Tag Archives: Nikolai Gogol

Erotic Pushkin, Gogol and Tolstoy bas reliefs, Moscow

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DSCN9327I had no idea that this place at 4/5 Plotnikov Lane existed. I had never seen nor heard anything about it. Consider, then, my amazement and excitement when I happened to be walking around the Arbat area a couple of weeks ago and I came upon this  – a marvelous home featuring a myriad of mildly erotic bas reliefs of none less than Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol and Leo Tolstoy. Mild as they may be, they are clearly erotic in nature, and, yes, as I said, they involve the great Russian writers Pushkin, Gogol, Tolstoy and, perhaps, Ivan Turgenev, in various suggestive poses with each other or with seemingly faceless others…
It goes without saying that my ignorance is not shared by all. There is plenty on the internet about this structure that is one of several in Moscow called a “Broido home.” Like the one in question here, these were designed by the prominent architect Nikolai Zherikov for the jurist and businessman German Broido. Zherikov, supported by the evidently wealthy Broido, erected several memorable art moderne buildings around the city. Although the main structure of this five-story apartment house (an “income house” in Russian) is not particularly outstanding, the decorations interspersed among the second-floor windows are. It was built in 1907.
A bit of mystery swirls around the bas relief sculptures. Some sources declare the creator is unknown. Others say he is suspected to be Lev Sinaev-Bernshtein, while still others state unequivocally that the works belong to him. I am convinced by the arguments that posit Sinaev-Bernshtein as the author, so I, too, will take that stance.
A few words about the artist before getting to the art. Indeed, Sinaev-Bernshtein specialized in sculptures and bas reliefs of famous cultural figures, and he spent time with Leo Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polyana in the first decade of the 1900s. He was commissioned to create a commemorative medallion of Tolstoy in 1911, a year after the great writer died. Born in Vilno (Vilnius, Lithuania) in 1867, Sinaev-Bernshtein died in 1944 at the hands of the Nazis in the Drancy internment camp near Paris. The Nazis destroyed one of his last works, Youth and Old Age, on which he had worked the last 10 years of his life. He lived primarily in Paris from 1881 on, although he did come to Russia to visit and work from time to time.
Bear with me today. There are a lot of photos below and more text than usual. There was no other way to do this place justice.

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I first did a double take upon seeing that familiar bob cut hairdo on a forlorn figure staring at two lovers over the clumsy inconvenience of a drain pipe. I squinted and moved in closer, and, sure enough, realized I was staring at a pretty good likeness of Nikolai Gogol. (See photo immediately above.) Gogol, his right hand awkwardly inactive at his side, stares at the embracing couple as if trying to figure out what in hell are they doing? Gogol’s sexuality, or his lack of it, has long been the subject of discussion. My acquaintance Simon Karlinsky, the great Russian literature scholar from Berkeley, wrote a book suggesting that Gogol was gay, and I don’t know if anyone has ever successfully refuted that. Or whether it needs refuting. Gogol here does look like an outsider in the feast of heterosexual love going on around him. I wish the figure immediately behind him in the photo above had not literally lost its head. It might give us a few more clues. Gogol here, like Tolstoy and Pushkin elsewhere, is repeated in the same basic pose, no matter what the surroundings. Look, for example, at the photo immediately below. You’ll see Gogol jammed uncomfortably into others’ embraces again, the same limp right arm, the same frozen distance in his eyes. As far as I can see, Pushkin only appears in tandem with Tolstoy, ever the somewhat distracted and uncomfortable object of the big man’s clearly aggressive attentions. Tolstoy is also repeated in the same basic pose elsewhere in the sculptural ensembles, but, depending on the context, you actually see somewhat different stories unfold.
Tolstoy-Pushkin is a delight to behold. I’ve put up several photos that show the combination from various angles. The great author of War and Peace goes after the great author of Eugene Onegin with gusto and passion. Is that a manuscript Tolstoy is holding, or is it a rocket in his pocket? I think it’s the former, although in a different setting, when the object of attention is not Pushkin, you will see that it looks more phallic than bookish. Tolstoy’s fierce eyes and bold pose, in one case, virtually push Pushkin up against the wall. (See the second photo below.) Tolstoy – and this makes great sense – seems to be smelling Pushkin. Don’t you just know that Tolstoy would have wanted to know everything there is to know about the man who created the language he wrote in! The novelist’s left foot steps in boldly on the poet, giving him no way out of this weird encounter. Tolstoy is everything Tolstoy is – adamant, forceful, overbearing, and damned ready to get to the bottom of things. Pushkin, as would be proper for the founder of the contemporary Russian language and the poetry that is written in it, is almost oblivious. He’s clearly backed up in an awkward position, but he doesn’t seem to realize it. His gaze is smooth and unperturbed. He’s fixed his eyes on something distant, something intriguing – perhaps the perfect iamb? We don’t even know if that right hand is being used to ward Tolstoy off – I rather think not. I think Tolstoy just trapped Pushkin’s arm where it was. Perhaps Pushkin was getting ready to pose for a statue and he had grabbed his lapel. And here comes Tolstoy, all animal, all brain, all body, all curious, and he’s going to pin that damn Pushkin down, once and for all! I stood on the street below these marvelous figures and laughed out loud. How could you not? Tolstoy going after Pushkin, all business, all body! I love it.

DSCN9315 DSCN9320 DSCN9324 DSCN9325 DSCN9296 DSCN9299Gogol, as I have noted, looks almost virtually the same no matter what configuration the artist puts him in. As far as I can see, Pushkin only appears in the steamy encounter with Tolstoy. But Tolstoy is given a second encounter, one that looks a little more sinister. (See the third and fourth photos below.) Here Tolstoy is not only paired with a young woman, there is a third figure intruding on the tryst. This individual looks rather like an avenging angel, an angel with an attitude, an angel who does not like what he sees. (I’m assuming that arch over his head is a halo; if it’s not, then my premise falls apart. But I’ll stick with the halo variation.) The muscles in the angel’s left arm are clenched; he is tense. Do his fingers form a fist or are they just beginning to clench into a fist? I see real condemnation in his visage and his stance.
Tolstoy, of course, was famous for his dalliances with peasant women. One might even say he had a compulsion for the women who belonged to him. In his writings he often described men like himself going to “women like that” and it was always a heady intoxication followed by shame and self-loathing. Tolstoy’s attraction to women created enormous problems for his wife Sofya and for himself. One can’t help but think of this as you peruse this trio of figures. Whereas the put-upon Pushkin virtually paid Tolstoy no mind, this young woman, under the old man’s press, appears to be quite ill at ease. She’s been given the same basic pose as Pushkin, but the different circumstances give the whole image a different feel. She is truly trapped. Tolstoy here doesn’t want to know what makes her tick, he’s not sniffing out an ancestor and competitor in the literary game, he quite simply wants this woman. Even the “manuscript” that he holds in his left hand looks much more like a phallus pushing its way up under the writer’s robe as he guides it with his hand.
This one image, more than any of the others, pushes the whole lot over the line from light, humorous eroticism into unabashed, unflinching eroticism – though not without humor.
It is said that Sinaev-Bernshtein’s friezes were originally commissioned by Ivan Tsvetaev (the poet Marina Tsvetaev’s father) for the building in which he planned to open his new Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts on Volkhonka Street in the center of Moscow. The idea, apparently, was to depict the great Russian writers, accompanied by muses, on a procession to see Apollo. According to the story, however, Tsvetaev declined to accept the work when it was completed. It was deemed too risqué, if not downright shocking. So as not to waste good work, the figures were put to use, cut up and moved around, on this building. Over the years the house and the bas reliefs have been dubbed with various names including “the caricature house” and “the house with the naked writers” (although there are no naked figures to be seen). The rumor that this was once a bordello and the sculptures show supposed famous clients is nothing but an urban legend. More reliable – and intriguing to think about – is that this likeness of Tolstoy is apparently the first and only sculptural likeness of the writer created when he was still alive. Tolstoy died three years after this building was erected; Pushkin died in 1837 (70 years before), Gogol in 1852 (55 years before).

DSCN9294 DSCN9314 DSCN9313 DSCN9312 DSCN9322 DSCN9323A few sources suggest that Ivan Turgenev is also depicted among the revelers and onlookers here. I did not see him on my own when I discovered the building (Pushkin, Gogol and Tolstoy are obvious), and even after going back over my photos, I continue to have doubts that Turgenev is pictured here. However, since most everything is in the eye of the beholder, I offer a couple of shots that may – I say, may – show a young Turgenev in the embraces of a young woman. Look at the final photo below. Is Turgenev the second figure from the right? (He would be the one on the extreme left in the penultimate photo, just parts of his head and right hand visible on the corner behind the female figure/muse.) Something about the hair, the mouth and the eyes here are reminiscent of some images we have of Turgenev early on in his life. Take a gander at this drawing, for instance. Our bas relief lacks the beard and mustache, to be sure, but some of the other details intrigue, even if they don’t convince entirely. Is this the same figure who stands between Gogol and a woman in the photo immediately above? I don’t know. They look different to me, although the overall composition – minus Gogol – is quite similar.
In short, Turgenev remains a question mark here, but everything else about this place gets exclamation points. I am terribly torn between potential favorites – the fierce Tolstoy backing the oblivious Pushkin into a corner, or the somewhat clueless Gogol trying to squeeze into threesomes without quite figuring out how to do it. Whatever the case, unless someone comes up with some money to save these unique bas reliefs soon, they’ll be long gone and we’ll only have these photos to remind us that they ever existed at all. This building is included on the list of protected architectural sites in Moscow, although, as one can see, nobody seems to be doing anything about stopping the rot. Is it possible that this place makes the authorities too uncomfortable and they are simply waiting for it to self-destruct? You bet it is. And what a shame it will be to lose this wonderful, unexpected treasure.

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Maria Sollogub’s literary salon, Moscow

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This is one of the nicer homes in my expanded neighborhood. Someday I’ll have to leave it behind, but it will always remain strong in my memory. It stands cattycorner across from the Tretyakov Gallery, and directly across from the famous Writers’ house on Lavrushensky Lane. (If you’re one of those, like a benighted editor I once had, who doesn’t know the word cattycorner [or caddycorner], expand your vocabulary: The Grammarist, in a lovely, long article tells us that it means “positioned diagonally across a four-way intersection, but … can work in other contexts relating to one thing being diagonal from another.” It’s a very useful word.) But I already digress.
The main structure at 3 Bolshoi Tolmachyovsky Lane dates back to 1772, while most of the decoration, added after the Moscow Fire of 1812, dates to 1814. The gorgeous wrought-iron gate and fences were originally created in the 1760s, but were not put up here until the 1820s. The wings to either side of the building were added in the years 1849-1859 by then-owner Maria Fyodorovna Sollogub (1821-1888), who is the reason for this post today. (Note that in the historical record her last name is sometimes found spelled with a single “L” but the accepted spelling for her family is with the double “L”.) Maria was born into a well-known and well-connected family in St. Petersburg. Her father was Fyodor Samarin, a military man, and her mother was Sofya Neledinskaya-Meletskaya (whose father, in turn, was something of a poet – one of his poems became the popular romance, “Whenever I Go Out to the River”). Two of her brothers had connections to what today we might call the “creative class” – Dmitry Samarin wrote essays and small books defending Slavophile views, while Yury Samarin was a philosopher and a good friend of many writers, including Konstantin Aksakov, Ivan Kireevsky, Alexei Khomyakov and others. In this family of learned, prominent people, Maria had the opportunity to meet many of the early great Russian writers – including Alexander Pushkin and Nikolai Gogol. Maria was well-educated (at home) and had a sharp, inquisitive mind. She was known to her contemporaries as a brilliant conversationalist. The philosopher and jurist Boris Chicherin called her “one of the most worthy women I ever met in my life” and noted her “solid, clear and fundamental intellect.” As was the rule for the time, she was groomed for marriage and one of the pretenders, if I may put it that way, was Andrei Karamzin, the son of the great historian Nikolai Karamzin. However, her authoritarian father prevailed and in 1846 she was handed in marriage to Lev Sollogub, the older brother of the then well-known writer Vladimir Sollogub, best known for his light society tales and his vaudevillian dramas. In short, Maria was – right from the beginning of her life on through into the thick of it – surrounded by literature and writers.

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That marriage not only brought Maria to Moscow, it turned out to be something of a disaster when, after a few years, Lev Sollogub lost, shall we say, contact with reality, and Maria was left to care for him until he died in 1852. The couple’s only child – Fyodor Sollogub (1848-1890) – became a costume designer for theater, as well as a sometime poet and actor.  (Don’t confuse him with the symbolist Fyodor Sologub, whose real last name was Teternikov.) He was a good friend of Leo Tolstoy’s and stood at the origins of a small theatrical organization with the bland name of the Moscow Society of Lovers of Art and Literature. We remember this society today because it is the place where Konstantin Stanislavsky took his first baby steps in the theater world before moving on to found the Moscow Art Theater. In fact, Stanislavsky credited Sollogub with being one of the few people whose ideas and support helped him consolidate his thoughts on a new kind of theater.
Maria clearly loved and appreciated good company and good talk, for the “evenings” or “get-togethers” or “salons” that she hosted in her home were well-known and well attended. The Russian Field website tells us that “the Sollogub home became a popular literary-political salon, frequenters of which included Alexei Khomyakov, the Kireevsky brothers [Ivan and Pyotr], the Aksakov brothers [Konstantin and Ivan], Konstantin Kavelin, Ivan Turgenev, Boris Chicherin and others. In other words, Slavophiles and Westerners alike gathered here in comfort.”
Details about Maria’s salon are not easy to come by although I did find a description of a theater production of an early Turgenev play that was put on there. Here is a text drawn from a Turgenev website:
“The Provincial Lady was performed on the amateur stage of Countess Sollogub in early January 1851. The author ignored the first performance. But, having heard of its success, he attended the second. Countess M. F. Sollogub was the wife of Lev Alexandrovich Sollogub, a cousin of the Vasilchikovs and Countess Cherkasskaya. Visiting her home, Turgenev naturally met her many relatives, but Countess Cherkasskaya, who played the lead role in the play, disappointed the writer. In a letter to Pauline Viardot on January 5, 1851, he wrote, ‘Day before yesterday I had a great success. The actors were loathsome, especially the heroine (Countess Cherkasskaya), although that did not stop either the public from applauding excessively or me from going backstage to congratulate them heartily. Still and all, I was satisfied that I attended the performance. I think that my play will have success on the theatrical stage, since it has been appreciated, even though it was abominated by dilettantes… I received many congratulations, compliments et cetera. You know, it’s amusing to see your own work on the stage.”
In fact, Turgenev in another letter to his love Viardot (published on the Turgenev page of the az.lib.ru site), reveals that he was quite nervous about the little premiere. Here is an excerpt from a letter he wrote New Year’s Day 1851:
This evening one of my manuscript comedies will be played on the amateur stage at Countess Sollogub’s. I was invited to attend the performance but I, of course, will refrain from that; I am too afraid that I will play a silly role. I’ll write to you about what results.”
As such, in addition to all the interesting conversations and meetings that these walls witnessed during the years that Sollogub lived here, it was also the place of the world premiere of Turgenev’s The Provincial Lady. Sollogub sold the estate in 1882 and it became a gymnasium (high school). It is currently the K.D. Ushinsky pedagogical library.

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Alexander Pushkin at Nashchokin’s, Moscow

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I have so many photographs of plaques and busts and monuments of Alexander Pushkin’s presence in Russia that I could almost – almost – get away with doing a blog devoted just to him. This location today has two plaques commemorating the fact that Alex used to hang out here with his friend Pavel Nashchokin in 1831-32.  Actually one plaque (see above) declares what I have just stated; a second, the more generic kind of plaque (that you see immediately below) claims that Pushkin “lived here with his friend P.V. Nashchokin” in 1831. The two apparently made an excellent pair. Pushkin “loved life,” as the saying goes, and Nashchokin appears to have loved it no less. When his mother died she left all her considerable properties to Pavel’s older brother and sister because she knew her youngest son would squander it in no time. Here is what one  Russian history  website writes about Pavel Nashchokin: “Nashchokin was a cheerful, extravagant, reckless man who was quick to lend money and quick to forget to demand payment of the debt, never abandoned the homeless and unsettled, was a peacemaker who shared the last coin he had. He would become fabulously rich, winning cards or receiving an unexpected inheritance, after which he would throw Lucullean feasts for his friends…” The obvious next step of that phrase is he could just as easily lose everything he had. He was up to his neck in debt within months of his mother’s death in 1828.
In the early 1830s Nashchokin moved often, residing at five different addresses in the first half of the decade. It’s a boon for Pushkin fans, for it assured us a spate of plaques going up a few hundred years later to commemorate all these meeting places.
The structure we peruse today is 4/2 at the corner of Gagarinsky Lane and Nashchokin Lane. It’s a lovely early 19th-century building, one of those low, two-story, stand-alone buildings, painted in that powdery yellow I so love (the photos here distort it some, itlooks duller than in real life). I have no idea what color it was 185 years ago, of course.
The same site I quoted earlier adds this lovely tidbit about Pushkin coming into Moscow from his home in St. Petersburg and telling cabbies to take him to Nashchokin’s: “When he was in Moscow, Pushkin always stayed with Voinych [that was Nashchokin’s patronymic]. He was always as amused as a child when the cabbies would faultlessly find the road to the home of his friend who often changed apartments.”
In other words, of course, Nashchokin’s was a place many a cabbie had driven to.
Russian Wikipedia tells us that by 1831, Nashchokin had two children, a boy and a girl, by a Gypsy singer whose name was Olga Soldatova. Pushkin became the girl’s God father, just as Nashchokin was God father to Pushkin’s first son, Alexander. Pushkin asked Pavel to be God father to his second son, but Nashchokin was ill at the time and could not make the trip from Moscow to St. Petersburg.

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Pushkin (1799-1837) and Nashchokin (1801-1854) first met when the two were kids at the Tsarskoe Selo college in 1814-15. Nashchokin spent time as an officer in the Tsar’s army, but retired for “domestic reasons” in 1823 at the age of 22. The two grew close after Pushkin spent time in exile after the Decembrist Uprising in 1825. Nashchokin never did anything that would have caused anyone other than direct descendants to remember him, but his friendship with Pushkin made him something of a folk figure, and even a relatively frequent object of serious study. It is the reality of Pushkin in Russia that anything or anyone he ever touched or even cast an eye on became an object of considerable historical interest. The Pushkin scholar Mikhail Gershenzon wrote a 70-page essay in 1912 entitled “Pushkin’s Friend Nashchokin,” which considers not only the retired officer’s relationship with Pushkin, but also with Nikolai Gogol. Be forewarned: This is what happens when you hang out with a famous person and then a scholar comes along to comment:
Nashchokin interests Pushkin clearly for his purely artistic features: the attractive expressiveness of his personality and life,
the harmonic play between his relatively large spiritual powers and his typical love of domestic life. Pushkin primarily admires Nashchokin unselfishly as a luxurious object of attention, then studies him, reflecting on the mechanics of this phenomenon, seeking in his actions general psychological and historical laws. It is impossible to deny that Gogol, too, was attracted by Nashchokin’s picturesque qualities; but he [Gogol] consciously neglects this aspect of the matter and hastens to transform this vivid image, which Pushkin appreciated as a poetic jewel, into an instrument of practical use, a tool for the structuring of society. Pushkin could be fascinated by Nashchokin for the very process of his turbulent emotions, whether full of drama or typically common; for Gogol his manifestations of sinfulness and social malignancy were repulsive...”
Gershenzon notwithstanding, Nashchokin, during his life, was one of the liveliest figures, not an object of study, at the center of Russian cultural life. Aside from Pushkin, the crown jewel, to be sure, Nashchokin counted among his friends the poets Vasily Zhukovsky, Yevgeny Baratynsky, Denis Davydov, Nikolai Yazykov, the novelist Mikhail Zagoskin, the philosopher Pyotr Chaadaev, the painters Karl Bryullov and Vasily Tropinin, the composer Alexei Verstovsky, the actor Mikhail Shchepkin and the critic Vissarion Belinsky.
Belinsky called Nashchokin “a kind and splendid person.”

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Dead Show “Gravestone,” Moscow

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This, as Lewis Carroll might have said, is one of the curiouser memorial plaques in Moscow. Maybe anywhere. It lies in a corner of the Aquarium Garden just off of Triumphal Square (known popularly still as Mayakovsky Square), in front of the right side of the Mossoviet Theater. It first showed up in the year 2000, when Oleg Menshikov, the popular actor and founder of the 814 Theatrical Association, decided to mark the closing of his production of Alexander Griboyedov’s Woe from Wit with a bit of macabre humor. (Menshikov’s shows, until he took over the Yermolova Theater a few years ago, invariably played in Moscow at the Mossoviet, a venue where he once briefly was a member of the company.) Menshikov had a gravestone-like marker made up with the inscription “Production of A.S. Griboyedov’s play Woe from Wit, 1998-2000″ and he sunk it into the ground. Later he added other “dead” shows to the plaque – Maksym Kurochkin’s Kitchen, 2000-2002, and Nikolai Gogol’s The Gamblers, 2002-2005.
However, don’t take everything you read, especially on gravestones, to be the gospel truth. The Gamblers is actually still performed from time to time to this day.  The story on that is as follows: Menshikov is famous for being a dynamic kind of guy. He doesn’t linger long in any once place, doing any one thing. When he begins getting bored with something, he moves on. His credo is that it’s better to close a show when it’s at the peak of its popularity than it is to keep playing until audiences realize the old magic is waning. And anybody who has ever seen an old, wheezing, gasping show that should have been closed long ago will understand this well. Thus did Menshikov close both Woe from Wit and Kitchen when both were still packing audiences in like sardines in a can, raisins in a box, stars in the sky. He did the same with The Gamblers in 2005, but his friend, and one of the performers in the show, Viktor Sukhorukov, was furious. Viktor simply did not understand why anybody would stop playing a production that was so fantastically successful. And so he badgered Menshikov until Menshikov gave in and brought the show back to life. Surely there are few people capable of badgering Menshikov like that, so let’s all stand and give Sukhorukov a round of applause. Very rare instance, indeed. By the time Menshikov brought the show back, however, the news of the “death” of The Gamblers had already been impaled in stone for all of eternity. True or not: RIP – 2002-2005.

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I was present at the unveiling of the second renewing of the plaque on June 25, 2002, the day of the last performance of Kitchen. My wife Oksana Mysina played one of the leads (Queen Kriemhild) and so I was there to attend the big afterparty, which for many, who regretted that the show was ending so soon, did resemble a funeral as much as a celebration. Anyway, after everyone had had plenty of drinks and all the celebrity guests were full of smiles and laughter and had tried out a few wobbly dance steps, Menshikov called everyone out into the late-night dark of the park. The Woe from Wit gravestone was covered with a veil that, when it was ripped off, revealed the birth and death dates of Kitchen itself – a show we had seen still living and breathing just hours before.  At that time nobody knew Menshikov was susceptible to being badgered, so we all took it as final proof that Kitchen would never rise again. At least not in that incarnation. And we were right.
A few more details on this marker.
It spends several months a year buried under snow, so that in the winter few are aware of its existence. Actually, because this is a corner where snow gets dumped when it’s shoveled off the sidewalk, the marker remains buried even for some time after much of the snow is gone. These photos were taken shortly after the last snow disappeared, but well before any of the grass or other greenery began coming in this spring. It seems fitting for a gravestone to be surrounded by gloomy, raw earth and tangly dead branches…
Finally there is the lovely fact that shortly after Kitchen was added to the marker, some grim grave robber came into the park one shadowless late night and made off with the whole plaque as a souvenir. Menshikov had to have a second version made and this time, the word is, he attached it to an incredibly deep and heavy base that goes who-knows-how-far into the earth.
Still, not all is gloom and doom here, as you will notice if you click on the last photo below and take a good look. It so happened that as I was taking that picture, I entirely by accident caught a couple embracing and kissing against the neon backdrop of an American diner that stands across the park from the Mossoviet Theater. As the Latin scholars said, art is short but love is long. Or something like that…

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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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“Alexander Pushkin,” Keanea Peninsula, Maui, HI

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Alexander Pushkin is in the eye of the beholder. That is all I can conclude from a trip my wife and I recently took to the Keanea Peninsula on the famous road to Hana in Maui, Hawaii. Oksana refused to see Pushkin either in the lava rock formation or in my pictures of it. “Where?! Where is he?!” she kept asking me as the waves came crashing over the rocks. “I don’t see him! He’s not there!” She said the same thing again when we got home and I pointed out all the fine points I had captured in a series of photos. “You’re making that all up!” she said.
I turned to my mother for support, forgetting that Mom wouldn’t know Pushkin from Presley. My mother knows a hell of a lot, much more than I ever will. It’s a truism in our family: If you don’t know something, just ask Mom. She knows everything. Almost everything, anyway. Everything except Russian literature and rock ‘n’ roll…

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But my mom – let’s leave her alone. Oksana, my wife, now, is another thing. She’s Russian. And like any Russian she can stand on one leg and recite Pushkin’s poetry until every foreigner in the room drops from exhaustion. How could she let me down? How could she not share this great discovery with me?
Maybe I’m thinking of a cross between the famous photos of his death mask and some of the famous portraits by Orest Kiprensky or Vasily Tropinin, but he’s right there, isn’t he? The sideburns, the curly hair… Okay, I’ll admit he’s got Dostoevsky’s beard. But you know what I find remarkable? The fact that Dostoevsky’s beard actually suits Pushkin really well. Why shouldn’t it if Dostoevsky admitted that all Russian literature emerged from Nikolai Gogol’s “The Overcoat” and Nikolai Gogol, as we all know, purportedly wrote his famous play The Inspector General based on an idea Pushkin tossed him… Hence…
Logic not sound enough? Well, I’ve never been a great fan of hard logic, but when I see Alexander Pushkin in a chunk of Hawaiian lava, I know what I see.

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Nikolai Gogol monument No. 2, Moscow

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At first glance it’s an almost cherubic face with a piercing gaze. It is, in other words, the absolute opposite of the monument it was created to replace – the one we talked about in yesterday’s blog, the so-called “mourning” Gogol that was erected in 1909. This Nikolai Gogol, created by Nikolai Tomsky, and erected on Prechistensky Boulevard (now Gogolevsky Boulevard) in 1952, was done with Joseph Stalin’s approval. It presented what many had wanted for decades – a monument to strength, to power, to health, to greatness (in that narrow definition of unassailability) – to all those things that governments and weak-willed individuals tend to worship unthinkingly. The tie is just right. The buttons are in order. The cloak hangs regally, the face gazes forward boldly, the left hand holds the book lightly but with certainty. I don’t want to say this is a bad monument. It isn’t. It is effective in its own way. But because of its history – it was created specifically to replace another work – it cannot stand on its own merits entirely. It is tied to the monument that it defeated in place, but to which it loses in artistic quality.

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But there is a fascinating backstory here. To rely again on my friend Stephen Moeller-Sally’s excellent book Gogol’s Afterlife: The Evolution of A Classic in Imperial and Soviet Russia, this new monument sneaked Stalin’s own visage into that of Gogol’s. Steve places photos of a portrait of Stalin next to a bust of Gogol that Tomsky made in 1951, and for which he was awarded the Stalin Prize. The similarity of the two faces is striking. I would even say it is undeniable. (For the truly curious among you, this is on page 159 – if you can’t break into it on Google books, do the honorable thing and buy Steve’s book.) That might explain why Tomsky was chosen to do the larger monument, and it also would justify why a shadow of Stalin’s face still lurks in it.
“What could have been the point of this metaphoric joining of Gogol and Stalin?” Moeller-Sally asks. “Why did Gogol become a symbolic double of the Great Leader? To begin with it is worth pausing over the paradoxical position that Stalin occupied in relation to the [current] patriotic campaign. Although he championed Russian ethnic primacy after the war, and had even laid the foundation for the campaign in his victory toast to the great Russian nation in 1945, Stalin himself was a Georgian. Strange as it may seem, Gogol was therefore in a position to justify the Leader’s patriotism. Gogol, after all, was also a non-Russian – an impostor from the South – who nonetheless occupied a central, authoritative place in Russian culture. Indeed, Russia was the most important theme of his mature work. No one would have challenged the Ukrainian Gogol’s devotion to Russian culture, so why then dispute the patriotism of the Georgian Stalin?”
Moeller-Sally goes on to write: “The new monument openly attributed to Stalin the powerful Gogolian gaze, which, in its creator Tomsky’s words, could ‘penetrate the human soul.’ The theme of the all-seeing eye appears frequently in Gogol’s fiction and would have had a special resonance at the beginning of the 1950s, when rumors alleged that Stalin was preparing for another purge. For example, a chain of metaphorical substitution connected Gogol and Stalin with the Inspector General, who symbolized a promise of vengeance for corruption and other ‘little sins’ against the state. Thus the erection of the new monument presaged the coming ‘last judgment.'”
In my opinion the photo that shows the Stalinesque gaze best of all here is the last one below.
Is Steve going too far? Well, I’ll tell you what, if you stand around the Tomsky monument for too long you begin to get the creeps. In all its “healthy power” it is off-putting in a kind of supernatural way. It’s too damn “positive” in the way that the Hitlerjugend were. Steve provides me with a convincing  reason as to why I have that reaction.
Now two more things. 1) Stalin got his comeuppance. This monument was unveiled March 2, 1952. Exactly one year and one day later Stalin died. Take that. Zap! Gogol’s demons did it. Believe me. And 2) Pigeons take their revenge as well. As I was photographing, a pigeon alighted on Gogol’s head and peed. If you look at Gogol’s cheek in the last photo immediately above, you’ll see the trace of urine curling down under his chin. I prefer to think that the pigeons know whose face they really are defiling.

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