“Beyond one window, a huge panorama of the city sprawled far beyond the Moscow River, all of it blue-grey under snow. The other window, to the left of the first, looked out onto a section of the Kremlin, across from which stood the Cathedral of Christ the Savior: its white mass seemed excessively close to the fortress wall, and all of it looked too new.” – Ivan Bunin, “Cleansing Monday”
The above quotation is from a story we read for class this week, which, although fictional, came to life for us as we stood in front of this very window. The story is of two young, rich, beautiful Muscovites in turn-of-the Century, pre-Revolutionary Moscow. The woman is a freethinking, almost aloof, university student who “rarely attended classes,” and has religious aspirations. Her lover, the story’s narrator, is a hopeless romantic, constantly bringing his (unnamed) lady flowers and taking her to expensive restaurants and high-class parties. She, however, maintains an air of reluctance, and eventually leaves him to join a convent. In the final scene, two years later, the narrator is given one more glimpse of his former love.
The apartment in which the woman from the story lives mimics European architecture and is one in a line of such buildings along the Moscow river on Prechistenskaya Naberezhnaya built by 19th century Moscow merchants. These are all opulent for their extravagance and distinctly non-Russian style. This is echoed to a certain extent in the nearby Cathedral of Christ the Savior. When this was initially built (the original, pre-Revolution building), it caused some controversy for its large, Gothic-influenced profile that many Orthodox people saw as unnatural for Moscow. Our tour guide, Katya, in pointing out the small church beside the gigantic Cathedral, noted its adherence to Russian styles—built of wood and modest in size. This church was built for the Cathedral’s construction workers, who would begin each workday with prayer in the chapel.
Although we weren’t able to contrast the interior of the little wooden chapel with the awe-inspiring paintings, gaping windows and cavernous openness, we were no less taken in by the building’s quaint, authentically Russian appearance. It is hard to believe that the small structure is less than two decades old, and yet possesses all of the qualities of a medieval church one might find in the depths of the Russian forest. Here, in the rapidly modernizing city of Moscow, the church is in its own way a foreign object, though for quite different reasons than those associated with the too-modern, too-European Cathedral.
Just as in the neighborhood in which it is set, the story juxtaposes old-fashioned religious practice with high-society secularism. The story’s capricious heroine epitomizes this—one day going to a “vulgar” actor’s party and the next setting off to join a convent. Even the narrator, who criticizes the woman for her religious tendencies, is moved in a very religious way at the end of the story, when he glimpses his former lover two years after her initial departure.
The title, “Cleansing Monday,” references a religious holiday the Monday before lent begins when Russian Orthodox believers fast and purify by going to a banya (see Kenny’s trip to the banya). During this holiday, the woman wears all black and recites the following very famous prayer of St. Ephrem:
“O Lord and Master of my life, a spirit of idleness, despondency, ambition, and idle talking give me not. But rather a spirit of chastity, humble-mindedness, patience, and love bestow upon me Thy servant. Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my failings and not condemn my brother; for blessed art Thou unto the ages of ages. Amen.”
Interestingly, my (Nikki’s) host family is quite religious and during Lent, every evening before bed, my family gathers in front of their icons in the living room and recites this prayer with humble prostrations before God.