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Archive for October, 2019

I discovered Viv Groskop’sThe Anna Karenina Fix : Life Lessons from Russian Literature‘ while browsing in the bookshop and couldn’t resist getting it. I thought it was time to read it now.

Viv Groskop’s book has eleven essays on Russian classics. In each of the essays, Groskop picks one Russian classic, discusses the plot and the characters, and talks about the insights and life lessons that the classic has to offer. She covers many of the great 19th century writers (and some 20th century writers) but Leo Tolstoy gets the pride of place by having two of his books featured in the list. My favourite essays in the book were those on Dostoevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’, Chekhov’s ‘Three Sisters’ and Solzhenitsyn’s ‘One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich’.

Throughout the essays, Groskop weaves in her own story and experiences and describes how the classics impacted her and helped her. Groskop’s style is breezy, charming, conversational, filled with humour and is a pleasure to read. The book suspiciously resembles Elif Batuman’s acclaimed book ‘The Possessed : Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them‘. But I haven’t read Batuman’s book yet, and so I can’t really complain.

I enjoyed reading ‘The Anna Karenina Fix‘. It is a beautiful, charming love letter to Russian literature. It is also a great introduction to Russian literature. If you love Russian literature, you will enjoy reading this.

I am giving below two of my favourite passages from the book to give you a feel for Groskop’s style.

“The Russian classics are, admittedly, not the most obvious place to look for tips for a happier life. Russian literature is full of gloomy people wondering how on earth they have ended up in the appalling predicament in which they find themselves, looking around desperately for someone else to blame and then realizing that, in fact, they were right in the first place : life really is extremely inconvenient and annoying, and we are all just waiting to die. But they also teach us that it can, crucially, be survived. And it can be enjoyed, beautifully.”

“A few weeks after…we moved on to Pushkin. If I thought the parrot was a bad idea, this was an even worse one. It’s like giving someone a two-week course in English and then saying, ‘And now we’re going to read Othello.’ It’s fairly typical of the teaching of Russian though. They like to throw you in at the deep end. And they like to make sure you remain completely intimidated by the language for as long as possible. That way, if you pass on to the other side and actually do learn to speak it, you’ll maintain the age-old myth that it’s difficult to learn and pass that on to other people so that the Russian speakers can remain in their own special and secret club. Having to read Pushkin several weeks into a ‘Russian from scratch’ course is a sort of hazing you never recover from. It is specially designed to make you want to haze others so that they will suffer as you have suffered. To quote Pushkin : ‘I want to understand you. I study your obscure language.'”

Have you read Viv Groskop’s book? What do you think about it?

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Anton Chekhov mostly wrote only short stories and plays. His longest story and probably his only novel was this one, ‘The Shooting Party‘. I have wanted to read this for a long time. I finally read it today.

The story told in ‘The Shooting Party‘ goes like this. A man walks into a magazine editor’s office. He looks handsome and distinguished. He tells the editor that he has written a novel based on a real event. And he hands over a manuscript to the editor. The editor says that he can’t promise anything but he will read the manuscript and see what he can do. The story told in the manuscript goes like this. The narrator is an investigating magistrate who lives and works in the countryside. He is friends with the count who owns the nearby estate. The count is travelling most of the time and occasionally drops by at his estate. Then he calls our magistrate and they party for days. The narrator describes their parties and adventures. At one point the narrator meets a beautiful young woman who lives nearby. There is mutual attraction. A lot of things happen after that – love, wedding, seduction, affairs, fights, heartbreaks, jealousy. At around three-fourths into the story, one of the main characters is dead. It looks like this character was murdered. The rest of the story is about finding out who the murderer is.

I think ‘The Shooting Party‘ is probably not Chekhov’s best work. For a significant part of the story, it is more and more parties and people getting drunk, and seductions and affairs and jealousy and fights. Chekhov tries to do a Turgenev here, but, in my opinion, it doesn’t work. Turgenev was a master at this kind of plot. Chekhov – maybe the play or the short story form was more his thing, or maybe he wrote this book when he was young, before his style matured. Wish he had tried his hand at a novel again, later in life.

There are some nice passages here and there in the book, which are a pleasure to read. One of my favourites was this one :

“Pine trees are boring in their silent monotony : they are all the same height, they all look exactly the same and they do not change with the seasons, knowing neither death nor vernal renewal. On the other hand they are attractive in their very gloominess – so still, so silent, as if they are thinking melancholy thoughts.”

There are beautiful, evocative character sketches in the story. One of my favourites is the narrator’s servant Polikarp, who is hardworking and loyal, loves reading Alexandre Dumas’ ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’, but who is also fearless and speaks his mind to his master and doesn’t think twice about screaming at his master, if his master has done some reprehensible thing. Polikarp is so cool! Another of my favourites is the doctor Pavel Ivanovich, who is wise and kind and loves knowledge and learning new things.

When one of the characters drops dead, the story undergoes a transformation and becomes a murder mystery. There are some dark, almost Dostoevsky-ian passages, in this part, and in the end when the identity of the murderer is revealed, we jump from our seats, because we don’t see that coming – the surprise is as good as the best Agatha Christies, it would have had even Hercule Poirot stumped. That revelation turns the book on its head, and we start seeing everything in new light.

It was fun reading Chekhov’s longest story. It is probably not his best work, but I am happy that I can cross it off my checklist now. I discovered that this book was adapted into a Russian movie. I want to watch that sometime. (In case you are interested, it is called ‘Мой ласковый и нежный зверь‘ (‘My Tender and Affectionate Beast‘) (A Hunting Accident). You can find it here. Unfortunately, it doesn’t have English subtitles.)

Have you read Chekhov’sThe Shooting Party‘? What do you think about it?

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I always wondered how contemporary Russian fiction looked like, because when discussing Russian literature, readers always talk about Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and Chekhov and Turgenev and Pushkin and other 19th century greats – writers who are affectionately called the ‘Dead Russians’ now. Sometimes readers talk about writers who can be termed as ‘dissident writers’ – writers who resisted the Soviet regime and whose books were banned in the Soviet Union – writers like Bulgakov, Solzhenitsyn, Akhmatova, Shalamov, Zamyatin. But contemporary writers are rarely mentioned. Russians, of course, still read today. Their love for books is legendary. I am sure there are still Russian writers who write books for these readers, books set in contemporary Russia, which talk about how today’s Russians live their lives, how they fall in love, what kind of work they do, how they respond to political developments, the relationship between Russian parents and their children, these and other contemporary themes which are relevant today. I wondered who these writers were and how I could get their books. Then I discovered ‘Rasskazy : New Fiction from a New Russia‘. I was thrilled.

Rasskazy‘ has 22 stories. Each of these stories is by a different writer. So that is 22 new writers – whoohoo! Some of these stories are a few pages long, many of them are around 10 pages long, some of them are even longer. The longest has 43 pages.

Now a little about my reading experience. I got this book a long time back. I read the first 100 pages of the book at that time, but then got distracted. When I started reading the book again now, I remembered liking the first hundred pages, though I couldn’t remember the stories. I decided to read the book differently this time. I decided to read the last one-third first, followed by the middle one-third and then the first one-third. When I started reading the last one-third, a strange thing happened. I read one story and then the next and then a third. Nothing much happened. I went on and read five stories and still there was nothing. I was expecting moving stories and profound passages, but, unfortunately, it was hard reading. It was like I could understand every word in the story, but couldn’t get the story. I wondered what was happening. I wondered whether I should continue reading the book. I felt like I was hemmed in at the top of the mountain with nowhere to go. Then Natalya Klyuchareva arrived like the legendary Tolkien eagle, picked me up and soared high into the sky. She delivered a beautiful, stunning masterpiece called ‘One Year in Paradise‘. That was the end of the book as I knew it. This transformed new book was a different being, an amazing thing. I screamed with joy. It was one of the most beautiful stories I have ever read.

Things got better after that. I read the middle one-third and then the first one-third, and discovered other beautiful stories I liked.

Here are some of my favourite stories from the book and what I think about them.

(1) One Year in Paradise by Natalya Klyuchareva – This is my most favourite story from the book. It was the last story featured in the book. In this story, a man moves from the city to the countryside, in the middle of nowhere, and decides to live there. He just has a bag filled with books. What happens to him is the rest of the story. Such a quintessential Russian story, such a beautiful one. If you would like to read it, you can find it here.

(2) A Potential Customer by Ilya Kochergin – A young man who works as a hunter and a trapper in the Russian Far East, goes back to Moscow for a month. He goes to deliver a package to his friend’s aunt and there he meets a young woman with whom he falls in love. What happens after that is the rest of the story.

(3) History by Roman Senchin – A history scholar visits a bookshop, buys a book and is walking to the metro station to get back home. There is a political protest happening in front of the metro station and somehow our scholar gets trapped in the middle of that. And then bad things start happening. An insightful commentary on the situation in Russia today.

(4) The Diesel Stop by Arkady Babchenko – A young soldier goes home on leave to attend his father’s funeral. He comes back late to report for duty. The army establishment assumes that he was trying to desert. He is arrested. The strange, crazy things that happen to him form the rest of the story. This was the longest story in the book.

(5) The Killer and his Little Friend by Zakhar Prilepin – Describes the friendship between two soldiers in the army, one who is a giant, and another who is small. Makes us think of George and Lennie from John Steinbeck’s ‘Of Mice and Men’.

(6) D.O.B. by Aleksander Snegirev – A young man goes through a series of adventures on his birthday, getting into trouble, one after the other.

(7) Why the Sky Doesn’t Fall by German Sadulaev – a story set in Chechnya during the war, mostly told from the Chechnyan perspective.

(8) Have Mercy, Your Majesty Fish by Olga Zondberg – describes the life of a blogger.

(9) Bregovich’s Sixth Journey by Oleg Zobern – describes the friendship between a man and his neighbour’s dog, whom he calls Ivan Denisovich.

(10) Russian Halloween by Aleksander Bezzubtsev-Kondakov – a man moves from the middle of the city to the outskirts after his divorce. He is depressed because he misses the city. But then strange, surprisingly pleasant things happen to him, unexpectedly.

(11) Spit by Kirill Ryabov – a man who is committed to an institution gets released after he is cured of his illness. How he navigates the wild world outside is the rest of the story.

(12) Drill and Song Day by Vladimir Kozlov – the story of the friendship between three boys in school who are outsiders in different ways.

I enjoyed reading ‘Rasskazy‘. It was wonderful to discover so many new contemporary Russian writers in one place. I am especially happy to have discovered Natalya Klyuchareva. I can’t wait to read more stories by her and by the others.

Have you read ‘Rasskazy‘? What do you think about it? Would you like to recommend some of your favourite contemporary Russian writers?

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N.P.‘ by Banana Yoshimoto was recommended to me by friends who were Yoshimoto fans. One of my friends lent it to me and I read it yesterday. This is the third Yoshimoto book that I have read in the past three months. Isn’t that cool?

The story told in ‘N.P.‘ goes like this. Kazami, the narrator of the story, is a young woman who works in the university. She talks about an author called Sarao Takase whom she discovered years back, because her boyfriend of that time, Shoji, was translating one of Takase’s stories, from the original English to Japanese. There was one volume of Takase’s stories in print at that time, and that contained ninety-seven stories. A ninety-eighth story was discovered recently, and Shoji was translating it. Then, suddenly, Shoji commits suicide. And Kazami discovers that the three people who tried translating the story have all committed suicide. Now, during the present time, Kazami bumps into Takase’s son, while taking a walk during lunchtime. Soon, they become friends. Before long, Takase’s daughter also comes to meet Kazami and they become friends too. And soon a mysterious woman called Sui also crosses Kazami’s path. She seems to be related to the Takases. How these friendships and relationships evolve, who the mysterious Sui is, whether a new translation of Takase’s story is attempted, whether the story claims one more sacrifice – the answers to these questions are told in the rest of the story.

I enjoyed reading ‘N.P.‘ It is the story of a complex friendship between four young people, who are linked together by a mysterious author and his last story. It is also a fascinating love story, though an unconventional one. This book was very different from the other two Yoshimoto stories I had read, because Yoshimoto has really pushed the envelope here, with respect to the unconventional part. Yoshimoto’s prose is spare and glides elegantly through the pages. I read the book in an evening – that is how fast the pages flew by. The book also has some fascinating thoughts on translation which are thought-provoking. The ending of the story is interesting and complicated. Kazami says in the end – “I saw the sky and sea and sand and the flickering flames of the bonfire through my tears. All at once, it rushed into my head at tremendous speed, and made me feel dizzy. It was beautiful. Everything that had happened was shockingly beautiful, enough to make you crazy.” You have to read the book to find out why she says that.

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“A person without a voice gradually loses language. For the first two days, my thought processes remained the same as before. If my sister stepped on my foot, I would think “ouch” in words. When a place I had been to before appeared in TV, my thoughts would virtually be in the same form as the words might have come out of my mouth at that moment, had I been able to speak – like, “Oh, I know where that is. I wonder when they filmed this,” or something like that.
But after a period of being unable to speak those words, something changed in my head. I came to see the array of colors that lay behind words. When my sister was being nice to me, I perceived a brilliant image of pink light. My mother’s words and gestures when she was teaching us English were gold; a bright yellow orange cane through the palm of my hand when I bent down to pat our cat as she wandered by.
Living like that utterly convinced me of the extreme limitations of language. I was just a child then, so I had only an intuitive understanding of the degree to which one loses control of words once they are spoken or written. It was then that I first felt a deep curiosity about language, and understood it as a tool that encompasses both a single moment and eternity.”

“Time stopped. Perhaps God in his grace glanced down upon us then. It was that peaceful, for an eternal moment, in the valley of the night…When I thought about that moment later, in the light of day, it didn’t seem so monumental. But when it came upon me, the touch of darkness was undeniably vast and pure.”

Have you read Banana Yoshimoto’sN.P.‘? What do you think about it?

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This is my fourth book for Diverse Detectives Month hosted by WOCReads. I read ‘Kolaiyudhir Kalam‘ (= Murder Season) by Sujatha, for the first time, when I was a teenager. It was one my favourite detective mysteries then. I had forgotten most of the story since, including who was the bad guy 🙂 So I thought it was a good time to read it again.

The story told in ‘Kolaiyudhir Kalam‘ goes like this. Lawyer Ganesh and his assistant Vasanth are hired to look at some estate documents and see whether there are any problems with respect to the title and ownership. The owner of the estate is a young woman called Leena, who is going to turn eighteen. Her parents have passed. Her uncle is her guardian now and has been managing the estate on her behalf. On her eighteenth birthday he will be handing over the estate to her. But when the lawyer duo stay at the estate for a couple days, strange things start happening, voices are heard in unoccupied rooms and there seems to be a ghost near the lake. And there is a legend behind the ghost – she seems to an ancestor of Leena, the young woman who owns the estate – and the legend says that the ghost is out to seek revenge. And before long someone is dead. And the dead person’s body disappears. And both our heroes are beaten up by a probable supernatural being. Is it really a ghost which is doing all these bad things? Or is it some good old plain vanilla human beings who are doing these bad things out of greed? Who will benefit by these strange happenings? Is Leena’s life in danger? Are out lawyer-detectives able to find the mystery behind all this? You have to read the story to find out.

Re-reading ‘Kolaiyudhir Kalam‘ was an enjoyable experience. I had forgotten the story completely and so couldn’t guess the revelation in the end. Sujatha does a Hitchcock and kills the main suspect halfway through the story and after that it is a roller coaster ride and it becomes harder to guess the ending. There are many popcultural and literary references throughout the story – like a quote from an O’Henry story, the Bruce Lee movie ‘The Return of the Dragon’, the Frederick Forsyth novel ‘The Devil’s Alternative’, a description of a plot revelation from a Tamilvanan novel (one of my favourite Tamil crime fiction writers), Inspector Jacques Clouseau, Agatha Christie – it was fun to spot all these. I don’t think I spotted or appreciated most of these when I read the book the first time, all those years ago.

I enjoyed reading ‘Kolaiyudhir Kalam‘ again. It didn’t resonate with me as much as it did to my teenage self, but it was an enjoyable read nevertheless. After reading the book I wondered whether I had grown out of Sujatha books. But then I remembered that I read the collected plays of Sujatha sometime back and it deeply resonated with me and I loved it. So there is hope yet.

Have you read Sujatha’sKolaiyudhir Kalam‘? What do you think about it?

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I had got ‘We‘ by Yevgeny Zamyatin years back, because I heard that it inspired George Orwell’s1984‘. I finally read it for #RedOctoberRussianReads.

The story told in ‘We‘ goes like this. The time is the distant future. The world seems to be one united country. People are not called people – they are called numbers, and are given numbers, because numbers are unique. Logic and reason dominate every aspect of their lives – what time they get up, what time they go to sleep, what they do at every hour, every minute of the day is regulated, based on logic. Nothing can happen without the government knowing about it. All houses have transparent walls and doors and everyone can see everyone else. There is only one exception. When a couple are having an intimate time together, they can lower the blinds. For this they have to get advance permission from the authorities. Our main character is D-503, who is a mathematician and scientist, who is building a rocket to reach outer space. Things are going well for D-503 in this logical world, till he meets I-330. I-330 is a beautiful, mysterious woman. And before long D-503 discovers that there is an inner world, inside his mind, which is not based on logic or reason – it is wild, passionate, illogical. D-503 is torn between the logical world that he has always known and this wild passionate thing that he discovers. And then events move at a fast pace and lots of stuff happens. Can we expect anything less in a dystopian novel? How does it all end? You have to read the book to find out.

I haven’t read ‘1984‘ and so it is hard for me to compare. But if ‘We’ was the first ever dystopian novel, it must have created a stir when it first came out. Its publication was not allowed in the Soviet Union and it was published abroad. It later led to lots of problems for Yevgeny Zamyatin and all his works were banned in the Soviet Union and Zamyatin himself had to migrate abroad where he didn’t live long. It is a sad story.

To me, Zamyatin’s story depicts the tussle between reason and logic on one side and the things that make us human – like imagination, love, freedom – on the other side. It is a fascinating thing to watch. The arguments given in the story for both the sides are very insightful and thought-provoking. Zamyatin’s story came out nearly a hundred years back, and in the century that has passed, we seem to have moved more to the logic-and-reason side of things. If we are not careful and things move to their logical conclusion, it wouldn’t be surprising if we end up in a world similar to the one depicted in the book. From that perspective, this book is as relevant today as when it was first published.

I loved most of the characters in the book. Though they don’t have names but have numbers, they have very distinctive personalities. Our scientist D-503, his long-term lover O-90, and the mysterious woman he meets, I-330, are all fascinating and complex characters, whom I loved very much.

The book is filled with beautiful, thought-provoking passages. I am giving a few below.

“I wondered at the ancients who had never realized the utter absurdity of their literature and poetry. The enormous, magnificent power of the literary word was completely wasted. It’s simply ridiculous – everyone wrote anything he pleased. Just as ridiculous and absurd as the fact that the ancients allowed the ocean to beat dully at the shore twenty-four hours a day, while the millions of kilogrammometers of energy residing in the waves went only to heighten lovers’ feelings. But we have extracted electricity from the amorous whisper of the waves; we have transformed the savage, foam-spitting beast into a domestic animal; and in the same way we have tamed and harnessed the once wild element of poetry. Today, poetry is no longer the idle, impudent whistling of a nightingale; poetry is civic service, poetry is useful.”

“Every equation, every formula in the surface world has its corresponding curve or body. But for irrational formulas, for my √–1, we know of no corresponding bodies, we have never seen them…But the horror of it is that these invisible bodies exist, they must, they inevitably must exist : in mathematics, their fantastic, prickly shadows – irrational formulas – pass before us as on a screen. And neither mathematics nor death ever makes a mistake. So that, if we do not see these bodies in our world, there must be, there inevitably must be, a whole vast world for them – there, beyond the surface…”

He : “I hate fog. I am afraid of it.”
She : “That means you love it. You are afraid of it because it is stronger than you; you hate it because you are afraid of it; you love it because you cannot subdue it to your will. Only the unsubduable can be loved.”

I enjoyed reading ‘We‘. Though there have been many dystopian novels since which have explored similar themes, as probably the first ever dystopian novel, Zamyatin’s book was a pioneering effort. This book deserves to be much better known.

Have you read Yevgeny Zamyatin’sWe‘? What do you think about it?

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I have wanted to read Alexander Pushkin’sRuslan and Lyudmila‘ for a long time and so I decided to read it now, for #RedOctoberRussianReads.

I discovered that I have three translations of the book. One of the interesting decisions I had to take was which translation to read. Initially, I thought I’ll read all three. But after I started reading, I thought I’ll read the one which appeals to me more, and which flows more smoothly for me, and reference back to the other two and read specific passages. This is what I did in the end. More about the translations in a while.

The story told in ‘Ruslan and Lyudmila‘ goes like this. The young prince Ruslan is married to the beautiful princess Lyudmila. But on their wedding night, Lyudmila is kidnapped by the evil dwarf Chernomor. Ruslan and three other young men who are his rivals ride away the next morning in search of Lyudmila. Are they able to save Lyudmila from the evil dwarf? You have to read the story to find out.

I enjoyed reading ‘Ruslan and Lyudmila‘ very much. Most of the characters were very interesting, but two of them were my favourites. When Ruslan rides through a Steppe-like plain, he spots a mountain in the middle. But when he comes closer, he discovers that it is a head, a huge head, and it is living. At present it seems to be sleeping. Ruslan takes his lance and pokes the giant head’s nostrils. The head sneezes. What happens after that – there is a reason they say ‘Don’t poke the bear‘ – you have to read the story to find out. That head is one of the most fascinating characters in the story and one of my favourites. Another favourite character was one of Ruslan’s rivals Ratmir. His life undergoes some major changes and when he comes out on the other side – you’ll have to read to find out what happened, it is so amazing.

There are six cantos in the story – yes, the story is one long poem. At the end of the fifth canto, a heartbreaking thing happens. Why does this always happen in the penultimate chapter, in the penultimate episode, in the penultimate book? Why does someone always die in the ninth episode of ‘Game of Thrones‘? Why does one of the main characters die in the penultimate volume of the Harry Potter series? I am wondering whether Pushkin started this penultimate chapter thing. But I can’t tell you what happened to whom in that chapter. That is for you to discover.

Now a word on the translations.

All the three translations were interesting and very different from each other. The first one by Roger Clarke was a bilingual edition. It had the Russian text on the left and the English translation on the right. It was an easy to understand translation and Clarke had explained in his note at the end of the book on why he translated the original into free verse and didn’t use Pushkin’s rhyming scheme. The second edition was a translation by D.M.Thomas. Thomas had tried to keep the rhyming scheme intact and he had explained in his introduction how he tried preserving Pushkin’s tetrameter intact and why he tried doing that. This was very interesting, because here we have two translators who did opposite things and tried providing justification for the same, and they both sounded convincing! The third translation was by Jacob Krup and I felt that it was written in such a way so that it could appeal to children. The Roger Clarke translation was the one which flowed more smoothly for me, and that is the one I read, while comparing passages with the other two. I am giving below the first passage from the story from all the three translations. Tell me which one you like the most.

Translation 1 (by Roger Clarke) :

“By an arc of sea a green oak stands;
to the oak a chain of gold is tied;
and at the chain’s end night and day
a learned cat walks round and round.
Rightwards he goes, and sings a song;
leftwards, a fairy tale he tells.”

Translation 2 (by D.M.Thomas) :

“A green oak by the salt sea weathered;
And to it by a gold chain bound
A highly learned cat is tethered,
Who on the chain goes round and round :
Walks to the left – he tells a story,
Walks to the right – a song he sings.”

Translation 3 (by Jacob Krup) :

“At the seashore’s a golden chain;
That golden chain entwines an oak.
A learned cat around that oak
Day and night keeps his walk :
Goes to right – a song he sings;
Returning, left – a tale he brings.”

So, who is the winner – Clarke or Thomas or Krup? 🙂

I thought I’ll share the covers of all the three editions (you can see the first cover above) and some inside pages of the third one, because it has some exquisite Russian Palekh paintings. Hope you enjoy looking at them.

This is my first book by Pushkin. I can’t wait to read more books by him. Have you read ‘Ruslan and Lyudmila‘? What do you think about it?

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