Let me be honest from the start. I don’t know much about Nikolai Aseyev. His name and legacy in my understanding is confused and murky. I remember encountering him when I was a grad student, or before. He first appeared to me as one of the top Russian poets of the 1910s. He was an associate of Boris Pasternak and the Tsentrifuga group of the Futurists. He spent time in the Far East with David Burliuk and Sergei Tretyakov, both fascinating figures in the territory of Russian avant-garde art of the 1920s. He was associated with Vladimir Mayakovsky and later in life (1937-40) wrote a well-known epic poem entitled “Mayakovsky Begins.” It is characteristic, however, that when that poem appeared, a section devoted to the great innovator Velemir Khlebnikov was deleted. There, in a nutshell, you have that confusion in my head about Aseyev: the poet receives a Stalin Prize for his poem about Mayakovsky, but (because he?) agrees to cut out a section he wrote about Khlebnikov. From the late 1920s until his death in 1963 (he was born in 1889, the same year as my grandmother), Aseyev was pretty much a Communist Party functionary by way of literature.
And yet, when I pass by this plaque commemorating the fact that Aseyev lived in this building on Kamergersky Pereulok across from the Moscow Art Theater from 1931 to 1963, I can’t help but feel that the connection to his early years – before he lived here – is stronger than the rest. If that’s sentimentality, so be it. I do know that in my mind I do not see him at all as the stoney-gazed, hard-jaw figure depicted on this plaque.
I don’t know which windows Aseyev looked out of when he took the time to do so. If you look carefully at the top photo here, however, you will see that a statue of Anton Chekhov, peering out from behind a restaurant umbrella, keeps a constant eye on those perusing the Aseyev plaque… Chekhov wasn’t there when Aseyev lived here.