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Posts Tagged ‘Soviet Union’

Natty Bumppo, Soviet Folk Hero

September 15, 2014 | by

1989_CPA_6128-6132_Strip

The Soviet Union’s 1989 series of James Fenimore Cooper stamps. Click to enlarge.

I was perplexed to learn that the Soviet Union, in its waning days, produced a series of five vivid postage stamps devoted to James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales. It seemed as if some lazy Soviet bureaucrat must’ve made a mistake. Why, after all, would the USSR want to commemorate some of the foundational texts of American lit, especially when Natty Bumppo stands as a paragon of rugged individualism? In other words, how had one of our folk heroes found an audience in a place where he should’ve been reviled?

Sandra Nickel, an author of young-adult novels, got the answer from her daughter’s Russian godmother, whose youth was apparently filled with totally authorized American classics:

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper, The Headless Horseman: A Strange Tale of Texas by Thomas Mayne Reid. Almost every Russian child had read these by the age of twelve—and read them more than once.

I am sure the Soviet state approved these books because of their propaganda value. Put together, these three volumes could portray Americans as slave-owning destroyers of Native Americans, who are bigoted against Mexicans. Racists, across the board, in other words.

Instead of finding the disgusting evidence of prejudice and imperialism, though, young Russian readers tended to see the novels as ripping good yarns, so much so that their characters were inducted into public life:

$_57What spoke to them were the emotions, the suspense, the adventure, the heroes, and the friendship … In fact, Cooper’s second name, Fenimore, by which he is more readily recognized in Russia, has become a byword for exciting adventures. Loved by even the young Lenin and Stalin, The Last of the Mohicans penetrated Russian society … As [the] poet Tamara Logacheva says, “The heroic image of a courageous and honest Indian—Uncas—noble and devoted to his vanishing traditions, became an example for imitation by many generations of young people.”

There you have it. You can imagine Gorbachev, his state verging on dissolution, adhering one of the Leatherstocking stamps to a letter—perhaps to Reagan or H. W. Bush—and smiling warmly at the visage of Natty Bumppo, his troubled mind allayed, for the moment, by dusty schoolboy memories of The Deerslayer.

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The Comic Voice: An Interview with Christina Nichol

August 7, 2014 | by

Christina-Nichol

Photo courtesy of the Overlook Press

Last month, Brooklyn’s powerHouse Books hosted Norman Rush, Marco Roth, and Christina Nichol to discuss Nichol’s debut novel, Waiting for the Electricity. Set in a post-Soviet Georgia, rife with power shortages, the book stars Slims Achmed Makashvili, a maritime lawyer navigating the perplexing, often hilarious vagaries of life in a corrupt republic. Slims yearns to visit America—he writes letters to Hillary Clinton and applies to a business program she sponsors—where he hopes to discover a land of stupefying efficiency. But when at last he arrives in the U.S., the vision of progress is not what he’d hoped.

Nichol has taught English in India, South Korea, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, and, of course, Georgia; her experiences abroad inform much of Waiting for the Electricity’s observant wit. With Rush and Roth, she discussed the direction of the comic novel, fiction’s bearing on foreign policy, and a State Department official with a ukulele.

ROTH

Christina, how did you end up in Georgia? How did you join the great English-teaching enterprise that is this new American century?

NICHOL

As a kid I went to the Soviet Union with my grandfather, who braved a hundred Americans and a hundred Russians on a boat down the Volga River. This was during the eighties, and I sort of fell in love with Russia—I continued to go back to witness the transformation of communism into capitalism, which I saw as an amazing and tragic story of the twentieth century. I’d been to Kyrgyzstan, too, and as an adult I was trying to get back. I applied through this foundation, and they said, Well, we have Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia available. I’d once seen some Georgian folk dancers, and they were really amazing, so I decided on Georgia, knowing nothing about it.

ROTH

And Norman, you spent some time in the Peace Corps.

RUSH

Not technically. [Elsa and I] were co-country directors in the Peace Corps in Botswana from ’78 to ’83. But the formative effect of being outside the country for a long period of time is certainly the same—having that be a catalyst to a kind of uncheckable literary impulse, looking at a different part of the great evolution that’s taken place. But Christina, you said something intriguing—that you thought the conversion or the evolution of communism to capitalism was a great tragedy. That’s certainly not the State Department opinion. Are you a Bolshevik?

NICHOL

I suppose I’m thinking of how it was done to hold up America as an example. In communist nations, they’d heard all these terrible things about how capitalism works—someone gets money and then doesn’t provide the service he’s been paid for—and they’d say, Well, that’s the free market economy for you! Then, under capitalism, they began to live the kind of ideology of the propaganda they’d been brought up with. It was actually an even worse form of capitalism than ours.

RUSH

Yours is a glorious comic narrative, and there’s something slightly odd in talking about it in the midst of terrible political tragedy, the murder and carnage taking place around the world—a kind of carnage in which, as humans and as Americans, we’re all to some degree implicated. But it isn’t strange, actually, when you think about it. Comic narrative, especially high comic, in textual form, is very important for two reasons. One, it relaxes us and returns us. It disengages us from the essential tragedy, the base tragedy, and the unnecessary tragedy that we encounter as human beings. And it teaches a kind of distance. It has a way of recharging, of remaking our willingness to be open, to have strength in the world, and to work within it. This novel is a remarkable entry into the world of comic fiction. If you look at the history of what’s considered funny in terms of narrative fiction, it’s been pretty much a male reserve. Examining, say, English Anglophone writers—novelists, not short-story writers or nonfiction writers—there’s Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm, but suddenly now there’s Lydia Davis, Rivka Galchen, and an explosion of the comic subject. Read More »

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Thawing Out

July 3, 2014 | by

Why are there so few courses in Soviet literature at American universities?

Soviet_Poster_1

A Soviet poster from Albert Rhys Williams’s Through the Russian Revolution, 1920.

When I was completing a master's in comp lit at Oxford, I kept coming across a curious lapse—while most of my British peers had read at least some of the great writers of the Soviet canon, often as early as secondary school, my equally well-educated American friends had never even heard of them. The more I perused the courses of American universities, the more I found that Soviet literature—by which I mean the proverbial classics penned between the revolution and death of Stalin and published largely during Khruschev’s thaw—was noticeably absent. There were, of course, exceptions at institutions such as Stanford, Princeton, Yale, the University of Washington, and a few others, which are renowned for their Russian literature departments. But the majority of colleges, particularly liberal arts schools, focused on the nineteenth-century Russian novel and then skipped straight to Nabokov, or even to post-perestroika literature.

This absence struck me as odd, especially given the literary tastes of the Russian reading public. The Russian literati ostensibly admire and cherish the greats—your Tolstoys and Chekhovs, your Dostoevskys—but ask them to name their favorite writers and most will cite someone from this isolated literary isle. They might mention Mayakovsky, the macho darling of the Futurist movement, whose thundering poetry shook his listeners into an acute state of consciousness; or Akhmatova, an Acmeist poet who explored suffering, humanity’s great equalizer, with minimal words and explicit emotion. They could invoke Pasternak, whose Doctor Zhivago many Americans assume to be a tragic love story between a man and a woman, when really it’s a tragic love story between a man and a revolution, although in Russia Pasternak is celebrated even more for his poetry, especially his wildly experimental collection My Sister, Life. Then there’s the lyrical sentiment of Platonov, or the satire of Solzhenitsyn. There’s Bunin, Mandelshtam, Tsvetaeva, Zoschenko, Babel, Bergholz, Zamyatin, Bely, Bulgakov, and a litany of other luminaries whose surnames have all but disappeared from university syllabi.

Is this a lingering effect of the Cold War, a symptom of our culture’s tendency to seal off what we fear or don’t understand? I’m reminded of the horrific looks I got from people the summer I was nineteen, when I decided to read Mein Kampf. They worried that it would negatively influence my nubile and malleable young mind—a concern I found irritating, since I’ve long believed it’s our moral obligation to dissect the most heinous events in history, to use literature as a scalpel of sorts. Was the fear and scorn of Soviet oppression, I thought, part of the reason its literature was kept behind closed doors, even all these years later? Read More »

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The National Writer

June 10, 2014 | by

Chinghiz Aitmatov and the literature of Kyrgyzstan.

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“Chyngyz Aitmatov and his arts,” a series of Kyrgyz postage stamps.

Six years ago today, when pneumonia claimed the life of the Kyrgyz writer Chinghiz Aitmatov, I learned about it the old-fashioned way: from a man weeping in the streets.

I don’t mean to imply that all of Kyrgyzstan had thrown its hands up in despair at the loss of its best writer and most famous native son, though I wouldn’t have blamed them if they had. I just happened to come across an old man—an ak cakal, or “white beard,” as the elderly there are known—sitting next to a small radio on a park bench, letting tears run down his face as he listened to the news. I’d been living in Kyrgyzstan for a year at that point, halfway through a tour in the Peace Corps; my Kyrgyz was not so sharp that I could clearly understand the radio, but it was more than good enough to ask the man if everything was all right. In response, he lifted a tattered copy of Aitmatov’s novel Jamila toward me and whispered, “He’s gone.”

It’s hard to overstate Aitmatov’s importance to Kyrgyzstan’s national identity. In my time there, new acquaintances regularly quizzed me on the country’s national this and national that. Kyrgyzstan’s national food? A fried rice dish called plov. The national music? Anything played on the ukulele-like komuz. The national writer? Chinghiz Aitmatov, obviously. (My younger English students had a hard time understanding why I couldn’t as quickly recite the United States’ national writer, et al.) December 12, the author’s birthday, is celebrated nationwide as Chinghiz Aitmatov Day. After Kyrgyzstan gained independence, Aitmatov represented the young country as an ambassador to the European Union, NATO, and elsewhere. “One of the great charms of Aitmatov’s life,” Scott Horton wrote for Harper’s shortly after the writer died, “was that he charted first the decline of the Central Asian life and identity, and then participated in its resurrection as the Soviet Union collapsed and as the Central Asian states regained, quite unexpectedly, their autonomy and footing on the world stage.” Read More »

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A Dinner in Moscow

April 23, 2013 | by

Soviet_stamp_1975_30_let_RSFR_6kIn March 1975, a couple of weeks after my twenty-fifth birthday, I accompanied my girlfriend Tina on a trip to Russia. At the time Tina was a graduate student at the University of Essex pursuing a thesis on “Dostoyevsky and the Russian Orthodox Church,” under the benign supervision of the eminent scholar and translator Angela Livingstone. Londoners both, we had been living together for almost four years in the village of Wivenhoe near its estuary, close to the college campus, far from the big city and the disapproving glare of our respective widowed mothers.

My mother, a conscientious objector to interfaith relationships, had long ago banned Tina from visits to her home. “It’s bad enough you have to go out with someone who isn’t Jewish,” she said, “but why did you have to pick a girl with Christ in her name?”

“Her name’s Tina,” I had replied.

“And what do you think that’s short for, idiot?”

For her own part, Tina’s mother, dressed always in Greek Orthodox widow’s black, was opposed to our living together on moral grounds, which had, I could see, a superior logic.

Our workman’s cottage in Wivenhoe featured no bathroom, a decidedly unpoetic outside toilet, and walls so thin that the neighbors’ voices came through no softer than our own. The wife could be harsh. “Pick, pick pick,” we heard her yell at her husband as we sat down to eat. “You stick your finger so far up your nose that you’re gonna pick your bloody guts out one of these days.” Our kitchen table doubled as a work desk, and was covered with books by obscure (to me) Russian saints and philosophers, Tikhon of Zadonsk and Vladimir Solovyov among them.

Angela Livingstone was already in Russia working on a translation project, and she invited Tina to come and visit her. I tagged along for the ride. We booked onto a group tour through Intourist, the Russian travel agency: it was not easy in those days to move without an official guide in the Soviet Union. We planned a few days in Leningrad, to be followed by a train journey to Moscow, where Angela would meet us at our hotel and, we hoped, spirit us away from our minders. Read More »

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A Conspiracy in a Teapot

December 28, 2012 | by

We’re out this week, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2012 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!

At three in the morning, Almaty’s tiny airport is no match for the crackling expanses of sky and snow. As we rise from our seats, the local women shrug on their fur coats, shape shifters assuming animal form. New York hasn’t seen much winter lately, and I’m glad of evidence that the seasons still exist—even if I had to come on a business trip to Kazakhstan to find it.

The long smooth road from the airport is lined with luxury-car dealerships and dilapidated beer shops, their signs askew. “Double beer!” one sign cries, sounding drunk. The streets are named after poets, heroes, and Soviet institutions.  (Meet me at the intersection of Goethe and Komintern. Sentences like these are the reward for time spent in the former Soviet Union.) We pass a fluorescent Eiffel Tower standing sentry in front of a shopping center. “What’s that?” I ask the driver. “The Eiffel Tower,” he answers, matter-of-fact. I’m reminded of a Kyrgyz woman who told me that the Great Wall of China did not exist. Though she herself had visited the wall, she insisted that the section she’d seen was the only real part, built recently to dupe foreigners. “But you can see it from space,” I protested. “The Chinese are very clever,” she answered. “And those Buddhas in the caves? You think those are a thousand years old? All from the eighties. Trust me.”

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