I offer this very modest post in honor of three glorious days of the Tour de France ending in London today. Pushkin in London. Pushkin, unlike the Tour de France, was never in London. But Russians in London – there is an age-old tradition. The revolutionary Alexander Herzen lived here in exile and Tom Stoppard wrote a huge three-part play about that, which some people consider good. Vladimir Lenin even lived here, for God’s sake. I didn’t know that until one day I was taking a short walk along Tavistock Place near my hotel and I ran across a plaque commemorating the fact that the Father of the Soviet Union lived in this block in 1908. Just goes to show you – any old riffraff can find its way to London, but London remains a great city anyway. I won’t touch the Russian football people with a ten-foot pole. I get a kick out of the fact that the Pushkin Club in London, the precursor to the Pushkin House, was officially founded in 1954, the year I was born. It gives me some good company; I was also born the same year that Elvis Presley cut his first record with Sam Phillips.
I spent an evening at the Pushkin House in April 2013. I gave a little talk about Russian theater. That put me in decent company, too, which you can read much more about on the Pushkin House website. But just for the record, Mstislav Dobuzhinsky had an exhibit of paintings here, as did Leonid Pasternak (Boris’s father), poshumously. The prose writer Konstantin Fedin and the poet Alexander Tvardovsky spoke here in 1960. The great, though still underrated, poet Yevgeny Rein gave two poetry readings here. Also coming through were the poet Irina Ratushinskaya, who had her first reading in the West after going into exile in 1987, and the well-known poet Andrei Voznesensky. I should point out that when I say “here” I am being inexact. Because all of these events, other than my own modest outing, took place in the Pushkin House’s former digs at 46 Ladbroke Grove. The current home pictured here is at 5A Bloomsbury Square, just down the street from the British Museum and just a short walk from Oxford Street.
I rarely allow myself to be so predictable as to do anything according to someone else’s timeline, but today I’ll succumb. It is Alexander Pushkin’s birthday. He was born 215 years ago today. Anybody, or everybody – or, maybe, nobody – can tell you what that meant for Russian culture. “Pushkin is our everything.” Every individual has “my Pushkin.” Gogol called him “the unique phenomenon of the Russian spirit”; Dostoevsky upped the ante and called him “a prophetic phenomenon.” I would say that people walk up and down the streets of every Russian city and village spouting the verses of Pushkin but you wouldn’t believe me. Still, if I did make that assertion I would only exaggerate in the slightest degree. Moreover – and this may be the most incredible thing of all – Pushkin has not been sullied, has not been appropriated by ideologues (although they have tried), has not been commercialized. Pushkin is pure. He’s the real thing. He is poetry, he is wisdom, he is clarity, he is simplicity, he is the opposite of bombast, he is the best that Russia ever put forth and he continues to symbolize the best that Russia has or is.
The bust I photographed here stands in the tiny little Pushkin square on the east side of Lenin Prospekt, between buildings No. 77 and 83 in my beloved city of Tomsk. In the hands of sculptor Mikhail Anikushin he’s a generic Pushkin, rather an imitation, perhaps, of the image created in the famous and beloved portrait of Pushkin that was done by Orest Kiprensky in 1827. Upon seeing that completed portrait, Pushkin supposedly remarked, “The mirror flatters me.” Well, a whole nation would flatter the man for his poetry, his prose, his drama, his wisdom, his wit and the glint that, surely, sparkled in his eye.
Okay, so this is my second post involving Alexander Pushkin in a week. Be forewarned: This is a blog devoted to Russian culture so there’s going to be a lot of Alexander Pushkin. Today we’re looking at a very nice bas relief plaque on the facade of the building at 8 Glinishchevsky Pereulok, or Lane, in the heart of Moscow. It’s a lovely powder blue building that was originally built at the end of the 18th/beginning of the 19th century and belonged to a man named Lavrenty Ober. That name is pronounced with the stress on the second syllable, for Monsieur Ober was the son of French parents. In fact, his mother holds a small place in Russian/French history, for when Napoleon retreated from Moscow in 1812 she famously abandoned her popular clothes shop and followed the troops in order to return home to Paris. She never made it. She died on the road in Vilnius. Her two sons, who were with her, did make it, however, so Lavrenty received a good French education before choosing to return to Moscow to live in the 1820s. It was here in this lovely blue building that he frequently received famous writers in his home. There is a small plaque on the building which states that Pushkin was a frequent guest here throughout the 1820s and 1830s (see final photo below). The sculptured plaque that hangs prominently between two windows on the outside wall of the first floor commemorates one special evening, however – the final meeting between two friends and two great writers, Pushkin and the great Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz.
Reams have been written about the relationship between Pushkin and Mickiewicz, but here are some basics. They first met in 1826 in Moscow and continued to cross each others’ paths over the next three years in both Moscow and St. Petersburg while Mickiewicz was in exile in Russia. Both referred to each other in some of their writing and both appeared to speak of each other with genuine affection and respect. It was Mickiewicz who introduced Pushkin to the poetry of Byron, presenting him with a gift of The Works of Lord Byron in 1826. At least in the eyes of Anna Akhmatova, Pushkin’s portrait of the brilliant improvising poet in the story “Egyptian Nights” was based on his recollections of Mickiewicz, who dazzled Russian high society with his ability to improvise poetry off the cuff. The Russian translated two ballads by the Polish writer – “The Three Brothers Budrys” and “Wojewoda,” as well as the introduction to the epic poem “Konrad Wallenrod.”
It certainly is not the best bust of Alexander Pushkin ever made. But it may be one of the most “popular” in Russia. By “popular” I mean the most visited, the most seen, the most passed-by. This small bust of Pushkin stands on a pedestal in a niche that connects Moscow’s Pushkinskaya and Chekhovskaya stops on the metro – on two of the most traveled lines in the whole metro system. This is an extremely busy place most any time of the morning, day or night. Just like the huge monument to Pushkin that stands more or less straight above this subway stop on Pushkin Square, it is also a place where people meet. “Let’s meet by Pushkin” is a phrase that has been spoken millions of times in Moscow over the decades. As can be seen in this series of photos, those meetings – or ones that do not happen, or, maybe, meetings that once happened and are being remembered – aren’t necessarily always the happiest. As I was taking these pictures I must admit I did not pay much attention to the woman who was standing just to Pushkin’s left. It was only as I was editing them that I realized she was experiencing a difficult moment of some kind.
In the last photo above, as in the first one below, the woman actually appears to be looking up to Pushkin for some reason – for strength? for friendship? because she realizes I am taking pictures of Pushkin? In any case, for the most part nobody is paying much attention either to the woman or to Pushkin.
I love breaking rules and who/what gives me a better opportunity to break rules than Fyodor Dostoevsky, Alexander Pushkin and the grand, magical city of St. Petersburg? What rules? Well, the whole reason I put this blog together was to share my huge gallery of photos I have taken of Russian cultural monuments over the years. They just use up more and more gigabytes in my computer and don’t do a damn thing more. So I opened this blog to put them to use. And here I am, on just my 11th post, skipping over my own photos to provide – what? – somebody’s gorgeous fantasy of the literary wonderland called St. Petersburg. This poster was created (to my knowledge) in 2013 to promote Dostoevsky Day on July 6, 2013. I fell in love with the image instantly and continue to love it to this day. Dostoevsky, the smart, sincere, college student, marching down the street. Doesn’t it fit? I think Dostoevsky in jeans and a vest is a killer fit. Then add this: He’s walking past Alexander Pushkin’s house, the place the great poet lived and died (it’s the pinky/orange building across the Moika Canal to Dostoevsy’s left (your right). Pushkin, Dostoevsky, the 21st century – what’s not to like? For me, however (and thousands, if not hundreds of thousands) of foreign visitors, this exact spot holds especial memories. If you could get into the picture and turn the gaze to the direct left, you would more or less be looking down the tiny Winter Canal that leads from the Moika to the Neva River. Through an arch and over bridges one looks across the Neva to the Spit on Vasilyevsky Island and the St Peter and Paul Fortress on the Petersburg Side. I lived there in a dorm on the chip of land across from the Fortress ages and ages ago. It’s a place where I encountered Russian literature in the flesh – sort of – for the first time, really. I wrote about an encounter I once had with Nikolai Gogol as I walked across the bridge one early, snowy morning from my dorm to my classes. If you can believe it, you can read that in a blog I wrote for The Moscow Times. I guess it’s kind of in the same vein as Dostoevsky passing by Pushkin’s in his jeans and loafers… Thanks, by the way, to the Dostoevsky Museum in St. Petersburg for these fabulous images.