Tag Archives: Alexander Pushkin

Alexander Ostuzhev house, Moscow

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Alexander Ostuzhev (1874 to 1953) is one of those rare individuals whose great career in art spanned large portions of the pre-Soviet and Soviet periods. He was a huge star at the Maly Theater by the time he went completely deaf in 1910, while some of his most famous roles were performed between 1935 and 1940 when he was in his 60s. I can measure his longevity against my own experience – he was one of the finest partners of the great Maria Yermolova at the turn of the 20th century – seemingly a million years ago – and he was a contemporary of actors who have been contemporaries of mine. It’s a small thing, to be sure, but it does make time shrink incredibly, at least for me.
Ostuzhev was born Alexander Pozharov in the city of Voronezh in 1874. His father was a train engineer. The young man was a bit of a handful for everyone, getting himself kicked out of school for insubordination, and later, being fired from the Maly Theater for getting into a fight with a fellow actor. He began his life working odd jobs around Voronezh until he decided, in 1894, to try his hand at acting. He began in amateur theatricals, finding himself in demand because he had a beautiful voice and was quite a physical specimen – handsome and well-built. He did not have to wait long for his big break. Just one year later the popular Maly Theater actor Alexander Yuzhin (see my piece on Alexander Sumbatov-Yuzhin elsewhere in this space) happened to come through Voronezh and see Pozharov in a bit role. The fare that night was Victor Hugo’s Hernani and, despite his brief time in the spotlight, Pozharov made a huge impression on Yuzhin. In a letter to the playwright Pyotr Gnedich (quoted on the Memoria website), Yuzhin wrote:
In Voronezh I discovered a treasure whom I believe is a major future force, and boldly for the first time I take responsibility for his entire life, extracting him from service on the southeastern railroads and bringing him to the stage. He is twenty-one years old, handsome. He has some intangible way of making you listen to him, watch him, and appreciate every sound of his voice that vibrates with authenticity and every gaze of his wonderful deep gray eyes.”
If that isn’t an account of Yuzhin falling in love, I don’t know what would be. In any case, Ostuzhev’s life had changed. Yuzhin brought him to Moscow and enrolled him in acting classes at an organization that today would be called the Shchepkin Theater Institute – back then it was the Dramatic Courses at the Moscow Theater Institute. Pozharov was given a stipend of 300 rubles while he matriculated and he was finally admitted into the company of the Maly in the 1898-99 season. It was apparently at this time that the provincial boy took the pseudonym of Ostuzhev. There are a few reasons hanging around as to why he did that. One is that the name “Pozharov” comes from the word for fire, “pozhar,” and the folks at the Maly were afraid that if his fans began shouting his name in the theater, unsuspecting patrons might actually believe a fire had started on the premises. Perhaps a more convincing explanation is that Pozharov’s teachers and handlers were looking for a way to calm down his hot temper and so, in place of his fiery name, gave him one, Ostuzhev, that is built around the root for “cold” or “frost” – “stuzha.” Or maybe it was just a name game of the young man enjoying going from hot to cold…
Whatever the case, Ostuzhev played no less than 16 roles in his first season at the Maly (that’s not a typo), at least four of which were major leads. By the time summer rolled around he was a star in Moscow. In 1902 he played Romeo and critics dubbed him the “perfect Romeo.”

The last great role Ostuzhev played before going completely deaf, apparently from Ménière’s disease, was the False Dmitry in a 1909 production of Alexander Ostrovsky’s False Dmitry and Vasily Shuisky. Deafness, at least at first, had little effect on Ostuzhev’s work. The following year he played three new roles – including Khlestakov in Nikolai Gogol’s The Inspector General. According to Kino-teatr.ru, Ostuzhev played four new roles in 1911/12, seven in 1912/13, two in 1913/14, three in 1914/15, and so on. Perhaps not the load that he carried in his first season, but, still he was anything but out of work. He was able to perform because he would show up at the first rehearsal already having completely memorized his role, as well as most of the others in every play. It is said that he was often able to help other actors during performances when they would forget their lines – because he knew them and would whisper them to them.
Still, it is the received opinion that Ostuzhev, by the 1920s, was in serious decline, at least in popularity, if not in talent. Increasingly he played smaller roles and lesser amounts.
But a fortunate meeting with director Sergei Radlov revived Ostuzhev’s career in a serious way. Radlov was not concerned that he could not communicate by voice with the actor; he would write out his directions in long letters and give them to Ostuzhev who studied the letters with the same diligence that he did roles. As a result, when Radlov cast Ostuzhev in the role of Othello in Shakespeare’s tragedy, he unwittingly wrote a new page in the history of Russian theater. Ostuzhev’s Othello stunned spectators and critics alike, returning to him the same kind of mass popularity he had not enjoyed for several decades. The always-interesting Chtoby-pomnili website tells the story this way:
In the opinion of the critics Ostuzhev’s interpretation of Othello gave particular resonance to the topic of offended justice. His Moor was not an unbridled, primitive savage, but a man of exquisite culture and feelings. In the very image of the hero Ostuzhev masterfully emphasized the solemnity of the commander’s appearance, his gestures and features. This made the terrible and terrifying catastrophe all the worse as a great human world collapsed because of petty intrigue. Ostuzhev’s Othello not only inspired admiration among spectators – it was a genuine triumph. Alexander Alekseevich could not hear the applause and shouts of ‘Bravo!’ but he saw, and felt the delight of the audience. The building of the Maly Theater was literally filled with flowers.”
Othello, however, was no mere swan song. Ostuzhev followed it up with two more of his most famous roles, helping him to fashion one of the great career “comebacks” in Russian theater, if one dares use such a word. His performance of the Baron in Alexander Pushkin’s The Covetous Knight (1936/37) and the title role in Karl Gutzkow’s Uriel Acosta (1939/40) were also highly acclaimed. Ostuzhev performed his last new role in the 1941/42 season, but he often took the stage during World War II to entertain Russian troops at the front lines. He died five days before Joseph Stalin on March 1, 1953.
The house pictured here today served as Ostuzhev’s home from 1905 until his death. The address is 12/2 Bolshoi Kozikhinsky Lane, more or less in between Patriarch’s Pond and Pushkin Square.

 

 

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Yusupov theater site, Moscow

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I am prompted to write about this structure located at the corner of Bolshoi Kharitonyevsky and Bolshoi Kozlovsky Lanes in Moscow thanks to the latest prank pulled by the City of Moscow under the leadership of Mayor Sergei Sobyanin. Sobyanin will surely go down in history as one of the mayors who most hated the city he ran. He was installed by Putin then kept there several years ago in a phony election. Under the guise of “beautification” and “progress,” Sobyanin has lorded over the destruction of many historical Moscow sites. He has also “beautified” Moscow by redoing the streets and sidewalks in such a way that makes it impossible to drive/park in the city, while pedestrians stumble over badly-laid new walkways. I mention that because I wrote about this phenomenon a year or so ago on this site; you can find the piece by seeking links to Pushkin and Gorky.
So, before getting around to today’s main topic, let me begin by saying that the Sobyanin wrecking crew ripped down one of Moscow’s most prominent buildings yesterday at 15 Malaya Bronnaya Street in the city center (not pictured here). This structure, known as the Neklyudova estate, was built in the 1840s and played an important part in the history of the city. It was here that the pianist Sergei Taneyev in 1906 opened a People’s Conservatory. Many important musicians of the time taught or studied here. It’s now gone. The men with the bulldozers showed up at 4 a.m. – isn’t that enough to convict them all of evil in itself? – and before long there was nothing left but rubble.
Okay, I mention this because who knows what will happen to the building I share today, a very old building rich in history that some sources say is located at 17 Bolshoi Kharitonyevsky Lane and others put at 13 Bolshoi Kozlovsky Lane? A stone’s throw from today’s Chistye Prudy, it was in the woods when originally built. (There are unsubstantiated rumors and speculation that the first structure here was a hunting hut or lodge belonging to Tsar Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century.) The building we see today – not in particularly good shape – is one of a series of old structures running a full city block along Bolshoi Kharitonyevsky Lane. If we call ours the first structure, the second and third have been restored quite nicely. You see the reddish-orangish walls of the second building to the right of the white one in some of today’s photos. The white building originally belonged to a deacon Andreyan Ratmanov when it was built in the 17th/18th centuries. According to some sources (including the official Moscow cultural map), it once housed one of the first theaters in Russia, the Yusupov Theater. An official federal government document granting protected status to several buildings in 2013 lists this building as such: “House (Yusupov Theater), end of 18th century, wings of 17th century. Moscow,  13 Bolshoi Kozlovsky Lane.” (Some sources put the theater at 24 Bolshoi Kharitonyevsky Lane.) Whatever the reality, there is no theater left here now. A website dedicated to the Ratmanov estate, where the theater may have been housed, writes: “But in 1812 almost all the wooden homes on this lane and in the Yusupov garden burned down. Also gone was the Yusupov Theater where female dancers tossed off semi-transparent clothing and appeared before the public entirely nude. For this reason we can call Kharitonyevsky Lane the birthplace of Russian striptease.”

A webpage dedicated to the structure at 24 Bolshoi Kharitonyevsky Lane (not pictured here) writes the following about the theater:
In all likelihood, it was here that the new master built the famous Yusupov Theater, which was inferior in importance and popularity only to Sheremetevsky’s theater. Supporting this version is the fact that concerts of opera singers were organized in the hall located on the second floor in the ’60s of the last century. It is unlikely that this theatrical stage was built after the Yusupovs. The responses of contemporaries to the Yusupov Theater were enthusiastic. Their comments were often colored with expressions such as “unprecedented” and “fabulous” in describing “… an extensive hall, illuminated by a chandelier and fringed with a triple belt of boxes.”
I am a little confused by this source’s reference to the “’60s of the last century.” One assumes that means the 1960s, but I find it suspect that opera concerts held in some hall in the 1960s would be proof that this was the location of the original theater. I don’t deny it, I just find it weak as proof. I’m also wondering if we may be talking about two different theaters. Perhaps after the destruction of the first in the War of 1812 with Napoleon, a second was built across the street? I don’t know and I find very little information to go on in the internet.
The respected and reliable Know Moscow site tosses things into deeper confusion by placing the theater in the building now bearing the address of 21 Kharitonyevsky Lane. Here is what it tells us:
The manor was significantly expanded in the 18th century under Prince Nikolai Borisovich Yusupov. A garden with greenhouses was laid out and the Yusupov Theater, famous throughout all Moscow, was built. High society routs were organized in a special house across from the palace. Pushkin’s father Sergey Lvovich rented an apartment on the second floor of the left wing of the Yusupov house in 1801-03. The future poet spent time walking in the Yusupov garden. Pushkin always maintained good relations with Nikolai Yusupov throughout his adult life.”
The Yusupov Theater aside, this building is interesting for another reason – Vasily Sukhovo-Kobylin  purchased it (or a section of it) in 1800. 17 years later his son Alexander was born – the future famed playwright. Sasha Sukhovo-Kobylin, the author of one of the blackest, most bitter dramatic trilogies ever written in any language, lived here for the first 13 years of his life.
To return to my starting point today, I must assume that this building is safe from the marauders. If the two neighboring buildings have been saved, surely this one will be too. But if there’s one thing you learn to do in Russia, particularly in a town run by the people who currently lord over Moscow, it’s that you take nothing for granted. So here are these photos – offered up while I had a chance still to take them.

 

Dmitry Sverbeev, Yekaterina Semyonova house, Moscow

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This house at 37/1 Arbat is a throwback to another age. It was built in the late 18th century – the oldest remaining building on the Arbat – and, after damage suffered in the fires associated with the Napoleonic War of 1812, it was reconstructed. What we see today is the result of work done in 1834. Quite a few people of note have lived in or visited this home. Today we’re interested primarily in Dmitry Sverbeev (1799-1874), who was born here,  and Yekaterina Semyonova (1786-1849) who lived here for a time from 1834 to 1835.
Sverbeev was a diplomat who loved literature and writers and befriended many of them. He described his own interest as such: “I sometimes love to read a bit and listen to intelligent conversations.” He knew Alexander Pushkin and appeared to be rather close to Nikolai Gogol, which is a little bit like a tiny planet orbiting two super-suns. Sverbeev spent a good deal of time with Gogol abroad and, when the writer found himself in financial difficulties, the friend generously gave him money to keep going on. (Sverbeev in general seems to have been a generous man, often helping out people who were not as well-situated as he. In a stroke that says much about him as a person, he never wrote about any of this in his memoirs.) Sverbeev was not as close to Pushkin as he was to Gogol, although the poet did attend Sverbeev’s salons in Moscow in the 1830s, and they crossed paths in various places for many years.
Interestingly, one story from Sverbeev’s memoirs, My Notes (written in retirement in Switzerland and never intended for publication), involves Pushkin and Semyonova, a famed actress who counted Pushkin among her admirers.
In 1820 when Pushkin was visiting the theatres in Moscow, he attended a performance of Semyonova and caused a bit of a ruckus. I’ll let the Prometheus website finish the tale: “Pushkin brought to the theatre a portrait of the French artisan Louvel, who had recently been executed for assassinating in Paris the Duc de Berry, an heir to the throne. The portrait bore a  sweeping inscription: “A Lesson to Tsars.” After the first act, the portrait was passed around the rows of the theatre. Incidentally, it is precisely Dmitry Sverbeev who tells us about this incident from the life of the poet.”
There is some slight confusion about the actual years Sverbeev spent at this house on the Arbat. At least I don’t find hard evidence of the date he left for good. The plaque on the building facade states he lived here from 1799 to 1825, but I haven’t been able to corroborate that. What I do find is that he was posted to the Russian embassy in Geneva in 1824. What exactly he did in the immediately preceding years, I do not know (he graduated from Moscow University in 1817). I’m guessing that the famous literary salons that he hosted were not begun until he left the Arbat, even though the Prometheus site claims he “organized a circle in his own home on the Arbat.” It is known that his most famous salon gatherings were held when he lived at 10 Strastnoi Boulevard and later at 25 Tverskoi Boulevard (I’ve written about this location previously as one of Osip Mandelstam’s addresses in the early 20th century.)

Semyonova is one of those shooting stars that history tosses up every now and then. She was an uneducated, apparently illiterate peasant who, thanks to her fiery temperament, became one of St. Petersburg’s and Moscow’s most popular actresses of her time. She particularly shone in the romantic dramas and tragedies of Vladislav Ozerov, himself a huge star playwright whose fantastic popularity died utterly within just years. He had the misfortune of being a pre-Pushkinian writer, and was soon wiped from the memory of his countrymen. (You will see Pushkin do a bit of the wiping himself in a long quote offered shortly below.) Nobody has performed Ozerov plays for decades, if not centuries. Be that as it may, four of Semyonova’s first six major roles were in plays by Ozerov (stress on the first syllable) – Oedipus in Athens (1804), Fingal (1805), Dmitry Donskoi (1807) and Polyxena (1809). She also shined in Yakov Knyazhnin’s Rosslav (1805) and several foreign plays: Friedrich Schiller’s Maria Stuart (1809), Corneille’s Ariana (1811) and Racine’s Iphigenie (1815). She debuted in 1802 and joined the company of the Alexandrinsky Theater in 1805.
As I have mentioned, Pushkin was a huge fan and in a long defense of Semyonova (whom some in St. Petersburg compared unfavorably to the popular French actress known as Mademoiselle Georges), he wrote:
Speaking of Russian tragedy you speak of Semyonova, and, perhaps, only about her. Gifted with talent, beauty and a lively, true temperament, she came into being all on her own. Semyonova never had a model. The soulless French actress Georges and the eternally enthusiastic poet [Nikolai] Gnedich could only hint at the secrets of art which she understood as a revelation of her soul. Her performances are always unencumbered, always clear, with noble, lively movement, her voice is clean, smooth, pleasant and often reveals gusts of true inspiration – all these belong to her alone and are not borrowed from anyone. She decorated the imperfect creations of the sad Ozerov, creating the roles of Antigone and Moine; She animated the pedestrian lines of Lobanov; In her mouth we appreciated the Slavonic verses of Katenin, full of strength and fire, but lacking in taste and harmony. In colorful anonymous translations which, unfortunately, today are much too ordinary, we heard nothing but Semyonova. The actress’s genius gave stage life to all these lamentable works translated by allied teams of poets, where each of them individually renounced his participation. Semyonova has no rival; The occasional gossip, brief battles and invented hearsay have ceased; She remains the unanimous queen of the tragic stage.”
Pushkin so admired Semyonova that he mentioned her in his great novel-in-verse Eugene Onegin. Celebrating his young years when he frequented the theatre, Pushkin in Chapter 1, stanza 28, wrote: “There Ozerov shared the involuntary tribute / of people’s tears and applause / with the young Semyonova.”
Depending upon the source, you can read all kinds of probable nonsense about Semyonova; what a hothead she was, how ignorant she was, how lazy she was, how covetous she was… You can always read things like that about popular, to say nothing of great, actors. I think Pushkin’s characterizations beat the hell out of all the snippers, snappers and snipers combined. I just have a feeling (say I with no small sarcasm).
In any case, Semyonova’s career took a downturn in the years 1815 to 1820 and from then on she performed less and with less success. She moved to Moscow in 1827 and the following year married Count Ivan Gagarin, the man who had been her lover and had given her several children. It wasn’t the happiest of arrangements, but it became worse after his death in 1832. At least as late as 1830, Pushkin is said to have attended her performance in an amateur production in Moscow, but it was a far cry from her glory days. By the time Semyonova lived briefly on the Arbat, her acting days were effectively behind her.

 

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

Click on photos to enlarge.

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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

Click on photos to enlarge.

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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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