I‘ve said before that, when I came to England, the thing that stood out the most was the absence of books anywhere on display in the house. The majority of houses I visited had books shelved somewhere away from the sight. You would see mirrors, paintings, ceramics, photos, but rarely many, if any, books.
My Moscow flat is small, and what you see is the so called “large room”, i.e. the living room, that also functions as a study and a bedroom, and on occasion – as a dining room. I’ve lived there since I was born, and ever since I’ve been surrounded with books. Admittedly, the books I was looking at when I was a kid are now in another room in a different bookcase. In the living room, however, most of the books were bought in the years after I became a student. More books stand on the shelves in the corridor.
What books are they? Having not looked at them for 7 years, I’m impressed and amazed at myself at the range of literature in front of my eyes. The most impressive thing is that I did actually read them. In no particular order, on those eight shelves you’ll find: Sigmund Freud; Nicholas Roerikh; Chinese, Greek and Roman philosophers; ancient Russian chronicles; the Russian language dictionary by Vladimir Dal’; encyclopedias of Symbolist movement, Music, Philology, Mythology, and Religion; history of erotic painting; Thomas Mommsen; Andre Mauroit; English, French, and German dictionaries; Bertrand Russell; Boris Pasternak; Mikhail Bulgakov; Domesday Book; Aldous Huxley; Franz Kafka; Victor Hugo; Gustav Flobert; and many, many others…
Looking at these books so many years later, I become aware of a few things. I realise that it is impossible to be ordinary when, as a child and teenager, you grow up surrounded by this wealth of human culture. I also see why my own mind is so panoptical yet capable of finding the common between different things. I can understand why I find it so easy to navigate between the topics and epochs; but I also see why sometimes I cannot tolerate the mental laziness in people.
Last but not least, I understand why for many people I come across as a serious, brainy, logical, realistic person, with little interest in emotional stuff. Although the image is far from truth, I realise why I so love Maugham’s “Theatre”. Julia Lambert may have been vain and pathetic on the scale of an ordinary woman and mother, almost a child; and she didn’t know much; but being distanced from the ordinary and free from knowledge allowed her to convey the deepest emotions and thus to be the best actress, to inspire people.
I know more than Julia, I am aloof and calm most of the time, and because of this people confide in me. Because I need “human material” for my own purposes, I don’t stop them. They tell me things they cannot tell anybody else. Instinctively, they suspect that I know enough to put them in the proper perspective, to relieve the burdensome feeling that they are complete misfits and to inspire them to lead their own lives. But would I be able to do this without compassion and empathy? Without passion for literature which is a synthetic art, in that it requires not only mental power but also emotional engagement in form of imagination and invites to see our emotional responses from the outside? Without knowledge of how similar people are and have always been?
A friend of mine told me recently that this photo of a fountain in the Manege Square looks like it was taken somewhere in Paris. I trust that he knows better; as for me, I’m glad that I was able to make my native city so distinctly European. After many years in one European country I know for a fact that Russia isn’t too different from the rest of the continent, yet how to convey that to Russians themselves and to foreigners? Photography is certainly one of the means.
We’ll see. And my friend will most certainly tell me if I’m on the right track.
This is one area where Moscow is positively ahead of most of the UK (and I’ve been pretty much everywhere, except Scotland and Northern Ireland). You no longer have to queue up at the post office, search for the Internet connection or visit a local grocery to sort out your household bills or to top up your mobile phone. All you need to do is to find this terminal – and in this photo the terminal stands in the street, next to the subway that leads to Frunzenskaya underground station. The procedure is straightforward; the only drawback is that the terminals that stand in the outlets of one telecoms provider do not accept top-ups for every mobile network operator. Still, the number of terminals is astonishing: there may be as many as two or three next to each other. This, of course, is dictated by the size of the metropolis that Moscow is: if traffic jams are unavoidable, there at least should be no people-jams.
A couple of years ago I read in someone’s Russian LiveJournal about the custom among the Muscovites: to touch, rub and sometimes even kiss a sculpture of a dog on the underground station, The Revolution Square. The station takes you to the very centre of the city, close to the Kremlin, the Red Square, and the General Store.
The Revolution Square station interior
The station was opened on March 13, 1938, and is famous for its 76 bronze sculptures of Soviet people: sailors, soldiers, mothers with children, sportsmen, and pupils (altogether there are 20 different images that are then repeated throughout the station). During the Great Patriotic War the sculptures were evacuated to the Soviet Middle East; they were returned to Moscow in 1944. The figures are placed in chronological order, from October 1917 until December 1937. Granite was used for the station’s floor, while the walls were made of Armenian black marble, accompanied by other types of marble. The station is located 116m above the sea level.
The sculptures were placed in the arcs; design thus dictated that the figures couldn’t stand in full height. Thanks to this, the station soon became an epitome of the Soviet realities; the joke had it that “the station shows that the Soviet people either sit, or kneel“.
The kneeling Soviet woman with a lucky hen
Back to the lucky dogs: in the recent years the custom has become to rub the sculptures to attract luck. Strictly speaking, it isn’t just the dogs that are considered lucky: you can recognise the “lucky bits” by their unhealthy polished surface, and so luck is also brought to you by hens, boots, and even some armaments. Observing people rubbing the bronze is a surreal experience. Some stop and religiously yet gently wipe the bronze; some nonchalantly touch the sculptures as they rush past; some even smudge a kiss; and some scour the nose or a shoe, while silently reciting a sort of prayer or a wish. However they do it, the bronze rubs off, revealing the fruits of popular ardour.
There’s another reason for me to be proud of studying at the First Humanities Building. Near the entrance there now stands a monument to Walt Whitman who has always been greatly admired by the Russian poets. Kornei Chukovsky who was very fond of Whitman and translated a few of his poems, including To You (Whoever you are, I fear you are walking the walks of dreams), analysed several authors’ attitude to the great American’s work; the names included Ivan Turgenev, Leo Tolstoy, Velimir Khlebnikov, and Vladimir Mayakovsky.
Walt Whitman (1819-1892).
The poem To You is sometimes seen as a declaration; given Whitman’s sexuality, it is also considered homoerotic. However, it is probably better to read the poem in a much broader sense, as a quest for a soulmate. The lyrical hero isn’t merely searching or waiting for someone to come along; he grabs the first available figure and makes them his own. No doubt, most of us will find it childish, for we’re well aware of another’s privacy. But what Whitman is trying to remind us about is how intimacy is discovered and built, that it cannot be built without violating the private space. Hence the hero is almost maniacally attached to the person’s hidden self, always good but often deformed by the society’s code. The hero is a healer; it is the greatest explorer since Columbus, for his task is to unmask the real “you” in a person: “you have not known what you are, you have slumbered upon yourself all your life”.
As the author of this Russian article says, to love means to guess, to know better. Whitman knows better, as he courageously shines the light on a Man’s infinite, God-like ability to create.
Whoever you are, I fear you are walking the walks of dreams,
I fear these supposed realities are to melt from under your feet and hands,
Even now your features, joys, speech, house, trade, manners,
troubles, follies, costume, crimes, dissipate away from you,
Your true soul and body appear before me.
They stand forth out of affairs, out of commerce, shops, work,
farms, clothes, the house, buying, selling, eating, drinking,
Whoever you are, now I place my hand upon you, that you be my poem,
I whisper with my lips close to your ear.
I have loved many women and men, but I love none better than you.
O I have been dilatory and dumb,
I should have made my way straight to you long ago,
I should have blabb’d nothing but you, I should have chanted nothing
I will leave all and come and make the hymns of you,
None has understood you, but I understand you,
None has done justice to you, you have not done justice to yourself,
None but has found you imperfect, I only find no imperfection in you,
None but would subordinate you, I only am he who will never consent
to subordinate you,
I only am he who places over you no master, owner, better, God,
beyond what waits intrinsically in yourself.
Painters have painted their swarming groups and the centre-figure of all,
From the head of the centre-figure spreading a nimbus of gold-color’d light,
But I paint myriads of heads, but paint no head without its nimbus
of gold-color’d light,
From my hand from the brain of every man and woman it streams,
effulgently flowing forever.
O I could sing such grandeurs and glories about you!
You have not known what you are, you have slumber’d upon yourself
all your life,
Your eyelids have been the same as closed most of the time,
What you have done returns already in mockeries,
(Your thrift, knowledge, prayers, if they do not return in
mockeries, what is their return?)
The mockeries are not you,
Underneath them and within them I see you lurk,
I pursue you where none else has pursued you,
Silence, the desk, the flippant expression, the night, the
accustom’d routine, if these conceal you from others or from
yourself, they do not conceal you from me,
The shaved face, the unsteady eye, the impure complexion, if these
balk others they do not balk me,
The pert apparel, the deform’d attitude, drunkenness, greed,
premature death, all these I part aside.
There is no endowment in man or woman that is not tallied in you,
There is no virtue, no beauty in man or woman, but as good is in you,
No pluck, no endurance in others, but as good is in you,
No pleasure waiting for others, but an equal pleasure waits for you.
As for me, I give nothing to any one except I give the like carefully
I sing the songs of the glory of none, not God, sooner than I sing
the songs of the glory of you.
Whoever you are! claim your own at any hazard!
These shows of the East and West are tame compared to you,
These immense meadows, these interminable rivers, you are immense
and interminable as they,
These furies, elements, storms, motions of Nature, throes of apparent
dissolution, you are he or she who is master or mistress over them,
Master or mistress in your own right over Nature, elements, pain,
The hopples fall from your ankles, you find an unfailing sufficiency,
Old or young, male or female, rude, low, rejected by the rest,
whatever you are promulges itself,
Through birth, life, death, burial, the means are provided, nothing
Through angers, losses, ambition, ignorance, ennui, what you are
picks its way.
Кто бы ты ни был, я боюсь, ты идешь по пути сновидений,
И все, в чем ты крепко уверен, уйдет у тебя из-под ног и под
Даже сейчас, в этот миг, и обличье твое, и твой дом, и одежда
твоя, и слова, и дела, и тревоги, и веселья твои,
и безумства – все ниспадает с тебя,
И тело твое, и душа отныне встают предо мною,
Ты предо мною стоишь в стороне от работы, от купли-продажи,
от фермы твоей и от лавки, от того, что ты ешь, что ты
пьешь, как ты мучаешься и как умираешь.
Кто бы ты ни был, я руку тебе на плечо возлагаю, чтобы ты
стал моей песней,
И я тихо шепчу тебе на ухо:
“Многих женщин и многих мужчин я любил, но тебя я люблю
Долго я мешкал вдали от тебя, долго я был как немой,
Мне бы давно поспешить к тебе,
Мне бы только о тебе и твердить, тебя одного воспевать.
Я покину все, я пойду и создам гимны тебе,
Никто не понял тебя, я один понимаю тебя,
Никто не был справедлив к тебе, ты и сам не был справедлив
Все находили изъяны в тебе, я один не вижу изъянов в тебе,
Все требовали от тебя послушания, я один не требую его от тебя.
Я один не ставлю над тобою ни господина, ни бога: над тобою
лишь тот, кто таится в тебе самом.
Живописцы писали кишащие толпы людей и меж ними одного –
И одна только голова была в золотом ореоле,
Я же пишу мириады голов, и все до одной в золотых ореолах,
От руки моей льется сиянье, от мужских и от женских голов
вечно исходит оно.
Сколько песен я мог бы пропеть о твоих величавых и славных
Как ты велик, ты не знаешь и сам, проспал ты себя самого,
Как будто веки твои опущены были всю жизнь,
И все, что ты делал, для тебя обернулось насмешкой.
(Твои барыши, и молитвы, и знанья – чем обернулись они?)
Но посмешище это – не ты,
Там, в глубине, под спудом затаился ты, настоящий.
И я вижу тебя там, где никто не увидит тебя,
Пусть молчанье, и ночь, и привычные будни, и конторка,
и дерзкий твой взгляд скрывают тебя от других и от самого
себя, – от меня они не скроют тебя,
бритые щеки, нечистая кожа, бегающий, уклончивый взгляд
пусть с толку сбивают других – но меня не собьют,
Пошлый наряд, безобразную позу, и пьянство, и жадность,
и раннюю смерть – я все отметаю прочь.
Ни у кого нет таких дарований, которых бы не было и у тебя
Ни такой красоты, ни такой доброты, какие есть у тебя,
Ни дерзанья такого, ни терпенья такого, какие есть у тебя.
И какие других наслаждения ждут, такие же ждут и тебя.
Никому ничего я не дам, если столько же не дам и тебе,
Никого, даже бога, я песней моей не прославлю, пока
не прославлю тебя.
Кто бы ты ни был! иди напролом и требуй!
Эта пышность Востока и Запада – безделица рядом с тобой,
Эти равнины безмерные и эти реки безбрежные – безмерно
безбрежен и ты, как они,
Эти неистовства, бури, стихии, иллюзии смерти – ты тот,
кто над ними владыка,
Ты по праву владыка над природой, над болью, над страстью,
над каждой стихией, над смертью.
Путы спадают с лодыжек твоих, и ты видишь, что все хорошо
Стар или молод, мужчина или женщина, грубый, отверженный
низкий, твое основное и главное громко провозглашает себя
Через рожденье и жизнь, через смерть и могилу, – все тут
ничего не забыто! –
Через гнев, утраты, честолюбье, невежество, скуку твое Я
пробивает свой путь.
First Humanities Building,
Lomonosov Moscow State University
This is a true story. Around September 1996 I had a dream in which I saw a modern-looking building decorated with a plaque with carved figures on its facade. In the dream it was a building in which I was studying. In July 1997 I passed the entrance exams successfully, I had my first exam session in winter, and in summer I had the second session. I was sitting outside on the grass with a few unimates, watching the First Humanities building of the Moscow State University. I was observing the building and the plaque, as if I never saw them before. Then it downed on me that my dream came true.
The building, a hall of residence converted into a place of study, was by no means glamorous. The huge space of the cloakroom on the ground floor was always full of people and smoke. Smoking in public places is mainly permitted in Russia, and in 1997 when I began to study there the numbers of smokers was staggering. It used to house the faculties of Management, History, Philosophy, Philology, and Law.
My personal memories of studying here are by and large positive. I cannot help but affectionately recall waiting for our Latin tutor for some 20 minutes, and then to have to walk up and down stairs between floor 3 and 10, searching for a free room. Queuing up in student canteens, with little more than 10 minutes on my hands. Passing every single exam with an excellent mark. Queuing up in cloakroom next to a couple, a rather cool guy and a besotted girl who was planting nibbling kisses on his cheeks and lips while he was talking about the ancient Russian history. Being late for a seminar on an exceptionally snowy day and receiving the commendation from the tutor, a demobilised general, for “actually making it”. Watching infatuated couples embraced in a passionate kiss. Bizarrely, when a few years ago a former unimate told me he remembered me in a similar embrace, I genuinely couldn’t remember. Writing poems during lectures and seminars. Composing a play in verses, staging it, and receiving accolade from both students and tutors. The list can go on and on.
I am being asked now and again why I didn’t stay there. Generally, I chose to work and to make an impact in the sphere much more public than historical studies. But, on a grander scale, it merely means to me that I followed a George Bernard Shaw’s quote: those who can, do; those who can’t, teach. By that I don’t mean that my teachers weren’t good enough to “do” it; a lot of them are world-known, so it would be audacious of me to imply any inability of “doing” on their part. After all, to be a good teacher is also a skill. And I have always loved research, and I do like the whole process of sharing the knowledge, exchanging ideas, and passing on skills. I guess I didn’t see teaching in purely academic terms, it has always meant more to me, and in this sense I was neither interested, nor did I feel qualified to teach on that grander, universal, scale.
The title of the post is short yet poignant: this First Humanities Building, however glamourless, was the cradle in which I was born again, mentally and creatively. I realised recently that while for some people the question was “am I good enough for the MSU?“, to me the question was “Is there any better academia for me than the MSU?” Every time the answer was “no”, so by July 1997 when we had entrance exams I wasn’t trying to become a student there – I already was. My mind was entirely set on that idea. You can think of it as another example of law of attraction working, but I’m also thinking of the mechanism of a sale. It is done before it’s done. Looks like in my case it was done at night when I dreamt of that modern building with carved figures.
Had John Lennon not been walking home on that fateful December night, he’d have turned 70 today. For his fans all over the world he is turning 70 anyway. We’ve been ridden of the necessity to see him age, to disappoint us in something, just as well as we’ve had to walk it alone, with “Imagine” playing in our heads. Most importantly, for those of us who strive to be better than we are, Lennon will always be an example of how to make it, of how to become a worldwide music and peace figure.
John Lennon in video, Citroen stand,
Moscow Design Week, October 2010
His life, however, provided more impact and inspiration than the person who had led could even fathom. And I wonder if Lennon would smile, irony hidden in his eyes, upon entering the Moscow Manege that welcomed the exhibition l’ART DE VIVRE à LA FRANÇAISE. For the first thing he’d see would be the Citroen stand (Citroen was the official sponsor of the Moscow Design Week 2010), with the presentation accompanied by two videos, one with Marylin Monroe, another with John Lennon. Both iconic figures had something important to tell us: be yourself.
Perhaps, this is what makes celebrated artists, dead or alive, so attractive: they are (or were) themselves. They led their lives in that particularly painful way of following one’s own mind. As a result, we admire them. But do we try and follow their example? Do we want to be ourselves as badly as they did?
My native city is finally and gradually beginning to inspire me in a positive way. Or at least I’m discovering things that make ideas and smiles float into my mind.
Now, the title is by far the most daring on this blog, but brace yourself and shrug off any thoughts of indecency. An “Orgasm” is actually a name for a cocktail made of Cuantro, Baileys, cream, banana, ice, decorated with a cocktail cherry. I didn’t try it because I chose a cup of Americano. Served in Coffee-House, one of the cafes in the chain that has been running since 1999, the coffee is delicious, as are diverse and sundry cheese cakes, sandwiches, and salads.
Alcoholic cocktails and beverages (e.g. Irish coffee) are listed at the back of the menu. Although I loved going to Coffee House at the time when their main cafe was in Tverskaya St, I never tried to order any alcohol. As we know, in the UK it was only recently that beer and spirits began to be served during the day. I asked the barista if cocktails and wines have always been served at Coffee House in daytimes; she replied positively.
So, speaking of Orgasms – what a great name to give to a cocktail! You might be able to tell that I’m not a huge cocktail drinker if this cocktail is actually quite well-known and popular. Since I had no idea of it, though, and thus am completely void of any bias, here’s a list of “variations sur la theme” that I came up with in a matter of 5 minutes. I didn’t try too hard and generally opted for the most naturally possible versions. Obviously, this was a rather easy copywriting task, although no less enjoyable…
1. Man: One Orgasm for me, and one capuccino for the lady…
2. I’d like an Orgasm, please.
3. Have you got any Orgasms today, please?
4. (In a dialogue) I think I’ll have an orgasm, what do you want?
5. (In a dialogue) What do you want? An Orgasm or something else?
6. – What would you recommend?
– Perhaps, you can try an Orgasm.
– Is it any good?
7. (In a dialogue) Is it just an Orgasm you want or something else?
8. (In a dialogue) Do you want an Orgasm on its own or with a cake?
9. Waiter: I’m sorry we don’t do Orgasms before 5 pm (that was before I knew that cocktails are served throughout the day).
10. Waiter: I’m sorry I can’t give you an Orgasm if you’re under 18 (this one is quite plausible because alcohol is not served to the under-18s).
11. Waiter: No, we don’t do any Orgasms today.
12. Waiter: Yes, Orgasm is very popular.
13. (In a dialogue) I’m sorry, darling, but you’ve already had 5 Orgasms, I recommend you have a milky tea now.
My prime reason for visiting Moscow was my Grandma’s birthday. She’s turned 86 on October 1. I happened to be walking in Moscow city centre, and a lot of VIPs were getting into the Kremlin. A passer-by asked me what the occasion was; I replied that the only occasion I could think of was my gran’s birthday, but since she wasn’t quite well-known it was unlikely they were celebrating her. We laughed, and the man asked me to send her his greetings.
Of course, I’m using this opportunity to take a holiday and to look around, to see what changed and how. Yet amidst all I hear the voices urging me to stay.
And, to be honest, I don’t know. There are many things here that I remember and love. The other day I easily navigated my city, as if I’ve only been away for a month. If I’m honest, though, had I only been away for a month, the sense of novelty would’ve been so much more palpable. Bizarrely, after seven years I neither see many changes, nor do I feel like I’ve been away for a long time.
What I did notice, and I wrote about it in my Russian post, is that people rarely smile. It’s not like they dance in the street in Manchester or anywhere in the UK, obviously. However, I must be really used to the fact that people do smile back at you and organise impromptu music and dance performances on the English side, whereas in Moscow this would most likely invite sneering remarks, or people would think you’re laughing at them rather than merely giving them a friendly smile.
People turn at me all the time, and it’s another part of my bizarre experience. I don’t feel or see many changes but in my native city I seem to be more of a stranger and foreigner than foreigners themselves. Of course, it is all a matter of finding your own circle and carving your own niche, but so far one thought proves itself true: in one way or another I have outgrown my native city.
There is nothing particularly peculiar about this. In order for our parents to be proud of us, we must outgrow them, their education, their habits, the expectations they had for us. I want my city to know me and to be proud of me, but for that I have to be larger than it, and so far this seems to be the case.
What it makes me wonder is this: exactly how and where would I fit in, should I decide to move back? And I can only recall my good pal David Edmundson-Bird who told me at the end of 2009 when I was looking for another job: stay in Manchester and spread your influence from there. Should I decide to move, it would only be to cut certain costs and to acquire certain career opportunities. Maybe to enjoy better healthcare than the UK’s NHS. But little else, methink.
Sadly or not, I have no idea, and I’m not planning to decide any time soon…
… it happened by the ice cream stall in the Alexander Garden in Moscow, between the Kremlin Wall and Manege Square. As you can see, meeting two figureheads of the Russian Soviet history is quite exciting even for the Russians themselves. For my part I couldn’t help taking the picture, although Vladimir Ilyich successfully evaded the eye contact.
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