Tag Archives: Boris Nemtsov

Solovetsky Stone near Lubyanka Square, Moscow

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

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

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Leo Tolstoy bust, Budapest, Hungary

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It is a gorgeous, sunny, warm day in Budapest. But rather than getting up and getting out to enjoy it, I sit here at my computer in my hotel room in order to recall a journey I took a few days ago on a cold, clammy, foggy, uninviting day when I set out to find Leo Tolstoy. Before coming to Budapest I began searching for examples of Russian culture that I might find in the Hungarian capital. The first I found was a famous old restaurant called Tchaikovsky. That sounded like an interesting subject for photos and stories and so I headed out that bone-chilling day to find Tchaikovsky first. When I arrived at the proper address I was chagrined to learn that the venerable old restaurant had been transformed into a strip club. So much for that, and I hit the foot path again. The second destination I had was a bust of Leo Tolstoy that the internet told me had been erected in Budapest City Park in early 2013, rather as a sign of genuflection to Vladimir Putin before he paid the city a visit that year.
Let’s be honest. Russia (and/or the Soviet Union) has often enough had rocky relations with Hungary. Let’s just say “1956” and leave it at that. So I was curious to see what this Tolstoy might tell me.
To paraphrase one of the great bands of all times, The Band, I arrived at the bust feeling ’bout half-past-dead. It was a hell of a trek from the strip club to my next destination. It was made even worse by the weather and the fact I really had no idea where I was going. With the help of a little pocket map I did finally reach the Budapest City Park. I knew it was big; I’d seen it in internet maps and it was clearly large. But when I came upon it in real life I was taken aback. I wonder if it’s bigger than Central Park in New York. If you’re really interested, compare on Google and let me know. My point is that I had very little idea where, exactly, this bust was located. I found no map that pinpointed it, and only a few gave quite vague descriptions of it being located on an “alley” – now called the Leo Tolstoy alley – “just off of” Mihály Zichy street, which runs through the southeast side of the park. But where exactly? No answer. And, as it turned out, the pocket map I was carrying did not name the streets inside the park. So I did what I have learned to do in this life and I just forged on ahead. I went to my “right,” toward the southeast side of the park. I thought I would at least find Mihály Zichy street and could go from there, but, God bless ’em, the makers of this park didn’t see fit to put up street signs anywhere. Okay. I’m okay with this. I just turned on my inner radar and headed across the grass, keeping a fairly large street that I rather suspected, but did not know, was Mihály Zichy to my left. I passed crowds of people exercising their gorgeous borzoi hunting dogs – a whole crew of them – and I took that as a positive sign. Tolstoy writes with great passion about borzoi hunting dogs in various of his works. I headed through a muddy path beneath a balding hill (Bolkonsky’s Bald Hills estate in War and Peace?) and came upon an ornate building that, at one time, appeared to have been a cultural center of some time but now appeared to be abandoned. I saw a statue ahead of me and I walked toward it instinctively. It clearly was not Tolstoy, but at least it was a statue. Having reached it I saw another statue, clearly not Tolstoy, in the distance and I headed to it. From that to another and another until finally across the huge, muddy lawn I saw a gold head almost glisten in the murk. It was too tempting to head straight for it. I rarely allow fate to lure me quite that easily. I appreciate circuitous routes. Instead I headed to see another  bust and was well rewarded for my choice. Right next to this bust commemorating Somlyo Zoltan Kolto (1882-1937), about whom I know nothing, I spied a street sign proclaiming the little promenade in front of me as Leo Tolstoy Alley. I looked down in the direction of the golden glare I had seen a few moments before. From here I could now be sure: It was Tolstoy.

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He looks a bit forlorn there on his pink marble pedestal. The fact that the trees have not yet recovered from winter don’t help at this given moment in time. I set aside the smug satisfaction of having discovered Tolstoy in the Budapest City Park in relatively short time, almost as if I had found the needle in the haystack by sticking my hand in, rustling it around for a moment and pulling the prize right out. The first thing I noticed is that I do believe the sculptor Vasil Roman is a true fan of Russian literature. So much so, in fact, that he decided to put a bit of Fyodor Dostoevsky into his Tolstoy. Call him Tolstoevsky. Take a look at the en face photo leading the second bunch of images above and let your mind wander just a little. If you know Russian literature’s faces even cursorily, Dostoevsky will surely creep into your mind. It may be the beard, it may be the dark eyes that the gloomy day gave this bust – I don’t know for sure. But as I stood and looked at this image of Tolstoy it started doing tricks with my mind – flipping back and forth between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky rather like a low-budget hologram. The ears are Tolstoy’s, nice and big and ready to hear everything the world has to say, and so the most “Tolstoyan angles” are the ones from the sides.
I have no idea what Hungarians think of Tolstoy appearing here amongst them in this place. He seems a little lost to me. He stands on his pedestal, staring blankly at grungy walls covered with graffiti and also staring at the back of that abandoned, ornate building I mentioned. Folks seemed to walk by him as if he wasn’t there. The sign proclaiming the path Leo Tolstoy Alley was defiled with graffiti on both sides. I have no idea if the scribbles actually say anything. It looks to me like someone gave their two year-old a blue felt marker and said, “Here. Practice.”
But there it is, folks. Leo Tolstoy in Budapest. I had looked forward to finding him ever since I learned in late 2014 that I would be traveling to Hungary. And my nose for Russian culture did sniff him out.
Some facts for the interested. The bust is officially a gift of the Tolstoy Association for Hungarian-Russian Cooperation. It stands 235 centimeters tall and is mounted on a 90-cm by 90-cm base. As Charlotte Alston tells us on the History Today website, the Hungarian philosopher Jenö Henrik Schmitt was a friend of the Russian writer. Tolstoy’s hardscrabble religious views somehow coincided with the beliefs of the Hungarian “religious anarchist.”
Epilogue: The notions of religious anarchy, Vladimir Putin and Russian culture all came together in a bracing, clanking way on this dark, cold, funereal day. This was just 36 hours after the Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov had been murdered under the blood-red brick walls of Putin’s Kremlin, and just 24 hours before Mr. Nemtsov was to be buried in the frozen Moscow earth at the Troekurovsky Cemetery. I could not attend the funeral and so internally I dedicated this trek to Tolstoy to Nemtsov. I thought about both at deep length as I wandered around the statue. The current Russian president never entered my mind. He only comes to me now, as an afterthought.
P.S. My friend Michael Nemirsky took my Google challenge and found I was way off. Budapest City Park is spread out over 302 acres. Central Park in N.Y. encompasses 778 acres.

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Grigory Potanin bust, Tomsk

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Grigory Potanin (1835-1920) is still another of those figures, an ethnographer and natural historian, who had avoided my obviously inadequate efforts to learn Russian history and culture. When I was last in Tomsk I lived across the street from this small but imposing bust of Potanin that stands in a wooded area in front of Tomsk University, and alongside the Tomsk University Research Library and Archive. The plaque  proclaims him an honorary citizen of Siberia. I would never have thought anything of that until the story behind it was told to me by several Tomsk residents, including Pavel Rachkovsky and Valentina Golovchiner. You see, the notion of a “citizen of Siberia” implies an autonomy for Siberia that it has never had. It has never been a nation and it has never had the right to confer citizenship upon anyone. In other words, to some people, these are fighting words. And indeed, as I learned, there have been several movements throughout history when elements in the vast Siberian region have talked about or actively sought independence from European Russia. It is an idea, as one might imagine, that has never gained traction in Moscow (or in St. Petersburg, when it was capital). I first heard this in April and – lo and behold! – the news the last few weeks has been full of reports about demonstrations and political actions being called throughout Siberia to proclaim the desire to renew the discussion of potential Siberian independence. Encouraged by Vladimir Putin’s willingness to receive Crimea when it “seceded” from Ukraine and his support for “separatists” in Eastern Ukraine, numerous regions in Russia are rethinking their attitude to the central, but very distant, government. If Putin so readily supports secession of Ukrainian lands, why shouldn’t he support their desire for autonomy? Right? Well, not so fast… As it has done every time in the past, the current Russian government is doing everything possible to at least dampen, if not douse, the rising fervor. The tools are typical: bans, threats, harassment, arrests and such. The prominent opposition politician and former Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation Boris Nemtsov tells on his Facebook page about an August 17, 2014, march for independence planned in Novosibirsk.
“I have repeatedly said that the war in Ukraine will lead to centrifugal tendencies and a growth of separatism in Russia,” Nemtsov writes. “The boomerang always comes back.”

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Potanin is a prominent and respected figure in Tomsk, one of the great Siberian cities. He was one of the founders of Tomsk University. But even in death he has had to remain on the run, so to speak. The bust pictured here was kicked out of another place where it was not wanted and then hastily moved to this kind of no man’s land at the university. Professor Golovchiner told stories of people at the university chafing about Potanin’s presence on their territory, and there have been efforts to run him out of here, too. The situation is complicated by the fact that, indeed, this is more than just a bust on a pedestal in the woods, it is actually Potanin’s resting place. Not everyone knows this, apparently, but his body is buried here, also having been unwelcome elsewhere in the past. If the current secessionist movement in Siberia gains any momentum, we can expect to hear much more about Potanin. His name will surely be held high on someone’s banner.

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