Thursday, December 30, 2010

Russia: A Very Brief History

- To see the newer version, updated in 2018, click here

Some time in the late 1990s, I was asked by Encyclopaedia Britannica to produce a short piece condensing the history of Russia into 300 words. As I recall, the idea was to fit the text onto one screen for some reference service having to do with the 2000 Olympics in Australia. I liked the challenge and struggled with it for a couple of weeks, in the end surprising myself that once things were distilled to an essence, communism got barely a mention. A colleague has just asked me for a permission to use it in a course, and I decided to give the 300 words original a once-over, padding it to about 500 words. Here, then, is my short course in Russian history, revised for the present.

* * *

Situated on the great Eurasian plane, Russia has been vulnerable to invasions from both East and West (Mongols, 1247-1480; Poles, 1605-1610; French, 1812; Germans, 1941). By the same token, once a centralized autocratic state was established under the grand princes of Muscovy, beginning with Ivan III (1462-1505), Russia could expand laterally and hold contiguous territories,. Even today, after the dissolution of the USSR in 1991 and the secession of Ukraine, Belorus, the Baltic republics and those of Central Asia, Russia still spans the entire northern part of the Eurasian continent, from the Pacific to the Baltic Sea.

Adoption of Orthodox Christianity from Byzantium (988) brought Russia into the fold of Christian Europe, but it also set it apart from the Roman Catholic West. Therein lies the beginning of Russia’s ambivalence toward the West and the recurrent belief in Russia’s special destiny as the bearer of true faith, whether Orthodox Christianity (“Moscow the Third Rome”), or the Slavic commonwealth imagined by the Slavophiles, or revolutionary socialism preached by radical Westernizers, or world Communism inaugurated by the Bolshevik revolution of 1917.

Isolated and fractured under the Mongol dominion and later threatened by the increasingly aggressive West, Russia was barely touched by the Renaissance, Reformation and Counter-Reformation, and its own Russian Orthodox Church was never free from the tutelage of the state and is to this day unreformed. Westernization came with Russia’s emergence on the world stage under Peter the Great (1682-1725). A modernizing autocrat, Peter established a lasting pattern for meeting the challenge of the West – maintaining an unstable balance between, on the one hand, selective adoption of modern Western institutions and knowledge and, on the other, protection of the centralized state and its power to impose corvée, heavy taxes, and to repress dissent.

Where the reforms were successful, achievements have been spectacular: in literature (Pushkin, Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov), music (Chaikovsky, Stravinsky, Shostakovich), art (Kandinsky, Malevich), theater and ballet (Stanislavsky, Meyerhold, the Ballets Russes), film (Eisenstein), science (Mendeleev, Pavlov, Kapitsa), hi-tech weaponry and space technology (the Bomb, the Sputnik). Russia was recognized as a military superpower when it defeated Napoleon in 1812 and under the Soviets when it vanquished Nazi Germany in 1945. It still enjoys a superpower status, if only in nuclear weapons. But serfdom was abolished only in 1861, private ownership of land and property rights are still subject to the whim of the state; civil society is thwarted by the officialdom; and corruption is unchecked.

Deep antagonism between modernizing trends, including the rule of law, and concentration of power at the top — be it a tsar or a communist dictatorship (1917-1991), or Vladimir Putin’s “sovereign democracy” — has produced an unstable and skittish polity. Periods of repression (notably extreme under Stalin) are punctuated by episodes of exuberant liberation, followed by reforms, in turn, undermined by renewed centralization and authoritarian tendencies.

Emancipated from communism in 1991, Russia has been struggling to institute democracy and a market economy in the face of countervailing trends, among them, Muslim irredentism in the Caucasus, endemic corruption, and backsliding into authoritarianism on the part of the power elite. Much progress has been achieved but the overall picture remains mixed, with the exception of Russia’s foreign policy. Since the end of the cold war, Russia has enjoyed an international climate, especially vis-à-vis the West, which is benign without precedent.

Copyright © 2010 by Gregory Freidin

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Akhmadulina Remembered, Again

Please read the earlier post first.

A few days ago I received a request to review an advance copy of An Invisible Rope: A Portrait of Czeslaw Milosz, edited by my friend and Stanford colleague Cynthia L. Haven (Ohio University Press, to be released shortly). Among other recollections of Milosz (he left an indelible mark in those hwo knew him), there was “Spring in Berkeley,” by Tomas Venclova. It contains Venclova's account of the same evening that he and I spent with Bella Akhmadulina and her husband, as it turns out, at Cheshire Cat, a Berkeley pub that is no longer in existence. Having read Tomas' recollections, I now realize that I must have left the party shortly after Milosz joined it and, fool that I am, missed the rest of the conversation that, unbeknownst to me,  continued well into the small hours of the morning. 

I shall not attempt to retell Venclova's story here and preempt the publications (it is a great piece about Milosz and a fine snapshot of Berkeley, as seen by one who has just landed ffrom Mars!), except to note that among the subjects discussed by these three poets was one dear to Milosz’s heart and at the core of his The Captive Mind: the compromising position of intellectuals who publicly cooperate with a communist regime while limiting their criticism to private consumption (what Milosz referred to as ketman). Tomas, who had freed himself from any ambiguity vis-à-vis the Soviet regime by joining the Helsinki Group, which led to his de facto expulsion, was the one to raise the subject. Akhmadulina, still on the leash, took the subject personally, assuming that ketman had something to do with the ambiguity of her position in the Soviet Union. Milosz, it seems, did too. Akhmadulina was about to go to pieces and would have there and then had Milosz not intervened and absolved her of any such sins after she declared her admiration for Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago.
Those were the days! Or as Osip Mandelstam put it in his 1916 poem about a Petrograd performance of Racine's Phaedre, "if only the Greeks could see our games!" Когда бы грек увидел наши игры!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Remembering Bella Akhmadulina

News flashed the other day the death of Russian poet Bella Akhmadulina at the age of seventy-three. Growing up in Moscow, I remember her name cropping up among the poets who occupied the grey zone between the permitted and the impermissible: she could publish some of her poetry, the other, her muse’s contraband, she could voice at public recitals and enjoy its circulation in literary samizdat. That’s how most Russian intelligentsia lived then – in two worlds at the same time – call it schizophrenia or split personality, or double-think. A true poet, she embodied her age, warts and all, and the decades after Stalin’s death were nothing if not the age of poetry.

Inflected and melodically variable, the Russian language gives poetry an extra ordinary expressive force, further amplified by poetry’s mnemonic potential. If you happen to live under a repressive ideocracy like the Soviet Union, you are likely to resort to poetry as a preferred medium of public expression, since verse is easily memorized, harder to pin down as protest, and leaves little material evidence. Of course, mass terror under Stalin left little room for such niceties, but once Stalin died and the Soviet party-state abandoned mass repression, things changed, and poetry, for one, could really thrive.

The state-controlled publishing could not contain the burgeoning youth culture of Soviet baby boomers, and the minimal – and for that reason infinitely titillating – lifting of the skirt of Soviet censorship, rather than satisfy, only whetted the appetite for free expression. For us, who belonged the post-WWII generation, shaped by Nikita Khrushchev’s Stalinization campaign, cold war, and its other, “peaceful coexistence” (a grudging admission of the impossibility of the “last and decisive battle” against capitalism), this toying with the ideological hemline wreaked havoc with our imagination and set our minds on fire! Grim and sclerotic as the Soviet empire was in its decline, it became a Garden of Eden for poetry – and a purgatory, not to say a minor inferno, for the poets themselves. Some, like Brodsky, were exiled or jailed, others went through torments of hell in trying to combine the imperative of remaining true to their calling with the relentless and crushing pressure to conform. That was the cup that Akhmadulina, twenty and otherworldly beautiful in 1956, drank to the dregs.

In the sixties, I was too green and too much of a young snob to take seriously the poetry of my older contemporaries. Joseph Brodsky was the sole exception, but then, he never published in Soviet press, had gone through a crucible of a trial, incarceration in a mental hospital, and exile up north. Besides, the word had it that Anna Akhmatova herself bestowed the mantle of the Silver Age Heir Apparent on Brodsky’s shoulders. She knew a thing or two about legends, and remarked with her usual sardonic sense of humor about Brodsly’s persecutors: “Oh what a biography they are creating for Joseph!”

Akhmadulina, suffer as she did, could not come close: her poetry was permitted and not, pace Osip Mandelstam bequest, "stolen air." True, she had a front seat in “the little orchestra of Hope, conducted by Love,” as the chansonier Bulat Okudzhava described the true poets of his generation (they may have lost faith but still could love and hope). But for me and my Bohemian milieu, the world of poetry was dominated, not by orchestras, not even the much admired chamber orchestras (Rudolf Barshai and Adrei Volkonsky) but by the great solo players of the Silver Age. Tsveateva, Mandelstam, Akhmatova, Pasternak, Mayakovsky (grudgingly), each had an oversize and fulfilled destiny and each was wrapped in a personal myth capable of enchanting their “grandchildren’s” generation. And that is who we were. Just think, we used to joke, Akhmadulina shared only two syllables with the regal Anna Akhmatova. Two syllables did not cut it.

But then, not long before my emigration from Russia, I had the occasion to change my mind. The transformation occurred in a Moscow theater while I was watching a hybrid feature film documentary with what for me was an unlikely title: Sport, Sport, Sport (1970). What moved me to the quick was a poem that Akhmadulina herself recited in her tightly wound girlish contralto. It was a voice-over of the final segment of the film. Directed by the celebrated Elem Klimov, with the original score by Alfred Shnitke, a star-studded cast, and containing the first ever in Russia tiny clip of the Beatles, the film was all the rage in Moscow when it was released into theaters in the spring of 1971.

The final segment with Akhmadulina’s voice-over consisted of a two-minute close-up of the great Ethiopian runner, Abebe Bikela, shot, no doubt, during one of his interminable marathons. The clip itself was slow-motion, decelerated to make Bikela’s strides coincide rhythmically with the iambic pentameter of Akhmadulina blank verse, itself resounding over a faintly audible organ continuo of Schnitke’s score. As Akhmadulina's voice receded, Schnitke's organ gained force until it crested over the film's finale. Seldom have any three celestial bodies been in a better alignment!

“Behold a man who has commenced his run,” Akhmadulina’s voice was reaching deep into the subliminal (and not so subliminal) desire to defy the boundaries of the constricted Soviet space,
way back, when dawn broke over
the whole universe; can’t calculate how many centuries
he has been running far and yon. Toward a blessed
and important goal. What triumph drives him on
to keep transcending space? …” 

Вот человек, который начал бег
давно, когда светало во вселенной,
не вычислить, какой по счёту век
бежит он вверх и вдаль. К благословенной
и важной цели. Что за торжество
манит его превозмогать пространство?

What a surprise it was to locate this clip on Youtube!

A few months later, in September 1971, I found myself transcending space, first on board an Aeroflot flight to London, then, a few hours later inside what I took for a Heathrow Airport movie theater but what turned out to be a PanAm 747 that, despite its girth, whisked me effortlessly across the Atlantic to JFK and into my wife's embrace. 

* * *

My sole personal encounter with Bella Akhmadulina took place some seven years later in 1978, when she came to the Bay Area as part of a poetry tour of the United States.  She had an appreciative audience at UC, Berkeley, but was nervous and visibly upset during the recital, a poor match, I then thought to myself, to Brodsky, who had not long ago cast his spells in the same auditorium and like a rock star held everyone in thrall for two hours. We agreed to meet for a nightcap. She was accompanied by her husband, a theater artist, Boris Messerer; I came together with Lithuanian poet and scholar Tomas Venclova, who had known her for years and who had just escaped from the Soviet Union and was then teaching Tartu Semiotics as a Regents Professor at my alma mater. Now, over three decades later, I have a vague memory that Czeslaw Milosz joined us later when we were about to break up or shortly before I left the gathering. He had just been awarded the Nobel Prize and must have felt he had an obligation to honor a fellow poet and visitor from behind the Iron Curtain (see Post-Script II).
We met at some dive on the north side of the campus, and the nightcap quickly evolved into a liquid supper in the Russian style. Akhmadulina complained bitterly about a minder from the Soviet consulate who was at once fawning and insulting to her and whom she blamed for her foul mood at the Berkeley poetry reading. She drank a trifle too much, and I remember being surprised by the quiet and indulgent smile with which her husband observed her progress with the bottle. Like a sand clock with its communicating chambers, the emptier the bottle became the more high-strung Akhmadulina grew. I recall saying to myself then that this was what Marina Tsvetaeva must have looked like in some cheap Parisian bistro or other some forty years earlier. A comparison with Nastasya Filippovna from The Idiot, too, crossed my mind. The conversation got jerky and moved in spurts. Filling a tense pause, I ventured to pipe in something about how much I was touched by her poetry in the 1970 film and how much she opened my eyes to the beauty and spiritual depth of athletics (a former boxer, I had valued sports for the ecstasy it afforded me in the ring and its utility in self-defense, but never spirituality or aesthetics). To my surprise, she took offense and with a touch of hysteria in her voice dismissed me, along with my heart-felt compliments.
I backed off. She looked like a wounded animal – a human animal, as she was also drowning in alcohol and self-pity. I sipped my drink in silence. For the first time, it occurred to me that even a star like Bella Akhmadulina, precisely because she was a star, had to live with fear, contempt, self-loathing, and then again, with more fear, contempt, and self-loathing. Now, eleven time zones from the Kremlin, she was yet again reminded  by a petty clerk from the Soviet Conuslate in San Francisco of her bondage to the state, and along with, all the innumerable lacerations she had ever endured. Oh what she had to go through for years and years, this marathoner with a tense girlish contralto, as she tried to safeguard her integrity while taking care not to cross the red line marked by the jealous and ever-vigilant party-state! The following year, she summoned enough courage to join the uncensored underground almanac Metropol. Her husband did the design for the volume. With a lot to lose, as it must have felt then, they chose defiance, at last.
I now wonder, if her reaction to my heart-felt praise may have been prompted by something else. Was she, perhaps, considering defection or some other desperate act and wished to talk it over with her old friend Tomas Venclova and felt constrained and irritated by my presence? Tomas, if you read this and remember that evening, please let me know. But one thing is clear now. In her generation’s “little orchestra of Hope, conducted by Love,” hers were some of the most memorable solos.
Stanford. December 1, 2010.

Postscript I. Looking for a Youtube link to Okudzhava's song, I came across a clip recorded not long before Okudzhava's death in the company of Bella Akhmadulina. She embaces Okudzhava and reminds the audience that the song was dedicated to her. Here is the clip:

Click here for Post-Script II.
Copyright © 2010