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.