Category Archives: Monuments to Writers

Alexander Pushkin on bridge, Muzeon, Moscow

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How does that saying go? If you have nothing good to say, talk about Pushkin? Something like that.
What more can I say about Pushkin? I’ve written about him a million times here already. But with a Trumped up world Putin’ everybody on their heels, there must be some escape.

“‘There must be somewhere outta here,’
Said the Joker to the Thief.”

That’s a Nobel Prize laureate providing me solace right there. An American Pushkin. Pushkin never won a Nobel Prize.

“‘There’s too much confusion,
I can’t get no relief.‘”

Both writers had curly hair; were short, loved women and were loved by them; were seen as the voice of their generation and of their nation. Interestingly, each had forebears that brought the family to their countries from lands afar. Pushkin’s great-grandfather Hannibal came from (perhaps) Ethiopia to Russia. All of Dylan’s grandparents came from Russia to the U.S.
Still, to be honest, I’m stretching it a bit to draw Bob Dylan and Alexander Pushkin into the same conversation. You’ll notice I wrote “an” American Pushkin, not “the” American Pushkin. As omnipresent as Bob Dylan is – in American and even world culture now – he came too late to be what Pushkin was to Russian culture. Modern culture by the time of Dylan’s ascendency was fragmenting into too many different spheres of influence. It’s true that he has spanned many of them as few others have in his time. But, still, it’s a very different world from the one Pushkin inhabited. The famous phrase – repeated too many times in this space already, yet still unavoidable – is that “Pushkin is our everything.” It’s a joke and it’s the truth. I mean it’s a joke because it’s almost become a joke. Almost. But it’s only “almost” become a joke because it’s true. It isn’t a joke.
I love the way the phrase came into being. It was coined by literary critic Apollon Grigoryev 22 years after Pushkin was gunned down in a duel by a capricious and dashing Frenchman who was, at that time in February 1837, a lieutenant in the Russian army. The gallery may now boo and hiss. That was your cue. D’Anthes, the killer of the great Russian poet, is one of the great villains in world literary history. We boo him, we hiss him, we revile him. We damn his soul. But we can’t bring Pushkin back.
Grigoryev (1822-1864) was responding to a two-part article, “A.S. Pushkin and the Most Recent Publication of his Compositions” (1855), penned by fellow critic Alexander Druzhinin (1824-1864).
The best things written about Pushkin of late,” opined Grigoryev, “were contained in articles by Druzhinin, but even Druzhinin looked upon Pushkin as our aesthetic educator. But Pushkin was our everything. Pushkin represented everything that is spiritual and warm about us, special, the kind of thing that remains spiritual and warm about us especially after collisions with alien, other worlds.”

Whether or not the Pushkin-Dylan comparison is not a perfect fit, there is a common thread I have always seen in their work – the generosity and dignity that informs the words they write about lost lovers. Okay, we’ll set Dylan’s “Idiot Wind” aside. I don’t think Pushkin has an “Idiot Wind.” Could you have an “Idiot Wind” in the early 19th century? I don’t know. But “Idiot Wind” was Dylan unloading in a moment of despair, it was a record of pain in a newer world that allowed writers freely to go places that writers in the past had not gone. Anyway, even as wicked as “Idiot Wind” can be, don’t forget the last chorus, the one that after all the accusations turns everything around:

…Idiot wind
Blowing through the buttons of our coats
Blowing through the letters that we wrote
Idiot wind
Blowing through the dust upon our shelves
We’re idiots, babe
It’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves.

Our coats, our shelves. We, he writes, it is down to us.
But I digress.
I’m thinking more of what is one of Pushkin’s most famous and beloved lyrics (in my humble translation), and how much it has always reminded me of one of Dylan’s most beautiful early love songs:

PUSHKIN
I loved you once: And I could love you once again,
Love hasn’t faded fully in my heart.
But please don’t let that grieve you anymore;
I have no wish in any way to make you sad.
I loved you silently and hopelessly,
Sometimes shy, sometimes with jealous fury;
My love was always true and tender,
I hope another now will love you just the same.

DYLAN, “Mama, You’ve Been on My Mind”
Maybe it’s the color of the sun cut flat
An’ coverin’ the crossroads I’m standing at
Or maybe it’s the weather or something like that
But mama, you are just on my mind.

I don’t mean trouble, please don’t put me down or get upset
I am not pleadin’ or sayin’, I can’t forget
I do not walk the floor bowed down an’ bent, but yet
Mama, you are just on my mind.

 Even though my mind is hazy an’ my thoughts they might be narrow
Where you been don’t bother me nor bring me down in sorrow
It don’t even matter to me where you’re wakin’ up tomorrow
But mama, you’re just on my mind

When you wake up in the mornin’, baby, look inside your mirror
You know I won’t be next to you, you know I won’t be near
I’d just be curious to know if you can see yourself as clear
As someone who has had you on his mind.
So, there you have it. For what it’s worth, as Stephen Still might say. Dylan and Pushkin.
The images accompanying my thoughts today are from the sculpture garden at Muzeon. It is called In Pensive Hours and was created by the Moscow sculptor Gennady Krasnoshlykov (born 1955). It shows Pushkin  traversing a tiny bridge, presumably an abbreviated form of some bridge in St. Petersburg, and, perhaps, bucking a bit of wind, rain, sleet or snow. We get that notion as much from Pushkin’s coat, gently flowing backward at the bottom back, as anything. Pushkin’s eyes are open, although they are so faintly drawn in that they give an introspective feel to the sculpture. Another reason for the work’s sense of isolation is that the only things showing from underneath the hat and billowing coat are his face, some hair and his ears. His feet may be buried in snow or just unimportant. In a similar fashion, his arms and hands may be tucked under his greatcoat or may simply be considered unnecessary by the artist. It’s a very nice piece that has a ring of truth and authenticity to it.

 

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Sergei Yesenin bust, Voronezh

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Sergei Yesenin (1895-1925) checked into the Angleterre Hotel in St. Petersburg 91 years ago today. Three days later, December 28, 1925, his body would be carried out, dead, by a few friends, including the poet Nikolai Leopoldovich Braun. The official version then, and the version that remained in force until the late ’80s/early ’90s was that Yesenin had committed suicide. He was found hanging from a rope in his hotel room, or so they said. In fact, that version has taken many hits since the Perestroika days. Nobody has proven anything beyond a doubt, and the cautious still tend to posit suicide as the probable reason for the poet’s death at the age of 30, but I must say, that rendition looks weaker and weaker as the years pass.
Yesenin was a bit of a loose cannon and the Soviet State, slowly getting a grip on things and people by the mid-1920s did not like surprises of the kind that Yesenin could toss off. This was particularly true because Yesenin was wildly popular among the people, thus anything he said or did could have serious influence on public opinion. Add to that the fact that authoritarian states simply don’t like anyone or anything that questions order – directly or indirectly. Yesenin, by his freewheeling behavior, did anything but support the notion of moderation or orderliness. He loved to drink, he loved to carouse, he loved to play practical jokes. He had a flair for picking unorthodox wives, one being the American dancer Isador Duncan (at a time when suspicions about foreigners was increasing daily), and another being Sophia Tolstaya, granddaughter of the great writer Leo, and, therefore, a member of a family, the prestige of which the Soviet authorities wished very much to use in their favor. If that wasn’t enough, in the period leading to his death, Yesenin battled clinical depression, even spending some time in an insane asylum where the doctors were “unsuccessful” in treating his illness – if that’s what it was.
I need to say: I am not a Yesenin expert by any stretch of the imagination. I think I would need six months to a year of serious research to catch up on all the writings – serious and scandalous – that have been unleashed on us about Yesenin and his death in recent decades. It remains a hot topic; there is a lot of speculation, even misinformation, out there. Yandex.ru, the Russian version of Google, offers up 17 million leads when you type in “murder of Sergei Yesenin.”
Wikipedia offers up a five-point argument as to why the version of suicide does not hold up. Frankly, I think just one of those points is enough to set off alarms at all levels:
Yesenin had a fresh wound on his shoulder, one on his forehead and a bruise under one of his eyes. A few weeks before his death, many of his friends claimed that he had been carrying a revolver, but this weapon was never discovered. His jacket was missing, and he had to be covered with a sheet from the hotel. The ligature with which he purportedly hanged himself, made from a belt that later disappeared, was reportedly not a hanging one: it was only holding the body to one side, to the right. Nevertheless, no further investigations were documented to have been made in this direction. The room where he died was also not examined.’
Sound like a historical sieve? Does to me.
But that is only just the beginning. We have supposed confessions by at least one of the murderers, Nikolai Leontyev, who is said to have told Viktor Titarenko, a co-worker, in his old age, “Vityok, you know I shot Sergei Yesenin with this hand right here.” Okay, we’ve all read Dostoevsky and we know there are people who for their own reasons wish to confess to crimes they did not commit. Still. That’s only the beginning. Viktor Kuznetsov, the author of a book about the assassination of Yesenin, described the act of murder in more detail in an interview that is published on the Esenin.ru website. His version is that Trotsky had given a secret order to arrest Yesenin in order to interrogate him. Kuznetsov picks up the narrative:
The point of the interrogations was that there was a desire to recruit Yesenin as a secret collaborator with the GPU [for the uninitiated – one of many forerunners to the KGB]. I don’t think Trotsky gave the order to kill the poet, but that’s what happened. Apparently, Yesenin put up a fight and gave [Yakov] Blyumkin a hard shove, after which Blyumkin fell. At that point Leontyev fired… In the photo we can see the mark of a bullet wound. After that Blyumkin hit Yesenin in the forehead with the handle of a revolver. After the murder Blyumkin contacted Trotsky from Leningrad and asked what to do with Yesenin’s body. Trotsky replied that tomorrow a newspaper article would be published under his name about how the unbalanced, decadent poet had taken his own life and everyone would remain silent. That is precisely what happened.”
So there, at least in Kuznetsov’s version of events, are the two men who killed Yesenin: Nikolai Leontyev and Yakov Blyumkin.

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The aforementioned Esenin.ru site is a fount of information. It has a separate section called Death of the Poet that offers 94 links to important sources on this topic. Four of those links are to comments made by Nikolai Nikolaevich Braun, a poet who is the son of another poet, and friend of Yesenin, Nikolai Leopoldovich Braun. According to the younger Braun, his father could not mention what he knew about Yesenin’s death when he wrote his memoirs. However, he did pass on that information to his son, who has spent no small effort seeking to bring that information to the public’s attention. Asked in an interview on Esenin.ru whether he believed that Yesinin had died while being interrogated, Braun replied, “Yes, but to be more exact, as a result of being tortured during interrogation. That is the precise conclusion of my father, the well-known poet Nikolai Leopoldovich Braun, who knew Sergei Yesenin. In December 1925 he and other writers carried his [Yesenin’s] body out of the Angleterre hotel.
Braun provides a wealth of convincing arguments, including this, the story about how Braun, Sr., and Boris Lavrenyov were summoned from the editorial offices of Zvezda magazine to the Angleterre:
“[Pavel Medvedev] asked them to come, saying that Yesenin had committed suicide. The writers were needed to see Yesenin dead and to confirm the version of his suicide. It was Medvedev, [Mikhail] Froman and [Volf] Erlikh who explained how Yesenin had committed suicide in the hotel. But even they, as it turned out, had seen nothing with their own eyes. They had also been ‘told’ about it. The corpse was already prepared for demonstration. However, the original photographs, which we now have, reveal something quite different. Yesenin’s hands had been cut by what appears to be a razor. But the cuts are not made crosswise, but rather lengthwise, as is done in torture. His left eye had been smashed in. There were two holes just above the bridge of the nose and another over the right eye. But Nikolai Leopoldovich told me of a ‘deep, penetrating wound under the right eyebrow,’ which was ‘fatal,’ a ‘bruise under his left eye,’ and ‘bruises from a beating.’ In times of famine, in the years 1919-20, in order to survive, father had worked as an ambulance orderly. He knew anatomy well. He saw many corpses, including those who had hung themselves. But Yesenin had no bluing of the face, nor did his tongue hang out.”
Later in the interview, Braun, Jr., adds:
Braun and Lavrenyov categorically refused to sign the protocol, so to speak, that Yesenin had killed himself. At first glance the protocol was put together clumsily and primitively. Nonetheless it was already signed by the GPU officers Volf Erlikh and Pavel Medvedev, the Secretary of the Writers Union Mikhail Froman and the poet Vsevolod Rozhdestvensky. Nikolai Leopoldovich immediately reproached the latter: ‘Seva, how could you sign this?! You didn’t see Yesenin put the noose over his neck!’ Rozhdestvensky replied, ‘I was told they needed one more signature.'”
As for the images I share today – they are photos of a sculpture by Anatoly Bichukov which stands at the intersection of Kardashov and Karl Marx streets in Voronezh. It was unveiled October 25, 2006 shortly after a film, Yesenin, by Igor Zaitsev, ran on Russian television. Starring popular actor Sergei Bezrukov, and scripted by his father Vitaly Bezrukov, the film embraced the version of death-by-murder. The film was not treated well by critics, but a website where you can watch the film for free gives it a 94.8% positive rating by spectators. Bezrukov himself chose this place for the statue and donated a large amount of money to cover the costs of erecting it. Bezrukov has made a career out of playing dead famous people – Vladimir Vysotsky, Alexander Pushkin and Yesenin. The famous actor Valentin Gaft, who wields a wicked pen when writing popular epigrams, has twice lowered the boom on Bezrukov. One reads, “Dying is not frightening. Frightening is that they’ll make a film about you and Bezrukov will play you.” Gaft also offered up this doozy:

He was Pushkin, Yesenin and Vysotsky.
He was Bely and soon will be Mayakovsky…
Then it will finally be down to Akhmatova…
And there will be no one left in Russia to play!

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Nikolai Ogaryov statue, Moscow

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Nikolai Ogaryov (1813-1877) pretty much emerges from the shadows of the past by way of the light that Alexander Herzen casts on him. The two men were friends from childhood. They shared common interests, they shared bold political views, they shared a life in emigration (primarily in London), they shared their women, they share a place in history together. But by all accounts, Ogaryov was very much a personality unto himself, strong, quixotic, eccentric and interesting.
Ogaryov figures pretty much everywhere as follows: poet, journalist and revolutionary. You can find vastly different attitudes to his poetry. Natalya Laskovskaya, writing on the Book Club website, says it pretty plainly: “It must be admitted, Ogaryov was a weak poet. He wasn’t a poet, but you can’t deny him the ability to pull ‘passion’ out of a privileged life.” On the other hand, Lidia Libedinskaya, in her novelistic biography From the Other Shore: The Tale of Nikolai Ogaryov, describes him as an “outstanding Russian poet.” I’ve been known to have a tin ear where it concerns poetry and so I’m not going to jump into the fray. I will, however, quote a couplet from his poem “Freedom,” written in 1858:

When I was a boy,  quiet and tender,
When I was a youth, passionate and rebellious,
And in my ripe age, too, nearing my dotage –
A word that I heard again, again and again
Was the very same word, never changing:
Freedom! Freedom!

Great poetry? I don’t know. It’s unfair to ask the question in regards to such a tiny chunk, all the more so in hasty translation. But what I like about this is the way it reveals the man; in fact, reveals his biography.
The very first line refers back to his boyhood friend Herzen. Herzen, in his famous book My Past and Thoughts, wrote how, in 1927, when he was 15 and Ogaryov was 14, they went up into the Sparrow Hills area overlooking Moscow and made a pact to devote their entire lives to the “struggle for freedom.” In fact, they did precisely that. Ogaryov wrote that he was also influenced by his young nannies who, during and after the Decembrist revolt, would bring and read him some of the hottest, most politically engaged poetry of the time. It all fell on fertile ground. Ogaryov’s father was a strict man who didn’t fuss with children or things childish (like rebellion). Surely that only made the young man chafe all the more. I can’t prove that as a fact, but something tells me I’m probably close to being right on that…
Ogaryov came under the suspicion of Russia’s secret police in the early 1930s and was arrested and sent into exile for the period from 1835 to 1839. When he was released he wasted no time skipping town and country, making his way to Germany in 1840. He remained abroad until 1846 then returned to his estate in Penza in 1846 where he briefly ran afoul of the law again in 1850. In 1856 he left Russia for good, heading directly for London, catching up with his old friend Herzen who had relocated there four years earlier in 1852. In London the two made history as Ogaryov stood alongside Herzen as the latter founded the Free Russian Press which published books and the, ultimately, influential periodicals Kolokol (The Bell) and the Polar Star, for both of which Ogaryov often wrote articles. In time, these writings made their way back to Russia and had a strong effect on liberal and radical thinking there (although radicals soon turned against both for being “too soft”).

img_9680img_9684 img_9682One might think that things got a bit difficult when the two men began sharing Ogaryov’s second wife Natalya Tuchkova. But apparently it all seemed to be a family affair. Still, it was a bit much when Tuchkova left Ogaryov to live with Herzen in 1857. It didn’t kill the two men’s friendship, although Ogaryov ended up spending increased time hugging a bottle and he began having increased epileptic seizures. Before long he made the chance acquaintance of Mary Sutherland, a “fallen woman from the streets” (all the Russian sources are so delicate – I couldn’t find a single one that would go so far as to explain the reason for Mary’s “fall,” although the always reliable Sarah J. Young, in her blog, does us the favor of saying it straight: Mary was a prostitute). She ended up being Ogaryov’s devoted companion for the last 18 years of his life. It was surely no easy job. Ogaryov by this time was but a shadow of his younger self, sick, lame, and feeble. There is even a scholarly article about this relationship by Hilary Chapman in the New Zealand Slavonic Journal, but, unfortunately, it is protected behind a subscription fee, so I can’t share any insights. In any case, Ogaryov’s friend Pavel Annenkov remembered this about Ogaryov when he had just two years left to live:
He was already a feeble old man, with slow speech and glittering memories in his head, and yet remained unaffected by, and indifferent to, his losses. He would laugh jovially only at his own uselessness for anything and everything, and at the shape his own life had taken toward the end.”
The statue of Ogaryov pictured here stands near the entrance to the main building of Moscow State University in the center of Moscow. Looking quite blissful, I would say, Ogaryov stands to the left of the entrance (if we face the doors ourselves), while his old friend Herzen looms like a bookend on the other side. The two statues, created by Nikolai Andreev, were unveiled the same day, December 3, 1922. The address corresponding to the square where the statues stand is Mokhovaya Ulitsa 11.
Why do the two stand here? Both studied at Moscow State University and both became involved in underground revolutionary activities while here. They went on to become two of the most illustrious revolutionary alums to graduate from Moscow State U.

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Fyodor Dostoevsky Bust, Wiesbaden, Germany

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Today we break the rules a bit, always an occasion for celebration. This is my 270th entry on this site and it will be the first time I will write about photos taken by another. It has always been my rule to use only photos that I take of places I have been myself and seen with my own eyes. But when my wife Oksana Mysina told me she was going to be performing on tour in Wiesbaden with her theater company, all the little rules in my head broke down. Wiesbaden! Dostoevsky was in Wiesbaden! Dostoevsky lost “all his money” (or so they say) in Wiesbaden! Dostoevsky wrote his novel The Gambler about the last time he ever played there, thus getting out from under a terrible contract with a nasty publisher, while finding a good wife and, even, perhaps, some happiness, into the bargain. Wiesbaden! Oksana, my own wife, almost my own flesh and blood, would be right there at the casino (her hotel and theater were located right across the street from it)! How could I justify not taking advantage of this? I could not. And I would not. That became even clearer when I did some armchair research and learned that a bust of Dostoevsky by the Russian emigre sculptor Gavriil (a/k/a Gabriel) Glikman was erected right there beside the casino on February 3, 1997. As it happened, Oksana’s hotel was located directly across the street from the bust – Oksana could just walk out the door, cross the street, and spend time with Fyodor Mikhailovich, if she chose.
Of course, to put this into perspective, you have to know a little about Oksana, whose most famous performance (running now for 22 years) is a one-woman show based on the character of Katerina Ivanovna (Marmeladov’s wife) from Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment. Staged by the great Kama Ginkas in 1994, K.I. from ‘Crime’ is one of the key landmarks of Russian theater of the last three decades, and it continues to play to full houses today. As such, there are not many on this planet who have spent more time in an intimate, artistic embrace with the great writer than Oksana. Figure that my friend Oliver Ready recently spent a couple of years translating Crime and Punishment for Penguin books. Okay, a couple of years of intimacy. Oksana has been inside Dostoevsky’s head, and has carried him around in hers, for over 22 years… Shall we talk about accomplishments?
In fact, while Oksana was walking around the bust photographing it, she called Ginkas on the phone to tell him where she was. As such, the photos you see here bring together Ginkas, Oksana and Dostoevsky all in a single breath or two. Moments like that are what give life its sheen, you know.

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A bit about the bust itself. Gavriil Glikman created it in 1994 as you can see by the inscription on the back of the neck in the photo immediately above. The plaque on the front of the pedestal indicates that Glikman gifted the sculpture to the casino in 1996, which may well be true. But it would appear that the actual installation and unveiling of the bust took place on February 3, 1997. Glikman is an interesting figure. He was born in in 1913 in the Vitebsk region (that is, not far from Marc Chagall’s home turf), and Russian Wikipedia tells us that, as a child, he would go to Chagall’s workshop in Vitebsk and watch the great painter work. When he was in his ‘teens his family moved to Leningrad, which is where he spent the greater part of his life. Known primarily as a sculptor, many of his closest friends – Dmitry Shostakovich, Yevgeny Mravinsky – knew that he also painted. However, because his personal style did not fit with the demands of Soviet art, he rarely if ever showed this work. We are told he made an attempt to exhibit his paintings in 1968 and ran into trouble serious enough that his career was threatened. Glikman emigrated to Germany in 1980, settling in Munich in 1982. He lived in Munich until his death in 2003.
The story of how exactly this bust ended up where it did has eluded me. Why 1997? (The 225 years since Dostoevsky’s birth mentioned on the plaque seems a kind of far-fetched date to me.) Why Wiesbaden (the fact Dostoevsky lost tons of money here hardly seems the proper reason to commemorate the great writer)? One Russian blog site puts forth the conjecture that Glikman ran up a bigger bill than he could pay to the casino and the two sides agreed to write the debt off for a sculpture in exchange. It’s an attractive explanation, but I see absolutely no corroboration anywhere in any other sources. One Russian-language travel site suggests that a visit to Wiesbaden by Mikhail Gorbachev in the mid-1990s is the impulse that set things going. A journalist who had been with Gorbachev told Glikman about Dostoevsky’s Wiesbaden connections, etc. That sounds thin and unconvincing – at least on the level that the story is told. Would Glikman, who had painted and sculpted Dostoevsky many times before, really not have known about the Weisbaden connection?
Whatever the backstory may be, the bust is a powerful piece of work. It is incredibly, I would say, aggressively, and, of course, entirely purposefully, crude. Bits and pieces of face, along with bits and pieces of bronze, pile up in the wrong places, out of line, and out of whack. Eyes are crooked, as is the nose and mouth. The ears are big chunks slapped on the side of the head. The haircut is almost humorous to me, rather like Dostoevsky’s mother put a bowl over his head and cut off everything that stuck out below it. All taken together this image epitomizes the power of character, a vessel of suffering and deep-seated intelligence. It all adds up to Dostoevsky as we rather expect he was.
One thing surprises me greatly, however. Look at the second photo below, particularly, and you will see how beautifully and how naturally this Dostoevsky melts into the surrounding ecology, the trees, the leaves, the bushes, the sky. Dostoevsky, in this setting, is just another element of nature. And that is what is so unexpected. This is a writer who rarely wasted his powers of description or observation on nature. Dostoevsky never gives us those convoluted, head-spinning descriptions of fields and forests that Tolstoy and Turgenev are so famous for. Dostoevsky is always rummaging around in the heads of his characters (rather like Oksana rummages around inside his in order to play K.I. from ‘Crime’). He never – or almost never – has the time or inclination to notice flowers blooming or trees growing. There is, of course, that famous exception in The Brothers Karamazov where Ivan exclaims to his brother Alyosha, “Though I may not believe in the order of the universe, yet I love the sticky little leaves as they open in spring. I love the blue sky…” Konstantin Mochulsky, in Dostoevsky: His Life and Work, wrote that, “Leaves, ‘little sticky green leaves,’ are a favorite symbol of Dostoevsky’s. For him all the beauty of God’s world is contained in this humble image. A little green leaf is to his heroes the most irrefutable proof of the existence of God and the coming transfiguration.” But you see how it works in Dostoevsky – he comes back to this one image, never feeling the need to expand it. In fact, even in The Karamazovs he trots out his beloved sticky, green leaves, jumps to a generic declaration of love for the blue sky, and then leaps back into people, their deeds and what their enigmatic hearts hold.
So it is that the image of Dostoevsky blending so organically and naturally into the green world around him in the park behind the casino at Wiesbaden is a revelation. For Dostoevsky, indeed, was a work of nature himself. A huge, powerful, moving, exciting, irritating, thrilling piece of nature. Look how beautifully he blends in with the flowers – the flowers! – in the last photo below. He stands virtually unseen at the far right and there is something wonderful and right in that. Then watch the video at the end that Oksana made so I could feel as though I had actually been there. Instinctively (they have been inside each others’ heads for over 22 years!) she spins around him, ending by spiraling up and directing our sight at the sticky green leaves of a tree canopy above, and on through them into the blue sky that Dostoevsky claimed so to love.
In short, don’t tell me I haven’t been here! Thank you, Oksana, for the virtual trip.

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Alexander Pushkin statue, Voronezh

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I was bound to come around to this sooner or later. I have a ton of Pushkins in my quiver. And as everyone knows, who knows Russian drama and literature, if you have a Pushkin in your quiver it will have to be shot. Which, I am tempted to say, is just what this particular statue deserves. To be shot. Out of a cannon, say, onto the other side of the Voronezh Reservoir where only the bears go.
Let me say this immediately: I love Voronezh, and I think Voronezh has done a wonderful job of putting itself in public touch with its cultural icons. I love the plaque on the wall of the post office where Mikhail Lermontov stopped a couple of times. The sculpture of Gavriil Troepolsky’s literary dog Bim is very cool. The monument to martyred poet Iosif Mandelstam in the park across the street from where he lived in exile is very moving. I think the plaque honoring librarian Sofya Onikienko for saving her book collection during WWII is wonderful. I’ve written about these and many other fine, noteworthy cultural monuments in Voronezh. But I always knew I would come to Pushkin one day, and, as it turns out, this is the day.
It’s a rainy, drizzly day in Moscow; dreary, unseasonably cold, a kind of day that makes you think of St. Petersburg. And how can you think of St. Petersburg without thinking of Pushkin? But since I still haven’t gotten around to visiting the City on the Neva with my camera in hand and blog in mind, my thoughts of St. Petersburg and Pushkin are hereby diverted to Voronezh.
Am I blowing smoke? Could you tell? You see, the thing is I really hate this truncated sculpture (it shows Pushkin from the trunk up) that stands right smack dab in the middle of the great city of Voronezh. It is both pompous and cheap at the same time. Sounds like an American presidential candidate. If you have to guess which one, we’re not on the same wavelength at all.
This Pushkin was created by the local sculptor team of Ivan Dikunov and Elza Pak. They’ve done some nice work elsewhere, although their muse was at rest when they did this one. Maybe it was because they were in a rush? Well, there is a version of this monument’s history that would support that. A tourist website tells us that the good people of Voronezh had long wanted to honor Pushkin’s memory, but they either had no money or could not find a work of art they liked. Twice they brought in existing sculptures, but in both cases rejected them. They tried raising funds on occasion, but that didn’t work either. Which is where Dikunov and Pak entered the story. They have done a lot of monuments in the city and, presumably, have been paid well for their services. So – and this is to their great credit – they offered to do a Pushkin statue for free. Sounds like a deal that can’t be beat? Well, don’t forget that ditty about getting what you pay for.
Anyway, the 200th anniversary of Pushkin’s birth was coming up fast and, it seems, everyone decided this would finally be the time to put up Pushkin in Voronezh. And so Dikunov-Pak “in a very short period of time” (I’m quoting the website) cast their likeness of the great poet. It was unveiled on what would have been the poet’s 200th birthday, June 6, 1999. The place is a small square that is now called Pushkin Square. It stands next to the city’s opera house and the cavernous Lenin Square that looks like 10 helipads strung together.

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The half-image of Pushkin (not time for a whole one?) is done in metal, which may be one of the first reasons why this particular object looks so cheap. (If you look around the base you’ll see rust spreading from the metal to the pedestal.) The whole thing has a tinny look to it. Some sources say the likeness is set inside a gazebo, others say it is inside a rotunda. We don’t need any sources because we can see for ourselves that it is a – well… either a rotunda or a gazebo. A slab of something (it’s not marble) behind Pushkin bears his famous lines: “And I will long be loved among the people for the kind feelings I awakened with my lyre.” Pushkin stiffly leans forward just the slightest and holds out both hands symmetrically. His right hand holds a sheet or sheets of paper while his left hand, to quote the website again, “gesticulates.” I’m not so sure, however, that this hand is gesturing. It may just be held out in confusion, as if to say, “What the hell am I doing here?”
As often happens in smaller cities that put up monuments to famous people, the question has been asked: Did Pushkin ever visit Voronezh? The answer is quite surely no. We are told of great battles and arguments among scholars. A certain journalist and Pushkinist named V.V. Chirkov is said to have stated in no uncertain terms that Pushkin “had to have passed through” Voronezh during one of his travels about Russia. Oh, yes, that old iron-clad proof, “had to have…” The closest anyone can place him for sure, however, is in the relatively nearby town of Yelets, on his way to the Caucasus in the spring of 1829. Pushkin himself wrote about that in his Journey to Erzurum. For the record, Yelets is located 142 kilometers (88 miles) to the north of Voronezh. And here is what a nameless author wrote about this for the Voronezh.pro website:
Pushkin complained that the road to Yelets was awful. It was muddy and his carriage got stuck in the mire of the road. Finally the poet espied the Voronezh steppe and ‘freely rolled upon the green plain.’ There! This is the place where the provincial steppe, along which the writer traveled, was mentioned. Over the ensuing 100 years historians and Pushkinists have argued desperately about how the journey went from there.
But Alexander chose not to disclose the details of his trip from Yelets to Novocherkassk. Nor do any of his contemporaries lift the veil of secrecy that hangs over this part of the journey. There is no documentation about where the poet stopped as he traveled from one place to another.”

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Mikhail Lermontov monument, Moscow

Click on photos to enlarge.

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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

Click on photos to enlarge.

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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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