Posts Tagged ‘Andrei Sakharov’

New poems, old stories: Robert Conquest balances “the inhuman reign of the lie” with naughty verse

Monday, December 26th, 2011

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

When Christopher Hitchens died this month, I thought immediately of Robert Conquest and his wife, Elizabeth, who were close friends of the renowned journalist and author. Believe it or not, Hitchens used to spend a good deal of time in Palo Alto – his wife’s family, as I recall.

No, Bob did not have anything he wanted to share publicly in memoriam; he is not of the “sharing” generation who tweets his thoughts.  But there’s plenty else that is public.

Britain’s Standpoint is printing ten poems from Bob’s new book of light verse: Blokesongs and Blokelore from Old Fred, which will be out from the U.K.’s Waywiser Press in May.  You can read them here.

Here’s the nasty truth: I’ve never been attracted to “light verse.” Limericks are lost on me.  I’ve never, really, seen the point.  But Bob Conquest has devoted years to them, and it occurred to me that the silly poems are a necessary release from his groundbreaking historical work on the effects of Communism in Russia and Eastern Europe – the work that earned him an Order of Merit from Poland in 2009.

Maybe it’s not a coincidence that, at almost the same moment Standpoint published the new poems, the Daily Beast published Bob’s analysis of the current crisis with the Russian anti-Putin protests following the Dec. 4 elections.

The upshot of the article: “The present regime may have abandoned the compulsive economic ideologies of the Communist past, but it has not developed anything like an open society.”  It comes down to a peculiar relationship to truth:

Honored in 2009

After the disaster of collectivization [1929–33], the leadership had two options: either to admit failure and change policy—perhaps even to relinquish total power—or to pretend that success had been achieved. Falsification took place on a barely credible scale, in every sphere. Real facts, honest statistics, disappeared. History, especially that of the Communist Party, was rewritten. Unpersons vanished from the official record. A spurious past and a fictitious present were imposed on the captive minds of the Soviet people. To focus solely on the physical manifestations of the Communist terror—the killings, the deportations, the people who were driven to suicide—would be to overlook the larger context: what Boris Pasternak called “the inhuman reign of the lie.” Until Gorbachev came to power, the country lived a double existence—an official world of fantasy, grand achievements, wonderful statistics, liberty, democracy, all juxtaposed with a reality of gloom, suffering, terror, denunciation, and apparatchik degeneration.

When lies become part of the national fabric, the result was a thoroughly corrupted society:

Sakharov nailed it. (Photo: RIA Novosti)

Sakharov described the problem in the late 1970s: “A deeply cynical caste has come into being, one which I consider dangerous (to itself as well as to all mankind)—a sick society ruled by two principles: blat [a little slang word meaning ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’], and the popular saw: ‘No use banging your head against the wall.’ But beneath the petrified surface of our society exist cruelty on a mass scale, lawlessness, the absence of civil rights protecting the average man against the authorities, and the latter’s total unaccountability toward their own people or the whole world.”

The Soviet bureaucracy’s reaction to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster demonstrated what Sakharov had been talking about. As David Remnick later noted in The New Yorker, it was typical of the regime that plant director Viktor Bryukhanov, on being told that the reactor’s radiation was millions of times higher than normal, replied that the meter was obviously defective and must be thrown away. Deputy Prime Minister Boris Shcherbina rejected a suggestion to order a mass evacuation. “Panic is worse than radiation,” he said.

So what’s changed in 2011?  As everywhere, technology makes certain lies untenable:

Russians are used to electoral fraud. There were never any expectations that the Dec. 4 elections would be carried out with complete honesty, any more than Russia’s past votes were. But this time, instances of ballot irregularity were recorded by mobile devices and then posted on the Internet, to which more than 40 percent of Russians now have access. Outrage—and calls to protest—flashed from computer to computer. Political discourse is thriving in blogs, tweets, posts to Facebook, uploads to YouTube—challenging the regime’s old-media monopoly on news and opinion.

Read it all here.


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

Sunday, December 19th, 2010

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:

The non-award of the Wendy Wasserstein Prize … and the non-award of the Nobel to Liu Xiaobo

Saturday, November 20th, 2010

What would Wendy do?

The non-award this year of the Theatre Development Fund’s Wendy Wasserstein Prize for young women playwrights — the TDF considered no one up to snuff — has caused a great kerfuffle.  See New York’s Time Out here. She Writes reproduces the strident dialogue between Kamy Wicoff and TDF honcho David LeShay hereFeministing posts its reprise of the conflict here.  A Facebook petition is here.

The upshot:  The TDF is reconsidering.

The $25,000 award is named for Wendy Wasserstein, a popular playwright who died at age 55 from cancer — that’s a lot of money, and I yield to no one in understanding how hard a writer’s life is. I made my living as a free-lance journalist for a decade, and that when I was no longer young and also had a kid to support alone.  The award and recognition could make a big difference in a young playwright’s life.

Nonetheless, doesn’t an award have a right to determine its own criteria, however distressing that may be to the applicants? It’s always a punch in the face for a writer when a jury decides that no award was better than awarding you — especially if the criteria for judgment is bureaucratic, subjective, political, wrong-headed.  Still …

I have no doubt of the enormous gender bias in the theater world, and pretty much everywhere else. (Look at politics.  I’ll never forget the landmark misogyny of the 2008 elections, when the most accomplished woman ever to grace American politics was treated with truly ugly slurs, culminating in a major broadcast journalist called for her to be snuffed while the major feminist organizations were … silent.)

The Facebook page makes the strongest argument: “Your claim that ‘none of the plays were truly outstanding in their current incarnation’ sends a discouraging message to early career theatre artists at a time when these artists need more support than ever. The prize is not to support a production of the play, but the promise of the writer.” [italics mine]

Feministing‘s resorts to retro language, accusing the TDF of reproducing “hierarchies of privilege”  they meant to redress, though heaven knows its too true that “it’s often those who are already have many accolades who are likely to receive more of them.”  Wicoff resorts to a demanding tone and capital letters (“If you can’t figure out a way to give a prize to ONE WOMAN PLAYWRIGHT in the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, YOU are the problem, not the applicants or the by-laws or whatever.”)

At the end of the Wicoff’s exchanges, she asks, “Anybody else feel a She Writes Prize coming on?”

Now there‘s an idea.

I understand that Wasserstein was a fabulous woman and a beloved friend to many.  But her plays always struck me as formulaic, built on TV models of short scenes and clincher lines, which were often blandly Gail Sheehy-esque:  “The real reason for comedy is to hide the pain.”  And sometimes not even true: “You’re the unfortunate contradiction in terms — a serious good person.”

In any case, the Time Out article hints that the award itself is having financial troubles, and may be discontinued:

But this apparent victory may be Pyrrhic. [Patrick] Healy’s article raised a detail that had not been a subject of general discussion earlier: that the Wasserstein Prize is a four-year project whose future funding is not assured. Toward the end of the piece is an ominous statement from Heidi Ettinger, a key figure in the establishment and funding of the prize: “This is the final year of the grant for the prize, and it will be up for reconsideration next year. All along, we have been changing and refining criteria to insure that the objectives of the prize honoring Wendy and her high standards were met. We have also managed to increase the amount of the award. As a funder, we must be able to insure the integrity of the prize and provide selection panels the freedom they need free of outside pressures.”

Would any of the 19 young playwright applicants wish to accept the award now, under such a cloud?  In a minute.


No prize after all

Non-prizes have a long history.  In 2006, the Pulitzer board gave no prize in the drama category in spite of having three nominees from the drama jury. As recently as 2008, it gave no prize for editorial writing.  In 1953, 1964, 1965 and 1981 it gave no prize for music.  In 1920, 1941, 1946, 1954, 1957, 1964, 1971, and 1977, it gave no award for fiction.  The Pulitzer board does not explain its sometime mysterious decisionmaking.

And it appears, in an unhappy development largely overlooked by the media, that there will be no Nobel peace prize this year for Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo.  The Associated Press notes: “Even Cold War dissidents Andrei Sakharov and Lech Walesa were able to have their wives collect the prizes for them. Myanmar democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi‘s award was accepted by her 18-year-old son in 1991.”

The only precedent for the non-award is 1935, when the Nazi government forbade German journalist and pacifist Carl von Ossietzky to accept the award.  Imprisoned in a succession of concentration camps, Ossietzky had been hospitalized hospital for severe tuberculosis, but the Nazi government prevented him from leaving the country to accept the prize. Someone representing Ossietzky was allowed to receive the Nobel Prize money only.  On the books, it’s “no award” for 1935.