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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?
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:
I love you as a son,
A Russian –
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.