Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Muscovites Party in Spirit of Favorite Son

Alexander Pushkin is so beloved in Russia that he has been elevated to near saintly status. But to the people who came out in force to celebrate the literary legend's 200th birthday this weekend, Pushkin was more than just a saint. He was a sinner as well.

Just ask Ilya, a 26-year-old architect who attended the much-touted birthday festivities. Skating shirtless down the city's main drag, Tverskaya Ulitsa, Ilya pondered whether or not the man of the hour would have enjoyed the party Moscow threw for him.

"[Pushkin] would have had fun. He'd have had a drink, fooled around with girls. He was a person who liked to hang out," Ilya said. "He'd have gotten into a fight with someone, definitely."

After weeks of buildup, during which portraits of Pushkin along with snippets of his verse appeared on nearly every flat vertical surface in Moscow, the city served up its festival mix of commercialism, kitsch, culture and politics rivaled only by the hype around the city's 850th anniversary bash.

True to form, Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov made sure the poet's party, which he hosted, had a star-studded cast. Among the performers at a gala concert on Red Square on Sunday evening - a feast of ballet and opera based on Pushkin's prose - were Spanish tenor Placido Domingo and Mariinsky Theater star Galina Goncharova. The two sang German and Liza's duet from "The Queen of Spades," an opera based on a Pushkin story. Luzhkov also got into the act, singing a duet with pop star Oleg Gazmanov.

"You'd have to ask him [Pushkin], but I think he'd be pleased," Luzhkov said after the concert.

Moscow festivities centered around central city squares, with pop stars appearing on Ploshchad Revolyutsii and Manezh Square, meters from the Kremlin. Just up the street, outside the mayor's office, a band dressed in military uniforms from Pushkin's era played as the Bronze Horseman, Pushkin's Petersburg epic, was recited. And on Pushkin Square, opera, orchestral and folk music performances went on throughout the day, with the bard's verse amplified across the city in between acts.

Yura Tolstovsheyev, 22, a streetsweeper hired for the festival, offered a few lines from Pushkin's "Demons," which he heard in snatches as he worked.

"I'm really enjoying the poetry," he said.

In the Hermitage Gardens, an old fashioned "Pushkin Ball" drew partygoers in rented period costumes for music, belly dancing, and African music - a tribute to Pushkin's Ethiopian great-grandfather.

Also featured were a tea ceremony, palm readings, and billiards - all reputed favorite earthly pastimes of Pushkin.

Profiting on the poet's birthday, vendors sold beer, books, and handicrafts under white plastic awnings. Some sold Pushkin coffee mugs and key chains. Others wandered the streets selling pinwheels and balloons, but the connection to Pushkin was not clear.

But for the partygoers, kitsch did not rule, poetry did. And the party lasted long after the stars went home.

At 1 a.m., work brigades were busy cleaning up after the party, and streetsweepers had chased away the last of the revelers off the city's central squares, spraying powerful jets of water.

But at the flower-laden base of the monument on Pushkin Square, Stas, reeking of alcohol and nursing a cut on his forehead, was reading enthusiastically from Pushkin's "The Talisman." A student, an actor, and a pensioner all jockeyed for attention from a crowd of fifty onlookers.

It was just the kind of party Fyodor Konkov, a pensioner who works for the Orthodox Church, had wished for.

"Let the people come and glorify Pushkin by reading his poems," said Konkov, who offered a few lines of Pushkin's "The Prophet" as he hung around Pushkin's monument Saturday. "It's better people read the poems themselves, even with mistakes. They don't have to be prizewinners. It's important that they glorify the greatest of poets."

"The rest is officialdom," he added.

Indeed, the "official" aspect of the party was as pervasive as Pushkin's verse. And the same criticism that plagued Moscow during the run-up to its 850th anniversary celebrations rang true for the poet's birthday as well: that Mayor Luzhkov, who apparently hankers after the presidency, is using bread and circus measures to lure voters to his side.

Luzhkov could not help but use the party for his own political agenda. At the opening of the brand-new Cafe Pushkin, he took a jab at former Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko. Kiriyenko recently announced his plans to replace Luzhkov as Moscow mayor.

Luzhkov's antics, together with Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin's appearance at Pushkin's family estate of Mikhailovskoye, made Pushkin's birthday the major political event of the day.

But for the true believers, kitsch and politics couldn't ruin the party.

"A lot of dollars and rubles were spent on this. ... Sometimes a ruble's worth of effort gives you a kopek's worth of results. Of course, we'd like to be sad about this, but we won't," said Andrei Tselishchyev, executive director of the nongovernmental Moscow Pushkin Academy. "The festive mood depends on us."