A Letter to the Russian Ministry of Culture

[A note I sent to the Cultural Section of the Russian Consulate this morning]

Thank you for notifying me that the Russian Ministry of Culture has awarded me a medal (“The Great Russian Writer F. M. Dostoevsky”).

This is a great honor; I am profoundly moved and grateful that my Dostoevsky scholarship and service, into which I have poured so much thought and energy over the years, have been recognized in the writer’s homeland. It has been rewarding for me to spend my life reading and writing about Dostoevsky. It has been a privilege to teach his writings to generations of students, to discuss with them not just the big questions of ethics, theodicy, faith, reason, and justice that he raises in his works, but also the fine nuances of the language and poetic structure of his writing. I have also been proud to translate and publish the works of my brilliant Russian colleagues, and to increase awareness of their contributions among literature specialists worldwide. In 2019 I was able to travel across Siberia, where many fine scholars and museum professionals welcomed me with generosity and good will. Last year, 2021, was particularly rewarding as we joyfully celebrated the writer’s bicentennial with conferences, lectures, films, exhibitions, and special events in every corner of the globe. As I have come to realize now more than ever, I am just a small part of the conversation that began with Dostoevsky’s writing and will continue long after all of us are gone.

It is therefore heartbreaking for me to have to decline this honor, which means more to me than words can say. Along with the rest of the world, I have watched with horror over the past year as Russia has invaded, brutalized, and tortured its neighbor Ukraine. Internally, it has arrested and terrorized brave, thoughtful individuals who have spoken out against the war, driving many of them away from their homeland. Given my respect for the profundity of Dostoevsky’s artistic writings, I am distressed that public figures have quoted from his non-fiction to justify this war. By doing so, they are doing irreparable harm to the writer’s reputation and trivializing what it is in his works that has reached readers worldwide. For me, accepting this award from the Russian government would too easily be taken as complicity in these crimes.

In making this statement, I am speaking as an individual, not as a representative of any organization. I continue to nurture a deep love and respect for Dostoevsky’s works, and for the writings of my colleagues in Russia and around the world. Together with them, I cherish hopes for better times, for mercy, reason, and peace.

With respect,

Carol Apollonio

 

Basel: Location Location Location

Cautionary note: do not expect chronology here, or unity of place–sometimes the entries (along with their author) have to stew. This goes for some Nice posts still suspended in the air, complete with their photographs and even thoughts, from last summer. And others, from Taganrog, Sumy, Yalta, not to mention Siberia and other parts of Russia, past and future, which were planned but now are sulking in horrified limbo. Anyway, Basel came before Badenweiler and Florence, but after Genoa (from which a meek little post has been simmering since June). Dostoevsky came before Chekhov. Chekhov died in Badenweiler but will come back to life, we hope. And of course the blog itself starts with the end and ends with the beginning (of this journey of mine). None of this is new to scholars, who dip in where and when they can. And it does fit what has turned out to be our theme of fuzzy numbers and nonlinearity. It happens that right now I am in a place called Takayama, Japan, devoid of traces of historical Russian writers, though lots of people read Dostoevsky here–and not just those who will participate in the upcoming IDS Symposium pre-event next week Nagoya Pre-Symposium

While I have you, feel free to correct anything. I’ll try to respond.

I’ve visited Holbein the Younger’s “Christ in the Tomb” in the Basel Kunstmuseum three times: the early nineties, and then again during Dostoevsky Camp (Baden Baden, 2001, or was it Geneva, 2004?!), and then this summer (in JUNE). And each time I have the feeling the painting was in a different place––or was it just me? One time high on a wall, another time over a doorway (though this particular one could be interference from The Idiot), each time of course recalling Anna Grigorievna’s account of her terror that Feodor Mikhailovich’s powerful reaction to the painting, which he stared and stared at after climbing a chair, would spill over into an epileptic fit.

Even though Holbein’s painting was what drew me back to Basel yet again, the story of Dostoevsky’s fascination with it is so famous, I won’t tarry over the details. I do give a tiny sampling of links below; there are many more studies of this topic, and I will be glad to post any others that people send me.

My state of mind this time around is well captured by the painting you see above, which depicts an architect holding what I believe is a compass, an architect tool, but what I picture there is a pen of course (or potentially even a paintbrush). Too much to say, too little space, not to mention patience, including that of any readers of these lines. Anyway, I was impressed not only by this architect’s furrowed brow, so much like mine at this moment, but also by the very human emotions expressed on so many of the paintings

displayed in the museum. They feel like something genuine and new (for that time, and this one) by comparison with the conventional expressions of art of a previous period.  These guys on the right are saints, I guess, to judge from the halos, but they are absolutely unique human beings experiencing their own individual thoughts and feelings. If I were an art historian I’d try to go into this more, but I’m on shaky ground as it is, just expressing very human emotions that welled up in me during this afternoon’s visit. And the anxious feeling that very little of importance will actually make it into language. The experience makes me wonder how deeply Dostoevsky’s reaction might have been nestled within the flood of impressions he must have had upon viewing the museum’s OTHER paintings. Mine certainly was. Among the many other works on display, there’s plenty of Holbein Jr. You can browse them here btw: Holbein Jr. Basel collection. Googling around one discovers an old photo of Christ in the Tomb hanging among others, kind of even squeezed in, in a very cluttered hall. Whoever put it there didn’t realize it’s the most amazing thing in the museum, or maybe did realize this, and was a little scared and felt the need to corral it somehow. This feels Dostoevskian too, like so much else.  Our (and Dostoevsky’s) hero is lying here, just above the chair (whose back is turned to it–why?!?!?). This is not at all the room I pictured where Dostoevsky stood on a chair to see the painting. And maybe it is not, though I can picture the whole scene now, complete with Anna and Fyodor Mikhailovich.  (We take note that what The Idiot’s Ippolit saw was also a reproduction, as this photo is, with all necessary slippage.)  I’m thinking that if indeed it was displayed this way during Dostoevsky’s visit, coming upon it unexpectedly would indeed freak you out. Anyway, whether or not this was the configuration then, it certainly is nothing like what you’ll see today. Now you must go through the whole museum and look at everything before coming to the room at the end, on the second floor, where you finally encounter “Christ in the Tomb” at the very center of the wall there. Whoever set it up this way put some serious thought into it; the painting feels like the climax of the museum’s whole story, a riddle to viewers–accordingly, true to Dostoevsky. By now you’ve had a good long look at a number of other paintings, many depicting Christ’s passion and crucifixion, not to mention images of the human reactions to those events over the subsequent centuries.  Many of the paintings are Holbein Jr’s, it feels like, studies for a powerful passion story that incorporates these scenes:

.

So your head is packed full of them by the time you reach the museum’s climax (that wall).

Which of the paintings causes the riddle, though, all those other ones that tell the familiar story, or this one?

 

Here is the beginning of a reading list. Send me your link and I’ll add it.

Касаткина о картине Ганса Гольбейна Младшего

Brunsen: “Paragone”

Young, Holbein’s “Christ in the Tomb” in the Structure of “The Idiot”

Givens, the Image of Christ

 

Florence 2: Dostoevsky’s Footsteps. Ball & Chain; Limbo

First and foremost, be notified of an informative article in Neizvestnyi Dostoevskii (no.  2, 2019) giving details about Dostoevsky’s stay in Florence in 1868-69, by Giuseppi Astuto and Irina Dergacheva: по следам достоевского во флоренции.

In 1862 during Dostoevsky’s first visit, with Nikolai Strakhov, he stayed at a hotel then called the Switzerland (subsequently called Albergotto), in room #20 on the 3d floor.  The place is now called the “Room Mate Isabella” and Florence has plaqued the fact that George Eliot stayed here at some point (at the front door’s upper left). No sign of Dostoevsky, though, except in one’s mind (though not the mind of the nice, tired-looking reception man, and, I gather, those of most of the hotel guests). The location is quite fancy, on a street lined with Gucci and suchlike.  Post-COVID tourism has returned to Florence and one feels that the tourists are besieging the hotel people. I am no exception. But the nice lobby man perked up in a decorous professional manner when I mentioned a famous Russian writer, and he showed me the sitting room and even took my photo there.  As for where Dostoevsky stayed, it is daunting to track down the exact room, so I photographed a dark-looking door in  Dostoevskian St. Petersburg yellow. The lobby is, or feels like, three stories up, and the room is thereabouts, so there’s a bit of plausibility.  Though this could also be George Eliot’s room, or that of some other writer who was never discovered. Maybe there’s one in there now. Also relevant is a steep stairway leading down to the street. Along the way, if you are lucky, you may catch a glimpse of the lower half of a horse-carriage out the stairwell’s circular window  and you might, oh so briefly, blessedly, forget what century this is.

Florence pays more attention to the apartment on Via Guicciardini (across from the Pitti Palace) where Fedor and Anna stayed on his second visit to the city (1868-9)–rightfully, given that he completed the novel The Idiot here.

     

The nearby coffee is excellent, though the reading material falls well short of The Idiot. Hearts of scooter aficionados will quicken at the views, both onto the Piazza de Pitti from Dostoevsky’s front door and into the alleyway on the side.

     

It is reported (Strelsky, Dostoevsy in Florence) that there was a bookbinding and stationery shop right next to the front door, where Dostoevsky could buy his Idiot supplies, and that the shop still existed. It became a goal of mine to buy a pen and some paper there. A very tasteful website pops right up, Giannini Firenze 1856. with the necessary, matching shop name and address, No. 22. But despite pacing and peering (oddly) into windows, there was no stationery establishment in sight. Instead, a lovely little shop offering handcrafted items made in Florence (the things that sort of look like soccer balls are actually paper globes you can stick red pins in to show where you’ve been). In conversation with a perky young English-speaking clerk I learn that the shop has only been open 1 1/2 months, and before that, there was a stationery store there. So I bought a bookmark and a small Florence homemade craft item instead. The stationery shop was in business 160 years, right up to this summer. I did breathe some of its air.

One persistent fact about Dostoevsky is that he was always out of money. With Anna now pregnant and, as usual, the “check in the mail,” in the spring of 1869 they had move to less expensive lodgings, off the Mercato Nuovo (aka Mercato del Porcellino) for what would be a stifling hot summer, before they were finally able to leave August 3 for Dresden.  Piazza del Mercato Nuovo is actually very close to the Room Mate Isabella, but it has a more Dostoevskian feel to it, by which I mean bustling and chaotic, with an admixture of grime. I can also attest that it is extremely hot in July.

The bicentennial year (2021) itself feels like 200 years ago in emotional and psychological time. Dostoevsky was celebrated around the world, with conferences, publications, exhibits and monuments. It turns out that Florence, too, participated, contributing a photo of Lorenzo Gilberti’s stunning  Baptistery doors, which thrilled Dostoevsky, and which he often stopped to admire on his walks in Florence, to the Dostoevsky Literary Memorial Museum in St. Petersburg.  At one point the writer expressed a wish to have a photo of the doors, which he could put up in his home, so that wish has come true. The city also put up a Dostoevsky statue (a gift from Russia, by sculptor Aidin Zeinalov Florence statue), though it is nowhere near these landmarks. Instead one must learn about public transit and ride a bus out to the Parco dele Cascine, well outside the city center.

The park is spacious, and one encounters an occasional cyclist and dog walker but basically you are alone. There’s a 20-minute trek from the bus stop along a wide and extremely warm, I mean hot, walking path before the statue appears in the distance.

 

 

In my line of work, everything starts to feel like a metaphor eventually. The ball and chain–that’s an easy one.  Stand there quietly for a while, and you might hear a faint buzzing sound. Look up, and between Dostoevsky’s upraised collar and his bearded cheek, you will see a small, busy hornets’ nest. But what could it mean?  I wish there was someone here for me to ask, but, as is often the case, it’s just me and Fedor Mikhailovich.

I’m suspecting it has nothing to do with another scene, which also puzzled me, of a Florentine horse carriage carrying tourists into Limbo.

 

Dostoevsky in Florence 1: What is to be Cancelled? Hold the Florence

It’s Dostoevsky time again. Given what has happened in the world since Dostoevsky’s 200th birthday (November 11, 2021), it has been nearly impossible for me to focus in on this footsteps pilgrimage. How can I just keep hopping merrily from one effete place to the next, jotting down petty little notes about distant, dead writers, when their country is brutalizing its neighbor, indiscriminately murdering its weakest individuals (yes, children, mothers, including pregnant ones,  the aged and sick) along with their homes, in plain sight? The evil of the invasion has paralyzed me, making the  COVID pandemic, in retrospect,  feel like a fun adventure. And some people are actually blaming Dostoevsky.

What is to be done? What is to be thought? What is to be said?

My journey through Russian literature began during the Cold War. In the 1970s, my fellow students would embark on study abroad in the USSR with the energy, openness and optimism of twenty-year-olds, and after a brief dip into the repellent realities of Soviet life would return eager to join the CIA and battle against the evil empire on behalf of free expression, free enterprise, and freedom of thought. I remember the darkness and fear of my first few trips (1976, 1982). There was no color–everything was black or gray, with occasional flashes of garish, bloody red. There were shortages (дефицит) and lines (очереди) everywhere. Officially, there was one way to think, and it always started out with, “As Lenin said….”. You could starve. People were crude, sad, and angry. Things broke.

Was I being followed? Was my room bugged? Was I happy to leave? YES, YES. YES. So why did I keep going back? It was the literature, and the writers and the readers with whom I have been in conversation about it ever since then, that roped me in.  Against a regime dominated by venality, corruption, hostility, brutality, and lies, against a primitive, mendacious language of officialdom and greed, each generation of writers spoke, and speaks, their truth–a truth that plunges below the ugliness of the surface into the places in our spirit and mind that are real and human, the place where our fragile conscience nestles. Their truth-telling brings real danger–the more powerful and compelling the words, the more likely the writer will be taken out and shot, or imprisoned, or deprived of a livelihood. And still they speak–with extraordinary courage and eloquence that we readers feel in every word.

So I kept on reading, and my reading shaped my life. When to everyone’s surprise the USSR collapsed at the end of the 1980s, suddenly there was a demand for people who could teach the language to throngs of new undergraduates who felt that they could make millions of dollars by doing business with Russians. To be completely honest, without those econ students, I would never have gotten a job doing what I do now, or in fact kept it.  I’m pleased to say, many of them got infected with the “big questions” bug along with me. In short,  I had the great good fortune of getting to spend my life having my mind blown by Russian writers, and serving as a conduit for that mind-blowing to others. Despite the realities of biology, physics, and the earth’s orbit, these writers, along with their descendants, are very much still alive.

The 40 years of my own trivial adventure in Russian literature has unfolded during an unexpected interval in the long violent history of Russia, an impossibly brief few decades in which creative, thinking people had the opportunity to write openly, to explore their country’s suppressed, gruesome history, to access the full range of literature and news–their own as well as from around the world, and to participate in a free conversation about things that matter. Now many of these people are being persecuted in their country, or have had to flee. And I’m back where I started, seeking some kind of hope, conscience, and perspective.  Where else to find it, but in literature, again?

Along the way, let this little tirade speak out loudly against Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine.

Well, I can’t go back to Siberia now, can I? And  my planned Chekhov itinerary for the summer–Taganrog, Sumy, Yalta–lies crumpled in the trash. So…

Florence?  Uh-oh. Give me a couple of days.

 

 

 

 

Badenweiler 2: On Spirits, Monuments, and Quiet Heroes

It has been mentioned that the first (in the world) Chekhov monument, which was estabished in Badenweiler in 1908, was soon melted down, the Chekhov Salon brochure reports (http://www.literaturmuseum-tschechow-salon.de/de/schriftsteller.html?file=files/litmus/pages/schriftsteller/broschueren/museum-GB-200516-webs.pdf). With many delays (apparently related to various political crises), a stone was eventually put up to replace it in 1963. I did not find this stone so it would be unfair to post a picture of it here, but you can find everything in the brochure link. What compelled me more was the story of Georgi Miromanov, who was director of the Chekhov Sakhalin Book Museum in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk on Sakhalin Island

(for details, scoot down a couple of posts). Having recently visited this museum I felt personally invested in the story. Some time after 1985, Miromanov promised Badenweiler that he would give the city a new monument by 1990 in time for the 130th anniversary of Chekhov’s birth. Considering that there are at least nine time zones difference between the two locations, not to mention 7374.557584 miles (11,868 .2 kilometers), plus, inevitably, such factors as world politics and money, this would seem to be a difficult promise to keep. And yet, as the brochure reports, in the fall of 1990 Mironamov, together with his son and the sculptor Vladimir Chebotaryov,

arrived in Badenweiler in an old army truck with the new memorial which they had declared scrap metal at the various borders they had crossed on their arduous way from the Pacific Ocean.

It was a journey worthy of Chekhov’s own trek in the reverse direction in the spring and summer of 1890 (take note, it took place on the centennial of that journey). And my comfortable, leisurely trip by train to Sakhalin in 2019 is a faint tribute, as I now learn, not just to Chekhov but to Mironamov. Who has chronicled the bureaucratic, financial, and logistical obstacles this new statue faced along its way? I am reminded of other journeys that cover some of this itinerary, such as the 2015 Rally Rodina trip undertaken by four guys on Ural motorcycles:            

(https://www.maximprivezentsev.com/rally-rodina)

also highlighting Chekhov’s trip and book (there’s a movie). And others people have taken, not always even leaving a trail. According to the Chekhov Salon brochure, this was the first Russian monument in Germany after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which reminds us that that FIRST Badenweiler Chekhov monument was the first Chekhov monument in the world. (Let us hope that THIS one will not be melted down to make bullets. Politicians are always threatened by the voices of artists). In short, Chekhov fans, keep your eyes on Badenweiler. Having overcome all physical, economic, and political obstacles in his way, having achieved his goal of restoring a Chekhov monument to Badenweiler, Miromanov suffered a martyr’s fate: on his way back to Sakhalin, reports the brochure, while passing through SUMY, Ukraine (a Chekhov hot spot and place of great creative activity that was on my itinerary until February 24, 2022), Mironamov died of heart failure.

This monument stands just below Badenweiler Castle on a very high hill overlooking the German countryside, which you have walked up. The pilgrim follows a clear trail of signs along the footpath until the statue gently appears in view on the hill above you

.

  

Appropriately, for our hero, who was himself a passionate gardener, it stands above a nice little garden, teeming with flora and fauna (salamanders, two small white butterflies in love, a throng of invisible buzzing insects, and a placid, golf-ball-sized snail).

A generous Chekhov reader (one of the many quiet heroes in this story) has set up a bench here where you can sit and breathe the fresh air and look over the view that someone very thoughtful thought up for you and Chekhov to contemplate.

       

Sitting here on the bench, one continues to ponder matters of spirit–the word’s origin in breath–respiration, for which we are particularly grateful on this stop on our journey, and its place as the origin of art–inspiration, and, we hope, of healing. In addition to the monuments in stone and bronze, in photographs and street-and-square names, Badenweiler also offers up a monument in spirits, a Tschechow wine, a gentle red, with which you can nurture your own on the Katharina terrace, upon your descent from the hill to dry land .

Badenweiler 1

Chekhov’s life journey ended on July 14/15, 1904 in Badenweiler, Germany. This turns out to be July 1/2 Old Style. Technically I should go for the “real” date but since today is JULY 1, 2022, I’m going to commit to July 1, 118 years ago today, sort of. One theme of this blog, anyway, is the fuzziness of numbers.

Chekhov came to Germany with his tuberculosis, which is what drove his trips to Western Europe in the last 7 or so years of his life. Nice, for example, for which I have been pent up with about 4 blog posts for a year now. But let’s start here, at the end.  Chekhov stayed in three different hotels in Badenweiler.  The first one is the Rommerbad (in a quiet revolt against the umlaut I will not go to the trouble of entering it here, or anywhere else, and will not take time for any diacritical marks, either, being American and efficient in that way). Rommerbad (“roamer bad”) is in the doghouse for all time for its treatment of the world’s greatest short-story writer and dramatist. Chekhov coughed too much and they kicked him out, as it “disturbed the other guests.” I marched to the hotel yesterday, indignant and eager to take revenge.

 

                                          These are screen shots because it’s too hellish to get real photos in here                         (try it for 4 hours and then come back and report to me).

Now let’s get down to work. The hotel is both fancy and scuzzy at the same time. Not knowing German is a blessing in cases like this, because the place has been renamed to something I’ll translate the “PANACEA,” which, if enter into google, gets defined as “a solution or remedy for all difficulties or diseases.” Let us ponder this.  First of all, the hotel is abandoned, supposedly (again, what option do you have but to trust my German?) to be renovated:

The vacancy of the place, prevents me from any kind of contact with living human beings, but maybe the person who forced Chekhov to leave because his coughing was ANNOYING PEOPLE finds himself trapped in here, haunting the halls, tormented by remorse. Maybe something like widowed Olga in “The Grasshopper” (попрыгунья), who learned too late how famous her husband was.

 

Ольга Ивановна вспомнила всю свою жизнь с ним, от начала до конца, со всеми подробностями, и вдруг поняла, что это был в самом деле необыкновенный, редкий и, в сравнении с теми, кого она знала, великий человек. И вспомнив, как к нему относились ее покойный отец и все товарищи-врачи, она поняла, что все они видели в нем будущую знаменитость. Стены, потолок, лампа и ковер на полу замигали ей насмешливо, как бы желая сказать: «Прозевала! прозевала!

https://ilibrary.ru/text/706/p.8/index.html

Anyway, evicted from this monstrosity, Anton and Olga went down the hill, passing the old Roman baths on the way, and a nice little park (though in the latter case it might be is back-projected) and found themselves a room at the Friedericke, about which more in a moment.

But first let’s get artsy and do a mise-en-abyme (those who are triggered by this spelling remember, please, that I am not slowing down for diacritical marks) that will let me in past these locked doors, where I can join the souls (guilty, atoning, innocent but cast out as the case may be) haunting these halls.

Who the #$%@& would call a hotel the Panacea? (again, maybe this is not at all what the word means but hey, you don’t like it, write your own blog). Maybe someone trying to purge 118 years of guilt?  Notice–not only did they kick him out but they also had the nerve to put a plaque next to the door (look up and to the right for this one, not down), expressing pride that the great man stayed here. He DID stay there, that much is true. For an extremely short time. And they get credit for it.

Compare the beautiful etched stone sign on the balcony (to the left of the nice Chekhov wall cameo) outside Chekhov’s window on the side wall of the then Hotel Sommer, now, these days, the Klinik Park-Therme, which I deduce says “Here lived Anton Chekhov, in July 1904”

Just repeating here: “LIVED” (and then, for those concerned with precision, I actually checked this one  on line, and yes, that’s what it says).  Which is quite beautiful to ponder. And it was out this window that his soul flew, filling the square outside it and still living today. Which now bears his name, recognizable despite the weird German spelling:

Soon there was a monument (more on this later, too), and then an actual Chekhov museum, the Chekhov Salon, and then a bronze seagull just outside his window.

And then, the first monument, bronze, was melted down (it had to do with the war, WW I, actually, and killers needing bronze for ammunition or weapons, or whatever, or to sell; in any case this lovely little action-packed museum has an exhibit that I think is, or represents, the melted-down first Chekhov monument (deducing from the otherwise indecipherable explanation from the word Denkmal, which I had the opportunity to learn tromping around town means “monument” and already knowing the story about it being melted down).  To fill the empty place, someone made a crazy Chekhov bronze, complete with characters from his stories (look below for this one).  And there’s an amazing story about ANOTHER Chekhov monument brought from SAKHALIN ISLAND here by one of the truly devoted Chekhov fans like those I have encountered on this journey, which I will tell about in the next blog post, for it is a story of heroism and martyrdom. For now, more about the museum. Somehow I thought this Tschechow Salon would be just an ordinary Literary museum with lots of writers in it, all balanced evenly, but actually this is a CHEKHOV place–with ancillary writers strewn around–Stephen Crane, some guy named Heidigger, others, too. But no doubt about it, this is his place, just one room–like him, modest, not showy, but full of content and quality. Some people planted cherry trees out front (from Taganrog, I think, so there’s a circle of birth to death, but also life being lived by the trees and by all the people walking through, and even stopping here, like me). Everything here is in German, so my brain is jumbled with it all, but the story is familiar–you can follow it in the photos displayed here, and of course because you know a lot of the story already, and supplement it by bumbling through the German inscriptions for cognates, of which there are disappointingly few.  There is quite the political history here (German-Russian-Soviet-post-Soviet relations, with a conscious effort to focus on the cultural ties, which of course is also Chekhovian). It wasn’t so clear to me before in other places, but i can feel it now–that this place exists because of so many readers who appreciated Chekhov and honored him, and put in the effort to make this salon in his memory.  And I am one of them too. Here is where the tears well up, because, OK, it’s Germany, he was away from home, like me, and ill, dying as everyone knew, though he carried on as though not, and all of this we behold here, the museum with its contents. And he did die here, which is why there is so much Chekhov in this town now. Otherwise, Badenweiler would have carried on its history and gone for Stephen Crane or someone more local instead. And I would never have visited. This town was for healing, though, which is what brought him here, and maybe me too. And his spirit, which flew out the window just catty-cornered to the museum, lives here.

 

  

Now, just in case you’re disoriented, all the above is ONE Chekhov statue:

     

The face is gnarly because those are Chekhov characters in there. The statue stands just inside the doorway of the Tschechow Salon.

In my world these photos are familiar, but I have never seen them exhibited this way, from young Anton at the upper left, as at the beginning of a story, to the last Chekhov on the lower right. This fills one wall of the Chekhov Salon.

So now for a quick dip into the Hotel Sommer, aka Klinik Park-Therme. It’s an actual clinic, with a front door and a back door, both of which I try.

The back door (the one on the right) goes in from the little courtyard and must be the service entrance.  I go around to the front door, slip on my COVID mask, for this is a clinic, and walk boldly up to the front desk, which is quite indistinguishable from a hotel reception desk, which I guess at one time it was. My German (non-existent) is a handicap, but eventually I am kicked up to a higher-level administrator, a bespectacled man, who is extremely kind and conscientious with his own rudimentary Engish-German mix. I feel the tender presence of a health-care professional. We discuss in our primitive manner Chekhov’s stay here, and whether his room can be visited, which of course it can’t, because, I am delighted and moved to learn, there are patients staying there, for this is a working clinic, whose task is healing. Do these patients know they are in Chekhov’s room? Does it matter? I am happy not to go in there, as this is itself Chekhovian in spirit–of course people come here to get well! The man tells me people come to this place and stay three weeks for rest and care. The place does not look like a clinic to me, with harsh flourescient American lights, a stark medicinal feel, sharp divisions between the sick and the well. It feels like a hotel, a place where you might go for some quiet time and vacation (if you are an older person and do not have to take your kids to mini-golf). This is a place for people, and if I were to be sick, I would beg to be brought here where I could rest, in Chekhov’s invisible room.

 

And now the middle place. When Chekhov and Olga left the odious Rommerbad, they alit in the Friedericke, which was later to be renamed the Park Hotel & Spa Katharina (https://www.parkhotelkatharina.de/en/hotel/history). This is the one Chekhov hotel in Badenweiler (of the three) where you can actually stay. So I did, as a required part of my pilgrimage, and not because the hotel has four stars (I have never stayed in a four-star hotel before, but duty called). The place is completely renovated so no living person can possibly know what room Olga and Anton stayed in. I’ll assume it was not too high up, so have chosen to sit for a whie in the main floor sitting room, blessedly empty today except for me and Chekhov, and looking out onto the astonishing sunsets of Badenweiler. The internet is better here too. This afternoon I made an inquiry at the front desk, something quite banal about a towel, but in the process I realized I could ask about Chekhov’s room. So I flashed the blog, which brought on an administrator (the inquiry, not the blog).  It turns out that she is Russian, and not only Russian, but a former MGU Philosophy professor, and we immediately tumble into Russian. After solving my banal towel problem we babble on about many Russian matters, from Chekhov to tragic world events, and she informs me that Chekhov left here because it was boring (as he wrote in a letter. If this blog were more scholarly I’d quote the letter here and maybe I will, later). In any case, this hotel was also renovated, but it has real people in it, mixed in with the ghosts. And here, as in all the Chekhov places, there are bits of him in the air–which is very very good for breathing, I have had some time to learn. There’s even an INHALATORIUM in town,

   

which I went in but still haven’t figured out what it actually is.  Indeed this week I have thought of breathing quite a bit, knowing how hard it was for Chekhov to do, so much so that he came here. In this air, the conversation with the hotel administrators had the feel of something that could go on and on, and it turns out, the other hotel administrator, who is at the front desk and checked me in a few days ago, ALSO is fluent in Russian (being from Bulgaria), and if I had known this before, we would certainly have bonded. Things could have gotten quite intense, but new guests came to register (it is Friday, after all, the weekend is about to begin), and all three of us went back to our day jobs.

p.s.  little touch of home: bikers in Badenweier

Nice

A lot can happen in two years, and in a hundred-thirty. Acute things like a pandemic and chronic things like the passage of time. Here it is July 25, 2021, and my Chekhov journey began, if you’re counting by this blog, July 30, 2019, if by reality, then earlier that same July.

After a scary year cloistered indoors, the zombies began to emerge.  Have to say, those two Pfizer shots felt good.  At least a dozen conferences, mostly to celebrate the Dostoevsky bicentennial (stay tuned, please), shrank to the size of my computer screen in 2020-21. The talks were great, better than usual, but it all felt like a series of cartoons. Are those really my beloved colleagues in there, or is this some rabbit hole kind of thing? The last one, a Dostoevskian heartbreaker in Genoa, got sucked into the computer too. If you look at the map, you’ll see that Genoa is a hop and a skip from one of Chekhov’s major stopping places, Nice, France. Originally my Chekhov odyssey was to continue, oh so easily, from there to there. Italy decided otherwise, and so be it: the conference took place, like so many others over this dreadful year, on my desk, and it was actually very exciting, even without the wine, the castle, the sailboats rocking in the harbor, and the great Italian food. We choose to read these Russian writers for the intellectual stimulation, for the deep questions, for their own intrinsic value, not for what you can eat along the way.

Still glowing from the Genoa Dostoevsky conversations, I chained the COVID motorcycle to the chain-link fence (just above the poison ivy patch), stowed the social-distancing helmet, locked my door, packed a dozen masks, and rolled up my sleeves for more Chekhov-tracking. And here I am in Nice, somehow. The 130 years I mentioned is the time between Chekhov’s first visit here, in 1891 with Suvorin, and mine, this very minute.

The south of France is basically the not-Siberia. This, for example, is the view from a stunning place called Eze, a 1-euro bus ride from Nice:

Though let’s not forget about Lake Baikal–which lacks all the buildings and yachts, we hope, still.

Alexei Suvorin, Chekhov’s publisher, was for quite a long time one of Chekhov’s closest friends. Though Suvorin’s letters to Chekhov were lost, Chekhov’s to Suvorin remain, giving half of one of the world’s great epistolary dialogues. More tantalyzing are the references Chekhov makes to their long conversations about anything and everything.

All of this, now, is air.

Only the tiniest record remains in those letters–and, guys, it’s good stuff so go read it.

After Chekhov and I got back from Sakhalin (fall 1890, fall 2019), we took a break and sat in one place, mostly, writing and doing our day jobs, and worrying about illness. But then we both set out for Western Europe–Chekhov for something like the grand tour (his first visit abroad), me, a shrunken version–five days in Nice, France. Chekhov traveled with Suvorin, who was extremely wealthy. Suvorin by then was one of Chekhov’s major sources of income and had funded much of the Sakhalin trip, for which he was paid in various pieces of writing. For which we thank not only our man, but also Suvorin, despite everything. Suvorin was used to living well and throwing money around. Chekhov, no. (Me too, no.) You can catch glimpses of this dynamic here and there in his stories, and in his letters, which often give a detailed accounting of his income and expenses. Chekhov was in the man’s debt. But, truth be told, Suvorin was often in Chekhov’s debt, too. Despite his wealth, his office was pretty disorganized, and often was behind in paying Chekhov. Somehow this spills over, how could it not, into his (their?) writing.

 

In short, traveling with Suvorin, Chekhov found himself in luxurious accommodations, and one cannot be sure he felt completely comfortable in them, aware as he was of their cost. He WOULD be paying for this, by writing. Now the full disclosure at this point is that some of this trip is being covered by my employer, so what you’re reading here is a weird kind of payment for that. After viewing the major Italian sites,  Suvorin and Chekhov settled in Nice, in the luxurious Beau Rivage hotel, on the Promenade Des Anglais, which is just as fancy as it sounds, though I found it more beautiful to look at the actually indeed azure sea than at the buildings lining it:

 

Tracing Chekhov’s footprints, I felt it necessary to promenade along the shore, and to visit places he mentions in his letters, or which memoirists mention him visiting, and, as you will see in another couple of posts, to stay where he stayed later, and to lose some money at gambling in Monte Carlo, as he (and some of our other favorite Russian writers) did. But first, his first stopping place, the Beau Rivage hotel. Already lodged in the Oasis, aka Pension Russe (in fact in his very room–i repeat, details to come), I forewent the pleasure (and shocking expense) of a few nights in the Beau Rivage. But to get into his mind-set, I decided at least to buy a drink at the bar there, and be shocked at its expense. (Be it known that none of my employer’s funds were spent on this particular part of my research trip.)

My first stab at this on my first day in Nice failed; the lobby guy told me the bartender had not showed up to work, so the bar was closed. Finally, today, success. I managed to get through the screens (mask, sanitizer, and, interestingly, a written declaration that I do not have COVID that even the lobby guy didn’t know about, including my phone number, which I had to make up, since I don’t have one that works over here, and about all of which I was transparent).  Finally, success. I’m a beer drinker, normally, but tonight called for a Black Russian, of course, mostly for thematic reasons, but also because I know how to say that in French.  Bravely I ordered, not inquiring as to the cost.

The drink was fine, for a beer drinker.  I did raise a toast to him, and to you. I do admit I was wondering about the cost, as maybe Chekhov did at moments like these.

I repeat a disclaimer here, that I shared earlier on this journey, I think it was in Ekaterinburg: I am traveling alone, without a trip organizer, photographer, fashion consultant, hairdresser, or interpreter. And be it known, my French is way worse than my Russian, though, to judge by people’s reactions when I speak, somehow kind of funny.

I sat, sipped, and read. A couple of giggly teenage girls came in and asked about the price of water (“eau”) –5 euros, btw. And a couple behind me was having one of those practically invisible and inaudible, but still detectable quarrels under a very decorous exterior. I am reading Maggie O’Farrell’s book Hamnet, and the saddest part happens right there in the Beau Rivage, and I started to cry, but then thought WWCD (what would Chekhov do?) and pulled myself together enough to ask for the check, thinking, maybe I’ll need these tears in real life, anyway, in a minute.

Fifteen euros.

Not bad, really, given everything they bought me.

Sakhalin Island

Welcome to “Chekhov’s Footprints”! This is actually the end of the story. To read in order (from West to East), scroll down and go back two pages. It will make more sense that way. ENJOY!

SAKHALIN ISLAND

You think you’re headed in a straight line; there’s a starting point (Moscow, say) and an end point (Sakhalin Island). You have decided to follow the itinerary Chekhov followed, as much as possible, on his 1890 trip to Sakhalin island. Fortunately, this route coincides with that of the Trans-Siberian Railway–well-worn by a host of questing travelers over the years. And just when you reach your goal, you realize that your straight line is a circle, and your quest has just begun.

Originally I thought I might discover some new Chekhov places along the way. It became clear almost immediately, that the geography of Chekhov’s life journey has been fully charted. In Moscow I found lots of good information about the places he had lived, worked, and visited.  My hotel on Sretenka was basically in the middle of what we could call an “early Chekhov” district–the area where he lived in a number of different rented lodgings while a student at Moscow State University. And it was about a block away from Bolshoi Golovin St. (formerly Sobolev Street), the brothel district which served as the setting for his famous story “An Attack of Nerves.” I tracked down several of these addresses, and looked around online, and it soon became clear that these paths were well trodden, and in fact there have been other, similar blog quests. When I popped into Dom Knigi one day and came upon a book that detailed every Chekhov address in Moscow, with a description of what he did while living there, I realized that my quest was evolving into something different. And the buildings all started to look alike anyway.

Dostoevsky demanded to be included on the journey. And we were joined by other Dostoevsky and Chekhov people. For example, in Moscow I met with Russian literature scholars Sergei Kibalnik and Vladimir Kataev, who gave me some great leads.   Soon it became clear that this would be a journey as much from person to person as from place to place. In every Siberian city I visited (except for Khabarovsk), I was hosted by generous colleagues–none of whom I had even met before–who showed me the very best their Chekhov or Dostoevsky place has to offer. And then helped me on my way. So the trip was not about places at all. It was about people.

I did make it to Sakhalin.  Chekhov visited many towns on the island (basically almost every town) as he gathered information for his book The Island of Sakhalin. I visited only one: Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk (formerly Vladimirovka).

 

The town remembers Chekhov fondly; there’s a Chekhov Street, a Chekhov Theater, and, most importantly, a Chekhov Museum. It’s actually called “The Museum of Chekhov’s Book Sakhalin Island.

 

   

Like other museums I have visited on this journey, this one offers a multimedia, interactive experience. One can get a sense as to what life was like on Sakhalin when Chekhov visited there (during a time when most of the island was populated with exiled settlers, imprisoned convicts, and ex-cons, and the administrators, officials, and jailers who managed everything. There is a diorama showing what a prison looked like, and  display with mannequins showing what life was like in a prison cell–complete with actors providing video testimony in the voices of prisoners. Check out their cool virtual excursion: http://go.chekhov-book-museum.ru/. I took a lot of photos, but I realized that you will be much better off if you just go to the website and take the tour yourself.

              

The museum collects books relating to Chekhov from all over the world (keep this in mind when you visit, so you can bring some to donate to the collection).

The most important book, though, is the one that inspired my trip, and Sergei’s, and as I am learning, many others’. Its publication in 1891-93  inspired readers of the time (including public figures) to rethink the policies that had led to the creation of the prison system on the island. And it inspired the creation of this museum.

Solicitous and expert deputy museum director Anastasia Stepanenko showed me around the museum and hosted me in her office, where if you look in the middle of the table you’ll see a set of two large books. This is an extraordinary edition of Chekhov’s Sakhalin Island, with extensive commentaries by Mikhail S. Vysokov (2010). The commentaries are the thicker volume. Basically if you have a question about anything in Sakhalin Island, Vysokov will have anticipated your question, will have answered it. Just look in the commentaries. 

     

When I saw this edition, I was reminded, yet again, of what it is I love about my Russian colleagues’ respect for their literature: their meticulous attention to detail, to respecting what is there in the text, and what is there in the material, geographical, historical, cultural, literary, and biographical world that underlies the text. There is a kind of maximalistic impulse at work, a desire to go deep into the book and retrieve every nuance, meaning, and reference that connects the text with the world. And that world includes us readers.

There’s no need to make things up; the point is to see what’s there. This attention to textual details and to the ways they are anchored in “real things” in the world differs from what I see as dominant in my western scholarly world: a mandate to create new knowledge, or to come up with ever-new angles of interpretation. This mandate keeps us intellectually alert and adventurous. Sometimes, though, it can lead to carelessness with a text, or a tendency to distort what is in there in order to prove a theory or argument about something else. Sort of like what Cinderella’s sisters did in an effort to get the glass slipper to fit.

Anyway, it’s a great book.

Now about circles. Here at the Museum of One Book, I was able to see a special exhibit related to Chekhov’s letters–that very same exhibit that Zhenia of the Melikhovo Museom of Chekhov’s Letters had told me she was going to set up in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk.

  

It felt like coming home.

There’s much much more to say about Sakhalin, and Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, and Chekhov’s book, and I hope that I will be able to say some of it. That quest continues. But a bit more about circles: I did circle back to Moscow. I have to say, it was extremely disorienting to get on an airplane and cover in eight hours, forty minutes a distance that had taken me forty-two days on the journey out there.

Everyone asks why Chekhov made this trip. The more you think about it, the more complicated it gets. I sure can’t answer the question about Chekhov; I don’t understand why I made this trip myself, much less why someone else did. I didn’t understand when I started the trip, and I still don’t understand now that it’s over. Reaching Sakhalin didn’t make things any clearer. Maybe, like Sergei, I’ll just have to keep coming back.

The night before I left Moscow, I traveled to the Chekhov metro station at Pushkin Square, where I saw a performance of (Dostoevsky’s, sort of) Crime and Punishment: The Rock Opera.  Ask me about it sometime. For now, the point is that everything on my trip came back around to its starting point. And continues to do so.

   

Khabarovsk

After a week on the Amur (which he admired, as he admired most of Siberia’s rivers [with Irtysh being a special case]), Chekhov arrived in “Khabarovka” (now Khabarovsk) on June 30, 1890.  He looked around town, stopped in the library at the military club (voennoe sobranie) to catch up on the newspapers, and was back on his way by July.

I actually spent more time in town than Chekhov–two nights–after a relaxing fifty-two hours on the Trans-Siberian from Ulan-Ude. I lucked into more of that wonderful Siberian babye leto–sunshine and T-shirt weather, which added to the charm of the place.

Khabarovsk, like Chekhov, respects and loves its river, which is lined with a broad pedestrian-and-bike-and-scooter promenade. While I promenaded, a shockingly fast speedboat rushed by. It went by too fast to be photographed. l was actually terrified for the dog and his two friends, who were the only other creatures on the river that evening.

I’ve been around the course a few times, but this was the fastest and loudest speedboat I’ve ever seen. It reminded me that Russians, as we know from Gogol’s Dead Souls, love to “drive fast” (bystraya ezda).

Selifan also roused himself, and apportioned to the skewbald a few cuts across the back of a kind which at least had the effect of inciting that animal to trot; and when, presently, the other two horses followed their companion’s example, the light britchka moved forwards like a piece of thistledown. Selifan flourished his whip and shouted, “Hi, hi!” as the inequalities of the road jerked him vertically on his seat; and meanwhile, reclining against the leather cushions of the vehicle’s interior, Chichikov smiled with gratification at the sensation of driving fast. For what Russian does not love to drive fast? Which of us does not at times yearn to give his horses their head, and to let them go, and to cry, “To the devil with the world!”? At such moments a great force seems to uplift one as on wings; and one flies, and everything else flies, but contrariwise — both the verst stones, and traders riding on the shafts of their waggons, and the forest with dark lines of spruce and fir amid which may be heard the axe of the woodcutter and the croaking of the raven. Yes, out of a dim, remote distance the road comes towards one, and while nothing save the sky and the light clouds through which the moon is cleaving her way seem halted, the brief glimpses wherein one can discern nothing clearly have in them a pervading touch of mystery. Ah, troika, troika, swift as a bird, who was it first invented you? Only among a hardy race of folk can you have come to birth — only in a land which, though poor and rough, lies spread over half the world, and spans versts the counting whereof would leave one with aching eyes. Nor are you a modishly-fashioned vehicle of the road — a thing of clamps and iron. Rather, you are a vehicle but shapen and fitted with the axe or chisel of some handy peasant of Yaroslav. Nor are you driven by a coachman clothed in German livery, but by a man bearded and mittened. See him as he mounts, and flourishes his whip, and breaks into a long-drawn song! Away like the wind go the horses, and the wheels, with their spokes, become transparent circles, and the road seems to quiver beneath them, and a pedestrian, with a cry of astonishment, halts to watch the vehicle as it flies, flies, flies on its way until it becomes lost on the ultimate horizon — a speck amid a cloud of dust!

And you, Russia of mine — are not you also speeding like a troika which nought can overtake?

  • Though I will be reviled for this, I have taken this excerpt from C.J. Hogarth’s quaint version of Dead Souls, Part I, Chapter Xi.  (https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/gogol/nikolai/g61d/chapter11.html.
  • Repeating here: I love Hogarth’s vocabulary, and the website is very convenient.

The speedboat also reminded me of all the other instances of “driving fast” that I have witnessed, and like Gogol’s pedestrian, I halted, with an inner cry of astonishment, as the vehicle flew, flew, flew away until it was a speck of on the watery horizon:

  • motorcycles: in nearly every city, I’ve found myself on a public street that doubles as a motorcycle speedway. In Petersburg, for example, it is Nevsky Prospect; in Moscow, the viewing platform over the city at Sparrow Hills (Voronyovye Gory) near Moscow State University. The bikers (young, male) are not wearing helmets. It is not enough for them to race flat-out; they must do it on their rear wheel. As a motorcyclist in my own right (modest, age-appropriate, helmeted, sometimes wearing a reflective vest, and [nearly] always observing traffic laws), I found the spectacle terrifying, exhilarating, and quintessentially Russian.
  • bicycles: in Khabarovsk, as I climbed up that long, long steep from the river to town (on a regular street, for automobile traffic), a young man flew by me, heading downhill in traffic, and dodging parked vehicles and pedestrians, at probably 50 mph: no helmet, and here’s the clincher: hunched horizontally over the handlebars. I halted with an inner cry of astonishment (and admiration).
  • speedboats.
  • horse-carriages in tourist areas, for example, Kizhi: in the USA, undoubtedly fearing lawsuits, horse carriages at tourist attractions proceed slowly and steadily. In Kizhi, the horses actually appear to be having fun: they trot briskly, sweeping their tails in the air. Passengers grip the sides of the carriage.
  • automobiles: I believe I have adequately described the driving habits of certain Russian professionals.

All of this reminds me of the distinctly Russian view of mortality.  In the USA a great deal of effort is expended on making life safe, as if that would ultimately guarantee immortality. Along the way we sacrifice the joys of “going fast.”

Disclaimer: I am not advocating that you “drive fast.”

On two different rides with hosts in Russia, as we settled in, I began to buckle my seat belt (in the back), and my hosts said, “Oh, you don’t have to do that.”

A vast, green, tree-filled park leads up the hill from river to town, where we will seek out Khabarovsk’s Chekhov.

 

Up the hill and to the left is Khabarovsk’s Far Eastern Art Museum:

An elegant staircase leads to galleries featuring paintings from different European countries.

 

This building is that very same Military Club (voennoe sobranie), where Chekhov stopped in to read newspapers during his brief visit to Khabarovka. The muzeishchiki are very hospitable; they turn on lights in showcases for you, and give you useful brochures. They could not identify which room used to be the library, though, so I just assumed (for no reason whatever) that it was the one with tables that you see through the arched doorways. This is probably wrong, and if you know the answer to this mystery, please add it in a comment to the blog.

On the building’s facade you will see a plaque (by Khabarovsk sculptor Yuri Kukuev) commemorating Chekhov’s visit here.

    

 

A couple of years ago, there was some discussion of setting up a square and monument dedicated to Chekhov in the city’s Dynamo Park (https://todaykhv.ru/news/culture/6058/ ), but I did not have a chance to see how things were going with it. The monument, by Khabarovsk artist Vladimir Baburov, might look something like this (look right). This particular Chekhov is carrying a top hat. The trousers here are narrower than in the plaque, which gives this monument the advantage. I hope that the next time I come to Khabarovsk, I will be able to see it in the future Chekhov Square.

One cannot, even in this day and age, get to Sakhalin Island by train. If you’re in a motor vehicle, you must take a ferry. From Khabarovsk, Chekhov proceeded sharply northward to the far-eastern port of Nikolaevsk, and from there to Alexandrovsky post halfway up Sakhalin’s west coast. If you’re a Trans-Siberian pedant, I mean purist, you must proceed to Vladivostok, the railway’s end point. Chekhov did go to Vladivostok, but on his way back from Sakhalin in mid-October, 1890.

Anyway, in short, I got on an airplane in Khabarovsk and flew, in a shockingly short period of time (one hour, twenty minutes), to Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk (formerly Vladimirovka) on the southeast coast of Sakhalin Island.

Ulan-Ude

It’s exciting when a quiet place you’ve just visited becomes a world news headline.  The other day, the New York Times reported on a shaman’s visit to Ulan-Ude. The shaman, Aleksandr Gabyshev, was walking westward across Russia; his ultimate goal – to reach Moscow and exorcise Putin’s demons. He says: “In him there is much evil, and he himself embodies the powers of evil, so an exorcism must be done.”  The shaman has been arrested by the “dark forces” of the State, and now finds himself  exiled in Yakutsk facing threat of forced treatment in a psychiatric institution (a time-honored tactic that lingers from the Soviet period). But his visit sparked anti-government protests in Ulan-Ude. Read the story here, then we will proceed:

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/09/world/europe/shaman-putin-dissent.html

Regrettably, I missed Shaman Gabyshev’s visit to Ulan-Ude by a few days, though we did breathe the same air. Despite the vast differences of time (over three centuries) and creed (he is most decidedly not an Old Believer), I was struck by some similarities between his mission and that of one of our blog heroes, Avvakum of Tobolsk. (I don’t think I mentioned this, but Avvakum was ultimately burned at the stake in 1682).

Higher forces are at work, demons are threatening Russia; a lone man stands up in the depths of Siberia, looks evil in the eye, and speaks his truth. Others heed the call and before you know it, crowds gather in the streets. Thе man is prophet, poet, holy fool; he is shaman. Mr. Gabyshev’s suicidal challenge to monolithic, absolute power, his clear-eyed sense of mission,  the extraordinary might of the individual against a corrupt state – we saw it all with the archpriest. This is how change happens in Russia, and even when change doesn’t happen, this is how we get glimpses into the often invisible forces of spirit that lurk beneath the transient concerns of the moment. We will loop back to Ulan-Ude’s shamanism in a few minutes.

But first, Chekhov.
Chekhov brought me to Ulan-Ude. He occupies a quiet corner in what Ulan-Ude calls its Arbat – a pleasant pedestrian district down the street from the more formal, official city center with its Lenin statue, government buildings, and theatrical square.  After crossing Lake Baikal on June 14, 1890, Chekhov traveled southeast for about 100 kilometers, until he reached this city, which was then called Verkhne-Udinsk. Ulan-Ude is the capital of the Republic of Buryatia.

A companion on a walk through town, an anonymous philologist from   Buryat State University, shows me the hotel where Chekhov stayed.

    

and kindly helps orient me in Buryat cuisine.

Ulan-Ude’s physical center teems with reminders of its Soviet history: its imposing Memorial to the Great Fatherland War,  streets named after the same Soviet leaders we saw in our other Siberian towns, a town square featuring and a truly bizarre Lenin head (yes, just the head) dominating its central square.

The thing is huge, and for some reason in the evening was illuminated with an eerie green light.  In Ulan-Ude I found myself in a new world that yet is completely familiar. Here we recognize the layers of history – the  trappings of 21st-century political and economic system resting uneasily in the Soviet architecture, monuments testifying to the ravages of war, the brute power of dictators, the clashes between empire and periphery, and, moving backward to a time whose  buildings are lost, the quiet spirits of the place who continue to fill the air with their truth.

Speaking of tsars, just up the street, at the city’s historical and ethnographic museum, you can see original items belonging to another powerful individual, the blue submarine (or bathysphere) suit that Vladimir Putin wore when he came out here and dive-boated into Baikal in connection with a scientific exhibition. The cute nerpa banner conveys the message that this was a mission to save the environment. The museum is worth a visit even over and above this presidential sighting, as it gives a sense of the area’s diverse history; Old Russian believers built settlements here as they were chased out of European Russia; Buryat communities maintained their way of life, herding animals, living in yurts, and practicing their unique religion with its shamanistic rituals. Buddhism in its Tibetan form  coexisted with the native shamanistic religion. And of course there was Russian Orthodoxy, seasoned with official Soviet atheism in the 20th century.  Among the works on exhibit by Bato Dashitsyrenov in the city’s art museum are extraordinary depictions of shamans in action.

 

The artist also proposed a monument that in my opinion would be a fitting addition, or replacement to the public square, possibly near a Tomsk Chekhov clone. I would take a stab at explaining this monument; it might have something to do with the creation of the world, or a sort of scheme or hierarchy of life, but I will spare you that. It may be some comfort for you to know that I visited this exhibit with two different people, the museum’s director and an art scholar, and their explanations for most of the art on exhibit significantly differed among themselves. I loved this, and was convinced by both interpretations (in addition to my own secret ones, which I will spare you).

I can’t help it, I just love this artist. Check out “See no Evil” and a couple of other masterpieces, basically, I’d say, about the human condition:

            

My host throughout my visit to Ulan-Ude is Professor Svetlana Imikhelova of Buryat State University. Svetlana orients me geographically,  and takes me to the city library, where I learn about the area’s vibrant literary tradition and support for the arts. I am most curious to learn about a famous novel by Isai Kalashnikov, about the life of a Mongolian boy called Temujin, who grew up to be Genghis Khan.

  

Svetlana then entrusts me to the care of the director of Ulan-Ude’s art museum, where, indeed, I encountered, in addition to Dashitsyrenov’s amazing art, many other wonderful works as well, by nineteenth-century works by such famous Russian artists as Repin, Levitan,

Chekhov alert!

Repin, and Kuindji.

Now I just want to say that Ulan-Ude and its environs are an excellent locale for horse-spotting. You will certainly recall Dashitsyrenov’s frolicing horse from Tomsk, I mean, from Ulan-Ude.

I am told that Japanese prisoners of war worked on the equestrian topping for the city’s Theater of Opera and Ballet, which recalls the one above Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater, though here there are fewer horses.

 

You (or rather, your inner fantasy child) can take a ride on this pony who stands near the Great Fatherland War monument.

I honestly don’t know who these two horsemen are, but they face the train station from behind, overlooking the most horrifying set of stairs I have ever seen–the innocently named “viaduct” that takes the weary traveler from the train station to her hotel, which google maps claims is an easy walk. You do not start at the top; rather, you had to climb four flights of steps to reach the top, from the train platform (carrying your luggage, which you will soon feel as an unnecessary burden, like all things of this world). The stairs seem to end right above that white car. But in fact, you cross that bridge to your left, and there

there are another twenty (or so, it seems) flights down to street level. Then you walk up a long slow hill, cursing your cell phone with what is left of your voice, until eventually you reach the hotel. Somehow I feel that the equestrian statues there were a kind of warning about this, but cryptic.

Focus.

Travel outside of town with Svetlana –with her son Alexander at the wheel – and you may be lucky enough to see some more horses, these just wandering around, unfenced. This is  my ultimate conception of freedom.  My excitement was such that Alexander turned off the road and we kind of chased them for a while. (Special thanks to Sasha for doing this, and for being such a careful, expert driver who prefers the right, the correct, lane). These horses led us to lunch.

 

 

Of the dishes on hand, I had only ever tried the buuza, but in its Mongolian variant, at that. There was a kind of Asian custard, like ice cream but not cold or sweet. My favorite was the sheep liver, but the entrail sausages tucked into sheep intestine were also a savory, once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Horses and lunch were a mere coda to the centerpiece of my entire visit to Ulan-Ude: a trip to the famous Ivolginsk Datsan outside of town. If you are not lucky enough to have Sasha drive you, you can come on Bus # 108. If you know something about Tibetan Buddhism, this number will have special meaning for you.

You walk clockwise around the periphery of the datsan complex, circling the prayer drums and twirling them as you go.  The central temple enshrines the 12th Pandito Hambo Lama of the Ivolginsky Datsan, Dashi-Dorzho Itigelov, a revered spiritual leader whose body miraculously does not decay.

Learn details of the story here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d9ETr7_GtHw&fbclid=IwAR219J3a-R9WIbWkpjEN0dIu1txARjWitYIwnojKw_kiGFIsAylQrnfgT50

His spirit fills the air here, and even as you make your wish and prayer for the future, you know that it is already fulfilled here and now.

I have also left some of my spirit here, and in Ulan-Ude, and everywhere else I have visited on this journey.

 

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