Moscow on My Mind

Some thoughts on Fitzgerald, Tolstoy, and the war in Ukraine.

Moscow on My Mind

Maybe it was reading The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald. Or my recent correspondence with a Russian-to-English translator. But Moscow — as I knew it 30 years ago, when my husband and I, together with our three children, lived there on diplomatic assignment — has been on my mind.

With The Beginning of Spring, Fitzgerald did the seemingly impossible: wrote a very British novel with authentic Russian flavor. And she did it with such economy. In the 1980s, she visited Moscow during Perestroika, but she set the book in 1913, at a different time of political upheaval. Reading it took me right back to dacha visits and silver birch trees, street peddlers and overnight trains, to the sepia tones of a Soviet winter.

When we lived there in the early 1990s, there was no neon, no commercial-store frontage, and hardly a billboard in sight. So, it was easy to picture the city of a hundred years before — the Moscow of Tolstoy, for instance.

One of Fitzgerald’s characters is a disciple of Tolstoy, and his Moscow home features in the novel. When I visited it, nobody else was there but me and my Russian guide. We stood at the gate to his garden, where Tolstoy once chopped wood and where the family skating rink had been.

We entered the house through the breakfast room, with its old cuckoo clock, its table and chairs, and its mahogany chest crammed with blue-and-white china. In the bedroom where Tolstoy’s favorite son died at the age of 7, religious icons hung in the corners. After the loss of that child, the family was never the same. A two-day illness, and he was gone.

My guide explained how Tolstoy came up with the character of Anna Karenina. It was seeing Pushkin’s daughter with a dark curl of hair at the nape of her neck. He said to himself, “That will be my character.”

Tolstoy’s study was in the back of the house. I saw the boots he made when he decided he wanted to be a shoemaker. I saw his bicycle and his woolen socks.

There was an enormous bear on the landing of the front staircase, which led to an ornate living room crammed with bric-a-brac, plush upholstered divans, and brocade curtains. Two docents in grey tunics sat on wooden chairs. They brightened when they saw us, as though surprised at the intrusion. Then one went to the mantelpiece and turned on a tape recorder there.

Suddenly, Tolstoy’s deep, clear voice filled the room. He was talking to children and warning them to do their studies and not waste time in idleness. It felt so immediate, but he couldn’t have foreseen the political upheaval awaiting those children and the myriad challenges they’d face.

Several months later, I took a day trip to the Tolstoy estate Yasnaya Polyana, bringing along my 8-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son. Our tour bus paused the journey in Tula, where we were urged to purchase some dry, tasteless cakes. They were considered a confection not to be missed.

We’d almost arrived at Yasnaya Polyana when our guide announced that the house was closed. We’d only be permitted to walk around outside. I could hardly believe it!

But in the end, there was plenty to see. We walked up the sweeping driveway lined with silver birch trees and lakes. Silver birches, with their mystical quality, are symbolic of Mother Russia and, incidentally, figure prominently in The Beginning of Spring.

Several farm laborers worked the land with hand tools. They were likely the grandchildren of the peasants Tolstoy had so admired for their closeness to the earth and to nature.

We walked to the house and stood on the veranda. At Chekhov’s Moscow residence, I’d seen photographs of Tolstoy and Chekhov on this porch with a samovar between them. In one picture, Chekhov was laughing at something Tolstoy was telling him. And here I was, in the same spot with my children, and nobody else was around us.

We finished by taking the forest paths to where Tolstoy is buried in a pauper’s grave — a simple mound covered in grass. Eighty-three years had passed since his death, but the immediacy and impact of his life was palpable. Although so much had changed, the pain and passion of Russia lived and breathed in the landscape. I wonder what it feels like there today.

Which brings me to my recent correspondence with translator Olga Dumer. A few years back, I recorded one of her Boris Pasternak translations on my podcast, “Read Me a Poem.” Now, she was contacting me with more recent work: translations of poems by Veronika Tushnova. Dumer said that like many Russians, she felt nothing but shame and anger over the war in Ukraine. She had translated poetry for years but lately could only bring herself to translate war poetry.

Tushnova served as a doctor in military hospitals during the Second World War. One of her poems talks about carrying her child into an air-raid shelter, waiting out the night there, and in the morning, watching children run to collect shrapnel on the streets. Once, this was the Russian experience; today, it’s the Ukrainian one.

So, with thoughts of Ukraine, let me finish by recommending a new anthology, In the Hour of War, a collection of contemporary Ukrainian poetry. It includes work by former Soviet dissidents, as well as by those born in an independent Ukraine. In the words of its editors, Carolyn Forché and Ilya Kaminsky, “It includes soldier poets, rock-star poets, poets who write in more than one language, poets whose hometowns have been bombed and who have escaped to the West.”

One poem by Anastasia Afanasieva, translated by Katie Ferris and Kaminsky, includes an explanatory note that the poem “begins in Russian and ends in Ukrainian — as a gesture of the poet’s refusal to continue writing in the language of the occupier.”

Above all, this is the poetry of a people who, like their Russian neighbors, have for generations been deeply connected to their homeland.

Amanda Holmes Duffy, author of the novel I Know Where I Am When I’m Falling, is a book-club facilitator for Fairfax County Public Library and hosts the weekly podcast Read Me a Poem for the American Scholar.

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