Tag Archives: russia

War Heroes and Empty Frames

28 Nov

In a room full of portraits, I look at empty frames.

This is the War Gallery of 1812 in the Winter Palace, now part of the Hermitage Museum in Sankt-Peterburg.

Here’s the story:

Alexander I commissioned portraits of some three hundred military heroes who achieved the rank of general in the Patriotic War of 1812 against Napoleon.

English artist George Dawe, with a couple of Russian assistants, completed portraits of all but thirteen, who (I have been told) died before any likeness of them had been preserved. For each of the thirteen faceless generals hangs a canvas covered with green silk, framed, and bearing the general’s name.

The whole of Russia knew the names of those whose portraits were placed in the War Gallery of 1812.

One could write a heroic ode to each of them.

So says the Hermitage website.

Now, if you’ve ever gone to a Russian museum, you know that a Russian babushka (an old–frequently, very old–woman) militantly guards each exhibit.

I dare you to put your dirty boots on that velvet-covered bench. Or sneak a picture with a flash. Ha! Or forget to check your coat at the garderob, god forbid.

That is nekul’turno. And babushkas will tell you about it.  Forcefully. The whole of Russia knows that they are in charge.

I swear, one could write a heroic ode to each of them.

More than twenty years have passed since my first visit to the Hermitage, and the babushka brigade is unchanged. Still wrinkled, stern, frumpy, and often barrel-shaped.

Except that the brigade has totally changed.

My Hermitage babushkas have long since retired; most, I suspect, are dead.

They were the Greatest Generation of babushkas.

Forget the Patriotic War of 1812, our 1980s babushkas had lived through the Great Patriotic War, the one we call (prosaically and impersonally) World War II.

They had survived the blockade of their city. For nearly three years, Leningrad was under siege.  No public transportation.  Often, no heat, no water, no electricity.  Mass starvation. Rumors of cannibalism.  Countless deaths.

Real war heroes.

I’m sorry to say that the babushka pictured above is more recent, part of a terrific photography project called The Guardians of Russian Art Museums. I love what the photographer has done.

But, he was too late to capture the likenesses of the women I try to remember.

After Two Shots

18 Nov

My daughter’s singing teacher at the Moscow Art Theatre Studio is about my age. I shouldn’t be surprised by our shared musical tastes.

I am invited to observe class on a November morning, still a little jet-lagged from yesterday’s more-than-trans-Atlantic flight.

I listen to my Anna sing a Turgenev poem called On the Road, set to music, and now more widely known as Misty Morning. A classic. One of those Russian romances about the inescapable, irretrievable past.

In the 1980s, at Leningrad State University, we sang it, too, usually around the table, with exaggerated pathos, after a couple of shots of vodka:

Misty morning, grey morning,
Sorrowful fields covered with snow;
Unwittingly, you recall times past,
faces, forgotten long ago.

You recall effusive, passionate words,
glances so eagerly, so timidly espied;
First meetings, last meetings;
the beloved strains of a quiet voice.

You remember parting with a strange smile;
You remember so much: so distant, so dear,
listening to the relentless murmur of wheels,
gazing, lost in thought, at the broad sky.

I know that Anna came to Moscow to study acting. She knows that I sent her to Moscow to learn Russian.

So, after class, we put on our coats, scarves and mittens, and head up Tverskaya (in my day called Gorkovskaya) Street, taking the words of the song apart: why the instrumental case in this phrase, the proper pronunciation of that unstressed o, and, finally, a bit about how (I think) this simple poem works.

Look here, Anna. Two things I like:

Turgenev, the poet, is remembering his past: faces, glances, words. But all of the verbs are in the second person. And (though this is lost in the translation), in Russian, the verbs are all in the future tense. Whose past are we talking about here?

This will happen to you, too.

And, notice that by the end of the poem, the past and present have intertwined: Did you smile strangely at the time of parting or do you smile strangely now recalling it?

That’s the way it feels to be back there and here at the same time.

Endless cars rush by us on Tverskaya/Gorkovskaya, as always. We talk over the din.

The foot traffic is pretty scary, too. Walking here demands your full attention.

Eyes straight ahead, no gazing at the sky.

Red Square to Temple Square

11 Oct

Obama’s economic policies will transform us into a Latter-Day Soviet Union.

This poster says it all.

Hammer and sickle squeeze out stars and stripes.  Uncle Joe (Biden?) lurks in the background.

The prospect horrifies, even though more and more of us have no memory of the Soviet Union.  Still, we are afraid of an amorphous red menace.

We may be right.

But, there was more to Soviet Russia than lousy universal health care.

There was also a lousy official culture.

That culture began with an unswerving devotion to the mythology of the origin of the state.

Here, for instance, is Lenin at the Finland Station.  We see him upon his return from exile in 1917, greeted by crowds singing the Marseillaise.  There is a solidity, an inevitability to him and the revolution.  With outstretched arm, he declares: “Long live the worldwide Socialist Revolution!”


“This is the Place!”

This image produces discomfort; the discomfort is my Russian immigrant husband’s birthright and I have perversely adopted it.

When we moved, sight unseen, to Salt Lake City in the mid-1990s, we were greeted by a strangely familiar Brigham Young, no less solid and no less inevitable than Vladimir Ilyich.  He, too, towers above us, arm outstretched.

Perhaps, after all, this is the place.

Did you notice, a local whispers to us, that Brigham Young stands with his back to the Mormon Temple and he gestures toward the bank.  Wink.

Now we feel comfortable.  There is a dissident movement here, too, and we, before even uttering the password, have been inducted into it.

Next stop, the liquor store for more fringe camaraderie.

During our seven years in Utah, we encountered, for the first time, that “if you’re not behind us, get in front of us” variety of American patriotism that we had previously thought was peculiar to the Soviet Union.  No room for equivocation; no room for discussion. There is a right way and a wrong way, in religion and in politics.

And there is a right way in art, a kind of Mormon Realism, I suppose:

“We’ve decided,” said our Salt Lake neighbor, “that any movie that is inappropriate for our children, is inappropriate for us, too.”

Only wholesome, uplifting messages, please.  Chaste love stories; artistic renderings that affirm the goodness of our leaders:

I hasten to add that I admire and feel affection for many aspects of Mormon life, as I got to know it while I lived in Utah.  At home, we joked that it was like living in a foreign country without the benefit of a language barrier; but that was friendly kidding.

Still, those years in Zion were our first inkling that the danger of cultural Sovietization of America may come not from the left, but from the religious right.


22 Jul

New Orleans.  Late July.

I’m a stranger here.  Tired, sweaty and hungry.

I’ve been walking for hours: along the riverfront, up and down the streets of the French Quarter.

If I knock back an eight-dollar jumbo margarita in a styrofoam cup, it’s because I’m justifiably thirsty.  I take up residence on a bench outside the Café du Monde.

My tipsy imagination should now, by all rights, drift to Tennessee Williams–all ‘kindness of strangers’ and ‘gentlemen callers’–but it does not.

Across the street from the Café du Monde stands an impressive statue of Andrew Jackson, astride a rearing horse.

Would you believe that I sat under the gaze of General Jackson and contemplated the Battle of New Orleans?

I didn’t.

Monuments may aim to remind us of historical events, but art has a life of its own.  And for me, art conjures more art.

That’s how I was moved, association by association, from Mr. Jackson to Peter the Great.

And then (bear with me), forward to modern-day New Orleans.

As you may know, there is an equestrian statue of Peter the Great in St.Petersburg that quickly became (and has remained) an essential symbol of that city. It’s only fair; Petersburg was his fond creation: Window to the West, and all that jazz.

I present it here so you can make your own margarita-free comparison with the bronze Andrew Jackson:

Next, it’s less likely that you are familiar with The Bronze Horseman, Alexander Pushkin’s equally monumental narrative poem starring this very statue. You will have to trust me when I say that one cannot remember the statue of Peter without recalling Alexander’s poem.

Pushkin brought the statue to life. Literally:

Evgeny, a hapless clerk (and beloved type of the Russian literary tradition), falls victim to the notorious (and very real) 1824 flood that devastated the city.

As the waters recede, he rushes to the modest home of his beloved, Parasha.

It is utterly destroyed, and Parasha is nowhere to be found.

She is, no doubt, (here, I take a few liberties with the text) at the Superdome, or worse.

Evgeny never recovers from the blow. In the final episode of the poem, he angrily curses Peter’s bronze equestrian form, whereupon the statue comes to life and chases him to his death.

Here (from a translation by Waclaw Lednicki), we find Evgeny confronting his loss:

(Again, I mix it up a bit with my choice of photograph.)

All, to his horror, is demolished,
Leveled or ruined or abolished.
Houses are twisted all awry,
And some are altogether shattered,
Some shifted by the seas; and scattered
Are bodies, flung as bodies lie
On battlefields.

I’m having fun here, of course, swinging back and forth in time and place, but for a purpose.  These gorgeous, impractical cities were both built on swamps and barely above sea level.  It’s too late now to decide that we oughtn’t build in such places; the cities are treasures, both of them; we can’t abandon them.

Peter and Andrew will always be safe atop their horses.

The next time the winds blow and the waters rise, can’t we do better for Evgeny and Parasha?

Not for the General Reader

12 Jul

I do not believe that butterfly-chasing, literary superstar Vladimir Nabokov worried much about what people thought of him.

And, yet, Nabokov’s memoir (Speak, Memory), a lyrical conjuring of a very privileged childhood in pre-revolutionary Russia, snaps out of its reverie in Chapter 3 with this aside:

The following passage is not for the general reader, but the particular idiot who, because he has lost a fortune in some crash, thinks he understands me.

My old (since 1917) quarrel with the Soviet dictatorship is wholly unrelated to any question of property.  My contempt for the emigre who “hates the Reds” because they “stole” his money and land is complete.  The nostalgia I have been cherishing all these years is a hypertrophied sense of lost childhood, not sorrow for lost banknotes.

And finally: I reserve for myself the right to yearn after an ecological niche:

…Beneath the sky
Of my America to sigh
For one locality in Russia

The general reader may now resume.

I love this passage.

I love it because we are all, in fact, robbed of the ecological niche of our childhood, bolsheviks or no bolsheviks.  (The house I grew up in is now rented to a bunch of college students.  Or, here’s an example a little closer to Nabokov’s ancestral estate:  There’s an IKEA store on the outskirts of Moscow today.)

I love this passage for my own selfish purposes also.

For years I have tried to imagine how I might reserve for myself the right to yearn after my own particular ecological (and temporal) niche in Russia: a dilapidated student dorm in Leningrad just before Perestroika.

It’s unseemly to love those last crumbling, corrupt years of Soviet rule.

Unseemly because we, American students, were just visitors, not permanent inmates.

Unseemly because Americans were in deficit (to put it in Soviet terms), and we enjoyed a wholly unjustified popularity everywhere we went.  We had the right jeans, the right backpacks, sturdy (and stylish!) boots and coats.  With western currency in our pockets, we were like billionaires.  We had access to everything, and Russians wanted access to us.

Getting a date was a cinch.  You didn’t have to be particularly pretty, particularly witty, particularly smart, particularly anything.

But those are just the banknotes.  You must not confuse me with those Westerners who returned again and again to Soviet Russia to bask in that sort of easy attention.  My contempt for them is complete.

My old (since 1991) regret at the opening up of Russia is unrelated to any question of property.  I regret the loss of a wretched, shabby, peculiar moment that happened to be mine.

The nostalgia I have been cherishing all these years for Leningrad in 1983 is a hypertrophied sense of lost youth, not sorrow for lost banknotes.

The general reader may now resume.