Some people become living legends. One such person in Russian history was Vladimir Gilyarovsky, a reporter who at the turn of the twentieth century was famous throughout Moscow, and was lovingly dubbed “Uncle Gilyai” by Muscovites. In giving directions to a coachman, you would simply say, “To Gilyarovsky”, and you would be taken straight to his house in Stoleshnikov Lane in the very heart of Moscow. Today, the house bears a memorial plaque. Next to his name stands but one word, “writer”. This tells the truth, of course, but not the whole truth. Nevertheless, no plaque can be large enough to carry the list of all the occupations and merits of this amazing man.
The future writer spent his early years in the town of Volga in northern Russia. At 17, he dropped out of school, and ran away from home leaving a note that said, “I’m gone to work as a manual labourer on the Volga”. This meant he would become a barge hauler, a hard occupation that required extraordinary physical strength and endurance. However, Gilyarovsky had such strength. He received it from his father. Once, as a grown-up, he came home and just for fun tied a poker in a knot. Of course, his father got angry, “why should my son damage kitchen utensils!”, but he did not say a word to his son. He simply took the poker and… undid the knot!
During the first decade after he left home, Gilyarovsky tried a variety of odd jobs. He worked as a barge-hauler and docker on the Volga, as a horse-herder, and volunteered to fight in the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-1878, serving in a unit consisting of audacious intelligence officers. For his conspicuous bravery, he received the highest military award, the Order of St George. Then, Gilyarovsky joined a circus and enraptured the public with the daredevil stunt of racing on an unsaddled horse. Travelling with a company of wandering actors, he acted on the stage himself and dabbled in simple plays. He faced numerous dangers, and many times was on the verge of death. Nevertheless, he lived to be 83! He followed his own recipe of longevity, “Don’t let anybody or anything scare you, never be angry, and you will live 100 years”. His cheerful audacity and good nature also came from his parents as well as his last name itself, which was given to his father when he entered seminary. In Latin, it means “cheerful”, and it was changed into a Russian last name. Gilyarovsky’s father never became a priest, but the name stuck.
In 1881, at the age of 28, Gilyarovsky made Moscow his home, and lived there until his death in 1935. In Moscow, he became the recognised king of reporters, a journalist who knew today what was going to happen tomorrow. He described this ability in these words, “Many can see the facts. However, it is up to reporters to take a careful look at things. I love my profession with all my heart, and plunge into it often risking my life. Not a single time was my report turned down. Each was strict, verified, and pure truth”.
This was even more amazing since Gilyarovsky covered every aspect of life, ranging from theatre and society news to criminal happenings. He had a perfect knowledge of Moscow, particularly, the districts of the homeless, beggars, and thieves. Muscovites tried to avoid those neighbourhoods. However, Gilyarovsky was not scared. He sympathised with the hopeless, and understood the tragedy of their situation. Outcasts trusted him, and often turned to him for help. Gilyarovsky entitled his first book People of the Slums. The government censors suppressed the book and burned the whole edition.
After a long interval, Gilyarovsky issued several more books about Moscow and Muscovites, which put together, one might describe as an encyclopaedia of Moscow’s life at the turn of the twentieth century. No one produced a more extensive and trustworthy record of those days. As another twentieth century writer, Konstantin Paustovsky, put it, “Gilyarovsky was picturesque in everything. In his biography, his looks, his manner of speaking, his carefree attitude, and his diversified and many talents…”
14 December 2006
This is Russia
Voice of Russia World Service