Anna Akhmatova hotel, Oxford UK


It did not take me long to learn that Anna Akhmatova stayed at the Randolph Hotel when she received her honorary doctorate at Oxford University in 1965, but in the two days I had last weekend in Oxford I could never have done it without the aid of friends and strangers. I was rather pushy about it, just unloading the question on anyone and everyone I could grab by the sleeve and hold long enough to talk to. In the end, the answer came by way of my old friend Oliver Ready, the distinguished translator of Russian prose, and his colleague Henry Hardy, the distinguished editor of the works of Isaiah Berlin, the philosopher and historian whose idea it was to invite Akhmatova to Oxford and confer upon her the honorary doctorate.
Henry Hardy also sent along the link to a recent publication in the Russian press. In June of this year the Zvezda (Star) thick journal published the travel notes of Anna Kaminskaya, Akhmatova’s companion on the eight day sojourn to London, Oxford and Stratford. I pull most of what follows from that account.
Kaminskaya and Akuma, as the companion calls the poet, had a long day of travel and hospitality on June 4, 1965. They traveled by car from London to Oxford with Sir Isaiah Berlin, but upon arrival in Oxford he took them directly to his own home for dinner and conversation. They did not arrive at the Randolph until sometime after 11 p.m. that night.  The next morning at 10:30 a.m. Kaminskaya and Berlin went to “rehearse” everything Akhmatova would do in the course of the day’s ceremony on June 5. Akhmatova presumably stayed behind in the hotel room to rest up for the day’s festivities. The room, according to Kaminskaya, was “spacious and very light. Elegant, almost transparent curtains decorated with tiny flowers hung on the windows looking out into a garden. Beyond the windows there was greenery and sunlight.”
I will post an account of that ceremony soon. For now, we cling closely to the Randolph.

IMG_0063.jpg2 IMG_0065.jpg2 IMG_0067.jpg2

Following the ceremony “a crowd of fans awaited Akhmatova” in the foyer of the Randolph, writes Kaminskaya. “People came from various countries and cities – students and Russianist professors, and there were many emigrants. They all wanted to congratulate Anna Andreyevna. Unfortunately, it was necessary to cut the visitations short because in the second half of the day a whole series of events had been planned. Anna Andreyevna received: Salisbury with his wife, the Annenkovs, Eliane Moch-Bickert, Gleb Struve, N.A. Daddington and several other people. While Akuma rested, I and Count [Dmitry] Obolensky went out into the city and on one of the streets happened upon Arkady Raikin and his wife. They were in England on tour and had come especially to Oxford for the honorary ceremony, but were too timid to bother Akhmatova with a visit. I virtually cajoled them to come to the hotel, assuring them that Anna Andreyevna would be very glad to see them. In Moscow Raikin often visited the Ardovs in connection with his work and when Akuma would spend time at the Ardovs’, they would occasionally meet there. Anna Andreyevna, who had a fine feel for humor, loved these meetings.”
“That evening Sir Isaiah arranged a ceremonial dinner at our hotel in honor of Anna Andreyevna and the Pasternak sisters Lidia and Josephine, who lived in Oxford. Anna Andreyevna was lively and cheerful. We talked much about her verses and those of Pasternak. Lidia Leonidovna Slater was a professional translator; she had translated many of Boris Leonidovich’s poems into English and he thought very highly of these translations. She also translated Akhmatova’s poems but Anna Andreyevna was not inspired by her translations. A slight shadow rose up between them.”
It was apparently at this evening that Akhmatova asked Berlin if he was the one to have arranged her honorary doctorate and visit to England with all of the events that it entailed. “No,” Kaminskaya reports Berlin as replying, “I was only the pioneer.”
Berlin was a longtime friend, admirer and one-time suitor of Akhmatova, which made her trip to Oxford somewhat complex emotionally. According to an excellent article on the Poetry Foundation site: “Akhmatova always cherished the memories of her nightlong conversations with Berlin, a brilliant scholar in his own right. Inspired by their meetings, she composed the love cycle Cinque (first published in the journal Leningrad in 1946; translated, 1990), which was included in Beg vremeni [Race of Time]; it reads in part:

Sounds die away in the ether,
And darkness overtakes the dusk.
In a world become mute for all time,
There are only two voices: yours and mine.

On the morning of June 7 at 11 a.m., the artist Yury Annenkov and Eliane Moch-Bichert, the wife of the prominent, retired French politician Jules Moch, stopped by the Randolph to see Akhmatova. After that a radio journalist came by to record Akhmatova reading poems that she published in 1964 and then the travelers got into a car and headed for Stratford. The three days in Oxford were behind them.
To fill out the picture for the moment, however, allow me to quote a paragraph from Michael Ignatieff’s book, A Life of Isaiah Berlin. It is drawn from the Spartacus Educational website entry on Akhmatova:
“The last of Isaiah’s encounters with the great figures of the Russian intelligentsia occurred in 1965, when he and Maurice Bowra managed to persuade their university to grant Anna Akhmatova an honorary degree. He had telephoned her in Moscow in 1956, and she had received the news of his marriage in icy silence. They had both decided it was not safe to meet. When she duly appeared in Oxford in June 1965, Isaiah was shocked to see how she had aged. She had gained weight and he thought, a little unkindly, that she resembled Catherine the Great. But she carried herself like an empress and delivered herself of her opinions with imperial force. When she arrived outside Headington House and surveyed the splendid garden, the three-storey Georgian house and Isaiah’s new wife, she observed caustically: ‘So the bird is now in its golden cage.’ The spark that had leaped between them twenty years before was now extinguished. He could only secure her the recognition in the West that was her due; she could only acknowledge it with regal hauteur. He accompanied her as she stood in the Sheldonian and heard herself acclaimed in Latin as ‘an embodiment of the past, who can console the present and provide hope for the future.’ Afterwards he was in attendance at the Randolph Hotel when she received Russian visitors who had come from all over the world to pay court to her. He was there too when she read from her verse, intoning the deep and sonorous rhythms into a tape recorder. She departed for Paris and home, and Isaiah never saw her again. She died the following year. His anti-communism had always been a declaration of allegiance to the intelligentsia of whom she was the last surviving heroine. After her death, he exclaimed to a friend that he would always think of her as an ‘uncontaminated,’ ‘unbroken’ and ‘morally impeccable’ reproach to all the Marxist fellow-travellers who believed that individuals could never stand up to the march of history.”

IMG_0346.jpg2 IMG_0071.jpg2 IMG_0077.jpg2




Pyotr Makushin House, Tomsk


Pyotr Makushin (1844-1926) was a man after my own heart. He founded the first public library in Tomsk and he founded the first bookstore in that splendid city. The building you see in the photo above, located at 4 Solyanaya Square, is Tomsk’s House of Science and it is named after Makushin. Better than that, the great man is buried right there on the grounds – not back in the back somewhere, but right out front where you can daily take it as a reminder of the way that all things touched by humans go – bookstores included.
Makushin was born in a village near Perm and he came to Tomsk in 1868 as the overseer of the local religious seminary. But it wasn’t long before he felt the call to do other, greater, things. In 1873 he opened the Mikhailov and Makushin bookstore, the first in all of Siberia. Russian Wikipedia tells the details well: “By the end of the 19th century this company was the biggest bookseller in all of Siberia. It had a large affliate in Irkutsk, and it had small book shops in 125 villages of the Tomsk Region. It maintained a stock of approximately 250,000 books…” An online encyclopedia of Siberia adds that in 1891 Makushin opened up bookselling outlets along the Ob-Yeniseisky Canal and along the Central Siberian railroad. Not surprisingly, I would think, Makushkin was also a publisher – of books and of newspapers.


Basically, Pyotr Makushin was a one-man system of education and enlightenment. That Siberian encyclopedia tells us that in his life he spent enough on charity (half a million rubles) that, had he chosen to, he could have purchased an entire block of Moscow real estate. I wonder if that underestimates his contributions. For example, the House of Science in Tomsk alone was built on Makushin’s money. Basically, the man was unstoppable. In addition to everything else he also had a hand in establishing Tomsk’s first free hospital, kindergarten and telephone line (!).
One more time from that encyclopedia of Sibiria: “Pyotr Makushin was the author of the statutes for, and the chairman of, the School Society which was opened in 1882. This was a volunteer organization bringing together citizens who were prepared to help public education. The yearly dues were just one ruble, so its membership numbered in the thousands (Tomsk then had a total population of 40,000). Donations were used to help poor schoolchildren and to provide awards for the best teachers. At its own cost the society maintained three beginning gymnasiums for boys, opened a free public library, offered evening courses, scheduled public readings on Sundays, and maintained a museum of applied knowledge.”
All of this, we are told – and we are not surprised – raised the ever-vigilant suspicions of the Russian government. What the hell was he doing helping all those people live better lives? In order to find out, the Tomsk police officially kept an eye on everything the man did at least from the late 1880s throughout the 1890s.



Bulat Okudzhava monument, Moscow



This is one of my favorite monuments in Moscow. How could it not be? It is Bulat Okudzhava.
But it is not only Bulat Okudzhava, one of Russia’s most beloved bards, poets and writers, it is a really nice Okudzhava done with taste, vision and understanding by the sculptor Georgy Frangulyan. The artist did a fine job of capturing Okudzhava probably in the early 1960s, when he was swingin’ and hip along with the rest of leading Soviet society during the Thaw. You can see Okudzhava’s humor and wisdom in his eyes, you can see the freedom in his step. The two arches through which the figure of the poet has walked – and which are inscribed with words from his songs – are like halos of sorts. I don’t mean that in the sense that Frangulyan imparts holiness to him, but it’s as if the air around the man recognizes his greatness and parts to let him through. It’s all very low-key, but filled with meaning. I like the way he’s just out for a stroll, because that’s what everyone’s here to do – to talk a walk. Okudzhava, here, is a man of the people, stylish, yes, a bit lost in concentration, yes, but just out for a stroll like everybody else, with the daily newspaper under his arm.
I forgot to mention that this monument stands on Okudzhava’s beloved Arbat, in the niche of Plotnikov Lane that runs into, and stops, at the Arbat. The Arbat is now a walking district, surely to its detriment, but that was not the case in Okudzhava’s time. It was a regular street with narrow sidewalks that was as filled with personality as any other location in Moscow. Okudzhava wrote many songs commemorating his love for the neighborhood.

IMG_9044.jpg2 IMG_9046.jpg2 IMG_9048.jpg2

I had the good fortune of spending some time with Okudzhava in California in the late 1970s. I was a student at the University of California at Irvine and Okudzhava was a visiting artist. He conducted a fascinating month-long seminar in contemporary Russian literature and he gave a couple of concerts that were packed to the rafters with Russian emigres from the Los Angeles area. I also accompanied him on a somewhat surreal trip to Disneyland, which I recalled as best as I could in a blog for The Moscow Times back in 2009. Still wanting to say more, I wrote another blog about him for the MT in 2012, this time focusing on the changes that have affected the Arbat district over the decades.
I crossed paths with Okudzhava twice again in the early to mid 1990s in Moscow.  One of those times, the second, I attended an annual concert that he performed at the Contemporary Play School on Victory Day. This was, perhaps, two years before he died in 1997. (For the record his birth-death dates are 1924-1997.) The other time, the first, occurred when he attended a performance at a theater where my wife performed. I didn’t bother to reintroduce myself. I hate that little ritual. For the most part I prefer to leave people with the comfort of their own thoughts. And Okudzhava, for all the warmth of his art and his heart – don’t doubt that one little bit – was a relatively closed, private individual. Indeed, you can see that in this monument on the Arbat. He’s a genuine human being, a man of understanding and integrity. But he is also relatively packed up in his own, busy world. That tight smile on his face in the image immediately below is a private one. He’s not sharing a joke with us here, he’s amused by something only he knows about. I very much felt Okudzhava’s distance as he sat backstage after the performance, surrounding by hordes of people wanting to talk to him, wanted to be noticed by him, wanting to engage him, even if it were for just a few seconds. I didn’t need to be a part of that. I had ridden on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride with the man. What more could I have asked for?




Yevgeny Lanseré plaque, Moscow

IMG_9257.jpg2 IMG_9260.jpg2

There is no honest way for me to start this little excursus about Yevgeny Lanceré (1875-1946) other than to quote a whole paragraph from Wikipedia (I keep Wiki’s rather funky spellings as well as their links):
“Lanceray was born in Pavlovsk, Russia, a suburb of Saint Petersburg.  He came from a prominent Russian artistic family. His father, Eugeny Alexandrovich Lanceray, was a sculptor. His grandfather Nicholas Benois, and his uncle Leon Benois, were celebrated architects. Another uncle, Alexandre Benois, was a respected artist, art critic, historian and preservationist. His great-grandfather was the Venetian-born Russian composer Catterino Cavos. Lanceray’s siblings were also heirs to this artistic tradition. His sister, Zinaida Serebriakova, was a painter, while his brother Nikolai was an architect. His cousin, Nadia Benois, was the mother of Peter Ustinov.”
Talk about genes.
I had never heard of Lanceré until I happened upon this plaque on the corners of Bobrov and Milyutinsky Lanes.  But the great Benois family, the great Zinaida Serebryakova, Peter Ustinov, for God’s sake…
So I did what I have often done before making other posts on this blog – I did a bit of armchair research. And, as I might say if I were writing this in Russian, I liquidated a bit of my own ignorance. I say only “a bit” because it turns out my ignorance in this case was embarrassingly prodigious.
Lanceré was associated with some of the most important people and movements in Russian art of his time. He exhibited and published with the famous World of Art group, he published his work in the Golden Fleece journal, and Sergei Daighilev included his work in at least one of this exhibitions in Paris (1906). As John Milner tells us in his wonderful A Dictionary of Russian and Soviet Artists, 1420-1970, Lanceré created the poster for Diaghilev’s Exhibition of Historical Russian Portraits (1905).
The artist clearly had a severe case of wanderlust. Throughout his life he traveled to, and lived in, France, Italy, Germany, Japan, Turkey, Dagestan, Tbilisi, Petrograd and Ust-Krestishche near Pskov, to name a few of the places. After moving to Moscow in 1934 he created decorations for the Kazan Railway Station and the Moskva Hotel. I can’t help but wonder what happened to this latter work (he did paintings for the hotel’s restaurant) when the Moscow authorities barbarically reduced the entire hotel to rubble a decade or so ago in order to rebuild it from scratch. That was another of those horrible decisions of then-Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov to “renew” Moscow by ripping down the old and then putting back up cookie-cutter imitation replacements.
Again, because I know nothing myself and am leaning entirely on the knowledge of others, allow me to quote this pithy description of Lanceré’s work pulled from a Russian Academic internet encyclopedia: “Lanceré’s talent was diverse, he created vignettes, letter fonts, architectural sketches, illustrations for fairy tales and plays, decorative panneaux and caricatures. His historical paintings were awash with a love for old Russia and exhibited a profound feeling for the era…”

IMG_9259.jpg2 IMG_9266.jpg2

The building in which Lanceré lived from 1934 to his death in 1946 is not particularly striking, although it’s massive. It has had an interesting history. Construction was begun on it in 1917, just before the Revolution began. For that reason, construction was stopped while Russia figured out where it would go next. In the meantime, the unfinished building served as a hiding place for revolutionaries who famously attacked the post and telegraph office a block or two away. The building was completed only after the Russian Civil War concluded in roughly 1922. (I’m pulling this information from the fabulous site about the history of Moscow buildings.) While living here the artist was primarily occupied with plans to create works in the so-called monumental style, although, we are told, very little of what he planned was actually completed. The panneaux at the Kazan Station are considered to be an example of what the artist was capable of, had he been able to do more. I don’t know whether Lanceré ran into problems for political reasons or not, but it is a fact that he lived in this building, which has since taken on his name as the Lanceré home, during the height of the Purges and the entire Second World War, not an easy time to put it mildly. He did win a Stalin Prize in 1943, for what it’s worth.
Today Lanceré’s grandson Yevgeny Lanceré, a contemporary artist, lives in the building. Immediately below is a shot of a former store or cafe entrance on the building’s western side that bears witness to the fact that it is associated with artists. Someone, perhaps leaning on Magritte’s famous “This is not a pipe” painting of a pipe, has scribbled into the whitewash the teasing words, “This is not a cafe. This is not a store window. This is not a door.”

IMG_9261.jpg2 IMG_9262.jpg2