Yesterday I mentioned that the Soviet poet Alexander Tvardovsky and I both have spoken at the Pushkin House in London, albeit 50 years apart and in different buildings. That got me to thinking that Tvardovsky and I shared visits to another place as well – Nikolai Erdman’s dacha outside of Moscow, not far from the banks of the Red Pakhra River. I was there once, thanks to my friend Anna Mass, daughter of Vladimir Mass, Erdman’s frequent co-author for about a decade from 1924 to 1933. Mass and Erdman, like Tvardovsky himself, both bought land in an area set aside for writers – I believe it was in the late 1950s. Mass put up a beautiful, two-story wooden home, Erdman put up a curious looking structure at street’s end that had a few remnants of the Futuristic style left in its angled corners. Anyway, when Tvardovsky would go on drinking binges, something that was common, he would apparently run up and down the country lane on which the homes stood, knocking on people’s doors, imploring them to drink with him, or asking them for vodka if he had run out. Erdman, who rarely turned down a drink, and who preferred cognac, by all accounts did not suffer messy, noisy drunks. So, according to my information, he would usually send Tvardovsky packing when the latter would come knocking.
Tvardovsky (1910-1971), who came from good peasant stock, is most famed for his comic epic poem about a simple Soviet soldier, Vasily Tyorkin. He won his second Stalin Prize for this work, which stood him in very good stead for most of the late Soviet period, but which is not, to my knowledge, prominent in many reading lists these days. So, the question arises: Why would this sculpture by Vladimir Surovtsev and Danila Surovtsev have been erected in the center of Moscow, a stone’s throw from Pushkin Square on Strastnoi Boulevard, in 2013? Well, Tvardovsky has still another claim to fame, a very legitimate one. During his second tenure as the editor-in-chief of the influential Novy Mir thick journal from 1958 to 1970, he presided over the publication of a significant number of literary works that helped to define the Thaw era, not the least of which was Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s novella One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich in 1962. The Tvardovsky years at Novy Mir continue to be a high spot in this storied journal’s long history. I don’t want to speculate too much, but when you walk around this statue you can’t help but feel that a sense of humility or even penance is built into the image it presents. If so, then this is a nice reference to Tvardovsky’s conscientious work as an editor who was serious about bringing out honest works that challenged received notions, and official versions, of Soviet history and culture.