Zhukovsky’s note from February 1821


February 22, 2017 by AK

I’ve come across an English translation of Zhukovsky’s comment on his 1821 poem, Lalla Rookh – not a Russian version of Thomas Moore’s long work but a lyrical essay on beauty and imagination. The brief prose note complements the poem.

The book is Russian Romantic Criticism: An Anthology compiled by Lauren G. Leighton, who taught Russian literature at University of Illinois at Chicago in 1978-1997. The translation is by J. Thomas Shaw of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, “the doyen of Pushkin studies in North America for half a century.”

Zhukovsky first wrote down the comment on his own Lalla Rookh in his diary (pdf, heavy) on February 16, 1821 (p. 156. The dates are given as X(Y), where Y=X+12: X is Julian, Y is Gregorian.)  Three weeks earlier, on January 27, he wrote: “An incomparable feast.” No doubt it was this Festspiel mit Gesang und Tanz.

Apart from Zhukovsky’s poetry and observations, the diary is remarkable for its cast of characters. “I was supposed to dine at Hufeland‘s but ended up at the King’s.”

Executed for treason? Not in the US.


February 21, 2017 by AK

Reviewing The Bughouse: The Poetry, Politics and Madness of Ezra Pound by Daniel Swift, Robert Crawford claims that “Pound was lucky not to be executed as a traitor.” In theory, the death penalty was applicable but in practice, how many people have been executed for treason in the US? Not espionage, sabotage or sedition but treason? Zero, I think.

On the other hand, a decade in a federal prison could not be ruled out. Was the psychiatric ward preferable before the experience? Pound’s doctors at St. Elizabeth’s were good to him, but such treatment was by no means guaranteed at any time. All in all, this was an acceptable fix for all the parties involved. Whether Pound was insane or not, he would have appeared unhinged at his trial, embarrassing the prosecutors.

Adam Shatz’s violent fantasies


February 18, 2017 by AK

Adam Shatz, a contributing editor at The London Review of Books, writes on his blog:

Many, perhaps most of us who live in coastal cities have found ourselves having criminal thoughts and violent fantasies since 9 November. Some involve Trump and Steve Bannon… still others involve the fabled white working class that is supposed to have voted for Trump… which most of us have found it easier to hate than persuade…

He can only be removed before the end of his term by impeachment or death, natural or otherwise. That many are fantasising about the last of these is hardly surprising…

People living under tyranny often dream that their leaders will come to a violent end… Still, it’s notable how easily violent thoughts have come to those of us who have known only a single, and much contested, month of the Trump-Bannon era…

Yes, that’s notable – although “notable” is quite an understatement here. Shatz proceeds to draw a parallel to the Palestinian cause, unbelievably. A Palestinian might claim: “They took my ancestral home; they took my land; they turned my people into second-class citizens”: if substantiated, the grievances would be profound. Shatz and the “we” of his blog post cannot even claim to have suffered at the hands of Trump’s regime. Trump has not and could not have harmed them: their pain is the work of their imagination.

To Shatz’s credit, he admits:

These thoughts are, in a way, a tribute to the power Trump has over our imagination.

But unlike the Palestinian conundrum, the author’s problem can be solved by freeing his captive imagination.

The gifts of liberty?


February 15, 2017 by AK

Alexander Pushkin wrote this poem in November 1823, shortly after news of Rafael del Riego’s execution reached Odessa. It was first published in Russia in 1866, almost 30 years after Puskin’s death. The translation below is by Nabokov: I copied it from his notes on Eugene Onegin.

Of freedom solitary sower,
early I went, before the star.
With a hand pure and guiltless
into the enslaved furrows
I cast the vivifying seed;
but all I did was lose my time,
well-meaning thoughts and labors.

Graze, placid peoples!
What are to herds the gifts of liberty?
They have to be slaughtered or shorn.
Their heirdom is from race to race
a yoke with jinglers and the whip.

As usual with Pushkin, the poem is more complex than in seems at first glance or in translation. It has an epigraph from the parable of the sower in the Gospels. It is not a straight quotation from the Old Church Slavonic (OCS) text of any of the three Synoptic Gospels but a synthetic OCS sentence with a similar meaning. In plain English, it would be almost identical to Luke 8:5 in the King James version:”A sower went out to sow his seeds.”

The first line ends with the adjective пустынный, which Nabokov translates as “solitary” in my edition and as “eremitic” in another. It is related to the noun пустыня, meaning “desert” but also “wilderness.” Their common root, пуст-, suggests emptiness or void. Wilderness, empty of human habitation, has been the destination of eremitic monks since the third century A. D. Deserts, caves, mountains. In the north and northeast of old Russia, woods.

Vasmer draws a parallel between the Slavonic precursor of пустыня and ἐρημία. However, пустынный is more commonly used to describe natural scenery than humans: it appears again in the first line of The Bronze Horseman (1833) as a modifier to “waves” and is commonly translated as “desolate.”

I’m not sure why Nabokov put “went” for вышел since “went out” or “went forth” would be more in line with the Russian verb, the KJV texts of Luke, Mark and Matthew, and the OCS изыде in the epigraph. The Russian term свобода gets rendered as “freedom” first and “liberty” second – I can try and guess why but can never be certain. I would also use the somewhat old-fashioned “ought to” instead of “have to” and avoided the awkward “their heirdom” by substituting “inheritance.”

T. J. Binyon finds, in his biography of Pushkin, that the poem expresses a newfound cynicism. I only see disillusionment and bitterness. The young Pushkin had a reputation as the author of dangerously Voltairean poems. His readers, mostly land- and serf-owning gentlemen, were still hoping for a transformation of Russia’s autarchy into constitutional monarchy. However, during the early 1820s, Alexander I evolved from the enlightened (potential) reformer of the 1810s into something entirely different, a kind of Metternich on the Neva. Pushkin was exiled to Kishinev, then to Odessa and finally confined to his ancestral manor in the Pskov governorate.

Obviously, it’s a very superficial account: Pushkin’s disappointment cannot be described in terms of mere politics or sociology.

This time it’s different, I promise


February 14, 2017 by AK

This Russian official is, technically speaking, the third in the line of presidential succession:

Vyacheslav Volodin, Putin’s former deputy chief of staff and current chairman of the state Duma, would support a law that protects the honor and dignity of the Russian president.

During a speech at a university in Tatarstan, Volodin said the laws were necessary and that other country’s had already implemented similar regulations.

“The entire international experience shows that these laws are not only necessary but they already exist everywhere,” he said.

Indeed: the “entire international experience” of assorted -stans shows just that. In the Meta-Stan of the speaker’s dreams, such laws might “exist everywhere” and even be necessary.

Coming from the man who once claimed that Russia would not exist without Putin, this public outpouring of barely legal devotion is not surprising. But both Volodin and I are old enough to remember what happened last time the parliament in Moscow outlawed insulting the president. Back to May 1990:

The Soviet Parliament has given its approval to an ambiguous law making it a crime to “insult” President Mikhail S. Gorbachev. The measure recalls the infamous Stalin-era penal code, with its stiff prison terms for anyone convicted of “slandering” the state…

Supporters of the plan to silence critics offer the standard justifications. Marshal Sergei Akhromeyev, one of Gorbachev’s top military advisers, argues that insulting the president “weakens our society,” and so cannot go unpunished.

The Soviet Union would last for about 19 more months, until late December 1991. Marshal Akhromeyev killed himself after the failed coup in August 1991. Not that history repeats itself – it seldom does – but occasionally, improbably, it just might. Aren’t these people in high places superstitious?


Shared misconceptions, the great unifier


February 13, 2017 by AK

Both the headline editors at The New York Times and Steve Bannon have made the dubious claim that Julius Evola influenced Italian fascism. I have tried to explain why the idea that Evola had a considerable impact on either Mussolini or his senior ideologues is probably wrong, even though the baron’s writings might have impressed the dictator personally.

A greater problem for the well-meaning authors at The New York Times and beyond is that an honest list of somebodies who did influence, inspire or sympathize with Mussolini’s movement, at least early on, might sound like an advertisement for fascism. Slate reminds its readers that Puccini once set his hopes on Mussolini as a savior of the nation, more or less. (Puccini tilted towards Fascism; Trump likes Puccini; therefore, Trump must be a fascist: so goes Slate‘s syllogism.)

On a marginal note, somehow in my mind Evola and Guénon are connected with Lovecraft. It must be an impression out of the 1990s: Cthulhu’s due at the end of Kali-Yuga – updated now to Kek Meets Cthulhu.

The ECHR on disjointed trials and res judicata


February 11, 2017 by AK

Wednesday’s predictable but nevertheless bizarre re-conviction of Navalny and Ofitserov makes one wonder how the court managed the seemingly insurmountable barriers such as the absence of the corpus delicti and the ECHR’s ruling. It’s especially puzzling if, as Navalny has observed, at least some of the ruling was pasted straight from the 2013 original, complete with the typos.

I have written about the case more than once, e.g., here, here, and here, in the reverse order of appearance. Some of that, I believe, bears repeating, not least the ECHR’s conclusions.

As a starting point, there is no evidence any crime was committed at all. The prosecution has claimed that Navalny and Ofitserov conspired with the then CEO of Kirovles, Opalev, in order to defraud Kirovles in this way: Opalev would sell timber at below-market prices to a firm controled by Navalny and Ofitserov, which would resell it at a profit, which would be divided among the three conspirators. However, the prosecutors have failed to show that timber was sold at a systematic discount to the market: the fact of the crime is missing.

The ECHR generally tries to avoid going into the merits of cases under review whenever possible. Its ruling focuses on a major procedural fault, reminding the courts in member countries that taking this shortcut is unacceptable. Prior to indicting Navalny and Ofitserov, the prosecutors forced Opalev into admitting guilt in exchange for a non-custodial sentence. Opalev was then subjected to a fast-track trial, involving no critical examination of evidence. The judge’s ruling from that trial, essentially a copy of the indictment, implicated Navalny and Offitserov as Opalev’s accomplices, even though neither took any part in Opalev’s trial. At the 2013 trial of Navalny and Ofitserov, that ruling was accepted as an unquestionable truth. The ECHR objected (X stands for Opalev):

The Court has previously highlighted the first and most obvious guarantee to be secured when co-accused are tried in separate sets of proceedings, notably the courts’ obligation to refrain from any statements that may have a prejudicial effect on the pending proceedings, even if they are not binding…

The second requirement for the conduct of concurrent proceedings is that the quality of res judicata would not be attached to facts admitted in a case to which the individuals were not party…

Clearly, neither condition was met at the 2013 trial. How could it be different at the 2017 trial? There’s no fix for that glitch other than starting from scratch, beginning with the key question, was the crime invented out of thin air?

…in the present case no finding of fact made in the proceedings against X could have been admitted in the applicants’ case without full and proper examination at the applicants’ trial. Moreover, the procedure followed by the court in X’s case had been accelerated, and the establishment of facts had been a result of plea-bargaining, not the judicial examination of evidence. Consequently, the facts relied on in that case had been legally assumed rather than proven. As such, they could not have been transposed to another set of criminal proceedings without their admissibility and credibility being scrutinised and validated in those other proceedings, in an adversarial manner, like all other evidence.

This is nicely stated and sums up the problem of judicial fact-smuggling. The Russian legislature has actually reacted to this criticism: facts “found” at fast-track trials and trials based on plea-bargaining are no longer automatically accepted by other courts. However, it does not solve the fundamental problem of disjointed trials: the accused still cannot challenge evidence imported from trials at which they were not represented.

As I’ve said before, Italian prosecutors and courts used a similar setup to convict Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito in 2009 and 2014 (before both were finally acquitted in 2015). The principal difference is that the crime was actually committed. However, Rudy Guede, who alone left his traces in the victim’s room, managed to get a relatively short sentence (16 years) because he resorted to a fast-track procedure and because the prosecution agreed he was not the only culprit. The judge at that trial concluded – without a regular fact-finding procedure such as witness questioning – that Guede had acted with accomplices. That poorly founded claim complicated Knox’s and Sollecito’s position enormously, destroying the presumption of their innocence. I wonder if Italy, like Russia, has adjusted its procedural code since the EHCR ruling.

What did the groundhog see?


February 8, 2017 by AK

It’s Groundhog Day for the Russian opposition and its informal leader:

Alexei Navalny said the verdict at the retrial was copied word for word from his first conviction… As the judge read out the guilty verdict on Wednesday, Navalny tweeted out pages from the original verdict to support his claim that it had been copied word for word.

The background in two paragraphs:

…Navalny was convicted of embezzlement from a state timber company in Kirov in 2013… The 2013 verdict was sent for a retrial by the Russian supreme court after the European court of human rights (ECHR) found procedural violations in it last year.

…The [new, 2017] verdict was based on the same evidence as in 2013 and assigned the same five- and four-year suspended sentences to Navalny and his former business partner Pyotr Ofitserov…

At about the same time as the verdict was being read out in Kirov, the nation’s chief executive expressed remarkable optimism after meeting young scientists in the Kremlin:

Listening to our today’s winners just now, I did not simply listen, but was entranced by what they said and how they spoke. I was struck by how they spoke. A simple but very positive thought came to my mind then. The foundations on which [our] country stands go so deep, and have such solid roots, that Russia’s bright and marvelous future is simply inevitable.

I would be happy – literally, not as a figure of speech – to find good reasons to share in the president’s sunny sentiment. However, predetermined wrongful convictions do not bode well for a predetermined marvelous future.

By the way, “Communism is inevitable” was a Soviet slogan.

Jakobson reads Khlebnikov


February 7, 2017 by AK

As a follow-up to my recent posts on Khlebnikov (it should have been a prequel), I’m linking to three short audio clips. This is Roman Jakobson reading poetry by Khlebnikov in 1954, more than 40 years after first meeting the poet.

These are relatively early works. On the other hand, almost all of the poems in Khlebnikov’s Creations were composed within a span of less than 15 years (1908-22).

Michael McFaul’s easy, broken parallel


February 5, 2017 by AK

Michael McFaul, the former US ambassador to Russia, has a blog on the site of Ekho Moskvy, the independent radio station based in Moscow. Commenting on the appointment of Steve Bannon to the National Security Council, he wrote:

It’s the equivalent of Putin appointing Alexander Dugin to the [Russian] Security Council and telling generals Bortnikov [head of the FSB] and Gerasimov [head of the general staff] to only attend when they are needed.

However Bannon’s and Dugin’s convictions may compare, their backgrounds and achievements are starkly different.

Did Alexander Dugin rise from humble, provincial beginnings to earn degrees from three top colleges? Did he serve in the army? Did he make himself financially independent by starting and running several businesses? Did he advise president Putin in a senior role in any of his three elections (2000, 2004, 2012)?

Dugin’s father was a military intelligence (GRU) officer, who would later reach the rank of lieutenant-general. The mother was a doctor. The family lived in Moscow. Dugin was admitted to a respectable college (MAI) but got expelled in his junior year (1981 or 82) for something that remains unclear, possibly politics. He avoided compulsory military service despite the expulsion.

Dugin has been philosophizing since. In 1989, he was kicked out from an anti-Semitic organization for “satanism and occultism.” There’s no record of his involvement in business or of his role in Putin’s electoral campaigns.

He’s been on TV lately. There have been reports of his visit to Turkey during the downed-plane crisis, but most of their details come from Dugin himself. He used to lecture on “geopolitics” at Moscow University (MGU), courtesy of the dementia-stricken dean of sociology. Now he’s the editor – Herausgeber – at a minor if malodorous TV channel in Moscow.

Which ought to tell us that Ambassador McFaul’s parallel is not particularly well-aligned. He might have considered pairing Bannon with Vladislav Surkov. While Surkov lacks a formal college education, he is a provincial who made a career in business before joining the government and serving, according to some observers at least, as the Kremlin’s propaganda chief for years.

As for the American counterpart to Alexander G. Dugin, one would have to plumb the depths of the occult for a suitable candidate.


Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 5 other subscribers

%d bloggers like this: