The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘USSR’

Finally, a Phone Book on CDs, and Other News

June 8, 2016 | by

Photo: Museum of Intellectual Property

  • As the Soviet Union fades into the rearview mirror, it’s becoming harder to find reliable, intimate accounts of life in the USSR. A new graphic novel is trying to change that: “The Italian graphic novelist Igort went to Ukraine in 2008 and stayed for nearly two years. He met people at marketplaces and on country roads, and drew their lives. ‘Word by word I listen to the account of an existence that has become an undigested mass,’ he writes, at the beginning of one section. ‘It pushes its way out from the gut. The following is a faithful transcription of that story’ … These phrases sum up everything that is good and everything that is not so good about The Ukrainian and Russian Notebooks: Life and Death Under Soviet Rule … The translation, sadly, is often tone-deaf and downright sloppy—the peculiarly unappetizing language in this passage is just one example. But the stories he has collected are indeed an undigested mass, often a mess, and this is a good thing.”

(Give Me That) Old-Time Socialist Utopia

December 22, 2015 | by

We’re away until January 4, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2015. Please enjoy, and have a happy New Year!

strugatsky

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky.

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

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 >>

The Resurrection of Joseph Brodsky

December 1, 2015 | by

Mikhail Baryshnikov’s new “anti-ballet.”

Image via New Riga Theatre

At the New Riga Theatre, before a recent performance of Mikhail Baryshnikov’s new one-man show, Brodsky / Baryshnikov, women combed their hair and adjusted their furs in the yellow lobby’s mirror-paneled walls. Some had camped out overnight for tickets when they first went on sale in September; seats sold out almost immediately and promptly began circulating on the black market for many hundreds of euros. Wealthy Russians jetted in from Moscow and Saint Petersburg for the event—the director Alvis Hermanis and Baryshnikov are both persona non-grata in Russia, so the entirely Russian-language performance will not stop in Russia during its upcoming international tour.

The well-heeled crowd greeted one another with “Ciao, ciao” before slipping into their native tongues, the theater a burble of Latvian, Russian, English, and French. They were all there to see the return of “their” prodigal son, but the performance they witnessed was something more akin to the return of the prodigal son as old man. Mikhail Baryshnikov is, after all, sixty-seven years old. He is no longer a prodigy, but emeritus.

“Those who expect the typical Baryshnikov pirouettes and splits … are likely to be disappointed,” Latvian critic Undine Adamaite wrote in Diena, a Latvian daily. Read More »

(Give Me That) Old-Time Socialist Utopia

May 11, 2015 | by

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

strugatsky

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-performs-at-Tyumen-festival-in-1988--from-Artur-Strukov-s-archives

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

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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