Sergei Rakhmaninov Statue, Moscow

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Sergei Rakhmaninov. Piano Concerto No. 2. You can hear Yuja Wang do a nice version of it on YouTube. I’m pretty sure this was the first classical record I ever purchased. Not the first classical record I owned – that was Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, a family heirloom I wore out the grooves on – but the first I bought. And even if it wasn’t the first classical record I bought, it is the first that ever competed seriously with records by Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Ray Charles, the Kinks and a few others for my attention. Rakhmaninov’s second piano concerto is some of the most moving, I would even say disturbing, music I have ever heard. At least that is true of the first few minutes and of those segments that reprise the stunning opening. In there you can hear the elements whirl and stir, you can hear the planet groan as it expands and contracts. In it you feel time racing ahead, out of control. There is in this music chaos and raw, elemental power.

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The concerto itself is so unlike this monument on Strastnoi Boulevard, in which the composer looks to me to be a proper, self-satisfied dandy! His bow tie and his slicked-back hair, his tightly-fitting jacket and his vest, his long, loose fingers and his lithe, lanky body all suggest a man who is well-packed up in his formidable defenses against the kind of chaos we hear in the first few minutes of the piano concerto.  I like this sculpture by Oleg Komov and Andrei Kovalchuk. And I love the setting amidst the flowers and the shivering, rustling greenery. But there’s something about it that’s a little too slippery. I slip and slide right by it without ever quite getting inside. The hands, though, are gorgeous. No two ways about that. Those are the hands of a pianist and composer. They have powerful music in them. [ADDED July 4]: If you doubt that last statement, go here to hear the man play his Piano Concerto No. 2 himself.

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Pavel Vazhov bust, Yekaterinburg

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You can’t know everything and everyone. I’d blame it on my education, but I had a lot of good teachers in way too many universities and colleges to count. So I won’t go there. Anyway, this is one of the reasons I love the Russian tradition of generously honoring its cultural past through monuments and plaques and apartment museums. Any city’s streets can serve to school you when you least expect it. In the case at hand I was walking west on Lenin Prospekt in the center of Yekaterinburg and crossing the bridge over the  spill from the Iset’ River into the City Pond.  And there was this large bust of a finely bearded man who couldn’t help but grab my attention. I’m a sucker for beards. Call it my Leo Tolstoy syndrome. This particular beard belonged to Pavel Vazhov, or, at least, to a bust of him. As I learned by doing a brief bit of research, Vazhov (1879-1950) was the author of stories, essays and fairy tales closely bound up in the lore and traditions of the Ural Mountains region where he was born and lived most of his life (although he died in Moscow). He came from a family of factory workers who traveled the region in search of work. He studied at two religious seminaries and, for awhile around the time of the Revolution, worked as a school teacher. He fought for the Red Army during the Civil War, occasionally working as an undercover spy, and his career as a writer took off in the 1920s. He joined the Communist Party in 1918, was twice kicked out of the Party in the 1930s – rather extraordinarily surviving to tell about it – and was awarded the Lenin State Prize in 1943. His Tales of the Urals is his most popular and enduring collection of writings.

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I have a particular reason for posting photos from Yekaterinburg, one of my favorite Russian cities, today. It so happens that my American friend and colleague Nicole Kontolefa is performing in Yekterinburg this week at the Kolyada Plays festival. She will do three performances of I am Me, a one-woman piece by the late local writer Alexandra Chichkanova. Sometimes Nicole performs the piece in my English translation (as she has done in New York), sometimes she performs it in the original Russian (as she did in Moscow earlier this year). In Yekterinburg she’ll do both. So this post is for Nicki. Break a leg. And if you stop by the Vazhov bust on your walks around town, give his beard a tug, if you can reach that high…

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Lyubov Orlova plaque, Moscow

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Lyubov Orlova (1902-1975) was the Soviet cinema star.  Her name was synonymous with Soviet film comedies, musicals and whatever else comes in between. She was enigmatic, beautiful, controlled and, in her on-screen persona, kind, accessible, funny and bubbly, the veritable girl next door. She began her film career late, after having spent more than a decade as a chorus girl, a dancer, a singer and a piano player for silent movies in the cinema. She was 32 when she got her big break starring in the wildly popular Jolly Fellows, sometimes called A Jazz Comedy, because it was a comedy featuring the jazz music of Leonid Utyosov and his big band. Orlova’s second official husband was her first serious film director – Grigory Alexandrov, formerly the premier assistant of the great Sergei Eisenstein, but, afterwards, the top Russian director of film comedies. Together they made a string of hits from the ’30s through the 1940s – Jolly Fellows (1934), Circus (1936), Volga, Volga (1938), The Bright Way (1940), and Spring (1947), after which her career tapered off. Orlova made two films in the 1950s and one each in the 1960s and 1970s. For the record, Jolly Fellows was written expressly for Utyosov by screenwriters Nikolai Erdman and Vladimir Mass. It was a radical expansion of a musical theater piece called The Musical Store, which the duo wrote for the musician and actor in 1932. However, when Alexandrov took on the project of making the film, and when he was smitten by his leading lady, Orlova’s part in the film was raised to that of an equal with Utyosov’s. Indeed, they made, and still make, a marvelous pair. Jolly Fellows continues to run with frequency on Russian television in the second decade of the 21st century, as do most of the other Orlova films mentioned above.

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From 1966 until her death in 1975, Orlova lived in a prestigious new building on Tverskaya Ulitsa, just across from Pushkin Square. As can be seen in the photo immediately above, it is the building that has housed Moscow’s flagship MacDonald’s restaurant since the early 1990s. The address is Bolshaya Bronnaya 29. While living in this building, as well as for a decade or so before, Orlova officially was an actress of the Mossoviet Theater, located about a kilometer north of here, just off of Triumphal Square (about which I previously wrote a little). Orlova did not perform often in the theater, but her two shows at the Mossoviet, Jerome Kilty’s Dear Liar and John Patrick’s The Curious Savage, in the 1960s and 1970s respectively, were both extremely popular with audiences. Orlova’s aura as a star never waned even as she worked significantly less. I would go so far as to say that it has not waned even now, 40 years after her death.

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Dmitry Tsaplin bust of Nikolai Nekrasov, Moscow

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I don’t know how long this impressive bust will be available for view at its present location, one of the niches outside the Museum of the Contemporary History of Russia on Tverskaya Ulitsa in the center of Moscow (see final photo). I happened to see it for the first time just a few days ago as I was walking past. The obviously temporary free-standing brick pedestal – several other sculptures in this outdoor exhibit are on bricks, too – would indicate it won’t be here long. Whatever the case, we are dealing here with an image of the 19th-century civic poet Nikolai Nekrasov. I don’t want to push this too hard, but Nekrasov is somewhat ignored these days, partly, perhaps, because everyone read him at one time or another in school. His best-remembered works are two narrative poems, “Russian Women,” about two women who followed their husbands into exile after the Decembrist revolt, and “Who is Happy in Russia?” about seven peasants who are unable to find anyone who is happy in Russia. I rather suspect that not many in Russia today remember Nekrasov’s actual poem, although its title is quoted frequently, always with a healthy dose of bitter irony.

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I found it hard to walk away from this small bust. It is shot through with something ancient and profound. It almost appears to have come out of the earth fully formed. Something in it suggests that the sculptor, Dmitry Tsaplin, saw Nekrasov  as a native soul of Plato or some other thinker from antiquity. The expression is pretty much unchanging, regardless of what angle at which you view it, but from all sides it is deeply human and tragic. Tsaplin himself was a fascinating and enigmatic figure. He was still another of those unschooled Russian talents I have had occasion to write about here. Born into a poor peasant family, the fourth of eleven children, he apparently did not begin formal studies until he was 29 years old. This was in his hometown of Saratov.  I have drawn these facts from a very nice article by Yekaterina Nenasheva in the usually unreadable Communist newspaper Zavtra (Tomorrow). He had his “own particular method of working with material,” Nenasheva writes, “his own particular sculptural school. Tsaplin’s works are splendid for their simplicity and even a certain crudity – authentic, Russian and masculine.” Each of those words fits the Nekrasov bust beautifully. In 1927 Tsaplin was given a grant by the Soviet government to study his craft in Europe, where he met many of the greats of his era, including Pablo Picasso. Although his works were highly regarded in Europe, Tsaplin refused to sell any of them abroad. He insisted on bringing them all back to the Soviet Union when he returned in 1935. He apparently never quite fit into official political, artistic or academic circles and remained something of a loner and outcast until his death at the age of 77 in 1967. He was married for a time in the early 1930s to the singer, actress, poet and translator Tatyana Leshchenko, with whom he fathered a daughter Vera. His place of burial is unknown – there are rumors that his body lies near the grave of Leshchenko’s second husband in Peredelkino, but there are also rumors that no one claimed his body in the morgue and that it was “discarded” with other unnecessary corpses.

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Anna Golubkina home, Moscow

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It’s curious what it takes sometimes to learn something. I essentially knew nothing about the sculptor Anna Golubkina until a friend of my wife began working on a film that was/is to be set in the Golubkina house museum in Moscow. Then I started hearing fascinating stories after every call Oksana’s friend would make to her to discuss what they were going to do. Golubkina (1864-1927) is considered the first important Russian woman to do sculpture. Her work puts her among the first rank of all Russian sculptors. I was particularly fascinated to learn that she had studied with Rodin. She replaced Camille Claudel as his assistant in 1897 and remained with him for about three years. According to Wikipedia, Rodin “requested her work on the hands and legs of his sculptures.” I think I’m amazed as anything by the fact that Golubkina is another of those relatively frequent Russian natural talents. Growing up in a strictly religious home, she was not sent to school, but was taught the basic elements of literacy at home. When a  local art teacher in her home town near Ryazan suggested she study art in Moscow, she was already at the ripe age of 25. And then comes another of those marvelous moments you just have to love. Again, I’ll let Wikipedia take over for me: “In 1889 she took entrance exams for Otto Gunst’s Classes for Elegant Arts, an architecture school. Having no formal education, she failed some exams; but an examiner, sculptor Sergey Volnukhin, challenged other examiners to name a sculptor able to produce anything like her ‘Praying old woman.’ He convinced them not only to admit Anna, but to waive her tuition as well.” One Russian biography describes Golubkina as being headstrong, unsure of her own powers, prideful to the point of being arrogant, and quite modest.  What a wonderful combination for an artist!

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Moscow Art Theater junkies know Golubkina’s work whether they realize it or not. It is her sculpture, “The Wave,” that hangs over the entrance to the theater’s small stage. She did several sculptural portraits of  major writers, including Andrei Bely, Alexei Remizov, Alexei Tolstoy and Lev Tolstoy. Golubkina met the latter Tolstoy in 1903 and, as was her wont, she gave him some straight talk, telling him outright that she did not share many of his views. So forceful was she in her manner that when she came back to see the great writer, his wife Sofya Andreyevna  told her that Lev Nikolayevich was sick and could not receive visitors. Many years later, in 1926, when she was creating her famous bust of Tolstoy, she said, “Tolstoy is like the sea. But he has eyes like a hounded wolf.” Golubkina left an unfinished wooden sculpture of the poet Alexander Blok when she died in 1927. In that same year her Moscow apartment on Bolshoi Levshinsky Pereulok (Lane) was turned into a “museum house,” setting a precedent for many such museums that subsequently appeared in the Soviet era. In the photo below you can see the balcony extending from the back side of Golubkina’s apartment. It is said she would come out here and chat with many of her writer friends who lived in the next building over. Golubkina suffered from severe rheumatism for much of her adult life and it often interfered with her work. Most often she is considered an impressionist or a modernist. She always considered herself a student of Rodin. She was sympathetic to the Revolution when it took place, although relatively early on she began to refuse to collaborate with the government in protest against its executions of “enemies.”

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Lydia Delektorskaya Home, Tomsk

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Here is one of those moments when you want to strike up singing the old Beatles’ song “With a Little Help from my Friends.” As I walked through Tomsk past this colorful structure bearing the addresses of 11 Kartashov Street on one corner and 20 Kuznetsov Street on the other, I would never have known it was worth stopping and thinking about had it not been for a friend. I was, at the moment, in the hands of my great friend Pavel Rachkovsky, an architect and an expert and activist in the movement to save Tomsk’s spectacular, but dwindling wooden buildings. We were heading towards the childhood home of the great composer Edison Denisov, who grew up just one block from here, but Pavel stopped me here and said, “Now this is one of those places that nobody knows anything about and that’s a real shame. This is where Matisse’s last muse and assistant Lydia Delektorskaya was born and grew up.” Just like that, an attractive but anonymous building suddenly acquired for me a story and a place in history. I must admit I had no idea that someone so important to the great French painter had come from the Siberian city of Tomsk. For all the reading I have done, nothing had brought me to all that has been written about Delektorskaya, including this blog or this blog with some nice photos, artwork and details about her relationship with Matisse and his wife. By all accounts she was a fascinating, independent, resourceful and wise woman.

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Rachkovsky, who is an employee of the Tomsk Ministry of Culture and is a fine photographer as well as historian, kept on talking as we walked back and forth around the building. “I have tried to get people interested in putting a memorial plaque or some other form of remembrance on this building, but so far no good,” he said. “But I think it’s pretty extraordinary that a young woman, who grew up right here in this house, made her way in the world after losing both her parents at an early age and got herself to Europe while Russia was going through some difficult years. That says a lot about her character and I think Tomsk should be proud that she began her journey here.” For the record, Delektorskaya was born in 1910 and she died not all that long ago, in 1998. According to a picture in the second blog I mention above, she is buried in the town of Pavlovsk outside of St. Petersburg. As for the home of her birth, I’m with Rachkovsky – this striking wooden home would be all the more beautiful if passersby knew who once lived here. P.S. My wife Oksana Mysina reminded me hours after this post was made that she recorded the voice of Delektorskaya in Olesya Fokina’s documentary film Lydia D., which can be watched in full (in Russian) here.

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Mikhail Lermontov statue, Muzeon Park, Moscow

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Mikhail Lermontov, who died in 1841 at the age of 27 in a duel , is a reproach to all of us who have ever looked up for a moment and wondered why we haven’t done more with our lives. Lermontov had just begun his life when he was cut down, and yet he left behind a legacy of poetry and drama that makes him one of the great Russian writers. This statue, which stands in the Muzeon Park near the Central House of Artists alongside the Moscow River, is an artist-authorized copy of Oleg Komov’s statue that stands in Tarkhany, the estate where the poet grew up and where he is buried. On one hand this sculpture is simple to the point of banality – it reminds me at moments of a student work, as if the artist were trying out the basic ABCs of his future profession. On the other hand, its simplicity is surely “built in” and intended. Lermontov sits there in a relaxed pose with a relaxed expression on his face. Yes, there’s a little concern in his gaze, but not too much. His military uniform, which can make him look stiff and very official in his portraits, here has a warmly and humanly haphazard air about it. The closer you get to the monument, the more you feel a living person inside it.

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I don’t know why this particular statue is located in the “fallen monuments” section of the Muzeon Park, but it is a nice place for it. There are lots of guests always around it – I mean monuments and real people – and so there is always a sense of community to this little plot of land. If you look at the upper part of Lermontov’s thighs, you’ll see that the bronze has been worn to a shiny sheen. That is from people who can’t refuse the opportunity to take a seat in a great poet’s lap. That, too, adds to the personable feel of this otherwise deceptively modest statue.

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