Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Quotes from Vladislav Khodasevich's Necropolis

Below are a few of my favorite quotations from Vladislav Khodasevich's Necropolis, as translated by Sarah Vitali


Her gift for literature wasn't great.  Her gift for living was immeasurably greater. 


Later, looking back on the young Bryusov, I realized that the actuity of his poetry from this period lay precisely in that combination of decadent exoticism with the most artless of Muscovite petty bourgeois attitudes.

The concept of quality was entirely foreign to Bryusov.

He had a remarkable way of offering his hand.  It was a strange operation. 

In general, he somehow managed to combine an elegant (albeit formal) politeness with a love for dressing-down, discipline, and intimidation.

His appearance were always arranged in theatrical style.  He wouldn't respond yet or no to any invitation, but would leave the inviter to wait and hope.

Perhaps he really did respect love.  But he did not notice his lovers.

He loved literature, only literature.  He loved himself, too, only for literature's sake. 

He had a passionate, unnatural love for serving on committees--and he loved being a chairman even more.

He was an anti-Semite. 

Bryusov despised democracy.

This is why he was a monarchist in the time of Nicholas II.

It was only in the summer of 1918, after the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly and the beginning of the Terror, that he perked up a bit and declared himself a Communist.

He "served" and "oversaw" with all his might. 

He distanced himself from the literary scene even more sharply than the literary scene distanced itself from him. 


He imaged supernatural provocateurs lurking behind every member of the police force, from the department head to the custodian. 

He lived through War Communism the way all of us did, in sickness and in want.

As it turned out, neither Dr. Steiner nor his entourage had any intention whatsoever of getting involved with anything as transient and trivial as Russia.

He moved to the city that autumn--and all of Russian Berlin bore cruel and curious witness to his hysteria. 

There had been no disparate scenes.  Instead, what happened was the bitterest thing imaginable:  they had simply been bored in each other's company.


"Russia won't be saved by verse
and might not manage the reverse."

In addition to its obvious, primary meaning, each event took on a secondary meaning that had to be deciphered.

Another time,, we were walking along Tveskaya Street.  Muni was saying that there were moments in which he was able to predict the future with complete accuracy.  But this talent only applied to trivial events.

We were with V.F. Akhrmovich, who went on to become a zealous Communist.  At the time, he was a zealous Catholic. 

He donned his blue glasses "so as not to see more than was necessary"..

Muni wasn't lazy.  But he didn't know how to work.

And then he would start in on his analysis, which would be detailed, extensive, and decimating. 


Blok was always a poet, every moment of his life.  Gumilyov was only a poet while he was writing verses. 

His entire appearance says, "Nothing has happened.  Revolution?  Never heard of it."

First and foremost, he noted that, up until that point, stupidity had been given a bad reputation;  poets had unfairly shunned it.  The time had come for stupidity to have its own voice in literature. Stupidity is a natural quality, just like intelligence is.  It can be developed, cultivated. 

Finally, he welcomed the introduction of blatant stupidity into the Poets' Guild in the person of Neldikhen. 

He expresses his stupidity with a talent that lies beyond the reach of many intelligent people. 

But what did he actually die of?  No one knows.  He somehow died "in general":  because he was sick all over, because he could no longer go on living.  He died of death.


Thus began Gershenzon's scholarly career and his poverty.


...there is a crease above the bridge of his nose and his eyes are half-closed.  When he opens them, their expression can best be conveyed by the question:  "Oh, do you still exist?"


For Esenin, the borderlands were not, of course, Russia.  Russia was Rus', and Rus' was the village.

Were up to our necks in capitalists because the kikes (pardon me, you aren't a Jew  yourself, are you?" want to topple the tsar and then take control of all of Christian Rus.

Russia is a muzhik country.  Anything in her that is not by and for the muzhik is scum and must be scraped away. 

In his autobiography, he writes:  "I have never belonged to the CPSU because I consider myself to be far more left-wing."

They went through periods of fervent belief and periods of fervent blasphemy.  They visited prostitutes to preach the Revolution--and beat them after they were done.

He decided to make a spectacle of himself--and artlessly made the poetess the following offer:  "Would you like to see how people are executed?  I can arrange the whole thing for you with Blyumkin in a matter of minutes."

Esenin was dragged into imaginism just as he might have been dragged to the tavern. 

It is as if there is some enormous, precious truth that binds together all these errors. 


The year seventeen knocked us senseless.  It is as if we had forgotten that revolution does not always come from below, but that it can come from the very top as well.


As we parted ways, Valery Yakovlevich said, "In time, someone will make a thorough examination of these spiritual forces and, perhaps, will even find a technological application for them, as they did with steam and electricity.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Khodasevich's Necropolis

Columbia University's Russian Library continues to deliver first-rate translations of important but neglected Russian classics.  In this case, Sarah Vitali has translated Vladislav Khodasevich's collection of biographical sketches of Silver Age giants.  Khodasevich's insightful essays remind me of the equally insightful essays that make up Marina Tsvtaeva's Earthly Signs.  In both cases, the poet seems to produce something better than ordinary prose.  In both cases, the poet seems to be able to analyze both people from multiple perspectives.  While not a student of poetry, my experience with Tsvataeva and Khodasevich's prose suggests that great poetry must usually involve both prodigious amount of logic and the ability to view a single person or phenomenon from a multiplicity of perspectives.  In any case, Necropolis and Earthly Signs go well together.  Necropolis focuses on the  life of writers and poets before World War I, it necessarily describes their experiences in World War I and their deaths between the wars.  By contrast, Earthly Signs focuses on the the experience of writers and poets in War, Revolution, Civil War, and War Communism.  Khodasevich's menagerie of writers includes Bryusov, Bely, Muni, Gumilyov, Blok, Gershenzon, Sologub, Esenin, and Gorky.  Each essay is better than the next.  Khodasevich is usually sympathetic, but sometimes caustic, and often satirical.  And the best part of Necropolis is that the whole is better than the sum of its parts.  That is to say, we conclude the book with a much deeper appreciation for the Silver Age, with all its triumphs and absurdities.  We come to understand that these poets, writers, and aesthetes were extremely talented, but that their approach to art had some serious limitations.  Indeed, Khodasevich argues that in the absence of a moral or intellectual sensibility, the search for experience wasn't quite enough to drive art far enough in any particular direction to make a lasting impact on the future of Russian or European art. 

Dostoyevski's Poor People

I'm rereading one my gateway novels into Russian literature, Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment.  The novel is more feverish and introspective than I recalled it.  It also seems to portray a protagonist who is not at all certain whether or not he hopes to avoid detection.  Perhaps the issue is that I'm reading Oliver Ready's relatively new translation of the book, and the new translation reveals Raskolnikov's ambivalence than previous translations. Or perhaps the issue is that I haven't read Crime and Punishment for over twenty-five years.  In truth, prior to picking up this translation, the only thing I remembered about the book was that it was suspenseful, had terrific denouement (but not-so-terrific epilogue) and made you feel as if you had personally committed the crime and were in danger of being discovered.  At any rate, the new translation comes with excellent end notes.

One Dostoevsky book I hadn't read up until this year was his early epistolary novel, Poor People. This book doesn't quite reveal Dostoevsky's mature genius, but neither does it fail to reveal Dostoevsky's trademark masochism.  For while the book can read like a work of social realism, it also pushes past social realism into grotesque absurdity.  At first, the male protagonist, Makar Devushkin, seems to be in an ordinary predicament: like many of St. Petersburg's underclass, he can't really afford his modest St. lifestyle.  He lives in a crowded tenement, and works unusually long hours just to make ends meet.  Over time, the protagonist's life falls apart.  He's too poor to keep his clothes from disintegrating, too poor to maintain even a reasonably presentable wardrobe.  A porter puts it this way:  the protagonist shouldn't brush his coat for the filthy garment would only spoil the brush.  In the end, the hero's life can hardly be seen as anything other than comic.  He throws away his small salary on presents for his much younger friend, distant cousin, neighbor, and probable love interest.  He worships his wealthy employer.  He works ever-longer hours.   Meanwhile, his friend. Varvara Dobroselova, also falls into catastrophe and is forced to marry a not-so-good older man in an arrangement that looks remarkable similar to prostitution.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Catherine Merridale's Ivan's War

Catherine Merridale's book, Ivan's War:  Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945, represents a very important contribution to the historiography of the Soviet Union's participation in World War II.  Unlike most other books on the subject, the book depicts perhaps the most destructive military event of modern history from the bottom up.  Rather than spend time analyzing the decisions of Stalin and other politburo members, or the actions of Soviet generals and diplomats, Merridale helps her readers to understand how ordinary Soviet soldiers lived through the war and experienced its trials and triumphs.  Merridale deserves a great deal of credit of moving our understanding of the war away from jingoistic accounts of Soviet military heroism and toward a more nuanced understanding of the horrors of war.  In particular, Merridale does not shy away from discussing the fact that so many Soviet soldiers helped to terrorize the women of Germany and other conquered countries in Eastern and Central Europe.  If Merridale deserves any criticism, it is only that her subject is too vast for a single book.  After all, it's difficult to maintain a general narrative of the war's many phases while also striving to cover so many different aspects of the soldiers' everyday lives.  And one also can't help but think that Svetlana Alexievich's two oral histories of World War get more directly at the lived experience of Russians in the war.  Without the overarching narrative, Alexievich gets even closer to the psychological realities of life at the front. But of course, Merridale is dealing with the whole of the Soviet soldiery, and Alexievich tries to find out something unique about Russian women and Russian children experienced the trauma of war.  Another of Merridale's books, Night of Stone:  Death and Memory in the Twentieth-Century Russia, would seem to be the natural bookend to Merridale's overall "argument" about the war's impact on Russians, both at the time, and over time.

Three Recent Television Portrayals of Catherine the Great

The new, four-part Catherine the Great series on HBO is magnificent. Of course, Helen Mirren deserves most of the credit for the series' dramatic power.  She brilliantly combines Catherine's political savvy with her desire to love and be loved.  The plot of the miniseries focuses on Catherine's relationship with Potemkin, although Orlov and several other lovers are roles to play.  The show is also notable for its beautiful architectural settings and historical customs.  Overall, the point it makes is that Catherine was a sophisticated despot who sought love but never let her personal feelings interfere with her decision to rule Russia alone.  The series gives us glimpses of the Russian state's victory over Pugachev as well as Potemkin's victory in the Crimea.  But the dramatic focus remains on Catherine's relationship with the men around her, including the heir.  Here we see that Catherine, like Elizabeth before her, usually put her political relationship with her son above her maternal one.  

The most recent Russian version of Catherine the Great, entitled Ekaterina:  the Rise of Catherine the Great, is also worth watching.  Now in it's third season, Ekaterina spends a great deal of time on Catherine's young adulthood.  The leading actress, Marina Alexandrova, probably is extraordinarily charismatic, and redolent of the leading actress who played Anne Boleyn so convincingly in the Tutors.  Although this series often veers toward melodrama, it gets Catherine's complicated relationship with both her naive mother and her cynical mother-in-law right.  For years, Catherine worked hard to stay in Elizabeth's good graces. Simultaneously, she seems to have been studying for the position of Russian autocrat.  Most interestingly, this Catherine the Great series allows us to see Catherine's often pathetic husband, Peter III, in a sympathetic light.  Although Peter was immature, Russo-phobic, absurdly militaristic, and politically inept, he was a sensitive musician caught in an almost impossible dilemma.  Despised by his mother, Peter III grew up tense and nervous.  In any case, the film shows all three characters--Elizabeth, Catherine, and Peter III--as complex figures caught up in complex political machinations.  

A third version of Catherine the Great was filmed in 2015.  Although this series is clumsier than the other two, it also seems to offer insight into some of personal dynamics that defined Catherine's rise to power.  Elizabeth is particularly well portrayed in this film.  For this view of the dominant force in Catherine's early life in Russia, this series is also well worth watching.  

Monday, October 7, 2019

Quotes from Maxim Osipov's Rock, Paper, Scissors and Other Stories

Quotes from Maxim Osipov's Rock, Paper, Scissors and Other Stories

Life in the Country

He's falling all over me:  vodka, sweat, tobacco--there, enjoy, breath it in!  People ought to maintain a certain distance from one another.  Like in America.

Here nobody has any secrets.  Just like in heaven.

Where did all the bright people go?  When we were young there were enough of them around.  What, did they all emigrate?


The world doesn't break, no matter what you throw at it.  That's just how it's built.

To deliver man from his neighbors--isn't that the point of progress?

"Don't think about them," he says. "Killers--they're just your average people."

Yes, she taught Russian literature at a university in Khujand, but only for a while.
"But who needs Russian literature there?"  the officer ask, puzzled. "They're all..." He had wanted to say Asiatics.
No one needs it--Ruhshona couldn't agree more. Totally useless.

Polite, smartly dressed, with friendly gray eyes, he asks me to tell him about myself.
What's to tell?  I don't drink, don't smoke.  I have a driver's license.

"Our office," says Victor, "is one big family.  Anyhow fails to understand that will be fired."


"What's happening here is a particular kind of negative selection.  You won't find a humane copy within the existing system."

"The competition was settling scores," the young man agrees.  "It was a contract job."
"But why try so hard if it's only a contract?"
"For the soul's delight.  I'm telling you, cops aren't human."


The place could be anywhere with its own kind of appeal--particularly Central Russia.  You can fall for this place just as easily as a woman can fall for a loser.

There's no easier pastime than bad-mouthing the church.  Much like bad-mouthing Dostoevsky:  it's true, of course, all true, but it also missed the point.  The church is a thing of wonder, Dostoevsky is a thing of wonder, and the fact that we Russians are still here--that, too, is a thing of wonder.

But where Moscow doesn't believe in tears, as they say, around here tears are the only things we do believe in.  When the need is great, we make an exception.  It's ugly--we shouldn't allow ourselves to be touched by it--but this happy-go-lucky collective deceit unites the nation just as well as any good law.

..the water for tea is only lukewarm, and possibly not boiled at all.
"Just like the goddamned Soviet Union," mutters Tolya.

They're beating him with their black truncheons and they're beating him with their fists.  This is how we in Russia treat delirium tremens--not, we have to admit, the most uncommon ailments.

"It's horrible!  I do not--I absolutely do not--want to go on living in this country!"

"Why not leave," the girl puts in, "before you get beaten up?  A normal person shouldn't have to live here."

It's beautiful here; a joyless, Central Russian sort of beauty.  If you ignore everything man-made, it's very beautiful indeed.

"You a real Russian?"
"Yes," I replied, "I'm Russian."
"So what do you need all these things, all this order for?"

Once there has been Socialism, and Ksenia had done her duty, believing and not believing, like everyone else.

The rich, as they say, have their quirks:  the boss, for instance, plays the piano.  Nothing wrong with that.  In America, people take lessons at seventy, but here--well, we're not used to it.

"And the Soviet Union, for those who lived in it then, represented just that--the whole world. So.."
"That's a stretch, Yevgeny Lvovich.  Many people still remembered Europe."

He runs through the countries he's visited and tanks them according to quality of life: Protestant, Catholic, and, in last place, here.

To be frank, it's a country of fools.  Yevgeny Lvovich would add:  "And saints."

"He's been to the Italian countryside, to the Netherlands...Is there any comparison?  Hard to be a patriot.  Yevgeny Lvovich, almost impossible.


The boss likes to survey his surroundings through a pair of binoculars.  In his free time, when he's not occupied through a pair of binoculars.

Women appeared in his life like targets on a shooting range, immediately taking up all his attention--for a short while, but all of it.  After hitting the target, so to speak, he would keep up the relationship very briefly, then break it off.  So it went, as it should go.

There's a crow near the conservatory that smokes.  It grabs lit cigarettes out of people's mouths and smokes.  This is no urban legend--he has seen it with his own eyes, on the day he first met Lora.  In fact, the crow brought them together.

"Sofushka, dear mother, help me find a cheap apartment, already renovated,.  With all the proper paperwork."

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Svetlana Alexievich's Last Witness

Svetlana Alexievich's latest book to be translated into English, Last Witness:  An Oral History of the Children of World War II, is perhaps her most powerful one.  The subject of the book, memories of the Great Patriotic War, is perfectly suited to oral history.  By asking aging adults what they remember of the war, we get at the very heart of this immense twentieth century tragedy.  We are introduced to countless children who were robbed of their innocence. We note how these children's bitter memories of starvation, bombings, hangings, deportations, and other atrocities, remained with them for their entire lives.  As in her other books, Alexievich seems to find ways to get her subjects to describe horrors poetically.  As she says in the introduction to Secondhand Time, she is knows that there is something literary even in the midst of everyday speech. 

What do we learn about Russia's experience in the Second World War?  We learn that many Russians were completely unprepared for the invasion despite the fact that they had been repeatedly exposed to militarism in their youth culture.  So although almost all young Soviets had sang war songs, celebrated the lives of pilots, and participated in formal or informal war games, none had any idea how horrible true war was going to be.  We learn also that World War II was a war of civilians.  Indeed, children were exposed to both the relatively impersonal terror of  nightly aircraft bombings and to the incredibly personal violence of German allegedly anti-partisan reprisals against civilian centers.

Of course, many or even most of Alexievich's "last witnesses" don't claim to remember events objectively, or in detail.  Even so, their testimony often seems more valid than that of any soldiers or other adults.  For children seem to remember only the essence of war:  its brutality, abruptness, and cruelty.  Most children grew up to remember the war in the context of an abrupt change in their relationship to their parents.  Often, the war robbed a child of one or more of their parents, if not their whole family, or the whole village.  At the very least, most children lost a father for the length of time that father served at the front.  More often, their fathers (and sometimes mothers) died at the front or in partisan warfare, disappearing altogether from their lives. 

Alexievich's book is a good attempt to tell the story of World War II from a new perspective.  And why shouldn't we ask whether children didn't see something the rest of the adults missed at the time? The book reminds us of many child-specific acts of violence.  For instance, the book tells countless stories of Germans literally taking children's blood for their own purposes even as their victims starved to death. The book is also a story about memory:  World War II was a series of events, but it was also a lasting memory.  History and memory are certainly related, but they are not identical.  Alexievich's book is also a work of poetry.  More often than not, almost all of her subjects have managed to say something highly creative about one of the worst experiences of their lives.  And strangely, even the most gruesome of these childhood memories includes some element of beautiful about humankind.  Sometimes the child merely remembers an act of sacrifice he or she witnessed. Sometimes a child remembers his or her love for a parent.  But almost always, the child's oral testimony says something about the ability of humans to find something meaningful even in the worst event of their lives.