Girls in traditional Russian dress predict the future

The Svyatki – Yuletide in Russia

Christmastide Divination by Konstantin Makovsky

If you have read War and Peace or Eugene Onegin then you are already a little bit familiar with the traditions and superstitions that are associated with the so-called ‘Svyatki’; the time between Christmas and Epiphany in Russia. In both novels these are an absolute highlight.

Orthodox Christmas

In Russia Christmas is only just beginning. The Orthodox Christmas Day is celebrated on the 7th and Epiphany is on the 19th of January. The period between the 7th and the 19th is called ‘Svyatki’, which means something like ‘holy days’. They’re sometimes divided up into two parts: the part from Christmas until New Year is the holy part and the part from New Year until Epiphany the unholy part.

A magical time

Although the name comes from the word svyatoy (“holy”), the Svyatki were in actual fact the most unholy and pagan time of the year. The period between the birth and baptism of Christ was a time when you were more or less free from the restrictions imposed by the Church. 

As much as they tried the Church could not get rid of pagan superstitions, beliefs and rituals. Instead of banning them completely, they ’allowed’ the people to have their pagan ways during the Svyatki. 

Before Christianity arrived, Midwinter was celebrated in Russia. The days were getting longer again and people focused on the new year, what would it bring? What kind of harvest? Will you get married? In order to predict the future you needed to call in the help from the ‘unclean’ spirits. And the best time to do so was between midnight and three in the morning.

The Svyatki in War and Peace

In War and Peace we have Natasha and Sonya, two young ladies of marriageable age. They try the method using two mirrors and two candles. You’re supposed to see your future husband in the mirrors, if they are positioned in a certain way and you concentrate. Neither see anything, but Sonya, compliant as she is, pretends to have seen something.

The Svyatki in Eugene Onegin

Tatyana from Eugene Onegin bravely tries everything. She drops molten wax into cold water and draws conclusions from the shapes. She plays a game with rings and singing. Rings are places in a bowl of water and taken out one by one singing. The song that is sung when your ring is taken out has a special meaning for you. She goes outside in the middle of the night to look at the face of the moon in the mirror and asks a stranger passing by his name. That should foretell the face and name of your future husband.

She has the table set for two in the bathhouse. You’re supposed to sit there alone after midnight and your future husband will appear to you. It has to be the bathhouse because there is no icon there and spirits can live freely there. Poor Tatyana doesn’t dare to go and prepares to have a dream that predicts the future instead. She takes off her sash, and puts a mirror under her pillow. The next morning she tries to make sense of her dream with the help of her dream book by Martyn Zadek, a famous dream interpreter of the time.

Martyn Zadek’s Dream Book

Rusianness

Both Pushkin and Tolstoy use the Svyatki to emphasise the Russianness of their protagonists. It’s also worth noting that the action takes in the countryside, which for both authors is somehow more real and authentic than the city. 

Nowadays even in Russia most people now about theses ancient traditions only through War and Peace and Eugene Onegin. And so Tolstoy and Pushkin inspire new generations to try to predict the future during the Svyatki. 

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Picture by Konstantin Makovsky from Wikipedia and the Dream Book by Martin Zadek from the Hermitage website.

Books read: The Bathhouse at Midnight by W.F. Ryan; Eugene Onegin by Pushkin; War and Peace by Tolstoy 

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Text © Elisabeth van der Meer 2022

On the table lies a leather bag with books I read in 2021 spilling out

My 2021 in Books

On the table lies a leather bag with books I read in 2021 spilling out
Some of the books I read this year

It’s becoming a yearly tradition to post some kind of bookish meme at the end of the year on my blog. It’s always a fun and relatively quick post to make, and this year I was inspired by the wonderful Lisa Hill from ANZ LitLovers LibBlog. It goes like this: you have to answer the questions using only books that you have read in 2021.

For me 2021 was a year in which I discovered some new authors thanks to a modern Russian literature book club that I joined, in which I let myself be inspired by Book Twitter, but also re-read some old favourites. Here we go:

In high school I was – Subtly Worded by Teffi

People might be surprised by – Grey Bees by Andrey Kurkov

I will never be – The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson

My life in lockdown was like – Just the Plague by Ludmila Ulitskaya

My fantasy job is – Creating Anna Karenina by Bob Blaisdell

I hate being – Dracula’s Guest by Bram Stoker

At the end of a long day I need – Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov

Wish I had (been) – A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov

My family reunions are – In Memory of Memory by Maria Stepanova

At a party you’d find me with – The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky 

I’ve never been to – Sakhalin Island by Anton Chekhov

A happy day includes – Happy Half Hours by A.A. Milne

Motto I live by – Rock, Paper, Scissors by Maxim Osipov

On my bucket list is (a journey to) – Other Worlds by Teffi

In my next life I want to have – The New Adventures of Helen by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

*****

Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer 2021

The book 'Creating Anna Karenina' by Bob Blaisdell is lying on my desk with a Tolstoy bookmark

Why did Tolstoy struggle with Anna Karenina?

The book 'Creating Anna Karenina' by Bob Blaisdell is lying on my desk with a Tolstoy bookmark

It’s a well known fact that Tolstoy struggled with his novel Anna Karenina. He even referred to it as a horrible thing, ‘vile’ and ‘disgusting’. But does that mean that he hated his own creation, as is often assumed? 

Tolstoy was working on Anna Karenina from 1873 to 1877. The novel was first published in instalments in the literary magazine The Russian Messenger from 1875 to 1877*. Most of the time during those four years Tolstoy was not writing, but procrastinating, avoiding, giving up, writing other things and often simply dealing with family affairs. 

The Seed?

On the 4th of January 1872 a young woman threw herself under a train. She was the mistress and housekeeper of one of Tolstoy’s neighbours. Tolstoy attended the autopsy and was very shaken by what he saw.

Beginning in medias res

In March 1873 Tolstoy abandoned a novel about Peter I that he had started 33 times. The more research he did, the less he liked Peter. Around that time he picked up a volume of Pushkin’s prose, read it for the umpteenth time and started to write Anna Karenina. He enthusiastically wrote to his friend Strakhov* about this incident: “I automatically and unexpectedly thought up characters and events, not knowing myself why, or what would come next, and carried on.” Interestingly enough one of the things that struck him about Pushkin’s prose was his tendency to start a story in medias res, apparently forgetting that he had done so himself with War and Peace

“It’s as if Tolstoy woke up in Pushkin-world and put on his own seven-league boots and started striding over the heads of all the other writers” writes Andrei Zorin about this moment in literary history. We can indeed picture Tolstoy doing just that. Well, the boots may have been on, but they did not move very fast!

A copy of the complete prose tales by Pushkin is lying on my desk

Not meeting deadlines

Tolstoy did not have Dostoevsky’s need to meet a deadline because of some impending disaster, and so he could afford to procrastinate, and the readers of The Russian Messenger were more than once left in suspense for months on end. Initially the publisher Katkov did not want to pay the 10.000 roubles advance payment that Tolstoy had asked for, but Tolstoy managed to successfully play him out against his competitor Nekrasov, and then he promptly agreed. He paid Tolstoy in total 20.000 roubles* for the right to be the first to publish Anna Karenina, a record at the time.

Surrounded by illness and death

Apart from procrastination, trips to Moscow and Samara, and Tolstoy not wanting to work in the summer, there were many distractions in the family circle during that time. Three of his children died in infancy and two others had fairly serious accidents. His aunts Toinette and Polina, who had looked after him after his own mother had died when he was small, died. His wife Sofia, who devotedly copied out Anna Karenina as he wrote it, was ill a lot in those years. Naturally all this had an effect on Tolstoy. Surrounded by death and illness he started to suffer from depression and it got to the point that he did not want to go hunting alone (one of his favourite pastimes) because he did not trust himself alone with a gun.

Whereas for War and Peace he had used his own ancestors and historical events as inspiration, Anna Karenina was becoming a much more personal novel. Anna’s depression and suicidal feelings were Tolstoy’s. 

Judgement

Tolstoy’s own views about unfaithful women were less harsh than you might conclude from the novel. His sister Masha had had a child out of wedlock and she was certainly not judged by Tolstoy, he was supportive and sympathetic. His favourite aunt Toinette had told him once to hate the crime and not the person, something which he believed strongly.

Did Tolstoy hate Anna?

Tolstoy definitely struggled to finish Anna Karenina, but that was mostly because of the circumstances under which he wrote it. But he had started it, so he had to finish it. Did he hate Anna and her crime? There seems to be no evidence of that in his letters and diaries. Tolstoy was relieved when the novel was all finished. And once a work was finished, Tolstoy put it out of his head.

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*Tolstoy never sent this letter to his friend Strakhov. Strakhov was a well known Russian literary critic. He helped Tolstoy a lot with the novel, always encouraging him to write and ready to proofread. We know much about that period from their correspondence.

*Katkov paid an advance of 10.000 roubles, plus 500 roubles per printing sheet, of which there were 40.

*Due to a political disagreement with Katkov the last chapters were not published in the magazine, and readers had to wait until the publication in book form.

I recently read Creating Anna Karenina by Bob Blaisdell, an excellent biography that focuses on the years 1873-1877 during which Tolstoy was working on Anna Karenina. For this post I also used the three other biographies in my possession (see last photo).

Text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer 2021

The books that I read for this post: 'Leo Tolstoy' by Zorin; the Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy; 'Creating Anna Karenina' by Bob Blaisdell; 'Tolstoy' by A.N. Wilson; 'Tolstoy' by Rosamund Bartlett

Meet Baba Yaga – the most Wicked Witch of the East

“There on the stove, on the ninth brick, lay a bony-legged baba yaga. Her nose had grown into the ceiling and the snot from it was hanging across the threshold. She had slung her tits up over a hook and was sharpening her teeth”

Baba Yaga is one of the scariest creatures you’ll encounter in a Russian folktale. She is still used today as an effective method to persuade Russian children to go to bed.

Appearance

Baba Yaga has long grey hair, which she wears loose without a headscarf, which was considered rather indecent in old Russia. She wears a dress without a girdle*, another sign of her unchristian ways. Sometimes she only has one tooth, a fang, and sometimes her teeth are made of iron. She is often found sharpening her tooth/teeth, presumably preparing to eat little children or the hero of the tale. Although she does not usually end up eating the hero, there is strong evidence that she does eat humans, such as the fence surrounding her house being made of bones. And speaking of bones, one of her legs is ‘bony’, dead. She is also very large, she barely fits inside her hut.

The Hut on Chicken Legs

“Foo Foo! I smell the blood of a Russian! Who is it?”

She lives in a hut on chicken legs in the forest. When the hero reaches the hut, it is usually facing the other way, and he or she has to order it to turn: “Little hut, little hut, turn your face towards me and your back to the forest”. All the heroes seem to know this. “It [the hut] was surrounded by a fence made of bones. Skulls with empty eyeholes looked down from the stakes. The gate was made from the bones of people’s legs, the bolts were thumbs and fingers, and the lock was a mouth with sharp teeth”. No doubt this fence was meant to warn off and keep out unwanted visitors, although again the hero knows how to get through anyway. Baba Yaga is then often found lying inside the hut, a terrifying sight. She does not notice the hero entering, until she smells their “Russian soul”, her sense of smell being better than her eyesight.  

On the edge of the forest

Baba Yaga’s hut is always on the border of another world, in the forest, by the sea, or in an empty field. This location is significant, it indicates a connection with the world of the dead. Baba Yaga, or the ‘bone-legged one’, could have one leg in the world of the dead. In fairytales the forest is always a place of transition; the hero, if he manages to come out alive, comes out transformed.

Mortar and pestle 

Baba Yaga has several well known attributes: a mortar, a pestle, a broom and a stove. She pursues her victims in her mortar: “Then the forest was filled with a terrible noise. The trees creaked and cracked, the dead leaves crackled and crunched – and there was the baba yaga. She was riding on her mortar, spurring it on with her pestle and sweeping away her tracks with a broom”.

Baba Yaga’s role in the fairy tale

Baba Yaga can have a wide range of roles in the folktale: the giver, the kidnapper, the warrior, the helper and much more. The hero, as in most fairytales, is in a transitional stage and needs her help. In order to get it, he or she has to know how to behave (politely) with Baba Yaga and sometimes trick her a bit. Baba Yaga’s first instinct is usually to eat the hero, but if the hero passes all the tests that she sets for him or her, she reluctantly helps the hero and passes on some useful knowledge or wealth. The hero escapes or is released as a new person. 

In a broader sense she is seen as a witch, as someone between the world of the living and the world of the dead, and as a goddess of the forest. Her attributes, the stove and mortar and pestle are strongly associated with the cult of the hearth (going back to the Roman goddess Vesta and her Greek equivalent Hestia).

Baba Yaga’s name

The first part of her name means ‘married peasant woman’, but there is no conclusive answer to the meaning of the second part. Possibly ‘yaga’ used to mean ‘terrible’ in Russian, but it’s also possible that it is related to the Russian verb ‘yekhat’’ meaning ‘to ride’ or to the German word ‘Jaeger’, meaning ‘hunter’. The name is not always capitalised, and there can be more than one baba yaga in a tale. Just imagine several baba yagas raging through the forest in their mortars.

Good or bad?

At first sight Baba Yaga is a cannibalistic witch who chases little children in her flying mortar. But if you know how to handle her, she can turn into a helpful and generous person. Very much like the forest which can be a dangerous place for those who do not know how to deal with it, but for those who know it’s a source of wealth. And so Baba Yaga is neither good nor bad, but always terrifying.

*The girdle, ‘poyas, пояс’ protects against evil spirits, some readers may remember that Pushkin’s Tatyana took hers off before going to bed, in order to conjure a prophetic dream.

All quotes are from the wonderful Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov (Penguin Classics)

Baba Yaga illustration by Ivan Bilibin.

Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer 2021

How was Dostoevsky seen in his own time?

Two hundred years after he was born Dostoevsky (1821-1881) is considered to be one of the greatest writers of all time. But how was he seen in his own time?

Well, Turgenev and Nekrasov once called Dostoevsky a pimple on the face of Russian literature! 

It all started with Poor Folk

Dostoevsky became famous overnight with his debut novella Poor Folk (1846), a title that would prove to be prophetic for his own life.

The secret of this success lied in Dostoevsky’s ability to sense that a new literary and social era was beginning, and he cleverly played into that. As any Russian writer does, he took a few bits from his predecessors: the title he borrowed from Karamzin’s Poor Liza, he applied Pushkin’s compassion for his characters to his and he used similar protagonists as Gogol did in his Petersburg stories. And so Dostoevsky wrote the first Russian novel in the sentimental naturalistic genre.

The novel was praised by everyone, including Nekrasov and Turgenev, and Dostoevsky was hailed as Russia’s next big writer. Understandably the sudden success went to his head a bit, he was still quite young after all. Dostoevsky had a strong need for love and acceptance, combined with a tendency to think highly of himself. When he met a pretty admirer at a fancy ball in 1846, Dostoevsky apparently couldn’t handle his emotions and fainted, which caused Nekrasov and Turgenev to make fun of him. 

Even so, this pimple was destined to become the face of Russian Literature.

Siberia and literary comeback

In spite of this flying start Dostoevsky struggled for some years after the publication of Poor Folk to find his place in the phenomenal world of Russian literature. His second novella The Double was criticised for being too ‘Gogolian’. In 1849 his literary career was ruthlessly interrupted when he got arrested for ‘conspiring against the regime’ and was sentenced to four grim years of forced labour in Siberia.

After this ordeal he picked up his writing career in 1859 with two comedies: Uncle’s Dream and The Village of Stepanchikovo. Neither were very successful. His real comeback came in 1862 with The House of the Dead, a semi autobiographical novel about the prison life in Siberia.

Crime and Punishment

In 1866 Russia was in the grip of Crime and Punishment, published in instalments in the literary magazine The Russian Messenger, in which at the same time Tolstoy’s War and Peace* was published. Now Dostoevsky had finally reached the literary top, although he had to share it with Tolstoy and Turgenev. 

He was so much in debt most of the time that he had to write to make money. To make matters worse, he would ask for advances for future work from his publishers and was faced with impossible deadlines in return. He was envious of his competitors, and imagined them living a life of luxury and only writing when they felt like it. His work did not exactly suffer from it though, and he wrote masterpiece after masterpiece: The Idiot, Demons, The Brothers Karamazov.

A Writer’s Diary

Between 1873 and 1881 Dostoevsky wrote more personal essays for his A Writer’s Diary, which was published in various magazines. Through the Diary, which was very popular, the public got to know the person Dostoevsky better and it gained him a new following, especially among young people. He wrote about articles that he had read in the newspapers, the political situation, religion, literature and his personal life. It was a prelude to The Brothers Karamazov, in which all his ideas and views on religion and politics came together.

The Pushkin Speech

By the time Dostoevsky finished writing The Brothers Karamazov, he had reached a prophetic status in Russia. In his famous Pushkin speech in 1881 (a time when the country was struggling with terrorist attacks) Dostoevsky provided the answers that the people wanted to hear: the Russian people themselves held the key, and it was to be the Russian people who would lead Europe into the light, and not the other way around. It was a roaring success, and the success lit up the final months of his life.

Outsider

Dostoevsky always remained a bit of an outsider, and he never really fitted in the literary circles of his time. Because of his sensitive nature he was easily offended, although he regularly offended others himself. But it was precisely his own psychological struggles and hypersensitivity that gave him the ability to depict the inner turmoil of his characters so brilliantly.

With Turgenev and Tolstoy 

Dostoevsky admired Turgenev’s writing style and a lot of his work, but accused him of being too Western. He was also unable to forget the pimple incident, and he once had to ask Turgenev for a loan* after he had lost all his money at the roulette table. In Demons he took revenge on Turgenev and parodied him mercilessly. He did, however, pay Turgenev a compliment in his Pushkin speech, praising Turgenev’s protagonist Liza from Home of the Gentry.

He never met Tolstoy (1828-1910) in person, and although Tolstoy was more a Slavophile like Dostoevsky, he mostly disagreed with his views. In his Writer’s Diary he once wrote a whole rant about how stupid Tolstoy’s Levin from Anna Karenina was, because he disagreed with the political views that Tolstoy had given Levin. Tolstoy never openly responded, but did express genuine sorrow when he learned of Dostoevsky’s death.

The role of the writer in 19th century Russia cannot be underestimated. The three giants influenced the public opinion each in their own way; it was even expected of them. Dostoevsky gave the Russian people a sense of pride and hope for the future.

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*Dostoevsky and his second wife Anna devoured War and Peace, but Dostoevsky hid the part in which Lise dies in childbirth, because Anna was pregnant at that time. She was quite upset with her husband for losing it! I wonder how he explained her sudden absence and Andrey being suddenly a marriage prospect for Natasha;-)

** He had asked Turgenev for 100 thalers, and Turgenev sent him 50. By the time Dostoevsky paid Turgenev back the value of the thaler had dropped so much that it was practically worth nothing.

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Russian Literature timeline:

1792 Poor Liza, Karamzin

1830 The Belkin Stories, Pushkin

1832 Eugene Onegin, Pushkin

1842 Dead Souls, Gogol

1842 Petersburg Stories, Gogol

1852 Childhood, Tolstoy

1846-1852 A Sportsman’s Sketches, Turgenev

1859 Oblomov, Goncharov

1862 Fathers and Sons, Turgenev

1866 Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky

1867 The Gambler, Dostoevsky

1869 The Idiot, Dostoevsky

1865-1869 War and Peace, Tolstoy  

1872 Demons, Dostoevsky

1877 Anna Karenina, Tolstoy  

1879-1880 The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky

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Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer 2021

Books read: Dostoevsky in Love by Alex Christofi and Joseph Frank’s biography of Dostoevsky.

The Karamazov Readalong

As you may have seen already, my friend Liz Humphreys from the blog Leaping Life is going to host a The Brothers Karamazov readalong. Her timing is no coincidence, as 2021 marks the bicentenary of Dostoevsky’s birth. It’s the perfect opportunity for those of you who have been meaning to read Dostoevsky’s epic novel The Brothers Karamazov. She has invited me and our mutual friend Rebecca Bud to make some contributions to the readalong, which obviously we were more than happy to do!

Intimidating

The Brothers Karamazov is definitely one of those intimidating novels that are huge in every way. It tackles some of the biggest questions in life, such as the conflict between reason and faith. Of all the great Russian writers of the 19th century it was after all Dostoevsky who made us think and reflect the most. He didn’t shy away from subjects such as poverty and prostitution and has a habit of leading you into the darkest corners of the human mind.

A very short biography

Dostoevsky was born in Moscow in 1821, where his father was a doctor at a hospital for the poor. Perhaps it was there that his lifelong fascination with less fortunate people began. By the time Dostoevsky was 18 years old, both his parents had died. He and his brother moved to St Petersburg, a city that would become very important for his work and life. His first literary succes was a short novel called Poor Folk (1846), and it made him famous overnight. In 1849 Dostoevsky was arrested for treason and sentenced to death. He was already taken to the place of execution, when the tsar at the very last moment pardoned him and his fellow prisoners. He was sent to Siberia instead, and spent four years doing forced labour in chains. He wrote all his major novels (Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Devils and The Brothers Karamazov) after Siberia. He married twice (the second time happily), had 4 children (of which 2 died), and had to overcome a severe gambling addiction. As if all that was not enough he was always ill: he suffered from epilepsy, haemorrhoids and emphysema. The emphysema caused his death in 1881.

Politics

The Brothers Karamazov was written in the last two years of his life, and as such it should be seen as his life’s work. This was a time of great political turmoil in Russia. After the abolition of serfdom Russia had come to a crossroads and the country was divided. Dostoevsky was a convinced Slavophile, believing that Russia should stay true to itself in order to move forward. One of Dostoevsky’s motivations to write The Brothers Karamazov was to have an opportunity to explain his moral and political views. 

Death of his son Alyosha

The basic idea for the novel, which he had in his head for several years before he started writing, changed after the death of his 3 year old son Alyosha. Little Alyosha died from an epilepsy fit. Besides being struck with grief, Dostoevsky also felt immensely guilty, as clearly Alyosha had inherited the disease that killed him from his father. Dostoevsky went to the famous Optina Pustyn monastery, and there he talked to the equally famous Father Ambrose about the death of little Alyosha. He named on of the brothers in The Brothers Karamazov ‘Alyosha’ and gave Father Ambrose a part as Father Zosima. 

The quintessential novel

“Everything would be put in with an idea that would illuminate the whole.The very selection of facts will suggest how they are to be understood. And it ought to be interesting even for light reading, apart from its value as a work of reference. It would be, so to say, a presentation of the spiritual, moral, inner life of Russia. I want everyone to buy it, I want it to be a book that will be found on every table. It’s an immense undertaking” (from Demons, as quoted by Christofi, page 176 Dostoevsky in Love).

*****

I can highly recommend the biography Dostoevsky in Love by Alex Christofi as an introduction to Dostoevsky and his work. Christofi takes you through Dostoevsky’s life with quotes from letters, excerpts of his novels and notes from his diaries. It’s as if we can hear Dostoevsky himself reminiscing about his life.

*****

As an introduction to the readalong the three of us have recorded a podcast, in which Liz explains all about the readalong. If you wish to take part, you can find more information on Liz’s blog. The readalong starts on the 27th of July.

Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer 2021

Sakhalin through the eyes of Chekhov

Chekhov – homo sachaliensis

In the spring of 1890 Anton Chekhov (1860 -1904) left Moscow and traveled to Sakhalin, an island on the eastern coast of Russia. At the time Sakhalin was used by the authorities as a penal colony. Chekhov wanted to go there for three months to make a census of the involuntary population of the island.

So if no-one went to Sakhalin voluntarily, why did Chekhov, who already knew he had tuberculosis, want to go there? In 1888 the famous Russian explorer Nikolay Przhevalsky had died. Chekhov, who had always been fascinated by the accounts of explorers, wanted to follow in his footsteps, even if only once. As a doctor, Sakhalin seemed to him the perfect place for a humanitarian investigation. As a writer, it would provide him with an opportunity to talk to some hardened criminals.

Also in 1890 the authorities were not exactly keen to have an outsider take a look in their kitchen. Chekhov did eventually get permission, although immediately some telegrams were sent to warn the local authorities. And so Chekhov became the first Russian writer to travel voluntarily to a penal colony.

The Trans-Siberian Railway had not yet been constructed. The tracks ended in Tiumen. Chekhov had wanted to travel further by ship down the river, but although it was already spring, the river was still frozen and he had to travel by carriage on an excruciatingly bad road instead. He finally reached Sakhalin after eleven weeks of traveling.

Sakhalin was such an unwelcoming and unpleasant place that no-one (apart from the indigenous peoples the Gilyaks and the Aino) stayed there any longer than necessary. The hostile climate made it virtually impossible to grow any kind of crop. There were schools, but the teaching was left to former prisoners who had no previous teaching experience. The local hospitals lacked even the most basic equipment. On the one hand some of the prisons were regular gambling houses, with the guards being just as addicted as the prisoners; on the other corporal punishment was given for the slightest offence. A surprisingly large amount of wives had followed their sentenced husband to Sakhalin; only to regret it as soon as they set a foot on shore. A large part of the female population had to prostitute themselves to survive, whether they were convicted criminals or the wives of convicted criminals.

The accounts that Chekhov wrote about his experiences and impressions were hugely influential. The idealistic purpose of the penal colony was that the prisoners would become better people there. Chekhov’s factual and straightforward eye witness account of what actually happened in and around the Sakhalin prisons, opened the eyes of society and improvements were made. Nonetheless one cannot help thinking that even nowadays, 130 years later, Navalny awaits a similar fate, and that not that much has changed.

In spite of his less than smooth travels, Chekhov never lost his sense of humour. Take for instance his description of a ‘typical’ Siberian bedstead: “In the corner stands a bedstead, piled with a whole mountain of feather mattresses and pillows in pretty cases; to clamber up this mountain you have to place a chair beside it, and the instant you lie down you sink. The Siberians love to have a good sleep in a soft bed”.

Or here describing the typical, stupid and random ways of the islanders: “…, while in the lower reaches the Gilyaks were capturing for their dogs immeasurably healthier and tastier fish than those which were being prepared in the Tymovsk District for human beings”. (The fish swims upstream, and the quality of the fish decreases rapidly the further upstream it gets).

And finally: “Nowhere is the past so swiftly forgotten as on Sakhalin, precisely because of the extraordinarily high mobility of the exile population, which changes radically every five years here (…) What happened twenty to twenty-five years ago is regarded as being profound antiquity, already forgotten and lost to history.

Although that last bit is not true anymore, because thanks to our excellent Chekhov we know exactly what it was like and who was there on Sakhalin island during the summer of 1890.

Books read:

Sakhalin Island – Anton Chekhov, translated by Brian Reeve

Chekhov – Henri Troyat

Anton Chekhov, a Life – Donald Rayfield

*****

Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer 2021

By the way, I did join forces again with Rebecca Budd and with Dave Astor at the end of 2020 for another podcast!

My Bookish 2020

We will never forget the year 2020, but, as often happens with life, there were some silver linings too. For me it meant that I had more time and peace to read and write. Which I did!

Eugene Onegin

A large part of 2020 was dedicated to Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin on A Russian Affair. Somewhere in February, just before the Corona crisis hit Europe, I came up with the Eugene Onegin challenge, a chapter by chapter reader’s guide. It was such a wonderful experience to submerge myself into this masterpiece and it made me appreciate Pushkin’s genius even more than before. If I took part in Mastermind now with Eugene Onegin as my specialised subject, I would probably know all the answers!

Spin-offs 

One reader suggested that I also read In Paris With You (Songe à la Douceur) by Clémentine Beauvais, a modern day version of Eugene Onegin, set in Paris. Clémentine Beauvais describes it herself as “yet another love, yet another Paris love, and on top of that, it’s a rewriting of another literary love”. In a year in which it wasn’t possible to go to Paris, the next best thing was reading a novel set in Paris. Another spin-off I read is What Happened to Anna K. by Irina Reyn. I first heard about this modern day version of Anna Karenina from Yelena Furman in The Feeling Bookish Podcast. Irina Reyn is a Russian émigré writer who lives in the United States. Her debut novel is set in the close knit community of the Russian Jewish immigrants in New York City, which is apparently not all that different from the original Anna’s milieu. 

You have to be pretty brave to re-write a great classical novel, as comparisons will inevitably be made, but both writers managed to turn the original idea into a new and original work. 

Women in Translation

I read a lot of modern eastern European fiction in 2020, such as The Eight Life by the Georgian born writer Nino Haratischvili. An excellent book to read in a time when we can’t travel much, as it would have been a heavy one to carry around;-). My favourite discovery of 2020 was Three Apples Fell from the Sky by Narine Abgaryan, an Armenian writer living in Moscow. Truly a balm for the soul!

Reading group reads

Another balm for the soul is Andrey Kurkov’s Grey Bees, which I am currently reading for an online book club. Book clubs can be a great way to discover new books and I’m really enjoying taking part in Sarah G’s Russian book club. For the same book club I read The Librarian by Mikhail Elizarov; not a balm for the soul and not about librarians as we know and love them, but a modern dystopian novel. It was interesting though! Together with some Twitter friends I’m reading Chekhov’s Sakhalin Island. This shows how a truly great writer like Chekhov can even turn a census of a penile colony into a very readable and even enjoyable piece of literature. 

Non-fiction

For research purposes and out of genuine interest I also read a lot of books about Russian literature and writers behind the scenes. This year they were mostly related to Eugene Onegin, such as Nabokov’s extremely extensive commentary. In order to find out more about Russian superstitions I had ordered a book called Bathhouse at Midnight, which unfortunately got lost twice during shipping. I’ll try to order it again in the new year.

Non-Russians

From my blog and Instagram you may get the impression that all I read is Russian literature, and although this is mostly true, I do actually read other books too. This year I returned to classics like Oscar Wilde and Jane Austen. I also take an interest in Finnish literature and particularly enjoyed Crossing by Pajtim Statovci.

Let’s hope that the year 2021 will again be a good year for reading, but we can do without the virus this time! I wish you all a very happy and healthy 2021, с Новым Годом!

*****

Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer 2020

The Who’s Who of War and Peace

There are about 580 individual characters in Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Most of them have long and confusing Russian names and titles, and this is probably the most often heard reason, after the length, that people hesitate to read War and Peace

Therefore I have compiled a list of the 73 most frequently recurring characters, in alphabetical order, by the name by which you are most likely to encounter them. I also give a short description, trying to avoid any spoilers. Please note that the spelling of the names may vary per translation. At the bottom of this post you’ll find a handy downloadable and printable PDF. I have also provided links to individual character posts.

The Characters

(Tsar) Alexander I; the Russian emperor (real).

(Princess) Aline Kuragina – Prince Vassili’s wife.

Alpatych, Yakov Alpatych – a member of staff on the Bolkonsky estate Bald Hills. 

Anatole; Anatole Kuragin; Prince Anatole Vassilievich Kuragin – the eldest son of Prince Vassily, handsome, but, as with his sister Hélène, the outside does not match the inside. Close friend of Dolokhov.

(Prince) Andrei; Andrei Nikolaevich Bolkonsky – Marya’s brother, Lise’s husband, and the son of the old Count Bolkonsky. Spends most of the novel on the Russian front. Can come across a bit cold-hearted. 

Anna Mikhailovna; Princess Anna Mikhailovna Dubretskaya – Boris’ mother, and a good friend of the Countess Rostova. She’s always trying improve her son’s position. 

Anna Pavlovna Scherer; Annette – although the novel opens with her, she’s a minor character. A socialite and rather conservative. 

Arakcheev; Count Alexei Andreevich Arakcheev – general and statesman who had a violent temper (real).

Bagration – a Russian general (real).

Bazdeev; Osip (Joseph) Alexeevich Bazdeev – a Freemason and acquaintance of Pierre.

Berg; Alphonse Karlovich Berg, Vera’s husband, officer in the army. 

(Count) Bezukhov; Kirill Vladimirovich Bezukhov; the old count – Pierre’s father, one of the richest men in Russia, already on his deathbed when introduced.

Bilibin – a diplomate with a clever reputation, moves in the highest circles.

(the old Prince) Bolkonsky; Nikolai Andreevich Bolkonsky; old Bolkonsky – the father of Marya and Andrei, an old-fashioned and strict man.

Boris; Prince Boris Dubretskoi – Nikolai’s friend, nice, but a bit calculating.

(Mademoiselle) Bourienne – a French woman who has been hired as a companion for Marya.

Catiche; Princess Catiche – one of the three nieces of the old Count Bezukhov, she tries to secure at least some of his inheritance.

Daniel – the head huntsman at the Rostov’s country estate.

Denisov; Vaska; Vassily Dmitrich Denisov; a hussar officer who becomes friends with Nikolai, a real good guy, can’t say the letter ‘R’.

Dmitry Vasilevich – Count Rostov’s estate manager. 

Dolgorukov; Prince Yuri Dolgorukov – general in chief.

Dolokhov; Fedya; Fyodor Ivanovich Dolokhov – an officer who becomes friends with Nikolai. He can be cruel and mean. 

Dorokhov – Lieutenant-General in the Napoleonic wars (real).

Dron – the village elder at Bald Hills, the Bolkonsky estate. 

Esaul Lovayski the Third; Mikail Feoklitych; the esaul – an ‘esaul’ is a Cossack captain.

Ferapontov – an innkeeper.

Hélène; Princess Elena Vassilievna Kuragina; Countess Bezukhova – Prince Vassily’s daughter, very beautiful on the outside, but not always on the inside.

(Prince) Hippolyte; Ippolit; Ippolit Vassilievich Kuragin – the youngest son of Prince Vassily, not the brightest of the family. 

Ilagin – a rich neighbour of the Rostovs who likes to go hunting. 

(Count) Ilya; Ilya Andreevich Rostov; Count Rostov; the count – the head of the Rostov family, very good-natured and generous.

Ilyin – a young officer, Nikolai’s protégé. 

Julie; Julie Karagina (not to be confused with the Kuragins), Marya’s friend and, like Marya, an eligible wealthy heiress. 

Karataev; Platon Karataev – a peasant soldier who is held prisoner by the French together with Pierre.

Karay – Nikolai’s favourite hunting dog together with Milka.

Karp – a peasant at Bald Hills, the leader of a small revolt after the old Count Bolkonsky has died.

Kozlovski – an aide-de-camp of Kutuzov.

Kutuzov – commander in chief, played a crucial role in the battle of Borodino (real).

Lavrushka – the orderly who looks after Denisov and Nikolai while they are on duty in the army.

(the little Princess) Lise; Liza; Elizaveta Karlovna Bolkonskaya –  Andrei’s wife, she has a protruding, downy upper lip, and is overall very sweet and charming.

Mack; Baron Mack von Leiberich – the commander of the Austrian army (real).

Makar Alexeevich Bazdeev – the half insane and alcoholic brother of Pierre’s Freemason friend Bazdeev.

Mary Hendrikhovna – the wife of the regiment’s doctor.

(Princess) Marya; Marya Nikolaevna Bolkonskaya; Masha; Mary – Andrei’s sister, often referred to by Tolstoy as plain looking with large eyes, a bit nervous and very pious. She adores her brother Andrei.

Marya Dmitrievna; Marya Dmitrievna Akhrosimova – family friend of the Rostovs, known as “the terrible dragon”, she always speaks her opinion. 

Mavra; Mavra Kuzminishna – a servant in the Rostov household.

Mikhail Ivanovich – an architect.

Milka – Nikolai’s favourite hunting dog together with Karay.

Morel – Captain Ramballe’s servant.

Napoleon Bonaparte; the French emperor (real).

Nastasha Ivanovna – the ‘buffoon’ at the Rostov’s country estate, a man dressed in woman’s clothes. It was apparently still normal to have a jester at Russian country estates in the beginning of the 19th century. 

Natasha; countess Natalya Ilyinichna Rostova; countess Rostova – the youngest daughter of the Rostovs – pretty, she has a strong intuition, rather reckless, good-hearted like her father, but less compliant.

Nesvitski; Prince Nesvitsky – an officer, acquainted with Nikolai, Denisov and Dolokhov, described as stout and usually laughing.

Nikolai; Nikolai Ilyich Rostov; Rostov; Count Rostov – the oldest son of the Rostovs, cheerful, good-natured and well respected, a bit reckless and a brave hussar.  

Nikolenka; Prince Nikolai Andreevich Bolkonsky – the son of Andrei and Liza.

Pelageya Danilovna Melyukova – one of the Rostovs’ neighbours.

Petya; Count Pyotr Ilyich Rostov – the youngest member of the Rostov clan, overenthusiastic and reckless like Natasha and Nikolai. 

Pierre; Pyotr Kirillovich Bezukhov; Count Bezukhov – the illegitimate son of old Count Bezuchov who has been acknowledged just before the old Count died and is now his heir, making him the most eligible bachelor in Russia.

(Captain) Ramballe – a French officer whose life is saved by Pierre.

Rostopchin – governor of Moscow. Rather than giving up Moscow to the French, he had all the inhabitants evacuate and let the city be burned to the ground, so that Napoleon found the city empty and burning (real).

(Countess) Rostova; Natalya; the Countess – Ilya’s wife and the mother of Vera, Nikolai, Natasha and Petya, carer of Sonya.

Shinshin, Pyotr Nikolaevich – Countess Rostova’s cousin.

Sonya; Sophia Alexandrovna; Sophie – she is the ward of the Rostovs, an orphaned relative. Very pretty and Natasha’s closest friend. 

Speransky; Count Mikhail Mikhailovich Speransky – secretary of state (real).

Taras – the Rostov’s cook, a serf who had learned to cook from a French chef. Aristocratic Moscovites, like the Rostov’s, enjoyed giving lavish dinner parties, and having a good cook was a matter of personal pride.

Telyanin – an officer who steals Denisov’s purse

Tikhon – the personal manservant of the old Prince Bolkonsky. 

Tikhon Shcherbaty – a peasant who joins Denisov’s regiment.

Timokhin; Captain Timokhin – an officer.

Tushin – Captain Tushin – an artillery officer.

Uncle – a distant relative of the Rostovs and one of their neighbours.

(Prince) Vassily; Vassily Kuragin; Kuragin – the father of Anatole and Hélène, who does his utmost to make sure his children marry well (meaning wealthy).

Vera; (Countess) Vera Ilyinichna Rostova – the oldest Rostov child, not always popular with the others because of her rather prim attitude.

Zherkov – a hussar cornet, he used to be a part of the group of friends in Saint Petersburg that Dolokhov lead.

Click here for the Who’s Who of Anna Karenina.

*****

Text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer 2020

Pushkin’s ‘The Queen of Spades’

In 1833, during the famous ‘Boldino Autumn’, Alexandr Pushkin wrote The Queen of Spades, a wonderfully ingenious and mysterious story.

Pushkin’s famous quote that “two fixed ideas can no more exist in one mind than, in the physical sense, two bodies can occupy one and the same place” pertains to the protagonist of The Queen of Spades, Germann, who is obsessed with a secret that an old countess has been keeping for sixty years: three cards that will guarantee you to win. He is prepared to do anything to find out this secret, he even considers becoming her lover. 

Motivation

Germann’s father was a Russified German who left him a small fortune. Enough to live moderately.  Germann is frugal and lives only of his officer’s income. When asked why he never joins the others when they play cards, but watches them play instead, he always answers that he is ‘not in the position to sacrifice the essentials of life in the hope of acquiring the luxuries’. Although his initial reaction to the anecdote was that it’s only a fairytale, he quickly becomes obsessed with it and starts to see the three cards as a key to a successful life and the acceptance of his fellow officers. 

Faro

The card game that is played here is called Faro. In the most simple form there are two players, a banker and a punter. The punter chooses a specific card from his own deck of cards, puts it on the table and places a bet on it. The banker has a separate deck from which he takes two cards in each turn. He places one card on the left and one on the right side of the punter’s card, until the card that was betted on turns up. If this card falls on the left, the punter wins and if it falls on the right, the banker wins.

Plot

Germann has inherited 47000 rubles and expects to increase that amount to 376000 rubles with the three winning cards. With the help of the countess’s ward Liza, whom he misleads, he gains access to the bedroom of the old woman. But she refuses to tell him the secret and desperately Germann threatens her with a pistol. The 87 year-old  woman is literally scared to death. Germann manages to get away unseen and it is assumed that the countess died of old age. Three nights later she appears in his bedroom as a ghost and tells him the three winning cards: three, seven and ace. He can bet on only one card per 24 hours. As soon as a suitable opportunity arises, Germann tries his ‘luck’. He puts all 47000 rubles on a three and wins. The second night he wins on the seven. The third night, however, a queen falls on the right and an ace on the left. Excitedly Germann cries “the ace wins”, but when he turns over his card he discovers that instead of an ace, the queen of spades lies in front of him and he has lost everything. The other players are satisfied, “famously punted!” they exclaim. But Germann does not hear it. He loses his mind and spends the rest of his life mumbling “Three, seven, ace. Three, seven, queen.” 

Irony

The irony of Pushkin’s story is that Germann finally gains the respect he wants so much the moment he loses all his money, but he doesn’t realise this and goes crazy. Unlike Nikolay in War and Peace* he cannot deal with his stupidity and move on. 

Interpretations

Pushkin leaves room for several interpretations. The most likely scenario is that Germann already lost his mind and merely dreamt that the dead countess came to visit him. There are several clues that Germann started to go crazy before he lost. He is described as someone who never plays himself but watches others play with ‘feverish anxiety’. He also already appears to ‘know’ the three cards already before the ghostly apparition: “no! Economy, moderation and industry: these are my three winning cards, these will treble my capital, increase it sevenfold, and earn for my ease and independence!” And the ace? Well, they didn’t call Pushkin a genius for nothing; it is hidden in the Russian original: “Нет! Расчёт, умеренность и трудолюбие: вот мои три верные карты, вот что утроит, усемерит мой капитал и доставит мне покой и независимость.” The Russian word for triples end with a ’T’ and the next word, to increase sevenfold, starts with ‘US’, together forming the word ‘tus’, meaning ‘ace’. Besides, this statement is not even logical; when betting on cards Germann will double and hopefully ‘octuple’ his money, and if something doesn’t make sense at first sight, you can trust Pushkin to make it make sense in another way. Also in Faro the player basically bets that a certain card will fall on the left instead of on the right; there is no logic or strategy in such a bet, something which a normal thinking person would have realised. The source of the anecdote, Tomsky, the grandson of the countess and Germann’s fellow officer, is also not  very reliable. He repeatedly teases his grandmother and Liza, and it is not unimaginable that he fabricated the whole anecdote. 

Other remarkable facts

The old woman’s secret pertains not only to the three cards, but also to three essental items in her toilet: rouge, hairpins and a bonnet; in her bedroom Germann witnesses the loathsome secrets of her toilet. Tomsky’s first name is ‘Pavel’ (Paul) and he marries a girl called ‘Polina’. Germann has caused the death of the countess and when he loses the game the banker tells him “your queen has lost’; in Russian the word ‘ubita’ (убита) is used, which does not only mean ‘was beaten’ but also ‘was murdered’. And before you know it you’ll see numbers everywhere, like Germann: the countess is an 87 year-old lady; in the number 8 you can see the number 3, making it three, seven, queen…

*in Tolstoy’s War and Peace Nikolay loses 43000 rubles playing Faro against Dolokhov, who cheats. 

The Queen of Spades by Alexandr Pushkin in a translation by Gillon Aitken

Rereading “The Queen of Spades” by Andrew Wachtel

The Ace in “The Queen of Spades” by Sergei Davydov

Text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer 2020 (playing cards from Wikipedia)