A tale of two cities

Rustam Rakhmatulin's says it would take 40 days to show someone Moscow. In his new book, he encourages us to appreciate it on a metaphysical level.

Every year sees the publication of a host of books on Moscow, its architecture, history or some specific aspects of the city's life. "Two Moscows, or The Metaphysics of the Capital" is one such work, but it stands out from the crowd: It has been singled out by critics and even nominated for the Big Book, a young but already very prestigious literary prize.

Its author, Rustam Rakhmatulin, a journalist, historian and professor at the Journalism and Creative Writing college, has spent 15 years writing the book. It appeared in installments in "thick" literary magazines and even in some newspapers in the 1990s, when the attention span of newspaper readers was longer than today. But before this year, nobody had wanted to publish it in book form.

Publishers' cautiousness was not completely unfounded: "Two Moscows" is an unusually dense book, and its main focus, honestly advertised in the title, is, well, metaphysical.

"I don't think it should scare off the reader," said Rakhmatulin when we met in a downtown cafe. "One should have a philosophical streak, for sure; otherwise, the book would just appear as a collection of non sequiturs. But people who appreciate it tend to accept the message."

The message seems to be the manifestation of transcendental forces — which one may call divine will — in the arrangement of city features. One of the recurring themes of the book is the connection between Moscow and Rome, advertised in the concept of "Moscow as the third Rome" in the 16th century, when the monk Philopheus famously said "two Romes have fallen [Rome proper and Constantinople], the third [Moscow] is standing firm, and there won't be a fourth." This piece of imperialist propaganda suited Ivan the Terrible, but on a metaphysical level one needs just to look at the map to see the uncanny similarity between the two cities: the circular shape, the bend of the river, the seven hills. "This wasn't planned," Rakhmatulin said. "There must be a deeper explanation. If you look closer, you will find other similarities, such as the identical role of the Kremlin and the Palatine Hill, for example."

The multilayered nature of Russia's capital prompted the multilayered structure of the book, with essays arranged in an idiosyncratic order, sometimes chronologically, sometimes geographically. While the texts themselves are doubtlessly works of literature, they are nevertheless supplemented with critical apparatus such as endnotes after each chapter and a general index; for all its literary value, it is a scholarly book, too.

Rakhmatulin says he learned about his Big Book nomination by chance, but was pleased nonetheless: "It is a literary prize, and I firmly believe that essay, as a genre, belongs to the literary world. I am glad the board of the prize appreciated it."

The book was issued in two versions: one with an austere black-and-white cover, the other with a rather garish one, apparently a better sell in the eyes of the publishers. ("I haven't seen a single person who'd have preferred it," Rakhmatulin said.) Inside, though, there is no difference, and the typographical quality does not do justice to the excellent graphic materials collected by the author. Rakhmatulin says he does not exclude the possibility of a future album-like edition, but it's too soon to think about it.

One of the most pressing concerns about Moscow is that it is disappearing before our eyes. Rakhmatulin writes a column in Izvestia, where he addresses this issue. "We have stopped the avalanche of demolitions," he said, "even though there are still occasional outbursts. But there is also a subtler technique of renovation beyond recognition, and this threat remains."

Unlike the flashy and showy St. Petersburg, Moscow prefers to keep its secrets. Rakhmatulin, a seasoned city guide, says that getting to know Moscow is an arduous task. "It would take me 40 full-day walks to show someone around. Sixty, if you want to include the suburbs. Two months of intense study!"

"Moscow is hiding from us," he said, pointing at the building in the yard where we were sitting. "Do you know what this business center is? It's the former Doctors' Club; Chekhov mentions it in his novella 'The Lady with a Lapdog.' To uncover this city, you've got to look beyond the surface."

"Two Moscows, or The Metaphysics of the Capital," (Dve Moskvy, ili Metafizika Stolitsy) is published by Olimp, part of the AST group. See www.rus-olimp.ru for more details.

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