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What better way to do a dirty deed than to cover it up with Alexander Pushkin? That is, if you can cover it up. Some things just can’t be hidden.
Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin is going to improve the city he runs come hell or high water. And the best way for him to do that – as he has proved many times in the past – is to make life as difficult for the city’s residents as he possibly can. Like, first turn every nook and cranny of the city’s streets into income-generating parking spaces. Then, narrowing half the city’s streets to wipe out those income-generating parking spaces (after sucking money from the populace for a year or two), so that you can neither park your car anywhere, nor can you drive anywhere with any speed because the streets are so narrow they’re always jammed. Stores, restaurants and cafes that people used to be able to stop in and patronize are empty and going out of business because there’s no place to park your car anymore.
Sobyanin has decided to undo what Joseph Stalin did back in the 1930s. Stalin went to great lengths to widen Tverskaya Street, Moscow’s main drag, even going so far as to put buildings on rollers and roll them back 16 to 20 meters (tearing down churches that were in the way, of course). Now, Sobyanin has decided to narrow the street back down again. He’s turning much of the thoroughfare into a fashionable walking and bicycle zone. I’m assuming he’ll plant trees, but one is often loathe in this nation to assume anything of such a modestly positive nature. Just a few years ago Sobyanin already “improved” Tverskaya by putting in new parking spaces and trees. They are all gone now. For at least the next few months there is hardly anywhere to walk on Tverskaya between the Kremlin and a block past Pushkin Square, nor is there any place to drive. There is constant gridlock on Tverskaya these days.
Which brings me back to my first comment above – if you’re going to spit in people’s faces, why not do it in a cultured way, right? Make their lives miserable and shove Pushkin and Maxim Gorky down their throats while you’re at it. Actually, there are four figures that the authorities decided would make Muscovites’ lives more pleasant while Tverskaya is an absolute and total mess – Pushkin, Gorky, Ivan Filippov and Grigory Yeliseev. Filippov (1824-1978) was a famous baker and merchant who controlled much of the commercial space on Tverskaya in his day. Yeliseev (1864-1949) headed up the family concern that opened and ran the famous Yeliseev grocery store on Tverskaya Street until the Revolution put the store in the hands of the state. Muscovites, however, never accepted the new name of Gastronom No. 1, and called it “Yeliseevsky” throughout the Soviet era, even as they do now, after the original name has been restored. Pushkin and Gorky need no particular introduction, but they are held up as decoration to this construction project for specific reasons.
Gorky, of course, lent his name to Tverskaya Street for many decades during the Soviet period. Curiously, I’m having trouble nailing down the actual dates when Tverskaya was renamed Gorky Street. Russian Wikipedia and other sites tell us it was in 1932. Other seemingly trustworthy sources say it was 1935. In either case, Gorky didn’t die until June 18, 1936, so the authorities had figuratively put his feet in cement already when he was still kicking.
The Gorky banner on Tverskaya declares that the street was renamed for the writer in 1932, but do we accept that information? After all, earlier in the text we can read this carefully worded description that, in fact, distorts the truth seriously. “Considered the founder of Soviet literature, M. Gorky went abroad for health reasons in 1921 and only in 1928, at the invitation of the Soviet government, came to Moscow for a short while. Thousands of Muscovites met him ceremoniously on the square in front of the Belorussia train station.”
The problem with that is that the real reason Gorky remained abroad in the 1920s was because he was highly skeptical of what was happening following the Revolution, and had had serious disagreements with his former friend Vladimir Lenin. So what we have here today on Tverskaya Street is a whitewashing of the facts. But, then, tell me something new.
The text accompanying the Pushkin banner is less controversial. Let me reproduce it in full:
“Tverskaya Street played an important role in the life of the famous poet. Whenever he came to Moscow he customarily stayed in one of the local hotels, spent time at balls hosted by General-Governer D.V. Golitsyn (bldg. 13), and regularly visited the literary salon of Countess Zinaida Volkonskaya (bldg. 14). It is said that, not far away, on Tverskoi Boulevard, the poet, for the first time, saw his future wife Natalya Goncharova. In 1880 a monument to Pushkin, financed by a subscription conducted by graduates of the Tskarskoe Selo Lyceum, was erected on Tverskoi Boulevard just across the way from Gorky Street (now Tverskaya). However, in one night’s time in 1950 it was moved to the square which had been created on the spot where Strastnoi Monastery had been razed.”
Since we began with a few snide comments about “General-Governor” Sobyanin, I can’t help but recall here another of his recent “great deeds,” now fixed forever in the history books as The Night of the Long Scoops, a bitter take-off on Hitler’s Night of the Long Knives. On the Night of the Long Scoops, Feb. 8 to 9, 2016, Sobyanin’s henchmen, wielding skip loaders, wiped out nearly 100 small stores and kiosks around Moscow, virtually without warning. Most still had their wares inside, a few had people. Just as it was in Stalin’s time, it’s the way things are done in Moscow/Russia these days. Somebody somewhere in a big office decides something – wipe out someone’s livelihood, destroy the city’s historical layout, or snarl city traffic – and it’s done overnight.
One final note in the event that you are unconvinced by my argument that the current Moscow authorities are barbarians hiding behind the cultural luster of bakers, grocers and writers. Consider this: During the digs accompanying the current reconfigurations of Tverskaya Street, the spectacular discovery of an ancient 16th to 17th-century wooden sidewalk was made. But no sooner had they found it than than they busted the thing up and went on about their business of “improving” Moscow. There are some excellent photos of the sidewalk, which, as the blogger Anna Nikolaeva suggests, had survived the Time of Troubles, the Napoleon Fire and German bombs, but could not survive Sergei Sobyanin’s urban improvements. Yeah, but we got Pushkin! Yeah, but we got Gorky!