A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life, by George Saunders

December 23, 2021 at 4:16 pm (Book review, books, Russophilia, Uncategorized)

  So, this book was a real challenge. But I felt that it was time to give the “leetle gray cells” a tune-up. So I signed on…

The four Russian writers cited in the book’s subtitle  are Chekhov, Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Gogol. Tolstoy contributed two of the six tales included in this volume; Chekhov, three.

Ivan Turgenev 1818-1883. (I know from reading The Europeans by Orlando Figes that Turgenev did not actually spend much of his creative life in Russia.)

Anton Chekhov 1860-1904

Niklolai Gogol 1809-1852

Count Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy 1828-1910

Chekhov and Tolstoy

The stories are:

“In the Cart,” “The Darling,” and “Gooseberries” by Chekhov
“The Singers” by Turgenev
“Master and Man” and “Alyosha the Pot” by Tolstoy
“The Nose” by Gogol

Saunders presents the first story, “In the Cart,” in discreet sections, with comments on each portion of the tale. The other stories are presented in their entirety, with no interruptions and commentary following.

The commentary on the stories is enlightening, although at times I became impatient with it. ( I remember this happening to me frequently in college, where I majored in English literature.) Saunders’ observations are beautifully expressed aand insightful, almost in a way that is startling.

On Marya Vasilyevna, the chief protagonist of “In the Cart:”

She’s been rejuvenated, remade into that carefree, happy, hopeful young girl she used to be. She’s like a superhero whose powers have suddenly returned.

And this, in a story with almost no action, no plot. But as soon  as I read the  above assertion, I recognized its rightness.

“The Singers” is about a singing competition that takes place in a tavern in a small town. Here’s how Turgenev describes the vocalizing of one contestant, known as Yashka the Turk:

Yashka was evidently overcome by ecstasy: he was no longer diffident; he gave himself up entirely to his feeling of happiness; his voice no longer trembled–it quivered, but with the barely perceptible inner quivering of passion which pierces like an arrow into the hearer’s soul, and it grew continually in strength, firmness, and breadth.

The listeners are deeply moved, in some cases, to tears. It’s a quintessentially Russian scene, but Saunders teases out of the story a universal truism about art:

We’re always rationally explaining and articulating things. But we’re at our most intelligent in the moment just before we start to explain or articulate. Great art occurs–or doesn’t– in that instant. What we turn to art for is precisely this moment, when we “know” something (we feel it) but can’t articulate it because it’s too complex and multiple.

“The Darling” is a story I’d read before and was happy to encounter again. In his commentary, Saunders makes this intriguing assertion:

What transforms an anecdote into a story is escalation.

This made me think of countless times I’ve been pinioned by someone telling a story that seemed to have no arc, no buildup, no climax, and no satisfactory conclusion. It never fails to amaze me that such people have no idea that there’s a reason the listener’s eyes have glazed over! (Do they even notice that it’s happening?)

Concerning “The Nose,” Saunders informs us that this particular tale is “a particular Russian form of unreliable first-person narration called skaz. It’s mainly a satire that tells its most outrageous elements with a straight face. I have to say right off the bat that this was my least favorite story in the book. I had to force myself to get through it.

However, Dmitri Shostakovich was sufficiently inspired by it to write an opera. Click here for a summary of the action in this work. And below is a rather amusing dance sequence that appeared in a production staged by the Royal Opera:

It’s been a while since I read this book. As with “The Nose,” “Gooseberries” did not really stick with me, but unlike the Gogol story, I liked “Gooseberries” very much. In my experience, Chekhov never disappoints!

A man makes known his desire to forsake the rat race in the city and move to a small allotment he possesses in the country, in order to farm it. His brother disapproves. First, he states the wry truism that a man only needs six feet of earth. But he has more to say on the subject:

To retire from the city, from struggle, from the hubbub, to go off and hide on one’s own farm–that’s not life, it’s selfishness, sloth, it is a kind of monasticism but monasticism without works. Man needs not six feet of earth, not a farm, but the whole globe, all of Nature, where unhindered he can display all the capacities and peculiarities of his free spirit.

You don’t know necessarily have to agree with the sentiment expressed here, but it’s expressed  beautifully, and it’s thought-provoking.

I’ve deliberately saved the Tolstoy stories until the end. “Alyosha the Pot” is the tale of a simple young man who, in many ways, seems too good for this world. He’s like  the Holy Fool one encounters, from time to time, in the literature of Russia, and of other countries as well, an individual of intense religious faith coupled with a resigned feeling about the course his life will take. This story has the feeling of times long past. Yet Tolstoy wrote it in 1905, five years before his death at the  age of 82.

Alyosha enters a period of servitude, in which he is frequently taken advantage of. Such is the fate of people like him. He has a brief chance to find happiness, but it is snatched from him almost at once. He does not protest, but simply accepts his fate.

Saunders poses a profound, and likely unanswerable, question about this tale:

So, is it possible that Tolstoy intended us to read the story as a simple praise of Alyosha, who,…over the course of his whole life, enacted radical Christian humility– a sad story, on the human level, but ultimately a story of the triumph of simplicity and faith?

Finally, there is “Master and Man.”

I thought that I would have a great deal to say about this story, but I find I’m having trouble finding the words.

“Master and Man” is the story of Vasili Andreevich, a wealthy young landowner, and his manservant (or man) Nikita. Vasili Andreevich is eager to inspect a property that he might be  able to acquire, if he does not delay. He selects Nikita to accompany  him, chiefly because he is the only one of his workers who, on that particular day, is not inebriated. (Really, reading Russian fiction of this period is enough to convince you that the vast majority of the country’s people are drunk most of the time!)

And so they set off. But they are taking a terrible chance. The notorious Russian winter is closing in on them. A ferocious blizzard is approaching. The warning signs are plainly visible. But Vasili Andreevich insists on going, despite ominous conditions. This is the story of what happens to  them on this fateful journey.

I will say no more about the plot. But I have to say this: In the course of their travels, something happens to Vasili Andreevich that is so profound, so unexpected, that it took my breath away. It is something that happens mainly within the man, to his mind and to his heart. It causes him to undertake an action…Well, I’ll stop here. When I finished “Master and Man,” I closed this book and sat still for a certain period of time. There were tears in my eyes. I felt as though I had just had a glimpse – not quite hidden behind a wall of snow – of God, working His inexorable will upon one human being.

George Saunders quotes Vladimir Nabokov:

“Most Russian writers have been tremendously interested in Truth’s exact whereabouts and essential properties…Tolstoy marched straight at it, head bent and fists clenched.”

I’m deeply grateful to have been led back to the Russian masters. I thank George Saunders wholeheartedly for this opportunity. I studied Russian language and literature in college, but I’ve had scant occasion to revisit this treasure trove of beauty and meaning and depth. It has  recently come to my attention that there is a new book out about Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. It’s called The Sinner and the Saint: Dostoevsky and the Gentleman Murderer Who Inspired a Masterpiece; the author is Kevin Birmingham. I’d like to read it, but I never actually got through Crime and Punishment, and what portion of it I did read is part of my remote past.

So yes, Dear Reader, I’m taking another crack at it. I’ve selected the Constance Garnett translation, but I may switch to another, more recent one in due time. Nonetheless, I am finding the novel deeply absorbing.

The title of this famous work is one that I’ve known in Russian ever since my undergraduate encounter with this strange and enchanting language. Here it is:

преступление и наказание

It is pronounced ‘prestupleniye i nakazaniye.’

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March 30, 2020 at 1:09 pm (Ballet, opera, Russophilia)

Why do we need the arts to survive? Just look at this video of the Bolshoi. From Russia – land of my ancestors! – with love:

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Why I love ballet

September 29, 2018 at 2:46 pm (Ballet, Russophilia)

Here are three videos, all by Russia’s Bolshoi Ballet:

The following two videos feature the astonishing Ivan Vasiliev:

Keep in mind that what follows is an encore performance – Ivan Vasiliev and Oksana Bondareva have just finished performing this program and are now repeating it, at the insistence of the audience.

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‘…nothing less than ugly, crazed and botched murder.’ – The Race To Save the Romanovs, by Helen Rappaport

September 26, 2018 at 8:30 pm (Book review, books, History, Russophilia)



‘What happened in the basement of the House of Special Purpose on Voznesensky Prospekt, Ekaterinburg, in the early hours of 17 July 1918, was nothing less than ugly, crazed and botched murder.’

This is Helen Rappaport’s blunt assessment of one of the twentieth century’s most notorious multiple murders (and  this, in a century  that was not short of similar atrocities).

Some race. It was destined to fail, even before it began. Irresolute posturing, procrastinating, general confusion, outlandish proposals – all characterized the action and inaction of the European powers in the year between Tsar Nicholas’s abdication and the annihilation of all seven members of the Royal Family and four of their faithful retainers.

This is a very complicated story, and Rappaport tells it with detailed precision. It’s only when  she gets to the inevitable and terrible end that she allows her own feelings of outrage to percolate through to the surface of this narrative.

In the course of writing this book, Helen Rappaport uncovered some new  – and newly relevant- material. An enormous amount of digging and sifting, in several languages, was done. I’m awed by what she and her research assistants – to whom she gives generous credit – have accomplished here. They had to untangle a skein of evidence with regard to which European monarchy, or what agency, might have effected a rescue of Russia’s imperiled royal family. Politics entered heavily into the question, and the fact of World War One raging across the continent complicated the situation greatly.

George V of England and Tsar Nicholas II were first cousins. Yet for mainly political reasons, the British were extremely reluctant to harbor the Romanovs within their kingdom. Various plans were bruited by others, but in the end, none reached fruition – at least, not in time.

King George V and Tsar Nicholas II

In her Postscript – entitled “‘Nobody’s Fault’?” – Rappaport offer a succinct summation of the fate of the various monarchies of Europe:

Whatever the degree of responsibility of the King of Great Britain, the Kaiser of Germany and their various European royal relatives in the terrible fate of their Russian cousins, there is no doubt that the murder of the Romanovs at Ekaterinburg in 1918 was a pivotal event in the long history of European monarchy. It dealt a body blow to an institution that had persisted against the odds, through centuries of revolution, acts of terrorism and the constant threat of republicanism. The Great War that set its stamp on the twentieth century, destroying so many of these seemingly inviolable monarchies, proved that their days were numbered. In the post-war years they would all have to adapt as constitutional monarchies or be forced from power.

Of the British monarchy in particular, Rappaport observes:

In the post-war world, George V and Queen Mary shrewdly set out to entrench their more personal style of monarchy at the centre of national life, a trend that was continued by their son George VI and has probably reached its apotheosis in the reign of their granddaughter Elizabeth II.

Tsar Nicholas II was never cut out to be Emperor. When his autocratic father Alexander III died unexpectedly at the age of 49 in 1894, Nicholas was appalled. He was utterly unprepared for the enormous task of ruling Russia. Unfortunately, as the years went by, he did not rise sufficiently to the task. Russia’s  absolute monarchy was hopelessly anachronistic but Nicholas couldn’t see that fact clearly; at any rate, he did nothing to modernize the institution, even while  the country itself began to industrialize and to become increasingly restive for a variety of sociological and political reasons. Nicholas’s wife Alexandra dominated him, and her convictions were even more backward looking than his own.

Fate hung heavily over this family, at the center of the storm. Alexandra gave birth to four daughters in a row before a son was finally born. Alexei proved to be afflicted with haemophilia, an hereditary blood disease for which there was no effective treatment in the early 20th century.

Now that the Soviet Union no longer exists as such, the Romanovs have been rehabilitated. When their remains were discovered and verified, they were interred with all the solemn pomp of the Russian Orthodox Church in 1998.

If you view this video on YouTube, you can read Boris Yeltsin’s speech, given on the occasion.

Ekaterinburg, where the Romanovs met their end, has of late become a pilgrimage site. Yeltsin said:

By burying the remains of innocent victims, we want to atone for the sins of our ancestors. Those who committed this crime are as guilty as are those who approved of it for decades. We are all guilty. It is impossible to lie to ourselves by justifying senseless cruelty on political grounds. The shooting of the Romanov family is a result of an uncompromising split in Russia society into “us” and “them.” The results of this split can be seen even now.

Obviously some Russians feel the need to make a good faith effort to atone for those sins.

I would recommend The Race To Save the Romanovs to those who, like me, are fascinated and haunted by their story.



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“…a chronicle of fathers and sons, megalomaniacs, monsters and saints.” – The Romanovs 1613 – 1918, by Simon Sebag Montefiore

April 3, 2016 at 3:05 pm (Book review, books, Russophilia)

IMG_1818-X2  Some weeks ago I became aware of a sweeping new history of the Romanov dynasty by British historian Simon Sebag Montefiore. When I made this discovery, the book had not yet been published here; neither was it available on Kindle. I therefore ordered it from Amazon.co.uk. You understand: e-book or hard copy, I had to have it  immediately. (This title comes out here on May 3.)

The text consists of 654 pages, prefaced by a nine page introduction, which should definitely not be skipped. The text is followed by 71 pages of bibliographic citations and footnotes. Then finally, the index.

Every few years I make it a point to delve into the perpetual mystery of Russian history. Russia being a place where, as Scottish writer Neal Ascherson reminds us, “the past is said to be unpredictable,” I figure it’s worth checking from time to time on how things stand. The Family Romanov (2014) was my most recent foray: romanovfleming2

Montefiore’s book covers vastly more territory, beginning with the election of Tsar Michael I in 1613. Michael-I-Romanov-Wedekind_-_width_630

The story of the Romanov dynasty is nothing short of astonishing: filled with ruthless jockeying for power, merciless destruction of human obstacles – murder was the least of it. Methods of torture were freely employed that I’d never heard of and hope never to hear of again. I had to skim certain parts.

Upon the death of Michael in 1645, Alexei ascended the throne.  Alexis_I_of_Russia_(1670s,_Ptuj_Ormož_Regional_Museum) He was a religious fanatic, spending many hours in prayer, but compared to some of his successors, he wasn’t half bad as a ruler. When he died in 1676, the almost inevitable struggle for power ensued.

Sophia_Alekseyevna_of_Russia  For a time, Alexei’s daughter Sophia ruled as regent until she was hustled off to a convent in 1689. In the 1879 portrait below, Ilya Repin depicts her looking distinctly disgruntled  at being shoved aside. Actually she’s lucky nothing worse was done to her. Ditto for the man hanged outside her window, on the right: Sofiarepin

The man doing the shoving was Peter the Great. Peter is an amazing character in every way, even for Russia, a country whose history is filled with amazing (and often appalling) actors. (And “actor” is often the right word: people were constantly appearing out of nowhere to declare themselves the rightful heir to the throne of Russia. One of the more remarkable among them, appearing in the following century, was Princess Tarakanova. Her name is shrouded in legend, one of which claims that she died in a flood. In this 1864 painting, Konstantin Flavitsky depicts her as she awaits her fate. Has she attained a sort of ecstatic state? I’m not sure, but it’s a remarkable and strangely haunting work:

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There is also a silent film about Princess Tarakanova:

Back to Peter the Great: at six foot eight, a larger than life personage in every way:



Portrait by Godfrey Kneller

The Wikipedia entry on Peter is quite comprehensive. I note, however, that it makes no mention of a sort of profane dining and drinking society first convened by Peter in 1691, when he would have been barely twenty years old.  I am reading about it right now. Its full name was the All-Mad, All-Jesting All-Drunken Synod (or Assembly):

Between 80 and 300 guests, including a circus of dwarfs, giants, foreign jesters, Siberian Kalmyks, black Nubians, obese freaks and louche girls started carousing at noon and went on to the following dawn….

A steely capacity for alcohol (which he usually called Ivashka, the Russian version of John Barleycorn) was essential to rise at Peter’s court. Peter was blessed with an iron metabolism for alcohol, rising at dawn to work even after these marathon wassails.

Participation in these coarse and repulsive revels, in other words, was mandatory.

I’m currently on page 84 of this magisterial volume; I have every intention of pressing on.

Simon Sebag Montefiore himself comes from a distinguished lineage, described in Wikipedia as “descended from a line of wealthy Sephardi Jews who were diplomats and bankers all over Europe and who originated from Morocco and Italy.”

Montefiore's great great great Uncle Sir Moses, who who died aged 100, leaving no legitimate sons

Montefiore’s great great great Uncle Sir Moses Montefiore, who who died aged 100, leaving no legitimate sons

This book has lovely endpapers. This may seem of little significance to some, but to me, it is part of what makes hard copy books precious.



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“Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks”

February 21, 2015 at 9:31 pm (Art, Music, Russophilia)

This picture of a triumphant troop of Russian-backed Ukrainian soldiers appeared in this weekend’s edition of the Wall Street Journal:

Russian Rebel Troups (600dpi)-L

The photo, with its air of exuberant comradeship, reminded me of The Reply of the Zaporoshian Cossacks, a painting by Ilya Repin:


A Wikipedia entry tells of how this monumental work was created, and also the story behind it. (Click twice on this image to achieve maximum enlargement.)

In the video below, the painting serves a backdrop for a  haunting aria from The Lieutenant Kije Suite by Sergei Prokofiev:

Sergei Prokofiev, born in the Ukraine (as were all four of my grandparents).


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The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming

September 14, 2014 at 2:29 pm (Book review, books, Russophilia)


A photograph that haunts, taken in 1913.

The Romanov dynasty requires a male heir. Alas for the Tsarina Alexandra, one pregnancy after another produces daughters. She  becomes worn out with the effort. Then on the fifth try- triumph! Alexei Nikolaevich is born on August 12, 1904. Finally, the birth of a male heir insures an orderly succession.

But it was not to be.

Through his mother, Alexei had inherited a terrible affliction. Hemophilia is a disorder of the blood in which little or no clotting factor is present. Wounds take longer to heal, and worse, victims suffer internal bleeding that is difficult to stanch and liable to harm internal organs, tissues, and joints. In Alexei’s case, bleeding into his knee joints caused him excruciating pain and made him, from time to time, unable to walk.

While his parents obsessed over his health they kept up appearances, so that the outside world in general and their subjects in particular would never doubt their divine right to absolute sovereignty over the people of Russia. Yet they were curiously blind to the turbulence, anger, and desperation that were rife among those same people.

How the Romanovs could be so oblivious to what was going on right in front of them is certainly a mystery. What is not a a mystery – at least, not any longer – is the terrible price paid by the entire family for this willed ignorance.

The Family Romanov is being reviewed as a book for young readers. I’d be delighted if middle school or high school students became acquainted with this fascinating and chilling episode of history. The  story of the Romanovs is full of passion, romance, and tragedy. Above all, as you read this book, you sense the hand of fate hovering over this family, almost from the beginning of Nicholas’s disastrous reign.

One thing that Candace Fleming does that I found very effective was to show, by means of photographs and various writings from the era, the stark contrast between the privileged existence of the Russian aristocracy and the terrible grinding poverty in which the masses were forced to live. This is a complex story but I was in thrall to its relentless trajectory. The end is inevitable, almost preordained. I’ve read this story many times, and I’m stunned every time by the pity and the horror of it.

The Romanovs and their world are well represented on YouTube. Here is some footage from British Pathé.  It is silent yet it speaks volumes:


I had The Family Romanov out from the library, but because of its terrific bibliography I decided to download the e-book. Fleming cites a number of primary sources of which I’d not previously been aware.

Here is a sampling:

Alexander, Grand Duke of Russia. Once a Grand Duke. Garden City, NY: Garden City, 1932.
Alexandra, Empress of Russia. The Letters of the Tsaritsa to the Tsar, 1914–16. London: Duckworth, 1923.
Botkin, Gleb. The Real Romanovs. New York: Revell, 1931.
Buchanan, Meriel. The Dissolution of an Empire. London: John Murray, 1932.
Buchanan, Sir George. My Mission to Russia and Other Diplomatic Memories. 2 volumes. Boston: Little, Brown, 1923. Bulygin, Paul, and Alexander Kerensky. The Murder of the Romanovs. London: Hutchinson, 1935.

In his book Stone Voices: The Search for Scotland, Neal Ascherson says of Russia that it’s a place “…where the past is said to be unpredictable.” Here is the first segment of a 1994 National Geographic special called The Last Tsar. It opens with a description of the post-Soviet reemergence- indeed one might almost say, resurrection – of Tsar Nicholas II:

Over a period of years, starting in the 19970s, bones belonging to the bodies of royal family members were uncovered, removed from the earth, and positively identified.   Finally, in 1998, the Romanovs and several others who’d been executed along with them were buried with all due solemnity in the Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul, in Saint Petersburg. Present at the interment were numerous dignitaries as well as living decendants of the House of Romanov.


Russia’s history is a turbulent mixture of  cruelty, catastrophe, and exaltation. It can exert  a powerful pull on those who have fled from it. Sergei Rachmaninoff experienced great success as a musician and composer during his life in America and Western Europe. Yet he never stopped feeling like an exile. It is why Tony Palmers’ wonderful film biography of him is entitled The Harvest of Sorrow:

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To Russia, with love; or, I can’t seem to get the Polovtsian Dances out of my head

February 12, 2014 at 12:59 am (Ballet, Music, Russophilia)

Why does this phenomenon persist?

It could be due to my watching this over and over again:

And this:

Finally, the Polovtsian Dance sequence was the first music heard in the opening ceremony of the Sochi Olympics:


(Will video eventually be available of this rather amazing spectacle? I certainly hope so!)

The Polovtsian Dance sequence is probably the most famous part of Alexander Borodin‘s  Prince Igor. This masterpiece is currently being staged at the Metropolitan Opera for the first time since 1917. It’s being offered as part of the Metropolitan Opera in HD series and can be seen in select local theaters on Saturday March 1. (Will I be there? You bet I will!)


Alexander Borodin, 1833-1887


I first heard the music of Alexander Borodin when I saw the 1955 film Kismet. I was eleven at the time, and I was simply blown away by this movie. I thought I’d never seen or heard anything so romantic and so utterly beautiful. What does an MGM musical have to do  with a Russian composer? An article on the Classic FM site explains.

In the second video above, the one depicting the grand re-opening of the Bolshoi Theater in 2011, you get a lot more than just the Polovtsian Dances. In particular, be sure to watch the excerpt from the ballet Spartacus (at 27:38). (The segment that precedes it, the ballroom scene from Mikhail Glinka’s A Life for the Tsar, is also worth your while – a truly opulent production.) In this same video, I’d like to note also the presence in the audience of Sergei Filin (first row second from the right, next to the empty chair, at 1:00). A former principal dancer with the Bolshoi Ballet, Filin had become the company’s artistic director in Moscow when, in January of 2013, he was the victim of an acid attack. He has had numerous surgeries since then, but my understanding is that he has lost a great deal of his eyesight – hopefully, not all of it. (The malefactors were caught and tried and are currently serving time.)

In his prime, Sergei Filin was a wonderful dancer. A number of tributes to his artistry have been posted on YouTube. I’m especially fond of this one:


My fascination with Russian culture derives in part from my own background. All four of my grandparents immigrated to this country from the Ukraine in the early years of the twentieth century. At the time that they made this epic journey, Ukraine was still part of the Russian Empire.

My maternal grandparents, Nathan Gusman and Mary Davidoff Gusman

My maternal grandparents, Nathan Gusman and Mary Davidoff Gusman

When reading David Brown’s biography of Tchaikovsky, I learned that Ukraine was often referred to as “Little Russia.” Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony is nicknamed Little Russian. The final movement –  an absolute joy! – makes use of “The Crane,” a Ukrainian folk song. Here is the USSR Symphony Orchestra conducted by Yevgeny Svetlanov, who was in his time a tireless champion of Russian music:

(As best as I can determine, the USSR Symphony Orchestra is now known as The Russian State Symphony Orchestra. This puts me in mind of an observation made by Neal Ascherson in his book Stone Voices: The Search for Scotland. Russia, he says, is a place “…where the past is said to be unpredictable.”)

So now, of course, I can’t get the finale of the Little Russian Symphony out of my head. No matter -I’ll gladly let it dwell there, right alongside the Polovtsian Dances.

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A strange and felicitous confluence

June 8, 2013 at 6:58 pm (books, Russophilia)

advertise  strongpoisoncover1

In April, I composed a biographical sketch of Dorothy L. Sayers. It was meant as a prelude to a post about the Usual Suspects’ discussion of Murder Must Advertise. Among the nuggets I included in the biography was a brief mention of Sayers’s unhappy love affair with one John Cournos. I’ve gleaned from more than one source that Cournos was the model for Philip Boyes in Strong Poison. ( I’m pleased to note that this blog entry was selected for inclusion on the Dorothy L. Sayers Facebook page.)

Joseph Epstein’s luminous piece on Nikolai Gogol and his seminal work of fiction, Dead Souls, appeared in the  May 3 edition of the Wall Street Journal. The article’s title was “Surveying the Surging Immensity of Life;”  the subject, one of the great geniuses in an era of Russian literary genius.  Dead Souls, published in Russia in 1842, is a novel I’ve long wanted to read. Epstein’s  eloquent retrospective was a powerful motivator. I got the book from the library. It was a rather singular edition, put out by an outfit called Wildside Press. I can find no date of publication anywhere. The translation is by one C.J. Hogarth.  9781592247196_p0_v1_s260x420

Yesterday, I began leafing through the opening pages of this volume when I was stopped in my tracks by the name of the person who wrote the introduction. It was – is –

John Cournos.  JohnCournos

In the aforementioned blog post I characterized John Cournos as “a self-important writer and ideologue.” This is certainly the impression one gains from reading about his involvement with Sayers. But he appears also to have been a genuinely learned person gifted with a superior intellect. Cournos was born Ivan Grigorievich Korshun in Zhitomir, Russia, in 1881. His parents were of Russian-Jewish background, and although his first language was Yiddish, he eventually gained mastery of Russian, Hebrew, German, and English. His family emigrated to the U.S. when he was ten years old. He relocated to London in 1912, where, years later, he crossed paths with Dorothy L. Sayers. Click here for more information on the life and works of John Cournos.


I had seen this painting of Gogol before:

Nikolai Gogol, by Anton Moller

Nikolai Gogol, by Anton Moller

But the author’s Wikipedia entry featured a daguerreotype that I’d not previously been aware of:  NV_GogolThe photographer’s name is Sergey Lvovich Levitsky.  Levitsky_R.S._-_portrait_of_Levitsky_S.L._-_1890  As I researched this individual, I could not help but marvel that I’d never before heard of him. The Wikipedia entry states that Levitsky “…is considered one of the patriarchs of Russian photography and one of Europe’s most important early photographic pioneers, inventors and innovators.” And indeed he took some striking pictures, including some of the Russian imperial family:


Official engagement portrait of Nicholas and Alexandra, 1894

Czar Nicholas, Empress Alexandra, aand their daughter Olga, 1896

Czar Nicholas, Empress Alexandra, aand their daughter Olga, 1896

Empress Alexandra, Grand Duchess Olga, andd the infant Maria, 1899

Empress Alexandra, Grand Duchess Olga, andd the infant Maria, 1899


This is  John Cournos’s description of the plot of Dead Souls:

It was the day of serfdom in Russia, and a man’s standing was often judged by the number of “souls” he possessed. There was a periodical census of serfs, say once every ten or twenty years. This being the case, an owner had to pay a tax on every “soul” registered in the last census, though some of the serfs might have died in the meantime. Nevertheless, the system had its material advantages, inasmuch as an owner might borrow money from a bank on the “dead souls” no less than on the living ones. The plan of Chichikov, Gogol’s hero-villain, was therefore to make a journey through Russia and buy up the “dead souls,” at  reduced rates of course, saving their owners the government tax, and acquiring for himself a list of fictitious serfs, which he meant to mortgage to a bank for a considerable  sum. With this money he would buy an estate and some real life serfs, and make the beginning of a fortune.

I had to smile as I read this. Yet another scam artist on the loose! Whatever the country, whatever the time period, some things never change.

Dead Souls has recently been translated by Donald Rayfield, an emeritus professor of Russian and Georgian literature at Queen Mary, University of London. One critic hailed the new translation as “…a tour de force of art and scholarship—and the most authoritative, accurate, and readable edition of Dead Souls available in English.”  DeadsoulsgogolThis is a New York Review Books Classics edition. This publisher is doing an outstanding job of making available great, and sometimes unfairly neglected, works from the past.

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Faberge Revealed, at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

August 19, 2011 at 7:25 pm (Art, Music, Russophilia)

Surely this photograph, taken in 1913, of Nicholas and Alexandra and their children is one of history’s most haunting images:

The name of Faberge, master jeweler, is indelibly linked with those of  Tsar Nicholas, Tsarina Alexandra, and their five children, whose fate it was to be the last of the Romanoffs.  Currently on display at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is Faberge Revealed, an exhibit featuring more than five hundred objects designed and created by  Peter Karl Faberge and the superb craftsmen who worked under him. Thanks to the generosity of various donors, the VMFA has one of the finest collections of Faberge objets d’art to be found anywhere in the world. On the occasion of this special exhibition, additional works have been loaned to the museum.

Should you go there, here are some of the things you will see:

Imperial Tsarevich Egg

Napoleonic Egg

Diamond tiara, one of the few made by Faberge

Imperial Lilies of the Valley Basket

The Coronation Egg

The Hen Egg, Tsar Alexander III's Easter gift to his wife in 1885

Imperial snuff box

The eggs, with their tiny miniatures inside, are the most famous products of the House of Faberge. But as this exhibit demonstrates, these master jewelers crafted many other equally beautiful objects. There were brooches and pendants, animals carved from hard stone, snuff boxes – and picture frames. And from these frames, picture after picture of members of the royal household, unsmiling and imperious, gaze out at the world they unthinkingly dominated. 

I could not resist buying the exhibition catalog, a weighty tome with lavish illustrations:  It wasn’t until I took a good look at this book that I fully took in the name of the guest curator: Geza Von Habsburg. Von Habsburg…? A rather storied name in European history, n’est-ce pas? Indeed so. Born in Bupapest in 1940, Geza Von Habsburg is a direct descendant of the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Josef and his wife Empress Elizabeth. In a bygone era, he would’ve been entitled to style himself an archduke. In the current era he may be called Dr. Von Habsburg: he is the holder of a Ph.D. degree from the University of Fribourg in Switzerland and an acknowledged expert on the history and works of the House of Faberge.

Geza Von Habsburg

When this exhibition opened in early July, Philip Kennicott wrote about it in the Washington Post. The article is illuminating, not least because in the middle of it, Kennicott erupts into a diatribe against the Romanoffs and their privileged ilk. He begins with a fairly innocuous observation regarding the eggs, to wit: “In an age of digital illusionism, these little mechanical marvels give an almost reflexive pleasure, no matter how hard one tries to resist.”  But then comes this paragraph:

And there are good reasons to resist everything in this exhibition of more than 500 objects. Faberge’s work is mesmerizing and horrifying at the same time. Although Faberge strove to distinguish his product from the purely ostentatious display of gold and jewels made by other purveyors of useless baubles, his artistry had absolutely no socially redeeming merit. In an age when other artists served broadly humanist causes, when much-needed revolution was in the air, Faberge comforted the comfortable. He may have thought of himself as an artist, but his business lived and died by the whims of a parasitical class of people who either inherited their obscene wealth, built it through raw exploitation, or both.

Still in full bore fulminating mode, Kennicott adds that “It’s enough to send one back to the wisdom of Karl Marx….” Resentment and indignation eventually give way to grudging admiration. Kennicott may hate this aspect of history – the intertwining of beauty with arrogance and wealth – but he cannot deny that this symbiosis  has given the world much of its greatest art.

Click here to read the article in full. And be sure to watch the slide show at the top. You’ll have to endure a short commercial first. Just grit your teeth; it’s worth the wait.

The House of Faberge has recently been reborn as an online retail establishment. Here’s the story of how that happened. One of their premier offerings is the Sadko Sea Horse brooch.  Sadko is the name of a Russian folk legend. It has been made into an opera by Nickolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Here is “The Song of India, from that work:

Here is  “Sadko in the Underwater Kingdom” by Ilya Repin, an artist whose gifts were apparently limitless:

The History International Channel’s program on Faberge Eggs is available on YouTube. Start here:

With its appalling history and magnificent achievements in music, dance, and literature, Russia fascinates. (This may be especially true for those of us who trace our ancestry to that troubled region.) I’d like to conclude with music that seems to me quintessentially Russian. It is a selection from Lieutenant Kije by Sergei Prokofiev. (The art work, by Ilya Repin, is entitled “Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks.)

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