Tag: Russia

Francis Spufford on Red Plenty

A short interview in which Francis Spufford, author of The Child that Books Built and Backroom Boys, discusses his latest book, Red Plenty:

“Strange as it may seem, the grey, oppressive USSR was founded on a fairytale. It was built on the 20th-century magic called ‘the planned economy’, which was going to gush forth an abundance of good things that the lands of capitalism could never match. And just for a little while, in the heady years of the late 1950s, the magic seemed to be working…”

Books of the Decade – Andrew Kahn

Andrew KahnAndrew Kahn is University Lecturer in Russian at the University of Oxford and Tutor and Fellow at St Edmund Hall, Oxford. He has degrees from Harvard and Oxford in Russian and Classics. His scholarly research draws on his wide-ranging interests in European literature, most especially Greek, Latin and French.

In addition to writing about Pushkin, whom he talked about on Podularity in programme 21, “In Pushkin’s Library”, he works on Enlightenment literature in Russia and Europe, on the history of ideas, the comparative reception of European culture in Russia, travel writing, the history of translation, and twentieth-century poetry.

Here are Andrew’s three favourite books from the last decade:

Zbigniew Herbert, The Collected Poems 1956-1998 (2009)

Herbert Collected PoemsThe contemporary of Milosz, and somewhat overshadowed by him in the West, Herbert seen in the unity of his poetic creation is one of the most biting and elegant ironists of the twentieth century.  His alter ego, Pan Cogito, ranks with Kafka’s K. as a haunting witness to oppressive systems.  Yet many poems convey Herbert’s acute visual imagination and his flair for dramatic monologue.  A great classic of modern poetry.

Edward Said,  Music at the Limits (2008)

Edward Said Music at the LimitsThis collection of Said’s essays on music and performance shows him at his lucid, elegant best.  A masterful close reader of texts, he is also a close listener who has the rare gift of explaining the ideas of music and music of ideas in words.  The essay comparing Beethoven’s Fidelio and Mozart’s Magic Flute is a particular revelation, but every page here has fine observations on classical music from the classical period to the post-modern age.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn, In the First Circle  (2009)

Solzhenitsyn In the First CircleThe publication in English for the first time of this complete, restored version of Solzhenitsyn’s literary masterpiece is an event.  A novel in the grand tradition of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, packed with ideas and an epic cast of characters, it is also a political thriller.  The chapters on Stalin must rank as one of the greatest and most chilling studies in the mentality of tyranny.

War and Peace in the Caucasus

War and Peace in the CaucasusUntil recently, Georgia’s wars were fought against separatist movements of ethnic minorities. In August 2008 it took on the Russian army in a five-day war which has left commentators unclear as to who was the aggressor and who the victim. Indeed, perhaps those concepts are inadequate to capture the tangled nature of enmities and rivalries in the region.

In this podcast which I’ve just produced for Le Monde diplomatique‘s April issue, I talk to journalist and political analyst Vicken Cheterian about the nature of the five-day war and its consequences for the Caucasus and beyond.

Click here to listen. Click here to see some very illuminating maps on the LMD site, which help explain the nature of the conflict. And click on the book cover (above) to find out more about Vicken’s recent book on the subject. Tanks in Tbilisi

21. In Pushkin’s library

“Pushkin died romantically, famously in a duel in 1837. He’s often thought of as the founding father of modern Russian literature, which makes him sound rather dusty and old-fashioned, but in fact he’s a great innovator and experimenter…”

Repin: Yevgeny Onegin

“His career is very important in the history of Russian letters because he is perhaps the first writer who tries to make his career as a professional man of letters… Unfortunately for him he was an inveterate gambler who dug himself into a financial hole.” Read More

14. The Mighty Handful and more

marina_frolova-walker“In Russian music you have a very different portrayal of Russia [from the one you find in literature], which has very strong rhythms, very festive images. It’s very bright, very colourful, very, very different from the melancholy Russian soul.”

Writing of Glinka’s opera A Life for the Tsar after its premiere in 1836, one Russian critic boldly predicted that ‘Europe will be amazed’. Surely Europeans would now want to ‘take advantage of the new ideas developed by our maestro’? Yet this opera, which is regarded as the very foundation of Russian music in its home country, is little known abroad, its composer (the ‘great father of Russian music’) merely another name in the long list of half-neglected nineteenth-century Russian composers.

Russian music and nationalismMarina Frolova-Walker, a Russian-born musicologist now based in Cambridge, set out to do something much more ambitious than explain the neglect of certain Russian composers. She wanted to examine the whole notion of ‘Russianness’ in Russian music, a story which starts with Glinka. What did Russianness consist of? How did it come about? What changing ideological purposes did it serve?

This last question becomes especially acute when she leave the nineteenth century behind for the more politically dangerous waters of the twentieth. In the era of Stalin, writing the wrong sort of music could have dire consequences, so the issue of what was appropriately Russian music for the Soviet Republic was not an academic one. Music was also a key ingredient in providing an escape valve for nationalist feelings in Russia’s Asian republics without them boiling over into serious dissent. The book, Russian Music and Nationalism from Glinka to Stalin, is a fascinating exploration of a topic which is little examined in the west.

7. Russian Childhood

Catriona KellyThis week’s Podularity podcast features an interview with Catriona Kelly, who has just published a monumental new history of childhood in twentieth-century Russia. The book, Children’s World: Growing Up in Russia 1890-1991, draws not only on a vast amount of archival research but also on hundreds of interviews with Russians of all ages in which they discuss their memories of childhood, both happy and unhappy.

What quickly becomes clear is that the familiar western impression of identically dressed children paying homage to ‘Beloved Stalin’ is a crude caricature of a much richer, more complex reality. The book reveals what childhood was really like for millions of Soviet children, shedding light on everything from the swaddling of peasant children to life in orphanages or children’s games and toys.

Children's World coverAs Catriona explains in our interview, she wanted to convey ‘what Russian schools looked like, what school food was like, what people’s relations to their parents were like in single-room communal apartments – essentially to show how the “children’s world” was not just a cliché, but also the way I’m trying to see the context of the everyday life experience of children.’

Here are some extracts from the reviews:

‘Kelly is good on historical context and change, and fair to the infinite variety of what went on, from the appalling to the heroic and imaginative … Her level-headed tackling of her subject serves to remind us that an account of public provision for children in Britain from 1890 onwards would not be a tale of unalloyed triumph, and that there were impressive achievements in the Soviet Union: the move from very low literacy levels to a respectable position among the developed countries of the world, an expanded education system and access for most children to sports and the arts.’

Jane Miller, Guardian

‘Kelly’s huge and compelling panorama of the experience of children in the world ruled by Moscow draws on an impressive range of literary, political and oral-history material. It delves into everything from Tsarist-era peasant birthing habits and developments in potty training to the politics of writing books for children and modern teenagers’ attitudes to shopping. Yet Kelly’s spare, sardonic style, and her fair-mindedness, distil an apparently diffuse subject into an admirably clear analysis of the development of Soviet thinking.’

Vanora Bennett, Independent

Beslan: a photo-essay

This week, instead of a podcast, we have a photo-essay by Timothy Phillips, author of Beslan: the Tragedy of School No.1, which was the subject of our podcast on 15 November. Tim took these pictures in the spring following the terrorist attack.

Here is how he describes the moment when, after a long overland journey from Moscow, he first confronts School No.1:

I stood still and looked straight ahead. There is was, set in bright grass, dandelion-speckled and overlooked by trees: a building deeply at odds with its surroundings. Swallows and thrushes darted about. I could hear children playing in nearby streets and gardens.

The building spoke for itself. It bore witness to the wrongs done inside its walls. The mangled roof appeared jagged against the blue sky. Crimson curtains billowed out of empty window frames. Bullet holes and bloodstains drew my eye away from the flowers. Torn and sodden textbooks lay where they had fallen months before. Graffiti promised those who had not survived that they would be remembered and avenged.

You can see Tim’s stark images by clicking here:

Read More

5. Sofka Zinovieff on the trail of the Red Princess

zinovieff red princessA few years ago Sofka Zinovieff became fascinated by the life of her grandmother and namesake, Sofka Dolgorouky, who was born into a noble family in imperial Russia exactly a century ago. Sofka had known her grandmother when she was already an old woman and, although she knew something of her colourful life, she was to make many discoveries as she researched her book. Her quest was to take her back to her grandmother’s childhood home in St Petersburg and their country estate in the Crimea. It would also lead her to a prison camp in eastern France and the archives of MI5…

You can see some of the great reviews the book has had by clicking here.

4. ‘Real stories of ordinary people…’ – Remembering Beslan

On the morning of 1 September 2004, children and teachers all over Russia were getting ready for the first day of the new school year.

Tim Phillips Beslan So begins Timothy Phillips’ account of the terrible siege of School No. 1 in Beslan, North Ossetia. Of course, we know now that that day three years ago which began as a celebration was to turn into the worst terrorist atrocity in Russian history. But although we remember the harrowing scenes filmed by the terrorists in the school gymnasium on the camcorders which proud parents had brought to the parade, and the disastrous, chaotic end to the siege in which so many people died, many of us may have a sketchier understanding of what lay behind those events: Who were the hijackers? What motivated them? And what why did they come to Beslan?

These are among the questions that Timothy Phillips tries to answer in his book on the siege. He travelled to Beslan a few months after the siege and spoke to those involved. In the interview, I ask him about his feelings when for the first time he stood in the ruined gymnasium, still full of floral tributes, messages and soft toys .

‘Across the hall three teddy bears faced a collection of stuffed rabbits, ducks and frogs’

He also talks about the conspiracy theories which have abounded since the siege and whether anything in Russia has really changed as a result. But most of all, he went in search of the stories of the ordinary people who woke up one morning excited about a day of celebration and instead found their lives changed forever in the most appalling way.

Here are some of the reviews the book received:

“Timothy Phillips, a translator of Russian and a specialist on the Caucasus region, had access to many of the Beslan survivors and has used their accounts to put together the first written narrative of the tragedy. He also broadens the story to include an investigation of the town and its culture”
Sunday Times

“Timothy Phillips has written a book that enables us to look at the siege not as a one-off tragedy, but as one episode in a troubled history of the region that began with the Russian civil war of 1918 … It is the frankness of the participants that makes this such an important work for any reader who wishes to understand what is happening in the North Caucasus. And it is in this that the great talent of the author shines brightest. Many questions remain, questions that the survivors asked rhetorically of the author and other questions that arose in the author’s own mind … Phillips is not so reckless or so naïve as to attempt to answer them, but he gives them new life. From the mass of information at his disposal he has woven a many layered but accessible tapestry of life in one of the most complex and explosive regions of the world”

“Traumatic events and the truth about them rarely sit comfortably together. In Beslan, Timothy Phillips provides a skilful and sensitive account of the shocking events of September 2004, when a school in the North Caucasus was attacked by a group of thirty or so terrorists … In this impressive book, Phillips manages simultaneously to offer a detailed account of the historical context of the atrocity, as well as the personal details of individuals caught up in the events. This makes for painful reading. He provides clarity about the wider ethnic tensions central to this tragedy, while remaining true to the memory-shattering confusion that such a trauma brings in its wake … This excellent book also reminds us that, once the global media have moved on from a place where something terrible has taken place, the real work of finding out what happened begins”

“Timothy Phillips, on the other hand, has done a heroic and, one might have thought for a foreigner, impossible job: he has reconstructed from the testimony of many hundreds of witnesses the hellish events of that September … His work is a fit memorial to the dead … Timothy Phillips’s book provides the victim’s story.”
Literary Review

“Timothy Phillips allows the survivors to speak for themselves, and they tell a harrowing tale… As well as providing a valuable account of what actually happened inside the school, Phillips shows how this atrocity was was an outgrowth of modern Russia, a society driven by violence and corruption, and the history of the north Caucasus”
Irish Times

‘Fine and subtle… The book, based on extensive interviews, rouses pity and horror’
Financial Times

‘Phillips emphasises the social and cultural importance of the first day of school for Russian kids and their parents -it’s a big event, a celebration of education. With this in mind, the massacre of 360 people, children, parents and teachers, taken hostage in 2004 by terrorists, becomes even more significant and horrifying’
The Times
‘**** Mixing survivor testimonies with a potted history of ethnic conflict in the North Caucasus, Timothy Phillips not only reconstructs the tragedy with clarity and objectivity, he uses it to illuminate deeper-rooted political and social corruption’

“On 1 September 2004 Chechen terrorist took more that 1,200 people hostage at a school in a small southern Russian town…In this compelling account, BBC translator Timothy Philips interview the survivors. Perceptive and emotional”

“Timothy Phillip’s scholarship, his understanding of the people of all ethnic groups in the region and his involvement with them, make this a valuable historical document, as well as being a compelling, if harrowing, read”
Irish Independent

“This book, written by the main translator for the BBC’s Beslan documentaries, attempts to analyse the events and put them into a historical context, explaining the myriad tragedies and enmities that have left the North Caucasus strewn with conflict… If nothing else, the claims, counter-claims and rumours which have surrounded the tragedy mean there is a need for a book which describes the events themselves, their chronology, and the facts and figures. This book does more, including giving insights into possible divisions among the terrorists and highlighting the still unanswered questions… The book paints a picture of complete chaos and mishandling of the siege on both sides. The idea of grimly determined automaton terrorists, fully aware of what they were doing, is cast into doubt. The chaos on the government side is set out in jaw-dropping detail… This book lays bare the dysfunctional state of modern Russia, and the Caucasus in particular”
Scotland on Sunday

“This book tells the human story of the siege in the words of those who witnessed and were affected by it and examines the response of the Russian authorities. Inevitably, this is a difficult and emotional read: events are examined in vivid detail. You desperately hope for a happy ending, already knowing the tragic outcome”
Waterstones Books Quarterly

“A moving ground-level account”
– Tony Wood, Times Literary Supplement