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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Culture of Apocrypha

Fyodor Dostoevsky originally contemplated a career as a soldier. As a student at the Military Engineering School in St. Petersburg, he presented a design in his graduation show for a building with no doors. Emperor Nicholas I, who was honorary chairman of the graduation committee and prided himself on being a practical man, took one look at the draft and exclaimed, "Who is the fool who forgot the door?" A shamed Dostoevsky retired from the army and soon became a writer.

This literary anecdote sprang to mind while reading a new bestseller, Culture Two (Kultura Dva). In the book, professor Vladimir Paperny compares old culture -- Culture One -- as it existed in Russia during the first third of the 20th century, with Culture Two, which was dictated by Stalin's regime in the Soviet Union between 1932 and 1954.

Paperny retells the celebrated anecdote about how the Hotel Moskva got its asymmetrical facade. As the story goes, distinguished architect Alexei Shchusev, famed for creating Lenin's mausoleum, was asked to design a hotel. He duly drafted two versions of the facade on one sheet of paper which was submitted to Stalin for approval. The Soviet tsar signed the paper in the middle of the sheet and nobody dared to question him. So the Moskva was built with two different facades.

This story may be apocryphal, but that does not matter. What is important, Paperny argues, is the fact that this episode acquired mythical status in a culture which had lost touch with reality. So the story is true to the society, if not true in itself.

"Culture Two" draws deeply on historical anecdotes such as this one, and Paperny combines shrewd observations and sophisticated analysis to create a compelling and readable cultural history of the period.

Published by Novoye Literaturnoye Oboreniye in an illustrated, hardcover edition, the book is available for the ruble equivalent of $7 at all good intellektualny bookstores.