Tag Archives: Russia

Lermontov – Happiness is…. being in a cornfield

28 Nov

Autumn is passing, never to return… at least not this year, and December’s cold fingers are touching the landscape, transforming the fields of corn and wheat which shone in gold to desolate spaces where silence resides, save for the moments when the crows hold ominous yet chatty meetings. Today, this little poem by the Russian Romantic poet Mikhail Lermontov, called “When, in the cornfield” is on my mind. It was written in 1837, when the poet was in his twenty-third year and is an example of a Romantic poet’s love of nature, which seems to be the only place a Byronic hero such as Lermontov can find joy and calmness which people and society do not offer. I don’t think one necessarily has to visit a corn field and walk about it seeking joy, but really any place in nature will surely evoke such sweet, serene feelings. Life seems easier when we see how effortless and slow everything is in nature, yet everything is accomplished. “Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” (Lao Tzu) If nature can take things slow and be beautiful in every season, so can we, be it sadness or joy, flowers or snow….

“My heart is losing troubles and distress  —

And I can apprehend the happiness on earth…”

George Clausen (1852-1944) View of a lady in Pink standing in a cornfield, 1881

When, in the Cornfield…

When, in the cornfield, yellow waves are rising,

The wood is rustling at the sound of soft wind,

And, in the garden, crimson plums are hiding

In pleasant shade of leaves, so shining ones and green;

 

When, spilled with fragrant dew in calmness of the alley,

In morning of a gold or evening of a red,

Under the bush, the lily of a valley,

Is gladly nodding me with silver of her head;

 

When the icy brook in the ravine is playing,

And, sinking thoughts in somewhat misty dreams,

In bubbling tones secretly tale-telling

Of those peaceful lands from which it gaily streams  —

 

Then wrinkles are smoothing on my knitted brow,

My heart is losing troubles and distress  —

And I can apprehend the happiness on earth,

And see Almighty in the heavens now…

Picture found here.

Picture by Julia Starr.

Mikhail Lermontov – A Hero of Our Time

19 Nov

“I was prepared to love the whole world, but no one understood me, and I learned to hate.”

Christina Robertson, Grand-Duchesses Olga and Alexandra, Daughters of Nicholas I, 1840

I first read Mikhail Lermontov’s fascinating novel “A Hero of Our Time” a few years ago and absolutely loved it and had so much fun reading it, especially the part called “Princess Mary”. The main character, a young man called Pechorin is very witty and his comments and remarks about the world, love, people around him are very amusing, and I can agree with him to some extent. I was literally laughing whilst reading it, some dialogues are just hysterical.

Lermontov wrote the novel in 1839 and it was published in 1840. A year later, Lermontov was dead. At the age of twenty-seven. How romantical!? To die in a duel at that age. The novel is divided into five parts, not in chronological order, and the part I love the most, called “Princess Mary”, is from Pechorin’s diary and it starts with his arrival to Pyatigorsk one beautiful day early in May. It starts with a lyrical description of nature in Caucasus and its effect on Pechorin’s state of mind and soul: “YESTERDAY I arrived at Pyatigorsk. I have engaged lodgings at the extreme end of the town, the highest part, at the foot of Mount Mashuk: during a storm the clouds will descend on to the roof of my dwelling. This morning at five o’clock, when I opened my window, the room was filled with the fragrance of the flowers growing in the modest little front-garden. Branches of bloom-laden bird-cherry trees peep in at my window, and now and again the breeze bestrews my writing-table with their white petals. The view which meets my gaze on three sides is wonderful (….) A feeling akin to rapture is diffused through all my veins. The air is pure and fresh, like the kiss of a child; the sun is bright, the sky is blue—what more could one possibly wish for? What need, in such a place as this, of passions, desires, regrets?

Grigory Gagarin, Ball, 1832

But very quickly Pechorin goes into society and the reader is introduced to other characters of whom Pechorin writes candidly; a fake sentimental cavalier Grushnitski, young, handsome and shallow emotions. This is how Pechorin describes him: “he has no knowledge of men and of their foibles, because all his life he has been interested in nobody but himself. His aim is to make himself the hero of a novel. He has so often endeavoured to convince others that he is a being created not for this world and doomed to certain mysterious sufferings, that he has almost convinced himself that such he is in reality. Hence the pride with which he wears his thick soldier’s cloak. I have seen through him, and he dislikes me for that reason, although to outward appearance we are on the friendliest of terms.” Grushnitski is therefore the opposite of Pechorin; the feelings of the former are shallow, while the latter hides the depth of his emotions and keeps them to himself. There is a clear similarity between Pushkin’s characters of Eugene Onegin who is a superflous man and Pechorin who is one also, and their counterparts: Pushkin’s character Vladimir Lensky is a naive romantic and is similar to Grushnitski.

Karl Bryullov, Horsewoman, 1832

A superflous man is a Russian version of a Byronic hero; Lermontov even mentions Lord Byron in his poetry and throughout the novel. Just like Byronic Hero, a superflous man is full of contradictions; he feels superior to his surroundings, yet he does nothing to put his talents and intelligence to good use, he is profound and has deep emotions but the society’s shallowness and superficiality has forced him to hide these deeper feelings because the world wouldn’t understand them. Prone to self-destruction, plagued by boredom, and possessing a sense that life in its core has no real meaning; all these things drive superflous men such as Eugene Onegin and Pechorin to travel aimlessly or indulge in flirtations that mean nothing to them. As long as the afternoon is pleasantly spent, true intentions of the heart don’t matter.

Duels, flirtations, gossips; this novel has these things in abundance and Pechorin simultaneously sees the emptiness of such a life, but nonetheless indulges in it because his cynical worldviews prevent him from believing in sincerity and love.

Ah, love, yes! What would a Romantic novel be without it. Pechorin gives women little reason to love him, and yet they do, but he gives a clear cynical justification for that: “Women love only the men they don’t know.” That is certainly true for these kind of novels; it’s the mystery of a man which is alluring to sweet, naive maidens because they then attribute all sorts of noble qualities to noblemen they’ve only seen from afar, and spoken maybe a few sentences with. Pechorin is led by the same selfish desire as Eugene Onegin was when he gave poor Tatyana false hopes and that is because to Pechorin nothing has meaning, he cherishes nothing, so how could he apprehend that things do matter to other people:

I often ask myself why I am so obstinately endeavouring to win the love of a young girl whom I do not wish to deceive, and whom I will never marry. Why this woman-like coquetry? Vera loves me more than Princess Mary ever will. (…) There is, in sooth, a boundless enjoyment in the possession of a young, scarce-budded soul! It is like a floweret which exhales its best perfume at the kiss of the first ray of the sun. You should pluck the flower at that moment, and, breathing its fragrance to the full, cast it upon the road: perchance someone will pick it up! I feel within me that insatiate hunger which devours everything it meets upon the way….

Princess Mary Ligovski doesn’t have a soul as deep and pure as Pushkin’s Tatyana, for after all, she is a haughty and well-educated young lady from Moscow who read Lord Byron’s work in English and knows algebra. Such a girl is not to messed with. It’s interesting to note that Pechorin started flirting with her only after Grushnitski admitted to him his secret affections for her. A superfluous man isn’t satisfied until he ruins and taints someone else’s prospects for happiness. And is he truly satisfied then? No, sadly, he is never satisfied, for to him life is but a pointless string of events, each more dull and less meaningful than the previous one, until sweet death comes. In one discussion in French with Grushnitski, Pechorin says “My friend, I despise women to avoid loving them because otherwise, life would become too ridiculous a melodrama.

Karl Bryullov, The Shishmareva Sisters, 1839

In contrast to Princess Mary’s blind, youthful infatuation with Pechorin, it is another woman, Vera, a faithful beauty from Pechorin’s past who absolutely adores him. Mary fell for Pechorin because he is “tall, dark and handsome”, mysterious, alluring – and he doesn’t seem to be captivated by her which serves only as a motivation for her to win him over. He is the romantic hero that she has only read of, in dreary winter afternoons in Moscow. But Vera loves him deeply, even though their paths in life went differently, and even though she is married…. for the second time and not to him. Though she might be someone else’s wife on paper, her heart belongs to Pechorin only. She tells him, blushing, as they sit together in nature: “You know that I am your slave: I have never been able to resist you… and I shall be punished for it, you will cease to love me! At least, I want to preserve my reputation… not for myself—that you know very well!… Oh! I beseech you: do not torture me, as before, with idle doubts and feigned coldness! It may be that I shall die soon; I feel that I am growing weaker from day to day… And, yet, I cannot think of the future life, I think only of you… You men do not understand the delights of a glance, of a pressure of the hand… but as for me, I swear to you that, when I listen to your voice, I feel such a deep, strange bliss that the most passionate kisses could not take its place.

And Pechorin later praises Vera’s depth of character: “Vera did not make me swear fidelity, or ask whether I had loved others since we had parted… She trusted in me anew with all her former unconcern, and I will not deceive her: she is the only woman in the world whom it would never be within my power to deceive. I know that we shall soon have to part again, and perchance for ever. We will both go by different ways to the grave, but her memory will remain inviolable within my soul. I have always repeated this to her, and she believes me, although she says she does not.

Naive, silly goose, that is what Mary Ligovska is, to think that this dark and mysterious man will give up his cynicism and freedom to marry her. Pechorin makes his views on marriage quite clear: “…over me the word “marry” has a kind of magical power. However passionately I love a woman, if she only gives me to feel that I have to marry her—then farewell, love! My heart is turned to stone, and nothing will warm it anew. I am prepared for any other sacrifice but that; my life twenty times over, nay, my honour I would stake on the fortune of a card… but my freedom I will never sell. Why do I prize it so highly? What is there in it to me? For what am I preparing myself? What do I hope for from the future?… In truth, absolutely nothing.

Natalia Pushkina, Portrait by Alexander Brullov, 1831

Here is a conversation between Pechorin and Vera which amused me so:

She gazed into my face with her deep, calm eyes. Mistrust and something in the nature of reproach were expressed in her glance.

“We have not seen each other for a long time,” I said.

“A long time, and we have both changed in many ways.”

“Consequently you love me no longer?”…

“I am married!”… she said.

“Again? A few years ago, however, that reason also existed, but, nevertheless”…

She plucked her hand away from mine and her cheeks flamed.

“Perhaps you love your second husband?”…

She made no answer and turned her head away.

“Or is he very jealous?”

She remained silent.

Mikhail Lermontov, Self-portrait, 1837

And to end, here is my favourite passage from the novel which I find totally relatable:

Everyone saw in my face evil traits that I didn’t possess. But they assumed I did, and so they developed. I was modest, and was accused of being deceitful: I became secretive. I had a strong sense of good and evil; instead of kindness I received nothing but insults, so I grew resentful. I was gloomy, other children were merry and talkative. I felt myself superior to them, but was considered inferior: I became envious. I was ready to love the whole world, but no one understood me, so I learned to hate. My colorless youth was spent in a struggle with myself and with the world. Fearing mockery, I buried my best feelings at the bottom of my heart: there they died.”

Pushkin – The Flowers of Autumn Days

14 Nov

Autumn rose, picture found here.

The Flowers of Autumn Days

The flowers of autumn days

Are sweeter than the firsts of plains.

For they awaken an impression,

That’s strong, although it may be sad,

Just as the pain of separation

Is stronger than the sweet of date.

Lermontov: I see a coffin, black and sole, it waits: why to detain the world?

6 Nov

A beautiful melancholy poem that the Russian Romantic writer Mikhail Lermontov wrote in 1830 when he was fifteen going on his sixteenth year. This little poem already shows Lermontov’s sadness and disillusionment in life and the world around him, and, looking back, these kind of little teenage poems were the seed which eventually grew into his novel “A Hero of Our Time” which was published in 1840.

“Years pass me by like dreams.”

Friedrich von Amerling, Young girl, 1834

Loneliness

It’s Hell for us to draw the fetters

Of life in alienation, stiff.

All people prefer to share gladness,

And nobody – to share grief.

 

As a king of air, I’m lone here,

The pain lives in my heart, so grim,

And I can see that, to the fear

Of fate, years pass me by like dreams;

 

And comes again with, touched by gold,

The same dream, gloomy one and old.

I see a coffin, black and sole,

It waits: why to detain the world?

 

There will be not a sad reflection,

There will be (I am betting on)

Much more gaily celebration

When I am dead, than – born.

Poem found here.

Viktor Vasnetsov: Ivan Tsarevich Riding the Grey Wolf

17 Oct

Viktor Vasnetsov, Ivan Tsarevich Riding the Grey Wolf, 1889

A brave Prince and a tired, frightened Princess are riding the grey wolf through the dark and mysterious Slavic woods where the trees grow so close together, their branches entwined, that not even a ray of moonlight can shine through, illuminate the darkness and make the journey less eerie for the Prince and the Princess. Shining yellows eyes are staring at the them from the heights. Strange whispers linger in the air… or is it just the wind, singing its lonesome song. “Worry not, my Princess, the journey won’t be long,” Ivan Tsarevich, the youngest and perhaps the bravest son of the King whispers to the Princess, but she is silent, too afraid to speak, but her attire speaks for itself; her jewellery is jangling, her heavy brocade dress rustling, her long wavy hair flying as if enchanted, for the wolf is riding through the forest with such an unearthly speed that his paws barely touch the leaf-littered and moss coated ground of the dark woods where a weak soul will not wander.

This dark, dreamy and romantic painting is a scene from a Russian fairy tale called “Tsarevich Ivan, the Firebird and the Gray Wolf” which was collected by a Russian Slavist and ethnographer Alexander Afanasyev in “Russian Fairy Tales” (1855-1863), modeled after Grimm’s Fairy Tales. The fairy tale has a crazy and complicated plot, and, as with many fairy tales, there are different versions of it. The base of the fairy tale is that a King had a garden with a golden apple tree and every night one apple would go missing, and naturally he assumed it was the Firebird who stole them. I would assume the same! Only the Firebird would be wicked enough to do such a thing. The King had three sons; the oldest two tried to stay awake all night and catch the Firebird but fell asleep and failed, and then the third and the youngest son Ivan Tsarevich begged to try and the King finally permitted him. He stayed up all night and saw the bird, even nicked its red feather but failed to catch it.

Viktor Vasnetsov, Knight at the Crossroads, 1882

Again, the two oldest sons ventured out bravely to find the Firebird, but quickly found themselves confused because they came to a stone that gave them three choices; the first path would bring the knight hunger and cold. The second path meant the knight would live, but his horse died. And whoever took the third would die, but his horse would live. They couldn’t decide what to chose, so they gave up and returned to their idle lives. Vasnetsov portrayed this moment in the fairy tales as well, in three versions in fact, and above is the one from 1882, possibly the most beautiful with vibrant colours and a beautifully captured atmosphere. Look how sinister the crossroad is, with the crows and skeletal remains of the previous knight who hath failed in his quest…. Lavender sky in the background is tinged with melancholy and the last rays of sun are casting a warm orange glow on the stone. Ivan Tsarevich took the second road and a wolf ate his horse. This is where the story gets bizarre, and complicated so I won’t go into the details. The wolf takes on the form of a horse, then of a princess… But in the end, Ivan Tsarevich returns to his kingdom with a Firebird and a Princess, but the jealous brothers kills him and slice his body into pieces. Later the Grey Wolf finds him and a water of death restores his body. And on the Wolf, Ivan Tsarevich rides back home and marries Princess Helen at last.

The moment of the fairy tale that Vasnetsov decided to portray, Ivan Tsarevich and the Princess riding the Grey Wolf, is a thrilling one because it is during that strange ride through the dark and mystic woods that Ivan and the Princess fall in love; look how his arms provide a shelter for her, and how her head is almost resting on his chest. Viktor Vasnetsov became famous for his folklore and fairy tale inspired paintings, which went well with the second wave of Romanticism that flooded Europe and inspired artists to find inspiration in folklore and fantasy. This isn’t the only fairy tale scene that Vasnetsov has painted, he painted many in fact, so it’s interesting to know that he began his career as a genre painter and was part of the Russian realist art group called Peredvizhniki, known in English as “The Wanderers” or “The Itinerants” who rebelled against the Academy’s strictness and narrow view of the world. Vasnetsov joined the Peredvizhniki colony while in Paris in 1876, and he became acquainted with Impressionism while there. Leaving the realism behind, Vasnetsov took an interest in painting fantasy and fairy tale motives and began working on the painting “Ivan Tsarevich Riding the Grey Wolf” in 1877, while in Paris, before returning to Moscow the same year.

A doll copy of an original art “Ivan Tsarevich Riding a Grey Wolf” by Viktor Vasnetsov

I found a doll version of the painting and I thought it would be interesting to share it too because it is just wonderful! I love all the detailing on the Princess’s dress, her soft hair and tired face. And the Prince, looking in the distance, hoping he will succeed in his quest, slightly worried. They both look charming together on that wolf. But the wolf in the doll version though, he looks dead tired, drunk and worn out, not like the brave, determined and strong wolf in Vasnetsov’s painting. No, this is a Capitalist wolf who works nine to five and is in desperate need of a vacation.

Dostoevsky: Crime and Punishment – Renewed by Love

14 Feb

Dostoevsky’s novel “Crime and Punishment”, first published in 1866, is one of my all time favourite novels and I had such a blast reading it in grammar school. It’s a very long and complex novel that deals with many topics, and love isn’t even the main one but it serves to transform the characters and turn them into better individuals. The love story between the main character Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov, the intelligent and poor but failed student and a later a murderer, and Sonia Marmeladova, a shy, innocent and self-scarifying eighteen year old girl driven to prostitution by poverty, is one one of my favourites in literature. I had a crush on Raskolnikov because he was as cool as a rock star; dark eyed and handsome, nihilistic and emotionally unavailable, and I had a tremendous admiration for Sonia, the most selfless creature, gentle and fragile in appearance but strong within, guided by a higher law that helps her transcend the misery of her surroundings; her poverty, horrible clients, drunkard of a father, the demanding unfeeling step-mother, the prejudice she faces due to her job. Even Raskolnikov judges her at first, and places himself as a morally superior individual, as if he forgot he was a murderer. He visits her a few times in her shabby little room and a seed of love is planted in both of their hearts; both are flawed, both are outcasts, and both are denying this newly awaken sentiment; The candle-end had long been burning out in the bent candlestick, casting a dim light in this destitute room upon the murderer and the harlot strangely come together over the reading of the eternal book.

Sonia’s blind faith, childlike figure and naivety clash with her grim day to day reality. She is a pale-faced, yellow-haired whore with the purest heart; an angel. Loyal and kind hearted she is the one who advises Raskolnikov to admit his crime and pay the price for it, because that is the only path to salvation. He listens to her and is sentenced to seven years of exile in the cold Siberia. Sonia follows him there, even though she knows she isn’t wanted. Half the time he is rude and cold towards her, and other times he just ignores her, but the persistence of Sonia’s love and her patience eventually melt the icy exterior of nihilism and apathy and reveal a kind and noble spirit capable of love and compassion, someone who has faith in brighter future. Dostoevsky’s portrayal of power of love in this novel is very beautiful and very inspiring and here is the passage from the last chapter where they finally, after hundreds of pages of the reader’s waiting, fall in love. I especially love the last lines of this passage: “He thought of her. He remembered how continually he had tormented her and wounded her heart. He remembered her pale and thin little face. But these recollections scarcely troubled him now; he knew with what infinite love he would now repay all her sufferings. Perhaps Dostoevsky was a Romantic and not a Realist after all?

Laura Makabresku, Melancholy (2017)

Raskolnikov sat gazing, his thoughts passed into day-dreams, into contemplation; he thought of nothing, but a vague restlessness excited and troubled him. Suddenly he found Sonia beside him; she had come up noiselessly and sat down at his side. It was still quite early; the morning chill was still keen. She wore her poor old burnous and the green shawl; her face still showed signs of illness, it was thinner and paler. She gave him a joyful smile of welcome, but held out her hand with her usual timidity. She was always timid of holding out her hand to him and sometimes did not offer it at all, as though afraid he would repel it. He always took her hand as though with repugnance, always seemed vexed to meet her and was sometimes obstinately silent throughout her visit. Sometimes she trembled before him and went away deeply grieved. But now their hands did not part. He stole a rapid glance at her and dropped his eyes on the ground without speaking. They were alone, no one had seen them. The guard had turned away for the time.

Photo by Laura Makabresku

How it happened he did not know. But all at once something seemed to seize him and fling him at her feet. He wept and threw his arms round her knees. For the first instant she was terribly frightened and she turned pale. She jumped up and looked at him trembling. But at the same moment she understood, and a light of infinite happiness came into her eyes. She knew and had no doubt that he loved her beyond everything and that at last the moment had come. . . .

They wanted to speak, but could not; tears stood in their eyes. They were both pale and thin; but those sick pale faces were bright with the dawn of a new future, of a full resurrection into a new life. They were renewed by love; the heart of each held infinite sources of life for the heart of the other.

They resolved to wait and be patient. They had another seven years to wait, and what terrible suffering and what infinite happiness before them! But he had risen again and he knew it and felt it in all his being, while she–she only lived in his life.

Also by Laura Makabresku

(…)

He thought of her. He remembered how continually he had tormented her and wounded her heart. He remembered her pale and thin little face. But these recollections scarcely troubled him now; he knew with what infinite love he would now repay all her sufferings.

Anna Akhmatova – And I’m drunk on the sound of your voice, echoing here

16 Dec

A beautiful poem called “White Night” by Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966) that I recently discovered.

Photo by Natalia Drepina

White night

Oh, I’ve not locked the door,

I’ve not lit the candles,

You know I’m too tired

To think of sleep.

 

See, how the fields die down,

In the sunset gloom of firs,

And I’m drunk on the sound

Of your voice, echoing here.

 

It’s fine, that all’s black,

That life’s – a cursed hell.

O, that you’d come back –

I was so certain, as well.