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Bunin It Up: Visiting The Sites Of "Cleansing Monday"

April 19, 2010 at 7:15 am
By Lily, Ken, and Karl

After reading the short story “Cleansing Monday” by the Nobel Prize winning Ivan Bunin last week, we went on a walking tour through the formerly aristocratic neighborhood where the story takes place. Bunin describes the life of an extremely attractive, well-off, young unmarried couple in the 19th century, during the peak of the Muscovite merchant class.

Bunin reflects on pre-revolutionary Moscow, setting the story in a city that had not yet seen the fall of the aristocracy, the rise of Soviet communism, and the destruction of the Church of Christ the Savior, which stands outside the window of the young woman’s apartment in the text. (The Cathedral was rebuilt in the 1990s.)

We started our walk with the goal of finding exactly which building her apartment is in, with a few clues to guide us: it had to be at least five stories (the character lives on the fifth floor), with a “huge panorama of the city” that “sprawled far beyond the Moscow River” outside one window, and the Kremlin and the Cathedral of Christ the Savior outside another. Both the young man and woman in the story are of the merchant class, so we knew the woman’s apartment would be in a stylish building, and of course, one that was built before the 20th century. Due to a slight error in counting the number of floors, we didn’t realize at first that the building described by Bunin is in fact a well-known example of Russian Moderne style: Dom Skazki, or The House of Stories.

It is here that the narrator, the man in this young couple, comes to visit and placate his unreceptive lover. Both live the leisurely life of rich Moscow youth—discussing history, dining at the city’s finest hotels, frequenting the opera and ballet, and finding new ways to spend their endless supply of money. As we walked, we saw the Metropole Hotel, one of the characters’ preferred dining locations, located near the Kremlin walls. This hotel is another example of Style Moderne, and like Dom Skazki, has mosaics featured on its façade. 

Despite their well-matched social class, the couple in the story disagrees on most everything. While he wants to continue this extravagant life, she has a deeper calling, and eventually leaves him to live in a nunnery, giving up the idle life of an aristocrat with no need to work. Her decision does not seem to come from a strong faith, but instead, is a result of her contemplative and pensive personality. She breaks away from a lifestyle centered around earthly pleasures, but only because she is bored with her wealth, and craves a drastic change.

On Cleansing Monday, the first day of Lent in Russian Orthodox, the couple goes out to eat, party, drink, and finally consummate their relationship. In other words, they do not begin Lent in an orthodox manner. The next morning, however, she leaves for the nunnery, giving up this life once and for all.