Our little march up and down Pyatnitskaya Street this week ends today with a building I see every time I emerge onto Pyatnitskaya from the courtyard in which I live. It’s a beautiful, stately old structure that has been abandoned for many of the years I have been here. That’s beginning to change and I’m thrilled about that. In the section of the building that faces 2nd Monetchikovsky Lane (the glass windows running away from the main peach/white structure in the picture above) several restaurants have gone into the first floor. One of them, Coin, has a great, inexpensive “business lunch” from 1 to 5 p.m. every weekday. You can often find Oksana and me there after 4 p.m. But, as with so many locations in Moscow, there is much, much more here than meets the contemporary eye.
This huge building, and many of the wings and additions stretching out over the entire city block covering Pyatnitskaya 71-73, once belonged to Ivan Sytin, one of the great publishers in Russian history. He was from a simple family and was not overly educated. Anton Chekhov described him as “a great, but completely unlettered man who came from the people. A bundle of energy together with slackness… and lack of firmness.” (I pull this quote from Charles A. Ruud and Marina E. Soroka’s introduction to My Life for the Book: The Memoirs of a Russian Publisher.) But Sytin had a nose for publishing and business and, leaning on the advice of many important cultural figures – Leo Tolstoy and Chekhov among them – he effected a revolution in Russian publishing. He made books, chapbooks, picture books, maps and such things available at extremely low cost, meaning they could reach masses. At one time or another he published the works of Alexander Pushkin, Ivan Krylov, Tolstoy, Chekhov and many others. He obtained the property on which his huge printing factory was built in 1887 and he put it to use immediately. Later he had the architect Adolf Erikhson build a fabulous new home for his business – that was in 1903 and that is pretty much what we see today. Because of Sytin’s stinginess and his exploitative relationship to his workers, this building was gutted by fire during the Revolution of 1905. However, it was rebuilt and working again within the year. It’s also worth noting that those same workers, or their “descendants,” if you will, were extremely loyal to Sytin. When the new Soviet government appropriated the building it took them nearly three years to get the workers to accept Communist Party representation. The workers were unhappy that their boss had been treated so badly.
According to the great Know Moscow website, many of the top writers of the age paid visits to these offices, including Chekhov, Tolstoy, Maxim Gorky and Vladimir Mayakovsky. The poet Sergei Yesenin, before he was a poet or Yesenin in anyone’s mind but his own, worked as a copy editor here when he was 18 years old in 1913. Also of interest is that the future playwright Alexander Ostrovsky lived in his father’s home in a building on this plot that I am assuming was destroyed at some point. If I understand correctly, this would have been somewhere near the point where the peach and yellow buildings meet in the very last photo below.
I personally encountered Sytin for the first time in Nikolai Erdman’s black comedy The Warrant. At the beginning of Act III the old Avtonom Sigismundovich is horrified to hear that his tattered old copy of the newspaper Tsarist News has perished, i.e., was used as toilet paper by his servant Agafangel.
“How could it have perished?” Avtonom Sigismundovich asks. “My, what a healthy issue it was. The print. The ideas. The letters. Why do you think that was? Because people then were great. Take Sytin, for example. He published the newspaper Russian Word. And, oh, how he did publish it! He built a three-story building and printed it on every floor. Every time you’d ride by, you’d think to yourself, ‘There it is. The bulwark of the Russian empire. The three-story Russian Word…'”
In fact, Sytin began publishing Russian Word at the behest of Chekhov, who believed the country needed a good, cheap newspaper. As for the translation from the Erdman play, that’s taken from my own translation published in The Major Plays of Nikolai Erdman.