Tag Archives: Ivan Krylov

Literature in the metro, Moscow

Click on photos to enlarge.

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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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Ivan Krylov monument, Moscow

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Putting together the pictures to go with his post proved to be one of the hardest tasks I have had yet on this blog. I could easily have put up twice as many shots as the eight I settled on. But as a true believer of the notion that less is more, I drew the line at these eight, still exceeding any amount I have ever used. The fact of the matter is I was lucky to hit this monument to Ivan Krylov, the great Russian writer of fables, on City Day in Moscow. The streets were teeming with families out to enjoy the great weather, the concerts all over town, the street theater, the ad hoc cafes, clowns, balloons and such.  And, Krylov, of course, is one of the most beloved figures in Russian culture. His fables and fairy tales, drawn in part, but not at all entirely, from La Fontaine, are virtually every Russian child’s first institutional introduction to humor, wisdom, irony and the paradoxes of nature and human life. Maybe this is one of the reasons why this culture does literature and art so well, both in terms of cultivating it and appreciating it, because virtually every citizen since the early 19th century has been inculcated with Krylov’s greatness from his or her earliest years.
If you need proof of children’s love of Krylov, just look through these pictures – look how at ease they are with the man, look at the love and affection they have for him (i.e., the girl blissfully hugging his right knee below). It’s hard to say what Krylov – in this monument sculpted by Andrei Drevin and Daniel Mitlyansky, and constructed by architect Armen Cheltykyan in 1976 on the north bank of Patriarch’s Pond – thinks of all this. At some angles he has the slightest bit of a smile, as though he knows too much about the world to really join in the children’s joy, but he also has too good a heart to deny their joy. From other angles the poor man simply looks exhausted by it all – exhausted by the perfidy of mankind, about which he wrote so well, and wearied by the effluence of love that he cannot possibly match in return.

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The monument is a multi-part piece scattered over a large territory which includes the statue of Krylov and several panneaux  that you pass on your way to greet the great man, and which illustrate scenes from some of his most popular fables. Immediately above you see a depiction of “The Wolf and the Heron,” with Krylov in the background. In the final picture below you see a rendition of the fable “The Wolf and the Lamb,” with Krylov even farther in the distance.
Krylov (1769-1844) was a poet, essayist, publisher and, of course, fabulist nonpareil. He was a hugely popular man in his time and he was also simply huge. There is one sentence in the extensive Russian Wikipedia article that fairly begs to be quoted: “Anecdotes about his amazing appetite, his slothenliness,  his love of fires, his extraordinary willpower, his wit, popularity and his evasive wariness are only too famous.” His love of fires? That may be one of the finest, most comprehensive, one-line biographies I have ever read. If you search the net for images of Krylov you are most likely to find him only as an old man. I like the fact that the sculptors here made him relatively young. It suits his 236 fables, all of which are as young today as when they were written. For those who are interested, there is a pretty cool English-language ebook available on the net. It was published in 1869, includes a biography and prose translations of approximately half of Krylov’s fables.

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