Tag Archives: Fyodor Dostoevsky

Fyodor Dostoevsky Bust, Wiesbaden, Germany

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Today we break the rules a bit, always an occasion for celebration. This is my 270th entry on this site and it will be the first time I will write about photos taken by another. It has always been my rule to use only photos that I take of places I have been myself and seen with my own eyes. But when my wife Oksana Mysina told me she was going to be performing on tour in Wiesbaden with her theater company, all the little rules in my head broke down. Wiesbaden! Dostoevsky was in Wiesbaden! Dostoevsky lost “all his money” (or so they say) in Wiesbaden! Dostoevsky wrote his novel The Gambler about the last time he ever played there, thus getting out from under a terrible contract with a nasty publisher, while finding a good wife and, even, perhaps, some happiness, into the bargain. Wiesbaden! Oksana, my own wife, almost my own flesh and blood, would be right there at the casino (her hotel and theater were located right across the street from it)! How could I justify not taking advantage of this? I could not. And I would not. That became even clearer when I did some armchair research and learned that a bust of Dostoevsky by the Russian emigre sculptor Gavriil (a/k/a Gabriel) Glikman was erected right there beside the casino on February 3, 1997. As it happened, Oksana’s hotel was located directly across the street from the bust – Oksana could just walk out the door, cross the street, and spend time with Fyodor Mikhailovich, if she chose.
Of course, to put this into perspective, you have to know a little about Oksana, whose most famous performance (running now for 22 years) is a one-woman show based on the character of Katerina Ivanovna (Marmeladov’s wife) from Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment. Staged by the great Kama Ginkas in 1994, K.I. from ‘Crime’ is one of the key landmarks of Russian theater of the last three decades, and it continues to play to full houses today. As such, there are not many on this planet who have spent more time in an intimate, artistic embrace with the great writer than Oksana. Figure that my friend Oliver Ready recently spent a couple of years translating Crime and Punishment for Penguin books. Okay, a couple of years of intimacy. Oksana has been inside Dostoevsky’s head, and has carried him around in hers, for over 22 years… Shall we talk about accomplishments?
In fact, while Oksana was walking around the bust photographing it, she called Ginkas on the phone to tell him where she was. As such, the photos you see here bring together Ginkas, Oksana and Dostoevsky all in a single breath or two. Moments like that are what give life its sheen, you know.

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A bit about the bust itself. Gavriil Glikman created it in 1994 as you can see by the inscription on the back of the neck in the photo immediately above. The plaque on the front of the pedestal indicates that Glikman gifted the sculpture to the casino in 1996, which may well be true. But it would appear that the actual installation and unveiling of the bust took place on February 3, 1997. Glikman is an interesting figure. He was born in in 1913 in the Vitebsk region (that is, not far from Marc Chagall’s home turf), and Russian Wikipedia tells us that, as a child, he would go to Chagall’s workshop in Vitebsk and watch the great painter work. When he was in his ‘teens his family moved to Leningrad, which is where he spent the greater part of his life. Known primarily as a sculptor, many of his closest friends – Dmitry Shostakovich, Yevgeny Mravinsky – knew that he also painted. However, because his personal style did not fit with the demands of Soviet art, he rarely if ever showed this work. We are told he made an attempt to exhibit his paintings in 1968 and ran into trouble serious enough that his career was threatened. Glikman emigrated to Germany in 1980, settling in Munich in 1982. He lived in Munich until his death in 2003.
The story of how exactly this bust ended up where it did has eluded me. Why 1997? (The 225 years since Dostoevsky’s birth mentioned on the plaque seems a kind of far-fetched date to me.) Why Wiesbaden (the fact Dostoevsky lost tons of money here hardly seems the proper reason to commemorate the great writer)? One Russian blog site puts forth the conjecture that Glikman ran up a bigger bill than he could pay to the casino and the two sides agreed to write the debt off for a sculpture in exchange. It’s an attractive explanation, but I see absolutely no corroboration anywhere in any other sources. One Russian-language travel site suggests that a visit to Wiesbaden by Mikhail Gorbachev in the mid-1990s is the impulse that set things going. A journalist who had been with Gorbachev told Glikman about Dostoevsky’s Wiesbaden connections, etc. That sounds thin and unconvincing – at least on the level that the story is told. Would Glikman, who had painted and sculpted Dostoevsky many times before, really not have known about the Weisbaden connection?
Whatever the backstory may be, the bust is a powerful piece of work. It is incredibly, I would say, aggressively, and, of course, entirely purposefully, crude. Bits and pieces of face, along with bits and pieces of bronze, pile up in the wrong places, out of line, and out of whack. Eyes are crooked, as is the nose and mouth. The ears are big chunks slapped on the side of the head. The haircut is almost humorous to me, rather like Dostoevsky’s mother put a bowl over his head and cut off everything that stuck out below it. All taken together this image epitomizes the power of character, a vessel of suffering and deep-seated intelligence. It all adds up to Dostoevsky as we rather expect he was.
One thing surprises me greatly, however. Look at the second photo below, particularly, and you will see how beautifully and how naturally this Dostoevsky melts into the surrounding ecology, the trees, the leaves, the bushes, the sky. Dostoevsky, in this setting, is just another element of nature. And that is what is so unexpected. This is a writer who rarely wasted his powers of description or observation on nature. Dostoevsky never gives us those convoluted, head-spinning descriptions of fields and forests that Tolstoy and Turgenev are so famous for. Dostoevsky is always rummaging around in the heads of his characters (rather like Oksana rummages around inside his in order to play K.I. from ‘Crime’). He never – or almost never – has the time or inclination to notice flowers blooming or trees growing. There is, of course, that famous exception in The Brothers Karamazov where Ivan exclaims to his brother Alyosha, “Though I may not believe in the order of the universe, yet I love the sticky little leaves as they open in spring. I love the blue sky…” Konstantin Mochulsky, in Dostoevsky: His Life and Work, wrote that, “Leaves, ‘little sticky green leaves,’ are a favorite symbol of Dostoevsky’s. For him all the beauty of God’s world is contained in this humble image. A little green leaf is to his heroes the most irrefutable proof of the existence of God and the coming transfiguration.” But you see how it works in Dostoevsky – he comes back to this one image, never feeling the need to expand it. In fact, even in The Karamazovs he trots out his beloved sticky, green leaves, jumps to a generic declaration of love for the blue sky, and then leaps back into people, their deeds and what their enigmatic hearts hold.
So it is that the image of Dostoevsky blending so organically and naturally into the green world around him in the park behind the casino at Wiesbaden is a revelation. For Dostoevsky, indeed, was a work of nature himself. A huge, powerful, moving, exciting, irritating, thrilling piece of nature. Look how beautifully he blends in with the flowers – the flowers! – in the last photo below. He stands virtually unseen at the far right and there is something wonderful and right in that. Then watch the video at the end that Oksana made so I could feel as though I had actually been there. Instinctively (they have been inside each others’ heads for over 22 years!) she spins around him, ending by spiraling up and directing our sight at the sticky green leaves of a tree canopy above, and on through them into the blue sky that Dostoevsky claimed so to love.
In short, don’t tell me I haven’t been here! Thank you, Oksana, for the virtual trip.

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Mikhail Lomonosov statue, Muzeon Park, Moscow

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I got a kick yesterday reading this post on the Facebook page of director Philipp Grigorian: “I am incapable of grasping the concept of this damned ‘muzeon.’ I think it’s hellacious trash. What the frig is this Lomonosov standing here for, not on a granite pedestal in the center of a park named for him, but in the mud under some bush, next to some damn deer made out of tubing????” He accompanied his mini-rant with two photos – Lomonosov in the mud and the tube-made deer standing nearby.
You see, just a few weeks ago I myself walked through this place called Muzeon and snapped a few photos myself, including these of Lomonosov (I passed on the deer). I thought I’d probably lay them away for some rainy day when I’d have nothing else to write about, but Grigorian made me want to come back to them right now – not to take issue with him, or even to agree with him, but just because these carelessly snapped shots all of a sudden took on a certain real-time urgency.
Muzeon is the outdoor sculpture park behind the House of Artists located on Krymsky Val in Moscow. It is essentially a graveyard for sculptures and monuments. There’s a creepy, well-made one of Stalin here, and lots of hack-jobs of Lenin. In these pages I have written about several somewhat more interesting pieces that can be found here – Maxim Gorky, Alexander Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov and maybe another one or two. You can chase those down on this blog spot.
But Philipp is right, of course. There is a weirdness to this place. It makes no sense. Many of the abandoned old monuments – ones to Brezhnev and his ilk – stand in lines like bad tombstones. I wrote about a marble Pushkin here that is bizarrely stuck in a corner between two sidewalks coming together. When I photographed it, its feet were covered in dirt – just a royal mess. The better, more intriguing pieces, like this Lomonosov, are sometimes fortunate to be outside of a graveyard grid. But Grigorian’s question is the first that comes to mind for anyone passing through – what the hell is this doing here? Where was it before? Why isn’t it there now? Is this really the best place they could find for this?

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This sculpture of Russia’s “first genius” – a mathematician, astronomer, chemist, poet, playwright and more – was made by Leonid Baranov (born 1943). Baranov is a successful sculptor who specializes in work honoring famous individuals. He created a likeness of Peter the Great that stands in Amsterdam (where Peter went to learn the craft of shipbuilding), and he is the author of a monument to Fyodor Dostoevsky that stands in Baden-Baden (where Dostoevsky loved to gamble.). The Lomonosov sculpture we see here is actually a duplicate of an original which was created in 1980 for the Lomonosov Theater in Arkhangelsk, near the great man’s birthplace.
To what I fear will be the chagrin of Philipp Grigorian, this duplicate was forged a second time from the original cast in 1991 specially in order to stand here in the Muzeon Park. That would explain why it stands outside the “gravestone rows” – it’s not a salvage job, but rather a purposeful choice on someone’s part.
I rather like the piece. It has a comics-like feel while also doing honor to historical reality. The nice rufflery (if that’s not a word it should be) on the shirt corresponds pleasantly to the layers of curls in Mikhail’s presumably powdered wig. The gaze, even through two blank orbs, is specific and focused. The facial expression is blank enough for us to read what we want into it, but clear enough to offer a sense of knowing and self-value. The chubby cheeks fit nicely with the low, but long, forehead, the broad, rolling shoulders and the comfortably protruding belly. Also of interest to me is the tiny book in Lomonosov’s left hand, and the large, strong, outstretched right hand that many passersby evidently cannot pass without giving a good shake. I did it myself and I swear Lomonosov returned back a nice, firm, gentlemanly shake.

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Dickens and Dostoevsky meeting place – NOT! – London

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Oh, watch out for those slippery vermin – thieves, crooks and shysters! This pub at 51-52 Chandos Place in London knows of what it speaks. Over the 500 years of its “chequered” existence, as the sign outside the entrance puts it, it has known all manners of greatness and perfidy. Its original owner was a mistress of the Duke of Buckingham. It was a thieves’ den, the original Hole in the Wall. And it was a place frequented by Charles Dickens.
What has Fyodor Dostoevsky to do with this? Well, nothing, actually. Nothing at all. Nothing of any kind. Unless you are inclined to be a fan of fantasy and hoaxes. And even then, I am the one making up this possible connection in a place that in no way connects Dickens to Dostoevsky. Is that clear?
Let me explain.
A few years ago a juicy story about a meeting between Dickens and Dostoevsky began making the rounds. It first appeared in 2002 in a prestigious publication dedicated to the study of Charles Dickens. It was picked up and printed in a Dickens biography in 2011 and then in other sources. In short, this unknown bit of history – an actual encounter between the great English and Russian writers – became quite the literary sensation. It came with some fun details, including Dostoevsky’s specific impressions of Dickens, and how could we not love it? I mean, Dostoevsky was quite the Dickens fan, reading him at length during his period in exile and after. Scholars have written reams about the connections between the two writers, ranging from the general of N.M. Lary’s Dostoevsky and Dickens: A Study of Literary Influence) and Irina Gredina‘s essay, “Dickens’s Influence upon Dostoevsky, 1860-1870; or, One Nineteenth-Century Master’s Assimilation of Another’s Manner and Vision” to the specifics of Allegra Wozniak‘s paper “Setting as Character in Dickens and Dostoevsky.” A brief, blog-like post on the Russia Beyond the Headlines website stacks up a long line of the similarities in the two writers’ works for those with short attention spans.
I remember the hullabaloo surrounding the unmasking of the hoax several years ago and was reminded of it when doing some armchair research before my latest sojourn to one of my favorite places on earth, London Town.
So, when I happened upon this pub, with its ghostly image of Dickens, a menu featuring “Great Eggspectations,” and the surely legitimate claim that the great writer used to hang out here – I began to let my imagination flow. In fact, Dostoevsky was already on my mind, for I was then on my way to Haymarket, surely no more than a kilometer from here, in order to see what was left of Dostoevsky’s visits there in 1862. (I wrote about that a week or two ago here in this space.) And I began to think. If, indeed, the two had met – although they did not – it could have been right here, just as easily as it was not in Dickens’ publisher’s office, as was claimed by the original hoaxter in 2002. After all, if it didn’t happen, and it didn’t, it might as well have not happened here, where it did not, as any other place. It would make sense. You could probably put the two men in this general area in 1862 – Dostoevsky hanging out at Haymarket, escaping in disgust (or lust) and haggardly finding his way to this little pub, where a gloomy Dickens had just plopped down in a chair at the bar…

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We’re not talking “real” here, folks. We’re talking about how fun it is to walk the streets of a city like London and to encounter your heroes as they come to you – by chance, by thought, by imagination.
I peered in the window (see the photo up top) at the Dickens caricature and it all seemed like a dream. It was difficult to determine what was mirage and what was real. For example, the most realistic segment of that first image is actually a reflection – the stately building with the wrought iron fence in front of it. That appears reflected in the window of the Marquis Pub, right next to the warning, “Watch out for thieves, nasty, slippery vermin.” (See the second photo in the block below.) Suddenly everything I was experiencing seemed unreal, and the more unreal it was, the more it seemed like it just might be if only it really wanted to. That’s when a smile came across my face and I recalled in earnest the name of Stephanie Harvey, and her account of Dickens meeting Dostoevsky.
I won’t go into detail about Stephanie or her many other guises – all pseudonyms for one A.D. Harvey (he used at least eight pseudonyms in order to plant and nurture the hoax about the D-D meeting.) You can read the first and most substantial debunking of the myth in the Times Literary Supplement.  You can read Harvey’s own story, including his justification for playing the dastardly trick, in an interesting interview article in The Guardian. From there, if you’re interested, you can branch out and find all the details you crave.
You can think what you want about Harvey and his deed. I, personally, can’t get too worked up over it. Maybe because I have nothing invested in it. Maybe because I love a good joke and a well-constructed myth. Maybe because I’m so used to the world throwing all kinds of nonsense at us every minute of every day, and here, finally, was some interesting and entertaining nonsense that lacked blood, hostility and humiliation. I will say this, were it not for A.D. Harvey, I would never have enjoyed my 15 minutes wandering around the Marquis Pub nearly as much as I did with his crazy concoction rattling around in my head. The upshot for me was this: For 15 minutes outside the Marquis, Dostoevsky and Dickens, did, in fact, meet. In my head. They were there together. And I was there to witness it. No need to print that in any biographies. Scholars, with collars too tight, may frown as they will. Readers, who participate in little miracles like this all the time, will join me smiling, I think. Take a look around these photos. You may see some ghosts.

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Literature in the metro, Moscow

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One encounters the tool of literature in the Moscow metro relatively frequently. Even when it’s not used as a club, you come away feeling as though someone is trying really hard to make an impression on you.
I immediately think of two examples of this more benign, latter, approach that I encountered in recent years. I would guess one occurred 4 or 5 years ago – this was on the circle line – the other 3 or 4 years ago, on the light blue, Filyovskaya line.
In the former case, almost every single car traveling the circle line for a month or more was completely wallpapered with children’s poetry and colorful kid-like drawings. Stepping into a car on that line at that time felt like stepping into the hermetic set of a children’s theater show. As one might imagine, there were a lot of poems by Alexander Pushkin and the great fabulist Ivan Krylov, but there were also excerpts of short stories by various writers from Pushkin’s time up to the middle of the 20th century. I couldn’t possibly remember them all, and I don’t think there were any contemporary authors, but the scope of writers included was impressive.
This was actually the second time I had seen the space of the metro turned into a platform for literature. The first incident, maybe a year before that, was when official stickers of mostly patriotic poetry were pasted above the windows and doors of the metro cars – this method proved to be more long-lasting, for we still come upon it today, as can be seen in the photo following immediately below – which I took yesterday. It shows a portrait of the Slavophile essayist and poet Ivan Aksakov next to a phrase he once wrote:
If a hue and cry arises about Russia’s lust for power and lust for expansionism, you should know that some Western European regime is preparing a most conscienceless seizure of someone else’s territory.”
Frankly, as often as I have seen this kind of crude utilitarianism in my 28 years in Moscow, I continue to be astonished when I encounter it. It reaches the kind of low-blow propaganda – rather on the level one hears in the U.S. these days from, say, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz or Sarah Palin and their ilk – that is so blatant and transparent, that you can’t believe anyone would actually resort to it. For the record, this particular quote is offered up as part of a program called Russia, My History, which is now underway at the Historical Park of the All-National Exhibition of Economic Achievements.
But, back now to that literary campaign I encountered on the Filyovskaya Line.  (Unfortunately, I did not get photos of it or of the kids’ literary paradise on the circle line – I was not yet doing this blog; it didn’t occur to me to photograph them.) This one was extremely short-lived. In fact, I saw it just once, even though I then traveled that line with some regularity. I don’t know if it was just a try-out on a single train, or if it was a larger program that was abandoned quickly, but it was gone virtually as soon as it began. It was also my favorite of them all. You see, the interior of every car in the train I rode was painted deep red, and every free centimeter of space was covered in photographs of Vladimir Mayakovsky. There were all manners of photos of him reciting poetry, making drawings, talking to friends, reading books, sitting in chairs, standing at podiums. You name it, it was there. I, Nikolai Erdman’s biographer, was especially gratified when I noticed right before my face, a photo of Mayakovsky standing next to Vsevelod Meyerhold and Erdman. Other photos had him with other greats – Boris Pasternak, Dmitry Shostakovich, Sergei Eisenstein – and it was then, even then, right there in that metro car, that I began to wonder seriously about this curious exhibit. If you think about it, every individual I mention here was, to one extent or another, at serious odds with the Soviet cause – at least at some point in their lives. Meyerhold was executed. Erdman and Pasternak’s literary output was seriously curtailed. Shostakovich and Eisenstein found themselves doing the bidding of the state against their will. At least to anyone who knew, there was something downright seditious about this whole thing, which, of course, made it especially delicious. What a shame I never saw it again, nor had the opportunity to photograph it…

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Far more common, of course, is the use of art to buck up the patriotism of the lumpen proletariat. The Aksakov quote, appearing as Russia continues to pursue military objectives in Syria and Ukraine, is, perhaps, extreme. But I was not the least surprised to see patriotic, war-themed poems by Mikhail Lermontov suddenly appear in metro cars shortly after Russia went to war with Ukraine. The last photo above and the three following were all taken in June 2014. They show a series of Lermontov’s war poems plastered just above the eye-level of any standing passenger, though banked conveniently to point them toward anyone seated as well. (One photo shows a woman in a red jacket looking at a biographical text about Lermontov affixed next to the door.) The poem pictured in the last photo below reads,

And he said, his eyes a-flashing,
“Men! Isn’t Moscow behind us?
     Then let’s die near Moscow,
As our brothers died!”
And we promised to die
And we kept our oath of honor
     During the Battle of Borodino.

Perhaps my favorite photo is the one immediately above. Click on it to enlarge it and then look it over well. That’s what a subway car in a time of “petty,” “dirty” wars looks like.
Finally, there is the photo I offer at the top. It was taken in May of 2013, before this blog began, although I was apparently beginning to suspect I might one day need photos like this. A whole series of texts bearing patriotically religious messages went up over metro escalators at this time. I remember seeing quotes from Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Leo Tolstoy, in addition to the one I photographed of Fyodor Dostoevsky proclaiming, “Christianity is the Russian land’s only refuge from all of its evils.”
I don’t recall now if the Solzhenitsyn and Tolstoy quotes were as provocative (or as double-edged) as this one, but this clearly made me want to save it for posterity.
There is something of the train wreck in these things. Something lurid, distasteful, obnoxious and impossible to ignore. The problem is that when art is turned into a weapon it can only be a weapon. There is no room then left for art.

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Dostoevsky at Haymarket, London

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I have a soft spot for things that are that aren’t. To wit, Fyodor Dostoevsky and the Haymarket district in London. Whatever Dostoevsky saw here in the first half of July, 1862, is gone, utterly gone, now. Here is a little of what he writes in his essay, “Winter Notes on Summer Impressions”:
Anyone who has been to London has probably visited Haymarket at least once at night. This is a district, where, at night, thousands of prostitutes crowd around on a few streets. The streets are illuminated by gas streams, of which we [Russians] have no conception. Fine coffee houses decked with mirrors and gold are to be found at every step. There are mobs here and there are havens. It’s even rather frightening to enter this mob. And it is strangely composed. There are old woman and there are beauties who will stop you in your tracks. Nowhere in the world is there such a beautiful type of woman as the Englishwoman. Everyone here pushes through these dense, crowded streets with difficulty. The crowd cannot be contained on sidewalks, and it spills over into the street. This mob hungers for spoils and throws itself at the first comer with shameless cynicism. Here you will see shiny and expensive clothes, tattered rags, and a sharp difference in ages, all jumbled together. The drunken tramp and the privileged rich man both come here and tromp through this horrible mob. You can hear the din of curses, quarreling, solicitations and the quiet whisper of the still-timid beauty. And sometimes what a beauty it is! Truly keepsake faces [Dostoevsky writes the word “keepsake” in Cyrillic in his Russian text]. I recall going into a casino one time. Music blared, people danced, there was an abyss of humanity crammed in there. The decoration was magnificent. But the grim nature of the British never leaves them even when they are enjoying themselves: they are serious, even gloomy, as they dance, as if each step they dance is done so out of obligation…”
I can’t help but point to the phrase, “I recall going into a casino one time.” The implication is that Dostoevsky came here more than once, although he was in London just for eight days, having arrived in the city July 9, 1862. The place obviously made an impression on him, a very strong one, whether good or bad. It is often written that Dostoevsky was horrified by Haymarket, by the goings-on there, and by London in general. And it is clear from this text that some things did horrify him. But it is just as clear that he was thrilled by much as well – not the least of which was female beauty. He also seemed well capable of admiring finely-appointed interiors, whether it be coffee houses or dance halls. Of course, let us not forget that beauty, particularly female beauty, was a test for Dostoevsky, or, at least, for some of his most complex characters. Which leads me to quote this little bit from Sarah J. Young’s nice blog on the topic of Dostoevsky in London: “[Dostoevsky] seems more sorrowful than shocked at the sight of ‘mothers who were bringing their young daughters into the business [of prostitution]. Little girls around twelve years of age take you by the hand and ask you to go with them’. Prostitution becomes a significant theme in the works Dostoevsky wrote in the next few years, in particular Notes from Underground and Crime and Punishment, and it seems quite likely that what he had seen at the Haymarket had some influence on that.”
One is intrigued (or amused) at Dostoevsky’s declaration that he heard the “din of curses” on the streets of Haymarket, when, as Kyril FitzLyon writes in the introduction to his translation of “Winter Notes,” the great Russian writer did not know English. “It is clear, of course,” the scholar writes, “that Dostoevsky did not form his impressions of England unaided. A week’s stay in London could not have either supplied him with the necessary material or given him a sufficient insight into the British character, particularly as he knew no English. (He admits to his ignorance of the language in one passage of the book, yet in another he claims to base certain of his conclusions on English newspaper reports.)
Then there is Dostoevsky’s curious use of the English “keepsake” in reference to unforgettably beautiful English women. This sounds like one of those instances of a writer picking up a local word somewhere, understanding it as best he could, and sticking it into a piece of his prose in order to give it a feel of authenticity. I’m not criticizing him for doing it, I like the phrase. But I do think it is another small detail that suggests Dostoevsky was out of place as he wandered the streets of London.

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Young also talks about two other locations that Dostoevsky probably visited – Whitechapel and the famous Crystal Palace (which makes a substantial appearance in Notes from Underground). The Crystal Palace was a “futuristic” structure of iron and glass built in Hyde Park for the Great Exhibition of 1851, and moved in 1854 to Sydenham Hill, which is where Dostoevsky would have encountered it. (Pyotr Tchaikovsky was also a visitor.) “The Crystal Palace epitomizes the ‘proud and dismal spirit’ (p. 42) of materialism, and Dostoevsky perceives this same spirit in the two other places he describes: the Haymarket and Whitechapel,” writes Young. I briefly bring the Crystal Palace into this discussion because of a wonderful bit of serendipity that visited me when I, myself, was in the Haymarket district. I happened to look up and see that a bus passing me by was headed for, of all places, the Crystal Palace neighborhood, which is where the relocated Crystal Palace stood until it burned down in 1936. (See first photo immediately following.) In a place that, as I say, has very little left to connect a visitor to what Dostoevsky would have encountered, this provided an extra little tweak of connection. If you’re interested in more about Dostoevsky and the Crystal Palace, I suggest you see another of Sarah J. Young’s blogs on that precise topic.
Some of the buildings represented in my photos would probably have been standing when Dostoevsky was there. Take a look at the top photo above, for example. That lion with frame (with plaque missing) below the word “Haymarket” surely would have been witnesses to the venerable, surely dazzled, if not befuddled, Dostoevsky making his rounds here. There are still coffee shops and cafes here, which, while having absolutely nothing to do with anything that would have been here 150 years ago, do indicate that the tradition of informal eateries in this location remains.
I almost chose not to come here and photograph because my advance research suggested so unequivocally that today’s Haymarket and the Haymarket of the 1860s are virtually two different places. Fortunately, however, I overcame my instinct to save myself the time and labor. In part because of the almost magical Crystal Palace bus, in part because of the few walls and decorations that surely remain from that time, and in part because of the way that places and our thoughts about them are capable of acquiring unexpected meaning and substance, this turned out to be a memorable visit. Dostoevsky is long gone from this place. But in some intangible way I brought him back with my thoughts, jumbled and vague as they were. It was a genuine encounter.

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Russian Literature on Crete, Greece

Crete Bookstore2 Crete Bookstore6Yes, I just happened to be wandering the tiny streets and alleyways of Chania, Crete, Greece, last week, and there he was in all his glory: Ivan Turgenev, or, as the Greeks – Nikos Kazantzakis and Alexandros Papadiamandis among them – would know him: Ιβάν Τουργκένιεφ.
I must admit, I did not recognize the name first, although anyone knowing Russian might be expected to do so relatively quickly, seeing as how written Russian, thanks to efforts of the monks Cyril (Kirill) and Methodius in the 9th century, is built on the basis of the Greek alphabet. But, no, it wasn’t the name that caught my eye: It was the photo of Turgenev, a fairly well-known image, that leaped at me through the window of the Mikro Karavi  (Μικρό Καράβι) bookstore at 59 Daskalogianni Street in the Old City of Chania (that’s pronounced khan-YA). Was this a moment of penance for my having slighted Turgenev a month or so ago in this space? Perhaps. But it is a fact that I reacted to Turgenev’s handsome, cultured and rather melancholy visage as if I had just run across an old friend. I can’t imagine seeing a book by Turgenev displayed prominently in the window of an American bookstore. Let’s not even talk about how long you might have to hunt to find this proverbial American bookstore… It was a jolt of joy.
In any case, Turgenev provided the magnet that made me put the day’s walk on hold for 15 minutes. My wife Oksana and I were headed for the seashore, located about two minutes ahead of us, but I simply could not pass Turgenev by that easily. And when I started to look around I was thrilled to see how prominent the Russians were at this lovely, clean, well-lighted place of a bookshop. Two literary maps on the windows put Leon Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Anton Chekhov, Vladimir Nabakov, Alexander Pushkin and Nikolai Gogol right there in the midst of Haruki Murakami, Jack Kerouac, Ismail Kadare, Amos Oz and many others. But this little ship of books (for that is what mikro karavi means) had more pleasures waiting for me inside, not the least of which was the huge board of writers’ names that hangs behind the cash register. On it, Dostoevsky’s name is matched in size only by those of Euripides, Jorge Luis Borges, Miguel de Cervantes and Omiros (whom you may know better as Homer). A quick search of the shelves – because I’ll admit, the call of the sea was growing stronger – led me to the letter ‘T’ where I found two volumes by Tolstoy (War and Peace and Resurrection) and another by Turgenev (Fathers and Sons). You can see those in the second-to-last photo below.

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There is a good reason why Russian literature would occupy a place of honor not only in Greece, but on Crete specifically, and his name is Nikos Kazantzakis. He was born in the city of Heraklion on Crete, perhaps an hour’s drive to the east of Chania. This was before Crete was part of Greece proper, but that is beyond the pale of my thoughts today. The fact remains that Kazantzakis, one of the great Greek writers, the author of Zorba the Greek, The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, and The Last Temptation of Christ, was deeply affected by Russian culture and literature. One nice little detail that connects Kazantzakis to Chania is that his grave lies near the Chania Gate of the wall surrounding Heraklion. The church refused to allow him to be buried in the city cemetery. Like Leo Tolstoy, who was excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox Church, Kazantzakis had been too much a free-thinker to suit the rigid requirements of the Greek Orthodox Church. According to a wonderful chronology of Kazantzakis’s life, published in The Selected Letters of Nikos Kazantzakis, in October of 1915, Kazantzakis, very much under the influence of Tolstoy’s writings, “decides that religion is more important than literature and vows to begin where Tolstoy left off.”
Kazantzakis had a serious flirtation with Russian culture, and Soviet politics, throughout the 1920s and early 1930s. He traveled to the Soviet Union at least four times between 1925 and 1929 (living and traveling there for a solid 18 months from 1927 to 1929), and he left behind many writings about his experiences. Some were for lectures that he delivered around the world, others were for an Athenian newspaper paying him to send reports, and still others were far more in-depth. Perhaps the peak of Kazantzakis’s involvement with Russian literature came in 1930 when he wrote a two-volume history of the topic.
At one point Kazantzakis had thoughts of settling in the Soviet Union for good. He was witness to a time of turmoil and difficulty. A convinced Communist, he could not have known about the deadly fire that would engulf the next decade and a half in the Soviet Union, but it’s quite clear he was a perceptive observer. On November 4, 1927, he wrote to his future wife Eleni Samiou, “The tempo of Russian life has changed – it’s different from 1925. The official rhythm of life is quieter now; there is a certain embourgeoisement. The arrivistes have arrived and do not budge; the women have begun to descend again to their lowest cravings; the men are tired. Fortunately, the great internal struggle between Trotsky and Stalin lends new life and fire to the Russian soul. This is a critical moment for Russia; everyone expects the Europeans to start a war against them, and every day a horde of women and men queue up at the stores to get an extra supply of flour.”
Thus it is that we now smile as we read Kazantzakis’s references to Moscow as “the red Bethlehem” (as he wrote to Elli Lambridi on the morning of the 10th anniversary of the Revolution). By the end of World War II he had abandoned Communism, though not his leftist beliefs.
Not surprisingly, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky probably had the biggest influence on Kazantzakis of all the Russian writers. He wrote a chapter called “Tolstoy and Dostoevsky” in his book What I Saw in Russia. But he was also moved by the writings of Lev Shestov, the incisive Russian-Jewish philosopher and religious thinker, and Lewis Owens, in his book Creative Destruction: Nikos Kazantzakis and the Literature of Responsibility, devotes an entire chapter to Kazantzakis’s ties to the work of the prominent philosopher Nikolai Berdyayev (usually known as Nicholas Berdyaev in the West). This chapter also notes that Kazantzakis became a close friend of the unique emigre Russian writer Alexei Remizov. In fact, the two were so in synch, that, as we are told, “they never quarreled.” It is interesting to consider and ponder these affinities and friendships, as Shestov, Berdyaev and Remizov were among those who “escaped” the Soviet experiment for the safety of Europe, while their friend Kazantzakis was still very much enthralled with the possibilities of the nation they had given up on and abandoned.

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Ginkas’s White Room 2, Moscow

Click on photos to enlarge.

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It was bound to happen sooner or later. At some point I was going to have reason to write about the same place a second time. I’m sure I will even come back to some places a third time – maybe even this one. This is a return to Kama Ginkas’s White Room at the Moscow Young Spectator Theater, located at 8 Mamonovsky Lane. I wrote about it once already, you can read that entry here. That was just nine months ago and I had no idea – maybe no one did – that the sad story I told then was about to come to an end. In brief, it is this: Kama Ginkas staged a historical production called We Play Crime, based on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment in this small building in 1991. The idea at the time was that Ginkas would use this little affiliate attached in spirit, but not in fact, to the Young Spectator Theater for many of his future works. But evil stepped in. An unscrupulous manager at the theater somehow irreversibly leased the little building away for 24 years to some business concern. Ginkas’s brilliant use of the space in that 1991 show could not be repeated or built upon, at least not in the same space. He lost access to this place that suited his art and vision so well. Now, however, this little building has been returned to the ownership of the theater and Ginkas wasted no time putting it to use. But not only is he putting it to theatrical use, he has had the whole place renovated in the style of the time it was built – some 200 years ago. But those are not the only changes. The first photo in the final block of photos below shows the space’s new entrance. In 1991 we walked into the space directly from the street (see the door at left in the two photos above). Now we walk around the building from the other side (see photo immediately below), and enter through a courtyard and patio. Once inside we are greeted by several gorgeous, brightly painted rooms that imitate what rooms might have looked like in the old days. There is a blue library with an old velvet sofa, a reddish sitting room with a fireplace, a video room where you can sit and watch video clips of the theater’s shows, a long, green corridor that leads from the entrance directly to the white performance space.  (You can see the library and sitting room in the last block of photos below. In fact, the final photo shows how the architects left cutaways in walls in each room, revealing materials still left over from the original construction 200 years ago.)

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Ginkas tells the story of the renovated space well in a post that was made to Facebook. Here is a translation of the pertinent segment of his post:
Hurrah! I congratulate myself, Moscow Young Spectator Theater and everyone who understands! Today, unofficially as yet, we performed our production on the new (old!) stage that we call ‘Games in the Affiliate.’ Friends! For those who understand these things. This structure is at least 200 years old. It may be one of the few buildings left in Moscow after the fire. Do you understand? After Napoleon! After almost all of Moscow burned. This tiny little building in the empire style. Nobody knows what was here. But it still retains the charm of the old Moscow buildings of the nobility. And so – we renovated it and gave it (as best we could) the feel of old Moscow comfort. In the awful modern plaster drywall, without which you cannot do these days, unfortunately, we cut small windows that allow you to see the real wooden walls which have been standing there for two centuries. There is a tiny cafe next to a fireplace where you can have coffee or an inexpensive open-faced sandwich. There is a little library where you can sit and, by the light of a lamp, look through books about theater, and not only… There is a tiny room where you can watch videos of our shows….
I revisited this spectacular space last night for the first time since 1991. It was quite an experience, I must say. The occasion was Ginkas’s new production called On the Road to… Like We Play Crime, it is based on separate chapters from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, but, unlike the former production which focused on the characters of the intellectual assassin Raskolnikov and and the wily detective Porfiry Petrovich, this one looks at Raskolnikov and the mysterious figure of Svidrigailov, who, as Ginkas puts it, is a jester, a killer and a philosopher. Ginkas quotes from the old show liberally, but repeats nothing. He plays with the same old devices of shadows, a window, a bucket, but uses them in entirely new circumstances. Did I have the feeling that I was traveling back in time? Almost. Almost, but not quite. Because, like any great theater artist, Kama Ginkas is of the present moment. Always. And On the Road to... is of the present moment. It tells the hard, harsh and very sad tale of two men who have lost their way, for whom murder has been a sign of their lives and character, although, surely, neither one ever planned on that. But this is not the place to write a review. I am here today to celebrate the return to the Moscow theater map of one of its great spaces, lost since 1991. Now back in service and at the beck and call of Kama Ginkas and Moscow theater-goers.
A comment on a few of the photos above. Note the beautiful, clearly-traced shadows of a single tree spreading across the facade of the building. You can see it best in the second photo at the top. This ghostly apparition seemed so perfect, so appropriate, that I took that second shot specifically so as to enhance the arboreal shadow. It, indeed, was a night of shadows and specters and ghosts coming to life in a way that enriched the lives we are living today. That’s theater, yes. That’s Kama Ginkas.

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