Sunday, 26 January 2014

Russian classic ‘Moscow and Muscovites’ gets its first English translation

"Moskva i Moskvichi" ("Moscow and Muscovites") is perhaps the most iconic book ever written about the city - and over three quarters of a century after its debut, it's been translated into English for the first time. First published in 1926, the book is a rollicking trip through Moscow in the last decades of tsarist rule. Author Vladimir Gilyarovsky chronicles elite restaurants and raunchy taverns, earnest students and hardened criminals, with the lively aplomb that earned him the nickname "Uncle Gilya." Gilyarovsky was born in 1855 outside Vologda. He worked as a Volga boatman, firefighter, circus performer, and actor before settling in Moscow in the 1880s, when he turned to journalism. In 1887, his book "Slum People" was banned for its honest depiction of urban poverty. Uncle Gilya was a colorful figure, a raconteur fond of playing up his Cossack heritage. "This is an unaffected man with a pure heart, completely lacking in the sort of deceit so common in members of the press," wrote Anton Chekhov of Gilyarovsky, in an observation quoted on the new edition's cover. "He is constantly telling funny stories, carries a watch with an indecent picture on the face and, when he is at his best, does card tricks." After 1917, Gilyarovsky wrote mostly about the past, framing his recollections of pre-revolutionary Moscow as a way to highlight the new achievements of Soviet power. "If the inhabitants of a new capital are to understand the labor it cost their forefathers to build a new life in place of the old, they need to understand what old Moscow was like, and the kind of people who lived there," he wrote in the book's foreword. Despite its token praise for Soviet Moscow's new automobiles and housing projects, "Moscow and Muscovites" brims with a sloppy, infectious love for the city as it was in the late 19th century, with its teeming markets and dubious odors (Lubyanskaya Ploshchad, then a transportation hub for horse-drawn carriages, is described as both Moscow's "busiest" square and its "worst smelling"). "I am a Muscovite!" Gilyarovsky famously proclaims. "Happy is one who can say that word

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