Saturday, December 03, 2005

Modest Mussorgsky

Tonight, I'll be watching Mussorgsky's opera Boris Godunov (based on Pushkin's play of the same title) on DVD. So I thought it best to research this most famous 19th century Russian composer (there is even a discussion forum dedicated to him).

Modest Mussorgsky was a thorough Russophile in mid-19th century Russia, when fervent nationalism was at its peak. Eventually, he joined The Mighty Handful, a group of composers dedicated towards promoting distinctly Russian style music. Many of his compositions are based upon Russian folk songs he learned as a child.

Unfortunately, he left the group after becoming bitter that Boris Godunov was withdrawn from the Imperial Opera (the censor heard choruses critical of the czar). Perhaps not incidentally, the Simpleton character cries "Weep, soul of Russia" at the end of the opera. Much of Mussorgsky's music seems to have a depressed, fatalistic, or pessismistic undertone (generally characteristic of Russian music?). (More on the score....).

Not much is known about his later private life except that he was a serious alchoholic (eventually dying from alcoholism in 1881). However, he may have been fortunate to have Rimsky-Korsakov, with whom he lodged, re-orchestrate his work after death.

Finally, he produced the well-liked Pictures at an Exhibition, based on watercolors painted by his good friend Victor Hartman. The watercolors are gone but we can imagine how they once may have appeared. A brief synopsis of the pictures here.

A review of pianist Norika Ogawa's Pictures at an Exhibition. Audio Clips of same.

UPDATE: I failed to realize how hard it is to sit through 4 hours of anything, let alone even an opera with subtitles. I'll get the music CD instead.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Konstantin Chernenko: Paper Pusher

Picture: Chernenko: General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) from 1984-85.
Quote: "Every Communist Party member a propagandist"

Well, yes, paper pushing is basically what he did - signing papers as Brezhnev's assistant most of his life (alongside propagandizing and monitoring wiretaps). He would have succeeded Brezhnev except for losing to Andropov, a favorite of the Red Army and KGB. Nevertheless, his moment in the sun came after Andropov's death- and I can't say he made the most of it.

Like Brezhnev, he was a compromise candidate between reformers and hard-liners (partially rehabilitating Stalin & increasing KGB repression yet being more sensitive to public opinion and the need for more consumer goods). An interesting essay about him and his succession from the Moscow News.

He best represented the Soviet gerontocracy at the time, terminally ill (with lung disease) amidst power-hungry potential successors. I'll never forget this moment on the tv news (a month before he died):

(Soviet television) showed (an) obviously half-dead Chernenko on TV
voting on election day in a room next to his hospital ward made to look like a
polling station. Which caused a general moan of loathing. Then, after the
"elections," Grishin (a politburo member) put on an even more gruesome ceremony, a real danse macabre, handing a ghastly-looking Chernenko his credentials - and the man, who could barely stand upright or articulate sounds, with his terminal emphysema of the lungs, had to rasp out a few sentences by way of an acceptance speech. That episode, which shocked even the least interested, not to mention the politicos, took place on February 28. And on March 10, Chernenko died.

(Read more...)

Gorbachev succeeded Chernenko- but some question whether the timing was purely accidental (Gorbachev's rival Grigory Romanov was on vacation). Indeed, Gorbachev had already done his own manuevering.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Russian Astronaut Yuri Gagarin

How mad would you be if your camera jammed when meeting a famous person? A Swede reports on his frustration above when he meets famous Russian astronaut Yuri Gagarin.

After making mankind's first space flight, Gagarin's enthusiasm and gregarious personality helped spur international excitement about the event. Reading about his preparation, apprehension, and determination makes the cold war almost seem abstract. At a press conference before his flight, he remarked "To be the first to enter the cosmos, to engage single handed in an unprecedented duel with nature - how could anyone dream of anything greater than that?" How cool is that?

To get a better sense of the man, you can read and view his life in pictures at this site. With all that he faced, his comrades nonetheless reported that, "During the days of preparation for the launch, when everyone had more than his share of concerns, apprehensions, and anxieties, he alone seemed to keep calm. More than that: he was full of good spirits and beamed like the sun."

His personality is displayed at his flight liftoff description as well. Apparently, he was well liked by all and remembered as a "fit comrade, (who) never loses heart, a man of principles, bold and steadfast, modest and simple, decisive, a leader." Of course it was not unexpected that Yuri would play a part in Soviet propaganda, as in this booklet.

Unfortunately, he would die at age 34(!) (obituary from the NYTimes)

Wikipedia Sidenote:
Khrushchev saw Gagarin's achievement as a vindication of his policy of strengthening the Soviet Union's missile forces at the expense of conventional arms. This policy antagonised the Soviet military establishment and contributed to Khrushchev's eventual downfall.

History has a strange way about it

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The Winter War

65 years ago today, the Russo-Finnish War (otherwise known as The Winter War) began. During the 1939-40 winter, the Finns held off an invasion by the poorly prepared Soviet Army for 105 days. The Soviets apparently wanted a buffer zone for Leningrad against Nazi Germany (though not the last buffer zone the Soviets sought). After more than 126,875 Soviets troops were killed- vs less than 50,000 Finns- the Soviets were forced to negotiate a peace.

In a war where both sides suffered serious privation, the Finn's advantage came through cleverness- such as producing nighttime raids that forced the Soviets into a firefight with themselves or bypassing forward Soviet tanks to attack unprotected Soviet troops. Of course, in such a snowy climate, having a hardy
Finnish horse was a valuable asset as well.

Photos typically depict Finnish Soldiers, though several Soviet soldiers are shown in this joint Russo-Finnish electronic Winter War Monument- a collaboration by historians with reenactment photos to boot. However, this reenactment site has over 300 photos.

Other Sites: An interesting (though text-intensive)
geocities site about the war. Lessons Learned by the Finns from the war is quite good. To see what Finland had to cede - scroll down for demands and land ceded on map.

The Frozen Hell appears to be the best book on the subject, being well-researched and liked.

Update: During the "Continuation War" (in which the Finns switched sides to help the Nazis, leading them to fight the Soviets again), the Finns had their own territorial ambitions:

...a top Finnish officer outlined... the main aims of the war that Finland waged alongside Germany. "These included, in addition to the return of areas lost to the Soviet Union in the Winter War, taking part in the attack on Leningrad and the conquest of a considerable portion of Soviet Karelia."
From an article on Finnish War Criminals...

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

More about the Cossacks

A site on historical conflicts provides an interesting webpage about the long time defenders of Russia, the Russian Cossacks. The site explains their sad history, provides a map as to where they once lived, and gives pics on their changing appearance (from the 16th-17th century to World War II).

Russian authorities have long pushed to revive the Cossack's traditional roles. Last week, Putin proposed giving them legal status to help "keep law and order." From the Washington Post:

President Vladimir Putin has proposed a law that would allow Cossacks to serve in special units in the military, assist the police and work in border control, counterterrorism and counter-drug operations...

The Cossacks' reemergence is part of a broader revival of vestiges of the Russian past, both czarist and Soviet, that for many people invoke national greatness and patriotism, a goal of the Kremlin. The trend began under President Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s and has continued under Putin.

Putin has however rejected a demand by the Don Cossacks to have their own oblast (territorial autonomous region).

Monday, November 28, 2005

Pugachev's Revolt

Last night I finished a short story by Aleksandr Pushkin entitled The Captain's Daughter, a romance set amidst Pugachev's Revolt in 1773 Russia. Emelian Ivanovich Pugachev, an illiterate Don Cossack pretending to be long-dead Tsar Peter III (forced to abdicate to Catherine, died in custody), found a loyal following throughout eastern European Russia. Pugachev played upon his likeness to Peter III (though I don't see it) and the peasant's longstanding belief that Peter III was never actually killed.

Accordingly, Pugachev was smart enough to employ longstanding greviences against Catherine, gaining followers not only among serfs but Ural factory workers, cossacks, Old Believers, Tatars, Bashkirs, and other minority peoples.

Immediately successful, he soon put forth his
own personal ukaz (proclamation having force of law). These proclamations sought to assure the peasantry that he would restore ancient freedoms (though, at the end of the 18th century, hundreds of rebellious outbreaks occurred). Likewise, he became adept at engaging in propaganda, promoting territorial elections, and producing a regular army.

Pugachev's contingent traveled north and south, burning Kazan to ashes and capturing Orenburg (
route map). Peasants were immediately hanged if they did not acknowledge him as the Tsar. As he advanced upon cities, his flag likely gave panic and flight to loyal subjects.

However, the military's quick success against armed peasants quickly vanquished the revolt. Shortly afterward, Pugachev was betrayed, captured, and caged- as he was sent to Moscow for torture and execution.

Of what consequence Pugachev? The revolt perhaps encouraged Catherine to strengthen her alliance with landowners and the gentry, the same interests who had supported her palace coup in the firtst place.

A Russian film by Alexander Proshkin, The Russian Revolt, is based upon Pushkin's
The Captain's Daughter along with his other work, The History of Pugachev . Like Pushkin, Proshkin visited the sites of Pugachev's revolt and interviewed locals who had age-old stories they had passed down over several generations.

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