20 September 2011, 15:59

Legendary reporter

Legendary reporter
Download audio file

There are people who become living legends. Vladimir Gilyarovsky, a famous Moscow reporter on the cusp of the 19th and 20th centuries, was one such man.

There are people who become living legends. Vladimir Gilyarovsky, a famous Moscow reporter on the cusp of the 19th and 20th centuries, was one such man. His fame was so widespread, that you only needed to say “take me to Gilyarovksy’s” to a cabbie to be delivered to the house where “Uncle Gilyai” lived without fail. Uncle Gilyai was what Muscovites called him. Now, this house in central Stoleshnikov alley bears a memorial board that has just one word written alongside his name  – “writer”. This is the truth, but not the whole truth, because no board could possibly be big enough to list all of the professions of this man, to transcribe everything he did for Russian culture.

Gilyarovsky grew up in Vologda, in the Russian north, in an affluent family. Having become infatuated with the revolutionary ideas of  that time, at the age of 17, without finishing school, he ran away from home, leaving a note that read: “I’ve left to work a simple labourer on the Volga”. This meant becoming a hauler – one of the hardest trades. Haulers strapped themselves into giant harnesses and tug heavy barges along the Volga. These were people of incredible endurance and physical strength, both which Gilyarovksy had plenty to spare. He came from a real Russian family, characterized by strict rules and an unhurried lifestyle. Precisely these sorts of families produced wholesome, tough and robust people. Gilyarovsky could break ruble coins with his bare hands and easily unbend horseshoes. Once, he came to visit his father and, wishing to display his strength, he tied a poker into a knot. The old man was seriously mad and in a fit of fury, undid the knot.

The things that Gilyarovsky dabbled in the first ten years after leaving home! He was a hauler and a porter on the Volga, a horse wrangler in the southern steppes, breaking teaching in wild jumpers… He served in the army, being a volunteer in the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78, fighting in the ranks of the most reckless reconnoiters and being bestowed a most honorable award – the St George cross… He made it to the circus, where he stunned the audience with a fearless item – riding a bareback horse. He travelled with a troupe of roaming actors, performed on stage and penned simple plays… He encountered plenty of dangers and came close to death many a time. And yet, he lived till the ripe old age of 83, sticking to his own recipe for a long life: “Never fear anyone or anything and never get angry and you’ll live till a hundred”. His daring boldness and good nature were also hereditary. In fact, that’s where the Gilyarovsky name comes from. It was given to the father of the future writer when the former enrolled at a religious school, by adopting into Russian the Latin “hilaris”, which means joyous and fun. Gilyarovsky’s father did not become a priest, but the last name stuck.

In 1881, when Gilyarovsky turned 28, he settled in Moscow, where he lived until the end of his days, in 1935. He became the “king of reporters” in Moscow, a journalist who was said to know about everything that would happen tomorrow the day before. Indeed, Gilyarovsky said this himself:

“Many people are able to see facts, but to look into them, to analyse them – that is the business of a reporter. I loved doing this infinitely and gave everything I had to it, often not without risk. And not once were my reports rejected. Everything was the utter truth, scrupulously verified.”

All the more surprising that Uncle Gilyai wrote about everything and anything, starting from theatrical and social news and finishing with criminal chronicles. 

He knew Moscow like the back of his hand. Gilyarovksy was an expert on Moscow’s “underbelly”, including the Khitrovka district, which was inhabited by all sorts of social outcasts: tramps, beggars, thieves and former convicts. Good Muscovites didn’t dare venture there, while Gilyarovsky had no qualms about visiting. He not only empathized with those unfortunate people, but also understood the tragedy of their lives. And they trusted him, often asking for his help and receiving it.

Gilyarovsky wrote his first book about these people, called “The Stories of the Slums”. However, this book was banned by censorship authorities and its entire print run was burned. After this, he did not write for a long time and then published several books about Moscow and Muscovites. This was a real encyclopedia of Moscow life at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries. We would not know nearly as much about the Russian capital of that time without them.

It is mind-boggling to think that one man’s memory can preserve so many typical stories about people, streets, outskirts, squares and taverns. Just take his recollections about the legendary Filippov bakery, the building of which still stands on Moscow’s central thoroughfare, Tverskaya Street. Back then, it was the most popular street in the city.

“The Filippov bakery was always brimming with customers. At the far end, a constant crowd was gathered around hot metal boxes, munching on famous Filippov pirozhki pies with meat, eggs, rice, mushrooms, curds, sultanas and jam. The customers included everyone from young students to old officials, from primped up ladies to poorly dressed working women. The five-kopeck pirozhki, made using good oil and fresh mince, were so large that a couple made for a filling breakfast. They were introduced still by Ivan Filippov, the bakery’s founder, who became famous far beyond Moscow city limits thanks for his white-bread kalachi and saiki and most importantly, his wonderful dark rye bread.

The shelves and counters on the left side of the bakery, which had a separate entrance, were always surrounded by crowds who were buying up rye and white bread.

“Black bread is the number one meal for a hard worker,” Ivan Filippov used to say.

“Why is it so good here?” people asked.

“Because bread needs love and care. Baking aside, all power is in the flour. I do not buy my flour, it is all mine, I buy the best kind on location, I have my own people at mills, so that not a speck of dust gets in.”

“So very simple!” he concluded with his favourite expression.

Rye bread, kalachi and saiki were sent to the tsarist court in St Petersburg every day. There were attempts to bake on location, but they did not work out, and old man Filippov said that such kalachi and saiki could not be made in St Petersburg. The Neva waters just wouldn’t do! What’s more, horse-drawn carts - there were no railroads back then – travelled across the winter snows even to Siberia, carrying his dry biscuits, kalachi and saiki. Using some special technology, they were frozen fresh out of the oven and carried over thousands of kilometers, and defrosted right before eating – also in a special way, in moist towels, so that aromatic hot kalachi were served piping hot somewhere in Barnaul or Irkutsk.

And then a novelty was created, which customers pounced on – saiki buns with raisins…

“How did you think of them?”

“It was very simple,” the old man answered. And indeed, it transpired most effortlessly. Governor General Zakrevsky at that stage was the omnipotent dictator in Moscow, who instilled fear in everyone. Every morning, hot Filippov saiki were served with his tea.

“What is this disgusting thing? Bring baker Filippov here at once!” Zakrevsky roared one morning.

His servants, unsure of what was happening, dragged the discombobulated Filippov to their boss.

“What is this? A cockroach?” He demanded and pushed forth a saika with a cockroach inside. “What is this? Well?”

“It’s very simple, your honour,” the old man said, turning the saika in his hands. “It is a raisin!” he said and gobbled up the piece with the roach.

“You’re lying, you rascal. There are no saiki with raisins! Get out!”

Filippov ran into the bakery, grabbed a sieve with raisins and dumped it into the saiki dough, to the dismay of the bakers.

An hour later, Filippov was treating Zakrevsky to saiki with raisins and a day later, customers couldn’t get enough of them.

“So very simple! It all happens on its own, you just need to catch it,” Filippov said when raisin saiki were brought up. And he told a wonderful story about the creation of a new type of hard candy, called ‘landrin’.

This is what happened. The Eliseev confectionary had their hard candy made by a man by the name of Feodor. Every morning, he would bring in a tray of candies – he made them in a special way, one half was white, the other red – all bright and dappled, no one else could make them the same way and they came in wrappers. After his name day, maybe he was a bit hung over, he got up to bring the goods to Eliseev. He saw a covered up tray, all ready to go. He grabbed it and ran, so as not to be late. Eliseev unwrapped the tray and yelled: “What have you brought? What is this?”

Feodor saw that he forgot to wrap up the candies, grabbed the tray and ran back. He stopped for a little rest, sitting down at a bench next to a girls’ grammar school. One, two, three girls ran past…

“How much are the candies?” He couldn’t understand…

“Will you take a couple of kopecks? Give me a handful.”

One handed over her money, then another… He took the money and realized that this was good business. Then lots came out, bought out the whole tray and said: “Come to the yard at midday tomorrow, for recess… What’s your name?”

“Feodor, Landrin is my last name.”

He worked out that the young ladies were more profitable business that Eliseev. The next day he came to the school again.

“Landrin is here!”

At first he was trading haphazardly, then in particular spots, and then opened up a factory. These candies started to be called ‘landrin’ – the word sounded French! Well, landrin it is! Meanwhile, he was a brute from Novgorod, his last name came from the Landra river, where his village was.

“So very simple! He just didn’t miss his chance. And you say – ‘cockroach’!” Filippov concluded.

Meanwhile, Filippov was a discriminating man and did not use every opportunity to make a profit. He had his own brand of honesty. Where other bakers saw no harm in making an extra kopeck, Filippov did things differently.

Bakers made huge sums ahead of celebrations, pawning off second-rate goods for full price on charitable orders for alms to prisoners.

Since time immemorial, there was a custom to send alms to the arrested or ‘sad folks’, as they were called then - on great feasts – Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Shrovetide and other major Orthodox celebrations.

Merchants were the biggest donors, who considered donating foods to the ‘sad folks’ a necessary deed for saving their souls, so that the recipients would pray for their donors, believing that the prayers of convicts would sooner reach their destination.

Bakers and bakeries gained the most from these alms. Only old man Filippov, who saved his great business by passing a cockroach for a raisin, was an honest man in this situation.

He always sent only fresh kalachi and saiki to the arrested; what’s more, he personally donated the best foods for ill convicts. And he did this “so very simply” – not because of profits or medals and decorations from charitable institutions”.

Many years later, Filippov’s son, who continued his father’s business, replaced the two-storey building with the large one that stands there to this day. He decorated it in a foreign style, bringing in the once-famous Filippov coffee house with mirror windows, marble tables and suited-up doormen, as well as the “Luxe” hotel. In Soviet times, it became the “Central” hotel and the bakery, losing the name of its founder, became Bakery Number One.

Years rolled on and everything returned to where it started. The Filippov bakery, which we have learnt so many interesting things about from Vladimir Gilyarovsky, once again takes up its historical spot.


    and share via