1812 Moscow Fire,. A. Smirnov, 1813. Public Domain.

One of the most popular pencils versus pens stories is the Space Race tale claiming that, when Americans and Russians realised the lack of gravity in space would make ordinary pens unusable, NASA spent millions of dollars developing a space pen. The Soviets just used a pencil. Despite being nonsensical — the brittleness of graphite is not exactly space-friendly — and false, the story has a certain “keep it simple, stupid” appeal that has kept it alive. It was also not the first time the pencil has been used as a symbol of Russian culture.

The literature of Moscow is essentially a literature of the pencil: it does not come from the quill, but from a fragile lead core. In the West, just like in Petersburg for that matter, one writes with a quill — here, no.

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky wrote these lines in a 1925 autobiographical story, Postmark: Moscow. While the East versus West motif carries over from the Space Race, the words hint at something more complex and interesting. The pencil is more than a writing instrument already on hand that does not rely on gravity. Beyond that, Russia is perhaps not a uniformly pencil sort of place.

Postmark: Moscow took the form of thirteen letters sent by a man recently installed in Moscow to a friend in the countryside. The letters closely followed Krzhizhanovsky’s experiences when he moved to the city in 1922:

When I arrived in Moscow, my suitcase solidly buckled containing three changes of clothes, the three Critiques of Kant, a collection of Solovyov, the bric-a-brac of a single person and half a pound of recommendation letters.

Born 1887 in Kiev to Polish parents, Krzhizhanovsky followed a typical route to the new capital for many of what could be considered the urban intelligentsia of his generation. He studied at his local university, traveled through Europe with a focus on university towns and ultimately moved to Moscow in search of better opportunities. “I have known well enough that Moscow is attractive; but that me, she would be able to hook me like a fish — that, I admit, I did not expect.” Even though — and, in part, because — the opportunities did not materialise, he lived in the city until his death in 1950.

He described the pencil-pen literary differences as:

The quill is supple, but it is firm, precise and correct, it loves the strong and the fine; it is inclined to meditation: it pauses in the inkpot before coming back to the page. The pencil writes in one go, without pause; it is nervous, without care; it loves the rough draft; just when its squeaking has covered a scribble by another that at full momentum — crack! it breaks.

The portrayal was as much about the chaotic development of the city as it was about writing. “The man of here, the homo urbanus, essentially practices association by juxtaposition; the assembly and construction of the city teaches those who people it to assemble and construct discourse and thought in that way, and not otherwise.” The lines of Moscow’s streets were tangled and knotted, neighbouring buildings utterly discordant. The only common logic was that they were there, next to each other. That and, made largely of wood, they all tended to burn in the “twopenny candle” fires:

I will only give a handful of figures. In 1389, the fire of All Saints’ Day; before already, a fire in 1354; in 1451 the Tatars burned the Kremlin and the Merchants Quarter almost completely; then a succession of fires: 1442, 1475, 1481, 1486; at the end of the 16th Century Moscow burned in 1572 and 1591 then, in the 17th, in 1626, 1629, 1648, 1668; later still, in 1701, 1709, 1737, 1748, 1754, and onward. And I mention only the “big” fires, that ravaged a quarter, a third and up to half of the buildings, occupied or not.

The dates Krzhizhanovsky listed give a picture of the historical “Moscow of the library shelves.” In the memoirs of Anastasia Tsvetaeva, a writer born and largely raised in the city, we can find a more personal and contemporary, early Twentieth Century, account:

Our chaperone needed, for one reason or other, to go into an unknown courtyard, surrounded by a big new house. Maybe we hadn’t ever seen a courtyard like that. The stone of the walls, several storeys high, their grey colour (our house was chocolate-coloured, and the neighbouring houses also had lively colours, cosy, wooden, like most of the houses of Moscow at the time).

Tsvetaeva was cut off from Moscow from the time of the 1917 Revolutions, through the civil war and the associated famine, until 1922. She quoted her sister, the poet Marina, who was stuck in the city during that time:

Assia? You didn’t ask, and I didn’t say: Three Pond Street! Our house has not existed for a while now! They took it apart (in eighteen, it seems to me) to make firewood. It was the neighbours who started it, and it was the printing house no. 16, the former Levenson printing house, that finished the work, log after log. The house was abandoned… And now, it’s an empty lot. Go pass by it. Me, I went by without knowing, by chance. I was disoriented, it was so bizarre. The only things left are the poplars, and even then, there are no longer that many. I took some bits and pieces… I don’t know where I put them… — Lord!

Parts of the pencil city were purposefully taken apart and burned — largely for survival during the winters — just before Krzhizhanovsky moved there. The Tsvetaeva family home was replaced with a four-storey concrete building, which later made way for a six-storey version, in Anastasia’s lifetime. The exotic grey multi-storey house that caught her attention as a child was becoming the norm. The historical cycle of disorganised destruction and reconstruction seemed to be broken.

This was in line with the direction of the new Soviet state, with its emphasis on progress. The most obvious example was Lenin’s New Economic Policy, which aimed to rapidly develop the economic base of the country. Russia was being modernised and Moscow was along for the ride. There are, however, parallels with the Second Empire modernisation of Paris, the rebuilding of Chicago after the 1871 Great Fire and countless other Western examples that show a broader trend. Straightening out tangled streets and building taller, more fire-resistant buildings was not unique to the USSR.

The history of the influence of modern, Western ideas on Russian cities also started much earlier, with Peter the Great’s 1703 order to construct Saint Petersburg as a Europe-focused capital for his empire. The name “Saint Petersburg” is being used here for simplicity, though it was changed numerous times over the years. Krzhizhanovsky was referring to the lasting consequences of this Western influence when he placed the city’s literature in opposition to Moscow’s pencil writing.

Osip Mandelstam, a Saint Petersburg-raised poet contemporary to Krzhizhanovsky and the Tsvetaeva sisters, was greatly affected by the post-Revolution impacts on his city. These included the permanent shift of the capital back to Moscow, the forced exile of much of the bourgeois and royalist population and the execution of fellow poets — particularly Nikolay Gumilyov. “Living in Saint Petersburg, it is as if one was sleeping in a coffin.”

All that was left of his connection with the city was his shadow and the stone:

Thus my shadow eats away with its eyes

The granular granite

And sees at night the blocks of stone

That in daytime have the aspect of houses

Osip’s wife, Nadezhda, wrote in her memoirs that they too were drawn to Moscow. “Moscow attracted us like a magnet: we went to chat, learn the news, find money.” She also pointed out a particularity of Russia: the central role of poetry, literature and art in the modernisation efforts. While city planning was strongly centralized in Paris, Chicago and Moscow, one could not say the same about poetry for the first two.

Krzhizhanovsky stated that the writing of the homo urbanus was heavily influenced, if not determined, by the logic of the city. The Moscow he described was the sum of conditions he experienced in his tiny eight square metre (86 square foot) room and wandering through the maze of streets to escape that room, reinforced by research into its history and familiarity with fiery muscovite literature. The manuscript for Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls, for instance, went up in flames in the mid-Nineteenth Century when the author was living in the city.

Much of Krzhizhanovsky’s work was fantastic and speculative. He wrote about dream worlds, time travel, automatons and host of other things going well beyond the bounds of realism or naturalism. Still, none of it was in line with the planned future Moscow. The closest it came was in stories like Involuntary Street, where absurdities of planning in light of the informal reality of the city came to the fore. Planning as rational progress, along with writing as “firm, precise and correct,” was missing.

Though the city was being transformed, pencil literature continued to a certain extent. The reconstruction was not moving quickly, particularly relative to the influx of people seeking a better life. Nadezhda Mandelstam noted:

Even if Moscow was also empty — and it very much was — , it was at the same time less so than Saint Petersburg, and it was much less visible: new crowds never ceased to flock to the city, and Moscow was visibly growing, but it wasn’t in height: they didn’t construct anything, and everything was just getting worn out and falling into ruin; it was men who were flocking from all corners of the land.

A new Writers’ Guild building was being built “with a marble vestibule” where writers in line with planned progress lived and meditatively blackened pages with ink. Life was not idyllic there, though, due primarily to internal politics and a culture of fear. In any case, the crowding was such that scribblers like Krzhizhanovsky could still find miserable “habitable surfaces” to house themselves and their pencil-like ways. They were lost in the crowd.

Had Krzhizhanovsky found some success, his fate would have been different. He may have been exiled like Osip Mandelstam in 1934 to anywhere 105 kilometres (65 miles) from the major cities. He may have been sent to a forced labour camp in Siberia or the Far East, as both Osip and Anastasia Tsvetaeva were in 1937. The first died en route, the second spent the next twenty-two years in camps. Or, he might have been executed like Nikolay Gumilyov in 1921 and Boris Pilnyak, a writer Krzhizhanovsky mentioned in Postmark: Moscow, in 1938. Instead, his literary failures allowed him to stay in the city while driving him to kill himself slowly with vodka.

It is not immediately clear he would have left pencil literature behind had he been forced into exile or sent to a camp. Symbolically, one of Nadezhda Mandelstam’s descriptions of her husband’s poetry is telling:

The cycle of The Wolf foresees the exile. One finds the Siberian forests, beds made of planks, logs… wood constitutes the principal material of the cycle: chopping blocks, pines, coffins of pine, wood chips, axe handle, cherry knot… Adjectives employed in the cycle — rough, in particular — belong to the same category.

Practically, they were living in what another poet of the period, Anna Akhmatova, called “archaic times,” prior to “Gutenberg’s invention.” Not only printing presses, but typewriters and higher quality paper were difficult to come by for writers who deviated from the line of planned progress. Exiled, Osip Mandelstam’s poems were mostly written in children’s workbooks. Anastasia Tsvetaeva wrote and sketched with a pencil in the camps. Beyond the gravity of the big cities and the Communist Party, people just used whatever they had on hand.

Equating pencil literature to the product of tools people were constrained to use and the environs they were forced to live in has several problems. First, requiring an actual pencil to capture the logic of juxtaposition takes Krzhizhanovsky’s ideas too literally. Second, despite the common material, Moscow’s layered eclecticism, established through a centuries-old cycle of construction and destruction, has little to do with the harmony of small town architecture or a forest. Finally, It falls into the progress trap by implying this sort of writing is not as good as what could be produced with more advanced methods.

Moscow’s logic of jumbled juxtaposition was not something Krzhizhanovsky was forced into. It was what fascinated him. Unlike those exiled and in camps, he could have left but decided to stay. The central point is the profound impression the structure of the city made on him and his work. And, of course, that the structure was at odds with the planned modern city.

The protagonist’s suitcase in Postmark: Moscow contained “the three Critiques of Kant [and] a collection of Solovyov” when he arrived in the city. Krzhizhanovsky ended the story with an anecdote about Vladimir Solovyov, a Nineteenth Century Russian philosopher with a particular Christian outlook, and a decision to sell the three Critiques written by the German rationalist. He effectively turned away from Western modernism to embrace the Russian ideas embedded both in writing and urban form.

Osip Mandelstam was also influenced by Solovyov, though it was less obvious in his writing. Nadezhda clarified:

The fact that Solovyov is not mentioned in Mandelstam’s articles is easily explained: most of them were written to be published in the Soviet press, and no editor would have let through the smallest allusion to Solovyov, unless it was insulting. Nevertheless, traces of Vladimir Solovyov appear throughout Mandelstam’s work: one sees them in his Christian conception of the world (in the spirit of Solovyov), in his methods and his approach to discussion, in his ideas and even in certain of his words and expressions.

Beyond hinting at how Krzhizhanovsky’s open use of Solovyov was risky and not at all conducive to literary success in his time, Nadezhda Mandelstam touched on how aspects of the “rough draft” of Moscow may have survived as an undercurrent in the face of modern planning. Traces in the urban fabric, added to literature’s prominence in the Soviet modernisation project and the words and expressions of homines urbani like Krzhizhanovsky, sketch an interesting — and more grounded — alternative to the Space Race take on the pencil in Twentieth Century Russian culture.

Writer of eclectic curiosities. Recent novels include Simulated Hysteria (2020), Death Train of Provincetown (2019) and The Amoeba-Ox Continuum (2017).

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