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“….all that you are cannot be avoided.” #mandelstam

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I got myself in a bit of a tizz recently because I couldn’t find my copy of Jose Saramago’s Death at Intervals and I love it to bits and wanted to reread the end yet again. This irked me for several weeks, and so much so over Christmas that I finally resolved to take a stepladder and examine closely the bookshelf I thought it should be on (which is quite high up) Needles to say it was there, but had just fallen down the back of double shelved stacks with other books piled up on top… So I’m pleased to report it’s found!

Hurrah! It’s rediscovered! 😀

However, while I was rummaging, my eye fell upon  a slim volume from Glas publishers which I picked up some time back in my quest for everything Bulgakov. It’s a book which focuses on that wonderful author as well as poet Osip Mandelstam, and it was a timely find as the latter has been much on my mind recently. I own a number of works by this great Russian poet, and have been deeply moved by his fate; yet I’ve read little of what I own and have been vaguely nervous owing to his reputation as a possibly difficult poet with work full of allusion I might not get. I have dipped into his work via a number of anthologies, but I have poems, essays and travel writing lurking. Nevertheless, according to Russia Beyond the Headlines, “The greatness of Mandelstam was recognized even by Vladimir Nabokov, who despised practically everyone.” So I wondered if this might be a useful introduction the poet and to his work…

And I’m happy to report that it is! The book is “Glas New Russian Writing 5” and the translations are given as copyright 1993, although the publication date given on Amazon is 2000. Certainly, it would have been before the more recent slew of publications about Bulgakov, and it’s split into two halves which each focus on one of the two named authors. There are photographs, memoirs and examples of the author’s writing, and these build up to give a picture of their life and work.

Mandelstam’s life, or certainly the part of it after his marriage, is extensively covered in his wife Nadezdha’s two volumes of autobiography (which I intend to read when I’ve found a copy of the first…) However, the biographical interest in the Glas volume comes from a long section by Osip’s younger brother, Evgeny. He relates some family history, their Jewish heritage, stories of their early life and schooling, and reveals the problems between their parents which affected family life. As well as giving us insights into Osip’s personality and young life, Evgeny’s memories cover something of his own life. These reminiscences are fascinating in their own right, with tales of encounters with famous poets and the background of the drama of the revolution. An afterword reveals that the younger brother had an illustrious life of his own, working in medicine, but also with a literary side to his career, becoming involved in film scripts.

However, returning to Osip, the content is moving, beautiful and often so sad. Mandelstam, like Bulgakov, was inspired by, and reliant upon, a wife who supported his work, helped its survival and continued to promote it after his tragic death in exile. The poet was reckless enough to compose a critical poem about Stalin (reproduced in this volume) at the height of the dictator’s popularity. An NKVD mug-shot tells you all you need to know; he was exiled (along with his wife), returned to Moscow, was re-arrested and sent to a camp near Vladivostok where cold and starvation killed him.

Any other poet compared to Osip Mandelstam was like a spider weaving its web compared to a silkworm.

I’ve not read enough of Mandelstam’s poetry yet to decide whether the verses here are representative, but they’re certainly beautiful and memorable and not so scarily complex as I imagined. Add in the memoirs and images and you have what is a perfect little primer on Osip Mandelstam (and indeed on Bulgakov, if you’ve yet to make his acquaintance). You can still find this little book online, and if you want to explore these wonderful 20th century Russian authors’ life and work, this might well be a good place to start!

(NB – I’m normally keen to credit the translator, but although this volume is edited by Natasha Perova, the names of translators are spread out throughout the book. Here they are, and I hope I haven’t missed any: Kate Cook, James Escomb, Sonja Franeta, David Gillespie and Eric Guth.)

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Cursed Days

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The Great Fear by James Harris

Stalin’s great terror, a period in soviet history in the late 1930s when millions of Russian people from all walks of life were purged and murdered, most often for no reason, holds an endless fascination for historians. However, a new book from OUP sets out to challenge the simplistic view that it was all based on Stalin’s insecurity and makes a very compelling case. Author James Harris, a Senior Lecturer at the University of Leeds, has spent years studying Soviet history, with access to many archives not available in the past and he’s used this knowledge and research to come up with fascinating new theories on the source of the purges.

great fear

The pat view of the Great Terror is that it was a result of Stalin’s paranoia and his attempts to ensure that all potential rivals were eliminated. The received wisdom is that the dictator wanted to crack down on old Bolsheviks such as Zinoviev and Bukharin, with the high-profile show trials having a deterrent effect on any plotters intending to try to unseat him. The assassination of Sergei Kirov, the Leningrad regional party secretary, on 1st December 1934, is generally considered as triggering the slaughter. But if the foregoing is the case, why then would so many of the purged be ordinary people – workers, lowly party members, engineers, soldiers and the rank and file who kept the Soviet Union going.?

Harris’s argument against looking at Stalin’s terror in isolation is a persuasive one; as his introduction reveals, the history of Slav countries is of a culture holding grimly onto power, riddled with paranoia and plotting. Mass killings and repression had taken place under the various Tsarist regimes, and continued in the early days of the USSR – Lenin was not averse to the removal of anyone perceived to be in the way. However, there are a number of other factors involved and as Harris makes clear, there is no one simple answer to the question of why this happened.

…it remains that the logic of the appalling political violence unleashed by Stalin was not the logic of some lone, paranoid, bloodthirsty dictator. it was the logic of the Bolsheviks, and albeit in a more extreme form, the logic of the Russian Tsars determined to preserve and protect the autocracy.

Pivotal to the book is Harris’s account of the kind of information gathering that was going on in the USSR at the time. The early 1930s were a time of much world instability and rumours of another war; Russia was in constant fear of invasion, perceiving itself as threatened on all sides by hostile capitalist powers. Used in the West as we are to seeing Russia as a large, confident, warlike and hostile force, it’s perhaps hard to recognise that the fledgling state felt anything but confident, and was convinced it was about to be invaded at any time.

In this kind of climate, the authorities relied very much on the secret services and the results of their spying for information on what was happening in the rest of the world and whether conflict was about to break out. But unfortunately the structure of the Soviet state, the constant pressures to achieve unreasonable targets and the various vested interests had created such a climate of suspicion and mistrust that the information reaching Stalin and his colleagues was anything but accurate. The powers given to the OGPU/NKVD allowed them such a free rein that they could obtain ‘confessions’ by any means, confessions which were quite probably worthless; and it was in their interests to keep the spectre of invasion real to justify their existence.

And as a result of this misguided, inaccurate and misleading intelligence which fostered an incorrect view of the state of the world and the threat to the USSR, the leaders were persuaded that there were enemies everywhere. Denunciations, which decimated society from top to bottom, resulted in the purges which weakened the state considerably at a crucial time just before WW2. And all the threads came together – the misleading intelligence, the ‘outsiders’ turning on those in positions of authority, the fear of invasion – resulting in a maniacal necessity to clamp down on any perceived transgression.

harris

“The Great Fear” presents a nuanced reading of history drawing on a number of primary sources; its strength is to see the Great Terror in the context of world and Russian events which contribute to the structure of society and mindset of the people in power, rather than as the result of one’s man’s paranoia or capriciousness; indeed, Harris presents Stalin as making quite rational decisions based on the information he was receiving. However the effect on the country was dramatic and destructive, and had Stalin and his cronies had more accurate intelligence their behaviour might well have been very different. “The Great Fear” is not a book for the uninitiated; for example, if you don’t know what a Stakhanovite is, you’ll struggle here. But for those with a keen interest in Soviet history, this excellent book is a must for the light it throws on a dramatic and appalling period of the regime’s history.

(Review book kindly supplied by Oxford University Press – for which many thanks!)

An Unexpected Beverley* (and other fun finds….)

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*(Nichols, of course – who else?!)

I have resigned myself to bookmania – it’s no good denying that I love to hunt for book treats and as many people have told me, I could have much worse habits! This week has not seen too much shelf space disappearing at the Ramblings, but I did discover a couple of treasures at the weekend!


The first was the Unexpected Beverley in the form of a paperback copy of “A Case of Human Bondage” (£1). There is a story behind the acquisition – a hardback copy was in Claude Cox books for some months and I resisted buying it because I really wasn’t sure whether I would enjoy the subject matter (the marriage of the Maughams). However, since that time I’ve read some Maugham and more Beverley and so I decided to go back and get it, by which time it had been sold (grrr). So I snapped this copy up when I found it. I’m not sure if I *will* enjoy the subject matter, but it’s a Beverley so I shall give it a try.

The second find is this nice Heron hardback of Colette, containing “Gigi” and “Cheri” (which you probably can’t see well because of the rubbish photo). Heron did a whole set of Colette books and although I only have a few (and don’t particularly intend to collect them), one of my volumes contains “The Last of Cheri” so I felt I should have the matching volume. Plus it was only 50p…..


The Heron volumes are very nice, apart from the fact that the binding is prone to split as it gets hard and brittle with age – which is most annoying. However, I have a couple of Russian Heron volumes and they *are* surprisingly eclectic in their choice of author, so worth watching out for.

And finally a vintage Penguin (which I sent away for – you don’t get that many in the local shops!) There’s a motivation behind this too, as I was browsing the Penguin catalogue this week, looking at forthcoming releases, and noticed that “Conversations with Stalin” was being reissued. The appeal of a shiny new Penguin was great, until I noticed that the foreword was by Anne Applebaum….

All I knew of Applebaum until recently was that she was the author of “Gulag” (which lurks on Mount TBR) – then I saw she’d brought another book out, on the Iron Curtain. I thought that might be interesting until I had a look at the reviews online, where some very erudite commentators had pointed out a mass of factual errors, stating the she is a very biased right-wing historian. Frankly, I had enough of that with the Robert Service biographies of Lenin, Stalin and Trotsky, so I have decided to steer well clear of anything Applebaum. I do wonder, also, why Penguin have chosen a right-winger to write the foreword to this? Anyway, I decided instead to pick up a pretty old Penguin and so I have done so! What to read next, as I have finished Perec’s “Life”? I suspect it may be Beverley…

(Then there are the library books – let’s not go there……..)

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