Those passing through central London at present will spot an alien structure on Bloomsbury Square in the park, beside Pushkin House. This is a temporary pavilion designed by Russian artist and architect Alexander Brodsky, called 101st km – Further Everywhere. The walls, covered in roofing felt do not reach to the ground and as you get closer, you can see the legs of people inside. There is no door - to get in you have to bend down. Inside, in semi darkness there are reading lights angled above sheets of poetry hung along the walls and at each end is a projection of a railroad – one in spring and one in winter, one receding, one coming to meet the viewer. There is a sense of travelling and stillness at the same time. People are lost in concentration, each in their own world, with their own lamp, reading the poem before them in stillness. Then suddenly the noise of a railroad breaks into the silence, and again, we are moving.
The poems are by 20 poets who were in internal exile, living at 101st km – the exclusion zone around major cities dictated by the Soviet authorities, or who emigrated, or whose voices were suppressed during their lifetimes and they were not permitted to publish. They range from the better known, such as Boris Pasternak, Anna Akhmatov, Joseph Brodsky and Osip Mandelstam, to lesser known poets in this country such as Vladislav Khodasevich, Georgy Ivanov and Sophia Parnok.
So why is this pavilion here and what is it all about? As many of your will have noticed, this year is the centenary of the Russian revolution, and London is marking it to the full in all its major institutions. Pushkin House, as London’s oldest Russian cultural centre, established in 1954 by two generations of Russian emigres, decided to make a large gesture to mark this important centenary. The idea came about, with Finnish curator, publisher and architectural historian Markus Lähteenmäki, and with Alexander Brodsky, to create a pavilion on Bloomsbury Square Gardens. Brodsky had long ago wished to create a museum or pavilion dedicated to the concept of 101st km. For him it has a personal resonance as his grandfather lived at Shishkin Les outside Moscow, after returning from the Gulag where he had spent several years, simply for writing a diary of his experience of the Siege of Leningrad, and reading parts of it to friends, after the siege was over. Any suggestion that the siege was anything but ‘heroic’ was seen as betrayal by the authorities. The concept of 101km was part of Brodsky’s childhood, and to this day he has his dacha in the same place. In addition, Brodsky himself has always been an avid reader of poetry: his architecture is poetic and creates atmospheres, just as poetry does. He created samizdat in his time, including a hand-written edition of Joseph Brodsky’s poems, that he was eventually able to present to the poet himself, when they met in New York.
The second part of the title - 'Further Everywhere' refers to the poetic and mysterious announcement heard on local trains leaving from Moscow, a general denominator for calling points after the centre of the city, that conjures up the vast expanses of Russia, and the rest of the world beyond its borders – wherever the exiled is forced to go.
Brodsky specialises in pavilions – in 2016 he built one in Venice, and previous to that he has had pavilions in Paris, Vienna and Russia. Working with him is an extraordinary experience. He makes a sketch, but it is not until you build it do you really understand what he is doing.
In the case of this pavilion, it became clear that he has given a home to those made homeless by the revolution, by housing their poems. For them, the Russian language itself became a refuge during this times of oppression and great upheaval: from the revolution to Stalin’s terror to the continuing suppression of human rights in the 1960s. ‘The pavilion provides these poems with a home and a refuge – exactly what their authors sought,’ says curator Markus Lähteenmäki. This has become important again today, as many people leave Russia either to live and work entirely elsewhere, or partially. In the 1950s there were probably only several hundred Russians in the UK, today there are several hundred thousand. Pushkin House is physically expanding to embrace the ever-growing Russian-speaking population of London. And by making the pavilion about poetry and exile, Brodsky has brought Pushkin House back to its roots – this is where we celebrate and explore Russian culture and language, and keep the language and culture alive through this exploration. In his wizard-like way, Brodsky has started a chain of events. We have simultaneously launched a new season called Poetry on the Move, supported by the CASE Foundation –a series of talks and recitals from contemporary Russian writers who will be travelling to London especially, that will ensure poetry remains central to our programme. In addition we are holding several evenings with leading translators of Russian poetry, many of whom are also poets in their own right. These include Sasha Dugdale and Moniza Alvi, with whom we are holding a discussion about translating Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva on 31st October. Poetry on the Move will continue beyond the period during which the pavilion is in Bloomsbury Square.
In in collaboration with Modern Poetry in Translation, a British charity whose next edition is dedicated to Ukrainian and Russian poetry, we are welcoming Maria Stepanova on 4th November. Stepanova, one of Russia’s most important living poets, will give a short talk in English about suppressed and persecuted poets in Soviet Russia and their influence on her own poetry today. She will then read from her most recent work, an ambitious and brilliant long poem ’The War of the Beasts and the Animals’ which deals with the current atmosphere in Russia and the conflict in Donbass. This has recently been translated into English by Sasha Dugdale.
On 8th November, Russian poet Evgeniya Lavut, who helped us select poems for the pavilion, will trace the development of irony in poetry from the late Soviet period to the new generation. She will also read some of her own poetry. Later on this year or next year we are looking forward to welcoming Dmitry Vedenyapin, a wonderful translator and performer of his own work, who will give a talk about Khodasevich and read from his own poems.
A display inside Pushkin House continues the theme and tells stories of repressed literature in Soviet times – there are examples of samizdat and tamizdat, and a map showing the points of exile and emigration for the writers included in the pavilion. A film by Anastasia Nikitina forms a backdrop to audio recordings of poets reading their own poems – Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Brodsky and Pasternak, provided by the Russian State Literature Museum. Also in the house is a small exhibition of photographs of Russian artists living in emigration today, by photographer Vadim Levin.
The exhibition was supported by Vadim Levin. It was only possible thanks to the generosity of RPP Architects who worked pro bono on the drawings and construction. Zima also stepped in to help with funding and provided wonderful food and drink at the opening. We had support from students of the Architectural Association and the Royal College of Arts who worked voluntarily on the construction. Patera engineering and WRP also helped out with materials and time. Everyone was amazed that Pushkin House got permission to construct the pavilion. However, because it was part of Bloomsbury Festival, which opened on 18th October, Camden Council was extremely supportive, as were our neighbours. Bloomsbury is an area of London connected to literature, publishing and high culture, this pavilion makes a bold contribution to that legacy.
The pavilion and accompanying exhibition in Pushkin House is open until 10th November – 11am to dusk every day. Free entry.