Tag Archives: Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin

Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin house, St. Petersburg

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I think one of the most enigmatic figures in all of Russian literature must  have been Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin (1826-1889). Even his name seems caught in a swirl of confusion, and that is, by far, the least of it all.
His real name was Saltykov and it was under that name that the civil servant who lived and worked in numerous Russian provincial cities was known. As a writer he took the pseudonym of Shchedrin and reading Russians of the second half of the 19th century knew him as such. Over time we have grown accustomed to a dual name that mixes the real and pseudo – thus in the historical and scholarly literature one more often than not encounters him as Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin.
It was as Saltykov that he lived for awhile in 1845 in this building in St. Petersburg with his brother on what was then known as Kolomenskaya Street. Today the street address is Soyuza Pechatnikov Street 21/8; it stands on the corner of the crossing with Masterskaya Street. At the time Saltykov lived here, he was at the beginning of his adult life, let alone the beginning of his life in letters. He had run into some trouble as a free-thinker in school due to his poetry, and some of that poetry – which he later rejected and is generally considered juvenilia by scholars – had been printed in various publications. His first publications in the famed publication Sovremennik (The Contemporary) came at this time, as well. Good, bad or indifferent, the attitude expressed in his early poetry had earned him the nickname of the “gloomy lycée student” among his peers at school.
In the late 1840s Saltykov, in addition to the publication of his first prose works, ran afoul – again – of the authorities. He was sent in exile to the city of Vyatka in 1848 – freethinking again – where he continued to work as a civil servant, spending some eight valuable years observing Russia and Russians at close distance through his work.  By the middle of the next decade, when he was allowed to leave Vyatka, Mikhail Shchedrin was prepared to burst upon the public as a popular writer. From the 1850s until his death, Shchedrin would publish frequently – although with occasional lapses due to his busy schedule as a civil servant who moved around from city to city (Penza, Tula and Ryazan are among the cities where he lived and worked). He was also active as an editor, and, therefore, mentor to many young Russian writers, primarily at the legendary Notes of the Fatherland, although he also worked for The Sovremennik for a time as well.
But let’s get to what I think made him so enigmatic.
Shchedrin was a wickedly satirical writer. Sardonic. Mordant. He emerged in a field of writers that included or soon would include Nikolai Gogol and Alexander Sukhovo-Kobylin. Of these three Gogol was the more fully rounded stylist, while Sukhovo-Kobylin and Schedrin were of a much “nastier,” gloves-off type of satire. Sukhovo-Kobylin, who was a fascinating individual in his own right, was a society lion who ran afoul of the law and wrote three bitter plays unmasking corruption and evil. Shchedrin had elements of Gogol’s breadth and depth as a writer, while his wicked satire even outdid Sukhovo-Kobylin’s in its withering, fierce intensity.
I don’t know how much people actually read Shchedrin these days (none of my classes through to a PhD in Russian literature ever touched on Shchedrin) but his winged phrases, to use that lovely Russian expression, still fly high today, maybe even more so than they did during his lifetime. Nowadays his observations sound not only funny or accurate, they sound like prophecy. As you will see if you look below the next block of photos, Shchedrin’s wit was made for the Facebook/Twitter age. I rather suspect many encounter him there for the first time.

I suspect a full list of Shchedrin’s pithy phrases would require a full book-size publication. But here is a selection of my favorites.
1. “If I fall asleep and wake up in a hundred years and someone asks me what is happening in Russia now, I will answer: they are drinking and stealing.”
2. “When has it been that a bureaucrat was not convinced that Russia is a cake which you may approach freely and have a bite of?”
3. “The Russian authorities must keep their people in a state of constant astonishment.”
4. “Reforms are necessary, but no less so than punctuation. In other words: Put reforms in place, then – enough, put a period to that.”
5. “The severity of Russian laws is mitigated by the lack of their binding enforcement.”
6. “No, it’s clear that there are corners in God’s world, where all times are times of transition.”
7. “Any disgrace has its decent side.”
8. “Young ladies ask, am I washing my neck for a high or low décolleté?”
9. “Introduce enlightenment in moderation, if possible avoiding bloodshed.”
10. “You couldn’t quite call Strunnikov stupid in the rude sense of the word, but it’s true he was clever enough, as they say, not to eat wax candles or dry himself with glass.”
11. “Many tend to confuse two concepts: ‘The Fatherland’ and ‘Your Excellency’.”
12. “It is frightening when a person speaks and you do not know why he is speaking, what he is saying, and whether he will ever finish.”
13. “The stubbornness of stupidity is a tremendous power.”
14. “The system is quite simple: never directly allow anything, and never forbid anything directly.”
15. “As you attempt to spread sensible thoughts, it is inevitable that someone will call you a nasty imbecile.”
16. “Everyone in Russia steals. And at the same time, laughing, they add: ‘But when will it all end?'”
17. “What is better – condescension without indulgence, or severity in league with contempt?”
18. “Man is so made that even happiness must be imposed on him.”
19. “There is nothing more dangerous than a man to whom humanity is alien, who is indifferent to the destinies of his native country, to the destinies of his neighbor, and to everything except the fates of the coins he has put into circulation.”
20. “Civic maturity is transitioning from making scandalous jokes to catching the bosses’ eyes more accurately.”
21. “Nothing discourages vice like the awareness that it has been detected and that someone has already had a laugh about it.”
22. “He wanted something: either a constitution, the sturgeon with horseradish, or to haul off and whack someone.”
23. “There are masses of hotheads who have the ‘State’ on their tongues, but a pie filled with state goodies in their thoughts.”
24. “For the sake of science we don’t regret spending someone else’s money.”
25. “In need even the snipe will whistle like a nightingale.”

 

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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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