The first nightingale – a poem by Ivan Bunin


It’s a little while since I did any translation and I was recently prompted to have a go at translating this poem from Russian as a little challenge posed here by the Russian & Czech Department at the University of Bristol.

Bunin uses deceptively simple language, but like all apparently simple things, they are really difficult to pull off. For me it also raises the old dilemma of the right way to translate something. Do you translate it as literally as possible, in which case it can sound dull and flat? Or do you attempt to to translate into a more poetic English idiom, in which case is it even the same poem?

Nabokov had a lifelong dream of writing a poem in Russian and translating it into English in such a way that it matched in both sounds and shades of meaning. It was a dream that he found impossible to achieve. So we should not be hard on ourselves if one of the greatest modern masters of English had to admit defeat. But Nabokov went further in the face of this failure: he completely retreated from the idea of a poetic translation. His translation of Eugene Onegin accompanying his massive commentary ( a true homage, full of fascinating background detail about the poem-in-verse) is an almighty clunker. It is a literal translation of the text with no attempt to convey spring and fizz of the original Russian. It’s truly awful.

Here’s my shot at the Bunin poem, falling somewhere between faithfully accurate and poetic:

The first nightingale
The liquid moon glows through the clouds.
An apple tree in curly white blossom.

A ripple of clouds, filmy and soft,
Blue against the moon.

In the chill of the bare, clear alleys of the garden
A nightingale starts up, attempting its song.

In the house, now dark, by an open window,
A young girl plaits her hair in the moonlight.

Sweet and fresh to her is the tale of spring,
Recounted to the world a thousand times.

Timber raft – a song by Alexander Rozenbaum

Related image

I have loved this song for a long time. It’s by a Russian bard (someone who writes and performs their own generally anti-establishment songs) called Alexander Rozenbaum. He specialises in a type of song called ‘shanson’ (from the French), but which doesn’t mean the sort of art song that is associated with Brel or Brassens. In Russian it means criminal or underworld song.

Timber Raft is about the daily experience of a political prisoner in one of Stalin’s labour camps in Siberia surviving in terrible conditions and remembering happier times. In a way it’s the aural equivalent of Solzhenitsyn’s novella One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich. The language is stripped down and condensed, but at the same time very concrete. This makes it hard to translate accurately without paraphrasing. So for example in line 4 of the  the final verse, he uses 5 words in Russian, but I have had to expand it to 12 to explain that pulling off his boots is as difficult as it was for a parish clerk to get to the truth of a matter in a dispute that was brought before him. There are also some simply amazing sound combinations in the song, for example in verse 3, lines 1-2 which sound like this in Russian:

kholoda shtykov da balandy kovsh
zhuravliny krik da telegi skrip

Rozenbaum accompanies the song with a spare acoustic guitar setting that reinforces the barrenness and sameness of the landscape.

Timber raft

Broken by wind-felled trees.
A land swept by snowstorms under armed guard.
The fire’s going out.
Can’t keep it alight. Wolf howling in the hollow.
If you fall down, that’s it. The snow’s made up
A song for us about a timber raft.

Blue-grey morning. The logs are slippery.
Can’t think about swans in this icy water.
Baccie’s damp.
Match’s smoking, steam from padded jackets
Drifts into the sky. If you stay behind
You won’t stand in line.

The ice-cold bayonets and the gruel ladle,
The cranes’ call and the creaking of the cart –
A nail scratched across glass.
Dreaming of a rye rusk, the fag break fug,
The fir trees like a soft bed,
We’ll catch up there again.

I’ll lie down in the past – in a cloudberry bush
I’ll lie down in the long-ago – on a crushed mushroom,
An orange cap.
I’ll recall the past – a little leaf stuck together,
I’ll recall the old days – a hot morning,
Blue sky.

Broken by wind-felled trees.
A land swept by snowstorms under armed guard.
The fire’s gone out.
Cheek shaking, the logging tractor’s clanging,
Get stuck in, mate. Spill the beans.
How did you end up here?

The river’s flooded, dissatisfied
With an empty glass. We can’t think about freedom –
Got to get back to the barrack hut…
Pulling off boots – it’s like a parish clerk getting to the truth
And crawling into the dry and dreaming of the forest
It all looks the same…
It all looks the same…
It all looks the same…
It all looks the same…

I have another favourite song by Rozenbaum called Anathema that I may have a go at translating. That one is quite an angry song about Stalin’s henchmen.

I like Rozenbaum’s songs which at one time were very popular in Russia. So it’s been disappointing to see him move from being a critic of the old Soviet regime to becoming a supporter of Putin and indeed an MP for Putin’s party Yedinaya Rossiya in the Duma.


Fire and Ice: similarities and differences between Greek and Russian

It’s some time since I last did a post in my little Fire and Ice series looking at the links between Greek and Russian cultures. This time I would like to have a look at the similarities and differences between the two languages.

As noted in a previous post the most obvious similarity is in the alphabet: Greek was used by SS Cyril and Methodius as the basis for providing a written form of Slavic languages to facilitate the translation of religious texts. The second most obvious similarity is in the religious terms that Russian borrowed following the conversion of Vladimir of Kiev, as priests, monks, translators, icon painters and church builders headed north to support the country’s Christianisation. So we find bible, icon, monk, monastery, angel, patriarch and liturgy.

However, Greek and Russian have different linguistic roots and the similarities that we see in vocabulary are due to these borrowings, rather than to common root forms. In other ways the languages are quite different. They sound quite different for one thing. Greek has sounds for ‘th’ and ‘ps’ which Russian lacks. Equally Russian has sounds for ‘sh’ and ‘ch’ which are not present in Greek. Greek has definite and indefinite articles, Russian does not. Russian has an infinitive, but although Ancient Greek had one, modern Greek does not. It fell out of use during the Byzantine period: one of the odder linguistic losses that a language can sustain.

Also on verbs, Russian has personal pronouns which go with the verb (though verbs can also be used without them) whereas Greek does not.

Both languages though are stressed. Greek, very helpfully for foreign learners includes the stress marks as part of the spelling (indeed it is considered a spelling mistake to miss them out). How I wish that Russian, which to a foreign leaner can seem to have a capricious stress system, has a similar approach. In Russian, you only find the stress marks in dictionaries and texts for foreign learners. Both languages are also inflected (the endings of nouns and adjectives changes depending on their function in the sentence and on whether they are singular or plural). Russian has six cases, Greek has 3 (4 if you count a vocative that only has any noticeable impact on masculine singular forms).

There is one other curious similarity between the languages in terms of their use of verbs. Russian has two forms of the infinitive, an imperfective and a perfective form which relate to whether the action they refer to is ongoing / iterative or completed. There is something similar in Greek where in the construction used to express an infinitive form, you use the indicative for an ongoing / iterative action and the subjunctive form of the verb for a completed action. As far as I am aware this is coincidental and not due to some mutual influence.


From Georgian drinking song to ‘Long live the Emperor!’


Constantine XI Dragases Palaiologos - last Emperor of Byzantium

Constantine XI Dragases Palaiologos – last Emperor of Byzantium

The leader of our local community choir is very keen on Georgian music and we have over the years performed some astonishing songs from that part of the world. The soundscape of this music is initially a bit alien to western ears: the bass part is often just a drone, the individual parts on their own sound a bit odd and the harmonies frequently clash in a completely unexpected way.

Also it often calls for singing in a calling voice, imagining that you are trying to make yourself heard across fields or on the other side of a valley. That takes a bit of practice as, at least to begin with, it feels like being asked to shout. But there is an energy and vitality to it that completely carries you away.

This week we really enjoyed a piece called Mravaljamieri which we thought was a Georgian drinking song. It was such an exciting and uplifting piece that I started to look for more information about it – and it turns out to have an interesting origin.

Mravaljamieri ‘ means ‘many years’ and is the Georgian version of the Greek Orthodox Polychronion. This is a chant sometimes performed at the end of the Divine Liturgy in honour of a bishop, priest or a member of the laity or just as a celebration of an event.

It reminded me of the time when I used to sing in a Russian Orthodox Church choir and we would sometimes break into this at the end of the service. In Russian it is called the Mnogaya leta.

In the Greek Orthodox Church it is used in a similar way, with the cantor or priest saying the name of the person to be commemorated and then the choir responding by chanting 3 times. It originated in Byzantium when the Polychronion was used as a chant to greet the Byzantine Emperor when he entered Haghia Sofia through the Imperial Doors and at the end of the Divine Liturgy.

In fact it is an adaptation of the Latin acclamation Ad multos annos (Many Years) used by the people to acclaim the Roman Emperor. It is remarkable that through singing and celebration we have this living link with such a remote past.

Fire and Ice: sorcery and superstition

One evening a few years ago we were having dinner with a friend in a tiny village in northern Belarus, not far from the border with Lithuania. Our visit was in connection with setting up community development projects that we might work on together and our conversation ranged widely. Towards the end of the evening I asked our host, an educated man with liberal values and a practising Catholic if he knew anything about znakhari (healers, though my dictionary translates it as ‘sorcerers’) in the local villages.

He then gave me an example from his experience of a znakhar curing a horse that appeared to be sickening and close to death due to some unidentified ailment. I would have liked to find out much more about what they did and actually meet one but, as is often the way, the conversation moved on and the following day we had to leave.

I was prompted to ask the question from reading a fascinating book called Solovyovo – the story of memory in a Russian village by an American anthropologist called Margaret Paxson. She lived with a family in a village some 300 miles north of Moscow to study their lives and particularly their attitudes to time, memory, beliefs and rituals.

One of the people she writes about is a healer called Mikhail Alekseevich Belov who learnt his skills from his father, who in turn had learnt them from a nun. People came from all around to seek his help with everything from cancer and alcoholism to family problems and hauntings. His method of treatment was to have a conversation with the person seeking a cure to find out what their problem was. He would then fill a bottle with ordinary water and, beneath the icons in the icon corner of the bedroom, whisper prayers over the water and then give it to the person seeking a cure to take away and drink.

Ms Paxson explains that Mikhail Alekseevich is an example of what are called in Russian those who know (tye, kto znayet). In other words, people who through a form of sorcery use incantations, prayers and spells to effect cures. This is quite different from a znakhar who uses food, plants and herbs to cure people.

It is interesting that these folk beliefs still exist (the book was published only in 2005) alongside, and often in harmony with, more recent Orthodox beliefs and practices.

She also records the belief in the evil eye (sglaz) which she puts down to envy of improved social or personal circumstances.

Of course, belief in the evil eye is prevalent in Greece too, as you can see from the number and variety of blue eye talismans throughout the country. When I first came across it, in my ignorance I thought it went back to the time of the Frankish occupation after the Fourth Crusade when the country was overrun by fair-haired and blue-eyed northern Europeans. How much more unlucky can you get than to be invaded? But the belief is certainly much older than that and goes back to at least Ancient Greece.

In my first Greek class, I remember one of my fellow pupils recalling an incident when she was staying in Greece. She did not feel particularly well, but couldn’t work out what was wrong. The friends she was staying with suggested that they do the test for the evil eye (kako mati) to find out whether she was a victim of it. The test involved putting a drop of olive oil in a glass of water: normally it should float, but if it sinks this indicates that the eye has been cast. In her instance, it sank. So her concerned friends took her off to the Sunday liturgy to see the priest after the service. He asked her some questions, said some prayers over her and suddenly, as she described it she ‘felt something leave her’. She was soon back to her old self.

The Orthodox Church recognises the evil eye (which it calls vaskania) as ‘simply a phenomenon that was accepted by primitive people as fact. They believed that certain people have such powerful feelings of jealousy and envy, that when they looked on some beautiful object or individual it brought destruction. Vaskania is recognized by the Church as the jealousy and envy of some people for things they do not possess, such as beauty, youth, courage or any other blessing…The prayers of the Church to avert the evil eye are, however, a silent recognition of this phenomenon as a morbid feeling of envy.’

It even has a specific prayer for its removal:

Let us pray to the Lord…Lord have mercy… we pray you and beseech you: Remove, drive away and banish every diabolical activity, every satanic attack and every plot, evil curiosity and injury, and the evil eye of mischievous and wicked men from your servant (Name); and whether it was brought about by beauty, or bravery, or happiness, or jealousy and envy, or evil eye, do you yourself, O Lord who love mankind, stretch out your mighty hand and your powerful and lofty arm, look down on this your creature and watch over him(her), and send him(her) an angel of peace, a mighty guardian of soul and body, who will rebuke and banish from him (her) every wicked intention, every spell and evil eye of destructive and envious men; so that, guarded by your, your supplicant may sing to you with thanksgiving … 

Yes, Lord, our God, spare your creature and save your servant (Name) from every injury and brought about by the evil eye, and keep him (her) safe above every ill. For your are our King and all things are possible to Thee, O Lord. Therefore, we ascribe glory to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Living in a Protestant northern European country imbued with Enlightenment ideas of rationalism and the dismissal of the supernatural, it’s easy to look down on such beliefs. But you only need to scratch the surface to find that similar superstitions were part of everyday country life until comparatively recently.

My father was brought up in a little village in Shropshire in the 1910s and 1920s and I remember him telling me that there was an old lady in the village who among other things was able to cure warts. The ‘cure’ consisted of rubbing the wart with a piece of raw meat, reciting the Lord’s Prayer backwards three times over it and then burying the meat in the ground.

My parents were full of old superstitions and it has taken me years to be able to rid myself of them: don’t walk under ladders; don’t cut your nails on a Friday; if you spill salt throw some over your left shoulder to get rid of the devil; if you break a mirror, it’s 13 years bad luck. I’ve done quite well, but the salt thing I still used to do until about 10 years ago. As for mirrors, I’ve never quite got past my fear of that one…




8 lessons I learned from Comrade Stalin about corporate life

Comrade Stalin

As a student of Russian history, I have from time to time been struck by some of the similarities between corporate life and life in the Soviet Union under Stalin. In saying this I do not wish in any way to minimise the suffering and the evil murder of millions of innocent people. Rather I want to focus on the similarity in techniques of persuasion.

Lesson 1: planning. As a planned centralised economy, the Soviet regime ran everything according to the pyatiletka (the five-year plan). Stalin even wanted to make the film industry work on the same lines. Often they were as much a complete fantasy as their claimed fulfilment or more likely ‘over-fulfilment’. In my corporate life, I lost count of the number of 3 and 5 year business plans I worked on. More often than not they were put in a draw and forgotten until the next planning cycle started.

Lesson 2: visions and mission statements. Stalin used clunky slogans and visionary statements to exhort the people to greater effort. Successive CEOs came and went with their simplified statements of why we were all coming to work day after day. One of the more memorable ones was one of the last: “A good place to do business for customers, shareholders and colleagues”. That was probably only true for shareholders, as judging by the volume of customer complaints, they did not share the vision – and for staff it was an increasingly unpleasant and unhealthy environment in which to work.

Lesson 3: intolerance of dissent. Stalin saw any dissent as betrayal and ruthlessly suppressed any actual or supposed signs of it. Similarly, corporate life discouraged any dissent or disagreement with decisions. It doesn’t like democracy or debate. The price it pays is much pent-up frustration amongst staff and a failure to properly engage people. In the end, for a quiet life, people pay lip service to the company, much as the majority of people paid lip service to Stalin’s regime.

Lesson 4: purges. One of the main ways that Stalin dealt with dissent was through purges. The worst of these occurred in the 1930s following the ‘death’ of Kirov in Leningrad. Stalin, who was almost certainly responsible for having Kirov murdered, used it as a pretext for getting rid of people who he felt opposed his regime through a succession of purges in most areas of life, from the party, armed forces, NKVD (Secret Police), academia, industry, the arts, ordinary people. It reached its peak in 1937 when it devoured Yezhov, Head of the NKVD itself. Of course, companies don’t kill people or send them off to die in labour camps, but they do periodically have re-structures, often to shed staff in the interests of becoming more efficient. Often incoming CEOs or senior management instigate their own purges as a way of stamping their own authority quickly on a company and bringing in their own place-men, people who are loyal to them and whom they trust to do their bidding.

Lesson 5: non persons and the re-writing of history. Once Stalin had managed to grab and consolidate power, he famously made his erstwhile rival, Trotsky, a non-person. He was airbrushed out of history: photographs in which he appeared were doctored to exclude him; and he was expunged from books about the civil war in which he had played a leading part, both in shaping the new Red Army and in leading it against the White forces. Companies often treat their ex-workers in a similar way, their contributions are quickly forgotten, often downplayed, as if they were a risk to the current incumbents. Truly they are names written in water.

Lesson 6: propaganda and self-delusion. Stalin maintained himself in power through an extremely powerful and insidious propaganda machine (as well as by force, terror and fear) that created the delusion that people were living in a society that was travelling towards the perfect Communist society. The relentlessly upbeat in-house magazines and press releases generated by my previous company create a similar sort of effect: ‘this is a great place to work, we are on the right path, we are doing well, we can do even better. Of course, there are still things we aren’t getting quite right, but’: this last is even a direct borrowing from Soviet propaganda wording ‘konechno u nas est nedostaki, no…’ And suddenly one day I went in to work to discover we were all ‘colleagues’: the word ‘staff’ became a non-word.

Lesson 7: cult of the leader: Stalin idolised Lenin (even whilst betraying his last wishes), endlessly doodling the words “Lenin – teacher, friend’ during meetings. But he promoted himself even more as the Great Leader (Vozhd), especially after the Second World War. Similarly CEOs position themselves as the fount of all wisdom and knowledge, omnipresent in in-house magazines. Endlessly quoted, directly or indirectly, by senior managers and their cohorts to justify their actions.

Lesson 8: subordination of personal lives.  Stalin wanted to re-make society and create homo sovieticus by remolding individuals, to colonise their private and even interior lives. Diaries of some intellectual revolutionaries in the 20s particularly showed that they shared the same ideal of re-making themselves. One of his great frustrations was what goes on behind closed doors in families and amongst friends and, even more frustratingly, what goes on in people’s heads. He therefore tried to break the family by encouraging people to inform on each other, even within families. My former company demanded ever greater and greater loyalty, forcing staff to work longer hours and sacrifice their own personal time, health and family life to meet corporate objectives.

Re-reading this, the way that companies behave is not just down to Stalin. It is behaviour that is learned from oppressive regimes of all stripes throughout history. Western Capitalism is just the latest to employ them.   


Fire and Ice: the Orlov Revolt


From the top of the Venetian fortress in Koroni

From the top of the Venetian fortress in Koroni

It’s some while since I last did a post on the links between Greece and Russia, so I am going to pick up the theme again with this post about the Orlov Revolt in the 1770s. This was an attempt by Greek exiles in Russia, supported by Catherine the Great, to foment an overthrow of Ottoman rule in Greece.

One of the interesting aspects of this episode in Greek history is that some of its key scenes took place in Messinia, an area of the Peloponnese that I know a little, and specifically the harbours of Koroni, Methoni and Pylos.

It’s hard to find good material about the Orlov Revolt, so I am indebted to David Brewer’s book, Greece, the Hidden Centuries (2010) for the main lines of what happened.

The idea of a revolt against Ottoman rule was first raised in Russia in 1762 by Giorgos Papazolis, an artillery officer. Given leave of absence from the army, he went first to Venice and then on to Greece in 1766 to canvas support for the idea of an uprising, promising that the Turks would be overthrown and the Byzantine empire re-established.

Papazolis involved two brothers in the scheme, Aleksei and Fyodor Orlov. Aleksei had distinguished himself in the service of Catherine the Great by deposing and then murdering Catherine’s husband, Tsar Peter III. Fyodor was a distinguished general. It may be that their involvement with the Greek cause came as a result of the views of a third Orlov brother, Grigory, who advocated Greek Christian freedom from Ottoman rule.

Since the seventeenth century Russia had three key objectives to its foreign policy: to gain access to the Baltic (achieved through Peter the Great’s founding of St Petersburg); to acquire land to its western border as a buffer; and to gain access to the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Curiously it was the second of these, rather than the third which sparked conflict with the Ottoman Empire. In 1768 Catherine managed to have her favourite, Stanislav Poniatovsky elected to the crown of Poland, to the outrage of the Polish nobility who appealed to France and the Ottomans for help. When Russia ignored an ultimatum to withdraw, the Ottomans declared war.

It was at this point that the Orlov brothers, Aleksei and Fyodor went to Venice to raise money and volunteers for a Greek revolt. In 1769 Catherine the Great made Aleksei Orlov Commander-in-Chief of the Russian forces involved in the rebellion. Whilst he was still in Livorno on a separate mission for Catherine, his brother, Fyodor, arrived with the first Russian fleet of 9 ships and 60 men at the harbour of Itilo in the Mani (having for various reasons already lost 10 of the ships with which he had left the Baltic).

Fyodor established two armies under Russian command, called the Eastern and Western Legions. The Eastern Legion besieged Mystras in March 1770 until it surrendered after nine days, leading to the slaughter of 1,000 Turks and the capture of a further 1,000. One of its main achievements was also to set up a provisional government under Antonios Psaros.

The Western Legion’s main task was to join up with the Russian ships that were besieging the port of Koroni which the Russians wanted as a base for their fleet. Koroni was defended by a large fortress built by the Venetians which, following the fall of Byzantium in 1453, had enabled to hold out against the Turks until 1500. The Russian siege of Koroni, led by Fyodor Orlov, lasted for six weeks and achieved nothing.

Koroni harbour and fortress

Koroni harbour and fortress

Some other parts of Greece joined in the revolt, mainly Corinth, Patras, Nauplio, Monemvasia, Kiparisia and Crete. In the meantime Orlov was sending reports back to the Russian court claiming to be in control of the whole of the Peloponnese. 

However, at this point, as the Ottomans were being pressed by the Russians on other fronts outside of Greece they resorted to using Albanian mercenaries to relieve the sieges in Corinth, Patras and Tripolis. The Albanian mercenaries managed to raise the siege of Tripolis but then turned on the Greeks, slaughtering 3,000.

The Russians succeeded in capturing Navarino Bay, a great natural, sheltered harbour at Pylos.

Navarino Bay - looking towards the entrance

Navarino Bay – looking towards the entrance

At last in April 1770 Aleksei Orlov arrived in the Peloponnese and attempted to rally the Greek leaders by addressing them “all Orthodox Christian Greeks who are subject to the tyranny of the Turks”, promising them the Russians wanted the Greeks “to remain always under her care and protection”. But it was too little, to late. In May Aleksei Orlov attempted and failed to capture the fortress at Methoni.

Methone fortress

Methone fortress

The bourtzi [prison] at Methone

The bourtzi [prison] at Methone

The  Albanian mercenary forces started moving south from Tripolis to restore order, and the game was up. Many people in Messinia fled towards the Russian fleet at anchor in Navarino Bay seeking escape on the Russian ships, until Aleksei Orlov, closed the gates. He had by then decided to withdraw from Greece and abandon the Revolt, and on 6 June the Russian fleet set sail, leaving behind many thousands of Greek refugees to face the consequences.

For the next nine years the Albanian mercenaries devastated the Peloponnese, claiming they had not been paid. It is estimated that c.20,000 Greeks were seized and sold as slaves and a further 50,000 Greeks (about one sixth of the pre-Revolt population of the Peloponnese) fled to the Ionian Islands, Italy, other parts of Europe and to Russia (especially Crimea and Odessa). It was not until 1779 that the Ottomans were able to restore order in the Peloponnese.

The Russo-Turkish war was eventually brought to an end with the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca in 1774. The war had inflicted serious setbacks for the Ottoman Empire on land and sea and the peace treaty brought Russia significant land gains in the Southern Ukraine, the Crimea and North Caucasus. In addition it gave Russia status as official protector of Orthodox Christians within the Ottoman Empire.

The outcome for Greece was a disaster: large parts of the Peloponnese were devastated, thousands of Greeks, Turks and Albanians were killed and a large proportion of the Greek population forced into exile. However, there were two key learnings that came out of it that were applied fifty years later in 1821 during the Greek War of Independence.

The first is that in order for independence to be achieved, there had to be a political structure in the form of a provisional government, to provide direction, consensus and cohesion amongst the rebel forces. Second, it provided a clear warning of the dangers of allowing foreign powers to interfere in Greek affairs. During the Orlov Revolt it became clear to the Greeks that they were at risk of swapping Ottoman rule for Russian overlords and this bred a distrust of the intentions of other countries’ support for Greek independence.

How children’s books thrived under Stalin – Guardian review

Read this wonderful article by Philip Pullman in Saturday’s Guardian Review about early Soviet writers and designers of children’s books: How children’s books thrived under Stalin

Several years ago I went to an exhibition at Tate Modern in London about the Constructivists. One of the most fascinating things about that exhibition for me was how the art of the Futurists and Constructivists, which developed in the years leading up to the Revolution and which could easily have become a self-indulgent dead-end, was adapted for propaganda purposes. A lot of posters for example make use of their bold colour blocks and angular type.

As he points out in his article Philip Pullman on a new book called Inside the Rainbow: Russian Children’s Literature 1920-35: Beautiful Books, Terrible Times by Julian Rothenstein and Olga Budashevskaya, avant garde writers who found it impossible to get their work published or shown turned to children’s books as a way of surviving and earning a living. For a while at least, until the dead hand of the Stalinist regime tightened its grip, their art blossomed and survived in this enclave.

Novodevichy Cemetery, Moscow

Novodevichy Convent

The Novodevichy Convent’s white and red brick walls and buildings are very distinctive and give it the appearance of a fortress. Founded in the sixteenth century, today it is perhaps best known for its cemetery which is the resting place of many of Russia’s great and good. It is quite a maze to find your way around. 

Here’s a selection of some of the graves you can find there:

Gogol – strangely the column and its bust were only erected by the Soviet government in September 1951:


The Soviet circus clown, Nikulin:


Chekhov’s grave:


and next to it the grave of his wife, Olga Knipper, who outlived him by 55 years:

Olga Knipper

Shostakovich’s grave, with his signature DSCH motif in musical notation on the headstone:


Stalin’s wife, Nadezhda Alliluyeva, with its protective glass covering, allegedly added when vandals had removed the nose:

Stalin's wife

Khrushchev’s tomb, with its striking design. Interesting that he wasn’t buried near the Kremlin, like most Soviet leaders:


and finally the grave of Raisa Maksimovna, Gorbachov’s wife:

Raisa Maksimovna Gorbachova

I found the Soviet statuary intriguing: how do you deal with death in an officially atheist country? In their closing lines, the obituaries of Soviet notables often tended to use the formula ‘The memory of ———– will for ever be preserved in our hearts.’ The only eternity offered here is that of living memory and (in some cases) the renown or infamy of history. Often the sculptors chose to depict the deceased emerging from a piece of rough-hewn rock, like some force of nature. Now, to a modern sensibility, they appear overblown and clumsy. 

Was Chekhov a Buddhist?


Anton Pavlovich Chekhov

‘My life passed as if I had not lived’, says Firs, the old family servant at the end of The Cherry Orchard, and it’s a thought that could be echoed by many of the characters in Chekhov’s plays. They live in a fantasy world of the past or some imagined future, and as  if at one remove from their present reality and situation in life.

In a similar way, the Buddha diagnosed the root cause of our problems as suffering, or perhaps dissatisfaction might be a better translation, which arises from either clinging on to things or pushing things away from us. We live life as if in a trance, hardly aware of what we are doing. This state of being he called samsara which literally means ‘going round in circles’.      

Characterising the impermanence of life, the Buddha compared it to:

A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream;
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud;
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.

In Buddhism, the past does not exist and the future has not yet come, so the only thing we can access is the present moment. It is the only point at which we can have direct contact with reality, everything else is a mental construction. That is why there is such an emphasis in Buddhism on awareness and mindfulness in everyday life: it helps us to become aware of our habitual patterns of behaviour and gives us a wider choice of response. We don’t automatically have to fly off the handle when something goes wrong or someone crosses us. Gradually, and slowly and painfully, through waking up in the crucible of meditation, we can find other ways of reacting that perhaps aren’t as harmful to other people and ourselves.

In his plays Chekhov depicts characters painfully locked in a samsara-like state, in delusive and ultimately self-destructive patterns of behaviour. The sisters in Three Sisters constantly hark back to their previous life in Moscow and fantasize about a future life in Moscow. Gayev and Ranyevskaya in The Cherry Orchard can only see the estate as it was when they were children. Even progressive characters, like Dr Astrov in Uncle Vanya fantasize, about a better future when they will no longer be alive.

Chekhov was an atheist. In his youth though he had been a server at church in Taganrog and knew the Bible well and his friend, the painter Repin, consulted him on details from the Bible when painting some of his pictures. Modern scholars have also noted subtle Biblical echoes in the texts of his short stories. But there is no denying that at first sight the Chekhovian vision of life as depicted in his plays is a bleak one. He seems to be telling that  life is better lived without delusions or fantasies that blind us to the life we have before us right now. One of the starkest expression of this is at the end of Three Sisters when the sisters are left on stage listening to the retreating music from the military band as the soldiers leave the town and Olga says to her sisters:

O, dear sisters, our life isn’t over yet. We shall live! The music is so happy and joyful and it seems in a short while we shall find out why we live , why we suffer…if only we knew. If only we knew!

This lyrical flight is however undercut by the military doctor, Chebutykhin, singing quietly to himself:

Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay… I’m sitting on a bollard…It makes no difference! It makes no difference!

Chebutykhin is singing a popular music-hall song of the 1890s, but in Russian it has different, darker words which are not completed in the play, but they go something like this:

Ta-ra-ra boom-de-ay

I’m sitting on a bollard.

I’m weeping bitter tears

Because I have no meaning.

It’s perhaps one of the darkest endings of any play that I know.

I have no evidence that Chekhov was a Buddhist, nor even how widely Buddhist ideas were disseminated in late nineteenth century Russia. Certainly Buddhist ideas had become more widely known in western Europe in this period: even Wagner at his death was planning a music drama on the life of the Buddha (what an interesting work that would have been!). Chekhov never went to India, but on his way back to central Russian from Sakhalin he did spend three days in Ceylon. (modern day Sri Lanka).

Despite my provocative title I am inclined to think that it is a coincidence of ideas. There’s an interesting work by the scholar R H Blyth on Zen ideas prefigured in English literature in his book Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics.

Chekhov's grave, Novodevichy Cemetery, Moscow

Chekhov’s grave, Novodevichy Cemetery, Moscow