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Archive for the 'Russia' Category

Thursday, May 4th, 2017

Thoughts on Rapture by Iliazd (Ilia Zdanevich)

Iliazd’s Rapture is one of the upcoming titles in the Russian Library, a new series that seeks to demonstrate the breadth, variety, and global importance of the Russian literary tradition to English-language readership through new and revised translations of premodern, modern, and contemporary Russian literature.

Rapture

Today Veniamin Gushchin, CC ’18, Russian Library Intern responds to Rapture by Iliazd, translated by Thomas J. Kitson

The term emigrant, as opposed to the more commonly used immigrant, is inherently backwards facing, focusing on the country of origin rather than the destination. In the popular imagination, the immigrant arrives in a land of opportunity, while the emigrant flees from an oppressive regime, hopelessly yearning to return to their past. Though the two words have vaguely the same meaning, though the distinction in writing is but a few letters and in pronunciation is often barely detectable, the terms are antonyms due to the complex set of relationships an individual has with their countries of departure and arrival.

As the son of Russian immigrants that grew up in a bilingual and bicultural environment, I am very sensitive to this distinction. My parents immigrated to the United States in the 90s for greater job opportunities in the field of medicine and made the deliberate choice – mostly to spite my grandmother, who believed such efforts to be in vain – to raise me speaking Russian and aware of my cultural heritage. From watching the Soviet version of Winnie the Pooh before Disney’s to listening to tapes of the actor Innokenty Smoktunovsky reading Eugene Onegin on road trips, my parents recreated a small island of Russian culture in our home. They spoke of their Soviet past with a mixture of nostalgia and disillusionment, as many Russians do. My childhood experience was one of continually balancing my parents’ past with the pressures to assimilate to American culture. Living in suburban Maryland rather than in an immigrant enclave like Brighton Beach, my sole source for my Russian identity was my parents, my only chance to use my Russian my home. As a result, preserving this heritage grew in significance. Now, studying Russian literature in college, I seem to have come to some sort of compromise between these identities. Nevertheless, I do often feel as if I am still that child coming back from school to my parent’s home, part of and distant from both worlds. More importantly, my experience is different than those of denizens of Brighton, than those whose heritage becomes but a percentage mentioned in discussions of ethnic background.

To turn things back a century, and three waves of Russian migration, the tension between cultural preservation and assimilation is reflected in the most prolific Russian émigré writers, Ivan Bunin and Vladimir Nabokov. Especially in the works of the nomadic Nabokov, nostalgia for an idealized version of prerevolutionary Russia is central to the artist’s identity. In terms of assimilation, even in Paris, Bunin wrote exclusively in Russian and interacted mostly with his immediate circle of fellow emigrants. Though Nabokov appears to have shown a greater degree of adaptability, becoming internationally renowned as a writer in English, his constant relocation – the only “Nabokov house” is in St. Petersburg where his family lived before the Revolution – betrays his inability to settle down and fully reconcile his lost past with the present. The idealization of this prerevolutionary period has influenced perceptions of the Soviet Union and imperial Russia both abroad and in Russia. More recently, post-Soviet discourse, exemplified in artistic expression such as Govorukhin’s film “Russia That We’ve Lost,” returns to portraying the turn of the twentieth century as a time of cultural brilliance and sophistication. These notions about the first wave of Russian immigration and that era have become so widespread that they have come to represent its dominant narrative.

The figure of Ilia Zdanevich, or Iliazd, complicates this simplistic view of the reactionary emigrant. Born in Tbilisi, Georgia, his first act of migration was to Petrograd, where he became involved in a number of avant-garde artistic groups associated with the movement of Russian Futurism. His reason for migrating to Paris was to establish new artistic relationships between the nascent Soviet avant-garde and similar artistic movements in Paris, such as Dada and surrealism. Both political and artistic, he stands in contrast to the more conservation Nabokov and Bunin. While the latter two writers proudly continued the traditions of Russian nineteenth century literature, Zdanevich eagerly embraced the possibility of reshaping and developing his genre. Despite his efforts, however, once the Soviet government turned against the avant-garde, Iliazd found himself in “poetic reclusion,” effectively exiled despite having emigrating for an entirely different set of reasons. Nevertheless, the artist continued to live in Paris, collaborating with the likes of Picasso, Matisse, and Léger, developing a reputation in the European art world and, at least in part, assimilating.

Rapture is a doubly nostalgic novel, set in Iliazd’s native Georgia and written as an allegory of the Russian Futurism movement. Published in a doubly distant Paris, it is a thick mixture of avant-garde and traditional folklore, of Russian, Georgian, and Western influences that is impossible to fully separate into its constituent elements.

This new translation of Rapture allows Anglophone readers to experience Iliazd’s complex and thrilling artistic vision for the first time ever. In addition to placing the novel on the same shelf as the modernist masterpieces of Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and Thomas Mann, the publication of this translation complicates the simplistic binary between emigrant and home country present in the most influential narratives about this era. Iliazd’s voice joins the already dominant voices of Bunin and Nabokov to paint a more detailed and nuanced portrait of the first wave of Russian immigration in Paris. Immigration, emigration, and migration are all messy concepts, crossing the boundaries of identity as much as geopolitical borders. Each individual within these processes has a unique relationship to both the country of arrival and departure, the experience only able to be captured in polyphony.

Want to learn more about Rapture? Join the event TODAY, May 4, cosponsored by the NYU Jordan Center and PEN America World Voices Festival, with translator Thomas Kitson and scholar Jennifer Wilson. “What’s Old is New: Gender and Power in Iliazd’s Neglected Rapture

Friday, December 9th, 2016

Thoughts on and an Excerpt from Fourteen Little Red Huts and Other Plays by Andrei Platonov

This post is a part of the inaugural week of the Russian Library, a new series that seeks to demonstrate the breadth, variety, and global importance of the Russian literary tradition to English-language readership through new and revised translations of premodern, modern, and contemporary Russian literature.

Enter the Russian Library Book Giveaway here

Fourteen Little Red Huts and Other Plays

Today Adham Azab-Xu, Ph.D. candidate in French and Romance Philology at Columbia University and current Fellow in Academic Administration here at Columbia University Press, responds to Fourteen Little Red Huts and Other Plays by Andrei Platonov, edited by Robert Chandler and translated by Chandler, Jesse Irwin, and Susan Larsen.

When Christine Dunbar, the editor of the Russian Library Series, asked me to read Fourteen Little Red Huts and Other Plays by Andrei Platonov, edited by Robert Chandler, I wasn’t sure I would enjoy it—I certainly don’t have a background in Russian literature, and have never been an enthusiastic reader of plays. But once I began reading, I was quickly engrossed in the stories these plays have to tell, which is why I am writing this post and urging you, our readers, to give Fourteen Little Red Huts and Other Plays a chance.

In his excellent introduction to this book, Chandler writes that “like all great art, [Platonov’s] stories and plays can speak to a reader who knows little or nothing about the author and his times. Platonov’s deepest concerns were, in fact, always universal—philosophical and psychological more than political” (xxvii). We often perceive great art as great particularly because it continues to appeal to us in changing times, or because changes in our own perspective fill it with new life. In a way, then, great art is both timeless and ephemeral—it endures, but it variously reflects differing perspectives across physical and temporal boundaries.

Wanting to disconnect from the world for a bit, I began reading Fourteen Little Red Huts on November 8th—the day Donald Trump won the presidential election—and Chandler’s observation resonated deeply with me. Like many people I know, I was up in arms for the whole presidential campaign about the unmitigated triumph of disinformation. Even now, fake news sites spread it relentlessly and virulently, and large groups of people (some of whom I know intimately) only double down on their beliefs when presented with information that contradicts the most damaging and outlandish conspiracies. On November 8th, I saw that ours is not unlike the world to which Platonov bears witness in Fourteen Little Red Huts and Other Plays—his characters, in spite of their suffering, and in spite of the obvious signs of falsehood that surround them, cleave ever more closely to their beliefs, or to what they are told to believe, and it certainly doesn’t do them any good.

Granted, to put things in historical context, Platonov’s characters, living—or, more accurately, starving to death—on collective farms (or kolkhozy) in Soviet Russia, are faced with a choice between what they’re told to believe, on the one hand, and the Gulag* on the other. While it is reassuring that relatively few people in the world today have to make such a choice, it is important not to forget that these plays’ most dystopic scenes represent Platonov’s real-life experience as a land reclamation expert in the 1920s, and as a writer sent to report on events in the Soviet countryside between 1929 and 1932. Between 1932 and 1933 alone, the Encyclopedia Britannica estimates that six to nine million people died of hunger in the fields, but even as Platonov’s characters wither away and die, many of them refuse to acknowledge the direness of their reality. They continue to toe the party line.

The plays’ jarringly unnatural, morbidly jocular language, especially in The Hurdy Gurdy and in Fourteen Little Red Huts, testifies to the unbelievability of the situation their characters find themselves in, and I sense that in using this kind of language in these two plays, Platonov was walking a fine line—struggling to find a truthful way to express the dystopic suffering he witnessed without getting himself sent to the Gulag. On several occasions, though, it seems a wonder that Platonov got away with writing so openly about the famine, since the Soviet government denied its existence and criminalized all discourse about it. To this effect, the cries of starving children in Fourteen Little Red Huts are both poignant and remarkable—a true act of literary bravery, even if none of these plays, and only one of the works Platonov wrote about the collectivization or about the famine, were published during Platonov’s lifetime.

In light of this fact, it is perhaps not surprising that Platonov expresses a distinct ambivalence about the value of writing in his plays. Reading Fourteen Little Red Huts in particular, it seems fair to say that he would reject the notion of literary bravery altogether; the three writers in Fourteen Little Red Huts certainly do not come across in a positive light, and, in the same play, reading appears to be little more than a diversion for those who are both starving and bored to death on the kolkhoz. And yet, Platonov still wrote these plays—plays that have often been deemed unperformable on account of their unusual stage directions, which seem more aimed at readers than at potential viewers. Why write plays that aren’t really plays? And why write at all, when it won’t get you anywhere?

If there is any value at all in writing, I would argue that, as far as these plays are concerned, it has more to do with revealing the suffering of the voiceless than with trying to assuage that suffering, which would be an exercise in futility. Platonov offers these voices up to us, and, eighty-five years later, they still speak to us, reminding us in so many ways that we “shall languish without motion amid the historical current, […] the same piffle as everything living or dead” (159).

At any rate, I hope all of you will read Fourteen Little Red Huts and Other Plays! Especially now, it will give you a lot to think about.

*Editor’s note: Not yet called the Gulag, but the point still stands…

See below for an excerpt from Fourteen Little Red Huts:

Wednesday, June 30th, 2010

Stephen Cohen on the Russian Spy Scandal

Stephen CohenIn an interview with CBS News, Stephen Cohen, most recently the author of Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War, questions the timing of the arrests in the Russian spy scandal.

More precisely, Cohen, who is a former White House advisor, suggests that the arrest might have been a backhanded political move to embarrass Obama in light of his high-profile meeting with Russian president Dmitry Medvedev. The move might have also been used to upset Obama’s attempts to “reset” the U.S.-Russian relations. In the interview Cohen suggests, “If this was done by someone to undermine Obama’s reset policy toward the Russians it reminds us how strong the opposition is.” Moreover, Cohen wonders what, if any, advanced knowledge Obama had of the arrests.

Cohen argues that the “heavy hand of the historical legacy of the Cold War lives on,” and that in both the United States and Russia a degree of mistrust exists between the two nations. As to the degree to which these accused spies represented a real danger, Cohen says, “These people were up to something, or some of them were, but it seems pretty innocuous. There are no charges of espionage.”

Tuesday, June 1st, 2010

Has Obama averted a new Cold War with Russia? Stephen Cohen weighs in.

Stephen CohenAt a recent talk at the Carnegie Council, Stephen Cohen, author of Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War, discussed some of the key features of his book as well as assessing Obama’s policy toward Russia. (You can also watch a video of Cohen’s talk or listen to the audio.)

In Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives, Cohen’s argues that beginning during the Clinton administration and continuing through the George W. Bush’s presidency the narrative of the U.S. as victors of the Cold War took hold and caused new tensions to emerge between the U.S. and Russia. NATO expansion, disrespect toward Russia, missile policy, and other U.S. policy decisions have allowed for what some see as a new “Cold War.”

Some of Obama’s decisions and policies have reduced tension, and establishing a friendly relationship with Medvedev and a rhetoric of cooperation have improved relations. Most important, reviving the arms-control process, abandoned by Bush, have made U.S.-Russian relations in a much better state than when Obama took over in 2009.

(more…)