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Russian Winter in Arts: Isaac Levitan – A Boulevard at Evening (1883)

Juxtaposing Isaac Levitan’s painting and Vladimir Gilyarovsky’s book, what can we learn about Moscow life in 1880s?

Isaac Levitan – A Boulevard at the Evening (1883)

Even today Moscow boulevards will look exactly the same at dusk: trees, benches, people gradually disappearing from the streets… However, the painting by Isaac Levitan was made at the same time when Vladimir Gilyarovsky, a famous intrepid journalist, was exploring the dark corners of Moscow. The stories from 1880s make the bulk of his well-known book, Moscow and Muscovites, and according to Gilyarovsky, this was the time like no other. For instance, we may assume that the evening depicted by Levitan was supposed to change into a moonless night, and so, according to the Duma calendar, the lights were lit on. If the Moon was expected, the lights remained turned off, despite other possible weather mishaps, like fog, heavy rain, or snow. Very similar to other big cities, Moscow had a very peculiar and unique “underground” life where criminals and prostitutes ruled the world. Many boulevards, therefore, were not the place to have a walk in the evening. Even Gilyarovsky, who was well-known among the outcasts, had to wear brass knuckles when he had to return home late.

As you read Moscow and Muscovites, you begin to wonder: how on Earth had the city endured the theft and murders, and why the criminals seemed to have been virtually untouchable? Surely, people who were often barely dressed and nearly always drunk could not be driven to seek safety by a mere impulse to self-preservation. The answer is entirely political. Following the assassination of Alexander II in March 1881, the new Emperor and Government brought in strict measures against all suspected “revolutionaries”. Strangely or not, prostitutes and those who rented out spaces in communal flats were considered the most “politically reliable” and were thus protected by the police. They were even notified of upcoming raids.

By the way, just like me, Vladimir Gilyarovsky is a Sagittarius, and quite a typical one: intrepid, on the lookout for truth, smart, open to people, with a keen interest in crime. My Grandma studied Criminal Law, and I very nearly followed into her footsteps. Thankfully, I realised there was a no less meaningful and adrenaline-filled way of enjoying mystery, people, truth, and travel, and that was the field of historical research and literature.

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