Category Archives: Parks and Plazas

Dostoevsky at Haymarket, London

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I have a soft spot for things that are that aren’t. To wit, Fyodor Dostoevsky and the Haymarket district in London. Whatever Dostoevsky saw here in the first half of July, 1862, is gone, utterly gone, now. Here is a little of what he writes in his essay, “Winter Notes on Summer Impressions”:
Anyone who has been to London has probably visited Haymarket at least once at night. This is a district, where, at night, thousands of prostitutes crowd around on a few streets. The streets are illuminated by gas streams, of which we [Russians] have no conception. Fine coffee houses decked with mirrors and gold are to be found at every step. There are mobs here and there are havens. It’s even rather frightening to enter this mob. And it is strangely composed. There are old woman and there are beauties who will stop you in your tracks. Nowhere in the world is there such a beautiful type of woman as the Englishwoman. Everyone here pushes through these dense, crowded streets with difficulty. The crowd cannot be contained on sidewalks, and it spills over into the street. This mob hungers for spoils and throws itself at the first comer with shameless cynicism. Here you will see shiny and expensive clothes, tattered rags, and a sharp difference in ages, all jumbled together. The drunken tramp and the privileged rich man both come here and tromp through this horrible mob. You can hear the din of curses, quarreling, solicitations and the quiet whisper of the still-timid beauty. And sometimes what a beauty it is! Truly keepsake faces [Dostoevsky writes the word “keepsake” in Cyrillic in his Russian text]. I recall going into a casino one time. Music blared, people danced, there was an abyss of humanity crammed in there. The decoration was magnificent. But the grim nature of the British never leaves them even when they are enjoying themselves: they are serious, even gloomy, as they dance, as if each step they dance is done so out of obligation…”
I can’t help but point to the phrase, “I recall going into a casino one time.” The implication is that Dostoevsky came here more than once, although he was in London just for eight days, having arrived in the city July 9, 1862. The place obviously made an impression on him, a very strong one, whether good or bad. It is often written that Dostoevsky was horrified by Haymarket, by the goings-on there, and by London in general. And it is clear from this text that some things did horrify him. But it is just as clear that he was thrilled by much as well – not the least of which was female beauty. He also seemed well capable of admiring finely-appointed interiors, whether it be coffee houses or dance halls. Of course, let us not forget that beauty, particularly female beauty, was a test for Dostoevsky, or, at least, for some of his most complex characters. Which leads me to quote this little bit from Sarah J. Young’s nice blog on the topic of Dostoevsky in London: “[Dostoevsky] seems more sorrowful than shocked at the sight of ‘mothers who were bringing their young daughters into the business [of prostitution]. Little girls around twelve years of age take you by the hand and ask you to go with them’. Prostitution becomes a significant theme in the works Dostoevsky wrote in the next few years, in particular Notes from Underground and Crime and Punishment, and it seems quite likely that what he had seen at the Haymarket had some influence on that.”
One is intrigued (or amused) at Dostoevsky’s declaration that he heard the “din of curses” on the streets of Haymarket, when, as Kyril FitzLyon writes in the introduction to his translation of “Winter Notes,” the great Russian writer did not know English. “It is clear, of course,” the scholar writes, “that Dostoevsky did not form his impressions of England unaided. A week’s stay in London could not have either supplied him with the necessary material or given him a sufficient insight into the British character, particularly as he knew no English. (He admits to his ignorance of the language in one passage of the book, yet in another he claims to base certain of his conclusions on English newspaper reports.)
Then there is Dostoevsky’s curious use of the English “keepsake” in reference to unforgettably beautiful English women. This sounds like one of those instances of a writer picking up a local word somewhere, understanding it as best he could, and sticking it into a piece of his prose in order to give it a feel of authenticity. I’m not criticizing him for doing it, I like the phrase. But I do think it is another small detail that suggests Dostoevsky was out of place as he wandered the streets of London.

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Young also talks about two other locations that Dostoevsky probably visited – Whitechapel and the famous Crystal Palace (which makes a substantial appearance in Notes from Underground). The Crystal Palace was a “futuristic” structure of iron and glass built in Hyde Park for the Great Exhibition of 1851, and moved in 1854 to Sydenham Hill, which is where Dostoevsky would have encountered it. (Pyotr Tchaikovsky was also a visitor.) “The Crystal Palace epitomizes the ‘proud and dismal spirit’ (p. 42) of materialism, and Dostoevsky perceives this same spirit in the two other places he describes: the Haymarket and Whitechapel,” writes Young. I briefly bring the Crystal Palace into this discussion because of a wonderful bit of serendipity that visited me when I, myself, was in the Haymarket district. I happened to look up and see that a bus passing me by was headed for, of all places, the Crystal Palace neighborhood, which is where the relocated Crystal Palace stood until it burned down in 1936. (See first photo immediately following.) In a place that, as I say, has very little left to connect a visitor to what Dostoevsky would have encountered, this provided an extra little tweak of connection. If you’re interested in more about Dostoevsky and the Crystal Palace, I suggest you see another of Sarah J. Young’s blogs on that precise topic.
Some of the buildings represented in my photos would probably have been standing when Dostoevsky was there. Take a look at the top photo above, for example. That lion with frame (with plaque missing) below the word “Haymarket” surely would have been witnesses to the venerable, surely dazzled, if not befuddled, Dostoevsky making his rounds here. There are still coffee shops and cafes here, which, while having absolutely nothing to do with anything that would have been here 150 years ago, do indicate that the tradition of informal eateries in this location remains.
I almost chose not to come here and photograph because my advance research suggested so unequivocally that today’s Haymarket and the Haymarket of the 1860s are virtually two different places. Fortunately, however, I overcame my instinct to save myself the time and labor. In part because of the almost magical Crystal Palace bus, in part because of the few walls and decorations that surely remain from that time, and in part because of the way that places and our thoughts about them are capable of acquiring unexpected meaning and substance, this turned out to be a memorable visit. Dostoevsky is long gone from this place. But in some intangible way I brought him back with my thoughts, jumbled and vague as they were. It was a genuine encounter.

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Anton Chekhov’s dachshunds, Melikhovo

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Let the debates begin!
Are these dachshunds, bassets, badger-dogs, badgerers or turnspits? Frankly, they look like what I called a wiener dog when I was a kid. You can also find “sausage dog” in dictionaries, although, to my mind, that’s not as fun, or as funny, as wiener dog. I’ve seen people nearly come to blows discussing what species of dog these guys might be. I can’t get worked up enough to join the argument.
These pups here are named Brom and Khina (or, more likely, from left, Khina and Brom – see the text after the jump). They belong to the guy who set his hat down on the rock, and that guy, in the grand conception of sculptor Alexander Rozhnikov, is Anton Chekhov. These sculptured pooches, you see, represent real dogs that Anton Chekhov owned when he lived at his suburban Moscow estate of Melikhovo. (You can see the estate’s kitchen and servants’ quarters in the distance through the trees in the two photos immediately below.) Rogozhin’s idea was that Anton was out for a walk with his little friends and found an apple somewhere, picked it up, put it in his hat and then, for reasons that neither art nor history will ever explain for all of eternity, he stepped away and left the dogs alone for a moment. “As such,” Rozhnikov is quoted as saying on a descriptive tablet near the sculpture, “although Chekhov himself is not present in the sculptural composition, his spirit hovers unseen nearby.”
Chekhov’s dogs were the offspring of two other literary canines, Dinka and Pip, who belonged to the St. Petersburg-based playwright, short-story writer and editor Nikolai Leikin. Leikin was Chekhov’s editor for some time at Shards magazine, and the two were good friends. When he – Chekhov – realized his longtime dream of acquiring an estate with land, he promptly set about bringing to fruition another dream: that of owning some pedigreed dogs. He acquired two of Dinka’s and Pip’s pups, transported them to Moscow, and then out to Melikhovo. This would have been in the spring of 1893. According to that informational tablet near the sculpture (let’s be honest, I’m pulling 95% of my info from it today), the dogs immediately took over the rule of the roost. They “barked at the servants, dragged galoshes all over the house, dug up all the flower boxes, and struck fear into the hearts of all the mutts running around the property. Those mutts had never seen such strange dogs.”

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The dogs received their names from Chekhov’s sister Maria, who chose to name them after substances that could be found in Doctor Chekhov’s medicine bag. Brom = bromide; khina = Jesuit’s bark. Apparently as the dogs grew older Chekhov felt it necessary to address them in a more formal manner, and he added patronymics to their names. Thus they became known around Melikhovo as Khina Markovna (Khina, daughter of Mark) and Brom Isaevich (Brom, son of Isiah).
And now let me stop pretending that I am actually writing this post. Better, I think, simply to quote what is left of the text on the tablet.

Chekhov informed Leikin that, “The dachshunds Brom and Khina are well. The former is dexterous and lithe, polite and sensitive. The latter is clumsy, fat, lazy and sly… They both love to weep from an excess of feelings.”
The writer was very partial to his dachshunds. They followed him everywhere, were funny and punctilious. They were allowed to sleep in Anton Pavlovich’s room; he loved having long conversations with them and he staged hilarious homemade plays [
with them]. Mikhail Pavlovich, the youngest of the Chekhov brothers, recalled:
“Brom and Khina were dachshunds, blackish and reddish, while Khina had such short legs that her belly nearly dragged on the ground. Every evening Khina would come up to Anton Pavlovich, put her front paws on his knees and pitifully and loyally stare him in the eyes. He would change his facial expression and, in a shaky, old-man’s voice, would say:
‘Khina Markovna! You poor thing! You should go to the hospital! You would feel better then, yes you would.’
He would spend an entire half hour talking to his dog, thus keeping everyone in the house in stitches. Then it would be Brom’s turn.”
The sculpture of Khina and Brom was unveiled December 22, 2012 and a new tradition began immediately. People rub the dogs’ noses to make their wishes come true. Now Chekhov’s touching and comical dachshunds greet all visitors to the museum at Melikhovo. Gazing at their thoughtful little mugs, one can’t help but remember Chekhov’s words: “crooked paws, long torsos, but uncommonly smart.”

Special readers please note the date that this sculpture was unveiled. If you are one of the special readers, you will recognize this post as a slightly early birthday wish.

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Solovetsky Stone near Lubyanka Square, Moscow

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Two days ago in Moscow I attended a memorial to Russian politician and activist Boris Nemtsov on the six-month anniversary of his murder. I was one of what I might call a big crowd in a small space. There may have been 150 people crammed into the hall at the Sakharov Center. We were told there were that many again standing outside listening to the goings-on by way of an outdoor PA system. Three hundred people honoring one of the great men of his generation six months after he was gunned down on a bridge outside Vladimir Putin’s office in the Kremlin. Was that a lot?
My wife Oksana Mysina and I were – how shall I put this? – surprised by many of those who did not, could not, find the time or energy to attend. There were two actors there – Oksana and the divine Natalya Fateyeva, both of whom delivered heartfelt, even fiery, messages that many said afterwards were the highlights of the evening. To my knowledge, there was one writer – Dmitry Bykov. God bless him for coming. He was in a hurry though. He came late and left shortly after speaking.
What is my point, and what does it have to do with the photos I’m posting today? Well, this: It is often an uphill battle getting folks in Russia – especially those in the creative professions – to get off their duffs when the topic of conversation is one that surely concerns them more than anyone else. I’m talking about Russia’s long history with repression. There’s a legend – probably apocryphal – that the architect of the spectacular St. Basil’s cathedral on Red Square in the 16th century was summoned to the Kremlin by the Tsar and asked if he could do that again. When the proud artist said, “Yes,” the Tsar – according to the legend – had his eyes put out and said, “No you won’t.”
True or not, myths and legends come into being for a reason. The fact of the matter is that artists have run afoul of Russian authority for a very long time. We can go back to Alexander Radishchev in the 18th century to find a writer sent to Siberia for displeasing Catherine the Great. (I’ve written elsewhere on this blog about a way-station in Tomsk where he stopped during his trip into exile.) In the early 19th century the persecutions increased, affecting in different measure many of Russia’s greatest minds and talents – Alexander Pushkin, Pyotr Chadayev, Alexander Herzen, Nikolai Chernyshevsky (see my blog on this site), Fyodor Dostoevsky and many more.
By the time we reach the 20th century – particularly in the Soviet period – the topic takes on diabolical proportions. The numbers of writers, artists and performers who disappeared, or whose lives were crippled, in the labor camps or in exile, are staggering.
A few years ago – 2012, to be exact – we saw a heartening upsurge in the activity of creative people protesting increasingly oppressive government policies. There was a marvelous, so-called Writers’ Walk down Moscow’s boulevards that drew a substantial number of readers and writers – probably 12,000 or more. Shortly after that there was the so-called Artists’ Walk, which drew fewer people, but was every bit as spirited and freewheeling. But that was three years ago. Laws oppressing free and creative speech continue to pile up and artists appear to have withdrawn into themselves. The grueling war in Ukraine and the murder of Nemtsov (he was shot four times in the back by as-yet unknown – or undisclosed? – assailants while walking home after having dinner) cast a pall over Russian opposition activities and thought. Despair, fear, indifference and aloofness have taken over.
But enough of the pathos. I’m here today to share some photos of the Solovetsky Rock which – rather incredibly – stands in the shadow of the imposing NKVD/KGB/FSB headquarters on Lubyanka Square. The rock, a piece of granite transported in from the notorious Solovki labor camp (which in the Soviet years replaced the Solovki Monastery, which, in its turn, was founded in the 15th century by the monk Zosima, whose name was used by Dostoevsky to designate a humble church elder in The Brothers Karamazov) is here to commemorate the victims of repression during the Soviet years. The monument was unveiled Oct. 30, 1990. At that time, curiously enough, a towering statue honoring Felix Derzhinsky, the first head of the Soviet secret police (the CheKa), still stood just a stone’s throw away. Thus, right there in that one plot of land there were monuments commending one of the great killers as well as those whom he and his successors had killed.

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These days the Solovetsky Rock usually looks rather forlorn. For a short while, in 2011-2012, it was the site of occasional political protests. Not so any more. It is now a mostly forgotten and relatively ignored spot on the Moscow map. I rather suspect that if anyone were to dare mounting a protest here now, they would be hauled off in an instant. On any given day there may be more or less flowers laid on the pedestal supporting the rock. There are a few dusty old wreaths, left from some time in the past. There are precious few people around them, however. And with that ominous FSB/KGB/NKVD/CheKa building hovering in the near distance (read a blog about that on this site), you get the feeling that there is something quite anomalous about this whole thing. As if you know the authorities would just love to clear this crap out of here but they don’t quite know how to get away with it. (There is constant talk, for instance, of returning Iron Felix Derzhinsky to his original perch on the still-empty pedestal on Lubyanka Square. That might be a suitable pretext.)
In the meantime, this strange, virtually invisible, stand-off continues – the rock reminding anyone who wants to remember how bloodthirsty various Russian governments have been, while ground zero for the vast majority of the bloodshed looms large and proud over the territory. Russian Wikipedia informs us that Russian President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer, has never visited the Solovetsky Rock. Anyway, there it stands, a symbol of our time – surely a thorn in the side of some, but essentially ignored by everybody.
The paradox of this monument and its location is echoed by a restaurant located in a modern shopping center across the street from both the FSB headquarters and the Solovetsky Rock. The name of the restaurant is quite astonishing: The Dissident. You can see that title on the right-hand side in the second photo below. This name stares directly at the FSB headquarters and can be seen by anyone standing at the rock monument. The  facade of the shopping center is visible in the photo immediately below – it is the rounded structure immediately to the left of the first of three pine trees (counting from left).
Isn’t that something? Everybody knows. Even a restaurant that is probably frequented by FSB agents on their lunch break is called The Dissident. Meanwhile, a granite boulder plucked from one of the deadliest prison camps in the Soviet Gulag, stands facing the secret police building, although nobody really pays it any attention.
The reality, however, remains. At least 60 of the 188 posts I have made on this blog involve people or places directly or indirectly affected by the forces and events represented by this monument and the building, next to which it stands. Recent texts about Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Joseph Brodsky, Lev Loseff, Mikhail Chekhov and Osip Mandelstam all involve people who either fled repression or were caught up in it.
I am intrigued by the deceptiveness of the rock itself. Viewed from one angle, it appears to be just an inert, shapeless, massive blob. See several of the photos above, for instance. But from other angles, it suddenly takes on a sense of dynamism and sleek form, and appears to be in the process of trying to stand up. See the photo immediately below for that. This feels very much like Russia today – inert and motionless, yet striving to raise itself, all at once. An enigma, indeed.

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Joseph Brodsky commencement speech, Hanover, NH

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I am not an expert on Joseph Brodsky. I’m not even the greatest admirer, I must admit, although an admirer I am – my first gift to my future wife Oksana Mysina was a set of two collections of Brodsky’s poems published by Ardis – Parts of Speech and The End of a Beautiful Era. (The latter of which was not exactly the perfect gift for one wooing a future life partner, but, then, Oksana and I rarely do things by the book.) Oksana later met Brodsky; it’s a pretty good story that I’ll have to tell in its own time. Anyway, all of this means nothing, really, it’s just tidbits I bring up before admitting I may not have all the information I should have for this short entry about the place where Brodsky delivered a commencement address to the graduating class of 1989 at Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH.
As best as I can tell, Brodsky delivered three commencement addresses – Williams College in 1984, University of Michigan in Winter 1988 and Dartmouth in 1989. The latter two came on the heels of the poet receiving the Nobel Prize in literature in 1987, thus giving Williams bragging rights for prescience.
Brodsky made an effort to be clever in his choice of topics for commencement speeches. At Williams he spoke on the qualities of evil and on the dubious nature of turning the other cheek when evil is done to you. The following year at UMI he bucked up his listeners with advice for the future, even providing a numbered list of his primary advice that included an exhortation to be precise in one’s use of language, a call to be kind to parents, and a suggestion not to put much store in politicians. At Dartmouth he spoke “In Praise of Boredom,” which we’ll get to in a moment. First, however, I want to warn readers to be careful about the various commencement texts floating around on the net. You can get wrong dates (a few places put the Dartmouth speech in 1995, I assume, because they confuse it with the date it was published in book form). You can also get wrong texts. I’ve seen two versions of the UMI speech that are quite different – not in substance, perhaps, but in wording. That’s unfortunate for the work of a poet who was as careful with words as any, to say nothing of a speaker who actually preached the necessity of being precise in one’s use of language. A presumably reliable version of the Williams address was published in the New York Review of Books. I am assuming that a text on a UMI host reliably reflects what Brodsky said at December 1988 ceremonies at that institution. One can find the Dartmouth speech, as published in the collection On Grief and Reason – Essays, on the Relambramentos blog site. It has a few typos, but otherwise appears to be a replication of the published version.

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I mentioned this speech not long ago in an entry on the Russian emigre poet Lev Loseff, who taught Russian and Russian literature at Dartmouth for 30 years, and who would have been instrumental in inviting Brodsky to do the graduation honors. In the last photo below you can see Brodsky (left) and Loseff, both spiffed up for the occasion. The photo rests on a shelf in the Russian Dept. at Dartmouth and was pointed out to me by the current Dept. Chair John Kopper, who was kind enough to chat with me and walk me around the department recently.
I presume that Brodsky spoke in June, although I cannot confirm that. One source indicated it was in July – but a July graduation? I think not. In any case, all Dartmouth graduations over the last six years have taken place in mid-June. If you want to get a feel for what it might have looked like the day Brodsky spoke, you can watch this time lapse film of the 2014 ceremonies. While spending three weeks at Dartmouth this summer, I asked several people where Brodsky would have stood while speaking, and all of them – admitting they knew nothing about the 1980s – suggested it surely would have been in the niche before the clock tower at Baker Hall and between Webster Hall on our right, and Sanborn Hall on our left. You can see Baker and Webster in the two photos immediately below.
During my short stay at Dartmouth I walked past this place on the green anywhere between two to six times a day. Not once did I walk past it without looking over towards Baker and thinking about Brodsky up there speaking. His presence for me was real. Oksana wanted her photo taken before the tower, and when Russian director Boris Yukhananov came to visit, I felt compelled to point out that Brodsky had once spoken there. It seemed like something I had to tell a Russian of culture.
As for what Brodsky said that day, you can read the entire speech yourself by going to the link above. But I can’t help but insert a few nice excerpts here. Speaking specifically of “art’s saving grace,” Brodsky said:

“Not being lucrative, it [art’s saving grace] falls victim to demography rather reluctantly. For if, as we’ve said, repetition is boredom’s mother, demography (which is to play in your lives a far greater role than any discipline you’ve mastered here) is its other parent. This may sound misanthropic to you, but I am more than twice your age, and I have lived to see the population of our globe double. By the time you’re my age, it will have quadrupled, and not exactly in the fashion you expect. For instance, by the year 2000 there is going to be such cultural and ethnic rearrangement as to challenge your notion of your own humanity.”

He goes on to add:

“But even in a more monochromatic world, the other trouble with originality and inventiveness is precisely that they literally pay off. Provided that you are capable of either, you will become well off rather fast. Desirable as that may be, most of you know firsthand that nobody is as bored as the rich, for money buys time, and time is repetitive. Assuming that you are not heading for poverty – for otherwise you wouldn’t have entered college – one expects you to be hit by boredom as soon as the first tools of self-gratification become available to you.”

Later suggesting, in what is surely the gist of his entire talk:

“When hit by boredom, go for it. Let yourself be crushed by it; submerge, hit bottom. In general, with things unpleasant, the rule is, the sooner you hit bottom, the faster you surface. The idea here, to paraphrase another great poet of the English language, is to exact full look at the worst. The reason boredom deserves such scrutiny is that it represents pure, undiluted time in all its repetitive, redundant, monotonous splendor.
In a manner of speaking, boredom is your window on time, on those properties of it one tends to ignore to the likely peril of one’s mental equilibrium. In short, it is your window on time’s infinity, which is to say, on your insignificance in it. That’s what accounts, perhaps, for one’s dread of lonely, torpid evenings, for the fascination with which one watches sometimes a fleck  of dust aswirl  in a sunbeam, and somewhere a clock tick-tocks, the day is hot, and your willpower is at zero.”

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Alexander Pushkin birthplace, Moscow

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I get a kick out of this. When I googled “birthplace of…” in Russian several options leaped out at me. The first was “birthplace of Christ.” The second was “birthplace of Aphrodite.” The third was “birthplace of Pushkin.” He’s in good company, which is what we would have expected.
The little plaza fronting School No. 353 at 40 Baumanskaya Ulitsa in Moscow does a fine job of commemorating the birth of Russia’s first great, and still greatest, poet. A cute little bust of prepubescent Pushkin stands in the middle of a neat ensemble combining pedestals, protective chains and small, parallel flower beds. Pushkin’s African heritage and his curly hair – already forming into the shape of a laurel wreath – are very much in evidence. There is a smart, witty kid hiding behind that gaze.  The bust was sculpted by Yekaterina Belashova and was unveiled in 1967. Almost directly behind it is a memorial plaque that hangs next to the entrance to the school, which, we are told, is located where the house in which Pushkin was born once stood. Precisely, the text on the plaque reads: “Here was the house, in which A. S. Pushkin was born on May 26 (June 6), 1799.” The plaque also features the image of little Sasha – a bas relief of him, perhaps, sitting at a school desk and gazing out the window as he daydreamed about modernizing the Russian language. Or maybe not.
For those who don’t know about Russia’s thing with dating, let me explain. Until the Revolution Russia used the Julian calendar, while most of the rest of the world had long gone over to the more precise Gregorian calendar. Thus, Russian dates before the switchover in 1918 are often give in a dual manner, as above. I.e., it was May 26 in Russia when Pushkin was born, but, looking back retroactively, we know it was June 6 almost everywhere else around the world that day.
So, although it may be slightly confusing, we can, indeed, say what day, what date, Pushkin was born. The question of where that happened, the bust and plaque here notwithstanding, are another thing altogether.

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It seems safe to say that the great event did not happen here where it is commemorated at present. This address – which is currently 40 Baumanskaya Street but would have been known as Nemetskaya Street at the time of Pushkin’s birth – is almost certainly mistaken information. (Real buffs of Russian literature will immediately recall that in Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters, Vershinin recalls how he lived at one time on Nemetskaya Street. It’s a nice little added bit of color.)
To cut to the chase I will say it is now more or less accepted that Pushkin was born in a structure that stood at the intersection of Malaya Pochtovaya [Small Post] Street and Gospitalny [Hospital] Lane. This was verified by the Moscow historian Sergei Romanyuk, whose books and articles I have used often in putting together these blogs. He wrote a long essay detailing Pushkin’s many different birth addresses in Science and Life magazine in 1999. I refer to that piece repeatedly here.
There have been other addresses as well. Until the time of the Revolution it was thought the birthplace was located in the back lot at 57 Baumanskaya Street [Nemetskaya Street]. A plaque, which is apparently lost now, once hung there. The plaque we see on the current school building, and which is seen in two photos here, was made in 1927.
Pushkin himself used to say that he was born on Bolshaya Molchanovka Street located near Sobachya [Dog’s] Square and Borisoglebsky Lane. But, according to Romanyuk, it is likely that this merely meant that Pushkin lived here when he was young and it was, perhaps, the first place he remembered living in. As Romanyuk points out, it is easy to confuse the addresses. Pushkin’s parents occupied 12 different addresses between the years of 1798 and 1812. There was one year during that period when they lived at three different locations. During that 14 year period they had six children. So one might be willing to admit that nobody in the family really remembered who was born when and where.
To add to the fun – because I love chaos, legends and fractured facts – let us enter for the record that it was thought during Pushkin’s life that he was born in St. Petersburg. The philologist and journalist Nikolai Grech, author of a textbook on new Russian literature in Pushkin’s time, wrote that Pushkin was born in the city on the Neva River. As Romanyuk tells it, “Grech’s textbook was published in early 1821 when Pushkin was in Bessarabia, and in October 1822, in a letter to his brother Lev, Alexander Sergeevich asked him to send Grech’s book. That book is still held in Pushkin’s library.”

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Mikhail Bulgakov street art, Moscow

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This street portrait of Professor Preobrazhensky and the dog Sharikov from Mikhail Bulgakov’s popular novella The Heart of a Dog is one of many Bulgakov-related works of street art that were done in Moscow in 2014 by the 33 Plus 1 project as part of the Best City in the World festival. At least nine portraits were created in thin layers of plaster slapped on regular city walls. The plaster “canvas” was then inscribed, if you will, with an image, usually using the edge of a spatula-type instrument. To the fullest I can determine, the series was created by two artists, Pavel Shugurov and Pavel Zyumkin. Also, to the best I can determine, the entire series included images of Begemot, Azazelo, Margarita, Annushka and Korolyov from The Master and Margarita; Preobrazhensky, Shvonder and Sharikov from The Heart of a Dog; and Ivan the Terrible from the play Ivan Vasilievich. Many of the works are located in courtyards or archways tucked away from view. Many, like this one, are in the Arbat region, but some are in other places in the old, historic city center.  At least one of them (Annushka) was vandalized; I don’t know how many remain intact now. This one of Professor Preobrazhensky, in excellent shape, is located on a long, open wall at 3 Krivoarbatsky Lane, in front of building or corpus No. 2. You can see photos and read background stories about them (if you have Russian) on several websites, including  Live Journal and the 33+1 website.  Somebody named Valera who apparently was carrying around a very big black magic marker, or even a thin brush and paint, sort of claimed authorship of the work. Don’t believe him or her. It isn’t true.

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While The Master and Margarita is, hands-down, Bulgakov’s most beloved work, The Heart of a Dog does not lag far behind it. A film of huge cult popularity was made in 1988 by Vladimir Bortko. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that this film, to this day, runs 2 or 3 times a month on some Russian TV channel. Probably even more than that if we were to include all the regional Russian TV channels that show films. I run across it constantly as I channel surf, trying to avoid the bile and lies that dominate Russian TV these days. If you want to watch that film online, you can do so through several online cinema sites, including ivi.ru. The film is shot in a kind of sepia two-tone and it stars some very good actors, including Yevgeny Yevstigneev (as Preobrazhensky) and Boris Plotnikov.
Before the film was made, the novella debuted in performance at the Moscow Young Spectator Theater, where Henrietta Yanovskaya unveiled her dramatization in 1987. It was a monstrously successful production that toured the world and drew audiences for decades. Shortly thereafter a second dramatization showed up on the stage of the Stanislavsky Theater, right around the corner from the Young Spectator Theater. So for years and years there were two popular productions of the same work playing side-by-side in theaters located essentially in the same city block.
It’s probably worth explaining a thing or two about the work for Russian literature neophytes. It tells the story of a professor during the Russian Civil War who ignores the mayhem around him while continuing with his scientific experiments. He turns a dog, Sharik (or Ball), into a human, Sharikov. In step, if not in agreement, with the new Soviet state whose goal is to remake mankind and raise it to new levels, Preobrazhensky wants to show that animals can become human. Ultimately all he proves is that a human created out of a kind stray dog is a beast, indeed. Bulgakov’s tale, originally written in 1925 (though not published), seemed to predict early on that nothing would come of the Soviet experiment. For that reason it was banned for decades, and Yanovskaya’s production was the first to bring it to a wide audience simultaneous to the first-ever official publication in 1987.
In a book called What Was That? a fabulous dual memoir published by Yanovskaya and her husband Kama Ginkas in 2014, Yanovskaya wrote how “Bulgakov lived inside that time, while I staged it 60 years after it was written. I was older than he was at that moment and I knew more than he did. I also knew more about the further fate of Preobrazhensky and poor Shvonder. Rage and hatred boiled inside Bulgakov. I had no hatred. I believed all of us were the children who came of the union of Preobrazhensky, Sharikov and Shvonder. They were our parents; I was not about to judge them. When you talk about parents you speak only in terms of sorrow and tenderness. There are degrees of Sharikov, Preobrazhensky and the idealistic Shvonder living in every one of us in this country.”

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Alexander Pushkin, Pushkin Square, Moscow

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This surely is one of the most famous and beloved monuments to a writer in Russia. Forget that last part – this is simply one of the most iconic monuments in Russia. Period. Pushkin on Pushkin Square. “Meet me at Pushkin” is a phrase that surely has resounded millions of times over the decades since this statue was unveiled in June 1880. I’ve uttered the phrase dozens of times myself, while others have uttered it dozens of times to me. I don’t think I’ve ever failed to make a meeting “at Pushkin.” People didn’t always meet beneath the statue on this side of Tverskaya Street, however. It was originally erected on the other side of the thoroughfare on Strastnoi Square, facing in the other direction. As attractive as the monument and Pushkin Square are today, it is nothing like it once was. Where Pushkin now stands there once stood the Strastnoi Women’s Convent. Pushkin, one of the most notorious ladies’ men in Russian history, looked sadly across the street at the convent walls. There is a nice colorized photo of this on a site dedicated to the history of the convent.
Stalin – may his soul never know rest – had the convent razed in 1937, surely one of the earth’s most grizzly years ever, at least in Russia. However, it wasn’t until 1950 that Pushkin himself was moved across the street to take up position where the convent used to be. In this “new” position Pushkin is surrounded on two sides by architectural structures that, to my mind, clash with him terribly. Behind him (see the left corner in the second photo above) stands the old Rossia film theater which for many years in the 1990s and early 2000s was turned into an astonishingly, breathtakingly horrendous, garish casino. It made my heart ache every time I had to pass it. Actually, it made me angry. But enough of that. A few years ago all of Moscow’s casinos were closed down and the cinema became a cinema again for a while. Unable to compete with smaller, more modern movie theaters, it was then turned into a theater for musicals, which it remains today. It’s nearly as incongruous and irritating as the casinos were. Somehow Alexander Pushkin backed by a monstrous banner advertising Beauty and the Beast is just something that should not happen. To Pushkin’s right (first photo in the final block below) stands the famous Izvestia building, where one of the two most famous Soviet newspapers was compiled and published daily for many decades. This building in the Constructivist style is not nearly as maddening as the old Rossia cinema in all of its incarnations, but I still always find the view of Pushkin looking in that direction quite grating.

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Pushkin himself – by which I mean the likeness created by sculptor Alexander Opekushin – is sublime. I think it’s beyond criticism or even interpretation. For most Muscovites and Russians, this simply is Pushkin. As Van Morrison sings so convincingly in his beautiful song “Summertime in England” – “it ain’t why, why, why, it just is.” You walk by the statue and you kind of nod in greeting or, at least, you feel a warm sensation like someone you know and love deeply is hanging around nearby. The bronze statue itself is large, but the pedestal on which it stands is even larger, giving you the sensation that Pushkin is in a low orbit with the gods. As I photographed the work tonight I was surprised to see how time is beginning to play on the bronze, which is becoming discolored and even cracking in places. One fears they will have to box the statue up before too long to make repairs to keep it from deteriorating too far. But for the moment, these “flaws,” if that’s what they are, actually lend character to the image. Pushkin may have been a perfect poet, but even his statue is susceptible to decay. There’s something oddly comforting in that.
Something that is slightly disconcerting, and which I never noticed until tonight when shooting close-ups of the head portion, is that Pushkin was not created to look us in the eye. His gaze, in the form of two holed-out orbs, is raised just above your own gaze. That is not noticeable to the naked eye when you stand looking up at him – or, at least, it never has been to me. But when you see it clearly as you do in the close-up at the top of this post, it is quite striking.
Another thing I noticed tonight for the first time – the rather odd-looking hat Pushkin holds behind his back. You can see it relatively well in the final picture below, one I’m particularly fond of as it mixes three discrete objects in rather skewed perspective – Pushkin, a street light and the New Year’s tree, which is still up even in the waning days of January.

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