“The snow slightly glows and pleases the eye:” Classic writers on Moscow winter

December 31, 2020

Let’s open various letters and journals written by Russian classical masters and find out what they dreamt of, why they were sad or what frightened them when they looked at the falling snow, leafless branches and well-clad people.

Pushkin thinks about beauty

“How did you pluck up the courage to write this? What made you think that I stayed in Nizhny Novgorod because of that wretched Princess Golitsyna? Have you taken a look at this Princess Golitsyna? She is as fat as your entire family put together, including me” (from a letter to Natalya Goncharova, 2 December 1830)

Alexander Pushkin wrote this letter to his fiancée Natalya Goncharova on 2 December 1830, several days before his long-awaited return to Moscow after having spent three months at his Boldino estate where he had been quarantined due to an outbreak of cholera. He was looking forward to going back to his happy family life with the woman whose parents he had tried so hard to win over.

Vladimir Gau. Portrait of Natalya Pushkina. Fragment. 1843

While they were apart, the poet constantly sent her letters full of love, tenderness and care; and sometimes also irony: once Pushkin asked his fiancée jokingly whether she had married someone else while he was away. Natalya took his joke seriously and accused him of remaining in Boldino because of Avdotya Golitsyna who he sometimes visited. Goncharova, like all Pushkin’s friends, knew that between 1817 and 1820 he was in love with this beautiful princess.

As an excuse, the poet spoke badly about her appearance as if forgetting that just 10 years earlier he had spent every night in the salon of Princesse Nocturne, as people used to call Golitsyna, and dedicated passionate poems to her. Perhaps he did not even try to hide this. In the 1830s a lot of those who knew the princess noted sadly that she was no longer so lovelyl. Golitsyna did not miss this though: she was much more interested in maths, philosophy and literature than fashionable visits to ballrooms.

Orest Kiprensky. Portrait of Alexander Pushkin. Fragment. 1827

However, it looks like Pushkin used to think a lot about evanescent beauty in December 1830: both his own and others’. Once he returned to Moscow he wrote to his friend, officer Nikolai Alekseyev:

 “You write that you’ve grown old, my eternally young friend; I would like to see your bald head and wrinkles; perhaps you wouldn’t recognise me either: I grew sideburns, had a haircut, settled down, became flabby - but that's fine - I have been promised, my soul, indeed promised, and I will marry! and I will certainly let you know what married life is like (from a letter to Nikolai Alekseyev, 26 December 1830)

Gogol awaits spring

“If only you knew how hard my life is here, in my homeland! I cannot but wait for spring, when it’s time to leave for my Rome, to my paradise, where I will once again feel fresh and bright like I don’t feel here” (from a letter to Mikhail Maksimovich, 10 January 1840)

This letter was addressed to Mikhail Maksimovich, philologist, historian, poet, rector of the Emperor Kiev University, who was Gogol’s pen friend. Gogol enjoyed living in Italy but had to visit Russia for business in the winter of 1839/1840. He had to arrange the lives of his sisters Anna and Yelizaveta who had just graduated from the Patriotic Institute in St Petersburg and didn’t know what to do next. Their loving brother decided to move them to Moscow.

Day and night he missed Rome and dreamt of returning there as soon as possible, imagining the sunlit landscapes of the Eternal City instead of the winter in Moscow. Eating Italian food helped him survive the time he had to wait until his next trip: Gogol could cook excellent pasta and demanded the same from all his friends’ chefs.

Fyodor Moller. Portrait of Nikolai Gogol. Fragment. 1841

Among others, Gogol impacted on the kitchen of Pavel Nashchokin: a philanthropist who blew through his money, one of the most well known Moscow weirdos. It is believed that he was the prototype of the spending landowner Khlobuev from Gogol's Dead Souls. Nashchokin often asked his chef to prepare ravioli (Italian small envelops of pasta filled with meat, cheese and vegetables) when he expected a visit from Gogol.

 “…Speaking about me and my sisters, I will be there. I only have the same request: please do not feed us too much. Cook ravioli, and this will be enough; so that we will still look like bipeds after dinner” (from a letter to Pavel Nashchokin, second half of December 1839)

Maria Gogol-Yanovskaya, “dearest mama,” regularly received post from her son. In one of the letters, Nikolai invited her to visit Moscow assuring her he would help her to enjoy the city.

“…I am quite  sure that you will come to see us in Moscow while we have winter road conditions and it is easy to travel all the way here and back” (from a letter to Maria Gogol-Yanovskaya, 25 December 1840)

The writer begs her to find money for a ticket: unfortunately he can’t help her but will try to find money for a ticket back. “I admit I would like you to see Moscow. You would enjoy it, and  the trip would entertain you,” he writes.

“I have not yet fully recovered; I tire easily and cannot go about my business like I want to, and, what’s more, I have encountered a lot of unexpected and unpredicted obstacles” (from a letter to Maria Gogol-Yanovskaya, 29 December 1841)

After finishing his business in Moscow, Gogol returned to Italy. In September 1841, he came back once again, carrying the manuscript of Dead Souls Volume One to present it to his publishers. However, his visit lasted longer than he had planned due to the unexpected obstacles he wrote about. The typography of the Moscow University started printing Dead Souls even before obtaining permission, fully convinced that it would be granted. But the censors were flatly refusing to let his book be published.

In order to lift the ban, Gogol had to use all his connections and ask his most influential friends to come to his rescue, such as publisher Vladimir Odoyevsky and Sovremennik’s Editor-in-Chief Pyotr Pletnev. In 1842, the book was released under the title “The Wanderings of Chichikov, or Dead Souls. Poema by Nikolai Gogol” minus one of the chapters.

Turgenev thinks about puppies

“I am alone in my room; it is very late; the moon is shining wonderfully; the snow is slightly glowing and is pleasing to look at. Diana is with me; she got rather fat and, if it pleases God, will give birth to puppies in less than a month. They will look just like her, because I found her a friend in appearance exactly like her and known for his talents” (from a letter to Pauline Viardot, December 1850)

In this touching manner Ivan Turgenev told his old friend Pauline Viardot about his favourite hunting dog that he adored. A bit later he reported that there were seven puppies. The writer spoke with tenderness and pride about the ferocity with which the young mother protected her babies: "She stares people out... Except for me no one dares even approach her."

Ilya Repin. Portrait of Ivan Turgenev. Fragment. 1874

Things were looking up for him in the winter of 1850. His play Bachelor was staged successfully at two theatres at the same time: the Alexander’s Theatre in St Petersburg and the Maly Theatre in Moscow. The great Mikhail Shchepkin played one of the roles in the play, which delighted Turgenev.

“I did not write you on Saturday or on Sunday; I felt weary and in a rather  stupid mood. Today my play is being performed again; here drama performances are given only thrice a week. I hope to go riding today; the weather is absolutely gorgeous. Diana’s puppies have finally opened their eyes; they are very funny, very adorable and very healthy” (from a letter to Pauline Viardot, January 1851)

The happy winter’s joy was soon overshadowed by illness and general bad health: the writer had “catarrh and quite a temperature” making him have to take to his bed for four days preventing him from leaving for St Petersburg.

Tolstoy hunts a bear

In the winter of 1857 Leo Tolstoy got incredibly bored: he did not like the Moscow society and complained to writer Vasily Botkin who was his pen friend. The letter was written ahead of Tolstoy’s foreign trip: he wanted to go to Paris.

“I have been living here and still have another unbearable eight days to go completely against my wish. I visit the homes of people and go to balls here; it would have been fun if it were not for the smart society who thoroughly exhaust me. Nice people and women sit in the same room; but there is no way I could get to them because someone smart catches you by a button and tells you something. Dancing is the only salvation; I started dancing, however strange this may seem to you” (from a letter to Vasily Botkin, 20 January 1857)

Ilya Repin. Portrait of Leo Tolstoy. Fragment. 1887

This is what Leo Tolstoy wrote in his journal on 25 December 1858: “I came to Moscow with children. Re-pawning failed. I need money everywhere. I went on a bear hunt; on 21 I killed a bear, on 22 we went again and a bear bit me. I have got through an awful lot of money.”

His close friend, Afanasy Fet, told him about Stepan Gromek a fearless hunter. Tolstoy got interested and asked the poet to introduce him to the hunter and then simply asked to go hunting with him. The brave count said he wanted to hunt bears.

The hunt for which they went to Vyshny Volochyok from Moscow almost resulted in a tragedy: a sow Leo Tolstoy wounded became furious and attacked him. A member of his group, a hunter called Ostashkov, made the beast go away. The writer got two small scars on his brow to remember the hunt by and described this event in a children’s story “The Wish Is Stronger Than Bondage.”

Source: mos.ru

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