Thursday, June 30, 2011

Shklovsky's Revolution

Viktor Shklovsky's memoirs, A Sentimental Journey, cover the author's energetic participation in World War I, the February Revolution, the October Revolution, the Russian campaign in Persia, and the Civil War. Shklovsky's unorthodox approach to autobiography is ironic, poetic, and elliptical. His observations seem to reveal the essence of this revolutionary epoch on both the microscopic and macroscopic levels. The current of clever but understated cynicism that runs through A Sentimental Journey seems to perfectly portray the madness and horror of that extraordinarily fluid period in Russian history. Although Shklovsky, a Social Revolutionary in these years, ostensibly sympathized the Bolsheviks in their contest with the counter-revolutionary forces, his detached, sometimes indirect critique of Bolshevism is ultimately more damning than even Ivan Bunin's memoir of the period, Cursed Days. If this is how a young Leftist intellectual saw Lenin's Party, how much worse must they have been?

Shlovsky on the Nature of Revolution

"You'll see. Our Revolution will save the world."

"Everything was fine. We were all being swept along by a river and the whole of wisdom consisted in yielding to its current."

"I was happy with these crowds. It was like Easter--a joyous, naive, disorderly carnival paradise."

"In general, and Easter mood prevailed; everything was going well and it was believed that this was only the beginning of everything good."

"The streets seethed with impromptu meetings. Private life seemed pallid."

"One soldier said, "I don't want to die." With desperate energy, I spoke about the right of the Revolution to our lives. I didn't despise words then, as I do now."

"The Revolution had engraved its norms on his soul. He was like an Orthodox Christian."

"They hastened to inform me that they were for the commune. What they meant by that I don't know. Perhaps only communal pastures."

"The regiments knew nothing about freedom of speech; they regarded themselves as a single voting entity. Those who opposed the majority were beaten up."

"Why didn't we understand that we can't fight with such crap at the front?"

"Comrades, what are you doing! Is this really the way to fight capitalism? Capitalism has to be fought efficiently."

"If you don't believe that there was a revolution, go and put your hand in the wound. It's wide."

"The laws had been repealed and everything was being revised."

Shklovsky on Suffering

"When I arrived in Moscow on the nineteenth of this month and brought some bread (ten pounds) to a close friend, he began to weep--He wasn't used to bread."

"Hunched over, with mechanical gesture of a tired animal, they picked through the garbage looking for something edible."

"...the others died as quietly and slowly as only the infinitely steadfast human being can died."

"There's a Cossack. In front of him lies a naked baby, abandoned by the Kurds. The Cossack wants to kill it. He hits it once and stopds to think, hits it again and stops to think.
They tell him: "Finish him off."
And he: "I can't. I feel sorry for it."

"The commander, Ivanov by name, defended himself for a long time with a saver before they cut off his head and gave it to the children to play with." (Referring to the Kurdish campaign).

"One morning when I got up and opened the street door, something soft fell to the side. I stooped down and looked...Something had left a dead baby at my door. I think it was a complaint."

"...the way the city had grown quiet. Like after an explosion, when it's all over, when everything's blown up. Like a man whose insides have been torn out by an explosion, but he keeps on talking."

"In general, it was a time of local power and local terror. People were killed on the spot."

"There was cholera in St. Pete, but people were't being eaten yet."

"I saw a beggar pull a piece of bread out of his sack and offer it to a cabby's horse. The horse turned it down."

"Once beef was issued. What a fantastic taste it had! It was like the first time you slept with a woman. Something entirely new."

"Our hardships kept piling on; we wore them like clothing."

Shklovsky on the Bolsheviks

"A man should worry less about history and more about his own biography."

"Who are you for--Kaledin, Kornilov or the Bolsheviks?" Task and I would have chosen the Bolsheviks. However in a certain comedy, the harlequin was asked, "Do you prefer to be hanged or quartered?" He answered, "I prefer soup."

"The show "Russia" was over; everyone was hurrying to get his hat and coat."

"The Bolsheviks were very weak, too, but the ship was listing on their side."

"When the Boksheviks left the front wide open without signing the peace treaty, they were hoping for a miracle, but the man consumed in fire didn't rise from the dead. And the Germans walked through the front door."

"And so some cracked safes, some headed east to joint Wrangel and Denikin, others were shot and still others hated the Bolsheviks with a hatred so salty that it kept them from spoiling."

"And on the horizon, promising to crush us all, loomed the hungry Bolsheviks."

"Bolshevism thrives in foreign climes"

"It was said that the French had a violet ray with which they could blind all the Bolsheviks..It was said that the English had landed in Baku aa heard of apes trained in all the rules of warfare...People held their hands about two feet off the ground to indicate the size of the apes. They said that when Baku was taken, one of these apes was killed and it was buried with a band playing Scottish military music and the Scots cried. That's because the instructors of the ape legions were Scottish."

"His father had died after the October coup. His uncle had shot himself. He left a note: "The damn Bolsheviks."

"It's fantastic how much more stupid a state is than an individual."

"The Bolsheviks entered a Russia that was already sick, but they weren't neutral--no, they were a special kind of organizing bacillus, but of another world and dimension."

"The Bolsheviks held out, are holding out, and will hold out, thanks to the imperfections of the mechanism which they control. However, I am unjust to them. Just as unjust as the deaf man who looks at people dancing and thinks they're insane. The Bolsheviks had their own music."

"And at this moment, with my life in fragments, I stand before the ordered consciousness of the Communists."

"It was like two voids attacking one another. There were no Red and White armies. That's no joke. I saw the war."

"A nation, however, can be organized. The Bolsheviks believed that it's the design that matters, not the building material. They were willing to lose today, to lose biographies, in order to win the stake of history."

"They wanted to organize everything so that the sun would rise on schedule and the weather would be made in their chancellery. It's easy to see how the Bolsheviks made the mistake of mapping out a plan for the whole world on paper.

Shklovsky on Russia

"It was Russian imperialism--what's more, Russian imperialism, which is to say, stupid imperialism."

"Russia was beginning to break down into its primary factors."

"People will ask, how did Russia permit such things to happen?"

Shklovsky's Guide for Living

"It's good to live and sniff the road of life with your snout."

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Mandelstam Versus Stalin

"Mandelstam sailed through life with a cargo of manias. He lived in terror of his muse and his erection one day deserting him. He lived in everlasting fear of fear."

"Russia, the running riot we know and loathe and love and fear, is reserved for Russians."

"You have to have lived through the thirties to understand, and even then, you don't understand."

"Where are the swans? They went away, the swans. The ravens too? They stayed, the ravens." Marina Tsvetaeva, cited by Robert Little.

In life, Stalin triumphed over everyone; his brutal victories over his rivals was, more often than not, complete. He was once quoted as saying that there was no greater feeling in life than slowly and carefully plotting the destruction an enemy. The evidence of Stalin's capacity to deliver vengeance on his real and perceived rivals is everywhere; probably Stalin annihilated more opponents than any other figure in human history. Trotsky was killed with an ice pick; Bukharin, Zinoviev, and Kamanenv died as a consequence of elaborately staged show trials.

Hitler, Stalin's ultimate enemy, suffered at the hands of Stalin too. Oliver Hirschbiegel's German-language film, The Downfall, shows just how bad things got for the Fuhrer and his allies. In the final tens days of his miserable existence, Hitler was reduced to berating his generals in a small bunker for their inability to carry out his brilliant strategic decisions in the face of overwhelming odds. According to the film, which is based on a great deal of first-hand accounts by bunker survivors, Hitler even praised his nemesis, Stalin, for having the foresight to liquidate his military leadership prior to the advent of hostilities. Soon, even Hitler recognized that, despite his best efforts at averting the perceived catastrophe, the German people as a whole had been bested by a ruthless opponent, the Russians, who would soon overwhelm the decadent Western powers as well. "I didn't just do this for the Germans. Not just the Germans."

Stalin died, apparently, of natural causes. Stalin lived by the sword but did not died by the sword. Rather, he wet himself and lay paralyzed for hours, starring up in wrath--as his daughter tells us--at those who eventually surrounded him.

While he was alive, very few people can be said to have voiced any opposition to Stalin's reign of terror and lived to tell about it. Khrushchev, Stalin's greatest historical opponent, was a fawning admirer--one of Stalin's closest advisers--while Stalin lived. Osip Mandelstam, the unlikeliest of heroes, did oppose Stalin, although he, like so many others, died for his troubles. His act of defiance was odd, a simple epigram or satirical poem, repeated to a number of literary friends despite the omnipresence of political informers in every segment of Russian society. The poem, which became known to Stalin almost immediately, read as follows:

We live, deaf to the land beneath us,
Ten steps away no one hears our speeches,

All we hear is the Kremlin mountaineer,
The murderer and peasant-slayer.

His fingers are fat as grubs
And the words, final as lead weights, fall from his lips,

His cockroach whiskers leer
And his boot tops gleam.

Around him a rabble of thin-necked leaders--
Fawning half-men for him to play with.

The whinny, purr or whine
as he prates and points a finger,

One by one to be forging his laws, to be flung
Like horseshoes at the head, the eye or the groin.

And every killing is a treat
For the broad-chested Ossete.

According to Robert Little's The Stalin Epigram, a novel which relies heavily on the memoirs of Mandelstam's widow, Mandelstam's poem was a courageous act of existential defiance by an artist who believed that art and truth-telling were nearly synonyms. The novel, which is told from the point of view of multiple actors, including Mandelstam, Pasternak, Akhmatova, and his wife Nadezdha, but also Stalin and Stalin's personal bodyguard and others, tells the story of Mandelstam's decision to speak out against mendacity despite the danger and, more importantly, despite his own innate cowardice. Of course, Mandelstam suffered grievously for his bravado, being arrested, interrogated, banished to Voronezh, intimidated into writing pro-Stalin poetry, arrested again in 1938, and allowed to die in a transit camp.

Friday, June 24, 2011

On Russian Bureaucracy

"If you tell my story, make it funny. Don't make it pathetic, like the way it was..."

Lovers of Tsarist or Soviet literature will be relieved to know that Russian bureaucracy isn't dead. Take the experience of a friend who wants to go to St. Petersburg for an academic conference in late July. This woman, let's call her Madame S in the spirit of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, realized that she's required to secure a visa. This seems like an odd request: Americans and Canadians rarely need a visa to travel anywhere, and certainly not anywhere in Europe. Still, the visa request is reciprocal; and one can't quite blame Russia for demanding that foreigners are treated as poorly as its citizens are treated abroad. But see how difficult the request can be. When my friend went directly to the Russian consulate to secure this visa, she ran intro trouble--nothing dramatic, just low-level bureaucratic noise. The consulate, beautiful and stately on the outside, is dim, windowless, and unadorned on the inside. On Madame S's first visit to the consulate--and the forlorn guests of the consulate told her nobody ever avoids at least a second visit to the consulate before securing a visa--she encountered an old woman who refused to answer any questions, and a skinny, pale-faced man with sad eyes, black hair brushed down over his sickly forehead, and the general countenance and demeanor of a serial killer.

This insouciant and sickly man, who became Madame S' bureaucratic tormentor, spoke neither English nor French very well, and took frequent smoking breaks. While never overtly rude, his mournful eyes seemed to mask a simmering anger. The play between tormentor and tormented occurred in four acts. In act one, Madame S was informed that the consulate did not have any visa applications and so applicants needed to go home first to print one off. Fortunately, one of the consultates supplicants, who had her own tale of woe predicated on the fact that her bank couldn't issue an acceptable certified check or something similar, offered Madame S an extra visa form to fill out. But even this didn't do the trick: Madame S' passport photo was deemed too large to qualify for the application and she was sent back out into the street.

Almost two hours later, our heroine returned to the consulate with a completed application and new photo. Fortunately, even with the absence of nearly two hours, her number hadn't even been called yet. When it was called, Madame S dashed up to the Russian official but, alas, he strode out of the room without apology to smoke. Upon his return, he announced that the new passport photo was not valid either; apparently propriety demanded a different ratio of head to background space. As the workday was ending, Madame S left the consulate and returned the next day, but sadly there was no way to know that the consulate was now closed for two days on account of a national Russian holiday. On her fourth visit to the consulate, Madame S arrived forty-five minutes early but this time was told that, contrary to previous information she had received from Russian academic authorities, she could not easily receive a tourist visa since she was, at least partially, traveling for business reasons.

Not even the required hotel "invitation" was enough to satisfy Official Russia. Madame S did what many of us would have done: she cried like a baby and left the consulate, and Montreal, without a visa. The story isn't unusual: nobody in the consulate had a more satisfying encounter with the visa process. Moreover, while waiting in line, Madame S learned from ethnic Russian travelers that she should expect more of the same, or worse, in Russia itself. Apparently the land of the Hermitage was no tourist paradise. One needed a minder, or guide, to navigate the city. One shouldn't even talk in public for fear of letting others know one's vulnerable status as an outsider.

If Russia has such esquisite appreciation for bureaucracy, its no wonder that she also has connoisseurship in the art of the queue. During the Soviet era, people lined up to wait for goods and services with superhuman patience, as if people could receive religious absolution at every store, government depot, or street corner. Vladimir Sorokon's novel captures the spirit and existential meaning of the Soviet queue. According to Sorokon, Soviet citizens spent, on average, about one third of each day waiting for something. In such conditions, money was meaningless: only time, and your place in the line, mattered. As Sorokon points out, both Russia's private and public history is related to standing in line. In 1896, Nicholas II was coronoted but 2,000 people were crushed to death as a monstrous line for "coronation gifts" spun out of control. At Stalin's death in 1953, history repeated itself, although nobody can be sure exactly how many Soviet men and women died in the orgy of mourning. Russians are accustomed to waiting in line. As Orthodox believers, they stood for services that could last several hours. As Soviets, they waited for "food, goods, tickets, vacations, toilets" and even prison beds.

In Montreal, Madame S experienced the queue as a demeaning expression of the bureacrat's power, and certainly Soviet citizens felt demeaned by the scarcity that pervaded their lives. In Sorokin's fictional queue, Russians resent the store employees who are lackisasically distributing the goods, hate those who precede them in line and therefore diminish their chances for receiving anything,, and despise those that enviously follow them and watch for opportunities to cut in line. On the other hand, Sorokin's queue isn't without merits. At the local level, those in line help each other by trading information--or at least wild rumors--and holding places for comrades who wish to step outside the line to buy alcohol or even simultaneously take up a place in a second line. The line was also a place for political or philosophical discussion. As one person in the line reminds those around him, one shouldn't be so quick to admire either the American economic or political system. In America, one can criticize Ronald Reagan freely but be fired for critizing his boss. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the hegemony of the queue collapsed. Now people were confronted with radical consumer choices. Where once people made due with three types of sausage, they now had 333 sausage selections. The downside to this consumer paradise is that many people can no longer afford that which is theoretically available to them.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Gogol's Magic Chaos

"So what is the incomprehensible secret force driving me towards you? Why do I constantly hear the echo of your mournful song as it is carried from sea to sea throughout your entire expanse? Tell me the secret of your song. What is this, calling and sobbing and plucking at my heart? What are these sounds that are like a stab and a kiss, why do they come rushing into my soul and fluttering about my heart? Rus! Tell me what do you want of me! What is this strange bond secretly uniting us?"

"What does this limitless space portend? And since you are without end yourself, is it not within you that a boundless thought will be born?"

"And pray, find me the Russian who does not care for fast driving? Inclined as he is to let himself go, to whirl his life away and send it to the devil, his soul cannot love speed."

"Rus, are you not similar in your headlong motion to one of those nimble troikas that none can overtake?"

"Is that my home looming blue in the distance? Is that my mother sitting there at her window? Mother dear, save your poor son! Shed a tear upon his aching head. See how they torture him. Press your poor orphan to your heart. There is no place for him in the whole wide world! He is a hunted creature. Mother dear, take pity on your sick little child...And by the way, gentlemen, do you know that the Bey of Algiers has a round lump growing right under his nose?

Once upon a time I worked in an adult undergraduate degree completion program, With limited space, I shared an office with a fellow English instructor. Our small office also served as a repository for homework assignments and final exams. One science faculty member regularly asked students to turn in a poster-sized description of an ecosystem. The assignment seemed a little juvenile, but almost all of the students turned in carefully crafted visual representations of complex natural worlds, whether they were bogs, forests, prairies, or everglades. Generally speaking, the posters contained about 30 or so separate ecological units or natural entities. We marveled at the type-A personalities who had labored over so many hours to create such beautiful and accurate descriptions of life on planet earth.

And yet, all science students are not created alike. Inevitably, one student's assignment fell far below the standard of the class as a whole, a testament to human inequality and the science of statistics. One such retrograde assignment caught our eye. Where all other students had drawn and labelled dozens of flora, fauna, and biological processes, one student was pleased to turn in a poster-sized picture of a crudely drawn and utterly solitary turtle. Beyond a round circle meant to symbolize a puddle, and a short stick, the turtle sat alone, like some kind of prison tattoo or cosmic Hindu presence. To my mind, the turtle represented failure, but not just any failure. Here was the visual proof that one student had failed to live up to what would surely be the professor's normal academic expectations. Of course, expectations are predicated on context. If the professor had received thirty simplistic "turtle" drawings, perhaps he or she would have accepted this one as "C" or even "B" work. But this hadn't been the case: the turtle stood out as a spectacular example of low performance.

I spent a lot of time thinking about the student's putative ecosystem, the turtle. Did the student who had drawn know she had produced such crap, or did he or she imagine that most of the other students were either incapable of, or unwilling to, create something better? It was hard to say. But anybody who has ever watched American Idol knows how often people live in denial about their competitiveness. Indeed, many American Idol contestants scarcely know they lack an iota of talent even when the celebrity judges are bluntly telling them they are horrendous singers.

The pathetic moment is often captured with plaintive statesments like this one: "I know I am good... At least I think I am....My mother says I could be a star..." Perhaps the man who created the turtle still didn't know he wasn't academically competitive. Maybe the teacher gave him an inflated grade; maybe he thinks that all other students failed the assignment too. More troubling than the student's naivitee, is the recognition of my own. How many "turtle" assignments had I turned in in the course of a lifetime? It's one thing to embrace defeat, but quite another to turn in an assignment or performance without any sense of whether the result will be mocked by those who are charged with evaluating it.

Every time we create we risk churning out a turtle. The trick is ignoring the possibility of failure. Nikolai Gogol turned in few literary turtes in his creative lifetime, though his admirer Vladimir Nobokov isn't shy about denigrating almost everything he wrote except for his masterpieces, Dead Souls, Part I, The Inspecter General, and the Overcoat. Nabokov admires Gogol's creativity, absurdity, and prose, but thinks his talent developed late and ended rather early. Nabokov celebrates neither Gogol's famous St. Petersburg Tales--he thinks them trite--nor his polemical writings, which include surviving fragments of Part II ad Part III of Dead Souls. However, Nabokov's praise for Gogol's masterpieces is unbounded.

As a master stylist himself, his belief that Gogol had created richly complex, almost superhumanly inventive verbal worlds is high praise indeed. "Pushkin wrote in three-dimensional prose," Nabokov wrote, "but Gogol wrote in four-dimensional prose, at least." He meant that Gogol isn't merely funny or clever. He is also not merely a good writer. He's one of the father's of Russian prose, as profound as Russian life, or much more so. He doesn't merely capture the essence of life, he exceeds it, elaborates upon it. Gogol hasn't written literature, he has created "magic chaos," captured rare moments of "irrational perception," and delineated the literary equivalent of the curverature of the space-time continuum. Nabokov writes that the Overcoat, for instances, shows that "parallel lines not only may meet, but they can wriggle and get most extravagantly entangled..."

Monday, June 13, 2011

Zhivago's Private Life

"No doubt they will sing in tune AFTER the Revolution."

"Farewell pleasures of the flesh."

"You're attitude has been noticed. Oh yes, it's been noticed."

"Besides, I've executed better men than me with a small pistol."

I first saw the film version of Doctor Zhivago many years ago. Aside from the snow and Omar Sharif's magnificent eyes, I remember only one detail from the film, and that is that, upon returning from service as a doctor at the front, Zhivago was obliged to share his home with several other families. It's strange that a housing crisis disturbed me more than a dozen scences of blizzard, military revolt, refugees in overcrowded trains, and Civil War. The house, or at least most of it, had been requisitioned by the Bolshevik government. Zhivago, although a liberal man, perhaps originally even a fellow traveler, is prepared to adapt to the new environment. He knows the old regime was deeply flawed, and sympathizes with the egalitarian spirit of the times. But when he arrives home to find strangers in his home, and obligingly welcomes these families, he's curtly told that the welcome isn't appropriate since the communal home no longer belongs to him.

The scence captures the banal side of the Soviet tragedy. Apart from war, famine, and strife, ordinary Russians lost their privacy. My only comparable experience with sharing a communal house occurred when I was a teenager. At this time, my father married a second time and, like the Brady Bunch, two very different families--my dad had three children, my stepmother two of her own--suddenly found themselves eyeball to eyeball in a single living space. Who were these strangers? They were good people, but they were aliens. They had their own words, customs, foibles, and material preferences.

We encounter difference everywhere we go, but we can almost always escape this difference when it threatens to pierce or overwhelm our fragile identities. Not so with stepfamilies. They encounter us everywhere we go: in the kitchen, watching t.v., playing ping pong in the basement, speaking with our parents, or hanging out with friends. Living with a stepfamily, for all of its social benefits, is akin to embarking on a foreign exchange experience, but one that never, ever ends. How hard was it for the bourgeoisie to share their homes with strangers? It can't have been easy for men and women who had been accustomed to a large amount of privilege and privacy before the Revolution. Indeed, it turned out that even the lower classes hated the absence of private life that remained the hallmark of the Soviet Union for most if not all of its seventy year existence.

Chekhov in 1960

Iosif Kheifits' 1960 film version of Anton Chekhov's classic short story, Lady with a Dog, captures the essence of the tale's tragic dimensions. In the film, a suave, sophisticated Dmitri Gurov, courts a a forlorn, bored, and beautiful Anna Sergeyevna. The backdrop to this adulterous affair is Yalta, depicted as a dull, slow-moving yet still stunningly picturesque coastal town. At first, the two protagonists are strangers to one another: the woman, little more than a distraction for Gurov, can only be seen as a "lady with a dog." But Gurov wastes little time in exploiting Anna's sadness, and we later learn, his own-- and the two consummate their romantic infatuation with one another in his seaside hotel room. Their parting is tender, but the director gives viewers no inkling that Gurov has been as affected by the vacation fling as Anna has been. He's kind and correct to her, but no more than kind and correct.

Next, we get a fuller glimpse of Gurov's normal life. He's a wealthy businessman, but his wealth stems from his heiress wife. Gurov's wife has no discernible flaw. An excellent mother to her children, who spends her time educating then, Gurov's wife is obviously very much in love with her dashing husband. She even loves her husband's gift for music, although she can't know that his passion for music reveals the lack of passion he feels for his current life. In attempt to divert himself, Gurov spends time at clubs, but to no avail. His brooding silence speaks volumes about his existential loneliness. The film never tells us whether Gurov's anguish stems from the fact that he is increasingly aware that he has fallen in love with Anna, the "lady with a dog." However, one suspects that Gurov's infatuation with Anna is the result and not the cause of his moody dissatisfaction with his present life. Why else was he taking a cure at Yalta, sans family, in the first place?

Chekhov used to say that life stories, unlike ordinary fictional ones, had no endings. People die of course, but death is usually not the end of the meaningful component of a person's life story. In the film version of Lady with a Dog, Iosif Kheifits is true to Chekhov's attitude toward plot. When Gurov finds Anna in her small town, rural hell, the two resume their affair. Yet it's entirely unclear how this affair will end. The two are in love, but they don't live in the same city, and who can say whether either Gurov or Anna will ultimately be willing to sacrifice their respective positions in society in the service of love?

And isn't this the nature of many an adulterous affair? The cheater is often paralyzed for months or even years at a time, unsure whether sexual satisfaction, or even love itself, is worth more or less than stability or moral or religious obligation. And of course many an adulterer never does make the kind of choice that would serve as a convenient plot point for a Hollywood movie ending. More often than not, the cheater's transgression is discovered. But does this discovery constitute a true ending, if it was never chosen by the protagonist? From the point of view of the cheater, it may be that irresolution and uncertainty is a more realistic "fade to black" ending than deliberate decision.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Russia is War

The story of Russia is the story of war. Elem Klimov's 1985 masterpiece, Come and See, captures the fury and horror of Russia's worst war, World War II, as experienced in the Belorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. The story is told from the point of view of a young boy, whose journey through the battlefields, villages, partisan-filled forests, and wetlands of the Belorussian SSR is the visual equivalent of a journey through hades. The boy, and a young female counterpart, experience as much of the apocalyptic landscape of World War II's Eastern Front as they are mentally capable of processing. In fact, the terrifying events of the war drive each of them, but the boy in particular, to the brink of madness, if not further. The film's method of depicting war is, paradoxically, both naturalistic and surrealistic. The Janus-face of war is probably like that. An ordinary object falls from the sky into an ordinary village, but the resulting carnage is utterly unbelievable. The film moves between gruesome scenes of genocide--stacked bodies, Germans burning villagers alive in a church, a violated woman shuffling, unnoticed, among other sufferers--and the boy's rapidly aging, shocked face. The film, released in honor of the fortieth anniversary of the Soviet Union's victory over Germany, doesn't ignore Soviet heroism. In fact, we get a glimpse of partisan soldiers, a heroic Soviet guerrilla leader, and boys digging in battlefields to discover weapons with which to combat the invading marauders. But the film is, first and foremost, a testimony to the capacity of men and women to inflict damage on one another, and to suffer.

Anna Akhmatova's Muse

"Neither despair nor shame. Not now, not after, not then."

"That late-night dialogue turned into the delicate shimmer of interlaced rainbows."

"And that door that you left half-open I don't have the strength to slam."

My life story, like yours perhaps, could theoretically be told 100 different ways. But I can only tell my story one way: from the perspective of someone who lost his mother at a relatively early age. If I were to write my memoirs, the memoirs of a Russophile blogger, I'd essentially be telling the tale of my mother's absence. By exiting the story when I was only 14 years old, my mother, paradoxically, became the central figure of my life. The chapters of this tale are fragments of a tragedy, dimensions of loss. Accordingly, I couldn't write my autobiography chronologically. I'd need to write the same story ten times over. In chapter one, I'd describe the delightful evolution of chronic gastrointestinal ailments related to the psychosomatic impact of my mother's departure. The characters--my angry stomach, my self-pitying small intestine, my sorrowful large intestine--would be lively and sympathetic.

In chapter two, I'd describe how my past and present lives never seemed to get along: a long-standing and bitter feud between my hopeful present and devastated past always seemed ready to erupt. Chapter three would be a catalog of worry: the reader, who might well regret the absence of plot points and character development, might nevertheless enjoy a long and leisurely tour of everything in life one can be frightened of if only one surrenders to an all encompassing anxiety about the future. Chapter four, which is really a continuation of chapter three's rich theme, would detail how an ordinary person can, under the right circumstances, move through life despite often crippling levels of cowardice. What of chapter five through ten? Well, truth be told, they are not so cheery as the previous four chapters and are, therefore, too personal to relate. The whole work will have to be fictionalized for this one to come out.

The Russian poet Anna Akhmatova's life story is, objectively speaking, tragic even when measured against the high standards many other famous and not-so-famous Russians previously set in this lamentable category of human achievement. Her first husband, Gumilyov, was executed by the Bolsheviks on trumped-up charges. Her second husband, Nikolay Punin, perished in the gulag, where her son spent the prime of his adult life. Akhmatova self fell victim to a sustained, state-sponsored attack on her poetry and her person. She was called, famously, part nun and part whore, which somehow doesn't now translate in anything one could possibly be ashamed of. No matter--the term wasn't meant as a compliment and she knew it.

The triumph of Akhmatova's life is that, despite one or two regrettable odes to Stalin's grandeur written under duress, she never really compromised with the Soviet regime, either on a political level of at the level of her art. They say that Pasternak was like this: notwithstanding all of the horrors of the Soviet twentieth century, Pasternak didn't let either pessimism or cowardice or fear distort his essentially objective artistic outlook. Is perspective the essence of a poet's genius? Notwithstanding the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, life remains a spectacular mystery, bigger than any mortal's catalog of complaints, no matter how long or grim.

Aside from poetic imperturbability, Akhmatova possessed a powerful imagination. It's in this context, that her complex and artistically charged relationship with Isaiah Berlin should be seen. Berlin, a Russian Empire-born diplomat turned Oxford intellectual historian and philosopher, only met Akhmatova a couple of times. The principle meeting, which caught the attention of the Russian secret police and perhaps led to Akhmatova's ostracism by Soviet cultural authorities, was ill-starred. It was impermissible for Russians to meet with foreigners, and especially foreign diplomats, under any but the most tightly controlled and scripted scenarios. Still, according to the Hungarian writer Gyorgy Dalos' subtle book, The Guest From the Future: Anna Akhmatova and Isaiah Berlin, Berlin emerged from the first meeting with a profound respect for the poet who had once almost personified Russia's Silver Age. And Akhmatova, the artist, came away with something more: a new muse.

In her vivid imagination--which would seem absurd if the poems didn't demonstrate the honesty and profundity of her ideas related to Berlin--the meeting with this "Guest from the Future" had profound personal as well as cosmic implications. This Guest was both her lover and a symbol of the West, which had once again become anathema to Moscow in 1947 . The meeting itself, she told others, inspiring the Cold War. The exaggeration, if that's the right word for it, seems forgivable in the context of artistic creation. In any event, as Dalos demonstrates, Stalin and other leading Soviet authorities did in fact take a direct interest in Akhmatova and Russians then and now seem to accept that somehow Akhmatova's version of events, no matter how poetic or literary, trumps the truth of her detractors.