I believe that the first time I met Alexei Kazantsev was in 1990; it might have been in February or March. Although I didn’t visit his home all that many times before he died absolutely unexpectedly in 2007 at the age of 61, I did enjoy the hospitality of the house several times. A time or two it was just to pay a visit; a time or two it was a working visit in regards to Kazantsev’s position as one of the great champions and muses of contemporary Russian drama in the post-Soviet era. One cannot overestimate Alexei’s importance to what famously came to be known as New Russian Drama. It grew directly out of his work as a tireless advocate for writers and a theater based in contemporary writing. This isn’t the place for an essay on that topic, but suffice it to say that he was instrumental in the founding of the powerful Lyubimovka new play festival in the early 1990s; he founded the feisty and highly influential Playwright journal, an alternative to the dusty-musty Contemporary Dramaturgy periodical, in 1992; he founded the Playwright and Director Center in 1998, in my estimation the most important new Russian theater to appear in its era. There was, and is, not a single important Russian playwright to appear in the last 15 years of Kazantsev’s life that does not owe a deep personal debt to this phlegmatic, hypochondriac, pedantic, methodical, selfless, generous, kind, thoughtful, sensitive man. His impact as a playwright was limited. His plays Anton and Others and The Old House, both written in the 1970s, were his best-known works. Other plays with notable productions were This Silver Lace Will Break, That, This Other World, and Yevgenia’s Dreams. But Kazantsev’s true calling was to become the beloved, revered Godfather of New Russian Drama, the man who put his reputation, his time, his health and his money on the line in order to see that young writers had a place to go with their work.
Kazantsev, if I can put it this way, shared his moderate home – an apartment on the 3rd floor of Corpus No. 2 at 7/9 Ulitsa Palikha – with an enormous number of paintings by his wife Natalya Somova. Natasha’s paintings were everywhere – hanging on every empty bit of wall-space, stacked behind tables and chairs and desks, leaned up 15-deep against walls. It gave their apartment a marvelous, spectacular sense of creativity and artistic chaos. Alexei’s own work space, his desk, was usually kept relatively neat, with lots of stacks of scripts, plays and such waiting to be read. More often, my wife Oksana Mysina (who performed in This Silver Lace Will Break when she was a student, and That, This Other World in 1997 at the Stanislavsky Theater) and I crossed paths with Alexei in the theater or in phone calls. Such a creature of habit was Alexei that whenever our phone rang at 11:45 p.m. Oksana and I would look at each other, laugh, and say, “It’s Alyosha.” And, invariably, it was. Moscow is a vastly different place without Alexei. When he died suddenly of a heart attack while swimming out into the Black Sea in Bulgaria in September 2007, we lost one of those people whose personality, passion and convictions are capable of changing not only those around them, but of actually altering the course of history. Russian drama and theater today are what they have become in large part thanks to the personal contributions made by Kazantsev. His widow Natasha Somova published a two-volume collection of his plays, essays and interviews in Moscow in 2013.
One last thing in regards to the building where Kazantsev lived – the first time he gave me directions he explained that there were a lot of similar-looking buildings in the complex where he lived, but that I would know I had found him when I came upon a bust of Vladimir Lenin. Alexei said that with a faint tint of irritation and ridicule, but it was the truth, and it was an excellent way to find the necessary building. Indeed, a crumbling, , crooked, totally incongruous bust of Lenin stood just across the way from the entrance to Alexei’s building. When I went by to take these photos yesterday, I couldn’t help but get a shot of Lenin, too. It’s still there, as mute, forlorn and immutable as ever. There’s something too bizarre about it to ignore.