Tag Archives: Catherine the Great

Alexander Radishchev House, Tomsk

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There are few things I love more than facts that cannot be proved. What could be more lifelike? Anyway, the picture you see above shows the so-called Radishchev House in Tomsk. Legend, and some documents, apparently, have it that the prominent writer, economist, lawyer and philosopher Alexander Radishchev – the author of the incendiary travel notes Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow – spent time here on his way to Siberian exile in 1791. Some say he actually stopped at another building, but, be that as it may, it is this structure on today’s Bakunin Street (Yefremovsky Street when Radishchev was or was not here) that bears the plaque and bears the name of the great man in the hearts and minds of this city’s people. If you love Russian culture as I do, surely you have a similar soft spot in your heart for Radischev. He was one of the first Russians to openly and publicly and pointedly stand up and say, “Wait a minute! All is not quite what you say it is!” For that Catherine the Great – about whom I’ve written earlier in this blog – arrested the man, burnt his famous book, and sent him to Siberia. So much for standing up and speaking the truth in Russia. His crime was to open his eyes and see that the splendor of St. Petersburg and Moscow were not even vaguely matched in the dirty, rundown, Godforsaken, poverty-stricken, uneducated villages and towns that lie between those two great cities. Radischev had the ingenious idea of getting into a carriage, making the trip, and writing about what he encountered. Naturally, since the actual state of affairs did not match the version of reality that the Empress chose to believe, and insisted on foisting on her subjects, the author had to be dealt with. Not quite “off with his head!” but six years “out of sight and out of mind” in the Siberian town of Ilimsk from 1791 to 1797. If the prevailing stories of the days spent in transit in Tomsk are true, Radishchev occupied a room or rooms on the low, ground floor of this building. According to Tomsk historian and architect Pavel Rachkovsky, only this floor today remains more or less untouched from the late 18th century. The church that rises behind the building in the background was not there in Radishchev’s times.

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If you really want to get a feel for what Tomsk might have looked like when Radishchev was passing through, you will come at the structure in question from the south side, heading up from the north bank of the small Ushaika River. Bakunin Street – ulitsa Bakunina in Russian – provides an extraordinary glimpse into the past. It is still a rolling, bumpy, uneven cobbled road lined by many old, wooden buildings. Only the occasional Honda or Hyundai, or a pedestrian in a parka on a chilly, windy day, suggests we have not traveled back to the 19th century, if not the 18th. In the sequence of shots below, you see the Radishchev House looming in the distance as we make our way up the road. For the record, Radishchev’s further fate was not particularly happy. He was returned to St. Petersburg in 1797 by Catherine’s successor and much unloved son, Pavel the First, and was given the opportunity to try to institute several legal reforms. Pavel’s position was always tenuous, however, and he was assassinated in 1801. Radishchev, perhaps sensing that the noose figuratively was about to be thrown around his neck again, committed suicide in 1802.

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Catherine the Great’s “Hotel Palace,” Moscow

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This structure is officially called the Petrov Way Palace, as in way station. It was built at the request of Yekaterina II, whom we know better as Catherine the Great. Legend has it, and I usually prefer legend over dry, misleading facts, that Cath wanted to have a place to powder her nose and fluff up her dress before making her grand entrance into Moscow after long, grueling trips from St. Petersburg. The structure’s modern address is Leningradsky Prospekt, 40, which, as you may discern, is on the direct road leading from Moscow to St. Petersburg (Leningrad) and back. At the end of the 18th century, when the palace was built by architect Matvei Kazakov, this was outside of Moscow proper. These days it is surrounded by roads and modern high rises just down the pike. And these days the palace once again houses a hotel and spa for those willing to pay the price of royal luxury.

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If you are wondering why I am posting  about a Russian tsar on this art-inspired site, you don’t know the work of my longtime friend and colleague Lurana Donnels O’Malley, the West’s leading scholar on the playwright Catherine the Great, author of The Dramatic Works of Catherine the Great, and editor/translator of Two Comedies by Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia. (I had the pleasure of editing the latter book for the now-defunct Russian Theatre Archive series.) Catherine wrote some 14 plays, including dramas, historical plays and satirical comedies, and about nine librettos for operettas. This made her not only the first head of state, but also the first woman, to engage in literary activity in Russia. There is evidence that the Empress had help in her writing from several trusted assistants (O’Malley singles out Ivan Elagin, Alexander Khrapovitsky and Grigory Kozitsky), and this would make sense since her Russian, though quite good, was not native. She, of course, was born and grew up in Prussia, coming to Russia as a young woman to marry the future Tsar Peter III, for whom this palace is named. Scant honor, one must say, since Catherine helped assassinate Peter in order to become Empress outright.

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Every time I drive by Catherine’s way station on my way to or from Sheremetyevo airport, I can’t help but wonder if she engaged in some of her literary activity while holed up briefly in this small haven. Having not yet arrived in the Kremlin (or just freed of its intrigues, if she was on her way back to St. Petersburg), and thus not swamped with important government duties, might she have taken the leisurely opportunity here to write a scene or two for her plays? Or might she have dashed off here some of those famous letters she wrote to Voltaire? They make for intriguing questions as you race past this beautiful structure in the flow of traffic.

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