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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Muscovites Wax Poetic For Love of Their City

Most of the more astute readers of this column have already noticed that Moscow is in the midst of celebrating its 850th birthday. This seems like a good moment to reflect on this huge, noisy, dirty, frustrating city which -- despite everything -- we can't help but love. As the poet Mikhail Lermontov wrote: "Moskva ne est' obyknovennyi bol'shoi gorod, kakikh tysyacha/ Net! U neyo est' svoya dusha, svoya zhizn'/ Kazhdyi eyo kamen' khranit nadpis'/ Kak u okeana, u neyo est' svoi yazyk" ("Moscow is not an ordinary large city like thousands of others. She has her own soul, her own life. Every stone has its own inscription. Like the ocean, Moscow has its own language").


Or, in the words of a more modern poet, Vladimir Mayakovsky: "Ya khotel by zhit' i umeret' v Parizhe, yesli b ne bylo takoi zemli, Moskva" ("I would want to live and die in Paris if there weren't such a place as Moscow").


Like most foreigners in Moscow, I waver between extremes of love and hate in my attitude toward Moscow. But when I am away, I scan the papers for tidbits about Moscow and I get upset that no one there seems to care about what is going on here. I am, I guess, like Pushkin (who was born in Moscow): "Kak chasto v gorestnoi razluke, / V moei bluzhdayushchei sud'be, / Moskva, ya dumal o tebe" (How often during my sorrowful separation, / In my wandering fate, / Have I thought about you, Moscow).


Of all the writers who ever laid eyes on Moscow, the one who knew and loved the city best was Vladimir Gilyarovsky. If you want to do one thing to celebrate Moscow's 850th birthday, read his classic book "Moskva i Moskvichi" (Moscow and the Muscovites), which has been republished to mark the anniversary. Gilyarovsky wrote poetically about the last days of the "old" Moscow, before Stalin and his ilk straightened the streets and tore down the old.


His description of Moscow in transition sounds as if it could have been written today: "Na pyostrom fone khorosho znakomogo mne proshlogo ya vizhu rastushchuyu ne po dnyam, a po chasam novuyu Moskvu. Ona shiritsya, stremitsya vverkh i vniz, v nevedomuyu dosele stratosferu i v podzemnye glubiny metro." ("Against the motley background of the well-familiar past, I see a new Moscow sprouting up not day by day, but hour by hour. She is expanding and striving both upwards and downward, into the as yet unknown reaches of the stratosphere and into the underground depths of the metro.")


I like to think that someday, if I live here long enough and read enough Gilyarovsky, I will be able to say, as Lermontov did: "Moskva, Moskva! Lyublyu tebya kak syn, kak russkii -- sil'no, plamenno i nezhno! (Moscow, Moscow! I love you like a son, like a Russian -- strongly, passionately and tenderly).