Posts Tagged ‘Russia’

Peter Unwin: Baltic Approaches

November 26, 2016

61tgouatogl-_ac_us160_This was an excellent find in a secondhand bookshop. The author was an experienced British diplomat, and this shows through in the care of his writing, which succeeds in portraying the broad sweep of two thousand years of European history from the specifically Baltic perspective. I hadn’t fully comprehended the vastness of the region, which Unwin likens to a northern Mediterranean, a perspective that had never occurred to me, but which makes eminent good sense, particularly when you take a good map and rotate it a little… it will never be the same in my mind and imagination from now on.

The book was written just over twenty years ago, and it’s quit astonishing how much things have changed dramatically in such a short period of time: he’s writing shortly after German reunification, before the accession of Eastern European nations to the EU, and he’s not able to imagine their joining NATO, which of course has happened. He follows the coastline as it limits Germany, Denmark, Poland, the Kaliningrad exclave, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Russia, Finland, Sweden, Norway and back to Germany again.

He’s particularly thoughtful and sensitive about East Prussia, analysing its contribution both to Germany and to Europe, and expressing sadness at its disappearance, inevitable and understandable though this was. My one gripe with him would be his attitude to Poland and Lithuania which I felt lacked subtlety, especially in his glossing over the significance to Poland of Wilno, and not just in the inter-war years. Overall it is hard to fault his careful, detailed, balanced and sensitive exploration of the complexities of the ethnic minorities questions which have bedevilled the Eastern Baltic region and to some extent still do today. He’s good on national traits and characteristics, insofar as this is possible when one is inevitably generalising. His prognostications about the future, outlined in his concluding chapter, are, unsurprisingly, overoptimistic, dated, and about as far as it’s possible to be from where we have got to today…

But, a good little book that does the subject justice and which has some nice outline maps which help when you turn to the atlas for more detail.

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A Westerner tries to understand Russian literature

September 19, 2015

As I’ve grown older, I’ve developed the impression that Russia is so very different from anywhere I know and am familiar with. I’ve read its history and followed the ins and outs of communist politics for many years, and I’ve read a good deal of Russian literature, and explored a lot of the country as an armchair traveller, through many and varied travel writers. And the place seems vast and unknowable, the more I read and try to understand.

Partly this must be through the sheer size of the country, which defies the imagination. Many years ago, I was given a Soviet road atlas of the USSR. It’s a very slim volume, with very small-scale maps, and vast areas simply do not feature, not because the Russians had anything to hide, just because there are no roads. And the places where a single road goes on for five or six hundred kilometres, through a handful of small towns and then just stops…well. And then there’s the Russian idea of government: autocracy is as far as it seems to get – one all-powerful ruler, whether a tsar or a First Secretary of the CPSU or V Putin. It seems that only such a ruler can hold such a country together. Democracy they don’t do. When you get to religion, that is also alien to us in the West. Yes, it’s Christianity, but they think that theirs is the one and only true and original version, rather like the Church of Rome does. Which came first? Their services are obscure, in a mediaeval language, last for hours…

And yet I have been more than curiously fascinated by all this for many years; I am drawn to the unusual, the strange and inexplicable. Dostoevsky is hard work: The Idiot – what is it all about? and The Brothers Karamazov? at least Crime and Punishment is approachable, and frightening in its convincing psychology and paranoia. But I still find the ending, redemption through love and forced labour, hard to take, sentimental. It is a brilliant novel, though. Tolstoy is actually likeable, perhaps the closest a Russian gets to ‘the Western novel’ for me, even though they are vast tomes that make even Dickens look manageable… War and Peace I really like (I’ve read it three times so far) and am in awe of its vast scope, the sweep of its action, and the author’s direction of and dialogue with his readers. I like the ideas of Anna Kerenina and find the character of Levin fascinating, sometimes comprehensible and sometimes alien. Just as in France, the nineteenth century novel reached great heights in Russia.

Those writers had to grapple with the censorship and controls of Tsarist times; writers in the twentieth century didn’t have it anywhere near as easy, as the Soviets wanted to control everything, and literature was meant to serve the party and the revolution. I gather it produced a great deal of grim hack-work known as Socialist Realism, which I am sure was (badly) translated into English but probably never reached many bookshops here.

And those times also produced great writers and great literature. Stalin’s purges and the Great Patriotic War provide the background for Vassily Grossman‘s epic Life and Fate, and Anatoly Rybakov‘s astonishing Arbat trilogy. Grossman’s work has finally begun to achieve some of the recognition it merits – it really is a twentieth-century War and Peace – but Rybakov attracted a brief, post-Soviet flurry of interest with his first volume and then no further notice, which is a great pity. One can read historical accounts of the madness and paranoia that was the 1930s in the Soviet Union, but you can only begin to feel what it could have been like through a cast of convincing characters living through those times.

I still fail to understand how Mikhail Bulgakov survived, having written The Master and Margarita, but I have read that he was perhaps protected by Stalin. The devil appears in Moscow and creates scenes of utter mayhem; Pontius Pilate and his wife attempt to make sense of Jesus and his message; magic and anarchy reign. It’s a marvellous novel, a tour-de-force, but Socialist Realism it ain’t…

I’ve waxed lyrical about the Czech writer Jaroslav Hasek‘s hero Svejk, an anarchic anti-hero who creates chaos in the Austro-Hungarian war effort wherever he goes; he has his Soviet era equal in Ivan Chonkin, in a couple of novels by Vladimir Voinovich, where Soviet bureaucracy and managerial ineptitude are satirised quite mercilessly.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn‘s earlier works made a great impression on me at school. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch is a powerful read (the film is utterly unmemorable) as a political prisoner in the gulag shares his work, thoughts, hopes and fears, knowing that it’s back to the start every night for twenty years; Cancer Ward explores (as I recall) the vulnerabilities of the powerful and the weak, reduced to the same equality by the dread disease, its treatment and consequences, and The First Circle, which I think is probably the best, explores Stalin’s paranoid world, urge to spy on and control people through the eyes of prisoners and ‘free’ men involved in a research project that will allow the regime to identify people from recorded voices alone. Solzhenitsyn, like other Soviet era writers, tries hard to create Stalin as a fictional character, and thereby come to some understanding of his psychology and power.

I have yet to read anything written since the fall of the Soviet Union that is worth the eyeball time.

Anton Chekhov: Three Sisters

November 12, 2014

41y5IgRroHL._AA160_It’s that time again: reading for the Russian literature group. I taught this play to drama students a number of times, and it was a challenge, because it’s so boring. Today I had a (small) revelation: it’s a nineteenth century version of Waiting for Godot. Once I had it in that viewfinder, it began to be rather more approachable.

There is something about a lot of mid to late nineteenth century Russian literature: it’s full of people with money and nothing to do, no skills or purpose or meaning in life. They literally don’t know what to do with themselves and they are bored to death. And there’s a sense that things cannot go on like this, something has to change. Sometimes there’s even a scent or a foreshadowing of revolution in the air…

The sisters in this play are stuck in the middle of nowhere – there’s a hell of a lot of middle of nowhere or back of beyond in Russia – if they work, their jobs are drudgery, and they have set their hopes of a new and more fulfilling life on getting back to Moscow, which they left thirteen years previously. In the same way, Vladimir and Estragon expect the arrival of Godot to change their lives, to bring some kind of meaning. The male characters in Three Sisters are utter wasters: a drunken doctor, a military man who resigns, threatens to go and do meaningful work eventually, and then is killed in a pointless duel the day before he is due to marry one of the sisters and start work. Another soldier ‘philosophises’ all the time (rambles pointlessly about inconsequential ideas) whilst conducting an affair with the married sister. Eventually the troops leave… and nobody goes to Moscow.

It seems an allegorical play – if there is any fathomable meaning to it – Russia is stuck in a time-warp, its people lack purpose, meaning to their lives; those with brains and ideas are idle and unproductive. That’s not to say that Chekhov was a revolutionary or that he was prophesying events twenty or so years in the future. But I do get the sense of a world that has lost its way here. (No change there, then, said he cynically.) Nobody is happy, even when they say they are.

I think Beckett does it better: I think the absurdity comes over more clearly and powerfully. But the end result is the same. And I suppose both plays can be looked from the perspective of tragedy: we were challenged a number of times at university to discuss and imagine whether tragedy was possible in the twentieth century. I always felt that Beckett achieved that sense of tragic waste in Waiting for Godot, and now I think that perhaps Chekhov does, too. There’s certainly some of the ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ in the plot, but I cannot really warm to any of the characters. To this outsider, there’s a powerful insight into the Russian soul.

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