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…