Although Vladimir Giliarovskii wrote one of the most famous books in the Russian language, Moskva i moskvichi (1926; Moscow and the Muscovites), he is conspicuous by his absence from most standard histories of Russian literature published in the West. This may well be because most of his prose work falls on the boundary between the short story and the journalistic sketch (ocherk), a genre much used in 19th-century Russia, notably by Giliarovskii’s friend the populist writer Gleb Uspenskii. Giliarovskii himself made a clear distinction between the two: “Reporting trained me to give only the filtered truth, to discern the essence of the matter immediately and to write about it briefly. The pictorial and psychological material which remained within me I used for belles-lettres and poetry.” However, the distinction is not so clearcut. Common to both his fiction and his sketches is a strong autobiographical element. As he says in his preface to Liudi teatra
(1941; Theater people): “I simply take people, events, pictures, as I remember them, and serve them up in wholly inviolable form, without any sauces or garnishments.” Whether he is describing a dramatic event—the fire at the Morozov factory in Orekhovo-Zuevo, the disastrous crush on Khodynka field during the coronation of Nicholas II in 1896, or a catastrophic train crash at Kukuevka—or whether he is describing a personality, famous or humble, it is always from direct personal experience. He was known as the “king of reporters” and went to extraordinary lengths to get his story firsthand.
The enduring popularity of Moskva i moskvichi can be ascribed at least partly to nostalgia. Though the book appeared in Soviet times, it recorded the Moscow of the turn of the century. When that Moscow began to disappear as Stalin ruthlessly reshaped the topography of the city, the popularity of both the aged Giliarovskii and his book increased. It is a book about places rather than people: 22 of the 31 sketches have topographical names, some specific (“Sukharevka,” “Lubianka”), others more general, such as “Bani” (Bathhouses) or “Traktiry” (Taverns). The colorful characters who inhabit Giliarovskii’s landscape, ranging from a man who gave his wife a crocodile as a wedding present to a man who sold pastries filled with cockroaches, are all viewed externally with no attempt at psychological investigation. The places described by Giliarovskii are those which the respectable middle-class readership of the journals for which he wrote would never have visited: low taverns, brothels, doss houses, disreputable markets, and thieves’ dens. In one sketch, “Tainy Neglinki” (Secrets of the Neglinka) the author even explores the Neglinka River, which flows under the city and was its main sewer.
The sketches have something in common with Maksim Gor’kii’s stories Po Rusi (1928; Through Russia), but Giliarovskii’s descriptions are never those of a dispassionate observer. Rather they are marked by a zest, a sense of involvement, a sense of compassion for the myriad of Muscovites who passed their lives in drudgery and humiliation, a sense of enjoyment, and above all, a fearless directness, stemming from his famously intrepid approach to life, which other writers do not match. His prose reads as if meant to be read out loud. Indeed in the preface to Liudi teatra, he refers to his readers as “listeners” with whom he conducts “intimate chats.” This gives his work a theatrical quality, no doubt derived from Giliarovskii’s own experiences as a provincial actor, his friendship with, among others, Anton Chekhov and the actress Maria Ermolova, and his lifelong fascination with the theater. His theatricality includes a strong whiff of the melodramatic, with sketches bearing such lurid titles as “Iama” (The pit), and references to places known as “Dom uzhasov” (The house of horrors) and “Ad” (Hell).
Giliarovskii is quite capable of what would now probably be described as “tabloid journalism.” When, for example, in “Dva kruzhka” (Two clubs) he concentrates on the more picturesque aspects of Moscow club life, he admits that he did not “describe in detail their useful social and educational activity…because our readers find more interesting that side of life which, even while the clubs existed, was shrouded in secrecy, which concealed the true source of the wealth on which the ‘social activity’ of these clubs was based.” Yet, for all their lurid and sometimes barely credible detail—a centenarian actor who drank 20 glasses of vodka a day, a waiter whose ability to pocket tips destined for a common pool made his name a byword for the practice—Giliarovskii’s eyewitness testimony establishes the veracity of these stories.
Giliarovskii repeated the formula so successful in Moskva i moskvichi in two of the three books he wrote during the last decade of his life (both of which were published posthumously), Liudi teatra and Gazetnaia Moskva (1960; Newspaper Moscow). In a preface to Moskva i moskvichi, written in 1956 and much reprinted, Konstantin Paustovskii, with great perception, discerns Giliarovskii’s position on the boundary between journalism and the great Russian tradition of belles-lettres, describing “Uncle Giliai” as “one of those people without whom literature cannot exist.” Unfortunately, while Russian literature has found a worldwide audience through translations, Giliarovskii has been wrongly considered so archetypally Russian that no English translation of his work has been attempted.
Vladimir Alekseevich Giliarovskii. Born 8 December 1853 in Vologda province. Studied at Vologda gymnasium; Junkers’ School, Moscow. Traveled around Russia, 1871–81, working variously in factories, as a firefighter, barge hauler, and actor: published occasional articles on his experiences, from 1873; volunteer in the Russo-Turkish War, 1877–78. Moved to Moscow, 1881; journalist, contributing to various newspapers and journals, including Russkaia Gazeta (Russian gazette), Sovremennye Izvestiia (Contemporary news), Budil’nik (Alarm clock), Moskovskii Listok (Moscow broadsheet), Oskolki (Splinters), Russkie Vedomosti (Russian news), and Kur’er (The courier).
Married M.I.Murzina, 1884. Died in Moscow, 1 October 1935.
Essays and Related Prose
Trushchobnye liudi (People of the slums), 1887 (censored); reprinted 1927
Moskva i moskvichi, 1926; edited by N.V.Giliarovskii, 1955; edition with introduction by Konstantin Paustovskii, 1968
Moi skitaniia (My wanderings), 1928
Zapiski moskvicha (Muscovite sketches), 1931
Druz’ia i vstrechi (Friends and encounters), 1934
Liudi teatra, 1941
Gazetnaia Moskva, 1960
Rasskazy i ocherki (Essays and sketches), 1988
Other writings: poetry and short stories.
Collected works editions: Sochineniia, 4 vols., 1967, and 2 vols., 1994.
Esin, B.I., Reportazhi V.A.Giliarovskogo, Moscow: Izd-vo Moskovskogo Universiteta, 1985
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