Tag Archives: Russian poetry

Alexei Koltsov monument, Voronezh

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I think this monument to Alexei Koltsov (1809-1842) is absolutely fabulous. I love it. I’m not always won over entirely by the Soviet monumental style, although I’m rarely able to reject it entirely. There is something about it, when it’s done with talent, that just comes right after you. That sure happens with this monument by sculptor Pavel Bondarenko and architect Igor Savichev (I’m not 100% sure on that first name – Russian sources are stubborn in listing him only with his initials, I.A.). In fact, it is so bold that many in Voronezh did not like it when it was erected in 1976. Twenty-one years later, in 1997, it was moved away from a nearby church (Pokrovsky cathedral) and re-positioned more deeply among the trees in Soviet Square where it wouldn’t be quite as dominant. I don’t know, I think it’s wonderful. I love everything about it – the granite-wave coif; the huge, single-fold “dress” he’s wearing; the pockmarks in the granite; the severe gaze out from under the monstrous eyebrows; the graceful, left hand with the elongated fingers; the clunky, brute fist of his right hand;the angle of the “dress” coming up at the bottom that reveals he has no feet or legs; the clearly visible horizontal lines marking where the separate chunks of granite were attached to make a single piece big enough to handle this monster. I like the pedestal with the old-fashioned lettering. I like the fact that the bottom support platform is low enough and deep enough for young people of flesh and blood to gather and sit leisurely beneath this mighty chunk of rock. I even love the deep blue Voronezh sky, dotted with pure-cotton clouds behind his head. Okay, I realize that’s not the doing of the sculptor, but he knew what kind of skies Voronezh has, and he knew people would be looking up at them, when he designed this thing. I give him credit for that. A good artist thinks of everything, including what he can’t entirely control.
Oh, wow, I was just digging around for some more information and I ran across one tidbit that is quite intriguing. There apparently exists a legend that this was originally to be a monument to Joseph Stalin. Bondarenko (1917-1992) was, in fact, awarded the Stalin Prize in 1950 for bas reliefs that he made of Lenin and Stalin. That could very easily have engendered a subsequent commission to do full honor to the so-called, self-proclaimed People’s Leader. That would certainly explain the huge size of it all. I find it hard to believe that that lovely left hand could ever have belonged to Stalin, even in an artist’s wildest dreams. But that clunky right fist might well have.
Does this make me rethink anything I have said up to now? No, it doesn’t. I look at this thing from left to right and top to bottom, over and over again, and I only see an admittedly exaggerated, heroic monument to the so-called “people’s” or “folk” poet Alexei Koltsov. It all looks very organic and germane to me.

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Koltsov was born Oct. 3, 1809, into a well-to-do “bourgeois” family (as the Soviet and Russian tradition often puts it) in Voronezh. A website called Litra.ru declares, with similar cliched phrasing, I fear, that Koltsov’s father was the proverbial crude, cruel tyrant and his mother was the proverbial “kind, illiterate woman” who had such an influence on her son. He was not particularly educated. He started in at a local Voronezh school, but didn’t last long. Vissarion Belinsky, the critic, and a champion of Koltsov’s work, had this to say about the poet: “We have no idea how he was advanced to the second grade, or what he studied at that school, because, although we knew him only a short time, we never saw any signs in him of even the most basic education.” I am quoting this from a biographical website, which also adds: “Koltsov’s first mentor in poetry was the Voronezh bookseller Dmitry Kashkin, who gave the young man the opportunity to use books from his library for free. Kashkin was direct, smart and honest, for which the city’s youth loved him. Kashkin’s bookstore was something of a club for them. Kashkin loved Russian literature, read it often and wrote verses himself. Presumably Koltsov showed his first experiments to him.” Another major influence on Koltsov was a tragedy visited upon him by his father, who would not allow him to marry a peasant girl that he loved. Koltsov wrote his first poetry at the age of 16 (“Three Visions,” which he subsequently destroyed); he published his first verses at the age of 22 in Literary gazette. He was championed in Moscow by Belinsky and, when he traveled to St. Petersburg in 1836, he met Alexander Pushkin, who apparently took a liking to him. Pushkin published his poem “Harvest” in the literary journal Sovremennik (The Contemporary). None of this impressed Koltsov’s family, his father particularly. As much as the young man wished to devote himself to a life of literature, his father would not have it. And when the young man contracted tuberculosis, no one in his family seemed to care much. He was, essentially, left to die in isolation at the age of 33.
This makes Koltsov a contemporary of Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol and other writers who basically brought Russian literature out of the past into the present. Over time, his poetry tended to last because it was suited greatly to music. Many of Koltsov’s best writings became popular songs.

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Imagist Bookstore, Moscow

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Now here’s a case of something I had completely forgotten. I knew it once; I remember being flabbergasted when I first found out about it. But then it slipped my mind. As my friend the choreographer and movement guru Gennady Abramov jokes about the delights of growing older and losing memory: “Isn’t it wonderful? Every day is full of news!”
Well, that applies to me in regards to this small little monument to Russian literary history on Bolshaya Nikitskaya Street. The address for sticklers is 15, Bldg. 1. I now remember coming upon it some 25 or 26 years ago when I first arrived in Moscow, soaked wet behind the ears, to begin my research on the playwright Nikolai Erdman. I knew well that Erdman had begun his life in literature as a poet and that he had published a handful of his poems in various publications put out by the Imagists, a group of writers who congregated around the famous poet Sergei Yesenin. I’d never seen any of the actual publications, but that is one of the things I expected to be able to do soon at the Lenin Library, where I had an application put in for a reader’s card. But this day I was merely out walking around Moscow, getting a feel for the city I expected to be living in for just the next 10 months. And then it happened. I looked up at a little plaque on a building as I approached the Moscow Conservatory from the north, and I was thunderstruck. The plaque stated that Sergei Yesenin had worked right here in a small bookshop that sold, among other things, the books and magazines published by the Imagists. Holy Moses. A real-live, brick and mortar place to put Erdman and his colleagues in a real context. I walked back and forth and looked in the window and walked inside and just looked around at the air there. It was a marvelous discovery.
And then life set in and I forgot. I didn’t stay in Moscow 10 months, I stayed 26 years and counting. You’d be amazed at all I’ve forgotten in that period! That is, until I was recently walking along Bolshaya Nikitskaya towards the Mayakovsky Theater from the south and – boom! – there it was. Again. That reminder of Yesenin and Erdman and Rostislav Ivlev and Shershenevich and Anatoly Mariengof… the Imagists. As Gena Abramov promised me, I experienced the thrill of discovery all over again!
The Imagists, as the name implies, refers to a short-lived group of Russian poets from about 1918 to 1922 who ostensibly played around with images in their poetry. They put out a handful of manifestos, like everybody else did, proclaiming the greatness of their task. It was all very much in the spirit of the day. They may have put out one more issue of their eclectic periodical Inn for Travelers in the Sublime in 1923, but, still, by that time they were done for. In the historical record the Imagists are routinely referred to as a group of semi-harmless hooligans, not nearly worthy of the respect and attention that is offered to, say, the Futurists or the Acmeists. It may be a fair assessment, although the Imagists were of no small interest. Every single individual connected with them was quite a personality. These days the memoirs written by Ivlev and Mariengof are oft-quoted and Mariengof has even become something of a cult figure.

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The fact of the matter is that, in their time, the Imagists – purportedly – were more famous for their hijinks than their high culture. In one famous, frequently-mentioned, incident, they all went out late at night when everybody else was sleeping and they “vandalized” several street signs around what we now know as Strastnoi Boulevard. They blacked or whitened out the name of various streets, replacing them with their own names. Thus, as the legend goes, Muscovites awoke in the morning to be greeted by the unfamiliar names of Yesenin Street, Erdman Lane and Mariengof Road. If I remember correctly, the police even got into the act at some point.
Still, I wonder if the Imagists have been given short shrift. Even to this day one of the most important studies of the Imagists – Russian Imagism 1919-1924 – remains a work written by the great scholar Vladimir Markov. It’s very nice that he wrote a book about the Imagists, but Markov was a specialist on the Futurists. He couldn’t have been a little biased there, could he? I’m just asking.
I’ve always thought (in those periods when I have not been visited by forgetfulness) that this little bookstore says something important about the Imagists. I mean, if you’re going to actually rent a space, find the money to pay the rent, get people to work for you (or, as Yesenin apparently did, actually spend hours out of your day working at the store yourself), doesn’t this imply a seriousness of intent that goes beyond that which would be expected of some “hooligans”? Again, I’m just saying. One thing I do know is that the historical record is clumsy and distorted. It can’t be otherwise. It’s written by human beings.
With that thought in mind, allow me to insert the ending of a poem, “Let Time Strike the Hours,” that Erdman wrote in 1921, and which was first published in 1987 in the popular Soviet magazine Ogonyok (rather like the old Life magazine in the U.S.) by poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko:

But I know weighty glory shall sprinkle
Even my cold lips with dust.
And my head will exchange this burnished steel helmet of hair
For one made of silver.
But I shall not stagger beneath it, I shall not tremble,
I will accept the joyless gift as my due,
And a rainbow shall unfurl before a frozen road
Into the heavens with a triumphal arc.

Children! Children!
Study the polar silence of the night…

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Alexander Blok Statue, Moscow

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This monument to the poet Alexander Blok is tucked away in a tiny square under a bunch of trees that rather dwarf it. I never see it when driving past, although it’s only a few meters from the roadside. And even when you walk past and stop to say hello, you almost feel like you’re engaging in some semi-secretive activity. Not far from here there’s a huge monument to Alexei Tolstoy (the latter) that is plopped prominently in the middle of an otherwise empty square. You can’t miss him.  Also not far from here is a loud, pompous statue of Alexander Pushkin and his bride Natalya Goncharova encircled in an oversized gazebo with water splashing all over the place right in front of the church where they were married. But I’ll get to these and other notable locations around the Nikitskiye Vorota area of Moscow some other time. The semi-hidden Blok, meanwhile – rarely missed by pigeons, as you can see – is still another public art work created by the sculptor Oleg Komov. He must have known somebody. His work here is perfectly acceptable. It gives us a Blok who looks quite like what we expect him to.  The thin, elongated figure seems to suit a poet of great style.

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The statue was erected here in 1992 because it is located a stone’s throw from a building where Blok lived for a short spell in January 1904, a year and a half before the poet wrote his first play, which my friend and colleague Timothy C. Westphalen translates as A Puppet Show. You can read his verse translation of this and two other Blok dramas, The King on the Square and The Unknown Woman, in Aleksandr Blok’s Trilogy of Lyric Dramas (2003). Professor Westphalen is also the author of Lyric Incarnate: The Dramas of Aleksandr Blok (1998), the only existing monograph about the poet’s plays. As such there is no excuse for anyone ever to say that they don’t know where to find good information about Alexander Blok’s plays. Tim has taken care of that for us.

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Mikhail Lermontov statue, Muzeon Park, Moscow

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Mikhail Lermontov, who died in 1841 at the age of 27 in a duel , is a reproach to all of us who have ever looked up for a moment and wondered why we haven’t done more with our lives. Lermontov had just begun his life when he was cut down, and yet he left behind a legacy of poetry and drama that makes him one of the great Russian writers. This statue, which stands in the Muzeon Park near the Central House of Artists alongside the Moscow River, is an artist-authorized copy of Oleg Komov’s statue that stands in Tarkhany, the estate where the poet grew up and where he is buried. On one hand this sculpture is simple to the point of banality – it reminds me at moments of a student work, as if the artist were trying out the basic ABCs of his future profession. On the other hand, its simplicity is surely “built in” and intended. Lermontov sits there in a relaxed pose with a relaxed expression on his face. Yes, there’s a little concern in his gaze, but not too much. His military uniform, which can make him look stiff and very official in his portraits, here has a warmly and humanly haphazard air about it. The closer you get to the monument, the more you feel a living person inside it.

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I don’t know why this particular statue is located in the “fallen monuments” section of the Muzeon Park, but it is a nice place for it. There are lots of guests always around it – I mean monuments and real people – and so there is always a sense of community to this little plot of land. If you look at the upper part of Lermontov’s thighs, you’ll see that the bronze has been worn to a shiny sheen. That is from people who can’t refuse the opportunity to take a seat in a great poet’s lap. That, too, adds to the personable feel of this otherwise deceptively modest statue.

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Alexander Pushkin bust, Tomsk

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I rarely allow myself to be so predictable as to do anything according to someone else’s timeline, but today I’ll succumb. It is Alexander Pushkin’s birthday. He was born 215 years ago today. Anybody, or everybody – or, maybe, nobody – can tell you what that meant for Russian culture. “Pushkin is our everything.” Every individual has “my Pushkin.” Gogol called him “the unique phenomenon of the Russian spirit”; Dostoevsky upped the ante and called him “a prophetic phenomenon.” I would say that people walk up and down the streets of every Russian city and village spouting the verses of Pushkin but you wouldn’t believe me. Still, if I did make that assertion I would only exaggerate in the slightest degree. Moreover – and this may be the most incredible thing of all – Pushkin has not been sullied, has not been appropriated by ideologues (although they have tried), has not been commercialized. Pushkin is pure. He’s the real thing. He is poetry, he is wisdom, he is clarity, he is simplicity, he is the opposite of bombast, he is the best that Russia ever put forth and he continues to symbolize the best that Russia has or is.

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The bust I photographed here stands in the tiny little Pushkin square on the east side of Lenin Prospekt, between  buildings No. 77 and 83 in my beloved city of Tomsk. In the hands of sculptor Mikhail Anikushin he’s a generic Pushkin, rather an imitation, perhaps, of the image created in the famous and beloved portrait of Pushkin that was done by Orest Kiprensky in 1827. Upon seeing that completed portrait, Pushkin supposedly remarked, “The mirror flatters me.” Well, a whole nation would flatter the man for his poetry, his prose, his drama, his wisdom, his wit and the glint that, surely, sparkled in his eye.

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Nikolai Klyuev house, Tomsk

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This is not the home from which the authorities took Nikolai Klyuev to be shot in 1937, but he did live here for periods of time during the last two and a half years of his life in exile.  Klyuev was an important poet, hard to pin down, one who at times was different things to different people. He has been identified as a nationalist poet with a deep affection for Russian folklore. He is often termed a peasant poet. He is considered a mystical poet with ties to the Symbolists, at least early in his career. Maxim Gorky called him the “bard of the mystical essence of the peasantry.” He wrote poetry with deep religious feeling. In fact my trusty Victor Terras Handbook of Russian Literature calls him the “semi-official composer of religious songs for a local khlyst (flagellant) religious sect.” Some of his poetry (including some religious poetry) exhibits gay tendencies, although, to my knowledge, this aspect of the poet’s work has not been studied seriously. He was first arrested in 1933 and was, essentially, hounded  by the authorities – arrested, freed, exiled, rearrested – until his death in the waning days of October 1937 at the age of 53. His primary address in Tomsk was the one pictured here, in the home of Anna Kuznetsova at 12 Red Firemen Lane. Two plaques on the exterior walls of the old wooden structure commemorate the time Klyuev spent here.

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Klyuev was moved around a good deal while he was in Tomsk. He spent his first nights in a prison which no longer exists, and which was located not far from the way station in which Nikolai Chernyshevsky stopped for 90 minutes in 1864. (I wrote about that site here several weeks ago.) Klyuev also lived at 38 Mariinsky Lane, a site I have yet to photograph, and he was registered in a home on Staro-Achinskaya Street when he was arrested and taken away to be shot. I’ll never photograph that home for it was recently demolished.  The plaque commemorating Klyuev’s connection to this now-disappeared address was salvaged, however, and is now kept in the Vyacheslav Shishkov museum in Tomsk (I’ll write about that sooner than later). A photo of that plaque follows below, as does a drawing of Klyuev, which is also held in the Shishkov museum.

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Pushkin-Mickiewicz Plaque, Moscow

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Okay, so this is my second post involving Alexander Pushkin in a week. Be forewarned: This is a blog devoted to Russian culture so there’s going to be a lot of Alexander Pushkin. Today we’re looking at a very nice bas relief plaque on the facade of the building at 8 Glinishchevsky Pereulok, or Lane, in the heart of Moscow. It’s a lovely powder blue building that was originally built at the end of the 18th/beginning of the 19th century and belonged to a man named Lavrenty Ober. That name is pronounced with the stress on the second syllable, for Monsieur Ober was the son of French parents. In fact, his mother holds a small place in Russian/French history, for when Napoleon retreated from Moscow in 1812 she famously abandoned her popular clothes shop and followed the troops in order to return home to Paris. She never made it. She died on the road in Vilnius. Her two sons, who were with her, did make it, however, so Lavrenty received a good French education before choosing to return to Moscow to live in the 1820s. It was here in this lovely blue building that he frequently received famous writers in his home. There is a small plaque on the building which states that Pushkin was a frequent guest here throughout the 1820s and 1830s (see final photo below). The sculptured plaque that hangs prominently between two windows on the outside wall of the first floor commemorates one special evening, however – the final meeting between two friends and two great writers, Pushkin and the great Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz.

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Reams have been written about the relationship between Pushkin and Mickiewicz, but here are some basics. They first met in 1826 in Moscow and continued to cross each others’ paths over the next three years in both Moscow and St. Petersburg while Mickiewicz was in exile in Russia. Both referred to each other in some of their writing and both appeared to speak of each other with genuine affection and respect. It was Mickiewicz who introduced Pushkin to the poetry of Byron, presenting him with a gift of The Works of Lord Byron in 1826. At least in the eyes of Anna Akhmatova, Pushkin’s portrait of the brilliant improvising poet in the story “Egyptian Nights” was based on his recollections of Mickiewicz, who dazzled Russian high society with his ability to improvise poetry off the cuff. The Russian translated two ballads by the Polish writer – “The Three Brothers Budrys” and “Wojewoda,” as well as the introduction to the epic poem “Konrad Wallenrod.”

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