Destination: Russia

Alienation, the struggle for a decent life, really bad weather -- the universal themes of this vast nation's literature make us all feel Russian at one point or another.

Ken Kalfus
November 6, 2006 6:15PM (UTC)

If you savor wine, you probably like traveling in France. If you appreciate good food, especially good food involving cured pork products, you're certainly drawn to Italy. If you love literature, however, the word-strewn, story-riddled, literary character-infested, continent-size country to which you most want to travel is probably Russia. It may be lazily regarded as "the East," but Russia's contributions are integral to the Western literary canon (as well as to the Western canons of music, dance and art). The universal themes of its greatest novels -- alienation, the individual's puniness against the forces of history, the struggle to invent a decent life, really bad weather -- make every reader feel Russian at one time or another.

Oil-boom Russia has become a much easier, safer place to travel, or at least it's hardly worse than the travel nightmare that the U.S. and Western Europe have become. After a recent flight from Philadelphia, where I was confounded by misleading signs, barked at by TSA goons and delayed by faulty airline equipment, I swore never to complain about Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport again. Inside Russia, the trains are cleaner and more dependable than they were only a few years ago. If your travel plans include Russia's two major cities, I strongly recommend the five-hour Moscow-St. Petersburg Avrora (Dawn), where a $67 second-class ticket buys you a comfortable coach seat and sumptuous box lunch (even faster, more expensive trains have recently been added to the schedule). For the convenience of the reading traveler, the northern afternoon light falls softly on the printed page.


The Avrora may be a good place to start "War and Peace" "Dead Souls" or "The Brothers Karamazov," hefty, involving novels whose narratives will complicate themselves with the story of your own adventures in Russia. But first, a word of advice before you pack: Choose your translations carefully. Get a recent edition that employs vivid, contemporary English to express the vigor and immediacy of the original Russian. Say "do svidaniya" to Constance Garnett, the classic British translator who was born in 1861, the year the serfs were freed. The best in contemporary Russian translation are the editions produced by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, who have done many of the major works.

My own preference when traveling anywhere is to carry lightweight, easy-reading paperbacks that I can stuff into the outside pocket of my carry-on and pick up while I'm (invariably) waiting on line. The baggy monsters may best be kept home with your liquids and gels, but plenty of 19th century Russian masters have contrived to produce great airport books. Ivan Turgenev's "First Love" and "The Torrents of Spring," love stories in which love is elusively evanescent and inevitably tragic, make for swift, romantic reading. Anton Chekhov's short stories (there's a comprehensive Pevear-Volokhonsky edition, "Stories of Anton Chekhov") are gloomy, in a bluesy kind of way, except when they're hilarious.

The translation of poetry is always problematic, but still, great English-language renderings of Russian verse are available. Charles Johnston's Penguin version of Pushkin's "Eugene Onegin," a tale of seductions, dress balls and duels, captures the original Byronic verve and is fun to read; it's even more so alongside Vladimir Nabokov's idiosyncratic, purely Nabokovian version of the epic. For instance, Johnston's Pushkin writes, "Nursed in the orient's languid weakness, across our snow of northern bleakness..." Nabokov counters, unrhythmically, and with access to dictionaries beyond those of mortal men, "Fostered in Oriental mollitude, on the Northern sad snow..."

Nabokov was born in St. Petersburg in 1899, precisely a century after Pushkin, and this morning, I'd like to think, a child born in 1999 was muttering verses of genius to himself while strolling along the Fontanka Canal on the way to school. The heirs to Pushkin are legion. Another was Anna Akhmatova, the heroic poet who celebrated the exalted, transformative light of the city right before the onset of war and the Soviet regime, and then the resistance to darkness and forgetfulness afterward. In "Poems of Akhmatova," the lovely, luminous edition translated by Stanley Kunitz and Max Hayward, she observes, in 1921: "Everything is plundered, betrayed, sold,/ Death's great black wing scrapes the air,/ Misery gnaws to the bone./ Why then do we not despair?" The answer has something to do, persuasively, with distant, newborn galaxies and the summer scent of wild cherries.

During the Soviet era, literature was an occupation slightly less dangerous than coal mining, and its best output was done while Stalin was still consolidating his power in the late 1920s and 30s. Some of these works include Yevgeny Zamyatin's futuristic dystopian novel "We," Mikhail Bulgakov's surrealistic Moscow adventure "The Master and Margarita," and poetry by Vladimir Mayakovsky and Sergei Yesenin, who continue to enjoy a wide Russian readership: A nightclub prostitute once recited a Yesenin poem for me (without charge). "Red Cavalry," by Isaac Babel, offers a compelling account, in slightly fictional form, of Babel's time with pro-Bolshevik Cossacks during the 1920 Soviet campaign against Poland.

Of Babel's stories, my favorites are those that are set in his native Odessa and involve the flamboyant Jewish crime boss Benya Krik, who likes to think of himself as a mensch. In "The King," Benya and his crew terrorize an Odessa cattle yard owned by the merchant Eykhbaum, shooting pistols above the heads of the dairymaids and slaying cows left and right. The mayhem unfolds -- "skewered cows bellowed and calves slipped on their mothers' blood... torches danced like black maidens" -- until Eykhbaum's daughter, Tsilya, runs into the yard in a low-cut chemise. Benya withdraws his men, returns two days later wearing a diamond-studded bracelet and asks Eykhbaum for Tsilya's hand in marriage. Babel reports dryly, "The old man suffered a slight stroke, but he got better."


Russians revere great books to an extent unfathomable in America -- that is, they actually read them. They further honor their authors, once they've passed away, by establishing "house-museums," usually in the writer's former residence, where the writer's desk and work space are kept in an illustrative state of clutter. Photos from the writer's life, artifacts, manuscripts and copies of the writer's works are displayed around the house, which nevertheless often feels lived in, as if the author just stepped out to fight a duel or free a serf. Nearly every significant Russian writer has a house-museum dedicated to him somewhere.

The most engaging of these house-museums is Yasnaya Polyana, the estate where Count Tolstoy grew up, wrote his great novels, kept two sets of diaries (one of them secret and one for his wife, the Countess, to sneak peeks in), played tennis, taught the peasants to read, copulated with some of them, and from where he eventually fled in the dead of night. A visit to the scrupulously maintained estate deepens the reader's understanding of one of the central struggles in Tolstoy's life and work: the quest for simplicity of the soul in a world of affluent complication. As the tour guide will tell you, that quest for simplicity drove his wife nuts. Yasnaya Polyana is about a three-hour train trip from Moscow, time enough to read one of his great novellas, "The Death of Ivan Ilych," "The Kreutzer Sonata" or "Master and Man."

The recently established Vladimir Nabokov Museum is located on the first floor of the master's childhood home in St. Petersburg, on Bolshaya Morskaya, not far off Nevsky Prospekt. The collection is small, with relatively few period artifacts, but the first editions, letters and sketches of butterflies richly evoke the writer's early life and later passions. A compelling BBC interview with the man plays on video. Few of Nabokov's novels specifically locate themselves to Russia; only his memoir, "Speak, Memory," lingers there, in classrooms, the family dacha, the home library where his father took fencing lessons and within clouds of lepidoptera.

In his notes to "Anna Karenina," collected in his "Lectures on Russian Literature," Nabokov recalls that one day when he was a small boy, he and his father encountered an old man on a street in St. Petersburg. The elder Nabokov knew the man, chatted briefly with him and then, after they parted, told his son, "That was Tolstoy." We don't know which St. Petersburg street so briefly channeled this confluence of talent. Not knowing, we can stroll the streets of the city with the sense that literary genius has sluiced down every one of them.


Ken Kalfus

Ken Kalfus' collection "Thirst" was chosen as one of Salon's 10 favorite books of 1999. His new book, "Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies" will be published in September.

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