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You have to think that Ivan Goncharov (1812-1891) just doesn’t get the love. He was one of the major Russian writers, his classic novel Oblomov putting him among the great myth makers of Russian culture. Yet does anybody ever think of him before Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Gogol, Pushkin, Ostrovsky? You get my drift. Then when they get around to giving him a plaque, he has to share it with somebody else, in this case the historian Sergei Solovyov. And since his connection to this building at 38 Ostozhenka Street in Moscow came two years after Solovyov’s (who was born here in 1820), he is pushed down to number two on the plaque. Goncharov went to school in this building from 1822, at the age of ten, until 1830, when he turned 18. He spent three more years in Moscow at Moscow University, then went to live and work in St. Petersburg.
(For the record, Solovyov [1820-1879] was the author of the first full-fledged history of Russia titled The History of Russia from Ancient Times. This work, which took him some 30 years to complete, was an improvement over the histories of Mikhail Karamzin and others, whose histories were basically chronicles of the state and major statesmen.)
Goncharov was born in the city of Simbirsk (known as Ulyanovsk today, the home city of Vladimir Lenin), on the Volga River. A year after his father died he was sent to Moscow to study at a commercial college – the building you see here, which today is the Moscow State University of Linguistics. This structure was originally built in the 18th century by Matvei Kazakov, who radically reconfigured the center of Moscow in the last quarter of the 18th century in the Palladian style. At least 20 major buildings designed by Kazakov still stand today. None of that seems to have had any effect on Goncharov. It is said that his years at the college were difficult and uninteresting. While studying here he did, however, take up reading, and that became his real schooling. He began by exploring the works of Mikhail Karamzin, Gavriil Derzhavin, Ivan Dmitriev, Vladislav Ozerov and, as he put it, “even Mikhail Kheraskov who was considered a poet at school.”
It’s fascinating to think about, of course – Goncharov began his literary searches before the full-fledged appearance of Pushkin, before Gogol, before almost anything that we now consider Russian literature. As such, Goncharov’s reaction upon encountering Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin for the first time – as it was being published periodically in a journal – is telling.
“My Lord!” he wrote. “What light, what a magical expanse appeared all around, and what truths and poetry and just life in general – moreover, contemporary and accessible – surged forth from this source, and with such brilliance, and in such sounds!”
There you have it, an eyewitness account of the impact of Pushkin pushing his way into a culture that was struggling at that time to move from one age into another. The walls of this building looked down silently upon the young Vanya Goncharov as he came in one morning having first encountered Eugene Onegin after living almost happily on a diet of Kheraskov, Dmitriev and Ozerov. That’s a game-changer, isn’t it?
One senses the tedium that Goncharov experienced here. True, I was out photographing on a dreary, overcast day. It wasn’t quite cold, but it was anything but warm. The sky almost refused to offer any light at all. Everything looked bleached and bleak and tired. Still, you get the feeling that this structure would have a hard time perking up much even in finer weather. It seems neglected and under-appreciated. I ran back and forth, came up close, went back as far as I could on the other side of the street, and I never really did find an angle that does the place justice. Perhaps it was the perfect Goncharovian experience.
Despite the fact that Goncharov’s most famous novel (Oblomov) is about a man who is fatally lazy, and despite the fact that the writer’s nickname in St. Petersburg was Prince de Len’ (that is, the Prince of Lazy), he was a man of considerable interest. He wrote his first novel, A Common Story, in 1847. It tells the story of a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed young kid who comes from the provinces to the big city and is corrupted by a cynical relative and mentor. I’ve never heard of this work being picked up in the West in the lists of Russian must-reads, but it might be there were it not for the huge number of other great works competing with it from that same era. As was shown a year ago by Kirill Serebrennikov’s excellent dramatization of the novel at the Gogol Center, it still has a very strong and lively message to offer us.
Goncharov’s second major work was The Frigate Pallas (1857), the origins of which I, at least, find quite amazing. He was assigned to accompany the great Russian Admiral Yevfimy Putyatin on a mission to try to open up Japan to the world. (American Admiral Matthew Perry was given the same task at the same time by the U.S. government.) Thus, this writer who loved kicking his feet up on the sofa more than anything else (or so goes the legend), found himself sailing the seven seas and, it seems quite certain, becoming the best-traveled Russian writer in history. During the two and a half year journey (1852-1854), Goncharov had the opportunity to see: England, South Africa, Indonesia, Japan, China, the Phillipines, and numerous islands in the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans. Not too shabby for a grumpy sit-at-home.
Goncharov held various jobs throughout his middle years. He was a teacher of philology (at one point teaching the Tsar’s son), an assistant to Admiral Putyatin, a state-employed literary censor, a member of the Academy of Sciences, a bureaucrat in the Council of Book Publishing (where he was, effectively, the No. 1 censor in the land), and the editor-in-chief of Northern Mail magazine.
Goncharov’s greatest novel, Oblomov, was published in 1859 and it immediately added a new word to the rich Russian language. “Oblomovoshchina,” or, Oblomovism, refers to the acute laziness that destroys the title character Ilya Oblomov. It is a phenomenon that goes far beyond a single literary character, however, and describes a national trait. The novel’s continued importance for contemporary Russian culture has been shown many times, including in an excellent film by Nikita Mikhalkov (1979), and in a highly-regarded play adaptation called Oblom-Off (2001) by Mikhail Ugarov.
Goncharov’s last important novel was The Precipice (1869), after which he seems to have lost touch with his muse. He wrote several essays and some criticism, but he did not return to “big” literature over the last two-plus decades of his life. An interesting tidbit about him is that when his longtime lackey Karl Treigut died in 1878, leaving behind a widow and three young children, Goncharov took on the task of caring for them. Nevertheless, he died alone and suffering from depression in his adopted hometown of St. Petersburg in 1891.