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.
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.