Thursday, 13 August 2015

Voices from The Past

Something I like very much about Russia is that people on the tube are very considerate of other people on the tube. This comes as a great and wonderful surprise to anyone whose main experience of the underground system is in the dog-eat-dog environment of London, and it changes the whole atmosphere of the journey. Young people leap up without a moment's hesitation to offer their seats to older people – especially for women – and older people in turn get onto the trains with a sense of expectation that they will be taken good care of, which they always are.

That really has nothing to do with this post more generally however, which is about something that happened to me whilst I was on foot, not in the metro. I was walking down Italianskaya street in St. Petersburg after visiting the Stray Dog cafe, where Mayakovsky and all his buddies used to hang out in the nineteen-teens, and I saw a little antique shop, from which I bought a couple of old written-on postcards. I have always loved old postcards and photos; it seems very odd to me that you can buy intimate photos and letters long after their subjects/recipients are dead or, rather, I suppose, odd that these things can be sold by completely unconnected future people. The notes scrawled on the back of these kinds of artefacts are to me a kind of time travel (though perhaps not in the traditional sense) – just as when you consciously create a time capsule and hide it away somewhere you are very much aware that your purpose for doing so is to allow the people of the future a vehicle via which they might catch a breath of your time – a time they themselves may never have seen (I did this with my dad in 1989 or so – we hid the capsule behind the brickwork of a new fireplace we were putting into the living room. That house has since been converted into flats, so perhaps it has been lost to time for good.) Of course, this form of time travel only works one way. We can't create a time capsule from the present and hide it for the people of the past to find. Not for so long as we abide by our understanding of a linear, forward-moving structure of time at any rate. Although I suppose that even on the basis of that understanding it would be possibe to create a time capsule at some future date and place it at some point in the past, so that it will be discovered in the future, in relation to that past point in time, but still technically in the past, from the point of view of the future date at which it was created and deposited.

The postcards I found were very interesting – one of them especially so. I find cursive cyrillic handwriting extremely difficult to understand, so I asked a Russian friend to help me with their translation (thank you Iryna!).  This is the first (to me, less interesting) one:

In wonderfully intertextual style, its main import is to ask its recipient if they have received the sender's earlier package and letters. The date on it is the 17th October 1943.

This next card is the more interesting of the two:

 The postcard itself, which has a picture of one of the fountains at Peterhof Palace on it, is dated May 4th 1916, but there is no date given in the message, which is in pencil and very faint and difficult to read. At first I thought the first word was "Вой" ("Voi"), which means "howl" in Russian, and I thought what a cool way to start a postcard! HOWL! However, according to my friend it actually says "Vol", short for Volodya, which is the familiar version of the name Vladimir, and is a card from a woman, telling a man (Vol) "I really want to go here!" (i.e. Peterhof I suppose), and then the initials F. Zh. (Ф. Ж.) – and THIS is when it started to feel like rather a strange coincidence. The reason I bought this postcard in the first place was because I myself had super wanted to go to Peterhof palace last week, but my extreme hangover prevented me from doing so – to find out not only that this is what the very message on the card says too (minus the hangover bit), but that it is written to a man named Volodya, and found on the very street on which Mayakovsky spent all his time during that same period, seems to me to be pretty remarkable! Volodya is what all Mayakovsky's friends and family called him, and is also the name of my forthcoming collection of his poems.

The question is, who the devil is F. Zh? All Mayakovsky's main romantic liaisons have been pretty well documented (not only by his biographers but also explicitly by the poet himself), but to my knowledge none of them had these initials. I ran a Google search for those two letters + Mayakovsky and although interestingly I did come across this short film about him on the Archive F. Zh. YouTube channel, I soon discovered that those particular letters stand for "Faculty of Journalism" (specifically at the Tomsk State University), and not for some as-yet unknown but enthusuastic Mayakovsky-lover of the early 20th Century!

Any ideas or information on the matter would be gratefully received.


  1. Replies
    1. Maybe! Fosy Zharrick! Sounds pretty cool eh!

  2. Фози, if I clicked my heels three times and said 'There's no place like Petersburg. There's no place like Petersburg....(fades)', and I climbed into my refrigerator, could I come and visit you? When is a good time--next week or last week?