The first time I heard of Novella Matveeva would have been around 1982 in one of Vasily Aksyonov’s lectures at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where I was doing a Master’s degree. I’d heard about the poets and bards of the 1950s and 1960s – Bulat Okudzhava, Alexander Galich, Andrei Voznesensky, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Robert Rozhdestvensky, Bella Akhmadulina and such – but the name of Novella Matveeva had not reached my American ears. Aksyonov spoke of her with great affection and thanks to that I have held her in special esteem ever since. In Moscow I run across her work, and references to it, far more often. She was extremely popular at her peak in the 1960s and remains a highly respected poet to this day. YouTube has numerous videos of her performing her songs. You can listen to “There Lived a Little Boat” for starters if you wish and then search from there. The pictures you see here are not much to speak of, but they show the building at 31 Malaya Gruzinskaya Street, in which Matveeva lived at least in 1976. I photographed the home one day when out on a photo excursion with a copy of the 1976 USSR Writers Union phone and address book in hand. For the record, she no longer lives here, and there is no plaque or other information indicating that this was once her home.
Aside from her importance as a writer, Matveeva, born in 1934, is fascinating for the fact that she has lived most or all of her life in a wheelchair. She completed studies at the Gorky Literary Institute as a correspondent student because she could not attend classes. A tremendous amount of confusion and misunderstanding has arisen around her as a result. You can read that “she never left home,” and that she was “introverted and retiring.” What you cannot find (at least I have not done so even with a fair amount of internet research) is what, exactly, Matveeva’s condition is. This would appear to be a holdover from an age when any kind of physical challenge was not considered a topic for polite conversation or public consumption. What has largely been lost, as a result, is the extraordinary story of a woman who has lived a full, rich, creative life despite the enormous obstacles her society erected for people with physical challenges. Matveeva in her long career has written over 20 books of prose and poetry. She has recorded over a dozen albums of her songs. She wrote music to lyrics by her poet husband Ivan Kiuru (1934-1992). She has won numerous awards, including the prestigious State Prize in Literature (2002) and, according to Russian Wikipedia, she is currently working on Russian translations of Shakespeare’s sonnets.