Slavicist Sophie Pinkham documented her week in NYC-based Russian culture for the Daily in April. When she returned to Russia, we asked her to diary her cultural experiences there, as well.
In Moscow, I attend the opening of Lily Idov’s new exhibit, “Relics.” Idov took a series of photos at the Russian museums that tourists rarely visit: the Museum of Culinary Arts, the Museum of Darwinism, the Museum of Moscow Railways, the Museum of Cosmonautics. The photos are surreal, and often funny. A dummy astronaut gazes heavenward, starry-eyed; a dummy chef poses in front of a lacquered swordfish, looking perplexed. Idov’s photos remind us that the attendants are often the most interesting artifacts in these empty museums. A dummy youth in a train plays a guitar, one chord for eternity, as his live guard stands nearby, sphinx-like. A young woman gazes skeptically at a wax man wreathed in bagels. One elderly attendant looks as taxidermied as the crocodile he’s been assigned to watch. In fact, with his long white beard and weary expression, he looks rather like a taxidermied Tolstoy.
With two friends from New York, I take a day trip to Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s estate. The signs are in Russian, English, and Korean, and our fellow tourists wear large bundles of leaves on their heads. The effect is festive, but also warlike. And what does it have to do, exactly, with Lev Nikolaevich? Tourism is its own civilization, with customs that can be understood only through intensive ethnographic research.
“Who are you, and where do you come from?” asks a surly attendant. We return to the entrance, pay for a mandatory tour, and put plastic baggies over our shoes, as if prepping for surgery. Our guide is an older woman with tinted glasses, bright red lipstick, and what is, one senses, a certain weariness with Lev Nikolaevich. There is a marked contrast between her fast, flat delivery and Tolstoy’s tortured moral ideas.
Lev Nikolaevich had sharp eyes that saw into a person’s soul the question that tortured him throughout his life was what is the meaning of human life what is truly in the human soul surely it contains great goodness
We examine the leather sofa where Lev Nikolaevich and his children were born. There was once a leather pillow, but it was lost in the war.
Moscow is having its summer snow, big clumps of pollen floating through the air. I walk to the metro, past a dive bar called Second Wind. A man is passed out in front, his crutches and an empty vodka bottle lying beside him.
I visit the new Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center, funded by Putin (notorious for his tolerance) and sundry oligarchs. As the museum’s own Web site explains, “It is difficult to say what it resembles most, a museum in its conventional meaning or a theme park.” There are iPads, holograms, and a 4-D movie about the creation of the world in 3761 BCE. There are pictures and videos and multimedia installations of Jews going about their business, in a variety of costumes, periods, and settings (shtetl, birch forest, café). In a diorama called “Soviet apartment of the late 1960s/early 1970s,” Jewish holograms take turns washing the dishes, playing the guitar, reading. The notes explain that even in the early 1970s, when Jews were mostly assimilated, you could still recognize them by subtle signs: a Russian collection of Sholem Aleichem stories on the shelf, or a grandmother reminiscing about the old days. I decided to visit after hearing that the museum features a photo of Gary Shteyngart, illustrating the concept of the “successfully assimilated Russian Jew.” But a friend picks me up before I can find it.
That night I go drinking with an American historian, a Russian morgue attendant, and a Serbian gynecologist. We play charades.
For comparison, I visit the Museum of the History of Jews in Russia. Here there are no videos, no holograms, no Putin—only artifacts. Rather than presenting people and voices and places, as at the Tolerance Center, this more modest museum presents the objects of everyday life, of religion, work, politics, and art. Dealing in details rather than generalities, the collection gives a better sense of the diversity and breadth of Jewish life in the Russian Empire and Soviet Union, from Bukhara to revolutionary Moscow to Yiddish Eastern Europe. Many of the objects in the museum, particularly the religious ones, have a beauty that transcends cultural or historical interest; they are works of art, and thus possess a power rarely found among educational holograms.
On my way to Gorky Park, I visit Turgenev’s mother’s house, which is now a museum. I am on intimate terms with Turgenev, having recently taken a seminar devoted to close reading of his short works. I had the feeling that he and I had embarked upon a long-term relationship, with a mixture of tenderness and exasperation, passion and boredom. It was sometimes hard to force myself through his lesser work, to tolerate his literary tics (eavesdropping narrators crouched behind shrubbery, duels over girls who read too much) and personality flaws (excessive desire to please, lapses into sentimentality). Sometimes I wanted to slap him. But then we read Spring Torrents and First Love, and I saw that all the false starts had been worth it, as familiar devices, tropes, and themes found their place in perfect stories.
The guards are gossiping, and the attendants are drinking tea and doing the dishes. I am the only visitor. I look at Turgenev’s death mask, with its hollow cheeks, high cheekbones, and grieving look; his long, slender plaster hands; and his beloved Pauline Viardot’s telegram, handwritten, requesting permission to have his body returned to Petersburg. I remember one of Turgenev’s remarks, recorded by Edmond de Goncourt in his memoirs:
You know how sometimes in a room there’s an imperceptible smell of musk that you can’t get rid of? Well, in my case, all around me, all the time, there’s a smell of death, dissolution, and decay … The explanation lies, I believe, in the fact that for various reasons—my white hair and so on—I cannot make love any more. I am quite incapable of it. And when that happens to a man, he is as good as dead.
And when Flaubert and I denied that love was all-important for a writer, the Russian novelist let his hands fall to his sides and exclaimed: “All I can say is that my life has always been saturated with femininity. There isn’t a book or anything else which can take the place of a woman for me. How can I explain that to you? I believe that love produces a certain flowering of the whole personality which nothing else can achieve.”
That night I finish Guy de Maupassant’s last novel, Alien Hearts. I’ve been reading it slowly, because it’s so good it hurts. Maupassant and Turgenev were friends, and they have much in common. Both were obsessed by the shades of love, writing about romance with exquisite insight and compassion; both had many affairs, but never married. As a certain critic recently remarked, Maupassant doesn’t insist, as Tolstoy does, on making everything a “teachable moment.” In this, too, he resembles Turgenev, who was attacked, throughout his life, for his failure to take sides. But Maupassant surpasses even Turgenev in his willingness to consider his female characters as real people (and in his corresponding refusal to throw them under trains). The reader of Alien Hearts is at once lover and beloved, conditions usually experienced only through the passage of time; the reader is at once a man and a woman. Maupassant was dying of syphilis when he wrote the novel. By the end he could no longer recognize himself, and tried to shake hands with his own reflection.
I go to Kiev, where a man on the street plays “Let It Be” on the bagpipes and pretty girls advertise doors in the metro. I meet my friend Artur Belozerov, a local artist and provocateur. I’m glad to see him looking well. A couple of years ago, he led protests against a tacky new “Fashion Park” on Kiev’s historic Landscape Alley. Someone smashed the park’s bathroom-tile Petit Prince, the park’s creator blamed Artur, and a masked man came and broke Artur’s leg. Despite the many blows to the head that he has sustained in the course of his artistic career, Artur is a brilliant conversationalist.
I visit the Pinchuk Art Centre, a free museum funded by an oligarch who’s a big fan of Damien Hirst. Willowy women in heels, gauzy dresses and pancake makeup escort their foreign lovers through the galleries. I examine a Juergen Teller installation called “Kiev, 2007,” a series of color photos in glass cases. The installation was commissioned for the Ukrainian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale; it strikes me as an act of curatorial cruelty. The women in the photos sprawl on overstuffed couches and dirt roads, displaying extreme bikini waxes and breasts of questionable authenticity. They wear neon furs, panty hose, saran wrap, and little else. In one photo, a naked woman in high heels stands in the forest, a huge, ridiculous handbag covering her head. A little boy is walking by, holding a ball; he doesn’t seem to notice her. Meanwhile, in real life, a pair of overdressed blondes who would not be out of place in the photos bend over the cases. They are quiet, and soon leave the room.
One of the most popular exhibits at the Pinchuk Centre is by a Chinese artist, Zhang Huan. It is dedicated to a hero-pig who survived under the rubble of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake for forty-nine days. (In Buddhism, it takes forty-nine days for the soul to transmigrate after death.) The installation consists of an Ikea-style pigpen, with an attractive, triangular house in light pine. Two pigs snuffle and piss in the hay, wagging their curly tails and nibbling at each other. In the corner, museum employees are discussing what to do about the smell.
A woman in fluorescent platform heels and a matching gown strides up to a painting (ash on linen) and reaches out to touch it; the attendant shouts at her just in time. She clomps over to the pigpen.
“My grandma used to have pigs like these!” she tells her friend.
A cleaning lady comes in to sweep up stray bits of hay. “Hello, piglets!” she cries happily.
At the Pinchuk Centre even the bathroom is beautiful, with glowing rainbow walls and mirrors everywhere. As I dry my hands I look up, expecting to see my reflection. But the glass is clear, and through it I see a Ukrainian woman, six feet tall, with thin bones and glossy hair. Startled, we both turn away.