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A Walk Down Washington's Alley Of Russian Poets

The Alley of Russian Poets is the brainchild of Uli Zislin, a Russian-born poetry collector and songwriter.
The Alley of Russian Poets is the brainchild of Uli Zislin, a Russian-born poetry collector and songwriter.
WASHINGTON -- On a hot and humid day in the U.S. capital, a young girl steps up to a microphone and evokes the Russian winter.

The north heaps up the lofty clouds,
It blows, it howls -- then in a trice
Enchantress winter brings snow and ice.
Winter: it spreads, and snowy scarves
It hangs on the branches of the oaks;
It lies like carpets in smooth waves
Amidst the fields, on the hills' slopes.
Of the motionless still stream the banks
Are leveled and covered with fluffy down;
The frost twinkles, and we all give thanks,
And welcome mother winter's pranks.

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As onlookers shield themselves from the sun, the season hardly seems right for these lines by Aleksandr Pushkin.

The girl, and her fellow readers from a local Russian-language children's school, at times compete with the sounds from a nearby basketball court. The setting for Pushkin's words -- a public park in Washington -- might also seem out of place.

But on this day it all makes sense.

Members of the local Russian-American community and American-born enthusiasts of Russian literature -- plus a few curious passersby -- have gathered to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Washington's Alley of Russian Poets.

The alley is actually just a short path behind a recreation center in the city's Glover Park. It is lined with 10 trees, each of which is marked with a small plaque and dedicated to a giant of Russian poetry from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Here, Boris Pasternak rubs branches with Marina Tsvetaeva, while Aleksandr Blok and Afanasy Fet rustle together across the way.

The "Alley" site dedicated to Boris Pasternak
The "Alley" site dedicated to Boris Pasternak
The alley is the brainchild of Uli Zislin, a Russian-born poetry collector and songwriter whose idea fell on receptive ears in 2003.

Ten years later, the 82-year-old Zislin concedes that the alley is mainly known to the Washington area's Russian-American community, if at all. He says it is meant to remind them of their mother country's cultural achievements, but is also intended to educate those born in the United States.

Russia's intensified crackdown on civil society, its support for the regime in Syria, and other public actions that have recently garnered negative attention make it especially important to not let the country's cultural riches be forgotten, says Zislin, who adds that those riches are often neglected.

"We are concerned about all the bad stuff that is happening in Russia now," Zislin says. "And as far as culture is concerned, it always comes last in terms of financing, everywhere, and so does education. Culture will not be lost, but there are problems in this area."

Zislin has also turned his own apartment into a museum dedicated to Russian poetry and music. He hopes that his personal collection of recordings and books may one day become the seed for an American museum of Russian culture. The alley would make a perfect tie-in.

Laura Sheahen, a writer and photographer, is one of several non-Russians in attendance at the ceremony.

"In the newspaper headlines there are a lot of negative things about Russia -- political things and the government -- but I think what a lot of Americans don't know is [that] there's a beautiful Russian culture," Sheahen tells RFE/RL after laying a carnation on Anna Akhmatova's plaque. "[It's] not just poetry, but music and novels and painting. [It's] one of the great civilizations in world history and it should really be celebrated."
A stone marking the Alley of Russian Poets
A stone marking the Alley of Russian Poets

"Political realities don't define a people," she adds.

Anastasia Borovikova, a college student who moved to the United States from the Russian city of Obninsk as a young child, now volunteers with the "Bukva" children's school, some of whose students are here to recite poetry and sing.

She says she hopes that those in attendance will come to the same realization that she did.

"I would like them to take a minute and go through and appreciate how really diverse America is, and how something like this can exist in America, and how kids can grow up both Russian and American and have an appreciation for both cultures equally," Borovikova says.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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