Saturday, 12 July 2014

Pushkin's Contemporaries

A short post celebrating the work of Pushkin's literary contemporaries, who helped to shape and inspire his writings, featuring new translations specially created for Trinity's Russian poetry evenings.

Vasily Zhukovsky (1783 - 1852)

Oh silent sea, oh azure sea,
I'm spellbound by your depths.
You live, you breathe with turbid love,
With thoughts that never rest.
Oh silent sea, oh azure sea,
Reveal to me deep mysteries:
What moves your boundless breast?
How breathes your labouring chest?
Do the far-off shining heavens
Draw you from your earthly strife,
When, filled with sweet and secret life,
You bask in their radiant presence?
Their azure brightness floods your face,
You burn with the rising and setting sun,
The clouds are gold in your embrace,
The glittering stars and you are one.
And when the dark clouds gather round
To steal the heavenly glow,
Your waves rise up, wild howls resound,
To shatter your gloomy foe...
The darkened clouds disperse away,
But filled with past alarm,
You long raise waves of anxiety - 
And returning heaven's shining charm
Cannot bring you peace complete,
Your calm appearance is deceit.
Your deep abyss hides turbulent fevers
For love of the heavens, the ocean quivers.

Apart from his influence as a leading poet - shown by his poem 'The Sea' above and his lyrics to the national anthem of tsarist Russia - Zhukovsky was a famously skilled literary translator, bringing the work of West European writers to Russian readers from Homer's epic 'Odyssey' to leading German Romantics, crucially influencing the forms of modern Russian literature in its early development. Mentored by the famous Russian historian Nikolai Karamzin, Vasily Zhukovsky himself became tutor to the future tsar, Alexander II. He may have helped to instill the liberal ideals that inspired Alexander to abolish the institution of serfdom and earn the nickname of 'Liberator', and he certainly used his influence at court to protect and serve as patron to edgier talents like Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol, Mikhail Lermontov and Alexander Herzen, even helping to buy the Ukrainian nationalist poet and icon Taras Shevchenko out of serfdom. Although the name of Zhukovsky is not very familiar outside of Russia, and his works rarely translated, it is no exaggeration to say that the Golden Age of Russian literature would not have been what it was without him.

Alexander Griboyedov (1795 - 1829)

Into what circles I'm driven by fate?
Circles of hell where my tormentors wait
To victimise me! ostracize me! Storytellers!
Gossiping traitors to love as well as
Ungainly connoisseurs, cunning laymen,
Malicious aged men and women
Grown stale on a diet of schemes and lies.
You brand me a madman with your loud cries!
You're right: he'll come through fire who
When staying just a day with you,
Breathing air with people of your kind
Would not be driven from his mind!
Away from Moscow! Out of these parts!
I seek a place for outraged hearts!
I'll go around the world in search
Get me a coach! Get me a coach!

Poet, composer, officer of a Hussar regiment and diplomatic envoy to Georgia and Persia, Alexander Griboyedov is today remembered as the author of the satirical verse comedy Woe from Wit. A snapshot of the tensions in Russia before the Decembrist Uprising of 1825 (a failed rebellion by mainly aristocratic advocates of democratic reform against the totalitarian tsarist regime), it shows the conservative, anti-reformist Famusov, the social-climbing hypocrite Molchalin and the liberal Anglophile Repetilov as typical types of Russian society at the time. Against all of them, the hero Chatsky is a sarcastic, disaffected cynic who would himself become the model for the 'superfluous man' type of Russian Romanticism. Banned by the censors in 1823, the play circulated freely in unauthorised manuscript copies (like a form of tsarist Samizdat') influencing later works like Pushkin's Eugene Onegin and Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time. Griboyedov saw his play staged only once, in an unofficial production by the garrison of Yerevan, Armenia, before he himself was murdered in an uprising against the Russian embassy in Tehran, Persia (now Iran). Mikhail Lermontov's decision to end 'A Hero of Our Time' by reporting his hero Pechorin's death on his way to Persia may be seen as a nod to Griboyedov, creator of Chatsky, the original hero of his time, played above by well-known Russian actor Oleg Menshikov (Burnt by the Sun, The Barber of Siberia).

Click here for an article about Pushkin and the musical salon culture of the Golden Age.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Belated Pride post

Newly, rhythmically and rhymingly translated just in time to be late for Pride, The Light Blue Puppy is a  classic 1976 Soviet 'cheerful, musical tragedy', animated in a distinctively fluid style using  flowing India ink, and boasting the vocal talents of some of the 1970's most beloved stars, including Alysa Freindlich (star of Eldar Ryazanov's "An Office Romance") and Andrei Mironov (star of Zakharov's "12 Chairs" and "An Unusual Miracle") . Telling the story of a light blue dog who is shunned for being different, it is a children's story encouraging tolerance and promoting positive diversity, ending in an explosion of rainbow colours. In an age of dancing with the censors, when films were regularly scrutinised for their subversive subtexts, many were quick to spot a gay theme in 'The Light Blue Puppy', who was even named one of '69 Outstanding Russian Gays and Lesbians' in a recent publication by Ganymede Press, according to Russia's leading gay internet portal: The cartoon may have played a key role in popularising the slang term 'goluboi' (light blue) to refer to homosexuals, with its theme of the lonely, bullied puppy longing for a flamboyant and self-confident rescuer and mentor being one that spoke to the experience of many Russian gays during the Soviet era's criminalisation of homosexuality.

Based on a book by Hungarian author Gyula Urban which featured a black puppy (serving as a metaphor for the plight of African-Americans in the United States), Yuri Entin, the creator of 'the Light-Blue Puppy', has explicitly stated his pro-gay sympathies and that he
never intended the cartoon to be read as a satire of homosexuals, saying:

"Believe me, never in my life would I have done it if I could imagine what it would be associated with. It's literally hitting below the belt. I have a huge amount of acquaintances of non-traditional orientation, they are wonderful people that I have the tenderest relations with. And so I would never have allowed myself to mock them." Source (in Russian).

Many pro-gay groups celebrate the story, with the 'Planet Krasnoyarsk' club in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, staging their own musical theatrical version in 2000, while a  children's ballet production in the Ekaterinburg theatre was cancelled by director Alexander Novikov in 2010 for being "saturated with paedophilia and homoeroticism" despite the fact that the story never actually references homosexuality at any point. For a complete list of Russian-language articles on the significance of 'the Light Blue Puppy' in gay culture, click here.

ABOVE: a montage of footage from Sergei Paradjanov's 'Sayat Nova' set to the music of FireX

The most famous victim of Soviet anti-homosexuality legislation was the bisexual Armenian-Georgian film director Sergei Paradjanov. Already controversial for his celebration of the ethnic traditions of Ukraine and Armenia in his masterpieces 'Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors' and 'Sayat Nova' / 'The Colour of Pomegranates', he served 3 months (of a five year term) on a conviction for homosexual acts with a KGB officer in 1948 and in 1973 he was sentenced to five years of hard labour (serving four) for the alleged rape of a male communist party member and the 'propagation of pornography'. His claim to have given sexual favours to 25 party members, made to a Danish magazine and serving as grounds for the arrest, was seen by many as another in a long line of the director's scandalous provocations, with some commentators even questioning whether his homosexual inclinations were more than a countercultural pose. Andrei Tarkovsky and Mayakovsky's muse Lilya Brik were among the Russian artists who campaigned for his release, while his post-prison reunion with his friend Vladimir Vysotsky was reportedly tearful. The renowned poetess Bella Akhmadulina said on his behalf "he was guilty of being free". In prison, Paradjanov created hundreds of drawings and collages, many now displayed in the Paradjanov Museum in Yerevan, Armenia. His mature (post-1964) films have a lush, camp aesthetic that conflicted with the demands of socialist realism, and 'Sayat Nova' also features daring gender-bending in its use of Georgian actress Sofiko Chiaureli in a dual role as both the young poet and his mother in this sequence.

Openly gay imagery disappeared from Russian culture in 1933 when Stalin criminalised homosexuality. However, classic films from the 1940s which celebrate the brotherhood of students and workers' collectives through intense male bonding, such as 'Attestat Zrelosti / The Certificate of Education' (the most suggestive clips of which are shown above, unsubtitled) have been cited, and in some cases celebrated, by modern Russian audiences for their homoeroticism. Similarly, the films of the 1980s and 1990s by director Alexander Sokurov have been labelled homoerotic for featuring sensual imagery of physical closeness and affection between men, often scantily clothed, although without explicit sexuality in these relations. Sokurov himself has dismissed these claims as the product of diseased Western imaginations. The first Russian film to have openly homosexual themes is 2004's comedy drama "You I Love".

The most famous gay Russian is probably the composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, whose sexuality is well attested in his own letters, once suppressed by Soviet censors, as well as his brother Modest's autobiography. His sexuality has been edited out of the proposed screenplay for an upcoming Russian biopic, Tchaikovsky, to be directed  by Kirill Serebrennikov, under pressure from Russia's prohibitive anti-gay-propaganda laws, a move which is controversial.  The writer Yuri Arabov has claimed that he 'will not sign his name to a film that advertises homosexuality' and that discussion of homosexuality is 'outside the sphere of art' in this interview. Tchaikovsky's sexuality continues to be celebrated abroad, including by Matthew Bourne's award-winning production of 'Swan Lake' with male swans (pictured). The importance of Tchaikovsky to the gay movement in Russia may be attested by the decision to call St. Petersburg's major organisation for gay social events 'The Tchaikovsky Fund'. Other famous gay and bisexual figures in Russian musical culture include Sergei Diaghilev, director of the 'Ballets Ruses' and Nijinsky, their most famous dancer, as well as the later ballet dancer Rudolph Nureyev, and the contemporary openly gay dancer, singer and director Boris Moiseev.

Finally, in literature, the first openly gay novel in Russian was Mikhail Kuzmin's 1906 novel 'Wings' which compares the main character's final acceptance of his sexuality with growing wings. The poet Gennady Trifonov spent 4 years in prison in the 1970s for circulating openly homosexual poetry. Marina Tsvetaeva, one of the most famous poets of the Silver Age, had a lesbian affair with the poetess Sophia Parnok, and frequently referenced her bisexuality or lesbian desire in her poetry, discussed here. For a full discussion of gay themes in Russian literature, click here.

Happy belated Pride!