Alexander Terekhov: The Stone Bridge - Excerpt
Alexander Terekhov’s “The Stone Bridge” (Glagoslav Publications) is a whirling novel that collides present times with the grim epoch of Stalin purges. Based on a true story, the novel reconstructs the Stalinist Russia in perfect detail, using real documents and photos – but “The Stone Bridge” is written in vivid, pulsing language that makes it much more than a historical detective. “The Stone Bridge” will be presented by the author in the Read Russia program at the London Book Fair, April 8-10.
The Great Stone Bridge is recognized as the best location from which to view the Kremlin and study Russian life. The bridge has had the best view since the time of Cornelis de Bruijn, a Dutchman and painter, three hundred years ago; in more recent days, images of and from the bridge figured in the title sequences of the Vremya TV news broadcasts which replaced, for the Soviet people, the evening church service.
The Great Stone Bridge was the first stone bridge in the city — and happened to be the last. When it was built, it was considered to be the fourth wonder of Russia after the Tsar’s Bell, the Tsar’s Cannon and Ivan the Great’s Bell Tower.
Ivan the Third cleared Borovitsky Square, moving wooden houses away from the Kremlin thereby nullifying the fires that tended to burn them, and making Tatar sieges difficult. Moscow life, forced thusly outward from the verboten square, crossed the river and moved south, into the Strelets villages, along the road from Veliky Novgorod to Ryazan. Since these new arrangements required that supplies be transported across the river, Tsar Mikhail Fyodorovich summoned the craftsman Jagan Christler from Strasbourg, along with his uncle and his tools, which had names like magic spells: mattocks, bills, cantdogs, parbuckles, trowels, salters. But just as the enormous cubes of white stone for the would-be bridge began to arrive in Moscow from Nastasin, everyone involved in the project unceremoniously died — both Germans and the Tsar.
The seventeenth century bore a striking resemblance to the twentieth. It began with troubles, and ended with troubles: civil war, an uprising of peasants and Cossacks, campaigns to the Crimea, Boyars “chopped to bits” by rebels, doctors who confessed under torture to poisoning Tsars, and Old Believers burnt at the stake during the the stone bridge month known to us now as Bloody April. It was a time when Russians suddenly and obsessively turned to their past, considered their own present, and then decided rather frantically to begin rewriting the books on every historical sore spot: the schism in the Church, the streltsy rebellions, the place of our land on the globe which had just been imported to Russia. Children and women argued about politics in the streets! Suddenly the common people realized: we also exist, we take part, we are witnesses. And how sweet it was to say I.
In the year when Boris Sheremetiev went to the Hapsburg court of Emperor Leopold and Prince Golitsyn led the charge to Perekop, returning from the Konka River with nothing because the Tatars had set fire to the steppe, a monk who was able to read the drafts left by the late German bridge builder finally completed the new wonder of the world — the Great Stone Bridge.
The bridge had eight spans, and was made of white stone. It was four hundred and sixty feet — seventy sazhens — long.
The engravings by Pieter Picart (you can see small huts on the river — mills or bathhouses), the lithographs by Daziaro (poles under the spans, a few people dawdling and a predictable dinghy, its passenger being ferried across with one oar by a warmly dressed gondolier) and the lithographs by Martynov (the latter-day ones, with the two-tower entry gates that were demolished long before the lithographs themselves were actually published) all depicted the Kremlin and captured the bridge in the first 150 years of its life: flour mills with dams and drains, drinking establishments, the town-house of Prince Menshikov, crowds admiring the sight of river ice breaking up and beginning to flow in spring, the triumphal arch raised for Peter the Great’s Azov victory, a pair of horses pulling a sled with two passengers — a priest and the quick-eyed Pugachev in shackles crying out right and left to the presumably silent crowd, “Forgive me, Christians!”
Sideshows brought wax figures, savages from Africa, and a siren fish recently caught by fishermen. Crowds at the shows gnawed on sunflower seeds and bought colorful balloons inflated with gas. Convicts knelt in the dust, with signs — Arsonist, Robber — around their necks. Constables with theatrical halberds, hirsute students smoking casually and short-haired girls in dark glasses, the Wolf Pack tavern in a dirty two-story building, the jetty of the Moscow Fishermen’s Society (nothing more than a hut on a wooden raft with a bunch of boats tied to it) — and everyone seemingly with a sense that this life on and around the bridge couldn’t last (especially when in the flood of 1783 three arches collapsed at once, crushing a fisherman and some washerwomen). Still, when Alexander the Second took the throne and had the great old bridge dismantled — the old masonry wouldn’t yield to hammers and crowbars, it had to be blown up — people would not forgive him this deed and remembered it often and bitterly.
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