Thursday, June 16, 2005

Going Back Again - IV


The TsGALI archive itself, which came under the jurisdiction of the Soviet MVD (Ministry of the Interior), was housed in a low building in a rather non-descript suburban street. On my first visit there, I had an interview with the archive’s director, a small man in a dark suit, with a distracted and unfocused air, who looked at me with a boredom that suggested he'd perhaps seen too many foreign research students, and really just wanted to get off home. After briefly inquiring about the nature of my research, and nodding perfunctorily when I mentioned the name of Annensky, he told me that much of the material I required would be in a “classified fond” (restricted access archive), fond 6, and I would not be able to consult it (since 1993 such classifications of repressed material have mostly been removed). Also, I would have to order the units of each opis’ ("inventory”) separately. Annensky’s manuscripts were classified because they related to the pre-revolutionary period, and were written by a poet and scholar who belonged to a school of Russian literature (the writing of the "Silver Age") which was considered ideologically hostile to the prevailing Marxist-Leninist interpretation of history and literature. An exception would, however, be made for manuscript material already used by the Soviet scholar Andrei Fyodorov in his Biblioteka poeta edition of Annensky’s poetry, the only such collection then available in a Soviet edition, which had been published in 1959 in a print run of 15,000 copies (a tiny number). This I could consult freely.

In the event, however, when I actually ordered the material I wanted, I found that it arrived in a haphazard and sporadic fashion. The files and boxes of manuscripts were brought up from the deep and labyrinthine cellars in cloth bags by stooped women in headscarves and overalls who looked as if they were heaving sacks of coal. I found that I wasn’t given precisely what I had ordered, but a mixture of material, only some of which was the same that Fyodorov had used: there were also sheets and notebooks that he hadn’t referred to in his 1959 book,and in general the whole Annensky archive appeared to be in some disarray, classified or not. It was as if the Annensky manuscripts hadn’t been properly organized or filed, and I was struck by the way that some of the fragile and aging material was just slapped down on the desk in front of me as though it was old magazines or newspapers. At the end of the day, the papers, files and boxes had to be returned to the desk, and taken back to the cellars. On the next visit, the same ritual had to be gone through all over again. And sometimes I had to wait four or five days before the material I'd applied for was delivered. None the less, I was able to start reading the variants of the poems I wanted to consult, and my work began to make some headway.

On leaving the archive in the late afternoon, on my way to the metro station I usually passed a store where vodka was on sale, and very often there were one or two men lying on the sidewalk, apparently dead drunk. I got used to this sight, but it continued throughout the winter, even in the worst of the snow and frost. It always struck me as an “Annenskian” sight – like something from the Baudelaire-inspired prose poems Annensky wrote in the 1890s. I never saw the drunks being moved on or arrested, and never saw anyone intervene or talk to them. It was as if this was their function: to be respected – or ignored – by passers-by. Later in life, I saw similar drunks in Finland, with a similar attitude on the part of the public, but back in those Moscow days in my early twenties it came as something of a shock (even to one who, like myself, had grown up in Scotland).

On other days, I worked at the pervyi zal (first reading room) of the Lenin Library in the centre of town, and returned to MGU in the evening.

(to be continued)

See also:
Going Back Again
Going Back Again - II
Going Back Again - III

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