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.