Posts Tagged ‘Alexander Solzhenitsyn’

Robert Conquest remembers Solzhenitsyn: “How should one judge him?”

Saturday, May 21st, 2016
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Conquest at work (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Conquest at work in 2010 (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Next month, I’ll be giving a talk about Robert Conquest – the legendary historian of Russia’s Stalinist period, and also a very fine poet. The occasion will be the West Chester Poetry Conference outside Philadelphia. Tonight, I’m working and thinking about Bob, who died last year at 98. While checking dates on the internet, I found this article from him about his collaboration with the larger-than-life Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

You can read it in its entirety in the Wall Street Journal here. Or settle for a couple excerpts below:

solzhenitsyn4

He’s working too, at Hoover Institution Archives.

Those of us who had long been concerned to expose and resist Stalinism, in the West as in the USSR, learned much from Alexander Solzhenitsyn. I met him in Zurich, Switzerland, in 1974, soon after he was expelled from the Soviet Union – the result of … The Gulag Archipelago, being published in Paris. He was personally pleasant; I have a photograph of the two of us, he holding a Russian edition of my book, The Great Terror, with evident approbation. He asked if I would translate a “little” poem of his. Of course I agreed.

The little poem, Prussian Nights, turned out to be 2,000 lines! Thankfully, he and his circle helped. It was an arresting composition, increasing our knowledge of him and his times – something worth reading, and rereading, for its stunning historical background.

Solzhenitsyn was one of the most striking public figures of our time. How should one judge him? As a writer, up there with Pasternak? As a moralist, up there with Czeslaw Milosz? But he should also be judged as one who might have won two Nobel prizes – not just for Literature, but also for Peace.

In his public capacity, he felt bound to stand forward as the conscience of his people. He said, in a July 2007 interview in Der Spiegel, “My views developed in the course of time. But I have always believed in what I did and never acted against it.” Yet above all, he saw himself as a writer – a Russian writer.
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For most of us, Russian literature is like a triangle around Pushkin, Dostoevsky, and ChekhovTolstoy is in his own class. Solzhenitsyn, on the strength of August 1914 alone, competes in the Tolstoy lane.
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L.N.Tolstoy

“Class of his own.”

Some giants of Russian literature appear more preachy than is common in the West, a trait that brings us to what many see as weaknesses in the Russian tradition. First is the feeling, without basis, that one is somehow being cheated – as in Gogol; second is a tendency to exaggerate or invent. Yet along with these weaknesses there is also painful honesty.

I did not sense the weaknesses when I met him. He was religious and Russian, but without exhibition – though it became clear he embodied Fyodor Tyutchev‘s famous dictum that “Russia can neither be grasped by the mind, nor measured by any common yardstick – no attitude to her other than one of blind faith is admissible.”

He remained staunchly anticommunist, noting in the July 2007 interview in Der Spiegel that the October Revolution “broke Russia’s back. The Red Terror unleashed by its leaders, their willingness to drown Russia in blood, is the first and foremost proof of it.” He also hoped that “the bitter Russian experience, which I have been studying and describing all my life, will be for us a lesson that keeps us from new disastrous breakdowns.”

Incidentally, I would never call Milosz “a moralist” – he certainly would not have considered himself as such, and was far too aware of his fallibility. Nevertheless, read the whole thing here.

News that’s not news: CIA funded Dr. Zhivago

Monday, April 7th, 2014
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pasternak

No trip to Stockholm. (Photo courtesy Hoover Institution)

The internet is all abuzz with the news that the CIA funded Boris Pasternak‘s classic Doctor Zhivago.

Except that this is not news. I wrote about Pasternak, who was awarded a 1958 Nobel Prize that the U.S.S.R. would not allow him to accept, here.  An excerpt from the 2007 article, featuring a Stanford conference on Pasternak’s famous book:

The Nobel lightning bolt came not a moment too soon for Pasternak. Dark political clouds had been gathering around him. Without the prize, the poet might have faced more obvious persecution—poet Osip Mandelstam died in a prison camp, poet Marina Tsvetaeva was hounded to her suicide. Both were friends of Pasternak.

Doctor Zhivago was published in Milan. Albert Camus, who won the 1957 Nobel Prize in literature, nominated it for a Nobel. However, the book required publication in its original language to be considered. There was little financial motive for a non-Russian publisher to publish a book in Russian, and huge disincentives for Russian publishers, who faced long imprisonment in a very cold place—or worse. In recent years, researcher Ivan Tolstoi has revealed details of how the CIA financed a Russian translation of the book. Tolstoi is one of the speakers at the Stanford event. He will be speaking in Russian on a panel. A discussion in English will follow.

Tolstoi told the Moscow News this year that “both sides during the Cold War used different methods, but as for ideological subversion of Soviet power, the Americans always used above-board methods. Instead of using poison, derailing trains and kidnapping, the CIA subverted the Kremlin by Russian culture, which the Soviets were prohibited to know or remember.”

“Thanks to the fact that Pasternak won the Nobel Prize, Pasternak wasn’t arrested,” Tolstoi told Radio Free Europe last year. “This deed by the CIA served to ennoble and save Pasternak. The actions of American intelligence saved a great Russian poet.”

The CIA similarly published Mandelstam, Akhmatova and others. “Such a reprehensible organization—and such nice deeds,” Tolstoi told the Moscow News. “How is that for thinking evil, but doing good.”

At the 1958 Brussels World Fair, copies of Doctor Zhivago were distributed by a Russian-speaking priest at the Vatican Pavilion. The ground nearby was reportedly littered with the dark-blue binding. Russians tore it off so the book could be divided in half, one for each pocket—it was a huge book, and Russians could assume they were being watched. With samizdat redistribution in the Soviet Union, it achieved fame on the underground book market.

Pasternak's_Doctor_Zhivago_-_Flickr_-_The_Central_Intelligence_Agency

Skip the movie. Read the book.

It would be 30 years before the book was published in its native land. Its launch heralded the collapse of the Soviet Union and of the “Warsaw bloc” of socialist countries.

[Nikita] Khrushchev, after his own fall from power, expressed regret for the hounding of Pasternak. He had entrusted the matter to others, he said, and only realized later, when he had had a chance to look through the book himself, that he had been misled.

“In connection with Doctor Zhivago, some might say it’s too late for me to express regret that the book wasn’t published,” Khrushchev wrote in his memoirs. “Yes, maybe it is too late. But better late than never.”

It was known that the CIA was underwriting other efforts, such as the YMCA Press in Paris, which published Aleksander Solzhenitsyn‘s astonishing Gulag Archipelago. That’s what made the work of Ardis so astonishing – it didn’t.

So what’s new?  The Washington Post article here makes use of 130 newly declassified CIA documents that detail the agency’s secret involvement in the printing, so it’s worth a read. It’s just not the lightning bolt it’s made out to be.

For World Poetry Day: Tomas Venclova on Anna Akhmatova, Joseph Brodsky, and Czesław Miłosz

Tuesday, March 20th, 2012
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"Above all, love language" (Photo: Dylan Vaughan)

I met Tomas Venclova in Kraków last May, at the festival celebrating the Czesław Miłosz centenary.  After the grand fête closing the week-long events – an awards ceremony and concert at the Kraków Opera House – a few exhausted party-goers had had enough and were ready for bed.  Those of us who were weary of wine and hors d’oeuvres looked for a way to head back to the hotel in the rain. I was shoveled into a taxi with two men.  One of them was Tomas Venclova, Lithuania’s leading poet, and a writer who is sometimes mentioned as a Nobel candidate.

We had corresponded before, as he was one of the contributors to my book, An Invisible Rope: Portraits of Czesław Miłosz, and I had also heard him reading and reminiscing in the days before – the voice not quite what I had expected, the pitch slightly higher, the timber a little quirky, almost birdlike.

And here he was … or had I introduced myself in the crowded, jostling days before that night?  I must have. I honestly can’t remember.  But this is the first time I do remember, clearly:  he was in the front seat – silent … as tired as I was, perhaps? I could see his silhouette, with his trademark cap, against the rainy windows. I spent most of the time chatting with the fellow with whom I shared the back seat, someone who knew us both – and such are the tricks of memory that I cannot remember who, exactly, that third companion was. He has become a mysterious stranger, though the Lithuanian poet and I have struck up a correspondence since. A penpal by email or letter, from Yale, or Vilnius, or Paris – but  I haven’t seen him face-to-face since May.

Except on these newly released videos of interviews conducted last year in Paris.  I was greatly chuffed that Web of Stories has put them online to celebrate World Poetry Day on Wednesday, March 20.  It’s a good excuse to talk about this quietly marvelous poet – we aren’t likely to do anything later, on his birthday; it falls on September 11.

Here’s your chance to meet the poet and his poems.  Too few know the Vilnius-born poet and his work. Consider it a gift on the first day of spring.

From the email Web of Stories sent me:

In these absorbing clips, Venclova recounts his upbringing in Lithuania, including how he and his father had staunchly opposing political views. He also depicts how his first poems were dedicated to the Hungarian Revolution and despite not being published, they were circulated among groups of people: “I can say with pride that many, many years later when Hungary and Lithuania were free, I received a Hungarian medal for supporting the Hungarian Revolution then through my poems.

He also reminisces about his decision to emigrate to America, losing his Soviet citizenship, being offered a job at Yale and looks back over his career as a writer since leaving Lithuania: “When I left, I thought that it was possible that I’d end up as a lorry driver, for example, or a cleaner or a road layer. But that didn’t happen, I’d been a philologist and a writer and I remained a philologist and a writer.”

Alas, I was not able to embed the story of his meeting with Anna Akhmatova, and her interactions with Alexander Solzhenitsyn – you’ll find that here.

This clip describe Tomas’s meeting with Joseph Brodsky at Akhmatova’s funeral. My friend, the Lithuanian physicist Ramūnas Katilius, translated Tomas’s poems into Russian for the Nobel poet. “This was our triumvirate, our group.”

I didn’t realize that, in fact, that Tomas Venclova first brought Czesław Miłosz (or Česlovas Milašius, in the native Lithuanian) to Joseph Brodsky‘s attention. Here’s the story in the clip below.

 

Part Deux, with video clips discussing his help from Arthur Miller, his friendship with Timothy Snyder, and his unsuccessful attempt to save an imprisoned dissident, Viktoras Petkus, is here.

Grisha Friedin, Isaac Babel shared rough neighborhoods and a longing for literature

Tuesday, January 31st, 2012
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I was in the U.K. when Grisha Freidin gave his talk in the “How I Think About Literature” series last fall, but Isaac Babel‘s biographer sounds characteristically feisty in Luke Parker‘s account:

 “What is the difference between what I write and what Babel wrote? The difference is I have footnotes,” says Gregory Freidin, Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures and expert on Russian writer Isaac Babel. “What we do here is falsifiable. What he does is not falsifiable. You don’t like Babel, write your own.”

Babel in 1920

A little background on Grisha from my article two years ago:

As a teenager in the mid-1960s, Gregory Freidin moved with his family to a rough side of Moscow, to what he described as a neighborhood notorious “for its Jewish thieves, counterfeiters and dealers in stolen goods.” He had entered “the Jewish underworld.” In short, the Soviet kid discovered Isaac Babel’s world.

Freidin is now perhaps the world’s foremost scholar on Babel, the Russian-Jewish short story writer, playwright and journalist. He is throwing a spotlight on the writer who described the horrors of war and the gangsters of Odessa with trademark irony and acute observation. 

Grisha’s lifelong exploration of literature was fueled, as described in Parker’s account, by the longing for that “other story” which “he had suspected, even in his Stalinist childhood, might exist outside the walls of his Moscow tenement”:

This “other story” fuelled his search for the wellsprings of literature’s affective power – a power that in 1962 erupted with the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Although a “pretty thin book, a long short story really,” nonetheless “it for a moment outweighed the Kremlin and the mighty Soviet state.” Ivan Denisovich permitted millions publicly to mourn the victims of the Gulag, forcing the Kremlin into a tactical show of penance before the people: a Soviet civil society had been born, producing an effect “greater than 9/11.” It was to explain events such as these, showcasing literature’s moments of extraordinary power, that Grisha turned in his work to the fields of cultural anthropology, the sociology of religion, and psychoanalytic theory.

You can read a short account of the talk here.  Or, for that matter, you can read Grisha talking about his  enthusiasm for Babel in my account here:

“He created archetypal stories about modern Jewish childhood, about intellectuals and violence, the violence that accompanied Russia’s transition to modernity and the revolution in which Russia’s Jews were both uplifted and victimized,” said Freidin. …

“Babel is a writer who forces you to confront yourself,” said Freidin. “Babel makes art out of unsettling your point of view by irony. You have to follow his game and test your own ability to follow his ironic twists and turns.”

The violence in this pacifist writer continues to fascinate Freidin: “He was probably, to my mind, the greatest writer to portray violence, as it were, without judgment – and at the same time show its horror, and beauty, and the great pleasure people get from violence, while somehow sneaking in his pacifism as well.”

Or, for a third option, watch my video interview with Grisha below:

 

Remembering Bella Akhmadulina: “purity, conscience, and independence”

Sunday, December 19th, 2010
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I ran across Robin Varghese‘s recent post on 3 Quarks Daily noting that, he, too, had somehow missed the obituaries for the 73-year-old Russian poet Bella Akhmadulina, who died on November 29 of a heart attack.  I spent a little time this afternoon catching up: William Grimes‘s New York Times obituary for the “bold voice in Russian poetry” is here.

Akhmadulina came to fame in the post-Stalin years, the years of the Thaw.  She never emigrated, and never was exiled.  The Telegraph reported:

“Yet in her own quiet way Bella Akhmadulina was as much of a dissident as better known Soviet writers. Her work as a translator – she translated into Russian poetry from France, Italy, Chechnya, Poland, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Georgia, Armenia and many other countries – led to her expulsion from the Soviet Writers’ Union in the Brezhnev era, and she openly supported persecuted writers like Boris Pasternak and Alexander Solzhenitsyn and political dissidents such as Andrei Sakharov.”

In 1979, she fell out of favour by contributing a surreal short story, ‘Many dogs and one dog,’ to the Samizdat publication Metropol, and was subsequently condemned for the “eroticism” of her verse and banned from publication.”

Said the poet:  “How did I manage?  Well, I think a person has some sort of guiding light.  Without doubt, something or someone looks after us from on high.” sThat quotation is from Valentina Polukhina‘s exhaustive and enlightening series of interviews, Brodsky Through the Eyes of His Contemporaries, volume 1.

I didn’t know her poetry — or at least I didn’t know it much.  I remember her instead as the the bright, original, and unambiguous voice in Polukhina’s 1987 interview:  “The presence of any great poet in the world creates a marked effect on human existence.”

An excerpt:

“But in exceptional cases, as with Bunin, with Nabokov, we are talking about people who have taken with them something that became … as if they created the Russian language inside themselves.  He doesn’t need to hear Russian spoken around him; he himself becomes a force that is ripe.  He himself is both garden and gardener. …

I said this at some time to Nabokov.  He asked me, ‘Do you like my language?’ and I answered, ‘Your Russian, it’s the best,’ and he said, ‘But it seems to me that it is like frozen strawberries.’  And whatever fate does … Well, with such people what is fate?”

In a literary world notorious for backbiting and artistic rivalries, she said this of Joseph Brodsky:

“My particular relationship to Brodsky can be described quite simply: uncritical, one of adoration.  I myself have stated somewhere in connection with Akhmatova:  ‘Of all calamities, adoration is the worse.’  An admirer can never expect his adoration to be returned.  And I am sure, that Joseph … I never think about myself when I think about him.  And even when they said to me, ‘you know, what Brodsky thinks of you!’ (Thumb downward.)  As he pleases.  But it is my business to talk about him with thumbs up.”

Polukhina, however, contradicted her:  “He said that Bella is one of the few Russian poets living in Russia who by some miracle has succeeded in preserving her purity, conscience and independence.”

Akhmadulina’s finest online send-off may be the memoir from Gregory Freidin on Arcadehere.  He gives us the context for Akhmadulina’s rise to prominence:

“Because of the richness of inflection and infinite melodic variability of the language, Russian poetry is blessed with extraordinary expressive force and a mighty mnemonic potential. This comes in handy if you happen to live under a repressive ideocracy like the Soviet Union, since verses can be easily memorized and leave little material evidence. Indeed, there was no better time to realize Russian poetry’s mnemonic and ethereal  potential than in the post-Stalin Soviet Union where the absence of independent publishing coexisted with burgeoning youth culture and a minimal – and for that reason infinitely titillating – lifting of the skirt of Soviet censorship. For us, who belonged the post-WWII generation, shaped by the de-Stalinization campaign and cold war, known euphemistically as ‘peaceful coexistence,’ this toying with the ideological hemline excited our imagination and set our minds on fire! Grim and sclerotic as the Soviet empire was in its decline, it became a Garden of Eden for poetry – and a purgatory, not to say a minor inferno, for the poets themselves. Some, like Brodsky, were exiled or jailed, others went through torments of hell in trying to combine the imperative of remaining true to their calling with the relentless and crushing pressure to conform. That was the cup that Akhmadulina, twenty and otherworldly beautiful in 1956, drank to the dregs.”

I won’t spoil Freidin’s post for you; it deserves a full reading here.  And for a taste of Akhmadulina’s distinctive voice, girlish and throaty, click below: