- From A Friendly Correspondence Between Moscow and Petersburg
To this day, Nikolay Nekrasov (1821–1878) remains Russia’s most beloved “civic poet,” and the present poem, with remarkable wit and attention to form, serves as lasting testimony to Russia’s eternal and ongoing struggle between the so-called Slavophiles and Westernizers, as exemplified by its two geographic and cultural polarities: Petersburg and Moscow.
For the purpose of contextualizing this, it is worth noting that the journals mentioned at the poem’s beginning and end also framed the origins of this political and cultural debate. The Russian Messenger or Russian Herald/Russkiy Vestnik (1856–1906) was founded by liberal writers and scholars, The Athenaeus (1858–59) was a short-lived progressive journal, and The Whistle (1859–1863) was Nekrasov’s own satirical supplement to the journal Sovremennik, founded by Pushkin in 1836.
Nikolay Chernyashevsky (1828–1889) was the author of the immensely popular and influential novel What Is to Be Done? (1863), the founder of Russian populism, and leader of its revolutionary democratic movement of the 1860s. Like this one, all the name-dropping in stanzas 6 through 8 refers to various conflicts between the Slavophiles and Westernizers.
Lastly, one historical footnote: Merchant Kuzma Minin and Prince Dmitry Pozharsky, mentioned in stanza 3, were Russian military commanders who repelled the forces of the Polish Army from Moscow on [End Page 618] November 1, 1612, during the Time of Troubles that, in the aftermath of Ivan the Terrible’s death, marked the end of the first Rurikid dynasty. As such, these two were instrumental in establishing the Romanov dynasty.
In closing, I would note the relevance of all this to our own cultural war, and the associated debate about the function and relevance of poetry in general, as exemplified by Nekrasov’s feud with the other preeminent Russian poet of his age, Afanasy Fet, who wrote: “The notion that poetry’s social mission, moral value, or relevance could be superior to its artistic aspects, is nightmarish to me; I abandoned this notion long ago.”
—Alex Cigale [End Page 619]
Thou knowest well that city, ancient, venerable,Encompassed within the boundaries of whichAre mansions, peasant hovels, villages, estates,Both the Lord’s temples and the castles of kings.That wise eternal city where that brave heraldOf Muscovite ideas, and its English origins,The Russian Messenger, rages like a waterfallWhere once the mighty Athenaeus did gurgle. That fair city! There, in your company, I would like to take shelter, my dear!
Learned men proclaim it “More glorious than Rome,”The novelist labels it “The motherland’s heartland,”And the poet opines, “Russia’s beloved daughter.”Simple folk hail her simply: “Our dear mother.”It’s not for nothing tears involuntarily flood the eyesWhen the list of its achievements is entertained:In the year 1812, such bitter frosts prevailedThat the Frenchman will not soon forget them. That fair city! There, in your company, I would like to take shelter, my dear!
Venerable city! Statues of Minin and PozharskyStand, ceremoniously guarding the central plaza.Pulsing in every patrician’s heart and mind,A remnant of ancient Barsky boyar blood.Among the merchant and the courtier class,Selflessness prevails, and readiness to fight:In the last war, and on the issue of serfdom,We’ll find more than one such honorable example. . . . That fair city! There, in your company, I would like to take shelter, my dear! [End Page 620]
Magical city! There, people talk a blue streak;Doing little, they say they care enough for two.Out of the Kremlin, from Arbat to Plyuschikha,On every corner, the pure Russian spirit pervades;All sights are sheer joy, all things soothe the heart,Exalted in tone, their mindset is on higher ground.Tsar Bell is lying down, Tsar Cannon sleeps,And forty crows are cawing without surcease. Magical city! There, in your company, I would like to take shelter, my dear!
Truth-telling city! There, harmony flowers,There, the seeds of science have taken root;Their minds and heads are so clear-thinking,They won’t mistake a mole for the king of...