Category Archives: On Russia

Ups and Downs (Researching For Academia And Media)

I love research. I adore it. There is nothing better than to look for something and to find it in the most unexpected place. For example, I’ve been following the fate of the late Sergei Bondarchuk‘s last film, Quiet Flows the Don, for years. I’ve read a lot about it, I’ve seen the trailer, and today I’ve found an absolutely wonderful interview with a famous Russian actor who’d worked on that film. And I’ve never found that interview before, and I never even knew it existed.

Being a media researcher made me realise that I’ve got incredible perseverance. Not that I didn’t know this before. Simply there is a difference between an academic research and a media research. When you’re visiting an archive, it obviously helps if your archivist is a nice accommodating chap (or an equally accommodating lady). But even when the archivist clearly treats you as an intruder or better else, as a hopeless uncultivated individual who’s got no right or chance to lay their eyes on a precious illuminated manuscript, your knowledge and confidence will make them surrender. In addition, there are printed and online catalogues of books and manuscripts, hence you can always catch your Dark Angel off guard by showing them that you know exactly what the library holds.

In media research, it’s a bit different. Being knowledgeable and reliable yourself is not enough if other people are not, especially those who are supposedly assisting you in your task at finding a contact. I’m deeply thankful to all reliable PRs and members of the public who’ve helped me in the past. I’ve managed to secure some wonderful interviewees for the programmes, but it’s only now that I’m exploring the dark side of the job. For the third week running I’ve been trying to find a medical professional to speak about migraine, and, to my huge amazement, still haven’t got anyone, except for a couple of doctors, whose secretaries are difficult to track down. Two organisations that I tried didn’t have a contact, and the third one is showing great deal of relaxation in not getting back with any kind of response. Thankfully, this is not urgent, and I have vowed to get this sorted by Thursday – it’s truly annoying otherwise.

My current mood – perplexed.
Music in my head – Elton John, I’m Still Standing

It’s in the Name

I don’t know if I told you but I do love the mystery of a name. I have already explored it once, but of course the problem of strange names doesn’t befall the humans only. They also befall the companies and firms. Below is a very short list of names of some commercial enterprises, which may conjure very strange images, if you dare concentrate on their meaning.

Mighty Health and Hygiene

Beyond Hope

Secretly Sensual

Adept Pine

In Russia, there were these companies, which never failed to bring smile to my lips, thanks to their names:

Big Elephant


White Hedgehog

Some names simply look weird, if a dot is not inserted:

A Train and Sons

Some look OK and put a very sensible idea across, but try and pronounce their name quickly:

Kids Are Us

And this is my favourite:

Impregnation Services

[The company provides very technical services of saturation and permeation].

As I’ve been a name geek for years, I’m looking forward to any additions to my list from your home towns.

…Acclimatised!..

When I first came to England four years ago in mid-July, it’s been raining cats and dogs for two long weeks. It was very cold, plus I didn’t take any sweater with me and, being an incorrigible aesthet, I was frantically knitting myself a sweater instead of buying a cardigan.

This Friday I looked out of the window in the morning, and I saw beautiful blue sky. The day was promising to be nice and warm, so I put on a light summer denim dress. Even when by the evening it started raining, I didn’t feel cold.

When at one of the pedestrian crossings I saw a girl wearing a long puff jacket, with its hood on, I realised that I acclimatised.

Mishka

Soaps can teach very many things to those who watch them (I’m not among those, so I must be unbearably ignorant). They can also highlight various issues, and so both Coronation Street and Emmerdale have each got their own ‘gay in the village’, and Emmerdale has recently highlighted the problem of euthanasia.

However, some soaps go really multicultural. Neighbours, which is made in Australia and shown daily on BBC1, is now incorporating members of the Russian community (these, however, are not played by Russian actors).

There is a girl ‘from Belarus’, who’s got a strikingly Asian look. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not stating this is impossible altogether. I’m simply saying: it’s striking.

Better still, there is this female character ‘from Russia’ whose name is Mishka. ‘Mishka‘ is Russian for ‘a little bear‘. There is NO WAY it can be a female name. It can be a short form of the name Michael (Mikhail in Russian), but never a full name in its own right. As for a feminine equivalent to a masculine form of the name, in the West it is possible to meet a woman called Michaela, but not in Russia.

I don’t want to guess why Neighbours editors came up with this exact name, although I’ve got an inkling it may have to do with the 1980 Olympics, which mascot, as you know, was a teddy bear (it can also be called ‘mishka‘). So, the connection could of course be that the woman’s parents were feeling patriotic and called their baby after the mascot. The only problem with this interpretation is that the female character looks at least 49 and there is no way she could’ve been born in 1980.

New label

9/11 this year wasn’t just the anniversary of the terrorist attack on the United States five years ago. It was also the date when I flew from Moscow to Manchester three years ago. I haven’t been to Russia since then, and it looks like I won’t have a chance to go until after January 2007 (don’t worry :-), it’s simply more convenient this way). Naturally, in these three years many things have happened, some were thrilling, some were fine, some I could do without, but all in all it was very important time for me.

One of the outcomes of those three years is the new label I’m starting on this blog. I might change its name down the line, but at this moment it’s gonna be called ‘On Russia’ and will be dedicated to correcting various misconceptions regarding Russia and its culture, as well as to posting comments on Russian literature, cinema, music, arts, etc.

Under this label you won’t find any comments on politics, except for some historical notes perhaps, if I find those appropriate. My intention is not to command people to think about my country in a certain way. Apart from being a sort of outlet for my growing nostalgia, this label’s aim is to simply tell about Russia something that only a native citizen (+historian+writer+linguist) can tell. At the same time, my intention is to correct some really striking misconceptions, which sometimes stem from the lack of knowledge (for which there may be no-one to blame) or from wrong interpretations (for which the interpreter is to blame). I would like to think that my posts will be engaging and enlightening enough, although I don’t invest any unrealistic hopes in this.

If there is anything I would urge you to do it is to ask me questions or to comment on my posts under this label. My posts will predominantly be based on the media reports and on my talks with people, but since this blog exists on the world-wide web, it’s being read world-wide, so if you’ve got a comment or a question, feel free to send them to me.

One final thing, just in case if someone ever gets a feeling of my being patronising. I already said my intention is not to tell people what to think. But the simple fact is: there are very many Russians who know English, but very few English/British/English-speaking people who know Russian. So first and foremost I’m a translator who wants to be faithful to their original milieu but is aware of the inevitable losses or changes during the process of relocation of a text into a different milieu. And because some changes have a resonating effect, this label has come into being.

The Last Year Snow Was Falling

This post is dedicated to the Russian animator and cartoonist, Igor Kovalyov, who’s just received yet another award at the International Animation Festival in Hiroshima, Japan. The cartoon is called ‘Milk’ (‘Milch’ across the web) and has already been distinguished at the festivals in Ottawa in 2005 and at the Animafest in Zagreb in 2006.

Igor has got a website, www.igorkovalyov.com, that enlists the main works since he’s begun to shoot his features. Imdb.com (http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0468335/) obviously provides ratings for those works, of which I’ve seen ‘Andrei Svislotskiy’ (1992) and ‘Hen, His Wife’ (1990).

BUT – Igor has also worked as an art director on production of the two VERY popular Russian cartoons, ‘A Plasticine Crow’ (1981) and ‘The Last Year Snow Was Falling’ (1983). I didn’t manage to find any decent stills from ‘Crow’, but I found a few from ‘Snow’.

‘The Last Year Snow Was Falling’ is about a Man, who lives in the village and was sent by his wife to the woods to find a New Year tree. The film is highly rated because it is, simply put, hilarious. Cinematography, given the fact that this is a plasticine movie, also adds to its appeal, and in short, this has been one of the favourite Russian cartoons for years. And I never realised I was only three when it was released.

I wouldn’t be surprised if this film is little known outside Russia, as its humour sometimes is rooted in the peculiarities of Russian grammar or pronunciation, which would be impossible to communicate in another language. Nevertheless, I translated a few phrases, and see if you can make sense.

For example, who is queueing up here to be a tzar? Nobody? I’ll be the first then!
Кто тут, к примеру, в цари крайний? Никого?! Так я первый буду!..

Who wants a hare, freshly caught?
Кому заяц свежепойманный?

Even when I’m tight, I’m doing so with all sincerity.
А хотя бы я и жадничаю, зато от чистого сердца.

And a couple of still, as I promised



Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

slaughterhouse-five
In 2000 I was going through a ‘love affair’ with the works of Kurt Vonnegut. When I went on a research trip to St. Petersburg I finally  bought his Slaughterhouse-Five, the novel that alluded to Vonnegut’s imprisonment and survival in the Dresden raid.
Speaking of the raid of Dresden: I know exactly that until the year 2000 I had huge inhibitions writing about war. Russian literary accounts of the Great Patriotic War were by and large realistic, based on the personal experience of their authors. I had no personal experience, except for reading those accounts, viewing wartime photos, watching films (very touching) and listening to the story of my grandma’s evacuation, so I felt kind of trapped.

Slaughterhouse-Five and the Fluidity of Time

So I bought Slaughterhouse-Five. The rest, as usual, is history: I was researching in the day, and as soon as I’d get to my spartan hotel room and had a cup of soup I’d be reading the book. I’m aware that the way I’m speaking of this book makes it sound like it was un-realistic, if compared to Russian literature about war. This is obviously not true. What is true, however, was that on my then memory Vonnegut was the first author who reached out to my experience. The subtitle of his novel – The Children’s Crusade – and the fact that his characters were more or less of the same age as me simply forced me to put myself in their place and to read the book, as if it was my story.

What I quite love about Slaughterhouse-Five is its Tralfamadorian dogma of everything taking place simultaneously, namely the past, the present and the future existing together at once. I don’t share it, but I do appreciate its connection to the subtitle, and how the subtitle can give a focus to the novel.

The Children’s Crusade

The chidren’s crusade per se is a disputed historical fact. If chronicles are to be trusted, in the 13th c. multitudes of children from Western Europe assembled for the journey to the Holy Land, but on their way either perished or were sold into slavery. This is an irrational act, and in addition to telling us how strange were the Middle Ages, it also brings into question the validity of war (Second World War in our case). Regardless of whether or not this children’s crusade had actually taken place, it belongs to the medieval period. And in medieval painting, as we know, one and same picture (~a depiction of a saint’s life) very often told the story of an event in the past, in the present and in the future. The view is obviously very similar to how Tralfamadorians saw life. So, this is the first, ‘historical’, interpretation of the subtitle that gives a focus to the novel, as well.

Homo Ludens

The second, ‘psychological’ interpretation connects the subtitle to the children’s attitude to death (basically as something that is not real) and to the possibility of living through all things at once. Consider the games where in the space of a small room children build a ship, a castle and a battlefield; and also the games where events are shuffled, skipped or repeated, depending on the game’s scenario and rules. If we speak of children playing war, everyone always remains alive (otherwise no players would be left).

The two themes in the ‘psychological’ interpretation are explored in Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens (The Playing Man), published- incidentally – in 1938. In children’s games, everything that is happening is not happening ‘for real’, and whoever is killed will rise again. Billy Pilgrim’s journeys through time in Slaughterhouse-Five resemble this childish indiscrimination between the real and the imaginary. But when this inability (or unwillingness?) to underpin oneself in the boundaries of physical world reappears in an adult, the question rises: did these adults ever begin to see the difference between the real and the non-real?

The children’s crusade therefore becomes ever more emblematic, as it not only symbolises the selling of children to war and the irrationality of war, but also underlines this infant disbelief in the tragic nature of things as the form of fatalism that stems from a convinction in the unlimitedness of time, space and, ultimately, a human life. Children are therefore not simply those who are young, but those who take life for granted and play by the rules of fate, denying free will.

Los Cuadernos de Julia: Meaning and Content

I am sure a lot of readers wonder (or have done, or will do so) why I gave my blog a name in Spanish, Los Cuadernos de Julia. The truth is, i wanted to use it as my online notebook, but the URL containing the desired name was already taken, so I had to invent something… and here my avid readership came to the rescue.

los-cuadernos-de-don-rigobertoLos Cuadernos de Julia is a paraphrase of the title of Mario Vargas Llosa’s 1997 novel, Los Cuadernos de Don Rigoberto. I bought the book (published in English by Faber&Faber) in the summer of 2004, in WHSmith in Blackpool, but didn’t start reading it until after September, as I had to write my MA dissertation first. When I eventually began to read it, it practically blew me away. I know some critics described the book as ‘ambitious‘ (a word I very much dislike), but to me it is simply one of the most original books of the last century. Obviously, as I know no Spanish, I have to thank the English translator for doing a fantastic job. You can read reviews and purchase a copy of The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto (affiliate link).
Why cuadernos?

‘Cuadernos’ as ‘notebooks’ are a normal part of life of many writers, which is what I am. These present cuadernos are, of course, slightly different, since I decided that I’d be posting here not only random quotations that I’ve been collecting for years, but also reflections on films, music, works of art, phrases I’ve heard or read elsewhere, musings about news stories, etc. I’ve been doing a similar thing on a website for several months, but sometimes there’s more to post than just a couple of quotes from my beloved Jacques Prevert.

My own mother, who isn’t a writer, also used to have two cuadernos – dark thick exercise-books, in which she had collected quotes and poems. When I was 12 or 13, she gave them to me, and some content influenced me quite profoundly. And providing you have read Llosa’s novel, you surely know that cuadernos played a crucial part in the story. So, it is from these two experiences, plus a couple of ‘tangible’ cuadernos I have already had in my life, that the idea for this blog’s title has originated.

My blog as ‘cuadernos’

For a while I wasn’t sure whether to start a blog or not. Two things have finally compelled me to do so. First, the main page of my web radio programme’s website has become way too small for everything I want to put on it. Half of those things will never make it to the programme, like The Quotes on the Front Page, or some news stories, or various other stuff. Yet I do want to share these things with everyone who is interested, hence I have finally succumbed to blogging.

Secondly, I have never managed or even wanted to write a diary, if the diary is to be understood as a narration of one’s private everyday life. However, the notebooks are different, especially because I’m a writer. So, while using the form of a diary, I’m essentially creating no more or less than a writer’s open notebook. Many things will still be left behind, for one reason or another, but I’m glad I’ll be able to do what few publications would allow me to do, not to mention the restrictions of the radio format.

As for the content, it will hardly be up for any strict systematisation, bearing in mind that its author is also a qualified historian who knows a couple of languages and has many side interests. The only thing that consoles me is that even Umberto Eco’s brilliant ideas are reportedly jotted down on small pieces of paper that are scattered around his flat or stuck in the professor’s case. At least, I’ve got ‘categories’ and ‘tags’…

Other posts in Blogs and Social Media, Mario Vargas Llosa and Julia Shuvalova: Poetry and Prose archives.