Yesterday the Russophile blogosphere was all a-buzz with an off-the-cuff utterance delivered by Russian President Vladimir Putin at a public forum. Putin did something that he rarely does: He let his mouth run ahead of his brain. His gaffe is not unfixable, but definitely needs to be fixed. I will try to lay out for you: The context; the utterance itself; the implications; and the aftermath.
The Context Is Totally Atomic!
Kurchatov Institute was founded in Moscow in 1943 in order to solve a defence issue of the development of nuclear weapon. It was known under a name of “Laboratory в„– 2 of the USSR Academy of Sciences”. Since 1960 it was named Kurchatov Institute of Atomic Energy. The Institute got the status of the Russian Research Centre in 1991 and in 2010 it became the National Research Centre (NRC “Kurchatov Institute”).
Kurchatov Institute has played a key role in the maintenance of the country’s security and the development of the most important strategic directions. The Institute was a creator of the first atomic reactor in Eurasia (1946), the first domestic atomic bomb (1949), the first thermonuclear bomb in the world (1953). The first nuclear power plant in the world (1954), the first tokamak installation (1955), atomic reactors for ice-breakers (1957), submarines (1958) and space engineering were developed under the scientific leadership of Kurchatov Institute (….)
In other words, these were the brainiacs who (under the rulership of the Bloody Dictator Stalin) MADE THE BOMB!
So, Putin was sitting there, in a public forum, chatting with the current leader of the Kurchatov Institute, a Russian physicist named Mikhail Kovalchuk. Kovalchuk was presiding over something called a “Presidential Council on Science and Education”. Then Kovalchuk made the mistake of getting all cultural and quoting some lines of poetry from Boris Pasternak’s poem “Высокая болезнь”. Here, for the culture vultures, is a link to the entire poem in Russian, but unfortunately I cannot find an English translation online for you.
Pasternak wrote and re-wrote this poem over the course of 5 years (1923-1924), a version of it was published in 1924, in the avant-garde journal “ЛЕФ”, and I have not been able to determine if that date was before or after Lenin’s death, on January 21, 1924. During those years, Pasternak was a young hip intellectual, I guess you could call him a proto-kreakl, attempting to come to terms with the October Revolution. Loving it? Hating it? I don’t want to sound too flippant, because this poem is a major work, and Pasternak was a major talent. As in his later, much more widely-known work, “Dr. Zhivago“, which was made into a Hollywood movie, Pasternak struggles here with the issue of the artist and his relationship to society. His (Pasternak’s) feelings of admiration for the new (Soviet) order, mingled with trepidation for the future of artists such as himself. All the major Russo-Soviet themes are there. Love it or hate it, but there is something about the power of a true talent, be it poetry, music, painting, or theater, which can affect other people in a profound manner.
The particular verse in question which set off Putin was this one, which is actually the final stanza to the poem, in which Pasternak expresses his admiration for the Bolshevik leader, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin:
Тогда его увидев въяве,
Я думал, думал без конца
Об авторстве его и праве
Дерзать от первого лица.
Из ряда многих поколений
Выходит кто-нибудь вперед.
Предвестьем льгот приходит гений
И гнетом мстит за свой уход.
Rough Translation, and please, I know this sounds AWFUL BLOODY TERRIBLE in English, but what can you do, it sounds great in Russian, and I am no Nabokov, and Nabokov probably would not have wanted to touch this poem anyhow:
But then, having seen him in person,
I was thinking and thinking about it,
About his authority and what right does he have
To take such risks in our name?
From the ranks of many generations,
Once in a while somebody steps forward,
As a harbinger of good things, a genius steps up to the plate,
And his loss is avenged by oppression.
Not sure exactly what Pasternak was trying to say in that last line.
Also not sure exactly why Kovalchuk quoted these particular lines. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know the subtext, but this is my educated guess: Kovalchuk was quoting something from a poem he had learned as a boy, and meant the lyrics to be a praise (I won’t say “flattery”) of Putin, comparing him to a great leader who comes about in society at just the right time when he is needed.
But Putin, being educated enough himself to recognize the author as well as the verse, and knowing that it referred to Lenin, reacted with a knee-jerk, anti-Communist utterance. As a way, I think, of distancing himself from the flattery and from the implied comparison to a political figure whom he despises.
The Gaffe, and What Does It Say to the Miners in Donbass!
[to be continued]