Celebrating Konstantin Paustovsky — hailed as ‘the Russian Proust’

When is a life worth telling? The Soviet writer Konstantin Paustovsky’s six-volume autobiography The Story of a Life combines high drama with heroic misadventure in a comico-lyrical amalgam of history and domestic detail that enchants from start to finish. Why Paustovsky is not better known outside his native Moscow is a mystery. In the mid-1960s he was nominated for the Nobel prize. (He was pipped to the post by Mikhail Sholokhov, the author of the obediently propagandist And Quiet Flows the Don.) Denounced as a ‘counter-revolutionary’ by the Soviet Writers’ Union, Paustovsky belonged to that select band of writers who inspire true fandom. Marlene Dietrich abased herself at Paustovsky’s feet

Russian royalty

It is not as surprising at it sounds that two of the greatest collectors of modern art should have been merchants from 19th-century Moscow. If Russia managed to contrive a semblance of western civilisation in St Petersburg, it was by virtue of being directly under the steely Tsarist eye. Moscow on the other hand, half lost in the shadows of barbarism, was more wacky and roguish. It liked to think it was home to the true Russian spirit, which artistically meant gaudy folk art, icons, sad music and weird architecture. However the tiny rich class were desperate for the oxygen of enlightened humanist society which they found, like their St

You can’t go home again | 16 August 2018

If the 20th century popularised the figure of the émigré, the 21st has introduced that of the returnee, who, aided by a combination of Skype, social media and cheap air travel, doesn’t so much exchange countries as exist between them. ‘I was an émigré. I had left. Now I’d returned,’ announces Andrei Kaplan, somewhat incredulously, in Keith Gessen’s vigorously funny second novel. An inverted Pnin, Andrei is a Russian-American academic, making a living by moderating online discussion groups for a professor who, in due course, compares Pushkin, Gogol and Dostoevsky to Kanye West. Failing to find a tenured job, Andrei moves to Moscow, where he was born, to care for

Playing Stalin for laughs

Christopher Wilson’s new novel is much easier to enjoy than to categorise. And ‘enjoy’ is definitely the right word, even though The Zoo tackles subject matter that should, by rights, make for a punishingly bleak read. The narrator is 12-year-old Yuri, whose misfortunes start with the fact that he’s growing up in Moscow in 1953 — and that a road accident when he was six damaged his brain, leaving him with a curious set of symptoms that couldn’t be worse suited to life under Stalin: a total lack of guile, a tendency to ask awkward questions and a face so angelically trustworthy that everybody tells him their deepest secrets. Given

MH17 blame game reflects badly on all of us

To judge by much of the western media coverage in recent days, you would have thought that Vladimir Putin had spent last Thursday sitting in the Kremlin, plotting how to blacken his image in the West even further, before settling on the brilliant idea of getting some clueless proxies to blow an international airliner out of the sky. At least, if he had, the line of responsibility would be clear; the western arguments casting him and his country as global pariahs would incontestable, and we could all be contemplating moves not just to isolate Russia, but to haul Vladimir before the International Criminal Court. For all the certainty that has

Bear essentials

In Yoko Tawada’s surreal and beguiling novel we meet three bears: mother, daughter and grandson. But there will be no porridge or bed-testing here: these are bears with a difference. Tawada has form in animal-linked fiction: The Bridegroom Was a Dog won a major Japanese award. Writing in Japanese and German, she is a prizewinner in both countries. This three-part novel, felicitously translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky, draws us deep into the lives of her ursine trio. Transcending anthropomorphism, her beasts retain their essential ‘bear-ness’ in the human world. Mama bear, an ex-performer in a Moscow circus, is savvy, opinionated and scatty: ‘I hate making small talk about

The Baron is back

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky was born in the wrong place at the wrong time. Had his Polish ancestor not been exiled to Siberia, he might have become a figure in European literature; living in Soviet Russia he was, in his own words, ‘known for being unknown’. His fiction and plays, written in the 1920s–1930s, remained mostly unpublished — unpublishable — till 1989. That he can now be read in English is thanks to the translator Joanne Turnbull, who in collaboration with Nikolai Formozov has brought him out of obscurity. What Krzhizhanovsky lacks in popularity he makes up for in the fame of his hero, Baron Munchausen, an incorrigible fantasist created by the

When the Donald met the Vlad

SpeccieLeaks presents: Transcript of private meeting between President Trump and President Putin, 14 February 2017, Andreyevsky Hall, Grand Kremlin Palace   PUTIN: So how are you liking Russia? TRUMP: Fabulous. Amazing. And this room — incredible. You have beautiful taste, my friend. Beautiful. PUTIN: You like gold? TRUMP: Very much. We used a tremendous amount of gold in the Trump Tower. PUTIN: Yes, it’s something. Truly. I have seen it on television. TRUMP: Those chandeliers there. How much were those? PUTIN: Well, I don’t know. But I will have this information provided to you. TRUMP: That would be great. We just opened a new hotel in DC, right next to

Moscow rules

 Moscow To the Union Jack pub on Potapovsky Lane for a US election night party. The jolly Muscovite Trump supporters who organised the event had gone to the effort of providing girls with tight–fitting Trump-Pence T-shirts and Make America Great Again baseball caps. In pride of place beside the bar hung a specially commissioned triptych of oil paintings — heroic Soviet-style portraits of Russia’s new heroes: Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen. Among the guests were a group of young men from Tsargrad TV, Russia’s popular new Orthodox nationalist channel. Sporting neatly trimmed beards and sharp suits, they were a Russian version of Republican evangelicals. In one corner

Double speak

Tom Fletcher, a young star of the Foreign Office, made his reputation last year when he blogged his ‘valedictory despatch’ from Beirut, where he had served as ambassador for several years. From time immemorial ambassadors had written these despatches on quitting their posts. It was the occasion to spread your diplomatic wings with candid observations on the country or career you were leaving. A few have been small literary gems and have been republished in book form. Some were laced with indiscretion. In his farewell despatch, Sir Ivor Roberts, our man in Rome earlier this century, was extremely rude (rightly so) about the way the Foreign Office was run. His

Fleeing Mother Russia

‘Ah! Scrubbing the deck! My childhood dream! As a child I had once seen a sailor hosing the deck with a large hose while another sailor scrubbed away with a stiff, long-handled brush with bristles cut at an angle. I had thought at the time that nothing in the world could be jollier.’ This is Russian writer Teffi accepting her enforced labour on board a refugee ship fleeing Bolshevik Russia. Moments before, a dispossessed landowner has proclaimed his right to idleness — ‘Hire someone! Do whatever is necessary! If you prefer all this socialist nonsense, then what are you doing on this ship?’ A few notches below his social class

Through the eyes of spies

Spying is a branch of philosophy, although you would never guess it from that expression on Daniel Craig’s face. Its adepts interrogate the surface of reality — people, landscapes, texts — knowing that they will discover extraordinary hermetic meanings. They study fragments of documents, whispers of messages, and from these, they summon entire worlds. Possibly one of the reasons Max Hastings cannot pretend to be hugely impressed by the boasts of wartime spies is the philosophical nebulousness of what constitutes ‘results’ in secret-agent speak. Soldiers fight, shoulder to shoulder; battles are clearly lost and won. But those who work in the shadows — and in The Secret War, Hastings turns

Waiting for Utopia

The Soviet Union was a nation of bus stops. Cars were hard to come by, so a vast public transport network took up the slack. Buses not only bore workers to their labours, but also breathed life into the ‘union’ itself by taking travellers from town to taiga to desert to seaside. In remoter parts of the country, bus shelters mattered even more than buses, providing convenient places for people to gather, drink and socialise. They were caravanserai for the motor age, and while the empire they served no longer exists, most of them stand right where it left them. If they are in various stages of ruin now, they

Putin and the polygamists

Homosexuality may not be tolerated in today’s Russia, nor political dissent. Polygamy, though, is a different matter. Ever since news broke this summer of a 57-year-old police chief in Chechnya bullying a 17-year-old local girl into becoming his second wife, Russian nationalists and Islamic leaders alike have been lining up to call for a man’s right to take more than one wife. Most vocal has been Ramzan Kadyrov, the flamboyant 38-year-old president of Chechnya (part of the Russian Federation), who advocates polygamy as part of ‘traditional Muslim culture’. Veteran ultranationalist politician Vladimir Zhironovsky has long held that polygamy is the solution for ‘Russia’s 10 million unmarried women’. And even Senator

It’s dark days for dogs and their owners

So who is poisoning all the doggies, then? I assumed, when the first horrible reports came through from Crufts, that it was either the Russians or the Muslims. Russians seem unable to go more than a few days without feeling the need to bump somebody off. Perhaps they’d run out of businessmen to kill and thought, during this morale-sapping lacuna, it would be wise to keep their hand in by murdering a few dogs. We were told almost endlessly during Channel 4’s coverage of this year’s tournament — won this year by a small and unpleasant black thing, some sort of painfully sculpted terrier with an embittered expression on its face — that

Want to understand the conflict in Ukraine? Compare it to Ireland

What seemed this time last year to be a little local difficulty in Ukraine has metastasised to the point where a peace plan drafted in Paris and Berlin may be all that stands in the way of war between the West and Russia. Over the months, many of those watching, appalled, from the safety of the side-lines, have combed history for precedents and parallels that might aid understanding or offer clues as to what might be done. Last spring, after Russia snatched Crimea and appeared ready to grab a chunk of eastern Ukraine too, the favoured comparisons were with Nazi Germany’s 1938 annexation of Sudetenland. It was a parallel that

Panic, profiteering and a mysterious girl in a Mini: notes from Moscow

 Moscow Here we go again. The rouble slides, then tumbles, and slides again. For those of us who remember the crash of August 1998, the drill is familiar. For Muscovites, the old instincts have surfaced from the 1990s like a sausagey burp. Shoppers besieged Ikea, Auchan and other mega-markets, desperate to spend rapidly devaluing roubles. Cynical expatriates such as myself did much the same with our newly inflated hard currency. I cleared my local posh wine shop of a thousand bucks’ worth of Burgundy, now half-price in dollar terms. A correspondent colleague raided the Moscow Apple store to the tune of two iPhones and a pair of laptops before they

Leviathan: the anti-Putin film the Russians tried to ban that’s tipped for an Oscar

The funny thing about a film like Leviathan, which many expected to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes earlier this year (it didn’t), is that suddenly an awful lot of people become experts in things they knew nothing about before reading the press notes. Some people may be familiar with the Bible’s Book of Job, of course, and with Leviathan, the sea monster used to demonstrate to Job the futility of questioning God. Several may even have read Thomas Hobbes’s tome of the same name about conceding power to the state. A few may genuinely be well-versed in both. A big pat on the back to them. They read a

Keep calm and address Ebola: a brief history of pandemics at The Spectator

Ebola clinics in many parts of West Africa are full, so more and more people are being told to stay at home and take Paracetamol and fluids if they become infected. It means if someone in your family gets Ebola, you all have to stay in the house, which is effectively a death sentence. At the moment, the disease is killing 70 per cent of the people it infects, but that’s likely to go up. People who need other medical treatment can’t get it, and in Sierra Leone 40 per cent of farmland has been abandoned. Western governments are building secure military encampments for health workers, fearing civil unrest and

Soviet greyness, literary mediocrity and hot dates

Right at the outset of this autobiographical novel — in fact it reads more like a memoir — Ismail Kadare sets up his stall as a lover of women. His lust even permeates his similes: ‘… that particular path, like some women who, though not beautiful, possess a hidden charm…’ and that’s only the walk to the post office. It’s a clue, and romance plays a big part. He starts with an encounter — Brigita, a beautiful Latvian at summer camp in Riga — and in Moscow he seems far more interested in the lovely Lida than his writing. But girls don’t hog all the imagery. Kadare has an almost