By Kevin O'Flynn
Published: September 17, 2004
What makes the '60s different from today?
Back then, you couldn't advertise in the
papers to get poets to read in the streets.
With one hand on his hip and an enigmatic look on his face, Vladimir Mayakovsky looks as if he is about to declaim.
In fact, the declaiming used to go on beneath him, and these days happens a few hundred meters away, under the more fragile figure of his predecessor Alexander Blok. Both poets' statues -- one on Triumfalnaya Ploshchad and the other in a cozy square off Ulitsa Spirodonovka -- are known for being places where literature lovers gather to read to the streets.
After the man in the baggy trousers went up in 1958 and Triumfalnaya Ploshchad was renamed Mayakovskaya Ploshchad, the first literary readings began. Angry young men reveling in the slight freedom regained under the Thaw aired their own poetry without asking the censors first.
"More and more often in the quiet of the night / I suddenly start to scream," ran the first two lines of one poem by Yury Galanskov that was regularly read out.
Galanskov's poem was noted by the Komsomol, and probably not because the meter was good.
At the time, the square was called the "Soviet Gaid Park," or Hyde Park to those who like their H's aspirated.
Despite police harassment and threats of expulsion for students, readings lasted until 1961. Then they were banned completely and organizers jailed for five to seven years.
But the meetings returned to Mayakovsky's statue four years later, leading to the best acronym of the Soviet period -- SMOG, or the Youngest Society of Geniuses -- but soon this group was also crushed.
SMOG's literary heir is Rusfil.com, a literary web site that prefers to hold its readings by the more romantic statue of Blok, as Mayakovsky now stares at a fried chicken restaurant.
The idea came about, said Ilya, the chief editor of the site, after the group failed to find a room for readings.
"There is a kind of romanticism in reading under the rain or under the sun and surprising people," he said. "The interest is that passersby stop and listen, that people who meet each other near the monument also listen to us. They are not those listeners in cafes who have a cup of coffee and are sitting like in the theater. Here everyone is an actor, everyone is included and is a small part of the whole action."
Readings are not limited to poetry or to Russian-language works -- French, Italian and English have also been shouted out -- although there is strict quality control. You can't read your own work or that of a friend.
"We are in some kind of way insured against bad literature," Ilya said before adding, "though things do happen."
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