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.
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.”