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    Volume 9 Issue 7 | February 12, 2010|

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Fire and Ice
A literary tour through Moscow evokes conflicting emotions.

Syed Zain Al-mahmood

The writers' village on the outskirts of Moscow.

In the ice-cold heart of a Russian winter, the new rich flaunt their wealth. No one with roots in a country like Bangladesh would want to buy anything at the glitzy over-the-top shopping mall called GUM (pronounced Goom) overlooking Red Square. After all, there is such a thing as value for money. But there is no shortage of customers. They draw up in state of the art BMW 5s and Mercedes SLKs, all decked up in opulent coats and flashy boots. Moscow isn't known as the world's most expensive city for nothing.

A new joke is doing the rounds in the cafes off Arbat street. It's about two oligarchs Igor Nikolayevich and Ivan Ivanovich. Igor is walking down the street when he runs into his friend Ivan. "That's a lovely tie," Igor Nikolayevich tells his friend. "Thank you," says Ivan Ivanovich. "Bought it in Paris, cost me $1,000." To which Igor replies: "You fool! You could have stayed in Moscow and paid $2,000!"

But Moscow isn't all about flashy oligarchs and onion-shaped domes. There is another city: the old lanes of Stari Arbat that inspired the great Pushkin; the pavements where the Rostovs walked in War and Peace; the ethereal subaquatic beauty of Gorky's house. Russia has more literary museums than any other country in the world and Russian writers have always played a special role in the spiritual, intellectual and political lives of their readers. Many Muscovites cherish their legacy today with warmth and energy.

The city is filled with the perfectly preserved open houses of great writers: Dostoevsky, Lermontov, Bulgakov, Gorky. The mystique of Russia unveils itself as one explores the places where the great Russian authors lived and created their masterpieces. There is no better way to feel the romantic spirit of Pushkin or the deep Russian soul of the immortal Dostoyevsky than to take a literary tour of Moscow.

The arched courtyard of Bulgakov's house in Tverskaya Ulitsa gives the visitor an eerie feeling of deja vu. Anyone who has read The Master and Margarita will instantly recognise the stairs, and the courtyard across which Margarita flew. Mikhail Bulgakov lived in poverty with his first wife, Tatyana, in the communal apartment along with perennially drunk neighbours. Bulgakov had his own way of fighting with them - he put them in his novels. The whole area is filled with both Soviet and mystic echoes: the nearby Patriarch's Pond, a narrow alley where one of the novel's protagonists chased evil spirits, stories of communal living with alcoholic neighbours, about the city's neurotic secret police, arrests, and the mysterious disappearances of anti-Soviet writers and actors. One can readily feel the atmosphere of intrigue in which Bulgakov spun his novels.

Maxim Gorky's mansion on Tverskaya has a different story to tell. It is perhaps the saddest and most beautiful of the writers' houses. The Soviets realised the propaganda value of writers early on -- the artists and intellectuals were the celebrities of the Soviet state. They received government sponsorship. But it was often a gilded cage.

Arbat street where pushkin lived is still a haunt for artists and writers.

Maxim Gorky's reputation as a unique literary voice from the bottom rung of Russian society and as a fervent advocate of Russia's social, political, and cultural transformation made him an early favourite with the Bolshevik movement. But his free-spirited writing soon fell foul of increasingly oppressive Soviet policies. In August 1921, Nikolai Gumilyov, Gorky's friend and fellow writer, was arrested in Petrograd for his monarchist views. Gorky hurried to Moscow and obtained a pardon from Lenin personally, but upon his return to Petrograd he found out that Gumilyov had already been shot. Shortly afterwards Gorky chose self-exile in Naples.

In 1931, Stalin lured Russia's literary genius back from Italy, and installed him in the sprawling but beautiful art nouveau building in central Moscow. The mansion, designed by the Architect Fyodor Shekhtel, is an almost hallucinatory masterpiece of undulating forms, floral mosaics, and vibrant hues -- the highlight being the flowing main staircase. The stunning architecture contrasts strongly with Gorky's reputation as one of Russia's great "proletarian" writers. It is said that Gorky lived there with a KGB agent for a secretary. In 1934, he was banned from leaving the country. Two years later, he died in suspicious circumstances.

Stalin also established the "Writers' Village" at Peredelkino, in the countryside southwest of Moscow. The simple wooden cottages where great books were produced by world-famous writers at humble desks are modestly beautiful, and deeply moving. It is said that Gorky suggested the location to Stalin. Among the writers and poets who settled in Peredelkino were Boris Pasternak, Korney Chukovsky and Arseny Tarkovsky.

Here, in his little red dacha, Pasternak sat down to write Dr Zhivago. His tweed cap and plain raincoat hang on the wall. Looking out through the window, one can see the trees that he planted, now fully grown, and the snowy slopes on which he must have looked out as he drew Lara's character.

Dr. Zhivago was published abroad and in 1958 Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. An old photograph in the dining room shows Pasternak at the wooden table with his family and friends. The author is making a toast, and everyone is smiling. One can almost feel the anticipation and excitement.

Two days after receiving the good news, Pasternak sent a telegram to the Swedish Nobel Academy: "Immensely thankful, touched, proud, astonished, abashed." However, four days later came another telegram: "Considering the meaning this award has been given in the society to which I belong, I must refuse it. Please do not take offence at my voluntary rejection."

Undersea effect produced by Russian architect Shekhtel adorns Gorky's house.

Although Pasternak was forced to give up his prize, and the novel remained banned in the USSR, the authorities continued to regard the author with disfavour.

A cartoon published in the US at the time showed Pasternak in a concentration camp in Siberia, cutting wood in the snow with another prisoner. "I won the Nobel Prize for literature," says Pasternak. "What was your crime?"

Two years later, Pasternak died in his little dacha, on an austere wooden bed, under a blue embroidered blanket.

Peredelkino gave the writers an idyllic location in which to live and work. It also conveniently corralled them where the KGB could keep an eye on them. Work that did not toe the Soviet line was banned from publication. Chukovsky's fairytales for children were censored because they contained Christmas trees, considered as dangerous Christian symbols. They were reinstated once the Star of Bethlehem had been reborn as the Red Star of the Soviet Union.

The dream of Peredelkino faded for many writers as Stalin's purges spread. It is said that some of the writers were coerced into denouncing their colleagues. People disappeared, and were never heard from again. Their houses were reallocated to writers of a more politically correct persuasion.

The Dostoevsky House, on a street later named after this Russian author, was where Dostoevsky grew up. Today, one can see the small bedroom that he used to share with his brother and the humble drawing room that was regarded as significant to the family's social standing. Dostoevsky's mother died of tuberculosis in these rooms, which were unheated during the time he lived here. Moscow was not a friendly place for the poor. Still isn't.

No doubt Dostoevsky got some of his inspiration from living in these quarters. In Crime and Punishment one sees the mental anguish and moral dilemmas of Raskolnikov, a penniless student who plans and carries out the murder of a hated, devious pawnbroker for her money. His aim is to solve his financial problems and at the same time, in his words, rid the world of an evil, worthless parasite.

The Chekhov House Museum on Sadovaya Ulitsa is where the celebrated Russian playwright both worked as a doctor and crafted plays and short stories. On display are bills from Chekhov's theatre productions, first editions of his writings, and the rooms in which he practised medicine. "Medicine is my wife," Chekov was fond of saying, "and literature my mistress."

A two-hour drive north of Moscow takes the literary tourist to Yasnaya Polyana, Leo Tolstoy's pre-revolution country estate. Visitors are treated to an authentic Russian tea party at a "Samovar" -- those fascinating Russian urns with spouts. The house to this day is a treasure from the past. It's been preserved precisely as it was during the lifetime of Russia's premiere novelist, without electricity and manuscripts opened on the writing desk. The estate museum provides a fascinating glimpse into his life as a "Baron with a conscience." It has been said that Tolstoy's love for Mother Russia is really his love for Yasnaya Polyana.

No tour is complete without visiting the living quarters of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn who shook the foundations of Soviet power through his haunting accounts of the forced labour camps in Gulag Archipelago and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Solzhenitsyn was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970 and was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974.

Beauty, treachery, courage and magic words -- a trawl through the writers' haunts of Moscow not only unfolds an extraordinary literary map but also uncovers in vivid detail a whole social and political panorama. The struggle for political and moral clarity is as relevant today as it was during the heyday of the Russian greats.




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