Alexei Novikov-Priboi plaque, Moscow

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There are few things I love to do more than to violate rules and standards set up by others. Any writing teacher worth their salt will tell you that you cannot begin an article or any piece of writing with an apology or a caveat. It is said to undercut your position as author. Pshaw! Reminds me of an editor I once had who cut a key phrase from one of my reviews. When I objected that that was my favorite phrase in the piece, I was treated to a stern lecture that can be boiled down to this: “My writing teacher always taught us that we should go through anything we write and cut out the phrase we love the most.” This left me pondering two things: Which is worse, a bad teacher or a bad pupil?
Anyway, sorry for the lousy photos today. This was not an easy place to get. The lush trees (a rarity in Moscow), combined with a locked fence surrounding the former home of Alexei Novikov-Priboi at 5-7 Bolshoi Kislovsky Lane made it a challenge to get any photos at all. In the old days I might have just hopped the fence and grabbed my shots, but the old days in Moscow are not the new days in Moscow. Somebody might mistake my eager leap for something it was not – and just you try explaining to a security guard (or worse) that, “I’m just an American taking pictures of cultural landmarks.” Especially when you consider that this building was, and presumably still is, occupied by many high-ranking military officials. (You can see plenty of other plaques in the few photos here – they’re all to generals and admirals.) No thanks. I got what shots I could through the cracks in the leaves and left it at that.
But enough of all that: Alexei Novikov-Priboi (1877-1944). I mentioned him to my wife Oksana as soon as she got up this morning and she said, “Oh! Something straight out of my childhood!” Yes, Novikov-Priboi would be one of those writers that young people would devour. Let’s see if the name will help you understand that. You see, this writer was born Alexei Silantyevich Novikov in the Tambov region. While spending time as a prisoner of war in 1903 during the Russo-Japanese War, he came up with the notion of describing the events of his life in writing. His first published works, Madmen and Fruitless Victims and For the Sins of Others (1906) addressed his activities on board a ship during the battle of Tsushima. He served in the Russian navy from 1899 to 1906 so that, for him, writing was an opportunity to  go back to sea in his imagination. His first collection of stories, published in 1917, was called Sea Stories. And that brings us back to Novikov’s name. For good measure, as a writer of sea tales, he added the second handle of Priboi – that is, Surf – to his last name. But that’s not all. He also simplified his patronymic (the “middle” Russian name which stands for “son of” or “daughter of”) from Silantyevich to Silych. Thus he became not “son of Silanty,” but “son of Sila” – that is, “son of Power.” You begin to feel the aura of the name – Alexei “Son of Power” Novikov-Surf!

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Novikov-Priboi led an eventful life. After the publication of his first two tales (as independent brochures), he immediately found himself on the wrong side of the political battles then still simmering following the failure of the so-called 1905 Revolution. Both works were banned and, in order to avoid arrest, Novikov left the country. Over the course of six years (until 1913), working as a merchant marine, he spent time in Finland, England, France, Spain, Italy and North Africa. In 1912 and 1913 Novikov lived on the island of Capri with Maxim Gorky.
Gorky, in fact, played a beneficial role in Novikov’s literary career. He very much liked Novikov’s story “In the Dark” – a description of the events of the 1905 Revolution – and he interceded in order to get the piece published in the Sovremennik journal in 1912. Of Gorky Novikov-Priboi  said, “Gorky put me on my feet. After studying with him I firmly and independently entered the literary world.”
The writer Konstantin Paustovsky penned a short essay about Novikov-Priboi in 1937 (yes, that year does make one shudder). In it he describes Novikov’s most famous book, Tsushima (1932):
“Tsushima was the writer’s great success. Its theme stuns so that you cease to notice what we are accustomed to noticing in writers: language, style, composition. When a book stuns you so that you cease to note how it was written – that is success. That means that it has been created according to laws of genuine literary mastery that are not yet revealed to us.
“Tsushima‘s power is not only in its simplicity and accuracy. Its power is in the abundance of exciting material, and in its topic: an enormous but clueless fleet goes to his death as if lying down beneath the executioner’s ax. Everybody knows what it happening. This [tale] takes us through the entire world, through sweltering oceans, the equator, the tropics, storms and calm, blue waters.
The tragedy of this funereal journey is so great that one wants to read more and more about it. In the general light of this tragedy every details takes on special significance and power.”
Novikov-Priboi lived in this home in the Arbat region from 1930 until his death in 1944. As such, his novel Tsushima was at least finished here, if not written in its entirety.
One final note on Tsushima – research in recent years has shown that Soviet editors, little by little, drop by drop, letter by letter, bowdlerized Novikov-Priboi’s original text. In each subsequent edition the details of the novel, its attitude toward the Tsarist navy, and even many of the historical facts were “amended” to suit current political needs. If you’re going to read the novel, I suggest you find an edition published in 1932.

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