Tag Archives: Russian Revolution

Sentimental Tales: Mikhail Zoshchenko

“No, the author simply can’t plop down in bed, gay and lighthearted, with a Russian writer’s book in his hands.  For his own peace of mind, the author prefers to plop down with a foreign book.”

Sentimental Tales from Columbia University Press contains six of Mikhail Zoshchenko’s stories. I was attracted to this selection mainly due to the period in which the stories were written: The NEP period (The New Economic Policy 1921-1928), and the introduction gives an explanation of this era “Lenin introduced with the main aim of stabilizing a war-ravaged economy” and which “brought elements of capitalism–including, inadvertently speculation and profiteering into the workers’ state.” I’m not an expert on Russian history, but I’m fascinated by it–the revolution, the civil war, and then this rather bizarre short-lived NEP period which began before the death of Lenin (1924) and Stalin’s rise to power.

sentimental tales

Again I’m quoting from the introduction:

Into the fraught sociocultural landscape stepped Zoshchenko, a satirist who hid behind so many masks that it was impossible to determine whom, exactly, he was mocking.

After reading these stories in which Ukrainian Zoshchenko (1894-1958) takes swipes at everyone, I am amazed that the author survived the Purges. Again, the introduction goes into the subject of Zoshchenko’s “gallows humor,” his “devastating indictment of Soviet life, and of life in general,” and the critical responses to his work.

Kolenkorov is our rather chatty narrator, and while no one escapes his scathing wit, still these stories, in spite of their focus on human frailties, are poignant:

Apollo and Tamara

People

A Terrible Night

What the Nightingale Sang

A Merry Adventure

Lilacs in Bloom

Apollo and Tamara is a love story. Apollo, a “pianist-for-hire, musician, and freelance artist,” is “graced with the countenance of a Lothario, romancer, and destroyer of families,” but, in reality he’s timid around women, and uses his devotion to Art to avoid any commitments. Apollo falls in love but is drafted into the army. Apollo’s life goes downhill. …

People is the story of Ivan Ivanovich Belokopytov whose father is obsessed with French culture.  Belokopytov inherits a large estate, and “always rich and secure” he gives away his most of fortune believing that “human beings should make their own way in the world.” Besieged by relatives, peasants and a revolutionary group, Ivan starts writing “his first little book of poems for publication, under the title, A Bouquet of Mignonette.” After being placed under surveillance for his political sympathies, Ivan leaves Russia in 1910 but returns, after marrying a Russian Ballerina, as the Revolution rages on.

Boris Ivanovich Kotofeyev is the main character in A Terrible Night. In many ways, Boris appears to have landed on his feet when he marries his landlady and becomes: “lord and master of the entire estate. The wheel, the shed, the rake, the stone–all these were now his inalienable property.” Boris becomes obsessed with the idea that Chance has played a huge factor in his life and so “he tried to avoid it.” Thanks to his belief that Chance can break or break a life, a series of events takes Boris to a “former teacher of Calligraphy” who has fallen on hard times. This meeting seeds unease in Boris which cannot be shaken.

In When the Nightingale Sang, a love story, the narrator imagines what people will say in a hundred years, and there’s a passage that seemed very true.

And will it really be wondrous, this future life? That’s another question. For the sake of his own peace of mind, the author chooses to believe that this future life will be just as full of nonsense and rubbish as the one we are living. 

This tale concerns a middle-aged civil servant, Bylinkin whose “stock began to rise” in middle age. His hair may be thinning, but his “figure had filled out. He had reabsorbed. so to speak, the vital juices of which he’d been drained.” Fate leads him to take a room at the home of the elderly Daria Vasilyevna Rundukova “who was afraid that, due to the housing crisis, their living space per person might be reduced with the forcible introduction of some crude and superfluous individual.” 

A Merry Adventure, which contains a long chat from the narrator to the audience, the subject of Russian literature is raised

Now let’s look at our precious Russian literature. First off, the weather’s a mess. It’s either blizzards or storms. You’ve got the wind blowing in characters’ faces all the time. And they aren’t exactly agreeable folks, these characters. Always flinging curses at each other. Badly dressed. Instead of merry, joyous adventures, you get all sorts of troubles and misfortunes, or stuff that just puts you to sleep.

No, the author doesn’t agree with this kind of literature. Sure, there might be lots of good and brilliant books in it, and who the hell knows how many profound ideas and various words–but the author just can’t find emotional balance and joy in any of it.

I mean why is it that the French can depict all these excellent, calming aspects of life and we can’t? Come on comrades–for pity’s sake! What–is there a shortage of good facts in our life? Are we lacking in light and cheerful adventures? Or are we, in your opinion, low on ravishing heroines?

In Lilacs in Bloom, after assessing her living arrangements, profession and income, Volodin marries Margarita. His material comfort increases, but after three years of married life, he falls in love with another woman. …

The connections between the stories of love, life and regret are the absurdities and meaninglessness of life. Love, success, comfort are all set against the instability and unpredictability of Russian society. One can strive for decades and it will all be for nought. Reading these reminded me of Dostoevsky’s lighter work. Wonderful.

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Translated by Boris Dralyuk

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The Kremlin Ball: Curzio Malaparte

“It rather appears that Stalin doesn’t like certain worldly behaviors of the Soviet nobility, nor does he like scandals involving women. Stalin, at heart, is a puritan.”

Curzio Malaparte’s The Kremlin Ball grants a look at 1929 Stalinist Russia which is terrifying, delirious and hypnotic: this is a freshly transformed society, post revolution, post civil war, post NEP and post Lenin’s death that is already teetering on its decaying legs. Trotsky is in exile, and Kamenev has been arrested: “The great purge had begun,” but in these early days, no one quite grasps what is happening.  Think of the Titanic as it hits the iceberg and that’s the feeling which seeps through these pages.

The Kremlin Ball

Malaparte is shocked by what he finds in Moscow; a new social elite has risen on the corpses of those they’ve replaced. There’s still an obsession with “Western behaviours,” and some people, always trying to keep ahead of fashion, have clothes delivered from London:

I had arrived in Moscow believing I would find a tough, intransigent, puritan class in power who had risen from the working class and who abided by a Marxist puritanism.

Malaparte moves through society, mingling with those who appear to be in control, and he watches the doomed–those who have power which is so soon to slip from their grasp:

They had very suddenly risen up to sleep in the beds of the great women of the tsarist nobility, to sit in the gilded chairs of the tsarist officials, carrying out the same functions that until the day before had been carried out by the tsarist nobility. 

Malaparte mingles with the highest echelons of Soviet society; he rubs shoulders with politicians, their wives, listens to gossip about ballerinas, attends balls and dinners, recording all he sees, even as Stalin’s brooding, malevolent presence lingers over every society event. Malaparte recalls the French revolution and draws comparisons:

The chief characteristic of the communist nobility is not bad taste, vulgarity or bad manners, nor is it the complacency of wealth, luxury, and power: it is the suspicion, and, I would also add, ideological intransigence. All of us in Moscow were united in our praise for the spareness and simplicity of Stalin’s lifestyle, of his simple, elegant, worker-like ways: but Stalin did not belong to the communist nobility. Stalin was Bonaparte after the coup of 18 Brumaire. 

Some of the characters Malaparte meets are ‘ghosts’ of the past regime–they’ve survived, and yet they may as well not exist–even as they hang onto life by a fingertip. One of the book’s greatest scenes takes place at the flea market on Smolensky Boulevard. Malaparte goes there with Bulgakov and runs into “ghosts of the tsarist aristocracy” who are selling their “meager treasures.” A surreal meeting takes place between Malaparte and Prince Lvov who is trying to sell an armchair. There’s also an incredible meeting between Malaparte and Florinsky, the Chief of Protocol of the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Republic who rides around Moscow in a carriage:

All rouged and powdered, his little yellow eyes rimmed with black, his eyelashes hardened with mascara.

On another occasion, Malaparte meets Trotsky’s sister, Olga Kamenev. She’s waiting for death to arrive, even as she continues her work in the face of her doom. Others will soon die, and there’s a motif of rot and death throughout the book. Malaparte visits Lenin’s Tomb,  the morgue (or what passes for a morgue) and a glue factory where a “mountain of dead animals” emits a stench of rot even as the animals are converted into usable objects. People are being arrested, others commit suicide: Death awaits nearly everyone Malaparte meets, and of course there’s a subtle comparison to be drawn between the piles of animal corpses and the soon-to be dead:

What did Trotsky think would happen if he lost? The hateful thing, in my opinion, about Trotsky wasn’t that he killed thousands upon thousands of the bourgeoisie, of counterrevolutionaries, of  tsarist officers, nor that he killed them with bad feelings–good feelings do not make for a good revolution–but I reproached him for having placed himself at the head of a political faction that identified itself with the corrupt Soviet ruling class of the years 1929-1930. Behind his rhetoric lurked the pederast, the prostitute, the enriched bourgeoisie, the petty officers, all those who exploited the October Revolution. Trotsky’s sin was not that he had placed himself at the head of a proletarian faction, but at the head of the most corrupt faction comprised of the revolutionary proletarian exploiters.

The Russian Revolution, the Russian Civil War, and the Great Purges, but this is a time in-between: 1929. So many people had been slaughtered, but many many more were to die. There’s a sense of unease, a troubled sleep in between the past violence and the violence yet to come, and Malaparte’s amazing, perverse intellect, devoid of moral judgement, captures this moment in time. Malaparte ruminates about Russian literature and how the characters in Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol, Goncharov and Chekhov “were alive in a world inhabited by death.” He discusses religion, death and the nature of revolutions while evoking Proust, Balzac, and Russia’s greatest authors. This is a brilliant work which will make my best-of year list.

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Translated by Jenny McPhee

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Triumph and Disaster: Five Historical Miniatures: Stefan Zweig

German Literature Month 2017

“Perhaps he also senses the dark wings of destiny beating.”

In Triumph and Disaster: Five Historical Miniatures, Stefan Zweig explores five moments from history, and with great style he recreates these moments showing instances of human failing, victory and sometimes just the fickle hand of fate. The introduction builds Zweig’s premise as he tells us that in life, “a great many indifferent and ordinary incidents happen” but that “sublime moments that will never be forgotten are few and far between.” In this collection, Zweig isn’t interested in the ordinary–instead he hunts for the “truly historic shooting star of humanity.” 

What usually happens at a leisurely pace, in sequence and due order, is concentrated into a single moment that determines and establishes everything: a single Yes, a single No, a Too Soon, or a Too Late makes that hour irrevocable for hundreds of generations while deciding the life of a single man or woman, of a nation, even the destiny of all humanity. 

Here are the five sections of this book which runs to just over 160 pages:

The Field of Waterloo

The Race to Reach the South Pole

The Conquest of Byzantium

The Sealed Train

Wilson’s Failure

Of the five chapters The Field of Waterloo and The Conquest of Byzantium are my favourites. That may partly be because I still have queasy memories of Beryl Bainbridge’s The Birthday Boys from last year, so I was overdosed when it came to the story of the 1910 catastrophic journey to Antarctica.

Triumph and Disaster

The Field of Waterloo is simply magnificent. Most of us have the rudimentary facts of the battle–who won and who lost, but Zweig recreates this incredible moment in history, and brings this episode to life.

Destiny makes its urgent way to the mighty and those who do violent deeds. It will be subservient for years on end to a single man–Caesar, Alexander, Napoleon–for it loves those elemental characters that resemble destiny itself, an element that is so hard to comprehend.

Sometimes, however, very seldom at all times, and on a strange whim, it makes its way to some unimportant man. Sometimes-and these are the most astonishing moments in international history-for a split second the strings of fate are pulled by a man who is a complete nonentity. Such people are always more alarmed than gratified by the storm of responsibility that casts them into the heroic drama of the world.

And that brings me to Waterloo.

The news is hurled like a cannonball crashing into the dancing, love affairs, intrigues and arguments of the Congress of Vienna: Napoleon, the lion in chains, has broken out of his cage on Elba. 

“The fantastic firework of Napoleons’ existence shoots up once more into the skies;” Napoleon takes Lyons and goes to Paris while Wellington advances. Blücher and the Prussian army march to join Wellington. Zweig explains that Napoleon decides he must “attack them separately.” He engages the Prussian army at Ligny, and the Prussians withdraw. Napoleon knows he must ensure that the Prussians do not join Wellington’s forces and so he “splits off a part of his own army so that it can chase the Prussians” with the intention that the Prussians do not return and join Wellington’s forces.

He gives command of this pursuing army to Marshal Grouchy, an average military officer, brave, upright, decent, reliable. A Calvary commander who has often proved his worth, but only a cavalry commander, no more. Not a hot-headed berserker or a cavalryman like Murat, not a strategist like Saint-Cyr and Berthier, not a hero like Ney. […]

He is famous only for his bad luck and misfortune. 

And I’ll stop there. The Field of Waterloo is thrilling and breathtaking, full of Napoleon’s futile hopes and desperation. Zweig paces this perfectly. The Conquest of Byzantium is nail-bitingly tense,  and this section begins with the rise of Sultan Mahomet, a man whose intense duality of passions leads him to “take Byzantium” by siege, and the scene is set with Mahomet’s army of 100,000 men and the city under siege with just 1,000 soldiers who wait “for death.” The descriptions of the fighting are breathtakingly intense, and then “the fate of Byzantium is decided” by an open gate. The Sealed Train, the story of Lenin’s return to Russia, has an ominous undertone to it, and Wilson’s Failure (the Treaty of Versailles) follows Wilson’s health struggles set against the divisiveness of politics of the time.

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Translated by Anthea Bell.

 

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What You Did Not Tell: Mark Mazower

Mark Mazower’s memoir What You Did Not Tell: A Russian Past and the Journey Home is an exploration of his family’s lost past. The memoir opens with the death of the author’s father–an event which leads Mazower to dig through his father’s diaries. “I thought I knew my Dad well,” Mazower ruminates, “but the day he died I began to realize how much of his life was unknown to me. “ Thus begins the author’s journey which reaches back to his long-dead grandfather, Max, who died in 1952, 6 years before Mark Mazower’s birth. Ultimately this is a memoir that explores a family fractured by displacement and political upheaval–a family that was forced to transform, reinvent their lives and settle into a new, completely different social reality.

What you did not tell

The author’s research uncovers a remarkable history. Jewish Max Mazower, born in Grodno was a political activist in the Bund, an organizer working with a cover name. 1909 found Max living in exile, but he reemerged only to find employment with a British typewriter company. As a “continental manager,” he worked in Russia, but in 1919, Max was forced to escape St Petersburg when he was “tipped off” that arrest was imminent for the charge of espionage. Max had every reason to worry about his safety in Russia:

Since 1901 he had been sent twice to Siberia, escaping both times; he had lived an exile’s life in Switzerland and Germany; and he had run Bund operations in Vilna, Warsaw, and Lódź. He had been on the run, arrested, and questioned many times over, and he had sacrificed the prospect of domesticity for the cause of socialism.

While part of the book is Max’s story, other chapters spread to other family members, including the author’s grandmother Frouma. One of the most fascinating sections concerns André, a child Max may or may not have fathered.

The story that had come down in the family was that when he was a baby, André had been brought by Max to London shortly before the First World War after André’s mother, Sofia, a fellow revolutionary, had died. In the absence of a birth, marriage, or death certificate, it was hard to be sure. Max had preserved an almost total silence about how or why this had come about, and he never mentioned the subject to Dad.

André reinvented himself several times and clearly saw his life in opposition to Max’s beliefs. The author recalls how his father was drawn, sometimes rather unhappily, into André’s life.  Another of my favourite sections concerns Max’s wife, Frouma and her child Ira from an earlier union.

While in many ways this book is a testament to the author’s love for his father, it spreads to an appreciation for other family members and the many hardships they endured. This is a very personal memoir, but it also offers a panoramic view of a world of revolutionaries, party affiliations, and countries in flux. Because the memoir is so personal the unknown fates of many relatives seem especially poignant. While Max built a new life for himself in England, one brother, Zachar, was in Vilna while another, Semyon, was in St Peterburg.

“Three brothers and three choices, or better-since choice does not feel quite right–three wagers on fate is how it might seem.”

Frouma had some relatives who survived occupied France while others survived in Russia, so while the fate of some relatives is known, others simply vanished. What conclusions can you come to when you realize that your relations were in a city that became a ghetto with all of the inhabitants carted off for death? Common sense leads to the obvious conclusion, and yet there’s no definitive knowledge. People just vanish. Relatives disappear forever, and the obvious conclusion just doesn’t seem enough. Reading the memoir brings the thought that  life is a very fragile thing. Max made the right choices at the right time; plus he was lucky while so many others were not.

Maps and photographs magnify this memoir, and of all the photographs included, for this reader, the most meaningful is the photo of the author with his father on Hampstead Heath. This photograph says a great deal about the man whose life was impacted, indirectly, by revolution, upheaval, uncertainty and danger.

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1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution: Selected by Boris Dralyuk

“Every pickpocket who takes a wallet from some heedless passer-by can now say that he’s a follower of Lenin.”

“Why not? Lenin takes somebody else’s house, a pickpocket takes somebody else’s wallet. The only difference is one of scale. After all, great ships need deep waters.” (Teffi)

Welcome to 2017, a year to mark the 100 year anniversary of the Russian Revolution. It’s perhaps then not surprising  that the ever innovative Pushkin Press should mark the occasion with a very special book: 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution. Editor Boris Dralyuk concentrated his selections on the period between February 1917 and late 1919 with the aim “to steep the reader in its tumult-to recreate that heady brew of enthusiasm and disgust, passion and trepidation that intoxicated Russia and the world as events unfolded.” 

1917

Contents:

The Revolution: A Poem Chronicle

Stolen Wine:

Marina Tsvetaeva

Zinaida Gippius

Osip Mandelstam

A Distant Voice:  

Osip Mandelstam

Anna Akhmatova

Boris Pasternak

Wake Me Tomorrow

Mikhail Kuzmin

Sergey Esenin

Iron Flowers

Mikhail Gerasimov

Vladimir Kirillov

Alexey Kraysky

Purifying Fire

Andrey Bely

Alexander Blok

Titsian Tabidze

Our March

Vladimir Mayakovsky

Prose

The Break

Alexander Kuprin

Valentin Kataev

Alexander Serafimovich

Dovid Bergelson

Teffi

Vasily Rozanov

Alexey Remizov

Of Dragons and Men

Yefim Zozulya

Yevgeny Zamyatin

Blue Banners and Scarlet Sails

Mikhail Prishvin

Alexander Grin

Future Prospects

Mikhail Zoshchenko

Mikhail Bulgakov

One of the important aspects of this collection is that these pieces were not written with hindsight; they were written at a very specific moment of history, capturing the transient feelings of those times. Not only does this collection gather together the most important creative voices of the period, but each section gives a short bio of the writers–along with their fate (so few lived to old age.) I had intended to write a short description of what happened to each writer before I came to this review but the editor did this in the book, and shows, effectively how writers of such amazing talent were killed or displaced–an entire generation swept off the map.

I won’t review every piece–some given the outcome of the Russian revolution and subsequent civil war are extremely painful–but instead I’ll say that by far my favourite is Kuprin’s story (perhaps not too surprising since I loved The Duel.) Kuprin’s tale Sasha and Yasha: An Old Story is an incredibly moving piece in which we are left to wonder what happened to the characters whose photographs are in an old album:

It feels like none of it ever existed: the glorious army, the extraordinary soldiers, the heroic officers, our dear, good, carefree comfortable Russian life… The old album’s pages tremble in my hand as I turn them.

Teffi presents a frightening picture of Russian society with her vicious little story The Guillotine, and in her piece, A Few Words About Lenin (1917), she presents an unflattering portrait of the man and his ideology.

He sensed nothing, predicted nothing. He knew nothing but what he’d been stuffed with: the history of socialism

Yefim Zozulya’s story,  The Story of Ak and Humanity augurs the Red Terror yet to come with the commodification of the individual.

Those whose existence is found to be superfluous will cease to exist within 24 hours.

I loved Alexander Grin’s story, The Soul’s Pendulum, a story in which a man sees the revolution as one of history’s “exhilarating and magnificent upheavals.”  Valentin Kataev’s story The Drum focuses on a group of cadets–one in particular whose greatest concern in life is getting some extra time with his sweetheart, but everything changes when the news arrives that the Tsar has abdicated. On the other side of the political equation, Bolshevik Alexander Serafimovich’s story How He Died is also incredibly moving even though it’s initially heavy-handed. This is a wonderful collection that provides many pointers for those who wish to expand their knowledge of Russian literature, but readers are best advised to come to the book with some idea of the history of the period.

A poem by Blok 

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The Memoirs of Baron N. Wrangel 1847-1920: From Serfdom to Bolshevism (part II)

In an earlier post about The Memoirs of Baron N. Wrangel, I selected a scene from Nikolai Egorovich’s childhood. Nikolai’s mother died when he was four years old, and she left 7 children behind. He has a fairly miserable childhood marked by benign neglect but full of interesting incidents and observations. In one section, he notes visiting his uncle, a commandant of a fortress. The name of the fortress isn’t given but I’m wondering if it is the Peter and Paul Fortress as Wrangel tells us that the Decembrists were kept there until they were executed or exiled. Wrangel glimpses an unknown prisoner held captive during Catherine’s reign and still there sixty years later through the reigns of three tsars.  I thought right away of the Man in the Iron Mask–he was a prisoner for 34 years.

Wrangel seeds his memoirs with commentary about Russian society. For example he notes how each landowner was required to deliver serf “recruits” for the army, and these poor devils were then expected to serve for twenty-five years.

More was demanded of a man than he could possibly do. They were beaten and treated like dogs, and many died under the lash. The method was to kill three if necessary, in order to train one man.

The people themselves looked on the conscript as a man condemned to death, and on his departure as the equivalent of a funeral. As soon as the choice was made, the man chosen by his master was immediately handcuffed, imprisoned and guarded to prevent his committing suicide. The whole village gathered about his prison, and he would be given spirits to console him.

And then there’s a particularly despotic landowner, Count Visaur, murdered by a couple of his serfs. Wrangel makes a visit with his father to the dead man’s estate. It’s for sale:

Instead of one big house he had six or seven fairly roomy small ones, each built in a different style. According to his steward, each had contained a harem of women recruited from the wives and daughters of his serfs. They were all dressed to match their surroundings–in Chinese costume in the Chinese house, in Spanish dress in another house, and so on. The Count lived first in one house, then in another.

These houses were surrounded by a beautiful garden containing flower beds, canals with gondolas floating on them, artificial pools and statues. However the statues were no longer there and only their pedestals were there to be seen. The count’s old steward explained their absence telling us they were working in the fields. In the dead proprietor’s time the statues were living men and women, stripped naked and painted white. They had to stay motionless in their poses for hours at a time, when the Count was sailing in his gondola or walking in the garden. He even showed us the torture house–a torture chamber would not have been enough. It contained everything–whips, the boot–I cannot remember them all now. Being neither an executioner nor a victim, the names of these things did not interest me.

The Count’s death was quite as fantastic as his mode of life. One day when he was strolling past a group representing Hercules and Venus, the two statues jumped down from their pedestal; Venus threw sand in his eyes, and Hercules broke his neck with his club.

They were tried and condemned to the knout. Venus died under it and Hercules was sent to Siberia.

Later,in 1859,  a formative, traumatic incident takes place which illustrates the sorry lot of some poor educators who have the misfortune to work for the nobility, but I can’t say that the incident is exclusive to Russia as it’s a scene that could very well take place in a Thomas Hardy novel. It’s a scene that Nikolai witnesses, puts two and two together, and comes up with the correct, sordid conclusion.  A failed attempt at suicide ends with Nikolai requesting to be sent to Switzerland, and his father agrees.

This is a wonderful time for Nikolai, and he quickly adapts to the free spirited society in which he mingles. He meets Dumas and Princess Metternich but rather disappointingly doesn’t give us his impressions of the former. Meanwhile, back in Russia, Alexander II abolishes serfdom, Geneva is swarming with nihilists and anarchists, and Wrangel has time for neither. An anecdote concerning Bakunin sounds third hand.

Wrangel returns to Russia and then he sees the reforms for himself. The serfs can now marry as they please and it is illegal to beat them (that doesn’t stop Wrangel’s father), but the abolishment of serfdom has backfired in ways that no one predicted:

These months which I spent in the new Russia gave me an impression which I cannot describe. A new era had begun. Serfdom, which is an obstacle to all progress, no longer existed, but its abolition had not yet had the results which one was entitled to expect.

Neither the lords nor the former serfs could keep pace with the new order. The former, accustomed to forced labour which cost them nothing, thought themselves ruined, let their land go to the devil, turned everything they could into money by cutting down their woods wholesale, and by selling their property to speculators who did not buy with the intention of working the estate, but held it in the hope of a rise in land value.

The serfs, trained in obedience, and as yet incapable of looking after themselves, used their liberty to have a good time and drink as much as they could hold.  Meanwhile agriculture and the land fell into decay.

The Russia of the past had vanished, and that of the future was yet to come.

That’s Wrangel’s version of the reforms, and it’s patronizing towards the serfs, who according to Wrangel, seem to see life as one big party, and without a master to ‘guide’ their decisions, they have become degenerates.  He doesn’t mention that household serfs, who used to work as free labour, now were to be paid, so the landowners learned (or tried to learn) to manage with less, so many former serfs were simply cast adrift. The land serfs–now peasants–were so deeply harnessed with debt for the over-priced, usually poorer quality land they’d been allocated, they were working harder than ever trying to dig their way out of impossible debt.  The former serfs were to repay the debt as ‘redemption payments’ over a period of 49 years.

Now that landowners had to pay wages, they discovered that they had to cut back their lavish lifestyles:

“I’ve made some reforms too” said my father. “I’ve only got twelve carriage horses in the stables now, and five saddle horses; one for myself, two for your sisters, and two for visitors. It’s quite enough. Nobody comes to the country anymore. The kennels are done away with, the hot houses are shut up, and there are only eight gardeners left. Manners change with the times. You’ve got to put a check on your fancies nowadays.”

Translated by Brian and Beatrix Lunn

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The Memoirs of Baron N. Wrangel 1847-1920: From Serfdom to Bolshevism

I’m reading the memoirs of Baron Wrangel, and you know, just from the dates in the title, that this man lived through some fantastic, turbulent times. Wrangel was to live through a number of Tsars, but when the book opens, Emperor Nicholas I ruled Russia “like a gamekeeper.”

Under his administration of the empire, based as it was upon a system of flogging, imprisonment and exile to Siberia, the great could indulge their caprices with impunity, and my father, like most men, was cast in the mould of his period. He carefully concealed his feelings under a mask of harshness.

The author argues that although society consisted of master and serf, ” in reality… the masters were also slaves.” People still remember the Décemberistes, but this is not a topic for discussionIn this culture of extreme censorship and conformity, Dostoevsky was sent to Siberia. Later Lermontov fell foul of the same Tsar and was exiled to the Caucasus twice only to meet his tragic death in 1841. Nicholas I wasn’t gentle with some of Russia’s greatest writers.

The memoirs begin, naturally enough, with Nikolai Egorovich’s childhood. His mother died when he was four and he only has a few fragmented memories of her.  It’s  a large household–four boys, three girls, many serfs, and two aunts. Aunt Ida is “shrewish and spiteful,” but Aunt Jeanne is completely different:

Aunt Jeanne, on the other hand, was a kind soul, simple-minded and good-hearted. Brought up when the Emperor Paul was still alive, at the “convent of Smolny for daughters of the nobility,” she retained the traditions of that period. Through fear of being thought “shameless,” she never spoke to young men, and would blush and cast down her eyes when replying to gentlemen of ripe years. She usually kept to her own apartments, and preferred playing with her pugs and listening to the song of her canaries to taking part in conversation in the drawing room. The amount of sweets she was able to devour was unbelievable. Even to watch her was enough to give one indigestion.

Our great delight was to ask her the time. The answer was invariably the same. “Thank God, I have never been compelled to learn that. For such things I have my women.” And she would ring for her maid.

“Tell me what time it is by this watch.”

What a culture of contrasts. A member of the nobility who calls her maid to tell the time, a nursemaid who faces down Nikolai’s father in order to spare the children a whipping, and serfs married to those “allotted” to them while the idea of free choice is a subject of hilarity.

Translated by Brian and Beatrix Lunn

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The Black Russian by Vladimir Alexandrov

I’m going to throw a question out there… Would you want your life to be defined by history? In my mind, the question is accompanied by images of Ulysses S. Grant,  Mannerheim, and Makhno–men who happened to be born at a crucial time in history and whose lives were swept up in war. But cast these images aside, and let’s start looking at something a little less famous, a lot less stature, and this brings me to The Black Russian, a non-fiction book by Vladimir Alexandrov–an incredible tale of how one man’s life was ripped apart by history and the dominant, brutal attitudes to race and class.

The Black RussianThis book tells the remarkable story of the life of Frederick Bruce Thomas who was born in 1872 to former slaves who were farmers in Mississippi. Just looking at the date of the date of Frederick’s birth tells us that he was born to a whole new Southern world, but a society that was still in a great deal of post-Civil War turmoil. Frederick’s parents must have been remarkable people as they managed to amass, at one point, 625 acres of land which they successfully farmed. But their very prosperity led to a powerful local, white landowner tricking them out of their land with a “multilayered trap” which included false threats and manufactured debts. Basically run off their land penniless, Frederick’s family fought back seeking legal redress, but after Frederick’s father was brutally murdered, the family sank into poverty once again.

Frederick set out in the world on his own and always seemed to make very concise intelligent decisions, and even though the choices he could make in his work world were very limited due to his race, nonetheless, a clear pattern emerges which “prefigures his future life and career.” Frederick quickly attached himself to those who could afford luxuries. He didn’t get stuck working in a back water dump of motel but always lived in large cities which attracted the wealthy who had money to spend.

he [had] entered an elegant service industry, one that existed for the benefit of people with money and social standing. No matter how lowly or demanding Frederick’s own labours might have been, he was nevertheless involved in providing adornments for those who could afford to pay for such luxuries.

Frederick worked as a waiter, but again, only in the most expensive restaurants and then after a successful career in Chicago and New York, in 1894, he sailed for London. Unfortunately, we don’t know what Frederick thought of England, but there are many quotes included from white Americans visiting London during the same time period who expressed a range of views–some outraged and some delighted–at the way “American negro[s]” “can go into the finest restaurants and be served just like a white man.” Frederick ran a boarding house in Leicester Square but it was a short lived endeavor, and then off to Paris where he worked for a few years and quickly learned French. But he was still restless and moved onto Brussels and the Riviera. It’s as though he auditioned countries to find his next home, and then, rather surprisingly, he finally settled in Moscow, married, started a family, and became one of the most successful variety theatre & restaurant owners in Russia. His theatres attracted the curious and those with money to throw away, and in one of his establishments, Maxim’s, he introduced the “theme space” which appears to foreshadow the outrageous hotels of Vegas.  With Frederick as an affluent millionaire, bribing local officials to look the other way for the risqué acts he searched the globe for, this should have ended as a happy story, but 1917 rolled around and a penniless 47-year-old Frederick, with his second wife and children found himself fleeing from the Bolsheviks and boarding a ship in 1919 full of American refugees. Good thing the American consul had no idea that Frederick had become a Russian citizen in 1915 under special dispensation from the Czar.

The Black Russian tells a tale of courage, ingenuity, dizzying success, flight, and then disaster. Frederick’s incredible life was bookended by racism and class-hatred, and what a tragic roller-coaster ride. He fled a country in which his class held him to the lowest, domestic positions, then, with his own unique talent and nose for business, he reinvented himself and was a phenomenal success in Russia, of all places, only to have it ripped from him by the Bolsheviks who saw him primarily as upper class and not as a black man who’d succeeded against the odds. This is one of those stories that if it were fiction, the average reader who toss aside after a few chapters thinking that the story was too implausible.  The Black Russian begins as  a gripping adventure story as Frederick’s family flees a panic-stricken Odessa, and then the book segues back into Frederick’s beginnings, his search for success, his dramatic failures in Constantinople and his ignominious end. The book also provides a backdrop of the society of the times, and while this is, at times, essential, the information is sometimes anticlimactic when compared to the main story.

At the peak of his success, Frederick was worth “about $10 million in today’s currency.”  While The Black Russian is the tale of one man’s rise and fall, the book also shows that Frederick, once liberated from the racial attitudes that held him to menial domestic positions in America, soared in a society in which his colour was no impediment. Intelligent, forward-thinking and unleashed in a country in which his colour was not an issue, Frederick showed just how successful he could be. It’s impossible not to read his story and consider how Frederick’s life would have been contained and limited if he’d stayed in America. Not only do we see  Frederick’s intelligence and strategic planning, we also see his sense of humor and how he loved to play with the American tourists who came his way, acting out–somewhat outrageously–their lowest expectations of a “semiliterate” subservient American black domestic–even though quite obviously diamond-flashing Frederick did not fit their stereotypical racist ideas and was, in fact, at the height of his success, a cosmopolitan figure, a successful, worldly millionaire who carved a fortune with his intelligence and adaptability.

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Moscow but Dreaming by Ekaterina Sedia

The cover of the short story collection, Moscow but Dreaming caught my eye. I’d never heard of the author Ekaterina Sedia before, but since I have a fondness for most things Russian (Ekaterina was born and raised in Moscow but now lives in New Jersey), I decided to read the book–and this in spite of the fact that I wasn’t sure that the collection was my sort of thing at all. I admit that I didn’t care for the first story, but by the time I got to the next one, I was hooked into reading this beguiling, eclectic mix. History, fantasy, science fiction, and even the macabre, yes it’s all here from the talented and multi-track mind of this young Russian author whose work, peppered with elements of folklore and the supernatural stretches genre boundaries in a China Mieville/Neil Gaiman sort of way. Here’s her website, and just the design alone should give you a hint of this author’s work.

moscow but dreamingOne of my favourite stories is Citizen Komarova Finds Love and concerns the displaced, impoverished Countess Komarova, who following the upheaval of the Russian Revolution, finds herself displaced from her family’s ruined mansion and working in a shop in the town of N.

The owner of the shop, a man as old as he was ornery, let her rent the room above the shop, where the wind howled under the roof thatched with a ragtag team of tiles and shingles. There was a small and round metal stove, known colloquially as ‘bourgeoisie,’ as indiscriminate and insatiable as its namesake: it burned books, pianos, furniture, twigs and entire palmate fir branches, crackling birch logs. It gave back cherry-red heat that spread in waves through the room over the shop, and broke over the stained walls, much like the distant Mediterranean over its rock shores.

Countess Komorova, now plain citizen Komarova, spends a great deal of time on her memories–in particular, a childhood holiday spent in the Mediterranean.  The bleak winter days of the Revolution continue, and “whatever nobility survived” gravitate to the shop, and hoping to gain a few coins, they drag their bedraggled finery with them. Naturally there’s not much of a market, and the goods pile up waiting for the buyers who never come. Since the shop is run on consignment, there’s not much to lose.

The rest of January passed in the sparse slow sifting of snow from the clouds, grey and heavy like quicksilver. The stock of the consignment shop increased: every dress and fur coat and petticoat and necklace, every ring and feathered hat had made its way there, as the former nobility grew hungrier and less optimistic about the possible return of the old order of things. The corners were now filled with rustling of lace and slow undulations of peacock feathers, their unblinking green and azure eyes nodding in the drafts. Countess Komorova, who in her entire lifetime never experienced such luxury, stroked the ermine muffs and guarded them jealously from marauding moths.

But then one day, in comes a different sort of customer, a Red cavalryman who brings in four horseshoes. He returns several times and with each visit, the items he brings are stranger than the ones before….

Another favourite is Tin Cans, a story told by an elderly night watchman who considers himself lucky to get a job at the Tunisian embassy, once the house of Beria. This is a ghost story, but even so there’s a marvelous quote about Brighton Beach–a place the old man has visited:

I don’t know why anyone would voluntarily live in Brighton Beach, that sad and gray throwback to the provincial towns of the USSR in the seventies, fringed by the dirty hem of a particularly desperate ocean. The irony is of course that every time you’re running from something, it follows you around, like the tin can tied to a dog’s shaggy tail. Those Brooklyn inhabitants, they brought everything they hated with them.

The narrator, who’s one step from extreme poverty, feels lucky to get the job, but the nights in the embassy halls bring no peace, and instead the night watchman glimpses ugly scenes of Russian history.

But all the stories are not concerned with Russian history.  One story Hector Meets the King presents a different version of the Hector of the Iliad. In One, Two Three, set in America a desperate childless couple adopt a “malevolent house spirit,” a Kikimora, and in There’s a Monster Under Helen’s Bed, an American couple adopt a very damaged Russian child. The latter, is, of course, rather topical thanks to Putin’s recent decision to ban the adoption of Russian children to America.

Another story I really liked was Yakov and the Crows, a story about an office worker who befriends crows that visit the workplace looking for food, and there’s also Chapaev and the Coconut Girl–a story about a young Russian woman  working in America who having developed AI cockroaches in her lab, works on developing an AI Chapaev, a man she “worships.” The Bank of Burkina Faso concerns the deposed Prince of Burundi who now lives in a Moscow apartment scheming of ways to collect his millions which are in the elusive Bank of Burkina Faso. I thought this was going to morph into a con-artist story, but instead this became a story of collective dreaming. Anyway, this has to be the imaginative short story collection I’ve come across in some time, and that makes it difficult to put into any sort of neat, descriptive box. The introduction by author Jeffrey Ford mentions the description Magical Realism, at the same time noting that this is a “weak term” when applied to Sedia’s work. Magical Realism, IMO opinion, fits well with Spanish literature, but with Russian literature, we’re looking at something much more nebulous–something that sits uneasily on the fringes of evil–the dark and treacherous space between how we live and what we endure.

Review copy

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An Evening with Claire by Gaito Gazdanov

“And perhaps the reason I always briefly regretted leaving people and countries, perhaps this feeling of only very fleeting regret was evanescent precisely because nothing that I saw and loved–soldiers, officers, women, snow and war–will ever leave me, not until the time has come for my last deathly voyage, the slow fall into the black abyss, a million times more protracted than my earthly existence, so long that while I am falling I will have time to forget about everything that I have seen and remembered and felt and loved; and when I have forgotten everything that I have loved, then I will die.”

Far into Gaito Gazdanov’s novella, An Evening with Claire, the narrator, a young man named Kolya, discusses the Civil War with his renegade uncle Vitaly, a Russian dragoon captain who challenged his commanding officer to a duel. When the commanding officer refused, Vitaly slapped his face and ended up in prison for 5 years. A cuckold and a freethinker, Vitaly advises his nephew not to listen to his teachers or to priests because they are all “idiots” and tell lies. It’s Russia, 1919, and Vitaly learns that his soon-to-be-16-year-old nephew has enlisted in the White Army, not from any political ideology, but because he is on White territory and it’s “expected” of him. Vitaly tells Kolya:

“Russia,” he said, “is entering the zone of the peasant stage of history, the strength of the muzhik, and the muzhik serves in the Red Army. The Whites,” according to Vitaly’s contemptuous observation, “don’t even possess that romanticism of war which could seem attractive; the White Army is the army of the middle class and the semi-intelligentsia. It’s full of madmen, cocaine addicts, cavalry officers mincing like coquettes,” Vitaly said sharply. “Failed careerists and sergeant majors can be found in the ranks of the generals.” 

Vitaly sees the Whites “like dying coral, on the corpses of which new formations are growing. The Reds–they are what is growing.” Vitaly cannot dissuade his nephew–the situation is too far gone, so instead he offers a piece of advice:

“Listen to me,” Vitaly meanwhile said to me. “In the near future you will be witnessing many atrocities. You will see people killed, hung, shot. None of this is new, important, or very interesting, but here is what I advise you: Don’t ever become a man of conviction. Don’t reason or draw conclusions, but try to be as simple as possible. And remember that the greatest happiness on earth is to think that you’ve understood something about the life surrounding you. But you don’t understand and when, after some time, you look back on it you will see that you had not truly understood. And after another year or two has passed you will be convinced that you were mistaken the second time as well. And so it will go without end. And nonetheless this is the most important and most interesting thing in life.”

Vitaly’s advice is central to An Evening with Claire, and it’s also seminal to the novella’s style, for the tale passes through the narrator’s memories rather like a camera recording events, or a photograph album, in which the reader flips through the pages and discovers snapshots of the author’s amazing life.

My first Gazdanov novel came earlier this year with the splendid The Spectre of Alexander Wolf. An Evening with Claire, according to the excellent and informative introduction written by translator Jodi Daynard, was Gazdanov’s breakthrough work. It was published in Paris in 1930 by a 26-year-old Gazdanov who had, up to this point, written a handful of stories. An Evening with Claire touched a nerve within Europe’s émigré population as a whole,” and after reading the book, it’s easy to see why.

This is not a traditional novel with a plottable story line for the book mainly deals with the issue of memory. Critics thought An Evening with Claire was influenced by Proust and Bunin. According to the introduction, Gazdanov didn’t read Proust until after WWII, and while the connections are there, it’s best to approach Gazdanov not as a secondary Nabokov or a pale Proust, but as an important Russian émigré writer who reflected the displacement and loss experienced by those swept up the events of this remarkable time.

Gazdanov (1903-1971) was just 16 years old when he enlisted in the White army during the Russian Civil War, and some of those experiences are recorded in the novel. With the defeat of General Wrangel in 1920, Gazdanov left the Crimea and eventually, in 1923, landed in Paris. All these dramatic twists and turns of fate appear in An Evening with Claire, and perhaps the role of memory is emphasised because for those displaced by the turmoil in Russia, memory was–after all–one of the very few things left for the émigré population, and the one thing that could not be taken away.

The novel begins with a very definite structure: the first person narrator, Kolya, in Paris, is visiting, as he does every evening, Claire, the married woman he loves. Her husband, rather conveniently, is in Ceylon. Claire, a tease whose eyes are “gifted with the power of so many metamorphoses–cruel one moment, shameless or laughing the next” has been ill. On this particular evening, Kolya finally possesses Claire–a moment he’s dreamed of for ten years.

I thought about Claire, about the evenings I had spent with her, and gradually I came to remember everything that went before them; and the impossibility of understanding and expressing all of it weighed heavily upon me. This evening it was even more apparent than usual that there was no way for me to embrace and feel that endless succession of ideas, impressions and sensations which, in their totality, rose up in my memory like a row of shadows reflected in the dim and fluid mirror of a seasoned imagination.

Kolya admits that throughout his life he “was far too indifferent to external events; my deaf inner existence remained incomparably more significant,” and from this point, he recalls certain moments–beginning with his earliest childhood memory. This leads to the memories of his robust, generous-hearted father, a chief forester in Siberia,  who wasted away and died when Kolya was eight. Kolya has a much more difficult time understanding his mother as “concealed within her was the danger of internal explosions and the continual conflict of selves.” After the death of his siblings, they grew closer but parted when he attended military school.

There are some incredible memories here as Kolya notes his ability to access a moment from his past and find himself there–a boy, a teenager, a young man, and then a soldier.

Usually much time would have to pass before I would understand the sense of a particular event, and only after it had completely lost and influence on my receptiveness would it acquire that meaning which it should have had when it took place. First it would migrate to a distant and illusory region to which my imagination descended only rarely, and where I would find, as it were, a geological stratification of my history.

Some memories are recalled by the sense of smell and then transmitted to us through Gazdanov’s language which effectively builds a snap-shot:

Just as, in order to remember clearly and distinctly my life in the military school and the incomparable, stony sorrow with which I left that tall building, I had only to imagine the taste of meatballs, the meat sauce and macaroni–so could I, as soon as I smelled coal, immediately picture the beginning of my service on the armoured train, the winter of 1919, snow-covered Sinelnikov, the bodies of the Makhnovites hanging from the telegraph poles, their frozen bodies swinging in the winter wind and striking the wood of the poles with a blunt, light sound, the blackening hamlets behind the station, the whistle of the engines sounding like distress signals, and the white summit of the rails, incomprehensible in their motionlessness.

Moments from the war comprise the most powerful passages in the book: a soldier goes insane–another soldier, Kopchik, is avoided by Kolya who feels that “there was something inhuman and evil about this soldier, something I would not have wanted to know,” and scenes of Sevastopol, the temporary, chaotic home of the remnants of the defeated White army. Claire also appears as an attractive child and as a seductive newlywed, and when the narrator is cast from Russia and becomes a “vagabond,” she rather romantically embodies the narrator’s sense of regret. Ten years later, in Paris, that regret would seem to be expunged in the night Kolya spent as her lover, but is regret ever dismissed? Or does it remain ephemeral, inaccessibly frozen in suspended time?

An Evening with Claire is not a quick read and is best read slowly. Gazdanov offers us a glimpse of a vanishing world, and his experiences of war are tempered with time and edged with sadness–yet there’s also an emotional distancing there. As translator Jodi Daynard notes, “it became a mark of his character to measure the value of experience subjectively, seeking to find its meaning, not to judge it.” Absolutely marvellous.

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Filed under Fiction, Gazdanov Gaito