Tag Archives: Ivan Bunin

Varlam Shalamov plaque, Moscow

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Varlam Shalamov, as the text says on the plaque, “lived in this house between arrests from 1934 to 1937.” The house is in the Arbat district of Moscow, building No. 8 on Chisty (Clean, or, Pure) Lane. The image of the long-suffering writer peering out at us from behind three books, was created by Georgy Frangulyan. It was unveiled to the public on Oct. 30, 2013, and was timed to coincide with the annual memorial day for victims of political repressions.
Shalamov today is a giant in the pantheon of Russian writers. But I’m hazarding a guess (without running much of a risk, I think) to say that outside the tight world of Slavists, Shalamov is either under-appreciated or not known at all. If I write “Alexander Solzhenitsyn,” everyone has a response. Everyone knows, at least in general, who he was, what he did and why. There are some who would criticize Solzhenitsyn for his fame, which I feel is going much too far. Solzhenitsyn earned his fame and his notoriety. Whether you buy into his belief system, or even accept his picture of history, you cannot deny his courage, his strength and his enormous impact.
But there is a reason why Shalamov, among those in the know, is placed on a pedestal far above that of Solzhenitsyn. One reason is that Shalamov was a genuinely great writer. Solzhenitsyn was a powerful, controversial thinker and revisionist historian. Shalamov was an artist, a writer who had perfect command over every letter, every sentence, every paragraph that he wrote. Like Anton Chekhov, perhaps, he was a man of such detail and perfection, that he could only write in short bursts. But fate, as it often has done to humans over the centuries, put him in the way of an evil state machine that saw fit to attempt to destroy him. The machine could not destroy Shalamov, but it wreaked havoc on his life. As such, Shalamov’s brilliant stories and poems were mostly written about life in the prison camps, or at least were “inspired” by it, if I dare use such a word in this context. In English, as in Russian, his main body of work is known by the title of Kolyma Tales, or Tales from Kolyma, Kolyma being the Godforsaken outpost where Shalamov and hundreds of thousands of others lived and died in the Siberian prison camps.
Shalamov (1907-1982) began to publish as a writer – both as a journalist and a short-story writer – in the early-to-mid 1930s. This was after he spent three years in the camps (1929-32) for the crime of  supposedly belonging to a Trotskyite group. He was arrested again in 1937 – the year of the Great Terror – and remained in prison work camps until 1951. (He claimed that he was re-arrested for the crime of calling Ivan Bunin a classic of Russian literature, and there is evidence to back up his claim.) While in prison he began writing poetry, probably because poems were easier to commit to memory than prose. He began writing what would become known as the Kolyma Tales around 1954. But, as I have said, these stories were often extremely short – his story “Through Snow,” written in 1956, consists of just two paragraphs and 236 words. Surely, the genre of brevity, which living in the camps forced on him originally, by now had become a kind of artistic method. This is how life and reality had shaped Shalamov’s talent.

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A couple of years ago my friend Maksym Kurochkin was commissioned to write a play for Breaking String Theater in Austin, TX. Graham Schmidt, who did the commissioning, asked Max to write something that would resonate in Austin. It was not an easy task for the playwright, not the least of which reasons was the fact that Russia had just attacked Max’s home country of Ukraine. To put it lightly, Max’s thoughts were fiercely occupied at the time. The writing of the play and the staging of it became something of a torture for many, although, as often happens in art after a bit of a struggle, it came out quite well. But my point here is that one of the many sticking points was a little detour that Max tossed in at the end of his first act. The main character in the play (Dulcey and Roxy at City Hall) decides to put on his teaching cap and inform the public about someone and something they probably don’t know. He offers a brief narrative about Shalamov, his nature and his importance, and then he quotes one of Shalamov’s poems. Keeping in mind Max’s anger over the Russia-Ukraine war, you will easily understand why he introduced this writer and this poem into his play. But aside from that, I’ve always thought Max’s brief excursus, together with the poem he quotes, is as good an introduction to Shalamov as any.  Here it is, Varlam Shalamv via Maksym Kurochkin:

…VADIM: There was this writer and poet by the name of Shalamov. He was like Solzhenitsyn only he was talented. As talented as O. Henry. But he was also diabolical. Righteously diabolical. Because he went through the prison camps and he remembered everything. And he came to the conclusion that you can’t forget murder. This is a poem. And it has a context. Shalamov opposes killers. Killers of all times and nations. He opposes cannibals as well as their mercenaries and volunteers. And their damn jesters. Here he is: Varlam Tikhonovich Shalamov. “A Slavic Oath.”

VADIM recites.

I swear until my death
to avenge those foul bastards
whose sick science I now know by heart.
I’ll wash my hands with my enemy’s blood
when that blessed moment comes.
For all to see, in Slavic fashion,
I’ll drink from a split skull,
that skull of mine own enemy,
as Svyatoslav did drink.
I’ll throw this funeral feast
the way the old Slavs did –
Eclipsing every fame and glory
of those who disappeared in death.

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Ivan Bunin monument, Voronezh

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I got into the mood for this little excursion today by re-reading a Facebook post that many of my friends posted in recent days. You see, I will unleash a bit of bile myself before this is all over, so we might as well make this whole thing a journey down a ragged road. Actually, I’ll start with my own grievances. They have to do with this monument unveiled by Moscow sculptor Alexander Burganov in 1995 on the occasion of the 125th anniversary of Ivan Bunin’s birth in Voronezh. (For that event this little park located at the meeting of Plekhanovskaya and Ordzhonikidze streets, right in front of the local Oblast court, was renamed Bunin Square.)
Burganov is an ubiquitous sculptor in Moscow. It would appear that he is a good friend of that blight on Moscow culture Zurab Tsereteli, because, after Tsereteli himself, no one seems to get as many commissions to slap up monuments as Burganov. The latter’s work – like so many “official” Russian “public” artists, including Tsereteli and the abominable Soviet-era painter Ilya Glazunov – is simplistic and cartoony. Look at Bunin’s face here; you can’t see a feature anywhere that is not generic. There are the requisite attributes – a beard, cheekbones, ears, a nose, a mustache – but they look like they come from that kids’ game we used to play, remember? the one with the plastic parts of a body and a face that you slapped together on a slick surface to create different images of a human being? Look at the mustache and beard in the second photo below – they’re stuck on there like plastic strips. You almost suspect that if Burganov were to have received a more lucrative assignment while he was working on this one, he could have just used the basic carcass and slapped different features on it in order to have a quick turn-around time.
The dog, we’re told by Russian Wikipedia, symbolizes isolation and the fading of the noble class in Russia… What the hell? I’ll tell you what I think the dog is doing here: Burganov finished the sculpture (or, at least, the drawing and model) with just Bunin sitting there, and he realized, Holy Moses! this is boring! Just at that moment, Burganov’s dog ran up and licked his hand, or he heard a dog bark in the distance – and, voila! the monument was saved. Sort of. It’s like when a theater director doesn’t know how to end a scene and so he just turns the volume of the music up really loud. The dog is like bling. It sprinkles sparkly dust in your eyes so you don’t think too much about how vapid Bunin looks. You can just hear people coming up to the monument:
MAN: Aw! Isn’t he cute?
WOMAN: Coochie-coochie-coo!
MAN: Look at him stretching! Here, let me give him a rub on his butt!
WOMAN: Who is this guy here?
MAN: I dunno. Who cares?
Okay, so I made up the details, but not the essence. This monument succeeds in being pompous and bland all at the same time. That, of course, is an accomplishment, although not one you look for in your public art.
But, enough of that. Let me return to Bunin.

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I don’t know the original source, but the poet Andrei Permyakov posted an informational chart about Ivan Bunin on Facebook on Oct. 23 that really made the rounds. As of midday Oct. 28, it had been “liked” nearly 1700 times and had been “shared” nearly 200 times. (For the record, I include a screen shot of it after the last photo below.) This chart shows 16 nasty comments that Bunin, the 1933 Nobel Prize winner in the field of literature, made about illustrious colleagues.
Isaac Babel was “one of the most despicable heretics.”
Alexander Blok was “an unbearably poetic poet” who “hoodwinks the public with gibberish.”
Vladimir Nabokov was “a charlatan and a phrasemonger (often merely tongue-tied).”
Mikhail Kuzmin was “a pederast with a half-naked forehead and a funereal face painted up like a prostitute’s corpse.”
Mikhail Voloshin was “a fat, curly-haired aesthete.”
Of those Bunin rakes over the coals, the great experimental poet Velemir Khlebnikov seems to have come off relatively well amidst the insults: He was “a rather gloomy youth, silent, perhaps hungover but at least not pretending to be hungover.”
On Andrei Bely: “There’s nothing left to say about his simian furies.”
He wasted few words on Leonid Andreev (“drunken tragedian”) and Maxim Gorky (“monstrous hack”).
Of the 16 targets, only two are women. I don’t know if that means Bunin was more appreciative of women writers or less. In any case:
Marina Tsvetaeva is singled out for her “unending, lifelong flow of wild words and sounds in her poetry.”
Zinaida Gippius was merely “an uncommonly repulsive harpy.”
And to think that a man so bursting in personality, passion and opinion should be condemned to sit forever in front of a court building in his birth town with a blank, empty expression on his face, upstaged by a dog.
God works in wondrous ways.

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Bunin Chart

Ivan Bunin plaque, Moscow

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Povarskaya Street was a hopping cultural hub in the early 20th century. In 1905 Konstantin Stanislavsky rented a space in the Nemchinov building right at the beginning of Povarskaya where Vsevolod Meyerhold briefly, but famously, ran his Studio on Povarskaya. (That building was torn down in the Soviet era when Kalinin Prospect was widened.) Right around the corner from Povarskaya, on Borisoglebsky Lane, the poet Marina Tsvetaeva moved into her new digs in 1914 and remained there until 1922. The famous Lithuanian poet Jurgis Baltrushaitis lived at 24 Povarskaya from 1920 to 1939 when he was the first ambassador of Lithuania to the Soviet Union. But today we have our eye on Povarskaya 26, the next building over. This was the home of Ivan Bunin, who was later to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature during his time in European exile. As the plaque on the building’s front facade declares, Bunin lived here from 1912 to 1918. That is particularly interesting because it means that Bunin and Tsvetaeva were neighbors for the course of about four years. There’s a park right across the street from Bunin’s building and, assuming it was there 100 years ago, one wants to imagine the occasional warm spring day when both writers might have stepped out to catch some fresh air and ended up sharing a bench together, or, at least, one of them passing by the other, who might have been sitting and reading or jotting down notes.
A couple of people missed crossing paths with Bunin here. One was Mikhail Lermontov, who lived in a different building, now lost, on this very spot in 1829 and 1830 when he wrote, among other works, his great narrative poem The Demon. Anyone who knows Boris Pilnyak’s great novel The Naked Year will recognize my little homage to Pilnyak in that little phrase of “now lost…” In his novel, to great effect, Pilnyak lists things and places that were fast disappearing at the time he wrote The Naked Year. That novel begins with the words, “On the city fortress wall gates it was written (now destroyed): Save, O, Lord/This city and your people…” It’s just the first of many such times he plays with that device.
And so now I can bear my own device: Boris Pilnyak is one of those who lived in this very building, although not at the same time as Bunin. Bunin moved out in 1918, Pilyak moved in two years later, in 1920. Pilnyak’s presence here is not recorded in any way. Perhaps that is fitting, as if to say: Boris Pilnyak, now gone, did live here once, though there is nothing here to prove that true.

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Somehow Bunin (1870-1953) and I sort of pass like ships in the night. I have read his short stories (some, not all, by any stretch of the imagination); I have seen theater performances created of his stories; I have read about him and seen movies about him. I know the basic story well – the fine, subtle writer who spanned all the way back to the late 19th-century and the Chekhov era, yet who lived well into the 1950s, i.e., the post-war and even post-Stalin age. But I have never connected with his work as I have with so many others – Pilnyak included, I might add.
My little shortcomings in taste and knowledge aside, others have had a different view. Bunin was the first Russian writer to be honored with the Nobel Prize in Literature; he received it in 1933. Like other, later Russian winners of that prize, it is usually assumed that there was more than a little politics in the choice. Bunin was considered by some to be the greatest living Russian writer in exile (he left the Soviet Union in 1920 and never went back). The prize, say some, was intended to support the difficult situation surrounding Russian writers in exile, and to highlight the lack of freedom writers enjoyed in the Soviet Union. (Tsvetaeva, for example, would have a tough time in Europe and returned to the Soviet Union where she committed suicide in 1941.) Other Russian Nobel winners were Boris Pasternak (1958), the official Soviet novelist Mikhail Sholokhov (1965) and Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1970). Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn were both persecuted to varying degrees, and their prizes reflected that. Sholokhov, it is believed, was given the prize to mollify the Soviet authorities after the “insults” of Bunin and Pasternak’s wins. None of this will ever be proved until the Nobel committee opens its archives, which will probably be never. As such, the conversations and speculation continue.
Bunin was very much of the grand old school of Russian realism (whether that term is legitimate or not). He is often compared in style and impact to Tolstoy and Chekhov. He is similar to the former in his belief in the great power that literature can wield, while he is closer to the latter in stylistic spirit. Bunin, like Chekhov, was a master of the short story. He was concise, clear and unwavering in his insistence on painting the nuances of life in their proper dark tones.
Bunin was born in the city of Voronezh and, as fate would have it, I travel there myself for the first time ever in a few days. If, in any way, I have slighted the great man’s memory with this post, I will seek to rectify that with a post I expect to write soon after visiting his place of birth.

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