Boris Pasternak Sonnet

Douglas Murray, one of my favorite current writers and historian, is posting over the next year a column on Free Press with Bari Weiss. Murray did an excellent video series called Uncancelled. This current column started off well. He focused on Boris Pasternak, an excellent Russian author, who lived in Stalinist times and survived.

Here is the story of his reply of one number, 30, and how it likely saved his life and energized other Russians who understood the meaning. There is more to his article and story of this Shakespeare sonnet…

Two foundational stories stick in my own mind. I will tell the second one next week, but I will start with an event that took place in Moscow in 1937.
That year’s annual Soviet writers’ congress took place in the worst time of the purges. At the major show trials in Moscow, people were confessing to things they could not possibly have done. Both the journalist Malcolm Muggeridge and the author Fitzroy Maclean, who observed these events, were credited with the line “I can believe everything except the facts.”
The people who got public show trials were comparatively lucky: at least the absurdity of the excuse for their murder was made public. Other people disappeared all the time with nothing heard of them again.
It was a dangerous time to be a private citizen, but an even worse time to be a public one. So the writers’ congress that year included a lot of very dull, regime-prescribed speeches praising the virtues of Leninist–Stalinism, Stalinist–Leninism, and so on. It was the sort of occasion to which all artists were subjected through that era: a ritual of forced humiliation. A way of getting everyone to collude in the world of lies. 
Boris Pasternak was one of the most famous writers in the country. Though he had not yet completed Doctor Zhivago—the novel that would make him internationally famous—in that hall, that year, everybody knew him. And Pasternak faced a challenge. He could not speak, and he couldn’t not speak. Stalin’s secret police chief Lavrentiy Beria and his men were literally standing by the side of the stage. If Pasternak spoke, he could be disappeared. If he didn’t speak, he could be disappeared. So he stayed silent. It was on the third and final day of the conference that the writer’s friends persuaded him that the silence was madness. He had to speak. So finally, Pasternak got up to the lectern.
Everybody knew who he was, of course. He was tall, and strikingly handsome. As he pulled himself up to his full height he said not a word but a number. The number was “30.” As he said it, all two thousand writers in the hall got to their feet, and—with Pasternak—began to recite.
Thirty is the number of the Shakespeare sonnet beginning, “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought I summon up remembrance of things past.” Today the line may be best known for giving C. K. Scott Moncrieff the title for his English translation of Proust’s masterpiece about lost time. But the Russian writers in that hall all knew Pasternak had himself done a translation of the sonnet into Russian. It was already a classic. Those who know his translation say it is as beautiful as the original.


This War Continues

I need to get into the nature of posting in this blog more frequently. It is comforting to have this functioning better though it would help if we had a faster speed to our internet and it would be more stable.

Now on to the current state of the war of Russia on the Ukraine. Ukraine has slowed down the military progress of Russia encircling parts of Ukraine and declaring victory. We are likely in for some very serious times ahead. This is a significant war that has so many undertones and nuances plus past history. This probably will not end well for a number of countries and also regions, including the U.S. and Europe. Russia looks to weaken the West and be the power it was before 1991 when it was essentially broken apart. Today, Russia's army has taken over the largest nuclear power plant in Europe which is in the southern part of Ukraine. Will this be used to blackmail the West? Times are uncertain.

A good article by a blogger with a lot of pragmatic views and there are lots of comments and a link to a Claire Berlinski substance article in the midst. A lot to ponder, worry, and monitor.

<<The article (the Russian press article declaring victory which has not happened and has been removed from its February 26th posting) dovetails with things Putin has been saying and doing for years, which is another reason I believe it’s for real and that it expresses his actual goals: not just to regain the old Russian empire, but – as Khrushchev once famously said – of burying us.

Remember Nineteen Eighty-Four? To paraphrase, “If you want a picture of the future [of Ukraine and all other countries Russia conquers], imagine a boot stamping on a human face— forever.”
Remember, too, that although Orwell’s book was set in England, it was modeled after what Orwell knew of the Soviets. Putin isn’t a Marxist, but he has the same devotion they had to subjugating those who might want autonomy. Don’t forget also that before he was a politician,
Putin was a KGB guy. >>

A Return to War in Ukraine

In earlier times of this blog, such as in 2014, I wrote about the history of Eastern Europe and a war by Russia on Ukraine. This history of war goes back decades, centuries even. I mostly discussed the history of the 1930's and 40's brought about by Stalin's policies and control over the Ukraine being called the Holodomor.

There has been more recent interactions and history between the countries, in particular as the Soviet Union broke apart and Ukraine became a separate country with some aspect of democracy at the edge of Russia. Putin, the leader of Russia, sees now an opportunity to bring Ukraine back under their control and build further the prior influence of Russia over its vassal countries like as the Soviet Union.

This is a sad and alarming situation. The Ukrainian people are good people and are not looking for war. People will fight though and are dying. Some are fleeing the country. Some articles found in Tablet Magazine give a sense of what is happening: Lee Smith is a very good writer and has explained how he sees this war came about. Bernard Henri-Levy also writes about Putin and this unbelievable situation. So much feels like a return to the 1930's.

For more knowledge and good literature, I recommend these authors and books:

Robert Conquest - Harvest of Sorrow

Timothy Snyder - Bloodlands, Europe between Hitler and Stalin

Anne Applebaum - Red Harvest, Stalin's War on Ukraine

Blood Red Century

The New York Times believes they think and speak for all of us or how we should think. Not me. I am too much of a history buff and have read of what the Soviet regime was like under Lenin and Stalin. It cannot be swept under the rug as soft socialism and romantic.

Here is one article about what the Blood Red Century was really like.

Quakers and Spies

My ancestors were Quakers right up until my great grandparents on my mother's mother's father's side of the family. They split from the Quakers at some point likely in the late 1800s but they came over to America with the Quakers. It was interesting to read this book review about on of Stalin's American spies who was a Quaker and a true believer in Stalinism, even when he was arrested and kept in prison in the USSR.

The Soviet LifeStyle

Bob and I have a number of history books about Russia and the period of communism as the Soviet Union. One knows of the horror of communism as it was put upon the Russian people if you delve into it. Sadly the horrors of Nazi Germany and Hitler are taught more with the horrors of Stalin is glossed over. The books of Robert Conquest of "The Great Terror" and "Harvest of Sorrow" will set you correct. The detail is horrifying to say the least. This article goes on to summarize the worst of totalitarianism.

"Ninety-nine years ago, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated, and, after a few months of weak parliamentary rule, the Bolsheviks seized power. We call that seizure the Russian (or October) Revolution, but it might better be designated the Bolshevik coup d’état. A party of 10,000 people gained control of an empire occupying one-sixth of the earth’s land area.

From the start, they made up for their small numbers with outsized violence. If at first their executions of liberals, socialists, workers who showed independence, and peasants from whom grain was seized at gunpoint seemed like a short-term necessity, it soon became evident that the violence would never stop. In fact, it was to grow, with Stalin proclaiming “the intensification of the class struggle” when Bolshevik control had long been total."

The Amerikans

I have watched the TV show, The Amerikans, on FX since it started. The concept is a deep cover family, parents came over from Russia and are very American like spies for the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Their children do not know they are spies and they assume they are a normal American family.

I came across this story of a family of much similar circumstances. The parents were deep cover spies for Russia and the children did not know of the deception until the FBI arrested the parents. Now the sons must live in Europe and wish to be able to return to the U.S. Read the story.

Enemy of the State

Too many people are flirting with the thought of socialism (democratic or not). They have not read history. They have not read how the Soviet Union turned people into enemies of the state without them realizing why they were considered so. Often these people were convinced or made to be convinced they were guilty. Here is a description of how the NKVD operated in the 1930s of the Soviet Union. Read and weep.

Svetlana's Story

I am currently reading about Stalin's role in the Soviet Union's Great Terror. He was a horrible, evil man. He loved his daughter though, Svetlana. I remember when she defected to the United States and I read her book, Only One Year, which made her a household name. Jay Nordlinger brings her presence back to life in describing her role as a memoirist for her life and her father's.


Russia is well known for a large number of artists - from composers, to poets, to ballet, to writers. One of the best was Fyodor Dostoevsky. His best known work was Crime and Punishment. I came across this information about how he and his writer colleagues were put through a mock execution in 1849 by Czar Nicolas I. This particular Czar was an autocrat and harsh on the peasant population. More about Dostoevsky's background, his work, and what inspired him can be found here.
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