Lenin and Gorky plaque, Moscow


I was going to a show at the Et Cetera Theater not long ago and I arrived a bit early. Since I had my trusty pocket Canon with me, I went out hunting. Moscow being Moscow, it didn’t take me long to find my first prey. This building at 1 Bobrov Lane (Pereulok) one day – June 18, 1920, to be exact – hosted some famous visitors. When I first glanced at the plaque I thought, “pass” – I’m not much interested in all the places that Vladimir Lenin slept, talked, listened, coughed or did whatever else he did in seemingly half of Moscow’s buildings. But at second glance this quickly became interesting. Lenin not only stopped by to visit, he brought the “great proletarian writer” Maxim Gorky along with him. But it gets even better – they came here to inspect the Red Army’s latest artillery arsenal. This building housed Moscow’s Central Artillery Department. You look in the windows today and you can’t quite get your head around the idea of tanks or gatling guns or whatever rolling around on the hardwood floors under the chandeliers. But, hey, things were a bit topsy-turvy in Russia in 1920.
After spending 26 years of my life in Russia I have become a great fan of the playwright Alexander Sukhovo-Kobylin. He has a line in one of his plays: “Believe, when people speak!” Stop and think about that a minute. Whew. Actually I should give the rest of the quote to fill it out: “Believe, when people speak! For everything is possible!” There it is, the punchline. So, hey – if somebody tells me artillery stuff was rolling around here on June 18, 1920, and Lenin and Gorky stopped by to see it, I’ll buy it. Stranger things have happened.

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But most of all what this plaque reminds me of is how creative people – basically rebels at heart, because if you’re not a rebel, you’re not much of an artist – constantly find themselves rubbing elbows with power and loving it. Okay, I’m willing to make concessions for centuries long gone when painters or poets could not survive without the patronage of the local king or prince. I’m not one to apply contemporary standards to the past. It’s not just unfair, it’s silly. You have to open up your brain a little more than that. But as we get closer to the present this kind of camaraderie makes less and less sense to me. I mean, by this time – that is, by the month, week and day that Gorky went out inspecting guns with Lenin – there were plenty of examples of creative artists taking care to distance themselves from power. Gorky was no coward. And he was no man’s fool. He had the full respect of Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov. That’s a hell of an impressive calling card. So what was Gorky doing snuggling up to Lenin?
Understand me properly here. I am raising straightforward questions. I don’t intend to cast aspersions with my questions. I ask them because I’m interested in the answers. I’m struggling with my own generation these days. Every single damn day brings new horror stories about people in Russia who should know better but don’t. For example, the internet is buzzing today with the news that the popular Russian actor Mikhail Porechenkov, a member of the Moscow Art Theater and a big movie star, went down to Donetsk, Ukraine, a day or two ago, joined a group of Russian separatists, put on a “press” helmet at the local airport that has been a besieged battle zone for months, and started shooting in the direction of Ukrainian soldiers.
Let that sink in.
Now he’s claiming he didn’t know he was wearing a “press” helmet, he swears that the bullets were blanks, and he’s even insisting that the whole thing was just a promo “shoot”… But do we really need to go farther to find the precise description of a stupid, idiotic dolt?
So, you see, when I walk past the lovely building at 1 Bobrov Lane and I see the notification that Gorky hobnobbed with Lenin in these environs, I’m thinking – is there something I can learn here? Is there something history can teach me?
Gorky pretty much threw his support behind the Marxists in 1899. (I’m just borrowing a few facts from Russian Wikipedia.) He became close friends with Lenin in 1902. At least two years before that he had become close to Tolstoy and Chekhov. Unhappy with Russian politics and life, Gorky lived on the island of Capri from 1906 (a year after the so-called failed Russian Revolution of 1905) to 1913. He again left the country in 1921 (a year after his visit to the artillery department) and lived in Sorrento, Italy, until 1928. It’s pretty much common knowledge that Joseph Stalin lured Gorky back to the U.S.S.R. by giving him a gorgeous, palatial house to live in and promising to make him the “great proletarian writer.” Gorky trusted Stalin enough to buy into that promise. After returning Gorky was photographed having friendly chats with Big Joseph S, and he occasionally interceded to try to save writers and artists from persecution. I’ve never seen a list of his failures and successes, so I don’t know how often he was able to actually help anyone. I do know that when Gorky died in 1936 there was plenty of talk, which continues today, that he was murdered by Stalin’s secret police.
I’m telling you, don’t attach yourself to governments or the people running them.

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Tairov and Koonen plaque, Moscow


This plaque commemorating the great husband-and-wife theater team of director Alexander Tairov and actress Alisa Koonen hangs in the left-hand foyer of the Pushkin Theater. It is located next to the door leading backstage, where Koonen and Tairov would have spent most of their time when they worked here between 1914 and 1949, and when the theater was called the Kamerny, or Chamber, Theater.
Tairov (born Kornblit) is usually the fourth-mentioned of the great names of Russian directors who worked in the early part of the 20th century – Stanislavsky, Meyerhold, Vakhtangov and Tairov. Tairov was different from the others. He was something of a walking contradiction, a talented creator of light spectacle in the vein of commedia dell’arte or bouffonade, and at the same time a great lover and practitioner of tragedy and theatrical pathos. Productions such as Charles Lecocq’s Girofle-Giroflia (1922) and E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Princess Brambilla (1920) were popular examples of the former. Famous stagings of Innokenty Annensky’s Thamyris Kitharodos (1916) and Racine’s Phedre (1922) were examples of the latter. Tairov discovered Eugene O’Neill for Russian theater and audiences with productions of The Hairy Ape (1926), Desire Under the Elms (1926) and All God’s Chillun Got Wings (1929, as Negro). It was, in part, Tairov’s love of non-Russian drama that got him in trouble in the 1930s and 1940s. The Kamerny Theater was closed by government decree in 1949 and Tairov (1985-1950) could not bear the injustice and humiliation. He died within the year.
Koonen (1889-1974) was the muse, the spark, the material, the talent that brought out the best in Tairov. He, who had acted for Meyerhold in several productions at the Komissarzhevskaya Theater in 1906-1907, found Koonen at a turning point in her life and career. Having been a highly-touted student of Stanislavsky, and playing several major roles at the Moscow Art Theater, she shocked her master by jumping to the new Svobodny, or Free, Theater headed up by Konstantinov Mardzhanov (aka Kote Marjanishvili) in 1913. That company did not last long and, within a year, many of its members made up the new Kamerny Theater run by Tairov. Koonen was, from the very first show in 1914, to the very last, in 1949, the theater’s undisputed star.

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The legend is that when Koonen left the stage at the Kamerny for the last time in 1949, having performed in Tairov’s famous, 30-year hit production of Ernest Legouvé and Eugène Scribe’s Adrienne Lecouvreur, she damned the stage and the theater. Never again would it know the success and the greatness that it had known while she and Tairov reigned there. One could easily write a book about all the details of the curse, the proof, the suggestions, the eye-witnesses, the tales… And maybe I’ll do that some day. It’s a hell of a good idea. But for now suffice it to say that – whether or not Koonen did actually curse the theater – for over half a century afterwards directors, actors, administrators, priests, shamans and just-plain-crazies talked of it as if it were as real as a sharp stone in a slipper. This fed the legend and, often, directors took direct action to try to overturn the curse.
When I arrived in Moscow at the end of the 1980s the talk of the curse was very much alive. I remember Yury Yeryomin’s 1992 production of Erik (based on two plays by Strindberg), during which the theater’s firewall was lowered with a slow, screeching, rumbling racket, and then raised back up again. There was talk that he did that as reverence to Koonen – as if he were saying, “You see? We’re closing the theater off. We’ll open it back up and begin anew, this time with your blessing, rather than with your curse.” But the truth is that from 1950, when the Kamerny was rechristened the Pushkin Theater, until the early 2000s, no director, no company, no repertoire was capable of returning this space to the ranks of the city’s best venues. Despite many talented people working here, and despite the occasional hit, over the decades the Pushkin acquired the reputation of a musty, dusty, unwieldy, miraculously unsuccessful Moscow theater. That changed slowly in the 2000s after it was taken over by Roman Kozak.  For the first time since the first half of the 20th century the theater gained a sense of coherent purpose. Perhaps having the curse in mind, Kozak staged his first show (Koki Mitani’s Academy of Laughter, 2001) not on the famous main stage that Koonen cursed, but on a small affiliate stage in a building located a block away. It was a monstrous success, so that when Kozak staged a beautiful, energetic Romeo and Juliet with a very young cast on the main stage, he came to that troubled space as one who had already triumphed. Still, when the tall, strong, handsome director was stricken with cancer and died just nine years later at the age of 52, there was more than one whisper that he had taken on the battle of the curse and lost by winning.
These days there is no sign of any curse at all. Under the direction of Yevgeny Pisarev, the theater has become one of Moscow’s most popular evening destinations for theater-goers.
The plaque that hangs in the foyer of the Pushkin Theater was designed by sculptor Vyacheslav Klykov and architect Roman Semerdzhiev, and was unveiled in 1984 for the Kamerny’s 70th anniversary. It was apparently intended to be placed outside, but permission was not granted. When Pisarev applied for permission to place a plaque on an outside wall of the theater for the 100th anniversary of the Kamerny in the 2014-2015 season, he again was turned down. I don’t know if the plaque in question would have been a new one, or if it would have been the one you see here. In any case, curse or not, it seems everything that happens at the Pushkin/Kamerny Theater is fraught with additional resistance from the gods.

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Mikhail Lomonosov monument, Moscow

IMG_9688.jpg2IMG_9686.jpg2You have no idea what stories you’re walking into when you approach a monument on the street. The one I highlight today honors the great Mikhail Lomonosov (1711-1765), Russia’s first everything in the arts and sciences. He was essentially the first poet of any consequence, playwright, translator, scientific experimenter, chemist, physicist, astronomer, geologist, metallurgist… He studied in Kiev, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Marburg and Freiburg, to name a few places. In 1755 Moscow University was established according to Lomonosov’s plan. That’s all pretty well known. A few of us who studied Lomonosov’s plays and poems have had a laugh or two, let’s be honest. But then if we’re going to be honest,  let’s also be fair: How many of those who have laughed singlehandedly established the literary and scientific  groundwork for an entire nation? Yeah, right. Now go and laugh some more if you can.
What I, at least, had no inkling of is that the monument to Lomonosov which now stands before the old building of Moscow State University on Mokhovaya Street just across from Red Square and the Kremlin, is the third to grace this space. The first was a small bronze bust by Fedot Shubin which was unveiled in 1877 (1876 Old Style). This bust, however, was damaged badly in 1944 during World War II when it was struck by shrapnel from a bomb. It was decided in 1945 to commission the prominent sculptor Sergei Merkurov to replace the bust with a larger statue. He did so, but, for reasons as yet unclear to me, he employed a temporary plaster or gypsum painted to look like bronze. As a result, by 1957 his statue had to be replaced, thus bringing us to the work we now see when we walk onto the grounds of Moscow University in the city center. This image is of a young Lomonosov, perhaps still a student himself. It was sculpted by Iosif Kozlovsky. I have garnered most of this information from several pages on Russian Wikipedia.

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A little more leisurely research turns up more interesting tidbits. It seems that our poet and scholar had a hot temper and was not averse to a round or two of fisticuffs. According to an article in the newspaper Arguments and Facts, Lomonosov was once even tried and jailed shortly for fighting. One example of his physical strength and willingness to use it has become something of a legend. One evening as Lomonosov walked through Vasilyevsky Island in Petersburg he was accosted by three sailors. Lomonosov turned on them so furiously that two would-be attackers high-tailed it immediately. The third had the misfortune to land in Lomonosov’s grasp and was splayed out on the street under the learned man’s heavy hand. “What are the names of those two bandits, and what did you intend to do to me?” Lomonosov demanded of his captive. The answer quickly followed that robbery was the intent. “You rapscallions, you!” Lomonosov thundered, “Then I will rob you!” And he proceeded to strip his attacker-turned-victim of his clothes and took them home as a trophy of his exploit.
Tell me this: How many countries can claim that their first poet, scientist and learned man was also a champion street fighter?

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Leo Tolstoy monument, Moscow


After posting photos of a monument to Dostoevsky a few days ago, it just didn’t seem right to follow up with anyone besides Leo Tolstoy. You have to give it to sculptor Alexei Portyanko – this one of the author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina is big. It is massive. It is so big they had to take fat chunks of granite and glue them together. Look at Tolstoy’s head in the top photo above – it’s stuck on there with glue. Look at the side of the monument – it’s a kind of building block approach to sculpture. Tolstoy’s head is gargantuan. The beard, like the hair and the back are unfinished. Tolstoy’s hands are huge. His gaze – his glaring stare – comes somewhere out of the deepest depths of the universe and shoots through you like a laser. Everything’s so big here it doesn’t all fit. Tolstoy is either in the process of returning into unformed granite, or emerging from it, I’m not sure which.
From a distance you seem able to get a grip on this sculpture. From a distance the features are familiar, your mind turns them into the Tolstoy you think you know. The closer you get, the more you lose your grip. It’s not that anything depicting Tolstoy here ever becomes unknown, but you realize you’re only privy to a part, to a surface.
I guess that means Portyanko’s sculpture works for me. I was actually trying to work myself up to a rejection. There’s something “too too” about it all. There are moments when you walk around this piece of rock and you think, “This guy’s going too far to say what we all know.”
But I will never forget what Kama Ginkas taught me about art and consumers of it. He was talking about theater spectators and their opinions. How he sees people walking out after attending one of his shows with clearly shaken visages and tears running down their cheeks, as they say to one another, “I don’t think that was a very successful show…”
“I don’t give a damn about your opinion,” Ginkas says. “Everybody has an opinion. I look at their reactions. Their physiological reactions.”
You see, I could start picking away at Portyanko’s monument to Tolstoy: it’s too generic, it’s too obvious, it doesn’t go past the surface… And yet, there I am, walking around and around and snapping more and more pictures and increasingly feeling that something of the power, the unbridled, elemental force of this writer’s presence on our lives, is reaching me loud and clear.
If I tried to tell Portyanko why I don’t think his Tolstoy sculpture is a complete success, he could just say, “I don’t give a damn about your opinion,” and he would be right.

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It’s another thing when you know that this sculptor also did huge monuments to Lenin all over the place. That’s a bit of a low blow on my part, because the Tolstoy monument is there to stand on its own. But I think that is what I’m talking about when I say something irritates me about this Tolstoy. It’s that Leninistic feel. It’s that sense of unequivocal Victory. With a capital V. It is the sense of the right of might. And these aspects do, indeed, hinder my ability to give myself fully to this work.
It becomes even more interesting when you consider that this monument, standing at the beginning of Devichye Pole, or Girl’s Field, on Bolshaya Pirogovskaya Street, replaced another in 1972. I wrote a little about that other, created by Sergei Merkurov, in a post on this site on Aug. 2. That one is very folksy, earthy, and human, even as it recognizes the scope of Tolstoy’s larger-than-life presence. The Merkurov sculpture,  significantly smaller than Portyanko’s, stood in Devichye Pole from 1928 to 1972, when it was moved to the courtyard of the Tolstoy museum on Prechistenka Street.
Ultimately I will probably always remain in a constant state of agitation about Portyanko’s monument. This I can say – I doubt I will ever put it in a category with the great Nikolai Andreev monument to Gogol, the weirdly powerful Alexander Rukavishnikov monument to Dostoevsky, or the brilliantly satirical Leonty Usov monument to Chekhov in Tomsk, all of which I’ve written about on this blog site. Still, this is an imposing work. If you want a sense of Tolstoy as a whole universe, this likeness of him provides that.
If you’re interested in more, there are nice Russian texts at a site suggesting walks around Moscow, and on a website library of posts about Russian sculptures.

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Fyodor Dostoevsky monument, Moscow

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If you look a little further down at the photos here you’ll see where the jokes come from. It’s been said this monument to Dostoevsky by Alexander Rukavishnikov is a “monument to the Russian hemorrhoid.” It is also called “At the Proctologist.” So says Russian Wikipedia, anyway. There’s plenty to joke about. This may be one of the weirdest major sculptures of an important cultural figure I’ve ever encountered. And it’s not just because it looks like Dostoevsky is slipping off the seat he’s trying to sit on. Look at his face. He’s ready to burst out crying. The pain on his face is plain as day, even on a gray, gloomy, murky day in October when the sun never shines, the rain never really stops and the sky allows no breaks in the monotonous, deadly dull, silvery canopy. His hands – he doesn’t know what to do with them. His right hand seems like it wants to grab onto something, but there’s only his leg, unstable because he’s neither sitting nor standing. His left hand is tucked under him but it does him no good – he’s going nowhere.
So, when you walk around this monument your thoughts are running wild. My first response was that I hated it. Then it began to grow on me. I kept looking around – sculptures are, after all, part of a landscape – and the artistic picture grew clearer and clearer. This Dostoevsky wants to be ANYWHERE BUT HERE! Anywhere. Almost anywhere. Anywhere except before that firing squad the Tsar teased him with in 1849. Just a little joke there, Fedya. We thought we’d teach you a lesson. You know, condemn you to death. Put you in front of the firing squad and then seconds before the trigger is pulled send in a well-dressed adjutant on a fine, prancing steed to stay the execution. Such a humane action.
So INhumane, actually, that one of the guys in the firing line with Dostoevsky went mad. So, no, he doesn’t want to be back there – but he clearly would be happy to be absolutely any other place than there and here before the Lenin Library on 3/5 Vozdvizhenka, just across the street from the Russian Duma (popularly called the Russian Dura, that is, Imbecile, these days), and a stones’ throw from the Kremlin itself. Fyodor is kind of looking out from under his eyebrows in a crosswise way at the Kremlin. Like, “God, I am stuck here for eternity! How in the frig am I going to do that?!”

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The Lenin Library – it’s a great library, one of the greats in the world. I’ve worked there and I know. But the whole notion of poor Fedya having the name of Lenin, in bright gold even on a dreary day, shining eternally behind his head – how can you survive that? The building itself is a disaster, a train wreck of Soviet architecture pretending to play on Greek forms. Ugh! It’s gross and pathetic. Walk up close to those columns or the walls and they’re falling apart; the tiles are chipped and broken; everything is aging, cracked, forgotten. There are a couple of cathedrals attempting to reach out to Dostoevsky from behind corners or trees. They don’t seem to have much power on him, though.
Tiny story here. An hour before I took these photos I had participated in a conference on contemporary Russian culture in the Manege, the exhibition hall that is pretty much across from Dostoevsky, right in his site line. Our panel was crashed by a small group of semi-unhinged people with very unclear, but very adamant, aims. They hated us, they hate everybody who is making theater these days, they hate the Russian city government, they hate gays, foreigners and the Lord knows what else. We had to shut down early and go home because these guys wouldn’t quit shouting and interrupting. They were – they are – I believe, the eternal forces of Russian chaos. They are the people that Dostoevsky described in his novel The Devils  or The Demons or The Possessed – the title is different depending upon what translation is used where you live. I came away from that aborted panel thinking black thoughts. It was raining and – not cold, but – chilly to the bone. And I walked around Dostoevsky, hating him  (hating the sculptor) at first, mumbling, grumbling, picking mentally at every little thing. Until I got it. The sculptor’s point of view, the story he wanted to tell me, the satire he imposed on all the official people who must see this huge and imposing work of art in a wide-open space while they run around doing whatever they do – that all came home and hit me hard.
There’s a  wonderful Bob Dylan song called “Lo and Behold” that will be coming out on a special CD compilation next month. We collectors have known the song for 45 years, but it will be released officially for the first time ever in November. There is a line in there where Dylan sings, his worried, agitated voice rising up higher and higher with unease as it goes: “Let me out of here, my dear man!”
That’s what Rukavishnikov put into this bizarre, deeply compelling monument to Dostoevsky.
The place Dylan’s voice best suits this is at about 1:20 on the Soundcloud recording that you can listen to here.  For the record the monument was unveiled in 1997.
“Lo and behold! Lo and behold! Looking for my lo and behold! Get me out of here – my – dear – man!”

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Boris Pasternak’s birthplace, Moscow


I have driven or walked by this building at 3 Oruzheiny Lane dozens, maybe more than a hundred times, over the years and never noticed what I happened to glimpse one night as my wife and I were driving home from her parents’ house three blocks away: Boris Pasternak was born in this house. I saw the little blue plaque from the passenger’s seat of my wife’s car – Oksana’s the driver in this mad town, not I – and I felt like a kid who’d just been given 50 cents for no good reason at all. I felt excitement well up inside me and burble out into the open. “Oh, my God!” I said, “Pasternak was born there!” We had already turned left and were preparing to turn left again a long way away already. “Who? Where?” Oksana asked automatically, more worried about merging traffic. “Pasternak, for God’s sake!” I said, irritated. How could news like that fail to register the first time?
It’s no wonder, apparently, that I had not noticed the plaque earlier, although it actually was erected in 1990 in honor of Pasternak’s centennial. It seems that over the last 25 years or so various stores and cafes occupying the ground floor here essentially covered the plaque up with their own signs and advertisements. That information comes to me by way of a pretty neat website called Moscow Perspective. The plaque on the building, known historically as the Vedeneev House, is not a traditional memorial plaque; it is one of those plaques that goes up in conjunction with a great official website that tells the stories of hundreds of interesting historical sites in Moscow. The page devoted to this building – with more information than just that pertaining to Pasternak – can be found here.  I’ll lean on it for some of the basic information that follows.
Pasternak’s parents Leonid, a well-known painter, and Rosa, an accomplished concert pianist, had married Feb. 14, 1889. They moved into the large, six-room apartment No. 3 on the third floor in the fall of 1889. The future poet Boris was born Feb. 10, 1890. By fall of 1891 the family moved to other quarters, largely because none of the rooms was suitable for a painter’s studio for Leonid, and because the price was higher than the young family could afford.
A relatively frequent visitor to the Pasternaks was pianist Arthur Rubinstein. Leonid would later sketch a pencil portrait of Rubinstein sitting in a chair, listening to music, perhaps in this very apartment as Rosa played the piano. But now I’m letting my imagination run a little too freely.

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Still another cool site called Real Estate, and curated by the RIA Novosti news agency, points out that Pasternak had this building of his birth in mind when he described the fictional “Chernogoria” neighborhood where Lara (Larisa) lived in Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago. The site quotes from the novel: “These were the worst places in Moscow, reckless drivers and dens of iniquity, entire streets given over to debauchery, slums full of ‘fallen creatures…'” The site also offers the following descriptive information: “According to the plot of Doctor Zhivago Lara’s mother Amalia Karlovna attempts to commit suicide by poisoning in ‘Chernogoria.’ This is where Yury Zhivago, who came in the company of Alexander Alexandrovich Gromeko, sees Lara for the first time.”
For the last tidbit today I’ll go back to the Moscow Perspective site (link above). It  quotes at some length a description of this building and the neighborhood contained in a biography of Pasternak by the poet’s son Yevgeny.
“They [Pasternak’s parents] rented an apartment located on the border between a wealthier neighborhood and the coachmen’s garages, where the prices were not as high – at the Old Triumphal Gates (now Mayakovsky Square). The Vedeneev House had a large courtyard and carpenters’ workshops, and stands between what is now 2nd Tverskaya-Yamskaya, Oruzheiny Lane and 3rd Tverskaya-Yamskaya. Apartment No. 3 consisted of six small rooms, all of which were badly suited to an artist’s workshop. This is what created the impression of cramped space throughout the whole apartment, as noted in Leonid Pasternak’s diaries. They paid 50 rubles a month for it.”

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Vsevolod Meyerhold Resting Place, Moscow


Yesterday I hinted that this post was on its way…
Although very few people know this, this is the final resting place of the great Russian avant-garde director Vsevolod Meyerhold in the Donskoye cemetery in Moscow. The marble slab that stands over the earth occupied by Meyerhold’s ashes bears the inscription: “Common Grave No. 1.  Disposal Place of Unclaimed Ashes From 1930 to 1942 Inclusive.” I wrote in some detail about that earlier today in an article for The Moscow Times, which you can read by going here. If you don’t have the time for that let me provide the bare details. Meyerhold was shot, most probably in a basement of the Lubyanka headquarters of the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, on Feb. 2, 1940. He was a week short of his 66th birthday. I am assuming that his ashes (rather than his body) were dumped in a hole at this site. There are probably thousands of individuals here. They couldn’t all fit here if they hadn’t been cremated.
The location of this as Meyerhold’s probable final resting place was originally published, I believe, in Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper around 1990. My old friend and mentor Alma Law first published the information in English in the now-defunct Slavic and East-European Performance journal.
The first time I visited this location it was just a bit of dirt with a marble slab stuck in the middle. Three or four families had erected homemade memorials to relatives who, like Meyerhold, were dumped here. Over the years, those few markers have been joined by dozens, maybe hundreds more. Look at the photos below to see the enormous number of small memorials stuck into the ground. To date there is no information here indicating that this is Meyerhold’s grave, too. 


An interesting thing in the photo immediately above: a huge wreath from the prosecutor’s office commemorating the victims buried here stands to the right of the common grave. I found this incredibly odd. I had never seen anything like this before when stopping by to pay my respects. But this was no regular day. Moments before these photos were taken Yury Lyubimov had been laid to rest in his grave on the other side of the cemetery. Could it possibly be that some PR-minded person in the prosecutor’s office knew that a few nosy people like myself would come over to honor Meyerhold while we were there to honor Lyubimov? Hard to believe. Actually, very hard to believe. But what else is this wreath doing here? It is a mystery to me.
Immediately below you see a second marble slab that stands behind the first and faces in the other direction. It bears the inscription: “Here are deposited the remains of innocently martyred and executed victims of political repression, 1930-1942. Eternal memory to them.”
I am always moved by cemeteries and gravesites. There is a solemnity and a mystery to standing so close but so infinitely far from the individual buried at your feet. Jim Morrison’s grave. Anton Chekhov’s grave. Nikolai Erdman’s grave. I feel a deep and personal connection to these and other individuals by visiting their final resting places. That sensation is complicated by other feelings when standing above the earth where Meyerhold’s remains were rudely, crudely, unceremoniously, criminally dumped. You are visited by all the horrible thoughts – of his being betrayed by old friends and colleagues; of his being tortured in the Lubyanka; of his wife being stabbed to death in their home after his arrest; of the crime, the brutal, inhuman injustice of those who had anything to do with any of this. You stand helpless and uncomprehending as these thoughts wash over you with the breeze coming off of shimmering, autumn leaves. Calm does not come. Closure remains at bay. You stand in awe of the crimes humans commit so easily against their own kind. You are horrified by the suffering some individuals are chosen to bear. You are infuriated by the waste of talent and human potential. You are devastated that you can do nothing but bow your head, shuffle your feet and walk away until you come back again to repeat the inadequate little ritual the next time. 



Nikolai Erdman gravestone, Moscow

The death of Yury Lyubimov brought me back to Nikolai Erdman’s gravesite again. I come here on occasion to the Donskoye Cemetery to pay my respects to the writer who inspired me to write my first book. You see, Yury Lyubimov, the great director, the founder of the world-famous Taganka Theater, died last week (Oct. 5) at the age of 97 and was buried a mere thirty yards away from the writer who was his friend from the early 1940s until Erdman’s death in 1970. Lyubimov’s death was truly one of those moments when the hands on a country’s cultural clock ticked forward. I first met him because of my research on Erdman. Yury Petrovich was kind enough to spend a couple of hours talking to me about Erdman when he, Lyubimov, was in Cambridge, MA, in 1987. Ever since, although I never became anything even remotely close to a friend of Lyubimov’s, I nurtured a soft spot in my heart for him and had the opportunity to observe him regularly at close range.
One of the first things I did when I found myself in Moscow in the 1988/1989 season was to find a way to get as close as I could to Erdman. One way was by locating and talking to people who had known him. Another was to go to the Donskoye Cemetery to visit his grave. Erdman’s gravestone continues to impress me today as mightily as it did back then. It is a huge slab, much bigger than usual, with a big, crooked top edge.  The only thing written on it is “Erdman,” in very big letters, followed by “Nikolai Robertovich 1902-1970” in much smaller print. It is wonderfully laconic, and all the more so because that birthdate is incorrect. That error reflects how little anyone really knew about Erdman, not only when he died, but for all the time after he was ripped out of the Moscow cultural world in 1933, arrested and exiled to Siberia. Erdman, cooling his heels in the frozen city of Yeniseisk, happened to see that the Great Soviet Encyclopedia had been published with an erroneous birthdate for him – 1902 instead of 1900. He was thrilled to have grown younger by two years and he never bothered to correct the mistake, invariably using the wrong date even in official documents.
If you want to gauge just how close Erdman and Lyubimov now lie in their final resting places, take a close look at the photo immediately below. Just to the left of the upper part of Erdman’s gravestone you can see a man in a blue jacket. He is one of the people digging Lyubimov’s grave.


After the funeral service at the cemetery chapel I ran into Veniamin Smekhov, the famous Taganka actor, and another very good friend of Erdman’s in the writer’s latter years. He told me how, when he was doing a documentary film about Erdman, he came with a film crew and they hunted all over the cemetery but could not find his gravesite. It turned out that the problem was that Smekhov told the cemetery workers that Erdman died in 1970. “Oh,” they told him, “the 1970s are over here,” and they took Smekhov and his cameraman off in the wrong direction. Actually, Erdman is buried in the 1950s section. That would apparently be because his father Robert Karlovich, who died in 1950, was the first to be buried here. Robert was followed in 1960 by his son, Nikolai’s brother, the prominent theater artist Boris Robertovich Erdman, and then Erdman’s mother Valentina Borisovna Erdman (nee Kormer) in 1964.  They are remembered on a small plaque that lies in the lower left corner of the plot. You see that in the photo immediately above. Also buried here is Inna Kirpichnikova, Erdman’s third wife. They were divorced rather acrimoniously well before Erdman’s death, but her remains lie here, too. A small plaque bearing her name and dates leans against the slab commemorating Erdman.
There is a certain attractive symmetry – if I may use the word “attractive” in regards to a cemetery – in the fact that Erdman and Lyubimov are joined in the earth by Vsevolod Meyerhold, the man who was, essentially, the glue of their friendship. Erdman, of course, wrote for Meyerhold, and Lyubimov was the closest thing Meyerhold had to a disciple in Russian theater.
This is not the place for this story, but I will tease you with this: Meyerhold’s remains lie not far from those of Lyubimov and Erdman, although virtually no one knows that…

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Yury Kazakov plaque, Moscow


I mean nothing evil whatsoever in saying I fear Yury Kazakov (1927-1982) is on the verge of being forgotten. Maybe I’m actually saying something almost good. Maybe I’m saying that Kazakov, who was once one of the most respected Soviet writers (reviled, naturally, by “official critics”), and who remains a standard of excellence for those in the know today, is one of those inconstant beacons that remind us excellence is its own reward, everybody else be damned. Maybe I’m saying that Kazakov, in some odd way, grows in stature all the more as subsequent harried generations lose themselves in the vanity of their affairs.
I was introduced to Kazakov’s work while studying Russian and Russian literature at the University of California at Irvine. He was presented to us with great trepidation, I would say, with great respect, with words of sincere admiration for a writer who based everything he did on quiet subtlety. I remember Bulat Okudzhava talking about him with great respect when he lectured at Irvine in the early 1980s. I also remember Vasily Aksyonov applying the same respect to his work when he conducted seminars I attended during my time at George Washington University a year or two later. Those opinions had a powerful effect on me and they have lasted. Even though I haven’t read a single thing of Kazakov’s since the early 1980s. And, indeed, I never hear anyone talk about him today. Let’s say I just move in the wrong circles. I’m in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’s certainly possible. Life is too big for any one of us to embrace fully. We do it badly, incompletely, lacking the proper understanding and perspective. What we’re left with is our own personal perspective, not unimportant by any means, but significantly flawed.
This, perhaps, is why I always have such a warm feeling when I pass by building No. 30 on the Arbat where a plaque was erected in Kazakov’s memory. The future writer moved into one of the communal apartments here with his mother when he was three years old, and he spent the next 34 years here. There’s a nice anonymous text called “The Hidden Light of the Word” in the internet that sheds light in snippets on Kazakov’s life here. It talks about the young boy going to music school holding his sheet music in a folder while standing outside the apartments of Svyatoslav Richter and Nina Dorliak, spellbound by the sounds of them playing the piano (Richter) or singing (Dorliak). During WW2 a bomb fell on the roof of this building and, our anonymous author tells us, Kazakov was one of those who ran up to help put out the fire. He would have been 15ish.
“Yury Pavlovich Kazakov’s literary fate,” this text continues, “seems enigmatic, even improbable. How did it happen that this urban boy, a student, a musician and a four-eyes, suddenly turned into the writer who gave rise to the famous ‘country prose’? Kazakov wrote about the city, too, but it was his stories “At the Way Station” (1954), “Ugly” and “The Traveler” (1956) that put out the new branch of Russian literature in the 20th century. The term ‘country prose’ did not exist yet at the time, but Party critics were already coming down on it hard. These critics saw in the honest description of the Russian countryside – its beauties and its deprivations – a threat to ‘Socialist achievements.'”

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So it was while Kazakov lived in this building that his literary reputation was established. His first book was published in 1959 in Arkhangelsk. In April 1959 Kazakov, in a letter to a friend, quoted one of the phrases from the first review: “In our opinion the appearance of Yu. Kazakov’s book, which crudely distorts our reality and the image of our contemporaries, the builders of Communism, is a mistake of the Arkhangelsk publishers…” Jesus. It sounds like the crap hack critics are writing about Russian playwrights in 2014!
Valery Bondarenko, in a piece written in May of this year, had this to say about Kazakov: “I think the main thing for Kazakov and the people of his generation was a striving for extremes, and, beyond that, a certain enchantment with the possibility, the nearness, of death. ‘Having missed the war,’ it was as though in peace time they wallowed in childish, silly complexes pushed to absurd lengths: ‘A man must know the sweat and salt of labor, he must cut, or at least plant, a tree or catch a fish in order to show people the fruits of his labor – much more real and indispensable than my stories!’ (‘Northern Diary, 1960).”
In my ignorance, having read just a few of Kazakov’s stories (30 years ago!) but remembering well a few well-chosen words of praise, every time I pass by this building on the Arbat I do it with an especial feeling of deference and appreciation.



Viktor Tsoi Wall, Moscow


One of the most lively places in Moscow. You can virtually always find people hanging out here. In years past there may have been more people around, but still, when I went by to photograph a few days ago, several small groups of people came and went during the few minutes I was there.
This is the so-called Viktor Tsoi wall in Moscow, located on the east wall of Arbat No. 37 (the pink building you see in the photo above is located on the Arbat). The wall faces the back wall of the Actors House on Krivoarbatsky Lane. Viktor Tsoi (1962-1990) was Russia’s finest rock singer, songwriter and group leader. His band Kino was wildly popular in the mid- to late 1980s and the leader and band both remain cult figures to this day. Unlike the vast majority of Russian rock bands whose work is only nominally rock and, at heart, is much closer to pop (at worst) or Russian folklore (at best), Tsoi and Kino tapped into the true source of the rock genre as it was primarily developed by American and, later, British bands. It is tough, bouncy music that can stand alongside, say, The Clash and Gene Vincent. It is music with an attitude and Tsoi’s lyrics, as well as his sneering vocals, are usually smart, witty and deeply thoughtful.
Befitting a rock legend, Tsoi died young, aged 28, when he fell asleep at the wheel of his car while driving through the countryside of Latvia. His car veered out of his lane and slammed into a bus, killing him instantly. To my knowledge, no one in the bus suffered injury. The official report, which is fully accepted as adequate, indicated there were no drugs or alcohol involved.
Tsoi was born in Leningrad to a Russian mother and an ethnic Korean father whose roots were in Kazakhstan. Going through the motions of studying art in his teens and getting kicked out of art school, Tsoi started playing in bands early. When Kino began having an impact the Soviet Union was in the process of collapse. As such, Tsoi’s songs are steeped in the themes of change and uncertainty. The first photo of the last block of three below shows the wall where someone has written a short phrase from one of Tsoi’s most popular and enduring songs – “We’re expecting change” (Note: no exclamation point).

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According to legend and Russian Wikipedia, the wall came into existence the night of Tsoi’s death. Someone came out and wrote in huge letters: “Today Viktor Tsoi died.” Someone else came along and added: “Tsoi Lives.” From there the wall took on a life of its own. People have been drawing and writing and painting on it ever since. As you can see in the last photo of the block just above, one artist with the initials of “Ye.V.A” created a very attractive mosaic portrait of the musician relatively high up on the wall.
Not surprisingly, there has been controversy about the existence of this – what shall we call it? – space of spontaneous people’s art. There’s an organization that calls it a shame and disgrace and works to have it removed. There was, apparently, a raid of sorts in 2006, when a bunch of detractors painted over the entire wall. Before long, however, supporters repainted it with new slogans, pictures, graffiti and such. The idea of a Viktor Tsoi wall was picked up and given life in numerous other cities, including Minsk (Belarus), Dnepropetrovsk (Ukraine), St. Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod, Samara, Yekaterinburg and many other places.
There are scads of videos you can go to; here is one of Tsoi performing one of his most popular songs, the title of which can be loosely translated as “Changes” or “Give Us Change” (Peremen). I’m also partial to his song “Blood Type,” but frankly, I have yet to hear a Tsoi song I don’t love. The third verse of this latter song reads something like the following in English:

I can pay, but I don’t want
Victory at any cost.
I won’t put my foot on anybody’s chest.
I’d just like to remain myself,
To just remain myself,
But that high star in the sky calls me to the road.

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