Tag Archives: Fyodor Dostoevsky

Alexander Herzen house and plaque, London

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Of all the places I could be today (save Chania, Crete), I think I would choose London. Maybe it’s the old blood burbling up in whatever is in me of my mother’s line. Maybe it’s because I seem to have the extraordinarily good luck of invariably hitting London when spectacular weather reigns supreme. Maybe it’s because the city is just so damn beautiful, I can never devour it enough with my eyes. So, it’s to London we go today.
London has been the choice of many a good (and shady) Russian over the centuries. I don’t give a hoot about the sold souls who own football teams and sell colleagues into prison or worse. My gaze is a bit more fastidious. Surely one of the most famous Russian residents of London was Alexander Herzen (1812-1870), who lived in the British capital from 1852 until 1864. I have written several times already about him and specific places connected with his name and work in both Moscow and London. He is a man who left his mark, and left it in a way that has made people want to remember him. One of the great liberal or even radical Russian thinkers, Herzen’s name stands for revolution, for freedom and for equality. Most of all, perhaps, it stands for bucking the status quo. He had a quick, insightful mind and a talent for words that made him a focal point of most any society he found himself in. That is certainly true of his time in London, where he produced important revolutionary writings of his own, published an important newspaper (Kolokol, or, The Bell) and ran an important publisher (the Russian Free Press, which I will get to someday in this space). He spent some of his time in London in close contact with his great friend and romantic rival, the poet Nikolai Ogaryov (see elsewhere on this blog site), the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, and many others. In her wonderful, all-too-brief series of blogs about Russians in London, Sarah J. Young provides this list of Herzen’s visitors: Ivan Turgenev, Nikolai Chernyshevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Nikolai Nekrasov, Pavel Annenkov, the critic and translator Vasily Botkin and the leftist writer Vasily Sleptsov. She adds: “It’s certainly true to say that neither his closest friend Nikolai Ogarev nor Bakunin would have ended up in London if Herzen hadn’t been here.”
The building we peruse today is a lovely piece of architecture, still in excellent condition. You walk up to the door of One Orsett Terrace in Westminster and you can fully imagine what that very experience would have been like for Turgenev, for Dostoevsky, for Tolstoy as they came by for an evening’s visit. It really makes you want to lift that heavy brass, lion-headed knocker and let it whack a couple of times. I actually fought back my desires to do that because – well, do you know how easy it is to become the stupid American tourist? Imagine someone answering my knock and I, covering my disappointment, saying, “I was hoping Herzen might open up. Who are you?” Or something like that. So I left that experience to my imagination – which could well be why it still affects me so viscerally when I see that brass lion’s head in my photos. Anyway, Tolstoy would have come by here in March of 1861. The indispensable Sarah J. Young writes: “Tolstoy arrived in London on 2nd March 1861, and left on 17th. He had not met Herzen before, but it is known that they saw each other regularly during the sixteen days of Tolstoy’s stay.  Lucas (p. 33) describes Herzen’s daughter Natalya’s recollections of seeing Tolstoy, whom she knew as the author of Childhood, at Orsett House, Westbourne Terrace. He states that Natalya was disappointed that Tolstoy wasn’t the heroic figure she was expecting, but he doesn’t give a source for the scene. Lucas also quotes Herzen as saying ‘I am seeing a great deal of Tolstoy. We have quarrelled. He is stubborn and talks nonsense, but is naive and a good man’, from Aylmer Maude, Family Views of Tolstoy (p. 71).”
(It is thanks to this specific post of Young’s that I hunted down and found this place to photograph.)

Dostoevsky would have been here a little over a year later. Again, I turn things over to Young, for there is no point in pretending I know more than she does: Dostoevsky “visited London for 8 days – his only trip to Britain – arriving on 9th July [1862]  (Dryzhakov, p. 328). Like many other writers, one of his chief aims was to see Herzen, and he certainly did so on 16th July, as well as probably also on Sunday 11th. According to [Joseph] Frank, the two men, who found they had a great deal more in common than they had on their previous meeting, in 1846, discussed recent events: Chernyshevsky’s arrest, the spate of fires that had engulfed Petersburg that spring, and the revolutionary Young Russia proclamation that had been published to much furore in May (Frank, pp. 145-59, 188-92). Given the closeness of Herzen’s circle, and his habit of entertaining on Sundays at Orsett House, it seems likely that on 11th July, Dostoevsky also met Bakunin and Ogarev.”
Turgenev, who was a frequent traveler to London and the U.K. in general, met often with Herzen. How frequently he came to this specific house, however, is less certain. Young, God bless her, tells us this (she begins with a reference to a passage in Patrick Waddington’s Turgenev and England and then clarifies): “…in May 1862, when Turgenev finally arrived with the writer Vasily Botkin after many delays, there was no room for him at the Herzen residence on Westbourne Terrace and ‘he had to stay with neighbours, possibly in the very house where Michael Bakunin was now living’. But we know that Bakunin was by this time living at 10 Paddington Green, which by no stretch of the imagination could be described as neighbouring Orsett House. A rift with Bakunin marked the end of Turgenev’s visits to this most famous group of Russian exiles….”
It is also worth quoting a section from Leonard Schapiro’s book Turgenev: His Life and Times (pp. 195-196): “On his short visit to London, Turgenev had engaged in lengthy argument with Herzen on the nature and future of Russian society. The result of this debate was a series of eight articles by Herzen, entitled ‘Ends and Beginnings,’ cast in the form of open letters to a friend, published in the Bell in the second half of 1862. Turgenev originally intended to print his reply in the same journal, but in consequence of a general warning from the Russian authorities not to write for that paper, thought better of it. Turgenev’s views in the debate therefore appear in his private letters to Herzen of the period, and in summaries of his arguments incorporated in Herzen’s articles. Herzen’s open letters, written with the brilliance and exuberance which characterized his style at its best, expound a theme which is familiar enough in his writings – that Western civilization has reached the end of its creative potential, and is destined to sink into the slough of vulgar, bourgeois self-satisfaction.
Well, I guess it’s good to see that Western civilization is still dying – for, surely, it is doing that these days. I am less happy to see that Turgenev did what so many of my contemporaries now do – agree to self-censorship when confronted by the authorities. But what is eternal is eternal, I guess.
Finally, Schapiro’s comments allow us to say that Herzen’s “Ends and Beginnings” were surely written right here in the home you see pictured today.

 

 

Konstantin Leontyev and Chania, Crete

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Awhile back I wrote about Russian writer, critic and philosopher Konstantin Leontyev in regards to the neighborhood of Chalepa in the city of Chania, where he lived when he was a Russian diplomat on the island of Crete in 1864 (maybe or maybe not catching a few days or weeks at the tail end of 1863). As I pointed out, Leontyev was quite enamored of Chalepa and of Crete’s villages, to which he apparently traveled with frequency. He was less fond of Chania proper, which, in those days, was still closed entirely behind fortress walls that were locked shut each evening and did not open again until morning. Here is how Leontyev described it in an exotic love story titled “Chryso”: “Our city, you know, is cramped. The streets are narrow. The walls surrounding the city are fat. The gates of the fortress are locked up overnight and there is no way to escape unless you throw yourself into the sea. The city’s Christians were terrified. [Leontyev refers to a time when the Turks went on a rampage against the local Christians who could not escape the city.] As soon as night came not a soul was to be seen. It was as if cruel death were trailing after you! What do you do? Where do you run?
Today I select several photos of Chania (Leontyev, using the name of the time, called it Canea) that represent images which Leontyev probably saw more or less as they still are today. Before I begin I should allow Leontyev to make one of his most categorical statements about Chania (this, too, is drawn from “Chryso”): “I almost never go to Canea.” But the “almost” and the great detail that he provides of why he did not like the city makes it quite clear that he did in fact go there and remembered it well. As such, I feel safe suggesting that he would have seen much that I show here today.
I start above with four shots of what was, and still is, one of the main entrances and exits from the city in the far east of the Splantzia neighborhood nearby the Sabbionara Bastion, or Rampart (the rounded structure that juts out into the Cretan Sea). The gate located here, the only one that still exists in the city, was called Sabbionara Gate (the Italian meaning of which is the Gate of the Sand) or Koum-Kapi (the Turkish name meaning the same thing). Of course, there is no actual “gate” today, just a gaping hole that vehicles and pedestrians walk through. However, the post for the guards at the gate is preserved, as you see in the arched section of the wall in the topmost photo. That interior there is now used for art exhibits. If you look closely at the upper part of the wall of the bastion, you will see the Venetian emblem of the lion of St. Mark with wreath and insignia. It dates to 1591, when the structure of the bastion was built on an artificial peninsula jutting out into the sea. The “gate” and fortress walls that we see today were changed forever in 1645 when the Turks attacked the wall and destroyed much of it. Leontyev, when walking into Chania from his home in Chalepa, would have passed through this area many times and would have seen it very much as it looks here. Since the Turks still ruled Crete for most of the 19th century (they slowly wrested it from the Venetians between 1645 and 1669), Leontyev probably would have called this gate and area Koum-Kapi. (He probably didn’t see the gate in snow as the second photo depicts, as snow is quite rare in Chania. But since he arrived in December or January, he would have experienced the local winter, which is spectacular in its skies, winds, rain and rapidly changing weather.) If you wish to see an old photo of the gate and bastion as Leontyev presumably would have seen them, here is a good one.
Five of the six photos below show aspects of Chania (Canea) that Leontyev would readily recognize today. The first looks back at the central part of the city over the famed Venetian Port. It would have looked very similar to this, though perhaps less colorful. The Muslim mosque that you see at left center, and which is an exhibition hall these days, would have been a functioning place of worship in Leontyev’s time here.
The famed lighthouse which is arguably Chania’s central focus nowadays, began to appear in the last five years of the 16th century, constructed by the Venetians (who ruled Crete from 1206 to the middle of the 17th century). It was rebuilt by the Turks who completed renovations in 1839, making the tower resemble a minaret. It was reconstructed again in 2006, softening, but not removing entirely, the Turkish influence, and returning, to some degree, the original Venetian design.
Right across the port entrance from the lighthouse is the famed Firka fortress. It was built in 1629 and has virtually not changed since then. Aside from the slightly modernized lighthouse on the right, the only real anachronism in the photo of the fortress below is the Greek flag flying high above it. That first appeared here in 1913 when the Turkish flag was lowered for the last time.
Next in line is a photo of the church of St. Nicholas (Agios Nikolaos), located in the heart of the Splantzia district. Construction on it was begun in 1205 and completed in 1320. After the Turkish conquest began in 1645, the church was converted to a mosque, and we still see the minaret which was erected by the Turks to tower over the Orthodox Christian bell tower. I find it fascinating, and telling of the local world attitude, that the Greek Orthodox Church has never attempted to remove the minaret. It remains as a monument to history, as do many other minarets around the city. (See one of the photos in the last block below.) Leontyev could very easily have seen an image like my photo of the church against a full moon and winter sky.
The last two photos in the block below show two aspects of the wall that reaches from the far east of the old city out to the lighthouse. It serves as a breakwater that is especially important in stormy weather. The penultimate photo in the section below shows what was once the Bastion of St. Nicholas of Molos. As part of the active defenses of the city where soldiers could take cover and fire on the enemy, this was also a small chapel. I do not know if this would have been functioning during Leontyev’s tenure in the region, but he would have seen the structure itself more or less as we do now.

In his story “Sfakiot” (1877), Leontyev wrote, “You know, the walls of the Canea fortress are enormous, high, ancient, right by the sea. And the whole city (it’s not big, only 14,000 residents) lives inside the walls. And the sea is right there. Right beneath the walls at the sea there is a smooth place, sand.
The first photo below, of the north wall of the Sabbionara Bastion, could be one of the places that Leontyev had in mind when writing those phrases. For the record, in this same photo  one sees Leontyev’s neighborhood of Chalepa in the distance across the bay. With one exception, the other photos below are simply images that I feel quite certain Leontyev would have seen in Chania to one extent or another – the narrow streets, birds and bougainvillea, and the spectacle of nature showing off audaciously over the Cretan Sea.
The fourth photo below shows the Venetian dockyards, which, since the 16th century, have been among Chania’s most prominent structures. At their peak, in 1599, there were 17 dockyards where you now see seven. In all, there were 23 dockyards spread around the port of Chania. Leontyev, a lover of taking walks, despite his distaste for Canea, would surely have walked out on the spectacular breakwater and would have looked back, like I, to see the remaining docks, numerous sailboats, as well as one of the city’s minarets rising up over the rooftops.
Leontyev’s dislike for the cramped, dark quality of 19th-century Chania was preponderant, even if, on occasion, he allowed a grudging admiration to slip into his comments, as he does here in a general takedown of the city in his tale “Chryso”:
But Canea is Europe. The powers that be here are worldly – a Pasha who speaks French; here hang the consular flags of every nation, there is ‘la colonie européenne’ here; a handful of merchants of moderate wealth, doctors, European skippers, bureaucrats. Canea is our St. Petersburg, the ‘crayfish of Crete,’ as Rosenzweig [a character in the tale] put it.*
True, I don’ t know if it’s a crayfish or not and whether it will devour our national physiognomy, but I do at least know that the city is dirty and stuffy and locked up in a fortress, cramped and boring. But there is in it, if you like, a certain poetry. It reminds one of descriptions and pictures of the Middle Ages: narrow streets that until recently (under Veli-Pasha) fairly flowed red with blood… There are no carriages. Hordes of pedestrians and horse riders. All heavy objects are transported on mules and asses. Clothes are motley, conversations are loud, the shops are bad. As soon as the sun goes down the fortress gates are locked and they won’t let anyone in or out of the city except, of course, for consuls and consulate clerks, but even for them they open up the tiniest little wicket gate, through which even a man of modest size passes with the greatest of difficulty.”
* [Crete on a map looks something like a crayfish or lobster.]
Leontyev was a virtual unknown when he lived briefly on Crete. He had published only one novel, in 1861. A second was published in 1864, apparently when he lived in Chalepa/Chania. His writing took off and gained a readership in the 1870s and 1880s. Leontyev wrote in many genres on many different topics. He wrote journalism, essays, short stories, novels, philosophical treatises and literary criticism. I personally first discovered him as an astute critic of Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky when I was inhaling Russian literature at Widener Library at Harvard in the 1980s. A meeting with famed Russian religious figure Amvrosy at Otyma Pustyn in the mid-1870s had a major impact on Leontyev’s world outlook. Throughout his adult years he grew increasingly conservative, coming to believe that “liberalism” was the greatest danger that the Russian empire had to face. He moved to Optyma Pustyn in 1887 and took monastic vows in August 1891, assuming the name Kliment. He died three months later.

 

 

 

 

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

Click on photos to enlarge.

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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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