Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Bathhouse and Other Stories

Recently came across a wonderful collection of short stories by Mikhail Zoshchenko, a witty satirist from the 1920s.  The title story is about his experience at a public bathhouse and is a wonderful quick read.  Captures all the humor and pathos of life in the old USSR.  Needless to say, he often ran afoul of authorities.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

From Mermaid to Moon Girl

I didn't know what to expect in Rusalka, the second film by Anna Melikian.  I think she drew more from the mythological creature that has long been part of Slavic mythology  than she did Hans Christian Anderson's classic fairy tale, which Chip Crane notes in his review in Kinokultura .  Alisa embodied many ghost-like qualities, although she found herself having a hard time casting her charms on those around her.

It is a fractured fairy tale of a girl born of an incident by the sea where her mother makes love to a sailor on the Crimean shoreline near the end of the Soviet era.  Young Alisa has a hard time reconciling her lowly place in life, her thwarted dreams and the fantasy she holds of her father returning one day to lift her out of the seaside hovel she lives in with her mother and grandmother.  When a sailor does come one day, her spirits are temporarily lifted, only to sadly find out he is looking for room and board.  An eclipse literally leaves her speechless, after which she is placed in a school for disabled children, here she learns to tap into her hidden powers thanks to an autistic boy who chalks up the apples he makes fall from trees.  Summoning up all her newly discovered powers, she calls on the sea to lay waste to the village, and the family is forced to move to Moscow.

This doesn't initially impact her lowly station in life.  Still mute, she picks up odd jobs around the city while her mother works in a large supermarket.  She finds herself drawn up in the glamour of Moscow life when a large canvas advertisement is hoisted over the facade of their building.  She cuts an opening out of the eye of the cosmetic beauty on her eighteenth birthday.  Steeped in symbolism, the "mermaid" becomes urban myth, as she still finds herself able to alter events if she puts her mind to it.  But, ultimately she finds herself thwarted from her ambitions, which she takes from the billboards around town, and is ready to leap off one of the bridges when a young man appears out of the blue and plunges into the Moskva River.  She dives in, rescuing him from the river and wakes up the next morning in his lavish apartment.

But, Melikian is not content to make this a happy story.  Sasha doesn't show much interested in Alisa, mistaking her for the cleaning lady.  Sasha is a purveyor of fantasies, selling land plots on the moon to Moscovites who need an escape from the rough and tumble city.  Sadly, this doesn't seem to give Sasha much satisfaction beyond the lavish lifestyle he is able to afford, making him prone to bouts of depression which lead him to attempt suicide.  He has an attractive girlfriend in Rita but becomes increasingly curious in Alisa, who has dyed her green in an effort to change her life.  Not much of a "love triangle," but it provides the necessary tension for the powerful closing scene.

The film offers a bittersweet view of contemporary Moscow, where the cost of living is so far out of reach to the majority of its denizens, that it might as well be the city in Luc Besson's The Fifth Element.  It was Leeloo that gave Alisa the inspiration to transform her life.  All of it comes crashing to an end like a fairy tale tragically cut short.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Deconstructing Yuri Zhivago

It was interesting to read Yuri Slezkine's impressions of Boris Pasternak and the growing number of Soviet Jewish dissidents in the 1950s, as a result of Stalin's purges.  I had seen Zhivago's "nihilism" as anachronistic, referring back to the 19th century nihilists which tended to characterize Russian novels, such as Turgenev's Bazarov.  But, the way Slezkine describes the growing despondency among Soviet Jews in the 1950s as Stalin's purges struck to the heart of a people that had contributed heavily to the Bolshevik Revolution, I get the sense that Zhivago more expressed Pasternak's views at the time of his writing, than they did views in the 1920s, which saw so many Russian Jews embrace the Bolshevik Revolution as expressed in Isaac Babel's Red Cavalry.

Slezkine provides a fascinating psychological analysis and history of the Jewish influence on the Bolshevik Revolution in The Jewish Century.  He argues that the generation born of the revolution turned its backs on its Jewish fathers and embraced the new Soviet society that emerged after the Russian Civil War.  Of course, I imagine there were a few dissidents, which could have served as a model for Yuri Zhivago, but the overwhelming amount of  Russian literature at the time praised the Red Army, with many Jews taking their service as a right of passage into the Soviet Union.  Many young Jews completely renounced their heritage, assuming Russian hybrids and acronyms of Soviet leaders, and wanting nothing to do with their Yiddish past.

Pasternak's dissidence seems to have greatly affected the way he chose to characterize Zhivago's "profound ambivalence."  Pasternak had not been the most agreeable Soviet citizen, often coming up against the literary censors, but from what I've read Pasternak embraced the modernism that suffused the early Soviet Union.  It wasn't until Stalin imposed his sense of neo-realism that writers like Pasternak, Mandelstam and Akhmatova found themnselves on the outside looking in.  Stalin and his successors wanted the Soviet Union described, painted, sculpted and built in heroic terms, and it was obvious that Yuri Zhivago didn't fit the definition of a "model citizen" anymore than Pasternak did himself, which is why Doctor Zhivago was first published in Italy, and became an international sensation, having been rebuffed by Soviet censors.

This kind of reflectivity came to characterize the Russian dissident of the 50s and 60s.  Writers like Pasternak and Achmatova were a major influence on Joseph Brodsky and "the magic chorus" that arose at this time, which no longer saw the Soviet Union as a socialist paradise.  Still, Slezkine notes, Soviet Jews couldn't dispel their love for Russian culture, particularly their love for Pushkin, and found it difficult to fully embrace the new State of Israel or the capitalist panacea that the United States represented.  Those who did emigrate to America and Israel had a very hard time reconciling their feelings, as Khrzhanovsky depicted Brodsky in Room and a Half.