Saturday, 8 April 2017

Moscow Rules

Yevgeny Yevtushenko, whose recent death went surprisingly unremarked, may not be much remembered these days, but back in the 1960s he was a prominent public figure, along with those other sometime must-read giants of dissident Soviet-era literature, like Solzhenitsyn, Pasternak, Bulgakov, and the rest. Somehow, the abrupt disintegration of the USSR and the Eastern Bloc from 1989 also disrupted our western view of the significance of those writers. Some of them, like Yevtushenko, had been tolerated at home as, in that quintessential Leninist expression, "useful idiots", a necessary and essentially harmless evil, published and allowed to travel abroad; others – less useful – were executed, forced into labour camps or exile, or merely silenced, only able to circulate their manuscripts furtively as samizdat, sometimes smuggled out to be published in Europe or America. Much the same thing happened to the literature of East Germany: the whole point of being Christa Wolf or Wolf Biermann seemed to fall along with the Berlin Wall. I recall all this vividly as I handled much of the pre-collapse published output, working as the Russian and German cataloguer at Bristol University Library between 1978 and 1983.

I did actually see Yevtushenko perform in his prime. It must have been around 1971, in the packed concert hall of our local college. In those days, any youngster with an interest in poetry (more numerous then, perhaps, than now) would own, along with the ubiquitous Mersey Sound and Children of Albion collections, some volumes of the Penguin Modern European Poets series, almost certainly including the volume of Yevtushenko's Selected Poems, with its distinctive spiky cover-image of a sprig of gorse, red against a white background. He could pack them in like a rock star, back then, and did that night. I still recall a vivid, shouty evening of arm-waving and face-pulling in which the passion overwhelmed the poetry by some margin. I remember noting in my diary, what a poseur! (or maybe the word was "wanker"; my vocabulary was more limited in those days). To use yet another of those multi-attributed quotations, "the key to success is sincerity; if you can fake that, you've got it made". Whatever his sincerity, though, there's no doubt he was a star performer.

Actually, the main thing I recall about him now is the problem with transliterating his name from the cyrillic into the roman alphabet. The sound represented by the single cyrillic character E is "ye", hence Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Boris Yeltsin, Nikolai Yezhov, etc. However, most strict transliteration schemes require this character to be represented by a single "e", so yer man Евгений Александрович Евтушенко ends up as Evtushenko, filed under E, not Y. It's a constant problem with Russian names, this: a lot depends on who in the west got to establish a particular name first, and when. Thus, the composer known to all as Tchaikovsky (filed under T?) has conventionally been transliterated that way (from Чайкoвский) simply because of the absence in the self-styled 19th-century language of culture, French, of the "ch" sound (which is what the single cyrillic character Ч represents) and the consequent use of the lashup "tch" to render it, as the French also do with the author of the plays Les Trois Sœurs and La Cerisaie, Anton Tchekhov. Nonetheless, in any well-conducted anglophone academic library at least, these are both names beginning with C. * This is a two way street, of course: the Russians lack certain phonemes, too (don't we all?), and the unwary can be tripped up by Russian books by or about Ualt Uitman, say, or Genri Dzheims. I was generally pretty good at catching these, in my day, but even Gomer nods.

Naturally, part of the art and craft of cataloguing is the judicious use of cross-references: helpful place-holders which say, in effect, "don't look here for that, my friend, look over there". Of course, these never explain why we've put it over there, perversely, and not here where you were hoping to find it, but people expect nothing less from librarians. We are there to help, but not too much. Half the fun lies in compiling rules and procedures that organise and clarify, but nonetheless often require further explanation. You're welcome!

I had quite a trip down Russian Memory Lane (Улица воспоминаний?) this week, as I visited the exhibition Revolution : Russian Art 1917-1932 at the Royal Academy, in the company of my daughter and two old friends. What a show! You forget how many rooms there are in the RA, and how big they are... So many treasures, from a Trotsky commemorative mug (not many of those can have survived) to an extraordinary but unflightworthy glider designed by Tatlin, suspended in the domed Central Hall like a pteranodon skeleton. Plus, it has to be said, an awful lot of proletkult-kitsch of purely historical interest – who knew the Bolsheviks had a thing for souvenir headscarves and plates? I think my own favourite single item was a beautiful set of supremacist-style food-tokens, made, ironically, for the reduced rations allocated to bourgeois professions like artists and writers. But the thing that entranced us all was the giant painting The Defence of Petrograd by Aleksandr Deyneka, who – unlike so many of the artists on show – was an adaptable survivor who went on to prominence in the post-1932 Stalinist era of Socialist Realism.

From an art-historical point-of-view, the main impression you take away is of a brief period of excitement and ferment, when modernism and revolution came into temporary alignment, throwing off sparks in all directions, a crazy time when figures as different as Pasternak and Mayakovsky, or Kandinsky and Malevich could all thrive, so long as they could seen to be putting their bourgeois shoulders to the revolutionary wheel. It was never going to last, and the wonderful, multifaceted poem of that other dogged survivor Anna Akhmatova, Requiem, is one of the most telling monuments to the so-called Yezhovshchina ("That Yezhov Business"), the most intense period of the Stalinist purges in 1937-38, when she spent long, cold, hungry hours queueing outside the prison in Leningrad where her son was imprisoned.

Aleksandr Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova:
poster for LENGIZ (Leningrad State Publishing House)
"BOOKS in all branches of knowledge!"

Perhaps the strangest thing, though, was realising how very distant that defining revolution of modern times now seems. One of my companions reminded me that her father, a historian, had been a Communist Party member until the 1960s, as had the parents of a number of my friends. For a long time, Soviet Russia was, for many of the most progressive elements from all classes in British society, a beacon of hope. Anti-communism, although real, was never as virulent, systematic, or as quasi-religious here as it became in America. The extinguishing of that beacon, however illusory it had been, inflicted a very real wound on something precious and important in our national psyche, from which, I suspect, we have never quite recovered. Of course, in my student days, when the New Left was still on the rise, CP members were much despised as "the Stalinists", never radical enough, too dependent on the line from the USSR, a spent and reactionary historical force. But the 1917 Revolution itself, as lived, exemplary history, was still a live and hotly-debated subject. As I think I have said before, all it could take was a word like Kronstadt to provoke a brawl in certain quarters. But then, that was nearly fifty years ago, and we were so much older then...

Being so much younger than that now, and easily tempted by books (especially books about photobooks), I was drawn, like an anarchist sailor to a lost cause (as we exited, inevitably, through the gift-shop) to a stack of books entitled The Soviet Photobook 1920-1941. But, as I attempted to pick one off the top, I discovered it was not actually a pile of books, merely two copies of an immensely thick and weighty tome, moreover one priced at £98. Phew. I mean, really... Say what you like about the quality of Soviet-era books – I handled thousands, and many were bound in a repellent, knobbly substance resembling hot-water-bottle rubber, often with multiple changes of paper stock within a single volume – white, green, pink, and buff, giving the edges an appearance similar to a block of Neapolitan ice-cream – but they were cheap, and produced in vast numbers, with the intention of making, say, a complete edition of Dostoevsky in thirty volumes an affordable luxury. Whether the typical Soviet-era apartment would ever have had enough room for a thirty-volume Dostoevsky was a rather different matter, obviously, and dealt with by a completely different bureaucracy, comrade; you'll need to join the queue over the other side of the square. Yes, that very, very long one. Lots of luck. Here, don't forget your books!

Yevgeny Zamyatin's influential dystopian novel "We" ,
published in New York in 1924 having been banned
by the USSR censor in 1921.

* Using ISO 9:1995, the current best, most rational, and utterly ignored transliteration system, these would be Čajkovskij and Čehov. Still filed under C, though!


amolitor said...

This is apropos of not much, but it is one of my favorite stories so I will inflict it on you.

Lev Termen, the inventor of the theremin and many other interesting things (including a completely passive electronic bug that lived in the US Embassy in Moscow for *years*) joined the communist party very very late in life, after trying to join it for many years. Stalin didn't like him, you see.

Finally, as the USSR is collapsing and everyone else is leaving the party, he is permitted in after being required to attend night school in Advanced Marxist-Leninist Theory or something for a time.

We was asked "Lev Sergeyevich! Why are you joining the party NOW of all times?!!" and he replied with the best conceivable answer "I promised Lenin" which he almost certainly had something like 70 years earlier.

Mike C. said...

If so, he was very lucky: by and large, people Stalin didn't like didn't live very long, unless they had powerful friends (Gorky intervened on behalf of a number of writers and artists). Although I see he spent most of the 1930s in the USA -- good move!


amolitor said...

Terman was one of those bona fides geniuses that got sent to a special jail for scientists, where the could try to invent their way back in to favor. Terman sort of succeeded, with the bug he invented and I guess some other stuff.

But yes, it was not fun to be an enemy of Stalin's, and Terman did not have any fun at all being one.