Tag Archives: Daniil Kharms

Daniil Kharms plaque and home, St. Petersburg

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As things get curiouser and curiouser in Russia, one is drawn to such figures as Daniil Kharms, generally considered the founder of the Russian absurd. He is frequently quoted in my home, which for the better part of 30 years has comprised a hydra-headed theater family – the union of an actress and a theater historian / critic / translator / chronicler / props man / stagehand / sounding board / pin cushion, whatever. You get the drift. In our rendition this is how it sounds: “There will be no show today. We’re all sick. B-a-a-a-a-r-r-r-f-f!” It’s what the actress in the house has often said, attempting to conjure a sense of humor as she goes off to perform when a hot toddy and a warm bed would be much more in line. The other guy in the house has used it for the same reasons as he headed out into sub-zero wintry conditions, coughing and choking, half dead from a cold, but headed out for the theatre anyway. Let me offer Kharms’s entire mini-play right here:

The Unsuccessful Performance
Enter Petrakov-Gorbunov who wants to say something, but burps. He starts throwing up. Exit.
Enter Pritykin.
Pritykin: Mr. Petrakov-Gorbunov was to have sa… (He throws up, runs offstage).
Enter Makarov.
Makarov: Yegor… (Makarov throws up. Runs off.)
Enter Serpukhov.
Serpukhov: So as not to… (He throws up, runs off).
Enter Kurova.
Kurova: I would… (She throws up, she runs off).
Enter a little girl.
Little Girl: Daddy said to tell you all that the theater is closed. We’re all sick.
CURTAIN

The show must go on. As it does not happen in Kharms’s wacko little gem.
Everybody has their favorite Kharms poems, plays, anecdotes, sketches, or whatever you call them. But aside from the barfing theater, my favorites are the so-called literary anecdotes, little stories and dramatic sketches that put the all-hallowed Pushkin, Gogol, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky into bizarre narratives that nobody before Kharms ever could possibly have imagined. There’s the one where Pushkin and Gogol furiously throw stones back and forth at each other, and there’s the one where Pushkin and Gogol are in some theater performance and they keep tripping on each other as they enter and exit. The stories are so precise, so funny, and so desirous of having continuation, that others have also picked up the gauntlet and written wonderfully bizarre Kharmsian tales taking down Russia’s pantheon of greats with great humor and affection. Some of the best anecdotes written by Natalya Dobrokhotova-Maikova and Vladimir Pyatnitsky begin with the line, “Gogol once dressed up as Pushkin and went to visit…” [insert various names].

Daniil Yuvachyov was born December 30, 19905, in St. Petersburg. That is, he came into a world that was topsy-turvy. The so-called Revolution of 1905 was underway and would not be put down until the child was 18 months old. Putting it simply, things didn’t get much better as time went on. There was the backlash to the revolution, there was World War I, followed by the 1917 Coup or Revolution or whatever it’s called these days, then the Russian Civil War and the clamping down on all dissent that began to rear its head again in the late 1920s. The boy’s father spent time in prison for his political beliefs, so the family knew the peculiarities of this incoming age firsthand. The young Yuvachyov began referring to himself under the pseudonym of Kharms when he was in school. Several reasons are offered to explain his choice – it may be a play on the English words “charm,” and/or “harm,” and it might also be a play on the last name of the detective Sherlock Holmes. Whatever the reasons, this unusual writer of bizarre short tales and dramatic sketches would forever after be known as Daniil Kharms.
The apartment house at 11 Mayakovsky Street in St. Petersburg – it runs from Nevsky Prospect to Kirochnaya St. – is where Kharms wrote the vast majority of his works. According to the plaque on the wall, he lived here from 1925 to 1941. He left under arrest and would not return. He was accused of spreading gloom and doom and avoided being executed only because he pretended so convincingly to be insane. That did not help him for long, however. He died of starvation while incarcerated during the German blockade of Leningrad. His death came February 2, 1942. He was 36 years of age.
Kharms was well regarded by his contemporaries in the know in the 1920s and 1930s. With a more or less likeminded group of unorthodox writers, he founded the famed OBERIU group in 1928. It did not have a great impact at the time, although when rediscovered a few decades later, it was acknowledged to be a harbinger of the absurdist literature that emerged following World War II in Europe. Kharms, like many of his unorthodox fellow writers found refuge in the 1930s by writing children’s stories. The writer and editor Samuil Marshak offered protection for many, Kharms included, at Detgiz (State Children’s Publisher) in Leningrad. It was a sign of the times that his ability to protect people like Kharms could only last a few years.
The plaque commemorating Kharms’s residence in the building  pictured here was unveiled December 22, 2005. The flattened corner of the building is graced by a portrait of Kharms created by the artists Pasha Kas and Pavel Mokich. According to blogger Nikolai Podosokorsky it was painted in 2016 as part of a citywide street art festival. The street was called Nadezhdinskaya St. when Kharms moved in, but was changed to Mayakovsky St. on January 16, 1936, when the canonization of that complex, but now comfortably-dead writer (comfortable for the authorities) was just beginning.

 

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.

 

Sasha and Natasha Pushkin mural, Moscow

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What a cool find this was yesterday! Oksana and I were driving home and she turned right off of Malaya Bronnaya Street onto Tverskoi Boulevard and, as my great grandparents probably would have described it, I fairly gasped. Staring at me with great, big brown eyes was Sasha Pushkin. As you see in this mural located on the side of the building at 25 Nikitsky Boulevard, this is Sasha, rather than Alexander, Pushkin. And, in a travesty of the truth, there is Sasha’s sweet wife Natasha – known to the world as Natalie Goncharova – staring up at her punkin’ pie, also with great, big brown eyes. Where is the ‘travesty of the truth’? In the word ‘up.’
Natalie Goncharova, whom I take the liberty of calling Natasha thanks to this wonderful cartoon image, was taller than her husband. That doesn’t stop artists from depicting a lie, however. There is a monument to the two just across the street at this very street corner, which kind of sneaks around the problem. It depicts Pushkin and Wife as being the same height, although it wriggles out of presenting an outright falsehood by showing Pushkin looking upwards at Natalie. There’s a similar sculpture of the two on the Arbat. I’ll get around to showing and telling about them some other day. But right now I’m more interested in this cartoon version of poetic love that I ran across yesterday.
Very much in the spirit of modern-day kitsch, it depicts Pushkin taking a selfie on his iPad. In the background of the “photo” is the church located across the street (not the one in the background of my photos), where the pair were married in February 1831. The internet tells me the mural was unveiled in mid-April. It would appear, according to the reliable serge-elephant blog on Live Journal that it first appeared on or around April 10.  Serge is disappointed that he cannot divulge the true name of the author of this piece. Some sources have listed the artist as a group called Nezo, but Serge insists this is not true. I find another name in another post put up by the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper. They say the mural was created by the Kaspersky Laboratory – the folks who bring us the Kaspersky anti-virus system – and, indeed, you can see the Kaspersky name at the bottom of the painting. The newspaper informs us that the artist is Roman Shipunov. I haven’t seen a response to that from Serge. According to Serge, this mural was completed in two nights’ work.

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Pushkin, as much as any other Russian cultural icon, suits the tongue-in-cheek form of a cartoon selfie. Pushkin is funny, though not in the way that Gogol is funny. Gogol is the kind of funny that makes you hurt. He causes you pain. He makes you wince. His humor reminds you of what dolts and idiots we all can be. Pushkin is – damn! this could really slip into cliche quick! but here goes: Pushkin is joy and laughter and lightheartedness and health and all those things that turn so quickly into Hallmark cards, but which are anything but in his hands. Pushkin is of the life force. And therefore he not only can withstand parody and jokes – they suit him to a “T”.
Some of the greatest and most quoted short literary works in Russian are the “jokes” about Pushkin by the absurdist Daniil Kharms. Sure, he wrote these things about Gogol and Tolstoy, too. But some of the Pushkin ones are perfect, again, because of the way Pushkin, as an artist, as a person, as an icon, can absorb and embrace them. In addition to a hilarious short dramatic sketch called “Pushkin and Gogol,” in which the two writers keep bumping into each other and falling on the ground, Kharms wrote a whole series of jokes called “Anecdotes about Pushkin.” Here are two of them:

Pushkin loved to throw rocks. No sooner would he see a rock than he would start throwing it. Sometimes he would get so carried away he would turn all red, waving his arms and throwing rocks. It was just terrible!

Pushkin had four sons and they were all idiots. One of them didn’t even know how to sit on a chair and he would constantly fall off. Pushkin himself didn’t sit on chairs very well. Sometimes it was really hilarious. They’d be sitting at the table, Pushkin at one end all falling off his chair, and, at the other end, his son. Saints alive that was funny!

For the record, Pushkin and Natalie (Pushkin and Natalie, incidentally, was the name of a famous 1979 production in St. Petersburg by Kama Ginkas that also played on the myths and misconceptions and humorous side of Pushkin’s nature) did have four children, although they had two boys (Alexander and Grigory) and two girls (Maria and Natalya). As far as I know, none had problems sitting on chairs or standing on their own two feet.
As for Natalie, she may be shrouded in more mystery than any other woman in Russian history. Did she love Pushkin? Did he love her? Did she cheat on Pushkin? (Did he cheat on her??? Duh!) Did she have an affair with the dashing French officer Georges D’Anthes, thus leading to the duel in which D’Anthes killed Pushkin one cold, early morning in the woods outside of St. Petersburg at the age of 37?
I don’t know. All I know today is that this mural of Sasha and Natasha is a marvelous, wonderful kick. Leave it to Pushkin to lift your spirits when you need a shot of merriment.

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