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By John Helmer, Moscow

Among the famous cautionary tales of a century and a half ago, the one about Augustus, the boy who refused to eat his parent’s soup for supper, is meant to inculcate obedience, with death as the alternative. This August for Russia readers you can have a third variant that’s both – do what you’re told, then die.

Heinrich Hoffmann (1809-1894) wrote the Augustus tale as a chapter of his Struwwelpeter (“Shock-Headed Peter”).  In the other chapters Hoffmann disposes of a boy who wouldn’t comb his hair;  another who was bitten by a dog in punishment for his nastiness; a girl who played with matches,  fatally;  three  children who were dunked in ink for mocking a black boy; another boy who didn’t look where he was going and fell into a river; a boy who wouldn’t sit still at the dinner-table; and the one closest to my childhood, a boy who refused to stop sucking his thumb (a tailor cut it off).

Hoffmann used to claim he wrote and illustrated his stories because he couldn’t find the right picture-book good enough, he thought, for his 3-year old son.   That’s his cover story. The fact is that  Hoffmann, whose father had been a martinet and whose mother died of fright, ran an asylum for certified lunatics in Frankfurt. Hoffman reportedly did some good for schizophrenics in the lockup, mainly by letting them go. It has never been recorded what good the soup story, in which Augustus dies for refusing to obey, did for Hoffmann’s own children. His own grave is covered by ivy, not a soup tureen.

All improving Russian literature, like this website, requires a breather from time to time, usually in  August and January.  Bears hibernate; bugbears aestivate, as I’ve reported before. It’s not the same in the Kremlin during August.

The person responsible at the Kremlin for composing and illustrating cover stories for President Vladimir Putin is named Dmitry Peskov. He says he’s going to be spending his August making a new film about the president to follow the very expensive one by Oliver Stone which was recently released. About that one, Putin had this to tell a group of employees of the oligarch Alisher Usmanov, who were invited to a Q&A session at their plant in celebration of Steelworkers Day on July 14.  

From the Kremlin transcript

Yekaterina Rogova: Catering company, occupational safety engineer Yekaterina Rogova.

Good afternoon, Mr President. Recently the documentary Putin was released. The film is full of private emotional moments where you speak about your grandchildren, and moments in the church. Or consider the episode where you…

Vladimir Putin: Do you mean the American film?

Yekaterina Rogova:  Yes. Even if we consider the episode where you give the horse a carrot, one cannot but feel sentimental, it is great. This immediately brings about a question. I would like to ask about your first-hand impressions, your emotions from participating in that project. And Mr President, will there be a follow-up, like with The Three Musketeers: Twenty Years Later? (Laughter)

Vladimir Putin: Where is the culprit mister-comrade-master Peskov? Must have dashed out, he is not here. But it was he who talked me into it. And my first reaction was, why? Who needs it? Everybody knows everything anyway; I do not even know what I am going to say. But he said, ‘Nevertheless, there is this director, he is very famous, he even got an Oscar, he is a talented person, and he will tell this story to the Americans, a broad US audience. Because, ultimately, this will not be so much about you as about the country. And it is important that an American viewer should learn about Russia as much as possible and from you directly.’  I had a second question to ask, how objectively was he going to convey what I will be telling him, will he cut things out or comment or distort?  He said, ‘I cannot guarantee it, but he is basically a very decent person, a good journalist.’  And so I agreed.

You know, I did not view it as a project. You said ‘project’. I want to make it clear how it was done. So, the Executive Office staff, in particular, my press secretary, would come up to me and say, ‘The team is coming tomorrow, we found several minutes, an hour to meet them.’ And I would say all right.

I would occasionally forget that they were supposed to come. They would tell me ‘They are waiting.’ I would come out to them and begin speaking. Then I would leave and immediately forget about them. So it is not the way they usually make a film, with a set, the other things, questions. In addition, the director was the kind of person who does not prepare you for anything, he just comes and asks his questions.

I should give him credit, though; from what I saw…I did not see the complete film. I am going to reveal a secret to you: I watched this film on my way home from a trip abroad, aboard an airplane. But as I had not got enough sleep there, I fell asleep on the plane as I was watching, so I did not see it to the end. But I will definitely watch it. Actually, judging by reviews, everything is fairly objective there, and no sequel is being considered.”

Three things about Putin’s speech. One is a revelation — Peskov talks Putin into things which are against his better judgement. That makes Putin, in his own, almost ironic words виновник, барин — unwitting target, witting victim.

Two things aren’t the truth – it’s never been the case when Putin “do[es] not even know what I am going to say.” It’s also not true that “no sequel is being considered”. Unless Peskov has been dipping into his billion-dollar budget without telling his барин,  the sequel was reported by the state news agency Tass  on July 20.

“We are working on various projects,” Peskov is quoted as admitting.  “We will provide information on them once they’ve become tangible. At the moment, we believe it would be premature to provide any kind of information.”

August then is for projects. A year ago, if we believe what we are told, Peskov’s August projects included ousting Sergei Ivanov, the president’s chief of staff, from the Kremlin; and electing Donald Trump to the White House. With what benefit and for whom are still unsettled questions

August 16, 2016: Putin thanks Ivanov (left) for his 17 years of service, and recommends to his successor, Anton Vaino (right), “a more hands-on approach to solving everyday problems faced by the Executive Office”. Source: http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/52691

Three unsettling questions to be asked about the meaning of the fate of Augustus in Hoffmann’s story are more philosophical than historical, since generations of German, British and American children have grown up, surviving the wars their parents started, and failing to ask or answer themselves:

  1. Why didn’t Augustus ask for something other than soup?
  2. Why didn’t Augustus’s parents give him an alternative to soup to save him from death?
  3. Why isn’t August honoured for his show of resistance to arbitrary and unreasoning power?

Read the tale again, and watch this modern Bulgarian film for extra clues about what was so distasteful about the soup that it proved fatal for Augustus.

There is another unsettled question, too:  do bugbears ever rest?

Let’s see what the answer will be when we come back together again in September.

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