I live on Pyatnitskaya Street in Moscow in the Zamoskvorechye, or “Beyond the Moscow River” section of the city. It is a glorious place, filled with churches, old architecture and cultural connections. It is, at once, the old merchant section of town and the place where, hundreds of years ago – and today, too – immigrants from the South would arrive and make their home. Over the last two months Pyatnitskaya Street has undergone a radical facelift, old buildings being renovated and repainted, the street being narrowed for automobiles and widened for pedestrians and bicycle riders. The neighborhood has undergone a transformation of a kind I have never experienced in any neighborhood I have ever lived in – and I have lived in a lot of neighborhoods.
One of the most nondescript buildings on all of Pyatnitskaya (named after the Church of Paraskeva Pyatnitsa, which was destroyed in the 1930s) is the one bearing the address of house 41. If you peer past the iron gates into the entryway set back from the street and sidewalk you can make out a plaque proclaiming this the home of the editorial offices of Inostrannaya literatura, or Foreign Literature, magazine. Inside the building one is greeted by a most wondrous atmosphere of old. You feel as though you have stepped back in time into the Soviet Union of the 1970s. The creaky, loose-boarded floors; the floor attendant who buzzes you in when you ring the doorbell and sits indifferently by a stack of books and magazines for sale; the dull, gray walls and air, and even the murky light straining to come in the windows. Everything here seems to have turned its back on whatever is happening outside the walls, just as it might have been in the 1950s, when the journal was founded (1955), the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s. Although the publication drew its pedigree from several earlier magazines of the type, primarily The Messenger of Foreign Literature, which was published from 1891 to 1916, Inostrannaya literatura was a child of the Thaw era, bringing readers novels, poems, stories, essays and other writing from the West that could not be had anywhere else. As a text on the journal’s website proclaims, “At the dachas or in attics of practically every reading Soviet household it used to be that one could find lovingly bound packs of Foreign Literature. These [magazines] allowed dreamers firmly ensconced behind the Iron Curtain to discover the works of Samuel Beckett, William Goldin, John Updike, Jerome J. Salinger, Kenzaburo Oe, Tennessee Williams, Jean-Paul Sartre, Franz Kafka, Evelyn Waugh, Umberto Eco, Julio Cortazar, Milorad Pavic and many, many other writers.”
When I married into the Mysin family in the late 1980s, the huge library I inherited, indeed, included large packs of old issues of Inostrannaya literatura tied together with coarse string. We donated these old issues to the Russian Theater Union’s research library when we moved 15 years ago.
Inostrannaya literatura was one of the great promoters and defenders of the art of translation in a national tradition, both Russian and Soviet, which has always excelled in this sphere of belles lettres. Translators in Russia have been revered almost as writers themselves, and, in fact, often have been major writers in their own right. The names are legion, but we can mention a few – Samuil Marshak (see my post from a few weeks back), Kornei Chukovsky, Boris Pasternak, Joseph Brodsky, Vasily Aksyonov, Innokenty Annensky, Dmitry Merezhkovsky, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Alexander Pushkin… You get the point. Inostrannaya literatura these days often publishes the magnificent work of translator Natalya Mavlevich, who functions equally at ease in French, German and English. Mavlevich created one of the finest translations I have ever encountered – a virtuoso rendition of Valere Novarina’s experimental masterpiece L’Operette imaginaire, although this was not published in Inostrannaya literatura.
In the photo immediately below you see the journal’s editorial office as pictured from the opposite side of the street, while the final photo shows a view of Pyatnitskaya Street looking south from directly in front of the building.
NEXT DAY ADD: I got a note this morning (Aug. 25) from Inostrannaya literatura with a couple of corrections. One was the year the magazine was founded – I’ve made that correction. The other I insert here without changing the original because it’s one of those things I see as point of view. Here is the correction:
“A Soviet editorial office wouldn’t have any ‘stack of books and magazines for sale’ (except maybe in the 1920s, when some private and semi-private publishing houses existed), so this is a sign of new times.”
What I was leaning on was my memory from the late 1970s of going into writers’ organizations and other non-bookstore places where, indeed, books that the average person could not find in bookstores were there for the “elite” members of these places to buy. So I may be wrong that books were for sale at magazine editorial offices, but my reference was wider. That said, I’m more than happy to provide these corrections.