Saturday, December 29, 2012


It's back to Alyosha after two very compelling long chapters on Mitya, which formed the core of previous movies made of the novel.  Dostoevsky returns to the rock throwing incident which Alyosha interceded upon.  Little Ilyusha  is on his death bed.  His father had finally accepted the money Alyosha had given from Katarina to assuage the sense of guilt she felt for Mitya beating him in the streets, greatly embarrassing his son, who was never the same after that.  But, the focus of the chapter is more on a boy named Kolya, who had been a friend of Ilyusha.

We are introduced to Kolya tending to small charges as he anxiously awaits for their mother to return.  Kolya seems the responsible sort but also has a strong rebellious nature.  He's small for his age and is quite bitter about it, because he expects to be treated as an adult.  He has schooled himself on books left by his father and now considers himself a socialist and free thinker, with a strong dislike for doctors.  There is a small dog named Perezvon, a stray which he has made his own.

In pure Dostoevskian style, we learn of the causes for the rock throwing incident, which stem back to the relationship between Ilyusha and Kolya.  Ilyusha had long been the subject of taunts from his schoolmates because of his father's foolish nature.  Kolya was the only one to befriend him and protect him, until one day Ilyusha got it into his head to feed a dog a piece of bread with a needle in it.  This greatly upset Kolya, who renounced his friendship on the spot, and Ilyusha felt utterly alone in the world.

Kolya tells all this to Alyosha through a series of conversation that dominated this part of the book.  Alyosha likes Kolya very much as a result, but feels it is very important for him to make amends with Ilyusha, for he and the dog are all Ilyusha talks about in his feverish dreams.  Kolya acquiesces on his own terms.  For the first time, life seems to come from Ilyusha once again.

It is quite touching, but a bit forced, as Dostoevesky seems to be playing this scene largely for emotional effect.  The dreaded doctor breaks the spell by diagnosing that Ilyusha is too far gone for him to do any good and that his poor father should take him to some far away spa for treatment, which only adds to Kolya's disdain for doctors, mocking the haughty doctor as he leaves the trampled down apartment.

We don't get to know what Alyosha sees in Kolya, maybe a young Ivan, but Dostoevsky chooses to leave Chapter X there and reintroduce us to Ivan in the subsequent chapter, but first filling us on a few details since Mitya's wild flight to Mokroye.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Sugar Hangover!

I have no idea why Timur Bekmambetov wanted to associate himself with Yolki, or Six Degrees of Celebration as it was called in wide release.  It seems Russian producers were hoping to recreate the magic of The Irony of Fate, by inviting Timur and other Russian directors to paste together a set of vignettes loosely held together by a little girl's lie that the President is her long lost father, which can be made true if Medvedev (the President at the time) utters the code words, Na Deda Moroza nadeisia, a sam ne ploshai!, at the fateful hour.  In order to achieve this "miracle," a boy sets in motion a chain of events which he hopes will break the six degrees of separation between these lowly orphans and the President.

As Beach Gray writes in this review, Bekmambetov has a weakness for Hollywood-style movies.  At his best, he can deliver in grand style, but here he serves up a sticky sweet pastry loaded with familiar faces (to Russian viewers anyway) that pretty much ends up being pie in the face.  Granted, there are some fun moments, but you have to wonder what the point of all these sugary sentiments is other than to reaffirm that everything is fine in Russia.

What made The Irony of Fate work is that it was a simple story told in a beautifully eloquent style, pitch perfect for the holidays.  Here was a couple that managed to transcend the sameness of Soviet life much like the young couple in O Henry's classic The Gift of the Magi, without being overly sentimental.  As a result, it had the power to reach across cultural lines.

Yolki is so overtly Russian in all its stereotypes without really making much humor out of them.  It is much more fun to watch Ivan Urgant and Sergei Svetlakov in their comedy programs than it is in this insipid tale, as they are two of the funniest men in Russia.  They seemed to be used mainly to draw viewers to the lavish production, as they play relatively minor roles in a film diabetics should be warned not to watch.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Blood on my hands

Mitya didn't have very long to enjoy his moment with Grushenko before the police, magistrate and other town officials arrived to interrogate him on the death of his father.  Dostoevsky backtracks a little to fill in some of the details before picking up with the action at the Mokroye inn.

Perkhotin starts to have second thoughts and goes to Madame Khokhlahov to see if she really gave Mitya 3000 rubles.  After getting the straight story he goes to investigate Mitya's father's house to find that all hell had broken lose and reports his findings to the police.  The policeman, the magistrate and the town clerk already know of the crime and Perkhotin's story of how a blood-soaked Mitya came to him with a wad of rainbow-colored notes in his pocket seems to pretty much seal the deal.  But, in true Dostoevskian fashion we hear from Mitya first, and what an admission it is.

He admits to almost everything except killing his father.  Honor and pride lead him to omit key details, which the interrogating officers insist would only help his case.  Mitya says he never took the 3000 rubles.  He had 1500 left over from that which Katerina had given him, throwing the blame on an epileptic Smerdyakov who was having a seizure at the time of the murder.  Of course, the prosecutor isn't buying it, having a score of witnesses who attest to him having gone through 3000 rubles the last time he was in Mokroye, but still somehow the money doesn't add up.

Dostoevsky leaves it at that, preferring to focus more on Mitya's state of mind than the particulars of the case.  It makes for very compelling reading as Mitya reveals much of himself in this long chapter.  His biggest worry is what will happen to Grushenko.  There are a couple of highly charged moments where the two are brought back together only to be torn apart again.  The prosecutor reassures Mitya that no charges are being brought against Grushenko, although many consider who ultimately to blame for the apparent patricide, as she was the one between them.

The reader is left dangling, as Dostoevsky takes up Alyosha in the following chapter, resurrecting the incident where Alyosha tried to intercede in a fight between kids.

Friday, December 14, 2012

A Wild Night in Mokroye

It is a bit like Chichikov's wild ride and there is even a reference to Gogol's Dead Souls in Dostoevsky's marvelous chapter on Mitya.  At 80 pages it reads like a novella, beautifully crafted from beginning to end.  Of course, it helps having the preceding chapters to capture the full impact of Mitya's wild night where he finally connects with his beloved Grushenka.

At first you get the sense of Don Quixote chasing after his Dulcinea.  You figure there isn't much chance for the impetuous Mitya who stakes everything on a carriage full of champagne and foodstuffs to recreate a previous wild night at the inn in Mokroye.  When he arrives at the inn and sizes up the situation, his hopes at first seem dashed, but over a game of cards his luck turns and the two Poles are revealed to be little more than hucksters, and the officer that Grushenka had harbored her love for a total dud.  Mitya dismisses with them both, but not in the way you would imagine.  The pair of guns remain in the carriage.

Mitya breaks out the champagne and the party begins in full force.  Grushenka is taken by Mitya all over again as he and Maximov dance with the girls while a Jewish band plays.  Maximov had earlier regaled everyone in a story where he was the subject of one of Gogol's parochial land owners.  A self-deprecating gesture as Maximov seems to like to play himself as a fool to appeal to Mitya, who is flush with cash.

The inn keeper tries to keep a tight rein on Mitya, but it is impossible.  It is this sense of abandon which Grushenka loves most.  Eventually, she leads him behind a curtain where Dostoevsky has them revel in each other's sex before the police arrive early in the morning to issue a warrant for his arrest.  Mitya doesn't seem to mind as he heard what he had so desperately wanted to hear -- Grushenka declare her unconditional love for him.

Above is the scene depicted in the 1931 film by Fyodor Otsep.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Dasvidaniya Galina

The opera world lost a great diva in Galina Vishnevskaja.  She reigned supreme in the Soviet Union until the mid 70s when she and her husband, Dmitri Rostropovich were deemed "unpersons" for having harbored the Soviet dissident, Aleksandr Solzhinitsyn.  She was removed from the official history of the Bolshoi, if you can imagine that.  However, Galina got the last laugh when in 1990 she returned to a country on the cusp of independence and was reinstated in the Bolshoi in 1992.  She set up an Opera Center, which has nurtured a new generation of voices.  She starred in Sokurov's 2007 film, Alexandra, a very different role for her.

Monday, December 10, 2012


Around page 420, depending on which edition you are reading, we finally get to the heart of the story, as Mitya finds he has been duped in more ways than one and begins lashing out at everyone.  Dostoevsky gives us an interesting chapter on jealousy, comparing Mitya to Othello, but Mitya knew in his dark heart that everything wasn't as he imagined.  So, the events which follow aren't so much tragic as they are farcical.

By page 450, I'm still not sure whether Mitya killed anyone.  Poor Grigori apparently stumbled and fell on a rock, not as a result of the brass pestle Mitya tossed away.  When Mitya turned to help out the poor servant, he covered himself in blood.  I'm sure it will be atleast a hundred more pages before we find out what actually happened.  In the meantime, Mitya is a fugitive with a wad of 100 ruble notes in his coat pocket.  You figure it won't last him long, just as he had squandered Katya's 3000 rubles before.

He apparently wants to chase after Grushenko, who has left to be with her officer that jilted her five years before, but has apparently sent for her to come to his estate.   First, Mitya puts together a few provisions for the road, including bottles of champagne, jars of caviar and other assorted delectables, which we assume come from the 3000 rubles his father, Fedya, had earmarked for Grushenko.

Dostoevsky sure knows how to string the reader along, and once again I am reminded this was a story released in syndication, a Russian soap-opera if you will, filled with many intriguing twists and turns in what is a very compressed period of time.  Nabokov certainly must have cringed at how Dostoevsky put together this story, as one doesn't get any sense of time in this novel.  Rather, we move back and forward in time, as the narrator piecing together the events that occurred in what amounts to little more than a week in this provincial town.  Nabokov would have also cringed at the translation, which employs a great number of distinctly British collaquialisms, such as "every Tom, Dick and Harry," which Dostoevsky almost certainly didn't use, even if this particular expression can be referenced in Shakespeare.  But, at least now we have some action.

Here's the fateful scene from the 1969 Russian adaptation of the novel.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A foul and pestilent congregation of vapours

It seems Dostoevsky got paid by the word for The Brothers Karamazov as he stretches just about every situation to its breaking point, such as the unruly smell of Father Zossima which leads fellow monks and laypersons who gather for the viewing to question his legacy.  There wasn't much in the way of embalming back then but still a saintly corpse wasn't expected to smell the next day.  Zossima apparently stuck up the place, leading Father Ferapont and others to speculate on his faith, which greatly upset the young Alyosha, who had literally taken Zossima as his father figure given how unfortunate he was to have a miser like Fyodor Pavlovich as his biological father.

Alyosha, like his brothers, was raised by surrogate parents, as Fedya didn't appear to have much time for his offspring.  Instead, he preferred bars and brothels, chasing after young trollops like Grushenka.  Alyosha appeared perfectly content to devote himself to the monastic order, but Father Zossima had given him permission to leave the monastery to experience life as he had done before committing himself fully to the lord.

We get quite a chapter on Zossima's life, which the narrator tells us was taken from  Alyosha's notes Zossima's last night when he was particularly animated and led his fellow monts to believe he had found a new lease on life.  The elder had been a bit of a dandy in his younger days, and as an officer in the Tsar's army ready to marry a young woman he had taken a fancy to, but apparently this love was not reciprocated.  The turning point came the morning of a duel when he realized he had deluded himself, seaking absolution in his manservant and refusing to fire back at the man who had challenged him to a duel over comments he had made.

A large part of the material appears as typical fodder from that era, even the "love triangle" between Dimitri, his father and Grushenko feels contrived, which Alyosha thrust into the middle of this melodramatic struggle.  There is also the "love triangle" betwen his two brothers and Katerina, which he is also forced to intercede upon.  All this becomes too much a burden for a young man of God.  He questions his knowledge on affairs of the heart, taking a scolding from his older brother Ivan, who leaves Katerina for Dmitri, should he choose to take her.

At the halfway point of the novel, the women seem little more than foils, although Grushenka is given a very interesting chapter in which she reveals quite a bit of herself.  However, you are left to wonder if she is only playing games, like she did with Katerina earlier in the book.  The two remind me a lot of of Nastya and Aglaya from The Idiot.

I keep waiting for something to happen.  After all, this is supposed to be a murder mystery.  But, to this point the only mystery is when the murder will occur?

Monday, November 26, 2012

Forgotten Wives

There was an interesting passage in Laimonas Briedas' City of Strangers in which he described Dostoevsky's brief visit to Vilnius on his way to Baden-Baden.  The passage was drawn from Anna Dostoevsky's diary, in which she describes her husband refusing to go out that night for fear his baggage might be stolen.  It seemed Fedya lived in a very agitated state, especially when confrontied with a strange place.

I was curious to find out more and did a search for her diary.  Unfortunately, I couldn't find any previews, but stumbled across Leonid Tsypkin's novel, Summer in Baden-Baden, which is drawn from Anna's diary.  He mentioned the Dostoevskys' layover in Vilnius, but described only their morbid fear of Jews, who dominated Vilna at the time.

Poking around some more, I found that Alexandra Popoff has written a new book on The Wives of Russia's Literary Giants, which looks very tempting.  We often take these wives for granted, but in recent years they have been brought to life in such books as The Last Station, in which Jay Parini focuses mainly on Sofya Andreyvna and her battle with Chertkov over Tolstoy's estate.  Largely fictional but no less compelling, the  book elevated Sofya into a major player in Tolstoy's life.  It was made into a film starring Helen Mirren.

Getting back to Anna Dostoevsky, she did play a major role in keeping Dostoevsky's works in print, and was very instrumental in getting Stanislavsky to stage his short novel, The Village of Stepanchikova, ten years after Fedya's death.  The play would prove very influential on subsequent writers like Samuel Beckett.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

A Passion Play

I'm well into The Brothers Karamazov.  It is easy to see that this novel was serialized in its day.  Each chapter is like a little charge of dynamite, designed to string the reader's attention along from one installment to the next in this very melodramatic story.  For a murder mystery it takes an awfully long time to get to the murder.  I'm a quarter of the way through the book an old Fyodor is still very much alive and well, although Dostoevsky maintains a strong tension between the brothers.

The novel is essentially a study of predestination vs. free will with the main characters introduced in a meeting with the Father Superior at the youngest brother's monastery on the outskirts of a remote Russian town. Dostoevsky's characters are for the most part "Sensualists" struggling with their own inner demons.  Even within the monastery Dostoevsky reveals schisms and tensions, notably between the Father Superior and  the ascetic Father Ferapont, who is not willing to accept a miracle associated with the ailing senior monk.

When Alyosha, the youngest brother, is forced to confront Katerina in an effort to resolve a conflict between his two brothers, Mitya and Ivan, he finds himself beginning to question his own faith.   Alyosha is a bit like Prince Myshkin from The Idiot, a young holy fool who takes pretty much everything at straight value, even as he finds himself being toyed with by the ladies in this novel.  He is willing to give up the church for darling Lise, who the Father Superior apparently cured of her palsy.

Meanwhile, Mitya looms like a rogue bea, crashing into his father's house and beating him within an inch of his life over their shared lust for Grushenko, a local harlot, who both seem intent on marrying.  The patriarch is the most humorous character in the novel, although pathetic in nature.  He hoards his money for his own personal enjoyment, much to the chagrin of oldest son, Mitya, who feels he is the rightful heir to it.

Dostoevsky provides a long introduction on Fyodor's two wives and the children borne from them, noting that Mitya feels like he got the short of the end of the stick.  Ultimately, this is a novel about him, but for the first quarter of the book, Dostoevsky chooses to deal with him peripherally, mostly through the eyes of Alyosha.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Return

Andrei Zviagintsev's The Return is apparently meant to be read allegorically, but I think the film works better on a simpler level of human emotions.  Granted, there are some easily recognizable allusions and the father figure is a rather stark one, but the boys are the stars of the film, particularly young Ivan on whom much of the emotional weight is carried.

Ivan Dobronravov is excellent as the younger brother.  He reminded me a lot of young Ivan in Tarkovsky's great Ivan's Childhood.  The film opens with the boy unable to make the leap from a tall light station on a remote lake shore, which his brother and several other boys had done.  His mother comes to retrieve because he is too ashamed to climb down, forced to face the ugly jeers the following day in this chronology of events.

The story is told through the pages of a diary the two boys keep when confronted with their father after 12 years.  The father is presented in Christ form, laid out in bed as in Andrea Mantegna's painting.  All we learn about him is through the two boys, as he takes them on a fishing trip that turns into a tumultuous journey. 

You can read pretty much what you like into the film.  Allusions abound, but what makes the story gripping is the relationship which develops between the father and his two sons, especially the doubting Ivan, who can't bring himself to accept this strange man as his father.  All he had to go on was a photo taken when he was still a baby, which he pulls from a book of mythology in the attic.  Older brother Andrei seems to have an inkling of a memory, but relies more on his mother's assertion than his own judgement.

Zviagnitsev leaves his story open ended, allowing for multiple conclusions.  Some might find this frustrating, but it works especially well in this film.  Here's the trailer.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

At the Bottom

I read Gorky's The Lower Depths to prep me for a Lithuanian production this past week.  I couldn't help being reminded of Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, especially in Luka's role in the play.  Made me wonder if O'Neill stole a page from Gorky.  Both of these playwrights drew on their own experiences in creating a view from the bottom of urban society. 

Gorky's play had more resonance in 1902 with theater viewers used to plays that dealth with either a fading or debauched aristocracy.  The reaction was visceral according to Solomon Volkov who wrote extensively  in his book, Magical Chorus, about the play and Gorky's relation to Chekhov and the Moscow Art Theater.  Gorky quickly found himself the hottest property in Moscow and soon St. Petersburg. 

The play, which focuses on a group of lost souls in a squalid tenement building in Moscow, was picked up by the London Theater in 1911 and made into a movie by Jean Renoir in 1936.  It can be found in the Criterion box set with Kurosawa's 1957 version,  Luka is a pilgrim who brings a bit of hope to the beleagured denizens who struggle to cope with the crumbling world around the world.  In many ways the play presaged the revolution that would come in 1905, which is one reason it remains a very popular play.  But Gorky had no way of knowing this then, anymore than Dostoevsky in his presicent novels.

What makes the play work is that it deals with specific human emotions and gives a vivid account of those living at the bottom of society.  Each still seems to hold out for something better like the Baron who is constantly referring to his aristocratic past, much to the chagrin of the whore, Nastya.  Satin is the deepest cynic, but even he is moved by Luka, who has his strongest influence on the Actor who tries to recapture his golden moments on stage.

Oskar Koršunovas in his recent production, Dugne, dispenses with the intrigue of the first three acts and focuses almost exclusively on the fourth act, giving the play a very contemporary feel.  Luka, the landlord and the landlady have been dispensed with, although they are referred to by the others.  Satin takes the principal role with the Baron and the Actor also having key roles.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Edge

We found ourselves watching Край,or the Edge, last night.  It dates to 2010 and features one of my favorite actors, Vladimir Mashkov.  It seems made largely for foreign consumption as noted in this review in kinokultura.  The film is set in the aftermath of WWII with a fallen war hero finding himself a very reluctant champion of German survivors in a gulag on the edge of Siberia.  The film is played more for action than it is meaning, but nonetheless offers some pithy theatrical moments.

It is a muscular movie, in some ways similar to Konchalovsky's Runaway Train, as much of the action swirls around two rival locomotive drivers, but seems to come down to uprooted nationalities.  There was a surprise appearance from one of my favorite Lithuanian actors, Vladas Bagdonas, as an exile in this penal colony, although most of the detainees were German.  This of course leads to much tension with the local Russians, which Ignat no longer feels part of it, made adamantly clear when they won't let him drink with them.  Such moments are a bit too melodramatic, but the film has a good flow even if it doesn't feel like it is going anywhere.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Remembering Laika

On this day in 1957 Laika was launched into space.  The perky young female, only 3 years old, was originally named Kudryavka, on account of her curly hair, but I suppose Laika was easier to wrap your tongue around.  Laika underwent rigorous training for her flight aboard Sputnik 2.  For decades the Soviets held up Laika as a symbol of their space program, which Viktor Pelevin poked fun at in Omon Ra.  But, even he didn't know at the time of his writing that Laika hadn't survived her space odyssey.  Information wasn't released until 2002 that Laika died of asphyxiation, when her oxygen ran out on board.  Laika has been honored on postage stamps around the world.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Dear Anna

It certainly looks lavish, but I have to wonder about Joe Wright and Tom Stoppard taking on Count Leo in this new adaptation of Anna Karenina.  The last foreign attempt was an American adaptation fifteen years ago with French actress Sophie Marceau cast in the lead role and Sean Bean as Count Vronsky.  Now we get a British version with Keira Knightley and Aaron Taylor-Johnson in the lead roles and Jude Law as Anna's jilted husband.

There really hasn't been a successful version of the novel.  The Soviet version from 1967 featured Tatyana Samojlova, best known for her role in The Cranes Are Flying.  There were earlier American attempts with Vivien Leigh in 1948 and Greta Garbo in 1935, but somehow Tolstoy's signature character has eluded actresses.

I like Keira.  I thought she was great as Sabina Spielrein in A Dangerous Method, but she is a very intense actress, and the role of Anna requires someone with a more quiet passion.  Her attempt at Lara in the British television production of Dr. Zhivago wasn't so good, mostly because she was miscast.  She would have been better as Tonya.

I thought Sophie Marceau came the closest to capturing Anna's enigmatic character, but the problem in making a film of Anna Karenina is that each time the directors truncate the story and focus almost exclusively on the love story between Anna and Vronsky, reducing the relationship between Levin and Kitty to the sidelines, when it is meant to parallel that of Anna and Vronsky.  The only attempt to tell the story in full was a Russian television adaptation from 2008, which was also a very lavish production.  Here'a clip.

Saturday, October 6, 2012


One of the most beautiful tellings of the Little Mermaid is this 1968 Soviet feature, русалочка, told from a contemporary point of view and in two different styles of animation.  My wife has long loved this version, although it doesn't make as much impact on our little one, who prefers the Disney version from a few years back.  Here is Rusalochka with English subtitles.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Oldest Surviving Soviet Sculptor Tells All

Nikolai Nikogosyan appeared to have many stories to tell when I saw him interviewed on the History Channel the other night.   Well into his 90s, Nikolai still looks spry and alert.  It was just too bad the host didn't see fit to translate what he had to say.  Instead, he showed a few of his more famous bronze castings.

Fortunately, there is this piece from Passport magazine, noting his 90th birthday in 2008.  Nikogosyan's work can be found all through the former Imperium.  Perhaps his most famous work is that associated with the New Building of the Moscow University, which he started back in the 50s.  I like his beautiful stone sculpture of Maya Plisetskaya pictured above.  He also has a wonderful hand for painting.

Much of his Soviet era work remains in place.  His contemporary pieces break free from the bonds set at the time.  Here is the artist at work.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Brothers Karamazov

"I'm a Karamazov... when I fall into the abyss, I go straight into it, head down and heels up, and I'm even pleased that I'm falling in such a humiliating position, and for me I find it beautiful."

I had been looking for a nice copy of The Brothers Karamazov, the only one of Dostoevsky's "Big Four" I haven't read.  The first English translation was by Constance Garnett, published in 1912, and served as the standard for decades.  I was tempted to track down a first edition of the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation from 1990, which received glowing reviews like this one from the New York Times.  But, this Folio Society edition, translated by David Magarshak, is a real beauty, replete with its own slipcase.

The volume dates from 1964.  Magarshak may not make the words "sing," as the reviewer raved of the P/V translation, but his translation is generally regarded as the most accurate.   The Folio Society updated this edition in 2008 with an even more engaging cover, and I assume the same translation.  Both editions are no longer in print, so you will have to hunt around for copies.  I found mine at

As far as film versions go, the epic Soviet version from 1969, directed by Ilya Pyryev, is the most highly regarded adaptation of the novel.  There was also a Russian television adaptation in 2008.  The best known English-language version dates from 1958 and featured Yul Brynner and Lee J. Cobb among others in this bawdy clip.  There is also a great German version from the Weimar years.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Flights in Dreams and in Reality

We found ourselves watching Полёты во сне и наяву the other night, featuring Oleg Yankovsky and Lyudmila Gurchenko.  The film dates to 1983 with Yankovsky's character, Sergei, having a hard time coming to terms with his 40th birthday.  The architecture studio where Gurchenko's character, Larisa, worked reminded me a lot like the one my wife shared with colleagues when I first came to Vilnius in 1994. 

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Morning of Our Motherland

I was watching a History channel special on Socialist Realism art of the Soviet Union and this was one of the grand canvases that is now stuffed away in the Tretyakov State Gallery.  The painter was Fyodor Shurpin and he had a wonderful eye for detail, right down to the secret service black car on the road to Stalin's right.  To the left, one sees a row of combines turning over the field of golden wheat, which became symbolic of Stalin's Soviet Union.  Утро нашей Родины is from 1949, with Stalin radiating a post-war confidence.  It is also known as Dawn of our Fatherland and other titles.

Shurpin was one of the better artists to carry over from the pre-war years.  The narrator pointed out how socialist realist art changed dramatically as a result of the war, becoming much more static and propagandist in appearance.  He pointed to two stops along the Moscow subway as an example of this divide.  Here, Shurpin essentially transposes Stalin for an earlier "Mother" image,

Interesting that she is more firmly rooted in the earth, where Stalin looks like he is standing before the canvas.  Even the light seems artificial, meant to further accentuate him as a "heroic figure" rather than link him to Mother Russia.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Viktor Pelevin and the Trouble with Werewolves

Here are a few tantalizing clips from the title story in this early collection, A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia.  Wolves have figured heavily into the Russian imagination, but Pelevin twists this metamorphosis into an existential experience not much unlike those encountered in his book, The Life of Insects.  It is less a parable, as say Bulgakov's classic Heart of a Dog, than it is an invocation of a return to a natural order.  Ultimately, Pelevin through his first person, Sasha, finds himself having to encounter another werewolf in a battle for his life.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Dangerous Tour

What a treat it was to see Опасные гастроли  the other night on  Дом Кино television.  Vladimir Vysotsky stars as George Bengalsky, the leader of a traveling cabaret group, which also serves as a cover for early Bolsheviks in Tsarist Russia.  The action swirls mostly around Odessa, but travels to St. Petersburg for its climactic scene.  The film features a great number song and dance routines, with the great Bard singing a few signature songs.  The story is exploited mostly for comic effect, with Vysotsky donning a number of disguises to keep one step ahead of the police.  It was released in 1969.  Here is the film in its entirety on kinopod.   Unfortunately, no subtitles.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future

My wife and I found ourselves watching this Soviet classic the other night.  Reminded me a little of Mark Twain's Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.  Yuri Yakovlev is one of my favorite actors.  He was great in The Irony of Fate.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Happy Birthday, Lev!

I'd be most remiss if I didn't note the birthday of Leo Tolstoy.  It was Sunday, September 9.  The Count left a rich legacy that is still being widely disseminated today.  A legacy that influenced Gandhi and many others

Monday, August 27, 2012

Wine turns to vinegar

The wine quickly turns to vinegar in this story, as Irene Nemirovsky fashions a novel around her early life in Kiev, Petersburg, a remote region in Finland and ultimately Paris.  As a set of memoirs it is interesting to read, as Nemirovsky provides her fans with a number of salient details, but as a novel it is rather banal, told in third person although we see the story exclusively through the eyes of the protagonist, Helene Karol, from age 11 to 21.

Obviously, Irene hated her mother.  She paints her in the most harsh terms, while doting over her father who manages to rise from a bookkeeper in Kiev to a rich investment banker in Petersburg thanks to a gold deal he struck in Siberia after he was fired, due to his wife flaunting herself in public.  As his business deals keep him largely away from home, a still young mother takes on a younger lover, much to her daughter's chagrin, planting the seeds of hatred that would ultimately fuel Helene's "revenge."

But, this is less a revenge novel than it is a set of memoirs which offer some tasty vignettes of young Irene anxious to break the bounds of the aristocratic lifestyle she finds herself in.  Seems her only friend is a French governess who schools her so well in French and its customs that she feels more French than Russian, more Catholic than Jewish.  The family summers in Paris are her only reprieve growing up, and she desperately longs to make her time there permanent.

Sadly, Nemirovsky doesn't have much of a sense of humor.  We see her as a petulant and angry child throughout the first half of the book, emerging into an uneasy womanhood in the second half where she learns the art of flirting in a village of Russian emigres in Finland, by toying with a young man named "Fred," who has a family of his own.  This inspires her to plot her revenge against her mother.

Meanwhile, dear old Dad is busy socking away money, shares, bonds and whatever else he can easily transport as the civil war in Russia threatens to change the old order.  One can understand her resentment against her mother, but there isn't much about her father to suggest he was a better alternative.  But, seeing so little of him, Irene projects on him a more positive image.  Ultimately, she finds herself alone, hence the title of the novel, forced to make decisions for herself that she doesn't want to make.

Nemirovsky fans should enjoy the novel, but those new to her may want to look somewhere else first.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Final Frontier

The Paper Soldier offers a very unique view of the "space race," in taking the point of view of a doctor responsible for the health and well being of the cosmonauts, Gagarin and Titov, in the weeks leading up to the historic launch.  This is no rose-tinted perspective, but rather how Chekhov or Pasternak might have imagined the space program, as all the action takes place in the distance, while the doctors deal with abject life in Baikonur, the remote cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

It is a very well-crafted film, theatrical in its approach, with Aleksei German stripping away the heroic aspects of the epoch-making flight by treating Gagarin as a periphery figure.  German invents a doctor who struggles with the enormity of the situation, torn not only by the importance of the moment, but between a wife and a mistress.  One in Moscow, the other in Baikonur.  Here we see shades of Dr. Zhivago, as Nina represents his cosmopolitan world view and Vera the more pragmatic woman.  Interestingly enough, Chulpan Khamatova plays the cosmopolitan wife in this film, where she had played Lara in the Russian mini-series of Zhivago.

What struck me was the bleakness and squalor of Baikonur.  It looks literally like the end of the line to the railroad with a camel framing in a shot of a test rocket shooting into space in the distance.  It makes you wonder how the Soviets ever got a rocket into space.  The film takes its title from a ballad originally sung by Bulat Okudzhava.

You can watch the film in parts in Russian on Youtube.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

You and Me and Both of Us

You won't find this one on IMDb, Тыда яда мы с тобой, a fun short film featuring Sergei Makovetsky (Сергей Маковецкий) and Vladimir Steklov (Владимир Стеклов) as brothers maintaining an isolated train depot.  When one of them gets a tattoo of the girl he loves, Katya, it threatens this uneasy relationship.  The film dates back to 2001.  It is broken up over three parts on Youtube.  Part one above, and here are links to part two and part three.  Sorry, no English subtitles.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

On the Dark Side of the Moon

You get the feeling Viktor Pelevin read quite a bit of Kurt Vonnegut, as he had great fun with the decaying Soviet space program in his first novel, Omon Ra.  The introductory chapters are pretty much background for the story, which sees two boyhood friends dreaming of flying to the moon while at pioneer camp.  You don't really get the full impact of the story until the two find themselves in a flight training camp named after the famed fighter ace, Alexei Mariesiev.  Eventually, they are shipped out to the cosmonaut program where they undergo a rigorous set of exams including a reincarnation test.

It's a brisk read, as Pelevin leads you on a journey of discovery quite unlike any other.  The Soviet Union finds itself in a battle with the USA in keeping up the appearances of a space program during the Brezhnev era.  Even a great bear hunt for the visiting Henry Kissinger was staged, with disastrous consequences, as related in a story to "Ommy" by a blind, wheelchair bound general, who becomes his mentor.  Omon and his buddy Mitiok soon find themselves pitted against each other, much like Gagarin and Titov, to further Soviet scientific studies on the dark side of the moon.

This cosmic journey is peppered with a number of fun references.  There's even a cameo appearance by Laika, a very aged space dog in a general's jacket and cap.  Belka and Strelka also make appearances in a climactic chase scene.  Although you figure out where this narrative is headed long before you reach the final chapters, the story doesn't lose its impact, thanks largely to Pelevin's wonderful sense of irony.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Slouching toward Moscow

I see there is a paperback version of The Slynx now available through New York Review of Books.  I ordered an earlier hardback published by Houghton Mifflin with a much more evocative cover.  The NYR copy is the same translation by Jamey Gambrell, so you can take your pick.  I'm not sure when Tatyana Tolstaya originally penned the book, but it was sometime in the 1990s at the height of the corruption that plagued Russia, and in particular Moscow, no doubt lending to the dystopic futuristic world she imagines in this novel.  

Tolstaya is best known for her unvarnished criticism and trenchant essays of post-Soviet Russia.  Pushkin's Children is well worth reading.  She has no soft spot for Putin, even if a certain amount of stability has emerged in the wake of the wild and woolly 90s.  Since then, she has taken her acerbic wit to the airwaves, co-hosting a popular television show, The School for Scandal.  Here's a clip from an episode featuring Grebenshchikov for Russian speakers.  My wife would help translate some of the content.   Tolstaya came from a literary family (as her name implies), and has tried more than most writers to maintain a high level of discourse in a very fractured society.  

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Coming out from the Cold

My wife has been reading Marina's Thirtieth Love, one of Vladimir Sorokin's early novels, which she says is crazy mix of sex and mayhem.  Sorokin was part of the came of age in the mid 70s, defying authorities and publishing his books in undeground magazines like Spring and Mitya's Journal.  This book comes from that period.   It doesn't seem as though it has been translated into English, but another book from that period is The Queue

I recently ordered the Ice Trilogy, which has received rave reviews.  Sorokin takes in a grand sweep in these three novels, covering the Soviet experiment and its collapse in a "band of brothers" who,

seek out their kin and re-unite them. Perfect impersonators of meat-machine ways, they employ a sort of magic-ice hammer. When pounded on the chest of a fellow-angel, it releases blissful feelings of content and so awakens the victim to their special status. For the initiates, once enlightened, "the absolute majority of people on this earth are walking dead". Their only role is to serve the flaxen-haired elite and so hasten the longed-for apocalypse.

In that sense, he seems to carry forward the grand tradition of Soviet science fiction, through which many writers projected their feelings and criticisms in regard to the Soviet Union.  Oddly enough, Sorokin ran afoul of the law in 2002 on charges of pornography, in response to his book Blue Bacon Fat, in which he implied Stalin was gay.  Since then he has become an international celebrity.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

... as the walls come crumbling down

Viktor Pelevin has long liked to combine elements of the ancient past, present and future in his stories.  My favorite is Life of Insects, in which insects literally morph into humans, although they retain their entomological instincts.  In Generenation π, the story revolves around a young independent Russia, being weaned on Pepsi and trying to come to terms with the American lifestyle invading their country.  The book was published in 1999, before Putin rose to power, giving it a first hand feel of the situation.  The English translation is called Babylon.  Pelevin sets a black market atmosphere, which characterized much of Eastern Europe at the time, but told with wit and irony.

Russians have long saw themselves as Eurasians.  One of the favorite quotes I hear is "scratch the surface of a Russian and you will find an Asian," so Pelevin plays heavily on Mesopotamian themes, in which a young advertising copy writer tries to unlock the secrets of the pell mell world of crime, corrupt politics and Chechan terrorism with a little help from an old acquaintance who turns him onto mushrooms.

The film is fast and furious in its approach, not much unlike Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but is well rooted in Russian modern culture.  Victor Ginzburg does a great job of fusing images and creating hallucinogenic other worlds which Babylen Tartasky (Vladimir Epifantsev) finds himself having to navigate if he wants to stay alive.  Some viewers will recognize Vladimir Menshov from Day Watch and Night Watch. He was Geser, and plays a very similar role in this film.  Eventually, Babylen works himself right into the oligarchic hierarchy of New Russia with great comic effect.  A world that appears on the edge of collapse, until a computer generated image of a leader all too similar to Putin is created to bring a sense of stability.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

A Long Day's Journey Into Night

Sokurov's elegy didn't make as deep an impression on me as it did on Nick Cave, but I was moved.  A mother and son appear to be in a self-imposed exile.  There are sounds from beyond Sokurov's distorted close-ups, but you don't see the children playing or the seagulls that lend a seaside appearance to the film.  Sokurov only chooses to show a train and a ship at sea to imply a distant connection.

Gary Morris describes the painterly quality to the film, Sokurov's sense of German Romanticism, with dream-like landscapes that evoke Caspar David Friedrich.  The long narrow shots, especially of the mother in bed made me think of Egon Schiele.  Whatever your impression, the film draws you into its claustrophobic world, eliciting deep emotions.

The house appears as it may have served as the mother's school house before.  It is bare and institutional looking, and she and her son allude to her earlier days in gentle conversation.   She lies in a bed, which resembles a masonry crib fit into the niche of a window with a view out onto a springtime field.  However, we are made well aware that these are her final moments and that her grown son must come to terms with her death so that he can move on with his life.

The son appears to have served her all these years and when she asks him to take her for a walk, he literally carries her along a country road, pausing at various points for rest and reflection.  He is so tender toward her.   She talks little.  Her breath appears to slowly ebb away.

Back at the desolate house, ensconced in her bed again, with the crackling sound of a fire in the stone hearth, life flows back into her for a brief moment as she shares a few memories with her son.  He gently pleads with her to stay strong, saying we can live like this as long as you want, but she no longer wants to live like this, which brings with it the sense of disconsolate longing which made Nick Cave weep.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Fear and Loathing in Bukhara

Vysotsky was many things to many people, so it is not surprising to see a wide range of opinions on Thank You for Living, a recent biopic by Petr Buslov that captures 4 tumultuous days of Vysotsky's life when he was touring Uzbekistan in 1979.   The story comes from the pen of Nikita Vysotsky, paying the supreme tribute to his late father.  Apparently Marina Vladi was not impressed, calling the film a terrible sin.  More like a sin of omission, since she figured very little into the movie.  What few flashbacks we get are to Vystosky's first wife and children, notably in an out-of-body experience when he suffered a heart attack.

I thought Buslov did a great job in capturing the era, especially the remoteness and desolate beauty of Bukhara, a desert city far from Tashkent.  Vystosky was apparently drug to Uzbekistan against his wishes to stage a concert that would receive close KGB scrutiny.  By this point, he was strung out on drugs and was suffering badly without his fix.  The drama essentially revolves around Tatiana coming out to Bukhara to give him his badly needed supply.

Buslov's biggest challenge was coming up with a strong likeness to Vysotsky, assuming the audience would expect nothing less than a carbon copy.  He succeeded thanks to a death mask which Nikita provided, from which they made a silicon mold to capture every nook and cranny of Vysotsky's memorable face.  At times the CGI seems to skip, so that the actor's face appears to break down, but Sergei Bezrukov also gives Vysotsky a resonant voice.

Oksina Anishina really shines as Tatiana.  Vysotsky and Vladi had split up by this point and he was living with young Tatiana in Moscow.  It is through her that we feel much of the emotional weight of the film, as Vysotsky appears to be battling with his own demons, fortifying himself to go on stage before an Uzbek audience for a second time, when Tatiana arrives with the badly needed drugs to get him through the evening.

All the performances are strong, but you are left scratching your head at times as to how Vysotsky could get himself into such a fix.  The story isn't played for laughs, although the "doctor" that comes along for the ride provides some comic relief.  How true the story is anyone's guess, as the KGB agent conveniently destroys all the tapes and transcripts in the end, which gave the film its verisimilitude.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Remembering Victor Serge

It is very nice to see the work of Victor Serge being reprinted by New York Review Book Classics.  They have a literal treasure of trove of obscure titles, including those of Platonov and Yuri Olesha, among many others, and not just from Russia.  But, Serge's work stands out, as noted by Christopher Hitchens in this article he wrote for The Atlantic in 2003.  In Hitch's words,

After Dostoyevsky and slightly before Arthur Koestler, but contemporary with Orwell and Kafka and somewhat anticipating Solzhenitsyn, there was Victor Serge. His novels and poems and memoirs, most of them directed at the exposure of Stalinism, were mainly composed in jail or on the run. Some of the manuscripts were confiscated or destroyed by the Soviet secret police; in the matter of poetry Serge was able to outwit them by rewriting from memory the verses he had composed in the Orenburg camp, deep in the Ural Mountain section of the Gulag Archipelago.

A great place to start is with Memoirs of a Revolutionary.