Maxim Gorky is a writer I have a hard time relating to. Solzhenitsyn’s condemnation of him as someone who turned a blind eye to the Red Terror was an enduring blow. Gorky did not see a lot of violence and perfidy, or he chose not to see them. Either way, he was too big a figure, too famous, too smart, too talented, too well-connected to allow himself such an egregious error. In his favor, I am being one-sided. He supported young talent and came to the defense of many who were in trouble. Surely he will always remain a paradoxical figure in Russian-Soviet literary history.
Gorky’s literature is another thing. He was held up during the Soviet period as a sort of Soviet Tolstoy and his stature as a cultural giant, though somewhat diminished, continues today. I’ve always found him to be a royal bore. It seems to me that he has all of Tolstoy’s pretensions to greatness, but none of the greatness. His most famous play The Lower Depths – still frequently staged today – strikes me as a pack of cliches about workers, intellectuals and lowlifes. His much better Summer Folk is, in fact, a rip-off of Chekhovian devices, but without the lightness or wit of Chekhov. His Ostrovsky-inspired family sagas – such as The Petty Bourgeoisie or Vassa Zheleznova – can be very powerful in the hands of a good director. I’ve never been able to stick long with his novels, famous as some of them are – Mother, The Life of Klim Samgin and others.
The monument that now stands behind the House of Artists on Krymsky Val is one of hundreds of “abandoned” sculptures that make up the Muzeon Park, or, as it is sometimes known in English, the Fallen Monuments Park. Gorky stands here rather ignominiously stuck up against some trees not far from old statues of Joseph Stalin, secret police chief No. 1 Felix Derzhinsky and other politicians whose reputations have suffered in recent years. Gorky, who used to stand in the plaza before the Belorussky Train Station, ended up here for a different reason. The plaza and everything around it was dug up in 2005 to begin reconstruction of roads and intersections in the area. Nine years later the construction is still going full force and Mr. Gorky – if there ever were any plans to return him to his proper place – still stands in the Muzeon Park. This monument, an impressive one no matter what you may think of the man or his writing, has a curious history. It was designed by sculptor Ivan Shadr in 1939, three years after Gorky’s death, but was not completed until 1951 (10 years after Shadr’s death) by sculptors Vera Mukhina and Nina Zelenskaya.
The building at 17 Bolshaya Ordynka, in the heart of the Zamoskvorech’e section of Moscow, is generally known as the Akhmatova House because the great poet Anna Akhmatova would live here for long periods of time when she made trips to Moscow from her home in Leningrad between the years of 1938 and 1966. The small but tasteful sculpture that commemorates Akhmatova’s connection to this building is a quote of a famous drawing of Akhmatova by the great artist Amadeo Modigliani. By some accounts this home was as important in Akhmatova’s creative biography as the famed House on the Fontanka in Leningrad, where she wrote many of her most important works. The actual Moscow apartment that she stayed in belonged to Viktor Ardov, a very successful comic writer, and his wife Nina Olshanskaya, an actress who was one of Akhmatova’s closest friends. Olshanskaya was an actress at the Moscow Art Theater and later, at the Soviet Army Theater. It was at the Ardov-Olshanskaya home where Akhmatova met face to face for the only time with the other great Soviet-Russian female poet of her time, Marina Tsvetaeva. That happened June 7-8, 1941, just two weeks before Germany invaded the Soviet Union, and two and a half months before Tsvetaeva committed suicide.
The Ardov-Olshanskaya home was no common home, if for no other reason that Olshanskaya’s young son Alyosha spent his young years here, too. This Alyosha, in whose room Akhmatava would stay when visiting, grew up to be one of the greatest and most beloved of all Soviet film actors – Alexei Batalov. But beyond that this welcoming home was a meeting place for much of the Soviet intelligentsia over the decades. A partial list of other famous guests who would stop by for visits includes Osip Mandelstam, Mikhail Bulgakov, Joseph Brodsky, Mikhail Zoshchenko, Boris Pasternak, the great actress Faina Ranevskaya, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the poet Arseny Tarkovsky (father of the great Soviet film director Andrei Tarkovsky), Dmitry Shostakovich, Kornei Chukovsky and more. Not bad company. But one meeting that took place here must be considered the most amazing of them all. It happened in May 1956 when Akhmatova’s son Lev Gumilyov, the famous literary critic and son of the great poet Nikolai Gumilyov, happened to drop in on the Ardovs. This was no ordinary visit. Gumilyov had just been released following 14 years in the labor camps and he had no idea that his mother was in Moscow, at the Ardovs, at that moment. He was just passing through on his way back to Leningrad and happened to find his mother there.
It certainly is not the best bust of Alexander Pushkin ever made. But it may be one of the most “popular” in Russia. By “popular” I mean the most visited, the most seen, the most passed-by. This small bust of Pushkin stands on a pedestal in a niche that connects Moscow’s Pushkinskaya and Chekhovskaya stops on the metro – on two of the most traveled lines in the whole metro system. This is an extremely busy place most any time of the morning, day or night. Just like the huge monument to Pushkin that stands more or less straight above this subway stop on Pushkin Square, it is also a place where people meet. “Let’s meet by Pushkin” is a phrase that has been spoken millions of times in Moscow over the decades. As can be seen in this series of photos, those meetings – or ones that do not happen, or, maybe, meetings that once happened and are being remembered – aren’t necessarily always the happiest. As I was taking these pictures I must admit I did not pay much attention to the woman who was standing just to Pushkin’s left. It was only as I was editing them that I realized she was experiencing a difficult moment of some kind.
In the last photo above, as in the first one below, the woman actually appears to be looking up to Pushkin for some reason – for strength? for friendship? because she realizes I am taking pictures of Pushkin? In any case, for the most part nobody is paying much attention either to the woman or to Pushkin.
When the Dostoevskaya metro station opened on the gray line a couple of years ago – it’s located right next to the Russian Army Theater and a hop-skip-and-jump from the fabulous Ten’ (Shadow) Theater – it raised a veritable ruckus. Oh, there was all kinds of nonsense about how it was going to scare metro riders away, how it was going to create murderers with its portrait of Raskolnikov, and how it was going to foster suicide by encouraging young people to throw themselves on the tracks as trains were coming in. You get the picture. The typical damned nonsense that people write and say and think and propagate this crazy day and age. In fact, the entire underground part of the station, designed by Ivan Nikolayev, is a brilliant monument to the world of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novels. What I particularly love is the way, for instance, that Nikolayev even gave a nod to Nikolai Gogol, the most important early influence on Dostoevsky. A Gogol-like figure depicted on the wall of the stairwell appears to be hurrying down to catch a train as actual riders pass him by. It’s a lovely touch, smart and witty. I also love the black, white and gray color scheme that suits Dostoevsky’s art so well.
Down on the actual platforms, mosaics on wide columns illustrate various scenes from Dostoevsky’s greatest novels. I happened to click my camera at two columns depicting the characters and events of Crime and Punishment, maybe because that was the first Dostoevsky novel I ever read way back when in another lifetime. For the record, I read Crime and Punishment on the heels of having read Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina and I didn’t notice the slightest drop in quality. This was in high school. The 1970s had just gotten underway. That little bit aside, I should mention that I wrote about this wonderful metro station in a Moscow Times blog several years ago. Should the spirit move you, you can read that here.
The Joseph Brodsky monument in Moscow, located more or less across from the Fyodor Chaliapin house and the old U.S. embassy on Sadovaya-Kudrinskaya Street, seemed to me to come out of nowhere. I just happened to be walking along the street one day and there it was. Voice of Russia tells me it was unveiled in May 2011. I find it to be one of the most interesting sculptural complexes in Moscow, what with its added people in the background playing off the main character of Brodsky in the foreground.
Somebody might say that Brodsky here is something of a snob, with his nose in the air in regards to the smaller, faceless people around him, and that person might be right. Brodsky wasn’t one to suffer anyone he considered a fool and sculptor Georgy Frangulyan surely had that in mind when creating this ensemble. But one turns one’s head skyward for more than one reason, and I don’t doubt that the lonely figure of Brodsky looking to the heavens has other meanings as well. I saw Brodsky read his poetry at the Boston Public Library in the early 1980s. Frankly, it was a bit of a chore. In my opinion, his heavily metered, chanting performance voice turned all his spectacular words into a monotone mush. I could not take my eyes off of his face, however. That was an extraordinary sight. Many years later I spent a few days at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and I trekked over to the Slavic Department where Brodsky taught for some time after his emigration to the U.S. I wrote a bit about how Brodsky ended up there thanks to Carl Proffer, in a Moscow Times blog, which you can jump to if you’re so inclined. For the record I also post two photos of the building that houses the Slavic Department at UMI, one on the outside, the other from the inside.
Ah, the Chekhov sculpture in Tomsk! I love it! This was hugely controversial when it was erected in 2004 for the city’s 400th anniversary. Many thought (and still do) that this interpretation of a slightly grumpy Chekhov by sculptor Leonty Usov was an abomination. I say this is what statues and monuments are all about – witty, honest, bold and filled with chutzpah. The text ringing the base of the sculpture says, “Anton Chekhov as seen through the eyes of a drunken peasant, lying in a ditch, who has never read [the beloved children’s story] ‘Kashtanka’.” It is intended to be, and succeeds in being, a light-hearted response to Chekhov’s famous blasting of Tomsk in a letter he wrote while on his way to Sakhalin Island, “Tomsk isn’t worth a brass nickel,” he wrote in 1890, “an incredibly boring city…. the people are incredibly boring… the city is full of drunks… endlessly muddy… the maid at the local tavern wiped my spoon on her butt before giving it to me… The dinners here are excellent, unlike the women who are rough to the touch…”
The statue stands on the banks of the Tom River, for which Tomsk, naturally, is named, and it faces the Slavyansky Bazaar restaurant (the red brick building below), where the writer apparently had at least some culinary satisfaction.
Not many think much of this monument to Yesenin. It’s located on Tverskoi Boulevard more or less between the Yermolova Apartment museum on the north side of the boulevard and the Gorky Moscow Art Theater on the south side. I rather think of the statue as a too-sweet drink. I love sweets, so that’s not entirely bad. But, as has been said elsewhere by another fine poet, “too much of nothing can make a man ill at ease.” As far as we can tell from old photos the statue looks very much like Yesenin. That’s something, I guess. It’s possible we can see in it the pretty face that made Isadora Duncan lose her mind for the young poet. But it’s no coincidence that when I went walking around the statue I couldn’t find any angles that gave me any new information. Every shot I took looked the same, just some were closer up, others were farther away. Yesenin was actually an interesting person and an interesting poet. He was considered something of a “hooligan” and when he, according to the official version at the time, committed suicide at the age of 30 in 1925, there was a scandalous wave of copy-cat suicides. It was only after Perestroika and the fall of the Soviet Union that theories arose that Yesenin was actually murdered by the secret police on Dec. 28 in his room in the Angleterre Hotel in Leningrad. I like the drip of pigeon waste running down Yesenin’s right breast in the close up here. Oddly enough, there’s something humanizing about it.