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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 Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) 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 has not 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, of whom I personally did not discover for far too long a time.  Some volumes, such as Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales which is based on his experiences in the Gulag, are soon to be republished and I keenly await the volume.  There are plenty of other volumes that have not been translated into a language I can read or simply authors that I remain ignorant of.

Conference room of the Supreme Council in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, by noted photojournalist Max Penson (1893-1959). Following his forced movement to Uzbekistan with his family in 1914, Penson became one of the best-known photojournalists in the Soviet Union from 1920-40, particularly for his images of life in Uzbekistan. In later life he was forced to leave his employment in 1948 due to a rise in anti-Semitism. Photograph: M. Penson.

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 and on reflection, 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, 1928-40) by Mikhail Sholokhov, The Master and Margarita (1967) by Mikhail Bulgakov, and Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate (1960).  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 authors who were active during the revolutions of 1917, such as Teffi and Yury Felsen, saw the writing on the wall in the bitter winter months of 1917-18 and sought sanctuary elsewhere in a fractured Europe, riven by war.  Later events, such as the so-called Terror Famine (and associated famines in Soviet lands) of 1933-34 and the Great Purge (or Great Terror) of 1936-38, 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.  Fictional works too were often suppressed or destroyed.  In recent days I have read a number of news articles focused on the killing or physically harming of journalists and educators worldwide, from Turkey (political oppression and murder) to Brazil (harassment), America (political pressure and threats) to Bulgaria (murder) and Malta (murder).  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 where media, particularly investigative journalism, is demonised openly and widely.  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.  To tell the truth you sometimes have to give up your freedom; you may even have to give up your life and those of who you love to inform the world.

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. Translated from the Russian by Anna Gunin and Arch Tait. London: Penguin Classics.

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

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

Svetlana Alexievich (1948-), 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.

This is the book that started my initial interest in understanding the Russian position in the Second World War, particularly in understanding the impact that the pivotal battle of Stalingrad (now Volgograd) had in breaking Hitler’s Wehrmacht.  Beevor (1946-) writes a cogent, richly sourced analysis of the battle and its historical importance as it raged in the cold winter of 1942-43

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 the volume ‘Paradoxes of Power’, ‘Waiting for Hitler’ is the second in a trio of volumes that paint a deeply researched biography of Joseph Stalin (1878-1953), a Soviet revolutionary and 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.  By focusing on the figure who helped take over after the death of Vladimir Lenin in 1924, Kotkin (1959-)provides a richly researched narrative of the day-to-day running of the Russian Soviet Republic and eventual USSR as viewed through Stalin’s immense capability for work, political understanding, and brutality. 

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 book’s 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 (1872-1952, 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 political crack downs that followed.  Although the volume deals with a particularly dark affair of fleeing one’s home country, this memoir is particularly funny as Teffi makes her observations and relies on her hilarious and indefatigable guide, Gooskin.  She spent the remainder of her life in Paris, France, never to return to Russia.

Wells, H. G. 2012. Russia in the Shadows (Classic Reprint). London: Forgotten Books.

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.

Isaac Babel (1894-1940) was one of the highest writers authors to die during Stalin’s Great Purge (otherwise known as the Great Terror).  The Great Purge dated from roughly 1936-38 and spread across the Soviet Union and ultimately saw many hundreds of thousands (possibly millions) put to death or sent to prisons during purges of the military, political, cultural, and professional classes, and the so-called ‘Kulak’ class.  ‘Odessa Stories’ is a collection of Babel’s thrilling tales set in the primarily Jewish coastal city by the Black Sea.  Famously introducing the character of Benya Krik, the gangster, the tales uncover the seedy underbelly of the Ukrainian city.  Among the stories is a moving account of the effect of a program against the Jewish residents. 

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

Not strictly historical, but an insight into four disparate writers who fled Russia following the Bolshevik takeover in 1917 and spread themselves across Europe in an émigré cultural diaspora.  Each story in this short paperback deals with the outcome of a death and its impact, eith the feeling of loss rippling through the pages.

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

Gessen, K. 2018. A Terrible Country. London: Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Whilst not dealing directly with the Soviet Union (as Keith Gessen’s highly personal novel is set in 2008), the turbulent 20th century does cast a long shadow in this entertaining and often hilarious novel of one man rediscovering his birth country whilst having to look after an aging relative.  The historical and modern social impacts of violently shifting cultural and political landscapes are well observed and captured in this novel.  They are gently, and believably, entwined with both family members and the friends that the main Soviet-born character, Andrei Kaplan, make in modern-day Moscow after leaving behind his life in America.

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 the Russian by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, and Anna Aslanyan. London: Vintage.

Platonov, A. 2010. The Foundation Pit. Translated from the Russian by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, and Olga Meerson. 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. Translated from the Russian by Clarence Brown. 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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Stepping Into The Archipelago

10 Oct

I’ve mentioned Solzhenitsyn’s tremendous volume, The Gulag Archipelgao 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, in a recent blog post on books that have passed through my hands this year.  The edition I’m reading is a truncated and abridged version, but it is still a book which packs an intellectual and emotional heft.  As such it has become my companion over the past six or so months as I wade my way through it, dipping into it to read a section when I’ve finished a different novel or non-fiction book that has caught my eye and attention.  (I’ll admit here I’m behind on posts for this blog although many are fully formed in my mind’s eye.  This is probably due to too much reading and not enough actual writing, hence the lack of posts over the past few years though there are some hiding in the draft folders).

As I picked up Solzhenitsyn’s book I came across the quote below that has resonated with me following the political upheavals over the past few years, one that has reminded me of the staggering ineptitude of several world leaders and governments, and it seems only fair to share the quotation in full.  The context for the quote is the realisation by Solzhenitsyn that each individual is capable of both good and evil, that the factor that determines the outcome is within the individual to balance and the choices that they themselves make, regardless of the level of the individual within their standing in society.  This awakening, as he describes it, is the outcome of intense self-scrutiny within the Gulag system, that sprawling archipelago of labour camps that covered the USSR like an intricate spider’s web.

To quote:

‘The Nuremberg Trials have to be regarded as one of the special achievements of the twentieth century: they killed the very idea of evil, though they killed very few of the people who had been infected with it.  (Of course, Stalin deserves no credit here.  He would have preferred to explain less and shoot more.)  And if by the twenty-first century humanity has not yet blown itself up and has not suffocated itself – perhaps it is in this direction that will triumph?

Yes, And if it does not triumph – then all humanity’s history will have turned out to be an empty exercise in marking time, without the tiniest mite of meaning!  Whither and to what end will we otherwise be moving?  To beat the enemy over the head with a club – even cavemen knew that.

“Know thyself!”  There is nothing that so aids and assists the awakening of omniscience within us as insistent thoughts about one’s own transgressions, errors, mistakes.  After the difficult cycles of such ponderings over many years, whenever I mentioned heartlessness of our highest-ranking bureaucrats, the cruelty of our executioners, I remember myself in my captain’s shoulder boards and the forward march of my battery through East Prussia, enshrouded in fire, and I say: “So were we any better?”

When people express vexation, in my presence, over the West’s tendency to crumble, its political shortsightedness, its diverseness, its confusion – I recall too: “Were we, before passing through the Archipelago, more steadfast?  Firmer in our thoughts?”

And that is why I turn back to the years of my imprisonment and say, sometimes to the astonishment of those about me: “Bless you, prison!”‘

– Solzhenitsyn (2003: 313).

Of course the catch, which he fully recognises, is that there is a distinct difference between both the prison and labour camps that existed  within the USSR, and of ultimately actually surviving the sentence delivered.  The dead, by their very definition, have not survived.  Instead their voices are silent against the echoes of history.

Brief Notes

The book also reminds me of an interest that I’ve had a bit of trouble pursuing so far, partially due to language difficulties but also due access problems.  I’ve always been curious about the bioarchaeology of the Soviet Union, especially so since reading Soviet period literature and non-fiction books, such as Gulag: A History of the Soviet Camps, by Anne Applebaum, which was published in 2004.  However, on a brief sweep of bioarchaeological focused research published in the United Kingdom, with a specific caveat at the Masters level for a relatively easy introduction to the topic, I have not come across any relevant theses bar one thesis at Durham University.  Produced in the 2009/10 academic year, by one E. George, is a thesis entitled The remains of Ivan Denisovich: the potential for future bioarchaeology, palaeopathology, and forensic archaeology/anthropology on osteological remains dating from 1917-1958 in the former Soviet Union.

Unfortunately an enquiring email to the MSc course leader has proved unsuccessful in obtaining a readable copy of the above as a digitized version of the thesis does not exist.  So a quick shout-out if you are reading this George, let me know if I can borrow or read a copy of your research!  I’d love to see what the piece focuses on, the core contexts and periods under study and the methodologies used to analyse the potential in this area.

On a lighter note, the reference to cave men could perhaps belong palaeanthropologist John Hawks often humorous Neandertal anti-defamation files series of web blog posts.  It is worth giving the entries a read and having an informative, interesting and entertaining guide in the shape of Hawks at the same time.

Bibliography

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

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

Literary Updates: English PEN, 404 Ink, Solzhenitsyn & Others

2 Jul

– Please note that this post has been delayed by three or so months, it seemed appropriate to post it now though it has become somewhat disjointed.

Things have been a bit quiet on this site lately as I settle down into a new job (1).  I’ve also been working on two interviews for the blog behind the scenes and I hope to bring them to fruition within a few weeks.  So it is fair to say that the free time I have had has been largely spent relaxing by reading various books; more often than not reaching for a fiction or non-fiction volume that has little to do with human skeletal remains or matters of archaeological importance.  Though I admit I have been dipping into The Body as Material Culture: A Theoretical Osteoarchaeology, by Joanna Sofaer, on occasion.  Instead I present here some literary gems that I’m re-reading or have recently discovered by chance and wish to share with you, my dear readers.

In the past month or two I’ve taken the opportunity to sit out and read in the garden, taking time to admire the change in seasons as we slip into Spring.  I’ve been joined by a flurry of both wild and domesticated animals as I sit and drink my coffee and write notes, hearing and seeing a motley collection of avian companions enjoy the fruits of a fresh crop.  As I’ve written here before in Bones of Contention I’m lucky enough to share the garden with three domesticated hens and these delightful birds (of the inquisitive Gingernut Ranger breed) provide all the friendly chirping and cooing as one could want.  Though, when let loose (now that the latest avian influenza scare has been downgraded in England) to forage in the garden and to take their much-loved mud baths, they can sometimes unexpectedly jump up onto the table at which I am pondering my life and steal whatever is waiting to be eaten on my plate before scampering away, guilt-free and clucking happily.

Caught in the act. A quickly took shot of a cheeky hen in the garden where I try to spend my time reading, scribbling notes and drinking coffee, if not chasing chickens. Photograph by author using a Pentax ME Super and Lomography Lady Grey film, if used elsewhere please credit as appropriate.

I’ve been lucky enough to see a whole host of other animal visitors to the garden too, including blue tits, whizzing robins and fleet of foot blackbirds in the fresh spring morning, as well as hearty magpies, hefty wood pigeons and loved-up collared doves; even to seeing a cheeky mouse scampering around during the day, as all the while seagulls spread their wings and soar freely overhead.  It really is quite a delight and a breath of fresh air to be away from the click and whir of computers, to replace the digital with dappled light cast through the flickering leaves as the gusts of winds blow the cobwebs away and make you appreciate the world anew.  (Even amidst the dire national and international news).  Of course it is easy to romanticize the natural world in contrast to the world of bricks, cement and microprocessors, where the two may seem so separate as to be alien to each other, yet this isn’t really the case as we share the same space.  So I shall stop my sermonizing!

Writing, Reading, Learning, Enjoying

As I’ve been reading various volumes or books in the past month or two I was reminded of the importance of expression, of the freedom to read and the freedom to write, as something that I, for now, can largely take for granted when for other individuals in the world it is a hard-fought for thing.  As a member of English PEN I was reminded of this as the roll-call of detained journalists, writers, poets and artists who had made their mark known and suffered what they must for the idea of self-expression and freedom of the written and spoken word, landed in my email inbox.  I have to admit I’d almost forgotten I’d signed up to join English PEN as I’m so often lost between the various archaeological societies or associations that take a slice out of my payslip each month.  (Honestly Society for American Archaeology, you can stop sending me your trans-Atlantic reminders to re-join now that it has been 2 years since I left – please think of the trees!).

Recent developments across the world have delivered to me a quake of realization, that underfoot nothing is as solid or as stable as it seems.  This is something that a friend mentioned a few weeks ago and I think it one that I generally agree with; that to become complacent is to assume stability as a fact of life when we know well enough that things happen, not always for the worse and not always for the better.

Introducing 404 INK

I was reminded of independent expression when, in a serendipitous occurrence, I came across the website of 404 INK, a new independent publisher of literary magazines and books based in Scotland and spearheaded by Edinburgh-based publisher and editor due of Laura Jones and Heather McDaid.  After having a read through of their website, aims and current content, I decided to order a hard copy of the first issue of their literary magazine, released in November 2016, which has the theme of Error.  Having now read the majority of the entries, ranging from interviews, fiction and non-fiction stories, poems, and cartoons, all of which touched upon the error concept in some way, I’ve become a big fan of their publishing output.  I’m excited to see what awaits me as a reader for the 2nd issue, with the topic of ‘the F word’, a starting off-point for each authors choice and implementation within their work (2).

Eating Animals, Eating Humans

As an aside and among the books I’ve been grazing on are Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals (always good to challenge your perceptions and habits), an unfinished re-read of Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, and an abridged version of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago.  Each volume can be related to the other as the history within each is so entwined with the author’s own experiences and perceptions.  Of course any comparisons between such disparate topics such as an account of the Gulag system, investigation into the moral and business implications of farming animals, and the creative endeavors of magical realism, may be tenuous as best but each is rich with creativity and equally unsettling with the presentation of documentary evidence.  I’d recommend them as the volumes are well worth a read.

A New Style: Influence from Svetlana Alexievich

I’ve also been thinking about bringing back a new form of blog entry: the unfiltered viewpoint of the archaeological professional, as experimented with in two recent blog entries that largely focused on anonymous field archaeologists in Digging Up Time parts 1 and 2.  The two posts were influenced in style by Svetlana Alexievich’s Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets publication, which presents the experiences of witnesses in the modern-day Russian Federation and the surrounding countries who lived through the collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).  This time I think I’ll shift the emphasis towards bioarchaeologists and human osteologists, and their viewpoints on working with the skeletal remains of past individuals and populations from the archaeological record.  If you are interested in taking part in the above (providing that I need further testimonies), then please do feel free to contact me and I’ll provide a writing prompt and guideline for the style of the post.  Check out the above two posts first though to get a feel for the style of the entries.

Notes

(1).  I became uncharacteristically ill over spring hence the delayed timing of this post.

(2).  The 2nd edition of the 404 INK literary magazine, with the F Word theme, recently became available to purchase.  Check it out here.

Further Reading

Foer, J. S. 2010. Eating Animals. London: Penguin.

Márquez, G. G. 2000. One Hundred Years of Solitude. Translated from the Spanish by Gregory Rabassa. London: Penguin Classics.

McDaid, H. & Jones, L. eds. 2016. Error: 404 INK Literary Magazine. Issue 1 November 2016. Glasgow: Bell & Bain.

Sofaer, J. R. 2006. The Body as Material Culture: A Theoretical Osteoarchaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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

Russian Magic Tales

11 Feb

Lately I have been reading Catherine Merridale’s Red Fortress (2013), an excellent and well researched book on the history of the Kremlin and of Russia at large.  So far I am only half way through the book but I am thoroughly enjoying it.  I’ve written briefly before about reading Russian literature (specifically Gogol, Platonov, Sholokhov, Solzhenitsyn and Tolstoy), but I realised recently my small bedside pile of books has become a small mountain, swelling as it has with a glorious mixture of archaeology, osteology and fictional offerings.  Never being able to resist a bookshop I also added Applebaum’s Iron Curtain (2013) to it, thinking that it would make a particularly good companion piece to Merridale.

On a separate trip to the library I happened to come across Chandler’s 2012 collection of Russian magic tales (which are often termed as Skazka in Russian).  Taken from a variety of Russian authors who span across three centuries, the book represents the authors who had collated and collected the tales and then wrote them down in their own hand.  I have never particularly been into magic tales or folk stories, but upon delving into this collection I found I couldn’t really resist not borrowing the volume.  It also makes a beautiful companion piece to the above two history books, grounding me as it does in the oral cultural tradition of folk tales that have been told for centuries, and in some cases for millennia, in Slavic populations.  The tales are also the perfect length to digest and read through on train journeys, and provided a welcome relief from my somewhat heavier archaeological readings.

babayagaivanbilibin

A representation of Baba Yaga by the artist Ivan Bilibin. In Russian and Slavic folklore Baba Yaga is an ambiguous and often ferocious older women who lives deep in the forest, either helping or hindering those who seek her out. Along with Koschey the Deathless, Vasilisa the Beautiful and other colourful characters, Baba Yaga often pops up in the folk tales of Eastern Europe/Russia. (Image credit: Ivan Bilibin).

I have really come to enjoy reading Chandler’s collection of skazka, particularly in the arrangement of the book itself which forms a readable narrative of the historical documenting of the skazka and of the re-working of some of the skazka by selected Russian authors themselves.  This approach not only highlights the interesting form and content of the tale itself but also briefly documents the historical and cultural context that the author worked in to produce or collate the tale.  Generally the skazka can be viewed as one of three general presentations: scenes from real life, magically tales or tales involving talking animals.  Often they can be mixed but they often include characters (such as Baba Yaga and her three knights) that are used repeatedly in a wide variety of circumstances.

In general folk tales are a valuable cultural resource in a few senses of the term.  Firstly, they are essential in helping to understand cultural modes of oral transmission.  This can be identified in two ways, by either understanding differences at regional or national levels between tales and in parsing, or understanding, the developing identities by solidifying through oral repetition a unifying myth or theme (Chandler 2013: x).  Secondly, they can of course also imbue moral and ethical lessons to the listeners or participants, particularly in the role of individuals in societies (Forrester 2012: 427).  Thirdly, it must be noted that some of the tales are pretty vivid in their detail of the character traits and actions, but this is the fun of reading and hearing the tales.  (I recommend reading them out to get a sense of what the oral tradition was like).  These are real and deeply developed characters that although may change their actions in some aspects from tale to tale, they still largely retain their purpose and description or function.

All in all I am glad I stopped to read through a few of the tales in Chandler’s book at the library, as I feel it has made me appreciate the work of some of my favourite authors a whole deal more.  By making me familiar with several important folk characters in the Slavic folk world, the deeper meaning of some of the recurring characters and folk myths that pervade through Russia’s literature becomes evidently clear.  This is especially the case when I originally read Platonov’s The Foundation Pit (2010), a novel that he wrote during the early Soviet period which includes many allegorical and frank representations of the oral folk body of work.

To my mind folk tales in general are a pivotal part of the rubric of culture, a one that sadly is often missing in the archaeological record.  So if you find yourself on an excavation this summer in the middle of nowhere, why not make a fire, grab a few drinks and tell tales to keep an oral tradition alive?

Bibliography

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

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

Forrester, S. 2012. ‘Baba Yaga: The Wild Witch of the East’. In Chandler, R. (ed.) Russian Magic Tales from Puskin to Platonov. London: Penguin Classics.

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

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

The Don Epic by Mikhail Sholokhov (1905-1984)

23 Jan

During the my gap year between university degrees, I volunteered heavily and looked longingly for paid employment.  Alas that was not forthcoming in any shape or form, and as I traveled the miles to and from York to gain valuable archaeological experience, I realised I needed reading material to occupy my mind (when no interesting passengers to engage with were forthcoming!).  During my early school years I hated learning to read, I loathed the minutes and hours spent trying to visualise and make sense of sentences and words; I wanted to be free, running in the back garden, digging up the dirt.  Now I won’t stop reading!  If I am bored, I’ll scan around and read everything in sight.  Now I only wish I could remember all of what I’ve read but such is life.

Scanning my dad’s book shelf high and low, I realised I had not read hardly any of Russia’s distinctive, world class and moving literature; from either the all encompassing and demanding Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, or regime changers such as Solzhenitsyn, or any Nabokov or Pasternak.  I had made my way through the Beat writers alongside most works by Kurt Vonnegut, some Bret Easton Ellis, a lot of Joseph Heller, a good dose of David Foster Wallace, plenty of Bernard Cornwall, and a good clutch of Will Self’s work; I gorged upon travel books (and still do); I’d read some of the classics such as Camus, Melville  & Shelley, and engorged on plenty of modern novels; but here was a whole swathe of literature to which my mind drew a blank.  Aside from a (mighty) Stalin biography or two, Imperial Russian and USSR literature classics were a mystery to me.

And so, I scanned the shelves and found novels by Tolstoy & Solzhenitsyn amongst others.  Possibly in a foolish move, I worked my way backwards, reading through Solzhenitsyn’s short stories and novels (Cancer Ward, One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich, August 1914, Matyrona’s Place, and An Incident At Krechetovka Station), and found a movingly painted portrait of a country that had changed drastically, and a population who had been through much.

After reading through these books, my eyes fell onto a writer who was also producing books at the same time on the same subjects as Solzhenitsyn.  Mikhail Sholokhov, a Nobel Prize winner for literature, was a name I did not recognise but would come to love.  I stumbled upon his Don epics, consisting of two parts, firstly And Quiet Flows The Don & its  sequel The Don Flows Home To The Sea, and I was entranced by the comings and goings of the Melekhov family, center stage in a cast of gregarious Don cossacks in a country that is ripped apart before and during World War One, and the subsequent Russian Revolution of 1917 and Civil War that led to the formation of the Soviet Union.

The story concentrates on this one family, and in particular on Grigori Panteleevich Melekhov, who falls in love with his neighbours wife, Aksinia Astakhov.  It is a moving family portrait, vast in scope and beautifully told, and rightly compared to Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace.  Ultimately I cannot do it justice here, and so I implore you the reader to find and read the book yourself – I promise you will not be bored.

Since reading the Don epic, I have started to read Anna Karenina by Tolstoy, which was only slightly marred by the fact I had to hand my University library copy in 60 pages short of the ending (and the local libraries haven’t got a copy!).  Meantime I have picked up a copy of Gogol’s Dead Souls, and finding his writing style very different from his near contemporary Tolstoy, and both  of the Soviet era writers Solzhenitsyn and Sholokhov.

I am intensely glad I have started to have uncovered the vast travel trove of literature that Russia has to offer, and long may it continue.  I have found novels that have since lain close to my heart (especially Cancer Ward by Sozhenitsyn) and characters that will stick with me throughout my life.