Monday 29 February 2016

Spaces of Blue Week Five: Moments of Humanity in the Post-Stalinist Soviet bloc

"Without free, self-respecting, and autonomous citizens there can be no free and independent nations. Without internal peace, that is, peace among citizens and between the citizens and the state, there can be no guarantee of external peace."
- Vaclav Havel

After  Alexander Solzhenitsyn attended university and graduated from the department of mathematics and physics, he soon went on to fight in World War II. His fate would change in 1945, when he was arrested for letters he had written to a school friend that were critical of Joseph Stalin. Subsequent to his arrest, Solzhenitsyn spent eight years in prisons and labor camps and three years in exile. In 1956, Solzhenitsyn was allowed to settle in central Russia, where he taught mathematics and began writing in earnest. By the early 1960s, with government control being loosened in Russia, Solzhenitsyn saw his short novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich published in a leading literary journal. Based on Solzhenitsyn's own experiences, Ivan Denisovich described a day in the life of a Stalin-era inmate, and its authenticity struck a chord with readers, especially since it was the first such work to appear in post-Stalin Russia.

In 1964, however, the political tide soon turned against Solzhenitsyn when Nikita Khrushchev fell from power in and restrictions on cultural activities were reinstated. Solzhenitsyn lost government-sanctioned publishing privileges and soon had to resort to publishing through underground means. Despite the oppressive nature of his homeland during this time, Solzhenitsyn found success internationally, as publishers abroad clambered to release his work.

The First Circle appeared in 1968, and Cancer Ward followed later that year. These works secured Solzhenitsyn the 1970 Nobel Prize for Literature, but he did not go to Stockholm for the ceremony because he was afraid he would not be readmitted to the Soviet Union when he returned.
In 1973, The Gulag Archipelago, a literary-historical record of the Soviet prison/labor camp system that became a multi-tentacled monster under Stalin, started to appear in installments in Paris and the KGB has seized the manuscript in the Soviet Union. 

Upon the publication of Gulag, Solzhenitsyn was charged with treason and exiled from the Soviet Union. He eventually traveled to the United States and settled in the secluded environs of Vermont, where he continued to write.

In 1989, a literary journal published the first officially-approved excerpts from Gulag. Solzhenitsyn's Soviet citizenship was restored a year later, and he returned to Russia four years after that.

Monday 22 February 2016

Spaces of Blue Week Four: Artistic Responses to the Repression of Stalinism

 "There is no feeling,except the extremes of fear and grief, that does not find relief in music."
- George Eliot (1819-80)

  " A Russian who had absorbed  Akhmatova's poetry or Shostakovitch's music could not be turned into a robot."
 Fear and the Muse Kept Watch: The Russian Masters under Stalin
- Andy McSmith

For anyone interested in reading my review of McSmith's review click on the following link:

The War Symphonies, a 1997 Canadian-German co-production is the most recent, and in some ways the most impressive, of the sequence of revisionist programmes on Shostakovich. Produced for Rhombus Media by Niv Fichman, the film is directed by the distinguished multiple award-winner Larry Weinstein. Shot on location in St. Petersburg and Moscow, this 82-minute documentary includes excerpted performances by the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic and the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra, both conducted by Valery Gergiev, who in addition offers his views on the featured works: a scene from Lady Macbeth, symphonies 4 to 9, and the burlesque Rayok (given in tantalising glimpses of a sharp Mariinsky production)

Anyone interested in reading a compelling novel on the preparation for and the conducting of Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony might first wish to read my review 
of Sara Quigley's The Conductor.

Friday 19 February 2016

The Price of Nonconformity in Ludmila Ulitskaya’s The Big Green Tent

Although this review originally appears in Critics At Large, I include it on this website because the subject is the nourishing value of art, especially literature, poetry and music when living in a repressive state.

Author Ludmila Ulitskaya.

In 2009, the Russian historian Vladislav Zubok (whom some may recall was the perceptive Soviet commentator in the original 1998 CNN landmark series, The Cold War) published Zhivago’s Children: The Last Russian Intelligentsia. The monograph is an exploration of a generation of artists, scientists and thinkers who adopted the pre-revolutionary values “to regain autonomy from an autocratic regime.” Born in the 1940s, they were too young to remember war and Stalinist repression. Coming of age in the heady days of the Khrushchev Thaw, they welcomed his de-Stalinization initiatives, were sobered by the “soft” repression of the Brezhnev stagnation but still believed that the 1968 Prague Spring with its promise of “socialism with a human face” could turn into a Moscow Spring. The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia dashed their hopes. After carefully charting and documenting that painful trajectory from Boris Pasternak’s death to the presidency of Mikhail Gorbachev, and examining the differences and tensions between the liberal Westernized dissidents and the nationalist, often anti-Semitic Slavophiles, Zubok concludes that “their behaviour, with few exceptions among the principled dissidents, was checkered by conformism, cowardice, mutual denunciations, cynicism and hypocrisy. Quite a few of them were unable to resist pressures from the secret police, let alone the temptations of self-aggrandizement, vanity and profiteering.” Zubok tempers that harsh assessment by indicating that the dissident movement “deserve(s) empathy not condemnation” and did contribute to the glasnost policies of openness initiated by Gorbachev. Zudok’s conclusion encapsulates the sentiments expressed throughout Ludmila Ulitskaya’s novel, The Big Green Tent (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015, translated by Polly Gannon). His study is therefore an excellent companion piece to her novel. I had hoped that Zubok might have documented more fully his allegation that many of the dissidents were co-opted by the KGB, a phenomenon that Ulitskaya fully explores in Green Tent

Monday 8 February 2016

Spaces of Blue Week Three: Remembering the Holocaust and Efforts at Restitution

 Forgiveness does not happen quickly.
For great injustice, coming to forgiveness may include a long process of grief, outrage, sadness, loss and pain.
   True forgiveness does not paper over what has happened in a superficial way. It is not a misguided effort to suppress or ignore our pain. It cannot be hurried. It is a deep process repeated over and over in our heart, which honors the grief and the betrayal, and so in time ripens into the freedom to truly forgive.
Jack Kornfield, The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace

A memorial concert reawakens the story of an artistic uprising in the Nazi concentration camp, Terezin, where a chorus of 150 inmates confronts the Nazis face-to-face - and sings to them what they dare not say.

"Defiant Requiem is an incredible story of the Nazi concentration camp at Terezin, wherein many talented Czech artists were imprisoned – and it specifically tells the story of one Czech composer, Raphael Schächter, who's idea it was to lead a performance of Verdi's "Requiem" inside the camp. And it tells the parallel story of music conductor Murry Sidlin who decades later went back to Terezin with the Orchestra of Terezin Remembrance, specifically to perform "Requiem" again, quite beautifully, this time with survivors from the camp. I don't really have the words – let me just say this story was completely new to me and had a profound impact on me, particularly the incredible interviews with the survivors.

When the film was over, the whole crowd stayed still and silent all the way through the final credit, before breaking out in applause. It was such a profound experience to be educated on something completely new relating to the Holocaust, and for the subject matter to be told with such depth and compassion, but also restraint. The story was sensational enough, the filmmakers wisely chose not to be manipulative (which would have been easy in this case) – they just told you and showed you this story with honesty, clarity and genuine beauty….This is what true documentary film making should always be like." A film-goer's review.

Sunday 7 February 2016

Trumpism: A Dangerous Phenomenon

 Had I still be writing That Line of Darkness: The Gothic from Lenin to bin Laden (Encompass Editions, 2013) the following essay would likely have constituted my epilogue. 

Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

"We ought to keep all these foreigners out of the country, and what I mean, the Kikes just as much as the Wops and Hunkies and Chinks."
“He was afraid that the world struggle today was not of Communism against Fascism but of tolerance against the bigotry that was preached equally by Communism and Fascism. But he saw too that in America the struggle was befogged by the fact that the worst Fascists were they who disowned the word ‘Fascism’…” 
– From Sinclair Lewis' 1935 novel, It Can’t Happen Here.

“It’s not an overstatement to say that in this political climate this election encourages a certain fascist strain. We’re not there yet and our democratic impulses are strong. The disturbing thing is that that fascist tendency can even be glimpsed.”

– Elizabeth Drew, "The New Politics of Frustration," The New York Review of Books, 01/14/16.

It is tempting to compare the Presidential campaign of the pitchfork-populist billionaire Donald Trump with that of Lewis’ Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip, a charismatic Senator who is elected to the presidency in Sinclair Lewis' It Can’t Happen Here. Parts of this 1935 dystopian novel, in which women and minorities – those “who are racially different from us” – are stripped of their rights, dissent is outlawed, and a paramilitary force and concentration camps are established, may initially appear implausible, but it would be a mistake to dismiss any comparisons as ludicrous or farfetched. A large portion of the novel documents how liberties are stripped away and a draconian dictatorship ensues, but I think the most relevant chapters are the early ones that explore Windrip’s appeal before he was elected President and implemented his totalitarian system.

Tuesday 2 February 2016

Spaces of Blue: Courageous Responses to Fascism Week Two

"Even in the worst of times, there are people who care."
—Ervin Staub The Roots of Goodness and Resistance to Evil

"The duty of Christians requires acts of resistance through weapons of the spirit.”

  —André Trocmé, Protestant minister at Le Chambon

"When you see the suffering it brings, you have to be mad, blind or a coward to resign yourself to the plague."

—Albert Camus The Plague

"We do not believe in the victory of the stronger, but the stronger in spirit."
Sophie Scholl 

"The following traits are commonly found in the majority of interviewed rescuers: a nurturing, loving home where children are taught caring values, altruistic parents or a caretaker as a role model for altruistic behaviour, tolerance for people who are different, independence, self reliance, self confidence, moderate self-esteem, a history of giving aid to the needy, a belief in common humanity, and the ability to act to act according to one's own values regardless of what others do."

    Patrick Henry, We Only Know Men: The Rescue of Jews in France during the Holocaust, The Catholic University of America Press, 2007.

Caroline Moorehead has generated a lot of positive buzz for her recent Village of Secrets  but Pierre Sauvage, the director of the powerful documentary of Weapons of the Spirit has written a withering and to my mind a persuasive critique.
I think the best book on this topic is A Good Place to Hide: How one French Community Saved Thousands of Lives During World War II by Peter Grose (2015)
Le Chambon sur Lignon

For my review of a new book, The Cost of Courage and the television series, Un Village Francais
 see the French Resistance