Monday, April 18, 2011

The History of Russia. Takes and Breaks.

The BBC starts today a major new series on Russian history, The Wild East (begins at 15:45 Greenwich time). The series are to cover a thousand years from the founding of Kievan Rus to modern day, and explain why the country swings from opening to reforms and democracy and then reverting back to autocracy and stagnation. The series with an accompanying book were apparently commissioned in connection with the 20th anniversary of the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The author-presenter is Martin Sixsmith, a Russian expert and a former BBC Moscow correspondent. He took part in last week's Radio 4 programme Start the Week to explain his idea. From what he says, it appears that he shares the view that Russia is somehow ‘not suited for democracy’ and that periodic returns to autocratic rule happen because ‘autocracy has worked’ there at times. You can almost hear bewildered gasps of other participants in the programme, some of whom also have first-hand knowledge of Russia. Arguments about Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Stalin and other famous rulers have long been a staple of Russian table-talk. They are now brought to Western audiences.

Schedrin in 1872
The series is a huge undertaking and not to be missed. (Links to the programme are below the video.)

To illustrate how views of Russia and her history have been changing over time I add the first part of the US-made 1943 documentary The Battle of Russia. Then, of course, America, Britain and Russia were allies fighting Hitler. Careful: documentary footage there is mixed with sequences from feature films including Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky with the score by Prokofiev.

And for a lighter take on Russian history, do read the hilarious satire by Saltykov-Schedrin (1869-70, wiki,), The History of a Town (Amazon link, Russian text here). Not often cited in the West, the book is very popular in Russia. Quotes, references and characters from it have entered the language as metaphors, idioms and proverbs. (An excerpt from the introduction to the book below the video.)


Start the Week discussion with Martin Sixsmith is here, available as podcast too.

The Wild East BBC page with the series schedule and press release here.

from Laughter in the Dark: The History of a Town reviewed years ago by V. S. Pritchett.

Shchedrin is known to English-speaking readers only by his great novel The Golovlyov Family, the most somber and pitiless instance of black comedy in Russian literature of the nineteenth century. Now, in the first English translation of The History of a Town, we see the master of political satire, for which he was best known in his own time. One sees at once that this book gave Zinoviev his model for The Yawning Heights, his uproarious fantasy written at the expense of communism under Stalin and Khrushchev a few years ago; the dissidents take pride in recovering the old Russian tradition. Zinoviev's fabulous lbansk (a double pun which means Ivan's town but also Fucktown)--derives plainly from Shchedrin's farcical history of Glupov or Stupid Town, in which for hundreds of years the bewildered and passive Russian peasants do what they can in a sluggish way to live with the violence and lunacy of their tyrants.

Portrait of M.E. Saltykov-Schedrin by Nikolai Ghe.

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