Where little Fyodor played

Stephen Greenblatt

The small dacha in Peredelkino outside Moscow where Boris Pasternak lived for several years and where in 1960 he died is now a museum. It was there that the Writer’s Union representative took us – a group of jet-lagged American journal editors – on the first afternoon of our recent visit. The books and the furniture and the grand piano and the drawings by his father Leonid, all of which had been carted off after Pasternak’s death, when the dacha was unceremoniously assigned to another writer, have been brought back, and the poet who had been expelled by the Writer’s Union in the wake of the publication of Doctor Zhivago, is now given culture’s highest tribute – museumification. This means a woman at a desk, tearing tickets printed on cheap paper; another woman with a feather duster and an expression of unutterable boredom; and a voluble young man with mad eyes who conducts a tour. He shows us the drawing-room, the dining-room, the small bedroom where Pasternak died. A framed reproduction of his father’s portrait of Tolstoy hangs on the wall; on the bed lies a wilted bouquet of flowers, a reminder of the thousands of mourners who showed up to pay their last respects, lining up for three days on the lanes that ran through the birch woods, even though there had been only the smallest death notice in the newspapers and though public expressions of grief were not, to put it mildly, encouraged.

Upstairs, we are shown the desk where Pasternak wrote – always the climax of a visit to a writer’s museum and always the point for me at which the futility of such places is most overwhelming. If you go to Monet’s Giverney, the nature of his brushes and paints, the equipment he devised to move his canvases to the scenes he wished to paint, the quality of the light, and the forms and colours of the surrounding landscape, are all deeply, intimately relevant to the understanding of the paintings. Indeed the landscape in this case was self-consiously shaped by the artist’s aesthetic, made to look like a Monet painting so that Monet could paint it. But it is only in the rarest of instances that a writer’s house discloses anything so immediately pertinent to the achievements that have brought one there in homage or curiosity.

The great poet’s desk appears to be a desk like many other desks. But standing before it the young guide rouses himself to a pitch of panegyrical eloquence and says that he will now recite some verses by Pasternak. He does not wish to have these verses translated: we should just listen. Looking at us with his half-mad eyes and gesturing at the birch trees swaying in the wind, he chants the poem and then is silent for a moment. If we grasp the untranslatability of the lines, he resumes in a histrionic whisper, we will understand why Pasternak never emigrated from Russia.

What are we being told? That Pasternak’s poetry is essentially different from the poetry of Shakespeare or Goethe or Rilke which Pasternak himself translated? That Pasternak was not a Jewish cosmopolitan but a true Russian, the possessor of a Slavic soul that would sicken and die away from its homeland? Or that many Russians are asking themselves, at this immensely difficult and confusing moment, why they should not emigrate or at least dream of emigration? Pasternak was told that he could go to Stockholm to accept the Nobel Prize but only on condition that he never again return to the USSR. Perhaps his example – he refused to leave the motherland, remaining instead at Peredelkino, working at that desk, looking at those birch trees – sustains the people who now visit the dacha. Perhaps that is what the museum is actually meant to commemorate.

I talked about emigration on a walk later that afternoon with the young interpreter, Misha, who had been assigned to our group. He knew a great many Jews who had left Russia for Israel, he said, but they misrepresented their motives. It was not for fear of anti-semitism and certainly not for religious reasons. They knew nothing of Judaism: they couldn’t speak Hebrew or Yiddish, did not wear the little hats, did not eat special foods. They left for ‘economical advancement’. I said that any identity – and perhaps Jewish identity in particular – was difficult to connect securely to a set of practices; it was often more elusive and at the same time more tenacious. All these people had of Jewish identity, Misha said, was that it was written on their passports. ‘Don’t misunderstand,’ he continued, ‘I don’t resent anyone leaving for economical reasons: I just don’t think it should be represented as a matter of identity.’

We had been walking through a cemetery – each of the graves carefully demarcated by a wrought-iron enclosure, as if to insist in death on the private property abolished for the living, the gravestones all with photographs enamelled to their surfaces, so that in effect one passes through an exhibition of the faces of the dead possessors of the tiny landed estates – and we arrived at a small Russian Orthodox church. Inside there were three weddings being performed together: to the chanting of the priests and congregants, the brides and grooms walked in procession with crowns held above their heads. Before the iconostasis they were led by the officiating priest to the principal icon, which they solemnly kissed; each was then presented with another framed image which they once again kissed. I noticed that Misha crossed himself.

After the Revolution, most of the Soviet Union’s thousands of churches were closed and allowed to fall into neglect, or turned into warehouses and small factories, or pulled down. A small number were turned into museums, either for the display of non-religious are objects – as is the case with the exquisite Late-Medieval church near the Writers’ Union in which I saw a dreary exhibition of mediocre sports posters – or for the display of the very church furnishings that had once served ritual functions. We are accustomed to such display, since our fine arts museums and ethnography collections are filled with ritual paraphernalia, emblems of divinity, objects of veneration that have now been framed, encased, mounted, labelled, and set out for scientific study and aesthetic contemplation. There is probably always some small element of demystification in any such display, no matter how respectful, for if museums function as honorifics, as in the case of Pasternak, they also function as emblems of containment and control. Museums are often the signs of a buried fear, of anxiety enfolded by pleasure. This is possibly true even in the case of Pasternak’s dacha, where the Writers’ Union tries now to absorb what it had once tried to expel, but it is certainly true of religion, which is, after all, a rather more dangerous force than poetry, even in Russia. To make icons into museum objects was to turn them into works of art, to neutralise them through the cultivation of disinterested appreciation, to demonstrate that they had lost their charisma, to value them only and specifically as human achievements. And to turn the churches into museums for the display of these achievements – to preserve a small number of the buildings as works of art enclosing works of art – was to double and redouble the ideological triumph, since the once-sacred precincts would now be removed from any possibility of misuse and dedicated not to ritual but to reason.

The couples who were solemnly kissing the icon in the small church at Peredelkino – a church that may only recently have opened again, along with hundreds of others – were not interested in aesthetic quality; they were enacting a ritual practice mocked in 1922 by Mayakovsky in one of his so-called ‘Agitpoems’, written for Soviet newspapers:

And while Filthyface
      sticks out his dirty lips,
from his lips
         to the ikon
                a bacillus plied –

malignant –
 which, after a very brief kip,
began to multiply ...

Peasants, if you can’t draw
   the conclusion yourself
here it is:
  at ikons don’t gawk and gasp,
don’t lick with your lips
         holy images filth,
don’t be a Christ-kisser ...

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