Vladimir Gilyarovsky, or Uncle Gilyai, as he was affectionately called, was a living legend. Even today, 165 years after his birth (November 26, 1853) this journalist, poet and writer of prose is widely revered, especially among Muscovites, whose city he described so well. At the turn of this century, Gilyarovsky was so well known that you could command any cab driver to take you “To Gilyarovsky’s!” and he would know to take you to Stoleshnikov Lane, where Uncle Gilyai lived until his death in 1935.
The writer Konstantin Paustovsky, one of Gilyarovsky’s friends, described him thus: “If the expression “picturesque character” existed in the Russian language, it would fit this man perfectly. Gilyarovsky was truly picturesque, both in his biography, looks, speech, manners, in his childishness and in his multi-faceted and bubbling talent.”
Gilyarovsky looked like an archetypal Zaporozhsky Cossack, with a long moustache, and many stories were told about his amazing physical strength: reputedly, Uncle Gilyai was so strong that he could tie an iron poker in a knot.
When Gilyarovsky was 17, he left his hometown of Vologda and spent the next ten years away from home. He changed jobs many times, herding wild horses, hauling barges on the Volga, working in a circus company, traveling with actors, and serving as a volunteer soldier in the 1877-8 Russo-Turkish War. In 1881, Gilyarovsky settled in Moscow and started to write for various periodicals. He soon became a very popular figure. The writer Alexander Kuprin even wrote to Uncle Gilyai that he “could more easily imagine Moscow without the Tsar-Bell or the Tsar-Cannon than without you, the very hub of Moscow.”
In Moscow, Gilyarovsky received the title “the king of reportage,” a journalist who was writing about everything and who people said knew today what was going to happen tomorrow. He was famous for his intimate knowledge of the city and knew a great number of Muscovites, including beggars and thieves. In 1887, Gilyarovsky published his first book, The Shantytown People, but it was quickly banned by censors.
Gilyarovsky was both a member of the Russian Society of Arts and Letters and an Honorary Fireman. He also was friend to such celebrated persons as Anton Chekhov, Ivan Bunin, Alexander Blok, Maxim Gorky, Fyodor Shalyapin and others. He left apt descriptions of all of them in his Friends and Meetings (1934) and A Life on the Move (1928).
In 1924 Gilyarovsky’s most famous book, Moscow and Muscovites, was published. Moscow customs and Muscovites’ lives are described in poignant and humorous detail. Reading the book, you are absorbed in exciting stories about famous merchants, card-sharks, ghosts, suckling pigs and others. In honor of the writer's birthday, we offer two fragments from the book:
There was one interesting event. A woman came to the booth of one particular dealer, looked at the paintings for some time, and stopped at one with the signature “I. Repin.” On it was a price tag, 10 rubles. “Here are 10 rubles for you. I’m taking the painting. But if it’s not genuine, then I’ll bring it back. I’ll be at some friends’ today where Repin is having lunch, and I’ll show it to him.” The woman brought the canvas to her friends’ and showed it to I.Y. Repin. He laughed. He asked for a pen and wrote underneath the painting. “This is not a Repin. I. Repin.” The painting wound up back on Sukharevka and was sold, thanks to Repin’s autograph, for 100 rubles.
* * *
We walked. A sad-looking tramp stopped us and stuck out a hand for money. Gleb Ivanovich [Uspensky] reached into his pocket, but I stopped him, and, taking out a one ruble note, I said to the tramp, “I’m out of change. Walk on over to the stand, buy five kopeks worth of cigarettes, and I’ll give you money to stay tonight at a flophouse.”
“I’ll run right over,” he mumbled, and traipsed in worn out boots through the puddles in the direction of a booth a short distance away. He disappeared in the fog.
“Careful to bring the cigarettes back here, we’ll wait for you!” I shouted in his tracks.
“All right,” I heard from out of the fog. Gleb Ivanovich was standing and laughing.
“What’s that for?” I asked.
“Ha-ha-ha, ha-ha-ha! Oh, he’ll bring the cigarettes all right. The change too! Ha-ha-ha!”
That was the first time that I heard such laughter from Gleb Ivanovich. But he hadn’t even finished when steps slogged through the puddles and my messenger, breathless, appeared and opened a huge hand, black with filth, on which lay the cigarettes, some bronze and a flash of silver.
“Ninety kopeks change. I took five for myself. And here are 10 cigarettes, ‘Daybreaks.’”
“Well, just a moment. What is this? You came back?” Gleb Ivanovich asked.
“How could I not deliver? What, would I run off with someone else’s money? What am I?” the tramp confidently began.
“Fine... fine,” mumbled Gleb Ivanovich.
I gave the tramp the bronze, and intended to take the silver and the cigarettes, but Gleb Ivanovich said: “No, no give him all of it. Everything. For his astonishing honesty. After all, that’s...”
I gave the tramp the change, and, surprised, he said only one thing, “You fine gentlemen are touched! How could I steal from someone who trusted me?”
“Let’s go! Let’s get out of here. We won’t see anything better anywhere. Thank you.” Gleb Ivanovich turned to the tramp, bowed, and quickly dragged me off the square. He refused the rest of the flophouse tour.
Translations by Brendan Kiernan, from the Award-Winning Edition of Moscow and Muscovites.
Russian Life is a 29-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.
PO Box 567
Montpelier VT 05601-0567