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Povarskaya Street was a hopping cultural hub in the early 20th century. In 1905 Konstantin Stanislavsky rented a space in the Nemchinov building right at the beginning of Povarskaya where Vsevolod Meyerhold briefly, but famously, ran his Studio on Povarskaya. (That building was torn down in the Soviet era when Kalinin Prospect was widened.) Right around the corner from Povarskaya, on Borisoglebsky Lane, the poet Marina Tsvetaeva moved into her new digs in 1914 and remained there until 1922. The famous Lithuanian poet Jurgis Baltrushaitis lived at 24 Povarskaya from 1920 to 1939 when he was the first ambassador of Lithuania to the Soviet Union. But today we have our eye on Povarskaya 26, the next building over. This was the home of Ivan Bunin, who was later to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature during his time in European exile. As the plaque on the building’s front facade declares, Bunin lived here from 1912 to 1918. That is particularly interesting because it means that Bunin and Tsvetaeva were neighbors for the course of about four years. There’s a park right across the street from Bunin’s building and, assuming it was there 100 years ago, one wants to imagine the occasional warm spring day when both writers might have stepped out to catch some fresh air and ended up sharing a bench together, or, at least, one of them passing by the other, who might have been sitting and reading or jotting down notes.
A couple of people missed crossing paths with Bunin here. One was Mikhail Lermontov, who lived in a different building, now lost, on this very spot in 1829 and 1830 when he wrote, among other works, his great narrative poem The Demon. Anyone who knows Boris Pilnyak’s great novel The Naked Year will recognize my little homage to Pilnyak in that little phrase of “now lost…” In his novel, to great effect, Pilnyak lists things and places that were fast disappearing at the time he wrote The Naked Year. That novel begins with the words, “On the city fortress wall gates it was written (now destroyed): Save, O, Lord/This city and your people…” It’s just the first of many such times he plays with that device.
And so now I can bear my own device: Boris Pilnyak is one of those who lived in this very building, although not at the same time as Bunin. Bunin moved out in 1918, Pilyak moved in two years later, in 1920. Pilnyak’s presence here is not recorded in any way. Perhaps that is fitting, as if to say: Boris Pilnyak, now gone, did live here once, though there is nothing here to prove that true.
Somehow Bunin (1870-1953) and I sort of pass like ships in the night. I have read his short stories (some, not all, by any stretch of the imagination); I have seen theater performances created of his stories; I have read about him and seen movies about him. I know the basic story well – the fine, subtle writer who spanned all the way back to the late 19th-century and the Chekhov era, yet who lived well into the 1950s, i.e., the post-war and even post-Stalin age. But I have never connected with his work as I have with so many others – Pilnyak included, I might add.
My little shortcomings in taste and knowledge aside, others have had a different view. Bunin was the first Russian writer to be honored with the Nobel Prize in Literature; he received it in 1933. Like other, later Russian winners of that prize, it is usually assumed that there was more than a little politics in the choice. Bunin was considered by some to be the greatest living Russian writer in exile (he left the Soviet Union in 1920 and never went back). The prize, say some, was intended to support the difficult situation surrounding Russian writers in exile, and to highlight the lack of freedom writers enjoyed in the Soviet Union. (Tsvetaeva, for example, would have a tough time in Europe and returned to the Soviet Union where she committed suicide in 1941.) Other Russian Nobel winners were Boris Pasternak (1958), the official Soviet novelist Mikhail Sholokhov (1965) and Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1970). Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn were both persecuted to varying degrees, and their prizes reflected that. Sholokhov, it is believed, was given the prize to mollify the Soviet authorities after the “insults” of Bunin and Pasternak’s wins. None of this will ever be proved until the Nobel committee opens its archives, which will probably be never. As such, the conversations and speculation continue.
Bunin was very much of the grand old school of Russian realism (whether that term is legitimate or not). He is often compared in style and impact to Tolstoy and Chekhov. He is similar to the former in his belief in the great power that literature can wield, while he is closer to the latter in stylistic spirit. Bunin, like Chekhov, was a master of the short story. He was concise, clear and unwavering in his insistence on painting the nuances of life in their proper dark tones.
Bunin was born in the city of Voronezh and, as fate would have it, I travel there myself for the first time ever in a few days. If, in any way, I have slighted the great man’s memory with this post, I will seek to rectify that with a post I expect to write soon after visiting his place of birth.