Svetlana: Circles of Hell

A Great Writer Who Manages to Look Like an Average Person

I have now reach three books by Svetlana Alexievich and regarded all of them as superb:

  • Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets (2014), about the lives of average Russians after the fall of Communism
  • Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster (1997)
  • Zinky Boys: Soviet Voices from the Afghanistan War (1991)

Reading each of those books was a profound experience. Very rarely do I ever re-read works of nonfiction, but I can conceive of myself re-reading all three of these books. Why? Because all of them struck me as being definitive, while all three of them represented multiple points of view. In her own words:

I’ve been searching for a literary method that would allow the closest possible approximation to real life. Reality has always attracted me like a magnet, it tortured and hypnotized me, I wanted to capture it on paper. So I immediately appropriated this genre of actual human voices and confessions, witness evidences and documents. This is how I hear and see the world – as a chorus of individual voices and a collage of everyday details. This is how my eye and ear function. In this way all my mental and emotional potential is realized to the full. In this way I can be simultaneously a writer, reporter, sociologist, psychologist and preacher.

There is something about Russian history that elicits both admiration and dismay:

If you look back at the whole of our history, both Soviet and post-Soviet, it is a huge common grave and a blood bath – an eternal dialogue of the executioners and the victims. The accursed Russian questions: what is to be done and who is to blame. The revolution, the gulags, the Second World War, the Soviet-Afghan war hidden from the people, the downfall of the great empire, the downfall of the giant socialist land, the land-utopia, and now a challenge of cosmic dimensions – Chernobyl. This is a challenge for all the living things on earth. Such is our history. And this is the theme of my books, this is my path, my circles of hell, from man to man.

I look forward to visiting more of these circles of hell in Svetlana Alexievich’s company. There are two more of her books available in English that I have not read: one about the role of women in the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945, and another on the role of children in the same conflict.

Her work has been translated into 45 languages and published in 47 countries.

“We Died for the Revolution”

Female Russian Honor Guard, 2018 Victory Day Parade

I have been slowly making my way through Svetlana Alexievich’s Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets, in which she interviews everyday Russians about how their lives have changed since the fall of Communism. Alexievich did something it is not even possible to do in America today: She interviewed people of all political stripes, including even those who sided with the Nazis during the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945. Imagine a book in the U.S. that interviewed not only liberal Democrats, but qAnon and Oath Keeper supporters who showed up in Washington on January 6. I don’t think such a book can be written.

The following passage is from an embittered supporter of Communism:

In my day, people didn’t ask those kind of questions. We didn’t have questions like that! We … imagined a just life without rich or poor. We died for the Revolution, and we died idealists. Wholly uninterested in money … My friends are long gone, I’m all alone. None of the people I used to talk to are around anymore. At night, I talk to the dead … And you? You don’t understand our feelings or our words: “grain confiscation campaign,” “food-groups,” “disenfranchisee,” “committee of the poor,” … “repeater,” … “defeatist.” It’s Sanskrit to you! Hieroglyphics! Old age means, first and foremost, loneliness. The last old man I knew—he lived in the adjacent courtyard—died five years ago, or maybe it’s been even longer … seven years ago … I’m surrounded by strangers. People come from the museum, the archive, the encyclopedia ,,, I’m like a reference book, a living library! But I have no one to talk to … Who would I like to talk to? Lazar Kaganovich [one of Stalin’s henchmen] would be good … There aren’t many of us who are still around, and even fewer who aren’t completely senile. He’s even older than me, he’s already ninety. I read in the papers … [He laughs.] In the newspaper, it said that the old men in his courtyard refuse to play dominoes with him. Or cards. They drive him away: “Fiend!” And he weeps from the hurt. Ages ago, he was a steel-hearted People’s Commissar. He’d sign the execution lists, he sent tens of thousands of people to their deaths. Spent thirty years by Stalin’s side. But in his old age, he doesn’t even have anyone to play dominoes with … [After this, he speaks very quietly. I can’t tell what he’s saying. I only catch a few words.] It’s scary … Living too long is scary.

Andrei Rublev

Holy Trinity Icon (ca AD 1400)

I have always been fascinated by Eastern Orthodox icons, beginning around the time Martine and I began visiting Greek festivals in the Los Angeles area. Perhaps the greatest master of the icon was the Russian Andrei Rublev (Андрей Рублёв), born sometime between 1360 and 1370 and died sometime between 1427 and 1430. Not much is known about his life, but his work continues to inspire. In fact, I have seen a number of copies of his icons at different Greek Orthodox churches.

To the untutored eye, there is something rigid about the typical icon, with its gold-leaf background and its lack of attention to perspective and even realism. Most subjects are of God, the Blessed Virgin, and various saints. We are not privy to the mind of God and must therefore be respectful of any representation of Him or the saints. These icons are objects of worship which are venerated by the faithful as they enter the narthex of an Orthodox church.

Rublev’s Icon of Our Lady of Vladimir (ca 1406)

However rigid the style may be, the facial expressions of the Blessed Virgin and the Infant Christ are incredible: On one hand, Mary seems to see the condemnation and crucifixion to come, while Christ seems to be staring at her with a look of purpose and strength.

Icon of Christ Pantocrator (Detail)

According to a famed dealer in Russian icons:

The iconographic type of Pantocrator (Almighty or Omnipotent in Greek) shows Christ as the Lord of the Universe, co-equal and co-eternal to the Father. The iconography originates in Byzantine art and is known since the sixth century. The earliest known surviving example is the icon of Pantocrator from Saint Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai. Later on, gigantic images of the Pantocrator, represented half-length with a book of Gospels in his hand, can be seen on the mosaics and frescoes of Byzantine cupolas. In Russia, this iconography usually appeared in the Deisis Tier, the main part of the iconostasis, but could also be used for independent devotional images.

In Greek Orthodox churches, the image of Christ Pantocrator usually appears in the cupola above the nave.

Over the years I feel I have come to appreciate the artistry of these icons. If you are interested in learning more, I recommend you see Andrei Tarkovsky’s great film Andrei Rublev (1966), which is available in DVD from the Criterion Collection. It is a hagiography of sorts, and rightly so as the Russian Orthodox church has declared Rublev to be a saint in 1988.

Lend-Lease

American M3 Lee Tank Used by Russians in WW2

I have just finished reading David M. Glantz and Jonathan M. House’s The Battle of Kursk, probably the authoritative study of the campaign that turned the tide on the Eastern Front against the Germans. (For some reason, I always spend part of every summer boning up on military history, particularly the American Civil War, the Roman legions, and the Second World War on the Eastern Front.)

The Soviets were greatly helped by the Lend-Lease program that provided the non-Fascist combatants in the war with surplus military equipment. Russia was the beneficiary of $11 million worth of war supplies (though Britain got the lion’s share), including planes, tanks, and miscellaneous trucks and other military vehicles. Even Britain and Canada joined in, as shown in the below photo:

British Valentine Tank Earmarked for the USSR

Of course, things didn’t always go smoothly. You might be interested in reading a memo by a Comrade Korobkov relating to miscellaneous problems with the tanks arriving by convoy to Murmansk.

The Glantz book contains a couple of amusing nicknames assigned by the Soviet troops to the gifted tanks. Because of its odd layout and insufficient armor, the M3 Lee was referred to as a “grave for seven brothers.” The unreliable and flammable British Valentine and Matilda tanks were called “field crematoriums.”

 

Kursk

It Was the Greatest Tank Battle in History

People in the United States know very little about World War Two as it was fought in Europe. The real war in Europe was waged on the Eastern Front, after Hitler invaded Russia in the summer of 1941. At first, it was all blitzkrieg, with German victories on all fronts and horrendous Russian losses. Things began to change after Stalingrad, however, when the entire German 6th Army surrendered to the Soviets.

The next big battle was at the Kursk salient. Hitler and his generals planned to attack the salient from two sides, take Kursk, and trap several Soviet armies. This was the intent of Operation Citadel, as shown in the map below:

Operation Citadel as the Germans Planned It

The German General Staff thought the Russians would take fright at the Nazis’ technologically superior tanks and surrender in droves. But the Russians—beginning with Stalin himself—learned their lesson in 1941 and 1942. In July 1943, Stalin realized he had more human and industrial resources to draw on than the Germans. This was similar to Ulysses S. Grant realization during the American Civil War when, after the Battle of the Wilderness, realized that he could afford to take more casualties than Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and still win.

Instead of pinching off the Russians in the salient, General Walter Model advanced only 10 miles on the north, where he was beaten by Rokossovsky’s Central Front. The real battle was in the south, where General Erich von Manstein battled with Nikolai Vatutin’s Voronezh Front over the town of Prokhorovka. Vatutin kept throwing rifle regiments, tanks, and artillery at von Manstein’s Army Group South until, after a 30-mile advance, the Germans could go no further.

The Russians had a very good idea of what the Germans were planning with Operation Citadel, and they had more men (at a 2.5:1 ratio) than the Germans, and more tanks (though not as good). So they planned carefully to fight to the last man, if necessary.

The Battle for Prokhorovka (The Germans in Blue)

By the time Vatutin and Rokossovsky had finished with the German army, there was no more blitzkrieg. Hitler didn’t know it yet, but from this point his armies were in retreat.
.

“Yet To Die Unalone Still”

Russian Poet Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938)

He got it right when he said, “Only in Russia is poetry respected—it gets people killed. Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?” In fact, Osip Mandelstam was killed for his poetry, mostly for having written some highly uncomplimentary things about Stalin, things like:

His thick fingers are bulky and fat like live-baits,
And his accurate words are as heavy as weights.
Cucaracha’s moustaches are screaming,
And his boot-tops are shining and gleaming.

Although Stalin wanted to send him to the Gulags considerably earlier, Mandelstam spent much of the 1930s in a Siberian labor camp, finally dying in 1938 of a heart condition.

He is without a doubt one of the three or four leading Russian poets of his generation, as this short poem proves:

Yet to Die. Unalone Still.

Yet to die. Unalone still.
For now your pauper-friend is with you.
Together you delight in the grandeur of the plains,
And the dark, the cold, the storms of snow.

Live quiet and consoled
In gaudy poverty, in powerful destitution.
Blessed are those days and nights.
The work of this sweet voice is without sin.

Misery is he whom, like a shadow,
A dog’s barking frightens, the wind cuts down.
Poor is he who, half-alive himself
Begs his shade for pittance.

The translation is by John High and Matvei Yankelevich. I got it from the Poetry Foundation’s website.

 

Reading Russian Poetry in Translation

I Love Russian Poetry, But I Don’t Know Russian

I get a real feeling of inadequacy every time I read Russian poetry in translation. How can one really appreciate a country’s poetry unless one speaks the language? What Russian I know relates only to, of all things, chess. I used to play international correspondence chess in competition, so I had to understand certain terms such as “position drawn” or “resigns” or the names of the pieces in several languages. That doesn’t help me understand what Marina Tsvetaeva meant in the above illustration. I’ve read Tsvetaeva and several of her countrymen in translation. Most recently, I read Arseny Tarkovsky’s collection I Burned at the Feast.

Again and again, I would run into stanzas that seemed to open vistas for me—only to wonder how the poem read in the original language. Here are a few examples:

A word is only a skin,
a thin film of human lots,
and any line in your poem
can sharpen the knife of your fate.

Or this:

Something was leading us.
Built by miracle, whole cities split—
like mirages before our eyes.
And mint bowed beneath our feet,
and birds hovered above our heads,
and fish nosed against the river’s flow,
and the sky unscrolled above the land…

while behind us, fate followed
like a madman with a razor in his hand.

Russians love the poetry of Pushkin, but I have no idea of what he sounds like in the original Russian. Sometime in the next year, I will read Babette Deutsch’s translation of Eugene Onegin. But is it really any good? Some people say it is, but I am at the mercy of whatever translation I select.

 

Frustration

Russian Writer Kirill Kobrin

There is an Italian saying which applies here: “Traddutore, traditore!” Or, in other words, to translate is to betray.

Today I finished reading the Dalkey Press Edition of Kirill Kobrin’s Eleven Prague Corpses. It was a work that hovered on the edge of brilliance. The author was even conversant with G. K. Chesterton, one of my favorite authors. The only problem was that I had a feeling that one of two things was happening:

  1. The work was badly translated from the original Russian.
  2. The author has problems following a story through to its conclusion.

I tend to think the Option 1 is the case here. Each of the eleven stories that make up this volume aroused my interest, but usually stumbled before the close. Throughout, I had this feeling that Kobrin is the kind of writer I really like, at least from what I have been able to determine.

Old Soviet Poster: “I Redeemed My Guilt Before the Motherland. There Will Be No Return to the Past.”

The above poster was from Kirill Kobrin’s Twitter feed. It caught my eye and I include it here for no particular reason except that I like it. So there!

As for following Kirill’s work in future, I am hopeful that he will take a more active role in translating his own work as he now lives in London and knows English. And presumably, his own English will improve.

I certainly hope so, as I think he has a lot to say.

 

Working Within the System

Time Magazine Cover Story on Yevgeny Yevtushenko

There are two Yevtushenkos. Coming to light in the early 1960s was the young Siberian poet who gave poetry readings to huge crowds in the Soviet Union, like some kind of rock star. He was critical of Stalin, of Russian anti-Semitism, and the “blue envelopes” with extra pay given to writers who toed the official line. Yet he clearly worked within the system, considered himself a loyal Communist, and was allowed to visit foreign countries without fear of his escaping.

I have just finished reading the poet’s A Precocious Autobiography, published in 1963, at the height of his fame—at a time when the Western press was touting him as a Communist they admired. It was a book that was at the same time critical of the government and eager to please it. According to an article in The Guardian:

Mr. Yevtushenko did so working mostly within the system, however, taking care not to join the ranks of outright literary dissidents. By stopping short of the line between defiance and resistance, he enjoyed a measure of official approval that more daring dissidents came to resent.

While they were subjected to exile or labor camps, Mr. Yevtushenko was given state awards, his books were regularly published, and he was allowed to travel abroad, becoming an international literary superstar.

As the exiled Russian poet Joseph Brodsky said about Yevtushenko: “He throws stones only in directions that are officially sanctioned and approved.” Here we have the second Yevtushenko, a figure of controversy.

Where do I stand on the poet? I have read his poems, but don’t care for them. But then, I don’t know Russian, and he could be badly translated—or else he might be one of those poets whose works don’t translate well into other languages.

When the Soviet Union blinked out of existence around 1989-1990, the the poet moved to the United States, where he taught courses at colleges in New York and Tulsa, Oklahoma. He died in Tulsa in 2017.

 

Mad About Travel

Crescent Lake Oasis Near Dunhuang, China

Immanuel Kant was a great philosopher, but I have no desire to emulate him. According to an editorial in Philosophy Now:

A curious case, this Kant. They say that travel broadens the mind, but Kant never in his whole life travelled more than ten miles from his home city of Königsberg (now Kaliningrad). He scraped a living for years as a private tutor before eventually becoming a hardworking professor at the university. He lived a life of disciplined regularity, taking the same walk around Königsberg at the same time each day, with such regularity that it was said that the inhabitants set their watches by him.

Living in Cleveland in the 1950s and 1960s, I desired more than anything else to travel. Even when I came out to California and got a job, it was a full seven years before I could afford to go anywhere but Cleveland. And when I did, my parents were appalled. “Why don’t you come to Cleveland?” Mom wheedled. “I’ll cook my favorite dishes for you.” That’s all I needed—to get even fatter.

I started out with baby steps, going to Mexico and traveling all around the country by bus and train (back when there were trains). I went to England and Scotland, too, and even joined my parents in 1977 to visit Hungary and Czechoslovakia.

In 2001, I went to Iceland; and, in 2006, I discovered South America. Now my desire for travel is insatiable. On the left corner of my kitchen table is a collection of travel guides from Lonely Planet and moon. While waiting for my morning paper to be delivered, I can read about the Trans-Siberian Railroad (2 guides), Iceland, Bolivia, Ecuador, and New Mexico while sipping a cup of hot tea.

December 29 is the last day of my working career, so I may not be able to afford some more distant locations; but Mexico and Guatemala continue to beckon. If I should win the lottery (hah!) I will try for the Trans-Siberian Railroad between Moscow and Vladivostok, though maybe diverting through Mongolia to Beijing. I can always dream, can’t I?