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Sunday, July 21, 2024

An Interview with Nikolai


Thunderous applause from the audience when the blood-red curtain came down ending the performance of the comedy drama 'Government Inspector' that evening. This performance tells the story of how nervous the Governor and other officials were when they found out that there would be an inspection by a Government Inspector who came incognito to their area. They are frantically trying to cover up all the bad things in this area which is infiltrated by corruption everywhere, which is depicted hilariously and full of satire. The audience who filled the Akimov Comedy Theater greeted the performance with smiles and laughter. It was fitting that the audience's response was like that, it is said that Tsar Nicholas I chuckled at the premiere of this comedy drama and gave a standing ovation at the end of the performance. Although this drama is actually a humorous criticism of the depravity of bureaucrats under the Tsarist government.

Before the applause died down I slipped out, because I had an appointment to meet someone very important. Who can say, I made an appointment to meet with Nikolai, the playwright of this drama! So I rushed down Nevsky Prospekt, the famous street in St Petersburg, on a cold night. We arranged to meet at the Literary Café, a café frequented by many aristocrats, poets and other artists. The famous Russian poet Alexander Pushkin also often hung out here. When I arrived, Nikolai was already sitting waiting in the corner of the room with dark brown wooden walls. The hanging lights make the atmosphere of this café cozy and calm. The chairs are also patterned with dark brown checks, making this room feels truly aristocratic.

Nikolai stood up and greeted me in a friendly manner. It turns out he was small, with legs that were too short for his body. His rather baby face was plastered with long strands of hair that hung down from her forehead to the side of his face covering his ears. His nose looked too ponty for his face. He wore modest clothes, not showing off his fame. With a smile he invited me to sit down.


I started the conversation:

Nikolai, I have just finished watching 'The Government Inspector' at the Akimov Building..., I am amazed that such a horrendous performance was permitted by the Tsar, who imposed strict censorship on all works in Russia... The audience responded with uproarious laughter. laughing at the corrupt behavior of the governor and his government officials, who were worried about being investigated by the Government Inspector, who would come incognito. The governor and government officials are frantically trying to cover up their lies and corruption in every possible way. They even bribed the person they thought was the undercover Government Inspector.… There had never been a performance like this before, this was truly a new movement for the performance art in Russia…”



However, there were also hue and cry raised by the offended press and officials…”

I said:

It is not surprising that this drama dares to attack the bureaucratic foundations of the government in Russia. It directly mocked all officials, and exposing corruption among high-ranking officials. It hurled insults directly at all Russian local government officials, and, indirectly, pointed out the system of corruption that existed among the highest officials.”



“In the Inspector-General I resolved to gather together all the bad in Russia I then knew into one heap, all the injustice that was practiced in those places and in those human relations in which more than in anything justice is demanded of men, and to have one big laugh over it all. But that, as is well known, produced an outburst of excitement. Through my laughter, which never before came to me with such force, the reader sensed profound sorrow. I myself felt that my laughter was no longer the same as it had been, that in my writings I could no longer be the same as in the past, and that the need to divert myself with innocent, careless scenes had ended along with my young years.”


I said:

"It is said that Aleksandr Pushkin, the famous Russian poet, was one of your first admirers... how is your relationship with Pushkin?"



Our relationship was very close, Pushkin considered me his student, and I respected Pushkin and considered him my mentor. I really respect the taste and criticism he gave me. And ‘Government Inspector’ was the theme he suggested to me ….”


I asked:

Why do you write a satirical comedy like this?”



“The comic, actually is hidden everywhere, only living in the midst of it we are not conscious of it; but if the artist brings it into his art, on the stage say, we shall roll about with laughter and only wonder we did not notice it before.”


I smiled:

"Yes, I remember when the governor in this play remembered something he was careless about: ‘Good God, though, I forgot that about forty cart-loads of rubbish have been dumped against that fence. What a vile, filthy town this is! A monument, or even only a fence, is erected, and instantly they bring a lot of dirt together, from the devil knows where, and dump it there.”



When all his depravity was revealed, the Governor was very worried about his reputation, and complained: ‘Now his coach bells are jingling all along the road. He is publishing the story to the whole world. Not only will you be made a laughing-stock of, but some scribbler, some ink-splasher will put you into a comedy. There's the horrid sting. He won't spare either rank or station. And everybody will grin and clap his hands. What are you laughing at? You are laughing at yourself, oh you! ‘ … Stamping his feet.”


I said:

However, about your comical works, Pushkin once said: ‘Behind laughter we can feel sad tears.’…. This is really felt in a short story you wrote entitled 'The Overcoat'.... concerns a simple humble scribe. His income was so small that he only had one overcoat and it had been worn for too long and was full of patches. Through various thrifts and sacrifices, which you describe comically, the scribe finally had a beautiful new robe, which he adored all the time. But one day he was robbed and the overcoat he was wearing were taken by the robbers... How tragic,... even though the story is told in comical way .....”.



“Yes,  in a certain department there was a certain official -- not a very high one, it must be allowed -- short of stature, somewhat pock-marked, red-haired, and short-sighted, with a bald forehead, wrinkled cheeks, and a complexion of the kind known as sanguine.

His family name was Bashmatchkin. This name is evidently derived from "bashmak" (shoe); but when, at what time, and in what manner, is not known. His father and grandfather, and all the Bashmatchkins, always wore boots, which only had new heels two or three times a year.


I said:

“His complete name was Akakiy Akakievitch, and it is said that he was very dedicated to his work as a scribe…”



“It would be difficult to find another man who lived so entirely for his duties. It is not enough to say that Akakiy laboured with zeal: no, he laboured with love. In his copying, he found a varied and agreeable employment. Enjoyment was written on his face: some letters were even favourites with him; and when he encountered these, he smiled, winked, and worked with his lips, till it seemed as though each letter might be read in his face, as his pen traced it. If his pay had been in proportion to his zeal, he would, perhaps, to his great surprise, have been made even a councillor of state. But he worked, as his companions, the wits, put it, like a horse in a mill.”


I said:

"Hmm, I remember that you also worked as a scribe, copying clerk..., where did you ever work like that...?"



“When I left college at nineteen and went to St. Petersburg, where I secured a position as copying clerk in a government department. He did not keep his position long, yet long enough to store away in his mind a number of bureaucratic types.”


I said:

“So those experiences are what provide material for your writings, regarding the ins and outs of bureaucracy in government, with all its depravity..."



“But, well, even though Tsar Nicholas I chuckled during the performance of 'Government Inspector', this performance had made fun of everyone.  They said, perhaps rightly, that they themselves were the targets of the satire. Naturally official Russia did not relish this innovation in dramatic art, and indignation ran high among them and their supporters. Bulgarin led the attack. Everything that is usually said against a new departure in literature or art was said against the drama. It was not original. It was improbable, impossible, coarse, vulgar; lacked plot. It turned on a stale anecdote that everybody knew. It was a rank farce. The characters were mere caricatures. ‘What sort of a town was it that did not hold a single honest soul?’

The ensuing uproar in polite society was so intense that I felt I had to flee Russia for Europe, eventually settling in Rome “


I asked: “Do you feel comfortable in Rome?”



“I adore Rome. I studied art, read Italian literature and developed a passion for opera. The religious painter Aleksandr Ivanov who worked in Rome, became my close friend, and I also met several Russian nobles who visited there, including Princess Zinaida Volkonsky, we often met. “


I asked: “Did you write a lot in Rome?”


Nikolai: “Yes, the short story ‘Overcoat’ I wrote while in Rome.  Also, most part of ‘The Dead Souls’ I wrote there.”


I said:

Oh, the novel Dead Souls, your masterpiece…. At first, I thought that the title Dead Souls was a metaphor, about Souls not caring anything, or something like that..., but it turns out the meaning is completely different. This novel tells the story of Chichikov, who you present as the hero, an accomplished imposter who, after several experiences of bad luck, wants to get rich quickly. Among his tricks he had the idea to buy dead slaves, which their deaths had not been officially recorded in the official census. So, officially they are still alive. Then, he had the idea to buy dead slaves, as if they were still alive, at a cheap price from the landowner who owned the slaves. Thus Chichikov had proof that he was a rich man who owned many slaves, which he could use to obtain capital loans from the bank. That way, he could pawn the certificate of ownership of the slaves to a bank to borrow a lot of money for capital for his agricultural business. This is something very unique, which we have never heard of, and never even thought about... how do you get idea of the story like this...?”



"I got the theme of this novel from Pushkin too, which is based on real event..."


I said:

"But, that Chichikov, whom you put forward as the hero of this story, is an imposter, he is a rascal..."



“It does not lie in me to take a virtuous character for my hero: and I will tell you why. It is because it is high time that a rest were given to the “poor, but virtuous” individual; it is because the phrase “a man of worth” has grown into a by-word; it is because the “man of worth” has become converted into a horse, and there is not a writer but rides him and flogs him, in and out of season; it is because the “man of worth” has been starved until he has not a shred of his virtue left, and all that remains of his body is but the ribs and the hide; it is because the “man of worth” is for ever being smuggled upon the scene; it is because the “man of worth” has at length forfeited every one’s respect. For these reasons do I reaffirm that it is high time to yoke a rascal to the shafts. Let us yoke that rascal.”

I said:

I remember Chichikov's father's advice to him when he was little, which he always remembered: ‘See here, my boy. Do your lessons well, do not idle or play the fool, and above all things, see that you please your teachers. So long as you observe these rules you will make progress, and surpass your fellows, even if God shall have denied you brains, and you should fail in your studies. Also, do not consort overmuch with your comrades, for they will do you no good; but, should you do so, then make friends with the richer of them, since one day they may be useful to you. Also, never entertain or treat any one, but see that every one entertains and treats YOU. Lastly, and above all else, keep and save your every kopeck. To save money is the most important thing in life. Always a friend or a comrade may fail you, and be the first to desert you in a time of adversity; but never will a KOPECK fail you, whatever may be your plight. Nothing in the world cannot be done, cannot be attained, with the aid of money.”



“More than once, while taking these walks, our hero pondered the idea of himself becoming a landowner—not now, of course, but later, when his chief aim should have been achieved, and he had got into his hands the necessary means for living the quiet life of the proprietor of an estate. Yes, and at these times there would include itself in his castle-building the figure of a young, fresh, fair-faced maiden of the mercantile or other rich grade of society, a woman who could both play and sing. He also dreamed of little descendants who should perpetuate the name of Chichikov; perhaps a frolicsome little boy and a fair young daughter, or possibly, two boys and quite two or three daughters; so that all should know that he had really lived and had his being, that he had not merely roamed the world like a spectre or a shadow; so that for him and his the country should never be put to shame. And from that he would go on to fancy that a title appended to his rank would not be a bad thing—the title of State Councillor, for instance, which was deserving of all honour and respect. Ah, it is a common thing for a man who is taking a solitary walk so to detach himself from the irksome realities of the present that he is able to stir and to excite and to provoke his imagination to the conception of things he knows can never really come to pass!”



This article is an imaginary interview in memory of Nikolai Gogol.



The Inspector General by Nikolai Gogol.

The Overcoat by Nikolai Gogol.

The Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol.

Saturday, June 15, 2024

Moscow, at Bolshoi Theatre


Bolshoi in Russian means ‘grand’, and we can capture the grandness of Bolshoi theatre from a far from Teatralnaya Ploschad (Theater Square).  The famous Apollo Quadriga, or the chariot of the gods, adorned the theater top. Apollo is depicted driving his chariot across the heavens, with four horses, delivering daylight and dispersing the night. The neoclassical façade with white pillars appeared on the Russian 100-ruble banknote and made it one of the iconic landmark of Moscow and Russia. 

The interior is even grander, after an extensive six-year renovation of around 700 million US dollars restoring it to the original imperial decoration, it reopened in 2011 with the historical hall stage of the richly adorned in red and gold décor, with huge chandeliers. The Bolshoi's return to glory includes an interior that was once paneled with rare pine and gilded by hand with real gold for the best acoustics. The theater's stage also gained a sound-reflecting¸ specifically designed for opera and ballet stage. 

The imposing home of the internationally-famed Bolshoi ballet and opera was constructed in 1824 by Osip Bove, under permission of Empress Catherine the Great to be a public theater.  For most of the last three decades the Bolshoi was led by Yuri Grigorovich, an artistic director known as much for his accomplished, classical choreography. Under Grigorovich's tenure, and graced by the presence of a series of remarkably gifted dancers, the Bolshoi's became known as one of the world's great ballet companies. 

Bolshoi Theatre became renowned all over the world for brilliant ballet dancers such as Maya Plisetskaya, Vladimir Vasiliev, Galina Ulanova, Maris Liepa. They built the theater's reputation and boosted their careers into international success. 

And the list of reputation goes on, Tchaikovsky's ballet Swan Lake premiered at the theatre in 1877. Other famous performances include Tchaikovsky's The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker,  Adolphe Adam's Giselle, Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, and Khachaturian's Spartacus. 

And the operas, Bolshoi theatre specializes in the classics of Russian opera such as Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, Glinka's A Life for the Tsar, and Rimsky-Korsakov's The Tsar's Bride, as well as the operas of Tchaikovsky. Many operas by western composers are also performed, especially works of Italian composers such as Rossini, Verdi, and Puccini. Until the mid-1990s, most foreign operas were sung in Russian, but Italian and other languages have been heard more frequently on the Bolshoi stage in recent years.

 How ‘Bolshoi’ it is …..!






Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Moscow, at the Cathedral of St. Basil


In the South of the Red Square stood a colorful cathedral with onion shape domes, it was the first time I saw such cathedral. Red bricks with white-stone ornaments mixed with vibrant swirling patterns in green, blue and red of the domes. At first look people might mistook it as a Cinderella’s castle in Disneyland. 

But it is no Disneyland fantasy, it is a church loaded with history and devotion, it is the Cathedral of St. Basil. It was built in the 16th century by order of Russian Tsar Ivan IV to fulfill his vow to have a church built for his victorious conquests of Kazan. He intended to build the church on a scale reflecting the importance of his victory of Kazan, which not only eliminated a troublesome Kazan, but also opened a vast area for colonization and trade. 

The cathedral is not one large space, it consists of 11 small churches, one of them built over the grave of St Basil. The churches are connected with the labyrinth of narrow corridors with arched roofs, beautifully decorated with colorful flower patterns symbolizing the heavenly garden. Each church looks like a vase, a narrow room with a high ceiling.  Perhaps this shape made the acoustics amazing, we can hear clearly hymns and chants sung in other room, the sound of their voices was divine. 

The cathedral of St. Basil is so impressive that legend has it that supposedly Tsar Ivan IV blinded the cathedral’s architects so that the designs of this new and impressive structure could not be replicated in any other buildings. Although this cannot be verified, it aligns with what is known of his complex personality and his severe temperament, his harsh treatment of Russian nobility, his people and servants. There are notes of his mental outbreaks, with one tragic instance, he accidentally killed his own son during an argument. Because of his cruelty and temper, he is also known as Ivan the Terrible. 

The legacy of the cathedral built to memorize Tsar Ivan IV’s victories in Kazan has been overshadowed by Basil, known as a beggar, a “Fool for Christ”, a prophetic voice of conscience clothed in rags, buried under the Cathedral. Basil and the Tzar had a complicated relationship. The strong and vicious Tsar Ivan IV did not dare to trample the beggar who stood in his way, the entire population of Moscow hung on the beggar’s every word and action, revering him as a prophet. The Tsar once showered Basil with gifts, wanting to test if Basil was tempted by wealth.  Basil accepted the gifts but promptly gave away all of them to the first needy person he met. When Basil died in 1557, the Tsar Ivan IV himself was among the pallbearers  to bring his body to its resting place: now known as the Cathedral of St. Basil. 






Saturday, March 2, 2024

Moscow, at the Red Square


For us knowing Red Square in Moscow from the Red Army parade at the square to commemorate the October Revolution it can’t be helped that our image of the Red Square is that of the Red Army, communism and blood. So, if we come there we would expect to see a cold square with monuments of Lenin, or Stalin or Marx, along with red communist propaganda posters and banners, something like that. How wrong are we. 

When we come from Ploshchad Revolyutsii metro station to the Red Square we enter through the front gate of the city from the side of Tverskaya street and Manezhnaya Square. This is the Kilometer Zero of Moscow, it has red brick color walls with white linings and two archways. In the inside of the gate there is an icon depicting the resurrection of Christ, therefore the gate is named the Resurrection Gate. Ironically the gate has been demolished and resurrected a number of times, first appeared in 1534 and was reconstructed in 1680, torn down by Stalin to make way for large-scale Soviet ceremonies in the square. The Gate was once again assembled between 1994 and 1995.

Going further, we can see a huge department store in the late 19th century Russian Architecture. It is the GUM (Glawny Uniwersalny Magasin) Department Store, occupying the majority of the Red Square’s East side flanked by Nikolskaya and Ilyinka streets. It is the largest in Russia, selling luxury goods with walls in intricate forms, with abundance of decor, composition and picturesque glass windows and roofs. But we should know that Red Square originally began as a slum, a shanty town of wooden huts clustered beneath the Kremlin walls that housed a collection of peddlers, criminals and drunks whose status left them outside the official boundaries of the medieval city. It was cleared on the orders of Ivan III at the end of the 1400's, but remained the province of the mob, the site of public executions, and rabble rousing, until much later. Today GUM stands brightly at the side of Red Square presenting itself to the locals and visitors as a noble shopping center characterised by boutiques in the upper price ranges. 

In front of the GUM Shopping Mall stands a cathedral with various colorful onion shaped cupolas, it is St Basil cathedral, the iconic building of Russia, and is probably the first image that comes to mind when people visit Russia.  The cathedral’s fame might be due to its distinctive, eccentric design, the 10 onion shaped cupolas with the vibrant clash of colors. 

At the center of the square we can see a multi-tiered pyramid building, which is Lenin Mausoleum. Made of granite and labradorite, it shows the character of the mausoleum as a monumental burial place, designed by the renowned architect Alexey Shchusev. Inside the mausoleum, the lavishly embalmed corpse of Vladimir Lenin rests in an armored glass sarcophagus. To this day, the mausoleum is open to visitors on certain days. 

The Red Square ('Krasnaya Ploschad' in Russian), is indeed dominated by the brick red color of the buildings in the square, so perhaps that is why many of us associated the Red Square name with the color of the buildings there. Many people also believe that Red Square is so named because communism and Russia are associated with the color red, even further associated with blood(shed). But, actually the word Krasnaya originally means beautiful in old Russian language but now in modern times it means ‘red’. Therefore, common assumptions that the 'Red' in Red Square referred to the red brick colour of the buildings, Communism, or even bloodshed - are misunderstood. 

The Red Square is indeed a beautiful square, with beautiful churches overshadowing the Lenin Monument, and the privately-run luxurious GUM Department Store overshadowing the socialistic way of the country. And it is a pity that the image of this square is misrepresented by the military parades of the Red Army broadcasted on television worldwide.





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