Where Were You On 19 August 1991?

History in Literature: The coup attempt in the Soviet Union of 19 August 1991 as viewed from the hinterlands.

19 August 1991

Bolshoi Ballet-Swan Lake-            WWW NEWS CN

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

“Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking—” Portraits of Life in the USSR, with Recipes!

Review—Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing, by Anya von Bremzen
Crown, 2013
On sale—September 17, 2013 Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking

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

‘Крестьянин и тинейджер’

крестьянин и тинейджер

Andrey Dmitriev

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.

крестьянин и тинейджер

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

Kазус Kукоцкого-The Extraordinary Case of Kukotsky

A View of the Revolution and its Aftermath in Contemporary Russian Literature

Казус Кукоцкого, Людмила Улицкая

Казус Кукоцкого

I recently started translating a novel called Казус Кукоцкого  (pron.-Kazus Kukotskovo) by Lyudmila Ulitskaya, who won the Russian Booker Prize for this work in 2001. This novel, whose title I’ve chosen to translate as The Extraordinary Case of Kukotsky, begins with a focus on the life of one Pavel Alekseyevich Kukotsky, who is, at the beginning of the book, a boy coming of age at the time of the Revolution of 1917. Not having any idea what this story was about before I started working on it, I am surprised and excited to find that, in addition to presenting some juicy translation problems, it addresses questions that I hope to find answers to in contemporary Russian literature: how do today’s Russians view the Revolution of 1917, the history of Communist Party rule, and life in Russia, generally, in the Soviet period? Here I will discuss one early passage from the novel in terms of both its challenges to translating it into English, and how it speaks to these questions.

Людмила Улицкая

Lyudmila Ulitskaya

The two paragraphs I will look at come at a point in the story when Pavel is of an age to attend university. It is just after the Revolution, and the Civil War is on. (These paragraphs are separated by one short one discussing Pavel’s character as a student, which I will not include here): Continue reading

Третья Мещанская: “№ 3 Meshchanskaya Street”, or “The Third Philistine”?

A Look Back at Abram Room’s Classic Film, Третья Мещанская: a picture of life in Moscow after Lenin, but before the full force of Stalinism.

третья мещанская

Lyudmilla Semyonova

The focus of my Russia studies has recently turned, through no conscious design of my own, to the period between the two World Wars, in the first half of the twentieth century. This may be no accident, though, as I am deeply fascinated by the unprecedented levels of dynamism, change, brutality and vision of Russian society in the decades after the Revolutions of 1917. My translations of Bulgakov and Mandelstam, my examination of the Soviet Five Year Plans, and my review of Douglas Smith’s book Former People all relate to this era when the revolution was still finding its way (see earlier posts- ‘The Old-Timers of Moscow Will Remember,’ ‘Leningrad,’ ‘All According to Plan,’ ‘Former People’). Deciding to continue in this direction, I thought I should take another look at a Russian silent film from 1927, variously called Третья Мещанская (Tret’ya Meshchanskaya), Любовь втроём (Lyubov’ Vtroyom), Three in a Basement (in Germany) and Bed and Sofa (in English speaking countries). I was introduced to this film as an undergraduate in a class on Soviet film, but watching it again, investigating its history and looking at some of the reviews published in Russia when it first came out, highlight for me the tasks Russians faced in trying to create a new society after the shattering of old social conventions, and the efforts of the Communist Party to define new ones. With this in mind I will offer my own review. Continue reading

The Fate of the “Former People”: Social Modernization in Russia Compressed

Review—Former People: The Final Days of the Russian Aristocracy,
by Douglas Smith
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012, 464 pp.former people-Douglas Smith

In 1946, George Kennan argued that the “ideology, and the circumstances of power” inherent in the Soviet regime required the Communist Party to have enemies to point to in order to legitimize its exercise of complete and exclusive control over the economic, political and social life of all citizens of the U.S.S.R. Kennan believed that by the end of World War II, it had become increasingly difficult to target internal “enemies of the revolution”—the purges of the 1930s could hardly have been more effective at eliminating them. But the war, and the subsequent competition among the victors for regional and global influence, allowed the Party to point to external enemies: the capitalist regimes of the West. Thus, with Kennan’s help, the Cold War was initiated.

But who were these “enemies” within the Soviet Union prior to the Second World War? Douglas Smith goes a long way to bring home the reality of one group of these “counter-revolutionaries”—the so-called “former people.” Continue reading

All According to “The Plan”

In a previous post I commented about use of comedy, satire, absurdity and fantasy in Russian literature to mask political or social commentary, and hopefully avoid censorhip. I found in the first chapter of Master and Margarita what could be read as a critique of policies that were at the foundation of the Communist Party’s attempt to realize a socialist/non-capitalist economy in the Soviet Union—the Five Year Plans.

But first a brief overview of the history of Soviet economics: Continue reading