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Russian Émigré Short Stories at @shinynewbooks @Bryan_S_K

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I have a new review up at Shiny New Books today that I wanted to share with you, and it’s of a wonderful chunky volume of stories which has been involving me for a few weeks.

“Russian Émigré Short Stories from Bunin to Yanovsky” is a landmark collection from Penguin. Skilfully collected, edited, annotated and mostly translated by the talented Bryan Karetnyk, it collects together a wonderful array of works by authors who were exiled from their homeland by the Russian Revolution and the Civil War 100 years ago.

Translator and all-round clever person Bryan Karetnyk

Some authors are well-known (Nabokov, Bunin), some recently rediscovered (Teffi, Gaito Gazdanov) but many new to me and newly translated and quite marvellous.

You can read my review here – and I can’t recommend this collection highly enough.

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Witnesses of violence and iconoclasm

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Petrograd 1917
Compiled, edited and annotated by John Pinfold

There has been such a slew of Russian Revolution anniversary related books released this year that it’s been a bit of a job deciding which ones I wanted to read. However, when I discovered that the Bodleian Library were issuing a kind of anthology of eye-witness accounts of the conflict, that one had to be a must. Actually, calling it an anthology isn’t really doing it justice, and it’s certainly one of the most fascinating, if unsettling, books I’ve read this year.

John Pinfold has accessed a vast range of eye-witness accounts of foreigners (English, Australian, even Hungarian) who were living in Petrograd at the time of the 1917 revolutions. Russia was one of the allies in the war against Germany, but the country was struggling. The combined strain of the war, which no-one seemed to want to fight, together with hunger, lack of discipline and a feeble leadership from a weak Tsar, left the country in a prime condition for revolution. The people had suffered centuries of an autocratic ruling system, with little liberty, and had had enough. It took very little to ignite the powder keg, and the Tsar was forced to abdicate, leaving an uncertain Provisional Government in charge.

This body, held rather shakily together by Kerensky, clung onto power until the second revolution of the year took place in October and the Bolsheviks seized control. And reading this book, skilfully woven together by Pinfold from all the accounts left behind, you can live through events as if you were there – and a very uncomfortable place it is. The correspondents are varied bunch, ranging from nurses and nannies to businessmen and diplomats; and though their bias is usually inevitably against the revolution, Pinfold very fairly includes extracts from those with opposing views. So there are substantial comments by Maxim Litvinov and Trotsky, as well as some left-wingers who travelled from England to witness and be involved in the changes.

Oh this country, it out nightmares anything that was ever dreamt by the maddest of madmen after a hot supper on the cheesiest of cheese. (Arthur Marshall)

There’s a vibrancy and an immediacy that comes from reading these contemporary reactions to the changes, from witnesses who had no knowledge of what was going to happen. Pinfold presents these chronologically, providing excellent supporting material which gives the background to, and context for, the accounts. So the book opens with the start of WW1 and shows the fragile state of the nation and its monarchy, taking in such important elements as the influence of Rasputin, and goes on to take us through the whole range of revolutionary events with diary entries, letters home and newspaper reports written by the witnesses. The chapters are bookended with two pieces giving a workman’s view of Petrograd in 1914 and one in 1918, and the contrast is a stark one. The population has shrunk drastically, the people are on the point of starvation and the city is falling apart – frankly it often seems a miracle that Russia survived the Revolution and the Civil War which followed it.

Petrograd in 1917

Much of the material is by necessity quite dark; revolution is not pretty and although some elements of the revolting parties conducted themselves well, others did not and there was much violence. Much as I deplore violence of any sort, it’s hard not to understand why the Russian people felt the need to take control of their country and their lives, particularly when you bear in mind how much political repression there had been and how even something like the liberation of the serfs (who were basically slaves) had taken so long to achieve. One commentator, Mabel King, states:

Lenin, the sworn enemy of the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie, with his promises of bread and land, was fast becoming the demi-god of the proletariat, that inarticulate mass of the peasantry held so long in bondage, but now breaking free from all control, and capable of deeds of inexpressible horror.

Having been imprisoned and impoverished for so long, it’s hardly surprising they were feeling a bit violent… So the buildings are destroyed, statues and Romanov emblems torn down, and the necessary acts of iconoclasm allow the revolutionaries to make their mark on a city where access to much has been denied them.

The final days of the Romanovs are covered in detail, including the behind the scenes shenanigans that mean that the UK’s King George V refused to offer his cousin Tsar Nicholas a safe haven, condemning the whole of the Russian royal family to a hideous fate. Interesting, however, that the British royals were happy to accept Russian royal jewels – the Grand Duchess Vladimir Tiara was smuggled out of the country and sold to them by its then aristocratic owner and has been regularly worn by the current queen…

However, not all is totally grim, and some commentators manage some gallows humour, with Julius West reflecting the chaos of the action by quipping “That is the worse of revolutions – they never do keep to the timetable” and later drily commenting “It’s a rummy business. Revolutions are by no means all that they are cracked up to be.”

Pinfold’s narrative is always lucid and even-handed, plus his choices of extract excellent. One in particular stood out, a lengthy entry by V.K. Vitrine, reporter of “The Clarion”, whose analysis of the problems facing those who would rule Russia was very clear-eyed – at one point, during the short rule of the Provisional Government, he states:

The people have had education denied them. Every effort in the direction of political advancement was immediately quenched in a fortress cell or Siberian exile. These very people, continuously denied every vestige of citizenship, are now called upon to rule themselves. They have neither tradition, nor administrative experience, nor cohesion, nor, for the matter of that, any quality for the purpose.

Hardly surprising, therefore, that the Bolsheviks were able to sweep away all resistance and seize power…

“Petrograd 1917” is a beautifully presented book, lavishly illustrated with contemporary photos and artwork, as well as containing short biographies of the main commentators. Pinfold has done a wonderful job here, as many of the papers are only available in scholarly institutes and so his book brings much material to the general reader which wouldn’t otherwise be available. This volume is a vital additional to studies of the period as well as being a gripping and fascinating read, and definitely is one of the highlights of a year which is seeing much material published about the cataclysmic upheavals in Russia a century ago.

(Review copy kindly provided by the publishers, for which many thanks!)

****

As a sidenote, while I was reading this book, the subject of iconoclasm (the destruction of symbols or beliefs from previous regimes, usually religious or political) kept turning up; in a rediscovering of one of my favourite songs from a politically aware band from the 1980s, and as an element in an excellent set of documentaries on BBC4 on Utopia, presented by Dr. Richard Clay. The documentaries are probably still up on the iPlayer and I can recommend you tracking them down before they disappear. Clay has a particular interest in iconoclasm and his documentary on this aspect of the French Revolution is floating about and well worth watching too. As for The Redskins, well they obviously understood the importance in tearing down the statues of past leaders…

Some Russian book winners!

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So I’ve closed the giveaway, and thanks to all who entered and offered interesting recommendations!

I printed out the names of the entrants and popped them into a decorative mini pail I had knocking about, then drew out two winners and they are:

Laura from Reading in Bed – In the Twilight

Melissa from  The Bookbinder’s Daughter – Five Russian Dog stories

Congrats to both ladies and thanks to all entrants for taking part. I’ll be in touch with the two winners and the books will be winging their way off round the globe soon! 🙂

Caught between two worlds

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The Patriots by Sana Krasikov

Unusually, 2017 has seen a number of new works come out that I’ve been interested in reading; although, somewhat predictably, they’ve had a common theme that could have something to do with the fact that this is the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution…

I’ve already spent happy hours with Amor Towles’ “A Gentleman in Moscow” and Julie Lekstrom Himes’ “Mikhail and Margarita”; however, when I read Elle’s interesting and perceptive review of “The Patriots” I knew that it was another new novel I wanted to track down. The publishers, Granta, kindly provided a review copy, and I’ve spent several days completely immersed in the book – which is testament to how good it is. Author Sana Krasikov is a new name to me, and this is her first novel, with a previous short story collection “One More Year” having won awards and plaudits. Born in the Ukraine but now living in New York, she obviously has the background knowledge which informs the story…

“The Patriots” tells the story of Florence Fein, a young Jewish woman living in New York in the 1930s. Florence is a naive idealist; from a Slavic background, she is drawn to Russia and the Soviet dream which is being portrayed to her, and against a background of the American depression and daily anti-Semitism it certainly looks appealing. As a Russian speaker she is able to work for Amtorg, the Soviet Trade Mission, which brings her into contact with Russians who are in America to bring about trade deals; and one of these encounters, with the enigmatic Sergey, will be pivotal.

When he returns to Russia, Florence sets out to follow him, convinced that America has nothing to offer her. However, the reality she meets when she arrives in Moscow, then Magnitogorsk, is shocking, with people existing in poverty (except for the higher ranks in the party) and it is surprising that Florence wants to stay. However, she does, and eventually an encounter with an old acquaintance sends her back to Moscow. Florence is savvy enough to find a job and manages to make her way in a city which is in the process of regenerating; and she still harbours a longing to track down Sergey. However, her life will not go as she planned; she will end up with a very different partner to the one she intended, she will find herself embroiled in politics and betrayal, and she will find that her judgement of the best way to behave is not as sound as she thought. Redemption of sorts will come eventually, but not until a much later date.

Set alongside Florence’s story is that of her son Julian, and her grandson Lenny. In these post-Soviet days, Julian is able to shuttle between America and Russia doing business, and his son has in fact settled in Moscow. Julian remembers what it was like to live under Soviet rule, and how his father disappeared and his mother was sent to a camp. At some point the family escaped back to America, but the ties with Russia are strong; and there are many unanswered questions that Julian has about his mother’s past which come to a head when a friend implies that she was an informer. A business trip to Moscow gives him the chance to investigate the archives, assembling the jigsaw of his past, as well as to try to extricate his son from a difficult situation…

Neither Soviet nor post-Soviet Russia, with all their bureaucracy, are easy places to be. Although Julian’s setting is less obviously bleak, his meetings with various businessmen are as troubling as the chilling scenes of manipulation from the NKVD interrogator endured by Florence. Torture exists and deprivation, although this was never too graphic, and the book is very audacious in its scope, exploring in depth the extremes to which a person will go, not only to survive but also to save a family member.

“The Patriots” is a complex, well structured tale which weaves the various plotlines together brilliantly. As Florence’s story unravels, and we learn more of what happened to her and also to Julian and his father, we watch alongside as Julian starts to piece together more of his history. Both mother and son have to deal with those who are in power in Russia of their time, whether Soviet authorities or Russian oligarchs, and the naivety of both of them is clear. They will find a way out of their situation, but for neither is the process pleasant. The portrayal of Julian is as nuanced as that of his mother, and we see him at various stages of his life; from the little boy adored by his parents, through the confusing and brutal years of loss and orphanages, to rediscovering his missing parent and attempting to remake his life. In many ways he is as out of his depth with the subtleties of modern Russian business as his mother was the complexities of life amongst the Soviets.

I found myself completely engrossed in the story of Florence and her family, so absorbed that I was reluctant to put it down. The characters are strong and well drawn; the background and setting completely convincing; and the sense of helplessness Florence feels living in a totalitarian regime is frightening. The culture of suspicion and betrayal is insidious, leading the naive woman to make foolish decisions which leave her stranded in a hostile foreign country with no way of escape. The ideas and beliefs of the time are never glossed over, but discussion of them is an essential part of the narrative. Running through the story is the thread of the family’s Jewish heritage; something that is always with them, informing every action taken by and against them, and most often used as a stick to beat them with – either literally or metaphorically. The family belongs nowhere, neither in America or Russia, and I wondered if Krasikov was using this lack of a home as a metaphor for the situation of Jewish people and the shocking anti-Semitism they still face nowadays.

Author Sana Krasikov

“The Patriots” was a wonderful, epic read which deserves all the plaudits its received. Florence is a flawed and misguided heroine, but one who you can understand; and the wide range of the book, taking in eight decades, gives it a scope perhaps missing from “Mikhail and Margarita” (which also suffered a little, in my view, from using real figures as major characters). And in many ways it’s an excellent counterpart to the Towles’ book which took a look at Soviet life from a different angle; although there was off-camera evidence of what was happening to Russians at the time in that book, here there is no doubt at all. The hardships and the brutality and the sheer grinding hell of everyday life is laid bare in Krasikov’s narrative, and it’s a chilling scenario which I never want to see returning to the world.

The books I’ve read this year so far about Soviet Russia have all acted as timely reminders of what life can be like under totalitarian rule; and as I’ve said before, with the current state of the world, this is not something we should allow to return. Intolerance and hatred are the worst strands in human behaviour and this excellent book, as well as telling a wonderfully gripping story, brings home how harsh humanity can be. Highly recommended!

…in which I discover that I own an awful lot of Turgenev books…

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As I mentioned in my review of “A Nest of the Gentry”, I have a *lot* of Turgenev books on Mount TBR, few of which I’d actually read, and I thought I’d dig them out to find out what I actually own(!) This was actually something of an eye-opener, particularly in the amount of duplication there is – which kind of shows how unsystematic I often am about buying books!

turgenev

So here is the Turgenev pile – and there’s a lot of it, but as you can see several multiple copies. For example:

sketches

Why do I own two Penguin Classics versions of “Sketches from a Hunter’s Album”? I have no idea, but I need to do some checking to see if there are any differences between the two and if not, donate one!

fathers

“Fathers and Sons”/”Fathers and Children” – one of Turgenev’s best-known works (possible *the* best-known). I’ve had the ancient Penguin for as long as I can remember, whereas the shiny new Alma edition was part of a competition prize. Different translations, obviously, and I really should get onto reading this one soon.

collection

The volume with five short novels contains “Rudin” and “Superfluous”, but also “Spring Torrents” and “First Love” which I have in separate editions. *Sigh* – yet more duplication…

nest

And finally, “Home of the Gentry”, “A Nest of the Gentry” or indeed, as the little red book is titled, “Liza”… These are, of course, all the same story – apparently early translations of Turgenev’s second novel were sometimes given the name of the central female character, which is a bit misleading really as the book is about much more than just her (though I suppose you could argue that as she comes to embody Russia she’s fairly pivotal…) However, I can’t have realised this when I picked up the book ages ago, obviously just thinking it was a different work. Ho hum.

So – there is an awful lot of Turgenev in my collection and it does need a little judicious pruning. And I shall have to learn to pay attention when I’m picking up books in second-hand stores, because it’s obviously very easy to end up with superfluous copies….!

Exploring my Library: Soviet Sci Fi Short Stories (a niche collection…)

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I realise that Soviet Sci Fi short stories are a bit of a niche read – and certainly my recent guest post about that kind of story by women writers was even more obscure, as it was quite a task to track down any in translation! This set me digging around in my collection of Russian short story books, and I though it might be interesting to share the ones I have.

The first collection I ever acquired was “The Ultimate Threshold”. Translated by the esteemed Mirra Ginsburg, I think it’s probably one of the better known anthologies, and in fact it did contain one of the stories I read for my post.

ultimate-threshold-cover

As you can see from the contents below, the stories are all from the 1960s, which is interesting in itself. This was mainly the Brezhnev era, when there were attempts at détente between the east and the west, so maybe the book’s appearance reflects this. I don’t think I’d heard of any of the authors before obtaining the book, which is even more exciting. I’ve only read the Larionova so far, and it’s excellent, which bodes well for the rest of the book.

ult-thresh-contents

“World’s Spring” is a more recent acquisition, and one I got hold of when I was in search of stories by Kirill Bulychev, who has two works featured. Both were wonderful reads, and the book itself has a wide range of titles, split according to general theme. I also found one of my women’s stories in this volume, and I think it’s another highly regarded anthology.

worlds-spring-cover

worlds-spring-conts-1

worlds-spring-conts-2

My old friend J, picking up on my interest in Soviet Sci Fi, procured these for me from a bookseller friend of hers! I was of course attracted to the first by the fact that the Strugatskys were featured…

pan-covers

1st-pan-contents

The second has another Strugatsky, plus a further selection of new-to-me names!

2nd-pan-contents

“Destination: Amaltheia” is the book I tracked down to be able to read “The Astronaut” for my guest post, and I’m so glad I did. It was a wonderful tale and one of the most moving sci-fi stories I’ve read. Plus the book is very beautiful…

amalthiea

amaltheia-contents

I’m including this final anthology, although it isn’t strictly speaking a sci-fi one, because from reading the foreword it seems that at least one title is a science fiction story. It’s one I acquired for the Kataev story it contains, but there are a number of other authors I know of included so again there are plenty of riches to be explored!

new-soviet-fiction-cover

new-soviet-fiction-conts-1

new-soviet-fiction-conts-2

Although I’ve only read a few of the stories from these collections, each one has been a gem and I’m very excited at the prospect of having such wonderful delightsto dip into. Maybe I’ll find time over the Christmas break to indulge a little…. 🙂

A Wonderful piece of Russian Satire – Another Shiny Link

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If there’s one thing I loved, it’s a chunky piece of Russian satire, and so I was particular pleased to be offered the chance to review a lovely new edition of such a book for Shiny New Books! The reprint in question is “The History of a Town” by Saltykov-Shchedrin, an author best-known for his classic satirical novel “The Golovlyov Family”.

history-of-a-town

“The History of a Town” has been reprinted in a beautiful new edition by Apollo, an imprint of Head of Zeus – and their books really are lovely, with striking pictorial covers and end papers. This was my first experience of Saltykov-Shchedrin and it was a wonderful one – you can read my full review here!

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