Sunday, 23 August 2009

The Song of the Volga Boatmen

The Song of the Volga Boatmen
is a genuine barge-haulers' shanty. Mily Balakirev, pianist and composer, famous for having promoted nationalism in Russian music, went around and collected folk songs and published them in a book.
Balakirev published The Song of the Volga Boatmen with only one verse (the first). The other two verses were added at a later date.

I've had this very version of the song on a music cassette for ages, and only today did I see what the singers in the Red Army Choir who performed it actually looked like. I like the lead singer's eyebrow action.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Images of a Poet

Strange to end up writing about Ğabdulla Tuqay after searching for Ildar Urmanche - both were influential Tatars in the world of art, but Tuqay is definitely more famous than the Soviet animation director Urmanche.

The national poet of Tatarstan, Ğabdulla Tuqay (often spelled Gabdulla Tuqai or Tukai), lived a short but intense life around the previous turn of the century (1886 - 1913). His works are considered as the backbone of Tatar literature, the measure which others are measured against, inescapable in cultural celebrations as well as in primary school. His poem Tuğan tel (O Native Tongue; see the end of this post for a music video) became the inofficial anthem of the Tatar language. The story of his life is worthy of a Dostoyevsky novel.

Posthumous portrait by E. Simbirin, 1976.

Ğabdulla Tuqay was the son of a village mullah. Tuqay's childhood was restless, his parents and his stepmother died, one after another, and Tuqay was sent around from family to family, always forced to find a new place to live because of death, illness or poverty. During his stay with one family, Ğabdulla was sent to the local madrasah (religious school of Islam). He showed promise as a student, but his wandering days were not over. Some relatives in Uralsk (today Oral in Kazakhstan) adopted him. He could attend another madrasah, and in 1896 also a Russian school. There he studied Russian literature and started to write poetry, especially inspired by Pushkin.

Tuqay was uninterested in business, although his stepfather was a merchant and tried to involve him in the trade. When his stepfather died, Tuqay moved into the madrasah and lived a studious but austere life. The year 1902 became a turning point - Ğabdulla suddenly lost interest in religious rote learning. He tasted alcohol, took up smoking, let his hair grow longer and turned to poetry. Earlier he had shown interest in folklore and asked traveling scholars to bring him local songs and tales. His madrasah studies had familiarized him with Old Tatar literature, which was heavily influenced by Arabic, Persian and Turkic. An ambition took root in him to create a new and living Tatar literature closer to the way the common people spoke.

Tuqay was not heroically handsome; he was physically fragile and boyish even in maturity and illness. The pictures in this post show how artists idealized him by focusing on his soulful eyes and intensifying the power of his gaze instead. Here, actor G. Shamukov does his best to emphasize the masculine determination in Tuqay, even on his sickbed. (More photos of Tuqay and actors portraying him)

Tuqay started to work at a secular publishing house in Uralsk. The printed media boomed after the October Manifesto of 1905, which introduced more liberal censorship laws. Previously, it was forbidden to publish newspapers in the Tatar language. By day Tuqay worked as a typesetter and proofreader, by night he wrote verses, articles and short stories and translated Russian texts. He became interested in liberal and social-democratic ideas, which intertwined with a vision of national emancipation. Tuqay wrote, Bezneñ millät, ülgänme, ällä yoqlağan ğınamı? (Is our nation dead, or only sleeping?). He criticised the conservative clergy in clever satires. When ultra-nationalist Russians told Tatars to emigrate to the Ottoman Empire, Tuqay replied with a passionate declaration: Kitmibez! (We don't leave!). For Tuqay, the Tatars were the Russians' brother-nation.

Political and economic pressure increased on the press. While Tuqay's fame allowed him move out of the madrasah and he didn't lack offers of work, the political unrest also led him towards poetry and the development of modern Tatar as a literary language. His first poem was Şüräle, based on a Tatar fairytale. Soon, he was invited to work in Kazan. Ominously, he was exempted of the notoriously brutal military draft due to his poor health. It was a foreboding of the end of his short life, but it freed him to his work. In Kazan, Tuqay was barely 20 and already famous. Fame usually brings romantic attention, too. However, Tuqay apparently avoided women and wrote tender verses to one person alone, his 15-year-old admirer Zäytünä Mäwlüdova.

With his sister Gaziza in Uralsk, by Kh. Yakupov, 1971. (More images of artworks with Tuqay)

In 1909-1910 the prime minister of Russia, Pyotr Stolypin, cracked down on the press and limited the freedoms of 1905. Tuqay was deeply distressed. All the struggle seemed to have been futile. Some of his old friends began to work for conservative papers and responded to Tuqay's criticism by calling him a Russophile. Ironically, the Tsarist secret police suspected that his poetry was Russophobic! While meant as an insult, "Russophile" was closer to the truth. Tuqay mourned Leo Tolstoy's death in 1910. He was inspired by Tolstoy's humanism and concern for the weakest.

Illustration for Tuqay's tales for children, by T. Khaziakhmetov, 1981.

Tuqay and Kumis Therapy

Kumis is fermented mare's milk, a staple drink in the Central Asian countries. In the late 19th century, kumis therapy was a popular health fad in the Russian Empire. Patients travelled to resorts in the southeastern parts of the Empire and enjoyed "suitable light and varied amusement" - and drank large amounts of kumis, which made Anton Chekhov gain 12 pounds in two weeks but did not cure his tuberculosis. Leo Tolstoy described kumis therapy as a treatment for burnout in A Confession: "I fell ill, mentally rather than physically, threw up everything, and went away to the Bashkirs in the steppes, to breathe fresh air, drink kumys, and live a merely animal life."

Like Chekhov, Tuqay suffered from tuberculosis. He realized that he needed all his powers to continue the struggle for national rights and democracy - and he dreamed of writing "the Tatar Eugen Onegin" - but he needed to regain his health. Tuqay travelled from Kazan by the great Volga southwards to Astrakhan, where he experienced kumis therapy. Another trip took him to Ufa and St. Petersburg, where a doctor withheld from him that his illness had reached the final stage. In 1912, he lived among Kazakh nomads, drinking kumiss regularly.

Tuqay in St. Petersburg, by M. Rakhimov, 1975.

Although kumis couldn't cure him, it gave him back his optimism. In the poems of his final year he wrote that the struggle had not been in vain, and focused on social concerns. Many of his verses were banned, and some of them were published only after the October Revolution. One poem unfortunately remembered was his ode to the 300th anniversary of the Romanov dynasty. In the 1920s, Tuqay was dismissed as a "Tsarist" because of this poem, which nevertheless ends with a call for internationalism within Russia and praises the eternal friendship between Tatars and Russians.

Bust by Baki Urmanche, who had a son named Ildar - could he be the art director whom I mentioned in the beginning?

On April 15, 1913, Ğabdulla Tuqay died at the age of 27. April 26, his birthday, is celebrated nowadays as the Day of Tatar Language. The Peremech Lounge has a photo of his grave and pictures of an interesting Tuqay pocket reader from the Soviet era. Oh yeah, almost forgot: Here's Tatar boy band Kazan Egetläre giving their version of Tugan tel...

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

The president's first love

The Russian newspaper Argumenty i fakty reports in the article "To turn down a president: First love is never forgotten" about the first love of Kazakhstan's president Nursultan Nazarbayev.

In 1994, Nazarbayev paid a visit to the city Dneprodzerzhinsk in Ukraine. He came by the vocational training school Nr. 8, where he in the late 1950's, in the dawn of his youth, had studied to become a furnace-worker, and met with teachers and old class mates. Surprisingly, he declared: "In your city, I helped two friends get married. But I myself failed. Here, I felt my first love."

Lyudmila Ivanovna Kalnysh, a former classmate of the president, heard this confession on the radio. She had not dared go watch the Kazakh president's visit, because she was afraid that she might faint if she saw Nursultan.

Back in their school days, Nuri had noticed Lyudmila in the gym hall, where he wrestled in one end of the hall and she did rhythmic gymnastics in the other end of the hall.
At some point Lyuda felt the gaze of burning black eyes in her back. She already knew that Nursultan was a straight-A student and the komsorg (komsomol organizer) of the class.
"I remember how the girls and I were sitting in the assembly hall at some boring meeting", Lyudmila Ivanovna tells AiF. "We didn't listen to the speeches. And suddenly Nursultan climbs on the platform. It astonished me how wonderfully he spoke. His words poured out beautifully, freely, without any 'er' or 'well'. And soon, after a gym class, he was waiting for me at the exit. I got nervous and dashed off through another exit on the other side of the building, and ran into the doorway of some unknown house. And there was Nuri: 'But that's not your house!' - 'How do you know?' - 'I know. Come on, let me take you home. It's dark outside - someone might insult you.'"

But then she fell ill, and had to stay at the hospital to have her pneumonia treated. When she was finally able to get up from her bed, she glanced at the street through the window. And there was Nursultan, looking up at the hospital windows. Lyuda hid behind the curtain. An older lady in the bed next to hers smiled at her: "Don't be shy! I can see all the way from here that he's a good young man."

Once Lyuda got out of the hospital, they danced tango for the first time:
"Nuri was so careful with me. He didn't try to press himself against me like other guys. With him I felt calm and like I could trust him."
Afterwards they traded photos with each other. And at some point it was time for him to meet Lyudmila's mother.
"He was terribly nervous, it took him forever to take his shoes off in the hallway. Nursultan plucked at the tablecloth, it seemed he wanted to say something important. But what? After a few days it became clear, when a good friend of mine came to me and whispered in my ear: 'Nursultan sends me. He asks if you'd like to marry him, if you'd like to come with him to Kazakhstan. He is waiting for your answer.'"
But what about my studies?, Lyuda thought.
"I enrolled at the school later than Nursultan, I still had one year left. Besides, with my 19 years I didn't think seriously about boys. I wasn't ready for close relationships. Mum and I lived like two nuns. My father had left us when I was four years old. Mum never married again."
So Lyuda said no. Still, Nuri didn't lose hope, and kept writing to her from Kazakhstan. And Lyuda went through the heavy school of life:
"I graduated from the school as a seamstress. I was assigned to the best dressmaking establishment of the city, but the director hated me for some reason. She kept insulting me in front of the whole brigade. I was constantly running to the toilet in tears. This woman had an effect on me like a boa constrictor on a rabbit."
One day, a young liutenant proposed to her on the street with the words "Marry me, I'll take you away from here!" Those words worked on Lyuda like magic, and there she was with him at the registry office, thinking that they actually hadn't even kissed yet. "That was terrible stupidity", Lyuda says today, looking back.

The young couple moved to the Astrakhan region, where he served. The fresh husband turned out to be a brawler and a scandalist who didn't mind raising his fists against his wife. Lyuda endured for five years, and then she took her little daughter and son and moved back home. She was now 25 years old, her self-esteem completely shattered.
"Somehow, one day as I was cleaning up at home, I found an old suitcase. Inside it I discovered Nuri's letters. I sat down and read them all, tears running down my face. I understood that this was my love. But instead of the pain of loss, happiness came to me. The little seed that Nursultan had sowed in my soul grew into a flower."
Lyuda's self esteem gradually returned, she went to the hairdresser and got new, nice clothes, and walked with her back straight again.
"But I didn't write to Nursultan. I thought I wasn't worthy of him. I prayed to god that he would find a woman who was better than I. I was happy enough with his letters having brought me back to life."
Lyuda found the strength to pursue something she had long been dreaming of - to get a second education as a medical nurse.

For almost twenty years she knew nothing of Nursultan's fate. And then, suddenly, she met his portrait in the newspaper, where it said that Nazarbayev had become first secretary of the central committee of the Communist party of Kazakhstan. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Nursultan Abishevich was elected president of the republic, and in 1994 he paid a visit to Dneprodzerzhinsk.

When Lyudmila Ivanovna heard his love confession on the radio, she finally decided to write him. She didn't know the address, so she just wrote
The President
About a month later, early in the morning, the phone rang. She immediately recognised his voice. The president asked: "So, with whom do you live?" - "With my daughter and my grandson!" - "Just the three of you?" - "Just the three of us."
Actually, Lyudmila was married. But it was a marriage of mutual respect, not love. "My husband was not in my heart." And on that day, she left her second husband. "I couldn't betray Nursultan, could I?" ...

Soon, Nursultan paid another visit to Dneprodzerzhinsk. Trusted men came to pick up Lyudmila Ivanovna and bring her to a celebratory dinner party. "We had five minutes to speak alone. And I said the most important thing - that his love had not been unanswered. The feeling that Nursultan is somewhere in the world has helped me cope with life to this very day."

Only once she turned to him for help. Her grandson stood before a complicated and expensive kidney operation, and Lyudmila did not have enough money to pay for it. She sent a telegram to Nazarbayev. And the hospital bills were quickly settled.