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Little Russia

Over the past month or so, I’ve been gorging myself on nineteenth and twentieth century ‘Russian’ literature – the inverted commas are because many of these authors are Ukrainian. I first encountered the term ‘Little Russia’ in the work of Nikolai Gogol, an amazing and amusing writer who needs little introduction. Gogol was born in a village in central Ukraine in 1809, but made his name in St Petersburg. I’ve read his short stories – the less famous Ukrainian Tales and more famous Petersburg Tales – as well as his novel Dead Souls, surmising that Gogol considered the ‘Little Russia’ of that time (present day Ukraine) to be part of the wider Russian Empire of the Tsars.

Nikolai Gogol

I’m a fan of Gogol, but my favourite ‘Russian’ of all was born about eighty years later, in 1891. I first read Mikhail Bulgakov’s superlative The Master and Margarita in 2014, and thereafter practically all of his work (novels, stories, plays, letters and a couple of biographies). Born in Kiev, Bulgakov’s novel The White Guard powerfully illustrates the tug of war between Germany and Russia during the First World War, with Kiev as ground zero. Ironically, the play Bulgakov wrote based on this (“The Day of the Turbins”) proved immensely popular with Russian theatre-goers, famously including Stalin himself, in the early Soviet period. Bulgakov never returned to Kiev and died in 1940, a year before the Germans invaded again.

Mikhail Bulgakov

Another great ‘Russian’ writer, possibly the most important of them all, is Vasily Grossman. Born in the town of Berdichev in Central Ukraine in 1905, and of Jewish ancestry, Grossman made a name for himself during the Second World War as a journalist with the Red Army. Present at Stalingrad, Kursk and the ruins of Treblinka, Grossman’s war correspondence is of immense historical as well as literary significance. His great novel, Life and Fate, was ‘arrested’ by the Soviet authorities in 1961 and only published long after his death, and his other late novel Everything Flows casts its gaze over another holocaust, the Soviet-engineered ‘Holodomor’ or Great Famine that killed millions of Ukrainians in the early 1930s. This topic is also covered extremely movingly in Andrey Platonov’s play “Fourteen Little Red Huts”.

Vasily Grossman

Soviet repression and the Holodomor seems to offer some explanation as to why the Ukrainians collaborated with the Nazis to a greater extent than other occupied peoples post-1941, a topic which is discussed extensively in the biography of Grossman I’m currently reading, The Life and Fate of Vasily Grossman. This was a point of contention for the Soviet authorities, seeking to downplay both the Jewish Holocaust and the Ukrainian collaboration with the Nazis, which led to hundreds of thousands of Jews being murdered in the Ukraine alone, including Grossman’s mother. Fast forward to the present day and the Ukraine is subject to yet another tug of war, this time between Russia and the West. It’s a topic discussed in the works of ‘Ukrainian’ writer Andrey Kurkov, born in St Petersburg in 1961 but a longtime resident of Kiev and a Ukrainian citizen. I’d read Kurkov’s Death and the Penguin previously but not his account of the recent ructions in this region, Ukraine Diaries, which covers a period of unrest in 2013-14 and Russia’s subsequent annexation of the Crimea region.

Andrey Kurkov

Here in Australia, far from the region in question, our media offers a very simplistic analysis of the struggle (basically, pro-Westerners = good, Putin = bad), but I’m left wondering: is there such a thing as an independent Ukraine, and will there be one in the future? Am I interested in Russian literature, or Ukrainian? I’m aware that the phrase ‘Little Russia’ is considered an outmoded and even pejorative term nowadays, but it does offer outsiders a historical context. Will the Ukraine eventually fragment into a pro-Russian east and pro-Western West, with Kiev as the geopolitical point of fracture, as Kurkov seems to prophesy? Bulgakov depicted Kiev in 1918 being constantly captured and re-captured by opposing forces. A hundred years later, how much has changed?

 

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2010: 12 days old, 5 books read

January 12, 2010 2 comments

Yes, I’ve done a lot of reading already this decade, so much that I can’t hope to review these books properly. A short paragraph on each is to follow.

Thirst by Ken Kalfus

I’ve been very enthusiastic about Kalfus since reading his book of stories PU239 and Other Russian Fantasies last year. Thirst is his other book of stories, and they’re every bit as good. About half of these stories are short, say less than ten pages, and those shorter pieces are generally flippant in tone or extended joke pieces, but the longer works, most notably “The Joy and Melancholy Baseball Trivial Quiz”, “Rope Bridge” and “No Grace on the Road” are fabulous. I haven’t said anything illuminating here, only that I enjoyed reading this book very much and would highly recommend it.

The Commissariat of Enlightenment by Ken Kalfus

Kalfus’ debut novel is set in two distinct periods of Russian history, the first in 1910 surrounding the death of Leo Tolstoy, and the second in 1924 around the death of V.I. Lenin. For the most part, we are told the story from the viewpoint of a ‘new Soviet man’ called Gribshin who makes a friend of Stalin long before he’s the tyrant he’d later become. In the second part of the novel, Gribshin is calling himself Astapov after the town of Astapovo where Tolstoy died in 1910. While possibly not as alluring as his shorter work (I wonder whether I’d have given this the chance it deserved had I not read Kalfus’ shorter work previously), The Commissariat of Enlightenment proved to be a substanial and even educational read. But I still think Kalfus is a better short story writer.

A Matter of Death and Life by Andrey Kurkov

I hadn’t heard of Kurkov of all. He’s a Ukrainian writing in Russian whose works have been translated in recent years into English. A Matter of Death and Life is a slim but beguiling read about a man in Kiev who decides to hire his own hit man (i.e. to kill him) after a relationship turns sour. But things become complicated when the hit man bungles the murder and our protagonist decides he wants to live after all. Thing work out well in the end though. This was a great little book, and a lot of the enjoyment I got from it was in reading about post-Soviet Russia, which sounds like no laughing matter.

The Eye in the Door by Pat Barker

This is the sequel to Regeneration, which told the story of Seigfreid Sassoon and Wilfred Owen in a mental institution during World War 1. I enjoyed Regeneration, but The Eye in the Door floored me, and is certainly my favourite of the five books I’ve read so far in 2010. This time around Barker focuses on her fictional creation Billy Prior, a deeply traumatised man who has experienced the horrors of the war firsthand. He’s also bisexual in a society where such a thing is more than frowned upon, and a government snitch to boot. His job is to find deserters in the poorer parts of England, a job complicated by the fact that he personally knows several deserters. Oh, and did I mention that Prior suffers from ‘fugue states’ where he loses several hours of his life at a time? This is simply fascinating, gripping writing, and I can’t wait to read the final volume in the trilogy, The Ghost Road.

Things We Didn’t See Coming by Steven Amsterdam

I didn’t see this one coming–my sister brought it around for me to read and I finished it the same day, which isn’t too surprising given that it’s just 174 pages in length. What we have here is an apocalyptic piece or rather a series of several short pieces set in a future gone pear shaped indeed. At first it seemed to me that this would be a fairly routine dystopia, but I was wrong. What I enjoyed most about this was the way it continually surprised me; the book succeeded in unfolding in unexpected ways. You’ll have to read it for yourself to see what I mean.