourselves in this year’s commemoration of 1917, we should not forget the recently passed centenary of the man who was more responsible than any other for bringing down the Romanovs. Such a grand claim for Grigory Rasputin’s significance may invite scepticism, but Douglas Smith’s engrossing and deeply researched biography shows that it is sustainable, as long as “Rasputin” is securely encased within inverted commas. This Siberian holy man was important less for what he was and did than for what he was taken to do and be.

His story remains astonishing, even after all the previous tellings. In 1897, Rasputin was in his late twenties, middle-aged in peasant terms, and living with his parents, wife and son in a typical rural household in Western Siberia. He suddenly broke with family routine by embarking on several years of pilgrimage, returning home only intermittently. This period of spiritual quest and adventure honed his gifts of psychological insight and persuasion: as he…

The untold story: Why Stalin created a cult of Alexander Pushkin

In 1937, the year of the Great Terror, Stalin decided to celebrate Pushkin as a socialist god in order to build popular support for his regime. While the poet was revered as a literary genius before the Russian Revolution, the Soviets took his reputation to a whole new level, almost deifying him in a sort of cult.

This year we mark not only the 100th anniversary of the 1917 Revolution, but also the 80th anniversary of the Great Terror in 1937. That year Soviet Russia also commemorated, on an unprecedented scale, the 100th anniversary of Alexander Pushkin’s death. The great poet had hitherto remained in the shadows, but in 1937 he took a central place in the Soviet cultural pantheon.

In place of nationless Marxism that rejected culture, national spirit, traditional statehood, and spirituality, Stalin decided to present the world with an almost classical culture-centric empire that had Pushkin at its heart.

The decision to celebrate Pushkin as a socialist god belonged to Stalin. To fully…

Nicholas Roerich - Biography

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Nicholas Roerich, also known as Nikolay Konstantinovich Rerikh, was a Russian artist, writer, archaeologist, philosopher and traveller.

He was the father of orientologist George Roerich (Yury Roerich) and artist Svyatoslav Roerich. Nicholas Roerich and his wife Helena were founders of the Agni Yoga Society.



One of the brightest representatives of Russian symbolism and modernism, his legacy is enormous. More than 7,000 paintings are exhibited in famous art galleries in different parts of the world. Being as gifted a writer as he was a painter, Roerich wrote books, tales, legends, poetry and commentaries on life and events. Nicholas was born in St. Petersburg into the family of a notary on October 9, 1874. In 1893 he enrolled simultaneously in the University Faculty of Law and the Emperor’s Academy of Arts, where he studied in the studio of the famous Russian landscape painter Arkhip Kuinji.

In 1900 Roerich studied in Paris with the artist Fernand Cormon.



In 1901 Nicholas married Helena, th…

Andrei Gelasimov's new novel shows all shades of cold

Into the Thickening Fog often feels like a quintessential Russian novel: it starts with a bout of heavy drinking, is set in a frozen northern city, and features dogs, demons and existential angst. Andrei Gelasimov’s novels have earned him numerous awards, and this 2015 offering, just out in English, has many hallmarks of his prize-winning playful style.

Eduard Filippov, a fashionable Moscow director, finds himself, impossibly hungover, on the floor of an airplane toilet with a misspelled boarding pass in his pocket. He is flying home to the “strange frozen city” where he grew up and where his young wife is buried.

As descriptions of hangovers go, this one is up there with the all-time literary classics, like Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim (his mouth had been “used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum”) or Stepan Likhodeev in Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita (“brown spots rimmed with fiery green floated between his eyeballs and his closed eyel…

The Living Truth - Alexander Herzen

‘Time is money’, say the English. In reality, time is much, much more precious than money: time is ourselves. — Alexander Herzen 
It is difficult to write about Alexander Herzen (1812-1870). Just when you think you’ve got the right idea about him, a central insight, he turns away. One can hardly say the simplest thing about him: he was a Russian aristocratic philosopher, but born a landowner’s illegitimate son who polemicised against Tsarism; an early revolutionary, he cautioned against going too fast, lest Russian society broke under the strain; hailed for denouncing official misrule, ultimately he was scorned by both the Romantic dissenters of the 1840s and the nihilists of the 1860s; once as famous as Fyodor Dostoevsky and Lev Tolstoy, he died in relative obscurity; patient, even unrealistic about people’s real intentions, he could be a bitter critic who engaged in long-running feuds; an attentive and loving family man, he committed adultery and was distraught when his wife fell in …

Leo Tolstoy and the Origins of Spiritual Memoir

TWO THINGS ARE TRUE about Leo Tolstoy in 1879. First, he had mostly given up on fiction, having published his two titanic novels, War and Peace and Anna Karenina. The latter book exhausted him physically and morally: not long after its appearance, he termed his saga of adultery “an abomination.” He found novel writing to be a poor substitute for confronting religious issues and his existential lot. Second, because of his early literary acclaim and the immoral lifestyle it had spawned and enabled, he was miserable. He was so ashamed of himself that post-Karenina his ambivalent atheism collapsed and he sought a new relationship to the “truth.” He abdicated the throne of novelist and took up the mantle of religious critic — on the side of Christianity and against it.

Raised in the Russian Orthodox Church, Tolstoy lost his religion at 18. After a life of debauchery, in his early 50s, he wanted religion — or some source of intellectual security — back. In 1882, he published his Confession, …

Mikhail Bulgakov's The Heart of a Dog still bites

Mikhail Bulgakov was 33 years old, a former doctor and an up-and-coming playwright and short-story writer when he invited a group of people to a reading of his new novella, The Heart of a Dog. He had held a similar soiree the previous year to launch another novella, The Fatal Eggs, and though the earlier reading had gone well, it had made him anxious enough to muse in his diary: “Is it a satire? Or a provocative gesture? … I’m afraid that I might be hauled off … for all these heroic feats.”

His premonition proved right. Among the 50 or so people who gathered in the Moscow apartment in March 1925 to be introduced to Sharik, the humanoid dog, and the arrogant surgeon who created him, was an informer who took violent exception to his send-up of Soviet society. Bulgakov’s flat was searched and the manuscript seized. Though it was returned to him four years later, and was widely read in samizdat, it would not be officially published in Russian until 1987, nearly half a century after Bulgako…