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I attended an event at the new Teatr.doc yesterday, which is located at 3 Spartakovskaya Street just two doors down from Razgulyai Square. It was a concert organized to take place simultaneously with protests occurring in Novosibirsk and St. Petersburg in response to the banning of the opera “Tannhauser” at the Novosibirsk Opera and Ballet Theater. There’s a lot more to it than that, but that’s not my point today. My point is Alexander Pushkin and his uncle Vasily. You see, Vasily Pushkin lived just a few doors up, and across the street, from where the new Teatr.doc is located. In fact, if you head back in the other direction along Spartakovskaya, going past Teatr.doc, you quickly come upon the imposing Church of the Epiphany in Yelokhovo where itty-bitty baby Pushkin was christened when he was two days old in 1799. There are other “Pushkin places” around here, most of which I’ll end up writing about in this space one day or another.
For that reason it seems entirely fitting that yesterday’s concert at Teatr.doc – a literary recital, during which actors, writers and directors recited various Russian poetry that has been banned over the last 200 years – began and ended with poetry by Pushkin – “Ode to Liberty,” and “Deep in the Siberian Mines.” After all, as little Pushkin ran around this area in his early years, he would have seen the 18th-century building that now serves as the 21st-century Teatr.doc. The walls of this small building witnessed the extraordinary sight of little Pushkin running up and down the street.
Vasily Pushkin was a poet himself, and not a bad one. Of course, he has been eclipsed entirely by his nephew. So it is that on the house he occupied in the first years of the 19th century, there are two plaques proclaiming the presence of Alexander and two proclaiming the presence of Vasily. The nicest one, with crude lettering on white marble states: “Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin used to spend time in this house of his uncle, the poet V.L. Pushkin” (see below). There is also a fancy golden plaque at the gate leading into the courtyard which proclaims this building at 36 Staraya Basmannaya Street the Vasily Pushkin House Museum. Although in small letters above you see that this is an affiliate of the greater Alexander Pushkin complex of museums around Moscow. For the record, this is a relatively new museum in Moscow – it was opened in 2013.
Vasily Pushkin (1766-1830) was a well-known man-about-town in his time. He served in the army, wrote lyrical poetry and satires, hosted great parties and took part in the great debate about changes occurring in the Russian language at the turn of the century. He came down on the side of Nikolai Karamzin, who was a progressive, if you will, and against Alexander Shishkov, an admiral and government official who imagined himself a writer and struck a bold pose against allowing Russian to grow and change with the times. Guess who won that argument? However, Vasily Pushkin was dead set against any attempt among Russian writers to give in to the inclination to write in the vein of the Romantics. Being progressive was one thing, but succumbing to all that romantic balderdash was another! Vasily’s best-known work is a satirical narrative poem called “The Dangerous Neighbor,” about a rake’s visit to a brothel. The well-known poet Yevgeny Baratynsky, a good friend of Alexander’s, was of such a high opinion of “The Dangerous Neighbor” that he suggested the elder Pushkin, not particularly accomplished before this time, must have made a pact with the Devil suddenly to begin writing with such talent.
Thus are we encouraged to believe that the whole legend of the great bluesman Robert Johnson meeting the Devil at a crossroads in Mississippi and selling his soul to learn how to play the guitar, has its roots in Russian literary history. Doesn’t this make the whole legend of Alexander Pushkin being of African descent take on new sheen?
Anyway, even the grumpy critic Vladimir Nabokov afforded “The Dangerous Neighbor” faint (or is it feint?) praise. “The immodest poem,” Nabokov reportedly said, “is more properly gallant, in the French sense of the word, than ribald (although it is full of rough-and-tumble little words in the vernacular).
Vasily was an important person in Alexander’s life. It is often said that Vasily “taught” Sasha how to write verse – although it might make more sense to say he was the one to encourage him to do it. As the plaque suggests, Sasha hung out here from time to time as a child, and Alexander was one of the first people, to whom Vasily entrusted “The Dangerous Neighbor” when it was completed. It is worth noting that this poem, written in 1811, remained banned in Russia until 1901. Alexander introduced the character of Buyanov from “The Dangerous Neighbor” into his great novel-in-verse Yevgeny Onegin as a minor figure. And when Alexander was exiled from St. Petersburg to Moscow in connection with the revolt of the Decembrists, it was to Vasily’s house – the one pictured here – that he immediately came.
According to Alexander’s father, the young future poet learned several of his uncle’s poems by heart and “thereby quite pleased the venerable relative.” It was the uncle who first espied talent in the nephew and it was he who brought Pushkin to the famous Lyceum where he began his studies in 1811. The younger Pushkin identified the elder as a “tender, subtle, keen” poet. However, he did know that they were separated by a gulf. In an epigram to his uncle the young Alexander wrote, in part:
…No, No, you’re not at all my brother;
Even on Parnassus you are my uncle.