Maxim Gorky, Muzeon Park, Moscow

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Maxim Gorky is a writer I have a hard time relating to. Solzhenitsyn’s condemnation of him as someone who turned a blind eye to the Red Terror was an enduring blow. Gorky did not see a lot of violence and perfidy, or he chose not to see them. Either way, he was too big a figure, too famous, too smart, too talented, too well-connected to allow himself such an egregious error. In his favor, I am being one-sided. He supported young talent and came to the defense of many who were in trouble. Surely he will always remain a paradoxical figure in Russian-Soviet literary history.

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Gorky’s literature is another thing. He was held up during the Soviet period as a sort of Soviet Tolstoy and his stature as a cultural giant, though somewhat diminished, continues today. I’ve always found him to be a royal bore. It seems to me that he has all of Tolstoy’s pretensions to greatness, but none of the greatness. His most famous play The Lower Depths – still frequently staged today – strikes me as a pack of cliches about workers, intellectuals and lowlifes. His much better Summer Folk is, in fact, a rip-off of Chekhovian devices, but without the lightness or wit of Chekhov. His Ostrovsky-inspired family sagas – such as The Petty Bourgeoisie or  Vassa Zheleznova – can be very powerful in the hands of a good director. I’ve never been able to stick long with his novels, famous as some of them are – Mother, The Life of Klim Samgin and others.

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The monument that now stands behind the House of Artists on Krymsky Val is one of hundreds of “abandoned” sculptures that make up the Muzeon Park, or, as it is sometimes known in English, the Fallen Monuments Park. Gorky stands here rather ignominiously stuck up against some trees not far from old statues of Joseph Stalin,  secret police chief No. 1 Felix Derzhinsky and other politicians whose reputations have suffered in recent years. Gorky, who used to stand in the plaza before the Belorussky Train Station, ended up here for a different reason. The plaza and everything around it was dug up in 2005 to begin reconstruction of roads and intersections in the area. Nine years later the construction is still going full force and Mr. Gorky – if there ever were any plans to return him to his proper place – still stands in the Muzeon Park. This monument, an impressive one no matter what you may think of the man or his writing, has a curious history. It was designed by sculptor Ivan Shadr in 1939, three years after Gorky’s death, but was not completed until 1951 (10 years after Shadr’s death) by sculptors Vera Mukhina and Nina Zelenskaya.

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The House on the Embankment, Moscow

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The House on the Embankment. Anyone want to argue that a picture isn’t worth a thousand words? One of the most famous buildings in Moscow, sort of across the Moscow River from another of Moscow’s famous structures – the Kremlin. The House on the Embankment was built in the early years of Soviet power (1931) and was intended to house important government officials and their families. It was designed by architect Boris Iofan. One of those government officials was the father of a young man named Yury Trifonov, who grew up to be one of the finest writers in the Soviet Union. Yury’s father Valentin suffered the same fate as an enormous number of residents of this building – he was arrested in June 1937 and shot in March 1938.  His son Yury wrote about that, and about others in the building who suffered a similar fate, in his great novel The House on the Embankment. A plaque commemorating the fact that Trifonov lived here and wrote about the building was erected in 2003.

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The building itself is gorgeous in its massive, yet simple, way. It is full of straight lines creating visual angles and is clearly a “child” of the Constructivist age of architecture.  It is located on the Bersenevskaya Embankment along the Moscow River, and the front section houses a  massive theater that seats some 2,000 people and today is called the Estrada Theater, something like the Variety Theater. The street-level walls of this building are laden with memorial plaques to an inordinate number of famous individuals in the fields of politics, aviation, science, literature, theater and more. I will post some of those plaques at a later date, but this one is meant to focus attention on the building itself.

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I spent an evening in one of the apartments here many years ago. My wife Oksana and I were invited to tea by Marina Murzina, one of the leading Moscow theater critics and theater journalists at the time. She grew up in the building with her father Alexander Murzin, a journalist who ghost-wrote the famous memoir Virgin Soil for former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. Brezhnev was awarded State Prizes for his literary prowess, while those who actually hammered that prowess out were awarded beautiful apartments in one of the nation’s most prestigious buildings.

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Ilkhom Theater, Tashkent, Uzbekistan

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This is one of the coolest marquee walls I have ever encountered anywhere. It happens to be the place where you look to see what’s playing tonight at the Ilkhom Theater in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. There aren’t many major Russian-language theaters outside of Russia. The Russian Drama Theater in Riga, Latvia, is one. The Ilkhom, founded in 1976 by Mark Weil when the Soviet Union still seemed to be an eternal construct, rounds out the top two. Since the break-up of the USSR the Drama Theater in Riga, though continuing to exist, has only sporadically done much of interest. The Ilkhom, on the contrary, thrived on the international attention that the sociopolitical changes of the 1980s and 1990s brought. Weil, a fine director and a shrewd manager, expanded his theater’s reputation by taking it on tours, by connecting it to theater programs abroad – especially in Seattle, WA – and by doing productions himself at various theaters. I first encountered his work when he staged several productions at the Mossoviet Theater in Moscow. Tragically murdered in the entryway to his apartment building in 2007, Weil even today continues to be a strong tangible presence at the theater, and not only because of the oversized portrait that hangs in the stairwell that leads from the theater’s foyer to the stage downstairs. He did such an incredible job of building a strong team around him that the company, now headed by Boris Gafurov, continues to thrive, to tour and engage in international projects.

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I “collaborated” with Weil briefly in 2003, although “collaborated” is overstating it seriously. But Weil did stage my translation of Nikolai Erdman’s The Suicide at the Meany Studio Theater of Washington State University in 2003. On his way home he came through Moscow and we met one afternoon in the canteen at the Mossoviet Theater where he pulled out a huge folder and showed me dozens, if not hundreds, of gorgeous production photos. Judging by the images, Weil’s staging of The Suicide was one of the most beautiful of any done of my translation. Weil talked with great affection of the actors he had worked with and went so far as to say that the production came together very well, even better than he had hoped for. If you know anything about Russian theater directors you know those are rare words. I remember Weil as a very focused, friendly man. He took time to look you in the eye and when he greeted, or was greeted by, actors passing by our table, he made sure that even the shortest communication was meaningful. He made human contact with us all. We kicked around the idea of my doing some more translations for him, although nothing came of it.

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I visited Ilkhom for the first time in 2013 when they presented staged readings of three American plays translated into Russian for a program I was heading up, The New American Plays for Russia project. I was knocked out by the passion and intensity of this company. It is a legacy left by Weil and a tribute to the whole company that they have been able to maintain their focus for so many years after losing their founder. If you’re interested in learning more about Ilkhom you can start with a blog I wrote about the playhouse after my trip in 2013, or go to a series of blogs, beginning with this one, that the American playwright David M. White published after he was there on a working trip in 2014.  I also did a video interview with American Lainie Mullen, who has worked at the Ilkhom for several years.

Anna Akhmatova house, Moscow

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The building at 17 Bolshaya Ordynka, in the heart of the Zamoskvorech’e section of Moscow, is generally known as the Akhmatova House because the great poet Anna Akhmatova would live here for long periods of time when she made trips to Moscow from her home in Leningrad between the years of 1938 and 1966. The small but tasteful sculpture that commemorates Akhmatova’s connection to this building is a quote of a famous drawing of Akhmatova by the great artist Amadeo Modigliani. By some accounts this home was as important in Akhmatova’s creative biography as the famed House on the Fontanka in Leningrad, where she wrote many of her most important works. The actual Moscow apartment that she stayed in belonged to Viktor Ardov, a very successful comic writer, and his wife Nina Olshanskaya, an actress who was one of Akhmatova’s closest friends. Olshanskaya was an actress at the Moscow Art Theater and later, at the Soviet Army Theater. It was at the Ardov-Olshanskaya home where Akhmatova met face to face for the only time with the other great Soviet-Russian female poet of her time, Marina Tsvetaeva. That happened June 7-8, 1941, just two weeks before Germany invaded the Soviet Union, and two and a half months before Tsvetaeva committed suicide.

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The Ardov-Olshanskaya home was no common home, if for no other reason that Olshanskaya’s young son Alyosha spent his young years here, too. This Alyosha, in whose room Akhmatava would stay when visiting, grew up to be one of the greatest and most beloved of all Soviet film actors – Alexei Batalov. But beyond that this welcoming home was a meeting place for much of the Soviet intelligentsia over the decades. A partial list of other famous guests who would stop by for visits includes Osip Mandelstam, Mikhail Bulgakov, Joseph Brodsky, Mikhail Zoshchenko, Boris Pasternak, the great actress Faina Ranevskaya, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the poet Arseny Tarkovsky (father of the great Soviet film director Andrei Tarkovsky), Dmitry Shostakovich, Kornei Chukovsky and more. Not bad company. But one meeting that took place here must be considered the most amazing of them all. It happened in May 1956 when Akhmatova’s son Lev Gumilyov, the famous literary critic and son of the great poet Nikolai Gumilyov, happened to drop in on the Ardovs. This was no ordinary visit. Gumilyov had just been released following 14 years in the labor camps and he had no idea that his mother was in Moscow, at the Ardovs, at that moment. He was just passing through on his way back to Leningrad and happened to find his mother there.

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Aram Khachaturian monument, Moscow

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Born in Georgia, but Armenian by blood, Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978) is another of those great Soviet musicians – composer, in his case – who seemed to come out of nowhere. He, like the great pianist Svyatoslav Richter, came to Moscow with virtually no formal training and ended up making his mark almost immediately.  Numerous of his works are still played regularly around the world, but his ballets Gayane and Spartacus are surely his most enduring. That is, with one exception… Khachaturian is also the author of the short “Sabre Dance,” which, it sometimes seems, has not been played only by the lazy and the incompetent.  This seems like the perfect place for me to make a personal admission. As a child of the American desert (I mean that literally, I was born and grew up in the Mojave desert, but I also mean it figuratively, because I grew up in the barren 1950s and early 1960s), I didn’t get much high culture. With the sole exception of a long playing record of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker in our home, my sole exposure to classical music was through Looney Tunes cartoons. Were it not for Bugs Bunny I wouldn’t have heard a classical composition, other than The Nutcracker, until I was well into my third decade of life. The reason I mention this is that I actually had heard “Sabre Dance” although I had no idea it was written by Khachaturian, or, indeed, that is was even classical music. I knew the tune in the spectacular performance of the great rock ‘n’ roller Dave Edmunds, who had something of a hit with the song in the 1960s with his band Love Sculpture. I guess I should be ashamed of this, but have you ever heard Edmunds play that tune on his guitar? Holy Moses! That’s what the word searing was invented for. I never see Khachaturian’s name or face that I don’t think of Dave Edmunds. I don’t know what the composer would think of that, but there’s nothing I can do about it.

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As for this monument to Khachaturian, it was sculpted by Georgy Frangulyan, based on an architectural design by Igor Voskresensky, and it stands just across the street from the monument to Mstislav Rostropovich, which is also the work of this sculptor-architect team. It was unveiled in 2006 with Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, Russian First Lady Lyudmila Putin and Armenian President Robert Kocharian doing the honors in person. Curiously, just eight years after that event, all three of those individuals have receded into the background. Putin divorced his wife and she plummeted out of the public eye; Luzhkov was removed from the mayor’s office and he, too, became irrelevant overnight; while Kocharian left office in Armenia in 2008 and left the big world of politics. I don’t think that has anything to say about Khachaturian, but it does remind us that ars longa, vita brevis…

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Pushkin-Mickiewicz Plaque, Moscow

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Okay, so this is my second post involving Alexander Pushkin in a week. Be forewarned: This is a blog devoted to Russian culture so there’s going to be a lot of Alexander Pushkin. Today we’re looking at a very nice bas relief plaque on the facade of the building at 8 Glinishchevsky Pereulok, or Lane, in the heart of Moscow. It’s a lovely powder blue building that was originally built at the end of the 18th/beginning of the 19th century and belonged to a man named Lavrenty Ober. That name is pronounced with the stress on the second syllable, for Monsieur Ober was the son of French parents. In fact, his mother holds a small place in Russian/French history, for when Napoleon retreated from Moscow in 1812 she famously abandoned her popular clothes shop and followed the troops in order to return home to Paris. She never made it. She died on the road in Vilnius. Her two sons, who were with her, did make it, however, so Lavrenty received a good French education before choosing to return to Moscow to live in the 1820s. It was here in this lovely blue building that he frequently received famous writers in his home. There is a small plaque on the building which states that Pushkin was a frequent guest here throughout the 1820s and 1830s (see final photo below). The sculptured plaque that hangs prominently between two windows on the outside wall of the first floor commemorates one special evening, however – the final meeting between two friends and two great writers, Pushkin and the great Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz.

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Reams have been written about the relationship between Pushkin and Mickiewicz, but here are some basics. They first met in 1826 in Moscow and continued to cross each others’ paths over the next three years in both Moscow and St. Petersburg while Mickiewicz was in exile in Russia. Both referred to each other in some of their writing and both appeared to speak of each other with genuine affection and respect. It was Mickiewicz who introduced Pushkin to the poetry of Byron, presenting him with a gift of The Works of Lord Byron in 1826. At least in the eyes of Anna Akhmatova, Pushkin’s portrait of the brilliant improvising poet in the story “Egyptian Nights” was based on his recollections of Mickiewicz, who dazzled Russian high society with his ability to improvise poetry off the cuff. The Russian translated two ballads by the Polish writer – “The Three Brothers Budrys” and “Wojewoda,” as well as the introduction to the epic poem “Konrad Wallenrod.”

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Catherine the Great’s “Hotel Palace,” Moscow

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This structure is officially called the Petrov Way Palace, as in way station. It was built at the request of Yekaterina II, whom we know better as Catherine the Great. Legend has it, and I usually prefer legend over dry, misleading facts, that Cath wanted to have a place to powder her nose and fluff up her dress before making her grand entrance into Moscow after long, grueling trips from St. Petersburg. The structure’s modern address is Leningradsky Prospekt, 40, which, as you may discern, is on the direct road leading from Moscow to St. Petersburg (Leningrad) and back. At the end of the 18th century, when the palace was built by architect Matvei Kazakov, this was outside of Moscow proper. These days it is surrounded by roads and modern high rises just down the pike. And these days the palace once again houses a hotel and spa for those willing to pay the price of royal luxury.

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If you are wondering why I am posting  about a Russian tsar on this art-inspired site, you don’t know the work of my longtime friend and colleague Lurana Donnels O’Malley, the West’s leading scholar on the playwright Catherine the Great, author of The Dramatic Works of Catherine the Great, and editor/translator of Two Comedies by Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia. (I had the pleasure of editing the latter book for the now-defunct Russian Theatre Archive series.) Catherine wrote some 14 plays, including dramas, historical plays and satirical comedies, and about nine librettos for operettas. This made her not only the first head of state, but also the first woman, to engage in literary activity in Russia. There is evidence that the Empress had help in her writing from several trusted assistants (O’Malley singles out Ivan Elagin, Alexander Khrapovitsky and Grigory Kozitsky), and this would make sense since her Russian, though quite good, was not native. She, of course, was born and grew up in Prussia, coming to Russia as a young woman to marry the future Tsar Peter III, for whom this palace is named. Scant honor, one must say, since Catherine helped assassinate Peter in order to become Empress outright.

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Every time I drive by Catherine’s way station on my way to or from Sheremetyevo airport, I can’t help but wonder if she engaged in some of her literary activity while holed up briefly in this small haven. Having not yet arrived in the Kremlin (or just freed of its intrigues, if she was on her way back to St. Petersburg), and thus not swamped with important government duties, might she have taken the leisurely opportunity here to write a scene or two for her plays? Or might she have dashed off here some of those famous letters she wrote to Voltaire? They make for intriguing questions as you race past this beautiful structure in the flow of traffic.

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