A View of the Revolution and its Aftermath in Contemporary Russian Literature
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.
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 →
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.
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 ТретьяМещанская (Tret’ya Meshchanskaya), Любовьвтроём (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 →
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 →
In an earlier post, The “Foreigner”, I wrote about my fascination with finding what looked like a Russian critique of an especially Russian view of outsiders. Much has been made in the Western media recently about attempts by the Putin government to blame domestic political unrest on foreign influence; Notably, the signing of a law in July labeling Russian NGO’s that receive money from abroad as “foreign agents”, and the expulsion in October of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). These actions are described in the West as efforts by the Putin government to curb protests against alleged fraud in recent elections, and to repress dissent generally. I will argue that this reporting is somewhat unbalanced, but first I would like to briefly examine the history of Russia’s approach to the outside world, highlighting some of those things that have contributed to Russia’s reputation in the West as xenophobic and inherently distrusting of foreigners. Continue reading →
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.
“’…So who are you, after all?’
‘I am a part of that power,
That ever wishes evil,
and ever accomplishes good.’”
This a quote from Faust, but is also found at the beginning of the first chapter of a Russian novel I am translating. As I realized that I was translating a Russian translation of a German work I felt I was playing a game of ‘Whisper Down the Lane’, and wondered how I was contributing to a departure from the original statement.
The novel, Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov, is one of the best known novels from the Soviet period. The story combines satire, farce and absurdity in ways that are both playful and dark at the same time. This follows a particularly Russian literary tradition (of which Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol is an outstanding example), that is often argued to be a response to efforts by the state to suppress dissent, and criticisms of political leadership. Russian writers learned they stood a better chance of getting away with such commentary by masking it with comedy, satire or fantasy, and readers learned to appreciate the underlying meanings.
The translation is slow going, but I love how each passage unfolds in the process, allowing me to more fully appreciate the art as well as the literal meaning of each sentence. This slow approach combines with my study of Russian history, culture and politics to give me greater insight into where Bulgakov is coming from and what he is trying to say. One passage that I especially love provides the first critique I’ve found by a Russian of what has become part of the Western narrative of Russia—an underlying streak of xenophobia, and mistrust of foreigners, that defines Russian society’s view of its place in the world. Continue reading →
Chapel on the Site Where the Old City of Belozersk Stood, 1909
A friend of mine turned me on to this collection of color photographs from the Russian Empire between the 1905 Revolution and the 1917 Revolutions. Most of these were taken between 1907 and 1912, with some taken in 1915, during World War I.
View of the Solovetskii Monastery from the Land, 1915
These are all the work of Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, a Russian chemist and photographer who received a commission from Tsar Nicholas II to travel in a specially equipped train car to document the people and places of the empire using his own method for taking color photographs, a method that involved using three cameras to take the shots, and three projectors to show the final prints, each equipped with a red, green or blue filter. Prokudin-Gorskii’s original glass plates are part of the collection of the U.S. Library of Congress. The images available on the web have been digitally processed using a technique described on the Library of Congress website. Most of these images can also be viewed, and more easily scrolled through, on the Boston Globe website. I’ve included a sampling of them below.
Emir of Bukhara, 1911
Besides providing some stunning pictures of Russia at the beginning of the 20th century, an especially tumultuous time, these images also serve to remind us that the “Russian” Empire was far more an empire than it was Russian. Continue reading →