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Failed plots and a tragic end – The Race to Save the Romanovs @shinynewbooks

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I really am maintaining the reputation of being Shiny New Books’ unofficial Russian correspondent! So it was a given that I would be the obvious choice to review a fat new volume from Helen Rappaport which takes a look at the fate of the last Russian royal family – in particular, the various plots that were hatched to rescue the hapless Romanovs and save them from the hands of the Bolsheviks.

It’s an intriguing book, although I did have some reservations. If I’m honest, I’ve struggled with previous attempts to read Rappaport’s books as I sensed a bias – which is something I don’t like to see in a historian; I prefer an objective look at things. Also, this is one of a series of books she’s written on the subject and I did feel that it didn’t warrant a whole big volume; her research (which actually seemed to be undertaken by numerous people all over the world on her behalf) would have been better presented in a scholarly journal rather than a work of popular history. And the way that the new discoveries are signposted  in the text by an italicised paragraph *did* jar a lot.

Nevertheless, this is a pretty and well presented volume, with some fascinating photos. I think you need to know a reasonable amount about the historical period to really get the most out of the book, and you can read my full review here on Shiny!

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Three things… #4 – Revolutions, plus difficulties with older books…

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Time for another go at the “Three Things” meme created by Paula at Book Jotter; this is where we post things we are reading, looking (at) and thinking. The book I’m currently reading has influenced what I’m currently watching (as there is still a dearth of documentaries, alas…), and this ties in also with my thoughts on some bookish and not so bookish things at the moment. So here goes!

Reading

I’m currently deeply immersed in “The Race to Save the Romanovs” by Helen Rappaport, which I’m going to be reviewing for Shiny New Books. Give my interest (alright, obsession) with all things Russia, it’s inevitable that I’ve read a *lot* of books over the decades about the last Tsar of Russia and the fate of his family. This particular volume promises new insights, specifically into the failure of any of the other Royal houses in Europe to intercede and come to the aid of their relations, and it’s intriguing reading so far. This is actually the first of Rappaport’s books I will actually have finished; I bailed out of her book on Lenin fairly early as I sensed an underlying inability to really accept the concept of someone devoting their whole life to a cause which undermined the narrative for me. However, we’ll see what this book brings! Although Rappaport is acknowledging the huge and fatal flaws of the regime, I *am* sensing a slight bias, and so I turned to some vintage viewing:

Looking

Mr. Kaggsy is something of an enabler when it comes to DVDs, and one box set he gifted me a while ago was the complete BBC series “Fall of Eagles” from 1974, which I’m gradually making my way through. A classic drama from what I tend to think of as the golden age of TV (!), it tell in 13 parts of the collapse of the three main royal dynasties in Europe at the time of the First World War and Russian Revolution. It’s stuffed to the gills with marvellous actors (Patrick Stewart perfect as Lenin; Barry Foster actually *is* Kaiser Wilhelm) and I remember being enthralled when I was just a wee thing, freshly captivated by the Russian Revolution. Revisiting it has been a wonderful experience; so after reading a bit of the Rappaport, I watched the episode “Dear Nicky” which deals with the pre-war correspondence between the Tsar and the Kaiser against a backdrop of suffering and unrest in St. Petersburg, and was reminded of a number of things:

1. Just how good the series was – the acting!
2. How it was also even-handed in that the royals were shown as flawed and the people were shown as suffering.

Which led onto…

Thinking

… well, thinking about revolutions generally. I have to say up front that I deplore violence (well, as a vegan, I would.) However, we live in a world which is unequal and unfair, and frankly it’s hardly surprising that the people often have to take up an aggressive stance against those in charge when the latter are exploiting and enslaving them. Russia was a case in point, and I’m finding my reading of the Rappaport book a little problematic because although I can’t condone the violence meted out to the Tsar’s family, neither can I countenance the violence done to the Russian people. It will be interesting to see what I finally conclude.

And as I’ve blogged recently, I’ve been incubating a possible reading project of French Revolutionary fiction. Well, it started as fiction, but might not end up being limited to that, as a few internet searches have thrown up a very tempting list of possible books. Some of which may have slipped quietly through the letterbox when Mr. Kaggsy wasn’t paying attention….

The revolutionary French are obviously breeding…

One in particular really caught my eye because of its focus on women’s involvement; when I posted about “The Declaration of the Rights of Women” by Olympe de Gouges earlier in the year, I commented on the fact that I’d been looking for the female voice int he French Revolution. I also alluded to the figure of Théroigne de Méricourt, who I’d heard mention of in Richard Clay’s excellent “Tearing Up History” documentary, where he credited her with urging on the men who were hesitating to storm the Tuileries Palace. I found very little about her in the books I have relating to the Revolution, so the fact that she features in this recent arrival is rather nice…

I must admit I feel inclined to pick it up and start reading straight away, but the problem is, it’s only one of a number of Big Books about Inspirational Woman that I have lurking…

All of these are crying out to be read instantly, but there isn’t enough time. Plus the French Revolution books are massing offstage… And as I hinted in the heading to this post, some of the older titles are really giving me issues. If you go off to search for a more obscure old book, like a Victor Hugo or a Joseph Conrad which *isn’t* one of the well know titles, you end up being offered weird, expensive reprints on the online sites. (I found this when I was looking for Robert Louis Stevenson’s book on Edinburgh, and ended up buying a very old copy instead – but that’s by the by…) I would like to have actual *physical* copies, as I really hate reading on a screen, but as you might have guessed by the glowing screen in the picture further up this post, I have had to resort to Project Gutenberg. Really not my preferred way of reading, but beggars etc etc as they say… Anyway, onward and upward with the Romanovs – hopefully by the time I’ve finished that, I’ll have more idea of what I want to read after it! 😀

“Live. And try to keep others alive.” #WITmonth

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Earthly Signs: Moscow Diaries, 1917-1922 by Marina Tsvetaeva
Edited, translated and with an introduction by Jamey Gambrell

Despite having had at least two books by Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva lurking on the shelves for well over 30 years, it’s only recently that I’ve actually started to properly pay attention to her writing – and what an author she’s turning out to be. Her poems are monumentally good, and some of them are regularly haunting me at the moment. I have a lovely collection of her prose put out by Virago back in the day; but this book was one I picked up more recently. It’s just been republished by NYRB, but my edition is an old Yale University Press edition from 2002; and it seemed a perfect choice not only to take on my recent travels with me, but also to fit in with WITmonth.

The book contains in effect a number of essays, drawing from diaries Tsvetaeva kept while living through some of the most dramatic times her country had seen.Tsvetaeva was from a bourgeois background, so was never going to be sympathetic to the Revolution; however, her diaries provide a fascinating insight into just how harsh the conditions were and how difficult it was to survive through them. She left Russia, tried some time in exile, and finally followed her husband Sergei Efron back to the Soviet Union in 1939. Efron and their daughter were arrested in 1941; the former was executed and Tsvetaeva took her own life the same year.

I rose on a carousel for the first time when I was 11, in Lausanne; the second time three days ago, on Sparrow Hills, on White Monday with six-year old Alya. Between those two carousels – lies a whole lifetime.

“Earthy Signs” is a remarkably diverse read, however; there are sections that deal with a train journey taken out into the country to try to find food; her attempts to find and keep jobs; poetry readings and the emerging Soviet arts; her thoughts on love and Germany; and so much more. Some extracts are no more than a sentence; others long meditations on life and art. And all of Tsvetaeva’s writing is fascinating.

Much of the success of the book is obviously down to Gambrell, who presumably made numerous editorial choices to structure the book as it is. “Earthly Signs” certainly brings alive Tsvetaeva, who was nothing if not a complex and intense woman. She’s capable of caprice, choosing a particular job simply because the building in which she would work is the one on which the Rostovs’ house in “War and Peace” was based. She’s also a woman of extreme and fluctuating emotions; in the introduction, Gambrell quotes at length a passage by Tsvetaeva’s husband, where he explains her constant cycle of obsession and infatuation with someone new, and in all honesty she must have been quite hard work to live with at times. That temperament is perfectly illustrated at several points in the book, in particular with her encounter with a young peasant soldier she nicknames Stenka Razin (after a historical Cossack hero) and also in her constant attraction to beautiful young men. (That tendency, I’ve noticed, seems to turn up in her poetry quite a lot too…)

Of all the temptations he offers me, I would single out the three most important: the temptation of weakness, the temptation of impassivity – and the temptation of what is Other.

The world in which Tsvetaeva was trying to survive was grim, to say the least; she struggled for food and one of her children actually starved to death. The immediacy of the prose in diary form really brings alive how it was to be in Moscow through revolution and civil war, and the narrative is shocking in many places; one instance which stuck in my mind was Tsvetaeva having to tie her youngest to a chair while going out with her other child to find food. Her naivety is always on show, and she speaks her mind at times when she should have been a little more circumspect, but somehow gets away with it. And it cannot have been easy for an impractical woman to cope with absence from her husband, about whom she had no idea whether he wa alive or dead, living from day-to-day and attempting to scrape the barest of provisions. Even when things got a little more back to normal, Tsvetaeva continued to be a woman who refused to play the game, averse to change her beliefs for anyone.

I’ve taken the year 1919 in somewhat exaggerated terms – the way people will understand it a hundred years from now: not a speck of flour, not a speck of salt (clinker and clutter enough and to spare!), not a speck, not a mote, not a shred of soap! – I clean the flue myself, my boots are two sizes too big – this is the way some novelist, using imagination to the detriment of taste, will describe the year 1919.

“Earthly Signs” was a salutary read, some of which I was involved in during a particularly unpleasant train journey; however, my discomfort for an hour or so was nothing compared with the privations Tsvetaeva undertook to try and track down food supplies. The later section of the book includes an extended meditation on poetry in the section “A Hero of Labor” when she considers the life, death and legacy of the poet, Valery Bruisov, a writer who embraced the Bolshevik revolution. In this piece she draws comparisons (and not for the first time) with the French Revolution, something of a touchstone for many who lived through the Russian equivalent; and on both sides, as both monarchists and revolutionaries can find much to interest them in the earlier conflict. Tsvetaeva also ponders the future of poetry under the Soviets, and it’s fair to say that the poet here who followed their heart will be remembered more than the one who followed the Soviet line.

By Max Voloshin 1911 (a book) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

My comments, of course, apply to the Yale version, although I imagine the NYRB new edition will be much the same in content. I did have minor issues with the book and I do wonder if these will be repeated in the reprint. The notation was problematic as it wasn’t indicated in the text at all, which necessitated constant random flipping back and forwards to see if there *were* any notes. The system employed in the letters of Catherine the Great from OUP, which I turned to after this book, was much more successful; a simple asterisk on the page indicated a note and then I could choose whether to follow it up or not. Also, in “Earthly Signs” there was no translation of phrases in French and German; and I really wonder why they were left in their original language, as if I can’t read Russian (which is why I’m reading this translation) there’s no guarantee I can read French or German either. A simple note could have been added that a particular phrase was originally in either of those languages which would have made it much easier for me than having to keep resorting to the erratic nature of Google Translate…

Marina Tsvetaeva does not mince her words at any point in the diaries; she’s frank about what she thinks about people and events, and there are some perhaps unexpected comments on race that had me hesitating. What is bizarre about this is that several appeared to be aimed at the Jewish race – and yet as the introduction reveals, Tsvetaeva was of Jewish heritage and Efron himself was a Jew. I was going to say that was perhaps strange, but then as a Scot I imagine I would feel quite comfortable being rude about my own race, so maybe I shouldn’t be sensitive about this. And Tsvetaeva is such a good writer, capable of nailing a person in a few lines; for example, her description of the woman in charge at one of her jobs:

The directress is a short-legged, ungainly, forty-year-old cuttlefish in a corset and in spectacles – terrifying. I smell a former inspectress and a current prison guard. With caustic frankness, she’s astounded at my slowness…

I ended “Earthly Signs” emotionally drained; the melancholic Tsvetaeva is never a light read, and the experiences she lived through would have broken stronger people. What emerges from the book, however, is a portrait of an intense, mercurial, emotional and brilliant woman whose tenacity kept her going for longer than you might have expected. That she took her leave when she did is not surprising; but at least she left us her words.

‘I have gone where you did not want me to go’ (Lenin) @VersoBooks

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October: The Story of the Russian Revolution by China Mieville

Such enthusiastic bedlam might seem a nightmare, or a strange, faltering carnival, depending on one’s perspective.

First up, before attempting to discuss this book, I should nail my colours firmly to the mast. I’ve read a good number of books about the Russian Revolution over the years since first studying the subject at Grammar School (I mean REALLY a lot!) and this one of the best – if not *the* best. Yes, it’s that good. And this is going to be a very personal response, rather than anything approaching a formal review…

“October” is published by the left-wing imprint Verso Books, and I hesitated initially before buying it. Having read so much on the subject, would I find anything for me in yet another work on the great upheaval of 100 years ago? Nevertheless, I *did* pick up an e-book version when it was on offer earlier in the year (damn you, Verso, with your constant money-off emails!); and what tipped me into reading it, as the anniversary approached, was Mieville’s appearance in that execrable documentary on BBC2 that I moaned about here. Along with Tariq Ali, he came across as a voice of sanity, and as I have been becoming heartily sick of right-wing revisionist readings of those cataclysmic events, I decided that this was the time to read the book. And that was most definitely the right decision.

From the very first paragraphs Mieville hooks you; his writing, as he debunks the myths about the founding of St. Petersburg, is just marvellous. Immediately, you sense that Mieville is bringing his novelist’s sensibilities to the telling of a history and the results are stunning.

After providing a succinct background of the Russian nation, Mieville takes you into the heart of his story, with a series of chapters devoted to each month between the February and October revolutions. There’s no point me relating the story, as the author does this so well, but basically the monarchy falls at the beginning of the book, with a variety of provisional governments attempting to rule alongside, or in opposition to, the soviets and myriad other groups with an interest in bringing democracy to Russia. And there are endless meetings, discussions, talks about having talks until you despair a little and wish someone would get on with seizing power!

Political activism through passive–aggressive dinner parties.

By the second, rather bloodless revolution at the end of the book, the in-fighting and dissension amongst political groups, added to lack of food and the failure of those temporarily in charge to end the ruinous first world war, led to the Bolsheviks seizing power and the formation of the first socialist state in the world. Mieville touches on the aftermath, but most reading this book will know how the 20th century panned out for Russians. The search for freedom and utopia would certainly go horribly wrong…

‘The man of the future in Russia’, says Alexander Herzen at the start of the 1850s, ‘is the peasant.’ Development being slow, with no meaningful liberal movement in sight, the narodniks look beyond the cities to rural revolution. In the Russian peasant commune, the mir, they see a glimmer, a foundation for an agrarian socialism. Dreaming their own better places, thousands of young radicals ‘go to the people’, to learn from, work with, raise the consciousnesses of a suspicious peasantry.

So – what makes this book stand out so much from the many others I’ve read? Well, a number of things, actually. There are other books that are more detailed, more politically involved, perhaps even more analytical, but I don’t know that I’ve ever read one that brought events to life so vividly. Drawing on a vast range of material, which he uses to bring the story truly to life, he renders complex events with incredible clarity and sheer narrative drive – this is writing so good that it gives you shivers as you read it. Mieville has a wonderful way of delivering snappy one-liners that cut right to heart of the matter at hand, and his narrative makes sense of the dizzying array of political groupings. Even though I knew what was coming, Mieville’s narrative was nail-biting; and as history can be dull, this was a considerable achievement!

3 a.m. Kerensky, who only a few hours earlier had claimed to be ready to face down any challenge, tore back, distraught, to General Staff headquarters, to hear a litany of strategic points falling. Loyalist morale pitched. Worse, though, quickly came. At 3:30 a.m., a dark presence cut the shadowed Neva. Masts and wires and three looming smokestacks, great jutting guns. Out of the gloom came the armoured ship Aurora, making for the city’s heart.

“October” also reminds us that the revolution was the result of a combination of factors – the push for reform by the revolutionaries, and perhaps more importantly a populace that had had enough of war and poverty. Mieville says everything that needs to be said about the Russian Revolutions, and much more eloquently than I possibly can.

Gone was the obsequiousness of 1905. Citizens across the empire waged what Richard Stites called a ‘war on signs’, the destruction of tsarist symbols: portraits, statues, eagles. Revolutionary fever infected unlikely patients.

Yes, there was iconoclasm; in the more modern definition of the word, literally ‘image breaking’, and applied to all representations of power in public space and not just religious ones. When you’ve been downtrodden for years and you come across the symbols of that repression what more visceral reaction is there likely to be than the need to destroy those symbols?

It was endgame at the Winter Palace. Wind intruded through smashed glass. The vast chambers were cold. Disconsolate soldiers, deprived of purpose, wandered past the double-headed eagles of the throne room. Invaders reached the emperor’s personal chamber. It was empty. They took their time attacking images of the man himself, hacking with their bayonets at the stiff, sedate life-sized Nicholas II watching from the wall. They scored the painting like beasts with talons, left long scratches, from the ex-tsar’s head to his booted feet.

Whilst decrying the violence that took place, Mieville recognises the urgent need for change and the crippling inequality which was perpetuated by an ineffectual regime. And he’s not blind to the faults that existed within the various revolutionary groups, refusing to be drawn into hagiography and acknowledging that no one person was responsible for what happened and that often events led with revolutionaries following.

To be a radical was to lead others, surely, to change their ideas, to persuade them to follow you; to go neither too far or too fast, nor to lag behind. ‘To patiently explain.’ How easy to forget that people do not need or await permission to move.

What’s also refreshing is that Mieville strips away the layers of dismissal that have been applied to the Revolution since the fall of the Soviet Union and not only attempts to get back the state of mind that recognises that change was essential and inevitable, but also refuses to judge those events by what came afterwards.

Stalin, of course, was not yet Stalin. Today, any account of the revolution is haunted by a ghost from the future, that twinkly-eyed, moustachioed monstrosity, Uncle Joe, the butcher, key architect of a grotesque and crushing despotic state – the -ism that bears his name. There have been decades of debate about the aetiology of Stalinism, volumes of stories about the man’s brutality and that of his regime. They cast shadows backwards from what would come.

With the horrors that came after the revolutions and the fall of the monarchy, it’s easy to forget just how radical a change took place in Russia; what had been a feudal, autocratic country, which failed drastically to fit into the parameters defined by Marxists of a place that could host a revolution, actually *had* one and needed to be dragged, screaming into the modern world. The expectation of a world revolution was a mistaken one, leaving Russia isolated in its attempt at socialism. The incompetence of the Romanovs is quite clear and Mieville nails the ineffectual Nicholas II beautifully:

He is a well-educated vacuity stuffed with the prejudices of his milieu.

And later:

The tsar paddled on, dignified and proper, eyes on the horizon, the current hauling him towards a cataract.

Running through the books are masterly portraits of the protagonists, and Mieville is always fair in his portrayal of the Bolsheviks. Lenin and Trotsky appear in all their complex and contradictory glory, and the latter comes across as a powerful and crucial contributor to the success of the uprising. The narrative always comes back to Lenin, however, and although the revolution was in fact an often ramshackle and random affair, there is the sense that events would not have finally succeeded without Lenin’s vision and drive. Mieville also acknowledges that it is very hard to look at 1917 without hindsight and a knowledge of what would come later (and he includes some lovely little nods to other great authors…)

And Stalin, the ‘grey blur’ at the heart of the machine, builds up his power base, his own status as most equal of all.

Fittingly, I finished “October” as the anniversary dawned, and as I was composing my post on this truly magisterial work I was watching the revolution unfold ‘live’ on a fascinating iPad app which drew on, and provided, much of the same material as the book (yes, it’s taken me that long to pull my thoughts together…) I found it impossible not to be caught up in the emotion and the excitement of it all while I was reading “October” and whatever your political colour, this book will give you a marvellous insight into the motivations and actions of the revolutionaries.

The future for which the Marxists yearn, communism, is as absurd to their detractors as any peasant’s Belovode. It is rarely distinctly outlined, but they know it beckons beyond private property and its violence, beyond exploitation and alienation, to a world where technology reduces labour, the better for humanity to flourish. ‘The true realm of freedom’, in Marx’s words: ‘the development of human powers as an end in itself’. This is what they want.

There are a lot of quotes in this post, I realise, but I could have pulled out so many more – the writing is that good and Mieville’s take on events so necessary. What makes this book particularly vital is its acknowledgement that change was, and still could be, possible; and that we should not accept inequality and corruption but should strive for a better world. In a year when the world seems to be getting madder and madder, and the lunatics really *do* seem to have taken over the asylum, we need to be reminded that we can and should still dream of a utopia and an alternative. Read this book.

*****

There are a number of videos and interviews with Mieville available online which a quick search will bring up. They are making fascinating watching and reading as I start to explore them…. 🙂

We are sick and tired of living in debt and slavery… We want space and light…

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Those who count themselves on the side of the revolution must engage with these failures and crimes. To do otherwise is to fall into apologia, special pleading, hagiography – and to run the risk of repeating such mistakes. It is not for nostalgia’s sake that the strange story of the first socialist revolution in history deserves celebration. The standard of October declares that things changed once, and they might do so again. October, for an instant, brings a new kind of power. Fleetingly, there is a shift towards workers’ control of production and the rights of peasants to the land. Equal rights for men and women in work and in marriage, the right to divorce, maternity support. The decriminalisation of homosexuality, 100 years ago. Moves towards national self-determination. Free and universal education, the expansion of literacy. And with literacy comes a cultural explosion, a thirst to learn, the mushrooming of universities and lecture series and adult schools. A change in the soul, as Lunacharsky might put it, as much as in the factory. And though those moments are snuffed out, reversed, become bleak jokes and memories all too soon, it might have been otherwise.

(“October” by China Mieville; Verso Books 2017)

Documentaries – A Coda…. :(

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“Russia 2017: Countdown to Revolution” on BBC 2…. I.Am.Not.A.Happy.Bunny….

Loved the concept – a mixture of historians and commentators set against some reconstructions of events, but the execution was completely off, as far as I was concerned.

Problems:

  • I didn’t like any of the actors portraying the three main protagonists, which may sound superficial but if they’re going to be giving a decent rendition of important historical figures they should be convincing. They weren’t. Frankly, the communist cooking sketch from Rutland Weekend TV had better acting (and was funnier…)
  • The acted sequences were pretty over-dramatised and over the top, to the point of caricature – come on, chaps, this was BBC2 not Channel 5 so credit your audience with a little intelligence…
  • I felt that Stalin’s role in the revolution was a tad overplayed (although I *was* happy that Trotsky got due credit).
  • The historians and commentators – ah yes, this was where things fell apart for me. I got remarkably vexed about the lack of balance in the programme with right-wingers like Orlando Figes and Simon Sebag Montefiore being given much more air time than China Mieville and Tariq Ali. The latter two came across much more rationally and reasonably than Figes in particular, who was pretty worked up. I ended up getting very worked up myself and shouting at the TV, which rather upset OH…
  • Martin Amis – why was he there? (apart from the fact he wrote a book called “Koba the Dread” about Stalin, with whom he has a problem). Another wasted potentially erudite commentator.
  • Efforts to ramp up the tension by making the programme into a dramatic countdown to the actual October revolution just added to the sense of attempted style over content; hard facts were sacrificed for sensationalism; and what was one of the cataclysmic events of the 20th century was actually undersold.

I was disappointed and angry; the latter mostly because of the bias, and the former because the opportunity for a sensible programme on the Revolution was lost. Mieville and Ali were so underused and yet their contributions were for me the most interesting. The whole thing came across as a comic-book style rendering of Big Events, and probably not aimed at someone who’s been reading about the RR since their early teens – I did find myself wondering what the casual viewer would have made of the show…

Obviously, one failed documentary doesn’t spoil the rest I’ve been watching, and there are a shed-load of Radio 4 programmes I can explore this week covering the subject (though I’m a little nervous about the bias I may find). Alas, it’ll have to be back to books – off to the Verso website to check out the books by Mieville and Ali … :((

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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