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Subhash Jaireth

Poetry, Resistance and City-Space: Reclaiming the City through Poetry

This piece is 3,800 words or about nine printed pages long.

In April 1993 I went to Moscow, researching for a play on the tragic last days in the life of Meyerkhold, the renowned Russian theatre director. There in one of the research libraries I met Leonid Vidgof, a young literary critic. He had a degree from the philology faculty of Moscow State University and a passion for Mandelshtam’s poetry. I told him how much I loved Mandelshtam’s Voronezh Notebooks and read him some of my poems about Mandelshtam and Akhmatova. ‘I know all the Mandelshtam places in Moscow,’ he said, ‘and if you want, I can take you on a tour’. We agreed to meet on the coming Sunday in the Mayakovskaya Metro station at around nine o clock.

He first took me to an old Soviet block of apartments in Starosadskii street. In apartment No. 3 of this house Mandelshtam and his wife Nadzheda lived for a few years with his brother. ‘Here in this building Mandelshtam wroteThe Wolf cycle,’ Leonid said and read the following poem in Russian:

No, it’s not for me to duck out of the mess
behind the cabdriver’s back that’s Moscow.
I’m the cherry swinging from the streetcar strap
of an evil time. What am I doing alive?

We’ll take Streetcar A and then streetcar B,
you and I, to see who dies first. As for Moscow,
one minute she’s a crouched sparrow,
the next she’s puffed up like a pastry —

how does she find time to threaten from holes?
You do as you please, I won’t chance it.
My glove’s not warm enough for the drive
around the whole whore Moscow.

Our next stop was in front of the Herzen House on Tverskoi Boulevard. To reach this we went back to the metro, came out at Pushkinskaya station and walked along the boulevard. Mandelshtam and his wife lived here between 1922 and 1923. They occupied a room on the first floor of the left wing. Leonid pointed the room and read one of the many poems about Moscow, that were written in that room. Now, near the entrance to the house, on the wall close to street, there is a tiny memorial plate about Mandelshtam. A similar plate exists for Andrei Platonov, another famous Russian writer.

That Sunday for almost three hours Leonid and I changed metro stations, buses and trams to cris-cross through Central Moscow tracing Mandelshtam’s steps. I had a feeling that I was participating in a strange act of reclaiming streets, houses, apartments, trees and pavements for Mandelshtam, his wife, ‘their’ poetry and their resistance. It was new for me. My first act of reclamation.

But Leonid must have done it many times, physically as well as emotionally, and Leonid was not the first to do this. All those who loved Mandelshtam must have walked all these miles and many more, to recreate and re-instate him.

In Moscow there is strange confluence of physical and poetical landscapes. It is not only that Moscow lives in the poems of many poets, but Moscow itself has been generous in creating spaces for them: streets, squares, statues, monuments, museums, libraries, parks and graves. However, this is for the so-called established poets. The one for whom the establishment has a need. It needs them to legitimise its own power. The space is given out to the poets to reclaim space for itself, to make its own presence physical, real, corporeal and hyper-real.

The poetry of dissidence and resistance on the other hand has to create its own space, which is public as well as private, real as well as virtual. The paradox here is that the power it acquires, or the force which makes it to be taken as the voice of resistance, to a large extent emanates from this virtuality. Its absence from the ‘public’ sphere gives it an even stronger public-ity.

In my essay I want to explore the dynamics and the complicated relation between poetry, resistance and the city-space. Assuming that city is a cultural chronotope (the time-space) it is intriguing to investigate how the poetry of dissidence fluctuates between the private and the public spheres of this time-space. The city provides space and modes of circulation for it, the means to be meaningful and hence the means to survive, but in this process the city is itself re-constituted and re-claimed.

The Bulgakov House

It is 1984. The snow has melted and the smell of spring is in the air. You are walking along Bolshaya Sadovaya Street, the one which begins at Mayakovskii Square. At number 10, near the archway from the street to courtyard, there is a graffito which annouces ‘Slava Bulgakovu’ (‘Hail Bulgakov!). An arrow points toward the interior and another tells you the way to apartment 50. Through the entrance number 6 you get into a dimly lit stairwell. From the landing on the second floor to apartment 50 on the fifth floor the walls, ceilings and the stairs are covered with graffiti: a gallery of drawings, sketches, slogans, announcements and pronouncements.

In the early twenties, Mikhail Bulgakov lived in apartment 50 of the 10 Bolshaya Sadovaya Street. In TheMaster and Margarita, Mikhail Berlioz, the chairman of one of the most influential literary organizations, lives in apartment 50 which is the setting of several events in the novel. Although the street address in the novel is 302B instead of 10, Bulgakov’s admirers, the graffiti writers, were able to see the ‘real’ through the ‘imagined’. For them this was the ‘immortal’ house.

In 1965 the literary magazine Moskva published a doctored version of The Master and Margarita. I read the novel in 1974 in samizdat. There were a few copies going around in the university then. Soon people began identifying houses, streets, gardens and theatres in Moscow that appear in the novel. Every time I walked past the Lenin Library, I couldn’t help but stop and look at the grand building known as Pashkov House, because this is the house, my friends told me, on the stone terrace of which Bulgakov’s Woland and Azazelo stood one evening looking at the city and the sunset.

In 1971, Yuri Lyubimov, the director of the Tganka Theatre in Moscow, succeeded in staging The Master and Margarita. This was a production in which the actors in the finale carried a banner proclaiming: ‘Manuscripts don’t burn’. In spite of heavy criticism in Pravda, the play remained in the repertoire of the theatre till May 1984, when it was banned. Yuri Lyubimov was sacked as the director and stripped of Soviet citizenship. This was the time when there was a sudden rise in the number of graffiti in ‘Bulgakov’s’ house. Some graffiti demanded that the apartment be made into a museum: ‘Make apartment No. 50 a museum devoted to Woland and other clean powers’, proclaimed one inscription. Apartment 50 housed draftsmen who worked in a a design bureau and it is said that they opened the office to the Bulgakov’s admirers, the graffiti writers, who were allowed to paste their drawings, poems and other proclamations on the walls. The graffiti world of the stairwell found a continuation in the apartment itself. This was the first stage of reclaiming space for a forgotten writer, an impromptu museum in his memory, a spontaneous celebration of his presence.

Between 1984 and 1986 the house, the stairwell and the apartment became a site of struggle between the officials, the caretaker of the house and the bureaucrats of the local government, and the graffiti writers. The graffiti were erased, painted over and disfigured but each time the ‘mob’ came back to re-inscribe and re-claim. It is said that a number of times the caretaker changed the security code at the doorway but each time it was broken. The officials gave up. In the spring of 1988 the city bureaucrats approved the establishment of an official museum.

I left Moscow in 1978 and the story of this reclamation was told to me by my friend. His letters are a curious mixture of hope and despair. There a few photographs of the house, the stairwell and the apartment. The black and white photos of the graffiti are not very clear although in a few I can see the satan-like figure of Woland. Recently he has sent me an excerpt from a book by John Bushnell in which he retells the story as he heard it from other witnesses. The book reproduces photos of some of the graffiti. In one of them I can see a face which might be a portrait of Bulgakov. The portrait is captioned ‘Woland is  first-class’ and is surrounded by quotations from the novel.

Re-reading the story of ‘Bulgakov’s’ house I am struck by the gap that exists between what the graffiti writers wanted and what the city officials gave them. The stairwell and the apartments are populated by Bulgakov’s novel, its protagonists, their words and their imagined faces. They wanted a museum for the novel and its world. They wanted to celebrate the word and through it the ‘speaker’ or the writer and themselves, their own presence as readers. The writer always came second, as did the readers. The officials instead wanted a Bulgakov museum. It seems for them a museum of the novel was an abstract idea, too difficult to realise and too dangerous to undertake. They had never done this and were scared that, like a novel, such a museum might provide a site for disparate voices to emerge, speak and be heard.

In the fragmented re-gathering of texts in the graffiti I see a re-writing of the novel. The presence of graffiti celebrates an event of co-being of readings and writings. However, in this reinscription a strange reversal has also taken place. It was the house at No. 10 which along with other similar places made the imagined world of the novel believable, palpable and ‘real’. Now the novel and its world have returned to the same house. Its words have walked in through the doorway, climbed the stairwell and have started living in the house. The worlds in and outside the novel have been juxtaposed, without ever merging completely. But this is not all, because in this process people, Bulgakov’s readers, the graffiti writers, have invested their desires and passions. It is this which makes this return, reclamation and reversal significant and meaningful.

When a story becomes so ingrained with the surrounding time-space it does not matter if manuscripts are banned or burnt; the story remains in the landscape for everyone to read and hear. When people look at the houses, buildings, parks and streets, they also ‘see’ the story. It continues to live in its own fragmented but uninterrupted way.

A Book within a Book

That Sunday in April, Leonid Vidgof took me to a house on the Borisoglebskii Street (now Pisemskii Street). Marina Tsvetaeva lived in this house for a few years before and after the revolution. Now the Tsvetaeva Society is creating a museum there. The society meets once a month to talk about her, her poetry and her friends. I attended one of these literary evenings. Two speakers addressed the gathering that evening. One of them was Sofia Bogatireva. She is a literary critic. Her father I.I. Ivich-Bernshtein (psuedonym Aleksandr Ivich) was a literary critic as well and a well-known Russian writer of children’s books.

In her talk Sofia Bogatireva recalled how as a teenager she witnessed and participated in the dangerous undertaking of creating, hiding and preserving a small archive of Mandeshtam’s poems. It is well-known now that Nadhezda Mandelshtam was a living archive of her husband’s poems. She knew almost every poem by heart. She would dictate these poems, which were hand written, sometimes typed out, and checked, after which several copies were stored in the houses of those who loved Mandelshtam.

In her talk she described a very ingenious way which her uncle employed to store Mandelshtam’s poems. ‘My uncle had an original way of storing banned literature,’ she noted, ‘he kept them on open shelves’.

Sofia Bogatireva recalled that there were times when she felt betrayed because although she was a witness to this activity she was not allowed to read all of Mandelshtam’s poems. There was one particualar collection in a box to which she had no access. She went to her uncle one day who was an equally well-know literary critic and a writer and asked if he had a copy of the poems which had been hidden from her.

Uncle heard me, carefully ignoring all my complaints against my father’s despotism in not letting me read the hidden poems. He unfolded the step-ladder, silently with a supercilious gesture of his hand declined my request to help him, and climbed right up to the roof. He removed a book from the shelf, came down with the book, folded the step-ladder, put it back at its right place in the far corner. He did this without any rush, carefully and neatly, holding the book under his arm, and then gave the book to me. It was the 11th edition of comrade Josef Stalin’sProblems of Leninism, published in 1939. I was confused and amazed. Then my uncle threw away the hard cover of the book, and I found that the entrails of the immortal book had been removed, replaced by Mandelshtam’s poems. The poems were copied on the ruled pages ripped from a school notebook.

After the talk Sofia Bogatireva gave me a reprint of her article from which she had read her address. On the reprint she wrote the following words: ‘In twentieth century Russia, most talented poets had learnt how to manage without Gutenberg’s great invention’.

The cover of Stalin’s book, its insides ripped out to make place for Mandelshtam’s handwritten poems. Can there be any more potent, visual and palpable image of the way Russians had to live under the Soviets? I don’t think so. The written book had perhaps become a lesser form of communication. It was the oral word that ruled. If you had ears to hear and eyes to see you could always feel the ripples and swells. The word travelled from mouth to mouth and ear to ear without any danger of being banned or burnt. It had the landscape of memory to populate and it did not fail to do so.

Mayakovskii Square

Recently I saw a Russian film Moscow Does not Believe in Tears screened by the SBS. The film tells the story of a young Russian woman growing up in the fifties. In a shot of the opening sequence we see Andrei Voznesenkii, reading his now well-known poem The Antiworlds. Andrei Voznesenskii, Evegnii Evtushnko, Bella Akhmadulina and Robert Rozhdestvenskii were the popular young Russian poets in the late fifties and the sixties.

During my stay in Moscow in the seventies I had heard about similar readings in the Pushkin Square, near Pushkin’s statue. By that time the readings at Mayakovskii Square had ended. However emergence of these readings is an interesting chapter in the history of dissident poetry in the Soviet Union. It also tells us one of the ways by which dissident poetry was able to win a foothold in the public space.

Vladimir Bukovskii, a dissident Russian writer and editor, was associated briefly with these readings. He provides an interesting account of these readings, the atmosphere surrounding them and of the means through which the officials tried to control, regulate and eventually ban them.

The readings began spontaneously. In the summer of 1958  a monument to Mayakovskii, in the square now known as Mayakovskii Square, was dedicated. The official ceremony included poetry readings by the so-called official ‘Soviet’ poets. However, after they had finished reading, the stage was opened to the public. The public responded. It was a new and exciting experience for the people. Some members in the public then decided to get together in the square regularly to read poetry. As Bukovskii recounts, initially these readings were thought by the officials to be quite innocuous and one Moscow daily even published an article about them.

The readings were never advertised publicly, i.e. in the print or electronic media, but the news about them began to spread. Mayakovksii Square received a new name: The Mayak. ‘Mayak’ in Russian means A Lighthouse or A Beacon. The readings took place in the evening either on Saturday or Sunday. Most participants, readers and listeners, were the young students of Moscow universities and other similar institutions.

The officials tried to control and regulate these readings either by placing undercover KGB operatives in the audience who instigated disturbances and clashes or by raiding houses of the participants. In April 1961 a noisy brawl erupted during the reading. On this day, a few hours earlier, Yuri Gagarin had returned after successfully completing the space-flight. A public holiday had been announced. However, this was also the day when in 1930 Mayakovskii had shot himself. The brawl ended in several arrests. This proved a fatal blow to the readings which gradually faded away in a few months.

Public space in all societies and cultures is regulated and controlled by the authorities. However in a totalitarian society it is nothing but a totalitarian space. This was how it used to be during Stalin’s rule. The ‘Thaw’ i.e. a ten-year period after Stalin’s death in 1953 created some openings in the public space, which were exploited by the public to populate it. But there always existed a limit beyond which even Khruschev did not want the public to go. However, the most interesting feature of these readings is the spontaneity with which they began. In a totalitarian society when the written word is prone to censorship and bans, it is the oral word, the spoken and the heard which keeps dissident discourse alive. The word which kept the readings going was the oral word. It spread the news about them and it transformed Mayakovskii Square into a Mayak, the Lighthouse.

The House and the world outside

In her talk Sofia Bogatireva described the ingenious way her uncle used to hide banned manuscripts. In her paper she makes an important point about the relation between the public, the outside world, and private space, the house. This is what she has to say:

The world at that time was divided into two clear and unequal parts. The home and the rest. There existed a complicated relationship between them. Information of any type could flow without any restriction from the outside world into our home but not a single word, that was spoken in the house, could ever go outside. We were not allowed to take out any typed or handwritten material. It was considered dangerous to mention names of people who visited us, or stayed overnight. We never felt any pranks about this, neither did we agonise over this duality in our behaviour. We, the children, learnt these rules without any special effort ...

This strange one-way osmosis which existed between the public and the private space is very characteristic of the Soviet way of life. It needs to be mentioned that the so-called private space was not as private as we outside the Soviet Union understand. One room in a communal house shared by two or three families can hardly be called private or familial space. Even in single-family apartments, KGB (or the Cheka, as it used to be called before the second world war) could always come unannounced, knock at the door and begin searching. However, the relative insulation of the familial space and a self-imposed discipline insured that the voice of dissidence survived.

In this paper I have told three stories, which though unique and individual, tell something about the way the voice of dissident poetry created a space for itself. The most obvious space for the dissident voices to originate is that of prisons and concentration camps. The history of world literature knows many fine and haunting examples of such writing. In the Soviet Union Solzhenytsyn’s works are perhaps the most well known examples of this. However, such writing is often written from the point of view of a victim. It abounds with helplessness and pity. The poetry of Pasternak, his Zhivago Cycle or the Voronezh Notebook of Mandelshtam and for that matter the poetry of Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva, on the other hand, can not and need not be read as the poetry of victims. It is defiant and challenging. Its helplessness is transitory and momentary. It is the voice of dissidence.

The most common site for such poetry in the Soviet Union was provided by private and familial space of a home. It originated there and spread from there. It went from mouth to mouth and often was typed and retyped and moved from hand to hand. The written and the oral word thus created their own channels of circulation, their own streets and alleyways. In the sixties when the photocopier came to its aid, the dissident poetry used copying machines and paper of various government organisations to give it new, a more stable corporeal form. It came to be known as samizdat. Because it was always in circulation, whenever it found an opening it came out boldly into the Soviet public space using occasions such as the opening ceremony of the Mayakovskii monument. Such readings also took place at the graves of well-known Russian poets such as Esenin and Pasternak.

Sofia Bogatireva mentions how Nadezhda Mandelshtam was a living archive of her husband’s poetry. We know that she was not alone.  Most dissident poetry survived because it was helped by such people. Thus the private space of human bodies became the site where the voice of dissident poetry nested, multiplied and went into circulation. Through this private corporeal space it was able to keep itself open and accessible to the public.

The story of Bulgakov’s house also reveals another mode of survival of dissident poetry. The city with its streets and squares which are officially out of bounds for it, in fact provides the most lasting space for it. The city as I said in the earlier part of this paper is not only constituted by its physicality but also by the desire and memory which we invest in it. It lives in us and through us. ‘Bulgakov lived here’, we say to ourselves. You know, Pasternak wrote his poem in this house, a friend comes and tells you. O! this is the railway station which appears in Mandelshtam’s poem. Thus living in the city we keep the poetry alive. The poetry thus finds a space built from the confluence of city space and the body space. Through me and through my city, in me and in my city the poetry lives and survives.

Some useful links relating to the topics in this essay:

Subhash Jaireth was born in a small town in Punjab, Northern India. He spent nine years in Moscow (1969 to 1978) studying geology. In 1986 he came to Australia as a geologist but soon began work on a Ph.D thesis on modern Russian drama and theatre. In 1993 he visited Moscow again, watching lots of theatre and interviewing writers, poets and journalists who were learning to cope with the onslaught of free market of Yeltsin's times. He has published poems in Hindi, Russian and English. A verse-narrative Unfinished Poems for Your Violin was published by Penguin Australia in 1996. In Yashodhara: Six Seasons without You, his latest collection of poems (to be released in September 2003 by Wild Peony), he tells the story of Yashodhara, the wife of Sidhartha, the would-be Buddha.

Map of Central Moscow

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