Chekhov’s “Man in a Case”

All Russian literature lovers know Беликов, the famous “man in a case” from Chekhov’s  well-known story “Человек в футляре.” What is your take on this story?  Read it and post a comment.  You can find the story in English at

The Hartford Stage is putting on a stage performance of “Человек в футляре” in late February/ early March.  Беликов will be played by the great Russian dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov.  This is a rare event, and  I look forward to attending it with as many of you as possible.


When Poetry Is Dangerous

Osip Mandelshtam (1891-1938), quite possibly the greatest Russian poet of the twentieth century, perished in Stalin’s gulag, where he was sent as punishment for a mere sixteen lines of verse that he composed in his head and never even committed to paper. He did, however, recite his now famous epigram about Stalin privately to a handful of friends and acquaintances. Someone snitched. The last two lines of the epigram—“Any execution is a treat for him/ And his Georgian chest is broad”—in the end came to describe his own death at the hands of this tyrant.

Read an English translation of the poem here:

Read Mandelshtam’s original Russian poem here:


Russian Excess

Any avid discussion about Russia and Russians eventually gets around to the Russian soul.  Russia and Russians are famous for their generous, expansive, passionate soul, and the numerous attempts to define its essence wind up in agreement on one point:  the Russian soul is unlimited—it encompasses everything.  Suffering and ecstasy, compassion and cruelty, self-sacrifice and greed, privation and excess. Two sides of the same coin.  Russia’s glory and her scourge.

Let’s take excess:  Ivan the Terrible gouging out the eyes of the architect who built his glorious new cathedral, so that he could never build another to rival it. (Okay, that’s unsubstantiated lore, but it’s completely in line with the many acts of creative torture this murderous tyrant inflicted on his subjects.) Peter the Great ordering a four-foot-tall birthday cake that contained a surprise for his guests: a midget bursting through the icing from inside the cake as the knife was about to slice the first piece.

Pictured here is the Morozov mansion in central Moscow, a specimen of architectural excess.  Its size makes it not just a house, дом, but a mansion, особНЯК (from особый, meaning «special,» or «separate»).  It was built in the 1890s by a frivolous and pampered son of the nobility, Arseny Morozov.  It would seem he was determined to make his house a one-building history of architecture, incorporating everything from Greek columns to Eastern Orthodox church apses to ornate baroque curlicues and fanciful spaghetti twists.  Arseny’s appalled mother pronounced her acid verdict on her son’s house:  “You numbskull!  Until now, I was the only one who knew how stupid you are; now the whole world knows.”

Others agreed with her.  The great Tolstoy, by now grumpy with advanced age, growled that it was a “stupid house for stupid people.”  By this point in his life, Tolstoy had forsworn frivolity, extravagance, and a great many other things (but not sex).  He may have conveniently forgotten that in his bygone youth he could have out-extravaganced Morozov hands down.  I think it is even fair to say he developed and perfected his own brand of excess.  (For more on that, take my Tolstoy class or ask someone who did.)

Mother Morozov should not have been too surprised–Arseny’s architectural tastes simply reflected his personality, which was shot through with extravagance and excess. Example: He got the idea to shoot himself in the foot to find out if he could bear the pain.  How well he bore the pain I don’t know, but he got blood poisoning and died.


Pussy Riot Goes on Trial in Moscow

If you’ve been following the news from Russia, you’ve heard of Pussy Riot, the fem-punk band, three of whose members go on trial in Moscow this Monday.   (In case you’re wondering what the Russian is for “Pussy Riot,” it’s exactly that–“Pussy Riot,” spelled out in English letters.)  The group got started during last fall’s street protests, with a shock-and-awe mission of unannounced blitz performances in unlikely locales.  Example:  bursting into Moscow’s famed Church of the Savior, making straight for the altar, and breaking into a rock performance of a brand new hymn:  “O Holy Virgin, Drive Putin Out.”  Watch it here:

They are charged with hooliganism.  In the Putin era, as under the tsars, the government and the Russian Orthodox Church act hand in glove.  The other piece of this puzzle is the country’s thoroughly corrupt judiciary, whose judges are too dependent on the existing political system to issue an independent verdict. So although the defense counsel has the right to call witnesses, all those whom it wishes to call have been disallowed by the court.  If the defendants are convicted and given the maximum penalty, they’ll be spending the next seven years in a labor camp.

There are questions to ponder.  Does the punishment fit the crime?  Was this in fact a crime according to Russian law, or was it a lesser offense?


But not everyone agrees Putin’s hot

Unlike the video chics, the crowds of protesters that have become a common sight in Moscow are eager to get rid of Putin. They flooded the streets last December after election results for the Duma were tampered with.  (DUma is the Russian word for Parliament—actually, the lower chamber of legislature. It comes from the word DUmat, which means to think or to deliberate.)  The protesters kept it up for months, surging again just before the presidential elections in March.  Putin nevertheless emerged victorious (score one for the video chics).

Many of you know that Putin, who served two terms as president from 2000 through 2008, ingeniously cycled out of the presidency into the Prime Minister’s slot for the next four years, so that he could make a comeback as President Again in 2012.  Oh yes, and he also had the constitution changed to extend the presidential term of office from four years to six.  So he can now be President Again for another twelve years.  Nice.  Watch protesters (and hear them speak Russian) here:


Why Girls Think Putin’s Hot

A man of his slight stature might not get elected president in the U.S., but tough-as-nails Vladimir Putin has lots of credibility with Russians.  For one thing, he’s a martial arts black belt.  What’s more, he made his career rising through the ranks of the Soviet Union’s most terrifying institution–the KGB.  Now that the one-party state has given way to a Russia with various political parties and dubious democratic elections, Putin has insured that the old way lives on by staffing the government bureaucracy with his old KGB friends, now known as the “siloviki”—the security men (from the Russian word SEE-la, meaning strength, force, or power—the only language they understand).

The Russian press (which is mostly controlled by the government, i.e. Putin) issues a constant stream of Putin promo . . . Putin felling a judo opponent, Putin in the forest with his shotgun saving a reporter from a bear attack, Putin deep-sea diving and discovering buried treasure.  Do girls love him?  Watch here:


Who’s the bear?

медведь Med-VED

The bear (in Russian, med-VED (literally, “honey-eater”), is the symbol of Russia.  A forest-dweller with a sweet-tooth, the bear is Russia’s mascot, denoting Russians’ sensuality and connection to nature.

Partners of humans in the natural world, occupying the same land and partaking of the same food as people, bears are equally loved and feared by Russians.  They represent both the dangers of the forest and its essential role as the source of food, clothing, and shelter.   Russian dwellings were traditionally built of wood from the forest; the meat and skin of animals provided food and clothing. This dual, even paradoxical relationship, in which the source of life is also a danger to it, characterizes the Russian’s relationship with the bear, as well as many oppositions that run through Russian culture.

Partners? See