Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Book That Came in from the Cold

The Zhivago Project, as it was called, was an attempt by MI6 and the CIA to disseminate Dr. Zhivago among Soviet citizens at the height of the Cold War.  While it was an Italian publisher who ultimately made the book available to a wider audience, with Pasternak's knowledge, it was the British and Americans who exploited the controversial book in an attempt to stir up emotions in the Soviet Union, without the author's knowledge.

Pasternak with his wife, Olga, and daughter, Irina, 1959

Pasternak was already in trouble in the Soviet Union.  As Finn and Couvee describe in the prologue, the 66-year-old author was living in a state-supported writers' village, Peredilkino, when he was approached by a representative for a new Italian publishing company, which was desperate for writers of note.  Pasternak hadn't published anything in years, but was still regarded as an important poet in the USSR.   It seems Sergio D'Angelo would have been content with some of Pasternak's poetry, instead he was given a full manuscript for a novel, which Pasternak had been unable to get published in the Soviet Union.   

Dr. Zhivago was a sprawling epic, written over 8 years, that described the Russian civil war from 1917-1922, with roots back to the 1905 uprising.  It was a subject you had to approach gingerly in the Soviet press, but Pasternak chose to tell it how he remembered it, and for that reason found himself turned down by Goslitizdat, the state literary publisher.  He was a bit concerned about a foreign printing, but gave D'Angelo the green light.  

The book became an international sensation in 1957, when it was published first in Russian by the Italian publishing company, and then quickly translated into English by Max Hayward and Manya Harari in 1958, subsequent to Pasternak winning the Nobel Prize for literature that year.  The Soviet author was forced to refuse the prize and the money that came with it.  He died two years later, unable to enjoy any fruits of his labor.

It is unclear how British and American secret services got hold of the manuscript.  Some think through Isiah Berlin, who was also given a copy by Pasternak.  The underground hardback copies were surreptitiously given away at the World's Fair in Brussels in 1958.  The book was widely available by this point, so copies had already leaked into the Soviet Union, but MI6 was determined to make more copies available.  The CIA followed suit the next year with a paperback copy that was disseminated among Russian emigre groups in Europe.

Whatever the intentions, Khrushchev survived this attempt to undermine the Soviet state.  He had much more to worry about in the fallout of the Hungarian uprising in 1956 than a pesky intellectual like Pasternak.  When Khrushchev finally got around to reading the book, he regretted having made the effort to suppress it.  

Probably in some way, the book did encourage Nikita to initiate a thaw that allowed long suppressed books like The Master and Margarita to be published during the 1960s, which similarly became an international sensation.  However, that credit should probably go to Ilya Ehrenburg's The Thaw, published in 1954, when Khrushchev first came to power following Stalin's death.  Whatever the case, The Zhivago Affair should make for interesting reading.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Tattoo You

One of my recent discoveries is Danzig Baldaev, a graphic artist from the Soviet Union who became famous for his illustrations of tattoos he copied while serving as a prison guard in Leningrad.  Fuel publishers has generously reprinted these illustrations in three volumes.  The tattoos served as an inspiration for David Cronenberg, who liberally borrowed from the tomes in illustrating Viggo Mortensen and other characters in Eastern Promises.

But, what caught my eye was a collection of Baldaev's political cartoons, simply entitled Soviets, which cover a broad range from the mid 1950s to 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed.  Baldaev is not only a fine illustrator, but has a wonderful dark humor that is obviously a product of his years as a prison guard.  Needless to say, these cartoons weren't published in their time.  Baldaev also offers a collection of cartoons in the same vein entitled Drawings from the Gulag.

Robert Crumb has nothing over Danzig, who survived the Soviet period and lived to tell his tale in pictures.  The first volume of criminal tattoos was published before his death in 2004, with the latter volumes coming post-humously.  The illustrations are accompanied by searing photographs by Sergei Vasiliev from 1989-1993.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

This Ukraine Brawl Is Better Than Michelangelo

(2paragraphs)  Capturing the perfectly-timed photo is not easy: when it happens it’s by accident. Usually the result is funny or weird. Occasionally it approaches Art: that’s the case with this photo of a brawl in the Ukrainian parliament that artist James Harvey thinks has all the compositional beauty of a Renaissance painting. Harvey found the image at Imgur, complete with Fibonacci Sequence overlaid to show its Golden Ratio.

According to Ben Beaumont-Thomas of The Guardian, “the Fibonacci spiral has been placed on top of it to show just why its elements cohere so satisfyingly… the violence spirals exponentially outward from the focal point of the fight up to the reddened face of the man at the top of the image.” Luckily for art and mathematics enthusiasts, there should be other accidental Renaissance art waiting to be discovered courtesy of the Ukrainian and other parliaments.

Friday, March 28, 2014


This story broke in Lithuania shortly after the petition was made available, and now it is gaining much wider circulation.  Seems the government is calling on Russia's cultural elite to back its annexation of Crimea, an action not seen since Soviet times.  Many leading cultural figures signed the petition, some out of patriotism, like Valery Gergiev who considers the Ukraine "an essential part of our cultural space."   Others out of fear of reprisals. Boris Akunin (pictured above) stands out as one of those who refused to sign the petition,

“It’s just that under Stalin, if a prominent cultural figure dared to protest he’d be shot; under Brezhnev he’d be imprisoned; now he just risks losing state donations and having to travel economy class — but this often proves enough.  It’s a fascinating sight to watch people make this moral choice.”

When hearing of the petition, Lithuania's leading theater director, Eimuntas Nekrošius, and favorite of Russian theaters, cancelled a production in Moscow.  He is famous for his reinterpretations of Shakespeare and has often worked with well known Russian actors on stage.  It is really a shame to see this political divide splitting the cultural arts, as this has been one of the truly great interchanges between Russia and the world.

The worst part about the petition is that it appears to have been inflated much like the referendum in the Crimea, with several names printed without permission and at least one of those listed no longer alive.  A very sad case of history repeating itself.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Fantasy and Construction

I was pleased to find what appears to be a reprint of Catherine Cooke's AD profile of Yakov Chernikhov, one of the leading avant-garde architects of the early Soviet era.  Like many of these architects, his ideas remain largely on paper as the rise of Soviet realism in the 1930s had little room for these "futurists," with their ideas being absorbed by European schools like the Bauhaus in Weimer Germany.  The Architectural Design Profile is pretty hard to find these days and fetches a collector's price, but the Dom book is readily available.

I don't talk much about architecture in this blog, but it was a major component of the early Soviet period, with architects like El Lissitzky working with Mayakovsky on For the Voice, a pamphlet that evocatively captured the era.  Here is a wonderful short animation feature based on the book.  Lissitzky would eventually have a profound influence on European modern movements, particularly in his use of the "proun."

Chernikhov did get at least one project built - this water tower for the Red Nail Maker's Factory in St. Petersburg.  Like so many of the projects from that era it was constructed in reinforced concrete and has managed to weather the test of time.

Friday, March 7, 2014


As Russians try to rewrite what they see as a historical wrong, I find myself digging into the history of Crimea.  Orlando Figes has written two books on Crimea, including this history in 2010.

It was in 1954 that Khrushchev decided to attach Crimea to the Soviet state of Ukraine, primarily so it would benefit from a new hydro-electric dam.  I suppose at the time Khrushchev never imagined Ukraine becoming an independent state.  Neither did many Russians, especially those who lived in Crimea.

As far as history goes, it depends on how far back you want to go.  For centuries this was a Greek enclave, before being annexed by Catherine the Great in the late 18th century.  It became bitterly fought over by the Russian and Ottoman empires in the 19th century, culminating in the Crimean War in the 1850s.

I suppose from the point of view of history, Khrushchev's "gift" couldn't have been more ill-timed, coming 100 years after the start of the Crimean War.  The Greeks had all left.  The only indigenous people remaining were Crimean Tatars.  The vast majority of the population was Russian, which now found itself under the Ukraine SSR.

Another stroke of bad luck came when the Soviet Union melted down and Ukraine became an independent state.  Yeltsin formally relinquished Russian interest in the region with the Partition Treaty of 1997, but Crimean Russians pressed for and got a semi-autonomous state with its own parliament, essentially giving it home rule.  While any attempt at secession would have to be approved by the Ukrainian government, this hasn't stopped the home parliament from putting forward a referendum on March 16 which would seek return to Russia.

This isn't much different than what we saw with South Ossetia and Abkhazia back in 2008, although these two breakaway Georgian republics sought independence, not re-annexation.  Russian Crimeans can't really stake a claim to a separate identity as Ossetians and Abkhazians can, so I suppose from their point of view it makes sense to be back within the Russian fold.

What has everyone up in arms over this crisis is the way it is being handled.  We saw the peaceful split of the Czech Republic and Slovakia over ethnic differences not that long ago.  We also saw the much more violent disintegration of Yugoslavia, which no one wants to repeat.  What is to stop other principally Russian territories inside the Ukraine from similarly seeking re-annexation into Russia, leaving Western Ukraine a  rump state?

This kind of de-evolution of government is usually not very healthy.  Better to form a federation like Switzerland did, uniting ethnic Germans, Italians and Swiss, than trying to split states, especially when there is so much overlap as there is in the Ukraine.  It seems we still tend to look at countries in terms of political maps, making them easier to divide and rule.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Chapayev and Void

I still find myself waiting for a translation of Viktor Pelevin's latest book, SNUFF.  In the meantime I've gone back and read some of his earlier titles and recently ordered Buddha's Little Finger.  The English translation dates from 2000 and was reviewed in The New York Times.  It first appeared as  Чапаев и Пустота (Chapayev and Void) in 1996, and under the title Clay Machine Gun in the UK.

Pelevin revisits that chaotic time when Gorbacev was desperately trying to hold the crumbling Soviet Union together through the eyes of a poet, Pyotr Voyd, who has run afoul of authorities over a couple poems he had published in an underground newspaper.  Once again we get a character caught between two worlds, trying to make sense of the mechanisations behind the world we see, not much unlike in Generation π.

What makes all his books interesting is the way he plays with time and space, much like Kurt Vonnegut, who I imagine is one of his literary heroes.  Pelevin also has a great sense of the consumerist society we live in and how easy it is to manipulate people, both politically and commercially.  Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions comes to mind.  However, there is a spiritual side to Pelevin as well.  He takes Buddhism quite seriously.  Here's an interview with him conducted by Leo Kropywiansky for Bomb magazine.

It is also worth noting that a film based on the novel is in post-production and due out this year.  It is an international production with a joint Russian-German-Canadian cast and will be in English.  His only other book to be made into a film was Generation π.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Maidan Nezalezhnosti

Watching the Sochi Olympic Games and viewing the unrest in Ukraine these past two weeks has inspired me to kickstart this forum once again.  I greatly appreciate that persons are still looking in and that there is actually a couple new followers.  It's a one-man show and I encourage those looking in to drop comments.

A few months back I found an early English edition of Tolstoy's Sebastopol Sketches.  It is a real treat as it is a cloth-covered pocket book that dates back to 1887.  Apparently, there wasn't much call for a rare book such as this and I didn't pay too much money for it.  Tolstoy was a young man, who served in an artillery regiment during the Crimean War.  Here is a 1916 copy, courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

Once again Ukraine finds itself on the battlefront, although this one seems to be more over identity, which nearly erupted into a civil war this month.  Fortunately, cooler heads have prevailed, but now there is talk of secession in the East, notably in Crimea.  Boundaries have always been subject to change, and Ukraine has probably suffered more than any other European country due to wars and annexation.

For many Russians, Ukraine is part of Russia.  They don't see it as a distinct nation.  The Pan-slavs like Dostoevsky saw all of the Slavic people as part of Mother Russia.  A feeling that most Russian writers shared, particularly Gogol, whose xenophobic views were on full display in Taras Bulba.  Even today, one hears Gorbacev and other leaders evoking a Greater Russia that would include Ukraine.

Understandably, many Ukrainians don't feel the same way.  Oleksandr Prylypko has written this engaging commentary on the nationalist fervor of the Russian intelligentsia, particularly in regard to events taking place in Maidan Nezalezhnosti, the main square of Kiev. For Ukranians it is a matter of national identity, not this continual living under the Russian shadow.  But, imperial notions are hard to shake.  It is easier to reflect these attitudes onto the European Union than it is to see those same traits in yourself, as many in the Russian intelligentsia have long been doing.