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‘Keep my words forever’ a film about Osip Mandelstam

In May members of the GB-Russia Society enjoyed the opportunity to watch the extraordinary film by filmmaker, music producer and director, Roma Liberov:  Сохрани мою речь навсегда.  The film, the title of which can be translated as  ‘Keep my words forever,’ was created in memory of the life and work of the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam (1891 -1938).

Roma Liberov, was present at the event, and was able to give invaluable insight into both the technicalities of the film’s creation and the spirit that motivated him to make it.

In structure and form the film is not a traditional ‘bio-pic’, with ponderous interviews from invited ‘experts’, accompanied by a  series of dramatized scenes of the subject’s life played by actors. Instead, the film emerges as a unique and definitive work of art in its own right.

 Moving more or less chronologically, the film is split into a series of twenty parts, or ‘chapters’, relevant to a phase in the poet’s life. Each section, just a few minutes long, comprises a rich confluence of lines from Mandelstam’s verse,  contemporary Russian rap music, inventive animation, plus some beautiful and evocative static images of places of significance to the poet’s life and work.  So the viewer travels from the poet’s early days in Paris, Heidelberg and St Petersburg,  through a period in Armenia, exile in Voronezh, and finally to Samatikha, where the poet was staying with his wife when he was arrested for the second, and last, time.  At one level watching the film feels like looking into the pages of a family album, a curated collection of scraps and memories from the past overlaid with contemporary features, but in fact it has a more defined underlying structure.

Liberov explained that he based the film’s shape on the traditional form of an icon of the life of a saint, and indeed the short filmic snapshots are resonant of the tiny images showing the miracles and sufferings of the holy men of the past. An example can be seen in the picture of the saints of the Solovetsky Monastery below.  This particular structure does seem an appropriate way to frame episodes in the life of a man who can himself be regarded as a latter-day martyr.

It is Liberov’s contention that Mandelstam was unable to create within the constraints of the socialist realist imperative that demanded an artist should work bounded by parameters relevant to the ‘here and now’ of the soviet era. Mandelstam’s creative world in contrast embraced the whole scope of western culture, and although some of his poetry vividly portrays the specifics of the cold streets of Soviet Leningrad, it could not simply be confined to this.

The title Сохрани мою речь навсегда in itself implies the universal and eternal validity of Mandelstam’s work, but while the film contains many images redolent of western culture as a whole, pictures of the classical world for example, it also focusses on the specific events of the poets life. Thus it refers to the proximate cause of the poet’s well known, and ultimately fatal, clash with the regime. The words of ’the Stalin Epigram’, in which Mandelstam dared to ridicule and denigrate the Great Leader, are quoted in the film more than once, to appropriately sinister effect.

At around an hour and a half, the film proved to be a stimulating, moving and clear eyed tribute to a great poet. Liberov had arranged lucid English subtitles for the occasion, which for those of us with moderately competent Russian, were very helpful. The film is available to watch in Russian on  i-player.  Even without the benefit of subtitles, the evocative images and the inherent musicality of the Russian poetry, even when sometimes distorted by rap, make it well  worth watching by a non-Russian  audience.  You-tube link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zT888y9oNfk

Saints Zosima (left) and Savvatiy (right) with their lives. The 16th century icon is now located in the Russian Museum, Saint-Petersburg, Russia.

Horse Diplomacy

Given her enthusiasm for all things English, it is not surprising that it was Catherine the Great who introduced Horse Racing in the English Style to Russia in the 1780’s, and it was only a matter of time before the sport became a vehicle for diplomatic exchange.

On at least two occasions in the 19th Century members of the Russian Royal Family, having enjoyed visits to English race courses,  donated prize money as a gesture of goodwill.  Both gifts have connections with races that still run today.

In 1839, following a particularly uncomfortable period in Anglo/Russian diplomatic relations, Nicholas 1st wishing to improve matters sent his son, the ill-fated future Alexander 2nd, on a state visit to England.  Despite initial misgivings the visit proved to be a success.  Victoria expressed herself to be ‘delighted’ with her visitor, who taught her to dance the Mazurka at Windsor Castle. Palmerston took the Grand Duke to Newmarket Races, where he made a donation to the Jockey Club.  It was decided that an annual race should be  named after him and the Cesarevich, as it is called, continues to be run at the course every October.

A less happy visit by a Russian royal took place in 1844 when the Emperor himself, Nicholas 1st, came to England.  Nicholas was a much more demanding guest, and his visit, while later considered an overall success, was more awkward.  Like his son, the Emperor was also taken to the races, this time to Ascot. Here he announced that he would provide an annual race prize of 500 guineas for as long as he reigned.  The new trophy was called The Emperor’s Plate, which also became the name of the race, although, unsurprisingly, during the Crimean War, the event reverted to being called the Gold Cup.

Gifts of racehorses for diplomatic reasons probably go back to Catherine’s time, and the practice persisted during the Soviet Era.  Simon Dixon, in his article about trends in horseracing in the 19th Century (Slavonic and Eastern European Review 2020), describes how in 1946 Stalin presented two Russian  thoroughbreds to W. Averell Harriman, the departing American Ambassador. Harriman had admired the animals in Red Square where they were taking part in a victory parade. The Russian leader sent the horses to America along with a Russian vet, a jockey and two grooms.  History does not seem to relate if the humans involved ever returned to Russia.

Controlling the corpse: the autocratic reaction to death

Berlin, demonstration after the murder of Alexey Navalny. 18th February 2024. Photograph: A Savin, Wikipedia

Following the murder of the opposition leader, Alexey NavaIny, the Russian security services have, until yesterday, been attempting not only to retain control of his body but also to dictate the nature of his funeral.

Such evidence of official paranoia is nothing new. The autocratic regime in Russia has regularly exerted pressure when the time comes to bury their opponents, real or imagined.  In a country where public demonstrations are routinely banned, a crowded funeral may offer a rare opportunity to express opposition to the state.  In my novel, Small Acts of Kindness, for example, I tell the true story of how the funeral of Chernov, a young impoverished officer, the cousin of the revolutionary Kondraty Ryleev, developed into just such a major display of mute opposition. 

Chernov’s funeral took place in the autumn of 1825.  Some twelve years later, when Alexander Pushkin was killed in a duel in January 1837, the emperor Nicholas l took an intense interest in the organization of his funeral and internment. A subsequent report from the corps of gendarmes to the Emperor clearly reflects government fears about public reaction. The document reads. ‘…it was intended to hold a ceremonial funeral service, many proposed to follow the coffin to the place of burial in Pskov province; finally rumours were heard that in Pskov itself the horses were to be unharnessed and the coffin dragged by people, the citizens of Pskov having been made ready for this. It would be difficult to decide whether all these honours related more to Pushkin the liberal than Pushkin the poet… Taking into consideration the views of many well thinking people that a similar, as it were popular expression of grief at Pushkin’s death would to some extent express an indecent sense of triumph for the liberals, higher authority recognized it as its duty, by measures of secrecy, to eliminate all paying of respects. ‘ (Quoted in T.J. Binyon, Pushkin, a biography, London 2002. p. 633)

On hearing that Pushkin was dying, Nicholas ordered that the poet’s papers be secured and examined, and his study sealed. In what turned out to be a fruitless attempt to limit attendance, the funeral service in St Petersburg was moved to a smaller church than originally planned, and students at the university were instructed to remain at their desks.  Moreover, when the time came to the transfer Pushkin’s body for burial in a monastery near family estates in Pskov, only the poet’s close friend, Alexander Ivanovich Turgenev, was permitted to accompany the coffin, which was concealed  from public view beneath baste matting and straw. A captain of gendarmes was assigned to accompany it and a special travel warrant issued.

The journey was undertaken at the gallop, and the small ensemble was closely monitored along the way.  The governor of  Pskov received a letter from Mordinov of the Third Section, the deputy to Count Benkendorf, in which he was reminded: ‘It is the sovereign emperor’s wish that you should prohibit any especial expression, any meeting, in a word, any ceremony, apart from those which…are usually performed on the burial of a nobleman.  I do not think it superfluous to mention that the funeral service has already taken place here.’ (Binyon, page 635.)

Ice on the Neva

Ice on the Neva

According to the Neva Delta Company website this winter the river Neva in St Petersburg  is likely to be frozen for longer than average. This is in marked contrast to recent years in which warmer temperatures have meant that sometimes the river remained ice free, and tourist boats have continued to ply their trade.

The frozen river almost becomes a character in its own right in my current work in progress, Fortune’s Price, which is set between 1830 and 1832.  Back in the early 19th century it seems that the river routinely froze every year. According to the physician, botanist and traveller, Robert Lyall, in ‘The Character of the Russians and a detailed history of Moscow’ published in Edinburgh in 1823: ‘From the experience of the last century, i.e. from 1718 to 1818, the ice of the Neva, at St. Petersburg, has never broken up sooner than the 22nd March (in 1723) and never later than he 30th April (in 1810).  During the same period the earliest time of its freezing was the 16th October (in 1805) and the latest the 12th December 9th (in 1772).’  

Thinking about the impact of the colder weather this year reminded me of a dramatic incident related by the artist, travel writer and conservative grandee Edward Tracy Turnerelli (1813 -1896) in his book ‘What I know of the late Emperor Nicholas’ (1855). While visiting the Russian capital during the thaw, Turnerelli inadvisedly risked crossing the Neva by boat while ice was still flowing down to the sea in great shards.  As a result his boat was trapped between two great blocks, and he thought that he was about to perish. He was not alone: ‘This the boatman seemed well aware of,’ he writes. ‘For he began calmly to make the sign of the cross, invoking all the saints in the Russian calendar, while with true Muscovite sang froid he said ‘Barinn! Niett nadejda! Nadobno militsa Bokh!’  (There is not hope master, let us pray to God to forgive our sins!)

A large crowd gathered on the bank to watch the incident. This attracted the attention of the Tsar, who was having his dinner.  He apparently flung his fork aside and immediately called out a company of military ‘pontoniers’ who ‘set to work with a marvellous activity. They cut with their hatchets a hole in the ice, placed a boat in it, then cut another, placing planks on these boats as they advanced and continuing this work, in less than a quarter of an hour, the bridge was finished.’

The emperor himself came down to the river bank to supervise the rescue and, on receiving the effusive thanks of the hapless Turnerelli, expressed himself delighted to have been able to help an Englishman.

Of course at that time relations between England and Russia were good, but by the time Turnerelli came to write his memoirs their deterioration had culminated in the Crimean War.  This meant that Turnerelli’s memoirs, which in many respects are a hagiography of Nicholas, are tinged with an element of regretful self-justification. The four or five personal encounters that he had with the autocrat had always been positive and he could not help but continue to admire him, despite the change in diplomatic circumstances.

Tram running on the ice, late 19th Century

Tram running on the ice. Late 19th Century postcard

Book Review: A Ransomed Dissident by Igor Golomstock

When I studied  20th century Russian literature some years ago the name of the Russian art historian Igor Golomstock (1929 -2017 ) came up from time to time, but I confess my recollection of him was rather hazy.

So I was pleased when his autobiographical work, A Ransomed Dissident, translated by Sara Jolly and Boris Dralyuk and published in 2019, was brought to my attention. Golomstock seemed to know everyone who was anyone in the art and literary world during the fascinating era of ‘the thaw’ in the later 1950’s and 1960’s, and he was also involved in the human rights movement in Russia. In 1972 he emigrated, and the later years of his life were spent in England where he taught at different universities, including Oxford and the University of Essex, He also worked for the BBC Russian Service.

I really wish that I had read Golomstock’s book while doing my course. He was a child during the purges of the 1930’s, but even during later years artists and academics were obliged to work in an uneasy, frustrating and sometimes frightening atmosphere, a time which the book brings vividly to life. Golomstock’s comments on individuals, both artists and others, are illuminating, and his discussion of the rivalry and squabbles among soviet dissidents quite riveting at times. I was particularly engaged by his close association with the writer Andrey SInyavsky (1925 – 1997) who, with Yury Daniel (1925-1988), was tried in 1965 for ‘Anti-Soviet agitation’ under the Criminal Code. The trial and sentencing of these two men were often mentioned darkly by our lecturer, who never really elaborated the story. It was particularly satisfying therefore to learn what happened from someone who was not just there, but who himself got into trouble for refusing to co-operate at the trial.

Part of Golomstock’s early career was spent as a researcher and curator at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. His reminiscences reminded me of our own wonderful visit to the museum in 2019 when we accompanied the exhibits from Gainsborough’s House to the first exhibition dedicated to Thomas Gainsborough in Russia.

The translation of A Ransomed Dissident is unobtrusive and elegant, and the distinctive voice of the author reaches the reader clearly and affectingly.  As one individual’s perspective of a seminal era in Russian artistic history Golomstock’s book is highly recommended for any reader who is interested in the period, and would be an invaluable supplement for those studying 20th century Russian literature and history.

The Ghost in the Carriage

The Parade celebrating the end of military action in the Kingdom of Poland on 6th October 1831. (1833-7) Grigory Chernetsov (1802 -1865) Russian Museum, St Petersburg

I have been trying to tidy up the manuscript of my work in progress, Fortune’s Price, a novel which can be read alone, but which follows on from Small Acts of Kindness, a tale of the first Russian revolution that was published in November last year.

Towards the end of the first part of the book I have written a scene that takes place on the Field of Mars, the great parade ground in Saint Petersburg where from the time of Alexander 1 most of the largest military parades took place. The Poles have rebelled against their Russian masters, and the tsar, Nicholas 1 decides to go to war.  Before my character goes off to fight, I describe a parade at which the emperor says farewell to the departing troops. Chernetsov’s painting above depicts a similar scene, that took place over a year letter, when Nicholas ordered a another parade to celebrate the success of the campaign. The scene I depict in my book probably didn’t look very different from this.

When editing the piece I came to the following passage:

‘But now the emperor was arriving with his suite. All finely mounted, they were followed by the carriage of the empress and the dowager empress. The Imperial coach was deeply padded within, its top edged with carved gilded oak leaves, the box swathed with pale blue hammer cloths, decorated with gold tassels and fringes. The crowd clapped and cheered; the women in the carriage waved graciously; the Tsar gave a signal. The parade got under way.

When I read this, I was filled with a sense of unease that I could not immediately explain.  Then it occurred to me to ask myself: Was Maria Feodorovna, the mother of the emperor, still alive in December 1831?  I hurried to Wikipedia, only to discover that she actually died in 1828 at the age of 69.  That means of course that she couldn’t have been rolling around in a carriage on the Field of Mars three years later, at least, not in corporeal form. I had better expunge her!

Mistakes of this kind are really easy to make, and I fear one or two such infelicities might have crept into Small Acts of Kindness, although I haven’t had the courage to look!  Only one remedy….check, check and check again!

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Two people in one

Alexander Mikhailovich Murav’ev (1802-1853) Lithograph. (1822) Piotr Feodorovich Sokolov (1791- 1848)

There can be problems when a writer tries to combine an engaging plot with historical truth. This can be particularly true when it comes to depicting characters who are ‘real’ people.

Historical novels vary widely in their historical accuracy, ranging from books that are openly counter factual and those with plots that are almost as fantastic as that of Game of Thrones, to those that, as far as possible, approximate to what ‘really’ happened.

I  try to make my books both lifelike and as ‘truthful’ as possible. Sound research throws up a good deal of inspiration in itself and certainly repays the effort involved.  Moreover,  when describing real people, I feel it traduces them to invent too much about them. To do so seems insulting to their memory.  A novel in which Catherine Parr, the sixth wife of Henry VIII, and a pillar of protestant rectitude, is involved in a scene of gratuitous sadomasochism comes vividly to mind. I really do not want to go there, although I can see that the scene might be entertaining for some.

When I write about real characters, therefore, I try to find out as much as I can about them. It helps if they have written memoirs, since this really can bring them to life.  But what the research reveals, and what they reveal about themselves, does sometimes get in the way of the story I had hoped to write.

For example, having read his memoirs, I wanted to include the real Decembrist Alexander Mikhailovich Murav’ev, pictured above, as the close friend of my fictional hero, Vasily. But my plot demanded that Vasily’s friend have a love interest, indeed a fiancé. When I read his biography on Russian Wikipedia, I learned that Murav’ev didn’t marry until well after his release from prison in Siberia, and I didn’t feel I could ignore this fact  What to do?  In the end I decided to merge Murav’ev’s story with that of his fellow officer in the Chevalier Guards, Count Ivan Annenkov, pictured below, who was much the same age. He was engaged to be married on the day of the uprising, and his fiancé, Pauline, travelled to be with him in exile.

This meant that I was obliged to write Vasily’s friend as a fictional character, Mikhail, but at least what happened to him, really did happen to someone!  It could be said that Mikhail has the top half of Murav’ev and the bottom half of Annenkov.

Ivan Alexandrovich Annenkov (1802-1878) Lithograph (1823) Orest Kiprensky

(1782 -1836)

Kossoff and Soutine at the Seaside.

T

Le valet de chambre, Chaim Soutine, c. 1927. © The Lewis Collection 

There are a couple of months still left for art enthusiasts to get down to Hastings Contemporary to spend quality time with two 20th Century artists of note, one originally from Belarus, the other from Ukraine.

The current exhibition,  ‘Soutine/Kossoff’, juxtaposes the work of Chaim Soutine (1893-1943) with that of  Leo Kossoff (1926 – 2017). 

Soutine left his home for Paris in 1913, where he studied at the Ecole de Beaux Arts, rapidly developing a distinctive Expressionist style.  In addition to landscapes depicting the South of France, the exhibition features several of his characteristic, and often unsettling, portraits of French hospitality workers and other individuals.

Kossoff, a first generation English artist, lived in the City Road, Islington, his parents having fled persecution in Ukraine. He is probably best known for his extraordinarily thickly painted London townscapes, several of which can be seen in Hastings, including Christchurch Spitalfields (1989) and Between Kilburn and Willesden Green, Winter Evening (1991).  Kossoff also produced portraits, including the monumental  Nude on a Red Bed (1972), which is on show in Hastings.  He is known to have discovered Soutine’s work in the 1950’s and to have been much influenced by his direct expressive approach.

Both artists share an Eastern European Jewish background; a heritage that had  produced a number of remarkable creators in exile including the artist, Chagall, and novelist, Isaac Bashevis Singer.  In her outstanding biography of Chagall, (Chagall, Love and Exile,  London, 2008)  Jackie Wullschlager writes of ‘the grinding unchanging poverty of the area from which nearly a million jews emigrated between 1891 and 1910’, bringing with them the influence of its ‘hallucinatory enchantment and age old melancholy.’

This is an absorbing exhibition which is full of interest and intriguing connections. It is likely to delay any art lover for some hours.

Soutine/Kossoff runs at Hastings Contemporary until 24th September.

Sphinxes on the Neva

Sphinxes on the Quay in front of the Academy of Arts. Maxim Voroblev. (1835)

Standing on University Embankment on  the right bank of the Great Neva river,  among some of the oldest buildings of Saint Petersburg, tourists, particularly those passing on the river in boats, are often surprised to encounter two large Egyptian sphinxes. 

Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign at the turn of the Nineteenth century stimulated an interest in all things Egyptian in Europe, from which the Romanov Emperors were not immune.  The sphinxes from Thebes were originally acquired from the Egyptian Government by the French, but the revolution of 1830 put paid to the deal, and in 1832 the colossal structures were purchased by Nicholas the First.  They were erected on the riverside spot adjacent to the Royal Academy in 1834, and they remain there to this day.

I was reminded of the statues when I recently rediscovered a poem by the symbolist poet, philosopher and writer, Vacheslav Ivanov. I have made an attempt at a translation:

Sphinxes on the Neva

Was it the magic of the white nights that lured you,

 a mirage, into the bondage of arctic wonders?

Two marvelous creatures from hundred-gated Thebes.

Did pale Isis take you prisoner?

What secret turned you to stone

Spoken through the laughing lips of a cruel mouth?

Does the never darkening expanse of midnight waves

Delight you more than the stars of the holy Nile?

At the hour when twilight torments us,

And, whispering with its rays, weaves spells,

and changes the heavens to amber  –

So like two crescent moons, uplifting two tiaras,

You, virgins or tsars, gaze into one another’s eyes,

Smiling and ardent.

 1905.

Child abduction by Russia in wartime is nothing new

Children being snatched by Russian Soldiers during the Polish Uprising of 1830/31 (unattributed print)

Russian abduction of children in a time of war is nothing new!

One of the more disturbing features of the current war in Ukraine has been Russia’s abduction of Ukrainian children, ostensibly in order to give them ‘better lives’ in Russia. In some cases the children have been sent to so called ‘Summer Camps’ from which they never returned home. Others taken have been described as ‘orphans’ despite the fact that they have easily identifiable relatives.  In March this year, Vladimir Putin was personally indicted as a war criminal by the ICC for the crime of child abduction.

Of course this sinister practice is a reprehensible attempt to brainwash these children, to ‘Russify’ them.  It is a convenient way to compensate in a small way, for the steady demographic fall in population being experienced by Russia, which has now been exacerbated by the emigration of thousands of people, often young and talented, who are unwilling to serve in the army, or countenance the current aggression.

Like so many features of the war, the practice of child abduction by Russia in time of war is not new.  When researching the Polish Uprising of 1830/31 for my current work in progress, Fortune’s Price, I was unsurprised to read how boys as young as seven were deported by an order made in March 1831 by the Russian Emperor Nicholas 1. These children were incorporated into special battalions of the Russian Army as so called ‘cantonists’, or child soldiers. This practice was immortalized in the unattributed print shown above. Several thousand of these children were apparently seized, and many ended up in the brutalized environment of Military Settlements.  After a series of bloody revolts in these settlements that occurred at the same time as the Polish revolt, even Nicholas came to realise that they should be abolished, but this did not mean the return of the children who had been seized.

Fortunately, this time around there are stories of Ukrainian parents recovering their children, whether through their own efforts, or by clandestine Russian organisations speeding their release. Nonetheless, it is feared that many may never return to their rightful homes.