My research trip to Moscow (the people and Vladimir Maiakovskii)

Written by Natalia Karakulina.

Studying the ‘best, most talented’ poet of the Soviet nation unavoidably meant that sooner or later I had to go to Moscow. This was a daunting prospect as I had no idea what to expect. Now I am back and in one piece and can recap on my experience:

The city

Everybody knows that Moscow is big. I knew that too. What I didn’t realise is that everything in Moscow is big: the buildings…

The Kremlin

…the roads…

The Ring Road

…the monuments:

The Space Museum











For some reason (and having never been in Russia before) I was under the impression that Russians dislike Leninmonuments of the Soviet era and have removed most of them. However, this was not the case and dedushka Lenin was the first historic figure to greet me, as I emerged out of the Metro.

A few more words about the roads

I lived on a street which led to the famous Sadovoe Kol’tso. It had ten lanes. I have never before even seen a street with ten lanes, now I had to navigate it. I realised that when checking the address, it was not only important to establish how to find the right street, but also what side of the street the building you are looking for was.

Crossing the street in Moscow was not a mere fact of walking to the other side of the road. With five or more lanes on average to traverse, crossing the road became a quest, a search for the underpass. I have spent many moments standing on the edge of the road, trying to judge from the posture of the pedestrians, the direction of the traffic, the position of the sun and the shape of the clouds, whether the nearest underpass was to the left or to the right of me.

Stalin’s Seven Sisters

I happen to suffer from the very stereotypical disease commonly attributed to women – complete inability to orientate in space. I still get lost in a small town I lived in for almost 3 years. Naturally I spent a considerable amount of the time dedicated to my research trip being utterly lost. One of Stalin's Seven Sisters

In the city centre I spotted a tall gothic structure and thought: ‘great, I can use that to orientate myself and get myself back to the Metro’. Somehow, it never seemed to work though. I would walk back to the building, and then past it, and still there would be no sign of the metro station. At the end of the second week of the trip me and my colleague Jo, a frequent traveller to Russia who had just arrived in Moscow, went for a walk and I, having spotted the building I’d tried to use for directions, vented my frustration at my complete inability to determine locations. Turns out, there are seven buildings like that in Moscow, all nearly identical, six of them being right in the city centre.


The Metro

The Moscow metro is very deep. As you stand on the escalator weighing up your life you can almost feel your hair becoming greyer. Russian people don’t like the metro. We were going down as the lady I met told me a story: ‘every person has a guardian angel, who always follows us around. But the guardian angel can’t go under the ground, so when we use the metro and start descending down the guardian angel loses us, and dashes around in the crowd desperately trying to find us’.

Maiakovskii metro station

Maiakovskii station, opened 1938.

The story finished, yet we were still continuing to go down the escalator. I presume the moral of the story is that nothing good comes from the metro, and that it’s generally a place where bad things are likely to happen to you (since there is no guardian angel to look over your shoulder).

And yet, Moscow metro is beautiful, clean, easy to navigate and exceptionally efficient. Fair enough, it becomes very crowded during peak times, but you expect it from any underground; and yes, it does take a while to go up and down the escalator. On the plus side, the metro is cleaned every day with sawdust. Every station is a piece of art and every station is different, and in my three and a half weeks of being in Moscow I have witnessed only one disturbance on one of Moscow’s twelve metro lines. This was a very pleasant surprise after the London Underground where it’s more unlikely to see all lines working normally, than to find disturbances. The disturbance I witnessed in Moscow resulted in trains running slow. ‘Slow’ meant every two and a half minutes… There is a watch on every station which tells you how much time has passed since the last train. Normally the trains run every one and a half minutes. To me this level of efficiency is worth spending a few extra minutes going down the escalator.

As you go down the escalator you are presented with the only advertisement in the metro: posters of cleaning products and convenience stores pass you as the voice from the loudspeakers tells you about the proper behaviour on the escalator and on the roads: ‘only cross the street in the designated areas and always wait for the green light. Think about the children: you are an example for them’. This touched my heart: a nation, where at least there is an effort to make child education a mission for the whole society.

Moscow’s inhabitants

Pigeons and Dostoevskii

One of the largest pigeon gangs in Moscow: together with Fedor Dostoevskii overlooking their domain at the entrance to the National Library (above). More pigeons (below).Pigeons

You can easily find out that eleven and a half million people live in Moscow.

However, far fewer statistics exist on the city’s other inhabitants – the pigeons. The pigeons of Moscow live in gangs and consider that the city is built to suit their needs: the monuments and roofs are good vantage points, the metro is there for them to huddle in the warmth when days are cold, and the roads are made uneven on purpose, so that water can be gathered for pigeons to drink. When I visited Moscow in April the pigeons were a happy breed. They were basking in the spring sun, bathing in Moscow many puddles and, of course, courting.

The libraries

During my time in Russia I visited two libraries: the National Library and the much smaller Pedagogical Library. First of all I went to the National Library, as I was warned that it was a long winded process. I wasn’t warned however about the general indifference of the library staff, whose job title, according to the plank on the desk, was ‘Consultant’. By the end of my first day in the library I was feeling worthless, close to tears and desperately lost (though determined to rather spend the night in the library than ask one more time for help).

The next day, still shaken from the experience, I went to a conference, where people I have never met before treated me like a VIP guest. During a tea break (which involved a table filled with various foods and treats) I was asked how I was finding Russia and I answered that it’s still all very new to me but that I found the general apathetic relationships between the people upsetting. I was quick to add that this did not apply to the welcome I received at the conference. They were first disappointed with my response but when they learned that I was basing my answer on my experiences in the National Library, they laughed and said that the library was ‘a special case’ and I shouldn’t base my judgement on it.

True enough the smaller Pedagogical Library had a completely different feel about it. And while nobody asked me how I was, or attempted to make small talk, people there were ready to answer my enquiries and help me out.

The Maiakovskii museum

The Maiakovskii Museum

                                              в комнатёнке-лодочке
                                      три тыщи дней
Maiakovskii Khorosho!

Visiting the Maiakovskii museum was on my agenda for the trip. Yet, between meeting people and working in libraries, it was quite late when I finally managed to visit the museum. I came on a Sunday, as the entrance was free, and was quickly completely mesmerised by what artists have managed to achieve there. ‘Maiakovskii museum’ is just a name, a label, in reality it’s an art gallery: an artistic representation of the poet’s life and time.

Almanacs of the Futurists (above) and Letters to Lili Brik (below).

Some don’t understand it: a middle-aged gentleman who walked into the museum with his wife shortly after me, looked around half disgusted and said that he could not understand how any of it had anything to do with Maiakovskii. I felt like turning to him and answering that if he wanted to see Maiakovskii, he needed to read his works. I didn’t, of course. To me though, the museum was a great success. It’s situated in a building which held communal flats; the room belonging to the poet, and his work cabinet for a large part of his life, is still there. The rest is demolished, made into uneven halls where rambling decorations are somehow just about pulled together, to celebrate the different periods of Maiakovskii’s life.

Letter to Maiakovskii.

A particularly interesting letter to Maiakovskii from one of his public readings: ‘Comrade Maiakovskii, how would you rate Esenin’s poetry if his ideological position was admissible to our modern times?’

In our modern times it would appear that it is Maiakovskii’s poetry which is often rated on its ‘ideological position’. This letter could have been written today, despite the fact that we have witnessed ideologies rise and fall, and the great poetry didn’t get any worse for it. And yet, ideological position seems to remain a factor in ‘rating’ poets.

Maiakovskii museum.

Maiakovskii Museum (above). From the museum self-guided tour (below).


The people

True I have had some bad experiences, I mentioned the National Library before, which was still an example of good manners compared to the treatment I got in the post office, when I tried to register my visa. However, the comment from a conference was true – these places are bad example of getting to know Russian people.

Before my trip I compiled a list of Moscow-based literature experts who might be able to help me with my research. I had never met these people, and, due to the last-minute nature of my funding, did not, perhaps, give them enough warning of my arrival. And yet, all of them were exceptionally welcoming. A lady who invited me to a conference gave me several books as a gift. Members of Maiakovskii study group in the Institute of World Literature invited me for tea and cakes. I was taken out for coffee, and shown around the city. All this despite the incredible amount of work that these people were doing: many suggested to call them after 11pm, as they didn’t get home earlier than that.

In my hostel I have met people who raised an eyebrow when I told them what I was studying and thought that I was out of my mind. To them my work seemed as irrelevant and pointless as counting pebbles on a beach. Equally, people I didn’t know came to me when they saw me working with photocopies on Maiakovskii, and when they learned what I did, said that it had made their day to know that young people were still interested in poetry and in Vladimir Maiakovskii.

Would I go there again

I realise that if I stay in my current line of work I will unavoidably go there again. However, when I go there next time I’ll know that it is not only a huge, noisy, confusing place where it is inadvisable to ask for help, but also an old beautiful city, with people who will be glad to see me again and care about my work.

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