Alexander Radishchev House, Tomsk

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There are few things I love more than facts that cannot be proved. What could be more lifelike? Anyway, the picture you see above shows the so-called Radishchev House in Tomsk. Legend, and some documents, apparently, have it that the prominent writer, economist, lawyer and philosopher Alexander Radishchev – the author of the incendiary travel notes Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow – spent time here on his way to Siberian exile in 1791. Some say he actually stopped at another building, but, be that as it may, it is this structure on today’s Bakunin Street (Yefremovsky Street when Radishchev was or was not here) that bears the plaque and bears the name of the great man in the hearts and minds of this city’s people. If you love Russian culture as I do, surely you have a similar soft spot in your heart for Radischev. He was one of the first Russians to openly and publicly and pointedly stand up and say, “Wait a minute! All is not quite what you say it is!” For that Catherine the Great – about whom I’ve written earlier in this blog – arrested the man, burnt his famous book, and sent him to Siberia. So much for standing up and speaking the truth in Russia. His crime was to open his eyes and see that the splendor of St. Petersburg and Moscow were not even vaguely matched in the dirty, rundown, Godforsaken, poverty-stricken, uneducated villages and towns that lie between those two great cities. Radischev had the ingenious idea of getting into a carriage, making the trip, and writing about what he encountered. Naturally, since the actual state of affairs did not match the version of reality that the Empress chose to believe, and insisted on foisting on her subjects, the author had to be dealt with. Not quite “off with his head!” but six years “out of sight and out of mind” in the Siberian town of Ilimsk from 1791 to 1797. If the prevailing stories of the days spent in transit in Tomsk are true, Radishchev occupied a room or rooms on the low, ground floor of this building. According to Tomsk historian and architect Pavel Rachkovsky, only this floor today remains more or less untouched from the late 18th century. The church that rises behind the building in the background was not there in Radishchev’s times.

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If you really want to get a feel for what Tomsk might have looked like when Radishchev was passing through, you will come at the structure in question from the south side, heading up from the north bank of the small Ushaika River. Bakunin Street – ulitsa Bakunina in Russian – provides an extraordinary glimpse into the past. It is still a rolling, bumpy, uneven cobbled road lined by many old, wooden buildings. Only the occasional Honda or Hyundai, or a pedestrian in a parka on a chilly, windy day, suggests we have not traveled back to the 19th century, if not the 18th. In the sequence of shots below, you see the Radishchev House looming in the distance as we make our way up the road. For the record, Radishchev’s further fate was not particularly happy. He was returned to St. Petersburg in 1797 by Catherine’s successor and much unloved son, Pavel the First, and was given the opportunity to try to institute several legal reforms. Pavel’s position was always tenuous, however, and he was assassinated in 1801. Radishchev, perhaps sensing that the noose figuratively was about to be thrown around his neck again, committed suicide in 1802.

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