The 75th Anniversary of the End of Leningrad’s Blockade (1944-2019)

January 27th, 2019 marks the 75th anniversary of the end of Leningrad’s Blockade (1944-2019).
It’s been a few years now that some folk in Russia are wondering as to why this date is still being marked. They have gone as far as to state that the Blockade was instigated by Stalin to kill as many civilians as possible, while in fact the Fascist troops were never going to destroy the city or its people. Never mind that there are German sources that prove the opposite intentions of Hitler and Co. As if the mere instance of such view was not enough, what I personally find disgustingly amazing is that this view is often expressed by the Jewish people. The very co-nationals of those who would be completely annihilated, had Herr Hitler had his way. 

Last year millions of Russian people, myself included, were outraged when one Russian teenager gave a speech at Berlin’s Reichstag. The speech was claimed to have been his own research into the hardships of a young German soldier who fought on the Fascist side and died of wounds during the Stalingrad Battle. The boy’s speech sounded apologetic of the soldier’s sad fate; he expressed compassion and a hope that such war would never happen again. Of course, for the sake of poor invaders who’d have to face the brutal Russians once more. 

This year some Germans have voiced their surprise: how much longer will they have to apologise to the Russians for the massacres of the Second World War? More precisely, what’s that thing about the heroes of Leningrad’s Blockade? They are not heroes, no way.

Indeed, given that most European countries gave in to Fascist regimes in weeks, if not days, after the invasion of each of them, it must be really hard to get a European head around the fact that it was possible to stay in a city for nearly four years, enduring hunger, cold and air raids, watching your friends and relatives die, and never wishing to leave it or to surrender. The more I follow these morone blurts of contemporary Europeans, the more I am inclined to believe that in 1939-45 in Continental Europe one could either collaborate, if he was a European, or die, if he was a Jew. A small proportion who weren’t prepared to do either joined various Resistance movements. They could still die, but at least their conscience was clear.

Ever since Hitler’s watercolours surfaced in early 2000s and art historians have taken a keen interest in them, I felt it wasn’t long before we’d hear that this great dictator who is duly loathed by every sane person was a really nice chap. A good fella who had the misfortune to lead Germany in that terrible war against the USSR under that tyrant, Stalin. 

And surprise! We only had to wait until the Ukrainian Maidan to hear it all: that Fascist demonstrations should be allowed in a progressive democratic society; that it was the USSR that invaded Germany and Ukraine (they don’t mention that Ukraine was the Soviet Republic at that time); and that the Russians should stop being so touchy about their casualties. Shortly before 2014 we had heard that Leningrad should have been given up instead of enduring the Blockade. For at least a decade there have been torrents of criticism of the annual Victory parades and, more recently, of the Immortal Regiment movement. And finally, last year “the voice of the progressive Russian youth”, Nikolay from Novy Urengoy, sympathized for the young German invader whose life so sadly ended somewhere in Stalingrad.

Add the fact that a European school curriculum is either ambiguous or altogether taciturn about the role of Russia (formerly the USSR) in the Second World War, and it is clear that the anti-Soviet propaganda has been working to mask, downplay and perverse the Soviet effort and victory practically since May 9th, 1945. And now it has come to Germany asking, how much longer it has to remember its atrocities against the Russian people in that war.

Can you imagine Germany asking how much longer it will have to hold various Holocaust Memorial Days? Can you imagine anyone asking when the Holocaust as a theme will stop being a sure guarantee for either an Oscar or a Nobel Prize in Literature? Just a reminder of that Austrian professor who’s had the misfortune to deny the Holocaust and was persecuted for it, and it’s clear what the answer to the above questions is. Never. Never will the Holocaust cease to be the scare and an opportunity for fame in either Europe or America. I’m looking at it from the point of various propagandist efforts, I’m not denying anyone’s personal sentiments.

Just for the record: according to what we know from existing documents, Hitler didn’t really distinguish between Russians and Jews. For him and his financiers both peoples were to be disposed of. Apart from the affluent few, Russians and Jews were too populous, too poor, and too grounded – historically. One could tell tales about the superior Aryan race to the fellow Europeans, but not Russians or Jews. Besides, despite the differences, both nations would never subscribe to the Protestant ethics, as professed by the Fascists. And therefore they both had to be driven to extinction. 
Nowadays Europe wants to remember only about the Jewish genocide. Perhaps, it’s easier (in various sense) to contemplate the murder of some 6 mln people. Even if we include non-Jews and the figure rises to 17 mln, it is still easier to stomach, given that in both cases the number is spread across much of Europe. It’s different when you are left to swallow the unbelievable 28 mln dying in Russia alone. It’s different when, instead of an orderly sequence of “arrest-detention-transportation to a camp-death in a gas chamber”, you are faced with war-time footage of the Nazis shooting Russian toddlers, hanging the women soldiers, and destroying the entire villages and cities. The uncivilized Russians defended their country and caused the Fascists to kill 28 million of people (the search for the unknown victims of war continues, and the figure is now approaching 30 mln).

So, yes, it’s easier to remember the Holocaust; it’s “only” 6 mln, and it was so “civilized”.

I’ve been monitoring these morons both in Europe and Russia for years, and whenever it was appropriate I have never shun from expressing my opinion. So, while I don’t deny the Holocaust (which has been marked separately in the last few years in Russia), my sense of patriotism and historical fairness proposes the following suggestion on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the end of Leningrad’s Blockade:

— Europe and America stop apologizing for and otherwise remembering the Holocaust, and we stop reminding the world about 30 million dead Soviet citizens (Jews included) and of who really won the Second World War.

In the unlikely event of the Holocaust Memorial Days being erased from European and American calendars in the upcoming years, our Victory Day on May 9th will, too, become just another day when we remember the heroes of our history, rich in defensive wars. Cue in Borodino Battle, the Battle in Kulikovo Field, or the Battle on the Ice. 
You should realise, of course, that the above suggestion is proposed with a great deal of bitter irony. The way history is going, however, the Victory Day we celebrate now may be changed by another of its kind one day too soon. As much as most of us don’t want it, it can only happen in the event when that unbelievable quid pro quo comes to life. For, the moment we stop being sorry about either 6 mln, or 30 mln, the new catastrophe will explode.

Happy Christmas!

Together with Gladys Knight I wish you a very merry Christmas and a happy New Year! Let you be blessed, in good health, and let peace and love reign in our hearts and in the world.

I posted Do You Hear What I Hear a few years ago, and I’ve always loved to sing it during the festive season. So this year I recorded my singing its final verse in the midst of the glorious snowfall in Moscow. ​

2018 Xmas: The Terrifying Beauty of Industrialisation

This was the view from my window a few days ago. I wrote once that I had always been presented with a difficult choice between some lovely scenery of my district and the ugly industrial sites overshadowing it.

Looking at this photo that came out rather well made me recall George Orwell’s admitting that industry can, in fact, be designed to look beautiful, in order to conceal everything that is unwholesome about it. And indeed, many plants and factories today are built to be pleasing to the eye. They are no longer those terrifying gigantic blocks of brick or steel; instead, they are often light in both colour and shape to look elegant and inviting. To the younger generations industry has nothing to do with unhealthy vapours, low pay and child labour. 

The picture thus illustrates my favourite topic of what we choose to focus on. Considering this is the view I am most likely to see from my window, the question is: what do I look at? Do I look at the thermal electric station in the distance and pity myself, or do I look at the trees, the vast terrain and the sunset and enjoy the natural beauty? 

I am pretty sure you know my answer.

2018 Xmas: The Blurry Lights

The photo is this post has been taken today on my way to one of my students. The blurring effect wasn’t intented; it was a fortunate coincidence to my current thinking about how we make sense of life.

For life, in fact, is very similar to this alley seeded with blurry bulbs. The terrain is vast yet it invariably narrows because “narrow is the Path that leads to Life”. And on this Path we try to be guided by what is traditionally called “values”. Yet what are these values? Does everyone share them? Or holds the same definition? Or really adheres to them?

Obviously, what is fair for you may be unfair for thy neighbour. Or vice verse. Or thy neighbour thinks you’re barmy because of your values. And so you walk through your life, watching out for these blurry lights that might signal the right turn or path.

To me, however, it is important to follow Andre Gide’s advice: be true to that which lies within yourself. Your heart and faith save you where the mind fails. And it fails too often to rely on it completely.

2018 Xmas: Getting Into the Festive Mood

As the festive season is on its way, the Xmas label returns to the blog. In previous years I used to strive to post daily during December. Back then few people seriously tried to earn money with their websites, so December was an off-season time. Nowadays it is completely the opposite, methinks, so my daily blogging is unlikely to surprise anyone. And still, content is king, so I’ll do my best to bring you just that.

An Open Letter to Mr Thomas Bach, the Head of the International Olympic Committee

Dear Mr #Bach,On behalf of the Russian citizens who have long cherished the true #Olympic ideals, I am writing this post to let you know how pathetic you have been looking since you’ve been forced to launch the Crusade against the #RussianOlympicteam. The #IOC has already become a #disgrace to the notions of #sport, #peace, #integrity and even #politics. We are not interested in exactly what forces you to act as you do. We wonder how much more you can still do before the remains of your #conscience begin to awaken.

Forced by #WADA, you supported the “evidence” of a half-wit traitor and defector who you no doubt despise. You demonstrated a typically bureaucratic helplessness in situation with the #RussianParalympicathletes. You championed driving the country of Russia out of the competition. You instead invited the “#OlympicathletesfromRussia” to the sports bash. We, as the nation, could not expect to see a more biased, cowardly person as the head of the IOC.

And now within two days we first hear that the IOC may withdraw its sanctions against Russia, and next we learn that #Krushelnitsky’s probe may contain #meldonium that has been previously declared a #non-doping.

Dear Mr Bach, do you not realize that this upcoming doping investigation doesn’t support the Olympic ideals. It now supports the #AcademyAwards because those who bribe you need to prove that the film #Icarus isn’t a despicable lie disguised as a movie.

Dear Mr Bach, you’ve jumped into this mess with both feet, and I and all the Russian people can barely imagine what forced you to do so. However, I hope you also realise that your biggest disgrace still lies ahead. I don’t know which #scandal your peers and dons will orchestrate against you, but they certainly will do, and you know it. So, while you still can, I beseech you to do yourself a favour and stop making an idiot of yourself. We, Russians, despise cowards and traitors but we respect those who can correct their ways to stand up for integrity, against vice and corruption.

Please prove us you may still be worthy of our respect.

JS @olympics #thomasbach

Liverpool: In Search of The Beatles Story 

The first time I visited Liverpool was in November 2002. The weather was typical of the English North-West in autumn: above the nil, wind and RAIN.
It should be noted that the trip was an act of appeasement of this Russian girl who was ready to love Manchester United FC provided that no one would stop her from adoring The Beatles. You see, Mancunians are peculiar people. In their view, all best things had happened – or are happening – in Manchester. Therefore, Liverpool, or London for that matter, is a nuisance that throws its shadow on the splendour of the red-brick city. (A note: Liverpudlians secretly giggle at, yet uphold, this ‘competition’). God knows what I had to listen about Liverpool! All people there stretch “i” sound, it’s raining there, Scousers keep outplaying MUFC in the Premier League and at various championships; and on top of that, there is an incomprehensible urban planning and roads that are impossible to navigate. However, as I was eager to even take the train, and my hosts couldn’t risk letting me go on my own, we eventually went by car. 
…and for some reason it was the day of our trip that the firemen trade union had chosen for their strike! To avoid strikebreaking and any incidents, the lifts were switched off throughout the country, communications with the firemen were aborted, hence anyone using electrical goods, shaving and cooking in microwaves was doing so at his or her own risk. We nevertheless went on our trip, but you surely do understand that Liverpool was the cause of it all?!

None of my company knew the city and had barely ever visited it, so we spent a long time searching for Albert Dock where The Beatles Story Museum was located. At first, we ended up at a car park which was at the opposite end of our destination, so we had to brave the rain and wind. In search for a parking space we had to go as high up as level 6 or 7. And whilst going downstairs wasn’t much trouble for any of us, walking back up the stairs presented a challenge even to the healthier ones, who didn’t suffer from asthma and had no problems with legs. The parking was located somewhere near the university, and, as I recall, it was the first time that I saw some tropical plants, like palms, fluttering pathetically in the wind. Later I would see many an unfortunate tree, like those ones, that somehow got settled in the English North-West and in Wales and were courageously soaking wet in the intermittent, cold local rain, the icy winds tearing apart their leaves. 

The road to The Beatles Story was long, though not winding. We had no idea where the museum was, so we took the direction in which everyone wagged and waved. We had to stop regularly because the adults had difficulty walking. We got hungry and popped into a cafe; I tried scrambled eggs with salmon for the first time. This part of the journey took about an hour and a half. Mancunians kept looking for ways to pick at Liverpool, but, apart from the weather (which hardly differed from Manchester), there was nothing to discuss.

After lunch we went on to search for The Beatles Story under the rain. The longer you live in England, the more you realise that the rain is accepted as an inseparable part of life, its absence denying life altogether. Or at least without the rain life becomes palpably incomplete. That time in Liverpool, looking for the museum, I also figured that it was under this perpetual rain the young Beatles had been gathering at each other’s houses, composing and rehearsing songs, and then going to the historical Cavern club to play a gig. They soaked to the bone and got cold but still went wherever the music was taking them. 

Finally, we almost reached our destination: we got to the other end of Albert Dock. Yet we were in Liverpool that evidently decided that those arrogant Mancunians had to get beans for their sharp tongues. On our right a wall was rising, in front of us the boats were floating, and on the left a small bridge was leading to the other bank of the dock. Unconsciously, instead of all this we expected to see some remarkable building with a running inscription, like the British Museum or the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, for shouldn’t Liverpool have been proud of its famous citizens? But alas, there was nothing of the kind. Looking around in despair, I saw two street-signs, one near the bridge, another next to us. Both had “The Beatles Story Museum” arrows pointing at each other. Where they intersected, stood a red Royal Mail post box pinned right in the middle of the little cobbled space where we stood. 
The epic journey was becoming unbearable. This magical mystery tour seemed to be endless but then we noticed a man with his young son. To our question he confidently waved towards the brick wall, and we turned around it and immediately stumbled on a green garbage bin and a sort of cabins painted in the style of the Beatles’ cartoons. And a little farther there was the museum building, with a running inscription, but the entrance led downstairs, rather than upstairs, and The Beatles Story was beginning with the very first steps…

From The City of Optimists by Julia Shuvalova 

And Once Again about Tichborne’s Elegy

I never asked English-speaking readers what or how they felt about Chidiock Tichborne’s Elegy. It is a well-known poem, written by a 28-year-old Tudor guy on the eve of his execution for taking part in the Babington conspiracy against Elizabeth I, and is a tearful meditation on the brevity and fatality of life.

I suspect that it is the poem’s melancholy and romantic feel that made it so popular among contemporary Russian translators. On the web one can find some 5 or 6 variations, all different. Nothing wrong with this, except one thing: the majority of attempts are based around external (=obvious) characteristics of the poem. Translators have found that “Elegy” consists of monosyllabic, Anglo-Saxon words. This obviously makes the poem very unique, and, because we’re reading a Renaissance poem – and Renaissance is well-known for its fascination with symbols and riddles – the monosyllabic words are (mis)taken for an authorial intent. Tichborne was contemplating the brevity of life, and so he used monosyllabic words to emphasise the point.

There are two problems with such interpretation. First, even when we translate prose, we still miss out on certain symbolic features in the destination text. However good we are as translators, losses are sometimes inevitable. In the end, even a written text is a rhetorical exercise, and therefore we still want to entertain the reader with our translation. If it closely follows the original text but is cumbersome and distasteful, then the reader will be tired, annoyed, and not at all pleased. This means that we cannot aim for a complete lexical equivalence in translation, but rather we should aim to translate (i.e. negotiate) something else.

Russian is my native language, which I know in depth, and yet even I would struggle to provide monosyllabic equivalents to all the English monosyllabic words in Tichborne’s poem. And even if I did manage to find them all, the result would hardly possess much literary merit because I wouldn’t see the forest for the trees, so to speak.

The second problem with putting too much emphasis on monosyllabic words in Tichborne’s poem is that we’re clearly trying to add to what is already contained in the poem. For some reason we are not satisfied with the fact that “Elegy” is about the fatality and shortness of one’s life, so we think we must find that which would further stress this. Let’s not think about the poem; let’s look at what I’ve just said. “We think we must find that which would further stress this“; “let’s not think about the poem“; “let’s look at what I’ve just said“. Correct me if I’m wrong but the majority of words in those phrases are monosyllabic. Because I am the living and breathing author of those phrases, I certainly declare that I didn’t plan to use monosyllabic words to stress my point. The point is very simple: there are many monosyllabic words in the English language, and a lot of them happened to be used in Tichborne’s “Elegy“. Rather than assuming that Tichborne conspired (excuse the pun) to use monosyllabic words in his final poem, one should better look at this as a kind of linguistic peculiarity. It certainly adds to the poem’s feel; but, as far as I am concerned, it cannot be viewed as the poem’s most distinct feature, let alone it cannot dictate how we should translate the poem.

As far as the Anglo-Saxon origin of the words goes, again I personally believe we’re walking a useless extra mile in trying to establish the uniqueness of the poem. I think so purely because I am careful of not infusing the poem with my knowledge. This is the biggest disservice I can do to myself as translator and to my readers. The question on these occasions must not be “do I know these words are Anglo-Saxon?” but “did Tichborne know these words were Anglo-Saxon?” I bet the historic origin or the etymology of the words didn’t matter to him in the hours before the execution. Someone may think differently but the question to ask is: would the origin of the words matter to you in Tichborne’s circumstances?

I argued in a short essay in Russian about the complications of translating “Elegy” that it is actually a very easy poem to translate, thanks to the Russian lyrical tradition. Mysticism, melancholy, romantic troubles, forlorn love is what often distinguishes Russian poetry. Tichborne’s “Elegy” could easily be written by a Romanticist poet like Lermontov, should he have found himself in prison awaiting execution. Given Lermontov’s caliber as a poet, his contemplation would well exceed Tichborne’s in literary merit, but in tone and mood it could be very similar.

Last but not least, the misfortunes of translators who tried to translate “Elegy” have entirely to do with the problem of identifying the context and the intent of the poem. I have already pointed out to the problem of context: we’re placing the poem in the context of the language, whereas we must place it in the context of its own time. The themes of Tichborne’s poem are the brevity of life, fatality, death, and the inevitability of punishment, however unjust and cruel. These very themes were widely discussed not only in contemporary literature, but were explored by painters. In my Russian text I compared the colours of “Elegy” to the palette of Tintoretto’s “Marriage at Cana”: the colours are rich but dim, as if covered by the ‘frost of cares‘. There is a similar kind of melancholy and sadness in Michelangelo’s sonnets, and the whole topic of brevity of life was labeled vanitas in both painting and literature. Seen in this context, “Elegy” is a bridge between Renaissance exuberance and lust for life and Baroque melancholy, presented in a rather beautiful and peculiar lyrical form.

Tichborne’s intent is quite easy to comprehend. It is known that he was practising poetry, so, in addition to writing a letter to his darling wife, what could be a better way to bid farewell to this earthy life? And the poem’s intent has to do with the context in which we should read it. Again, this is not the context of the language, but of the time. Tichborne wasn’t teaching us a lesson in the English language; he wasn’t trying to tell us how many monosyllabic words there were in the English language, let alone how many of them were Anglo-Saxon. Instead, he suddenly found himself in a prison cell, and, given that he travelled to the Continent and obviously had the chance to view the works of Italian painters, all the images of vanitas, hour-clocks, and hovering deathly shadows rushed into his mind. If, like Dostoevsky in the 19th c, Tichborne had been suddenly pardoned in 1586, “Elegy” could become a stepping stone for a poetic talent. Instead, it became the last and only manifestation of any literary promise. If Tichborne was indeed practising poetry during his life, then this poem also contains his understanding that he could no longer develop his gift, and this should have been distressing also. Therefore, when we translate “Elegy“, we must strive to convey this emotional component of the original text. And, in case you wonder, this is exactly what I did.



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