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Posts Tagged ‘USSR’

(Give Me That) Old-Time Socialist Utopia

May 11, 2015 | by

How the Strugatsky brothers’ science fiction went from utopian to dystopian.


Arkady and Boris Strugatsky.

Near the beginning of The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn, a 1970 novel by the Russian science-fiction writers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, the innkeeper, Alek Snevar, proposes to his guest, police inspector Peter Glebsky, that mystery is always preferable to explanation. “Haven’t you ever noticed how much more interesting the unknown is than the known?” Snevar asks. “The unknown makes us think—it makes our blood run a little quicker and gives rise to various delightful trains of thought. It beckons, it promises. It’s like a fire flickering in the depths of the night.”

It’s a strange idea to appear at the beginning of what seems to be a locked-room mystery novel—a genre in which all puzzles are meant to be solved. Soon after Glebsky’s arrival, a blizzard blocks the road to the inn. Right on cue, another of the guests, a Scandinavian named Olaf Andvarafors, is found dead in his room with his neck twisted, the window open, and the door locked from the inside. Everyone at the inn is a suspect: Simone Simone, a nervous, billiard-playing physicist; Hinkus, a “youth counselor” on sick leave; a celebrity magician named Du Barnstoker and his androgynous ward, Brun (“the sole progeny of [his] dear departed brother”); an imperious alcoholic named Albert Moses, and his knockout wife, Mrs. Moses. Then there is Snevar and his maid, Kaisa; a St. Bernard named Lel; and Luarvik L. Luarvik, a mysterious one-armed man who shows up half dead after being caught in the storm. With this bizarre cast you expect to find plenty of red herrings before a hiding-in-plain-sight solution is revealed.

Instead, The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn departs from anything that either detective or reader could deduce. For the Strugatskys, the deviation was practically involuntary. In his 1999 memoir, Comments on the Way Left Behind, Boris Strugatsky writes that they intended to write a commercial mystery novel along the lines of Erle Stanley Gardner or John le Carré. But they were unable to resist their speculative impulses: in place of a clever solution for the events at the inn, they introduced a bigger mystery. Read More »

Punks Behind the Iron Curtain, and Other News

April 7, 2015 | by


Survival Instruction, a Siberian punk band, in 1988. Photo by Artur Strukov, via Noisey

  • Richard Price talks to David Simon about crime, television, crime on television, and his father as a less-than-ideal reader: “I ran into him about three months after [my first novel] came out. It was one o’clock in the afternoon and he said, ‘Come on, let’s get a Tequila Sunrise’—you know, it’s 1974—or a Harvey Wallbanger or something. He said, ‘Yeah, I got the book, I read it, you know, it wasn’t like a good book or anything.’ I said, ‘Oh … ’ ”
  • James Wood, literary evangelical, defends books as a religion: “By fixing on humdrum domestic details, novels, [Wood] says, redeem life and rescue it from its sad ephemerality; a book is not solitary, like the person who reads it, but dispenses ‘proximity, fellow-feeling, compassion, communion … I am taking a religious view of a form that’s very earthly, and there’s some tension between my approach and that worldliness.’ ”
  • Punk music has thrived in plenty of unlikely places, but Siberia embraced its ethos as nowhere else could, providing “the perfect incubator for nurturing the creative malice punk requires … Lacking any official rock clubs in Siberia, punks colonized cafeterias, apartments, libraries and local ‘Houses of Culture’—the Soviet equivalent to VFW halls. Dorm rooms hosted entire rock festivals.” (But the bands couldn’t put on the punk uniform: “In Siberia, if you looked like that on the street, you wouldn’t be able to walk more than 100 meters. After that, someone would just take you around the corner and beat the shit out of you.”)
  • “In a photograph, a person’s history is buried as if under a layer of snow,” Siegfried Kracauer, “the Frankfurt School’s freelance intellectual par excellence,” once wrote. A new book of his family snapshots captures his “desire to reproduce reality at its most transient.”
  • Umberto Eco’s How to Write a Thesis, first published in 1977, has at last arrived in English. It’s about “what the thesis represents: a magical process of self-realization, a kind of careful, curious engagement with the world that need not end in one’s early twenties.”

Natty Bumppo, Soviet Folk Hero

September 15, 2014 | by


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.


Dovlatov’s Way

September 4, 2014 | by

This weekend, an intersection in Queens will be renamed Sergei Dovlatov Way.


Sergei Dovlatov

Sergei Dovlatov gave me a pistol when I was a child. It was just an air gun, it turned out, but my mother couldn’t tell the difference, and she was justifiably horrified to see me running around with a semiautomatic. It did not have a red plastic tip and it was nicely chromed, from somewhere in Eastern Europe. With enough pressure pumped into it, its little steel pellets could really hurt someone. Dovlatov found this very funny. Now we New Yorkers are naming a street after him.

And I’m thrilled. That street in Forest Hills, Queens, is the same one where his widow lives; it’s where his daughter, who recently translated Dovlatov’s great novel Pushkin Hills, grew up; and it’s where I grew up, too. At least eighteen thousand people share in my enthusiasm—that’s the number of petitioners it took to make this happen. That it’s such a formidable number should come as no surprise. Even if Joseph Brodsky was the greatest member of the so-called Third Wave of Russian immigrants—he won the Nobel and married an Italian woman—it’s Dovlatov whom readers love viscerally, unconditionally. How can we help it? When Matt Taibbi showed up to inaugurate Katherine Dovlatov’s translation a few months ago, I asked why he came: it was because Dovlatov was the one Russian author who made him laugh out loud. And suddenly we understood one another. Dovlatov made me laugh out loud, too, first in person, and then when I grew up, through his literature.

During the height of his fame, Dovlatov’s works were read universally. Solzhenitsyn, a dour man in his Vermont stronghold who wished to have nothing to do with the Third Wave “sausage immigrants,” read his entire three-volume collected works. The pieces translate easily because of their inherent humanity, and their humor, remarkably, translates as well. In Russia, where his work was retyped at night for samizdat, his secret readership grew, making many a fan. Half of Russia sat in jail, the other half stuck around to be with the first, and Dovlatov had been in both positions—and wrote about it, and still made it funny. The KGB, of course, was not a fan; they even destroyed typeset plates that had been prepared for publication. Dovlatov took the dissident-lite approach of simply not taking the Soviet Union seriously, and for this he was beloved. Read More »


Soviet Ghosts

July 17, 2014 | by

Soviet decay

A military base in East Germany, constructed in 1937 and used by the Germans as an elite riding and driving school. Photo: Rebecca Litchfield, via the Guardian

The Guardian, Beautiful/Decay, and others have featured unnerving photos from Rebecca Litchfield’s Soviet Ghosts: The Soviet Union Abandoned: A Communist Empire in Decay, which documents the photographer’s travels to the ruins of the Soviet Union. The series examines how and why communities are abandoned, but this isn’t mere ruin porn; there’s an aspect of political subversion here, as Litchfield faced radiation exposure, arrest, and interrogation to secure these pictures, which include decommissioned locomotives, dilapidated military bases, and an abandoned sanatorium, many of them now deemed secret by the state. A more sensationalistic publisher might’ve subtitled the book, THE UNBELIEVABLE PHOTOGRAPHS THE FORMER USSR DOESN’T WANT YOU TO SEE! As Litchfield explains,

We maximized our stealthiness, ducking and diving into bushes and sneaking past sleeping security. But on day three, our good fortune ran out as we visited a top-secret radar installation. After walking through the forest, mosquitoes attacking us from all directions, we saw the radar and made our way toward it, but just meters away suddenly we were joined by military, and they weren’t happy …

See more photos here.



Thawing Out

July 3, 2014 | by

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


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 »