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This is the third or fourth time I have photographed this monument, one of Moscow’s most prominent. I have never been satisfied with the pictures and I’m not crazy about what I have to offer today. But I figured if I haven’t been able to do better than this by now, then I never will.
So, here is the monument to playwright and poet Alexander Griboedov which stands at the far end of the segment of the Moscow Garden Boulevard that is called Chistye Prudy (Clean Ponds). You pass Alexander as you walk from the Chistye Prudy or Turgenevsky metro stops on your way to the actual ponds, the Sovremennik Theater, the Tabakov Theater or many other attractions along the way.
One would think this is a fine monument. It is big, that is for sure. It dominates the area around it. It has a nicely classical feel for those who love that kind of thing. But I have a sneaking suspicion that I have had enormous difficulty photographing it for a reason. I just can’t put my finger on it yet. For one, it seems almost as if the sculptor Apollon Manuilov first checked out the monument to Nikolai Gogol on Gogolevsky Boulevard (erected in 1952 – read about that elsewhere in this space) and the Ground Zero monument in Moscow, Pushkin at Pushkin Square (originally erected in 1880 – read about that, too, in this space), before settling on how he would depict Griboedov. It looks like Griboedov, as far as we can tell at this remove; it is, as I’ve said, big; it’s done with all the reverence one could hope for; it’s location is about as good as they come. But I hardly ever notice it when I pass it by (as I often do, or, at least, used to), I don’t see much when I do look, and when I photograph it I seem to get mush.
The monument was erected in 1959, on the 130th anniversary of Griboedov’s death. It was a nasty and famous death. Griboedov (1795-1829), sent by the Russian government as an ambassador to Persia, never arrived. He was murdered – sliced up so badly that he could only be identified by a mark on his arm – while on the road in what we now know as Teheran, Iran.
There’s a fairly humorous story about the location of the Griboedov monument. In 1918 the young Soviet government chose to erect a monument to the famed anarchist Mikhail Bakunin here. But it was apparently so “avant-garde” that eye-witnesses swore that when it was unveiled all the horses nearby reared and tried to run away. So ugly and unloved was this monument to Bakunin that it was removed, some say in a week, some say in a year. (You can see the Bakunin monument here in the first seven photos. I rather like it.) My understanding is that this location remained empty until the decision was made to erect the monument to Griboedov.
Griboedov’s assassination put an end to a short, brilliant life. He is usually called a one-play wonder, although that is not entirely true. He wrote several short comic plays for the Russian stage. He wrote a good many poems and he wrote a waltz, the Griboedov waltz in E-minor, that is still performed often today. You hear this piece as accompanying music in all kinds of Russian films and theater pieces. His great work, Woe from Wit, was a satire so biting and so true that its phrases were already being picked up and used in Russian society of the time (the early 1820s) because Griboedov or others would read the latest installments at society gatherings. The number of phrases from this play that entered common usage is enormous. Various folks have come up with various numbers, of course, but I have seen lists that go well over 50.
Call me a carriage! A carriage! is uttered by Chatsky when he has finally had enough. He’s outta here. That might be the English equivalent (which doesn’t mean I suggest translating it that way) – “I’m outta here!”
All calendars lie! uttered by a woman old enough to be certain of what she is saying.
Even the smoke in our Fatherland is sweet and pleasing, says Chatsky after he has just returned and before he becomes disillusioned with his hometown. These days the phrase is usually used with great irony.
Where is it best? Where we are not, is an exchange between Chatsky and his former beloved Sofya.
Evil tongues are more terrible than a pistol, says the dolt Molchalin in a moment of lucidity.
The happy don’t watch the clock, says Sofya.
The houses are new but the prejudices are old, says Chatsky.
And who are the judges?! asks Chatsky when he hears someone has been slandered. This is sort of, but not entirely, like the English “It takes one to know one.” That leads us in a similar direction anyway.
A hero, perhaps, but not of my novel, says Sofya of her former beloved Chatsky.
Am I odd? But who isn’t odd? / Only him who looks like every other fool, says Chatsky bitterly.
Ranks are bestowed by people, and people are prone to err, Chatsky observes pointedly.
Even a phrase like “Everybody lies,” takes its elevation to the level of “winged phrases” thanks to Griboedov and Woe from Wit.
The basic notion of the play is also one that has remained acutely timely ever since – an intelligent young Russian man (Chatsky) returns home to Moscow to find that all his old friends are such ignoramuses and bores that Moscow itself seems hostile to him. It is one of the most perfect Russian plays ever written about deep disillusionment. It was written in impeccable verse and, despite its wicked intent – to put the eternal hurt to high Moscow society – it is uproariously funny. In short, it is one of the great Russian plays. And please note: it was written before Pushkin wrote his great plays, before Gogol began writing plays… It is the first play in the Russian canon that still reads and watches today as if it were written by one of our contemporaries.
Like many great Russian plays it took awhile to work its way past the censor. Shortly after it was completed in 1824, an attempt by students to perform it in St. Petersburg in 1825 was banned. That ban remained in force throughout Russia proper for decades. It was first performed in its entirely in Yerevan, Armenia, in 1827 with the author present. It was revived in 1828 and 1832 in Tiflis (Tbilisi), Georgia, at the Nersisyan Seminary. Censored versions of the play were performed in 1831 in St. Petersburg and Moscow, while an uncensored version was performed in Kiev (far from the capitals) the same year. Although it was forbidden to be performed in full, truncated productions were mounted in Kharkov, Kazan, Astrakhan, Kaluga, Yaroslavl, Voronezh, Nizhny Novgorod, Odessa and Kronshtadt from 1840 to the mid-1860s. It was first published – with serious cuts – in 1833 and did not appear in published form in its entirety until 1861. One of the great productions – perhaps the first great production – was mounted by Vsevolod Meyerhold in Moscow in 1928 under the title of Woe to Wit, which was Griboedov’s first choice.