Leonid Pasternak home, Oxford UK


Everybody kept telling me, “it’s on the Crescent, but I don’t know exactly where.” That wasn’t doing me any good. I had no idea what a crescent was, at least in the local lexicon. It obviously meant something very specific. I only had two days to find it – and, in fact, I didn’t even have close to two days. I had a few hours spread out over a few days. I was busy at a conference that was running pretty much all the time I was in Oxford. I could only get away in the morning and, briefly, at meal breaks. But I wasn’t having any luck. I had a host of friends and colleagues telling me, “Oh, yeah, it’s right around here somewhere. You’ve been walking by it on your way to Wolfson. You’ve seen the Park Town sign?” Yes, I had seen the Park Town sign. I just saw it 20 minutes ago. “Well, it’s right there somewhere.”
“Somewhere” wasn’t good enough for me. I needed a photo. I needed a couple. I needed them to be specific and right. You can’t post a photo of just any old thing and say, “this is somewhere near what I’m talking about.” You need to know. And time was running out. In less than 24 hours I had a flight back to Moscow. In five minutes the next conference session would begin and then I’d be busy well into the dark night and my quest would be in vain. But sometimes little miracles happen.
What I am talking about is the apartment at 20 Park Town in Oxford where Leonid Pasternak lived for years and died in 1945. Leonid was Boris’s father. Everybody knows Boris because of Doctor Zhivago, in the English-speaking world anyway. They should probably know him for his poetry, because he was a great poet long before he wrote a novel that would win him the Nobel Prize. But that’s being rather picky. Especially when poetry translates about as well as a mud pie. This, by the way, is a word of warning to all you ambitious poets out there – write a novel, too, before you’re done. It’ll make it easier for people to find your poems.
But I was in search of Leonid, not Boris. Leonid was a marvelous painter, impressionistic in his often slightly blurred, dimly-colored images. But his drawings, I suspect, are what really set him apart as a major artist of his time. In his drawings he somehow maintains his impressionistic gaze while also bringing a paradoxical clarity to whatever his subject may be. Moreover, his drawings, especially, preserve for us a living glance at some of the great figures of his time – he drew portraits of Leo Tolstoy, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Alexander Scriabin, Albert Einstein, Rainer Maria Rilke and many others. That is to say nothing of the enormous series of portraits and paintings he did of Boris from his childhood into his adult years. Many of these works, incidentally, are still held, and occasionally exhibited, at the Pasternak residence in Park Town.

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I was not giving up, although there was every reason to do so. I simply had no time left, and there was no reason to think that, in 25 minutes’ time, I would be running around outside Pasternak’s apartment, photographing it from various angles. But, again, it was my friend, the translator Oliver Ready, who tossed out some last-minute information that gave me flickering hope that I might yet solve this self-imposed riddle. Now I needed the internet to check it, and, sure enough, sitting right in my line of sight was Maria Kozlovskaya Wiltshire, a translator of Olga Mukhina’s play Tanya-Tanya, whom I had just met. She was sitting with her computer open, dabbling around online. I raced to her, we plugged the new information in and – voila! – up came the address, 20 Park Town, Leonid Pasternak. I grabbed my coat and away I ran. I hated to miss the beginning of a panel devoted to Noah Birksted-Breen’s production of a documentary play called Grandchildren: The Second Act by Mikhail Kaluzhsky and Alexandra Polivanova, but there was no stopping me now. I trotted through the drizzling rain back to Park Town and took a couple of shots of the street sign. That was just in case I still couldn’t find the place I was looking for. I peered in at every address on every house, waiting to see that number 20 I was looking for. I was still a long way off. And then the street took a brief jog to the left and, once again – voila! – there it was! Now I knew what they all meant by “the crescent.” There stood a handsome pair of two long buildings that wrap in a curve around a small park between them. The addresses on one side are all odd numbers, the addresses on the opposite side are all even – and there was number 20, not quite in the middle of the building on my right. I had to play hooky to find it, but as anybody, anywhere knows, that only made my success all the sweeter.
Leonid Pasternak (1862-1945) was born Yitzhok-Leib Pasternak in Odessa. In that kind of thrashing way that seems to suit artists, he studied medicine and then law before dropping both of them in favor of art. His first exhibited painting was purchased by none other than the great collector Pavel Tretyakov (whose collection would become the Tretyakov Gallery) and he was quickly accepted into a prestigious circle of major painters, including Valentin Serov, Isaac Levitan, Mikhail Nesterov and others. He married the promising pianist Rosa Kaufman in 1889 and the young couple welcomed their first child Boris the following year. (See my blogs on the Tretyakov Gallery and on Boris Pasternak’s birthplace on this blogsite.) Pasternak went to Germany in 1921 for an eye operation but chose not to return to Russia. Anticipating danger in Berlin, Pasternak traveled to England in 1938, ending up at this address of 20 Park Town that I had to scramble so to find in such a short period of time.



Alexander Pushkin bust, Pushkin Theater, Moscow


Bear with me or abandon me now. It’s a long one today. But I will get to Pushkin. Trust me. But this comes first:
I can’t help but take Masha Gessen’s recent piece in the NY Times Sunday Book Review as a personal missive. After all, she calls it a “Dear John” letter (random readers may not know that is my name) before launching into one of many key points as she addresses the city of Moscow directly:
“What we should talk about, Moscow, are the monuments. When is enough, enough? Walk down the Boulevard Ring, the misnamed three-quarters-of-a-circle road that fails to circumscribe central Moscow, and you will see, block by city block: the composer Sergei Rachmaninoff; Vladimir Vysotsky, a 1970s singer-songwriter; Nadezhda Krupskaya, the wife of Lenin…”
In part, anyway, these are “my” monuments she’s talking about, my Russian Culture in Landmarks. Shortly thereafter, Gessen adds: “There is something obstinate and deeply uncharming about this commitment to the immobilized human form. Other cities can find room in their hearts for abstract statues, symbolic monuments — but not you, Moscow: You want every single one of them looking like a giant human (stork excepted)…”
Well, now, this is really hitting close to home. Moreover, as the great Yogi Berra said, this for me personally is almost like deja vu all over again. But I’ll get to that in a minute because I’m not through plumbing Gessen’s essay yet. Closing out her arguments, Gessen picks up on the theme of love and, more importantly, the loss of love, as she again addresses Moscow itself:
“And yet I thought I would always love you. I loved you desperately as a teenager whose parents had decided to emigrate. While we waited for an exit visa, I spent every day with you as though it were our last — I walked the center of town every afternoon, making sketches…”
Well, now, damn it, this is just too close for comfort!
I’ve never said this anywhere, it’s been my little secret – the motor that you keep out of sight. But Masha Gessen’s pained, heartfelt declaration of her loss of love for Moscow and its culture leaves me no choice but to say it: I began making this blog precisely because I fell out of love with Russia.
Russia has been my intellectual, emotional and aesthetic raison d’etre for many, many decades. I have lived in Moscow for many decades. I’ve published a lot of books about Russian culture. I have been followed by the KGB and the FSB. I have been, essentially, kidnapped and interrogated. My phones and my apartments have been tapped. My car has been stolen (probably by the authorities), I have been recruited openly and otherwise to be a snitch. I have lost most of what little money I had in various defaults, financial crashes and monetary reforms. I have been the victim of vandalism and slur campaigns. And through it all I didn’t give a damn. Because my love for Russia and its culture was that strong. It was that strong. All that other crap was just that, crap. All I cared about, figuratively speaking, was Pushkin. Erdman. Dostoevsky. Tolstoy. Gogol. Kurochkin. Korkia. Klavdiev. Mukhina. Ginkas. Bakshi. Krymov. Yukhananov. It’s unfair to begin a list because the list must stop somewhere and the riches of Russian culture, the riches that have fed me for most of my adult life are such that the list could damn near be endless.
So when Masha Gessen writes about love, I know what she means. I have lived that love. And that love has held me strong through trying times. And then “the present” came. I’m going to say “the present” came in late 2010. It’s an arbitrary choice, but it’s more or less when Vladimir Putin truly began pushing his people over the edge and some of them began pushing back. What we have witnessed since then is something akin to the mayhem of a slaughterhouse gone mad. The arrests, the harassment of peaceful citizens, the murders of journalists and lawyers attempting to do their job, the bizarre machine of lawmaking that seeks to ban the human being from thinking at all (outlawing curse words, outlawing the questioning of official history, outlawing “propaganda of a gay lifestyle”), the use of hatred to inspire love of country, the vilification of anyone daring to have his or her own opinion, the use of lies, lies, lies, bold, brazen lies as an excuse for anything the state wishes to do, the character assassination of a neighboring people (the Ukrainians) that has been considered a “brotherly nation” for centuries, the use of subterfuge, chicanery, mendacity and lies, lies, lies and more lies to “justify” a slow-bleeding invasion of Ukraine that the state swears is not happening until it blithely chooses to admit it has happened before going onto the next lie… Enough. You get my immediate point.
But the bigger point is this – as this tsunami of insanity has inundated those of us living in Russia, the worst, the most horrible, the most untenable, the most inexcusable aspect of it all has been the way the vast majority of Russians have either turned a blind eye – “Oh, I don’t know anything about it!” – or embraced it: “Crimea is OURS AGAIN, so f*%k you!”
Oh, there are a lot of people pushing back. I can’t tell you how I admire them. There are people asking hard questions, making impossible, but necessary, demands. But for every one of those in my circle – in my personal and professional circle of artists, writers and performers – there are two shouting at me “CRIMEA IS OURS!” I have been accused – by former friends and by utter strangers – of being a spy, of being here to undermine Russia, of being one of those from the West who has destroyed Russian values…
As this cacophony of nonsense and words built up, I found myself drifting farther and farther from my love until we lost touch with one another. This was followed by despair and utter confusion fueled by outrage and deep, gnawing sorrow. One cannot live like that. One either loves or one dies.
And that is when the idea for this blog, something that had been percolating in my mind for years, came into focus. It would be a way for me to reconnect with everything I have loved and championed for decades. It would force me to articulate the reasons for this love, sometimes in obvious fashion, sometimes under the obscure veil of metaphor. But that has been the purpose of every 100+ posts I have made here over seven months – to rediscover love. Sometimes it’s tough love – read the entries on Vsevolod Meyerhold, for example. I do my best to avoid drooling. But sometimes it’s such a joy to unleash love unreservedly – as I have done with Bulat Okudzhava, for instance.
Now, I’d really like to move on from Masha Gessen, but I can’t until I tie up another loose end or two. I want to make this very clear: I am not setting myself up in opposition to her at all. My comments are not a rebuttal to her or her experience in any way. On the contrary, I share with her that love and loss of it. It’s traumatic, believe me. Moreover, Gessen is talking about losing her own native culture and a feeling for it. She grew up with Pushkin and Rachmaninoff – they for me are acquired loves. These are different things. One is not better than the other, but they are divergent beasts. And I also want to say that I, as an American, can fully share Gessen’s disillusionment with her own native culture. I mean, let’s be honest, I am writing this as streets in many U.S. cities are burning once again, because still again, because, yes, again, a young black man or boy has been shot by a white policeman who gets off scot-free. This is to say nothing of my disgust over the complete collapse of the American political system, which now has been simplified to this: He with the most dollars wins (notice I don’t bother to add “she” because it’s always a “he”). I, too, like Masha Gessen gazing upon a home culture that nurtured her and then scorned her, know that horrible feeling of realizing that my home is no longer my home. The shock of realizing that your home has been lost while you were making tea, flirting with the neighbor, or scrubbing the toilet, has never been described better than by the great poet Alexander Timofeevsky, who wrote in his long, narrative poem Tram Car No. 37:

Russia was pilfered by aliens.
In five minutes they beamed her up,
Squashed her down, and stuck her in a trunk.
Meanwhile, as you and I were busy dreaming,
Somebody replaced her with a counterfeit.

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Alexander Pushkin is the real deal. If you doubt it ask Timofeevsky or any other Russian poet, or any other Russian. Masha Gessen makes it a point in her long essay to come back to Pushkin repeatedly. Because, for all that she has lost, Pushkin is still there.  So in the spirit of love and loss, I, too, present to you a bust of Alexander Pushkin. I don’t find this bust, which stands in the second-floor foyer of the Pushkin Theater, obstinate or uncharming in any way. Actually, even though it’s pretty much another cookie-cutter image of Pushkin in 3D, I find it a warm and welcoming chunk of bronze. Today I choose this Pushkin as a hook on which to hang a few thoughts for the very specific reason that there is no reason whatsoever for this sculpture to be here.
Pushkin was never in this building, or in any building that may have preceded it. He has nothing to do with it. Zilch. Zero. Zip. Nada. The theater was named after Pushkin in 1950 after the authorities drove out the theater’s founder Alexander Tairov. Throughout Tairov’s long tenure this was known as the Kamerny, or Chamber, Theater. Tairov, whose spirit was broken when he was fired and attacked as unfit to run a Soviet theater, died within a very short time. I wrote a month or so ago about this and the curse Tairov’s wife may have put on the theater. You can read about that here. Perhaps the authorities, hoping to assuage some dull, dim sense of guilt for this crime against one of Russia’s greatest theater directors, chose Pushkin’s name as a way to cleanse themselves. Pushkin, as I have said elsewhere, has always remained pure and unsullied, no matter how the authorities have tried to enlist his name in their dirty deeds over the centuries. Was the name Pushkin here employed to atone sins? It’s just a thought, and can never be anything more. The desire, however, among those who worked in this theater to attach themselves to the imaculacy of Pushkin’s name reared its head again in the 1980s, when the second-floor halls were “restored” and refurnished in the so-called Empire style and – renamed the “suite of Pushkin rooms.” The whole thing is a sham. Pushkin, Pushkin, where is Pushkin? He isn’t here and yet he is everywhere. The Pushkin bust stands proudly amidst the suite of Pushkin rooms, in which nothing but the mere thought of Pushkin has ever visited.
My point is this: We can choose to call this fraud if we wish. Because it is. Or we can accept Pushkin here as a legitimate forbear to anything involving Russian culture today. Because that is true too. Moreover, it’s not a matter of accepting one while rejecting the other. It is more a matter of degrees. It is an opportunity to express one’s free will – to choose what myths you will cling to because they, for you, have meaning. You don’t ignore that Pushkin’s name here may be a ruse by evil people who destroyed Tairov and his theater to portray themselves in the best light possible. You accept that and you acknowledge it. And then you look for what truly deserves your love. Russia may have been pilfered and stuffed in a trunk by evil aliens, but Timofeevsky, by writing about that with soul and humor, helps us to rise above that tragedy for at least as long as it takes to read his poem. Is that not much? Maybe. But it’s no little thing, either.

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Sergei Ivanov plaque, Moscow


If you read this blog you have seen this building already. It came up awhile back when I wrote about the exquisite Soviet prose writer Yury Kazakov, who lived here. But this building at 30/3 Arbat was also home much earlier to the painter Sergei Vasilyevich Ivanov. I provide Ivanov’s patronymic because there are numerous artists named Ivanov and even two or three others with the first name of Sergei. We’re talking about the Sergei Ivanov who was born in 1864 and died in 1910. He was a member of the influential and ever-popular group of artists called the Peredvizhniki, or the Wanderers or Itinerants, along with Ilya Repin, Ivan Shishkin, Vasily Surikov, Arkhip Kuindzhi, Ivan Kramskoi, Valentin Serov, Isaak Levitan, Viktor Vasnetsov and other great landscape and narrative painters. He was always something of an upstart politically and socially, and it’s perhaps not surprising that he ended up quitting the prestigious Academy of Arts in Petersburg before finishing his education because, in part, he didn’t like the way the place was run. Ivanov was one of the founders of the Union of Russian Artists.
Different sources provide different titles for Ivanov’s first painting, but it’s clear he made an impact from the very beginning of his artistic career. One source, Russian painting, declares that Ivanov’s first canvas was “On the Road. The Death of a Migrant” (1889) and that it brought the artist immediate fame. Indeed it is a powerful piece showing a family in the middle of nowhere left destitute by the unexpected death of the head of the household. Russian Wikipedia goes back to 1883 and the painting “The Blind Ones” for the beginning. This is probably closer to the truth, referring to an early student work, while the reference to “On the Road” is probably to Ivanov’s first “professional” work. I’ll leave the bean-sorting to the experts and just point out this – both of these paintings are clearly intended to make moral and social statements. The shorthand here is that Ivanov was not one to turn a blind eye to injustice and the difficulties of the world in order to live out his life in art comfortably. Not surprisingly, I think, this remained a part of the artist’s personal makeup throughout his entire life. He was a witness to, and a participant in, a massacre of Moscow students by the police during the failed revolution of 1905. According to the Famous Russian Artists site, he attended to wounded students in the building of Moscow University. (See below for more on this.) This led to him painting one of his most famous late works, “The Execution,” a grimly laconic piece showing two bodies lying in the snow against an urban background. Ivanov never showed this painting to anyone during his lifetime and it was first publicly exhibited only in 1917.


Uncharacteristically, the plaque honoring Ivanov says nothing about when he lived at this address. A bit of research gives us answers, however. The rather pink building you see here was erected as an apartment house in 1904 and we have references to people visiting Ivanov here as early as 1905. A site called Akademik lists all of Ivanov’s addresses in Moscow – Khilkov Lane, Plyushchikha, Ostozhenka and Arbat. Considering that Arbat is the last of the addresses named, and considering that the building Ivanov lived in went up only in 1904 and that he died in 1910, I think we’re relatively safe to say he was resident here from 1904 to 1910.  (Also living here at the same time was the prominent sculptor Sergei Konenkov – I’ll have to do something on him another time.) One of the sources putting Ivanov in this building in 1905 is Moscow University Professor Vladimir Kostitsyn, a participant in revolutionary activities in the early 20th century, who recalled leaving the scene of battles and “setting out for the Arbat, where I hoped that the artist S.V. Ivanov, who often did us big favors, would help me find Pavel Ivanovich Pervukhin, a member of the Mobilization Committee…”
I draw this last quote from Lev Kolodny’s book The Backstreets of the Arbat, which is available to be read for free on the internet. Here is part of a paragraph on Ivanov taken from this book:
“The students delegated the safety of the buildings at Moscow University to the artist [Ivanov] on the day of Nikolai Bauman’s funeral [i.e., late October- JF]. Ivanov was an eye-witness to the execution of young people returning from a political demonstration. As bullets whizzed around him, he transported the wounded to the university’s auditorium. We, his heirs, can see what that must have looked like in Ivanov’s paintings devoted to the First Russian Revolution. One is called ‘Auditorium of Moscow University, Transformed into a Hospital on the Night of October 20-21, another… is ‘The Execution.’



Mikhail Shchepkin house, Moscow

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No, it’s not Tomsk. It’s smack dab in the middle of Moscow, a long block from the busy thoroughfare known as Prospekt Mira (Peace Prospect), the metro stop named after that prospect, and a stone’s throw from the Olympic Sports Complex, the rounded roof of which you can see looming in the low sky in a couple of photographs below. Today we’re looking at the old, wooden home in which Mikhail Shchepkin, the great Russian actor of the 19th century, lived for the last four years of his life, from 1859-1863. There are still a few wooden structures left in Moscow, but this is surely one of the biggest and most interesting, in part because of the good shape it’s in and in part because of the history attached to it. The street here was named Third Meshchanskaya Street when Shchepkin was resident; it has been called Shchepkin Street since 1962. As several of the photos show here, the structure is rather under siege from less attractive, less ornate, more imposing modern buildings. It does look a bit out of place among its neighbors, I must say, but that only makes you appreciate it more. Especially when you step through the gate and see the house from the inside courtyard (the first two photos in the final block below). The address here is house No. 47. These days the official address also has a “building 2” attached to it.
Still, having said all these nice things about this building as one of the few such remaining in Moscow, the truth must also be told. Shortly after Shchepkin’s death the house passed into the hands of a family that significantly reconfigured the facade, and not only the facade. It was given a facelift with stone columns and detailed, fanned bas reliefs that lasted until the late 1990s when the additions and changes were removed and the building, more or less as Shchepkin knew it when he lived here, was restored. You can see photos of what the building looked like from 1865 to the late 1990s at the wonderful Know Moscow website. Today the structure houses a museum honoring Shchepkin, as well as a working theater company called the House Theater at the Shchepkin House, run by a very cool cat, Anatoly Ledukhovsky.

IMG_9100.jpg2 IMG_9104.jpg2IMG_9103.jpg2Shchepkin (1788-1963) had something wonderfully warm about him.  You can see that a little, perhaps, in the statue of him that I wrote about here back in May. He was plump enough that you know he enjoyed his food, and surely his drink, too. And there was something in his sad sack face that oozed generosity and understanding. Indeed, he was so willing to help out anyone in need of it that any house he lived in – this one included – was usually full of guests. Often enough they were people Shchekpin didn’t even know. He just wasn’t the kind to turn away a fellow human in need. Maybe this came to him naturally, as the son of a serf who, against all odds, became famous and at least financially independent, if not wealthy. He would never have been given the opportunity to study acting or to become a professional actor if the master who owned him and his family had not recognized the young man’s talent. Shchepkin began by acting in the home theater of his master Volkenstein and then began working in various provincial cities. He played his first theatrical role ever in 1800 in Alexander Sumarokov’s comedy The Lady Cut-Up. Afterwards he is reported to have said that on stage he “felt so good, so happy” that he “couldn’t describe it.” He was not officially given his freedom until 1822, when he was 34 years old. Shortly thereafter he was invited to work in Moscow and, in 1924, he joined the Maly Theater, one of Russia’s two top dramatic playhouses, the other being the Alexandrinsky in Petersburg. By that time Shchepkin had established an enviable reputation as a comic actor. During the next few decades, when he was Moscow’s leading actor, he also exhibited his genius for dramatic and tragic roles. Alexander Herzen defined Shchepkin’s greatness by declaring he was the first person in Russian theater to be “nontheatrical.”
I have drawn some of this latter information from the Chronos biography site.

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Anatoly Lunacharsky plaques, Moscow


Still another of those questionable personalities. It couldn’t be any other way, not from the time of the Russian Revolution. People are paradoxical enough as it is – toss them into the vortex of paradoxes that any revolution is, and you have a genuine mess. That said, this building at 9/6 Denezhny Lane in the Arbat region is the home in which Antoly Lunacharsky, routinely labeled as the first Soviet Commissar of Enlightenment [a commissariat combining culture and education], lived from 1923 to 1933. Lunacharsky (1875-1933) was one of those there to make the Russian Revolution happen who is often (but not always – see below) well spoken of. He was smart, he was idealistic, he was talented, he recognized talent. Not only was he the equivalent of the first Soviet Minister of Culture, he was a well-known writer himself. He was the author of numerous plays, several staged at the Maly Theater in Moscow, and he was a trusted and respected critic of literature and theater. He wrote something like 15 full-length plays between 1906 and 1930, and he wrote another dozen or so one-act plays. None remained in the national repertoire any longer than he occupied a position of power, but he is credited with being one of the writers of that era to introduce contemporary themes into his plays. He had the misfortune of bearing a certain resemblance to Lenin, something that in subsequent generations may have dampened his reputation. He rather looks like a nasty son-of-a-bitch. The writer Leonid Andreyev surely didn’t have much good to say about him.
“[Bolshevism] ate up an enormous number of educated people, destroyed them physically and decimated them morally with its system of baitings and buy-offs,” Andreyev wrote in a letter in 1919 that is published on the Chronos biography site. “In this sense Lunacharsky with his fox tail is more terrible and worse than all the other Devils of this vicious pack. He is a coward and a goodie-two-shoes. He wants to maintain proper appearances while confusing as many people as possible… A bright ray of light in a dark kingdom; that is probably the way he sees himself, for in addition to all else, he is a vulgar and short-sighted man.”
Wham! You always wonder: Who is going to write something like that about you? Andreyev, of course, got his comeuppance from no less than Leo Tolstoy, whose take-down of Andreyev and the “scary” tales that made the junior writer famous, is one of the most quoted in all of Russian literature. “Andreyev frightens us,” Tolstoy wrote, “but we are not frightened.”
Some facts come down in Lunacharsky’s favor. He was the only member of the commissariat system who never belonged to the Central Committee of the Communist Party. I.e., either he kept his distance or they held him at a distance. He threatened to resign when the advancing Bolsheviks launched bombs at the Kremlin in November 1917 because he was horrified at the damage that might be done to cultural relics. Chances are it is no coincidence that Lunacharsky was moved out of a position in power in 1929 just shortly after Stalin began to consolidate power. Say what anyone will, Andreyev included, Lunacharsky was not of Stalin’s ilk.

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I heard plenty of less-than-flattering things about Lunacharsky from his nephew Anatoly Agamirov (1936-2006), a well-known music critic and commentator (and a former student of Mstislav Rostropovich). Agamirov, who co-wrote a circus sketch with Nikolai Erdman in the 1960s, told of the day Lunacharsky invited  Erdman to his home to read his play The Suicide, which was already becoming controversial.  Pardon me while I now pick the story up from my book on Erdman, Silence’s Roar: The Life and Drama of Nikolai Erdman.
“According to a family legend related by Agamirov, and confirmed by Erdman’s niece Irina Kamyshova, Lunacharsky planned to provide Erdman a showcase for his newly written play. This would have been natural, since Erdman was a frequent visitor of Lunacharsky’s regular Monday gatherings which were always attended by the elite of cultural Moscow. To provide the most influential audience, Lunacharsky purposefully invited a large contingent of his political colleagues. When the crowd had gathered, Erdman read the play in its entirely. […] But while Stanislavsky and other artists may have appreciated the subtlety of Erdman’s art [at readings at the Moscow Art Theater and other places], it had a decidedly different effect on the group of politicians and petty bureaucrats gathered at Lunacharsky’s apartment. They listened in stone silence… not once responding to the humor of his play or his delivery. After all the guests had left, Lunacharsky reportedly took Erdman aside and told him that he had written a play of genius, ‘but as long as I am the Commissar of Education, your play will never be produced on the Soviet stage.'”
How closely does Agamirov’s tale capture the reality of that evening at Lunacharsky’s house? While there is no doubt that Agamirov loved to embellish a good story, I never found reason to doubt the essential truth of anything he told me. So there we are, left with this tantalizing story of Lunacharsky setting out to be of aid to a struggling writer, but actually turning against him in a moment when he sensed he was standing on shaky ground.
Be all this as it may, as of 2013 there were 565 “geographical objects” throughout Russia honoring Lunacharsky’s name. They included streets, plazas, theaters, schools and a conservatory, Russian Wikipedia tells us. The museum located at Denezhny Lane is generally known as “the Lunacharsky office.”

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Vera Mukhina statue, Moscow


This sculptural image of Vera Mukhina (1889-1953) is relatively small, which is an interesting thing. Mukhina was one of the most prominent and important of all the monumentalist sculptors. Many of her  works were huge. Easily her most famous is The Worker and the Kolkhoz Girl, which has stood for decades at the entry to the Exhibit of National Achievements in Moscow. It was set up there after first being unveiled – with wild international success – at the Paris World Fair in 1937. The fascinating School of Life site has many unusual tidbits about Mukhina’s life and work and it points out that the sculpture, created in Moscow, weighed 75 tons and had to be cut into 65 segments transported on 28 train cars in order to get it to Paris. So famous is this sculpture I would say that for awhile it has worked against Mukhina’s reputation. The figure of a young man and a young woman marching forward in lock step as they hold a hammer and cycle on high is so ubiquitous and is so bound up in images of stagnant and hostile eras of Soviet history, that it has long been hard to appreciate the work on its own merits. It looks much more like a cliche than a great work of art today, at least until you stop and take the time to ponder it.
There is no doubt that Mukhina was tight, in some ways, with a state that saw and used monumentalism as a way to express and reinforce its superiority. Mukhina was the recipient of five Stalin Prizes in her career (1941, 1943, 1946, 1951, 1952). She was given prestigious commissions to create centrally-located, highly visible public art. According to her son, however, she never once created a bust or sculpture of leading Soviet politicians, although she was asked to many a time, and her husband, the prominent doctor Alexei Zamkov, was repeatedly harassed by the authorities in those moments when he wasn’t being spared or given unexpected opportunities. In short, the family walked a narrow line in a very difficult time. I wrote in late May about a monumental sculpture of Maxim Gorky that Mukhina was instrumental in completing shortly before her own death and 10 years after the death of the primary sculptor Ivan Shadr. When one digs into the details of Mukhina’s life one sees why she may have been compelled to help finish the image of Gorky – he was instrumental in obtaining permission for Mukhina and her husband to return to Moscow from exile in Voronezh. They had attempted to slip out of the country in the early-to-mid-1930s and were caught, detained and exiled.
Another of Mukhina’s most famous works is the monument to Pyotr Tchaikovsky which stands before the Moscow Conservatory. That was no easy commission, however. The original commission was made in 1940 but work was interrupted by the war. Only in 1945 did Mukhina present her first “draft” of the future monument. It, however, was rejected by the inspection board. A second variant was given the okay two years later, but it still took eight more years to get the official order to place the sculpture before the Conservatory. By the time of the unveiling in 1954, Mukhina had been dead for nearly a year.

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The likeness of Mukhina stands on a tiny, nameless square more or less at the intersection of Prechistensky Lane and Prechistenka Street in the Arbat region. Sculpted by Mikhail Anikushin with the aid of architect Sergei Khadzhibaronov, it was unveiled in 1989 as part of the celebration of Mukhina’s centennial.
The piece reflects her reputation as a principled person with a difficult personality. I mention that latter bit only because you run across it a lot when reading about Mukhina. I don’t doubt it’s true, knowing what I know about her life, her work and the era that she inhabited. What I do doubt is that there is anything of value to be had in applying such epithets to her. That she was a strong person with a strong vision is already evident in the fact that she made sculptures weighing 75 tons. It’s also evident when you consider the tight-rope walk she and her husband had to walk in order to keep working and living. In other words, I report that bit of information that everyone else reports, but I encourage you to toss it out as useless.
Anikushin – perhaps – shows Mukhina wrapped in the same scarf and buffeted by the same wind as the young man in the sculpture of The Worker and the Kolkhoz Girl. It’s a nice little quote and it works especially well because, as I said, this sculpture is relatively small and, in no way, attempts to approximate Mukhina’s own work. Anikushin also did a nice job of imparting to Mukhina’s expression that strength we know she commanded, even if it might be a tad off-putting, while also giving her a very human, thoughtful gaze. There is, in other words, a subtle mix here of the public and private flowing back and forth into one another. There is something in that which captures the essence of at least one aspect of the Soviet experience.
Mukhina and her husband are buried in the hallowed – and prestigious – ground of the Novodevichy Monastery on the banks of the Moscow River. I love the words that are engraved on their headstone. Dr. Zamkov, who died in 1942,  is quoted as saying, “I did for people everything that I could.” When Vera herself was buried, her own words were added: “Me too.”

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Sergei Eisenstein plaque and building, Moscow


This is quite a place on Moscow’s cultural map. First of all, it’s a nice building. It could use a touch-up of paint and plaster, but we can look past those things. We’re not all about appearances. I like the green. I love Moscow’s, and Russia’s, colored buildings – pink, yellow, green, blue. They’re a great antidote for those who suffer long, gray Russian winters. (I’m not one of them – I love the cold and ice and snow every bit as much as I love the rainbow buildings.)
But I digress.
Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948) lived here. One of the fathers – if not the father – of modern cinema. For all those poor souls suffering through the withering drought in Russian film that is known as the period running unbroken from the late 1980s to the present, Eisenstein stands as both a rebuke – where are you, new Eisensteins? – and a beacon of hope – yes, it can be done.
Eisenstein lived in Apt. 2 in this building at 23 Chistoprudny Boulevard. It’s right across from the south end of the pond that, for some reason, is named in the plural in Russian – Chistye prudy, or, Clean Ponds.
Another digression, sorry about this. But in the spirit that, with the internet at our fingertips, there is no longer any reason for anyone ever again to claim that they don’t know something, I went to Russian Wikipedia to find out just why this single pond has a name in the plural. And I learned that back in the 17th century there were a series of bogs here known as Foul Swamps! This is where the city dumped its waste from nearby slaughterhouses and meat markets. Wiki doesn’t say it out loud, but the hint is that when folks quit dumping blood and guts into the water here, it came to be known as a place that was clean. And, I’m also assuming, the many swamps, bogs and ponds over time were narrowed into the one we now have.
But back to Eisenstein.
He lived here on Clean Ponds/Chistye prudy from 1920 until 1934. In other words, he regularly pounded the pavement in these environs at that very time that he was doing all of his great early work. That includes his experimental theater pieces done under the influence and tutelage of Vsevolod Meyerhold, as well as his monstrously influential films Strike (1925), The Battleship Potemkin (1925) and October: Ten Days that Shook the World (1927). We see that it was also right here that the great artist’s career suffered its first setbacks. He lived here when he made The General Line (1929), a film that was hindered badly by rapidly changing politics in the Soviet Union. This was also his address when he traveled to Mexico and planned his grandiose, but unfinished ¡Que viva México! (1930). It wasn’t until 1937, three years after leaving the apartment at Clean Ponds, that he made another film (Bezhin Meadow). But it was destroyed, leaving us only with several hundred stills that the great Naum Kleiman and film director Sergei Yutkevich salvaged by collecting into a kind of slide show in the 1960s.

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Eisenstein’s influence on everything cinematic was total. He wasn’t the only film artist pushing the envelope in those early days, but there were few discoveries made that he wasn’t a part of in some way. When my high school and early college girlfriend Laura Greenwood began taking film lessons she had the top of her head sheared off by Eisenstein. “Forget your Fellini!” she used to say. “Eisenstein already did it all!” I have no desire to forget my Fellini, let alone my Kurosawa, Antonioni or Woody Allen. But one gets Laura’s drift. I mean, let’s take it to the level of kitsch and absurd. Remember Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands? Nobody will ever convince me that Edward’s ‘do wasn’t taken hair-for-hair from Eisenstein. If you don’t believe me, check out Depp and check out Eisenstein. I rest my case. Or, if you want to take that further, check out this somewhat later Eisenstein and check out Mel Brooks’ Frankenstein. He’s just Eisenstein without the hair. I’m tellin’ ya – Eisenstein is everywhere.
The building at 23 Chistoprudny Boulevard was built in the year 1900 by architect Sergei Barkov for Nikolai Teleshov, who rented out rooms as a way to generate income. (It was originally a four-story building; the three top floors were added in 1947.) Teleshov was a pretty interesting figure himself. He was a poet and prose writer who was the organizing figure behind the famous “Wednesday” literary salon in Moscow from 1899 to 1916. His guests included Maxim Gorky, Alexander Sumbatov-Yuzhin, Valery Bryusov,  Alexander Kuprin, Ivan Bunin, Vikenty Veresaev, Fyodor Chaliapin, Leonid Andreev, Boris Pilnyak and many others. Teleshov was the director of the museum of the Moscow Art Theater in the late 1920s and 1930s. I don’t know whether he lived in the building when Eisenstein did (look it up yourself if you gotta have it), although if so, he would not have been the director’s landlord. By 1920 everybody’s landlord in Russia was the Soviet State.

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Meyerhold-Raikh apartment, Moscow


A lot of famous artists have lived in this building at 12 Bryusov Lane in Moscow. But the first two that will always come to mind are Vsevolod Meyerhold and his wife Zinaida Raikh. There are several reasons for that. First, Meyerhold is one of the great figures of Russian culture, period. His achievements as an experimental theater director – even when he wasn’t experimenting he was experimenting with not experimenting – changed theater in the world in the first three decades of the 20th century. Second, Raikh even today, 70 and 80 years later, remains a highly controversial figure in Russian theater history. There are those who would tell you she was a talentless non-actress who became Meyerhold’s leading lady only because he fell madly in love with her almost at first sight and his love never waned. It’s a great love story. It’s a messy piece of theater history. Mind you, I’m not taking sides. How in the hell could I know at this point? I can’t see her on stage. She has been dead since 1939. The extant short video clips, like this one from Meyerhold’s production of The Inspector General, tell us virtually nothing at all. The program in which this video is embedded quotes Meyerhold’s great actor Igor Ilinsky as calling Raikh “helpless” when she first began performing in the theater. (He adds that, over time, “she learned a great deal.”) I don’t know. I can’t know. And actors, God love each and every one of them, often have odd opinions for the oddest of reasons. Meyerhold would probably have said Raikh was a genius. Ilyinsky called her helpless. Who, if we toss aside the sweet and sour instinct to engage in gossip, are we to believe?
But there is another, horrendous, reason why this building is so deeply and closely associated with Meyerhold and Raikh. 12 Bryusov Lane, Apt. 11, was Meyerhold’s home address when he was arrested in Leningrad on June 20, 1939. He would never again see his home. And three weeks later, in one of the most heinous and grisly crimes that representatives of the Soviet State ever carried out, Raikh was murdered right here in their apartment, taking something like 17 thrusts of a knife, or knives, to her body. To be entirely honest, it is still not a proven fact that Raikh’s assassins were sent by someone in authority. But hey. She had stab wounds in her eyes. Frankly, in the context of the time I don’t need any more proof. The Soviet “security organs” were guilty of thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of heart-stopping, thought-blocking murders in the long decades of what is known as the Red Terror and the Purges. One knows this as a fact and one knows this as something that did happen 60, 70, 80 years ago and that nothing whatsoever can be done about it now. There is absolutely no point in allowing the emotions to get involved. And yet, for me personally, the murder of Raikh continues to shock and devastate. I cannot read about it, cannot think about it, cannot walk by that simple Constructivist building on Bryusov Lane without shuddering right down to the depths of my soul.


I came to “know” Zinaida Raikh just a little, just a tiny little bit, when I worked on my dissertation and then my book about Nikolai Erdman. The playwright Erdman was an intimate of the Meyerhold-Raikh family. Meyerhold considered him, along with Mayakovsky, as the dramaturgical future of his theater. That all went up in smoke very quickly, but there was a short period when Erdman and Meyerhold were set to write history time and time again. Raikh, loving those who loved her husband and those who were loved by him, was particularly affectionate with Erdman. I saw that in the letters she wrote him and in the letters she wrote to others, in which she discussed Erdman and his talent. When Erdman was arrested and exiled in 1933 – “fortunate,” as it is commonly said, to be arrested four years before the Purges really cranked up full force – Raikh took it upon herself to keep Erdman in the loop of what was happening in Moscow. She cheered him up, she teased him, she sent him gifts. Erdman was forever after indebted to Raikh and Meyerhold for the attention they paid him when he was in exile in Siberia. Moreover, Raikh was extremely smart and sensitive. She was a powerful advocate for what she believed in and she was a formidable opponent if you did not share her opinion. Two of the most extraordinary letters I have ever read were exchanged by Raikh and the playwright Vsevolod Vishnevsky in 1932. The central focus of their argument was Erdman and his play The Suicide, even when they weren’t mentioning it out loud. But by the end of her long letter, accusing Vishnevsky of trying to destroy both Erdman and Meyerhold, she pulled out the stops. Comparing Vishenvsky to Faddei Bulgarin, a tsarist snitch who harrassed Alexander Pushkin, Raikh unloads on Vishnevsky: “What speaks in you is everything that is disgusting in a person, as well as jealousy of fame! Take heed, it’s not a true path. You and your battle will amplify the thunder of Erdman’s fame.”
Seven and a half years later, Raikh would be dead, murdered in her apartment. Eight years later Meyerhold would be dead, murdered in the basement of the Lubyanka.
For some reason the building at 12 Bryusov Lane bears  witness only to the fact that Meyerhold lived here from 1928 to 1939. There are two plaques, one indicating that the Meyerhold Museum now occupies the couple’s former home. Neither mention Raikh. Maybe that’s an oversight. Maybe it’s a silent reference to the fact that some still don’t know whether or not to consider Raikh a serious actress. If so, that’s pretty silly. History is a place that allows us to find room for all the points of view that once existed. I’m willing to trust Meyerhold on this one; if he made Raikh his leading lady on stage, then she deserved it. I’d like to see her name commemorated on the walls of this apartment house where she gave her life for her love, her art and her principles.



Sergei Bondarchuk plaque, Moscow


A recent nighttime stroll down Tverskaya Street, Moscow’s main thoroughfare, brought me upon this plaque honoring the Soviet film director Sergei Bondarchuk (1920-1994). There are dozens of reasons to know and love Bondarchuk and his films, but I think most would agree that one particular reason stands out above all others – his film of War and Peace (1967). The mass battle scenes amazed even Hollywood at the time (War and Peace won the 1968 Oscar for best film in a foreign language) and Bondarchuk’s own performance of Pierre Bezukhov, one of Tolstoy’s key protagonists, was iconic. Even when I look at the pictures of Bondarchuk’s sculpted image here, I see a slightly older Pierre more than I see Bondarchuk.
Bondarchuk liked big. The majority of his nine films were of the kind that would attract epithets such as “sweeping,” “grand” and “grandiose.” Beyond War and Peace, his other epic-sized films included Waterloo (1970), They Fought for their Homeland (1975), the two-part Red Bells about the Mexican Revolution (1982-83), Boris Godunov (1986), and Quiet Flows the Don (1994). Waterloo, following the highly successful War and Peace, was produced by the powerful Italian producer Dino De Laurentis and it starred Rod Steiger as Napoleon, Christopher Plummer as the Duke of Wellington, and Orson Welles as Louis XVIII. You will notice that Bondarchuk had a soft spot for war and revolution…. I don’t know whether that specifically was the reason why he was so popular with the Soviet authorities or not. But he was. His list of awards on Russian Wikipedia runs 4 times as long as his list of films, and only a handful of those were from outside Russia. Bondarchuk was one of the most celebrated official artists of the second half of the Soviet period.

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It would appear that the resounding success of War and Peace is what put Bondarchuk into the elite block of apartments at Tverskaya Street 9, just a stone’s throw or two from the Kremlin. The plaque informs us that he moved into the building in 1968 and remained there until his death in 1994. In the Soviet period, of course, apartments were handed out to people by the government. You didn’t get an apartment in the neighborhood of the Kremlin for nothing.
Bondarchuk was the originator of a large dynasty that continues to affect Russian film, art and public discourse today. Among his two sons and two daughters, plus numerous in-laws and grandchildren, there number some six actors and directors, a composer and a television host. Of them all his son Fyodor, from Sergei’s third marriage, is the most successful. He made his name as a music video director and then produced several popular blockbuster-type films in the 2000s.
Careful and knowledgeable readers will notice in the photo that follows immediately that the Bondarchuk apartment house stands on the intersection of Tverskaya Street and Bryusov Lane. Bryusov Lane is also an important address for many important Russian cultural figures, including Vsevolod Meyerhold and numerous actors of the Bolshoi Theater and the Moscow Art Theater. You can actually see the elevator shaft of Meyerhold’s building in the distance in the last photo below. But I get ahead of myself…
Sergei Bondarchuk was born in what was called “the” Ukraine at the time, in the small village of Byelozyorka. Against his father’s wishes, he began taking steps to become an actor in the late 1930s. He studied acting in Rostov-on-Don from 1938 to 1941, breaking off his education to volunteer for the Red Army after Germany attacked the Soviet Union. He debuted as an actor on the stages of Taganrog, the city famed for being Anton Chekhov’s hometown. After the war, Bondarchuk graduated from the cinema institute (1948) and made his debut as an actor that same year, performing in the hugely popular film The Young Guard. Throughout his career he performed in approximately 40 films.

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Anna Akhmatova, Ivan Turgenev et alii at the Sheldonian, Oxford UK


The Oxford connection to Russia and Russians runs deep. Suffice it to say that the university purchased a Russian font for its press in 1696. This and many other fascinating tidbits of Oxford-Russia history may be gleaned from Victoria Bentata’s article, “Oxford’s Early Russian Connections,” for the Oxford Today website.
Surely one of the most important buildings in this relationship is the roundish Sheldonian Theatre on Broad Street. This is the location where Oxford presents its honorary doctorate degrees and a surprisingly large number of Russians have received them. The first figure of Russian culture and art to be so honored was the novelist Ivan Turgenev. In fact, according to an article by J.S.G. Simmons on the Oxoniensia.org website, he was the first novelist of any nationality to receive that high honor. The event occurred on June 18, 1879, somewhat more than four years before the great novelist’s death, and just 75 years, to the day, before I was born.
Simmons writes: “At this period the undergraduate members of the audience at the University’s annual Encaenia still exercised their traditional privilege of voicing their opinion of the University’s notabilities and honorands – and though Turgenev was perhaps at the peak of his literary fame in England at the time,  he feared that recent memories of the Russo-Turkish War and the bitter divisions which it had engendered in English political life, might lead to embarrassing demonstrations against a Russian Honorary Doctor. But in the event all went well…”
Reportedly, Turgenev wrote to a friend a few days later to point out that he had received louder applause than any of the seven other recipients that day.
Some other Russian honorary doctors include the composer Dmitry Shostakovich, the poet, translator and children’s author Kornei Chukovsky, the great literary scholar and humanist Dmitry Likhachev, the poet Joseph Brodsky, and, of course, the poet Anna Akhmatova. Some of these individuals might have passed through the gates leading to the theatre, as seen directly below, as well as passing a guard or greeter, perhaps similar to the one who was overseeing foot traffic the day I made these photos last week. As it happens, degrees were being bestowed on the fortunate and fastidious that day as well.

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Anna Akhmatova received her honorary doctorate here at the Sheldonian on June 5, 1965. It was a Saturday and the ceremony began at 2:30 in the afternoon. Readers of my last post may recall that I drew my account of Akhmatova’s visit to Oxford from the memoirs of the poet’s companion Anna Kaminskaya. I do so again here. Kaminskaya, it should be pointed out, sometimes refers to Akhmatova affectionately as Akuma.
“We found ourselves almost at the head of the procession on the street. A man of small stature lead us all. He was dressed in a medieval, black suit with a mace in hand. He was followed by two ceremony masters carrying staffs, also in black. Next in line were Vice Counsellor Doctor Kenneth Wheare and Mr. Brian Brown [I have not been able to verify this individual. My thank you to Hugh Macmillan for identifying the first, see comments below – JF], followed by Anna Andreyevna who leaned on my arm in a red gown with gray cuffs and sleeves. Behind us were three other laureates also dressed in red and gray gowns. Further on were professors in black gowns. The procession, which has not changed its outward appearance since medieval times, made its way through the tiny old streets of Oxford to the Sheldonian Theatre and stopped alongside the two-story, 18th-century Clarendon building with its central porte-cochere. We passed into a small room on the first floor where a book lay on a table. Four of the year’s laureates left their signatures in it and received sheets printed with the salutatory speeches. The room was lit only by the light entering through a window made of small panes of glass. As such it seemed as though we were plunged into a medieval gloom. When we passed further through a portico, the procession entered a large cobblestone yard before the Sheldonian, where the ceremony was to begin at 14:30.
“(When we walked through the yard where the public was waiting, eager to greet the laureates, Akuma was extremely tense. In order to calm her I surreptitiously gave her a validolum tablet which helped her cope with her nerves. A few seconds later she said to me, ‘I’m moving. I’m moving. I’m fine.’)
“The heavy doors of the theatre opened; spectators had filled the amphitheatre. Anna Andreyevna was the first to be honored. She entered slowly, leaning on my arm, her head slightly bowed, looking at no one, attempting to conserve her energy for the event that was to come. We sat in our designated seats. During the speech Anna Andreyevna was supposed to stand in the center of the hall, but, violating tradition, an exception was made for her.
“…After the triumphant reception of Anna Andreyevna, we went out onto the square. A crowd of admirers of Akhmatova’s poetry was waiting on the street, and it was joined by professors, students and guests who had come out of the ceremony. A living corridor of applause was formed and the victory parade continued. Anna Andreyevna did not expect such a triumph.
“Sir Isaiah [Berlin] approached us and led us to the car belonging to the family of Prince Obolensky. Akuma was uncommonly pleased and happy, primarily because everything was now over with. On the road to the hotel she said that it all reminded her of “An Easter Procession in Kursk Province” (a painting by Ilya Repin), lacking only the horsemen and holy banners. Otherwise it was just like any large church holiday in Russia.”
Kaminskaya’s Russian-language memoirs may be accessed on the website of Zvezda (Star) journal.
In a recent short piece called “A Sheldonian Experience” by Sagar Gubbi,  we hear a bit about Akhmatova’s receiving her doctorate from another source. “The final speaker of the evening,” writes Gubbi about an event in 2009, “was Sundance Institute’s Kenneth Brecher, who did an outstanding job of describing the history behind the evening’s venue, Sheldonian Theatre. He narrated a particularly moving and inspiring story of Anna Akhmatova, an incredibly talented Russian poet who, after many years of struggle under the Soviet rule, was finally recognised by the University of Oxford for an honorary degree. It was here at the Sheldonian that the University’s Head broke its age-old tradition by climbing down from the stage to confer the degree to a physically frail Akhmatova.”

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