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Walking Along Moscow’s Old Arbat: Dostoyevsky vs Jagged Glass

“Dostoyevsky is the only joy in my life now.”

A common Russian man walking the streets of the now Europeanized Old Arbat of Moscow, beer in hand (ten years ago the beer was warm, now it must be cold, he perhaps is wearing “Boss” attire, and very likely carrying a cellular phone)…if he happens to drop the beer bottle, and it shatters on the sidewalk, will, if he deigns at all to even look down at it, walk on, leaving the jagged glass as it is – often enough facing up – no matter how many people may be walking there to and fro. The sharp glass shards – now laying little-noticed amidst the feet of all manner of hundreds and even thousands of passersby, including elders and children, couples and pets – will, aside from being accidentally stepped on, kicked, etc, by the crowd, remain just where it dangerously lays until the street cleaner (often an old “babushka”) responsible for that area, eventually notices it, and sweeps it up. The person – most often a male (many women in Russia are a sort of higher species) – who dropped the bottle (possibly a showy, pricey Heineken or Budweiser) will, observably, pay no further attention to “his” dropped bottle. It may even fall on a staircase crowded with people; he will make no effort to move or remove it. (Nor most often will anyone else remove it – except the person responsible to do that job in that area, when on work duty.)

Dostoyevsky vs Jagged Glass

Such a minor incident as a dropped bottle – which can be observed readily enough during the late hours of a hot summer’s (or even cold winter’s) day – allows some real insight into the average level, condition, (un-)consciousness and (in-)dependence of the common mass Russian. It is – to my American eyes at least – socially “embarrassing” for them to acknowledge and/or clean up the broken glass – they must not stand out in the crowd, and especially for a mistake… and for some it is discernibly “cool” to just ignore the fallen glass with indifference, and walk on.

Most tourists in Moscow must walk the mediocre “Old Arbat” (with its stands of standardized tourist souvenirs – including once-honored Soviet flags, its doubtful artists/art, its many uninspired and uninspiring faces of persons wearing derivative Western dress styles…), and those who have some unhurried time, might well chance to witness such a small scene, and thus possibly be able to personally ponder it as a small public revelation of the mass man’s psychology in Moscow. Individual responsibility is still very lowly developed here…just go with the crowd, even if you endanger it, or it endangers you. Not only – to my mind – are the social patterns and genetic results of life, purges, collectivism and death under Stalin and communism glimpsed in those who drop and leave the broken glass, but there are here also certainly relations of the psychology and sociology of the jagged glass to the gulag.

At a “round table discussion” of some forty serious Russian intellectuals in 1998, at a Slavophile “thick journal” office still now financially surviving in post-Soviet times on the Old Arbat, a well-known neo-Slavophile writer disagrees with me at the afternoon meeting that it is the mass Russian’s “passivity” that has them copying America culturally, socially, etc, he blaming it rather on their passing post-Soviet fascination with things once prohibited. But when Solzhenitsyn concludes the round table, he too agrees with the characterization of the “passivity” (пассивность) of the Russians: There are people who understand everything, but nothing gets done, he adds. (During the course of this singular meeting – many thousands of common Russians were strolling by, undisturbed and unaware, on the sunny Arbat outside.)

A “best” of Russia (contrasting to the broken glass) is to be noted in the quote regarding Dostoyevsky atop. It was spoken by a now rather disheartened Russophile – who is (was!) a scholar specialized in American (now Russian) literature, and who even made a journey all the way to Concord, Massachusetts and Walden Pond for Thoreau, Emerson and Emily Dickenson’s sake. Very well-read, knowledgeable, deep thinking, clever, insightful, witty, depressed…in two words: Russian intelligentsia.

I had observed this individual watching and experiencing, with initial hopes and dreams, the post-Soviet changes in the 1990s; the daily news events during this time were personal family events. Direct to soul. There hardly seemed to be any distinction between national events and personal emotions for her. As a Slavo/Russophile, she had a depressing time of it: coups/putsches, drunk Yeltsin, rigged elections, American manipulations, ruble/bank collapses, bandit/crony capitalization, Chubais and Harvard’s advisors, oligarchs, population decline, scandals by the week, contract killings, political corruption, etc.

I asked her recently (January 2003): “What do you think of the political situation here now?” “History is 5000 years of the desire for power and money”, she replied with some remaining disdain (in her self-conscious, maximalist passion). Daily – hourly! – passionate involvement with heart and mind in Russian politics and developments in the 1990s had muted through the life and death of hopes and illusions. “Dostoyevsky is the only joy in my life now”.

As Russia continues its way, anathematic to her mind and soul (she once called herself a “chronically-inflamed Slavophile”), the only antidote to its depressing direction today for her is researching and writing a large, solitary work on Dostoyevsky and American authors. Having read everything he has ever written, filling her daily life (when not distracted, in these new times, by necessary side work for $s) with his views of the world, life, man, Christianity, history, the “cursed questions”, etc – not many people would perhaps “enjoy” so living with Dostoyevsky’s world/life-view – sustains her life in “Dollar Russia” today. But she is a 1 in 10,000 person in Moscow. Yet, she is, nonetheless, one example, one aspect, of the “best” of what is still Russia today. (Rather one of the best for those who evaluate Russia in this way.)

In 1994, when I first cast myself from Northern California to Moscow, I attended a “Westernizers” round table at the Russian Academy of Science building (RAN), on the then “Lenin Hills”, concerning America and Russia. A Russian social scientist compared the intellectual-cultural characteristics of the different strata of American and Russian societies. The American “middle-class” was both larger and somewhat more highly educated than the equivalent strata in Russia. But his research regarding the upper-intellectual levels of both societies showed that those who in the USA are called “intellectuals”, though quite competent as experts, had, compared to their counterparts in Russia (what the Russians call “intelligentsia”) a much more narrow, limited, specialist knowledge. The Russian “intellectuals” generally surpassed the American intellectuals in breadth and variety of general cultural knowledge and interests. The Russian intellectuals tended to be far more well-rounded, interested and engaged with a variety of fields of knowledge…like a theoretical mathematician who knows his Shakespeare, can aptly cite from Faust, and knows what classical musical pieces, painters, writers and playwrights he most loves. Perhaps something like: intellectual vs. intelligentsia. I have over the years found these sociological conclusions to be accurate, both in relation to the USA, and of Russian society to itself.

If you take a walk on the Old Arbat in Moscow, perhaps seeing the museums-apartments of Lermontov, Pushkin, Herzen, Belyi, Tsvetayeva, Losev, et al, amongst the common strolling crowds: watch for those very rare “Dostoyevsky scholars”, but watch out also for the jagged glass.


First published in German translation in the magazine „Der Europäer“, Juni 2004 (Jahrgang 8 / Nr. 08) – Spaziergang auf Moskaus Old Arbat, Stephen Lapeyrouse 7/ 20f.