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

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)

The Eugene Onegin Guide – Onegin’s Travels

At first sight the appendix containing Onegin’s travels seems difficult to place in relation to the eight chapters that make up the novel Eugene Onegin.

Russianness

The stanzas relating to Onegin’s travels were originally intended to be featured in chapter 8 and the novel was supposed to have nine or ten chapters. Feeling perhaps that they stood out too much from the ‘Russianness’ of the rest of the novel, Pushkin chose to exile them as it were to an appendix instead, rather than leaving them out altogether. This would have caused too large a gap in the story, with Onegin disappearing after the duel and reappearing some years later in Saint Petersburg. Had they been included in the novel, they would of course have mirrored Tatyana’s journey from the countryside to Moscow.

Contrasts

We have already seen that Eugene Onegin is a novel of contrasts, between the city and the countryside for instance. In Onegin’s travels that turns into a contrast between Russia and it’s southern territories, like the Crimea and the Caucasus. When Pushkin started writing Eugene Onegin in 1823 he was in exile (1820-1826) and living in Moldavia. His travels during his exile to the Caucasus and the Crimea had made Pushkin see Russia and his own Russianness in a new light. Not being able to go to Saint Petersburg himself, he imagined his hero Eugene Onegin and his reader there. It is more than likely that our very Saint Petersburg dandy Eugene Onegin would not have seen the light of day if Pushkin had not been exiled!

Тоска! (Ennui!)

In a literary sense journeys often indicate personal growth. From some of the original stanzas of this chapter, it would seem that Pushkin did intend to have Onegin come to some insights, and even wanted Eugene to take part in the 1825 Decembrist Revolt. However, all the stanzas that were too political were left out of the final version and we are left with a Eugene who is once again bored (ennui!) So if Eugene has learned anything during his Byronic escape, it may well be that his boredom came from within, and not from his surroundings.

Childe Harold

The travels can also be seen as an answer to Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Although Pushkin tells us not to confuse him with Byron, the references to Byron are there throughout the novel. In a draft he called the appendix a “playful parody” of Childe Harold. His playful tone of the first chapters of Eugene Onegin is certainly back. In the 9th stanza the narrator claims to have outgrown his love for exotic romantic landscapes, preferring the Russian countryside instead.

Fiction or reality?

The journey that Onegin makes corresponds mostly with Pushkin’s renewed (voluntary this time!) travels to the south in 1829. He travels from Saint Petersburg to Moscow to Nizhni Novgorod, where the bustling market fails to amuse him. In the Caucasus he is finally impressed by the majestic landscape, but it only seems to emphasize the ‘ennui’ that lies in store for him. In the Crimea the narrator takes over again, reminiscing his youth and taking the reader to Odessa. Sunny Odessa, where many Italians lived, was Pushkin’s answer to Byron’s Italy in Childe Harold.

All in all it remains an odd chapter. It contains some wonderful stanzas, but contributes little to the plot of Eugene Onegin. And although this chapter is called Onegin’s travels, it might just as well have been called Pushkin’s travels. It tells us a lot about how his travels made him grow as a poet. The wildness of the Caucasus particularly would continue to inspire Pushkin throughout his career. Only when seen from a distance could he find a new appreciation for the charms of the Russian big cities and countryside.

*****

Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer 2020

In addition to the previous references works I used Writing at Russia’s Border by Katya Hokanson and Breaking Ground by Sara Dickinson.

The conclusion of the Eugene Onegin Challenge is scheduled for the 5th of July. I’d be happy to (try to) answer any questions that you have after finishing Eugene Onegin.

Season 2 Episode 34: Elisabeth on The Eugene Onegin Challenge Part 2

Welcome to Tea, Toast and Trivia. Thank you for listening in. Elisabeth Van Der Meer from the extraordinary blog, A Russian Affair, has once again …

Season 2 Episode 34: Elisabeth on The Eugene Onegin Challenge Part 2

Once more I had the pleasure to record a podcast with Rebecca. We talked some more about Pushkin and the Eugene Onegin challenge. What else is there to talk about?!

The Eugene Onegin Challenge

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I’m challenging you! Not to a duel, no, although it does involve one… I’m challenging you to read Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin with me. Whether you’re a curious first time reader, a longtime lover, or something in between; anyone who is interested is welcome to join.

Now I know that you all have TBR’s that reach the ceiling, not to mention to-do lists as long as the neck of a giraffe, but don’t worry; we’ll do this at a very doable pace. Pushkin deserves more than to be read at a record speed anyway. 

Why?

Eugene Onegin is a ‘novel in verse’, something between a poem and a novel. That, among other things, makes it notoriously difficult to translate. If you translate a poem literally, it probably won’t rhyme. If you make it rhyme, you’ll probably have to adjust the text. I had very high expectations when I first read Eugene Onegin. But although I enjoyed it, I felt that I didn’t quite get it. Looking back that probably had a lot to do with the translation that didn’t do the work justice. Luckily I did not give up on Eugene Onegin. I made attempts at reading it in Russian and tried other translations. And with each read I loved it more.

The plan

The plan is to make ten more posts about Eugene Onegin. In the next one I’ll explain the rhyming scheme, introduce the characters and talk about how and when Pushkin wrote his masterpiece. The following eight posts will be dedicated to the eight chapters of the novel. After each of the eight chapter posts I would love to read your thoughts, insights, questions and feelings in the comment section. In the final blog post I’ll summarise the journey that we took together, exploring this wonderful novel. 

Taking it one chapter at the time allows us to pay attention to details such as the structure, references and characterization that make Eugene Onegin the masterpiece that it is. Your comments will be a valuable addition to the posts.

The details 

I’ll mainly use the James E. Falen translation. I think that it captures the cheerful and witty spirit of Pushkin really well. There is an audiobook version of this translation read by the marvellous Stephen Fry, which can be found on YouTube. I recommend that you use a translation that has plenty of notes. Sunday next week I’ll publish the introduction to Eugene Onegin, and Sunday in two weeks the first chapter post. After that I aim to publish a chapter post every two weeks. At the end of the series you’ll be able to not just say that you’ve read Eugene Onegin (again), but hopefully also that you love it (even more)!

Finally I’d like to emphasise that everyone is welcome to join at any time, and read at his or her own pace. The journey is more important than the destination, so enjoy it!

*****

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Eugene Onegin – Alexander Pushkin, translated by James E. Falen, ISBN 978-0199538645

Text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer 

Denisov, the good guy from War and Peace

The writer Boris Akunin once said in an interview that Tolstoy’s characters are as real to him as, and sometimes even more real than, real people. I absolutely agree, and I enjoy exploring the various characters. So for those who also agree, here’s yet another War and Peace blog post. About Denisov this time. A favorite of many readers, and one of those characters who one would have liked to have had a bigger part.

The opposite of Dolokhov

Denisov is the complete opposite of Dolokhov. Where Dolokhov is described as handsome, with piercing blue eyes and without moustache, Denisov is hairy, with a disheveled moustache, and eyes as black as coal. Dolokhov usually wins when playing cards (albeit cheating) and Denisov usually loses.

Their personalties couldn’t be more opposed either: although Tolstoy describes a rogue who drinks heavily and curses heartily when he introduces Denisov, from the way his eyes light up when he sees Nicholay it is immediately clear that he is a good guy.

Denisov has some endearing characteristics: he can’t pronounce the letter ‘r’. Everyone in the army calls him ‘Waska’, a rather childish diminutive of Wasili. He only makes an effort with his appearance when going into battle or in the company of ladies, making it clear where his priorities lie. Although we never find out much about Denisov’s background, he has an uncle with a high rank and that’s all, he is clearly from the same background as Nicholay, and has for instance had dancing lessons at the same place as all of the young Rostovs. Although he is short, he looks like a fine fellow on horseback and when dancing.

Denisov’s mazurka

There are four epic dance scenes in War and Peace: the old count Rostov, dancing like an ‘eagle’; Natasha’s Russian dance at Uncle’s house; Natasha’s dance with Andrey and then there is Denisov’s mazurka. He dances such a dazzling mazurka with Natasha, that she nearly falls in love with him. But she is only fifteen then, and Denisov is at least ten years older, practically an old man!

Denisov is, as he puts it himself, bewitched by Natasha and adores the whole family. When he proposes to Natasha, he doesn’t just propose to her, but to her whole family. Dolokhov takes revenge on Nicholay after Sonya has refused him; Denisov loves Nicholay more after Natasha’s refusal. At some point we can hear him mutter with a choked voice “Ah, what a mad bweed you Wostovs are!”. And when he finds Petya Rostov dead, bystanders can hear a yelp like of a dog coming from him.

A heart of gold

Denisov is driven by his care for others. He would give his life twice for any of the Rostovs and risks serious repercussions when he steals a food supply for his starving soldiers. His soldiers in turn like him, and show it by building him an extra nice ‘house’ during their exploits. He gets gloomy when bored and almost depressed when in hospital, but when he goes into action he is clearly in his element. His bravery does not require recognition from superiors, he would rather be respected by his equals and subordinates. The ones that are lucky enough to be loved by him, can count on his (albeit somewhat sentimental) devotion.

Beneath his rough exterior, but not very deep beneath it, Denisov has a heart of gold.

*****

Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer 2019

Book: War and Peace – Tolstoy – the Louise and Aylmer Maude translation

Pierre’s Duel with Dolokhov

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It is one of the most memorable scenes in War and Peace: the duel between Pierre and Dolokhov. Tolstoy builds up the tension steadily. The scene is told from Pierre’s perspective, so that the reader really feels Pierre’s hurt feelings and damaged pride from a front row position.

Hélène

Pierre had married Hélène against his better knowledge. He knew that there was something strange about her, he had heard something about her improper relationship with her brother Anatole, but still he married her. It doesn’t take long for Hélène to show her true nature, but for now Pierre ignores his problems.

Rumours

Even when there are rumours going around that Hélène has an affair with Dolokhov, his friend whom he has offered a place to stay, has lent money and knows only too well, he does not want to believe them. Bottled up feelings, however, have the nasty habit of bursting out at the most inopportune moments.

The dinner

The old count Rostov gives a grand dinner, in true Moscow style, meaning that no expense or trouble is spared, in honour of general Bagration. Both Pierre and Dolokhov are present and they sit opposite each other. Because of the rumours about his wife, Pierre is in a bad mood and eats and drinks too much. At his wife’s command he is not wearing his spectacles (does she command him to see nothing?), but he is constantly rubbing the bridge of his nose (does he miss his spectacles and wishes to see better?). Pierre is becoming more and more convinced that the rumours must be true. Dolokhov’s insolence, sitting there across the table, merrily, is starting to annoy him more and more. He knows him better than anyone and he knowns that sadistic side of him, and he sees it in Dolokhov’s eyes right now. 

Pierre has finally had enough

He feels something terrible and monstrous rising in his soul. Dolokhov must be hoping for some kind of escalation, because he makes a toast “to the health of all lovely women, Peterkin—and their lovers!”. The terrible and monstrous feeling now takes complete possession of Pierre.  He rises, and as we know, he is big, and shouts at Dolokhov. All except Dolokhov are scared. Pierre challenges him.

The duel

The next morning they meet in a forest clearing and it turns out that Pierre has never even held a pistol. Dolokhov is an experience duelist and officer. All five people present know that this is murder. Neither Pierre nor Dolokhov apologises and the duel takes place. Pierre is willing to die and Dolokhov is willing to kill. Pierre is holding his left hand behind his back, because he knows it is not done to hold the pistol with both hands. He shoots first and is very surprised when he discovers he has hit Dolokhov in the chest, and he starts to sob. Dolokhov falls down into the snow, bites into the snow and raises his pistol. He refuses to give up. The seconds shout at Pierre to cover himself with his gun, but Pierre just stands with his feet apart, broadly. Everyone closes their eyes, Dolokhov shoots and… misses. Pierre lives!

When he comes home, Hélène makes a terrible scene and Pierre gets so angry with her, that he nearly kills her. 

Philosophy

The duel can be seen as a small scale version of the Napoleonic wars: Tolstoy even uses the same words here: “(…) the affair (…) was taking its course independently of men’s will”. Precisely the big idea behind the novel, history takes its’ course, in spite of our individual efforts to influence it.

The consequences 

The bear in Pierre has woken up. He is no longer the nearsighted and fat rich man that everybody takes advantage of and who is ordered around by his wife and used by his friend. He surprises even himself. He takes control of his life and tries to find himself. It will be a long journey, with plenty of hardship, but he’ll get there. 

Hélène has one lover after another and dies of the consequences of an abortion. Here too is an analogy with a bigger dispute, the Trojan wars in this case. This Helen may not have caused a thousand ships to launch, but she too was the cause of quarrel and bloodshed.

And Dolokhov? He survives and has learnt nothing. If anything he is even more bitter and cruel than before. He continues on his path of death and destruction. Except when he’s with his angel mother of course!

Tolstoy – War and Peace, part 4, chapters 3,4,5,6.

Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer 2019

A Russian Affair is four years old!

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A Russian Affair is four years old!

And still going strong. The followers of this blog know that in 2018 I have moved from the Netherlands to Finland to live with the love of my life. Moving countries is no small feat, but Finland seems to agree with me and I’m settling in well. The (next) best thing about Finland is of course the beautiful nature, I love to go out and enjoy it! 

Meanwhile there was plenty going on at A Russian Affair as well: I wrote about War and Peace again, about Russian horror stories, about Finns in Russian literature and the wives of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy also got some well deserved attention. Your favourite blog post was Russian Ghost Stories, one that I particularly enjoyed making. I had great fun reading all those stories again and making the photos for the post.

All time favourites by far are still Fyodor Dolokhov – the Bad Guy from War and Peace and Is there really an incestueus relationship in War and Peace?

But I’m not finished with War and Peace yet (will I ever be?): I’m going to write something about Denisov and about Pierre’s duel. I would also like to talk about Turgenev’s Smoke and to tell you something about Russian plays. Chekhov was of course a famous playwright, but Gogol and Turgenev wrote plays as well.

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I get inspired by whatever comes across my path and often by your commentary and blogs, so who knows what else the year will bring.

I wish you all a wonderful blog year!

x

text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer, 2019

Married to a Genius

The married lives of Anna Dostoevskaya and Sophia Tolstoya

The ladies Dostoevskaya and Tolstaya were most probably too young and inexperienced to judge correctly what they were in for at the moment they said “yes” to to their husbands. Both Dostoevsky and Tolstoy were already successful and celebrated writers, and in spite of the considerable age differences, all parties involved were in love. Both ladies kept diaries during their marriages, so that we have a clear picture of what they had to endure from their husbands.

Anna Snitkina

Anna Snitkina was twenty years old when she started work as a stenographer for the forty four year old Dostoevsky. He had made a deal with a publisher on terrible conditions and with an impossible deadline in order to pay off his gambling debts. A friend had suggested that he should hire a stenographer, so that the writing would proceed faster. With Anna’s help a schedule was made and the novella The Gambler was written. But when the deadline approached, Dostoevsky realised that he would miss Anna terribly after their work was finished. Because he had no idea if she felt the same, he devised a plan: he asked her advice on a story he was working on. In this story a middle aged artist fell in love with his young assistant. Was it possible, from Anna’s female perspective, that this love was mutual? After Anna’s reply that it was very well possible, Fyodor felt confident enough to ask her and not much later they were married.

 

It soon became clear to Anna that Dostoevsky’s debts were not caused by gambling alone; he took financial care of the whole family of his deceased brother and of his spoiled stepson from his first marriage. On top of that he was legally obliged to take over the debts that his deceased brother had. As soon as any money arrived, a whole crowd stood on his doorstep, and it disappeared again in no time. To get a break from all those people, the couple travelled abroad, to Baden Baden. Where the famous casino was. And Dostoevsky started gambling again. He gambled away everything: the wedding rings, Anna’s jewellery, her clothes, their travel money, everything. Dostoevsky had to ask his publisher for an advance, and the morning it arrived, he went out to buy their things back. In the evening he came home crying: that money had been gambled away as well.

 

The saintly Anna kept forgiving and believing in her husband. The few desperate outbursts she had, were confined to the pages of her diary, and even so she found herself a bad person for giving in to them. She blamed Dostoevsky’s epilepsy for all his problems. Thanks to her practical mindset, Dostoevsky managed eventually to get rid of both his gambling addiction and his debts. Anna took on all financial affairs and dealt with the publishers herself.

 

During their marriage Dostoevsky wrote masterpieces such as The Idiot, Demons and The Brothers Karamazov.

Sophia Behrs

Sophia Behrs was the daughter of a doctor friend of Tolstoy. She was eighteen when she married the thirty four year old Tolstoy. Tolstoy was very much in love and tried to make that clear to her in a way he later described in Anna Karenina: he wrote down the first letters of the words of a long sentence and made her guess the sentence. She succeeded, and a lifetime of working out her husband’s handwriting and unpredictable character would follow.

 

Although Tolstoy clearly had the upper hand in the marriage, the first years together were really happy. Sophia played an important role in her husband’s writing: she edited and copied out his manuscripts, so that they were ready for the publisher. She helped Tolstoy with his female characters, and most importantly she gave him the peace and space he needed to write.

 

According to Tolstoy a woman’s calling was to give birth to and breastfeed children, and although Sophia had had enough of that after five children, she would give birth to another eight. With each child came more worries and her life became more confined to the nursery. From the thirteen children eight would make it to adults and she had to bury five. Later in his life Tolstoy preached sexual abstinence, even while Sophia was pregnant again, which she found terribly embarrassing.

 

Most of her married life she lived on Tolstoy’s simple, almost spartan, country estate Yasnaya Polyana. Sophia grew up in the centre of Moscow and missed the pleasures of the city. She constantly had to adjust to her husband’s latest obsession and that caused more and more friction. Tolstoy wanted to give away the rights of his novels, give up his aristocratic title, and developed a close friendship with the Tolstoyan Chertkov. Sophia became more and more jealous, sad and desperate. She felt the gap between her and her husband widening, and wanted even to take her life in a cry for attention. Eventually Tolstoy found the situation so unbearable, that he ran away from Yasnaya Polyana and Sophia, in the middle of the night, aged eighty two. He would die ten days later.

 

No doubt Sophia had imagined her life as Countess Tolstaya to be completely different.

 

During their marriage Tolstoy (to mention just a few things) wrote two of the greatest novels ever written, learned Ancient Greek in five months, learned to ride a bicycle and play tennis, got excommunicated from the church, raised a record amount of money for charity, tried to fight the widespread illiteracy, got followers called “Tolstoyans”, wrote with Gandhi about non-violent resistance and became a vegetarian.

 

*****

Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer

Tolstoy – A Russian Life, Rosamund Bartlett

Dostoevsky – A Writer in His Time, Joseph Frank