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Archive for February, 2013

Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov

By Blog Admin, on 28 February 2013

Picture by Ivan Bilibin. Via Wikimedia Commons

Picture by Ivan Bilibin. Via Wikimedia Commons

Traditional tales open a window onto the riches of Russian culture, finds guest poster Robert Chandler

A good anthology has a shape of its own; it is a work of art in its own right. Usually, though, it seems best to allow this shape to emerge gradually, not to impose a shape on the material too quickly.

My first idea for this anthology goes back seven or eight years. My previous anthology, Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida, had received good reviews and was selling well. My editors at Penguin Classics asked if there was any other project I would like to embark on. I at once thought of a collection of magic tales. My very first publication, in 1978, was a translation of Andrey Platonov’s retellings of traditional Russian tales and my second publication was of tales from Afanasyev (the Russian equivalent of the Brothers Grimm); both books had been long out of print, so here was a chance to bring these skazki back into circulation. And Platonov is, to my mind, the greatest of all twentieth-century Russian writers, so I usually make the most of any chance to draw attention to him.

At first I meant the anthology to begin with Afanasyev and end with Platonov. Then, however, I started playing around with some passages from Pushkin’s verse folk tales. Somewhat to my surprise – I never take anyone’s ability to translate Pushkin for granted! – these passages turned out well. First I translated some lines from the tale about the Golden Fish; since the original is unrhymed, this was not too difficult. Then I attempted the last stanza of ‘Balda’. If I could get that to be clear, sharp and memorable, I thought I would probably be able to manage the rest of the poem. The last two lines were the most difficult. Once they came right, the rest followed more easily:

The poor priest
presented his forehead
for three quick flicks of a finger.
The first
flung him up to the ceiling.
The second
cost him his tongue.
The third
plastered the wall with his brain.
And Balda said,
with disdain,
‘A cheapskate, Father, often gets more
than he bargained for.’

‘Balda’ is written in rhyming couplets, but in lines of greatly varying length. There is an improvised quality to the tale; what is striking about it is its energy, not its polish. To reproduce this jazzy energy, it seemed best to use a somewhat freer form than that of the original; my rhyme pattern, unlike Pushkin’s, is entirely irregular – and some lines do not rhyme at all.

Pushkin was one of the very first Russian writers to take a serious interest in Russian folklore. Once I was confident of my ability to translate these skazki, I knew that the book should begin with Pushkin, that it should include a large selection of oral tales collected by Afanasyev and other folklorists, and that it should end with my translations of Platonov. There has always been interplay in Russia between high culture and folk culture, so it seemed right to include both genuine oral folktales and literary retellings. (more…)

Protests that toppled Bulgaria’s government are part of Europe’s wider crisis

By Blog Admin, on 24 February 2013

Simeon Dyankov Satanah

Photo: Иван via WikiMedia Commons

Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Boiko Borisov submitted his government’s resignation last Wednesday following a week of angry demonstrations over high electricity prices, corruption and declining living standards.  The  protests and their aftermath form part of a bigger European crisis, says Eric Gordy.

The main difference between public disorder in Bulgaria and everywhere else in Europe is that in Bulgaria the government responded. Although the immediate catalyst for protests was the state’s failure to control growth in the price of electricity, the core causes are shared in every European state: dissatisfaction resulting from the forced dismantling of social support services brought on by the European debt crisis, and a sense that policymakers are orienting their activity not to the needs of the public but to the service of large European banks.

These forces are accompanied by the perception that national governments have neither the capacity nor the will to address the consequences of a fiscal and social policy that are widely seen as imbalanced against the public interest. In Greece, Hungary and Italy the contribution of public dissatisfaction to the rise of antidemocratic movements of the extreme right is already apparent.

While conservative political leaders in the EU, particularly from Germany and the UK (and until last year, France) have largely been successful in pushing for a shift of priorities to debt service and “austerity,” the consequences of this should concern everybody in Europe. In the period after the end of the First World War, there was a similar euphoric and triumphalist announcement that liberal democracy could declare its inevitable victory across the continent.

Inattention to the responsibilities of states to their publics on the part of that generation of liberal democratic elites led to a rapid and general decay of constitutional systems and an accelerating tendency of governments to neglect of social responsibilities.

If we take one lesson from the failures of democratic order in the 1920s and 1930s, it should be that governments that fail to address social needs will be challenged by forces, some of them extremist ones, that promise to do so.

Eric Gordy is Senior Lecturer in South East European Politics at UCL-SSEES.

This post was first published in the comment section of the  UCL European Institute and is reproduced with permission.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL.

Skolkovo: Russia’s Silicon Valley or hollow real estate project?

By Blog Admin, on 20 February 2013

Many Western journalists see it as a Russian Silicon Valley, but to date the Skolkovo innovation city has been less silicon and more shiny new buildings and federal roubles. It still tells us a lot a about politics and economics in Russia today, argues Imogen Wade

Skolkovo Silicon Valley

Image: Applied Nomadology via Wikimedia Commons

Skolkovo, Russia’s newest and most Western-oriented centre of innovation, has received much media attention from Russia and abroad.

Some coverage, like that in the Irish Times and Wall Street Journal has been full of praise, boldly proclaiming that Skolkovo will be Russia’s ‘window on the world of technology’, as  St Petersburg – built on a swamp land by Peter the Great in the 18th century –  was once Russia’s ‘window on Europe’. Others  hint at troubles ahead for Skolkovo tied to Putin taking over as president again in 2012.

Many more are more dubious of Skolkovo’s chances of success. The leading Russian economics magazine  Kommersant Dyengi published a controversial article in September 2012 which argued that Skolkovo had become nothing more than a real estate project. A survey of educated Russians in 2011 found that people were largely sceptical that Skolkovo could be successful given Russia’s corruption, bureaucracy and unstable political and economic climate. 

What is Skolkovo?

Launched in 2010, Skolkovo is the most high-profile and newest manifestation of a policy shift in Russia towards economic diversification, innovation-based growth and modernisation that began around 2002. Situated about 20km from Moscow city on farmland once used for growing cucumbers, Skolkovo aims to be a physical and virtual ‘cluster’ of firms, researchers and graduate students promoting technological innovations and providing high quality infrastructure, human capital and a corporate environment that will encourage technological innovations. All activities relate to one of five pre-determined themes, which are also Russia’s strategic science priorities: IT, biomedical sciences, energy-efficiency, space, and nuclear technologies. (more…)

Politics and social media: why Eastern Europe’s politicians are all atwitter

By Blog Admin, on 13 February 2013

Politicians in Central and Eastern Europe are taking to Twitter in increasing numbers –  but with mixed results, finds Philipp Köker.

Twitter Town Hall audience

Photo: P.Souza via Wikimedia Commons

 Since Barack Obama’s use of twitter and other social media in his successful 2008 presidential campaign, more and more politicians (or their PR advisers) have discovered the power of delivering short, 140-character messages to supporters. This digital revolution has also not left politicians in Central and Eastern Europe unaffected and many leaders in the region are now on twitter. However, not all of them are using it effectively and some have even given up on it already.

It would, of course, be hard to match Obama’s 26 million followers but recently Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves @IlvesToomas and former Russian president and current prime minister Dimitrii Medvedev @MedvedevRussia and @MedvedevRussiaE have both advanced to moderate twitter stardom. Both tweet in English as well as in Estonian or Russian, respectively (Medvedev even has separate accounts for each language); yet more importantly, they both tweet themselves.

While Ilves’ ten thousand followers do not yet measure up to Medvedev’s 1.9 million followers (for his Russian account –  the English account has close to half a million followers), the Estonian president has earned his followership by providing interesting posts and concise policy statements, as well as by interacting with his followers on a regular basis –  his twitter feud with Princeton economist Paul Krugman last summer might be an additional motivation to follow him) Medvedev on the other hand predominantly tweets pictures from state visits including a photo of a Finnish sauna and the view from his hotel window in Rio de Janeiro and, in contrast to Ilves, prefers to congratulate Arnold Schwarzenegger on his birthday rather than engage with followers.

(more…)

Presidential elections hold up a mirror to Czech democracy

By Blog Admin, on 11 February 2013

Prezidentské volby 2013, volba prezidenta

Photo: Juandaev via Wikimedia Commons

 Left-wing former Prime Minister Miloš Zeman will be the Czech Republic’s next president after defeating aristocratic foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg in a run-off  election on 25-26 January. However, the presidential poll also tells us something more about Czech democracy says Seán Hanley.

The first direct elections of the Czech president offered a refreshing contrast to the back room manoeuvring and political horse-trading that accompanied the election in parliament of presidents Havel and (especially) Klaus. Despite the nastiness of the Zeman campaign and vacuousness of the political marketing around Karel Schwarzenberg, voters were offered a clear choice between personalities and priorities and turned out in large numbers to make it.

 Television pictures of voters ranging from ski-suited holiday-makers to prisoners choosing the new head of state send quiet but clear message of a country that takes its democracy seriously and knows how to use it.

 But the elections also hold up a more subtle mirror to Czech democracy, showing a political system still defined by patterns laid down in 1990s, which may nevertheless be on the cusp of change.

 Some of the lessons of the presidential elections are familiar ones. (more…)

Russians on Ripper Street

By Blog Admin, on 4 February 2013

Conspiracies involving Russian anarchists and their adversaries in the tsarist secret police have played a long-standing role in the folklore of London’s East End, finds Sarah J. Young

A victim of Jack the Ripper, from the Illustrated Police News. Via Wikimedia Commons

Last night’s episode of the popular BBC period drama Ripper Street saw Inspector Reid and his Whitechapel team investigate tsarist secret police involvement in the death of an Eastern European Jewish anarchist. The story takes the series a long way from the initial scenario of a post-Ripper slasher, but in real life, tales of crimes and conspiracies perpetrated by both the Russian government and its opponents can be traced back to the Jack the Ripper case itself.

By the 1880s, London had already played host to high-profile political exiles from the Russian Empire for a number of decades, most famously becoming home to Alexander Herzen, who set up the Free Russian Press in Bloomsbury in the 1850s, Mikhail Bakunin, who joined Herzen in 1861 after escaping from Siberian exile, and Peter Lavrov, who published the revolutionary journal Vpered! (Forward) from a North London suburb from 1873 to 1876. The arrivals continued in the 1880s, with the anarchist Peter Kropotkin and members of the revolutionary organization The People’s Will such as Sergei Stepniak-Kravchinsky and Feliks Volkhovsky settling in London. But by now such radicals were no longer isolated voices, as this was also the period of working class, mainly Jewish immigration from the Russian empire, as people escaped the appalling conditions and restrictions of life in the Pale of Settlement. According to William Fishman’s East End Jewish Radicals, roughly 30,000 immigrants arrived in London between 1881 and 1891. (more…)