Thursday, November 9, 2017

Trave Notes 6 - Literary St. Petersburg

I Saw a Woman on a Horse Riding Down Nevsky's Sidewalk at 11:00 PM

Dostoevsky Apartment - I visited the last one of the Dostoevsky family apartments, the one he was in when he wrote "The Brothers Karamazov" and where he died.  He moved every 3 years or so, even living in hospitals and churches.  This was a modest apartment, recreated from pictures and descriptions of his daughter.  It is not far from some of the scenes in 'Crime & Punishment.'

Dostoevsky's Last Apartment - Upstairs

Russian fiction was one of the 4 great traditions of 19th century European fiction, along with French, English & U.S. fiction.  If you were interested in existentialism, you had to start with Dostoevsky's "Notes from the Underground" and go from there.  He was the darkest writer, even darker than Gogol.  He moved from socialism in his youth to Russian Orthodox Christianity, culminating in the book "The Idiot" - the name of a Russian Christlike figure who people made fun of because he was so kind and naive.

Dostoevsky worked at night, loved very hot tea, sweets and cigarettes - even though he had emphysema.  His wife took care of him.  She ran his literary business, taking dictation and editing, so that in the morning he would have a final draft to look at.  Without her, there might have been no Dostoevsky.  I have been in the houses or apartments of Hemingway, Dickens, Twain, Hugo, Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor and Alice Walker and being here was a powerful feeling.  A tobacco box still stood on one table, with his daughter's notes saying: "Papa died today" with the date of death.  Fitting for his apartment, I think.

Russian Literature Museum - This is located on Vasilevsky Island, just across from the Winter Palace.  It is best seen with an audio translation, but there are some English explanations in each room.  It has a full room of Tolstoy photos, objects and paintings.  The old man, dressed in his muzhik's blouse and boots and his flowing white beard is endearing.  There is also a Lermontov room, a young poet who died in a dual with Martynov - like his hero Pushkin, as I understand.  Lermontov was deported for revolutionary lines in his poem "A Poet's Death" which was declared seditious.  He served in the army serveral times and lived in the southern Caucasus Mountains after being sent from St. Petersburg. There is also a room of 20th century writers - Gorky, Mayakovsky, Bely & Block, some symbolists, Yesenin and Mandelstam, the best stuff being on Gorky.  Pictures of members of writers unions and various intense intellectual 'salon's are also included - something that has been absent in the U.S. for a long time.  After all, few in the U.S. take ideas seriously anymore.

Pushkin's sumptuous apartment is located within eyesight of Palace Square along the Moyka river.  Pushkin allowed Nicolas I to review his draft / final of "The Bronze Horseman" about Peter the Great - a draft included here with Nicolas' notes on it.  Pushkin was very close to the aristocracy evidently.

I walked right by the Nabokov Museum and did not go in, as his writing has never interested me.  His most famous work, "Lolita" about an older man's sexual relationship with a young girl, seems to be such a sad and chauvinist angle, even if true, that I can't stomach it.  Nabokov was born into a wealthy aristocratic family in St. Petersburg in 1899 which later supported the Provisional Government of Kerensky, then fled after the seizure of power by the Soviets.  Perhaps the history of diddling the servants by aristocrats played some role in 'Lolita,' but we'll never know.

Leningrad Siege Museum

Leningrad Siege Museum - This is a moving but small museum not far from the Field of Mars.  It contains incredible water color/paint pictures of civilian scenes from the 900 day Siege of Leningrad in World War II, showing Leningraders pulling water from the frozen canals to drink, cooking cats, cannibalism, hauling the dead and surviving, just using black paint on a white background, giving the feel of a wood-cut.  I have to look up the artist.

The museum explains how the Nazis cut off Leningrad by land, so that the only supplies had to be hauled across northern Lake Ladoga's ice or water and trucked into the city through the snowy countryside under German bombing.   The small museum contains paintings, military hardware, a few explanations in English, photos, recreations of scenes. The section below, from the Museum's site, explains why the museum is only one floor:

"A memorial museum was established around the current site immediately after the end of the blockade, and covered an area over thirty times the size of the present exhibition. A number of 'trophy' Nazi tanks and aircraft were among the 37,000 exhibits, many of which were donated by citizens. Fearing the unifying power of such a monument, Stalin ordered its destruction during his purge of the Leningrad Party in 1948. The museum's director was shot, the larger exhibits were disbursed and destroyed in secret, and the rest were burnt until there was nothing left. It was not until the late eighties that it became possible to re-establish the museum. Once again, Blockade survivors and their families provided most of the exhibits, and the museum reopened on 8 September 1989."

I asked some Maoists from ICOR who were attending at the same time why the museum was so small for such an incredible event.  They did not know, evidently not knowing the history.  I commented to them that it was too bad the Russian Army was 'surprised,' which allowed the Germans to get to Leningrad in the first place.  They moved away from me at that point.

What was clear is that the Nazi command said they would not feed the civilians of Leningrad if they took the city.  So Leningraders never surrendered, though 700,000 died.  Better to die on your feet than your knees, as Zapata so succinctly put it.  That, unfortunately, is what happened.

Reviews of Russian novels by Chernyshevsky, Biely, below:

Red Frog
November 9, 2017

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