Vladimir Sorokin: A Russian ode to Vienna’s Ringstrasse

The Ring Road, famous Vienna's street opened on May 1, 1865. Source: wikipedia

The Ring Road, famous Vienna's street opened on May 1, 1865. Source: wikipedia

The Russian writer Vladimir Sorokin has contributed an essay to a new work celebrating the 150th anniversary of the opening of Vienna’s Ringstrasse. The book, entitled “1865-2015. 150 Years of the Ringstrasse: 13 Observations” (Metroverlag), brings together the reflections writers and other cultural figures from around the world on this famous boulevard.

The Ringstrasse, “Ring Road” in English, was constructed following a decree by Emperor Franz Joseph I, who famously stated “It is my will.” The boulevard, which opened on May 1, 1865, is lined with parks and opulent buildings in the Historicist style, which deliberately echoed and imitated previous architectural movements. It remains Vienna’s cultural heart, charming tourists and locals alike, as Vladimir Sorokin evocatively describes.

Cocktail, Vladimir Sorokin

If you have already grown weary of the marble splendor of the Secession and your mind’s eye sees the golden laurels peeling off the golden dome like in a Jugendstil fall, if the wonderfully pallid figures in Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze elicit a melancholy response, if the dull worries about your illegally parked car grow unruly, if St. Stephen’s Square, overrun with Chinese and American tourists, suddenly reminds you of football’s World Cup and the game that your favorite team lost and the throng of Japanese tourists exiting St. Stephen’s Cathedral brings back memories of the devastating tsunami’s aftermath and of April’s unpaid tax bill, if you unexpectedly feel dizzy in the Freud Museum and invisible needles push their way to your suddenly ice cold finger tips with psychoanalytical delicacy, if the words “Wiener Schnitzel” coming from the mouth of the elderly waiter drive you from your Thonet chair and out of the legendary coffee house with the marble columns and the replica doll of the mustached regular, if the flower beds at Schönbrunn painfully remind you of your dentist appointment that you have already postponed three times, and the length of the Karl Marx Court makes you recall a ve-e-e-ee-ry old debt to a good old friend, if the coachman’s beard, paired with the bittersweet melody of a waltz coming from a Russian tourist’s iPhone, awakens the memory of the Communist ghost that can supposedly be found in Europe, but that you have never seen in your entire life, if all of Vienna seems like a hybrid of confectionary shops and museums with a never-ending army of polite-but-distant waitresses and waiters – leave all of that behind and go to the Ringstrasse.

I myself did so back when I lived in Vienna for a while – a city that presents so much beauty to the outsider’s eye that this imperial splendor can easily cause weariness and dizziness. There shouldn’t be too much of the most beautiful things, but Vienna is like an ornate cake with a chocolate Mozart on top. One shouldn’t gorge oneself on chocolate every day!

The Ringstrasse is Vienna’s most democratic street. This boulevard is wide open at all times for pedestrians, tourists and the Viennese. It does not demand that you approach it with piety, does not expect you to reverently handle the city map, ascribes no special value to the élite, and it does not sprinkle imperial dust in your eyes. The imperial remains at the margins of the boulevard. On it, there are trams and bikes. Here, trees grow, Schnapps bottles and cigarette butts litter the ground. The Ringstrasse gives you no opportunity to get lost, to lose yourself. Its expanse is long, broad and endless, and although it is called “ring”, it really isn’t one, as it is cut off by the Kai. Therein, too, there is something democratic, the incomplete form of the circle, the absence of a completed rigorousness: the circle is blown up by the river. If you walked along the Ring, you now turn onto the Kai. Buy an ice cream at the kiosk, stroll along the banks of the rapidly flowing canal and enjoy the view of the cloudy water. Here by the water students skate, ladies walk their dogs, bums lie in their own urine. Once you’ve had enough of the river, make another right, walk through the streets and re-emerge at the staggering MAK building, the Museum for Applied Arts. Here, the Ringstrasse continues once again. As if on a river, you can glide across the Ring in a boat of fate that brought you to this magnificent city. Drift along, rowing, rowing, ignoring passers-by along with the sights on both sides of the street. They will not force you to stop, demand that you dock, will not force themselves on you with their stories, their dates and people. They allow themselves only to drift by. If you like, however, you may approach, place your hand on their marble or granite and feel the pregnant pause of the imperial heart. Yes, this is the silence of the lost imperial monument, the splendid eternal resting place of the Habsburgs.

“Viennese Blood! Viennese Blood!” gleefully sing the marble sculptures and columns.

“The Viennese blood has curdled …,” retorts the dark granite plinth. “God keeeeeeep, God proteeeeect …,” whisper the chestnut trees. “Virrrrrribus unittttisss …,” creaks the tram wheel. The stone and iron eagles will never again rise up into the air. They stand guard over the imperial past. Here, one could quote the St. Petersburg born poet, Brodsky: “But forever the eagle was magnetically pulled to the iron alloy.”

The iron fillings of past imperial greatness are spread across marbled Vienna. Caretakers brush them aside each morning, museum guards collect them in plastic bags, doves pick them up along with their bread crumbs, old ladies keep them in caskets with their grandmother’s jewelry and nationalists drive them under their skin as double-headed eagle tattoos. They catch tourists’ eyes, crunch between the teeth of skateboarding youths and crack in the evenings under the high heels of the ladies in their wide coats, rushing off to the next premier at the Opera.

“Oh, you guests of our famous city! While walking along the Ringstrasse, pay attention to the grand symbols of Austro-Hungarian statehood, place your hands upon the claws of the Austro-Hungarian eagle! Stick your gum on the intimidating beaks, spray the mighty wings with Coca Cola and take a picture with your pink iPhone!”

If this isn’t what you want, then simply keep walking, and enjoy the rustle of the chestnut and plane trees. Leave the two palaces (the masculine Heldenplatz on the one side, the bucolic Maria Theresia on the other) behind you … Through this Ring, Vienna quietly lets you in and back out again.


The Burgtheater of Vienna, 1900. Source: wikipedia

The important thing is the feeling with which you leave the Ringstrasse.

Each capital is like a living creature. It can give itself, open itself, share its inner warmth. It can also, however, engulf you in an urban chill. You can live your whole life in a city and never penetrate it, never feel the warmth of its essence. Without a doubt, there are frigid cities, but you cannot – God dammit – allow this frigidity to slow you down. Trips to museums bore a city. Every capital city on earth is doomed to have museum dreams, but they are quite tired of them. Capitals want tenderness from their visitors. Each one has its erogenous zones. You need only to touch these and the city will surrender itself, fall on its back and spread its legs. Or it will climb onto you and intoxicate you with its hot breath.

Even the locals say: “You have to know these spots!”

You definitely have to know the sensitive spots on the body of Vienna’s marble beauty. She has several of them. If you touch them, this city will fall into erotic hot flashes and spread the intoxicating scents that stay hidden from other tourists, used to only brushing against a city with their cold cameras. There are larger areas, such as the Heldenplatz and the Central Cemetery, and smaller ones, that compensate by being ve-e-e-e-e-ry sensitive: the Naschmarkt, the “Bermuda Triangle”, the catacombs. The Ringstrasse, however, is one of the main zones. Upon being touched, it causes Vienna, the beauty, to tremble and softly close her dark Magyar eyes. The blood in Vienna’s veins begins to quicken. Regardless of its topographical lack of straightness, the Ringstrasse is this city’s backbone. Do you know the whore Magda from Nabokov’s “Camera obscura”? Even she enjoyed having a lover’s lips glide over her back. Thus, it comes as no surprise that spoiled, aristocratic Vienna does as well!

Vienna Ring 150
1865, 2015. 150 Jahre Wiener Ringstraße - Dreizehn Betrachtungen
(c) Vienna Tourist Board.
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Imagine your shoes as these lips. Wait until the evening and step onto the Ringstrasse after the hot summer sun has gone down and colored the sky. The pavement is full of dusty warmth. One never finds crowds of people on the Ringstrasse. There are only passers-by who are hastily going about their business or simply strolling. This long and broad street offers people space and keeps them from piling together. You can freely wander along it. Tourists devour the area through the lenses of their electronic gadgets, students hurry laughingly to a party, family men to their usual café for their well-deserved prime boiled beef, paired with a glass of Gösser. Black-haired beauties rush to their lovers, ladies walk their dogs, crazy people … There is a crazy person hugging the trunk of a chestnut tree and mumbling: “Glow, glow Betelgeuse! Lovely, beloved Martha, do you hear the cosmic music?!” Vienna is rich in crazies, and the Ringstrasse has many of them. Once, as I was taking my usual walk from the Hörlgasse past the Votive Church through the tiny Sigmund Freud Park to the Ringstrasse, I had hardly reached the Parliament when a meager figure released itself from Pallas Athena, strode down the marble stairway and approached me. His hair short, but with a beard, he reminded me somehow of the ingenious Hundertwasser. His grey-blue, crystal clear eyes looked exalted-concentrated. When I stopped, he spoke to me in an old-fashioned, stilted manner:

“Kind sir, you do know that they aren’t far.”

“Who – they?”

“The batsmen.”

“The batsmen?”

“Yes, yes, the batsmen. Hordes of them, they’re coming.”

“From where?”

“From everywhere. The red batsmen with their bats.

They will destroy everything. Everything!”

He held out his hand with its overly long fingernails.

“Be so kind, place a bit of change in this hand for the fight against the red batsmen.”

I gave him a few coins.

Perhaps he was only playing the role of a crazy person.

But he played it convincingly.

This city, with all its imperial greatness, generally evokes playfulness, the theatrical. It does not only exude festiveness, but also decadence. Melted together, they create what could be called Late Viennese Style – an excellent, stimulating cocktail:

50ml Klimt

50ml Freud

50ml Archduke Ferdinand

One teaspoon Schönberg

A pinch of Wittgenstein

This cocktail is served at all bars along the Ringstrasse after sunset. Beforehand, you can walk from the University to the Opera. A walk along Vienna’s main boulevard should definitely never look like mundane tourism. I recommend leaving backpack, camera and map at home. Shoulders, throat and hands should be free and relaxed. If you want to get the best value from your walk, don’t bring anything other than your wallet and cigarettes. You should definitely also leave the iPhone and iPad, hopelessly stuck in the hands of the modern man, behind at the hotel. It is important to move along the Ringstrasse at a relaxed pace, if possible hand in hand with a close companion, in order to exchange sentences such as:

“The Opera.”

“Yes, yes, the Opera … By the way, my dear, we still haven’t been to ‘Tristan’. I would like to know what’s on this month’s programme.”

“Look, the Goethe monument. Did he ever live in Vienna?”

“No, I don’t think so. But it’s possible.”

“Maybe …”

“Is this the place where the Anschluss was proclaimed?”

“Exactly, here is the spot where the Viennese cried out ‘Yes!’”

“Look, what beautiful trees …”

“Vienna is generally a green city, that’s good …”

“And what a beautiful parliament they have.”

“Almost too beautiful.”

“In a parliament like that you can only adopt beautiful

resolutions …”

As soon as the sun has disappeared behind the rooftops of Vienna, go into a bar and order the decadent house cocktail.

You should now take your time drinking it and avoid having a serious conversation. You can also order a dish, if possible, to go along with your walk, Viennese cuisine, just not a Wiener Schnitzel. Order Blunzn, a fried blood sausage with a light side dish – you can’t go wrong with that. You can also drink a glass of red house wine. Better leave out dessert, because it could make you flat and tired and might make you want to go to the theatre to nap, instead of continuing your walk. Instead, indulge yourself with a few more cocktails. Once you have spent two, three hours in the bar, you can pay and casually ask the bartender a few questions, such as: “Which of the Viennese actionists frequented this bar? Otto Muehl? Right after the ‘penis incident’? Just walked in and had a glass? Unbelievable!” And then you can exit onto the Ringstrasse.

In the twilight it seems changed, more festive. The democratic daylight has made way for the evening’s secrecy. The street lamps are on. The illuminated colossuses of the past’s marble constructions tower over the boulevard, and you cannot navigate around them as easily as during the day. They demand attention and look right at you. They are not alone – with them is an age forever lost. And its protagonists.

“And the dead stand entangled with the palaces …” No, they are not standing, they are moving, moving on the boulevard directly towards you: Empress Sisi with a stabbed chest, deathly pale face and wonderful, towering hair; Gustav Klimt, throwing off a sack dress and embracing Adele Bloch-Bauer, submerged in the golden splendor of his colors; Sigmund Freud, prying open his jaw with pliers and inserting a cigar; the young Adolf Hitler in a worn coat, with a penetrating stare, bristled mustache and a folder full of his watercolor paintings; Soviet soldiers, playfully stripping a girl of her bicycle, bread, vegetables, margarine and honor as she cries for help; a heavy, round-faced man with a melon, vest and an accordion comes out of the Volksgarten, heading directly towards you, pulling apart the bellows of his accordion and singing with a soulful, droning voice:

In the green forest of Mayerling,

A beautiful dream found its end,

Two hearts very much in love,

and suddenly beating no more.

He then presses the bellows of the accordion back together and turns to you:

“My dear sirs, what brings you to the Ringstrasse at this time of day? We ought to head to the Heuriger at Nussdorf instead. I promise that you won’t be bored! The carriage awaits!”

And out of the twilight a carriage drawn by two horses appears, in which you leave the Ringstrasse behind you.

Special thanks to Vienna Tourist Board.


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