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23/02/2006

Moscow revisited

Russian poet Olga Martynova returns to Moscow after 15 years and is pleasantly surprised at what she finds.

Seen from Leningrad, Moscow looked like a pile of grey shapes around a postcard red Kremlin, threatening and almost uninhabitable while at the same time, densely occupied. No question, the boulevards of Moscow had a certain sweetness in spring and some houses boasted a sort of decayed elegance but all in all, it was a sad city for me, that would never again be what it once was – if one is to believe literature.

In the 19th century, Moscow was considered a sleepy nest of Pasha-like landowners and salesmen with long beards. The sharp-tongued liberal and later political emigre Alexander Herzen wrote in 1840 that Moscow, the gigantic excrescence of a rich market town, had less its own splendours to thank for its influence than the fact that other parts of Russia had so little to offer. The then capital of St. Petersburg was, on the one hand, too hard and cold for him, on the other hand refreshingly lively and practical. "In St. Petersburg, people are generally and individually especially miserable. One can't love St. Petersburg but at the same time, I have the feeling that I wouldn't want to live in any other Russian city," he wrote and settled in London.



Olga Martynova and Oleg Yuryev in Moscow. Photo courtesy the author


Now I have returned to Moscow for the first time in fifteen years. My husband, the writer Oleg Yuryev, and I were invited to the Poetry Biennale. We were prepared for just about anything, but not for what met us: Moscow today is an almost pleasant, busy and contented trading metropolis and not the grave capital of a global power that it's been slated as since 1918.

Moscow gradually peeled the Soviet mask off its face. I know no other city whose street ads suit it so well. And the elaborate water fountains, the new towers and turrets and the Holy George. And the new memorials everywhere, the erection of which seems to be a national illness: Pushkin and his wife Natalie in an arbour of cast iron and gold; the songwriter Vladimir Vysotsky with his guitar; Sergei Yesenin with a tiny Pegasus at his feet. There is even a monument to processed cheese. Nothing is too kitschy for Moscow today, it exists beyond such terms.

As a Petersburger, I am often asked about the antagonism between Moscow and Leningrad/Petersburg. "Oh no," I answer, "even in Moscow, a good poet is born once every fifty years." That's small talk. But in the 1960s, Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Andrey Voznesensky were made models of Soviet cultural politics while the future Nobel Prize Winner Joseph Brodsky was condemned as a freeloader in Leningrad. In St. Petersburg, some poets still live from the legendary underground jobs: night guards, guards, firemen. In Moscow, people help each other willingly (and expect a return favour). In the 19th century, there was talk of St. Petersburg practicality and Moscow idealism. Since 1918, it's exactly the opposite. A capital city offers more possibilities to be commercial. But without Soviet power, the Moscow proficiency is much more pleasant.

There's a Moscow gesture, inviting, somewhat indifferent which (unlike St. Petersburg's cool selectivity) leads to the creation of a warm, easy-going community. We accept this gesture and join a group of roughly 20, after the opening event. The initiator of the noctural march is the 28 year old author Danila Davydov. We walk to the monument for Venedikt Erofeev, which doesn't represent him, the legendary author of the Moscow boozing saga "Moskva - Petushki" ("Moscow to the end of the Line"), but rather his hero Venichka and his beloved. Whenever Venichka wants to go to Red Square, he finds himself back at Kursk Train Station and takes the train to Petushki, where his beloved lives. (here some pictures inspired by Erofeev's work)

At first, the shaky Venichka was supposed to stand in his wrinkled suit with his bolt upright beauty with the braid thrown on her ample bosom at the Kursk Train Station in Petushki. But the management of the Russian Rail thought that would amount to propaganda for alcoholism and turned down the goldmine that the pilgrimage would definitely have been. Fine. We are spared the 120 km ride into the wild blue yonder; those who want to, can get tanked without having to leave Moscow. But nobody here is drunk. On the way, we stop at a store (they're almost all open 24 hours): beer, juice, gin tonic. Snatches of conversation: "Ballads have a chance of success." "I'll send you the poem tomorrow per text message." A militia van with open windows drives by slowly, the policemen listen in, no interest, the van carries on.

Suddenly everyone's in a rush: the subway closes soon. Nobody considers taking a taxi, poets are modest creatures, even in rich Moscow. The idea of walking, even a short distance, is even more absurd to a Muscovite. Our hotel is on Red Square and the spirit of the Kursk Train Station hovers before us like a menace. After a few circles, we ask a taxi driver who's standing next to his taxi smoking, if he knows the hotel "Rossija." "Look up," he says. In the sky, the red letters are glowing: "Rossija."

The poet Natalia Gorbanevskaya was one of the few who protested on the Red Square against the Warsaw Pact troupe's invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 . Since 1976, she's been living in Paris. "So, how do you like this horror?" - an old friend of hers points with something like masochistic pride to the historically restored Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. For decades, the Muscovites complained that their church had been blown up, now they're mad that the newly erected building isn't a masterpiece. And she points to the ship's sails of the tactless memorial to Peter the Great, who once robbed Moscow of its significance. The sculptor Surab Zereteli contributed fruits of his supernatural labours against the will (and resistance) of the recipients and is the terror of the city. When I say that some of his things aren't so bad – such as Gogol in Rome – I don't risk much; everyone assumes that it's a snobby joke of mine. "Beautiful," replies Natalia Gorbanewskaya, who, as a seasoned dissident, isn't inclined to idealise. "How the Parisians used to insult the Eiffel tower and the Centre Pompidou! And today everyone loves them!"

"I went to six readings today," says a young man in the early evening in one of Moscow's many cafe clubs. In those days, in the frosty late Soviet era, our biotops were the kitchens, where we would talk way past midnight, not in cafes or restaurants. Today these are full of young people, students. Readings don't cost anything at the door and there's often a free buffet to boot (the youth get too much vodka for my taste but the only private sponsor of the Poetry Biennale is a liquour company which provides the vodka; everything else is financed by the Moscow city government). The door remains open, people come and go, nobody seems to mind. The moderator says, before the German poet Gerhard Falkner takes the stage, "Please turn off your mobile phones. Our German guests aren't used to them."

In Soviet days, the emigrants seemed to go to the beyond, over the Styx. Those who stayed in the here and now had a huge territory to themselves, a "sixth of the mainland" as they said, but they were locked in, wherever they went on this sixth – to the castles of the Baltic, the minarets of Samarkand or the Buddhist cloisters on the Baikal Sea. After the change, movement began in all directions. Many ended up abroad, without budging an inch, in the former Soviet republics. Not only the Russians living there write in Russian; the Usbeks, Armenians, Ukrainians do too. One is reminded of the old and posthumous Habsburg empire, of the flourishing of German language literature in Bohemia and Moravia and in the Bukovina. It's no coincidence that the Donau monarchy is a trendy theme in Russia today. "The Quest for an Anthology" is a collection of 244 expatriate Russians living in 26 countries. 21 of them came to the Bienale. They too take the opportunity to listen to one another, Leonid Schwab and Gali-Dana Singer from Israel, Andrei Polyakov from the Crimea, Polina Barskova from USA, to name a few. Bahit Kendschejew, a poet of Kazakh origin living in Canada, says the situation enriches Russian poetry. The editor of the mammoth anthology as well as a no less comprehensive anthology of young poets and one of poets from the Russian provinces, is Dmitri Kuzmin. Such works give an overview of the present situation, something that is hardly possible with publishing houses, book stores and critics.

Kuzmin began his career as an author as communism was coming to an end. Instead of joining up up with the official structures or the underground, he and a couple of others founded a new autonomous cultural scene, the Internet site Vavilon and published book editions particularly important for young poets. Of course there are plenty of other competing Internet sites and editions. Moscow is a big city, and in such a competitive environment harmony has no place.

We come into the editorial offices of one of the "fat" magazines: an old apartment with high stuccoed ceilings. Tea is made and authors are welcome. Years ago (but after perestroika), the magazine altered a novel by Oleg Yuryev so radically that he took back the manuscript. That was the fault of the chief editor at the time, I am told, things like that don't happen any more. Here that familiar anachronistic intelligentsia-type amiability reigns. Beasts of prey become teddy bears when they lose their teeth. One twenty year old girl, by contrast, looked every bit a wildcat, coming up to speak to me after the "round table on German poetry". "I'm from ...", she says, and drops the name of a glossy magazine. "Give me your mobile number! You could do an interview with a German, the best would be Hans!" Nonplussed by so much casualness I asked which Hans she meant, as there was no one by that name among the German participants. "Well," she said, "wait, yes, here." And she read slowly from her tattered notebook: "Hans – uh... Mag – nus – Enz – uh... ens – berger!" (One of Germany's most prominent intellectuals - ed. See our feature by Enzensberger "The radical loser".)

The new species! Amazingly, the glossy illustrated magazines in Moscow also publish literature, and often pay better than the "fat" publications. Assar Eppel, our friend and guide on this day, is asked by the "fat" ones if he's got anything that's too long for the "glossy" magazines. Eppel's stories are fascinating, with their evocative image of the unique, lost world of the Jewish suburb in Moscow where he grew up in the 1940s. Before the end of communism he was a very reputed translator, but no one would publish his prose.

Like all Muscovites, Assar Eppel also seems to waver about whether he likes the city's new architecture or not. But he tends to the affirmative: in his view, the city's architectural development is a stylistic continuation from where it was interrupted one hundred years ago. As opposed to the ascetic modernity that always had a hand in shaping Petersburg, Moscow's opulent modernity, even the gigantic Hotel Metropol with its famous mayolica murals, was always snowed under by the Soviet grey. Today it's there for all to see, scrubbed clean and given optical support by the graceful towers of the new if much criticised "Luzhkovic architecture" (Yuri Luzhkov is the all-powerful mayor of Moscow), which emulates the Belle Epoque.

We come to another big apartment, this time a private one. Deep armchairs, tea with apple crumble, cats, a parrot and a dog. Nina Sadur, who became an unofficial celebrity in the 1980s, earned her money in those days as a cleaning lady in a theatre. Today she is a well-known and respected dramatist. But the wheels of time go round and round and Moscow is an expensive city. Her computer screen shows a bread-and-butter job, a television series that she and her daughter Yekaterina Sadur, a talented young writer, are now working on. This or something like it, is the situation of many writers all over the world.

Red Square was once the most luxurious marketplace in Russia. At the end of the 19th century a huge store was built where the market stalls used to be, in the modish and at the same time derided pseudo-Russian architectural style. In this way the square became a broad street between the large store and the Kremlin wall. Nothing like the imperial dimensions of Palace Square in St. Petersburg or Heldenplatz in Vienna. Three times, the communist government made overtures to tear down the GUM Department Store to create more room for the tank parades, but mysteriously the genius loci of Moscow business was able to prevent that. Lewis Carroll once described the spruce St. Basil's Cathedral on Red Square together with all of Moscow (aside from accompanying Alice to Wonderland, his journey to Russia was his sole trip abroad): "A white city with green roofs, with conical towers that rise out of one another like a shortened telescope; with plump gilt domes that reflect the city like a distorted mirror; with churches looking like bouquets of cacti (some of the twigs adorned with prickly green buds, others with red and white ones)." Astonishing how this description still fits Moscow today.

Once more we cross the night heading for Red Square, the Moscow songwriter Andrey Anpilov, the Belarusian poet Dmitri Strozev, Oleg Yuryev and myself. Now and then we stop and read poems to each other under the scarce light of a lantern or a store window. A militia van drives by slowly with open windows. They stop and listen, then drive on. The seemingly straight route to Red Square is suddenly interrupted by the Moscow River. The men are ready to swim across, but I divert their attention with questions about Belarusian literature and lead them to the bridge.

People in Russia used to say about the emigrants: everyone stays the age they were when they left. If you look at it that way I've come to Moscow to get back the missing one and a half decades I spent in Germany. Like Zazie in Raymond Queneau's famous novel, I came here to "get older". In the end I did a better job than she did, the French Alice. She never saw the Metro, but I did, and Red Square too.

*

The article originally appeared in German in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on February 13, 2006.

Olga Martynova was born in Dudinka (Siberia) in 1962 and grew up in Leningrad. Since 1991 she has lived and worked as poet and literary critic in Frankfurt.

Translation: nb, jab.
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