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My wife Oksana and I recently took up a perch overlooking the Moscow River. Well, it’s not actually the Moscow River. In this particular place it is called the Moscow Canal and just beyond it, on the other side of the bridge, it’s called the Klyazma Reservoir. But it looks and acts and smells (ever so sweetly) like a river to us, and so we call it a river. One of the reasons we feel entirely entitled to do that is because enormous ships navigate the waterways here daily. Huge barges, motor boats, sail boats, yachts, steamboats, houseboats and cargo boats go up the river, down the river, up the river, down the river. I would guess that at least a half-dozen times a day, if not more, we see huge passenger liners going by. They are among our favorites, in part because many have wonderful names – the good ships Mstislav Rostropovich, Igor Stravinsky, Andrei Rublyov, Sergei Yesenin, Mikhail Bulgakov, Nikolai Gogol, Nikolai Karamzin, Alexander Radishchev, Ivan Krylov to name a few. As you see in the final two shots below, Alexander Pushkin and Nikolai Chernyshevsky have their very own liners named after them. Regardless of what they’re called, every time we see one coming or going we run to the windows and hang on the windowsill, just watching the river flow and watching the ship sail on it.
After awhile I began to think – there may be something to write about here. But the Alexander Pushkin? I’ve written about him a million times and I have another million photos involving him that are still waiting to be written about. It’s the same, to lesser degrees, in regards to Bulgakov, Rostropovich, Gogol, Stravinsky and others. But then one day, a few days ago, the perfect boat came chugging down the river, heading in towards Moscow from St. Petersburg. Hoping for something good, I began photographing it before its name came into view. And when the ship did come abreast of me, I was thrilled – it was the Alexander Grin! What a perfect combination! And I’ve never seen any plaque or monument in the cities I’ve inhabited or visited that would give me an opportunity to share a few stories about this fantastic writer.
Alexander Grin (1880-1932) was the son of Stefan Hryniewski, a Pole who had been sent into “eternal exile” in Siberia. As such Alexander’s real last name in Russian was Grinevsky. He appears to have been a restless soul, trying out all kinds of different professions and places of residence. Among his jobs were: woodsman, fisherman, railroad worker, gold miner, bookbinder, scribe and many more. At the age of 16 he set out for the great port city of Odessa with the idea in mind of becoming a sailor. According to Russian Wikipedia, however, Grin was a lousy sailor. On his first voyage he got in an argument with the captain, jumped ship and went home. Before long he was drawn into Russia’s nascent revolutionary movement and he ended up being arrested numerous times for his activities – in various cities such as Kamyshin, Sebastopol and St. Petersburg. In 1905 he was convicted to four years in prison near Tobolsk, but escaped within three days (his dad helped him obtain a false passport). Three years earlier he had deserted his post when serving in the army…
I toss all this together in a jumble in order to declare what should be obvious by now: the only thing Grin was really good for and at, and the only thing he really could do, or wanted to do, was to write. And, indeed, over the last 25 years of his life, Grin became one of the most interesting, beloved and unique writers in the Russian literary canon.
Encyclopedias tell us about the neoromantic, psychological, philosophical, symbolist, mystical and fantastic elements in Grin’s writings. What most any Russian kid – or adult who has not forgotten his or her childhood – will tell you, though, is that his adventure stories are among the best, most vivid they ever encountered. Although he turned out to be a lousy sailor, some of his best-loved works are about watery voyages. Many of those have been made into popular films, including Scarlet Sails, She Who Runs on Waves, 100 Versts on the River and more. In fact, there have been at least three films made of Scarlet Sails (1961, 1982, 2010), and two of She Who Runs on Waves (1967, 2007).
The world of Grin’s literature (he began writing in 1906) is strange, somewhat foreboding and endlessly attractive. You sense danger in there and you are compelled to move closer to the edge to see what is happening more closely. Many of his works take place in a land that he imagined himself and which came to be known as Grinland (having nothing to do, of course, with Greenland). Notably, virtually none of Grin’s works (he wrote novels, stories and poetry) reflected the life that surrounded him in Russia. This, of course, was a bold, maybe even risky, choice on the part of the writer. In a tradition that (rightly or wrongly) held Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Chekhov and even Gogol on pedestals for the way in which they reflected and commented on the fate of their nation and their people, Grin simply turned his back entirely on reality and used his literature to escape into his own fantasy land. A film of his tale Mister Designer, about an artist who wishes to beat death by means of making sculptures that will live forever, became a huge hit upon release in 1988 and remains a cult favorite today.
Grin did not consider himself the author of fantasies or unreal adventures. He saw himself more as a symbolist. Again I lean on Russian Wikipedia, which has an extraordinarily long and detailed entry on the writer: “Yury Olesha recalled that he once expressed his admiration for the marvelous fantastic idea of a human that flies (“The Brilliant World”), but Grin, in fact, was offended: ‘That is a symbolic novel, not a fantasy novel! That is not a flying person, but rather the soaring of a soul!‘”
During the Soviet years Grin was able to publish only for a short time in the mid-1920s, when the control of the Communist Party was at its laxest. By the late 1920s he was cut off from publishing entirely and his works only began reappearing decades later. He died of cancer of the stomach a month short of his 42nd birthday, in obscurity and poverty. His reputation since then has struggled at times to achieve the respect it deserves. Grin is often referred to as a writer for young adults, but this is a gross simplification. Little by little that prejudice has lost power in recent decades, but Grin still does not fit into the usual overall blueprint of Russian literature. In fact, he was a unique, powerful and talented writer whose imagination has enriched the Russian consciousness for over a century. Sail on, Alexander Grin!