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

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

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

Four memorable dogs in Russian literature

There are several memorable dogs in Russian literature, and it’s about time that they get the attention they deserve on this blog! Let’s take a look at four famous examples.

Tolstoy 

Tolstoy’s extraordinary psychological insights apply to dogs as well as humans; take for instance Laska from Anna Karenina. She is an enthusiastic, experienced and dedicated hunting dog. As soon as she notices that her owner Levin is planning to go hunting, she gets all excited with impatience. During the hunt she senses exactly how things are going. If her owner is unlucky, she doesn’t want to show her lack of faith in him and even though she does not believe that he really has shot a snipe, she still pretends to search it (part 6, c10). And although her sense of smell is infinitely better than Levin’s, and she is on the trail of some game, she does follow his orders to go and look somewhere else, just to please him, and thinking to herself “Well, if that’s what he wishes, I’ll do it, but I can’t answer for myself now” (part 6, c12). Who could wish for a better dog?

Chekhov

Chestnut Girl in the story of the same name, that is told completely from the dog’s perspective, is a nervous, dumb and endearing little dog. She lives with a furniture maker who is always drunk and does not look after her very well. One night she loses her owner and is taken home by a clown who has a circus act with animals. Her new owner treats her very well and calls her Auntie. At first she is very confused, especially by her new housemates; a cat and a goose. But she soon forgets all about her old home. One evening the clown takes her along to perform in his act, and it just so happens that the furniture maker is in the audience. He recognises her, calls her and in an act of panic and confusion she jumps off the stage and runs back to her old life. “And you, Chestnut Girl, you’m like a joiner ‘longside a cabinet-maker…” says the furniture maker on the way home.

Bulgakov

Bulgakov gave us Sharik (A Dog’s Heart). A common street dog with a common name. He too is found outside in the cold one day and taken home. In this case by a very prestigious doctor, who thanks to his prestigious clients still lives in relative luxury after the Russian revolution. Sharik has no trouble at all adjusting to his new life, although he does have something against the doctor’s stuffed owl. But… the doctor uses him in a medical experiment. He implants the pituitary gland and testicles of a criminal in the dog. Slowly but surely Sharik changes into a man, or rather a scoundrel, and soon the doctor’s orderly household is turned completely upside-down, not to mention flooded with water. Sharik becomes Poligraf Poligrafovich Sharikov, has all kinds of pretensions and turns against the doctor.

Turgenjev

In the story The Dog the narrator’s life is also disturbed by a sinister dog. One night the narrator clearly hears a dog rummaging around in his bedroom. But when he lights the candle no dog can be found. This goes on for six weeks; as soon as he blows out the candle, the dog sounds can be heard. He is advised to consult a ‘seer,’ who tells him to buy a puppy at the market and keep it with him at all times. The sounds should stop and the dog will be useful to him in another way too. The narrator does as instructed, and the nightly sounds stop. The puppy grows into a big dog and one day when visiting a neighbour, the narrator is attacked by a large, monstrous and rabid dog. The narrator is saved by his dog Tresor and the monster dog disappears. Later the monster dog reappears and attacks the narrator again, and again Tresor saves him, but this time Tresor does not survive. 

A dog’s life

Four completely different dogs, each memorable in its own right. For Turgenev and Tolstoy the dog was something between a human and an animal. Laska is not only a good hunting dog, she also understands Levin better than he understands himself and she is always there for him when he needs her, whether out hunting or when he comes home a bit depressed. The Dog is one of Turgenev’s ghost stories, following the pattern of a traditional fairy tale. Turgenev was not superstitious and did not believe in ghosts, but he did have a fascination for such things. Dogs feature in many of Turgenev’s works, the most memorable being Mumu. Chestnut Girl may not be very smart, but she makes up for that with her faithful and endearing nature. She follows the ‘better the devil you know’ principle and happily goes back to her old owner. Sharik is a parody of the New Soviet Man and the illusion that the revolution could change the people.

Gogol fun facts

Sharik’s new name Poligraf Poligrafovich brings to mind the name of the protagonist in The Overcoat, Akaky Akakievich. This repetition of names, although not uncommon (as in Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin), has a comical effect when the names used are unusual, as in this case. And speaking of The Overcoat; in the Russian original the narrator in The Dog buys the puppy from an ‘overcoat’, a ‘шинель’, using the word ‘overcoat’ to indicate a person in an overcoat. 

For non-Russian literary dogs I recommend Dave Astor’s blog post on this subject, which is also where I got the idea for this post.

Feel free to add your own favourites in the comments 🐶

Text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer 2020

Pierre Bezukhov

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Yes, yes, finally another War and Peace blog post! This time about Pierre Bezukhov. Last night I dreamed that I heard on the radio that thanks to a new technology Leo Tolstoy was able to have more children now. As if he didn’t have enough children when he was still alive!

Anna’s salon

In the first chapter of War and Peace Tolstoy’s brainchild Pierre wanders into the fancy Petersburg salon of Anna Pavlovna. It is immediately clear that Pierre is different: He has only just returned from his education abroad, he is larger than the other people there, and he is the illegitimate son of one of the richest men in Russia. This is his first appearance in society; Anna Pavlovna is right to be a bit worried. Pierre is enormously interested in the intelligent conversations that he hears all around him, but he blunders about like a bull in a china shop. 

Kuragin and Dolokhov

In spite of his good intentions we find him a few hours later with his ‘friends’ Anatole Kuragin and Dolokhov. He clearly feels more at home at the wild drinking-bout that they’re having. It ends with the three of them tying a policeman to a bear and throwing them into the Moyka*. The gossip about Pierre’s misbehaviour reaches all the way to Moscow…

Count Bezukhov

Although Pierre clearly is the the nail in his already dying father’s coffin, he is his father’s favourite child. The old Count has only illegitimate children, so many that he has lost count, but rumour has it that he has sent a petition to have Pierre made legitimate, so that Pierre can inherit his fortune and title. And indeed, as feared Pierre becomes the new Count Bezukhov and the most desirable bachelor in Russia.

Hélène

Pierre does not change with the change in his fortune, but some of the people around him do. Anatole’s father, Prince Vasili, had hoped that the petition would not be sent or granted, in which case he would have inherited through his wife. Now his only hope is to marry off his children well. He cleverly arranges it so that Pierre marries his daughter Hélène, who did not even glance at Pierre before his good fortune. Pierre is easily seduced, even though he already knows that it’s probably not a good idea. At the very least he knows what Anatole is capable of and he knows of the rumours about the relationship he has with his sister. Of course the marriage ends in disaster and a duel with Dolokhov. 

But what is there to say about me? What am I? An illegitimate son!…

Karataev

Pierre struggles with not having a clear function in life; he has no career, no family, no direction. His failed marriage makes this all the more clear. His search brings him to the Freemasons, but there he does not find the answer. He goes to his estate and tries to improve the situation there for his serfs, but does not succeed there either. At some point he even wants to murder Napoleon. It is 1812. He is already on his way to the French quarters in occupied Moscow, but gets arrested on the way. The turning point in his life comes during his imprisonment: the famous potato scene with a simple peasant named Karataev, a fellow prisoner. From Karataev Pierre learns to saviour a simple hot potato as if it’s the greatest delicacy and particularly to live and be happy in the moment.

Like all of us at various stages in our lives, Pierre is looking for answers. He finds them when all has been stripped away from him. He has grown from an influenceable young man into a strong personality. His honesty and good nature make him one of the most sympathetic characters in War and Peace. 

*Yes, the same river that that Russian professor fell into when he drunkenly tried to dispose of the body parts of his murdered girlfriend.

*****

Text © Elisabeth van der Meer 2019

Illustration from War and Peace by A. Nikolayev

The Kreutzer Sonata by Tolstoy

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Let’s tackle this weird piece of literature. The most Dostoevskian work by Tolstoy: The Kreutzer Sonata. Why was it written, what did Tolstoy mean with it, and how much of it represents Tolstoy’s own views?

A Crime Passionel

It’s a murder mystery. We know from the start that Pozdnyshev has murdered his wife, but the tension is kept in the story by the question what drove him to it. Instead of the happy family life that Pozdnyshev was expecting, marriage turned out to be nothing more than alternating periods of arguments and lust. Disillusioned, Pozdnyshev becomes more and more desperate and tense. His dispair culminates when he becomes convinced that his wife is deceiving him with a violinist. Unable to cope with the stress any longer, he murders her.

Confessions of a murderer

For most of the novella we are listening to the monologue of Pozdnyshev. And what a monologue it is! He is obsessed with sex, women and doctors. Sex is portrayed by society as something healthy, women only want to look attractive in order to trap innocent men, and doctors are the promotors and facilitators of sex. STD’s are proof that sex is not healthy. Even music is condemned, because it can make people want to have sex. Sex is the root of all evil. 70 pages long.

Fiction

Tolstoy got the idea from a friend who told him an anecdote about a man in the train who had told him all about his unfaithful wife. He started writing the story in 1887, left it for a bit, and finished it in 1889. He re-wrote it nine times with the help of his daughter Masha, who was then 19. When it was finished, interestingly enough, his wife Sofia read it to the older children. She wanted to publish it in the latest part of Tolstoy’s collected works, a project that she had started to generate income for their large family. Tolstoy had by then renounced his copyright and let Sofia and and his friend and follower Chertkov fight over publication. While she was trying to get the novella approved by the infamous censor, illegal copies produced by the Samizdat started circulating, most probably the work of Chertkov. 

How was it received? 

Tsar Alexander III thought it ‘magnificent’, but his wife was shocked. It was banned in America. Chekhov initially praised it, but after his epic journey to Sakhalin he changed his mind and said it was ridiculous. The first illegal copies were the cause for gossip about the marital situation of the Tolstoys. This infuriated Sofia, who did not want the world to think that their marriage was celibate. She managed to get an audience with the tsar in 1891 and she got permission to publish it. In 1893 she wrote her answer to The Kreutzer Sonata: Who is to Blame?.

Is it autobiographical?

No. Tolstoy would not likely choose a madman like Pozdnyshev to voice his opinion. He has also put an anonymous narrator between Pozdnyshev  and the reader. Does it contain autobiographical elements? Yes, like all his work. He was definitely interested in the idea of celibacy. He had devoured a book about celibacy that was sent to him by Dr Alice Stockham, who promoted celibacy within marriages and Tolstoy wrote back to her to say that he agreed on many points. Tolstoy himself has always struggled with his libido. He was able to give up gambling, smoking, drinking, meat, money, his title; but not sex. As he wrote to  Chertkov “I’m a dirty, libidineus old man”. As far as we know, and we know a lot through their diaries, Sofia never had an affair.

So what did Sophia make of it?

If she had believed it to be autobiographical she would hardly have read it to her children and put so much effort into getting it published (although she mostly wanted Chertkov not to publish it). She does not mention anything about disliking the story in her diary. It is apparently only when the story causes gossip about their marriage that she gets upset. In that light we should also see Who is to Blame?. The marriage was not particularly good. They both were to blame. One of the main themes of the story is jealousy, and within the relationship Sofia was more jealous than her husband. She was jealous when Tolstoy let Masha help him with The Kreutzer Sonata, and she was extremely jealous of Tolstoy’s close relationship with Chertkov.

Conclusion

Tolstoy lets his Pozdnyshev explore the darkest, most hidden corners of his mind. Like Dostoevsky he wants to know what drove him to his deed. What did it feel like to murder? The result is disturbing, confronting and it provocative. The conclusion is almost too simple: If Pozdnyshev and his wife had practised abstinence, the crime passionel would not have taken place.

Prinet_-_Kreutzer_Sonata

Text en photo © Elisabeth van der Meer, 2019

Painting by Prinet from Wikipedia

Books read: see photo

Thanks to Karen from https://kaggsysbookishramblings.wordpress.com for inspiring this post:-)

Turgenev’s Smoke

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In its own time a political novel, in our time a love story.

Smoke was first published in 1867 in the Russian Messenger, the famous literary magazine in which Crime and Punishment and War and Peace were also published. The political message of the novella made it very controversial at the time. Its pro western sentiment was perceived as being anti Russian, and the satirical depiction of the Russian aristocracy in Baden Baden was not appreciated by that same aristocracy either; after publication Turgenev received considerably less dinner invitations.

Social responsibilities

It was the ‘job’ of the nineteenth century Russian realist writer to address social and political issues, and Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Turgenev succeeded extremely well in conveying both their message and writing a great story around it. It is thanks to that, that we can nowadays still enjoy their works, whether or not we have a background knowledge of Russian history.

A Love Story

When we leave the political message out of Smoke, we are left with a love story. A typical Turgenev love story with autobiographical elements. The novella takes place in Baden Baden in Germany. Baden Baden was a popular destination for the Russian aristocracy at the time. Dostoevsky too visited it several times, once with his young bride Anna. At the time he was still addicted to gambling and he gambled away everything they owned in the casinos of Baden Baden, down to the wedding rings.

Turgenev was no gambler; he tried his best his whole life to take as few risks as he possibly could. Marriage comes with risks. If it’s a happy marriage, there’ll be no more inspiration for writing. If it’s a bad marriage, there’ll be inspiration, but whether it’ll be worth it remains to be seen. And actually, he writes to his friend Leontiev, he doesn’t understand how a young girl can evoke passion in a man. A married woman is much more interesting, because of her experience.

Pauline

Turgenev was in love with the same married woman his whole life: Pauline Viardot. Pauline was a celebrated singer, and when he saw her perform in 1843 in St Petersburg, he was sold for life. When her career took her to Baden Baden, Turgenev followed and even moved into the house next-door to the Viardots. To love and follow a married woman may sound extreme, but for Turgenev it was a safe choice. She would never leave her husband and it doesn’t seem as if Turgenev would have wanted her to. He was happy with every scrap that she threw at him.

Olga

In 1854 he was temporarily back in Russia and during the summer he met his remote cousin Olga. She was eighteen and he was thirty-six. A romance blossomed and for a while it looked like he was going to get married. But when it came down to it, he didn’t choose domestic happiness, but instead, as he described it in a letter to countess Lambert, a gypsy existence abroad, following Pauline wherever she goes, and that shall be his fate. Fate, he said, was invented by weak characters, so that they would not have to take responsibility for the way their lives turned out. 

Ménage à Trois

In Smoke the protagonist Litvinov is in Baden Baden to meet up with his fiancé Olga and travel back to Russia with her. While he is waiting for her to arrive, he unexpectedly meets his first love, Irina. Ten years ago the two of them were going to get married, but Irina broke with him when she had the opportunity to get into the highest social circles in St Petersburg through a wealthy relative. Now she is married to some important person. After a few meetings their old love blossoms up again and they have an affair.

Irina tells him she is willing to give up her luxury life for him, and when the sweet, good and wise Olga finally arrives in Baden Baden, Litvinov breaks off the engagement. Then he receives a letter from Irina: she is not going to leave her husband after all and offers Litvinov the opportunity to become her lover. Litvinov does something that Turgenev never did: he thanks for the honour and returns to Russia alone. In the epilogue Turgenev writes that Litvinov did meet Olga again some years later and that she forgave him, suggesting that they may have gotten married.

What if…

Turgenev was not unhappy in his strange relationship with Pauline, but here he appears to have been thinking “what if…” Politics may be controversial, love is universal.

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Text en photos © Elisabeth van der Meer 

Smoke – Turgenjev 

Turgenev, His Life and Times – Schapiro

Toergenjev’s Liefde – Schmeltzer 

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!

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text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer, 2019