Archive for the ‘Russia’ Category

Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn (Russia, 1918-2008)

It is difficult to know what to post about a man whose life and work have reached such mythic proportions as Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn. In literature, he is best known for his novels Gulag Archipelago, written between 1958 and 1968 and published in 1973, and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, published in 1963.

The two novels are based on his years of imprisonment in a Soviet labor prison camp from 1945 to 1953. He was arrested and imprisoned for anti-Soviet propaganda and remarks made against Stalin discovered in correspondence to a school friend. After his eight-year imprisonment ended in 1953, he was sent into exile in Kazakhastan, on the fringes of Siberia. In 1956, he was freed from exile and exonerated. In trying to publish his work over the next 18 years, he was persecuted by the KGB, arrested again in 1974 and deported to West Germany. He then moved to Zurich, Switzerland, and later to Cavendish, Vermont. In 1990, his Soviet citizen was restored, and he returned to Russia in 1994.

Solzhenitsyn after his release in 1953. He smuggled out his padded jacket and number patches and had his photo taken.

In Solzhenitsyn’s book Voice from the Gulag, he said,Over a half century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of old people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened. Since then I have spent well-nigh 50 years working on the history of our revolution; in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have already contributed eight volumes of my own toward the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval. But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately than to repeat: Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.”

And in his Nobel lecture, “During all the years until 1961, not only was I convinced that I should never see a single line of mine in print in my lifetime, but, also, I scarcely dared allow any of my close acquaintances to read anything I had written because I feared that this would become known. Finally, at the age of 42, this secret authorship began to wear me down. The most difficult thing of all to bear was that I could not get my works judged by people with literary training. In 1961, after the 22nd Congress of the U.S.S.R. Communist Party and Tvardovsky’s speech at this, I decided to emerge and to offer One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.

Such an emergence seemed, then, to me, and not without reason, to be very risky because it might lead to the loss of my manuscripts, and to my own destruction. But, on that occasion, things turned out successfully, and after protracted efforts, A.T. Tvardovsky was able to print my novel one year later. The printing of my work was, however, stopped almost immediately and the authorities stopped both my plays and (in 1964) the novel, The First Circle, which, in 1965, was seized together with my papers from the past years. During these months it seemed to me that I had committed an unpardonable mistake by revealing my work prematurely and that because of this I should not be able to carry it to a conclusion.

It is almost always impossible to evaluate at the time events which you have already experienced, and to understand their meaning with the guidance of their effects. All the more unpredictable and surprising to us will be the course of future events.”

The following excerpt is from Solzhenitsyn’s novel An Incident at Krechetovka Station in his book We Never Make Mistakes, published in 1971 and translated by Paul W. Blackstock:

“Only the people who worked at the station were not driven away by the rain. Through a window a watchman could be seen on the platform near the rain-drenched cargo. Covered with a heavy tarpaulin, he stood there all wet and soaked from the rain without even trying to shake it off. On the third track, the switch engine was slowly moving a tank car, while the switchman, covered entirely with a hooded poncho, waved to him with his flagstick. The dark, dwarfish form of the wagon master could also be seen walking along the train formation on track two, looking and searching under each car.

And so — everything was rain-drenched! In the cold, persistent wind, the rain beat on the roofs and walls of freight cars and the engines. It cut along the fire-red, bent-iron ribs of two, ten-car skeletons (some for the boxes were still burning from the bombing raids, but the useful parts of those remaining had been brought to the rear). It drenched the four Artillery pieces standing on flatcars; it blended with the approaching twilight; it began to tighten and close in on the green, small circle of the semaphore, and on the livid, purple-red sparks which were flying out of the chimneys of the ‘heated’ cars. [These were boxcars adapted for troop transport which in cold weather were fitted with makeshift stoves, with long thin pipes for chimneys that extended through the roof.] All the asphalt on the first platform was covered with crystal-clear water blisters, which had not had time to drain. Even in the dusk the rails glistened and sparkled with bubbles, and all the gray storm covers shimmered with pools of water.

There was little sound besides the trembling of the earth, and the weak sound of the switchman’s horn. (Whistling by the engines had been forbidden since the first day of the war.) Only the rain trumpeted through the broken pipes.

Behind the other window of the Commander’s room, in the path along the warehouse enclosure, grew a small oak. Its drenched and trembling branches had held a few dark green leaves, but today even the last few had blown away.”

Read Full Post »

Mikhail Aleksandrovich Sholokhov (Russia, 1905-1984)

Sholokhov won the Nobel for his epic novel series that deals with the Cossacks living in the Don River valley prior to WWI. Cossacks were members of military communities in the Ukraine and southern Russia. The first book Tales from the Don was published in 1926. The second And Quiet Flows the Don took him 14 years to write and was published in 1940. The novels are examples of socialist realism, a style of realistic art that depicts figures as they appear in everyday life without embellishment or interpretation. The term is also used about works of art which, in revealing the truth, emphasize the ugly or sordid.

Here’s a clip from the 1958 film:

Read Full Post »


Boris Leonidovich Pasternak (Russia, 1890-1960)

I first became familiar with Boris Pasternak when I was an undergrad in college. Walking through the library late one night, I was startled by a book falling off a shelf. When I went to see what it was, it was a book of his poetry.

I later found out he is the author of the novel Dr. Zhivago, which was made into a 1965 drama romance with Julie Christie and Omar Sharif. Years later I was visiting a friend on Vancouver island. She and her mother had recently bought a Victorian house. When my friend’s mother found out I was a poet, she said, “Oh, I have something you might like. It was the only thing left in this house when we moved in.” It was a book of poetry by Pasternak.

Pasternak won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958 and revolutionized Russian poetry. He once said that poets and artists traditionally have no assured place in society and can only live their lives outside it. I hear that voice in his poetry, the voice of a person who watches the world but lives outside the places and people he observes.

The Highest Sickness

Although the dawn thistle
kept on chasing its shadow
and in the same motion
made the hour linger;
although, as before, the dirt road
dragged the wheels over soft white sand
and spun them onto harder ground
alongside signs and landmarks;
although the autumn sky was cloudy,
and the forest appeared distant,
and the twilight was cold and hazy,
anyway, it was all a forgery.
And the sleep of the stunned earth
was convulsive, like labor pains,
like death, like the silence
of cemeteries, like that unique quiet
that blankets the horizon,
shudders, and beats its brains
to remember: Hold on, prompt me,
what did I want to say?

The story in Dr. Zhivago is of a poet whose idealism is shaken by war and the loss of the love of his life. The poet is more mystic than man and sees the world in a dreamlike, surreal way. In this poem, we hear that story again. The speaker sees the world through lenses of metaphor and mysticism but concludes it is all a forgery. The earth shudders and convulses at this revelation and beats its brains trying to remember what it once believed. He ends the poem with a question, “What did I want to say.”

This reminds me of a similar line in T.S. Eliot’s poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.

If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all.

The narrator in each poem is questioning what life means. At the root of the voice is loneliness. These are words spoken by people who are alone, who want to go back in time to live their lives differently. In another poem by Pasternak “A Sultry Night,” the world is also diminished. It was once a whirlwind, something full of power and force but it has become an orphaned and sleepless waste.

In the orphaned, sleepless,
damp universal waste,
groans tore from their posts,
the whirlwind dug in, abated.

Most the poems in this essay are taken from My Sister Life, a book published in 1922 and written by Pasternak during the summer of 1917, in the months before the Russian Revolution. These poems put Pasternak on the map as a poet. At the time he was living in Saratov, a port city in Southern Russia. He was too embarrassed to publish the poems at first because they are written in a nontraditional style. Socialist realism under Stalin called for more traditional forms.

All Russians had to choose between emigrating and living with the new Bolshevik order after the revolution. Pasternak stayed in Russia living in a communal flat in Moscow. Poets Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966) and Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938) also remained. Most of Pasternak’s family left Russia for Germany, never to return.

When he won the Nobel Prize in 1958, he was not able to accept the award. He wrote in a telegram to the Swedish embassy, “Considering the meaning this award has been given in the society to which I belong, I must refuse it. Please do not take offense at my voluntary rejection.” After struggling to remain in Russia most his life, he did not want to be stripped of his citizenship by leaving the country.

200px-pasternak_self_wifeBorn in Moscow, Pasternak was the son of painter Leonid Pasternak, a professor at the Moscow School of Painting, and Rosa Kaufman, a pianist. Pasternak’s early years were spent surrounded by art, music and literature. Visitors to his home included composers Sergei Rachmaninoff and Alexander Scriabin and writers Leo Tolstoy and Rainer Maria Rilke.

Boris Pasternak enrolled in the Moscow Conservatory in 1903 and studied composition. He dedicated six years of his life to this and left the school in 1909 to study philosophy, then later turned to poetry. Three finished piano pieces survive to this day.

The poems inMy Sister Life are structured around arrivals and departures, train rides to and from the city and around several relationships the poet had.

From Postscript

It was shadows taking your pulse, it was you
turning your face toward the fields
that burned, swimming on the hinges of gates
flooded with dusk, ashes and poppies.

It was the whole summer in a blaze of pods
and labels and sun-bleached luggage
sealing the wanderer’s breast with wax,
setting your hats and dress on fire.

This poem is full of light. The luggage is sun-bleached, the clothes and the field are on fire. This is a poem full of passion written by a poet who is in love. He is trying to show us the woman he fell in love with, her face turned toward the fields. She is a gate into a beautiful world where everything seems alive. Even the shadows want to touch her hand, take her pulse, feel her living and breathing within. The world in this poem is hinged on her beauty. Poppies are the dominant image. They are bright flowers with delicate skin-like petals. The pods next to them are bursting. These are two strong images of female and male sexual desire.

I’ve heard it said if you want to know what’s really on a person’s mind, read the postscript. It translates the letter into a new light. In a p.s., we write those last few things we must say. This postscript is plowed through a layer of images. In the structure of the sentences, we hear a speaker trying to get something off his mind and sum it all up: It was this, it was that, it was the way she made me feel, it was how she looked. He paints a picture of her spirit swimming in light. Even her many hats say something about her vibrant character.


The spirit sweats—the horizon’s
tobacco-tinged—like thought.
Windmills image a fishing village:
boats and weathered nets.

The village of torpid windmills
hovers like a motionless harbor.
All smells of weary stasis,
uneasiness, and grief.

The hours skip past like stones,
ricochet across the shallow,
not drowning, keeping afloat,
tobacco-tinged—like thought.

There’s time before the train
but it’s drowned by apathy,
sunk in limbo, the roiling
turbulence before a storm.

Even the windmills in this fishing village are still. The buildings are cracked and weathered, the horizon is tainted by tobacco stains and the water is stagnant. We don’t want to eat these fish.

In Postscript the images surrounding the poet are ripe in his hands, and he wants to show each one of them to us. But no light is in this poem. Time stands still because the machine behind the poet’s vision has slipped into indifference, into a separate place where it is hard to believe anything outside this world is moving.

This is the gray backdrop for an urban working class, and it is weary with grief, uneasiness and apathy. In the calm before the storm, we see the speaker smoking cigarettes, looking out on the water. The “hours skip past like stones, ricochet across the shallow, not drowning, keeping afloat.” Rocks don’t float, but the image gives us a sense of what it feels like when everything around us remains the same and nothing is changing.

In Addition to All That There Was the Winter

Through lace curtains— ravens— frozen in terror of frost.
It’s the October whirling, it’s terror clawing, crawling, up the steps.
Begging, sighing, or groaning, they all rise in unison for October.
The wind grabbed the hands of the trees— they raced downstairs to get wood.
Snow falls from their knees as they enter the store—It’s been so long since we’ve met!
Did the snow, so often trampled, scatter from hooves like cocaine?

What impressed me most when I watched the movie Dr. Zhivago was all the snow. People trudge through snow from one scene to the next and tried to stay warm. Having lived in the mountains for years, I know what it’s like to live many months in snow. You grow weary of the color white. Staring into that empty color is like staring into your own soul.

ravenIn this poem we have white snow contrasted with a black raven. Ravens or large crows are also common in the mountains where I lived. Seeing one perched on top of a tree cawing out to others in the distance is ominous. These scavengers have a panoramic view of the world on their high perch and seem to speak not only to each other but to us.

The raven is also a symbol of mysticism. In Benedictine monasticism, Saint Benedict is often pictured feeding a piece of bread to a raven in the desert. In Native American cultures, the raven is thought of as a kind of supernatural guide that gives voice to our inner life.

The mystical image of the raven in this poem is contrasted with people wiping snow from their pants, breathing in and out the cold air and carrying wood, involved with the mundane tasks of life. They are on earth, in a physical place where people get cold and need to stay warm. It is another image of the poet and the mystic coming up against the cold realities of life.

One evening when I was sitting on the mountain alone I heard what sounded like many hinges bending over my head. I looked up and saw several hundred ravens passing above me. They flew to some mysterious place in the west where the sun was setting in the mountains.

Everything else on the mountain seems very quiet when you are listening to several hundred wings pass overhead, as if their wings were on hinges of many heavy doors. I felt I had a window into a world no human had ever seen. Ravens are often the shape of loneliness in poems or paintings. In my mind that night, they become something human in their need to fly together, not self-effacing mockers who sit alone in trees.

from To Love—To Go—In Endless Thunder

And so I sang, I sang and died,
I died and circled back to her
embraces like a bommerang and—
as I recall—kept on saying goodbye.

One of the most haunting scenes in Dr. Zhivago is near the end of the movie where Yuri sees Lara for the last time. He is on a bus and sees her walk by. They are old now, time and circumstance have separated them, and he had lost all hope of ever seeing her again. When he sees her pass, he stops the bus and tries to run to her but dies of a heart attack on the sidewalk just out of her reach. She walks away and never sees him.

The poems in this essay are written by a man who is full of both doubt and hope. Some poems are theaters of loneliness and silence and others are full of great applause. But whichever voice we hear, it opens on the page in an illusory, trancelike way to reveal an emotional state of the poet. Pasternak lived in a time when the landscape of the country he loved was changed by hardship. Each of these poem seems to be about surviving something, whether that be war or anguish or love.

Read Full Post »


Ivan Alekseyevich Bunin (stateless domicile in France) 1870 (in Voronezh, Russia) to 1953

Here are the opening paragraphs of Bunin’s novel The Life of Arseniev: Youth: Such things and deeds as are not written down are covered in darkness and given over to the sepulcher of oblivion, while those that are written down are like unto animate ones . . .

I was born a half-century ago in Central Russia, in the country, on my father’s estate.

We lack a sense of our beginning and end. And it is a great pity that I was told exactly when I was born. Had I not been told, I would have no idea of my age—the more so as I do not as yet at all feel its burden—and would therefore be spared the absurd thought that I must supposedly die in ten or in twenty years’ time. And had I been born and lived on a desert island, I would not have suspected even the existence of death. “What luck that would have been!” I am tempted to add. Yet who knows? Perhaps, a great misfortune. Besides, is it really true that I would not have suspected it? Are we not born with the sense of death? And if not, if I had not suspected it, would I be so fond of life as I am, and as I used to be?

Of the Arseniev stock and its origin, I really know nothing. What, after all, do we know? I only know that in the Armorial our family is included among those “whose origins are lost in the mists of time.” I know that our family is “noble though impoverished,” and that all my life I have sensed that nobility, feeling proud and glad that I am not one of those who have neither kith nor kin. On the day dedicated to the Holy Spirit, the church invests us at mass to “do homage to the memory of all who died since time began.” It offers up on that day a beautiful prayer full of deep meaning: “O Lord, let all Thy servants rest within Thy courts and in Abraham’s bosom—from Adam even to those among our fathers and brethren, friends and kinsmen, who have served Thee this day in purity!”

Is it accidental that service is mentioned here? Is it not a joy to feel one’s connection, one’s communion, with “our fathers and brethren, friends and kinsmen” who have sometime done that service? Our remotest ancestors, too, believed in the doctrine of the “pure, continual Path of the father of all that is,” handed on from mortal parents to mortal offspring through immortal “continual” life, they believed that it was commanded by the will of Agni to watch over the purity, the continuity of blood and stock, in order to prevent the desecration of that Path, lest it should be interrupted; they believed that every birth must further purify the blood of those born, and enhance the closeness of their kinship with Him Who is the sole father of all that is.

Among my ancestors there were probably many bad men too. And yet from generation to generation my ancestors enjoined one another to remember and watch over their blood. And how shall I express the emotions with which I sometimes look at our family crest? A knight’s armor, coat of mail, and helmet with ostrich feathers; and beneath, a shield; and on its azure field, in the middle—a ring, emblem of loyalty and eternity, toward which, from above and below, point three rapiers with cross-shaped hilts.
Translated by Gleb Struve and Hamish Miles

Read Full Post »

In memory of my mother


Speak then. What is it you wanted to say? Was it the way
The barge slid down the city river in sunset’s pursuit,
Two thirds of June passed, the twenty-second today
And summer on tiptoes, in an effort to stretch to the light,
How the linden trees breathed through the stifling square
And in July there was thundering, mumbling from every direction?
But that speech needed gravity, needed some weight at its core
And not lightness—that, I’m afraid, was deception.


Can you smell it: how sweet-rotting melon scented the greengrocer’s store
Out of sight in the archway the crashing of empty crates
On a breeze from the outskirts, the handcars’ jostling call
And an archive of leaf-fall covered the pavements’ gray.
Let the Rubik’s Cube fall from your hand, it is not worth the strain
All effortful planning in vain, take the grapes, eat your fill
In the quiet backyard on a bench, see for real, there in the rain
What will come to your mind in the hills and the hollows of hell.


And go now, where you were going. But your nights here, in rain
Especially in rain, the steady bare branch of the upas tree
Learnt to death like the alphabet, feels for the window pane—
G for glass, touching the frame, the words you heard at her knee
And although I learnt little at school, I see as if it were now
Through the flask’s throat and falling from above to beneath
With an unforgettable shivering, the fine sand heaping below.
The simplest device, but such an opening for grief.


You’re done for, you deceiver, you cheat, with the tottering
Tripod, your cunning replete, beat your rage on the floor like a staff
That a stream might come forth, ghostly, transparent and blossoming
With the odor of ozone under the municipal office tin roof.
The soft furnishings sting you with static—then resound,
Speak again, as if under duress, without manifesto or school
If these terrible times, this place the Lord has renounced
Can fill with such love, the straggler, the spent force that is you.


Aged forty-seven and widowed, Aizenstadt, shuffling, feels
His way round the kitchen to the empty medicine chest
Is there anything to raise a smile or a glass to here?
Not even the comical long johns, in mourning and flapping half-mast.
This place, where a good time means down in the yard by the crates
Drinking with the men who have seen a good thing or two,
Making toasts to Esenin and Chenier as if they were once mates
And another wage packet spent like the last one on booze.


After death I will leave my beloved city and there, without,
I will lift my throat to the heavens, my horns tipped back to the earth,
And marked by my sorrow I will give forth from my trumpeting mouth
To sound through the autumn wastes, the truths for which speech had no words.
How the barge was drawn down the river by sunset’s last fingering ray
How, on my left wrist, time’s steel cooled and hissed
How the magic door was unlocked with an ordinary key
Speak. Such misfortune leaves us little else.
by Sergei Gandlevskii (born 1952)
Translated by Sasha Dugdale

Read Full Post »