Andrei Sakharov Center, Moscow


The Sakharov Center, located in a small corner of wooded land just above the Yauza River in the teeming metropolis of Moscow, is a pretty amazing place. Its official address is 57 Zemlyanoi Val. Its main building (above, bearing a banner proclaiming “Freedom”) used to house a police precinct of some kind, while its second building, which hosts exhibits, conferences, theater performances, concerts and general town-hall-type meetings, was the garage. Andrei Sakharov, in case you’ve forgotten or are too young to know, was the great Soviet physicist, one of the creators of Russian nuclear weaapons, who became one of the most prominent and influential Soviet dissidents and spent most of his final years being harassed by the Soviet government as he defended human rights while being deprived of his own. Google him if you need information. He was one of the great citizens of the world of the last half of the 20th century.
In recent years these two small buildings have hosted countless cultural events. It is an amazing process how seemingly inanimate buildings take on the aura and the energy of the people who inhabit and/or use them. It’s a process that is evident at the Sakharov Center. Over the last few years I have attended more theatrical or theatricalized events there than I can count or remember. For awhile journalist Mikhail Kaluzhsky teamed with Moscow-based, German theater director Georg Genoux’s Joseph Beuys Theater to present important theater-based performances that touched on difficult historical topics, such as Nazism in Germany, fascism in the Soviet Union, the problem of political prisoners in Russia, issues of free speech and more. Some of these events were (almost) straight-up theater, such Genoux’s production of I, Anna and Helga, which weaved the director’s own family story into the harrowing tales of Anne Frank and Helga Goebbels. Others, such as an evening discussion organized by Genoux and hosted by Kaluzhsky, brought in prominent artists to discuss the problem of collaborating with the government. Participants that night, in early Dec. 2011, included Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, Yekaterina Samutsevich and Maria Alyoshina, whom, in a few months, the world would come to know as Pussy Riot.



Thanks to the efforts of the Center’s information director Yelena Kaluzhskaya, the Sakharov Center continues to host major cultural, political and social events, and to support politically oriented theater elsewhere. They host an internet discussion channel called Gogol.TV that provides provocative conversations on timely topics. I joined the actress Anastasia Patlay to discuss the importance of Teatr.doc’s production of One Hour, Eighteen Minutes last fall.
The photos you see here were taken yesterday, Aug. 30, 2014, after a benefit concert for political prisoners in Russia raised nearly $5,000. Performing at the event were the playwright and satirist Viktor Shenderovich, the poet, satirist and scholar Dmitry Bykov, the musician Alexei Paperny, the actress and singer Oksana Mysina (my wife, thank you), the poets Alexander Timofeevsky, Igor Irtenyev and many others. It’s all very much in the realm of activity of this vital organization which helps a culture continue to speak out in times of conflict, repression and war. The final picture below shows a banner that hangs on the “garage” segment of the Center. Here is what it proclaims in full: “Freedom says ‘Yes!’ in various languages. The Sakharov Center unites people who defend and bring about freedom and human rights in various languages: Law, Philosophy, Ethics, Poetry, Fine Arts, Politics, Education, Science, Theater, Architecture, Music, Business and many more. The Sakharov Center is a place where projects and programs are realized whose goal is to defend and support intellectual, creative, religious, political, civic and economic freedoms and human rights.” I couldn’t have said it any better myself.

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Sytin Printing Press, Pyatnitskaya Ulitsa, Moscow



Our little march up and down Pyatnitskaya Street this week ends today with a building I see every time I emerge onto Pyatnitskaya from the courtyard in which I live. It’s a beautiful, stately old structure that has been abandoned for many of the years I have been here. That’s beginning to change and I’m thrilled about that. In the section of the building that faces 2nd Monetchikovsky Lane (the glass windows running away from the main peach/white structure in the picture above) several restaurants have gone into the first floor. One of them, Coin, has a great, inexpensive “business lunch” from 1 to 5 p.m. every weekday. You can often find Oksana and me there after 4 p.m. But, as with so many locations in Moscow, there is much, much more here than meets the contemporary eye.
This huge building, and many of the wings and additions stretching out over the entire city block covering Pyatnitskaya 71-73, once belonged to Ivan Sytin, one of the great publishers in Russian history. He was from a simple family and was not overly educated. Anton Chekhov described him as “a great, but completely unlettered man who came from the people. A bundle of energy together with slackness… and lack of firmness.” (I pull this quote from Charles A. Ruud and Marina E. Soroka’s introduction to My Life for the Book: The Memoirs of a Russian Publisher.) But Sytin had a nose for publishing and business and, leaning on the advice of many important cultural figures – Leo Tolstoy and Chekhov among them – he effected a revolution in Russian publishing. He made books, chapbooks, picture books, maps and such things available at extremely low cost, meaning they could reach masses. At one time or another he published the works of Alexander Pushkin, Ivan Krylov, Tolstoy, Chekhov and many others. He obtained the property on which his huge printing factory was built in 1887 and he put it to use immediately. Later he had the architect Adolf Erikhson build a fabulous new home for his business – that was in 1903 and that is pretty much what we see today. Because of Sytin’s stinginess and his exploitative relationship to his workers, this building was gutted by fire during the Revolution of 1905. However, it was rebuilt and working again within the year. It’s also worth noting that those same workers, or their “descendants,” if you will, were extremely loyal to Sytin. When the new Soviet government appropriated the building it took them nearly three years to get the workers to accept Communist Party representation. The workers were unhappy that their boss had been treated so badly.

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According to the great Know Moscow website,  many of the top writers of the age paid visits to these offices, including Chekhov, Tolstoy, Maxim Gorky and Vladimir Mayakovsky. The poet Sergei Yesenin, before he was a poet or Yesenin in anyone’s mind but his own, worked as a copy editor here when he was 18 years old in 1913. Also of interest is that the future playwright Alexander Ostrovsky lived in his father’s home in a building on this plot that I am assuming was destroyed at some point. If I understand correctly, this would have been somewhere near the point where the peach and yellow buildings meet in the very last photo below.
I personally encountered Sytin for the first time in Nikolai Erdman’s black comedy The Warrant. At the beginning of Act III the old Avtonom Sigismundovich is horrified to hear that his tattered old copy of the newspaper Tsarist News has perished, i.e., was used as toilet paper by his servant Agafangel.
“How could it have perished?” Avtonom Sigismundovich asks. “My, what a healthy issue it was. The print. The ideas. The letters. Why do you think that was? Because people then were great. Take Sytin, for example. He published the newspaper Russian Word. And, oh, how he did publish it! He built a three-story building and printed it on every floor. Every time you’d ride by, you’d think to yourself, ‘There it is. The bulwark of the Russian empire. The three-story Russian Word…'”
In fact, Sytin began publishing Russian Word at the behest of Chekhov, who believed the country needed a good, cheap newspaper. As for the translation from the Erdman play, that’s taken from my own translation published in The Major Plays of Nikolai Erdman.




Lev Tolstoy museum on Pyatnitskaya, Moscow


Still another point of interest on the newly renovated Pyatnitskaya Street. Look at the luscious new peach-colored paint on the wall around the plaque proclaiming this modest building at 12 Pyatnitskaya Street the Lev Tolstoy Museum and the Tolstoy Center on Pyatnitskaya. According to one laconic, but fact-filled website, this was just one of 22 homes that are associated with the great writer’s life in Moscow.
Tolstoy rented rooms here from October 1857 to the end of 1858 after returning home from the Crimean War. According to the museum’s website, the building was originally erected between 1789 and 1795. While renting furnished rooms here Tolstoy lived with his brother Nikolai, his sister Maria and three nephews, and he also became friends with the poet Afanasy Fet and the playwright Alexander Ostrovsky, the latter of which who lived a stone’s throw away. As the site tells us, Tolstoy routinely received such guests as the satirist Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, the historian, lawyer and philosopher Boris Chicherin, and the Aksakov brothers, Ivan and Konstantin. While Tolstoy lived here he worked on his famous novella The Cossacks, as well as on the stories “The Perished (Albert),” and “Three Deaths.” Some sources indicate he also wrote his tale “Family Happiness” here. It would make sense since all these works were written at more or less the same time. provides some details, perhaps somewhat embellished, about this time in Tolstoy’s life: “The young count [Tolstoy], after moving to the Zamoskvorechye region, led a busy social life, spending time at the English Club, restaurants, the Bolshoi and Maly theaters, literary and musical salons. Having donned his tricot and mounting his steed, he would head out from Pyatnitskaya to sports halls where he would do gymnastics and practice his fencing. Tolstoy attended dinners for invited guests and he hosted such dinners himself. While visiting Tolstoy, Fet read aloud to guests his translation of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and, as Tolstoy wrote in his diary, ‘ignited me for art’ with his conversations.”

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Because it’s such great stuff, I continue to quote from “[Tolstoy] described life on Pyatnitskaya on Dec. 6, 1857 as such: I have lived in Moscow all this time, doing a little writing, spending some time with the family, going out into society a bit,  dawdling about with SMART PEOPLE, and life, therefore, is fair to middling – neither good nor bad. Although more likely it’s good.”
Chances are, the following description of Moscow from The Cossacks is drawn from what Tolstoy saw on Pyatnitskaya Street: “Everything was quiet in Moscow. Only very rarely could a squeaky carriage wheel be heard on the wintry street. There were no lights in the windows and the street lamps were doused. The sounds of bells wafted in from the churches, rippling over the sleeping city, reminding all of morning. The streets were empty. Here and there a night cabby’s runners would mix sand with snow and, when the cabby reached the next corner, he would fall asleep, waiting for his next passenger. An old woman might enter a church where a few wax candles standing helter-skelter and burning red were reflected in gold icon frames. Working people were already waking up after the long winter’s night and going to work. For gentlemen, however, it was still evening.”
Chances are, the church Tolstoy saw the old woman entering was the Church of Paraskeva Pyatnitsa, for which the street is named. It would stand for another 70+ years just south of Tolstoy’s house on the other side of the street until it was destroyed by Joseph Stalin in the 1930s. As for the “bells of churches wafting in” – it must be remembered that there are numerous churches in this area and bells from most of them would easily have reached Tolstoy’s ears. Especially in the quiet state of solitude he describes in his tale.
For those who love irony (and a bit of stupidity, perhaps), consider my previous post on the Tolstoy museum on Prechistenka and my story about never having visited that location in my 25 years in Russia. We can now add to that the fact that I have lived on Pyatnitskaya Street for 15 years and have never visited the Tolstoy museum located just a mile or two away from me. I can’t explain why that is. So I won’t try. I will get there, though. I promise.

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Vasily Lebedev-Kumach plaque, Moscow


We continue our stroll up and down Moscow’s renovated Pyatnitskaya Street today by turning our attention to Vasily Lebedev (1898-1949), a poet and song lyricist who, during the period of the Revolution, added the appendage Kumach (calico red, turkey red) to his last name. He was born  at No. 6 Pyatnitskaya Street and lived here more or less until his 12th birthday. Lebedev-Kumach is a wonderfully evocative name in Russian, with hinted references to swans and turkeys, white and red. I used to run across his name often when researching my book Silence’s Roar: The Life and Drama of Nikolai Erdman. Not only did the two writers begin their careers at approximately the same time (Lebedev-Kumach preceding Erdman by about two years) and in the same general circles, but they had the opportunity to collaborate several times in the 1930s. Lebedev-Kumach wrote the songs for three works that Erdman collaborated on with others. They were: The Musical Store (1932), a musical/dramatic sketch written with Vladimir Mass for the popular jazz musician Leonid Utyosov; Jolly Fellows (1933/34), a film scripted with Mass and based very loosely on the idea of The Music Store; and Volga-Volga (1938), a film scripted with Mikhail Volpin.
Lebedev-Kumach was a hugely successful figure in the Soviet pantheon. He was the winner of a Stalin Prize (1941) and his songs were wildly popular, bringing him a financial security that could not be dreamed of by the average person in the workers’ paradise. It’s enough to know that he was the author of the words to the once- song “Wide is My Native Land” to understand the scope of the writer’s fame.
I really don’t want to step into the controversy about Lebedev-Kumach’s alleged plagiarism of some of his best-known lyrics. I don’t know enough to do that. Although it is now a part of his biography and can’t be ignored either. I will say this – the songwriter’s popularity was such that he could easily have had enemies who would have been happy to take him down a rung or two. One of his greatest detractors was the novelist and head of the Writers Union Alexander Fadeev (see an earlier blog about him on this site). But Fadeev was a slippery character, having caused untold numbers of writers to suffer pain, humiliation, loss of freedom and even death. Were his claims legitimate? I don’t know. It appears to be a fact that as he aged Lebedev-Kumach became horribly depressed by his wealth, fame and high position in the Soviet hierarchy. According to Russian Wikipedia he was asked late in life to write a poem about Joseph Stalin and he refused. (He had previously written numerous songs about and featuring Stalin.) I’m not sure Fadeev would have been able to refuse something like that…

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The building in which the future poet and song lyricist was born is one of the oldest buildings on Pyatnitskaya Street. In the second half of the 19th century it either replaced a one-story building that was built in 1842, or had a second floor added. As best as I can understand, the one-story version was erected at the end of the 18th century and replaced structures that were part of the property of Count Mikhail Dashkov in the 17th century.
One website devoted to Moscow’s neighborhoods has this to say about Pyatnitskaya: “Eclectic and gaudy, Pyatnitskaya still retains that charm of a secluded, isolated corner of the city which is characteristic of the Zamoskvorechye region. It’s as if it was created especially for knowledgeable connoisseurs of architecture and hosts of old buildings that are steeped in urban legends and attract curious researchers hoping that the city will reveal something of its past to them.”
As for Lebedev-Kumach, I would add that he translated Horatio into Russian; worked for a time in the organization connected with the famous ROSTA Windows (where Vladimir Mayakovsky also worked); wrote for the great humorous publications The Whistle (Gudok) and Krokodil; and took part in the famous and influential Blue Blouse traveling theater projects. According to one website, an incomplete listing of his songs numbers more than 150. He is buried in the cemetery at Novodevichy  Monastery.

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“Foreign Literature” editorial office, Moscow


I live on Pyatnitskaya Street in Moscow in the Zamoskvorechye, or “Beyond the Moscow River” section of the city. It is a glorious place, filled with churches, old architecture and cultural connections. It is, at once, the old merchant section of town and the place where, hundreds of years ago – and today, too – immigrants from the South would arrive and make their home. Over the last two months Pyatnitskaya Street has undergone a radical facelift, old buildings being renovated and repainted, the street being narrowed for automobiles and widened for pedestrians and bicycle riders. The neighborhood has undergone a transformation of a kind I have never experienced in any neighborhood I have ever lived in – and I have lived in a lot of neighborhoods.
One of the most nondescript buildings on all of Pyatnitskaya (named after the Church of Paraskeva Pyatnitsa, which was destroyed in the 1930s) is the one bearing the address of house 41. If you peer past the iron gates into the entryway set back from the street and sidewalk you can make out a plaque proclaiming this the home of the editorial offices of Inostrannaya literatura, or Foreign Literature, magazine.  Inside the building one is greeted by a most wondrous atmosphere of old. You feel as though you have stepped back in time into the Soviet Union of the 1970s. The creaky, loose-boarded floors; the floor attendant who buzzes you in when you ring the doorbell and sits indifferently by a stack of books and magazines for sale; the dull, gray walls and air, and even the murky light straining to come in the windows. Everything here seems to have turned its back on whatever is happening outside the walls, just as it might have been in the 1950s, when the journal was founded (1955), the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s. Although the publication drew its pedigree from several earlier magazines of the type, primarily The Messenger of Foreign Literature, which was published from 1891 to 1916, Inostrannaya literatura was a child of the Thaw era, bringing readers novels, poems, stories, essays and other writing from the West that could not be had anywhere else. As a text on the journal’s website proclaims, “At the dachas or in attics of practically every reading Soviet household it used to be that one could find lovingly bound packs of Foreign Literature.  These [magazines] allowed dreamers firmly ensconced behind the Iron Curtain to discover the works of Samuel Beckett, William Goldin, John Updike, Jerome J. Salinger, Kenzaburo Oe, Tennessee Williams, Jean-Paul Sartre, Franz Kafka, Evelyn Waugh, Umberto Eco, Julio Cortazar, Milorad Pavic and many, many other writers.”
When I married into the Mysin family in the late 1980s, the huge library I inherited, indeed, included large packs of old issues of Inostrannaya literatura tied together with coarse string. We donated these old issues to the Russian Theater Union’s research library when we moved 15 years ago.


Inostrannaya literatura was one of the great promoters and defenders of the art of translation in a national tradition, both Russian and Soviet, which has always excelled in this sphere of belles lettres. Translators in Russia have been revered almost as writers themselves, and, in fact, often have been major writers in their own right. The names are legion, but we can mention a few – Samuil Marshak (see my post from a few weeks back), Kornei Chukovsky, Boris Pasternak, Joseph Brodsky, Vasily Aksyonov, Innokenty Annensky, Dmitry Merezhkovsky, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Alexander Pushkin… You get the point. Inostrannaya literatura these days often publishes the magnificent work of translator Natalya Mavlevich, who functions equally at ease in French, German and English. Mavlevich created one of the finest translations I have ever encountered – a virtuoso rendition of Valere Novarina’s experimental masterpiece L’Operette imaginaire, although this was not published in Inostrannaya literatura.
In the photo immediately below you see the journal’s editorial office as pictured from the opposite side of the street, while the final photo shows a view of Pyatnitskaya Street looking south from directly in front of the building.
NEXT DAY ADD: I got a note this morning (Aug. 25) from Inostrannaya literatura with a couple of corrections. One was the year the magazine was founded – I’ve made that correction. The other I insert here without changing the original because it’s one of those things I see as point of view. Here is the correction:
“A Soviet editorial office wouldn’t have any ‘stack of books and magazines for sale’ (except maybe in the 1920s, when some private and semi-private publishing houses existed), so this is a sign of new times.”
What I was leaning on was my memory from the late 1970s of going into writers’ organizations and other non-bookstore places where, indeed, books that the average person could not find in bookstores were there for the “elite” members of these places to buy. So I may be wrong that books were for sale at magazine editorial offices, but my reference was wider. That said, I’m more than happy to provide these corrections.

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Marina Tsvetaeva plaque, Moscow


This has to be one of the most horrible plaques in Moscow. It seems to me crudely done, lacking in nuance and feeling. The “likeness,” which I can only put in quotes, is abominable. And yet, what a pleasure to walk down the great Sivtsev Vrazhek street in the Arbat region of Moscow and happen upon a reminder that the great poet Tsvetaeva once lived here. It wasn’t for long, and she wasn’t quite Marina Tsvetaeva yet. But who cares? That makes it even more interesting. The plaque informs us that she lived at 19 Sivtsev Vrazhek from the end of 1911 until the beginning of 1912. The details of that short stay add some color to the tale. According to the great Know Moscow website, Tsvetaeva and her future husband Sergei Efron moved in here shortly after the building was built. They, along with Efron’s two sisters, occupied Apt. 11 on the 6th floor from Oct.  2, 1911 to early March 1912, when the couple set out for Europe on their honeymoon following a wedding on Jan. 27. Tsvetaeva herself wrote: “I have a big window with a view of the Kremlin. In the evening I lie down on the windowsill and look at the lights in the buildings and the dark silhouettes of the towers. Our apartment has come to life. My room is dark, heavy, clumsy and sweet. It has a large book shelf, a large desk, a large sofa – all very weighty and clunky. There is a globe on the floor as well as my trunk and traveling bags that I never part with. I don’t much believe that I will be here for long, I very much want to travel!”

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It was while Tsvetaeva lived in this building that she prepared her second book of verses for publication (The Magic Lantern). It was published in Feb. 1912 and she proudly presented a copy of it to her friend, the great poet Alexander Voloshin when he visited her at this address.
The novelist Alexei Tolstoy dubbed the building the “Nest of Numskulls” (Obormotnik) because it was inhabited by a large number of bohemians. At one time or another this building gave shelter from the elements to Voloshin’s eccentric mother, whom friends knew as “Pra” or “Proto,” as in “protomother” and the poet and novelist Andrei Bely. I’ve drawn these latter tidbits from a blog by Yelena Khorvatova.
Shortly after moving into this building, the likes of which were replacing many old, smaller structures, Tsvetaeva wrote a poem called “Little Houses of Old Moscow,” which begins:

The glory of our languorous grandmothers,
Little houses of old Moscow,
You are, all of you, disappearing
From these modest little backstreets

Like grand ice castles
At the wave of a baton.
Where are your decorated ceilings
And your great, ceiling-high mirrors?…

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Maxim Gorky statue, Moscow metro


It’s pretty much impossible to avoid Maxim Gorky (1868-1936) in Moscow. In the Soviet years he was one of the great warhorses on whose backs the Soviets loaded literature, theater and culture in general. Streets, theaters, parks, film studios, you name it – they were all named after Gorky at one time. That’s come down in recent decades. (Will it go back up? We’ll have to wait and see about that. I certainly hope not.) This modest statue stands between the Chekhovskaya and (now) Tverskaya stops on the Moscow metro. It’s here because Tverskaya Street for many decades was called Gorky Street, hence, what for decades was called the Gorkovskaya metro stop is now called Tverskaya. If you think that’s confusing, that’s just one little metro stop and a street. Imagine what it’s been like for folks here to deal with all the other changes that have come with the taxing process of  historical evolution. But let me get back to the topic at hand: Maxim Gorky. Or, to be more precise, this statue of him underground.



While I stood and photographed this statue for ten minutes, maybe more, nobody looked at it of their own volition as they passed by. A few looked at me and a very few looked in the direction of where my camera was pointed, and, thus, I presume their sight randomly happened to settle briefly on the statue. But this is a weird thing about art in metros. You wonder if it doesn’t inure people to culture as much as sensitize them to it. Poor guy – if he survived being read (and probably hated) by kids in school, now he’s ignored for being that thing in between two of Moscow’s busiest metro stops. I’ll be honest, I almost forgot he was here myself. I was taking pictures of Chekhov mosaics on the Chekhovskaya stop and I was preparing to go photograph the bust of Pushkin on the way to the Pushkinskaya stop (I wrote about that in May), when I thought I’d just check to see if there was anything to shoot at the Tverskaya stop. Now, I’ve only transferred between these two stops a million times in my life. And when I saw Gorky’s head looming ahead of me as I rode the elevator up from the Chekhovskaya stop, I suddenly remembered his presence here. Still, he was less than an afterthought in my mind. Consequently, I made an effort to stop and look inside the version of Gorky that this sculptor (unknown to me) provides.
I like his youth here, he’s not yet encrusted with all the paradoxes and nasty stuff that accrued to him after he returned to the Soviet Union from self-imposed exile in 1932 at the personal invitation of Joseph Stalin. (You can guess that wasn’t the best of his life decisions.) Young as he may be though, that big head of hair has been blown by life.  The lines in the face are hard already – perhaps an anticipation of what was to come.  He looks late-twenty-something to me, maybe maybe early-thirty-something. But probably not, and he’s probably not yet a writer. Look at the books he holds in his hands – I wager those aren’t his; he’s still a reader here. The body, scrawny and gangly and exaggerated for the sake of style, is that of a student, a learner, somebody just starting out on a journey. There’s something in that I find attractive. In fact, if I’m going to like a Gorky statue – although I’m not sure that’s going to happen – it would probably be something like this one.

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Nikolai Lyashko plaque, Moscow


In this day and age I increasingly realize that I don’t know or understand a damn thing. What a mess. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, pull your head out of your damn computer and take a look around. It’s bound to have reached you, too, whatever shape it has taken. Anyway, I decided that the perfect thing for me to do at a time like this was to post something about a topic that I don’t know a damn thing about, someone I have never even heard of. So, Nikolai Lyashko (1884-1953), you’re the lucky one. I’m writing about you.
But before I get started: My wife Oksana just walked past the room where I’m set up to write. I asked her, “Hey, does the name Nikolai Lyashko mean anything to you?”
Oksana smiled politely but distractedly and said, “Huh?”
“Nikolai Lyashko.”
“Lyashko?” she smiled again with a distant look of total disinterest on her face, “never heard of him,” and disappeared beyond the door.
Okay, then let’s start with what I do know. Lyashko lived at 18 1st Tverskaya-Yamskaya Street. That’s the part of Tverskaya that runs between Triumfalnaya Square and the Belorussia Train Station. That’s on the east side of the thoroughfare. And, uh, now I think I’ve used up everything I know on my own. On the side of speculation, I’m going to guess that not even the people who erected the plaque to Nikolai Lyashko knew much about Nikolai Lyashko. These plaques virtually always list the honored figure’s dates, including the period spent occupying space in the given building. This plaque doesn’t do any of that – it just says, “In this house lived and worked the writer Nikolai Nikolayevich Lyashko.” Ah, yes, so there is one more bit of information I could have added: Nikolai’s father’s name was Nikolai.


I guess one other thing I could add is that Lyashko lived in one of those prestigious, monumental-type, Stalin-era buildings that line this street – sometimes, with a good deal of stretching, called “Moscow’s 5th Avenue.” They are imposing, granite and cement block buildings that tend to be quite boring on street level, where the riff-raff hang out, but often have whimsical and attractive decoration on the top floors, where only high-living neighbors across the street can appreciate that bit of beauty when gazing out their own windows. Lyashko’s building has no fringe on top, but it is solid and formidable.
Finally, here are some facts dredged up in various places.
Lyashko was a pseudonym. His real name was Lyashchenko and he was born in Ukraine of peasant stock. His father was a soldier.
He attended and graduated from a church parish school and went to work at the age of 11, toiling in coffee shops and factories throughout Eastern Ukraine.
He began participating in revolutionary circles at the age of 17 and by the age of 19 was already arrested and exiled. He spent a year jailed in a fortress in 1914 at the age of 30 for the crime of taking part in the publication of the “democratically-minded” journal Flames (Ogni).
His literary debut occurred in 1904 or 1905, the sources are inconsistent. In the immediate post-Revolutionary years he was associated with the Proletkult (Proletarian Culture) revolutionary writers organization, and he joined the Smithy group of proletarian writers in 1920. His most famous work is considered the novella The Blast Furnace (1925), although he wrote several novels and story collections about workers and revolutionary activity, including the autobiographical, two-volume work Sweet Hard Labor (1934-36).
As far as I can tell, the last time Lyashko’s works were published in a collection was in 1955.
Lyashko is buried in the hallowed grounds of Novodevichy Monastery in Moscow.




Samuil Marshak plaque, Moscow


Samuil Marshak (1887-1964), as Russian Wikipedia has it, was a “Russian-Soviet poet, playwright, translator and literary critic.” That’s a pretty big plateful. I’m writing about him today because I got a call from a British radio company doing a piece on Russian-British cultural connections. In addition to wanting to discuss current problems and affairs, they asked me to say a few words about the place occupied in Russian culture by Walter Scott and Robert Burns. I did what I always do in these situations, I said, “Sure,” even though I know only the barest of the bare about Scott and Burns in Russian lit. Everybody knows that Walter Scott’s novels deeply influenced all of 19th century Russian literature through Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and others. Dostoevsky, apparently, at one point indicated that he began writing novels thanks to Scott. Perhaps less known is that Burns has been an extremely popular poet in Russia over the last two centuries. Which brings us back to Marshak. During my brief and rushed bit of research, I learned it was Marshak’s translations of Burns that really made the Scottish poet popular in Russia. The first of these translations appeared in 1924 and he continued to add to the “canon” for three decades. His English was presumably good, since he studied English language and literature  at London University from 1912 to 1914. The biggest collection of Burns poems translated by Marshak was published in two volumes in 1963 and contains 171 poems, “about one fourth of the number of poems Burns wrote,” according to Yan De-you’s article “On Marshak’s Russian Translation of Robert Burns,” which is available to be read on the net. Most sources point out that Marshak’s translations, like those of others in Tsarist and Soviet times, were changed, shortened or “edited” to suit the censor. Marshak purposefully avoided translating poems with religious content or imagery, unless it had a satirical bent. So well received and so popular were Marshak’s versions of Burns that he has been called Burns’s “second original.”

Burns aside, Marshak was best known and loved in the Soviet Union for his children’s writings. But as the head of the children’s literature bureau at Gosizdat, a state publishing house, he had a strong impact on the work of others as well. For instance he was an early champion of the work of the great absurdists Daniil Kharms, Alexander Vvedensky, Nikolai Oleinikov, Nikolai Zabolotsky, and of the future great author of dramatic fairy tales Yevgeny Shvarts. He lived a rich and fascinating life that was deeply affected by his Jewish background. Unable to study or even live in the main Russian cities before the Revolution, he had to rely on friends such as Maxim Gorky or Fyodor Chaliapin to skirt residency laws. He traveled much, meeting his future wife during a long journey to the Middle East in 1911. Some of his cities of residence included: Voronezh (where he was born), Petersburg (at various times later – Petrograd and Leningrad), Yalta (at Gorky’s dacha), London, Finland, Petrozavodsk, Yekaterinodar, Moscow… He moved to Moscow after the publishing house he had created in Leningrad was closed by the authorities in 1937 and many of the employees and writers were arrested. He wrote poetry, prose and drama. He translated prodigiously, some of his authors including Shakespeare (sonnets), William Blake, William Wordsworth, John Keats, Rudyard Kipling, A.A. Milne and Jane Austin. As was common in the Soviet Union, where traditions and methods of translation were extremely good, he also translated from languages that he didn’t know, working from the line-by-line translations of others. One of the most curious poets that he translated was Mao Zedong.
As you can see, I took these photos of the Marshak plaque on the building at 14 Zemlyanoi Val – that’s a leg of the so-called Garden Ring on the eastern side of Moscow – in winter. For a couple of years, until 1941, he was a neighbor of the composer Sergei Prokofiev, to whom a plaque was also erected on this building. Marshak lived here from 1938 until his death in 1964.


Grigory Potanin bust, Tomsk


Grigory Potanin (1835-1920) is still another of those figures, an ethnographer and natural historian, who had avoided my obviously inadequate efforts to learn Russian history and culture. When I was last in Tomsk I lived across the street from this small but imposing bust of Potanin that stands in a wooded area in front of Tomsk University, and alongside the Tomsk University Research Library and Archive. The plaque  proclaims him an honorary citizen of Siberia. I would never have thought anything of that until the story behind it was told to me by several Tomsk residents, including Pavel Rachkovsky and Valentina Golovchiner. You see, the notion of a “citizen of Siberia” implies an autonomy for Siberia that it has never had. It has never been a nation and it has never had the right to confer citizenship upon anyone. In other words, to some people, these are fighting words. And indeed, as I learned, there have been several movements throughout history when elements in the vast Siberian region have talked about or actively sought independence from European Russia. It is an idea, as one might imagine, that has never gained traction in Moscow (or in St. Petersburg, when it was capital). I first heard this in April and – lo and behold! – the news the last few weeks has been full of reports about demonstrations and political actions being called throughout Siberia to proclaim the desire to renew the discussion of potential Siberian independence. Encouraged by Vladimir Putin’s willingness to receive Crimea when it “seceded” from Ukraine and his support for “separatists” in Eastern Ukraine, numerous regions in Russia are rethinking their attitude to the central, but very distant, government. If Putin so readily supports secession of Ukrainian lands, why shouldn’t he support their desire for autonomy? Right? Well, not so fast… As it has done every time in the past, the current Russian government is doing everything possible to at least dampen, if not douse, the rising fervor. The tools are typical: bans, threats, harassment, arrests and such. The prominent opposition politician and former Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation Boris Nemtsov tells on his Facebook page about an August 17, 2014, march for independence planned in Novosibirsk.
“I have repeatedly said that the war in Ukraine will lead to centrifugal tendencies and a growth of separatism in Russia,” Nemtsov writes. “The boomerang always comes back.”

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Potanin is a prominent and respected figure in Tomsk, one of the great Siberian cities. He was one of the founders of Tomsk University. But even in death he has had to remain on the run, so to speak. The bust pictured here was kicked out of another place where it was not wanted and then hastily moved to this kind of no man’s land at the university. Professor Golovchiner told stories of people at the university chafing about Potanin’s presence on their territory, and there have been efforts to run him out of here, too. The situation is complicated by the fact that, indeed, this is more than just a bust on a pedestal in the woods, it is actually Potanin’s resting place. Not everyone knows this, apparently, but his body is buried here, also having been unwelcome elsewhere in the past. If the current secessionist movement in Siberia gains any momentum, we can expect to hear much more about Potanin. His name will surely be held high on someone’s banner.