Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Bunin v. Gorky

This book just gets curiouser and curiouser, as Alice would say.  Volkov devotes much of Chapter 6 to the battle for the Nobel prize in liiterature between Bunin (the White expatriate) and Gorky (the Red socialist).  Bunin had fled to Paris during the civil war and was part of a large emigre community in the City of Light. He was considered the leading light among the Russian expats.  Nabokov provided a wonderful vignette of his meeting with Bunin in Speak, Memory.

Volkov sets up the story by telling how the Nobel prize committee had repeatedly overlooked Tolstoy, which was a major sore point among Russian emigres.  Tolstoy was expected to receive the first Nobel prize for literature in 1901, as he was at the height of his international popularity.  When the prize went to Sully Prudhomme, a relatively obscure French poet, Volkov noted that upset Swedish writers wrote an apology to Tolstoy.  It didn't seem he much cared one way or the other.  By this point, he had renounced his artistic endeavors and devoted his energy to his Utopian ideals.

Bunin was a great champion of Tolstoyism and devoted much of his time extolling the virtues of the literary giant, even if this respect was not reciprocated.  Tolstoy apparently preferred Gorky as a writer, even if Gorky considered Tolstoy's idealistic peasant pure fantasy and would distance himself from Tolstoy in later years.

It had been more than 30 years since this gross oversight and the Nobel committee seemed to narrow their choice down to between Bunin and Gorky.  Bunin was very well respected by the international community and good friends with the Nobel family, who actively petitioned the Nobel prize committee on his behalf.  Meanwhile, Gorky, who had already been shortlisted a couple times for the prize, was being actively promoted by Stalin, who felt the prize would give greater legitimacy to the acculturation process he and Gorky had initiated in the Soviet Union.  So, it became a Red v. White battle with the prize ultimately going to Bunin, as many European socialists had become soured by the Bolsheviks.  Bunin gave a rather muted acceptance speech, but later became harshly critical of the Stalin regime.

Volkov felt that this "loss" soured Stalin, and lowered his estimation of Gorky.  Their relationship cooled after that incident, although Gorky remained a deeply revered figure in the Soviet Union.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Stalin and Gorky

Hard to imagine Stalin as a theater-goer, but to read Volkov's account in The Magical Chorus, Stalin had a very active interest in the theater.  He was especially drawn to the work of Gorky and Chekhov.  He also liked Bulgakov and a number of other playwrights of the era.  His closet relationship was with Gorky, who interceded any number of times on the behalf of writers and artists who had run afoul of authorities, with Stalin sometimes giving them a reprieve.  However, Stalin's sympathies didn't extend to Futurists and Absurdists, whose works he openly despised.  Such was the case with Nikolai Zabolotsky, whose absurdist pieces resulted in him being labeled a peasant poet, despite his strong socialist leanings.  Zabolotsky managed to survive the purges but not without scars.

Stalin preferred the socialist realism of Gorky, whose plays were very popular at the time.  Stalin and Gorky shared a deep mistrust for peasant writers. Gorky suffered the stain of this association, even if he felt he was acting as a buffer between the remaining Russian avant-garde and Stalin.  This association undermined efforts by Stalin and Gorky to repatriate some of the major artists living abroad, as they both felt it was imperative to form a strong cultural base for the  Soviet Union.  As it was, Stalin invested heavily in cultural activities, unlike his predecessor Lenin, who saw little value in the theater or the arts in general.  Stalin came to see it as a great propaganda tool, eventually shifting his interest toward cinema, which could reach a far wider audience.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Том Сойер

One thinks of Tom Sawyer as the quintessential American story, which makes it all the more surprising to see this 1936 Soviet interpretation of the adventure tale with Kolya Katsovitch as young Tom.  Seems Stalin appreciated the boyhood anarchist spirit of young Tom.  Vera Nabokov apparently wasn't so charmed, and refused to let her son Dmitri read the book in any language, citing Tom's adolescent love for Becky Thatcher, among other things, a bad influence on her young son.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Magical Chorus

How easy it is to view Russian-Soviet culture and politics as a zero-sum game and how the Magical Chorus lost, as Keith Gessen suggests in his review,

Reading Volkov’s chatty, well-informed and in many ways enlightened book, you wonder whether he even suspects just how badly, how devastatingly, how possibly lastingly, he and his friends have lost. 

Gessen couches his review of the 2008 book by Solomon Volkov in the election engineering that was going on in Moscow the same year, and what he describes as Volkov's loathing for Orlando Figes.  The only problem is that it is pretty hard to read any of this in the book itself, as Volkov takes the reader on a magic carpet ride over the cultural history of Russia and the Soviet Union the past 100 years.  Volkov takes the title from a term Anna Akhmatova used to describe the young poets of the late 50s and early 60s, which included Joseph Brodsky.

Unlike Figes, Volkov is a native son, albeit a self-exiled one, who shared an intimacy with many of the persons he describes in the later half of the book.  He was especially good friends with Joseph Brodsky and wrote a book on his Conversations with Brodsky.  Whereas Figes views Russia almost exclusively from the lens of a cultural historian in Natasha's Dance, which many Russian critics noted was chock full of errors, Volkov takes a more intimate approach to his subject matter, drawing on letters and personal exchanges, that bring the character of these literary and artistic giants to the forefront.

The book opens with a wonderful chapter on the relationship between Gorky and Chekhov and their fight for control of the Moscow Art Theater, played out largely through their wives, the two leading actresses at the time.  Gorky had a big hit with The Lower Depths, and while Stanislavsky, the theater director, favored Chekhov, the financiers favored Gorky, who appealed more directly to the audience with his simple stories.  There was even a danger of the Moscow Art Theater losing its financing all together when Gorky and his wife decided to take their show to Petersburg.  You think that Russia was big enough to handle two rival theaters, but apparently not according to Volkov.

Through the densely filled pages of his account, Volkov shows how art, theater and literature were inextricably tied together in the minds of the Russian intelligentsia and the impact this had on the country was profound.  He goes onto show how the early Soviet leaders recognized the didactic purpose of the theater, and eventually cinema, and used it effectively to inculcate socialist realism.  The most famous union was that between Gorky and Stalin.

But, Volkov also explores famous emigrees like Sergei Diaghilev, whose Ballets Russes became the staple of Parisian theater, introducing to the world great talents like Nijinski and Stravinsky.  Volkov amusingly notes that Diaghilev was more interested in opera than he was ballet, but the one-act ballets were easier to produce and easier to follow by the audience, although Stravinsky's Rite of Spring led to a full scale riot in 1913.

The book is a great read, and goes far beyond the polemics during the times he describes.  Gessen seems blithely unaware that even Putin has a strong interest in the theater, and that he has been satired as well.  Not that it really matters since Russian theater, music and ballet has long transcended its native land and has become the staple of theaters worldwide.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Day Watch

Day Watch proved much more entertaining than Night Watch with Timur Bekmambetov having much more fun with the premise.  It was like he had brought The Master and Margarita up to the present replete with a final ball scene, with a veritable who's who of Russian entertainment stars, that would have made Bulgakov proud.  It was certainly a much more spirited supernatural thriller than that which Bortko made of the Bulgakov classic the same year (2006).

I liked the idea of the magic chalk from Samarkand and the ability to rewrite the present, resulting in a fitting end to this wild and crazy ride through modern-day Moscow.  Timur has a great sense of timing, knowing when to bring the chalk into the action and how to use it to great effect.  We all would like to have a chalk like this to break down the walls of our "reality" and recast them as they were before everything went south, which is very much the case in this movie.

Anton is much more compelling this time around than he was in Night Watch.  Partly, because Konstantin Khabenski better inhabits the role, and also because there is a greater emotional investment in the character as he is forced to choose between a son he wants to reclaim and a fellow "other" he finds himself drawn toward.  The final ballroom scene is played out beautifully.

Viktor Verzhbitski plays a more prominent role as the dark lord, Zavulon, in this film, not much unlike Voland in The Master and Margarita.  His lovely concubine, Alisa, is played to great effect by Zhanna Friske.   Olga also figures more heavily into this film, played by the very appealing Galina Tyunina, especially when she and Anton are forced to change bodies to elude the dark forces.

My only criticism is that there isn't enough contact between the "others" and ordinary people, rather these "others" appear to live in a separate reality playing out their thousand year war.

I'm not sure where Timur plans to get next with this story.  There has been talk of a third part, Dusk Watch, but he got sidetracked with a number of other projects ranging from an update of Irony of Fate to an Angelina Jolie vehicle, Wanted, to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Killer.  It's tough when you become hot property.  Everybody wants a piece of you.

Monday, March 5, 2012

The White Dacha

First we get Last Station and now we have Chekhov and Maria, a film treatment of an earlier play by Jovanka Bach.  We all know that writers were not saints, but it seems that in recent biopics it has become all to tempting to identify with the thwarted woman, in this case Chekhov's sister.

The film, like the play, focuses on the waning days of Chekhov's life at his White Dacha in Yalta, where his sister and mother looked after him.   The seaside house served as a magnet for visiting writers, composers and other celebrities, including close friends Bunin and Gorky.  Chekhov had married the well known actress, Olga Knipper, but he was unable to spend much time in Moscow or on the road with her, given his tuberculosis.    Letters indicate this was a mutually agreed to situation.  However, Jovanka draws on Maria's letters as well, which paint a much less flattering portrait of events.  What follows is a story not much unlike that of Uncle Vanya, with Chekhov cast as a  combination of Vanya and the Doctor to Maria's forlorn Sonya.  

Chekhov was apparently not one to show much emotion, so the audience will have little problem identifying with Maria, much like Sophia Tolstaya in The Last Station.  It makes for compelling drama, although the performances are a bit stilted.  Ron Bottitta and Gillian Brashear reprise their roles in the film directed by Eric Till.

Here is a nice piece  by Rosamund Bartlett, Remembering Chekhov in Yalta.