Tag Archives: Nikolai Leskov

Monument to Nikolai Leskov’s Lefty, Tula

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It has gone under a lot of different titles in English, but Nikolai Leskov’s popular tale about a metal-working craftsman is known just one way in Russian – as one of the iconic short stories in the canon. That’s no mean feat. Figure that any course in Russian short fiction of the 19th century will include works by Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Ivan Turgenev, Anton Chekhov and a few others… No shabby competition.
Leskov was a fabulous writer. He’s hell to translate because he wrote in a colloquial narrative that is so rich in Russian it rattles off your tongue in big, clattering chunks and juicy drops. In literary criticism there is even a term to describe Leskov’s (and not only Leskov’s) manner of writing – skaz. I’m not going to be able to translate that for you either, except to say that’s what we mean by the phrase “colloquial narrative.” Skaz literally means something like tale or telling (it comes from the verb “to say”). It also can mean “a” or “the tale,” which is how Leskov employs it in his title of this story, “The Tale of Cross-eyed Lefty from Tula and of the Steel Flea.” Leskov wrote the story in 1881 and, as far as I can determine, it was first translated into English by Isabel F. Hapgood in 1916. She called it merely “The Steel Flea.” I must say, because I love it so much, that this translation of the story was, as the title page declares, “privately printed for the Company of Gentlemen Adventurers at the Merrymount Press, Boston.” (Wikipedia prints a picture of the title page.) That’s right, that’s the kind of gentlemen adventurers we used to have in the United States! They craved stories by one of Russia’s most untranslatable writers. These days it takes Oprah to say Anna Karenina to get anyone to read a Russian book. Ekh!
Anyway, here is the story about Lefty (Levsha) in short.
The Russian Tsar traveled to England where he encountered an astonishing thing – a minuscule dancing, mechanical flea. So amazed was he that he brought the little engineering miracle home with him to see if some Russian master could equal or better the feat. The mechanical flea is naturally sent to the city of Tula, which was, is and always will be famed around Russia for its metal works. This is where most of Russia’s weaponry was and still is made. The city’s buttons pop with pride for the guns, swords, tanks and samovars that their metal factories turn out.
Anyway, the job of besting the Brits is turned over to three of the best metalworkers in town. They hole themselves up and go to work in secret. Eventually, they emerge, flushed and exhausted. When the fruits of their labors are delivered to the Tsar – Lefty, one of the trio, was chosen to go to Moscow to show off their work – everyone is disappointed. They can’t see that anything has been done to better the mechanical flea. That is when Lefty puts the Emperor in his place: “Take a closer look,” he says. “You just haven’t noticed yet.” That is when, with the help of a strong magnifying glass, the Sovereign realizes that his Russian craftsmen have put tiny little shoes on the tiny little mechanical flea. Moreover, each has left his signature on the shoes.  Lefty himself made the nails that attached the shoes to the flea’s feet, and they are so small that you can’t even see them. Nobody seems to care much that the mechanical flea will no longer dance…
The story goes on. Lefty is sent to England, which he doesn’t like and, on his way home, he befriends a British sailor with whom he drinks a bit too much. The result is that he is thrown in jail in St. Petersburg where he is left to die. It’s a Russian story, of course, so it goes on even further, but now it’s up to you to find the story and read it yourself if you want to know it. Isabel F. Hapgood’s translation for those gentlemen adventurers can be read online, should you wish to do that.

The monument to Lefty in Tula now stands on a small plaza on Sovetskaya Street just across from the Svyato-Nikolsky cathedral, south of the Upa River, and right at the perimeter of the huge Levsha (Lefty) Armory Company. It was originally erected on the grounds of the Tula Machine-Building Plant in 1989, coming a little too late to mark the 100th anniversary of the publishing of Leskov’s story. It was moved to its current location in 2009 so that mere mortals would be able to see it (it was behind a locked gate in its original location). It’s nice to note that the statue was created by a local sculptor, an employee of the metalworks, Bronislav Krivokhin. The base of the pedestal bears quotes from various local celebrities who have had their say about the story or about the fame of Tula’s metalworks. The quote I show in a photo below is from Leskov’s story. It reads, “Look at that, why don’t you! Why, those sly dogs, they have shoed that English flea with shoes!”
I’m not quite sure I can get behind the enthusiastic descriptions of the monument made by local observers. First, the location for the statue is anything but ideal. It feels rather out of place – there’s a high fence right behind it, and the square in front of it has no aesthetic structure to it at all. Lefty looks rather like he’s been hung out to dry here, as, indeed, he was in the original story.
As for Lefty himself, he’s looking pretty heroic here to me. He’s got that blank Soviet gaze into the future as he looks upon the fruits of his labor. His expression is deadly serious, his hair is well-coiffed. He’s got the body of Adonis. He’s got buns like a ballet dancer. His left arm, holding his work tool, is ready to go back to work at any moment. I don’t quite see the “cross-eyed” Tulan metal worker here. One website writes: “An inimitable facial expression conveys the hero’s inner state. The whole figure radiates positive contentment and pride.” I’ll agree with that first phrase, but the second, I don’t believe, is in the favor of this piece of public art. In any case, we all understand that the city and the factory needed what they needed, and so that is what they got…
Having said all that – I love the idea of the monument. In fact, I got a big kick out of the monument itself. I love the idea of a monument to a literary figure. I would say it is an even bigger sign of Leskov’s accomplishment than if they would have erected a bust or sculpture of him. When your literary creations live their own life to the extent that Lefty does, that’s success. My hat’s off to Tula for putting this statue up, no matter what I say about it.

 

 

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Dmitry Shostakovich monument, Moscow

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Yes, it’s a bit comics-like. Yes, it’s a bit awkward. Yes, it’s a bit crude. But I think all those aspects suit the subject – Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-1975).
There’s no point in trying to determine what artist suffered most during the Soviet period. As harsh as it may sound, that would be like trying to determine which grain of sand on the beach is the biggest or smallest. Just try and figure. If you were going to take on that pointless task you would obviously start with those who were tortured to death, then those who were “just” killed, then those who were “allowed to die,” and then you would go on from there. Shostakovich, thank God, was able to live out his life. He didn’t live it out untouched and he didn’t live it out the way he would have chosen. There’s no way of knowing if he was so worn down by the battles and humiliations that he ran out of gas before he might have under different circumstances, a month short of his 69th birthday. But he did live, and he lived to see his work recognized in his  homeland and abroad. That’s no small thing.
As I pointed out in an earlier post on this site, Shostakovich quickly gained fame for his striking, unusual compositions from a very early age. His ground-breaking opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, based on the dark novella of sex and murder by Nikolai Leskov, was written between 1930 and 1932. It was staged in the composer’s hometown of St. Petersburg in January of 1934 at the Maly Leningrad Opera Theater and was received enthusiastically. However, a notorious attack on the composer and his work appeared in Pravda more or less on the second anniversary of the opera’s premiere. Entitled “Muddle instead of Music,” it cast a dark cloud over Shostakovich that lasted for decades. Wikipedia has a nice story about how that article came about. It’s worth repeating here:
Shostakovich was away on a concert tour in Arkhangelsk when he heard news of the first Pravda article. Two days before the article was published on the evening of 28 January, a friend had advised Shostakovich to attend the Bolshoi Theatre production of Lady Macbeth. When he arrived, he saw that Joseph Stalin and the Politburo were there. In letters written to his friend Ivan Sollertinsky, Shostakovich recounted the horror with which he watched as Stalin shuddered every time the brass and percussion played too loudly. Equally horrifying was the way Stalin and his companions laughed at the love-making scene between Sergei and Katerina. Eyewitness accounts testify that Shostakovich was ‘white as a sheet’ when he went to take his bow after the third act.”
A second public “denunciation” came in 1948 when Shostakovich was named in one of the infamous Zhdanov decrees, this one attacking so-called “formalism” in Soviet music. The document called out Shostakovich, Sergei Prokofiev and Aram Khachaturian, following a similar document that in 1946 had attacked the writers Mikhail Zoshchenko and Anna Akhmatova as well as several theater critics. The composers were not officially “rehabilitated” until 1958, although Stalin himself loosened the screws in 1949 shortly before sending Shostakovich to represent the Soviet Union at the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace in New York.
One cannot be sure whether this was a positive thing for Shostakovich or not. He was, thereby, forced into the position of publicly praising to the world his de facto jailers, the very individuals and system that had tormented him for 15 years. Stalin’s death in 1953 eased the pressure on the composer again, but he never quite escaped the long, hard hand of the Soviet government. He was essentially forced to join the Communist Party in 1960 and from then on he often had to sing its praises in speeches and in his music. It is commonly felt that Shostakovich suffered as much as any artist who survived the excesses of the Soviet period. Of course, his great and sweeping oeuvre stands as a testament to his talent and his inner strength. The art won in the end, thanks to the tenacity of the individual.

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All of this is evident in the monument that Georgy Frangulyan erected in Shostakovich’s memory on the steps of the Moscow House of Music on May 28, 2015. It was the first monument commemorating the great artist in Moscow.
Frangulyan created the image of a deeply private individual, one who is obviously used to withstanding suffering. It may have bent him, it may have distorted his facial expression, but this is the figure of one who has weathered whatever came his way. The hard, exaggerated furrows in his brow bear witness to that. The head is down; it cares nothing about what is going on all around. Passersby, Moscow traffic – none of it exists for him. He is in his own world. The legs are crossed tightly, another sign of a man closing himself off to the world. Chances are his right hand is conducting some snippet of music that this he hears in his head. But it is not a public conductor’s gesture, not one that would be employed from a podium before an orchestra and a hall full of people. This is a private gesture, a small, approximate gesture, one that means something only to Shostakovich. It is, perhaps, his way of personally “hearing” his music with his body. From some angles, as in the second photo below, the hand may be “thinking” about playing notes on a piano. Of course, from other angles, it might be the beginning of him raising his arm to fend of blows – of any kind that might be thrown at him. (See the second and third photos above.) I like this aspect of Frangulyan’s sculpture – the arm gesture is very specific, yet open to interpretation. It is one of the things that give the sculpture life.
It is worth thinking for a moment about the significance of a monument like this appearing in Moscow today (just over a year ago). Increasingly, we are subjected to comments, actions and even attacks from Russian cultural authorities that harken back to the age of the Zhdanov decrees and even the denunciations in the press from the 1930s. We are constantly told by politicians, by media figures and by official patriots, that life in Russia has never been better, that the country is great, its history is great, and there are no problems aside from those that have been created by evil outside forces and the nasty people who support them for evil reasons. Don’t get me wrong. We have not returned – yet – to the exact atmosphere of the Soviet 1930s, but we are living in a time that has borrowed that era’s intonations and general methods.
To see this harried, hunkered, set-upon image of Shostakovich today is to set eyes upon a contemporary. I don’t know if any of the authorities who surely beamed happily the day of the unveiling have any idea about this or not. But it is a fact. When you stand behind Shostakovich here and gaze out on the endless stream of cars racing past on the Garden Ring Road, you realize that contemporary Moscow is as alien to you as it is to this image of Shostakovich.

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