“Someone 1917”: Boris Grigoriev’s “Faces of Russia”

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November 14, 2017 by AK

A most rewarding exhibition – well thought through and thoroughly prepared. It features a selection of works, mostly paintings, created by Russian artists around 1917, roughly from the start of WWI until the early 1920s.

The revolutions of 1917 broke out in the midst of a golden age for Russian visual and performative arts – perhaps the golden age for the graphic arts. This exhibit is a small but well chosen sample of works from that time – some sourced from private collections and provincial museums, others well known but placed into an unusual context.

Victor Shklovsky wrote about his early (probably first) encounter with Victor (Velimr) Khlebnikov shortly after A Slap to the Face of Public Taste was published in 1912:

It featured the first printing of Khlebnikov’s list of dates. They were printed in columns, with intervals, with intervals of 317 or its multiples. The final line looked thus: “Someone 1917.”

I met Velimir Khlebnikov, quiet and wearing a buttoned-up black frock-coat, at a reading.

“The dates in the book, – I said – are years when great empires were destroyed. Do you believe that our empire will be destroyed in 1917?”…

Khlebnikov replied, hardly moving his lips:

“You are the first to understand me.”

The is where the title of the exhibition, Nekto 2017, or Someone 2017, comes from. One can take a look at some of the paintings exhibited by googling for Некто 2017 or “Someone 2017” (searching for images, including the inverted commas). Unfortunately, none of them seems to include Boris Grigoriev‘s Faces of Russia, perhaps the most remarkable highlight of the show. The 1923 painting summed up a long series of smaller-size works, mostly portraits, begun around 1917. It is now part of the Vishnevskaya-Rostropovich collection, bought in 2007 by Alisher Usmanov and housed in the Constantine Palace near St. Petersburg.

Oddly, I could not find a decent-sized reproduction of Faces of Russia on the net. The image at Sotheby’s (scroll down for Fig. 5) is small. This article, a review of the 2011 Grigoriev exhibition at the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, includes an even smaller image but is worth reading or at least looking through if one has any interest in Grigoriev. Among other things, it’s unclear whether the yellowish color seen in Sotheby’s reproduction likewise dominates the background in the original and whether its hue is more of a wheat field or of a golden iconic nimbus. To be sure, one has to see the painting in person as Grigoriev’s palette is too subtle for lo-fi jpgs.

Art scholars have pointed out similarities in composition and the color scheme between The Faces of Russia and Eastern Orthodox icons. The word for “face” in the title of the painting, Liki Rossii, is not the standard Russian word for face (that would be litso, derived from the same root as lik) but one used a religious or poetic context, referring to images of saints in icons, or the face of the moon, or a beautiful visage. The oft-repeated observation that Russian avant-guard artists appropriated perspectives and techniques from traditional iconography is more or less obvious. What’s less obvious to me is what to make of Grigoriev’s closing depiction of the Russian country folk in the context of his other work. (Links to pages in Russian with more images: 1, 2, 3, 4.)

I thought Faces of Russia would qualify as cover art candidate for Tatyana Tolstaya’s 2000 novel Kys’, translated as The Slynx. The novel is set in a post-apocalyptic village populated by post-civilization Russians with relatively mild but well manifested genetic disorders.

On the other hand, the girl’s face sketched by Grigoriev for a family portrait in 1917 reminds me of Andrew Wyeth’s Helga. This girl also appears in Peasant Land (The People’s Land) (1917), but her face begins to harden with distrust and pain.


Culture Club

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November 13, 2017 by AK

The background in this photograph from last weekend’s nationalist march in Warsaw would not look out of place in Moscow. The “palace of culture and science” in Warsaw, a product of late Stalin-era Soviet architecture, resembles the seven Stalin towers in Moscow, especially the University building, and the unbuilt eighth tower in Zariadye. The skyscraper to the left vaguely resembles one of the high-rises in the so-called Moscow City district.

However, Russian nationalists have only been assigned uptown venues for their marches in the past eight years, and have never able to rally more than 25,000 people in Moscow – a modest number compared with the 60,000-strong gathering in Warsaw. Interestingly, CNN’s headline claims “Nationalist protesters disrupt Poland independence day events,” although there’s no indication of the official festivities getting interfered with in any way, unless being outnumbered by an unofficial event counts as a disruption. According to The Washington Post:

The official celebration of Poland’s 99th independence day proceeded innocuously, with ceremonies in the capital…

But for blocks and blocks and blocks beyond the central towers of Warsaw, a much larger crowd swelled beneath a cloud of red smoke…

…about 60,000 people chanted and marched through Warsaw in an annual gathering of Europe’s far-right movements, which have by now grown to dwarf the official version of Poland’s independence day…

By all accounts, the Nov. 11 rallies since then [the electoral victory of Law ] have been very large and fairly peaceful.

On the other hand, The Wall Street Journal also ran a dubious headline, “Polish Leaders Condemn Nationalist March.” As the piece under this title shows, only two radical groups were condemned. The PiS-controlled TV channel praised the marchers and the interior minister called the event a beautiful sight. The culture minister, Piotr Gliński, emphasized that the Polish nation should be defined by is culture, not in terms of “ethnicity,” and condemned the racist signs at the “beautiful national march.”


Erase and rewind

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November 9, 2017 by AK

The BBC reports:

US actor Kevin Spacey is to be erased from a completed Hollywood film following the allegations of predatory sexual behaviour against him.

“Erased.” The Guardian settles on “cut out.” Incidentally, retroactive film editing in the Soviet block peaked after Stalin’s death, when the Communist leaders decided that the best way to deal with the “personality cult” was to pretend the great leader either hadn’t been particularly important or hadn’t existed at all.

For one, Stalin got excised from Mikhail Romm’s dilogy, Lenin in October and Lenin in 1918 (1937-39), both foundational to the Lenin myth. It wasn’t easy, but nothing is: “Mikhail Romm revised his Lenin in October (1937) by blocking Stalin out with Wellesian foreground elements, such as a head or an elbow.”


The Moscow loop

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November 8, 2017 by AK

The Moscow Metro – the underground – has launched a new “thematic” train called Russia Aspiring for the Future. It’s a nice-looking train with with a stylish interior, if the pictures are not too misleading. Considering the Metro’s ongoing expansion, which has accelerated in the past two-three years, it would make sense for the new train to run on one of the new lines, especially if more stations are to be added to it in the near future. However, in the spirit of eternal return, Russia Aspiring for the Future is serving the Circle Line.


What about a Muslim Jan van Leiden?

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November 7, 2017 by AK

Google Tariq Ramadan Martin Luther, and you’ll have a dozen headlines comparing the prédicateur to the Prediger – tentatively yet hopefully.

Assuming the impossible, suppose it were a near-perfect parallel. Would it logically require an upheaval in the Arab world comparable to the European turmoil in the years and decades after Luther’s Wittenberg demarche? As Luther’s preaching was soon followed by war and devastation, rather than peace and prosperity, should we expect a series of bloody uprisings by the impoverished across the Muslim world? Having identified a potential Luther, shouldn’t the freewheeling analogists have pre-selected a couple of potential Müntzers?

Actually, they would be on more fertile soil with Müntzer and various millenarians, such as the Munster Anabaptists. It’s not that ISIS is an exact replica of any Reformation-era sect but there is at least some ground for comparing and contrasting, and Luther is no longer a prerequisite.


Blok, 1903

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November 6, 2017 by AK

Alexander Blok wrote this poem aged twenty-two, in 1903, two years before the start of the first Russian revolution. This is not a word-by-word translation but, I hope, one accurate enough, if thoroughly unpoetic.

– Is everything quiet among the people?
– No. The emperor has been killed.
Someone is talking about a new freedom
In the squares.

– Is everyone ready to rise?
– No. They are turning to stone and waiting.
Someone has ordered to wait.
They are roaming and singing songs.

– Who, then, is appointed to rule?
– The people want no rule.
Civic passions are slumbering.
Someone is heard coming.

– Who is he, then, the tamer of the people?
– He is dark, and wicked, and fierce.
A monk, by the entrance to a cloister,
Has seen him and gone blind.

To unexplored abysses
He is driving men like herds,
Driving them with an iron staff.
– O God! Let’s run away from the Judgment.

I should add, perhaps, that Alexander II was only assassinated 22 years before Blok’s poem. A Russian emperor dying at the hand of a revolutionary, rather than a courtier, was no longer a merely theoretical possibility. This is not to pedestrianize Blok’s extraordinary vision and intuition, of course.


100 years after

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November 5, 2017 by AK

The Kremlin’s approach to the coming centenary of the Bolshevik revolution is to avoid a serious discussion and hope that people don’t think too hard either about the consequences of Bolshevism or about revolutionary situations. It seems to be working, with a few minor hiccups.

A few days before the anniversary, Russian security services detained members of “secret cells” who “allegedly planned to set fire to government administrative buildings in Moscow” and other cities and “attack police officers” this weekend. (November 4 is a national holiday, the post-Soviet response to November 7/October 25, the day of the Bolshevik coup d’état.) More details on these arrests can be gleaned from the pro-Kremlin Sputnik, the anti-Kremlin Radio Liberty and the independent Meduza.

At this point, it is unclear whether there is any truth to the charges. Several hundred people were detained today in Moscow and other cities, apparently for taking to the streets to protesting against the regime and support their arrested comrades. It doesn’t look like a major protest compared, say, with Alexei Navalny’s rallies, and shouldn’t be a huge problem for the Kremlin unless it overreacts massively. But since the idea that the revolution might repeat itself around its hundredth anniversary can only make sense to the paranoid mind, you never know what to expect.

The Communists will probably hold rallies in 3-5 cities on November 7 but they are going to be inoffensive and manageable, as usual.


Labors too modest for a knock on the head

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November 5, 2017 by AK

I didn’t expect to ever agree with Masha Gessen again on anything but her conclusions in this piece make sense to me. She asks, among other questions:

Is there any reason, at this point, to think that a tiny drop in the sea of Facebook ads changed any American votes?

Her answer is “No.” To be clear, she’s not talking about the State Department or DNC leaks or hacks: she is only focusing on the alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 election via social media. Gessen’s strongest point is the negligible weight of the Russian effort. According to Facebook’s general counsel, as reported by Gessen:

…a hundred and twenty-six million people, not necessarily Americans, “may have been served” content associated with Russian accounts sometime between 2015 and 2017, with a majority of impressions landing after the election… “this equals about four-thousandths of one per cent of content in News Feed, or approximately one out of twenty-three thousand pieces of content.”

I would also add that, good as Russians are at inventing memes within their native cultural and linguistic milieu, few are fluent enough in American popular culture to match the geniuses at 4chan and kindred geysers of galvanizing cynicism. If the birthplace of Pepe the Frog, Praise Kek, God Emperor Trump, and now It’s OK to Be White is indeed St. Petersburg, then it must be the Florida one.

I’m sure it would be flattering for a Russian college graduate, voiceless and impotent at home, to be able to make a difference to the outcome of the most important election in the most important country in the world. But it’s yet another Russian illusion.


“She wore green lipstick until her colleagues complained”

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November 2, 2017 by AK

Unexpectedly, reading Namara Smith’s review of Edmund Gordon’s biography of Angela Carter was so rewarding that I keep coming back to the piece. This bit in particular made my day, more than one in fact:

Carter was enthralled by fashion, particularly its potential to antagonize others. At her first job—reporting for a local newspaper—she wore green lipstick until her colleagues complained.

Until her colleagues complained! Nice folk, lovely times, enviable mores, all of the above, whatever.

By the way, I recall seeing a young woman with green hair for the first time in my life. It was January 1990, not far from Moscow – the girl was undoubtedly a Muscovite, most likely a college student. The USSR was still there but things were changing fast, for sure.


Medinsky v. Herberstein

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November 1, 2017 by AK

Whenever I vow to myself, nulla dies sine linea, catatonia sets on and the inner voter goes for blogger’s block. I’m back with an amusing snippet from the new Russian chronicles of shame. The Moscow Times reported on October 20:

Russia’s state academic panel has ruled that Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky will keep his PhD despite claims of his doctorate not meeting academic standards…

Earlier this month, its expert council voted in favor of stripping the minister of his Urals Federal University PhD.

This is a good enough summary of the case although the title is a little off:

Vladimir Medinsky Keeps PhD, Despite Plagiarism Allegations.

The Russian doctorate is actually a post-doctoral degree so the hurdle is high in theory but seldom properly cleared in practice. The principal charge against Medinsky is not plagiarism: his scholarly critics claim his dissertation is amateurish and adds no value to age-old discussions. There are also doubts that it was submitted and defended in full compliance with the standard procedure.

Medinsky is the author of pop-history books and novels so his cavalier approach to scholarship is not surprising. His smuggling childishly ignorant arguments into a doctoral dissertation suggests a certain impudence, but it should not surprise us either considering the minister’s Komsomol and MGIMO background.

Here’s one curious example. Every Russian and Ukrainian schoolchild is supposed to know the story of Olga’s revenge. Around 945, Igor, the prince of Kiev, was killed while collecting tribute in the land of the Drevlians, about 90 miles north-west of Kiev. The triumphant Drevlians suggested that Olga, Igor’s widow, marry their prince Mal. Olga exacted terrible revenge upon the offending tribe, which included burning their warriors alive in a wooden bathhouse. This episode is suspiciously reminiscent of Queen Sigrid’s incinerating her suitors; perhaps Olga’s revenge is a late interpolation into Nestor’s Primary Chronicle.

Later – most likely in 957 – Olga visited Constantinople as the “archontissa” or “hegemon” of Rus’. She was baptized either during that visit or earlier. (See, for instance, Once Again concerning the Baptism of Olga, Archontissa of Rus’ by the Polish Byzantinist Andrzej Poppe.) Olga was the first Christian ruler of Rus’; her grandson Vladimir introduced Christianity as the state religion.

Six centuries after Olga’s subjugation of the Drevlians, Sigismund Herberstein wrote in his Notes on Muscovite Affairs:

He [Igor] met his death subsequently at the hand of Maldittus, a prince of the Drevlians, at a place called Ciresti, and was there buried.

This is close to the chronicles except for the names: “Ciresti” should be Iskorosten or Korosten, and Maldittus is an odd Latinization of Mal, as if a play on “maledictus.” (By way of coincidence, Mal is the name of the wise old Neanderthal, the leader of a tribe reduced to a family, in William Golding’s The Inheritors.) It’s probably the Slavic root mal, “small.” Perhaps the prince was a hunchback or a giant.

Medinsky, however, attacks Herberstein from an unexpected angle. The Russian translation Medinsky is using to make his point calls Maldittus gosudar’, which the aspiring historian finds inappropriate since the Drevlian leader did not hold this “title.” The doctorant appears to hold it self-evident that gosudar’ means a king or a tsar, neither of which Mal could have been. Medinsky’s critics point out that that a serious historian would have checked with the original, and since the Latin text has princeps and the German version has Fürst, there is nothing to argue about.

But the failure here is at a more basic level. Medinsky’s suggestion that gosudar’ can only refer to a crowned monarch is patently incorrect, unless it narrowly refers to the usage of a none too educated modern Russian speaker, such as the average reader of the minister’s pophistorischen tracts. As a political scientist (he has a doctorate in that field, too), he must know that the standard Russian translation of Machiavelli’s The Prince (Il Principe) is Gosudar’. Moreover, Dahl’s dictionary definition of gosudar’ is…

any secular potentate, supreme head of a country, sovereign: emperor, tsar, king, sovereign duke or prince, etc…

Dahl adds that in “old times,” gosudar’ was used interchangeably with lord, master, landlord, magnate. To argue that it’s necessarily a royal title is about as absurd, naive or dishonest as to argue that “Sire” can only refer to French monarchs or that anyone addressed as “my lord” must be a rich English landowner.

Much of this has been known since 2012, when Medinsky’s dissertation was first savaged by real historians: not so much a work of history, it turned out, as a lengthy diatribe by a not particularly convincing journalist. Now I’ve sampled its childish trickery.


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