SUNDAY BOOK REVIEW | LITERARY LANDSCAPES
To Russia, With Tough Love
By MASHA GESSEN, New York Times NOV. 25, 2014
This is a “Dear John” letter. You have had so little interest in the outside world for so long that you probably don’t even know what that is. I will explain.
It begins with love. In my case, it was a desperate kind of love with overtones of a sacred bond and the aftertaste of a false note. It was a bit like Aleksandr Pushkin’s ode to you, which all Russian children memorize in the middle grades, usually oblivious to the fact that it is plucked from “Eugene Onegin”:
Moscow . . . How many strains are fusing
in that one sound, for Russian hearts!
What store of riches it imparts!
This translation by Charles H. Johnston, first published in 1977, unfortunately introduces images absent in the original Russian, which, rather than “fusing” and “strains,” contains “muchness” and “echoing.” An 1881 English translation accurately uses the word “much,” but then:
Moscow! How much is in the phrase
For every loyal Russian breast!
How much is in that word expressed!
Here, “loyal” was absent in the original, though very much present in the way these lines have been crammed down children’s throats. This translator — the first known to complete the work of relaying “Onegin” in English — was one Henry Spalding, a lieutenant colonel in the British military, which may explain the errant “loyal.” A bigger issue with his translation is that its language is stultifyingly 19th-century British (the work first appeared in 1881 in London), while the language of the original continues to read modern today. Whether this testifies to Pushkin’s genius or to the glacial change of development of Russian language and culture, I do not know.
But if a reader wanted a literal translation of “Onegin,” she would turn to the one executed by Vladimir Nabokov, so worth reading for its footnotes — and for the review Edmund Wilson wrote of it for The New York Review of Books in 1965. Unlike the translation itself, it is full of beautiful phrases, such as: “What we get here, however, from Nabokov is an egregious example of his style at its most perversepedantic impossible.” Nabokov renders the lines as follows:
Moscow! . . . How much within that sound
is blended for the Russian heart!
How much is echoed there!
You might note that for all his literalness Nabokov took liberties with the iambic tetrameter to which Pushkin managed to bend his Russian gently and naturally. Children in Moscow schools used to learn poetry meters and rhyming patterns and could tell an iamb from an anapest, but a couple of years ago the government decided to cut the number of instruction hours devoted to Russian — and the study of feet and beats all but vanished. Context had disappeared so much earlier. When children learned these lines in isolation from the rest of “Onegin,” they had no idea that they were from the chapter in which Tatiana, the novel’s forlorn heroine, is forced to leave her comfortable country home and travel to the “bridal fair” that is Moscow. She is crudely appraised by men and women alike, and ultimately taken by an old general. Moscow in this chapter is a messy, uncouth marketplace, which robs virgins of hope and purity.
All that is shed when the three lines appear alone, as they do, for example, on a giant sheet of bronze on the marble wall of the Pushkinskaya metro station in the very center of the city — as though these lines were meant to celebrate the city. Moscow, you are a liar and a cheat.
At ground level at Pushkinskaya, one will find the Pushkin monument, the poetic heart of the city. It is traditional to schedule dates here. As a child, I swooned over my mother’s stories of making young men wait for hours, clutching bouquets of roses. You will, in fact, still see men in the waiting position if you pass by the Pushkin monument any time of day or night; they may well be waiting for my mother. I had just turned 14 when my family emigrated from the Soviet Union and had not yet had a single date at the Pushkin. After returning to live in the city a dozen years later I had two dates there. One was a bad blind date, and I’d rather not talk about the other one.
What we should talk about, Moscow, are the monuments. When is enough, enough? Walk down the Boulevard Ring, the misnamed three quarters of a circle road that fails to circumscribe central Moscow, and you will see, block by city block: the composer Sergei Rachmaninoff; Vladimir Vysotsky, a 1970s singersongwriter; Nadezhda Krupskaya, the wife of Lenin; the engineer and inventor Vladimir Shukhov (while the city was erecting this unimaginative likeness of the man himself in bronze, it was letting the 1922 Shukhov Transmission Tower, a masterpiece of hyperboloid construction, fall into disrepair on the other side of town); Alexander Griboyedov, writer, diplomat and suspected revolutionary; the Kazakh poet Abai Kunanbaev (here Russia’s protest culture had its last glorious stand, nine days in May 2012 known as Occupy Abai); and finally, a castiron stork planted inside a fountain, sometimes referred to as the monument to a drinking stork. That’s if you start off from Pushkin’s back side. If you walk the so called ring in the direction Russia’s greatest poet is facing, you will encounter the poet Sergei Yesenin; Pushkin again, this time dancing with his wife in a gazebolike structure; the writer Nikolai Gogol; and the writer Mikhail Sholokhov perched unnaturally on the nose of a boat about to capsize, his back turned on a dozen horses about to drown. A casual visitor might conclude from this lineup that Moscow loves its writers. After living with you for decades, though, I know that you love only your bronze and granite figurines, and you collect them like so many tchotchkes — given your druthers, you would add them at the rate of two a month until the city is too cluttered to walk through.
There is something obstinate and deeply uncharming about this commitment to the immobilized human form. Other cities can find room in their hearts for abstract statues, symbolic monuments — but not you, Moscow: You want every single one of them looking like a giant human (stork excepted). I was once briefly involved in an effort to have a monument built to honor the human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Andrei Sakharov. At its first meeting, the group of distinguished and otherwise reasonable writers, journalists and artists took up the question of anthropomorphism. I found myself a minority of one — the rest of the group believed the population of Europe’s largest city was not ready for a piece of stone that looked like anything other than a man. Then Sakharov’s widow, Elena Bonner, put an end to the process by declaring that the city, and the country for which it stood, did not deserve a monument to the great man. She was an old cantankerous woman who had mastered the art of not compromising, a trait that you, Moscow, find least appealing in people. You demand that residents and visitors mold themselves constantly to your whims and inconveniences large and small, whether the daily four hours of gridlock, the near complete absence of left turns in the central part of town, or the distances between public transport stops that could be traversed on foot only by one of those granite giants, and only in good weather.
There is, however, a Sakharov Prospect in Moscow, a street so short it is almost a square. By contrast, Andropov Prospect, named for the Soviet leader who had also run the K.G.B., runs about four miles.
I have loved one Moscow monument. It sits near the top of Sparrow Hills, which has the dual distinction of being one of Moscow’s highest elevations and the only (tiny) piece of virtually untouched nature in the city. If one takes a small tumble down the hill from the overlook point, from which on a clear day Moscow looks deceptively like a peaceful well -lit valley, one will find an odd structure with a wooden floor and granite half-circular half-wall, plus a granite stele. A scrolllike shape is set into the wall, with the faces of two teenage boys looking tenderly at each other. It memorializes Alexander Herzen and Nikolai Ogarev, who came up here in 1827 to swear to each other, in plain view of all of Moscow, that they would spend their lives fighting for democracy. They were teenagers at the time, and they were telling the truth.
Herzen’s writing still contains some of the most accurate descriptions of Russian habits and thinking, which have apparently remained constant for nearly two centuries. Take this passage from his memoir, “My Past and Thoughts,” in which he describes his first encounter with Western Europe: “In the evening I went to a small, dirty, inferior theater, but came back from it excited, not by the actors but by the audience, which consisted mostly of workmen and young people; in the intervals everyone talked freely and loudly, and all put on their hats (an extremely important thing, as important as the right to wear a beard, etc.). This ease and freedom, this element of greater serenity and liveliness impresses the Russian when he arrives abroad. The Petersburg government is still so coarse and unpolished, so absolutely nothing but despotism, that it positively likes to inspire fear; it wants everything to tremble before it — in short, it desires not only power but the theatrical display of it. To the Petersburg czars the ideal of public order is the anteroom and the barracks.”
In other words, the nature of the Russian regime did not change when Peter the Great made his subjects shave their beards and moved the seat of government from Moscow to St. Petersburg. Nor did it change when Lenin moved it back to Moscow. Nor has it changed since; it still “wants everything to tremble before it.” Herzen himself emigrated west, lived in Italy and in France, tried to constitute his family in a revolutionary manner to disastrous effect, lost his wife to tuberculosis, was joined by Ogarev and his wife, and promptly began an affair with her. All the while, he published revolutionary articles, journals and memoirs. But Russia remained Russia.
This odd monument was constructed in 1979. By the 1990s, it was overgrown by shrubbery, the half-wall and stele were covered with graffiti and the floor with cigarette butts. This was where I liked to bring my dates in the 1990s: It was practically a secret monument, and the homoeroticism of the image was unmistakable. Then Tom Stoppard wrote “The Coast of Utopia,” a nine-hour play about Herzen’s revolutionary struggles, both public and private, then it was translated into Russian and staged in Moscow, and when Stoppard came for the premiere, he asked to see the Sparrow Hills monument. He was apparently so taken aback by its condition that money was soon found to clean and repair the structure.
Things went downhill from there. Sparrow Hills has now been subsumed by Gorky Park, which probably means it is about to be landscaped and commercialized. The transformation of your parks, Moscow, is a heartbreaking story all its own. A few years ago, the city government decided it needed to domesticate its young people — the sort who would have worn beards and put on their hats during intermission in Herzen’s time and now, in addition to the hats and the beards, were also wearing very tight jeans. A specially appointed person, Sergei Kapkov, was given the title of the minister of culture in the Moscow government and the task of bringing the hipsters into the fold. He started by cleaning Gorky Park of its antiquated merry-go-rounds and its rowdy drunks and instituting WiFi, espresso and bike paths. Hipsters swarmed the place and deified Kapkov.
Gorky Park, however, is not just a hipster project: It is first and foremost a Soviet-nostalgia project. The revamped park’s kiosks, ice cream stands and plaster sculptures create the ambience of a 1950s Soviet movie in which well-fed laborers strolled along the Volga embankment singing songs of love and a glorious socialist future. I once had a chance to engage Kapkov in a public debate about this, produced by the city’s main hipster magazine. He wanted to know what I thought was wrong with Soviet nostalgia. I tried to explain by pointing across the street, to another park that is part of Kapkov’s domain.
Back in 1991, the place across the Garden Ring from Gorky Park was a vast untended lawn. When a number of monuments to Soviet leaders were dismantled in the wake of the failed hard-line coup, most of them were brought here and laid on the grass, where they could be stomped upon and drawn upon. There was a Stalin, a Khrushchev, a Dzerzhinsky (the founder of the secret police) and several other giant old Bolsheviks in granite. A majority of Soviet monuments in the city remained untouched and stand proud to this day — including a Lenincentered composition the size of a small city block just up the street from this lawn.
Soon you, Moscow, seemed to experience remover’s remorse. The monuments were righted, then cleaned up, then replaced to their pedestals, then fenced in to keep the vandals away, and finally given small informational placards that contained dates, the names of the subject and the sculptor, and the cryptic phrase “protected by the state.” In addition, many other figures, most of them in white plaster, were brought and scattered around the lawn, to make it look less like the graveyard of Soviet monuments and more like a garden-variety sculpture garden; it was now called Muzeon Park of the Arts. Svetlana Boym wrote about visiting the Park of the Arts in her 2001 book “The Future of Nostalgia”:
“If an extraterrestrial or any other well-wishing and not-so-well-informed stranger landed in Moscow and took a leisurely walk in the park, he would have had the impression that he is in a stable country that values its historical heritage and has had little experience with upheavals or revolutions. What is erased between the cautious lines of the sign is the history of the coup of August 1991 and the people’s unauthorized assault of the statue. The monument’s material history is erased as well. There are traces of graffiti on the pedestal, but they are unreadable.”
As part of the hipsterization project, the Muzeon Park of the Arts got WiFi, wooden sidewalks and funding for restoring the Dzerzhinsky monument, which had apparently suffered some internal injuries in all the moving. During the debate, Kapkov asked me if I would just like to see all Soviet-era monuments destroyed — implying that that would destroy much of the city, which is plastered with hammers, sickles and other Soviet symbols encased in many architectural structures. I suggested that restoration presented an opportunity for building in some critical distance.
He asked me who would know what distance is right. If there is no consensus, he seemed to say, there would be no distance between today’s Moscow and the Soviet Union.
Ever since the Dzerzhinsky monument was dismantled, some people have been demanding that it be returned to its original spot in front of the secret police headquarters. The chorus has been growing steadily stronger, and I suspect the move will happen sometime soon. Oddly, this is your thing, Moscow: You like to move your figurines around. I remember, as a child, reading Marina Tsvetaeva’s book on Pushkin and being puzzled by her description of the Pushkin monument — the one where we started. “Always under snow and ice — oh, I see them now, those shoulders weighed down with snow, all the snow of Russia weighing down and overpowering those African shoulders!” (My translation.)
That’s classic Moscow. The great-grandson of a black man, the forefather of all of Russian poetry, to you, Moscow, Pushkin is first a black man, even if he has been standing here in stone longer than any Muscovite has been alive. In all the years I spent with you never for a minute did I forget that I was not an ethnic Russian (I was usually correctly identified as Jewish, sometimes mistaken for Armenian or Georgian, but nearly everyone I encountered found a way to acknowledge my ethnic difference). So used was I to the racism that I did not notice it when I read this book as a child, but I did notice something else: Tsvetaeva seemed to describe everything that was behind Pushkin’s back as being in front of him and vice versa. Was she turned around? As it turned out, Pushkin had been. In 1950, 70 years after the monument was placed on one side of what in Soviet times was called Gorky Street, it was moved to the opposite side. There has been a lot of this. I remember going to Pushkin Square as a child to watch a 19th-century building be placed on rails and moved; this risky operation was performed on a number of structures in order to broaden the city’s central avenue. In the last quarter-century, though, the city has dispensed with such intricacies: Many historic buildings have been razed and later rebuilt asreplicas of their former selves. This process is cheaper and faster than restoration, and allows developers to make cosmetic improvements as they see fit. Moscow, you are a fake and a fraud.
The people of good will in Moscow protest the barbaric destruction of the city’s architecture. But I find their arguments painfully simple. They want everything to stay exactly the way it was — or is now. They have no more critical distance than Kapkov. When I look at this debate in which both sides — the developers and the preservationists — seem so obviously wrong to me, I realize that they love different sides of you, Moscow, while I love a city that exists solely in my imagination.
And yet I thought I would always love you. I loved you desperately as a teenager whose parents had decided to emigrate. While we waited for an exit visa, I spent every day with you as though it were our last — I walked the center of town every afternoon, making sketches. When I returned in the early 1990s, you were alternately welcoming and mean, now gifting me with the kind of friendships Russians have exalted, now hauling me to the police precinct for looking like a teenage boy from the Caucasus. That kind of inconsistency works every time. I loved you more than ever.
Two decades passed. Things got so rough that I knew I had to leave. And yet I thought that after leaving you for New York, I would, like Onegin’s Tatiana, say to you (in Spalding’s translation),
I love you — to what end
But I am now another’s bride —
For ever-faithful will abide.
Then, one day last summer, I spent a night walking the center the way I used to. Everything was gone, damaged or faked. You had become a stranger. Goodbye, Moscow. I don’t love you anymore.
Masha Gessen is the author of six books, including “The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin.” A version of this article appears in print on November 30, 2014, on page BR16 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: To Russia, With Tough Love