Nikolai Gogol monument No. 1, Moscow



This may be the finest monument to a cultural figure in Moscow. It is a major work of art in its own right and, like anything of greatness, it has had a tough time making it in the world. Sculptor Nikolai Andreev spent three years creating this moving likeness of Nikolai Gogol, which stands atop a large pedestal rung on four sides by bas reliefs of characters drawn from the writer’s works. It was finally unveiled on Prechistensky Boulevard in 1909, on the centenary of Gogol’s birth. It was intended to show the great novelist and playwright in his period of spiritual crisis toward the end of his life. Not only does it do that beautifully, it captures the essence of spiritual crisis, of alienation, of loneliness, stoic fear and blank indecision. In short, many hated it from the moment it was first unveiled. You know the drill: “Where’s the happy face?!” A poet hiding behind the pseudonym of Someone in Black, responded to the event by placing the following ridiculing verses in the Early Morning newspaper:

The cover was lowered,
The crowd was amazed,
The cantata resounded –
To Gogol give praise!
The dream was now real,
But hearts were now pained:
A face full of sorrow
A pose full of strain!
The crowd became sad,
All understood without words!

As my great friend and former handball partner at Harvard Stephen Moeller-Sally wrote in his excellent book, Gogol’s Afterlife, “…Andreev’s hunched, contemplative figure represented the final years of Gogol’s life, a period of ill health and creative decline. For this reason [people] found it unacceptable. Whatever interpretive insight Andreev’s statue may have contained, it did not fulfill the purpose of the monument: it could not serve as a symbol of national pride.” The doggerel above is also taken from Steve’s book, in his translation.

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Not surprisingly, Joseph Stalin didn’t like the monument either, and he finally decided in 1952 to have it moved to a courtyard not far away where nobody would see it. He replaced it with a happy-faced, straight-backed Gogol that looked as much like Stalin himself as Gogol, and which we’ll look at and talk about at a later date. As such, the monument you see in these photos is now located out of the way in the yard before the Gogol Museum at 7A Nikitsky Boulevard.

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The Gogol House, or Gogol Museum, is located in a beautiful old building that Gogol himself lived in from 1848 until his death in 1852.  As such, the current placement of the work is actually ideal. It is an isolated place, quiet and shady, and people come here with books to sit by the great man’s feet, if you will, to read and contemplate. I know I shouldn’t be surprised by the shortsightedness of those first people who saw the statue in 1909, but, still, ignorance never fails to astonish me. So let me lean on Steve Moeller-Sally to point fingers at some very unsagacious folks:
“Artistic professionals were also unimpressed,” Steve writes in his book. “A number of them felt that the sculptor had not succeeded in representing Gogol at all. Some faulted Andreev for poor technique, noting that there was no sense of body underneath the mantle or that the nose was exaggerated. Others expressed their opinions more imaginatively, the artist I. Chugunova called the statue a ‘monument to an unknown old woman,’ and a noted art collector, Doctor P. Postnikov, said it gave the impression of ‘a kite or a carrion-crow with a broken right wing.’ Dissatisfaction with the monument grew so intense that a Moscow patron of the arts, I. Tsvetkov, began a new subscription for the recasting of the Gogol monument.”
To all of which I say, Pshaw! and, Bravo, Andreev!
Gosh. Big flaw. The artist exaggerated Gogol’s nose. Now, why in the world would he have done that???

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Bolshoi Theater house, Moscow


I can’t possibly do this building justice. More great performers and artists may have lived here at 7 Bryusov Lane (Pereulok) just a block from the Moscow Conservatory than in any other in Moscow. As the modest plaque above shows, it was built in the mid-1930s by the influential architect Alexei Shchusev especially to house people who worked at the Bolshoi Theater. A few others snuck in from time to time, so on the enormous number of memorial plaques that hang outside this building you also get an occasional painter or sculptor or two. But for decades – and even in recent times – this building continues to be associated with musicians, composers, singers and dancers. I spent an extremely pleasant evening in Apartment No. 6 here at the end of the 1990s. That’s when it was occupied by my friend, and one of the best editors I ever worked for, Margaret Henry. Margaret was not only the features editor at The Moscow Times, where I have worked since time immemorial, but she was the dance and ballet critic for the paper. So when by chance she ended up living in this building, it was almost as if it had been ordained on high. Living here at the same time as Margaret was the great ballerina Nina Ananiashvili. You can bet a plaque honoring her will be hung on these walls before long.

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The selection of plaques represented in this post includes, in the order that they’re pictured:
1) Ksenia Erdeli (1878-1971), the great harpist whose career astonishingly lasted from 1899 to her death in 1971.
2) Ivan Kozlovsky (1900-1993), the great tenor whose fame and popularity for decades were something like Frank Sinatra’s in the U.S. in the 1940s.
3) Nadezhda Obukhova (1886-1961), the mezzo-soprano, who did not make her operatic debut until she was 30. (For the record, Margaret Henry is also a mezzo-soprano.)
4) Maria Maksakova (1902-1974), a mezzo-soprano whose greatest popularity was in the 1920s and ’30s, although she sang at the Bolshoi until the mid-1950s. Her daughter Lyudmila Maksakova is a well-known dramatic actress, and her granddaughter Maria Maksakova, Jr.,  achieved stardom as an opera singer after the turn of the 21st century.
5) Antonina Nezhdanova (1873-1950), a lyric coloratura who sang opposite Caruso in Paris in 1912, and for whom Sergei Rachmaninov wrote Vocalise.

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6) Alexander Pirogov (1899-1964), the lead bass at the Bolshoi from 1924 to 1954. He was one of four brothers who made careers as singers.
7) Alexei Yermolaev (1910-1975), a ballet soloist at the Bolshoi from 1930 to 1956. He was also a choreographer and a teacher. Russian Wikipedia informs us that he “created a new trend in male ballet, which corresponded to the tendency of ballet to express the heroic, [giving it] a heightened dramatic and performative element, and introducing elements of folk dance into the discipline of classical ballet.”
8) Nikolai Golovanov (1891-1953), conductor and composer, husband of Antonina Nezhdanova.

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Osip Mandelstam plaque, Moscow


I’ve been hanging around the same basic place in Moscow this week. The Yermolova House, which I wrote about a couple of days ago, is a few doors down from the home we’re talking about today at 25 Tverskoi Boulevard. Yesterday I wrote about the Alexander Herzen statute which stands right next to it, because Herzen was born here. Today we’re interested in the house because the great poet Osip Mandelshtam lived here in 1922 to 1923 and then again from 1932 to 1933. This was quite a place actually. Aside from the Herzen connection, and the fact that Mandelshtam and Andrei Platonov lived here (I’ll write about Platonov soon), this was the site of a popular literary salon hosted in the 1840s and 1850s by the Russian diplomat and memoirist Dmitry Sverbeev. The so-called Sverbeev Fridays were frequented by Herzen, philosopher Pyotr Chaadayev,  poets Nikolai Ogaryov and Yevgeny Baratynsky, and prose writers Konstantin Aksakov and Nikolai Gogol. The literary critic Dmitry Blagoi lived here, as did, more briefly, the writers Mikhail Prishvin, Vsevolod Ivanov and Boris Pasternak. Russia’s primary literary institute, named after Maxim Gorky, has been located here since the 1930s. Finally, this is the place that Mikhail Bulgakov had in mind when he satirized the writers club in The Master and Margarita, in part because this is where the notorious RAPP, Russian Association of Proletarian Writers, was located in the 1920s.


Mandelstam (which is pronounced “Mandelshtam”) wrote about his humble abode, which he shared with his wife Nadezhda, to a friend in the spring of 1932: “They gave me a space in a damp wing that is not suitable to be lived in. It lacks a kitchen, the faucet for drinking water is located in a rotting bathroom with moldy walls and plank partitions, a freezing cold floor, etc. I didn’t get the room that was allocated to me in the wing right away and was temporarily situated in a tiny hole of 10 meters where I spent the whole winter.” So much for any sentimental thoughts of the great poet living it up in one of Moscow’s most famous buildings. Of course, the notion of sentimentality and Mandelstam do not mix in the least. He was a spectacular poet of superb technical prowess. His prose writings are considered to be among the crispest and cleanest of any in the language. Born in 1891, he published his first verses as a student in 1907 and published his first book in 1913. He studied abroad in Germany but chose to return to Petersburg to enter the university in 1911. This is important in regards to the plaque that was erected in honor of Mandelstam on the facade of 25 Tverskoi Boulevard.  Because in order to enter Petersburg University the Jewish Mandelstam was compelled to convert to the Methodist faith. This explains, I guess, why the plaque commemorating this great Jewish poet is designed in the form of a cross. The bulk of Mandelstam’s work came between 1922 and 1933, coincidentally, perhaps, the years that begin and end his time in this building. Somebody in Soviet Russia had it in for Mandelstam and that became doubly true after he wrote the poem “Stalin Epigram” in November 1933. He was arrested and exiled a couple of times, and ended up dying of typhus Dec. 27, 1938, in transit to the Siberian labor camps.

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Alexander Herzen statue, Moscow


I never paid much attention to Alexander Herzen (1812-1870). Until recently that is. It’s not Tom Stoppard’s Coast of Utopia trilogy about Herzen and his revolutionary friends in London that did it; I actually don’t think much of that piece. But as a radical thinker, a rabble-rouser, a skeptic and an activist, Herzen increasingly comes to mind when I think about the pathetic state of affairs the world has gotten into. The statue of him in Moscow is quite small; a very neat, compact likeness. It is located on Tverskoi Boulevard in the courtyard of the Herzen Literary Institute, right next to the yellow, two-story building in which the future political writer was born, illegitimately, to a young German woman roughly two months before Napoleon invaded Russia. In the last 25 years I have passed by the statue hundreds of times, surely. But I only began to notice it a year or two ago. Thus do world crises affect our ability, or inability, to see. I first photographed it eight to ten months ago (the two shots at the bottom) on a cold, barren, wintry evening while I was on my way to see a show at the neighboring Pushkin Theater. Everything was washed in a thick layer of yellow light. That, and the scraggly trees around him, made Herzen look lonely and distant. Then I photographed him again in June. It was my birthday and I was walking around Moscow shooting all the cultural icons my lens could find. When I came upon the great man this time there was something incredibly joyful and rich and powerful about his presence. The “something” was no strange secret, of course, it was the lush greenery surrounding him that did it. The billowing, cascading leaves made Herzen stand up straight and strong and give me an admirable, hard look. I lingered around him for some time, feeling quite at home in his company.

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Rather than try to say something I know nothing about, it seems to make sense to turn the rest of this space over to Herzen himself. I brazenly, as my wife likes to say, tracked down some of Herzen’s pithiest comments on the Brainy Quote site. Read on:
1) “It is possible to lead astray an entire generation, to strike it blind, to drive it insane, to direct it towards a false goal. Napoleon proved this.”
Yes, I can’t help but add, we do know our Napoleons!
2) “No one is to blame. It is neither their fault nor ours. It is the misfortune of being born when a whole world is dying.”
Ah! Stab me in the heart, why don’t you?
3) “I am truly horrified by modern man. Such absence of feeling, such narrowness of outlook, such lack of passion and information, such feebleness of thought.”
He keeps racking them up…
4) “All religions have based morality on obedience, that is to say, on voluntary slavery. That is why they have always been more pernicious than any political organization. For the latter makes use of violence, the former – of the corruption of the will.”
5) “There is nothing in the world more stubborn than a corpse: you can hit it, you can knock it to pieces, but you cannot convince it.”
6) “Slavery is the first step towards civilization. In order to develop it is necessary that things should be much better for some and much worse for others, then those who are better off can develop at the expense of others.”
7) “What breadth, what beauty and power of human nature and development there must be in a woman to get over all the palisades, all the fences, within which she is held captive!”
A man after my own heart. Alexander Herzen.

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Maria Yermolova home, Moscow


This is one of my favorite homes in Moscow. Even in a city with lots of original old buildings, this one has more authenticity and personality than most. In part that is because the people who maintain the Maria Yermolova home museum at 11 Tverskoi Boulevard have done a fine job of keeping the “home” in the “museum.” When you walk around the rooms, beautifully furnished and generously outfitted with live house plants, you really feel as though Yermolova will return home any minute following rehearsal or a performance. But it also has to do with the house itself, its architectural style. I love the small-pane bay window in front, something you’re more likely to see in Boston than in Moscow. I love the few steps you take down to enter the building from a lower level. I love the unexpected colors and the small decorative details. It was originally built in 1773 by a member of the Masons, and secretive Masonic orders met here regularly in the early years. It was even said that a murder or a suicide was committed here at one point, thus giving rise to stories of a ghost haunting the home’s chambers. The house was purchased by Yermolova’s husband, a wealthy lawyer, in 1889, the year my maternal grandmother was born.


Yermolova (1853-1928) was one of the first great Russian actresses, and probably the first to reach her level of renown. She was a star at the Maly Theater (during her prime years the Maly was the only major playhouse in town, with only three to five other theaters providing dramatic entertainment), and she was the first to have a theater named after her – the Yermolova Theater in Moscow in 1925. (St. Petersburg’s Komissarzhevskaya Theater, founded in 1942, was named after Yermolova’s great contemporary Vera Komissarzhevskaya.) Here and there you can read that Yermolova was inconsistent, that on any given night she might be brilliant or she might not be. I don’t know about that. Sounds like malarkey to me. I suggest it’s more likely that the people making comments like that were more or less attentive on the so-called “given nights,” giving rise to pointless, subjective conclusions about the actress’s work.
It’s possible that the Yermolova House holds the record for plaques hanging on its outer walls. There are three. The first two you see below are of the traditional type – the first identifying the building as the place where the great artist lived, the second identifying it as a building of note maintained by government funds. The third is the most interesting. It has a lovely lack of officiality about it.
NEXT DAY ADDITION: My friend Svetlana Gladtsyna wrote the following comment on my Facebook post announcing this little blog. It’s so interesting I had to add it:
Just a couple of remarks if I may. This house is situated in the area called “Kozikha” ( named after the two Kozikhinsky bystreets – Bolshoy and Maly), which was a kind of Moscow Latin Quartier, because most of the dwellers there were lecturers, musicians and students. The reason for that was that the biggest and most famous Moscow educational institutions – University and Conservatoire were under a few minutes’ walk from the area. And since the Maly Theater was also nearby, quite a few actors lived there too (e.g. Ostuzhev, Sumbatov-Yuzhin and some others). Maria Yermolova’s house was known among the Muscovites as the ‘Pink Window Glass House’. It was stated that the actress had poor eyesight (a very dangerous case for acting!) and doctors advised her to have specially made glass of the pink color put in her room window (it is still there, as a matter of fact). This district is believed to have been the least dangerous and the most democratic one in the city. (A ‘freak’ entrepreneur Savva Morozov also used to own a mansion there). When it comes to Yermolova’s ‘histrionic powers’, I would dare remember the words of the Russian satire writer of the late XIX-early XX centuries, the so-called ‘King of the Russian Feuilleton” , Vlas Doroshevich: “When she is making ‘varenje’ (the Russian-style berry or fruit jam) on the stage, you get the feeling she is making it from her own liver.” Well it was a sort of joke of course. According to her contemporaries, she was truly the favourite actress among the then Moscow theater-goers. After her death, the funeral service took place in the Bolshoye Voznesenie Church, where Alexander Pushkin married Natalia Goncharova. And there were lots of people who wanted to say their last and sad farewells to her… Well, hope all this is not too boring…

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Vitaly Solomin plaque, Moscow

IMG_6616.jpg2 IMG_6615.jpg2Anybody will tell you that Vitaly Solomin (1941-2002) died too young. He still had his boyish good looks and his youthful energy when he died of a stroke at the age of 60 during the intermission of a performance of a musical production of Krechinsky’s Wedding. The stroke actually occurred during the first act but, typically, Solomin continued to perform until the curtain fell. He even tried to get people not to call a doctor because he still had the second act to play. But he died before the doctor could come or the second act could begin. This happened at the affiliate stage of the Maly Theater which is located in the Zamoskvorechye, or Beyond the Moscow River, region of Moscow. I live in the courtyard of this beautiful building and, in fact, I’m looking out the window at it right now as I write these lines. Vitaly was the younger brother of Yury Solomin, long the artistic director of the Maly Theater, where Vitaly worked his entire career. If this is possible, I would say that Yury is the more famous of the two, but that Vitaly was the most loved of them. Maybe Vitaly was both. He performed in a host of extremely popular films, including his crowning role as Doctor Watson in three wildly popular Russian versions of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. In all he played in 57 films between 1963 and 2002, and was one of the most recognized faces and most respected actors in Russia.

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It so happened that my wife Oksana Mysina played Solomin’s wife in his very last film, a made-for-TV miniseries called All or Nothing, based on a novel by the Polish writer Joanna Chmielewska. Oksana often tells the story of the first time she met Solomin. Whether during a costume or makeup check, she decided to go into his dressing room to introduce herself. She walked in all smiles and cheer, excited that she was to be working with the great “Doctor Watson.” Solomin was busy at his dressing room table, but Oksana made bold to announce herself. “Hello, Vitaly Mefodievich,” I presume she said in her characteristic good-natured voice, “I’ll be playing your wife in this film.” Oksana said Solomin’s reaction was priceless. Slowly, as if he would rather have heard he was now to be led to his execution, he turned his head toward her. When his eyes finally found her, he said not a word. He just stared at her blankly until she felt uneasy enough to leave. So much for the danger of meeting your idols. Don’t get me, or Oksana, wrong. There isn’t a whiff of reproach in this little story. Solomin was a consummate professional and his work was everything. Anything that had to do with anything but his work – was not of the least interest to him. That lovable, impish Doctor Watson was work – he was created through the labor of a great artist, a great actor. Another of Oksana’s little stories that I love is the way Solomin did not trust producers. Russian producers are notorious for not paying on time or for not paying at all. Our family has had plenty of experience with that. Anyway, at the end of each filming day Solomin would wait for the producer to bring him an envelope with his pay for the day. No envelope today, no shoot tomorrow.
At the time of his death Solomin lived in a most interesting building at Nikitsky Boulevard 9, just north of the New Arbat Street at the very beginning of the famous Arbat Street. As we see in the plaque immediately below, the structure was originally built to house a host of arctic explorers.


Dmitry Mamin-Sibiryak bust, Yekaterinburg


Dmitry Mamin-Sibiryak (1852-1912) was a man after my own heart. I myself had a bit of a checkered educational career. It was good, don’t get me wrong. But it wandered around rather like a snake. And then I run across the list of schools that Mamin attended (before he added “Sibiryak,” the Siberian, to his name) and I can’t help but be impressed. He started off being home taught by his father, a factory priest, before enrolling in the school for children of the workers of the Visimo-Shantaisk factory. He later matriculated for a few years in a religious seminary in Yekaterinburg before switching over to the Perm religious academy. Both of these were rather crude middle schools and he didn’t complete either of them. In the first half of the 1870s he studied veterinary medicine at the Petersburg Academy of Medicine and Surgery, but switched over to the law department of Petersburg University… And, yes, you guessed it, he never completed either of those either. While in St. Petersburg Mamin began to publish little stories in the newspapers. He finally figured out what life was trying to tell him – he needed to write more than he needed to go to school. He headed back to his parents’ home in the Urals Mountains and, when his father died and he found himself in the position of having to take care of his mother and siblings, he began to write in earnest. Imagine that, supporting a family by writing! Anyway, he eventually wrote several novels, a large number of essays and travel notes, as well as some plays and a popular cycle of children’s stories dedicated to his daughter Alyona, a sickly child who died in her early 20s. The setting for Mamin-Sibiryak’s work was usually the Ural Mountains area or Siberia.


The name Mamin-Sibiryak also exists in literary folklore thanks to a joke that the playwright Nikolai Erdman came up with during his time of Siberian exile in the 1930s. Erdman wrote beautiful letters back to his family, letters full of wit and charm and warmth, and whenever he addressed one to his mother, he would invariably sign it “Mamin-Sibiryak,” because in Russian, Mamin-Sibiryak means “mother’s Siberian.”
The bust honoring the real Mamin-Sibiryak in Yekaterinburg was unveiled November 5, 1987 and was created by the sculptor Andrei Antonov. It stands with its back to Lenin Prospekt, and stands as part of a duo of busts, the other commemorating Pavel Bazhov, about whom I’ve already written on this site.



Alexander Fadeev monument, Moscow


If the case of Alexander Fadeev doesn’t make you stop and think about the meaning of success and failure, I suspect nothing can do the job. Fadeev (1901-1956) began his writing career in fine fashion. After writing a handful of undistinguished stories he published his first novel, The Rout (1927), which was hugely popular. That catapulted him into the first rank of Soviet writers. However, he never finished his second novel and, for good or bad measure, he didn’t finish his last, either. It’s true that he produced one blockbuster in between – The Young Guard (1945), a novel that was huge not only as literature, but as the basis for а wildly popular feature film in 1948 as well. A bushelful of Stalin Prizes were handed out to people involved, Fadeev himself grabbing one in 1946 for the novel. A sculptural group honoring Fadeev and his characters was put up in Miusskaya Square not far from the Belorussia train station in Moscow in 1973. It was done by sculptor Vladimir Fyodorov. So what’s the big deal, you ask? Why the gloom and doom beginning to this little note? Well, just 10 years after receiving his Stalin Prize and 17 years before this sculpture went up, Fadeev shot himself dead, that’s why.

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Fadeev attached himself to Soviet power early. He was instrumental in the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers from 1928-1932 and was a champion of socialist realism from the very start. He was named head of the Soviet Writers Union in 1946 – surely on the strength of The Young Guard – and he remained in the post until 1954, shortly after Stalin’s death. During those eight years he was in charge of a great many repressive measures that Stalin instigated against writers and critics. When this and other actions Fadeev had been involved in became public knowledge after Khrushchev’s secret speech about Stalin’s cult of personality on Feb. 25, 1956, Fadeev lost his bearings. He was a heavy drinker as it was – perhaps that was the only way this simple man from Siberia could live with himself all those years – but now he was rarely seen sober. On May 13, 1956 he shot himself with his own revolver while at his dacha in Peredelkino. His wife, the famous Moscow Art Theater actress Angelina Stepanova, was on tour abroad at the time and she was called back home to deal with her husband’s death, although she wasn’t told why she was being called home until she reached Moscow.

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Fyodorov’s sculptural group is a nice one for a family park. As you can see in these photos kids and adults alike enjoy gathering around them. Pigeons also appreciate them. One extremely stubborn pigeon on top of Fadeev’s head refused to budge the entire time I was shooting the pictures. In order to get at least a few shots without it looking like the granite writer had feathers coming out of his head, I had to come right up close to the foot of the monument and shoot from below at a steep angle. I must say there’s something irritatingly attractive about the sculptures. They are faceless and bloodless like so many Soviet works of art. Fadeev, particularly, is almost a blank slate. His face, his greatcoat and his pants are as featureless as they can be. Almost like one thinks may happen after a vampire sucks the blood out of a person leaving behind nothing but an empty shell. Come to think of it, maybe that’s why I find some truth in these images – because I rather suspect that is pretty much what happened to Fadeev. The last photo I include below is taken on Fadeev Street, which runs right behind Miusskaya Square. As the plaque notes, the street was named after Fadeev in 1967, six years before the ensemble of sculptures would go up.

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Igor Severyanin in Bouffe-Garden, Tomsk


There’s nothing here but a snippet of a story. And not much of a snippet at that. But there is enough to make it worth the telling. I was walking through Tomsk with my friend Pavel Rachkovsky in April 2014 looking for buildings and monuments with connections to Russian cultural figures. I love what happens in the imagination when you stand before a home or a hall or a building of some kind and think about what has gone on there, who has been there, what they did, what they read and what they wrote or painted or composed. The point was to begin gathering photos for a website or something that I might do someday. Like Russian Culture in Landmarks, for instance. Anyway, as you can read in a Moscow Times blog I wrote about that trip I took to Tomsk, Rachkovsky stopped me as we passed a relatively unprepossessing park, the east side of which bordered on Krasnoarmeiskaya Ulitsa, or, Street. Waving his hand at the trees and lawn, he said, “This is Bouffe-Garden and one time the poet Igor Severyanin came here to recite his poetry.” I stood there a few moments to take in the news Pavel had unloaded on me. What an incongruous thought – Severyanin and this park! I snapped a couple of photos, thinking about the tall, imposing poet unleashing his expressive poetry into the Tomsk night, or day, air. One of the most-used books in my library is Victor Terras’s Handbook of Russian Literature. In it Aleksis Rannit writes that Severyanin, “early in his career recited his poems by half-singing with his masculine-lyrical baritone voice of beautiful timbre and perfect vocal technique, and later, after the Revolution, in a simple, slightly incantational manner. His tumultuous successes before large, hysterical crowds were similar to those of Elvis Presley.” Just imagine that in the Bouffe-Garden in Tomsk.


The city library of Novouralsk provides another glimpse into how Severyanin’s readings were received by the public.
“Snowy Moscow,” a text reads on their website, “drifts cover Staraya Ploshchad [Old Square], a crowd pushes into the amphitheater of the Polytechnical Museum. It’s a madhouse! The king of poets is to be elected. Mayakovsky, Balmont and Burlyuk read their poetry. The last onto the stage is a tall man in a black frock-coat, Igor Severyanin. The audience hears him out in silence. But the moment his voice dies down the hall bursts into applause and cheers. After the votes are counted, the king of poets is Igor Severyanin.”
Perhaps that day or evening in Tomsk Severyanin read his poem “Epilogue,” which, in my extremely hasty and workmanlike translation, begins:

I, the genius, Igor Severyanin,
Am drunk with my own victory:
My face is shown on every screen!
I’m confirmed in every heart!

I’ve drawn a brazen line
From Bayezid to Port Arthur.
I conquered all of literature
And thunderously seized the throne!

“I shall be!” I said a year ago.
A year flamed out and here I am!…

Perhaps in Tomsk,  too, a ruckus was raised, a furore caused, a madhouse foisted on the town. Perhaps the women fainted in pre-Elvis swoons. We’ll never know. Not unless someone unearths a description of that day Severyanin – who was born in 1887 and died in 1941, whose real last name was Lotaryov and whose pen name means ‘The Northerner’ – read his poetry in Bouffe-Garden.  And even then – such a vague, distant and unsatisfying substitute that would be. Nowadays there is nothing in Bouffe-Garden but the occasional cry of a happy child – or not – and the wind whispering in the twiggy trees. That is poetry of a sort, of course. It satisfies many. But it’s not Igor Severyanin, and I must admit, I would have loved to hear the echo of his voice in the park in Tomsk that day.

Alexander Radishchev House, Tomsk


There are few things I love more than facts that cannot be proved. What could be more lifelike? Anyway, the picture you see above shows the so-called Radishchev House in Tomsk. Legend, and some documents, apparently, have it that the prominent writer, economist, lawyer and philosopher Alexander Radishchev – the author of the incendiary travel notes Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow – spent time here on his way to Siberian exile in 1791. Some say he actually stopped at another building, but, be that as it may, it is this structure on today’s Bakunin Street (Yefremovsky Street when Radishchev was or was not here) that bears the plaque and bears the name of the great man in the hearts and minds of this city’s people. If you love Russian culture as I do, surely you have a similar soft spot in your heart for Radischev. He was one of the first Russians to openly and publicly and pointedly stand up and say, “Wait a minute! All is not quite what you say it is!” For that Catherine the Great – about whom I’ve written earlier in this blog – arrested the man, burnt his famous book, and sent him to Siberia. So much for standing up and speaking the truth in Russia. His crime was to open his eyes and see that the splendor of St. Petersburg and Moscow were not even vaguely matched in the dirty, rundown, Godforsaken, poverty-stricken, uneducated villages and towns that lie between those two great cities. Radischev had the ingenious idea of getting into a carriage, making the trip, and writing about what he encountered. Naturally, since the actual state of affairs did not match the version of reality that the Empress chose to believe, and insisted on foisting on her subjects, the author had to be dealt with. Not quite “off with his head!” but six years “out of sight and out of mind” in the Siberian town of Ilimsk from 1791 to 1797. If the prevailing stories of the days spent in transit in Tomsk are true, Radishchev occupied a room or rooms on the low, ground floor of this building. According to Tomsk historian and architect Pavel Rachkovsky, only this floor today remains more or less untouched from the late 18th century. The church that rises behind the building in the background was not there in Radishchev’s times.

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If you really want to get a feel for what Tomsk might have looked like when Radishchev was passing through, you will come at the structure in question from the south side, heading up from the north bank of the small Ushaika River. Bakunin Street – ulitsa Bakunina in Russian – provides an extraordinary glimpse into the past. It is still a rolling, bumpy, uneven cobbled road lined by many old, wooden buildings. Only the occasional Honda or Hyundai, or a pedestrian in a parka on a chilly, windy day, suggests we have not traveled back to the 19th century, if not the 18th. In the sequence of shots below, you see the Radishchev House looming in the distance as we make our way up the road. For the record, Radishchev’s further fate was not particularly happy. He was returned to St. Petersburg in 1797 by Catherine’s successor and much unloved son, Pavel the First, and was given the opportunity to try to institute several legal reforms. Pavel’s position was always tenuous, however, and he was assassinated in 1801. Radishchev, perhaps sensing that the noose figuratively was about to be thrown around his neck again, committed suicide in 1802.