Tuesday, December 27, 2016
Last Fall, I holed up in an awful apartment and read a book about the poet Pushkin. A cross between the Norton Anthology and The Real Wives of St Petersburg.
Pushkin died in a duel in 1837 when he was 37, shot by a journeymen French solider of fortune who'd been adopted by an amorous Russian step-father and who was making eyes and probably more at Pushkin's legendarily stunning wife.
Pushkin was born in Eastern Russia, his family owned land near the Estonian border. Pskov. His great-grandfather was from Africa and had worked for and become a favorite of Peter The Great, who to the Russians is kind of like George Washington, Teddy Roosevelt and George Patton all wrapped up in one. Maybe add some Hannibal Lector. Peter carried a metal pike with him that the liked to impale minions with. A member of the Stroganoff family licked a sore on Peter's foot until it healed and as a reward he was given estates the size of Massachusetts.
When I was 17, I went to Russia/ The USSR. The cab driver who took me to the Winter Palace in St Petersburg/Leningrad knew I was an American in a heartbeat. Before we'd gone 5 blocks he asked me what poetry did I know by heart?
What poetry can you speak aloud right now!? Out loud!
I'd had a task master of an English prof that year and for no other reason I could recite the last two pages of The Great Gatsby. Which I did. (Maybe not poetry but close.) My cabbie nodded his head in reluctant acknowledgement and then proceeded to quote Pushkin for the next 5 minutes as we dodged mountains of sludge and puddles the size of Lake Baikal on our way to the onetime home of the Czars, and then and now the Hermitage Museum. Impressive enough.
And then he quoted the first page of both Jack London's Great White Silence and Hemingway's Farewell to Arms. In English.
He did accept my tip.
I live in Central Hollywood -which one can actually do in LA, live in Hollywood without ever being in "Hollywood", though most are or, like me, trying to be, "in it". For blocks in all directions I'm surrounded by Russians. Everywhere, I walk I pass them, couples, kids, grandmothers, aspirant Russian rock stars, Russian club kids, Russian landlords, a nurse shouting into her smart phone with Slavic force.
The buildings in this part of LA, teetering on the edge of Cahuenga pass where the great vortex of the 101 freeway grinds though to the Valley, are covered in carbon soot. Satanic grey dust everywhere. This is where you end up when you quit, or where you got your first apartment when you had no idea that this was absolutely the lowest housing rung on the LA ladder and probably where you'd end up 20 years later.
Maybe the apartment blocks here remind the Russians of the deprivations of home. Of the Old Days. The stacked, yard free, balcony free, parking free stuccoed concrete rental units of LA by way of Novosibirsk. "Satan lives." Scratched into the wall next to my laundry. Or Stalin.
Maybe they like it here because once you own enough of these joints you can milk the miserable and the novice alike. Less a toehold in the American dream than a claw's grip on the neck.
No hacking necessary.
I've always been fascinated by things Russian. When I was a boy I remember watching a film in Mr D'Ambrosio's 7th grade music class about Tchaikovsky. Apparently Peter, or Piotr, couldn't stop played the piano so his parents locked it shut. In the film, in glorious technicolor with St Basil's twisting onion domes in the background young Piotr starts "playing" on the window until it shatters and the blood flows.
I thought- I wanna be like him.
And then all the ice, and the wolves, and the steppe and the tiaga. Such words. Versts! Who wouldn't want to travel many versts instead of a couple of miles?
Lots of red everywhere, red red red, and more Tchaikovsky and blue eyed girls hidden in fur, they won WWII !!- what else can you want? And then I heard them sing....something about that language in song, sung by only voices, no music to accompany it, it floored me.
I was hooked. And have been ever since.
A shit show and an enchanted realm: Russia.
Magnificent ideals colliding with, devolving into, horrific reality.
From each according to his ability to each accordingly to his need until each of you goes to the gulag if you don't do what we need.
Trotsky using violence to fight a way toward an ideal state of equity - Putin mouthing ideals to equivocate state violence.
One hundred years this year. 1917. The Bolshevik revolution. And already the United States is honoring that milestone by electing a plutocratic Czar for president. Trump the ultimate achievement of Rove's right wing Bolsheviks. If you think I'm joking look at pictures of Karl's office. He has a bust of Lenin mounted by his bookshelves.
I don't mean to draw too fine a parallel between Lenin and Rove. The Russian Bolsheviks actually believed in something, and fought, risking their lives to end a regime that had ground 85% of the Russian people into fertilizer for 3 centuries.
Rove has picked up where Stalin left off - power as an ends in itself, figure out the policy later.
Now the Trump era. However brief, but potentially ending the American experiment in its 3rd century.
The threat of Islam? No kind sirs....the enemy is within. The fault is in us, not our stars, or in anyone else's star and crescent.
.....anyhow....Russia.....Pushkin.....his wife's name was Natalia Goncharova...one of three sisters from an old Muscovite family, Cossack warrior traders with a history of mental instability, Natalia was said to be the most beautiful of an astonishingly beautiful trio of women. Portraits of her even in the mediocre court styles of the day give some hint of her glory.
She and Pushkin, as most people of their class did wrote to each other frequently but while 70 some letters from him to her exist, only one from her to him, signed by her mother, survives. So we have no record what the voice of the woman that Russia's greatest poet loved to distraction sounded like..
I wonder ...a clipped soprano, breathy and phrased like Grace Kelly's? Or an alto unexpected coming out of her mouth in waves, like Audrey Hepburn's?
Czar Nicholas flirted with her, often enough that Pushkin was driven to belittle him in public. A poet, in mountains of debt, from no great family, insulting the Emperor of the world's largest country. Son of the man who defeated Napoleon.
Balls of stone.
No wonder they quote him 150 years later, taxi drivers and elevator repairmen and college students I met studying engineering who snuck us down off the Lenin Hills and into Red Square, out of their dorms, wearing their clothes, so we could watch as the last Communist, Gorbachev was instated on Lenin's tomb
I remember it was snowing lightly and I tried to catch a flake in my mouth. My host squeezed my hand hard, "Stop. Don't let them know you're an American."