Category Archives: Julia Shuvalova: Poetry and Prose

Poetry and prose by the Russian author, Julia Shuvalova (aka Julie Delvaux)

Happy New Year 2020

Contrary to the tradition of previous years, I’ve decided to wish you a happy new year 2020 on January 1st. In the early years of my blogging I used to write longreads with resolutions on December 31st (see 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012), but the pace of life often stopped me from making half of them happen. So even though I continued making plans, I stopped sharing them on the blog.

Instead I’m happy to tell you about what happened in 2019. I published 3 books, 2 electronic where I’m the author, and 1 illustrated paperback where I’m the translator and literary editor. I travelled to a few interesting places and took lots of photos. I had a nomination for a literary award. My photo was published in a local newspaper. Between 2013 and 2017 I won several awards as a translator, a poet and a singer, so I have something to build upon. Altogether, these events have provided me with some ideas that I’m going to explore in 2020.

At the moment, at least 3 books have already been scheduled for 2020, so I may eventually outdo my own publishing plan. Most importantly, I’m thinking about the concept for LCJ. Since it started, it has been growing far and wide because its author is a very expansive Sagittarian. It’s become such a beautiful tree that it’d hurt me to cut off any of the branches, especially because they all serve their own purpose. So, I guess I’ve almost found the way to mould all them into a nice composition around the LCJ stem.

Last but not least, while we’re on this topic, I’m going to ask you to spread the word about this blog. It’s been going non-stop from 2006 till 2014, earned a Google Blog of Note nod, but then from 2015 till 2017 it was put in hybernating mode. I need your help in getting it up and running again. I’ve got some ideas, but the word-of-mouth still does its magick. Also, if there are topics you’d like me to write about, drop me a comment.

To get back to the date, on the first day of New Year I wish us all happiness, health, love, wellbeing and peace. The year of the Mouse always initiates a new Chinese calendar cycle, so it is a good omen for all our great beginnings.

Source: Pinterest

To the wonderful, successful, loving 2020! Cheers!

My Sunset Photo Is Published in a Local Newspaper

Hyperlocal news has taken off in Moscow in the last couple of years. And so this week I’m a contributor to My Neighbourhood newspaper with my photo of the sunset seen from my window. I’ve said previously that I’ve always watched breathtaking sunsets in Moscow. This was something that I terribly missed, while in England. It’s all the more pleasing that the local news paid attention to one of these splendid captures and has made it available to everyone to see.

Sketches to Portraits by Terentiy Travnik

sketches-to-portraits-terentiy-travnik
Terentiy Travnik and Darya Khanedany’an, Sketches to Portraits. Translated into English, Spanish and French by Julia Shuvalova and Patrick Jackson.

One of the milestone events of this year for me is a publication of a book Sketches to Portraits with the aphorisms by Terentiy Travnik and illustrations by Darya Khanedany’an.

Terentiy Travnik is a poet, artist and musician, a native Muscovite. Darya Khanedanyan was also born in Moscow into a family of artists, however her own creative career started in Spain. I took part in making the book as a literary editor, an editor of the English translation of aphorisms, and a translator into French. I also translated the opening article into English.

The pronounced Iberian facial traits is obviously a hommage to Spain; Travnik’s aphorisms retain their Russian heritage in form as in the intellectual depth. A harmonious combination of words and images is therefore all the more striking, strengthened by artistic editing by Travnik himself. The vibrant colours, ethnic rhythms and avant-garde stylisation all bring out a truly cosmic dimension in Sketches to Portraits.

The aphorisms by Terentiy Travnik deserve a special mention. One of his best-known books, A Splinter, that has seen 4 editions since it was first published in 1990s, is a collection of aphorisms that embrace practically all spheres of human life. One can note here a loyalty to the tradition of La Bruyère, Schopenhauer and other philosophers who found endless creative possibilities in the concise and succinct form of an aphorism. Ever after A Splinter Travnik’s work has been marked by the mentioned qualities (e.g. Tabulas, 49 Tabulas etc.).

Sketches to Portraits by Terentiy Travnik includes 41 aphorisms translated into English, Spanish and French languages. Great happiness matures slowly; There is a lot of grass in the field, but we can only remember the flower; Time does everything on the go; Touch the roots, and the crown will blossom; To do a foolish thing and to make a mistake are two different things; Wisdom does not take money; Education is the path from authority to truth; Treat the fatigue of the body with rest and the fatigue of the soul with work. This is but a little part of what the author invites the reader to think about. Perhaps, this openness to the dialogue is the most remarkable trait of these aphorisms. Nowadays the Internet is saturated with many an interesting and deep quote, but the most popular are those presented in a mentoring or affirmative voice. Do this; don’t do that; the meaning of that is this. Terentiy Travnik’s aphorisms, while speaking directly to the reader, don’t insist on their ultimate truth. Their deceptive simplicity disguises some really deep reflections.

Terentiy Travnik’s website

Other posts in Julia Shuvalova: Poetry and Prose archives

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.

 

 

Playcasts to My Poetry

The beauty of the social media and web publishing is in the opportunity to see how your content is being used and possibly interpreted. Although I own copyright on my works, I do not strive to publish them on every available web resource, thus restricting myself to Stihi.ru, which is registered as the actual printed edition. I republished certain poems previously on my blogs, but at no point did I expect some of the poems to become a source of inspirations to the creators of playcasts.

A playcast, as the website www.playcast.ru tells me, is the latest form of a postcard. The technique is fairly simple: you choose an image, a poem, and a piece of music, arrange them together nicely, and voila, the playcast is ready. Perhaps, the only issue I can have with the whole thing is that I only find out about it if I do a bit of ego-surfing. At the same time, since none of the authors of these playcasts did any wrong to my work, I am happy to accept theirs.

One of the poems, “Kiss”, happened to be particularly popular, and was used twice in playcasts. I’ll write about it in another post, however, because both playcasts focus on the story of the poem. There is an image behind it, as well, which deserves some attention. Another poem, called L’Amour des Saisons, is also a love poem, composed in the form of a song, possibly in the genre of Russian romance (somewhat similar to the French chanson). But as you’ll see if you follow through to the playcast, the author used a song by Mylene Farmer. As you might guess, knowing about my francophilia, I don’t mind such song in the slightest.


From what I’ve already said it is quite clear that me and the authors of playcasts see both poems differently. This is where we can get back to the advantages of the social media and the web. It is great for me as an author to be able to follow the interpretations of my work almost in real time. Online publishing on this occasion enables me to see almost immediately what the readers find interesting or important for themselves in my work. I cannot agree that the authorial voice has totally disappeared in the postmodern age. I think this is often simply a matter of the public voice featuring more prominently than before, mainly due to the various channels of communication. On the other hand, the variety of interpretations or a constant possibility of misinterpretation doesn’t mean that the author should not have their own clear vision, which they express in their work. What makes the social media and the Internet important for the author is the opportunity to see how the idea you’ve conceived of is being accepted, disputed, criticised, marvelled at, applauded, re-interpreted in different media, without having to organise reading tours, etc. Needless to say, those very (mis)/(re) interpretations can be a source of inspiration in themselves, or at least can provide much food for thought.

Images, from left to right: playcasts by Nelya, Alexander, and Eva.

Links:
Poems in Russian: Kiss, and L’Amour des Saisons
Playcast by Nelya
Playcast by Alexander
Playcast by Eva

Monday Verses: Michelangelo Buonarotti – Sulla morte di Cecchino Bracci (1545)

David Hockney, In Memoriam Cecchino Bracci

In 1544, a handsome 15-year-old boy named Cecchino (Francesco) Bracci died, leaving his uncle Luigi del Riccio shattered. At the time Luigi was a close friend and counsellor to Michelangelo Buonarotti, whom he kindly asked to execute a tomb for Cecchino and compose an epitaph.

I was reading a book by Sigmund Freud recently, and the Austrian narrated a story of how a young scientist asked him to review his work. Freud agreed; however, he couldn’t force himself to do it; eventually, he accepted that he didn’t actually want to do the review, and excused himself from the task.

Believe it or not, in 1540s in Italy Michelangelo was in the exact Freud’s position. He barely knew the boy, and it turned out that, in spite of his famous beauty, Cecchino never sat for a portrait. The only source of knowledge and inspiration was supposed to be Cecchino’s uncle, Luigi.

Michelangelo’s autograph of the epitaphs

A kind soul as it seems, Michelangelo took to the job. Luigi sent generous hampers to feed a rather indifferent Muse, which gifts the artist sometimes acknowledged in the draft epitaphs and sketches he’d sent back to del Riccio. Indeed, the texts we have demonstrate the hard times Michelangelo could have when the subject failed to ignite his poetic flame. Even the words stumble, and the lack of acquaintance with the boy fully manifests itself. Several months and almost fifty epitaphs later, Michelangelo pulled out from the job. And yet, in 1545 he’d sent Luigi a beautiful sonnet. It is a short study of the poet labour’s lost, with a beautiful ending that actually re-interprets one of the draft epitaphs, pointing out to the fact that it is a lover who preserves the image of the beloved. In spite of what we know of the Renaissance homoerotism, and Michelangelo’s in particular, I insist that Love here needs to be understood as a pure affection, not a hint at any sexual interest.

The tomb (image: Wikipedia)

The tomb was eventually made by another artist and can be seen at the church dell’Aracoeli in Rome. In 1962, David Hockney painted In Memoriam Cecchino Bracchi. This post also includes the sketches by Michelangelo that were eventually used as the basis for the tomb. The final epitaph was composed in Latin.

Drafts (image: Michelangelo.ru)
Drafts (image: Michelangelo.ru)

The Russian poet Andrei Voznesensky also translated two of the epitaphs on the death of Cecchino. I guess the interest in this series of epitaphs lies in several facts. The genre of an epitaph is unique in itself, and when a famous artist-cum-poet composes the whopping 42 quatrains, it does attract attention. Cecchino’s death devastated “the whole of Rome”, according to his uncle, although the age at which the boy died was likely the main reason. And even though Michelangelo’s pen and Muse refused to work together, he nonetheless appears to have been excited at the opportunity to explore one of the favourite themes of the early Baroque poetry, namely vanitas and preference given to the other life.

I didn’t try to translate the epitaphs. Yet back in 2008, when I discovered the 1545 sonnet, it captivated me so that I had to translate it. I must admit, I fully experienced Michelangelo’s own hardships, it was the first time I was translating from Italian, and as always before my task was to try and preserve the original rhythm and melody in the Russian translation. I was, however, satisfied with the result. It is included below, together with the English translation by John Addington Symonds.

In 2013 my Russian translation was awarded the First Diploma in the “Poetry” nomination in Music in Translation competition.

Michelangelo Buonarotti – Sulla morte di Cecchino Bracci

A pena prima aperti gli vidd’io
i suo begli occhi in questa fragil vita,
che, chiusi el dì dell’ultima partita,
gli aperse in cielo a contemplare Dio.
Conosco e piango, e non fu l’error mio,
col cor sì tardi a lor beltà gradita,
ma di morte anzi tempo, ond’è sparita
a voi non già, m’al mie ’rdente desio.
Dunche, Luigi, a far l’unica forma
di Cecchin, di ch’i’ parlo, in pietra viva etterna,
or ch’è già terra qui tra noi,
se l’un nell’altro amante si trasforma,
po’ che sanz’essa l’arte non v’arriva,
convien che per far lui ritragga voi.

John Addington Symonds – English Translation

Scarce had I seen for the first time his eyes,
Which to your living eyes were life and light,
When, closed at last in death’s injurious night,
He opened them on God in Paradise.
I know it, and I weep — too late made wise:
Yet was the fault not mine; for death’s fell spite
Robbed my desire of that supreme delight
Which in your better memory never dies.
Therefore, Luigi, if the task be mine
To make unique Cecchino smile in stone
For ever, now that earth hath made him dim,
If the beloved within the lover shine,
Since art without him cannot work alone,
You must I carve to tell the world of him.

Julia Shuvalova – Russian Translation

Я только раз взглянул в глаза того,
В чьем взоре ты черпал и жизнь, и свет,
Как в вечном сне он их сомкнул, чтоб впредь
Смотреть в раю на Бога самого.

Как глуп я был! И плачу оттого!
Но, право же, моей вины в том нет.
А ты хранишь вовеки счастья след,
Хотя бы Смерть и унесла его.

Луиджи, просишь ты: пусть сохранит
От тлена несравненную улыбку
Чеккино мой прославленный резец.

Но любящий любимого творит,
И, раз уж Муз дела идут не шибко,
Тебя мне должно взять за образец.

October 2008

На русском 

В июне 1544 г. в Риме умер юный Франческо (Чеккино) Браччи, племянник поэта Луиджи дель Риччо. Луиджи, хорошо знакомый с Микеланджело, обратился к поэту-художнику с просьбой создать надгробие для мраморного памятника Чеккино, а также написать текст эпитафии. Микеланджело согласился. До нас, действительно, дошли четыре эпитафии. Однако ни одна из них не украсила надгробие Чеккино, да и сам памятник, в конце концов, был успешно создан другим мастером.

Причина, по которой Микеланджело уклонился от исполнения договора, вероятнее всего изложена им самим в приведенном сонете. Вопреки тому, что можно прочесть в популярных статьях о глубине отношений Микеланджело и Чеккино, степень близости была невелика, что и подчеркивает первая строка сонета. Несмотря на то что Чеккино славился своей красотой, ни один художник, похоже, не соизволил запечатлеть его при жизни. Переводы нескольких набросков эпитафий, сделанные А. М. Эфросом, демонстрируют бесплодные усилия пера Микеланджело, которое дель Риччо изо всех сил старался подпитать – в прямом смысле этого слова:

Здесь рок послал безвременный мне сон,
Но я не мертв, хоть и опущен в землю:
Я жив в тебе, чьим сетованьям внемлю,
За то, что в друге друг отображен.

– Не хотел посылать вам это, потому что скверно вышло,
но форели и трюфели одолели бы и само небо. Вверяю себя вам.

К благой судьбе я смертью приведен:
Бог не желал меня увидеть старым,
И так как рок не властен большим даром,
Все, кроме смерти, было б мне в урон.

– Теперь, когда обещание пятнадцати надписей выполнено,
я больше уже не повинен вам ими, разве что придут
они из рая, где он пребывает.

Рисовать эскиз надгробия оказалось еще тяжелее: “Посылаю вам с запиской дыни, рисунка же пока нет, но я изготовлю его непременно со всем искусством, на какое способен”. И однако же искусства было мало:

Чеккино – в жизни, ныне – я у Бога,
Мирской на миг, небесный навсегда;
Счастливая вела меня звезда:
Где стольким в смерть, мне в жизнь была дорога.

– Так как поэзия этой ночью молчала, посылаю вам
четыре надписи, за три пряника скряги и вверяю себя
вам.

Андрей Вознесенский также перевел две из этих эпитафий:

Я счастлив, что я умер молодым.
Земные муки – хуже, чем могила.
Навеки смерть меня освободила
и сделалась бессмертием моим.

Я умер, подчинившись естеству.
Но тыщи дум в моей душе вмещались.
Одна на них погасла – что за малость?!
Я в тысячах оставшихся живу.
 

Проведя не один месяц в творческих муках, Микеланджело отклонил заказ дель Риччо. Но в 1545 г. написал для него вышеприведенный сонет. При отсутствии каких-либо изображений юноши, Луиджи, как любящий дядя и воспитатель, для которого смерть Чеккино явилась тяжелым ударом, мог бы единственным “источником” вдохновения для художника. На это и намекает Микеланджело, с присущими его веку изяществом и легким юмором предлагая изваять самого дель Риччо, дабы сохранить в веках память о Чеккино. Одновременно в этом сонете сходятся многие темы, поднятые Микеланджело в черновых вариантах эпитафий, в частности, в этих строках: “Я жив в тебе, чьим сетованьям внемлю, за то, что в друге друг отображен”.

История жизни и смерти Чеккино Браччи, о которой известно ровно столько, сколько можно извлечь из этих коротких посланий Микеланджело, послужила источником вдохновения для английского художника Дэвида Хокни (In Memoriam Cecchino Bracci, 1962).

В 2013 г. за перевод этого сонета я получила диплом I степени в номинации “Поэзия” на международном конкурсе перевода “Музыка перевода”.

New Recordings

So, I have spent the past year translating, teaching, and writing. I narrowly managed to go anywhere past my own district not only because of work but also due to my gran’s illness. After she passed away on April 27, it’s been a bit of a downtime in our family, although this was something that could well be expected of an 89-year-old. We miss her nonetheless.

There are, therefore, very few photos to show BUT there are new poems, poetic translations, and… recordings. I must admit I didn’t do this cover especially because of Mr Aznavour’s anniversary this year. Rather, I rediscovered this song, and it downed on me that it could be changed ever so slightly. And so I changed it, and as I can see from SoundCloud stats two people have downloaded it. I’d certainly like to really sing it for  someone special one day (like Catherine Zeta-Jones sang another song for Michael Douglas), but right now it’s just a simple home cover of the famous song by Charles Aznavour that has now become He, not She.

A Poet as Petrarch: Going Through Home Archives

Иногда чувствую себя Петраркой: однажды ему так надоело разбирать свой архив, что он все бросил в огонь. Это напоминает, как мы иногда поступаем с накопившейся почтой: удаляем, и все! Но вот камина у меня нет, зато находятся то и дело всякие записки университетской поры. Вот, например, из переписки на лекции:

Утоли своя печали,
Посмотри на небо сине:
Видишь, солнце закачалось
В зеленеющей осине.
Твоей грусти нет причины,
Все пришло, и все проходит.
Утоли своя печали
И найди покой в природе.

А потом нашлось стихотворение от декабря 1998, здесь чувствуется впечатление от чтения ренессансной поэзии

Я ключ к судьбе найти пытаюсь,
Вопросы задаю. Она ж
Ответа будто бы не знает:
“Ma joie, mon âme – ah! quel dommage!”

Я все гаданья, гороскопы –
Всё изучил, вошел я в раж!
И день, и ночь я жизнь толкую,
Свихнуться, право, я рискую,
Но ключ к судьбе-таки найду я.
Ma joie, mon âme – oh! quel dommage!

Часы летели, лета, весны,
Обрел седины тайны страж
И умер, не решив вопроса.
Sa joie, son âme – ah! quel dommage!

На небесах же, где в лазури
Качался бога антураж,
Жизнь умиленная лежала,
И в своих кудрях мысль искала,
И зачарованно шептала:
– Ma joie! mon âme! non, pas dommage!

Democracy In Iceland: How To Make the Best Of an Economic Crisis

I translated the text below from Russian for two reasons. One, it would be really great if more countries followed in the footsteps of Iceland. Nevermind loans and debts, this is the great example of democratic government, by people and for the people, and this is something that must be known, discussed and – hopefully – studied and used. 

Secondly, as I was reading the story I kept going back to Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Writing his book so that the French could figure out how to create a democracy in their country, this royalist descendant who foresaw the inevitable arrival of democracy also mentioned one curious thing: that for a country to successfully implement a democratic regime, it must either be very small or very young. In his time, the first half of 19th c., only two countries satisfied the criteria: Switzerland in Europe, and the United States, the former being small, the latter young. In case with Iceland, the size and language are likely to cement the achievement. Reading the comments Russian people make in social media, I wonder if anything like this may ever be possible here because the common memory seems to run very deep, and these undercurrents are unlikely to be abandoned any time soon. Even before one considers the size of Russia one has to admit that the country would quite likely take all historical and emotional baggage into the new era and to continue “harking back” to the times immemorial because all of them constitute an important part of the national “fabric”. This is not to say that Russia cannot be democratic, but it will be a new, Russian kind of democracy.

And at the same time the example of Iceland can be used for personal study, how to use the critical situation to adhere to and to advance your own interests. As it often happens, life gets in the way, and we try to get on with life, abandoning or indefinitely postponing the realisation of our goals. Iceland teaches us how we can take matters in our hands and to carry on with our course, no matter what life events get in the way. 

Translated by Julia Shuvalova. Original Russian text. An article in Komsomolskaya Pravda about the events.

Have you heard of what happened in Iceland on October 20, 2012? Probably not. You know, why? Because on October 20 Iceland has survived a revolution – absolutely peaceful but a revolution nonetheless. It showed at once how “dangerous” it is when “democratic procedures”, of which the liberals talk so much, are controlled by the majority and not by the minority, as usual. This is precisely the reason why the world media keep mum about the demonstrative example of Iceland, all but concealing it. For it is the last thing that the powers that be of this world would want to happen – that Iceland could really lead other countries. However, let’s take it steady.

On October 20, 2012 a referendum took place in Iceland approving of the new Constitution. This referendum struck the final note in the battle the Icelandic people have fought since 2008 when they suddenly found out that, due to the financial crisis, their country (which is not a member of the EU, as a matter of fact) literally became bankrupt.

The news was sudden because it came after the five years of flourishing, sustained by the “most effective” neoliberal economy based on privatisation of all banks in the country (in 2003). To attract foreign investments, the banks extensively used online banking system that provides fairly high profits against the minimal spend.

Indeed, the Icelandic banks attracted funds from many small British and Dutch investors, everything was grand, and, as far as neoliberals were concerned, the economy was in a great state. All was good, except for one thing: the more investments were attracted, the quicker grew the external debt of the banks. Whereas in 2003 this debt made 200% of GNP, by 2007 it was 900%. The global financial crisis of 2008 dealt the death blow to Iceland’s economy. Three leading banks – Landbanki, Kapthing, and Glitnir – went bankrupt and were nationalised, while the krona lost 85% of its value against the euro. At the end of the year Iceland announced bankruptcy.

Now it is time to remember that Iceland is a democratic country. At first the citizens decided to rely on the “usual” representative democracy. Several months after the banks’ collapse the Icelanders took to the streets, protesting against the bankers, responsible for the crisis, and the ignorant politicians who allowed the crisis to develop. The protests and public unrest eventually forced the Government to resign.

The new elections took place in April 2009, and the coalition of left forces came to power. On the one hand, it instantly denounced the neoliberal economy, but, on the other hand, the new government quickly gave in to the demands of the World Bank and the members of the EU to pay the banks’ debts – altogether, 3,5bln euro. This meant that every citizen in Iceland would have to pay 100 euro monthly for the next 15 years, in order to repay the debts of private persons (the bank owners) to other private persons.

This was too much even for the phlegmatic Icelanders and has led to a rather extraordinary course of events. The idea to pay for the mistakes of private financiers, that the entire country must be subjected to a toll to repay the private debts, was so unacceptable that a new wave of mass protests ensued. These practically forced the government to side with the majority of people. As a result, the President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson refused to ratify the law, already passed through the Parliament, that would make the citizens responsible for the bankers’ debts, and called a referendum.

Next followed the reaction of the “international community”, rather characteristic of the “free world”: Iceland was put under the unprecedented pressure. Great Britain and Holland threatened to impose severe economic sanctions, up to a complete isolation of Iceland, if the debts are not repaid. The World Monetary Fund threatened to withdraw any help. The British government threatened to freeze the savings and current accounts of Icelandic citizens. But Iceland stood firm, while the President Grimsson remarked: “We were told that, if we did not accept the conditions of the global community, we would become the Northern Cuba. Yet if we did accept them, we’d become the Northern Haiti”.

The referendum took place in March 2010. 93% of Icelanders decided not to repay the debts to the foreign creditors – Britain and Holland. The World Monetary Fund immediately freeze all credits. But nothing could any longer stop the Icelanders. With popular support the government initiated civil and criminal investigations against the individuals responsible for the financial crisis. Interpol gave an arrest order against the ex-President of Kaupthing Bank, Sigurd Einarsson, while other bankers, involved in bringing the country to bankruptcy, fled Iceland.

Yet even this was not the end. The Icelanders decided to create a new Constitution that would liberate the country from the power of global finance and virtual money. At the same time, the Icelanders wanted to write the Constitution themselves, as one nation. And they succeeded! The project of the Constitution was written by 950 ordinary citizens, randomly selected (as in a lottery) by the members of the National Assemble in 2010.

To complete the Constitution, the people of Iceland elected a Constitutional Council consisting of 25 people. Fishermen, farmers, doctors, and even housewives were elected from 522 adult citizens who did not belong to any political party and who was each recommended by at least 30 people.

As a Russian journalist wrote in his article (the name of the article referring to the famous quote from Lenin, that “every cooker can sit in the government”), “let us underline specifically that nobody in Iceland resented the fact that they could not read through all 522 bios and political platforms, let alone to find their way in the bulletin that contained the names of so many people”.

Next, the citizens began to polish the text of the Constitution. Let us cite the same Russian journalist: “After this the Council used the system of crowd-sourcing and provided access to its work for everybody. The citizens’ feedback was collected on Facebook, Twitter, and even YouTube. Altogether 3600 comments and 370 amendments were made. Every week the Council published online the new articles, to be discussed by people. Two or three weeks later, having considered all suggestions from the citizens and experts, the Council published a final draft of the articles that could then be discussed for one last time. Apart from this, the members of the Council recorded weekly bulletins about their work and uploaded them to YouTube, and the Council meetings could be watched online in real time. In the end, all 25 members voted to end the work on the Constitution. “We, the people of Iceland, want to create a fair society where each of us will have an equal place at the common table”, – such is the opening paragraph of the Constitution”.

In their comments the members of the Constitutional Council admit that in other languages this phrase sounds rough, but, in their opinion, the idea is clear to all Icelanders and better than any other reflects the aspiration to create equal opportunities for everyone. According to the Constitution, the natural resources of the island are declared the public property. Of a particular interest is the article “Open information and fairness” that obliges the government to provide a public access to all of its documents, unless they constitute the state secret. The Constitution also calls the government to work for the benefit of the Earth and biosphere, and not people alone. A separate article supports the animal rights. This innovative document incorporates a rather archaic article, omitted from the majority of European constitutions: according to it, the Evangelical-Lutheran church of Iceland retains its national status.

One important point should be noted, as it influenced the course of events. The Constitutional Council turned to be, as it were, “Eurosocialist” – not so much because the majority of Icelanders adhere to the leftist program, but because of the short-sighted and downright silly attitude of the Icelandic right forces. Previously in power, The Progressive Party and The Party of Independence appealed to their members to boycott the elections to the Council and subsequent work on the Constitution, which appeal the members followed. As a result, the right forces and the conservatives were in the minority.

Thus, due to the joint influence of both objective and subjective factors, the majority suddenly held all the trumps in their hands. They were the majority in the Constitutional Council, in the committee that developed the Constitution, and then at the referendum. The result “exceeded all expectations” to such extent that for a long time now the world media keep eloquent silence about the results of the referendum on October 23, when the Constitution was approved by 80% of Icelanders, with 66% turnout.

So, you got it? As soon as the majority was allowed to develop and vote for the Constitution, then privatisation as a panacea to all economic maladies was “swapped” for nationalisation, the state secret became the common knowledge, and instead of the strictly representative democracy the elements of true democracy have emerged.

God forbid, think the neoliberal governments throughout the world, the example of Iceland is followed elsewhere. Today the same solutions are offered to other countries. Greece is told that privatisation of the public sector is the only solution. The same is told to Spain, Italy, and Portugal. But what if they followed the example of Iceland? What a horrible thought to entertain…

Yet this can happen. Many Russian tourists who constantly suffer through the endlessly striking “European PIGS” (Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain) note that many manifestation banners mention Iceland. But none of this is mentioned in the news. The main focus is on what conditions these “pigs” consent to a gracious offer of a loan to repay the debts of bankrupt private banks.

This is why you never knew about the Icelandic referendum. The world media pretend that nothing happened. For the media, just like governments and parliaments, also represent the interests of the ruling classes who do not want the majority of citizens to have a say in the government matters.

But for all those who support the majority and who are not indifferent to the true democracy, the story of Iceland is a lesson. It is a lesson in an organised majority, in direct democracy, in the real exercise of the rights of the majority, in popular legislation and self-government. It is the lesson in all the things that make any democracy possible in the first place.

Important update:

I have just found an article submitted to Reddit and published on March 30, 2013 by Torvaldur Gylfason. It reads:

In sum, it was clear that in a secret ballot the constitutional bill would never have had a chance of being adopted by parliament, not even after the national referendum on the bill on 20 October 2012 where 67% of the electorate expressed their support for the bill as well as for its main individual provisions, including national ownership of natural resources (83% said Yes), direct democracy (73% said Yes), and ‘one person, one vote’ (67% said Yes). But the parliament does not vote in secret. In fact, 32 out of 63 members of parliament were induced by an e-mail campaign organized by ordinary citizens to declare that they supported the bill and wanted to adopt it now. Despite these public declarations, however, the bill was not brought to a vote in the parliament, a heinous betrayal – and probably also an illegal act committed with impunity by the president of the parliament. Rather, the parliament decided to disrespect its own publicly declared will as well as the popular will as expressed in the national referendum by putting the bill on ice and, to add insult to injury, hastily requiring 2/3 of parliament plus 40% of the popular vote to approve any change in the constitution in the next parliament, meaning that at least 80% voter turnout would be required for a constitutional reform to be accepted in the next session of parliament. The politicians apparently paid no heed to the fact that under these rules Iceland’s separation from Denmark would not have been accepted in the referendum of 1918. In practice, this means that we are back to square one as intended by the enemies of the new constitution. There is faint hope that the new parliament will respect the will of the people if the outgoing one failed to do so despite its promises. In her farewell address, the outgoing Prime Minister, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, declared this to be the saddest day of her 35 years in parliament.

One can see that the future of Iceland is yet far from certain, but the hope remains.

The Case For Aliens (Exercises in Loneliness-XI)

If we take George Mikes’s title literally and add to it the fact that each of us is a rather solitary figure in this world, then each of us is an alien. Either an Englishman in New York, or a Russian in Manchester, we depend on ourselves and always get back to ourselves as a point of reference.

Then another George comes to mind – that’s Orwell with his “some animals more equal than other animals”. By extension, some aliens are more equal than other aliens, provided they constitute the majority – of population, religion, sexual orientation etc.

At this carrefour originates a seeming necessity to be less alien than other aliens, and this necessity sometimes can yield unexpected results.

It was probably in 2010 that I went into a Tesco Express, one of many in Manchester city centre. The girl who was working at the till belonged to the Afro-Caribbean community and was absolutely lovely – except a typically Caribbean accent. She was trying to give me change and asked for a two pence coin. I was distracted so I didn’t hear her at first. She repeated, and I genuinely couldn’t understand. Again she said it, this time I made it out and gave the coin. She laughed:

– You’re foreign, that’s why you don’t understand my accent.

– No, – I replied, – I’m British.

I didn’t mean to be nasty, and I wasn’t really offended. After all, I was foreign in Manchester once. I suppose the whole conversation was a matter of fact, at least as far as I was concerned. It was strange and funny yet that we – both actually foreign in one way or another – engaged in guessing the “degree” of alienness, one of us ultimately losing.

Now, on my recent visit to Edinburgh I went into one of many souvenir shops . An owner with a recognisable European accent was selling ladies’ kilts to a group of Italian donne interpreted by an 11-year-old girl. “I can tell you, ladies”, he was confidently telling them in a high voice, “almost all souvenir shops here are taken by the Indians, there are only 5 or 6 authentic shops”. His was evidently one of the authentic shops.

I was attended to next. I think for the best of his business I shall omit the reference to the exact country of his origin. The point, however, is that he was as much alien to Scotland as the Indians (or Pakistani). And yet – be it due to skin colour or merely parroting what he might hear in pubs and from other vendors – he considers himself superior to people who at any rate have been associated with the UK for longer than his country of origin.

The stories are quite similar, as you can see. People assume superiority over their neighbour by assuming that the neighbour is alien. Greeks did the same when they called the rest of the world barbarians. They couldn’t understand that rather imperfect language, but it was the barbarians’ fault anyway. And as if the realisation of one’s solitary existence and loneliness in this world was not enough, there comes, sooner or later, the understanding that there are aliens who are more equal.