Travelling Through Soviet Union

In July of 1948, a writer and a photographer started on a journey for 41 days across Russia and the other Republics of Soviet Union in a quest to find out how does the common people act, “what do they serve for Dinner? Do they have parties? What food is there? What do they talk about?” . They were not interested in politics and instead try and understand the everyday Russian people if they can. They sold the idea to Herald Tribune and convinced the Soviet Embassy to give them necessary permissions and visas, and thus began A Russian Journal, by John Steinbeck and Robert Capa.

 Andrei Mylniko, In Peaceful Fields (1950)

The two geniuses started their journey with a stop at Moscow, Kiev, Stalingrad and Georgia . They were assigned by the Government to help them navigate their journey’s as they visited farms, factories, nigh clubs and writer’s union dinners. They wrote about the suffocating flights where no food was served, so passenger’s carried their own food. They wrote about magnificent dinners which were put up on their honor by collective farms and farm managers and playrights. They attended local community theater and the scintillating ballet. They spoke to farmers, factory workers and the drivers who drove them around and documented everything they saw, including farms which had been burnt to the ground, by the invading armies, the complete destruction of Stalingrad and of heroic factory workers who fought to defend their factories and then went back to complete their work because the country needed their machines. They wrote about Russian music, including “popular music”, folk music and the Russian attempts at American Jazz, They spoke of the dignity of a city destroyed but still standing tall and the beauty of Georgia. They also captured the essence of the Soviet populace with characters of being cold and bureaucratic in Moscow and larger than life, boisterous people of Georgia; of women who crawl out of destroyed buildings and fix their hair on the way to work and of now demobilized soldiers working in the factory wearing their army clothes because that was all they owned. They also discover that the people in Soviet Union have the same questions that they themselves had about USSR – what do people eat, what do people wear, how do their farms work?

Konstantin Shurupov,  Azov Steel Mill (1957)

The book does what it set out to do – describe the everyday life of Russians. Steinbeck with his innate brilliance manages to convey facts, with humor and empathy with a deep understanding of mankind. Capa’s photos, black and white capture every singular detail of what it is to live everyday, work everyday and build back a life that had been brutally torn apart. The book is alive with the presence of hard and long fought battle and it comes through in every page – farms destroyed, families with pictures of son’s lost in the war, of a magnificent city called Stalingrad, destroyed to pieces, but still holding on. This book was written as the “Iron Curtain” described by Churchill was descending between the former allies of USSR and USA-England allies and before another bout of Stalin’s purges. In the introduction to the book, scholar Susan Shillinglaw states that the lives and facilities described in the book was a carefully staged act provided by the Soviet Government and all succeeding books have similar description. It may have been stage managed, the USSR government was hardly known for it’s benevolent and tolerance for any kind of dissent, but the jokes that the farm wit cracked and the dignity with which people struggled to re-build their lives cannot ever be “created” and here lies the brilliance of the two in not only being able to capture those moments and pieces, but managing to masterfully communicate the deep understanding of courage of human soul, while reporting everything factually. The book is replete with insightful observations about Soviet people; while they appreciate the cleanliness of the cities and the good working conditions of the farms, that included apartments for the workers, schools and creches for the children and a clinic, they were smart enough to be able to distinguish between what was real and unreal and this comes through in a wry statements which they make through the book “Russian people live on hope, hope that tomorrow will be better than today.” “In Russia, it is always the future that is thought of. it is crops that will be next year, it will be the comfort that will come next year” The humor of both craftsmen keeps the book from becoming a dry document with observations like “Capa says that the museum is the church of Russia” or when they kept hearing about wait till you see Georgia “We began to believe that most Russians hope that if they live very good and virtuous lives, they will not go to heaven, but to Georgia, when they die.” To end, with some lovely photographs and sparse but powerful prose, the books makes you realize that the authors had succeeded in doing, what they had set out to do, tell stories about everyday people and help realize that “Russian people are like all other people in the world. Some bad ones, there are surely, but by far the greater number are good.”

If you have not read, it is high time you did! In this world where more than ever we are dividing ourselves in us versus them, this books stands as a historical testimony to the simple thought, that folks are just folks everywhere!

Shout out to Karen for setting me on the path of this wonderful book!

The July Round Up

I know I am kind of late by a few days on this post, but then atleast I have a round up post. For last 2 odd years, life had become so challenging that let alone blogging even reading was a difficult and round up posts were not even on the bench in the line up things to do. Strange that in these crazy times of a pandemic, I am able to do things that are more akin to my normal life, than the recent past when things were considered normal! Anyhow, the most important thing is I am reading and reading a lot and hopefully what is varied range of subjects and I just hope nothing happens to jinx this again!

La-Lecture by Berthe Morisot, 1873

So what all did I read in July?

Direct Hit by Mike Hollow – This was an impulse request to the publishers on Netgalley and turned out to be a very good detective story story set in 1940 as a former WW1 veteran, now Chief Inspector investigates the death of a local Justice of Peace, which may be a suicide or a murder. Extremely satisfying read for those lazy weekends.

The Romanovs 1613-1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore – An engaging and insightful history on the rise of the Romanov dynasty in Russia in 17th century from obscurity to building an empire spanning Europe and Asia to the ultimate downfall with the 1917 Revolution. A very detailed history which Mr. Montefiore manages to keep interesting by adding a lot of personal details about the Tsars and their family, adding personality, color and even poignancy to this narrative.

Red Pottage by Mary Cholmondey – This book had been lying in my TBR for literally years. Then a wonderful review by Ali made me want to read it and post reading it, I have only one question – why did I wait so long?? First published in 1899, it follows the lives of two young women, Rachel West and her friend Hester Gresley as they navigate love of an imperfect man and a writing career amidst people who do not appreciate her talent respectively. Narrated with thoughtfulness and sensitivity, the book speaks of the time it was written in where woman were awakening to their aspirations and rights!

Not at Home by Doris Langley Moore – Again this came via a wonderful recommendation by Ali. Set in 1945 post war England, Elinor MacFarren, middle aged, unmarried, horticulturist, is forced to rent a portion of her house with its exquisite interiors to ensure financial independence. The tenant, recommended by one of Ms. MacFarren’s friends, seems to agree to all her requirements; however, the reality turns out to be very different and it takes the combined effort of Ms. MacFarren, her nephew, his actor friend Miss Maxine Albert, Dr. Wilmot who was her competitor, but became a good friend to oust the troublesome tenet. The book was a lot of fun and the well drawn out characters added a whole enriching layer to what can be thought as simple plot.

Pomfret Towers by Angela Thirkell – I fell in love with Ms. Thirkell after reading High Rising and the Headmistress and Pomfret Tower gave me more reasons than ever to continue my obsession with her Barsetshire Series. In this book, the very shy Alice Barton is forced by her mother to spend the weekend with her brother at a party at the majestic Pomfret Tower, home to the local lord of the Manor Lord and Lady Pomfret. Soon there are new friends to be made, dances to attend and even get attached to someone as the other guests, including the heir, the cousins and the friends all sort their lives out. This was literally laugh out loud fun and the comedy of manners beautifully plays out in a world that was soon to disappear.

High Rising by Angela Thirkell – Now that I had started with reading Ms Thirkell’s works, it made perfect sense, to re-read the novel, which got started me off on this journey. Laura Moorland, a successful, happily widowed middle aged woman comes back for the summer to High Rising with her ever enthusiastic,railway obsessed son Tony as is her routine. She hopes to catch up with her old friends like Ms. Todd and the Knoxs, George the father, who is a famous author of historical biographies and his daughter Sybil who is almost Laura’s adopted child. However this time around, things are not all that smooth, for George Knox has a new secretary Miss Grey and she has aspirations that may destroy the peace of everybody concerned. Written as always with gentle humor and wonderful characters, this book is treat when you just want something fun, but insightful and just a perfect setting of a small English village.

The Flowering Thorn by Margery Sharp – This is one of my all time favorite Margery Sharp and the dynamics between Laura and Tony made me want to read about another such story and this was it! Lesley Frenwen is an independent young woman, socializing and living the high live in London, until some minor incidents, come togther, and she ends up adopting an orphan boy, the son of her now dead companion to her aunts. Lesley is no way prepared for the changes that are needed to bring up a little boy and she struggles into the role, which she considered temporary ( until the boy starts school at 8) , she discovers a life that breaks away every stereotype helping her discover herself! This is such a wonderfully written, sensitive and beautiful book, that destroys all the cliches props of a plot to build a unique and emotional.

That then was my reading for July! It was after many many months a much more fulfilling reading month and like I said before, I hope to continue this stint through August; fingers crossed!

So how was your July reading?

The 24 Hour Madness – Special Summer Edition!

This post should have been up several days back, but work, as always intervened! Long hours and sometimes pretty horrible hours kept all good things at bay, including more reading and talking about a REVERSE READATHON! A Reverse Readathon! What is that, you ask? Ah! Let me enlighten from an explanation directly from the source – the lovely people at Dewey’s 24 Hour Readathon : “we’ll start this readathon at 8:00 PM Friday, July 27 and run through July 28 at 8pm, Eastern Standard time, where we normally start at 8:00 AM Saturday. Still 24 hours.” Now for me, situated in between the borderlines of the Equator and Tropics, this is actually a Readthon in straight, normal hours and how in the world could I pass that up? Actually, let me rescind that, I would have never given up an opportunity for any Readathon, but this starting in early morning hours is kind of supra exciting!

Now for the books line up – since work has been so crazy lately, I have not had  the usual luxury to plan and consider and plan! Fortunately, I did manage to sneak in a spate of Book Buying a week before and that alone gives me enough ammunition for the  ‘great read’! So here goes my list –

  1. The Bengalis – A Portrait of a Community by Sudeep Chakravarty – Published in 2017, this book has gained a lot of appreciation for its nuanced and impartial socio-political portrait of a community split between two countries – Bengal in Eastern India & Bangladesh. I am very curious as ethnically, I belong to this community and this history with many of its finer telling on the Cultural Revolution in 1800s and the Partition in 1947, have close links home!
  2. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – A book that has been on my TBR for some time and a book I am very excited to start. Set in the immediate years after the Russian Revolution, it follows the life of Count Alexander Rostov as he stays in Moscow as an unrepentant bourgeois. I have never read any book by Towles but I have heard so many great things about this one, that I cannot wait to get started. Also this is historical fiction and historical fiction, set in a time and a place that I am always interested and eager to read about! So double yay!
  3. Augustus Carp Esq. by Henry Howarth Bashford – Another book lying in my TBR forever and one that I had major problems getting hold off! But finally I have managed to get a copy and I am on Chapter 4 and all I can say was it was well worth the wait! A satire of the best kinds following the life of an middle class Englishman at the turn of the century as he waddles, yes that the word, waddles through life!
  4. We Were The Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter – Yet another historical fiction, following the lives of the three generations of the Kurc family as they struggle in the aftermath of Poland’s conquest by Nazi Jews and are asked to pay the price for being Jews!
  5. Open Book – Always a good idea not to plan for an additional book as we always need that one book on the fly , when the very best laid plans fail!

That now is the plan for tomorrow, when I start for change, all bright and shiny at the early morn! This early morn may be a tad difficult as I am really a night person, but I will be there, by morn, for sure!

As always, I will run an update post and will be going nuts on Twitter (here) & Insta (here)! And now, nothing much left to do,except say, Let’s READ!

The End of April

Summer is here and while these are not the months to be rejoiced in my part of the world, I cannot help but feel, that Winter this year was, well, troublesome! In a sharp departure from the pleasantness that usually surrounds my Winters, this Winter was quite literally terrible and I am very very glad to see the end of it! I think this may be a first for me, where I am happy to see Winter go and almost, key word almost, overjoyed to welcome Summer!

April, unlike her predecessors was actually a very good reading month, and though I did not cover much ground during the Readathon, overall, the month was quiet enough to allow me some solid reading time! And not only that, seems like the most of the books I picked for April also turned to be a winner! So then, here’s to April’s recollection –

(P.S. I think, by now everyone is conversant that this snapshot is not my idea, but borrowed and is a combination from Helen’s monthly post of Commonplace Book post   and O’s ideas of  Wordless Wednesday )

From A Great Deliverance by Elizabeth George
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He had never thought of himself as much of a praying man, but as he sat in the car in the growing darkness and the minutes passed, he knew what it was to pray. It was to will goodness out of evil, hope out of despair, life out of death. It was to will dreams into existence and spectres into reality. It was to will an end to anguish and a beginning to joy.

From Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith

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Your of two mind Sergei. Please tell me, because criticism is constructive.It defines our purpose and leads to unanimity of efforts.”

From Polar Star by Martin Cruz Smith

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Why are you doing this?”Arkady asked. “It keeps the mind alive.”

From February – Selected Poems by Boris Pasternak; Translated by Andrew Kneller

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Oh, February, To get ink & Sob! 

To weep about it, spilling ink

From Red Square by Martin Cruz Smith

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“Who is right?” asked Polina. Now that, Arkady thought, was question only asked by the very young

From Dear Mrs Bird by AJ Pearce

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A week after the newspaper advertisement, I was trying terrifically hard to remain calm!

From Death Comes For The Archbishop by Willa Cather

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“Only a Woman, divine, could know all that a woman can suffer”

That’s it for my April reading! It was a good months, and here’s to May and more books!

Of Seasons, Longings & Despair in Soviet Russia

Allen Ginsberg, in his biography, Ginsburg : A Biography by Barry Mills had explained poetry as something which was “not an expression of the party line. It’s that time of night, lying in bed, thinking what you really think, making the private world public, that’s what the poet does.”  This meaning of poetry and the work of the poet comes out in all its vivid forms in a collection of Boris Pasternak’s poems, February, translated by Andrey Kneller. Boris Pasternak, the 1958 Nobel Prize winner who declined the honor under pressure from the Soviet Government, and whose work, Doctor Zhivago has been immortalized in every possible form of media,  was born in a well to do Jewish family (though the Pasternaks had assimilated into the Russian Orthodox Church for years) and had lived through the most turbulent years of Russian History – World War I, Russian Revolution, World War II and the Great Purge, had captured all this changing history of the land and her people and thought about it and then poured it into words of great beauty and resonance, in an act of making a private world, public!

BORIS_BESIDE_THE_BALTIC_AT_MEREKULE,_1910_by_L.Pasternak
Boris Besides the Baltic Sea, by Leonard Pasternak, 1910

February is a slim volume of only 110 pages but within it, are 27 pieces of powerful poetry, that touch upon a variety of subjects ranging from politics, the faith of Pasternak’s beloved Russia, Nature, Christianity and Love! The compilation begins with the said poem February, first published in 1912, and in sparse, terse words, Pasternak manages to blend in the pathos of the last dregs of winter, with mankind and poetry. I fell in love with the simple but powerful opening lines of the poem –

Oh, February, To get ink & Sob! 

To weep about it, spilling ink

One poem that especially was singed into my imagination, is apparently nameless, and powerfully captures the rule of Stalin and its destructive forces on a person and his soul!

The cult of personality is stained,

But after forty years, the cult

Of gray monotony and disdain

Persists like the day of old

Each coming day appears lackluster

Until, it’s truly hard to bear

It brings but photographic clusters,

Of pig like and inhuman stares.

The cult of narrow minded thinking

Is likewise cherished and extolled.

Men shoot themselves from over drinking,

unable to sustain it all.

There is a soul searing piece called Noble Prize, written, after he declined the honor which captures the raw anguish and pain of Pasternak on the stands he was being forced to take, by the very same country and government, he did not choose to abandon or flee, while all his family and friends left, believing in the ultimate good of Lenin led Socialist society! And here in lies the greatness of the poet, that despite all the angst and heartbreak, he ended the poem in hope and faith –

Even now as I am nearing the tomb

I believe in the virtuous fate

And the spirit of goodness will soon

Overcame all the malice and hate

Yet another poem titled Hamlet, captures the need to walk away from a predestined plot, to address something more urgent and ephemeral!There are lovely play of words in his poems about nature, from White Nights to the one called Spring Flood, to yet another work called Easter. His love for Olga Ivinskaya comes through in all the glory of meeting, falling in love and then when Ivinskaya was sentenced to Siberia, of longing, guilt and memories, in the poems titled as Meeting  and then, Parting. The fact that Pasternak was a student of philosophy is a fact that is never really far off in his poetry and in many of his writings,  he touches upon ideas of what is tangible and what is transcendental, especially in his poetry of nature. In Autumn, he says, 

The Lodge’s wooden walls now gaze

At us with grief and hopelessness.

We never vowed to break the restrains’

We will decline with openness. 

There are many powerful and moving things in this collection that shines like a beacon of what poetry is all about! Pasternak in this collection of 27 poems brought the Russia that he knew, with all its beauty and tragedy to life, painting on a vast canvass, touching upon the key notes of everything that constitutes mankind. And while I am wary of all translated works, simply because one does not know exactly what is lost is translation, even in essence, there is enough in this work to enrich your soul and your mind!

 

Poetry and Ballets in Russian Winters

So I picked this book while browsing randomly through Goodreads listopia and am I glad I got my hands on this one!

Daphne Kalotay’s Russian Winter is beautiful, historically rich, and lyrical with one of the most unusual characters in modern fiction – Nina!  The book begins with the auction of the jewels including some famous amber’s of the world-renowned ballerina Nina Revskaya. Now extremely ill and crippled, Nina is selling the jewels she had gathered all her life in an effort to close a chapter in her life that began in Stalinist Russia more than half a century ago. However, her past cannot be buried, as her life, love and its eventual betray reverberate in modern-day Boston, where she now resides and into the life of Grigori Solodin, a professor, who believes that the jewels that Nina is selling holds the key to his own past.

russian-winterNow for the great parts of the novel – Nina Revskaya is one of the best characters that I have come across in current friction. She is a beautiful and extremely successful ballerina, whose character portrayal comes more through her actions and interactions with others than what she says. Daphne Kalotay departs from cliché by not only making her central character very human – she falls in love, has close friendships and does have petty jealousies and is capable of overcoming those jealousies to do something kind. She is not better than an average human, and like all average humans, she is capable of making a gross error and then rectifying the same. What is wonderful and completely to the credit of the author is the fact that though the principal character is completely nonpolitical and distances herself as much as possible from the going ons of Stalinist Russia, the author still manages to convey a strong sense of the life and times in that nation, at the peak of its secret police’s power.  What is really wonderful is way, the author describes the simple daily rituals of the common man in a police state – whether it’s a watery dinner in a state-run restaurant, or the state poet buying a Russian make car or the simple pleasures of a writer’s community in the Ural mountains. The book is lyrical – it gives some of the most vivid and capturing description of white Moscow and the country’s rural beauty. The tale is interspersed with some lovely poetry on love and nature and I cannot stop myself from quoting the lines that moved me the most –

Black velvet night, pinned wide and high

By pinprick stars. Faces under moonlight.

Faint echoes float atop the river.

Our reckless splashes toss them here and there.

How very young we were, one floating year ago.

Wet tresses draped our ears.

And in the air, the hum of crickets chanting

Apologies we could not, did not, hear.

Gone, gone, the forest’s past perfection:

Patchwork shade, pine needle carpet,

Ocher-resin drops of sun. The air

Hums….Unseen, the nightingale, too late,

Thrums its stubborn sing-caught somewhere

Between the deep black water and the sky.

The story initially does test your attention, but from page 70+ or so, the pace picks up and you are hooked. It blends smoothly out of 1950’s Moscow and modern-day Boston, without jarring the reader. The end is unusual and after a long time, I have read something that goes beyond the obvious and ordinary.

There are some flaws in the tale as well – the character of Drew Brooke. The only thing I can say is why? I mean why did we have to create her at all; at least as a  principal character….Cynthia could have served the purpose of bridging and there would have been less confusion in the reader’s mind about why this poor little rich girl is the way she is!!! Even the story of her grandparents kind of hangs in the air and somehow I could not find closure to that tale. Then there are the obvious clichés – the brutal and lecherous Russian Secret Police, the blessings of capitalism versus socialism etc. Having said this, the cliché’s are minimal and she does have some of the principal make some original and interesting observations about Socialist Russia.

I would strongly recommend getting a copy if you want a good yarn which can also be called literature, without going round and round in surreal literary jargon! Compliments to Daphne Kalotay for writing such a wonderful book!