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A Soviet Reader: An Annotated Bibliography of Recent Reads

14 Oct

This bibliography is an attempt at keeping a quick record of my recent reads (both fiction and non-fiction) regarding the Soviet Union and its history. The eagle-eyed among you will notice all of the volumes are English translations, and as such this imposes a boundary between what has and hasn’t been translated. As always when one reads for pleasure and information personal choices are made, authors and tastes are developed and pursued, and books that should be read remain unread.  Choices are partly dictated by access.  For instance, I discovered Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward and Mikhail Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don on my dad’s bookshelf, others such as the modern author Svetlana Alexievich by reading literary reviews and becoming aware of her work.  Sometimes there is surprise that so monumental an author can remain forgotten within the sphere of common knowledge, such as Vasily Grossman who I personally did not discover for far too long.  Some volumes, such as Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales which is based on her experience in the Gulag, are soon to be republished and I keenly await the volume whilst others’ efforts I remain ignorant of.

Having wrote out a quick list of Soviet-era novels I’ve had the pleasure (and often sadness) to read, I find it thoroughly hard to pick one that is my favourite as the styles are so varied and the approaches so different. However, there are three novels that stand out for me.  They are the Don Epic (includes And Quiet Flows the Don and The Don Flows Back to the Sea) by Mikhail Sholokhov, The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, and Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate.  All three offer varying degrees of criticism or support of the USSR and all three differ in their approach and in their individual authors fate.  Some circulated as samizdat (underground literature), whereas others were State sanctioned and celebrated.  Many, such as Teffi and Yury Felsen, saw the writing on the wall in the bitter months of 1917 and sought sanctuary elsewhere.Later events, such as the so-called Terror Famine of ’33-’34 and the Great Purge of ’36-38, turned many Old Bolsheviks away from the Party.

I’m also interested in this era of writing because of its historical context.  To write critically, to write truthfully, took some strength to do when the repercussions could be so severe.  Works were often suppressed or destroyed.  In recent days I have seen a number of articles focused on the killing or physically harming of journalists and educators worldwide, from Turkey to Brazil, America to Bulgaria and Malta. In many countries facts, the search for justice and the will to present the truth to the public (and the public’s willingness to digest this) are under open attack, even in so-called democratic states.  It would be crass to directly contrast the two wildly different contexts, but we must be aware that it is a continuing balancing act – to report and to be critical, either through fiction or non-fiction, is always an act on a knife-edge.

Please be aware that this post will be regularly updated to include annotations on the volumes listed below.  It will also be added to as and when I read new volumes.

Political & Social History

Alexievich, S. 2016. Chernobyl Prayer. London: Penguin Classics.

Alexievich, S. 2016. Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets. Translated from Russian by Bela Shayevich. London: Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Alexievich, S. 2017. The Unwomanly Face of War. Translated from Russian by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky. London: Penguin Classics.

Alexievich, a recent Nobel Prize Winner for Literature from Belarus, is justly famous for ‘her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time’ as cited in her award. A recent trio of English-language translations have brought her to greater attention within the Anglo-sphere and introduced many to her unique style of letting her interviewees talk uninterrupted. For some this may blur the line between fiction and non-fiction, but the results are an intimate look into the lives of those that have been hidden for so long. The above trio of volumes deal, respectively, with the Chernobyl nuclear accident, the fall of the Soviet Union throughout the late 80s and 90s and its impact, and the role of females in the Second World War and the aftermath in the USSR.

Applebaum, A. 2004. Gulag: A History of the Soviet Camps. London: Penguin Books.

Applebaum, A. 2013. Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe. London: Penguin Books.

Applebaum, A. 2017. Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine. London: Allen Lane.

Beevor, A. 2007. Stalingrad. London: Penguin.

Conquest, R. 2007. The Great Terror: A Reassessment. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kotkin, S. 2015. Stalin: Paradoxes of Power 1878-1928. London: Penguin.

Kotkin, S. 2017. Stalin: Waiting for Hitler 1928-1941. London: Allen Lane.

Together, with Paradoxes of Power, Waiting for Hitler is the second in a trio of volumes that paint a deeply researched biography of Stalin, General Secretary and Premier of the USSR. I’m currently half-way through the second volume and it is an eye-opening body of work, one that I highly recommend to anybody with an interest in history or modern history. Understanding the USSR (and the transformations after its fall) is fundamental to today’s world state and to the underpinning of politics on the international stage.

Merridale, C. 2013. Red Fortress: The Secret Heart of Russia’s History. London: Allen Lane.

Plokhy, S. 2017. Lost Kingdom: A History of Russian Nationalism from Ivan the Great to Vladimir Putin. London: Allen Lane.

Solzhenitsyn, A. 2003. The Gulag Archipelago 1918-56: A Experiment in Literary Investigation. Translated from the Russian by Thomas Whitney and Harry Willets, abridged by Edward Ericson Jr. London: The Harvill Press.

Steinbeck, J. & Capa, R. 2000. A Russian Journal with Photographs by Robert Capa. London: Penguin Classics.

It is always a pleasure to read Steinbeck’s non-fiction work and this journal, wrote in the late 1940’s after a visit throughout the USSR with the celebrated war photographer Robert Capa, bears all the hallmarks of his wit and comedic flair.  Still this is a sombre read of the after effects of the Second World War, a war which devastated the population and infrastructure of the Soviet Union.  The chapter regarding the visit to Stalingrad (today called Volgograd) is particularly harrowing. Criticism of the USSR is lacking however and this was noted in the reviews and discussions following the books publication.

Teffi. 2016. Memories – From Moscow to the Black Sea. Translated from the Russian by R. Chandler, E. Chandler, A. M. Jackson & I. Steinberg. London: Pushkin Press.

Teffi (pen name of Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya) was a famous humourist writer in the early 20th century best known for her contributions to the magazine Satyricon.  ‘Memories’ documents her overland flight from St. Petersburg to the Black Sea where she caught a ferry to Turkey in 1919, following the twin revolutions of 1917 (the February overthrow of the Tsar and the Bolshevik revolution in October) and the subsequent crack downs that followed. She spent the remainder of her life in Paris, France.

Folk and Magic Tales

Chandler, R. (ed.). 2012. Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov. London: Penguin Classics.

A fundamentally important introduction to the cultural and traditional importance of magic tales within the Russian and Slavic imagination.  Chandler introduces a range of authors, including Platonov and Teffi, who tackle long-standing magic tales where transformation of both lives and forms becomes a bubbling, and often humorous, vehicle to comment on their own historical context.  This is a great book to become familiar with figures mentioned throughout Russian traditional culture, such as Baba Yaga, which still appear in modern media (think of Zvyagintsev’s 2017 film Loveless and the grandmother figure living in the woods.

Novels

Babel, I. 2016. Odessa Stories. Translated from the Russian by Boris Drayluk. London: Pushkin Press.

Berberova, N., Felsen, Y., Gazdanov, G. & Kuznetsova, G. 2018. Four Russian Short Stories. London: Penguin Classics.

Bulgakov, M. 2007. The Master and Margarita. Translated from Russian by Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear. London: Penguin Classics.

Grossman, V. 2006. Life and Fate. Translated from Russian by Robert Chandler. London: Vintage.

Often described as the 20th century’s War & Peace, Life & Fate is a monumental novel of insight into the USSR during the raging battle of Stalingrad in 1942-43. Centered upon the family of Vicktor Shtrum and the Shaposhniokova sisters, Grossman introduces a panoply of figures across the length and breadth of the USSR and develops their role within the Great Patriotic War (as the Second World War is known in Russia).  This multifaceted novel dissects Stalinism and Nazism, the nature of the State itself, and the vying reality of Jewish identity caught between the Soviet sphere and the impact of invading German forces.

Grossman, V. 2011. Everything Flows. Translated from Russian by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, and Anna Aslanyan. London: Vintage.

Platonov, A. 2010. The Foundation Pit. London: Vintage.

Sholokhov, M. 2017. And Quiet Flows the Don. Translated from the Russian by Stephen Garry. London: Penguin Classics.

Sholokhov, M. 1984. The Don Flows Home to the Sea. Translated from the Russian by Stephen Garry. London: Penguin Classics.

Solzhenitsyn, A.. 2000. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. London: Penguin Classics.

Solzhenitsyn, A. 2003. Cancer Ward. Translated from the Russian by Alexander Dolberg. London: Vintage Classics.

Zamyatin, Y. 1993. We. London: Penguin Classics.

Graphic Novels

Nury, F. & Robin, T. 2017. The Death of Stalin. London: Titan Comics.

Second World War Memoirs

Koschorrek, G. K. 2002. Blood Red Snow: The Memoirs of a German Solider on the Eastern Front. London: Greenhill Books.

Sajer, G. 1999. The Forgotten Soldier: War on the Russian Front – A True Story. London: Cassel Military Paperbacks.

The above two volumes, and their veracity of truthful experience, have both been discussed time and time again by critics and reviewers in their description of life on the Eastern Front as German soldiers.  Regardless of the truth both volumes present hideous experiences on facing the Red Army during WWII, first claiming new territories and then slowly losing them, mile after bloody mile.

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‘A Field In England’: A Trip Into The Psychotropic 17th Century

16 Jan

“I’d give anything for a good stew and a belly full of beer” announces one character shortly into the 2013 feature film A Field In England.  So may the audience at the closing credits of this delightfully dark, thoughtful and surreal film, having endured a turbulent 91 minutes in mid 17th century England wracked by an off-screen civil war.

Directed by Ben Wheatley, with a script by Amy Jump, A Field in England depicts the short journey of a ramshackle group of four men (Whitehead, Friend, Cutler and Jacob) who, having been traumatized and disillusioned by blood shed in civil war riven England (1642-1651 AD), desert the battlefield and seek solace searching for a fabled ale-house instead.  Only to their displeasure do they find that, during their desperate ramble, they come under the somewhat demonic spell of O’Neil, a man hellbent on finding treasure in a field who subsequently forces the four deserters to prospect and dig for suspected gold.  This is a necessarily brief synopsis because the film simply has to be seen to be understood although repeated viewings are recommended, if not required, for this slab of a historical film that potently mixes psychedelia and surrealism.

fieldineng2

A poster for the film, which was released in 2013. The feature draws obvious creative parallels with the Hammer Horror productions, although influences can also be detected from such classic films as the Witchfinder General (1968) and The Wicker Man (1973) (Image credit: Mr&MrsWheatly).

Somewhat uniquely in British movie history the film was released simultaneously to the general audience at theaters, screened on Film 4, and made available both on video-on-demand and to purchase on DVD, all on the same day.  A Field In England was filmed entirely in monochrome and relies heavily on the dialogue to help drive the momentum of the action forward.

Having said that it is the film’s kaleidoscopic use of visual and sound effects that propel it into the surreal genre, with effective use of disorienting shots of the main characters helping to enforce the viewer to become uncomfortably close to all of them, whatever the audiences feelings on the characters motivations.  As the Guardian review of the film points out, it is the distinctive use of the films tableaux shots, long shots and often unexplained scenes that help to highlight and intensify the rare violent viscosity of the characters actions in the film itself (Bradshaw 2013).

Throughout the film there is a great earthly humour present in the dialogue throughout the film, which is richly veined with flashes of Shakespearean wit and character exposition.  Though it must be noted that the audience is never entirely sure on which side of the civil war that the characters each sit on.  Allusions to the fracturing of the fabric of society are noted throughout the film, both through the dialogue and through the monochrome visual effects used.  This is perhaps most notable during the breakdown of one the characters who has been indulging in magic mushrooms.  It has to be said that monochrome psychedelic images can be quite unsettling, but they are also extremely mesmerizing and effective, perhaps non more so than during Whitefield’s mushroom influenced experience.

fieldinengland

A still from A Field in England depicting the disturbing use of the magic O’Neil uses on one of the main characters.  In particular it is the use of sound during this tableaux scene that really lifts it as a whole, making it both distinctly uncomfortable but also unnervingly rather watchable.

As stated above the film does contain rare instances of fairly graphic violence, but it is largely in the form of interpersonal violence conducted between the small group of relative strangers that form the core of the characters in the film (minus the introductory scene).  Interestingly, for me at least, there were occurrences of firearm injuries that demonstrated the rather horrible effect of neat entry wounds and the large exit wounds that projectiles can inflict if they exit the body (Aufderheide & Martin-Rodriquez 2006: 28).  I’ve tried not to give any spoilers in this quick review but, archaeologically speaking, the skeletal remains and funerary context of the individuals who perish in this film would certainly give the archaeologists some interesting theories to debate.  Although it would not be the first time that human burials from the English civil war have intrigued archaeologists as the mass grave site found at All Saints church in York demonstrates (McIntyre & Bruce 2010: 36).

A Field in England also combines the characters doubts of the existence of God with discussions of the occult as O’Neil displays a distinct attachment to magic and charms, professing himself to be almost a necromancer.  In one particularly entrancing scene he manages to wrap ropes around Whitehead and use him as a human divining tool to locate his buried treasure.  In another scene he is seen clasping a black ceramic dish that has a significant and deep meaning for him and he implies it can see into the past, present and future.  Merrifield (1987) and Brück (1999) have highlighted the significant wealth in the material archaeological record that can, on occasion, lead to valid interpretations of the importance of ritual functionality and the role of magic in historic and prehistoric societies.  This is worth keeping in mind, particularly with A Field In England, as the film demonstrates the intermingling of the Christian faith with pagan practices, a probably common feature of medieval and late medieval England (Gilchrist 2008: 153).

In a variety of ways the film also reminded me vividly of Andrey Platonov’s novel The Foundation Pit.  This was particularly evident during the last third of the movie where the nature of the treasure is revealed for, as in both Wheatley’s film and Platonov’s book, the pit is never simply just a hole in the ground but a striking metaphor for society, in this case one that seemingly subsumes the bodies of those that question it (Platonov 2010: 224).  The Foundation Pit also dealt deftly with the symbolism of the vying individual and the collectivist state and the struggle between the two, similar in tone to the backdrop role that the civil war plays in this film that so sparks the characters to openly question society, death and the absence of God throughout the feature.    

Although I thoroughly enjoyed watching A Field In England, it is clearly not a film for everyone.  There is no doubt that the non-linear nature of the film will confuse many (and leave unanswered questions proposed by the viewer), but the film openly welcomes repeated viewings.  Regardless of this, I would recommend the film highly as it challenges the convention that historical films have to abide by strict cinematic convention.  Indeed this film actively calls for open interpretation and reflective thinking.  This is a playful and subversive film, one that is not afraid to stray into experimental territory to expose the flaws of the characters and to highlight the fundamental changes in the English civil war era.

Bibliography

Aufderheide, A. C. & Rodriquez-Martin, C. 2006. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Human Palaeopathology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

A Field In England. 2013. Film. Directed by Ben Wheatley. United Kingdom: Rook Films.

Bradshaw, P. 2013. A Field In England – Review. The Guardian. 4th July 2013. Accessed 16/01/13.

Brück, J. 1999. Archaeology Ritual and Rationality: Some Problems of Interpretation in European Archaeology. European Journal of Archaeology2: 313-343. (Abstract).

Gilchrist, R. 2008. Magic for the Dead? The Archaeology of Magic in Later Medieval BurialsMedieval Archaeology. 52: 119-159. (Full article).

McIntyre, L. & Bruce, G. 2010. Excavating All Saints: A Medieval Church Rediscovered. Current Archaeology. 245: 30-37. (Full article).

Merrifield, R. 1987. The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic. London: B.T. Batsford.

Platonov, A. 2010. The Foundation Pit. London: Vintage.