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Curiosities from the Russian Classroom

By Blog Admin, on 11 November 2013

 The British Library holds some rare early Russian grammars and language materials, which offer remarkable insights in culture, publishing practices and language learning, writes Katia Rogatchevskaia.

Cultural history and history of education is a relatively new research trend, so it was not obvious to the previous generations of librarians and curators that future scholars would want to examine textbooks. This type of material is difficult to collect and preserve. Although produced in large quantities and numerous editions, textbooks, like newspapers and ephemera, are not meant to survive. Older foreign textbooks and practical guides for teaching and learning represent an especially precious category of items. What was meant to be cheaply-produced learning material now becomes invaluable for the simple reason that very few copies survive. One of the most treasured works in our collections is Ivan Fedorov‘s  Azbuka, printed in Lviv in 1574, the first printed and dated East Slavonic primer. This is an extremely rare item – there is only one other recorded copy in the world, at Harvard University Library.

Fedorov's primer 2
Fedorov’s Azbuka 

A Slavonic Grammar by Meletii Smotritsky was first printed in 1618-1619 and reprinted several times in the 17th century. Smotritsky made an attempt to codify the contemporary Church Slavonic language as used in the Belarusian, Russian and Ukrainian lands. The book had a significant impact on the development of these languages. In 1648 the grammar was reworked to reflect the norms of the language as used in Moscow at that time. We have two copies of the 1648 edition. The latter copy comes from the collection  of Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753)  and bears notes in Latin, which suggests that the book was used for learning purposes. Interestingly, all notes are made on the page where the  principles of Russian syntax are explained, which probably suggests that the learner was quite advanced. Before belonging to a foreign owner, this copy was in possession of a priest – one Andrei Petrovich Peresvetov.

Smotritskii2
Sloane’s copy of Smotritsky’s grammar (C.125.d.14) showing the Latin notes

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Did the end of Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign cause Russia’s mortality crisis?

By Blog Admin, on 4 November 2013

Russia experienced an extreme spike in death rates in the immediate aftermath of the break-up of the Soviet Union. Jay Bhattacharya, Christina Gathmann and Grant Miller  write that while this has typically been explained using political and economic arguments, the real cause of Russia’s mortality crisis may have been the end of Mikhail Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign.

Following the demise of the Soviet Union, Russia experienced a 40 per cent surge in deaths between 1990 and 1994. As a consequence, life expectancy for men declined by 6.6 years from 64.2 to 57.6 years. The magnitude of this surge in deaths – coupled with the Soviet Union’s international prominence – has prompted observers to term this demographic catastrophe the ‘Russian Mortality Crisis.’

What caused this dramatic increase in mortality? Many people attribute the Russian mortality crisis to political and economic turmoil that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, and to restructuring and reforms during the 1990s. We develop an alternative explanation for the observed pattern: the demise of the reputedly successful 1985-1988 Gorbachev Anti-Alcohol Campaign.

The Gorbachev Anti-Alcohol Campaign was unprecedented in scale and scope – and it operated through both supply and demand-side channels, simultaneously raising the effective price of drinking and subsidising substitutes for alcohol consumption. At the height of the campaign, official alcohol sales had fallen by as much as two-thirds (Russians responded by increasing home-production of alcohol called samogon – although our estimates suggest not by nearly enough to offset the reduction in state supply). In practice the campaign lasted beyond its official end – restarting state alcohol production required time, and elevated alcohol prices lingered.

Figure 1 illustrates our basic logic. Age-adjusted Russian death rates had been increasing linearly between 1960 and 1984, plummeted abruptly with the start of the campaign in 1985, remained below the campaign trend throughout the latter 1980s, rose again rapidly during the early 1990s to a temporary peak in 1994, and then largely reverted back to Russia’s long-run trend.

Figure 1: Age-adjusted death rates in Russia (1960-2005)

figure1bfinal

NoteData available from The Human Mortality Project. Pre-campaign linear trend estimated using ordinary least squares regression of mortality per 1,000 population on pre-campaign year.

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Georgia may face power vacuum after presidential election

By Blog Admin, on 25 October 2013

Georgians go the polls on 27 October to elect a successor to President Mikheil Saakashvili. However, behind the scenes power politics, a populist outsider candidate and continuing pressure from Russia may combine to open up a period of uncertainty, writes Andrew Wilson.

The West has been struggling to make up its mind as to whether Georgian Prime Minister Bidzina Ivanishvili is a good thing or not, and now he has announced he is leaving after less than a year in office. The previous era is also drawing to a close, as sitting President Mikheil Saakashvili’s two terms in office come to an end with the presidential election scheduled for 27 October.

Despite the heated rhetoric of Saakashvili’s United National Movement in the West, the Ivanishvili government was not existentially opposed to all its achievements. Some have been expanded, others chipped away at. The real question is what will happen next, with the very real risk of a power vacuum after the dual departure.

Ivanishvili’s announcement was not a complete surprise. He has always indicated he saw solving Georgia’s problems as a short-term task, and is visibly not too keen on the day-to-day tasks of administration. However, his exit strategy is far from clear, and 71% of Georgians in a NDI poll taken on 23 September said they disapproved of his decision to quit. He has not ‘finished the job’; unless it is narrowly defined as dislodging the old elite.

Part of his appeal to voters to back Giorgi Margvelashvili, his party’s (Georgian Dream) candidate for the presidency, is to allow him to continue that work. “Showing trust to Margvelashvili means showing trust to me”, Ivanishvili said in September. But he doesn’t seem to want to be overshadowed by Margvelashvili, who was a personal not a party choice. Margvelashvili is Minister of Education, and safely uncharismatic; Ivanishvili having sidestepped stronger figures like Defence Minister Irakli Alasania or David Usupashvili, the chair of parliament. The presidency will have less constitutional power after the election, but Ivanishvili has yet to name a Prime Ministerial successor – he says he will do so in November.

Margvelashvili is in an impossible situation – even if he wins his mandate will be weak and on ‘loan’ from Ivanishvili, who has also declared but not defined his intention to head a new NGO network after the election. It is unclear whether this will make him a back-seat driver. It is also possibly a mixed blessing for existing NGOs, as Ivanishvili’s fortune may cause a migration towards his money and influence. It is also unclear whether Ivanishvili’s choice for Prime Minister will be a stronger choice. (more…)

Postcard to Khodorkovsky

By Blog Admin, on 21 October 2013

Pussy Riot Global Day

London has become home to a growing, but fractious community of political activists opposed to the Putin regime, finds Darya Malyutina. 

With its long history of serving as a refuge for disaffected Russians, London today hosts a sizeable and heterogeneous Russian-speaking population.

Many of them express casual anti-Putin sentiments; some of them are more actively trying to unseat him. How effective is this activism? Is it helping to bring democratic change to Russia, or raising awareness of what is happening in Russia to the British public; perhaps, at the very least, gaining some moral authority in the eyes of Russian society, or is it just so much wishful thinking and hot air?

In the autumn of 2012 Andrei Sidelnikov, the leader of London-based Russian opposition group Govorite Gromche [Speak Up], decided that, after a couple of years of organising regular rallies and various protest demonstrations, the format of their activity should be changed to ‘intellectual discussions and educational meetings.’ Some of these meetings took place in a small basement bookshop in Central London.

The meeting I attended took the form of a Skype conversation with Pavel Khodorkovsky, son of the imprisoned oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky. About twenty Russians gathered in the shop and listened to Pavel speaking about his father: how he has managed to write a book; how ‘Putin and his gang’ have no intention of letting him out; and how he continues to be a ‘moral leader,’ even from his prison cell. ‘What can we, Russians living in the West, do to help fight for rights and freedoms of citizens? How can we move Russia back to the democratic path of the early 1990s?’ asks Sidelnikov. ‘We understand that our actions do not have much impact,’ replies Pavel. ‘But we provide inspiration for those who are in prison; and our actions establish a moral authority. And, of course, we might be able to influence Russia’s foreign relations, because protest can be a catalyst for solving political problems….’

We could have been in the London of Alexander Herzen, in the 1850s, discussing overnight ways to make the autocratic Tsar, a liberal. ‘And maybe,’ said Sidelnikov, ‘we could send Mikhail a postcard for the New Year?’

‘He would be very pleased,’ replied Pavel. The meeting was declared closed, and the evening ended in the traditional way – the democracy fighters headed to the nearby pub. (more…)

The Russian left has hardly escaped Stalin’s shadow, but there are signs of change

By Blog Admin, on 30 September 2013

RIAN archive 535278 Laying flowers and wreaths to Iosif Stalin's grave at Kremlin wall

RIA Novosti archive, image #535278
Vladimir Fedorenko / CC-BY-SA 3.0

How are left-wing parties and movements faring in Russian politics? Luke March argues that despite the strength of the Russian Communist Party (KPRF), the left in Russia remains remarkably weak and fragmented. Nevertheless there is evidence of a shift towards contemporary European patterns with a stronger social-democratic movement and less reliance on the KPRF.

Over two decades after communism’s collapse, commentators rarely tire of pointing out the obdurate survival of the Russian Communist Party (KPRF), which remains Russia’s second-largest party. But it is not the strength of the Russian left that is most remarkable – rather its weakness. After all, sociologically, Russia remains rather a left-wing country, with opinion polls showing high support for social equality and a paternalist welfare state. Even former plutocrat-cum-dissident Mikhail Khodorkovsky has repeatedly called for a ‘left turn’ in social policy. Arguably then, the Russian left should be much stronger than the still-large but now much denuded KPRF. So what is the current situation of the left and why?

The parliamentary ‘opposition’

Symptomatically, the dominance of the KPRF is a major sign of the left’s weakness. This party has long been regarded by left-wing activists as a ‘Frankenstein’s monster’, essentially unable to evolve but blocking newer left-wing trends, because of its intrinsic Stalinism, loyalty to the state and ‘right-wing’ nationalist/religious rhetoric. Although in the 1990s this view was somewhat caricatured, the party has signally failed to evolve in the Putin era. After 2003 it was reduced to its core vote and it has gradually lost all of its interesting and/or reformist figures (who were either purged or left). It is bereft of any political influence (even losing its last governor in 2013).

Under the 20-year leadership of Gennadii Zyuganov, the party now barely pretends to contest for power. Indeed, whereas the KPRF used to advocate fighting the ‘anti-national elite’, it has latterly advocated a ‘popular front’ with Putin at the helm and Zyuganov (who has never held executive office) as PM. The KPRF does remain the only Russian parliamentary party (occasionally) to criticise Putin, which accords it increased support from younger voters.

But its endlessly recycled policies (of which ever-more overt Stalinism is just one example) means that political scientist Vladimir Gel’man’s claim that it is Russia’s ‘most boring’ party is apt. Nor is it in any sense a real opposition any longer. Despite griping about presidential dictatorship, the party distances itself completely from the street opposition, which it sees as ‘orangists’ (i.e. pro-Western forces behind ‘coloured revolutions’). (more…)

Taking the waters: Russian literature’s holiday in the Caucasus

By Blog Admin, on 29 July 2013

Le Proval a Piatigorsk

Le Proval a Piatigorsk.
Via Wikimedia Commons

In the final post before the SSEES Research Blog takes a short summer break, post-graduate student Benny Morgan reflects on the brief flowering of health tourism in southern Russia, and as a setting for Russian Romantic literature.

What the American temperance campaigner Diocletian Lewis (1823-1886) called the ‘mineral water mania’ of the mid-nineteenth century took a scientistic turn in the Russian Empire at around the same time as it did in Western Europe and the United States. In the 1860s the universities of Moscow and St. Petersburg examined a rash of medical dissertations on such topics as ‘The Effect on Blood Pressure of Baths and Showers at Different Temperatures’, describing in awed detail the results of douching experiments on rabbits and large dogs – and the language of the burgeoning hydropathic establishment trickled quickly into the promotional material of Russia’s self-proclaimed ‘watering places’.

By the century’s close, every southern town of note – Slaviansk, Borzhom, Piatigorsk – was producing brochures puffing the benefits of its waters, listing ailments treated and tabulating the testimonies of bathers and drinkers cured or ‘partially relieved’ of unpleasant symptoms. Yet spa therapy’s medicalization at mid-century also had the curious effect of sending the Russian watering place as a destination of fashion into apparently terminal decline. The empire’s Crimean and Caucasian resorts could compete neither infrastructurally nor rhetorically with the appeal of Baden-Baden, Wiesbaden and Vichy; dire comparative statistics – forty thousand visitors to Russian spas annually compared with half a million to German ones – drew hand-wringing about national ‘underdevelopment and lack of culture’ on the part of civic pamphleteers.

One marker of the commercial struggles of the Russian water-cure industry in the latter nineteenth century is the near-death of the southern spa theme in literature. Lidiya Veselitskaya’s Mimochka at the Waters (1891), a rare fin du siècle novel with a Russian health resort setting, makes fun of the westward trend in bathing culture by having its heroine ask, when a cure atKislovodsk is broached, ‘Aren’t there waters enough abroad?’ Foreign spas had monopolized the narrative as well as the therapeutic imagination.Despite their vivid ideological differences, both Dostoevsky and Turgenev look to Germany in their watering-place novels; the conspiratorial picture of resort culture given in The Gambler and Smoke (both 1867) offers perhaps the closest thing to a fictional consensus the two ever mustered. Tolstoy too, for all his creative investment in the Caucasus, takes the protagonists of his mature fiction to German spas in pastoral landscapes (see Family Happiness (1858) and Anna Karenina (1873-77)), not notionally domestic ones wedged into ravines.

Indeed, Chekhov’s minor-key masterpiece The Lady with the Little Dog (1899) draws for much of its melancholic atmosphere upon a sense that Yalta, another liquid mainstay of the Russian South, has become a place perpetually out of season: that the brightest heads have turned elsewhere. But for the critic with an interest in place and its ideological significance in fictions, a look back at the brief flowering of the southern cure has much to recommend it. The Romantic spa also offers itself as a point of departure for attempts to think through the attitudes that modern Russian literature has shaped and reflected with respect to cultures of health – and when tracing the ties that bind the realist spa text (Smoke), the bania tale in revolutionary skaz (Zoshchenko’s ‘The Bathhouse’ (1925)) and Brezhnev-era medical allegory (Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward (1967)).

The Caucasian spa resort is a vital setting in Russian literature of the first decades of the nineteenth century. As Robert Reid has written, spa resorts in this period frequently serve as a microcosm of metropolitan social life. (more…)

New anti-gay laws are a lightening rod for the Putin regime

By Blog Admin, on 19 July 2013

Gay Pride

Photo: Valya Egorshin via Flikr (CC-BY-2.0)

By banning ‘homosexual propaganda’, protecting ‘religious feeling’ and reining in ‘foreign agents’, Vladimir Putin is seeking to entrench Russian traditional values against Western liberalism.  LGBT activists may now need to rethink their tactics, writes Richard Mole.

 Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempt to tighten his political grip at the expense of the country’s nascent civil society is continuing apace. Following the bill last summer requiring NGOs which receive foreign funding and engage in ‘political activity’ to register as ‘foreign agents’, on 30 June Putin signed into law a bill banning the spreading of ‘propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations’.

 The bill, which passed in the Russian Duma by 436 votes to 0 (with one abstention), levies fines of 5,000 roubles (£100) on individuals who disseminate information about ‘non-traditional sexual orientations’ among minors or promote ‘the social equivalence of traditional and non-traditional relationships’.

The fine is increased to 100,000 roubles (£2,000) if individuals discuss gay-related issues in a positive or neutral manner in the media or on the Internet, and rises to one million roubles (£20,000) for organisations. The inclusion of the phrase ‘among minors’ ensures that practically any public LGBT event will violate the law; just in case, anti-gay protestors at last month’s Gay Pride in St Petersburg were encouraged to bring their children with them to ensure that the law did indeed apply.

 Activists have argued that the ‘homosexual propaganda’ law legitimises discrimination and violence against LGBT individuals in Russia, citing the cases of two gay men murdered in separate incidents in May. Critics have sought to establish a causal link between the new anti-gay law and anti-gay feeling in Russia. However, this overestimates Putin’s ability to mould public opinion – his anti-Westernism has, after all, failed to dent Russians’ generally positive feelings towards the EU –  and underestimates the pre-existing intolerance towards lesbians and gay men left over from the Soviet period. (more…)

Russia: Back to no future

By Blog Admin, on 18 June 2013

Moscow Russia anti-Putin Graffiti R-EVOLUTION-2

Photo: Victorgrigas via Wikimedia Commons

With his regime running out of steam, Vladimir Putin is resorting to the rhetoric of the past and traditional values. Marie Mendras sees little future in it. 

The moment of truth for a non-democratic leader is when he needs to revive his fading authority and legitimacy. A snatched electoral victory over a year ago brought Vladimir Putin no new popularity, indeed quite the opposite.

Since his return to the Kremlin, his words and actions have reflected entirely negative emotions, such as fear of his own people, distrust of the elites around him, and a desire to avenge himself on those who have dared oppose him. Much of his energy goes on proving himself right and his critics wrong: he even accuses these of working for foreign powers and endangering national security. Putin has not recovered from the humiliation and scare of last year’s political contest, and is now facing tough economic and social challenges. The choice he has made is to try to restore his authority with a combination of targeted repression, doctrinaire ideology and an increase in control over institutions and companies. This is an unlikely recipe for success.

Weakened legitimacy

Vladimir Putin was re-elected on a controversial vote in March 2012. He could have won his new mandate more honestly, had he accepted the possibility of a second round runoff, but he was determined to win an absolute majority in the first round. He wanted to humiliate the other ‘authorised’ candidates by raising himself high above them, proving that he was the one and only – and a loyal Central Electoral Commission conferred on him a generous 63% of the vote. A year on, all the voters’ associations and NGOs that investigated election fraud are being harassed and some, like the Golos association, might have to close down. Key figures in the movement for free elections are also being prosecuted.

Putin’s election in 2000 and 2004, and Dmitry Medvedev’s election in 2008, were ‘managed’ ballots as well. This time, however, things turned out less manageable than usual. The widespread and vocal public protest of the winter of 2011-12, news of which flew around the country in a few keystrokes, exposed all of the regime’s rottenness and trickery. And the anger of a revitalized civil society was directed at the leader in person, under the ubiquitous slogan: ‘Putin, ukhodi!’ [Putin – out!]. His party fared badly in the parliamentary elections of December 2011, and in Moscow itself its performance was a complete disaster.

Throughout the 2000s, Vladimir Putin built his power and legitimacy on order, rising living standards and Russia’s growing global status. However, he will have more difficulty delivering in all three of these areas in the months and years to come, and he will be held to account for it. (more…)

Crystal Palace (F. C.): Chernyshevsky’s barmy army

By Blog Admin, on 30 May 2013

 

Russia at the Great Exhibition, 1851. From Dickinson's Complete Pictures. Author's copy

Russia at the Great Exhibition, 1851. From
Dickinson’s Comprehensive Pictures. Author’s copy

Sarah J. Young finds a rich history of Russian connections to the Crystal Palace, the glass and iron building by Joseph Paxton for London’s 1851 Great Exhibition.

When one thinks of Russian connections to English football, it is most likely the owners and shareholders of certain premier league clubs that will to spring to mind, or the small number of Russians who have played for English clubs, including Roman Pavlyuchenko and Andrei Arshavin. But as Crystal Palace F. C. reaches the premiership following a tense play-off final against Watford, the status of the club as possibly the only one in the English league to be named after a building – its former nickname the Glaziers emphasizing the connection to the iconic structure, which still features on the club badge – provides a legacy of historical and literary Russian resonances that far outstrip the transient presence of mere players and owners, or indeed football itself.

The Great Exhibition was intended, among other things, to bring together the industry of all nations for the promotion of peace and free trade (whilst, inevitably, demonstrating the superiority of Britain in all regards). The Russian exhibit drew attention owing to its late arrival, and was notable for the malachite products that stood out in a display mainly consisting of raw materials.

Tsar Alexander II at the Crystal Palace, 1874. Author's copy

Tsar Alexander II at the Crystal Palace, 1874. Author’s copy

But in a climate of general xenophobia and fear of foreign revolutionaries who might visit the Exhibition – which took place three years after the 1848 wave of European revolutions – as well as intensifying Russophobia (the Crimean War was only two years away), it is perhaps not surprising that Russians themselves, as much as their manufactures, were seen to be on display. Among the exotic foreigners caricatured in descriptions and cartoons, the fearsome ‘Don Cossack’ always had his place alongside the Chinese mandarin and the African ‘savage’, reminding us how alien and un-European Russians seemed to the British imagination at that time. The notion of the palace as an international space may also have been behind the visit of Tsar Alexander II in 1874. As a later cigarette card commemorating the event indicates, the emphasis on this occasion was reconciliation and sameness – the Russians in the royal entourage pictured here are indistinguishable from the British guests – but the commentary on the reverse reminds us of that ‘other’, alien Russia, ending ominously: ‘The Tsar was assassinated by Nihilists on 13th March 1881.’

But if British views of Russians at the Great Exhibition simply reflected contemporary events and attitudes, within Russian literature the Crystal Palace assumed a particular significance, as it became a touchstone for debates about modernity, westernization and social transformation. (more…)

Alexei Balabanov: the potency of cinematic story-telling

By Blog Admin, on 22 May 2013

Balabanov on the set of 'Morphine'. Via Wikimedia Commons

Balabanov on the set of ‘Morphine’. Via Wikimedia Commons

Alexei Balabanov was as much a cinematic translator as a chronicler of post-Soviet reality, finds Seth Graham

A few days before Alexei Balabanov’s death at age 54 on May 18, I was finishing a blurb for a talented film scholar’s forthcoming book on the director’s work. I wrote: ‘The downside to studying artists who are still alive and working, of course, is that they will always outflank those who study them by creating more art’.

The particularly superstitious might accuse me of hastening Balabanov’s death with this fate-tempting, tongue-in-cheek line (sglazil!). But Balabanov himself did some mortal tempting, and hinting, of his own in his fourteenth and final film, Me Too (2012), in which he appears as a film director who (spoiler alert!) dies an early death. It was not a secret that Balabanov was chronically ill. His relatives, friends and colleagues certainly knew it, and he did not hide it from the public. He said in his last interview that ‘there probably won’t be any more Balabanov films’.

Still, the news of Balabanov’s passing, announced by Sergei Sel’ianov, the director’s perennial producer and co-founder of the CTB production company that funded all of his films for nearly two decades, came as a cruel surprise to Russophiles and cineastes who had gotten used to the regular pleasure of seeing what Balabanov’s latest work had to offer, and which self-designated guardians of Russian culture it would offend.

The latter pleasure was made even more, well, pleasurable due to the fact that Balabanov as an artist typically stayed above such criticism; he was simply not interested in epatage or chernukha or schlock/trash/exploitation or whatever film-studies term you want to use that has been lobbed at filmmakers whose work is considered controversial. He did not make films in order to antagonise or offend or scandalize. He was not the ‘Russian Tarantino’ or even the ‘Russian Scorsese’, despite a similar level of graphic violence combined with formal virtuosity and thematic omnivorousness; Balabanov’s depictions of violence were not, as they often seem to be for Scorsese and other directors, excursus on the nature of violence. His films were excursus on nothing but the concentrated potency of the particular form of storytelling at which he excelled: cinema. (more…)