The appearance in 2011 of a plaque commemorating the fact that the great playwright Nikolai Erdman worked at the Tomsk Drama Theater was one of those little miracles that make life worth living. Erdman, arrested in 1933 during the filming of the great “first Soviet musical” Jolly Fellows, was exiled to Siberia in less than a week’s time. He was sent to Yeniseisk; his co-screenwriter Vladimir Mass on the film was sent to Tobolsk. Although the two had worked together frequently since the mid-20s or so, they would never do so again. Erdman, apparently in gratitude for his good behavior in Yeniseisk, was moved to Tomsk in 1934. He remained there until his three-year sentence was up in 1936.
Tomsk has long been one of the biggest, most important Siberian cities. It was a central point for political prisoners and exiles being moved further into Siberia or keeping them from moving back to European Russia. As such, the city has a rich history of political prisoners contributing to the local culture. Erdman during his stay was officially employed at the Tomsk Drama Theater as literary director, and, while he was there, he wrote a dramatization of Maxim Gorky’s novel Mother, which was performed with some success.
The plaque on the wall of the former Tomsk Drama Theater (now the city’s Young Spectator Theater) was unveiled on a crisp day at the end of March 2011. The event was the culmination of four years of work carried out by Professor Valentina Golovchiner, a Yevgeny Shvarts scholar, who had studied under the most important Erdman scholar of the Soviet era, Nikolai Kiselyov. According to Golovchiner she got the idea of launching the campaign to erect the plaque (designed by great local sculptor Leonty Usov) from me when, one day, without thinking, I blurted out that someone ought to commemorate the fact that Erdman once worked in this building at Pereulok Nakhanovicha, 4. Be that as it may, this is the essence of the matter: Golovchiner showed heroic tenacity in pushing the plaque through all the stages of permissions, bureaucratic hoop-jumping and signature-collecting that were required to bring the project to fruition. As much as it is a truly satisfying recognition of Erdman’s contribution to Russian literature, drama and theater – for me it will also always be a monument to Valentina Golovchiner’s commitment to her calling as a scholar and historian of Russian culture. Following is a 2014 snapshot of Golovchiner pointing to the desk where Kiselyov used to work at the Tomsk State University Library, followed by a portrait of Kiselyov that hangs in a corridor on the second floor of the main university building.
What a seat of events the Taganka Theater has been over the decades! From Yury Lyubimov’s founding of the theater in 1964 (by firing almost the entire company that was there before him); the staging of some of the greatest productions in the history of Soviet Theater (The Good Person of Szechuan (1964), Hamlet (1971) and The Master and Margarita (1975); the exile of Lyubimov in 1984; the hiring and death of Anatoly Efros in the mid 1980s; the triumphant return of Lyubimov in 1989; the rancorous split that cut the theater in two by 1991; the scandalous break between Lyubimov and his troupe in 2011 which ended with Lyubimov resigning at the age of 93 and going solo; the bitter 50th anniversary season in 2013-2014 when a small group of disgruntled actors sought to sabotage official celebratory events throughout the season. And those are just SOME of the highlights… These images, taken in late fall 2013 on a snowy/drizzly day, seem to suggest that this theater will continue to live a vibrant life no matter what battles are going on inside it. In fact, it seems the more strife there is here, the more life there is.
Not many think much of this monument to Yesenin. It’s located on Tverskoi Boulevard more or less between the Yermolova Apartment museum on the north side of the boulevard and the Gorky Moscow Art Theater on the south side. I rather think of the statue as a too-sweet drink. I love sweets, so that’s not entirely bad. But, as has been said elsewhere by another fine poet, “too much of nothing can make a man ill at ease.” As far as we can tell from old photos the statue looks very much like Yesenin. That’s something, I guess. It’s possible we can see in it the pretty face that made Isadora Duncan lose her mind for the young poet. But it’s no coincidence that when I went walking around the statue I couldn’t find any angles that gave me any new information. Every shot I took looked the same, just some were closer up, others were farther away. Yesenin was actually an interesting person and an interesting poet. He was considered something of a “hooligan” and when he, according to the official version at the time, committed suicide at the age of 30 in 1925, there was a scandalous wave of copy-cat suicides. It was only after Perestroika and the fall of the Soviet Union that theories arose that Yesenin was actually murdered by the secret police on Dec. 28 in his room in the Angleterre Hotel in Leningrad. I like the drip of pigeon waste running down Yesenin’s right breast in the close up here. Oddly enough, there’s something humanizing about it.
Yury Trifonov, the author of “House on the Embankment” and many other of the finest prose works of the late Soviet period once lived in this building on what is now called Second Peschannaya Ulitsa. It is a clean, neat building located across from a large and attractive park well north of Moscow city center, on the west side of Leningradsky Prospekt. For a time the street bore the name of Romanian politician Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej and that is who the street was named after when Yury Trifonov lived here in the 1970s. I wrote about this and a few other locations connected with writers in Moscow in my Theater Plus blog space on the site of The Moscow Times.