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.
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?”
History in Literature: The coup attempt in the Soviet Union of 19 August 1991 as viewed from the hinterlands.
I love reading good literature that gives a view of great historical moments from the perspective of ordinary people. At the beginning of Andrei Dmitriev‘s novel The Peasant and the Teenager (Крестьянин и Тинейджер) there is depicted, through the memories of a man in rural Russia, presumably the “peasant,” an event recent enough to be a part of my own consciousness–the coup attempt of August 1991 that sought to reestablish centralized Communist Party rule in the Soviet Union, in reaction to the reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev.
The decline of Soviet economic and social life leading up to 1991 is highlighted in the reminiscences of Panyukov, the first character introduced in The Peasant and the Teenager, as he reflects on the life he shared with his childhood friend, Vova, after both had served with the Red Army in Afghanistan. Continue reading “Where Were You On 19 August 1991?”
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!”
What’s in the Brown Paper Bag? Just Some Dostoevsky, Chekhov and Karamzin.
A media fascination with works of Russian literature delivered to Edward Snowden, the American NSA analyst turned leaker/defector, burst forth today with speculation as to why certain books were included, and what Snowden might take from reading them. I feel compelled to join the fray, mainly to point out some important elements of this story that have, as far as I’ve read, been missed. Continue reading “Edward Snowden’s Reading List for the Moscow Airport”
Khlebnikov’s century-old poem resonates with the Russia of today.
I do love translating poetry, agonizing as it can be sometimes (see previous post- It Has to Be “Love”). My latest effort puts into English a poem written by one of the founders, and leading lights, of the Russian ‘Futurist’ movement, Velimir Khlebnikov (Viktor Vladimirovich; “Velimir” was his pen name). Below is my translation of Не Шалить (pron.-Ne Shalit’!= Don’t Be Bad!), followed by a discussion of Khlebnikov, the futurists and the resonance of this poem with Russian society today.
Don’t Be Bad!
Hey, cut-throat racketeers, Heads full of sludge! In old Cossack leathers Through Moscow I trudge! Not for its grandeurs Is truth on our side, So that in rich furs We may haughtily ride. Not in that strife Did blood flow without check, So that each merchant’s wife Could wear pearls round her neck. It’s no good to rail All the night long I will sing, I will sail The Volga, the Don! I will go tonight Ahead where fate tends Who’s with me in flight? There are with me–my friends
Andrei Viktorovich Dmitriev’s Крестьянин и тинейджер-The Peasant and the Teenager: A view of Russia in its last decade as a Republic of the U.S.S.R.
Recently I have been engaged in translating and studying certain novels that have won the Russian Booker Prize, an award presented yearly since 1992 to honor outstanding Russian fiction . With this exercise I seek to gain a broader understanding of contemporary Russian thought and culture. My primary interest is in how Russians today view their own history, especially that of the Revolution of 1917 and the Soviet period.
The two works I’ve looked at most recently serve to bookend this period: Казус Кукоцкого (Kazus Kukotskovo = ‘The Extraordinary Case of Kukotsky’), by Lyudmila Evgenyevna Ulitskaya, and Крестьянин и Тинейджер (Krest’yanin i Tinyedzhyer = ‘The Peasant and the Teenager’), by Andrei Viktorivich Dmitriev. In a recent post (‘Казус Кукоцкого’) I examined Ulitskaya’s novel as to how it portrays the Revolution and its aftermath, finding her views consistent with my own narrative of this period. Turning to Dmitriev’s ‘The Peasant and the Teenager,’ I was delighted to find not only a portrayal of Russia in the decisive last decade of the U.S.S.R., but one from the perspective of rural, ‘collective farm’ Russia. Continue reading “‘Крестьянин и тинейджер’”