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A Soviet Reader: An Annotated Bibliography of Recent Reads

14 Oct

This bibliography is an attempt at keeping a quick record of my recent reads (both fiction and non-fiction) regarding the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and its history.  The eagle-eyed among you will notice all of the volumes are English translations, and as such this imposes a boundary between what has and has not been translated.  As always when one reads for pleasure and information personal choices are made, authors and tastes are developed and pursued, and books that should be read remain unread.  Choices are partly dictated by access.

For instance, I discovered Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward and Mikhail Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don on my dad’s bookshelf, others such as the modern author Svetlana Alexievich by reading literary reviews and becoming aware of her work.  Sometimes there is surprise that so monumental an author can remain forgotten within the sphere of common knowledge, such as Vasily Grossman, of whom I personally did not discover for far too long a time.  Some volumes, such as Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales which is based on his experiences in the Gulag, are soon to be republished and I keenly await the volume.  There are plenty of other volumes that have not been translated into a language I can read or simply authors that I remain ignorant of.

Conference room of the Supreme Council in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, by noted photojournalist Max Penson (1893-1959). Following his forced movement to Uzbekistan with his family in 1914, Penson became one of the best-known photojournalists in the Soviet Union from 1920-40, particularly for his images of life in Uzbekistan. In later life he was forced to leave his employment in 1948 due to a rise in anti-Semitism. Photograph: M. Penson.

Having wrote out a quick list of Soviet-era novels I’ve had the pleasure (and often sadness) to read, I find it thoroughly hard to pick one that is my favourite as the styles are so varied and the approaches so different.  However and on reflection, there are three novels that stand out for me.  They are the Don Epic (includes And Quiet Flows the Don and The Don Flows Back to the Sea, 1928-40) by Mikhail Sholokhov, The Master and Margarita (1967) by Mikhail Bulgakov, and Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate (1960).  All three offer varying degrees of criticism or support of the USSR and all three differ in their approach and in their individual authors fate.  Some circulated as samizdat (underground literature), whereas others were State sanctioned and celebrated.  Many authors who were active during the revolutions of 1917, such as Teffi and Yury Felsen, saw the writing on the wall in the bitter winter months of 1917-18 and sought sanctuary elsewhere in a fractured Europe, riven by war.  Later events, such as the so-called Terror Famine (and associated famines in Soviet lands) of 1933-34 and the Great Purge (or Great Terror) of 1936-38, turned many Old Bolsheviks away from the Party.

I’m also interested in this era of writing because of its historical context.  To write critically, to write truthfully, took some strength to do when the repercussions could be so severe.  Fictional works too were often suppressed or destroyed.  In recent days I have read a number of news articles focused on the killing or physically harming of journalists and educators worldwide, from Turkey (political oppression and murder) to Brazil (harassment), America (political pressure and threats) to Bulgaria (murder) and Malta (murder).  In many countries facts, the search for justice and the will to present the truth to the public (and the public’s willingness to digest this) are under open attack, even in so-called democratic states where media, particularly investigative journalism, is demonised openly and widely.  It would be crass to directly contrast the two wildly different contexts, but we must be aware that it is a continuing balancing act – to report and to be critical, either through fiction or non-fiction, is always an act on a knife-edge.  To tell the truth you sometimes have to give up your freedom; you may even have to give up your life and those of who you love to inform the world.

Please be aware that this post will be regularly updated to include annotations on the volumes listed below.  It will also be added to as and when I read new volumes.

Political & Social History

Alexievich, S. 2016. Chernobyl Prayer. Translated from the Russian by Anna Gunin and Arch Tait. London: Penguin Classics.

Alexievich, S. 2016. Second-Hand Time: The Last of the Soviets. Translated from the Russian by Bela Shayevich. London: Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Alexievich, S. 2017. The Unwomanly Face of War. Translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky. London: Penguin Classics.

Svetlana Alexievich (1948-), a recent Nobel Prize Winner for Literature from Belarus, is justly famous for ‘her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time’ as cited in her award.  A recent trio of English-language translations have brought her to greater attention within the Anglo-sphere and introduced many to her unique style of letting her interviewees talk uninterrupted.  For some this may blur the line between fiction and non-fiction, but the results are an intimate look into the lives of those that have been hidden for so long.  The above trio of volumes deal, respectively, with the Chernobyl nuclear accident, the fall of the Soviet Union throughout the late 80s and 90s and its impact, and the role of females in the Second World War and the aftermath in the USSR.

Applebaum, A. 2004. Gulag: A History of the Soviet Camps. London: Penguin Books.

Applebaum, A. 2013. Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe. London: Penguin Books.

Applebaum, A. 2017. Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine. London: Allen Lane.

Beevor, A. 2007. Stalingrad. London: Penguin.

This is the book that started my initial interest in understanding the Russian position in the Second World War, particularly in understanding the impact that the pivotal battle of Stalingrad (now Volgograd) had in breaking Hitler’s Wehrmacht.  Beevor (1946-) writes a cogent, richly sourced analysis of the battle and its historical importance as it raged in the cold winter of 1942-43

Conquest, R. 2007. The Great Terror: A Reassessment. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kotkin, S. 2015. Stalin: Paradoxes of Power 1878-1928. London: Penguin.

Kotkin, S. 2017. Stalin: Waiting for Hitler 1928-1941. London: Allen Lane.

Together, with the volume ‘Paradoxes of Power’, ‘Waiting for Hitler’ is the second in a trio of volumes that paint a deeply researched biography of Joseph Stalin (1878-1953), a Soviet revolutionary and General Secretary and Premier of the USSR.  I’m currently half-way through the second volume and it is an eye-opening body of work, one that I highly recommend to anybody with an interest in history or modern history.  Understanding the USSR (and the transformations after its fall) is fundamental to today’s world state and to the underpinning of politics on the international stage.  By focusing on the figure who helped take over after the death of Vladimir Lenin in 1924, Kotkin (1959-)provides a richly researched narrative of the day-to-day running of the Russian Soviet Republic and eventual USSR as viewed through Stalin’s immense capability for work, political understanding, and brutality. 

Merridale, C. 2013. Red Fortress: The Secret Heart of Russia’s History. London: Allen Lane.

Plokhy, S. 2017. Lost Kingdom: A History of Russian Nationalism from Ivan the Great to Vladimir Putin. London: Allen Lane.

Sakwa, R. 2016. Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands. London: I. B. Taurus & Co. Ltd.

Solzhenitsyn, A. 2003. The Gulag Archipelago 1918-56: A Experiment in Literary Investigation. Translated from the Russian by Thomas Whitney and Harry Willets, abridged by Edward Ericson Jr. London: The Harvill Press.

Steinbeck, J. & Capa, R. 2000. A Russian Journal with Photographs by Robert Capa. London: Penguin Classics.

It is always a pleasure to read Steinbeck’s non-fiction work and this journal, wrote in the late 1940’s after a visit throughout the USSR with the celebrated war photographer Robert Capa, bears all the hallmarks of his wit and comedic flair.  Still this is a sombre read of the after effects of the Second World War, a war which devastated the population and infrastructure of the Soviet Union.  The chapter regarding the visit to Stalingrad (today called Volgograd) is particularly harrowing.  Criticism of the USSR is lacking however and this was noted in the reviews and discussions following the book’s publication.

Teffi. 2016. Memories – From Moscow to the Black Sea. Translated from the Russian by R. Chandler, E. Chandler, A. M. Jackson & I. Steinberg. London: Pushkin Press.

Teffi (1872-1952, pen name of Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya) was a famous humourist writer in the early 20th century best known for her contributions to the magazine Satyricon.  ‘Memories’ documents her overland flight from St. Petersburg to the Black Sea where she caught a ferry to Turkey in 1919, following the twin revolutions of 1917 (the February overthrow of the Tsar and the Bolshevik revolution in October) and the subsequent political crack downs that followed.  Although the volume deals with a particularly dark affair of fleeing one’s home country, this memoir is particularly funny as Teffi makes her observations and relies on her hilarious and indefatigable guide, Gooskin.  She spent the remainder of her life in Paris, France, never to return to Russia.

Wells, H. G. 2012. Russia in the Shadows (Classic Reprint). London: Forgotten Books.

A gem of a republished book by Forgotten Books. This volume recounts H. G. Wells’ (1866-1946) second visit to Russia in 1920, at a time of profound change following the February and October revolutions in 1917 and the subsequent brutal Civil War. H. G Wells was known as a fiction writer of some renown, for both The Time Machine (1895) and War of the Worlds (1898), however he was also prolific in a wide range of genres, particularly on social commentary and had an abiding interest in the Soviet experiment.  This volume covers his experiences with his son in both St Petersburg and a brief trip to Moscow, covering a range of viewpoints on the Soviet social enterprise and its effect on the Russian country at large.  This volume is a great read and the author has a very interesting interview with one Lenin, and H. G. Wells isn’t one for holding back on his own viewpoints.

Folk and Magic Tales

Chandler, R. (ed.). 2012. Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov. London: Penguin Classics.

A fundamentally important introduction to the cultural and traditional importance of magic tales within the Russian and Slavic imagination.  Chandler introduces a range of authors, including Platonov and Teffi, who tackle long-standing magic tales where transformation of both lives and forms becomes a bubbling, and often humorous, vehicle to comment on their own historical context.  This is a great book to become familiar with figures mentioned throughout Russian traditional culture, such as Baba Yaga, which still appear in modern media (think of Zvyagintsev’s 2017 film Loveless and the grandmother figure living in the woods.

Novels

Babel, I. 2016. Odessa Stories. Translated from the Russian by Boris Drayluk. London: Pushkin Press.

Isaac Babel (1894-1940) was one of the highest writers authors to die during Stalin’s Great Purge (otherwise known as the Great Terror).  The Great Purge dated from roughly 1936-38 and spread across the Soviet Union and ultimately saw many hundreds of thousands (possibly millions) put to death or sent to prisons during purges of the military, political, cultural, and professional classes, and the so-called ‘Kulak’ class.  ‘Odessa Stories’ is a collection of Babel’s thrilling tales set in the primarily Jewish coastal city by the Black Sea.  Famously introducing the character of Benya Krik, the gangster, the tales uncover the seedy underbelly of the Ukrainian city.  Among the stories is a moving account of the effect of a program against the Jewish residents. 

Berberova, N., Felsen, Y., Gazdanov, G. & Kuznetsova, G. 2018. Four Russian Short Stories. London: Penguin Classics.

Not strictly historical, but an insight into four disparate writers who fled Russia following the Bolshevik takeover in 1917 and spread themselves across Europe in an émigré cultural diaspora.  Each story in this short paperback deals with the outcome of a death and its impact, eith the feeling of loss rippling through the pages.

Bulgakov, M. 2007. The Master and Margarita. Translated from the Russian by Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear. London: Penguin Classics.

Gessen, K. 2018. A Terrible Country. London: Fitzcarraldo Editions.

Whilst not dealing directly with the Soviet Union (as Keith Gessen’s highly personal novel is set in 2008), the turbulent 20th century does cast a long shadow in this entertaining and often hilarious novel of one man rediscovering his birth country whilst having to look after an aging relative.  The historical and modern social impacts of violently shifting cultural and political landscapes are well observed and captured in this novel.  They are gently, and believably, entwined with both family members and the friends that the main Soviet-born character, Andrei Kaplan, make in modern-day Moscow after leaving behind his life in America.

Grossman, V. 2006. Life and Fate. Translated from Russian by Robert Chandler. London: Vintage.

Often described as the 20th century’s War & Peace, Life & Fate is a monumental novel of insight into the USSR during the raging battle of Stalingrad in 1942-43.  Centered upon the family of Vicktor Shtrum and the Shaposhniokova sisters, Grossman introduces a panoply of figures across the length and breadth of the USSR and develops their role within the Great Patriotic War (as the Second World War is known in Russia).  This multifaceted novel dissects Stalinism and Nazism, the nature of the State itself, and the vying reality of Jewish identity caught between the Soviet sphere and the impact of invading German forces.

Grossman, V. 2011. Everything Flows. Translated from the Russian by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, and Anna Aslanyan. London: Vintage.

Platonov, A. 2010. The Foundation Pit. Translated from the Russian by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, and Olga Meerson. London: Vintage.

Shalamov, V. 2018. Kolyma Stories: Volume One. Translated from the Russian by Donald Rayfield. New York: New York Review of Books.

Sholokhov, M. 2017. And Quiet Flows the Don. Translated from the Russian by Stephen Garry. London: Penguin Classics.

Sholokhov, M. 1984. The Don Flows Home to the Sea. Translated from the Russian by Stephen Garry. London: Penguin Classics.

Solzhenitsyn, A.. 2000. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. London: Penguin Classics.

Solzhenitsyn, A. 2003. Cancer Ward. Translated from the Russian by Alexander Dolberg. London: Vintage Classics.

Zamyatin, Y. 1993. We. Translated from the Russian by Clarence Brown. London: Penguin Classics.

Graphic Novels

Nury, F. & Robin, T. 2017. The Death of Stalin. London: Titan Comics.

Second World War Memoirs

Koschorrek, G. K. 2002. Blood Red Snow: The Memoirs of a German Solider on the Eastern Front. London: Greenhill Books.

Sajer, G. 1999. The Forgotten Soldier: War on the Russian Front – A True Story. London: Cassel Military Paperbacks.

The above two volumes, and their veracity of truthful experience, have both been discussed time and time again by critics and reviewers in their description of life on the Eastern Front as German soldiers.  Regardless of the truth both volumes present hideous experiences on facing the Red Army during WWII, first claiming new territories and then slowly losing them, mile after bloody mile.

Radio 4’s ‘Disability: A New History’

2 Jun

The BBC’s Radio 4 station has recently been running an interesting and enlightening documentary series entitled ‘Disability: A New History‘, which focuses on historical views and attitudes towards disable people and individuals in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries.  The series, which is presented by Peter White, runs to a total of 12 episodes with each episode lasting around 15 minutes.  The series tackles a different theme each week, with episodes from views on ‘disabled identity’ to ‘being and doing’ and ‘sex and marriage’, to the detailed case studies of disabled individuals and what they experienced.  The series will be available to listen to online via the BBC Iplayer website here for the foreseeable future.  There is also an online slideshow of historical images depicting varying disabilities discussed or mentioned in the show here.

One of the guests that has featured on the show so far is noted Medieval cultural historian Dr Irina Metzler*, who has extensively researched disability during the Medieval period.  In her first book, ‘Disability in Medieval Europe: Thinking About Physical Impairment in the High Medieval Ages 1100-1400‘, Metzler discussed the theoretical background of disability (via the social construct) and the physical impairment (via the physiological condition) during the Medieval period in Europe.  In particular her focus contextualizes disability within the medieval theoretical mindset and cultural concepts at the time through looking at relevant case studies, historical documents and written religious examples.

Released recently is the second part of this research, entitled ‘A Social history of Disability in the Medieval Ages: Cultural Considerations of Physical Impairment‘, which discusses the social and economic aspects of an individual’s disability, specifically regarding legal status and effects of law on disabled persons.  Further to this the research delves into the effects of aging and the physical deterioration of the body ‘together with (the) social, medical and technical attempts at amelioration‘, and is concluded by a discussion on the meaning of charity for the disabled person.

I am currently eagerly awaiting the arrival of Metzler’s first published book through the post, and I look forward to reading the second work, especially with regards to how the perception of disability in the medieval period can be compared and contrasted against the modern world’s cultural attitudes to disability and physical impairment.  In the meantime I shall listen to the rest of this interesting, lively and informative radio series.

*Post amended on the 27/06/13 to correct Dr Irina Metzler’s name.

Bibliography:

Metzler, I. 2006. Disability in Medieval Europe: Thinking About Physical Impairment During the High Middle Ages 1100-1400 (Routledge Studies in Medieval Religion and Culture). London: Routledge.

Metzler, I. 2013. A Social History of Disability in the Medieval Ages: Cultural Considerations of Physical Impairment (Routledge Studies in Cultural History). London: Routledge.

Guest Blog: ‘The Elysium Theatre Company Presents the Medieval Heritage Event ‘The War of the Roses’ by Emily Evans.

11 Nov

The Elysium Theatre Company began life in Bedfordshire as a small-scale drama group, run by students for students.  Since graduating, they have been making plans to aid the expansion and creative growth of the company, and are soon to be launching their biggest and most exciting event yet: a weekend-long immersive experience of Shakespeare’s History Cycle titled ‘The War of the Roses’, taking place in the South-West.  The company, founded by Emily Evans and Eleanor Chadwick, has a strong focus on productions of classic plays, in particular those by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, and has a keen interest in bringing history and historical material to life for a modern audience, combining various skills and disciplines.

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We are in the early stages of our Wars Of The Roses project and already really excited about it!  The event is set to be a two-day experience, where the audience will be able to come and go from different locations around the venue, viewing extracts from 8 of Shakespeare’s history plays as well as reenacted battles.  All of this will take place within an immersive Living History setting, complete with medieval craftspeople, minstrels and more!  The production is all set for performance in summer 2012; the script is coming together, lots of people from different disciplines and backgrounds are signing up to take part and we are nearly there with getting our venue sorted out.

The project is supported by the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Open Stages scheme: “a fantastic opportunity to showcase the creativity and talent in amateur arts groups across the UK” (Robin Simpson, Chief Executive, Voluntary Arts), and we are really excited to be taking part in the regional showcase held at Hall for Cornwall, Truro, in June next year.

We are currently recruiting and forming a large team of volunteers to make this event the most exciting and spectacular that our theatre company has ever launched.  We are currently looking for:

– Medieval historical and archaeological researchers (Particularly focusing on life in England during 1377-1485 to help gain the company an in depth knowledge of the time period for the War of the Roses event.  This research can be done where you live and can use the internet for correspondence.  Present researchers include These Bones of Mine’s very own David Mennear!)
– Metal workers (for costume armour and props).
– Musicians.
– Costume designers/makers.
– Re-enactors.
– New members for the production team.
– New members for the marketing team.

And soon we’ll be holding auditions for actors who would like to join our company!

If you are interested in the project or just want to say hi you can either:

Check out our website: http://www.elysiumtheatre.co.uk/

Come over to our wordpress blog: http://theelysiumtheatrecompany.wordpress.com/

Follow us on twitter: http://twitter.com/#!/TheatreElysium

Or email us at: elysiumtheatrecompany@gmail.com.

Access And Issues In Archaeology

18 Mar

In between the guest blogs on cannibalism by Kate Brown, I have stumbled across this website called Past Horizons– related to the Past Horizons magazine.  As the site deals with various facets of archaeology, it is a veritable treasure trove of information.  Ranging from excavations, cultural practises and opinion pieces (not to mention detailing the best tools for arch jobs!), this multimedia website has something for everyone.  Two articles aroused my interest.

Katy Meyers article on Open Access Archaeology provides interesting information on how archaeology is presented across the medium of the world-wide web.  As a subscriber to the British Archaeology magazines, I notice they  too have a column detailing new and interesting websites related to heritage and archaeology.  The exploitation of the internet as a place to spread (mostly free) information about heritage & archaeology has led to a burgeoning amount of websites available, both to the common public and the academic researcher.  Interactive sites, such as the one mentioned in the article on Chaco Canyon in the American Southwest, commonly include vast databases on archaeological sites.  These often include information on the structures present, artefacts found, cultures present, detailed maps, excavation histories at the sites and everything in between.  This is vitally important in the study of archaeological sites as context and providence is everything.  This can only be a good thing.

As Meyers concludes her article, she states that –

We have a responsibility to make our data available to scholarly, public and online communities, preserve it in a format accessible to future researchers, and do so in a way that faithfully represents the real nature of our data. And it is through this pathway that we can further knowledge of our past“.
 
Katy Meyers informative blog on Mortuary and Bioarchaeology can be found at Bones Don’t Lie.

Further to this, Jane Woodcock also has an article on the website detailing the Catch 22 situation of recent graduates gaining archaeological field experience.  Jane notes that –

Many people, including some undergraduates studying archaeology, are under the impression that once you have a degree qualification you are employable as a field archaeologist. In practice, however, most commercial employers require a minimum of 3-6 months’ on-site experience before they consider offering you a job. A clean driving licence and a CSCS card will put you further up the list. Unfortunately, most archaeology degrees only require you to do very little field work to pass, usually 2 weeks or less”.
As is often the case with access to archaeological jobs, you need experience of excavation before a unit or company will take you on.  You can gain experience by attending field schools or excavations; however these often cost money, sometimes a lot of money.  How can you afford to attend courses and excavations with (often) little or next to no money to gain experience to get an often low paid job in archaeology?  As it is often said, you do not enter the archaeology profession for money, but for the passion you have for the subject!
 
It pays to be in touch with local archaeological units and societies in your area, as well as any universities or academic departments nearby.  Often, if the unit is funded by the local council, community digs can be free to attend and participate in.  It makes sense to try to get a broad range of experience too.  From experiance of watching briefs and desk based studies at sites and monuments records office, to commercial watching briefs & full scales excavation with units.  It also pays to bear in mind the sheer range of jobs and applications available in the archaeological sector.  From being a GIS savvy techno wizard to studying faunal or flora remains, investigating human remains or living the life aquatic with maritime archaeolog; there are a broad range of options available.
 
Although this blog deals specifically with human osteology, it also deals within the wider world of archaeology, anthropology and heritage.  This is because nothing can be seen in isolation.  Indeed, as in archaeological excavation, context is everything.