The history of Russia in the first half of the twentieth century is marked by so much turmoil and upheaval that it seems to speak of another world. Having grown up in the relatively peaceful milieu of middle-class America in the last decades of the twentieth century, I find it difficult to imagine a life that knew revolution, world war, another revolution, civil war, domestic political terror, another world war, and exile to an alien land. I continue to be fascinated with, and drawn to, the questions of how such events come to be, and how ordinary people manage to carry on in such circumstances. I was happy to find in Robert Reincke’s book, Death of a Past Life, some insight into this last question. This book traces the lives of the author’s grandmother and mother, from the end of Russia’s “belle époque,” to their escape from the Soviet Union at the end of World War II. Continue reading “Life in the Soviet Union between the World Wars”
I recently finished translating Part One of Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita, a project that began as a reading of the original Russian language text, but soon became something of an obsession with trying to understand every sentence and turn of phrase. This has been satisfying to me on so many levels: it exposes me to the richness of Bulgakov’s imagination and the beauty of his prose; it exercises my Russian language skills; it deepens my understanding of Russian society in the tumultuous 1930s; it exercises my writing skills; and it scratches my puzzler’s itch.
Having arrived at the end of Part One, I started thinking about what would be involved in putting it into book form. I had to think about proof-reading, editing, and designing a cover. I also considered adding an appendix to discuss the importance of names used, and the meanings of their Russian roots. I believed this might be of interest to any reader who was not familiar with the Russian language. But when I later imagined my friends reading this translation, I began to think about providing them some more general background information. The following is the result of my attempt to do just that. I try to explain some of the features of life in Moscow in the 1930s, as far as I understand them, that are integral to the story, but would not necessarily be known to the average 21st century English reader.
With two dreams, one after another in Master and Margarita, Bulgakov touches on some risky subjects.
As mentioned at the beginning of my last post (“Sympathy for the Devil in Russian Literature”), my efforts to translate Chapter XV of Master and Margarita, “Nikanor Ivanovich’s Dream,” led me to become fascinated with the use of dreams as a device in Russian novels. My first avenue for delving into this topic further was Dostoevsky’s use of it in The Brother’s Karamazov, specifically the chapter titled, “The Devil. Ivan’s Nightmare.” This provided not only another example of a dream sequence, but also another depiction of the devil, so I devoted that last post to a comparison of Dostoevsky’s devil with Bulgakov’s.
Satan the pitiable victim in Bulgakov and Dostoevsky.
While translating Chapter 15, “Nikanor Ivanovich’s Dream,” of Master and Margarita, I was reminded of another chapter in Russian literature devoted to one character’s dream—“The Devil. Ivan’s Nightmare”, from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. On revisiting this old favorite, however, I was inspired to reform my purpose of comparing dreams in Russian literature to comparing depictions of the devil there. While far from identical, both Dostoevsky’s Devil and Bulgakov’s Satan are portrayed in ways that invite the reader to feel some compassion, pity and sympathy for them. Continue reading “Sympathy for the Devil in Russian Literature”
On Alina Simone’s New York Times op-ed piece about the cultural disconnect triggered by the seemingly, to an American, polite question, “How are you?”.
I just had the pleasure of reading a piece on The New York Times website entitled, The ‘How Are You?’ Culture Clash, by Alina Simone. In this article, Ms. Simone—born in Ukraine to Russian parents, but raised in the U.S.—speaks to how the common question often asked, even of strangers, by the average American, “How are you?” can highlight differences in cultural outlook when asked of someone raised in the Soviet Union or some its successor states. She brings to this discussion a perspective from both sides of this cultural gap, as someone often faced with the task of smoothing over, as she puts it, “the bafflement of my American friends and the hurt feelings of my Russian expat family as a result of this innocuous inquiry.”
I appreciate her insights for what they say about not only culture, but also about language: how it used, how it is informed by, and informs, the outlook shard by the people who grew up using it, and how it can spotlight differences in outlooks among societies. I am also impressed by Alina Simone’s combining of personal experience with the views of others and with her scholarly research. She compares the inane formality of the knee-jerk American response, “fine,” with the equally disturbing tendency of Russians to give an honest answer, full of intimate details to explain why they are doing how they are doing. Continue reading “Praise for Alina Simone’s Views on Russian/American Cultural Differences”
Reflecting on a Recurrent Theme in the Art and Literature of the Soviet Union: The Nature and Importance of the “Housing Problem” for Urban Dwellers in the U.S.S.R.
Reflecting on the subjects I have studied and written about for this blog over the past year, there is one topic that comes up so often, and is discussed with such passion, that I am led to conclude that it was an important part of the social consciousness of many Russians during the Soviet period, particularly that of city dwellers. Mikhail Bulgakov, when describing an office in the home of the Moscow’s writers’ union that presumably dealt with this issue for its members, labeled it “Housing Problem.” I will look at three sources that point to the prevalence and importance of the “housing problem,” and argue that while such problems are a common by-product of the rapid urbanization that accompanies modernization and industrialization, the unique path to modernity adopted by the Communist Party, and its responses to the realities thereof, defined the character of this problem for the population in the big cities of the US.S.R. Continue reading “The “Housing Problem” in the Soviet Union”
Aeroflot highlights efforts of the Russian service industry to improve customer service. Is paying people to smile, speak softly and kneel a good thing?
An article appeared yesterday (Saturday, Nov. 2, 2013) in the The New York Times reporting on Aeroflot’s successful efforts to improve service on its flights—‘Russian Service, and With Please and Thank You.’ Reporter Andrew E. Kramer sees the extensive training now given to flight attendants for the Russian airline as part of a “broad and transformative trend in the Russian service industry brought about by the rising demands of middle-class consumers.” On its way out, apparently, is the stereotypical gruff and taciturn response of the Russian service worker who has to actually provide a service. Is this a good thing? I wonder. Continue reading “Russian Service Industry: Better? Or Just (Better) Paid?”
One could be excused for imagining that a book with the title Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking might be a collection of recipes, with details about the finer points of food preparation in the former Soviet Union. The subtitle, “A Memoir of Food and Longing,” hints at a more personal account. Neither of these, however, prepare the reader for the epic of family history, biography, autobiography and scholarly assessment of the Soviet Union presented in this excellent new book by Anya von Bremzen, former citizen of the USSR and three-time James Beard Award winner. While this may seem like too much for a single volume, it is artfully stitched together using food, in all its meanings, as thread. The tale of the creation and eventual dissolution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics is one of, if not the grandest narrative of the 20th century. Anya’s stories of herself, her grandmother, and especially her mother, are engaging and endearing, and breathe life into the stock of familiar characters and events in the history of the USSR. Her well-crafted distillations of the theses and arguments of prominent academics on subjects such as the “nationalities question” and Stalinist totalitarianism are usually spot-on. All this is brought together by how it informs, and is informed by, food.
Any illusions that this is a book celebrating the quality of Soviet cuisine are quickly put aside when the author admits, in mentioning her mother’s love for sosiski, i.e.- Soviet hotdogs, that “besides sosiski with canned peas and kotleti (minced meat patties) with kasha, cabbage-intensive soups, mayo-laden salads, and watery fruit kompot for desert—there wasn’t all that much to eat in the Land of the Soviets.” Continue reading ““Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking—” Portraits of Life in the USSR, with Recipes!”
Getting back to another of my favorite subjects relating to Russian culture and history—80’s pop music—I decided recently to write a complete translation of Хочу Перемен! (Khochu Peremen, Eng.= I Want Change!) a singular song of its time and place, by the russian band Kino (see also my translation of Kino’s Aluminum Cucumbers).
Перемен!- I Want Change!
Instead of warmth- greens of glass, Instead of fire- smoke. From the calendar grid a day is torn. The red sun fires its entire mass, The day is burned out by its stroke. On the flaming city a shadow descends.