Louis Armstrong jazzes up a Russian romance

I knew Paul Robeson sang in Russian, but Louis Armstrong? This is one of the most famous Russian romances – Ochi Cherniye means “Dark Eyes” – and it’s the archetypal sad love story adored by all Russians. It can be sentimental, though I enjoy it even when it is. But the maestro gives it a new...
Slaves, fish and crochet

Slaves, fish and crochet

I didn’t deliberately go to the current art exhibition at London’s Russophile centre, Pushkin House, this week – I went to a talk on something else Russian and cultural in the same room, and very interesting it was too. Yet, as I listened to that, I couldn’t help but be increasingly struck by the textiles hung on the walls. They weren’t particularly striking when you first came in. Their (brilliantly) bizarre wrongness took a while to sink in, and make you stare. The artworks were big blanket-like knits in dingy colours, with dividing lines that made them look like brick walls (think Pink Floyd album covers), and with graffiti-like words in bright wools sewn on top. Slogan type words, only backwards, or upside down, or altered; or swearword type words. On another wall there were some neatly crocheted multi-coloured shapes – the kind of sweet table-mat thing you can imagine a granny with a slightly wonky sense of colour working on over a nice cup of tea. But these shapes were letters, and the letters were strung together in more words, and, again, they were quite subversive versions of Soviet slogans or buzzwords or swearwords. It was only after the talk was over, and I turned round and noticed the quiet exhibit at the back of the hall, that I actually burst out laughing. Dangerous doilies This one was a large white lacey oblong, with frilly edges – the kind of cosy, conservative doily-ish artefact one might expect to find on a wire, not quite covering a cobwebby dacha window somewhere, with snow outside and whichever kindly auntie had...
Music: the peaceful world’s “reply to violence” in Paris?

Music: the peaceful world’s “reply to violence” in Paris?

Friday’s tragic events in Paris left people in many walks of life questioning the safety of European cities and the wisdom of being on a public platform in them, not least in the world of music. The pop star Prince tweeted that he, for one, wouldn’t be making his planned European tour “until further notice.” Yet 34-year-old Davide Martello, aka KlavierKunst, a quirky German pianist who takes his grand piano to conflicts, decided within minutes of hearing about the attacks while sitting in a pub in Konstantz to load his instrument on to a trailer and make the 400-mile trip to Paris with it. There, on Saturday, he played John Lennon’s Imagine outside the stricken Bataclan theatre. “I just knew I had to do something,” he told the Guardian newspaper. “I wanted to be there to try and comfort, and offer a sign of hope.” And the Orchestre de Paris went back onstage on Monday evening, playing in Brussels and saying they did not consider cancelling for a moment after the Paris events. The programme chosen by outgoing chief conductor Paavo Järvi included a minute’s silence and Sibelius’ Valse triste as the most appropriate overture. The power of music Martello and Järvi were acting perhaps more in the spirit of the inspirational quotation about the power of music to oppose violence, originally from Leonard Bernstein, which was tweeted this weekend by Classic FM: “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” The potential for sugary sentimentality in this angered music pundit Norman Lebrecht, the peppery London-based editor of...
Sigmund Freud, historical novelist?

Sigmund Freud, historical novelist?

An important part of every historical novelist’s work is looking for the first glimmer of the next story. Finding that apparently unexciting fragment from the past that suddenly makes your storytelling lightbulb switch on – the Eureka moment – is one of the most rewarding bits of the job. I always have half an eye open for it, whether I’m reading Chaucer or a Cornflakes packet. But, all the same, I was surprised this week to find a humdinger of a historical fiction story idea while following a particularly dry and academic-looking footnote from somewhere else to the 4,000-page Complete Works of Sigmund Freud. Freud arouses strong feelings. His acolytes revere him for revealing the workings of the human mind. Others loathe him. (The Russian-born author of Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov, was a case in point, always denouncing the dirty-mindedness of the “Viennese witch-doctor”– though, given the child-abuse plot of Lolita, those two men were perhaps never going to see eye to eye). I’ve read a fair bit of Freud, but I haven’t had either strong reaction till now, just a slight wish to yawn at the clunkier translations. It’s always felt very clear to me how hard Freud is striving to be scientific. (This doesn’t put him at the top of my bed-time reading pile). His work is all real, argument piled on theory on case study. He doesn’t make stuff up. Which is why I was so surprised this week to come across his essay on Leonardo da Vinci, another bearded genius – the Renaissance Florentine painter and investigator of nature, anatomy, birds, flight, war machines and much...
Filling the gaps in official history – Svetlana Alexievich

Filling the gaps in official history – Svetlana Alexievich

It was obvious something was up as soon as I saw the FaceBook message last Thursday from a young, brilliant and much praised British commentator on Russian culture and society, even though it said nothing more than “admit it you hadn’t heard of her”. I watched. Within minutes, replies started coming in from other members of London’s Slavophile elite – the kind of authors, pundits and academics who can often be found at the Pushkin Club cultural centre on Bloomsbury Square, knowledgeably discussing things Slavic. Pretty much all of them were the hand-wringing, head-hanging, red-faced, cringing sort of reply. Confessions of ignorance. But about who? “Zero clue who she was up until this morning. (This is a safe space, right?)” one wrote. (I am sparing their blushes by naming no names). “I suspect I’m not the only person who had to turn down a request to write a piece on her on grounds of total ignorance,” admitted another. More and more intrigued, I scanned further down the list of replies. Light finally dawned when I read the next mortified admission: “yes I’ll admit that I had only heard of her in the context of the annual discussion of who would win the Nobel Prize.” So that was it. The event causing such bafflement among the Slavophile chattering classes was the award of the Nobel Prize in Literature 2015. A quick glance elsewhere online showed me it had just gone to the Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich “for her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time”. A victory for Belarus I hadn’t heard of her either (shame...
To Calais or bust: the pleasures and perils of the philanthropic urge

To Calais or bust: the pleasures and perils of the philanthropic urge

I’ve always had a soft spot for the poor souls caught in one hellish news hotspot or another, trying to live a normal life at what is home until it finally becomes clear that there is no normality any more, and no home either, and that to survive they have to get their families, whatever money and possessions they can get together, and get out. When, as a reporter, I used to interview refugees, it was their bewildered normality that always struck me, even more than the awful stories of what they’d escaped and those pitiful checked square heavy-duty plastic bags they lugged their few possessions around in. Another roll of the dice, I would think, and it could so easily have been me sitting there instead of them, stammering out a tale of woe about what the soldiers did when they came into the kitchen or what happened to the roof when the bomb went off, and crying about how the kids might be safe now, more or less, but they also had permanent spots and sniffles and no one could sleep at night, and what would become of them all next? So… … I decided, sometime in August when the British tabloid press hatred of “migrants” was at its peak, that I would go to Calais to see for myself the Jungle Camp where a few thousand of them are housed, and see what this rage and hatred was all about. A friend said he’d join me. We decided to take a few things to donate. Clothes were useful, we learned, as were food, bikes and bike...
Arkady Ostrovsky’s book, The Invention Of Russia

Arkady Ostrovsky’s book, The Invention Of Russia

Talk at London’s Pushkin House features two leading commentators on Russia Arkady Ostrovsky, Moscow Bureau Chief of The Economist, marks the publication of his new book, The Invention of Russia (Allen & Unwin), with an evening in conversation with John Lloyd at London’s Pushkin House Russian cultural centre. Since both speakers are pithy, witty, and astute veteran observers of Russia, it promises to be a fascinating evening. The subject that Ostrovsky and Lloyd will tackle, in a talk-and-question session from 6.30-9.00 pm on Thursday 17 September, is the path Russia has taken over the past three decades. In 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev launched perestroika, opened Russia up to the world, ended the Cold War and gave his people freedom. Thirty years later, Russia has emerged as a corporate state. How exactly did this happen? As a foreign correspondent in his own country, Russian-born Ostrovsky has experienced Russia’s modern history first hand, and through original research and interviews he describes the ideological conflicts, compromises and temptations facing Russia today. Changing thinking Early reviews from eminent Russianists suggest his answers could change thinking. “For a decade Arkady Ostrovsky has been the most insightful foreign correspondent in Moscow, and in The Invention of Russia he uses his deep understanding of the country he loves to tell the gripping, tragic story of its recent history. A brilliantly original, illuminating and essential book,” writes A. D. Miller, Booker-shortlisted author of Snowdrops & The Faithful Couple. “Russia has always been a place where intellectuals, propagandists, viziers and prophets have played a grand role. All the gangster, KGB and oligarch focused analyses of the country’s recent history...
Build your own Ark

Build your own Ark

The Flood survival manual deciphered in the British Museum from a cuneiform tablet by Vanora Bennett In the year 1872, George Smith, a British Museum assistant, astounded the world by discovering the story of the Flood – much the same as that in the Book of Genesis, but older – inscribed on a cuneiform tablet made of clay that had recently been excavated at Nineveh in Mesopotamia. So excited was Smith by the meaning of the wedge-shaped signs before him that, after crying out, “I am the first man to read that after more than two thousand years of oblivion,” he jumped up and rushed about the room, astonishing the other people in it by tearing off his clothes. A hundred and thirteen years later, another curator, Irving Finkel, also met an amazing cuneiform flood story in the course of his work at the British Museum. In 1985, a member of the public brought in a damaged clay tablet – the size of a mobile phone – for identification and explanation. Douglas Simmonds, it turned out, had inherited various antiquities from his father, who’d been prone to snapping up curiosities while in the Near East in the RAF around the end of the Second World War. “I was more taken aback than I can say to discover that one of his cuneiform tablets was a copy of the Babylonian Flood Story,” Finkel recalls. Finkel was more taken aback still when his interlocutor blithely took the tablet away again – “he quite failed to observe that I was wobbly with desire to get on with deciphering it.” It was another...
Ooh! A colour film of the last Tsar …

Ooh! A colour film of the last Tsar …

Oh how strange and interesting – how did they do this? – colour footage of the last Tsar and his family going about their public business (a lot of saluting and nodding) from 1913 to 1916. Fascinating, but also really quite uncanny to think they could produce something that looks so modern while living in such a medieval way – and of course with no idea at all of what was just around the corner for them in 1917.   Read more about my latest Russia book, The White Russian … and sign up here for news about what I’m up to...
Eastern tango – just add tragedy

Eastern tango – just add tragedy

Tango fever has London in its grip. Today you can try the sultry Argentinian dance known as “the vertical expression of a horizontal desire” everywhere. But did you know that a unique and soulful version of Twenties tango was just as wildly popular in eastern Europe? Here’s one haunting taste of it – a Polish-language version of To ostatnia niedziela, “Our Last Sunday”, from 1936, about the final meeting of former lovers. (Sometimes also called Suicide Tango,  a Russian version is the background music for Nikita Mikhalkov’s award-winning Russian film, Burned by the Sun – but the Polish version of it is my favourite, and the theme music for my website). The early 20th-century eastern tango craze was born out of the first tango boom in Western Europe in the 1900s, when countries such as France and Germany would often be visited by Orquestas Típicas from the dance’s homeland, Argentina. It reached the east by the late 1910s. From then on, eastern tango drifted away from the South American model and went its own way, perhaps because most people in Eastern European countries had learned it only through records, the radio and journals, and perhaps because its melancholic overtones resonated so powerfully with the Poles and Russians and Jews who took it up that they immediately started writing their own versions. Among the stars of the style were violinist Paul Godwin, composers and swing band directors Henryk and Artur Gold, and composers Zygmund Białostocki, Oskar Strock and Jerzy Petersburski (in the Polish Our Last Sunday, above). The Russian gipsy singer Pyotr Leshchenko is one of my favourites, in this wistful...