Tag Archives: Mikhail Lermontov

Mikhail Lermontov monument, Moscow

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There hasn’t been much that’s funny on the internet of late. If you need me to tell you why, you haven’t been paying attention. But, thanks to Governor Vadim Potomsky of the Oryol region, not everything is gloom and doom. He lit up people’s eyes last week when he commented on the unveiling of a new statue honoring Ivan the Terrible in the city of Oryol. I quote the august politician and civil servant: “Ivan the Terrible once said ‘I am guilt of the death of my son because I didn’t get him to healers in time.’ He had fallen ill while they were on the road. They were going to Moscow to St. Petersburg.
Let that sink in.
Ivan the Terrible. St. Petersburg. Are you rusty on your Russian history dates? Here’s a slight reminder. Ivan the Terrible (1530-1584). St. Petersburg, founded by Peter the Great, 1703.
But that’s not all. Give a politician a chance and a politician will virtually always dig a hole deeper than the one s/he is in. The punch line to this humorous little joke is this: Mr. Potomsky wrapped up his historical excursus with the words, “We must remember history. Don’t let anyone rewrite it.” (The quotes are carried differently in various sources. Another source makes the great politician even more emphatic: “He who does not know history has no future!“)
Ach, touchee, Mr. Potomsky! Only methinks you’d best quick get yourself to a healer… You appear to show signs of a self-inflected wound. Of course, in most countries today, that’s no problem! You know, take a Trump, take an Erdogan, take a Putin, take a Boris Johnson… Oh, you just bluster and lie and keep on going! So, keep it up, Potomsky! You’re in “good” company!
Anyway, I chose to take the Oryolian (not to say Orwellian) politician at his word. And I decided to take the opportunity to remember an important individual from the past, particularly, in this case, the poet Mikhail Lermontov, Russia’s “second” poet.
Lermontov (1814-1841) lived a full decade less than his great predecessor Alexander Pushkin, but his fame hardly suffers for that. He died at the age of 26, leaving behind a legacy that puts me to shame – I don’t know about you. His works are collected in 10 volumes (you can download them here); his lyric poetry, his narrative poetry, one of his plays (The Masquerade) and much of his prose (including A Hero of Our Time) are all first rate works, placing him squarely at the top of the pantheon. One hears the phrase uttered often by those suffering from a bout of self-doubt (no, no, not Mr. Potomsky, though!): “At my age Lermontov was dead. What the hell have I accomplished?!”
Lermontov died of that common Russian disease, second only to that which ails Mr. Potomsky: the duel. Duels took the lives of Pushkin (aged 37) and Lermontov within just four years of each other. Does anyone have any questions about the self-destructive strain in Russian culture?

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Humor aside (although, somehow, I don’t feel there is anything a bit funny about anything I have written today) I have taken on the entirely serious topic today of bringing to you a very nice monument honoring Mikhail Lermontov in Moscow. It was created by the sculptor Isaak Brodsky and it was unveiled June 4, 1965, on Krasnye Vorota (Red Gates) Square (for many years it was Lermontov Square). It stands near the spot where Lermontov was born (that house is long gone, although there is a plaque commemorating the fact on the Stalinist wedding cake building that replaced it – see the second-to-the-last photo below), right at the beginning of Novaya Basmanaya Street. Lermontov stands on a high pedestal, refusing to look at the mad traffic racing by on the so-called Garden Ring Road right in front of him. It is a very odd location. I must admit that I rode/drove/walked more or less by this monument for years before I even noticed it was there. The problem is not the monument itself, which is laid out quite nicely, but just the general environment. The break-neck speed and/or traffic jam snail’s pace of the Garden Ring Road, combined with the ominous Stalinist tower hovering in the sky, and the fact that the monument is set back quite a ways, all comes together to mean that you can easily miss it. I did for a very long time.
But when you do finally see it, and you stop to walk around it, you are surprised at what an effective ensemble it is.
Brodsky properly put Lermontov in a romantic wind-blown officer’s overcoat and a romantic light frown. Lermontov is, I am estimating, 18% sadness, and 82% seriousness. One suspects he already sees his own impending death. Although he doesn’t appear to be worried by it. Just aware that it is there and that that is what is coming next. The straight knee, as it often does in monuments, provides a sense of rigor, strength and stature; the bent knee gives him an accessible, human quality. The hands behind the back seem to suggest he’s taking on fate as it comes – he’s not going to bother to fend anything off, is not preparing to grapple with anything.
Behind the monument itself stands another element, quite nice, too, that brings in characters from several of Lermontov’s works (the narrative poems Mtsyri and The Demon, and the lyric poem “The Sail”). It is here that the sculptor chose to engrave a short poetic excerpt in what appears to be black marble:

Moscow, Moscow!
I love you as a son,
A Russian –
Intensely, passionately,
And tenderly.

However, as Yevgeny Popov points out in his short piece about this monument – “The Guy in the Coat” – Lermontov was a direct descendant of the Scottish mystic poet known as Thomas the Rhymer, or Thomas of Learmont. Of course, Thomas lived in the 13th century, allowing plenty of time for the Lermontov line to become fully Russianized. Perhaps more to the point, Popov quotes one of Lermontov’s most famous quatrains, which, indeed, fits the monument well:

I go out on the road alone;
And through the fog a flinty path does glisten;
The night is hushed. The emptiness has turned its ear to God.
And up above a star talks to a star.

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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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Mikhail Lermontov plaque, Voronezh

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I recently took a short trip to the great city of Voronezh, the city, which, if you didn’t know, supported the False Dmitry against Boris Godunov during the Time of Troubles in the early 17th century. That has nothing to do with today’s post, I just thought it was so interesting that I had to get that in right away.
This plaque honoring the memory of poet Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841) was only one of a huge number of plaques, buildings and monuments that I photographed in Voronezh. But I think it’s my favorite. Aside from those plaques you occasionally run across proclaiming that “George Washington Slept Here” or “Vladimir Lenin Herein Took Tea,” this may be one of the most inconsequential reasons for a memorial plaque I have ever run across. I’ll quote what’s written here as closely to the original as possible: “In the years 1837-1841 the great Russian poet Mikhail Yuryevich Lermontov would stop at the Voronezh post office.” The verb could also be translated as “stayed,” in which case there would be a little more to it – that is, something along the lines of “George Washington Slept Here.” But if my first instinct as a translator is correct (supported by information that follows below), then we are dealing with a case of a plaque being erected to honor the fact that somebody stopped in here from time to time to send home a post card or two.
Although that could also be wrong. Post offices, post stations, or way stations, in those years were places where you could stop and exchange your tired horse for a rested one. So maybe Lermontov was coming by here in order to speed on further down the line.
A nice page on a website called the Literary Map of Voronezh Oblast has some good info about Lermontov in Voronezh.  I’m not going to beat what they have to say on my own, so here is a chunk right from the website:
“Lermontov was frequently in the Voronezh region, because one of the main railroads linking the center of Russia and the Caucasus passed through Voronezh. On his way to the Caucasus in the early summer of 1840, the poet stayed at the estate of A.L. Potapov, his comrade in the Imperial Guard of the Hussars. This was in the  village of Semidubravnoe of Zemlyansky county in the Voronezh province (now the village of Novaya Pokrovka in the Semiluksky area). According to legend, it was here that Lermontov set  his ‘Cossack lullaby’ poem to music, although the music has not survived.
At the end of January 1841 Lermontov stayed in Voronezh as he traveled from the Caucasus to St. Petersburg. This fact can be verified by the February 1, 1841, issue of  the Voronezh Provincial Gazette, which published information ‘about guests arriving and leaving Voronezh between January 24 and 30,’ including ‘one Lieutenant Lermontov arriving from Cherkassk.’ The poet stayed at Kolybikhin’s hotel located in the city center on Konnaya (Horse) Square, approximately where the Opera and Ballet Theater is now situated.
When returning to his regiment in the Caucasus in late April – early May of that year, Lermontov once again stayed in Voronezh (at the home of his relative and friend A.A. Stolypin (Mongo). This is verified in an entry in the Voronezh Provincial News on May 3, 1841, in the section entitled ‘On guests arriving in, and leaving, Voronezh from April 25  to May 2.’ Here we read that captain Stolypin and Lieutenant Lermontov are listed as guests in the Hotel Yevlakhov,’ located on Bolshaya Dvoryanskaya (now Revolution Prospect).”

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The memorial plaque on the impressive facade of the Voronezh post office was erected November 30, 2004. It apparently cheats a bit. According to an account on the Kultura VRN site,  there is only speculation – no proof – that Lermontov was in Voronezh before 1840. If he did pass through, or spend time in, the city in 1837, it would have been when he was on his way to the Caucasus, having been sent there in the first of several instances of exile for participating in a duel. In fact, the last trip through Voronezh, the one documented above in April-May 1841, came just prior to the duel that killed the hot-blooded poet on July 27 of that year at the age of 26.
Interest in Lermontov in Voronezh remains relatively high. A little over a year ago there was a movement begun to put up a bust honoring the poet’s occasional forays into and out of the city. As was reported in the Voronezh office of RIA Novosti on March 15, 2014, a letter was sent to the governor asking him to support the project:
“The time spent by Lermontov in our region was reflected in his works, which is extremely useful for the patriotic education of our generation. In October this year the multinational peoples of Russia and all progressive mankind (on the level of UNESCO) will widely celebrate the 200th anniversary of M.Yu. Lermontov. The Mayor’s office of Voronezh supports the idea of erecting a monument, but a problem arises in the absence of funds for such a goal in the budget…”
Oops. We’re ready to be patriotic if you’ll just give us the money.
The article ends with a lovely little caveat: “Among opinions, of course, the notion is popular that Voronezh does not need a monument to Lermontov. There exists a list of those to whom it ‘would be better’ to honor with a monument.”
Who am I to jump into this argument? I am a firm believer in the opinion that the more monuments the merrier. In fact, I’d be very happy to see half, maybe three-quarters, of the world’s politicians replaced by monuments – not to them, of course, but to those who oppose them. But I digress. And let me finish by saying that this plaque honoring Lermontov will always occupy a special place in my heart.
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Lenin Library busts, Mosow

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These things can look rather like cemeteries or crematoriums or -what is not any better, really – bad facades of bad schools. I’m talking about long rows of busts on important public buildings attempting to honor great men. Don’t get me wrong – I’m more than happy to honor great women. I hunt out opportunities to do that as often as possible in this space. But you don’t always have that opportunity in the real world when the topic is Russian literature, ca. 19th century. In the case at hand I deal with what I’m dealt – a whole bunch of men, many of them with beards.
The good thing about the east wall of the Lenin Library, located in Moscow at 5 Mokhovaya Street, is that it rises above the level of a crematorium. It’s a little surprising, perhaps, because the building itself is, in my opinion, a disaster. I don’t care if it is one of the few Constructivist-inspired buildings in Moscow to have been completed. It has a deathly gray pallor and its boxy, cinderblock construction almost looks like it’s ready to have urns of ashes slipped into each one.
But I’m letting sarcasm get the better of me today.
I’m actually writing this post because I love this wall. There is something exciting in having the opportunity to commune with a whole bunch of great and good writers all at one time. And, when it’s autumn, as it was when these pictures were taken, you have the added stroke of some beautiful, bright yellow fall leaves playing against the monotonous gray-bound background.
A few steps from left to right and back again and you can travel from Pushkin to Tolstoy, from Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin to Ivan Turgenev. Each of them looks down upon you with a sense of purpose, that purpose that most of us, at least, have grown to expect from a Russian writer.
I did an interview last year with the Ukrainian playwright Maksym Kurochkin. I asked him about some of the difficulties of living in Russia and writing in Russian as his homeland was under attack from Russia. You can imagine the corner he is backed into – or maybe you can’t. Not many of us have been in his shoes. Anyway, at one point Maksym admitted that part of him is completely alienated from his environs and those surrounding him. And yet he declared that he is proud to be considered a member of the new Russian drama movement, because, he said, “it is honorable to have a relationship with the best of Russian drama. Russian new drama for me is undoubtedly a progressive force.”
You see, that’s what Russian literature has always been – at least when it is at its best. And when you look up at the faces on the Lenin Library wall, you sense that quite clearly. Principled writers with something to say gathered here in one place.

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I am particularly grateful to the makers of this pantheon for including Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin (1826-1889, the first photo in the block below). I don’t know any place else in Moscow where one can go to pay respects to this wonderful, bitter, satirical writer. If there are any monuments or plaques in Moscow commemorating his life and work, I don’ t know of them. This makes some sense because Moscow did not play a large part in Saltykov-Shchedrin’s life. He did study for awhile as a boy at the Moscow School for the Nobility. But most of his adult life was spent either in St. Petersburg or in the provinces to which he was occasionally banished. Since I touched briefly on the topic of the sexes at the beginning here today, I think it’s worth pointing out that, while Saltykov-Shchedrin was in political exile in Vyatka in the late 1840s – he called these the years of his “Vyatka captivity” – he expressly wrote a history book for young women. He was appalled at the lack of education for girls and he wrote and published a series of lectures to counteract that.
“Captivity” and “exile” during the Tsarist years – Alexander Solzhenitsyn has written about this – were nothing compared to what occurred in the Soviet age and later. While in “captivity” Saltykov-Shchedrin continued to hold a government post and he ended up marrying the daughter of the local governor. Imagine Osip Mandelstam marrying a Soviet commissar’s daughter before being murdered in Siberia in 1938; or imagine one of the Pussy Riot members marrying the son of a local bigwig before being released. Still, Saltykov-Shchedrin’s experiences were galling enough to turn him into one of the most wickedly critical writers ever to wield a pen in Russia. He has never quite received his due abroad and even in Russia he still remains somehow almost too hot to handle. It’s good to see him here as a colleague among equals.
I haven’t been able to pin down who, exactly, are the sculptors who created the busts on the east wall. The best information I found was that a large group of artists was involved. They included Sergei Yevseyev, Matvei Manizer, Yelena Yanson-Manizer, Nadezhda Krandievskaya, Vsevolod Lishyov and Vera Mukhina.

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Mikhail Lermontov statue, Muzeon Park, Moscow

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Mikhail Lermontov, who died in 1841 at the age of 27 in a duel , is a reproach to all of us who have ever looked up for a moment and wondered why we haven’t done more with our lives. Lermontov had just begun his life when he was cut down, and yet he left behind a legacy of poetry and drama that makes him one of the great Russian writers. This statue, which stands in the Muzeon Park near the Central House of Artists alongside the Moscow River, is an artist-authorized copy of Oleg Komov’s statue that stands in Tarkhany, the estate where the poet grew up and where he is buried. On one hand this sculpture is simple to the point of banality – it reminds me at moments of a student work, as if the artist were trying out the basic ABCs of his future profession. On the other hand, its simplicity is surely “built in” and intended. Lermontov sits there in a relaxed pose with a relaxed expression on his face. Yes, there’s a little concern in his gaze, but not too much. His military uniform, which can make him look stiff and very official in his portraits, here has a warmly and humanly haphazard air about it. The closer you get to the monument, the more you feel a living person inside it.

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I don’t know why this particular statue is located in the “fallen monuments” section of the Muzeon Park, but it is a nice place for it. There are lots of guests always around it – I mean monuments and real people – and so there is always a sense of community to this little plot of land. If you look at the upper part of Lermontov’s thighs, you’ll see that the bronze has been worn to a shiny sheen. That is from people who can’t refuse the opportunity to take a seat in a great poet’s lap. That, too, adds to the personable feel of this otherwise deceptively modest statue.

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