“No one can embrace the unembraceable,” the editors of Chtenia commented on the task of reading for this issue, “Storied Moscow.” Indeed, Moscow evokes a rush of impressions like no other city: six-month winters, intrigue, people from Tashkent and Minsk rubbing elbows and trading blows, the center of violence, dreams, disappointments, and majesty for so many. I’m willing to bet that the Stolichnaya (“of the capital”) brand of vodka wouldn’t ring with the same aplomb if it were associated with, say, Washington, D.C. or Ottawa. The editors have done an admirable job of going beyond the familiar, however; the pieces in the issue range from historical records to writers who are hardly known outside Russia, to the lesser-known works of famous writers as well as snippets of Pushkin and Okudzhava in a new spotlight. The quirky volume makes me feel as if I’d just stumbled into a dusty section of the library, opened a worn hardcover that hadn’t been checked out since 1957, and discovered a treasure trove.
Take Sigismund von Herberstein’s “Notes Upon Russia” and William Richardson’s “A Pestilential Distemper in Russia,” presented side by side in the beginning of the issue. Both date from before 1800. Both are written in a journalistic style, whose dispassion lends force to horrors such as the killing of an archbishop by a mob and officers’ use of the plague to extract bribes. They give a sense of the distance—physical, psychological, and cultural—between Moscow and the rest of Europe that has lingered to the present. In the next article, Alexander Herzen compares the virtues and vices of Moscow and St. Petersburg in 1842 with deadly and precise humor: “In Petersburg, people in general . . . are extremely foul. It is impossible to love Petersburg, yet I feel that I would not live in any other Russian city. In Moscow, on the other hand, everyone is extremely kind, but it is just that they live with a deathly boredom.” Petersburg is European, worldly, and arrogant; Moscow is Slavic, earnest, and full of an innocent pomposity. Herzen writes with affection for both.
“Khitrovka,” an excerpt from Vladimir Gilyarovsky’s novel Moscow and Muscovites, describes the city’s underbelly. The neighborhood is home to people who, in the words of Gilyarovsky’s friend, “have crossed the Rubicon of life.” These are child beggars who have learned to prey on the kindness of strangers by the age of three, prostitutes, alcoholics, and ex-convicts recently arriving from Siberia. But Khitrovka is not without its own honor code and royalty. Gilyarovsky conveys such empathy for the characters that, when the Soviet authorities finally razed Khitrovka at the end of the excerpt, I was almost wistful.
Yuri Nagibin reminisces about his childhood in “Clear Ponds,” a Moscow neighborhood of the same name. The directness and pain with which he recalls his youthful love for a girl are Chekhovian; the subject may be mundane, but his sensitivity render the story at once unique and universal:
We were able to sit undisturbed on the bench by Clear Ponds and discuss for the thousandth time why she didn’t like me, or rather, why she did like me but not in that way. Not like our former youth leader Shapovalov, not like the singer Lemeshev, not like the pilot Gromov, not like the actors Conrad Veidt or Boris Babochkin, I would argue with her in my mind, knowing all of Nina’s deepest infatuations. The remoteness and grandeur of these competitors relieved me of any jealousy, but it did nothing to cure my gloom.
Dmitry Zverev’s black-and-white photographs are remarkable for their emotional immediacy and their ingenious composition. A woman watches the ice break from behind a barrier in “Mirrored Floe”; the floe reflects the patterns made by the snow and the paving stones behind her. The photograph’s perspective gives the woman a childlike appearance. “Light to Dark” captures a young crowd coming through a gateway. The play between light and shadows keeps the figures in constant motion. In fact, they remind me of the dancers in Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” In “Red Square Pas de Deux,” a man and a woman reach out to each other, as if for mutual support on a frozen pond, in a Red Square blanketed by snow. Behind the mist in front of them are the domes and spires that symbolize history, power, and so much of what is Russia.
At the end of its slim 128 pages, “Storied Moscow” does leave me with a feeling that the city is impossible to embrace; I would have liked, for example, more on the post-Soviet Moscow of Mercedes-Benzes, struggling migrants, and simply ordinary people going about their lives. But perhaps that is for another two, or three, issues of Chtenia to come, and I would look forward to them.