Tag Archives: Alexander Pushkin

Alexander Pushkin bust, Moscow

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I have written in this space about what a folk figure Alexander Pushkin has become over the centuries. He is a talisman, a hero, a friend, a savior, a protector, someone you can trust when there is no one left to trust. He is the epitome of beauty, honesty, wit, dignity, courage, wisdom – he represents everything good in the Russian people and in mankind in general. Pushkin as the end-all and be-all, as I have noted more than once, leads at times to wonderful things like the absurdist stories that Daniil Kharms wrote about him throwing rocks and such. And then there is something like I encountered just a few days ago, in fact, one day following the biggest political protest in Russia in at least five years.
But this requires a short detour.
You see, Vladimir Putin and other friends of Donald Trump (you may boo, I’ll pause happily to allow that) had beaten back the Russian opposition so badly since a series of huge protests took place in 2011 and 2012, that protest either went underground, to jail, or merely died (or, in the case of Boris Nemtsov, was murdered). And then, to everyone’s surprise, to the astonishment of all from politicians and rebels to parents and schoolmasters, an enormous group of disgruntled young kids – virtually all still teenagers – poured out on the streets March 26, 2017, to let the world know they were unhappy with Putin’s government and policies. They were called out by a fearless man named Alexei Navalny, but it is one thing to be called, and it is another to answer the call. What took place March 26 had commentators reaching for superlatives in a way I had not seen in regards to this topic for half a decade.
Facebook and Twitter were abuzz. Who were these kids? Where did they come from? What is going on? There were many answers, many details, many excellent explanations as to why and how such a huge, virtually spontaneous demonstration could come about. Those analyses are important and I suggest you track them down if you’re interested in the topic. But in the aftermath I found one response that beat the hell out of everyone else’s. It was a parable written by a writer I first encountered when her name was Oksana Velikolug. She now goes by the name of Kseniyka Smit (or Smith – she married an admirably disgruntled Brit who has lived in Russia with her for many years now). Kseniyka is a writer and performer (I first saw her on stage in Boris Yukhananov’s brilliant production called The Tale of the Upstanding Man a decade or so ago.) And she responded to the March 26 protest as a writer would – she condensed it into a few pithy thoughts, a couple of laughs and a few wicked satirical barbs, then put it out into the world to live its own life.
Digression No. 2. The protest march the other day ended up centering around Pushkin Square in the center of Moscow. The monument to the poet there became something of a participant as protesters and police occasionally climbed up the sides of the pedestal chasing one another. Or, perhaps that was artistic license taken by Smit. I do know for a fact that there were a few chases up and down light poles. But this is moot as regards Kseniyka’s story, as you will see. What Kseniyka did was to place this event squarely in the middle of the rich field of Russian Pushkin lore. She brings Pushkin to life in the guise of all those qualities I mentioned above – savior, protector, wiseman, defender. She has good precedent for doing so, since in one of Pushkin’s own most famous narrative poems, The Bronze Horseman, Pushkin brings a statue of Peter the Great to life and sends him chasing after a young man who dared curse him. For good measure, Pushkin also wrote a brilliant, brief version of the Don Juan story, called The Stone Guest, in which the statue of a man Don Juan murdered comes to life and clasps his hand in a deathly handshake. Kseniyka refers to that in her nod to “the Commodore” in her little story. But where Pushkin’s Bronze Horseman and Don Juan were threatening, vengeful figures, Smit’s Pushkin is a knight in white (perhaps green) armor, a kind, loving grandfather, a genius of pure beauty (if I may allow myself that little quote). I loved Kseniyka’s story so much that I translated it the moment I found it on Facebook and reposted it. You can find the full translation after the jump here.
However, first let me take care of business. Since I have already written about the Pushkin monument on Pushkin Square, I decided to let a bust that stands in front of a Moscow library named for Pushkin do the pictorial honors for today’s post. Pushkin was christened in the cathedral across the street from here, and he grew up running around his uncle’s house just down the street. So there’s a good reason for the bust and the library named after him to be located at this spot at 9 Spartakovskaya Street, Bldg. 1. The library was founded in 1900. The bust appears to have been made by Vladimir Domogatsky (1876-1939), although the exact date of its unveiling may have been lost. A webpage discussing the history of the library and its environs states that the bust “may have been” erected in 1937 (one hundred years after Pushkin’s death).
And now back to Kseniyka Smit’s story…

On the square flooded with a spring sunshine, still not entirely confident in its own powers, policemen seek to restore order, beating protesters with clubs. The protesters, seeking to preserve their human dignity and the freedom of their children and grandchildren, appeal to the heavens. Beyond all this, somewhat green from all the years, Pushkin gazes down upon the goings-on. Suddenly… wild squeals pierce the air. Policemen who had clambered up onto the monument’s pedestal recoil in horror and retreat helter-skelter. Lord Almighty!!! Pushkin has twitched! The Commodore has come alive! The protesters are frightened too and are just on the verge of turning tail and running, but they stop in their tracks, petrified. A powerful foot comes down on the ground, followed by another. An enormous hand carefully plucks up a few youngsters and a few oldsters, too, and plants them on the towering height of a pair of shoulders.
          “You are violating law and order!” shout the police . “You have no right to interfere with the passage of citizens!”
           “You say I have not the right to do that?” a voice rumbles, seeming to come from somewhere beyond the clouds.
           “Ale ….. Alexander Sergeevich!” shouts the chief of police, stuttering and blushing. “You… you….. you… but we…. but this is our job, Alexander Sergeich!”
            The policeman doffs his combat helmet.
           “My dear man!!!” – windows tremble in every neighboring building – “My dear, good sir! Beating up children and the elderly is no job. That is a crime!!!”
            Pushkin takes a step.
            “These people come to preserve freedom and truth, and by extension, me. For poetry is impossible without truth… Follow me, ladies and gentlemen! Where is this ruler of yours, so weak and deceitful?”
            The people applaud joyfully and the crowd moves down Tverskaya Street, leaving the riot police behind. There is no point in arresting anyone now. Pushkin steps hard, shaking the whole city. Helpless helicopters and paddy wagons now seem so tiny. Everywhere are shouts, as if in one loud voice, “Putin is a thief!”
Pushkin seats people on his shoulders and walks and walks and walks… all across Russia… until he comes upon the presidential motorcade racing toward the border. Pushkin thoughtfully plucks up the presidential car and shakes the President out of it. The President falls in his palm.

            “Oh, such a tiny one!” he says and bursts into laughter. President Putin is white with fear and rage. He would burn this monument if he could. Pushkin cradles him in his hand, and throws him high up in the air… far, far, far away….

Need it be said that this story, as originally published in Russian on Facebook, is fully copyrighted by the author Kseniyka Smit, 2017. It may not be reproduced without her permission, and my translation of it may not be reproduced without my permission. Should it be necessary we can both be reached right here by way of this blog site.

 

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.

 

Pushkin place of christening, Moscow

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I wanted to begin this post by saying something like, “this is the place where we can actually pinpoint the earliest known location of Alexander Pushkin in Moscow, in Russia, on Planet Earth.” After all, the plaque on the wall next to the entry to the cathedral states: “A.S. Pushkin was christened in the cathedral of the Epiphany of the Lord in Yelokhovo on June 8, 1799.”
But wait a minute. Let your eyes ride up just the slightest, to the next plaque that hangs immediately above the one proclaiming the information about Pushkin’s christening. And here we read: “Architectural monument: The cathedral of the Epiphany in Yelokhovo was built in 1845 by architect Ye[vgraf] D. Tyurin.”
Oops. So, like so much in history, this is and this is not where Pushkin was christened. That is, he was christened here, in a stone cathedral that was originally built in 1717 and stood until 1837, when it was pulled down in order to make way for the next incarnation. For the record, the original cathedral that stood in this place – the one that preceded the stone version of 1717 – was probably built sometime in the middle 1400s. So, yes, it was here somewhere. Someplace in these immediate environs, the naked, presumably chubby, little Pushkin (see the balloon-shaped bas relief of the baby boy on the plaque), all of two days old, was presented to a priest who blessed him and dunked him in holy water. Where that happened precisely, I am not prepared to say, although one website tells us the great event took place “in the refectory which has remained intact to our days.” Still another site has a tad bit more information: “It was in this cathedral, according to the  scribal ledgers, that A.S. Pushkin was christened in 1799. The christening took place in the refectory, and since that building has survived one can see the place where the newborn son of Sergei Lvovich Pushkin received his name and accepted his christening.”
I should add that the actual document about Pushkin’s christening is considered important enough to warrant a place of preservation in the State Archive.
Still, until such time as I snoop around here again at 15 Spartakovskaya Street with my camera and my notebook, I will have to leave the information about Pushkin’s christening place vague. That is fitting, I guess, since there is so much confusion and misinformation about the future poet’s birthplace. (I’ve written about that earlier in this space. Track it down if you’re interested.)

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Our loss of contact with Pushkin’s early days is interesting. It makes you realize just how far removed we now are from the man who reformed the Russian language and helped turn it into the incredible artistic tool that it has been ever since. The language we speak, when we speak Russian, is largely Pushkin’s. He was one of the first Russians to use such an elegant, clear and efficient manner of verbal expression. It’s possible that we are beginning to lose touch with that now as the 21st century moves on towards its third decade. The Russian language has been under attack from various corners for well over 100 years. The Soviet bureaucracy dealt beauteous Russian a severe blow. Modern technology, unscrupulous politicians, underhanded admen and undereducated contemporaries are now chipping away at it even more. But, for the time being, we still look to Pushkin as the guy who historically codified the language we know and use.
But to get back to the topic at hand…
Don’t be fooled by the old-looking plaque informing us about Pushkin’s christening. It was actually erected only 1992. You can see that by clicking on the photo of the plaque above then looking at the lower right-hand corner of the enlargement. There you will see an inscription of N. Avvakumov, 1992. Nikolai Avvakumov is the artist who created the plaque. He frequently creates works for, or connection with, the Orthodox Church.
I find virtually nothing on the net about the unveiling of the plaque. That’s not odd, perhaps, seeing as how it occurred well before the net existed as a mass media. Still, the date of 1992 is interesting. That would be 193 years since the poet’s birth, and 155 years following his death. Not particularly “round” numbers, as the Russians like to say. But 1992 is closely connected with the historical changes then going on in Russia – the end of the Communist era and the beginning of an attempt at Russia as a democratic republic. The Yelokhovo cathedral was one of the few major churches in Moscow that remained a functioning house of worship throughout the Soviet era. As such, when the country, then under the leadership of Boris Yeltsin, sought to distance itself from its recent past and sought to embrace a larger, broader view of its history, it would have been natural to want to raise the reputation of this place by reminding one and all of its connections to Russia’s greatest poet. Yeltsin, essentially, established Yelokhovsky cathedral as the nation’s number one place of worship for he often came here to mark major Russian holidays. Vladimir Putin has also come here to worship (if you can call his stiff, awkward attempts to stand at attention during services “worship”), although he has moved the focus away to other cathedrals as well. It’s just as well. Pushkin doesn’t need Putin any more than Yelokhovsky cathedral does. His, or even Yeltsin’s presence here, is but a wisp of wind against the gale that is the name of Pushkin.

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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

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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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Erotic Pushkin, Gogol and Tolstoy bas reliefs, Moscow

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DSCN9327I had no idea that this place at 4/5 Plotnikov Lane existed. I had never seen nor heard anything about it. Consider, then, my amazement and excitement when I happened to be walking around the Arbat area a couple of weeks ago and I came upon this  – a marvelous home featuring a myriad of mildly erotic bas reliefs of none less than Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol and Leo Tolstoy. Mild as they may be, they are clearly erotic in nature, and, yes, as I said, they involve the great Russian writers Pushkin, Gogol, Tolstoy and, perhaps, Ivan Turgenev, in various suggestive poses with each other or with seemingly faceless others…
It goes without saying that my ignorance is not shared by all. There is plenty on the internet about this structure that is one of several in Moscow called a “Broido home.” Like the one in question here, these were designed by the prominent architect Nikolai Zherikov for the jurist and businessman German Broido. Zherikov, supported by the evidently wealthy Broido, erected several memorable art moderne buildings around the city. Although the main structure of this five-story apartment house (an “income house” in Russian) is not particularly outstanding, the decorations interspersed among the second-floor windows are. It was built in 1907.
A bit of mystery swirls around the bas relief sculptures. Some sources declare the creator is unknown. Others say he is suspected to be Lev Sinaev-Bernshtein, while still others state unequivocally that the works belong to him. I am convinced by the arguments that posit Sinaev-Bernshtein as the author, so I, too, will take that stance.
A few words about the artist before getting to the art. Indeed, Sinaev-Bernshtein specialized in sculptures and bas reliefs of famous cultural figures, and he spent time with Leo Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polyana in the first decade of the 1900s. He was commissioned to create a commemorative medallion of Tolstoy in 1911, a year after the great writer died. Born in Vilno (Vilnius, Lithuania) in 1867, Sinaev-Bernshtein died in 1944 at the hands of the Nazis in the Drancy internment camp near Paris. The Nazis destroyed one of his last works, Youth and Old Age, on which he had worked the last 10 years of his life. He lived primarily in Paris from 1881 on, although he did come to Russia to visit and work from time to time.
Bear with me today. There are a lot of photos below and more text than usual. There was no other way to do this place justice.

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I first did a double take upon seeing that familiar bob cut hairdo on a forlorn figure staring at two lovers over the clumsy inconvenience of a drain pipe. I squinted and moved in closer, and, sure enough, realized I was staring at a pretty good likeness of Nikolai Gogol. (See photo immediately above.) Gogol, his right hand awkwardly inactive at his side, stares at the embracing couple as if trying to figure out what in hell are they doing? Gogol’s sexuality, or his lack of it, has long been the subject of discussion. My acquaintance Simon Karlinsky, the great Russian literature scholar from Berkeley, wrote a book suggesting that Gogol was gay, and I don’t know if anyone has ever successfully refuted that. Or whether it needs refuting. Gogol here does look like an outsider in the feast of heterosexual love going on around him. I wish the figure immediately behind him in the photo above had not literally lost its head. It might give us a few more clues. Gogol here, like Tolstoy and Pushkin elsewhere, is repeated in the same basic pose, no matter what the surroundings. Look, for example, at the photo immediately below. You’ll see Gogol jammed uncomfortably into others’ embraces again, the same limp right arm, the same frozen distance in his eyes. As far as I can see, Pushkin only appears in tandem with Tolstoy, ever the somewhat distracted and uncomfortable object of the big man’s clearly aggressive attentions. Tolstoy is also repeated in the same basic pose elsewhere in the sculptural ensembles, but, depending on the context, you actually see somewhat different stories unfold.
Tolstoy-Pushkin is a delight to behold. I’ve put up several photos that show the combination from various angles. The great author of War and Peace goes after the great author of Eugene Onegin with gusto and passion. Is that a manuscript Tolstoy is holding, or is it a rocket in his pocket? I think it’s the former, although in a different setting, when the object of attention is not Pushkin, you will see that it looks more phallic than bookish. Tolstoy’s fierce eyes and bold pose, in one case, virtually push Pushkin up against the wall. (See the second photo below.) Tolstoy – and this makes great sense – seems to be smelling Pushkin. Don’t you just know that Tolstoy would have wanted to know everything there is to know about the man who created the language he wrote in! The novelist’s left foot steps in boldly on the poet, giving him no way out of this weird encounter. Tolstoy is everything Tolstoy is – adamant, forceful, overbearing, and damned ready to get to the bottom of things. Pushkin, as would be proper for the founder of the contemporary Russian language and the poetry that is written in it, is almost oblivious. He’s clearly backed up in an awkward position, but he doesn’t seem to realize it. His gaze is smooth and unperturbed. He’s fixed his eyes on something distant, something intriguing – perhaps the perfect iamb? We don’t even know if that right hand is being used to ward Tolstoy off – I rather think not. I think Tolstoy just trapped Pushkin’s arm where it was. Perhaps Pushkin was getting ready to pose for a statue and he had grabbed his lapel. And here comes Tolstoy, all animal, all brain, all body, all curious, and he’s going to pin that damn Pushkin down, once and for all! I stood on the street below these marvelous figures and laughed out loud. How could you not? Tolstoy going after Pushkin, all business, all body! I love it.

DSCN9315 DSCN9320 DSCN9324 DSCN9325 DSCN9296 DSCN9299Gogol, as I have noted, looks almost virtually the same no matter what configuration the artist puts him in. As far as I can see, Pushkin only appears in the steamy encounter with Tolstoy. But Tolstoy is given a second encounter, one that looks a little more sinister. (See the third and fourth photos below.) Here Tolstoy is not only paired with a young woman, there is a third figure intruding on the tryst. This individual looks rather like an avenging angel, an angel with an attitude, an angel who does not like what he sees. (I’m assuming that arch over his head is a halo; if it’s not, then my premise falls apart. But I’ll stick with the halo variation.) The muscles in the angel’s left arm are clenched; he is tense. Do his fingers form a fist or are they just beginning to clench into a fist? I see real condemnation in his visage and his stance.
Tolstoy, of course, was famous for his dalliances with peasant women. One might even say he had a compulsion for the women who belonged to him. In his writings he often described men like himself going to “women like that” and it was always a heady intoxication followed by shame and self-loathing. Tolstoy’s attraction to women created enormous problems for his wife Sofya and for himself. One can’t help but think of this as you peruse this trio of figures. Whereas the put-upon Pushkin virtually paid Tolstoy no mind, this young woman, under the old man’s press, appears to be quite ill at ease. She’s been given the same basic pose as Pushkin, but the different circumstances give the whole image a different feel. She is truly trapped. Tolstoy here doesn’t want to know what makes her tick, he’s not sniffing out an ancestor and competitor in the literary game, he quite simply wants this woman. Even the “manuscript” that he holds in his left hand looks much more like a phallus pushing its way up under the writer’s robe as he guides it with his hand.
This one image, more than any of the others, pushes the whole lot over the line from light, humorous eroticism into unabashed, unflinching eroticism – though not without humor.
It is said that Sinaev-Bernshtein’s friezes were originally commissioned by Ivan Tsvetaev (the poet Marina Tsvetaev’s father) for the building in which he planned to open his new Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts on Volkhonka Street in the center of Moscow. The idea, apparently, was to depict the great Russian writers, accompanied by muses, on a procession to see Apollo. According to the story, however, Tsvetaev declined to accept the work when it was completed. It was deemed too risqué, if not downright shocking. So as not to waste good work, the figures were put to use, cut up and moved around, on this building. Over the years the house and the bas reliefs have been dubbed with various names including “the caricature house” and “the house with the naked writers” (although there are no naked figures to be seen). The rumor that this was once a bordello and the sculptures show supposed famous clients is nothing but an urban legend. More reliable – and intriguing to think about – is that this likeness of Tolstoy is apparently the first and only sculptural likeness of the writer created when he was still alive. Tolstoy died three years after this building was erected; Pushkin died in 1837 (70 years before), Gogol in 1852 (55 years before).

DSCN9294 DSCN9314 DSCN9313 DSCN9312 DSCN9322 DSCN9323A few sources suggest that Ivan Turgenev is also depicted among the revelers and onlookers here. I did not see him on my own when I discovered the building (Pushkin, Gogol and Tolstoy are obvious), and even after going back over my photos, I continue to have doubts that Turgenev is pictured here. However, since most everything is in the eye of the beholder, I offer a couple of shots that may – I say, may – show a young Turgenev in the embraces of a young woman. Look at the final photo below. Is Turgenev the second figure from the right? (He would be the one on the extreme left in the penultimate photo, just parts of his head and right hand visible on the corner behind the female figure/muse.) Something about the hair, the mouth and the eyes here are reminiscent of some images we have of Turgenev early on in his life. Take a gander at this drawing, for instance. Our bas relief lacks the beard and mustache, to be sure, but some of the other details intrigue, even if they don’t convince entirely. Is this the same figure who stands between Gogol and a woman in the photo immediately above? I don’t know. They look different to me, although the overall composition – minus Gogol – is quite similar.
In short, Turgenev remains a question mark here, but everything else about this place gets exclamation points. I am terribly torn between potential favorites – the fierce Tolstoy backing the oblivious Pushkin into a corner, or the somewhat clueless Gogol trying to squeeze into threesomes without quite figuring out how to do it. Whatever the case, unless someone comes up with some money to save these unique bas reliefs soon, they’ll be long gone and we’ll only have these photos to remind us that they ever existed at all. This building is included on the list of protected architectural sites in Moscow, although, as one can see, nobody seems to be doing anything about stopping the rot. Is it possible that this place makes the authorities too uncomfortable and they are simply waiting for it to self-destruct? You bet it is. And what a shame it will be to lose this wonderful, unexpected treasure.

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Alexander Pushkin 2, Muzeon Park, Moscow

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Exactly two-hundred and seventeen years have passed since the day Alexander Pushkin (1799-1937) was born. It’s rather astonishing, really. So much time, so much change, so much water under the bridge. And Pushkin remains Pushkin. He remains the youthful image of perfection and the perfect image of youth, talent, humor, wisdom, agility of all kinds, honesty, trustworthiness, dignity and everything else that might accrue to this cluster of qualities. I think you would have difficulty finding one person in a thousand, one person in a million, who would suggest that I am exaggerating in any way.
I wrote a blog about the contemporary poet Sergei Gandlevsky a few days ago. Something that didn’t make it into what I wrote was a comment he made about Pushkin. Gandlevsky talked about being a difficult and contrary young man, bucking his parents and authority at every step. But, he added, Pushkin was revered in his home and he never questioned that reverence. Pushkin was worthy of that reverence, He was untouchable.
I have written things like this before, and I surely will write more. I am repetitive, but then Pushkin’s impact, his influence, his stature is eternal. It is virtually unchanging. I doubt there is anything new we can find out about Pushkin anymore. I have no idea how many books, articles, poems, essays, blogs, have been written about this poet. Millions, billions. He has been viewed from every possible angle. Every step of his life, his every move, his every word, his every thought – all of it has been examined, analyzed, dug up, re-framed, regurgitated and reconsidered. And Pushkin still comes out Pushkin – bright, light, airy, weighty and untouched. Alexander Pushkin represents all – I say all – of the reasons that compel one to love Russia, Russian literature, art, culture and history. He is at the center and at the source of that love which blesses and torments millions of us.
Today we look at a sculpture that has grown on me terrifically. It stands amid a huge chessboard of sculptures in the Muzeon open-air exhibit just behind the Moscow House of Artists/New Tretyakov Gallery. One might quibble with the way these sculptures are crammed in together, but there is also something about it that lends added meaning to each of the pieces.
At first you are so distracted that virtually nothing stands out when you come upon the large, square plot of land. Although the sculptures stand in orderly rows, you are subjected to an overwhelming sense of chaos and overload.
Right next to this image of Pushkin, called Forty Thousand Versts, and sculpted by Alexander Smirnov-Panfilov, there is a lovely sculpture of Pushkin crossing over a typical St. Petersburg bridge. The day I walked around taking pictures here I was immediately taken by it, and I fully expected it would be the first one I would write about. Smirnov-Panfilov’s gloomy take on Pushkin apparently riding in a cab somewhere (the striped mile-post, or, to be more precise, the verst-post, is part of the sculptural ensemble) as he and an unseen cabbie and horse cut through an apparent snowstorm, seemed a bit too weird, too unfinished and unclear. I shot them then walked away to photograph other objects before passing back by on my way out. But this time everything looked different. I still loved Pushkin going over the bridge, but by now this image of him fighting blindly through snow had put a hook in me. Now it began to attract me actively and I photographed it again, coming up with better shots and angles. I loved the way it fitted into its surroundings – primarily by not fitting in at all. Everything around it seemed to be incongruous – mothers, pregnant or otherwise, angels, priests, wise men and martyrs carrying their crosses. Pushkin is oblivious to it all. The storm that batters him relentlessly has robbed him of all ability to see, hear or feel anything but whatever thoughts exist in his own head.

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Look at his eyes. There are none. Smirnov-Panfilov rendered Pushkin’s blizzard-induced blindness by removing his eyes entirely from his face. Look at the hard-set mouth, the strong nose, the strong posture of his shoulders with just his one visible right hand pulling his cloak tight to his chest against the wind and snow.
This is an incredibly insular, private Pushkin. We aren’t allowed into his world in any way. Everything here is external. We see nothing but outward appearances. We look at Pushkin here the way Plato’s men chained to the wall of a cave looked at shadows cast before them by free figures passing between them  and a fire. They can only guess at the meaning of the shadows, and we can only guess what Pushkin might be experiencing here. In fact, we haven’t the vaguest idea.
But look what happens when you step back away from the ensemble and you perceive it at a distance. Look at the second photo below and a revelation occurs. Pushkin here looks beat, despondent, disconsolate. The verst-post towers over him, suggesting that the notion of achieving distance, of actually getting to his destination, of escaping this state of blind loneliness, is impossible. A similar impression is created in the first photo in the block above. Pushkin is dwarfed by the verst-post. He almost seems to bow before it in subjugation. And look at those wheels – they’re half buried in snow or mud or something equally inhibiting. How far is he really going to get?
Smirnov-Panfilov achieved a wonderful thing in this sculpture – he captured two almost diametrically opposed states in one single piece of art: Pushkin’s tenacity, his imperviousness to the storm raging about him, and, at the same time, his vulnerability before that very storm. If you give this statue enough time, you begin to realize it is not only an interesting, highly unorthodox view of Alexander Pushkin, but that it is a thematic piece that could easily have been titled Weathering the Storm.  Perhaps you can’t beat the storm, but you can weather it.
It’s no wonder all of us keep coming back to Pushkin all the time. He is always ready, able and willing to make us think, and to find something of value in those thoughts. Happy 217th!

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