His Neighbor’s Wife

In 1922 Mayakovsky prefaced an autobiographic sketch with the following remark: “I am a poet. This is what makes me interesting.” Lili and Osip Brik might have said: “We were friends of Mayakovsky. This is what makes us interesting.” He spent almost half his life, fifteen of his thirty-six years, …

The Undefeated

In a brief preface to this book, Isaiah Berlin seems to show some reluctance about its publication. “The essays collected in this volume,” he writes, “the first of four, were written or delivered as lectures, on various occasions over almost thirty years, and therefore possess less unity of theme than …

Artist of Nightmare

In the intellectually giddy, combative, brilliant period of Russian art at the turn of the century, Andrei Bely was an outstanding figure, the best representative, no doubt, of its ultra-romantic speculations and experiments. He was “an undisciplined and erratic Ariel,” in D.S. Mirsky’s witty characterization, “a seer and prophet” to …

On the Western Front

In 1941, directly after his graduation from the University of Rostov, Solzhenitsyn entered the army and spent four years at the front. He was awarded two decorations and the rank of captain. In January 1945 he commanded an “observation battery” in the East Prussian campaign, at the end of which, …

Was Gogol Gay?

Simon Karlinsky is convinced that Gogol’s “emotional orientation” was homosexual, and this is what his book is about. In his opinion the topic is of first importance, a “neglected area in Gogol’s life and work,” taboo even in universities. So much so that, as one is shocked to learn, some …

Light from Above

In the 1960s readers in the West speculated about the identity of “Abram Tertz,” whose work, arriving from Soviet Russia, was being published in Paris, London, and New York. The writing was highly original and varied in tone: humorous, terrifying, phantasmagoric, satiric, devout. Between 1959 and 1965 there appeared an …

Jeweler at Work

“This collection,” Mr. Nabokov announces in a foreword, “is the last batch of my Russian stories meriting to be Englished.” There are thirteen of them. Written and published in émigré journals between 1924 and 1935, they belong to the outset of his career when he was leading in Berlin “an …

Prosecution Witnesses

In bare outline, Alexander Dolgun’s is the story of twenty-four years in the life of an innocent American, from “one day in 1948” when on his way to lunch he was kidnaped on Gorky Street in Moscow by agents of the MGB, the Soviet Secret Service, to “that brilliant day” …

Russian Nightmares

In the first quarter of the twentieth century, Russian literature—in a period between its marvelous flowering, which began with Pushkin, and the repression of Stalin’s Socialist Realism—was in a ferment of daring experimentation and theoretic debate, in which Andrey Biely played a leading role. He was an exponent of Symbolism, …

Art in spite of Polemics

Zinaida Hippius, who lived from 1869 to 1945, is considered one of Russia’s finest poets, perhaps her greatest religious poet. D. S. Mirsky speaks of the major cycle of her lyrics as “unique in Russian literature…so original that I do not know anything in any language that resembles them.” Pure …

Genius

The essence of Pushkin is simplicity. He always said and wrote exactly what he meant, and, within the limits of the official restrictions that fettered his comings and goings, behaved as he pleased. Concealment was foreign to his nature, obscurity repellent to his sense of art. His actions and opinions …

Under the Sign of Blok

In the half-dozen years preceding the First World War, the artists and poets of Russia, in the words of one of them, “lived under the sign of Blok.” They got drunk on his poetry as he himself got drunk on wine, although several groups were already proclaiming their opposition to …

The Bitter Price

The second book by Andrei Amalrik—written earlier but published later—is different in substance but not in spirit from the first, and is equally remarkable. The first, an essay entitled Will the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?,[^1] is a daring analysis of the Soviet state and a prediction of its doom.

A Somber Theater

Solzhenitsyn, unquestionably the greatest living Russian writer, is proscribed in his own land. Since One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was published by sanction of Khrushchev, his work, except for a few stories that followed immediately, has been smuggled out. This was true of his big novels, The …

Poetry of Loss

In his learned and delightful book about translation, The Lofty Art, Korney Chukovsky, speaking of an excellent Russian version of The Great Gatsby, remarks: “One reads it, rejoicing in every line and thinking gloomily: why is it that neither in the USA, nor in England, nor in France, has a …

Gorky from Chaliapin to Lenin

Gorky wrote Chaliapin’s autobiography. This is how it happened. Having heard in the fall of 1909, in his home in Capri. that Chaliapin was planning to let someone publish the story of his life, Gorky dispatched an anxious, exclamatory epistle: “I hasten, my friend, to tell you the following: You’re …

Pasternak in His Letters

Georgia is a region of Transcaucasia with a 2,000-year-old history. Obliged for centuries to rely on Russia for protection, it became a Russian province in 1801. Its culture is European, its religion predominantly Greek Orthodox; and while its people are obliged to learn Russian, they have a language of their …

Grand Master

English readers are no doubt tired of hearing that unless they learn Russian they must take Pushkin’s greatness on faith. Unfortunately, whatever one may say or not say, this is the truth. Pushkin is still untranslatable, and will remain so unless another Pasternak arises who will do for him in …

Laughter in the Dark

On the 29th of April, Maxudov, the author of a novel, Black Snow, receives a note inviting him to come to the Independent Theatre to “have a talk…about a highly confidential matter” that “may be of the greatest interest” to him. The note arrives at a very low point in …

Stories of Intrigue and Love

Pilnyak and Olesha had in common the misfortune of having been born with a writer’s gift in Russia at the turn of the century, Pilnyak (whose real name was Boris Vogau) in 1894, Olesha in 1899. Both achieved sudden fame, Pilnyak in 1922 with the publication of his novel, The …

Nightmares

These books are concerned with the Stalinist purges. In Journey into the Whirlwind Eugenia Ginzburg sets down the chronicle of her own imprisonment and exile; in The Deserted House Lydia Chukovskaya writes a short novel about what she saw in 1937. The document seems a nightmare fantasy, the novelette a …

Tolstoy the Great

“Les chefs-d’oeuvre sont bête,” wrote Flaubert, “ils ont la mine tranquille comme les productions mêmes de la nature, comme les grands animaux et les montagnes.” He was not, but might have been, thinking of War and Peace, that vast, silent work, unfathomable and simple, provoking endless questions through the sheer …

The Literature of Nightmare

It was with reference to Zamyatin that Trotsky in 1923, in his Literature and Revolution, coined the term “inner émigré” to define an attitude and a quality of writing which he resented, a scornful aloofness to the Revolution, a spiritual isolation that seemed to him willful and snobbish. He was …

Clues to the Crime

While he was at work on his major novels, Dostoevsky jotted down in small notebooks various thoughts about the meaning and structure, the incidents and characters of his projected works. These were unsystematic scribblings, intended for himself alone, and not at all for publication. His widow, however, had the good …

Witch Hunt

In 1960 two English translations from the Russian, an essay and a novel, roused speculation in the West about the identity of their author, who called himself “Abram Tertz.” The essay, “On Socialist Realism,” was a brilliant analysis that showed up the absurdities of the official doctrine; the novel, The …

Poet of Hopelessness

The four-act play, Platonov, was found among Chekhov’s papers after his death in a heavily corrected manuscript of which the title page was missing. It was first published in the USSR as “A Play Without a Title,” and was translated into English in 1964 by David Magarshack and broadcast on …

Larger Than Life

Mayakovsky entered Russian literature in 1912. He left it eighteen years later, on the 14th day of April 1930 when at 10:15 in the morning he shot himself through the heart. Had he lived another three months, he would have been, on the 7th of July, thirty-seven years old. His …

It Happened in Lyubimov

This latest novelette by the gifted writer who uses the pseudonym “Abram Tertz” is the chronicle of certain fantastic events in the small town of Lyubimov, lost somewhere in the forests and marshes of Russia. The record is made by the elderly Savely Kuzmich Proferansov, who takes his position of …

A Russian Romantic

Russian literature, passing rapidly from Classicism to Realism, never had a romantic period comparable to those of France, England and Germany, but it has had its Romantic poets and the greatest of these is Lermontov. He was born in 1814, when Pushkin was fifteen years old, and he died in …