Yes, I just happened to be wandering the tiny streets and alleyways of Chania, Crete, Greece, last week, and there he was in all his glory: Ivan Turgenev, or, as the Greeks – Nikos Kazantzakis and Alexandros Papadiamandis among them – would know him: Ιβάν Τουργκένιεφ.
I must admit, I did not recognize the name first, although anyone knowing Russian might be expected to do so relatively quickly, seeing as how written Russian, thanks to efforts of the monks Cyril (Kirill) and Methodius in the 9th century, is built on the basis of the Greek alphabet. But, no, it wasn’t the name that caught my eye: It was the photo of Turgenev, a fairly well-known image, that leaped at me through the window of the Mikro Karavi (Μικρό Καράβι) bookstore at 59 Daskalogianni Street in the Old City of Chania (that’s pronounced khan-YA). Was this a moment of penance for my having slighted Turgenev a month or so ago in this space? Perhaps. But it is a fact that I reacted to Turgenev’s handsome, cultured and rather melancholy visage as if I had just run across an old friend. I can’t imagine seeing a book by Turgenev displayed prominently in the window of an American bookstore. Let’s not even talk about how long you might have to hunt to find this proverbial American bookstore… It was a jolt of joy.
In any case, Turgenev provided the magnet that made me put the day’s walk on hold for 15 minutes. My wife Oksana and I were headed for the seashore, located about two minutes ahead of us, but I simply could not pass Turgenev by that easily. And when I started to look around I was thrilled to see how prominent the Russians were at this lovely, clean, well-lighted place of a bookshop. Two literary maps on the windows put Leon Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Anton Chekhov, Vladimir Nabakov, Alexander Pushkin and Nikolai Gogol right there in the midst of Haruki Murakami, Jack Kerouac, Ismail Kadare, Amos Oz and many others. But this little ship of books (for that is what mikro karavi means) had more pleasures waiting for me inside, not the least of which was the huge board of writers’ names that hangs behind the cash register. On it, Dostoevsky’s name is matched in size only by those of Euripides, Jorge Luis Borges, Miguel de Cervantes and Omiros (whom you may know better as Homer). A quick search of the shelves – because I’ll admit, the call of the sea was growing stronger – led me to the letter ‘T’ where I found two volumes by Tolstoy (War and Peace and Resurrection) and another by Turgenev (Fathers and Sons). You can see those in the second-to-last photo below.
There is a good reason why Russian literature would occupy a place of honor not only in Greece, but on Crete specifically, and his name is Nikos Kazantzakis. He was born in the city of Heraklion on Crete, perhaps an hour’s drive to the east of Chania. This was before Crete was part of Greece proper, but that is beyond the pale of my thoughts today. The fact remains that Kazantzakis, one of the great Greek writers, the author of Zorba the Greek, The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, and The Last Temptation of Christ, was deeply affected by Russian culture and literature. One nice little detail that connects Kazantzakis to Chania is that his grave lies near the Chania Gate of the wall surrounding Heraklion. The church refused to allow him to be buried in the city cemetery. Like Leo Tolstoy, who was excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox Church, Kazantzakis had been too much a free-thinker to suit the rigid requirements of the Greek Orthodox Church. According to a wonderful chronology of Kazantzakis’s life, published in The Selected Letters of Nikos Kazantzakis, in October of 1915, Kazantzakis, very much under the influence of Tolstoy’s writings, “decides that religion is more important than literature and vows to begin where Tolstoy left off.”
Kazantzakis had a serious flirtation with Russian culture, and Soviet politics, throughout the 1920s and early 1930s. He traveled to the Soviet Union at least four times between 1925 and 1929 (living and traveling there for a solid 18 months from 1927 to 1929), and he left behind many writings about his experiences. Some were for lectures that he delivered around the world, others were for an Athenian newspaper paying him to send reports, and still others were far more in-depth. Perhaps the peak of Kazantzakis’s involvement with Russian literature came in 1930 when he wrote a two-volume history of the topic.
At one point Kazantzakis had thoughts of settling in the Soviet Union for good. He was witness to a time of turmoil and difficulty. A convinced Communist, he could not have known about the deadly fire that would engulf the next decade and a half in the Soviet Union, but it’s quite clear he was a perceptive observer. On November 4, 1927, he wrote to his future wife Eleni Samiou, “The tempo of Russian life has changed – it’s different from 1925. The official rhythm of life is quieter now; there is a certain embourgeoisement. The arrivistes have arrived and do not budge; the women have begun to descend again to their lowest cravings; the men are tired. Fortunately, the great internal struggle between Trotsky and Stalin lends new life and fire to the Russian soul. This is a critical moment for Russia; everyone expects the Europeans to start a war against them, and every day a horde of women and men queue up at the stores to get an extra supply of flour.”
Thus it is that we now smile as we read Kazantzakis’s references to Moscow as “the red Bethlehem” (as he wrote to Elli Lambridi on the morning of the 10th anniversary of the Revolution). By the end of World War II he had abandoned Communism, though not his leftist beliefs.
Not surprisingly, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky probably had the biggest influence on Kazantzakis of all the Russian writers. He wrote a chapter called “Tolstoy and Dostoevsky” in his book What I Saw in Russia. But he was also moved by the writings of Lev Shestov, the incisive Russian-Jewish philosopher and religious thinker, and Lewis Owens, in his book Creative Destruction: Nikos Kazantzakis and the Literature of Responsibility, devotes an entire chapter to Kazantzakis’s ties to the work of the prominent philosopher Nikolai Berdyayev (usually known as Nicholas Berdyaev in the West). This chapter also notes that Kazantzakis became a close friend of the unique emigre Russian writer Alexei Remizov. In fact, the two were so in synch, that, as we are told, “they never quarreled.” It is interesting to consider and ponder these affinities and friendships, as Shestov, Berdyaev and Remizov were among those who “escaped” the Soviet experiment for the safety of Europe, while their friend Kazantzakis was still very much enthralled with the possibilities of the nation they had given up on and abandoned.