Home

Russian Émigré Short Stories at @shinynewbooks @Bryan_S_K

16 Comments

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.

Advertisements

Witnesses of violence and iconoclasm

22 Comments

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…

Dispatches from the Revolution

24 Comments

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

Sometimes a book comes along that you just know is going to be perfect for you; and “1917”, just published by Pushkin Press, is certainly the right one for me! It’s no secret here on the Ramblings that I have something of an interest in Russian literature and culture, and this reaches back a long way with me, since I first studied the Russian Revolution at the age of 12 or 13. This engendered my lifelong fascination and so a book celebrating the 100th anniversary of the country’s year of change is something I was quite desperate to read!

1917

1917 was indeed a year of turmoil for Russia, with not one but two revolutions taking place: in February/March the royal family was overthrown and a provisional government put in place; and in October/November the more famous conflict occurred, with Lenin’s Bolsheviks seizing power. This was eventually followed by a bloody civil war which tore the country apart and continued until 1921, when the old guard of the White Army were finally defeated. During the relatively liberal decade that followed, there were many accounts which looked back on the uprisings, but those featured in this excellent book are all between 1917 and 1919 (when the tide really turned in the Civil War, in favour of the Red Army), so they’re from right in the eye of the storm.

Expertly collected (and often translated) by Boris Dralyuk (who also translated the volume of Babel’s “Odessa Stories” I reviewed recently), he’s keen to stress the importance of contemporary reactions to the conflict. The book features an amazing range of authors espousing a variety of viewpoints, and all witnessing the conflict at first hand. Some embraced the revolution, some were horrified and rejected it, but all responded with lyrical passion. The various works are grouped thematically with erudite and informative introductions providing context and the first half of the book concentrates on poetry.

Remember this – this morning, after that black night –
this sun, this polished brass.
Remember what you never dreamt would come to pass
but what had always burned within your heart!

(from Russian Revolution by Mikhail Kuzmin
Translated by Boris Dralyuk)

From well-known names like Tsvetaeva, Mandelstam, Pasternak, Esenin and Akhmatova to names new to me like Vladimir Kirillov, Alexey Kraysky and Georgian poet Titsian Tabidze, there’s a wonderful array of work on view here. The marvellous Mayakovsky, often thought of as the poet of the Revolution, earns a section to himself, and his complex reactions to the conflict are covered. But central to the poetry section, and crucial, are Alexander Blok’s two great works “The Twelve” and “The Scythians” – starkly powerful, the former is rendered brilliantly by Dralyuk and Robert Chandler. As someone who sometimes struggles to read collections of poetry, I found this one gripping and absorbing, with such a wonderful range of imagery and human emotion.

The second section is prose – short fictions, journalism and responses from such luminaries as Teffi, Zamyatin, Zoshchenko and the great Bulgakov. I was pleased to see an evocative piece by Kataev which was new to me, a powerful story called “The Drum”. Dralyuk draws on an astonishingly wide range of works, pulling in as many peoples and creeds affected as he can. For example, Dovid Bergelson wrote in Yiddish and his imaginative piece “Scenes from the Revolution” is memorable. Teffi, of course, is her usual pithy, outspoken, no-nonsense self and her pen portrait of Lenin is devastating; her satirical story “The Guillotine” chilling.

And what of my beloved Bulgakov? He closes the book with an early piece entitled “Future Prospects” – his first piece of writing, in fact – which looks ahead with desperate hope. Bulgakov was at the time a White Army supporter and with our benefit of hindsight his optimism seems misguided and tragic – or perhaps born of desperation as the world around him crumbled.

dralyuk-2013-1

Boris Dralyuk dedicates this collection to the memory of his grandmother, and he does have a very personal connection to the Revolution through his grandparents which you can read more about here. I can’t praise enough the work he’s done compiling and translating this wonderful book; needless to say, “1917” not only lived up to my expectations, it exceeded them. I could simply sit here and churn out superlatives, but that’s not really constructive. This is a book that captures a moment in time when the world was changing, in rich, beautiful and sometimes visceral writing. Tellingly, a character in “The Soul’s Pendulum” by Alexander Grin comments on the perspective of history, and it is this missing perspective that gives the works their immediacy, capturing the chaos and uncertainty of a society in flux. It’s easy for us to look back now, a hundred years on, and see the events of that time as a structured thing, with a beginning and an end; living through them was an entirely different experience, but it’s one that can be glimpsed through the pages of this wonderful collection. “1917” was an entirely absorbing, moving and exceptional read, and it’s definitely going to be high on my list of books of the year.

%d bloggers like this: