Dmitry Shostakovich monument, Moscow

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Yes, it’s a bit comics-like. Yes, it’s a bit awkward. Yes, it’s a bit crude. But I think all those aspects suit the subject – Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-1975).
There’s no point in trying to determine what artist suffered most during the Soviet period. As harsh as it may sound, that would be like trying to determine which grain of sand on the beach is the biggest or smallest. Just try and figure. If you were going to take on that pointless task you would obviously start with those who were tortured to death, then those who were “just” killed, then those who were “allowed to die,” and then you would go on from there. Shostakovich, thank God, was able to live out his life. He didn’t live it out untouched and he didn’t live it out the way he would have chosen. There’s no way of knowing if he was so worn down by the battles and humiliations that he ran out of gas before he might have under different circumstances, a month short of his 69th birthday. But he did live, and he lived to see his work recognized in his  homeland and abroad. That’s no small thing.
As I pointed out in an earlier post on this site, Shostakovich quickly gained fame for his striking, unusual compositions from a very early age. His ground-breaking opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, based on the dark novella of sex and murder by Nikolai Leskov, was written between 1930 and 1932. It was staged in the composer’s hometown of St. Petersburg in January of 1934 at the Maly Leningrad Opera Theater and was received enthusiastically. However, a notorious attack on the composer and his work appeared in Pravda more or less on the second anniversary of the opera’s premiere. Entitled “Muddle instead of Music,” it cast a dark cloud over Shostakovich that lasted for decades. Wikipedia has a nice story about how that article came about. It’s worth repeating here:
Shostakovich was away on a concert tour in Arkhangelsk when he heard news of the first Pravda article. Two days before the article was published on the evening of 28 January, a friend had advised Shostakovich to attend the Bolshoi Theatre production of Lady Macbeth. When he arrived, he saw that Joseph Stalin and the Politburo were there. In letters written to his friend Ivan Sollertinsky, Shostakovich recounted the horror with which he watched as Stalin shuddered every time the brass and percussion played too loudly. Equally horrifying was the way Stalin and his companions laughed at the love-making scene between Sergei and Katerina. Eyewitness accounts testify that Shostakovich was ‘white as a sheet’ when he went to take his bow after the third act.”
A second public “denunciation” came in 1948 when Shostakovich was named in one of the infamous Zhdanov decrees, this one attacking so-called “formalism” in Soviet music. The document called out Shostakovich, Sergei Prokofiev and Aram Khachaturian, following a similar document that in 1946 had attacked the writers Mikhail Zoshchenko and Anna Akhmatova as well as several theater critics. The composers were not officially “rehabilitated” until 1958, although Stalin himself loosened the screws in 1949 shortly before sending Shostakovich to represent the Soviet Union at the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace in New York.
One cannot be sure whether this was a positive thing for Shostakovich or not. He was, thereby, forced into the position of publicly praising to the world his de facto jailers, the very individuals and system that had tormented him for 15 years. Stalin’s death in 1953 eased the pressure on the composer again, but he never quite escaped the long, hard hand of the Soviet government. He was essentially forced to join the Communist Party in 1960 and from then on he often had to sing its praises in speeches and in his music. It is commonly felt that Shostakovich suffered as much as any artist who survived the excesses of the Soviet period. Of course, his great and sweeping oeuvre stands as a testament to his talent and his inner strength. The art won in the end, thanks to the tenacity of the individual.

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All of this is evident in the monument that Georgy Frangulyan erected in Shostakovich’s memory on the steps of the Moscow House of Music on May 28, 2015. It was the first monument commemorating the great artist in Moscow.
Frangulyan created the image of a deeply private individual, one who is obviously used to withstanding suffering. It may have bent him, it may have distorted his facial expression, but this is the figure of one who has weathered whatever came his way. The hard, exaggerated furrows in his brow bear witness to that. The head is down; it cares nothing about what is going on all around. Passersby, Moscow traffic – none of it exists for him. He is in his own world. The legs are crossed tightly, another sign of a man closing himself off to the world. Chances are his right hand is conducting some snippet of music that this he hears in his head. But it is not a public conductor’s gesture, not one that would be employed from a podium before an orchestra and a hall full of people. This is a private gesture, a small, approximate gesture, one that means something only to Shostakovich. It is, perhaps, his way of personally “hearing” his music with his body. From some angles, as in the second photo below, the hand may be “thinking” about playing notes on a piano. Of course, from other angles, it might be the beginning of him raising his arm to fend of blows – of any kind that might be thrown at him. (See the second and third photos above.) I like this aspect of Frangulyan’s sculpture – the arm gesture is very specific, yet open to interpretation. It is one of the things that give the sculpture life.
It is worth thinking for a moment about the significance of a monument like this appearing in Moscow today (just over a year ago). Increasingly, we are subjected to comments, actions and even attacks from Russian cultural authorities that harken back to the age of the Zhdanov decrees and even the denunciations in the press from the 1930s. We are constantly told by politicians, by media figures and by official patriots, that life in Russia has never been better, that the country is great, its history is great, and there are no problems aside from those that have been created by evil outside forces and the nasty people who support them for evil reasons. Don’t get me wrong. We have not returned – yet – to the exact atmosphere of the Soviet 1930s, but we are living in a time that has borrowed that era’s intonations and general methods.
To see this harried, hunkered, set-upon image of Shostakovich today is to set eyes upon a contemporary. I don’t know if any of the authorities who surely beamed happily the day of the unveiling have any idea about this or not. But it is a fact. When you stand behind Shostakovich here and gaze out on the endless stream of cars racing past on the Garden Ring Road, you realize that contemporary Moscow is as alien to you as it is to this image of Shostakovich.

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Mikhail Lermontov monument, Moscow

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There hasn’t been much that’s funny on the internet of late. If you need me to tell you why, you haven’t been paying attention. But, thanks to Governor Vadim Potomsky of the Oryol region, not everything is gloom and doom. He lit up people’s eyes last week when he commented on the unveiling of a new statue honoring Ivan the Terrible in the city of Oryol. I quote the august politician and civil servant: “Ivan the Terrible once said ‘I am guilty of the death of my son because I didn’t get him to healers in time.’ He had fallen ill while they were on the road. They were going to Moscow from St. Petersburg.
Let that sink in.
Ivan the Terrible. St. Petersburg. Are you rusty on your Russian history dates? Here’s a slight reminder. Ivan the Terrible (1530-1584). St. Petersburg, founded by Peter the Great, 1703.
But that’s not all. Give a politician a chance and a politician will virtually always dig a hole deeper than the one s/he is in. The punch line to this humorous little joke is this: Mr. Potomsky wrapped up his historical excursus with the words, “We must remember history. Don’t let anyone rewrite it.” (The quotes are carried differently in various sources. Another source makes the great politician even more emphatic: “He who does not know history has no future!“)
Ach, touchee, Mr. Potomsky! Only methinks you’d best quick get yourself to a healer… You appear to show signs of a self-inflected wound. Of course, in most countries today, that’s no problem! You know, take a Trump, take an Erdogan, take a Putin, take a Boris Johnson… Oh, you just bluster and lie and keep on going! So, keep it up, Potomsky! You’re in “good” company!
Anyway, I chose to take the Oryolian (not to say Orwellian) politician at his word. And I decided to take the opportunity to remember an important individual from the past, particularly, in this case, the poet Mikhail Lermontov, Russia’s “second” poet.
Lermontov (1814-1841) lived a full decade less than his great predecessor Alexander Pushkin, but his fame hardly suffers for that. He died at the age of 26, leaving behind a legacy that puts me to shame – I don’t know about you. His works are collected in 10 volumes (you can download them here); his lyric poetry, his narrative poetry, one of his plays (The Masquerade) and much of his prose (including A Hero of Our Time) are all first rate works, placing him squarely at the top of the pantheon. One hears the phrase uttered often by those suffering from a bout of self-doubt (no, no, not Mr. Potomsky, though!): “At my age Lermontov was dead. What the hell have I accomplished?!”
Lermontov died of that common Russian disease, second only to that which ails Mr. Potomsky: the duel. Duels took the lives of Pushkin (aged 37) and Lermontov within just four years of each other. Does anyone have any questions about the self-destructive strain in Russian culture?

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Humor aside (although, somehow, I don’t feel there is anything a bit funny about anything I have written today) I have taken on the entirely serious topic today of bringing to you a very nice monument honoring Mikhail Lermontov in Moscow. It was created by the sculptor Isaak Brodsky and it was unveiled June 4, 1965, on Krasnye Vorota (Red Gates) Square (for many years it was Lermontov Square). It stands near the spot where Lermontov was born (that house is long gone, although there is a plaque commemorating the fact on the Stalinist wedding cake building that replaced it – see the second-to-the-last photo below), right at the beginning of Novaya Basmanaya Street. Lermontov stands on a high pedestal, refusing to look at the mad traffic racing by on the so-called Garden Ring Road right in front of him. It is a very odd location. I must admit that I rode/drove/walked more or less by this monument for years before I even noticed it was there. The problem is not the monument itself, which is laid out quite nicely, but just the general environment. The break-neck speed and/or traffic jam snail’s pace of the Garden Ring Road, combined with the ominous Stalinist tower hovering in the sky, and the fact that the monument is set back quite a ways, all comes together to mean that you can easily miss it. I did for a very long time.
But when you do finally see it, and you stop to walk around it, you are surprised at what an effective ensemble it is.
Brodsky properly put Lermontov in a romantic wind-blown officer’s overcoat and a romantic light frown. Lermontov is, I am estimating, 18% sadness, and 82% seriousness. One suspects he already sees his own impending death. Although he doesn’t appear to be worried by it. Just aware that it is there and that that is what is coming next. The straight knee, as it often does in monuments, provides a sense of rigor, strength and stature; the bent knee gives him an accessible, human quality. The hands behind the back seem to suggest he’s taking on fate as it comes – he’s not going to bother to fend anything off, is not preparing to grapple with anything.
Behind the monument itself stands another element, quite nice, too, that brings in characters from several of Lermontov’s works (the narrative poems Mtsyri and The Demon, and the lyric poem “The Sail”). It is here that the sculptor chose to engrave a short poetic excerpt in what appears to be black marble:

Moscow, Moscow!
I love you as a son,
A Russian –
Intensely, passionately,
And tenderly.

However, as Yevgeny Popov points out in his short piece about this monument – “The Guy in the Coat” – Lermontov was a direct descendant of the Scottish mystic poet known as Thomas the Rhymer, or Thomas of Learmont. Of course, Thomas lived in the 13th century, allowing plenty of time for the Lermontov line to become fully Russianized. Perhaps more to the point, Popov quotes one of Lermontov’s most famous quatrains, which, indeed, fits the monument well:

I go out on the road alone;
And through the fog a flinty path does glisten;
The night is hushed. The emptiness has turned its ear to God.
And up above a star talks to a star.

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Nikolai Ostrovsky bust, Muzeon Park, Moscow

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Nikolai Ostrovsky (no relation to the great playwright Alexander Ostrovsky) has always occupied a place near the end of my list of admired Russian writers. He did not write much (he died at the age of 32) and what he did write – primarily the novel How the Steel was Tempered – is hardly one of my favorite books. It is a “classic of Soviet Socialist Realism,” and so will always have its champions. I found it unreadable when I attempted to get through it several decades ago. I have never come back to it, regardless of what that may say about me.
The novel is a semi-autobiographical tale about a hero named Pavel Korchagin who became one of the most important “positive” mythical characters in the Soviet pantheon. It follows his adventures in the Russian Civil War and after. Over the years (from 1942 to 2000) there were at least four films made of the novel. The best known is Pavel Korchagin (1957), which made the actor Vasily Lanovoi a star. In fact, Ostrovsky wrote only two other works; one was lost in the mail (The Tale of the Kotovsky Brigade, 1927), the other was unfinished at the time of his death (Born by Storm, 1936). Born by Storm, consisting of, at best, one-third of the planned total, was rush-published in order to present copies to those who attended the writer’s funeral.
Ostrovsky (1904-1936) seemingly clings to his place in Russian-Soviet literature by the thinnest of threads. Still, the popularity of his one extant, completed work was quite fantastic. A poll taken in 1986 of literature published between the years of 1918 and 1986 determined that How the Steel was Tempered had been published 536 times. Did anybody really read this book? Well, yes, I’m sure some did. I do not doubt it was of genuine interest at the time of publication (1932-34, in serialized form first). I rather suspect there was a bump in readers when the film with Lanovoi came out. But I also don’t doubt that a lot of those editions were “force published” by the Communist Party and were put on shelves in schools and libraries where they really didn’t attract much attention. War and Peace, I hate to break it to Ostrovsky fans, this was not.
But there is also no doubt that the figure of Ostrovsky continues to attract attention even today. His was a tragic story and it has been told many times over. Each time, unfortunately, new bits of “information” slip in, while other details seem to fall by the wayside. As such, there is plenty of confusion surrounding the true state of Ostrovsky’s affairs.
Primary was the question of his health. For many years the official explanation of his incapacitation and death was that he had an acute form of polyarthritis which led to the ossification of his bones. In later years it became customary to say that he suffered from multiple sclerosis, although bone or spinal tuberculosis has been suspected at times, too. Research now suggests he most likely had ankylosing spondylitis, commonly known in Russia as Bekhterev’s disease. In his last few years Ostrovsky went blind as a result of complications arising from a bout with typhus in 1922. In any case, by that time (1922) Ostrovsky was in very bad health anyway (he was 18). By mid-decade he was increasingly bed-ridden. He underwent an enormous number of consultations, treatments and operations, virtually none of which did anything but increase his pain and discomfort. A website supported by the Tyumen State Medical University hosts an extremely detailed account of virtually all of Ostrovsky’s ailments and treatments. It makes for grim reading. I will limit myself to one short quote from the expansive and highly-detailed report:
“In the Spring of 1927 the Ostrovsky family took him to a ‘natural’ resort, the Hot Springs in the Krasnodar Region. During the six-hour trip over horrible roads Ostrovsky lost consciousness nine times from pain. ‘I can’t describe to you the whole nightmare of the trip to the resort,’ he wrote to his wife. Despite three months of constant treatment (Ostrovsky was lowered into the waters on crutches), the knee which had been operated on still would not bend, while movement in his remaining joints caused cruel pain. ‘The sulphur baths deceived our expectations in the cruelest of ways,’ Ostrovsky wrote to his wife.”

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Ostrovsky came from a military family – both his father and grandfather were war heroes – and so it is not surprising that Nikolai would have been inclined to follow in their footsteps. As he became increasingly incapacitated, he was compelled to do work that did not require movement, serving in various official organizations. He was appointed secretary of the regional committee of the Komsomol in Shepetovka, Ukraine, in 1924. But as his illnesses continued to affect him, he increasingly concentrated his efforts on writing. That, too, was no simple deed. He was so incapacitated – movement and sight – that he had to invent a device – usually called a stencil – that allowed him to write legibly. (When sight failed him entirely, he worked with a secretary who took dictation.)
Anna Karavaeva, a writer who befriended Ostrovsky, has left some moving tales of Ostrovsky’s struggles. In a large selection of her memoirs published in English on the Sovlit.net website, Karavaeva describes how difficult it was for Ostrovsky to write.
“By ‘my offensive’ he meant his work on the second part of the novel How the Steel Was Tempered. The difficult and at moments agonizing process which Nikolai called ‘my work’ was in truth an offensive….
I often remember his thin, yellowish hands which always lay on top of the blanket. They were the nervous, acutely sensitive hands of a blind man. He had the power of movement left only in his hands, as arthritis, that dread disease of the joints which was to be one of the causes of his death, had already seized the whole of his poor body.
Once, shortly before he left for Sochi, Nikolai said to me in the mocking tone he usually adopted when speaking of his condition:
‘My shoulders and elbows don’t feel as if they belonged to me at all. It’s the craziest feeling! This is all I have left to me, all I possess!’ Smiling with puckish sadness, he raised his hands a little and moved his fingers. ‘Try and manage with these!’
Although he disliked discussing his illness, he told me on one of my earlier visits that for a time he had been able to write with the help of a cardboard stencil.
‘It wasn’t too convenient, but still it had its uses,’ he said.

At the beginning of August 1932 I received a letter from him from Sochi. He had written it in pencil with the help of his stencil. The too-straight lines and the unnaturally curved letters compelled the imagination to picture the physical strain and the effort of will that went into the writing of that short letter.
18 Primorskaya,
Sochi,
August 5
Dear Comrade Anna,
I am living with my mother very close to the seashore. I spend the whole day out in the garden, lying under an oak tree and writing, making the best of the lovely weather (the next words were undecipherable)… my head is clear. I am in a hurry to live, Comrade Anna, I do not want to be sorry afterwards that I wasted these days. The offensive, brought to a deadlock by my stupid illness, is developing again, and so wish me victory.”
I do not know much about the bust of Ostrovsky that stands in the Muzeon Park in Moscow. All my attempts to glean any details of interest ended in failure. But I very much like it. It has a striking cleanliness and perfection. It was created by Boris Yedunov sometime in the 1950s and there my knowledge of the piece comes to an end. For the most part Yedunov made a career of sculpting military and political leaders. And, indeed, this bust of Ostrovsky shows him in uniform. The facial expression shows strength, clarity of thought and and a deep knowledge of hardship. I suspect this piece of sculpture does a good job of putting us in touch with the individual it represents.
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Alexander Grin river boat, Moscow River

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DSCN9795 DSCN9797  My wife Oksana and I recently took up a perch overlooking the Moscow River. Well, it’s not actually the Moscow River. In this particular place it is called the Moscow Canal and just beyond it, on the other side of the bridge, it’s called the Klyazma Reservoir. But it looks and acts and smells (ever so sweetly) like a river to us, and so we call it a river. One of the reasons we feel entirely entitled to do that is because enormous ships navigate the waterways here daily. Huge barges, motor boats, sail boats, yachts, steamboats, houseboats and cargo boats go up the river, down the river, up the river, down the river. I would guess that at least a half-dozen times a day, if not more, we see huge passenger liners going by. They are among our favorites, in part because many have wonderful names – the good ships Mstislav Rostropovich, Igor Stravinsky, Andrei Rublyov, Sergei Yesenin, Mikhail Bulgakov, Nikolai Gogol, Nikolai Karamzin, Alexander Radishchev, Ivan Krylov to name a few. As you see in the final two shots below, Alexander Pushkin and Nikolai Chernyshevsky have their very own liners named after them. Regardless of what they’re called, every time we see one coming or going we run to the windows and hang on the windowsill, just watching the river flow and watching the ship sail on it.
After awhile I began to think – there may be something to write about here. But the Alexander Pushkin? I’ve written about him a million times and I have another million photos involving him that are still waiting to be written about. It’s the same, to lesser degrees, in regards to Bulgakov, Rostropovich, Gogol, Stravinsky and others. But then one day, a few days ago, the perfect boat came chugging down the river, heading in towards Moscow from St. Petersburg. Hoping for something good, I began photographing it before its name came into view. And when the ship did come abreast of me, I was thrilled – it was the Alexander Grin! What a perfect combination! And I’ve never seen any plaque or monument in the cities I’ve inhabited or visited that would give me an opportunity to share a few stories about this fantastic writer.
Alexander Grin (1880-1932) was the son of Stefan Hryniewski, a Pole who had been sent into “eternal exile” in Siberia. As such Alexander’s real last name in Russian was Grinevsky. He appears to have been a restless soul, trying out all kinds of different professions and places of residence. Among his jobs were: woodsman, fisherman, railroad worker, gold miner, bookbinder, scribe and many more. At the age of 16 he set out for the great port city of Odessa with the idea in mind of becoming a sailor. According to Russian Wikipedia, however, Grin was a lousy sailor. On his first voyage he got in an argument with the captain, jumped ship and went home. Before long he was drawn into Russia’s nascent revolutionary movement and he ended up being arrested numerous times for his activities – in various cities such as Kamyshin, Sebastopol and St. Petersburg. In 1905 he was convicted to four years in prison near Tobolsk, but escaped within three days (his dad helped him obtain a false passport). Three years earlier he had deserted his post when serving in the army…
I toss all this together in a jumble in order to declare what should be obvious by now: the only thing Grin was really good for and at, and the only thing he really could do, or wanted to do, was to write. And, indeed, over the last 25 years of his life, Grin became one of the most interesting, beloved and unique writers in the Russian literary canon.

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Encyclopedias tell us about the neoromantic, psychological, philosophical, symbolist, mystical and fantastic elements in Grin’s writings. What most any Russian kid – or adult who has not forgotten his or her childhood – will tell you, though, is that his adventure stories are among the best, most vivid they ever encountered. Although he turned out to be a lousy sailor, some of his best-loved works are about watery voyages. Many of those have been made into popular films, including Scarlet Sails, She Who Runs on Waves, 100 Versts on the River and more. In fact, there have been at least three films made of Scarlet Sails (1961, 1982, 2010), and two of She Who Runs on Waves (1967, 2007).
The world of Grin’s literature (he began writing in 1906) is strange, somewhat foreboding and endlessly attractive. You sense danger in there and you are compelled to move closer to the edge to see what is happening more closely. Many of his works take place in a land that he imagined himself and which came to be known as Grinland (having nothing to do, of course, with Greenland). Notably, virtually none of Grin’s works (he wrote novels, stories and poetry) reflected the life that surrounded him in Russia. This, of course, was a bold, maybe even risky, choice on the part of the writer. In a tradition that (rightly or wrongly) held Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Chekhov and even Gogol on pedestals for the way in which they reflected and commented on the fate of their nation and their people, Grin simply turned his back entirely on reality and used his literature to escape into his own fantasy land. A film of his tale Mister Designer, about an artist who wishes to beat death by means of making sculptures that will live forever, became a huge hit upon release in 1988 and remains a cult favorite today.
Grin did not consider himself the author of fantasies or unreal adventures. He saw himself more as a symbolist. Again I lean on Russian Wikipedia, which has an extraordinarily long and detailed entry on the writer: “Yury Olesha recalled that he once expressed his admiration for the marvelous fantastic idea of a human that flies (“The Brilliant World”), but Grin, in fact, was offended: ‘That is a symbolic novel, not a fantasy novel! That is not a flying person, but rather the soaring of a soul!‘”
During the Soviet years Grin was able to publish only for a short time in the mid-1920s, when the control of the Communist Party was at its laxest. By the late 1920s he was cut off from publishing entirely and his works only began reappearing decades later. He died of cancer of the stomach a month short of his 42nd birthday, in obscurity and poverty. His reputation since then has struggled at times to achieve the respect it deserves. Grin is often referred to as a writer for young adults, but this is a gross simplification. Little by little that prejudice has lost power in recent decades, but Grin still does not fit into the usual overall blueprint of Russian literature. In fact, he was a unique, powerful and talented writer whose imagination has enriched the Russian consciousness for over a century. Sail on, Alexander Grin!

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Alexander Ostrovsky birthplace, Moscow

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The calendar in 1823 had turned to a new day just four hours prior to the appearance in the world of Nikolai and Lyubov Ostrovsky’s latest son. At the time, when Russia was still using the Julian calendar, it was in the wee hours of March 31. In the rest of the world where the Gregorian Calendar was in use (as it has been in Russia since 1918), it was April 12. Thus we now celebrate the birth of Alexander Ostrovsky, one of the greatest figures in Russian theater on this date of April 12.
The house that the family inhabited was relatively new to them. They had just rented it and moved in a short time before. The landlord was a local priest and the house, in fact, stood directly across from a church that was originally built in the 17th century. It looks old to us now; it would have looked old even to the Ostrovsky family.
The address today is 9 Malaya (or, Small) Ordynka Street. It is a short side road stuck neatly in between two major thoroughfares – Pyatnitskaya Street and Bolshaya (or, Big) Ordynka – in the Zamoskvorech’ye neighborhood, so called because it is located “beyond” the Moscow River, south of the Kremlin. I lived a few blocks from Ostrovsky’s home for 17 years until Oksana and I packed up and left the area behind a few weeks ago. We did that for several reasons, one being that a former neighbor was murdered one night a year and a half ago not far away on the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge. His name was Boris Nemtsov and he was the leader of Russia’s political opposition. He lived a few blocks from us, quite near to where Ostrovsky was born, even closer to where Leo Tolstoy once lived, and he was on his way home after a late supper when six assassin’s bullets to the back cut him down. Ever since that night the whole area has seemed cursed to us. Out, out, damn spot. It will not come out. The blood on the bridge that led to and from our home became too much to bear. It seemed to spread and seep into our every thought and sensation. It spoiled this beautiful place with so much history and beauty. The beauty and history remain, and they will inspire and please others for as long as Moscow remains standing. But it could not inspire or please us anymore. Our love, our connection, our sense of belonging were cut down together with Boris Nemtsov. Fiends took his life, and extinguished our love.
So it was that on my last day as a resident of Zamoskvorech’ye, as a neighbor in space, if not in time, of one of my most admired historical figures, Alexander Ostrovsky, I decided to take a stroll around the house in which the great writer was born and lived for the first few years of his life.
I also need to say that I had never stopped by to visit Ostrovsky in all my years as a neighbor. I passed his home countless times going to and fro. I always nodded and wished him well, admiring the beautiful old wooden home ensconced among towering, modern buildings. I often stopped to look through the gate at the home’s facade before moving on again. Once, when the territory was closed, I trained my camera on the Ostrovsky monument by the side of the house and hit the zoom lever, but the lighting was so bad, the distance so great, and the surround foliage so rich, that my photos were useless. I never came back to try again. Always in a hurry, always in a hurry. I once attended an exhibit here of photographs by my friend Ken Reynolds, who, in a neighboring building, showed a series of his images of Chekhov productions that he had photographed all over the world. But even for that I just tossed some shoes on bare feet and raced over to look at the photographs and spend a few minutes with Ken, who had flown in that day from the U.K. Then it was back to my own home, back to my work.
Is this what Bob Dylan calls Time out of Mind? A sensation of eternity, of time stopped, even as time ticks down? It never bothered me that I had not stopped in to see Ostrovsky because I could always do that, couldn’t I? That house wasn’t going anywhere, nor was I, was I? We were eternal neighbors; it certainly seemed that way for 17 years. Seventeen long years there was no need for me to hurry over to spend time with Alexander Ostrovsky because I could do it any time. Any time I wanted. Not today, because today I’m busy. Probably not tomorrow. But any other time. Any day, any time. Next week, next month, next year.

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And so on my last day as Alexander Ostrovsky’s neighbor, I paid him a visit. The murder of Nemtsov put the lie to that notion of eternity; his blood washed me out of the neighborhood we all had shared. One day was left. Tomorrow I could not come see Ostrovsky as a neighbor. Tomorrow I would be a “foreigner,” a guest coming from afar, an alien from another borough. I made the short trek and stepped through the wrought iron gate I so often had passed, and through which I often sent vague, warm thoughts.
I was almost immediately transported into another world. Right here in the middle of the city, the city is held at bay. Flower gardens blooming almost madly, thick tree canopies seeming to billow overhead, quaint sandy paths leading around the house, and the simple, but attractive, wooden house itself – they all conspire to erase the 21st century. You take a seat on one of the wooden benches surrounding Ostrovsky’s bust and you realize that Moscow is not at all what you thought it was. At least it was not at one time. This is the countryside! Ostrovsky, the man who almost singlehandedly created the great Russian theater that we know today, the first great Russian playwright, the first great Russian theater manager (he turned the Maly into the institution it is today), the great social activist (he pioneered the notion of social support for actors), was born right here in a sleepy plot, where breezes lap lazily at leaves and the humid air of summer makes you want to wilt and fall asleep every other step you take. A woman sat nearby reading a book. Reading a book?! In the middle of Moscow in the 21st century? Birds twittered. What birds? Where do you see birds besides crows and pigeons in Moscow? Where is this place? Where have I landed?
I had landed in the past. I had entered the last few hours, the last few minutes, of eternity. It was a fine, fitting final day in Zamoskvorech’ye. The past had brought me to Russia in the first place. Tolstoy. Erdman. All the rest. You know the names. You know the alphabet soup. And the past would usher me out of my sad, soured Moscow neighborhood, the place I loved so long but could not bear any longer.
Ostrovsky. He will weather all. When all of it’s gone, when all of them are gone, Ostrovsky will remain. Ostrovsky will reclaim Zamoskvorech’ye. He will redeem it. But that will be done without me. I will welcome it and celebrate it. But I’ll do that from afar, a foreigner again. An alien.

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