Sunday Night Poetry

One of my Russian-speaking friends posted this poem on Facebook earlier this weekend. It’s one of my favorites, so I thought I’d post it here. The translation is not mine (I’m rubbish at translating poetry)—I found it here.

The poet is Marina Tsvetaeva and she wrote this after falling in love with her sister’s husband (at least according to what my tutor at Oxford said). The husband was also in love with her (i.e. Marina) but neither of them wanted to cause the sister pain, so I don’t think Marina ever had a relationship with the sister’s husband.

I like it that you’re burning not for me,
I like it that it’s not for you I’m burning
And that the heavy sphere of Planet Earth
Will underneath our feet no more be turning
I like it that I can be unabashed
And humorous and not to play with words
And not to redden with a smothering wave
When with my sleeves I’m lightly touching yours.

I like it, that before my very eyes
You calmly hug another; it is well
That for me also kissing someone else
You will not threaten me with flames of hell.
That this my tender name, not day nor night,
You will recall again, my tender love;
That never in the silence of the church
They will sing “halleluiah” us above.

With this my heart and this my hand I thank
You that – although you don’t know it -
You love me thus; and for my peaceful nights
And for rare meetings in the hour of sunset,
That we aren’t walking underneath the moon,
That sun is not above our heads this morning,
That you – alas – are burning not for me
And that – alas – it’s not for you I’m burning.

Original Russian version below for those who are interested.
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Academia: The Last Refuge Of Idiots

Apologies to any intelligent, normal people working in academia, but this article I read about a month ago just begs for an insulting title. It’s called The Problem With College Tenure and contains some of the more idiotic statements made by those working in the venerated, strange institution that is academia today.

Middle-aged Steven G. Salaita of Blacksburg, Va., recently suffered every working stiff’s nightmare. He quit his job for a better one, but before starting at the new place, his employer checked out his social media persona—and withdrew the offer.

Now he has no job at all. His friends think he got hosed.

This tale of woe has a couple of twists, however. The first is that Steven Salaita was a tenure-track college professor, and they almost never get canned. So what did he do? That’s where his presence on social media comes in. These didn’t turn out to be compromising photos of Steven at a party looking smashed or Steven on a camping trip smoking a blunt.

No, this was Salaita, formerly a professor in the English department at Virginia Tech, slamming Jews, U.S. soldiers, and “rednecks” on Twitter—and relating his plans to introduce future classrooms of 19-year-olds to his obsessive hatred of Israel.

Seeing this, University of Illinois officials reconsidered letting Salaita teach two classes in the school’s American Indian studies program. One might sympathize with him—hey, he was just blowing off steam and the war in Gaza is upsetting—until looking at his Twitter feed. There, Salaita reveals himself to be a foul-mouthed fanatic whose antipathy for Israel is so thorough that he calls for the country’s destruction, fantasizes about the mass murder of Jewish settlers, blames Jews themselves for anti-Semitism, and says that anybody who disagrees with him “is an awful human being.”

There’s more—much more—if you go read the entire article. It’s actually frightening. I’m happy to say I escaped such idiocy during my education. Sure, many of my professors had a definite leftist tilt, but none of them expressed anything remotely anti-Semitic and they were always open to people expressing their own views in the classroom.

Occasionally (okay, it’s been more than just occasionally in recent months), I mourn the fact that I’m not an academic or on track to have an academic career. Then I read nonsense like the article linked above, and realize perhaps I dodged a bullet. After all, I work with pretty cool people—most people I’ve met at The Bank so far have been very nice and don’t have an obsessive hatred of things I like.

I propose we abolish tenure and replace it with multi-year contracts. But that is a post for another time, if you’re interested.

No September 11 Post

I used to write a memorial post on September 11. You can read one here. I haven’t for the past two years, though, and I am not going to this year.

The reason why is that I’m disgusted. September 11, 2001 wasn’t that long ago in the whole scheme of things. Yet, everyone seems to have forgotten about it. It bothers me that in my generation, what should have been a turning point and seminal event is just viewed as history now, and something that can’t (and won’t) happen again.

So instead, I am going to work on my novel, then go read for a bit, then go to bed. I’m not going to spend time trying to convince people that the events of September 11, 2001 are more important today than ever before. (Have you read the news about the Middle East lately?) It’s not worth my time and honestly, I really don’t know if I care about persuading people anymore.

Ukraine In Russian Science Fiction

Or, yet even more Russian-language books I have to read!

I keep forgetting to blog about this article I saw on Slate recently (it’s from July, when I first started work, so I missed it back then) called The Sci-Fi Writers’ War. It’s about Russian writers who have a conflict with Ukraine as a central focus of their novels. (Whether they truly “predicted” the current conflict in Ukraine, as the article asserts, is debatable.) The author categorizes these works as science fiction, but I think they sound more like a sort of alternate history. Admittedly I haven’t read any of these books, so I could be wrong.

Listen to the summaries of these novels. We’ll start with an author who lives in Donetsk, where a lot of the fighting is currently taking place:

A pro-Western, NATO-backed Ukrainian government faces a stubborn insurgency in the pro-Russian East. Fighting rages around Donetsk, with civilians dying in artillery fire and airstrikes, while Russian troops mass on the Ukrainian border. The latest headlines? No, a two-novel series by Russian-Ukrainian science-fiction writer Fedor Berezin: War 2010: The Ukrainian Front and War 2011: Against NATO.

As if that isn’t enough, there’s more:

A forerunner of the genre, Omega, by veteran sci-fi/fantasy writer Andrei Valentinov, came out in 2005, shortly after Ukraine’s pro-Western Orange Revolution. It depicted three alternate-history versions of 2004, one of them a dystopia in which Crimea had been invaded and occupied by NATO forces in 1995; while the main characters were resistance fighters, they were both anti-Moscow and anti-NATO.

And also:

A far more straightforward vision of Russian good vs. Western evil is offered in The Age of the Stillborn by Gleb Bobrov, who like Berezin is an ethnic Russian from Eastern Ukraine (Luhansk) and an Afghanistan war veteran. The apocalyptic novel, set in a near future in which a brutal Kiev regime seeks to quash rebellion in the East with NATO help, was first published online in 2006 and became a hit on the Russian Internet before going to print in 2007.

And that’s not even all the novels mentioned.

Considering that I absolutely love this genre in English (Harry Turtledove writes a ton of alternate history that sounds a lot like these, and he’s one of my favorite authors ever), I need to read these books in Russian. I have entirely too many books to read (remember that Russian classics project I blogged about?). Believe me, every single one of these is going on my to-read list. It’s going to be amazing.

And who knows, maybe I’ll write some alternate history involving Ukraine soon.

An Ambitious Project: Reading The Great Canon That Is Russian Literature

Okay, everyone, I have a fabulous idea for a project I want to do. Unfortunately, like many projects I seek to take on, it’s very ambitious and I don’t know if I have any time whatsoever for it. But before I tell you about this vast undertaking, let me explain a few things.

Doctoral Degrees

Whenever people hear “PhD,” they always think of the doctoral dissertation, or thesis, or whatever it’s called in your country—and rightfully so, since this is the crowning achievement of a doctoral student, the main obstacle to receiving the degree. However, it’s not the only hoop an intrepid doctoral student must jump through. I have no idea what it’s like in the sciences or social sciences, but in most of the humanities fields, students must pass something called comprehensive exams before they can start working on their dissertations. To prepare for this exam, students must read volumes upon volumes of work. In history, this usually takes the form of history books, both in your field and out. In literature, as you’d imagine, students must read literature in their chosen field (i.e. students of Spanish literature read a ton of books from the canon of Spanish-language writing, going back centuries; students of Russian do the same but with Russian works, etc.).

Needless to say, preparing for these exams is time-consuming and very stressful. After all, the exam itself is often oral and involves the best scholars in the field grilling you about obscure elements of your field. (I’m actually getting stressed just thinking about it.)

The Project

I want to read more Russian literature. The canon is so vast that I cannot hope to read it all—nor would I want to, as the vast majority of it is probably quite bad. (This goes for any language. There are a ton of bad books written English as well.)

To narrow my focus on Russian literature, I have turned to the reading lists for doctoral students in Slavic literature at Harvard and Yale, two of the top programs in the country. (And two that are gracious enough to publish their lists online!) You can see Harvard’s list here and Yale’s here (both links in PDF format, for easy downloading). The lists do differ, but many of the major works appear on both. (It would be a crime against humanity if grad students in Russian literature didn’t read Tolstoy, you know what I mean?)

So you’re really going to read all those books? And in Russian to boot?

Well, no. Let me explain: the Harvard list has a lot of early Russian works (“early” being defined as “starting in the eleventh century”). Aside from not knowing where I would acquire those, I’m not as interested in reading old Russian. Sure, it would be intriguing to observe the changes that have occurred since then, but I am more interested in improving my command of modern Russian, so I don’t plan to read anything written before the eighteenth century or so. I do plan to read them in the original Russian, though.

I also may add to the list. Case in point: Ivan Bunin has made his way onto it, but neither university requires his memoir of the Civil War, Cursed Days, which I really want to read. Ditto for Mikhail Bulgakov: his early stories do not make the list, either, but I’d like to read them. And Yale, for some inexplicable reason, does not require Isaak Babel’s Red Cavalry, which contains some of the finest writing I have ever read. (If you’re going to read Red Cavalry in English, read this edition, please. It is a wonderful translation.)

Why do this? What’s the benefit?

In short, I want to learn more about Russian literature, and it certainly doesn’t look like I’m going to go to grad school anytime soon (and on the off chance I go, think of how far ahead I’ll be compared to everyone else!). For me, reading Russian literature is fun. Once I finish the vampire novel I’m reading in Russian (don’t laugh, it’s actually really good), I plan to start on this project. I don’t envision a specific order for the books—I’ve been wanting to try Doctor Zhivago for a while now, so that may be what I read next. Of course, I may change my mind and start of really ambitiously with War and Peace, but only if I’m feeling especially courageous.

And, of course, I’ll be blogging about the whole thing. Get ready for the awesomeness, everyone. And let me know if you have any suggestions for this project.

‘Five Hundred Thousand Fools’

I can’t resist posting this comment I found on an article over at World Affairs Journal. It’s from an article by noted Russian oppositionist Vladimir Kara-Murza called “Is Russia Suited for Democracy?” In it, he said it would be inaccurate to categorize the recent protests in Ukraine as a “500,000-strong opposition in a country of 46 million.” As you can see, this commenter took exception to such an assertion.

But Maidan was 500,000 fools deciding for a country of 45 million. Sure, these 500,000 fools probably had support of millions out there. The oligarch controlled media in Ukraine gave largely positive coverage to the protests. But in reality this left vast pools of people who were not for the Maidan, or did not care, or did not care enough.

In the however, couple of thousands of right wing thugs have created a security situation so bad, democratically elected Yanukovych was forced to run. If you called that a “normal European democracy”, I beg to differ.

Where did Turchynov and Yatsenyuk get a popular mandate from? Oh that’s right, nobody. These two have enacted IMF austerity, and started a civil war. Making your people and starting a civil war is easier to do when you have no democratic mandate.

You and your liberal buddies would do well Kara-Murza to never mention the events in Ukraine in an uncritical light as you do now. That’s difficult to do however, when your boss sits in the Spaso House.

“Spaso House” is the name of the United States ambassador to Russia’s residence, in case you were wondering.

Does Vladimir Putin Represent A White Russian Ascendancy?

I somehow missed this fascinating article back in July. The best part is this paragraph:

I read somewhere that, nearly a century after the Russian civil war, the ascendancy of Vladimir Putin ought to be seen as representing the final victory of the Whites over the Reds.

The author goes on to say that he thinks there’s something to this idea. I really wish I could find the original source for it, as I love all things White Russian. It’s also an interesting idea because all we hear from the media is how Putin wants to restore the Soviet Union, blah blah blah. But if he represents a White victory, then wouldn’t that mean he wants to restore the old Russian Empire, not the Soviet Union? (I’ve actually been saying the latter for some time now.)