Russian History through the Eyes of Three Moscow Monuments

By Beskhlebnaya, Natalia | Russian Life, January-February 2017 | Go to article overview

Russian History through the Eyes of Three Moscow Monuments


Beskhlebnaya, Natalia, Russian Life


When new busts of Joseph Stalin started popping up in Russia in 2015, one might have thought people had seen it all. But 2016 marked a new era in modern monument history. First, a monument to a different tyrant, Tsar Ivan the Terrible, appeared in Oryol (see page 46), and, unlike Stalin, the medieval murderer was being honored in this way for the first time. Second, a giant monument to Prince Vladimir--the official symbol of Christian Rus' and President Putin's namesake--was unveiled just across from the Kremlin (see page 47).

While no one knows yet where this is all going and what role the new monuments will play in Russian urban life, we decided to look back at a few famous monuments that have become symbols of past eras.

Through Pushkin's Eyes

In the evening of October 25, 1917, as Bolsheviks stormed the imperial palace in Petrograd, a spectacular benefit concert took place in Moscow starring Alexander Vertinsky, a renowned Russian modernist singer who performed as the tragic character Pierrot. Just past midnight, having washed off his makeup, he was making his way home with friends in a convoy of three horse-drawn cabs, holding the flowers that had been thrown onto the stage. As they passed Strastnoy Monastery, the shooting started. The cab drivers stopped and said they would not go any further. The singer headed home on foot, but before he did, he asked someone to deliver his flowers to the Pushkin monument.

This monument to Pushkin outside the Strastnoy Monastery was dedicated in 1880, but the fundraising drive started back in 1860, at the behest of alumni of the Tsarskoye Selo Lyceum, where Pushkin had been a student. This was no mere monument to a symbol of Russian poetry and culture. The sculpture became a manifestation of the very idea of a monument, one made by people, not officials, just as Pushkin had described in his 1836 poem "Monument," some forty-three years before the statue appeared and only a year before his own death. In the posthumous publication of his collected works, the censors removed the line "for having glorified freedom in my harsh age." Accordingly, these words were not among the lines from the poem inscribed on the pedestal.

By the early twentieth century, the classic monument, much like Pushkin himself, had come to symbolize the traditions of a moribund past. As early as 1912, the Bolsheviks' star poet, Vladimir Mayakovsky, suggested that the classic writer should be thrown off "the Steamship of Modernity." Thankfully, the call was not heeded, and the Pushkin monument facing Strastnoy Monastery was one of just seven Moscow monuments from tsarist Russia to survive the revolution.

As for Pushkin the poet, once people became disillusioned with the revolution, they again began to regard him as a towering genius, and this reverence had its tragic notes. In 1924, six years before committing suicide, Mayakovsky--yes, the same Mayakovsky--wrote a poem in which he recounted stealing the monument from its pedestal on Tverskaya in order to chat with it one-on-one. In the poem, Mayakovsky tells Pushkin that there are no poets left in the Soviet Union, and that people like him, like a fish out of water, "flap their rhyme gills more rapidly" as they lie stranded "on poetic sand."

The critic Alexander Voronsky recounted a meeting, also on Tverskaya, with another poetic star of that era, Sergei Yesenin: "I saw him getting out of a sleigh. He was wearing a top hat and a Pushkin-style cloak that hung from his shoulders almost to the ground. It kept slipping off, and Yesenin kept purposefully pulling it back around himself. He was still sober. Amazed at these strange clothes, I asked him, 'Sergei Alexandrovich, what's all this? Why the costume?' He smiled a strange, slightly mischievous smile and answered simply, naively: 'I want to be like Pushkin, the best poet in the world.' After paying the driver, he added, 'I'm just so bored.'"

A year later, Yesenin killed himself. …

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