Sunday, March 28, 2010


The Ahiska, now in Astrakhan--a Turkish people from the Causcasus, deported under Stalin en masse to Central Asia. An Ahiska wedding, the bride, kneeling, in white, her hand curled in that of her young husband, his dark eyes, deepset, looking upwards.

Her tinted auburn hair, a row of dry trees, water somewhere behind them, in the distance...

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


Piłsudski, which began as an image of anonymous figure in heavy coat from the time of the Russian Civil War--his strong character caught my eye, as with Chapayev, the legendary Bolshevik hero (listening to song,"Гуляал по Урали Чапаев-Герой"--Chapaev-the-Hero Strolled through the Urals), which sounds about right here except that the picture is indeed Josef Pilsudski--the aristocratic Polish commander who defeated the Red Army in the battle for Warsaw in 1920--about the time of the photo was made. Contradictions. On top of which, the painting shows a more ambiguous, pensive figure--fur-collared great coat notwithstanding.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Friday, March 12, 2010


Uglich, in winter. An ancient town on the Volga, to the north of Moscow. "A corner of the field." The Tsarevitch Dimitry, youngest son of Ivan,and last in the line of Rurik princes, banished to Uglich after Ivan's death, and found murdered there in the courtyard of the palace. (See Boris Godunov, the Time of Troubles, and a rush of pseudo-Dimitry's).

On that spot, in 1690, the city constructed a small church (St Demetrios on the Blood) "which appears on the horizon with its red walls and blue domes as one sails north on the Volga."

Tuesday, March 9, 2010


A grim tale on a gray day. Mikhael Nikolaevich Tukhachevsky, Red Army commander who led the campaign to retake Siberia from the Whites (Kolchak). Then the Kuban (against Denniken), then Kronstadt. He soon became chief general on the Western Front--advancing almost to Warsaw, where the Bolshevik forces were ultimately defeated by Josef Piłsudski. Historians offer many reasons for this defeat--the Poles were fighting for their own land, their sage French military adviser--the Russian's over-extended supply lines, their errors in strategy (Stalin's attacking Lvov instead of the Polish capital, as Tukhachevsky had ordered). One sees all of this on Tukhachevsky's face, even in an official portrait, wearing a simple rubashka, and standing alone in front of what appears to be an armored train. A predictive painting as well, for in 1935 Stalin accused Tukhachvsky of treason. (It now appears that there was a German plot to implicate him). Soon after this Marshall of the Soviet Union was peremptorily shot.

For many years a story circulated that Tukhachevsky's 12-year old daughter--after her father had disappeared and none in the family knew where or why--was taunted by her classmates about her father's being a "fascist traitor." She was said to have hanged herself. It was later claimed that this was untrue--and that she had been sent instead to a special orphanage for the children of the enemies of the people.

The Red Napoleon...

Sunday, March 7, 2010


A woman against a horizon, unseen. Berestechko, a village in Volhynia, today's Ukraine. Ancestries--the great battle fought there in 1651, when 100,000 Cossack troops rebelled againt Polish rule. Hussars and Tatars...

Dark stories from the last century's wars...

"A quiet town, nestled in a curve of the River Styr," as described by a more recent visitor, pictures of town sign, in distictive East Slavic script, a boy in a boat on a pond. Happy discovery of a family gravestone, inscribed with a Jewish name...

Sorting out the past...

Friday, March 5, 2010


Corner of a display case in a provincial museum--Berestechko--a Cossack hetman's winter boot, ancient leather and jogged seams, hand-sewn--something almost prehistoric in effect. Cut at top at slight angle to match the curve of the leg. Alongside, back wall of case, hand-drawn figure of a man, life-size, with additional implements on the belt--a curved saber and narrow, long-handled axe. Plus outline drawing of a horse, with actual saddle mount--the juxtaposition of blackened leather and clean white wall. Babel's world...

Thursday, March 4, 2010


Клином Красным Бей Белых... With the Red Wedge Beat the Whites. El Lissitzky, from the time of the Russian Civil War. Or, my father's voice--the abhorrence--as he'd pronounce the name of Petlura and his Black Hundreds. And yet, and yet, a small painting by David Burliyuk, set at about that time--man and woman sitting together at a table, a soldier and his wife, their dreamy expressions in the face of all...

Seen here again in this White Army officer and his beloved...

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


Looking at a portrait of Repin, by Valentin Serov--his former student. Closely-observed, but in some way idealized, and a touch world-weary. Still, the warmth of the painting remains impressive. Repin was in his late forties at the time. How to understand such a man?


Horse on a white field, time of the Russian Civil war. Varshavyanka--originally a song from Poland, adopted by the Russians as a socialist hymn in both the 1905 and 1917 Revolutions. "The banner of the workers' struggle..." Still pure...

Monday, March 1, 2010


The story of a sunken church, flooded by the rise of a Stalinist lake (1940). The Uglich Reservoir, serving double duty--by watering the present while erasing the past. First seen on my part amidst the travel pictures of a pair of young Russians vacationers--this strange antique belfry rising from the surface of a wide lake, or, in winter, a stark tower emerging from the frozen snow...