Pre-revolutionary Russia may have been tough, but for Arkady Ostrovsky it can't be beaten for art, ideas and fiery politics ...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, November/December 2011
“The Devil took me to be born in Russia,” wrote Alexander Pushkin. Finding a time to live in these parts without being tortured, killed, starved or repressed is hard. If you want peace and quiet it is the wrong place. But for excitement, ideas, political turmoil and great art, the time to be born was the mid-1870s. Serfdom had been abolished and the economic and cultural boom of 1890-1900 was still to come.
A new class of entrepreneurs would soon transform big cities like Moscow. Art Nouveau mansions were replacing the nondescript architecture of the 1860s. Jews were still confined to the pale of settlement and denied higher education, but being born into a professor’s family, I would be exempt from these restrictions. We would occupy a large apartment just behind the main building of the Imperial Moscow University where my father would teach biology. (Ivan Pavlov would come for dinner.) But I would be more interested in theatre than in science.
As a boy, I would spend hours in the Hermitage Gardens, spellbound by its fireworks, tightrope walkers and theatrical extravaganzas such as “The forests of India, on the shores of the Ganges, in the land of white elephants”. Against my parents’ wishes, I would enrol in the Philharmonic Society. Upon graduation, I would join the Moscow Art Theatre, started in 1898, after an 18-hour discussion, by my teacher Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko and a rich young amateur director, Konstantin Alekseev, better known as Stanislavsky. I would play a small part in a new play by the husband of my classmate Olga Knipper—Anton Chekhov.
I would make a pilgrimage to Leo Tolstoy (above) at Yasnaya Polyana and maybe even get a cup of tea with the great man. His death at a remote railway station in 1910 would feel like an earthquake. And so would the death of one of the theatre’s patrons, Savva Morozov, who financed Lenin’s newspaper and killed himself in the south of France in 1905. In October 1917, Lenin would come to power as a result of the Bolshevik coup. I would hear the shooting outside the Moscow Art Theatre and see the wounded carried into the foyer on stretchers. Many of my peers would embrace the revolution, some seeing it as part of a tectonic shift, others eyeing the enormous artistic opportunities it offered—constructivist architecture being just one example.
In 1918, while on tour through the south of Russia and Ukraine, I would get cut off from the Bolsheviks by the White Army and would travel through the still-free Tiflis (Tbilisi) and then on to Istanbul and London, where I would hope to end my days.
Arkady Ostrovsky is the Moscow correspondent of The Economist, and one of the translators of Tom Stoppard's "The Coast of Utopia" and "Rock'n'Roll".
What do you think was the best time, and place, to be alive? Are you persuaded by Arkady Ostrovsky; or by Patrick Dillon, who argued for London in the 1690s? Have your say by voting in our online poll.
Picture credit: Alamy