Gondla: an intro


January 21, 2017 by AK

In June 1916, the Russian poet Nikolai Gumilev (Gumilyov) arrived at a sanatorium in the Crimea for treatment of a lung disease. In the army since the start of the war (he volunteered in August 1914), Gumilev had been twice promoted and twice decorated for bravery in action. Appreciating the opportunity, he spent the prescribed month in the Crimea writing Gondla, a play in verse about an Irish bard who converts a band of Icelandic vikings to Christianity under most unusual circumstances.

Gondla was published in 1917. In 1920, a troupe of young men and women calling themselves simply “Theatrical Workshop” staged it in Rostov-on-Don. (Rostov fell to the Bolsheviks in January 1920.) The artist Yuri Annenkov was impressed and, once in Petrograd, shared his impression with Gumilev. In June 1921, Gumilev traveled to the Crimea again and made a stop in Rostov. The theatrical season was over, but the Workshop actors happily performed for Gumilev, who was delighted and promised to have them transferred to Petrograd.

The poet kept his promise. By the end of 1921, Theatrical Workshop had moved to the former imperial capital. However, Gumilev did not live to see their new productions. He was arrested in Petrograd on August 3, 1921, and executed three weeks later for his alleged role in a conspiracy to overthrow the Bolshevik government. There is no consensus on whether he played any part and whether the plot itself was not manufactured by the Cheka.

In January 1922, Theatrical Workshop performed Gondla in Petrograd. Apparently, the authorities then banned the production, as it was based on the work of an unrepentant counterrevolutionary. The troupe carried on for a few months but fell apart for want of large-scale interest; most members went on to careers in the theater.

In early 1922, Petrograd was in a terrible shape, teetering on the brink of hunger and going without heat and other comforts. In March 1922, Konstantin Vaginov wrote (in the poem The Youth) of the city as it appeared to a young man just back from the civil war:

Packs of white people are gnawing on a horse in the moonlight.

Yet there were twenty other theater enterprises active in Petrograd apart from the Rostov transplant at the beginning of 1922. Mikhail Kuzmin wrote of the Workshop’s bold move north:

Undoubtedly, risk is associated with any undertaking. To open a twenty-first theater in Petersburg, a cabaret, a restaurant, a coffee house, or merely a small grocery or bookstore – everything is risky. But not every risk has courage in it, and not all courage is glorious.

The opening of the theater on Vladimirsky is an act of most glorious and rare courage. Indeed, to move from Rostov-on-Don with the troupe, the belongings, with a strictly literary (but not popular) repertory, with stage decorations by well-known artists (Arapov, Saryan, etc.), without any tacky “hits” – to move and open the season with a Gondla: only dreamers in love with the art were capable of that. Dreamers, that is, full of energy and daring.


I meant this post as a follow-up to the previous one and to Marina Warner’s post on Alla Demidova’s reading The Poem Without a Hero. That Gondla production from 1920-22 was largely a reading too, according to Annenkov and Kuzmin, but stood out for the young actors’ mastery of declamation. Next post: Kuzmin’s view of the January 1922 performance.

The ingredients of poison


January 19, 2017 by AK

Marina Warner’s recent post on the LRB blog has tempted me to write about Russian theater and about bobeobi, but I don’t know where to start. Let’s say the Russian theater is enjoying yet another golden, or at least gilded, age but there’s little coverage of it in the Anglophone press apart from John Freedman’s dispatches.

It could be that I don’t know where to look. Fortunately, Freedman has links to other people’s writings on Russian theater. But every time I pick a review at random, I read about the director’s innovative approach being a response to Putin’s latest bout of nastiness, or repression & censorship, or something in that style. As if Putin’s departure would make us immortal and forever young and restore the world to Eden.

Rob Weiner-Kendt’s review of the 2012 Golden Mask festival is an example of this approach.  Politics is the Zahir, and theater is an extension of politics – pure Brecht, no cross-pollination. “The Seagull in the Time of Trump” and so on.

Fortunately, Marina Warner is not one of those critics – far from it – but, not so fortunately, the performance she saw in Moscow last December was less representative of the modern Russian theater than I would prefer. I have no doubt of Alla Demidova’s grandeur, but I took Susan Moore’s praise (referring to a remarkable production I was privileged to see) as a warning:

Russian actress Alla Demidova puts in a magisterial performance as the Coryphaeus – leader of the Chorus – even when simply intoning the ingredients of poison in Latin.

I’m a little wary of the magisterial intoning. It worked perfectly for Warner, who was after the sound in the first place:

Then, after nearly two hours, without a break and without once leaving the stage, Demidova dropped her head into her hands and lapsed into silence; the lights went out and the house erupted in a standing ovation. The whole experience was dreamlike and fragmented, but filled with tableaux of far more lucid brilliance than any dream.

That’s a powerful “on the other hand”: almost two hours without interruption at eighty years of age: Demidova was born in 1936.

Jokes for the DDCI


January 18, 2017 by AK

On a lighter note, a small selection of Soviet jokes from the recently declassified CIA documents, “Soviet Jokes for the DDCI” (deputy director of central intelligence). I’m not sure if I heard numbers two and three; the rest are familiar in some variation. The stuff’s undated – I’d venture 1987. That year or a little earlier, I heard the one about “no tracks, no tracks” from a classmate.

The one about badmouthing Reagan in front of the Kremlin was already 40 years old in 1987 – an earlier version had “Truman is scum.” The joke about people lining up to shoot Gorbachev has to do with his “anti-alcohol” campaign, begun in May 1985 with the best intentions but extremely unpopular because of its unintended consequences such as vodka lines and sugar shortage.

But why translate so few jokes and so late, or any at all?

If Tchaikovsky had given up on E. O.


January 17, 2017 by AK

Reviewing T. J. Binyon‘s biography of Pushkin, James Wood remarked in 2003:

It is in some ways unfortunate that Tchaikovsky set Eugene Onegin to music, not Rossini, the composer of deep shallows. Pushkin, according to T.J. Binyon’s remarkable biography, became ‘addicted’ to Rossini while living in Odessa, where an Italian opera company was visiting…

Yes, Rossini – but there’s no way he would have done it… let’s just say he stopped composing operas in 1829 while Onegin was completed in the fall of 1830. Glinka would be a natural candidate but he was busy with Ruslan i Lyudmila until the early 1840s – based on Pushkin’s youthful poem – and then something went wrong and he stopped composing.

I suggest a different counterfactual. Suppose Tchaikovsky had abandoned Onegin early on and switched to another opera. An operatic treatment of the novel in verse would have to wait until the 20th century. Stravinsky then? A sequel to The Rake’s Progress? That was my first thought, but how could I ignore the author of War and Peace? Surely Prokofiev would have been there first. (I’m not even mentioning masters from other countries.) It could have been a failure, but a more satisfactory kind of failure than the success of Tchaikovsky’s opera.

Error fixed: comments no longer closed “on articles older than 28 days”


January 15, 2017 by AK

Seeing that comments were off for some older posts, I couldn’t figure out what went wrong until I noticed that comments to posts older than 28 days were automatically disabled via Settings > Discussion > Other comment settings.

I have not idea when and how that box got checked – by default, perhaps, during a WordPress update. I apologize for this and hope that some of the old posts will eventually find their readers and commenters.



January 13, 2017 by AK


If you were in the real estate business in NYC, London or Toronto in the late 1980s, the 1990s or the noughties, there’s no way you could have avoided dealing with shady operators of Soviet or third-world extraction. I can’t tell if the cash inflow from the former USSR into UK and US real estate was greater than the combined investment from other sources, but I believe it was large enough so no major operator could avoid benefitting from it. Thus Trump’s dealings with people less respectable than Alex Shnaider: not a Trump-specific bug but a sector feature.


One slightly screw-loose intel guru says Christopher Steele’s report is a typical example of raw “humint” – human intelligence – and the gasping and handwringing reaction is only limited to greenies unfamiliar with the genre. For, as every initiate knows, this degraded humus will bring forth, contingent upon studious pruning, unsullied flowers of pure wisdom. As one of the profane, I wonder if there’s any value at all in this kind of “humint,” given its overall cost – wouldn’t a diligent journalist have done a better job? Or is it a case of tabloidosis albionis contaminating the Surrey fog over the spook’s $1.7-million mansion? (In plain English, is that ex-MI6 agent an overpaid charlatan akin to a tabloid hack?)

The pundit’s Le Carré parallel to the call girl episode is much appreciated, however. Chris LeCarray and Metastasia Steele. Way to go.


Around 1950, a Soviet poetess was reprimanded (if not imprisoned) for writing, approximately, “Stalin dreams of seeing the lights of Communism in his lifetime.” Was she implying, the accusers asked, that Comrade Stalin might actually die? Ambassador Burns seems to be hearing intimations of immortality from the high towers of the Sforza Castle Kremlin, but – as usual – we the profani tend to think Nature will force a transition upon us and strategists should have plans for longer than half a decade. If you ask me (you won’t), Russia should be eventually integrated into the global West (provided neither implodes or explodes by that nebulous eventuality), as should be Ukraine and Belarus. Russia (minus a few regions, perhaps) is a dysfunctional, backward, somewhat archaic, but essentially Western country and society, especially in comparison with China and most of the third world. So far the EU has preferred integrating the offspring of that world to the vision of a Europe from Slea Head to the Urals and beyond.

What if they were perfect liberals in 1996?


January 12, 2017 by AK

Seán Hanley of University College London and James Dawson of King’s College and Queen Mary University, London, published a long piece on Poland in Hungary in Foreign Policy (reprinted in the Chicago Tribune) earlier this month – an interesting article, definitely worth reading despite the unwarranted claims in its title and subtitle. The Tribune‘s title announces:

Poland isn’t a democracy and it never was.

Simply wrong, but probably the Tribune‘s fault. Even if the old aristocratic republic and the period between the end of WWI and Pilsudski’s May 1926 coup don’t count, Poland was undoubtedly a democracy from the end of one-party Communist rule in 1989 until, let’s say, the (alleged) soft coup by the Law and Justice (PiS) block in 2016.

Foreign Policy‘s original title was less obviously wrong:

Poland Was Never as Democratic as It Looked.

The authors probably meant to say Poland’s democracy was never as liberal, tolerant and pluralistic as western EU members hoped it would become and/or imagined it had already become. That’s why, if I understand the polical scientists’ thesis correctly, PiS has been able to make the country’s democratic institutions serve the party’s illiberal agenda.

In the end, EU leverage succeeded brilliantly in shaping the formal legal and institutional landscapes of Eastern Europe and the superficial rhetoric of its politicians…

However, in “ethnographic research on post-Communist Central and Eastern Europe,”

…the lack of real support for liberal norms in “everyday democracy” has been a recurring theme… as is now painfully evident from Hungary, Poland, and beyond, institutions do not hold up well if they promote norms that too few people believe in.

Or has there been a change in popular attitudes in the past decade – a hardening of the fairweather liberals’ mindset, as it were? Note that PiS and Fidesz were not quite outsiders when they came to power:

…their story is more one of establishment insiders “breaking bad” than a surge to power by outsiders or anti-politicians.

Why did they go rogue – did they sense a “breaking bad” moment in the psyche of their potential voters? Specifically, why did PiS win when the economy was growing steadily and there was no realistic prospect of mass immigration, only a vague risk?

Amusing trivia


January 12, 2017 by AK

Max Boot writes in his latest NYT op-ed:

Mr. Trump himself is doing nothing to dispel suspicions with his hyperbolic attacks and his denials that he has business interests in Russia — when his dealings there go back decades.

So far, no evidence has surfaced of any real estate deals Trump may have done in Russia. But since Boot is discussing a dubious private intelligence report by a British ex-spy and willing to give it more credence than the CIA chief James Clapper, one amusing detail is worth pointing out: The report states rather clearly that Trump’s business ties with Russia are close or equal to zilch. In one of the dispatches, the spook claimed that Trump had declined all of the Russians’ offers; in another, that Trump had tried hard but failed miserably to enter the (presumably lucrative) real estate sector in Moscow or St. Petersburg.

The two Moores


January 9, 2017 by AK

Until this year, I did not realize how many Russian translations of Thomas Moore’s poetry had been produced in the 19th century, especially its first half. For details, I recommend two investigations into the subject (in Russian): Mikhail Alexeyev’s 1982 article in Literary Heritage (Volume 91, Chapter VIII [warning: a large pdf], pp. 657-824), which I have cited before, and Tatyana Yashina’s 2012 book. A summary of Yashina’s dissertation is available free from the Russian State Library.

It turns out that even Mikhail Lermontov, as un-Moorean a poet as a borderline Romantic could possibly be, was familiar with Moore’s poetry, borrowed a few images from it, and even translated one poem. (At 16: technically, it should be classed with his juvenilia, but he put down some preternaturally mature lines that year, 1830.  Having learned some English, Lermontov only read Byron, Moore and Walter Scott in that language, according to a friend.)

Of all those numerous translations, however, very few made it into the Russian canon, or the poetic mainstream – one and a half, as it were. The half refers to Mikhail L. Mikhailov’s 1869 rendering of Peace to the Slumb’rers, a “Catalonian Air.” I don’t doubt the quality of Mikhailov’s poem – he was a gifted translator – and I’m almost certain it influenced the revolutionary dirge genre, but it’s not exactly a well-known piece today.

The one translation that is still remembered is Vecherny Zvon by Ivan I. Kozlov, originally Those Evening Bells (1827), subtitled “Air. – The Bells of St. Petersburg,” first published in 1818. Set to music – presumably by Alexander Alyabyev – it remained a popular song from the 1830s until, I would say, three or four decades ago, when the tradition of family singing seems to have come to an end in Russia. It is part of the standard repertory of Russian choirs, but their audience is not particularly large these days.

Kozlov’s poem sounds so naturally Russian that an anonymous Russian author suggested in 1831 that Kozlov’s version was the original and Moore’s a translation. The claim was not as absurd as it seems today: Kozlov had lived in St. Petersburg since the war of 1812 while Moore was making efforts to follow Russian letters through his Continental friends, primarily Alexander I. Turgenev. Moore’s reading Turgenev’s prose translation of Kozlov’s “air” about the “bells of St. Petersburg” and composing one in imitation of Kozlov for the collection of “national airs” would not have been an impossibility. Of course Moore’s poem predated Kozlov’s so the issue was moot. Moore’s Russian sources, if he used any, remain undiscovered.

This said, Ivan Kozlov’s greatest translation success – arguably – was associated with another Moore, a Scot, and with another graduate of Dublin’s Trinity College. In 1825, Kozlov produced a Russian version of The Burial of Sir John Moore after Corunna, the poem Charles Wolfe had published in 1817 under his initials, C. W. Somehow they got lost or dropped when it was reprinted in London, unauthorized by the author. To Byron, who reportedly delighted in that “ode” in 1821, it must have been anonymous. However, as Thomas Medwin’s Conversations with Lord Byron appeared in 1824, including Wolfe’s poem in full, and the next year a collection of Wolfe’s poems was printed, Kozlov was probably aware both of the Irish poet’s identity and Byron’s (anecdotal) admiration for it.

(Some might protest that Wolfe, the son of a Church of Ireland clergyman, was not a genuine, echt-Irishman like Moore. On the other hand, that clergyman was the godfather, and possibly the biological father, of Wolfe Tone. Charles Wolfe himself wrote in Patriotism:

O Erin! O my mother! I will love thee!

One is reminded of Mickiewicz’s famous invocation: “Litwo! Ojczyzno moja!”)

Lieutenant-General Sir John Moore was killed in 1809 during a successful rearguard action to load the remnant of his army on belated British ships after an unwinnable campaign against Marshal Soult in Galicia, the north-west of Spain. Kozlov’s version leaves an impression of a tight-knit troop of stoic soldiers burying their noble, fearless “chief” in a foreign land. This could have happened anytime, anyplace: there is no mention of the “Briton.” Rather,

Your lonely bed in a strange land
Was made by kindred hands.

Kozlov’s poem was a major, lasting influence both on first-rate poets (see Lermontov’s 1833-34 description of the burial of a fellow cadet) and on lesser masters, none of whom came close to Kozlov’s masterpiece. By the time he completed it, the poet had been blind for four years.

“The spirit of pure beauty does not live with us…”


January 3, 2017 by AK

I doubt that Zhukovsky was deeply taken in by Thomas Moore’s oriental romance, with the likely exception of the Peri poem. But the “Lalla Rookh” fête in Berlin undoubtedly made a lasting impression on him, as if a furtive draft from some ethereal world had followed Princess Alexandra into this – as if, briefly reincarnated as an impossible flower of Kashmir, she had accidentally unlocked some secret door.

Less than a month after the Berlin event, Zhukovsky wrote a poem, Lalla Rookh, which includes the line “A genius of pure beauty.” This line is now familiar to every Russian schoolkid as Pushkin used it in the 1825 love poem Nabokov called an “overrated madrigal to Anna Kern” (see Nabokov’s comment to the beautiful but unpublished Stanza XXVIIb, Chapter 8, of Evgeny Onegin).

John Bayley renders the relevant stanza from Zhukovsky as:

Ah! The spirit of pure beauty does not live with us, only visits us sometimes from the heavenly height.

Simplifying and inevitably bastardizing Zhukovsky’s fine poem, I shall nevertheless add a rough translation of its beginning:

Sweet dream, the soul’s captor,
A fair guest from on high, 
A gracious visitor
Of the subcelestial realm,
I relished you 
For a minute, but wholly:
You appeared here as a good messenger 
Of the heavenly to me.

About the same time, Zhukovsky translated a poem by Hedwig von Stägemann, one of his Berlin acquaintances. The original title, An die Grossfürstin Alexandra als Lalla Rookh, became An Appearance of Poetry as Lalla Rookh in Russian. (Better known by her married name, Hedwig von Olfers, the author was the daughter of painter and salonnière Elisabeth von Stägemann, the mother of author Marie von Olfers and grandmother of illustrator Sibylle von Olfers.) It is no wonder that Zhukovsky ended up translating (also in 1821) only one tale in verse from Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh, the story of an exile from celestial realms, The Paradise and the Peri. Naturally, the program notes for the April 2016 Moscow performance of Schumann’s Das Paradies und die Peri used Zhukovsky’s translation.

The last known mention of the 1821 pageant in the poet’s private papers dates back to 1843, when he settled in Düsseldorf with his young wife, Elisabeth von Reutern – the year when Schumann composed his first oratorio.


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