The Silver Crest by Kornei Chukovsky (Facebook group reading challenge)

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In English language school stories, a common trope is for a character to be accused of something they haven’t done, and for the culprit then either to be found out or be shamed into owning up, and Our Hero/Heroine to be vindicated and the dishonourable baddie, hanging their head in shame, to be punished, preferably expelled.   (Well, except in What Katy Did At School, where Katy sanctimoniously decides to “live it down”, and Bella gets away with it all.)   In this book, a true story written by a Soviet era children’s author about his boyhood in late Tsarist era Odessa, that doesn’t happen – because he’s the illegitimate son of a peasant washerwoman mother and a Jewish father, and the wrongful accusation is just an excuse to kick him out of a good school that’s being purged of perceived undesirables.  However, he eventually triumphs over the system by completing his secondary and university education via correspondence courses.   It’s very different from the sort of school story that Anglophone readers are used to.  And it makes no mention of the alternative version of events, which is that Chukovsky and his mate, the future Zionist leader Vladimir/Ze’ev Jabotinsky, were both expelled from school for their political activities … which might have been more interesting, if rather less appealing to readers in Soviet times.   Odessa is a fascinating place: I’m not sure I’ll ever get the chance to go there again (I went in 2008), but I’d certainly like to.

It’s only a short book, and doesn’t go into much detail. The reading group challenge for February was to read a children’s book originally written in another language.  I wanted something Russian that wasn’t going to cost me a fortune, and this was recommended.  Yes, I do know that Odessa is now in Ukraine, and also that the transliteration from Ukrainian is Odesa.  I’ve been there!   But it’s still mainly Russian-speaking, so I’m sticking with “Odessa”, and the book is actually subtitled “A Russian boyhood”.  There are tantalising glimpses into the fascinating multicultural society of Odessa in the 1890s: several characters have Greek names or German names, and there’s a reference to the main character’s mother, a Ukrainian peasant woman, having hidden a Jewish neighbour during a pogrom; but it is a fairly short and simplistic book, although it would probably be difficult to follow without some prior knowledge of the history of the Russian Empire.

The author, Kornei Ivanovich Chukovsky, was born Nikolai Vasilyevich Korneychukov. I don’t know where the patronymic came from: it wasn’t from the name of his natural father.  In this book, which is the story of his own youth, he says that he didn’t at that time know who his father was.  I don’t know whether that’s true or not.  He spent some time working in London as a correspondent for an Odessa newspaper, and then, back in the Russian Empire, was imprisoned for allegedly insulting the Romanovs.  In Soviet times, he was based near Moscow, became a very well-known children’s author, and used his position to help other authors, including Anna Akhmatova for whom his daughter worked as a secretary, who were being persecuted by the regime.

His mother had been a maid for his father’s wealthy family in St Petersburg. Due to the differences in class and religion, they never officially married, and she eventually moved, with Nikolai/Kornei and his older sister, to Odessa.   The book, as I keep saying, is quite short, but it does give us an idea of what life was like for poor people in the Odessa of the 1890s.  It doesn’t go on about evil-oppressive-capitalist/imperialist systems, and in some ways is reminiscent of the kind of memoirs you often get about British working-class life – we never had two ha’pennies to rub together but everyone pulled together and kids could play out in the streets kind of thing.  What’s never mentioned is how Kornei came to be attending the gymnasium, i.e. the top level of secondary schools, from which pupils would generally go on to university.  The only likely explanation is that his father was paying, which does make it rather unlikely that he didn’t even know who his father was.  I suppose it would have spoilt the whole mood of the book if we’d been told that this poor family were getting financial support from a wealthy middle-class source!  I may have this all wrong, but I doubt there’d have been free places, and I can’t see that his mother could have made enough for the school fees by taking in washing.

His mother’s extremely proud of the fact that he’s at this school – and has the silver crest of the school on his cap. She’s desperate for him to get on in life.  This doesn’t happen in British school stories (I know I’m putting a very British interpretation on this, but the idea of the reading group challenge was that we’ve all read loads of British children’s books, and are looking at something different!)  In those, it’s very rare for someone from a working-class background to attend a top school, or to be shown aiming to get on in life – which is incredibly annoying, because pulling yourself up by the bootstraps was a big idea in the 19th century, but never made its way into school stories, which were generally written between around 1900 and 1960.  And it’s interesting that they’re working within the system of Imperial Russia: there’s no sense of wanting to change the system, only of wanting to work with it.

The book starts with young Kornei, who reckons that he’s always near the top of his class – boasting is a definite no-no in English language school stories, so there’s another cultural difference – trying to help his friends cheat in a test. There’s no suggestion that cheating is wrong: he’s just being a good friend by trying to stop his mates from getting bad marks and consequently getting into trouble.  It backfires.  So he’s got a bad reputation with the teachers, and he does actually deserve it.  But then he’s blamed for egging on another boy to try to hide his bad marks from his parents.  It doesn’t actually seem like that much of a big deal, but apparently it was.   And he’s expelled.  A teacher symbolically rips the silver crest off his cap.

He naively assumes that the truth will out and he will be vindicated. He initially expects that the real culprit will own up.  But there’s no way.  This boy is from an influential family who are very ambitious for him.  There’s no way he’s going to chance getting into trouble at school – and it’s his mum who explains this to Korney.  Then he assumes that his friends, who know the truth, will speak up for him.  They don’t.  Then, eventually, someone tells him that it wouldn’t achieve anything even if they did – he and several other boys from “undesirable” backgrounds are being kicked out because the authorities want to purge top schools of unsuitable elements, and the incident with the other boy hiding his bad marks is just an excuse.

There were certainly moves in late Imperial Russia to make sure that the gymnasia were turning out boys who’d promote … the phrase “Orthodoxy, autocracy and nationality” belongs to the reign of Nicholas I rather than that of Nicholas II, but that sort of idea. As the book points out, it was part of the very reactionary attitude taken by the government during the reign of Alexander III.  After the assassination of the “Tsar-Liberator” Alexander II in 1881, and, really, before that, going back to the Polish-Lithuanian Uprising of 1863-4.  I’m resisting the temptation to write a long essay on Imperial Russia, because this isn’t really a history book!   So I don’t find it hard to believe that boys would have been expelled for reasons that had nothing to do with their actual schooling or with bad behaviour.

Was it a class war thing? The authorities were paranoid about any hint of revolutionary activity.  So I wouldn’t be surprised if the real truth of it was the alternative version of events, which is never even hinted at this book – that Chukovsky was running a satirical student magazine with his friend Vladimir Yevgenyevich Zhabotinsky, later better known as the militant Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky, and that that was the reason he was expelled.  But, then again, the decree of 1887, referred to in the book, did say that working-class children should be kicked out of top schools because they should be encouraged to stay within their milieu rather than thinking about university.

Could it have been partly a religious/cultural thing, as well?  This was the era of the May Laws.  His father isn’t mentioned in the book, and there’s no suggestion that the authorities, or even Kornei himself, knew anything about him, and it’s made clear that Kornei and his mother and sister are Orthodox Christians, insofar as they bother with religion at all – but could the Jewish connection have been a factor too?

Whatever the exact truth of it, he was expelled from school for socio-political reasons. And, whilst this honestly doesn’t come across as being propaganda, in the end we are left feeling that our hero has been the victim of an unfair and oppressive system.   But he doesn’t go off and join a revolutionary movement.  Instead, he beats the system – and, yes, he does beat the system! – by gaining his secondary school and university qualifications via a correspondence course.  And the book ends with a note saying that he hopes the reader will love all his friends and family, but also that he hopes they’ll hate all the baddies – the headmaster, the school inspector, etc, and, interestingly, that there are still people like them around.

As a story, and it is meant as a children’s book, this isn’t bad.  There’s plenty of stuff about japes he gets up to with his mates, nasty teachers, girls he fancies, and so on.  As a history book, it doesn’t tell us that much, but it does give us some glimpses into a time in which the author had grown up but which is now gone, and into the absolutely fascinating culture of late 19th century Odessa and its very diverse population.  It really is a very, very interesting city, and I’m glad to have had the chance to visit it in 2008.

It doesn’t tell us much of the politics of Odessa … once I realised when and where the book was set, I was expecting more about politics and revolutionary activities, especially as the book was written in the 1930s. The original, 1938, edition, apparently opened by quoting the part of Stalin’s constitution that stated that all children had the right to an education, including at university level, paid for by the state, so there were very strong political overtones there.  I didn’t really sense any suggestion that most people had much interest in politics … although I gather that the 1938 version was much more political than the later version which was translated into English and which I read.   And the idea of the self-made man who beat the system is really more redolent of Victorian Lancashire than of Tsarist Odessa.  Very Samuel Smiles … and he does actually mention reading books by Samuel Smiles.  He taught himself English, and he seems to be a great admirer of Britain – which, again, has strong overtones of Victorian Liberalism, which I wouldn’t quite have expected from a book written in Stalin’s Soviet Union.  But Chukovsky wasn’t a typical Soviet author, and this isn’t a typical book of any sort of genre – it’s very different, and, whilst it’s only short, is worth a read, and a lot of thinking about.

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Great Alaskan Railroad Journeys – BBC 2

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Russian Orthodox churches, stunning scenery, and cute furry sea otters.  All in one thirty-minute episode.  Hooray!  Sadly, as Michael Portillo, resplendent in a burnt orange jacket and royal blue trousers, and his guides made clear, the history of Alaska is nothing like as beautiful as the views – an all-too-familiar story of native peoples and native wildlife populations decimated by the effects of outside involvement.  Lots of history in this first episode, along with lots of gorgeous scenery – in what is by far the biggest of the United States, seven times the size of the United Kingdom, but with a population of under 750,000.

First up, Ninilchik, with its glorious Russian Orthodox church.  I like Russian Orthodox churches 🙂 .  Founded by Russian settlers in the 1840s, it’s now an officially-designated Alaska Native village, and most of the people there, including the gentleman who showed Michael round, are of mixed Alaska Native and Russian heritage.  The man explained that many of the Russian men who came to Alaska – the first settlers arriving in the 1780s – married Alaska Native women, and a joint culture developed.

Sadly, whilst this talk of intermarriage and a mixed culture sounded all very nice, it was explained that the Russian period was actually disastrous for the indigenous population.  As happened when Spanish conquistadors and settlers arrived in Central and South America, and in so many other cases, the native peoples, with no immunity to European diseases, was devastated by disease.  They were also treated appallingly by the Russians – first forced labour, then actual enslavement, especially in the Aleutian Islands where disease, conflict and slavery killed up to 85% of the population.

From there, we got a bit of light relief, as he visited another area with Russian heritage, where there was a Russian tearoom.  There used to be a Russian tearoom in Bacup.  Then it moved to Skipton.  Then it closed down, and I was very put out.  Anyway, this one’s still going – and we got the obligatory dressing up bit which Michael seems to like to include in most episodes.  More interesting than the dressing up were the samovars.  I love samovars.  And even more interesting than the samovars was the fact that the owner of the tearoom was an Old Believer.  Sadly, the programme failed to mention, presumably largely because it would have been totally irrelevant, the fact that some Old Believers back in Russia became involved with the textile industry and therefore established links with Lancashire; but I’m mentioning it because I like telling people that.  Yes, I do know that I’m about the only person on the planet who finds that interesting, but Old Believers in general are very interesting.

Moving swiftly on, before I start going on about the Schism of 1653, the current goings-on over the new Ukrainian Orthodox Church, or anything else.  On to Seward, where, whilst sailing round Resurrection Bay amid the most spectacular views of snow-covered mountains, Michael and his guide discussed the Alaska Purchase – made by the United States from the Russian Empire for $7.2 million, in 1867.

Russian explorers first made landfall in Alaska in 1741, with the first Russian settlement there being established in 1784, and the Russian-American Company getting stuck into the incredibly lucrative fur trade.  I always think of the most valuable furs as having come from Canadian beavers, and was interested to hear that those from Alaskan sea otters were considered better.  Obviously wearing fur is not acceptable now, but it was such a huge trade at the time … but things didn’t go as well as the Russians had hoped.  Conflict with the native peoples, who bravely resisted Russian settlement, competition from British-Canadian and American companies, and, above all, the stupid, thoughtless, over-hunting of fur-bearing animals, with no thought for what was going to happen in the future.

So.  1867.  Two years after the end of the American Civil War.  Eleven years after Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War, six years after the sort-of-emancipation of the serfs, four years after the outbreak of the Polish-Lithuanian rebellion.  And a year after the attempted assassination that, along with the rebellion, probably frightened Alexander II off continuing along a liberal, reformist path – and he, the Tsar-Liberator did so much, with the military, the judiciary, and the administration.  Not to mention the fact that the Russian government was skint after the Crimean War, and needed money to pay off landowners (after emancipation) and build railways.  And in the middle of the Great Game, with Russia stressing that Britain might try to take Alaska … which I think was very unlikely to happen, because Britain was far more worried about Russia trying to barge into India, and had already made it clear that we didn’t want Alaska.  Anyway.  Russia decided to sell.

And America decided to buy.  William Seward, who negotiated the Alaska Purchase with the Russians, was an interesting character.  I think of him primarily in terms of his role in Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet, but he was involved in anti-slavery activities long before the Civil War, and, whilst some early Republicans had Know-Nothing backgrounds, he’d always spoken out in support of immigrants and backed the rights of non-Protestants.

As was pointed out, Seward said that the Alaska Purchase was his greatest achievement.  It certainly turned out to be a brilliant deal for the Americans.  Seal fisheries, to start with.  Poor seals  😦 .  And then all that gold.  Not to mention all the other minerals there.  And, of course, the oil fields.  The Russians found some gold in the 1840s, but, bizarrely, didn’t do anything about it.  Barely three years after the American takeover, gold mining began in earnest, and, come the 1890s, it all just went wild.

That was years later, though.  At the time, it seems to have been far more about the infamous concept of Manifest Destiny.  And the Americans seem to have been as concerned as the Russians about keeping the British out.  Those were the days, when Britain had a strong government and a strong opposition!  Canada – and the Alaska Purchase took place in the same year as Canadian Confederation – was already part of the British Empire, so I’m not sure why the Americans thought it would make that much difference if Britain were to take Alaska.  Well, the idea seems to have been to weaken British Columbia by sandwiching it between two parts of American territory, but I’m not sure what they thought was actually going to happen … but anyway.  Anglo-American relations were pretty bad at that time, Britain having the needle about US agents having illegally captured two Confederate diplomats from a British ship in 1861 (I remember once writing about that in my rough book whilst not paying attention during a maths lesson when I was about 15.  I was a very weird teenager!) and the US having the needle about Confederate warships having been built in Birkenhead.

The deal wasn’t entirely popular in America at the time, with some people feeling that the money would have been better spent on Reconstruction.  Having seen, on my travels through some of the southern states, how places like Natchez and Memphis have never really recovered from the Civil War, there’s certainly a very strong argument in favour of that … but, from a wider economic viewpoint, Seward made the right choice.

Well, he did from an American viewpoint.  Oh, and Michael didn’t go into nearly all this much detail, in last night’s thirty minute episode, but I’m just indulging myself because I love writing about both Imperial Russia and 1860s America 🙂 .   From a Russian viewpoint, with the benefit of hindsight, it was a pretty bad move.  As Michael remarked, imagine how different the Cold War might have been if Alaska had been part of the Soviet Union.  For that matter, imagine the effect on today’s geopolitical situation of Alaska being part of Putin’s Russian Federation rather than Trump’s United States.

All of which rather ignores the fact that the land wasn’t Russia’s to sell – and Michael, who was being shown around Seward and its environs by an Alaska Native gentleman, did make that quite clear.  There were only a few hundred Russians there at the time, and yet Russia sold, and America bought, land on which around 50,000 indigenous people were living, and neither side seems to have given two hoots about the rights or views of those indigenous people.

This was only the first episode, and I would like to think that future episodes will explain that the American treatment of the Alaska Natives was also pretty shocking.  The territory (for lack of a better expression – it wasn’t even an official “territory” until 1912, and only became a state in 1959) was initially put under military control, and, as was done elsewhere in America, attempts were made to convert the native peoples to Christianity and to Americanise their way of life, and Alaska Natives were not granted US citizenship until 1921.  I’m not having a go at either the United States or Russia, any more than at Britain or many other countries, but these issues need to be raised, and raising them in popular TV programmes is far more helpful than pulling down statues or

And the over-hunting also continued under American control.  It was also interesting to hear that concerns were raised in Michael’s guidebook published in 1899, about rising temperatures and the retreat of the glaciers.  I grew up in the 1980s, when we kept hearing all about acid rain and the hole in the ozone layer, and we tended to think of concern about climate change as being a fairly new thing.  Evidently not.

One thing that wasn’t mentioned (I wonder if it might come up in a later episode?), which was incredibly controversial, was that, after Kristallnacht, there was a proposal by the US Department of the Interior to settle refugees from Nazi Germany in Alaska – which, as Alaska wasn’t a state at that time, could have been done without causing issues with the very unpleasant US immigration quota system.   The idea, which was intended more to boost the American presence in Alaska than to help refugees, didn’t go down very well and nothing ever came of it, but I just thought that that, and the German settlements set up along the Volga at the same time as Russia was first getting involved in Alaska, were worth a thought … at a time when there are so many people living in refugee camps around the world.  /irrelevant point that just occurred to me.

Anyway – from 19th century history to the aforementioned cute furry sea otters.  Michael visited a wildlife centre, where he got to feed an extremely cute rescued sea otter pup.  It’s good to know that sea otter numbers are now making a comeback.  It’s causing some issues with fishermen (that should probably be “fisherpeople”, but even so.

From Seward, he (Michael, not the sea otter) took a wonderfully scenic railway journey towards the Spencer Glacier.  I would so love to do that!   The Alaska Railroad was built in the early 20th century, and Michael was told that, rather than being to transport gold, it was more a case of needing a way of transporting coal.   Gorgeous views.  And, hey, this is technically supposed to be a programme about railway journeys, not a historical documentary series!   Fascinating though the history of late 18th and 19th century Alaska is, it was all fairly gloomy, and it was good that the programme ended on a more cheerful note, with these spectacular views.

I have to admit that I wasn’t sure how a journey through Alaska was going to fill a whole week’s worth of episodes.  That’s quite a bit of screen time.  But, on the basis of last night’s episode, Alaska’s got more than enough to fill all that time and more.  And keep up the good work with including lots of history in there :-).  History and scenery together – excellent combination!