Friday, May 22, 2015
On June 3, 1943, two young people died on the Stone Bridge in Moscow. One was Nina Umansky, the fifteen year old daughter of the Soviet Ambassador to Mexico; the other was fifteen year old Volodya Shakurin, the son of the the Soviet Minister of Aviation. Nina Umansky and Volodya Shakhurin were both students in School 175, an elite school for children of those holding power in Stalin's Soviet Union. Nina's body was immediately cremated, and her parents left for Mexico the next day. Volodya survived for two days, and his body was then cremated. Two years later, Nina's parents, Konstantin and Raisa Umansky died in a plane crash in Mexico; their bodies were cremated and returned to Moscow.
The killings were quickly ruled a murder (of Nina by Volodya) and a suicide (by Volodya). The purported motive was that Volodya was in love with Nina and did not want her to leave with her parents the next day for Mexico. About six months later, a notebook came to light that showed that Volodya Shakurin was the head of a secret club in which boys took German military titles and planned a revolution. (Though one boy was cited as saying that their main occupation was hurling slingshots at one another.) The boys were taken into Lubyanka prison, interrogated, judged guilty of treason, and exiled for about a year. The death of Nina's parents remained suspicious. Was it an accident or a plot?
This set of events sometimes known as the Children's Case or (using Stalin's term) the Wolfcub Case has recently been the subject of two historical novels. One by the noted historian, Simon Sebag Montefiore, One Night in Winter; the other by the journalist and novelist Alexander Terkhov, The Stone Bridge. I enjoyed both. I read Montefiore's novel first, but after reading Terekhov's I now see it as a less ambitious and more fictional text than Terkhov's genre blurring historical/fictional work.
Loosely, there are two inter-related plots in The Stone Bridge. The immediate plot is the story of an investigator, Alexander Vasiliyevich, who decides to find out exactly what happened on The Stone Bridge; Vasiliyevich is the narrator of The Stone Bridge, and much of the book is focalized through his consciousness. The underlying plot is the retrieved history of the Stone Bridge incident.
The story of Vasiliyevich's quest to find out the "truth" of what happened propels the novel. The narrative line takes him from one source or archive to another. As he discovers more, the things he wants to discover grow exponentially. The investigation generates a huge web of information and an ever larger set of unaswered questions. Terekhov draws on material from now-public Soviet archives, including transcripts of interviews; memoirs written by contemporaries of the Umanskys; and representations of historical figures, particularly Maxim Litinov and his daughter Tantaya Litinov. Terekhov spent ten years researching the book; for example, he is the first to identify a woman in Litinov's memoir named only as P. as the historical figure Anastasia Vladimirovna Petrovna (and the quest to find out about who she was forms a major part of the book.).
The second story, the "truth" of what happened on The Stone Bridge becomes intensely complicated (or not) as the investigation grows. Possibilities arise but are supplanted by further scenarios. In the end, the novel raises questions about the degree to which the past can be truthfully recreated--either in archive, history, or fiction.
What further omplicates the novel is trying to understand why the Soviet hierarchy behaved as they did. In a passage cited in many reviews, Vasiliyevich asks:
"awaiting the warden’s steps in order to obey whatever is asked of them so that they could preserve their connection to the Absolute Power, which gave them the sense of . . . what? I think – immortality. Only a misunderstanding would make one say that they had lived as captive slaves. They lived a life of meaning – the meaning defined by him [the Emperor]. To abandon this meaning was worse than dying – it was to become cosmic dust, an Absolute Non-Being, and the empire had given them a clear understanding of what the Absolute means."
The Stone Bridge is not an apology for Stalin, but it is a contemplation of where meaning now lies for Russians.
I loved this book because I similarly love to hunt down historical clues--to discover an unexpected piece of information and trace where it goes. My hunting is mainly on the Internet; my interests are too quixotic to plan trips to archives. But I really like books that hang together on the thread of this kind of search. I found the book mesmerizing because it touches a particular chord in me as a reader. It is, on a much larger scale, what I am trying to do in discovering the story of Secession architecture.
You can see photographs of the people involved in The Stone Bridge here
Thursday, May 21, 2015
Monday, May 18, 2015
Though the Vajdahunyad Castle is a bit of an architectural jumble, Alpar was capable of making historicist buildings that were aesthetically--even if not always historically--coherent, The house at Apotol Utca 13b is one example. Another is the Anker Palace which appears at the corner of Erzebet Ter.
The Anker Palace was one of my favorite buildings in Budapest, from my earliest visit there in 2002. When I first saw it, I didn't have any information about it. I know now that it was built by Ignac Alpar for the Anker Insurance Company in 1907. The offices are on the gound floor and flats are above; it was one of the first building with flats in Budapest.
The Anker Building sits at the southwest corner of Erzebet Ter and catches the late afternoon sun, which produces a rich yellow/
Much of the golden plaster has crumbled but there are still enough tiles to keep the yellow color vivid.
The building is highly (if eclectically) decorated.
But it caused something of a scandal because Alpar topped it with a pyrmamid instead of a dome!
Sunday, May 17, 2015
Ignac Alpar (1855-1928) was a famous Budapest architect who worked in the historicist eclectic style. His buildings generally referenced multiple historical architectural styles, but often combined them into a single work--hence, eclectic. The historicist eclectic style was dominant in Budapest through the late nineteenth century, waning only as Lechner's and others' search for a true Hungarian style grew. The apotheosis of Alpar's eclectic historicism is his most famous building: the Vajdahunyad Castle, built to celebrate the Millenial anniversay of the Hungarian conquest of the Carpathian Basin in 895. The castle references all the major architectural styles of Hungary, including Transylvanian, Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque. It was originally meant to be temporary, constructed from cardbooard and wood simply for the Millenial celebrations. But it was so popular that it was rebuilt in 1905 as a permanent monument, where it still sits in its original setting in Varislogeti (City) Park in Budapest. The castle is a kind of tour de force, or pastiche, but is actually quite enchanting--though it does remind one a bit of an architectural Disneyland.
Thursday, May 14, 2015
Saturday, May 9, 2015
One of the most famous sculptures in Budapest is the statue of "Anonymous" (1903), by Miklos Ligeti (1871-1944), outside the Castle in Varosligeti Park. The sculpture depicts the the anonymous writer of Gesta Hungaricum, a detailed history of the arrival of the Hungarians into the Carpathian Basin, that was written around 1200 by an unnamed scribe. It is thus a key founding document in the Hungarians' sense of themselves as a nation and a people.
Apparently, those commissioning the sculpture wanted Ligeti to use a typical "Hungarian" face. But Ligeti, instead, kept the statue anonymous, hiding the writer's identity, and emphasizing, instead his almost organic connection to the book he was writing.
But in some ways Ligeti himself is also "anonymous," at least to non-Hungarians. There is virtually nothing in English about him, published or on the internet, save a very brief Wikipedia entry. There is similarly little about him in Hungarian. Everyone knows the statue Anonymous; when we visited, we had to stand in line to take a picture, following people who posed with the statue. But I think few people would know the name of the sculptor. There is a small book about him, commissioned by his family that is mostly his biography, I think; I located one copy in Budapest and bought it, even though it's in Hungarian and I won't be able to read it. (It does have pictures.) He is another example of the many extraordinary Hungarian artists who are simply unknown outside of Hungary.
Ligeti is notable, in my view, for his focus on the human body, especially as is it poised in action. Two of his most famous sculptures in Hungary are the statues of Tunde and Csonger, characters in a famous 19th Century play by Vorosmarty.
(There is often something very interesting about the feet.)
Ligeti studied for a time with Rodin, and you can see that influence in statues displayed in the Hungarian State Art Museum.
There is a kind of natural human lyricism to Ligeti's work--a love of the body. Below are statues he sculpted for the Adria Palace--then an insurance building, now The Meridien Hotel. They illustrate different kinds of insurance.
Notice how the foot is grasping the pedestal for balance.
The same human naturalism is present in his funerary statuary.
Ligeti was also famous for his portrait sculptures. Here Crown Prince Rudolph (who either committed suicide or was murdered at Mayerling):
And here Major General Harry Hill Bandholtz in Szabadsag (Liberty) Square in front of the US Embassy. Bandholtz was the US representative to the Inter-Allied Supreme Command's military mission charged with disarming Hungary.
Most of the artists I discovered in Hungary were completely unknown to me until I began to plan this trip to Budapest. I knew some of the architects from earlier trips, and I had located important novels from lists of best Hungarian fiction. But so many others were, like Ligeti, anonymous--at least to me.
Hungary is one of the most culturally rich countries I have been privileged to visit. A country the size of New Jersey, it has produced 13 Nobel Laureates. It has a robust history of pictorial and plastic arts. Its architecture is astonishing. Its literary history has produced great writers, many of whom remain untranslated and thus unknown outside of Hungary itself.
Part of the reason Hungarian culture is anonymous for non-Hungarians is that Hungary's most significant cultural border is its "orphan" language. Arising from the Urals in Siberia, Hungarian is unrelated to Latin or Germanic languages; it thus offers non-Hungarians nothing to hold onto. This linguistic isolation meant that Hungary's verbal art at least was simply unknown outside the country. I think the Hungarian language, shared only by those who consider themselves Hungarian, is both a powerful resource for producing a sense of nationality and culture, and a barrier that keeps non-Hungarians outside. If I had another lifetime, I would learn Hungarian. As much as possible, I would like to see Hungary from the inside, to learn the name and history of those "anonymous" artists.
#MiklosLigeti #Budapest #Hungary