Kama Ginkas White Room, Moscow

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This historic little free-standing building should have been even more historic than it is. As fate would have it, just one of Kama Ginkas’s productions was performed here – We Play “Crime,” based on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1991). It was received as one of the best, most provocative productions of that season, and it marked only the second show Ginkas had staged in Moscow after a couple of years when he worked exclusively in Finland. It was here that Ginkas and wife Henrietta Yanovskaya, the relatively new artistic director of the Moscow Young Spectator Theater, came up with the phrase “Games in a White Room.” Of course, the word for “games” in Russian (igry) also means “playing”, so the idea was something like”playing theatrical games in a white room” or “playing around at theater in a white room.” That’s really what the phrase implies in Russian. If I were a translator, I might even end up translating it that way.
The idea at the time was to turn this small space – a mid-sized white room located in this small building – over to Ginkas where he would work his theatrical magic, playing various theatrical games in the structure’s white room. It was not to be, however. In one of those shady deals that were so common in the early 1990s in Moscow, the then-managing director either sold or long-term-leased this budding theatrical space to a bank. By the time Ginkas and Yanovskaya found out about it, there was nothing they could do. I don’t know the details but I do know that that managing director didn’t last much longer at the theater.
Still, as a quirk of the lease/sale deal, to this day you enter the stage door of the Moscow Young Spectator Theater through a short corridor in this building. The opening you see to the right in the picture below was once the entrance to the White Room. It is now blocked by a stairwell. Nevertheless, every time I go through the stage door entrance of this theater – and I do that relatively often – I look to that blocked aperture to my right and recall the first time I ever met Yanovskaya. She was receiving invited guests to a performance of We Play “Crime.” Ginkas, I believe, was in St. Petersburg at the time. Yanovskaya seated Oksana and me front row center – not because she knew anything about us, but because Lars Kleberg, the well-known Slavicist and, at that time, the cultural attache at the Swedish embassy, had arranged tickets for us. Yanovskaya’s courtesy was paid to him, not to us, whom she didn’t know from Adam or Eve. From our front-row, center, seats, Oksana and I sat enthralled as we watched one of the best pieces of theater I have ever seen. Just like Ginkas himself, it was harsh, demanding and very funny.
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As I say, however, that was it for this building and Kama’s white room theatrical games. When he lost access to this space, the “white room” was moved to a small chamber in the corner of the top floor of the theater’s main building. The photos immediately above and below (one taken with a flash that catches falling snow and swirling fog; the other taken naturally to capture natural light) show the windows of the two white rooms as if they are close neighbors. The window in the old space was illuminated by a spot from outside and the actor Viktor Gvozditsky, playing the persnickety criminal investigator Porfiry Petrovich, actually made one entrance through this window. Sitting on the windowsill, he performed an entire scene on the verge of falling back out again. The next “white room” show Ginkas created was called K.I. from “Crime” (1994) and it was also based on Crime and Punishment – this time specifically on the character of Katerina Ivanovna, Semyon Marmeladov’s widow. (By a rather wild twist of fate, my wife Oksana Mysina was cast in the role of Katerina Ivanovna, a role she continues to play 20+ years later. But that’s a whole other story.) Just as Ginkas used outside lighting in We Play “Crime,” he also did so in K.I. from “Crime.” In that show, two spots are set outside the two windows you see on the darker face of the white building in the photos. Ginkas’s third “white room” production was Pushkin. Duel. Death (1999), a typically unorthodox and provocative examination of our understanding – and misunderstanding – of Alexander Pushkin.
Over the years Ginkas has created numerous innovative small-stage productions using the second-floor foyer of the main building, the balcony overlooking the big hall, and by putting the audience on the mainstage together with the actors. I rather suspect that, had the original white room not been lost, at least some of these shows would have been performed there. But that’s life and that’s history. They are what they are. And since that is true, it is also true that the white room which gave rise to the phrase “Kama Ginkas playing theatrical games in a white room,” hosted only the one production, We Play “Crime.”
See my newer post which updates this story about Ginkas and his White Room. 

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Alexander Pushkin, Pushkin Square, Moscow

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This surely is one of the most famous and beloved monuments to a writer in Russia. Forget that last part – this is simply one of the most iconic monuments in Russia. Period. Pushkin on Pushkin Square. “Meet me at Pushkin” is a phrase that surely has resounded millions of times over the decades since this statue was unveiled in June 1880. I’ve uttered the phrase dozens of times myself, while others have uttered it dozens of times to me. I don’t think I’ve ever failed to make a meeting “at Pushkin.” People didn’t always meet beneath the statue on this side of Tverskaya Street, however. It was originally erected on the other side of the thoroughfare on Strastnoi Square, facing in the other direction. As attractive as the monument and Pushkin Square are today, it is nothing like it once was. Where Pushkin now stands there once stood the Strastnoi Women’s Convent. Pushkin, one of the most notorious ladies’ men in Russian history, looked sadly across the street at the convent walls. There is a nice colorized photo of this on a site dedicated to the history of the convent.
Stalin – may his soul never know rest – had the convent razed in 1937, surely one of the earth’s most grizzly years ever, at least in Russia. However, it wasn’t until 1950 that Pushkin himself was moved across the street to take up position where the convent used to be. In this “new” position Pushkin is surrounded on two sides by architectural structures that, to my mind, clash with him terribly. Behind him (see the left corner in the second photo above) stands the old Rossia film theater which for many years in the 1990s and early 2000s was turned into an astonishingly, breathtakingly horrendous, garish casino. It made my heart ache every time I had to pass it. Actually, it made me angry. But enough of that. A few years ago all of Moscow’s casinos were closed down and the cinema became a cinema again for a while. Unable to compete with smaller, more modern movie theaters, it was then turned into a theater for musicals, which it remains today. It’s nearly as incongruous and irritating as the casinos were. Somehow Alexander Pushkin backed by a monstrous banner advertising Beauty and the Beast is just something that should not happen. To Pushkin’s right (first photo in the final block below) stands the famous Izvestia building, where one of the two most famous Soviet newspapers was compiled and published daily for many decades. This building in the Constructivist style is not nearly as maddening as the old Rossia cinema in all of its incarnations, but I still always find the view of Pushkin looking in that direction quite grating.

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Pushkin himself – by which I mean the likeness created by sculptor Alexander Opekushin – is sublime. I think it’s beyond criticism or even interpretation. For most Muscovites and Russians, this simply is Pushkin. As Van Morrison sings so convincingly in his beautiful song “Summertime in England” – “it ain’t why, why, why, it just is.” You walk by the statue and you kind of nod in greeting or, at least, you feel a warm sensation like someone you know and love deeply is hanging around nearby. The bronze statue itself is large, but the pedestal on which it stands is even larger, giving you the sensation that Pushkin is in a low orbit with the gods. As I photographed the work tonight I was surprised to see how time is beginning to play on the bronze, which is becoming discolored and even cracking in places. One fears they will have to box the statue up before too long to make repairs to keep it from deteriorating too far. But for the moment, these “flaws,” if that’s what they are, actually lend character to the image. Pushkin may have been a perfect poet, but even his statue is susceptible to decay. There’s something oddly comforting in that.
Something that is slightly disconcerting, and which I never noticed until tonight when shooting close-ups of the head portion, is that Pushkin was not created to look us in the eye. His gaze, in the form of two holed-out orbs, is raised just above your own gaze. That is not noticeable to the naked eye when you stand looking up at him – or, at least, it never has been to me. But when you see it clearly as you do in the close-up at the top of this post, it is quite striking.
Another thing I noticed tonight for the first time – the rather odd-looking hat Pushkin holds behind his back. You can see it relatively well in the final picture below, one I’m particularly fond of as it mixes three discrete objects in rather skewed perspective – Pushkin, a street light and the New Year’s tree, which is still up even in the waning days of January.

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Writer’s House (Pasternak, Olesha, Ilf & Petrov etc.) on Lavrushinsky, Moscow

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I would call this one of the greatest-kept secrets in Moscow cultural lore. This building, which you have surely seen if you have ever spent time in Moscow (because it is located right across the street from the Tretyakov Gallery and you, of course, have been there), is absolutely chock-full of literary history, real and imagined. This, for example, is the very place to which the slicked-up and scantily-clad Margarita flies and destroys a critic’s living quarters at the end of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. You see, Bulgakov was in line to receive an apartment here in the early 1930s, but was refused. A nit-picking critic who was always yapping at the heels of Bulgakov’s work did receive an apartment here. It pissed Bulgakov off enough that he famously avenged the nasty man through his literature. The only change Bulgakov introduced into the story was that in M&M the building ostensibly stands on the Arbat. In fact, this is it: 17 Lavrushinsky Lane, in the Zamoskvorechye region.
Just look at the list of people who were entered in the list of the winners of the “lottery” to receive apartments a full year before construction on the building was complete in 1937: Boris Pasternak, Ilf and Petrov, Konstantin Paustovsky, Ilya Erenburg, Viktor Shklovsky, Agnia Barto, Vsevolod Vishnevsky, Mikhail Prishvin, Lev Kassil, Nikolai Pogodin. Other luminaries who lived here in later years and decades included Veniamin Kaverin, Valentin Kataev, Yury Olesha, the theater director Anatoly Efros, the singer Lidia Ruslanov and more. In terms of literature and art, this building surely beats out the famed House on the Embankment, located just a mile or two away, for saturation of fame and infamy. I bother to add that second word in large part because of the fact that Vsevolod Vishnevsky, the rabble-rousing playwright, lived here. Vishnevsky was an acid-tongued, often jealous and envious, man who wrapped himself in the cloak of Revolutionary fervor and purity as, behind the scenes, he sent others to their doom. Vishnevsky played no small role in the downfall of Vsevolod Meyerhold, Zinaida Raikh and Nikolai Erdman.
If you know Yury Olesha’s famous last book, No Day Without a Line, you now know where it was written. Here is what Olesha had to say about living here shortly after having moved in: “Constant meetings. The first is Pasternak, who has barely come out his own doors. He’s carrying galoshes. He puts them on after crossing the doorstep, not while still inside. Why? For cleanliness’ sake? Going on about something he says, ‘I talk with you as I would with a brother.’ And then there’s [playwright Vladimir] Bill-Belotserkovsky with his unexpectedly subtle commentaries about Moliere’s long monologues…”
I’ve drawn this quote, as I have much information, from an article on the Writer’s House on the Big City website.

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This building, an article on the Travel2Moscow website tells us, was actually signed off by Joseph Stalin, in large part because Maxim Gorky had convinced him there needed to be not only a home, but a whole neighborhood or small city of writers. Many talk about the distinctive black marble frame of the entrance (see the photo immediately below). It, indeed, is impressive, if not off-putting. And it becomes increasingly so when you think about the reality of the people, the years and the events that converged in this structure. It was built in 1937 and people began moving in precisely as the Great Purges (about which I have often had reason to write, and about which I’m sure I will write more – such is the nature of that beast) were beginning. As such, there were numerous people who were arrested here and sent packing to Siberia, barely having had the opportunity to move in. Could it be that Stalin took Gorky up on the idea of putting a bunch of prominent writers in one place in order to make it easier to spy on them and round them up? I mean, why is the entrance to this building framed in black granite? It looks like a building in permanent mourning. Was Stalin – by way of his architect Ivan Nikolaev – telling the tenants something? ‘Beware all ye, who enter these premises!’ Am I making that up? Maybe. Stalin has been known to do much weirder things. One thing is certain, the building is “within reach” of the Kremlin. Look at the first of the grouping of three photos above. You will see the yellow buildings of the Kremlin rising up there in the distance. The Kremlin is just a hop, skip and trip across the Moscow River away.
Interestingly, the building was erected around an old 17th-century structure that now stands hidden behind the grand facades. You can see that 2-story building in the final photo below.
And now let me, again, turn things over to those who know more than I. This last lovely bit is from the Travel2Moscow site:
“The building’s most famous tenant, Boris Pasternak, wrote a poem that began, ‘The house loomed large like a watchtower…’ Neighbors spread humorous rumors about it, such as the one where Pasternak kept a huge dagger on his wall and could often be seen on the building’s rooftop. Indeed, Pasternak’s apartment was located on the top floor and even had an exit onto the roof. Valentin Kataev wrote that during the war Pasternak (‘at night, without a hat, without a tie, and with shirt collar unbuttoned…’) heroically battled incendiary bombs [launched by the Germans], putting them out with sand. In fact, two of these bombs destroyed five apartments and half of a wing, penetrating five floors into the building. During the bombings Paustovsky’s apartment was damaged. Pasternak himself, unlike many writers, did not leave the building during the war, writing that ‘all the dangers frightened and intoxicated.’ It was precisely in this building that he wrote his famous novel Doctor Zhivago.”
Absolutely fascinating stuff, if you ask me. I have just one question at this point, however. Why in the world would Kataev have considered it odd that Pasternak battled incendiary bombs on the roof of his home “without a hat or tie”? What was he supposed to do, don a tux to greet the German bombs?
I must add here a few words spoken by my wife Oksana after I allowed myself to scoff at bit at Kataev. “The humor is Kataev’s,” she said. “What that means is that Kataev, like everyone else, rarely ever saw Pasternak without a hat or tie.” I.e., the only thing that could induce Pasternak out without a tie were German incendiary bombs. Whatever the case may be, my fascination with this structure and its inhabitants is only going to grow.

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Nikolai Naumov school, Tomsk

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Anybody who skips out of school a little early earns a soft spot in my heart. I did that once, I dropped out of junior college (yes! junior college!) and it was one of the best things I ever did. It’s possible that Nikolai Naumov, the writer from Tomsk, might have said the same thing. True, he didn’t drop out of the Tomsk Men’s (or Boy’s) Gymnasium for the same reasons – orneriness – that I did. He did it because he couldn’t afford to keep his education going.
Naumov, with a full education or not, became a very popular writer of regional and Siberian tales from the 1860s to the 1880s. He never actually set foot in the building that we see in these photos. But it is one of the conventions that we use to connect our disparate times and generations to say, “Naumov studied here.” The name of the place where Naumov studied was the same, and the organization was the same, and so this building at 9 Frunze Street, erected 60 years after the Gymnasium was opened in 1838, still officially represents the school attended by Naumov and many other future prominent Siberians.
Just to keep things in perspective, it wasn’t all famous writers and leading scientists that came through this school. One of its most notorious graduates was Alexander Kvyatkovsky, later to be a member of the group plotting assassinate kill Alexander II in 1879.

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In encyclopedias Nikolai Naumov (1838-1901) is described by that wondrous epithet: Russian writer. We don’t know him today, of course. His tales of life in 19th century Siberian Russia apparently have proven to be too specific, too tied to their own time to reach us. (Although you can access several of his writings through the Lib.ru internet library.) The wonderful illustrated Tomsk guidebook that I always use when I’m in that city, says this about Naumov: “Famous Siberian writer-democrat, one of the first to describe daily life as it was in the Siberian village.” This book’s entry on Naumov continues: “In the ’70s of the 19th century he was one of the most popular writers in the country. He wrote about rural Siberia at the time following the reforms [the abolishment of serfdom], about the way the poverty-stricken local populace was exploited by kulaks [roughly: rich farmers], merchants and bureaucrats.”
A brief biography on the Lib.ru site gives a concise picture of Naumov’s background and early years: “His grandfather was a deacon, his father served in Siberia and moved in the same circles as the Decembrists. He [the father] was noted for his honesty. Losing his mother early in life, Naumov grew up alone, an abandoned child. [What’s that about the fine, upstanding father? – JF] He attended the Tomsk gymnasium, but financial need saw to it that he finished only the first classes. Joining the army as  a junker, in 1860 he audited classes at St. Petersburg University and prepared to take the gymnasium graduate exams, but he became involved in student disturbances and was arrested. Later he became a commissar for peasant affairs in Siberia.”
The same source writes the following about Naumov’s style of writing: “Naumov primarily described the daily life of the Siberian peasant. His vision significantly differed from the cliched image of the downtrodden Russian peasant. [His peasant] was relatively well off and quite able to stand up for himself. Clinging wholly to the school of writers who idealized the people, Naumov saw in the Siberian peasant only the embodiment of various virtues and lofty qualities. If he occasionally described the wild drunkenness of gold seekers, it was exclusively as proof of the Russian individual’s rich and generous nature. Naumov’s drunks never exhibit unruly, insulting behavior, but rather fling money about loosely and allow anyone who would wish to rob them blind. They generously share with every man they meet, and lavishly aid their poorer comrades.”
Naumov’s collected works were published in two volumes in 1897 and in three volumes in 1939-40.

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Ivan Shmelyov plaque and home, Moscow

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This, I presume, is precisely why someone once came up with the idea of putting memorial plaques on buildings: To help keep us from slipping entirely into ignorance. I’ve lived in the neighborhood of this building at 7 Malaya Polyanka, Bldg. 7, for a decade and a half now (it’s right at the corner of Malaya Polyanka and 1st Khvostov Lane), but only recently came to realize its significance. One day as I was snooping around with my camera I, for the first time, pushed my way past the old yellow two-story building on Malaya Polyanka and took a look at the imposing red building that rises behind it. It’s one of those odd examples of the way Moscow sometimes crams large buildings into small former courtyards, creating congestion and claustrophobia when you think maybe they really shouldn’t have done that. I usually blame benighted Soviet architects for doing that – there are hundreds if not thousands of examples of this being done in the Soviet period – but this is another case entirely. This building went up before the Revolution, and it surely must have stood out at the time as a remarkable, if overbearing, addition to the neighborhood.
So I slipped back to look at what this building looked like and I was greeted by two different plaques. One is one of those generic types indicating when the building was erected (1915 by prominent architect Vladimir Shervud), and that the building was occupied in its first seven years by the writer Ivan Shmelyov (1873-1950). A second plaque devoted to Shmelyov alone hangs on the wall on the other side of the entrance to the building.
I had only vaguely heard the name Shmelyov. So cursorily, in fact, that it meant virtually nothing to me. I went back to my encyclopedias and history books and was fascinated to find that Shmelyov was a major writer of his time. In fact, I knew perfectly well a film adaptation of one of his early and most successful novellas, The Man from the Restaurant. Published in 1911, it was made into a famous film in 1927 starring Mikhail Chekhov by Yakov Protazanov. Shmelyov was a fascinating man with a rich, very Russian family history. His father was a merchant who kept shops, bathhouses and other enterprises around Moscow. The family identified with the Old Believers, a branch of the Russian Orthodox Church which did not accept reforms that were pushed through in the 17th century. Ivan grew up in a strict, religious, patriarchal home. This remained a part of his world view for the rest of his life, sometimes as he rebelled against it, sometimes as he reclaimed it. He grew up mostly in the general region of this building in the Zamoskvorechye neighborhood, where outside, on the street, he ran into a very different kind of life among the street urchins and the children of many emigrants from Central Asia who have always gathered in this area (it continues to be true today). Shmelyov talks about the “education” the street offered him, and it helped add a strain of tolerance and curiosity to his unbroken strict views of the world.

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By the time Shmelyov moved into this building he was already an established writer with close friends in high places – Anton Chekhov, Maxim Gorky, Ivan Bunin and many more. Shortly before taking up residence here a large, 8-volume collection of his works had been published. I can’t quite put a finger on how long he actually lived here. The plaques, and various internet sources, say he was here from 1915 until 1922 when he emigrated to Europe. But these same sources and others also say that, while he welcomed the Revolution at first, he soured on it quickly and left for Crimea to avoid the excesses he saw taking place before coming back through Moscow in order to emigrate. One assumes, then, that Shmelyov actually resided at this address regularly only from 1915 to, perhaps, 1918. But that’s my guess.
In any case, by emigrating, and by continuing to make his religious upbringing a large part of his work, Shmelyov was guaranteed to be shut out of the pantheon of Soviet writers. He was well-known in emigration, earning the praise of Thomas Mann and Gerhart Hauptmann for a documentary book called The Sun of the Dead (1923) about the horrors of the Revolution and Civil War coming to Crimea. Shmelyov’s son Sergei was captured and shot by the Red Army, and Ivan himself, being a reserve in the Tsarist Army, was in danger of encountering a similar fate.
Beginning in 1990 Shmelyov’s works began to be republished in Russia prolifically, either for the first time or for the first time since before the Revolution. The brilliant encyclopedia Russian Writers of the 20th Century (Russkie pisateli 20 veka: Moscow, 2000) counts around 45 major works by Shmelyov. “Shmelyov,” writes the scholar O.N. Mikhailov, “was far from the classical precision and clarity of Ivan Bunin’s descriptions; from Boris Zaitsev’s penetrating, moody lyricism; and from the semi-grotesque protuberance of Leo Tolstoy’s or Yevgeny Zamyatin’s characters. But at times Shmelyov nearly attains equality with each of these writers…”   Wolfgang Kasack, in his wonderful Dictionary of Russian Literature since 1917, writes, “Shmelyov’s style can be too lyrical and overly emphatic. Masterly is his grasp of the skaz style, interrupting the action of the plot by switching to a fictitious narrrator. Here Nikolai Leskov’s influence can be seen. Leskov’s writings, with those of Fyodor Dostoevsky, had an effect on Shmelyov.”

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Anton Chekhov statue, Moscow

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This is one of the most maligned statues in Moscow, for all of the wrong reasons to my mind. I hate to begin with this, but everybody else talks about it first of all. I could ignore that, you say, and you’d be right. And maybe I should. But I also want to have my say about it because I’ve never agreed with the complaints.
To the point: It seems to really irritate people that there used to be two public restrooms right where this statue of Anton Chekhov was unveiled in 1998 during the celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the Moscow Art Theater.  It doesn’t bother anybody that the prestigious Chistiye Prudy, or Clean Ponds, region of Moscow is built on an old dumping grounds for the reeking remains of butchered animals. And rightly so. Things change. Big deal. So there were restrooms here? I remember my beloved mentor Alma Law going off about this and I could never understand it. I remember the restrooms. They kinda stunk when you walked by. I never went down in there – didn’t quite have the nerve, even if I had the need a time or two. So, for me, it was a great thing to close those things up and put them in the slot where all those things from the past go that we are able to forget. But no! Seventeen years later people are still making snide comments about the restrooms that used to be here, are long gone, and will never again rise to stink! What is the deal? I say it because I saw a comment on the net yesterday about my post about Nemirovich-Danchenko and Stanislavsky – somebody just had to bring up the old restrooms back in the corner of one of my photos. With all the things to talk about in Russia and the world!…
For the record, this statue was sculpted by Mikhail Anikushin, who died a year before it was unveiled. There is information, repeated in Russian Wikipedia, that then-Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov is the one who decided that the monument would stand in this corner in place of – yes, the former restrooms! – and before one of the walls of the once-famous Hotel Chevalier, which sheltered many great Russian writers and personages in the 19th century. I’ll get to that some day on this blog.

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I love Anikushin’s work. It is precisely what I look for in sculptural art – it is a rendition, an interpretation. Sure he gets the general likeness, for which we are grateful. But that exaggerated lean, almost gaunt look is an interpretation, a suggestion. It makes us think about Chekhov, his life, his beliefs , his art. It is also true of the face, which I really love. There is something of the Pieta in this, isn’t there? A kind of mix between the expressions both Mary and Christ that are given by various artists working with that subject. And that suits Chekhov. This is a face that knows so much, almost too much for the individual to bear. As with any good work of sculpture, the expression changes as you move around it. Look at the two close-up shots above, taken almost, but not quite, from the same angle. I see something approaching stoicism in the first, an attempt to be strong against suffering, while in the second I see suffering beginning to take precedence. Actually, go up to the top photo and you see still another aspect – here there’s a kind of resignation and sorrow that predominates the image. All of these suit well the man who wrote “The Steppe,” “The Black Monk,” “Three Sisters,” “The Cherry Orchard” and much, much more.
I wrote in yesterday’s post about how the new monument to Nemirovich-Danchenko and Stanislavsky now marginalizes this Chekhov monument. You can see that in the last photo below. Chekhov really looks stuck in a corner now, dwarfed and diminished. Before the appearance of the new statue, one’s attention when arriving on Kamergersky Lane was drawn immediately to Chekhov. No more. He is now an afterthought. Ever since he appeared and ever since that silly restroom debate unfurled, there has been talk about moving the monument. I wouldn’t be surprised if that were to happen now. To my tastes, anyway, this is too good a work to be shunted off into the shadows.

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Nemirovich-Danchenko and Stanislavsky monument, Moscow

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Unless you’re “reading” this monument in Persian, Urdu, Arabic, Hebrew or Yiddish, the first man you see here is Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko. It appears to be a bit of an effort to up the director and playwright’s status. Everybody knows Konstantin Stanislavsky founded the Moscow Art Theater; not everybody knows that he did it with Nemirovich-Danchenko, a slightly older man who wrote a lot of workmanlike, traditional plays that were pretty much forgotten once they appeared at the end of the 19th century. Stanislavsky is the star, the “author” of “The System,” the great innovator and modernizer of theater in the 20th century, the discoverer of Anton Chekhov’s genius as a playwright. It’s pretty hard to overestimate Stanislavsky’s place in history. He kind of wears a halo. I think it’s fitting that in the photo immediately below it’s Nemirovich-Danchenko who has something like a halo hovering over his head, thanks to the latest snowfall shortly before I took these pictures. Still, in the description of the monument, the names chiseled in stone below the likenesses, the historical hierarchy is maintained. The letters proclaim simply: “To Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko.” Stanislavsky is back out in front.
There are all kinds of reasons to give oneself over to cynicism and satire with anyone as famous and mythical as the founders of the Art Theater. There is the legend of their not speaking to one another over the last couple of decades of their “collaboration.” Mikhail Bulgakov lampooned that beautifully in his Theatrical Novel, often known in British English as Black Snow. There are the stories of Stanislavsky later in his life being caught by people entering his office as he played on the floor under the table and muttered to himself as he continued to search for new keys to the acting profession. There is the reality that the books which made Stanislavsky’s reputation in the West only partly corresponded to what he really wrote in his Russian originals. My colleague Sharon Carnicke wrote a great book about that called Stanislavsky in Focus.
So, yes, there’s plenty to laugh at and to be confused by in the story of the work these two men did. But, hey, what have you done for world history lately? There may be a lot of nonsense, confusion and misinformation out there because of the Moscow Art Theater. But it has long been the theater of the world. It is ground zero for the dramatic art. It is to dramatic theater what La Scala is to opera. The place. I have seen famous, would-be famous and rank amateur actors, directors and writers from all over the world stand with seeming lockjaw before the walls of the Art Theater. Brain freeze. My God, is this really the place? Am I really here?
And for all of that it was not until the fall of 2014 that somebody in Moscow saw fit to unveil a monument to the two men who dreamed the Moscow Art Theater up and then brought it to fruition, sacrificing their friendship to do so.
According to the website of the Russky Mir Foundation, the monument was created by Alexei Morozov and unveiled Sept. 3, 2014: “Alexei Morozov worked on the monument in Italy for two years. The statuary group was cast in bronze in the city of Pietrasanta, the world capital of bronze casting. The pedestal was created in Verona using the most modern technologies in the field of multi-axis stone processing.”

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Ah yes, justice done. For a moment, anyway. I was at home the day the unveiling took place and the tongues began to wag almost instantly on the internet. Why do the two founders of the Art Theater stand with their backs turned to: 1) the theater itself (photo immediately above), 2) to Anton Chekhov (photo immediately below), who now looks terribly forlorn as if he has been shunted off into a dark corner to do penance. There was talk about the way Morozov made the pedestal lower beneath Stanislavsky so that he could make Nemirovich-Danchenko stand slightly higher than his more famous comrade. There were questions about just about everything one can question – taste, veracity, intent and timing. Within hours of the monument being unveiled it seemed to be that the chatty internet sphere had already chewed the statue up and spat it out.
Most of that is gerbil talk, of course. But I must admit that when I first came upon the statue I was underwhelmed, too. I wanted to be able to talk back to the naysayers, but I found myself circling the sculpture looking for something to hang onto and not quite finding it. It’s big, I’ll give it that. You can see that by comparing it to people walking by in these photos. But the two men – great men, let’s wipe off the sarcasm for a moment – look quite generic. I see no character in Stanislavsky – I see a certain justifiable resemblance. Nemirovich looks a little more interesting, perhaps, but then I say that and look at him again and I realize he looks like a Roman senator and that can’t be right.
From behind, at least at night, the ensemble is swallowed by the harsh glare of capitalistic, technologically-advanced Moscow. As big and important as these two men are for Russian culture, they drown in illuminated pixels and chaotic traffic when seen from behind.
I’ve written about plenty of great monuments on this blog that were ridiculed when unveiled and later recognized to be masterpieces. Who knows, maybe that will happen here, too, in time. As yet, however, it hasn’t.

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Sergei Rachmaninoff, Bridges Auditorium, Claremont, CA

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I have been working up to this post for awhile. I first learned six or eight months ago that Sergei Rachmaninoff performed a concert not only in my hometown of Claremont, CA, 27 years before my family moved there, but that he performed it in the same auditorium where I took the stage to receive my high school diploma. That was a notable day in my family’s history because my mother was furious at me. I neither cut my hair, nor did I bother to put on a proper pair of shoes – I wore sandals under my gown.
Bridges Auditorium has been a center-point of cultural activity in Claremont ever since it was built in 1931.  In fact, for decades, it was one of the best concert halls in all of Southern California. That is why someone like Rachmaninoff would come to this small college town to perform. Arthur Rubenstein, another great pianist from Russia, performed here in 1970. That, folks, puts me flat in the way of Mr. Rubinstein. I didn’t receive my high school diploma until two years after that. In other words, I was walking these streets with Rubinstein, having no knowledge of it. As fate would have it, in those days I was much more interested in the fact that Jim Morrison, later to found the Doors, actually lived in Claremont for a year when he was a boy.

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Bridges is quite an amazing place. You approach it from North College Avenue across a huge, beautifully maintained green called Marston Quad. If you stick to the sidewalks, you zig-zag your way to the building or you come at it from one of the sides, although it is also easy enough to cut across the grass, directly to your destination (but not if you’re in a long gown and your finest shoes). According to a text on the Bridges website, architect William Templeton Johnson set out for Europe to get ideas for the future concert hall. “He met the young Leopold Stokowski during his European sojourn, and the musician suggested he use Paris’s Salle Pleyel as his model for the hall’s acoustics.”
The architectural style is wonderfully clean and symmetrical. It is imposing enough, but also understated. There are details, such as the bas relief of trumpeters on the side walls (see below), that fix the design period quite attractively in the 1930s. I had as much fun photographing Bridges as I have any other structure posted on this blog. I could have kept going and going, but I had a plane to catch the next morning in the wee hours, I was fast losing sunlight and I hadn’t yet packed.
When I first found out about the Rachmaninoff Claremont concert, I wrote to Bridges Auditorium and asked if they had any hard information about it. To my utter delight, I soon received scans of the program from that night. I now knew that the concert took place on April 3, 1937, and that it began at a fashionable 8:15 p.m. For anyone who knows Russian culture and history well, this is a rather striking bit of information. 1937, of course, was one of the bloodiest years ever in Russian history. It saw the unleashing of Stalin’s Purges – infamous enough to receive capital letter billing – which, eventually, would bring some 20 million people to death in labor camps and interrogation cells over a period of about 16 years. As all of that was just gearing up, Rachmaninoff sat down one night in the sleepy city of Claremont – there were a lot more orange groves in Claremont then than people – and launched into an evening of exquisite piano music that began with Handel and would conclude with Franz Liszt.
I posted the bio page above; the actual program follows below. It’s not terribly surprising, although I find it satisfying, that of the five great composers whose names are emblazoned on the front of the auditorium, Rachmaninoff included three in his recital – Bach, Beethoven and Chopin.

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As you peruse the photos here – the sky is almost as dramatic as Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 – you can also log onto YouTube and listen to the great musician play his works himself. There apparently is no video footage of him performing, but there are wonderful audio recordings of both his Piano Concerto No. 2 and Piano Concerto No. 3. They would appear to have been recorded in the 1930s more or less at that time that he appeared in Claremont. There is also a video clip that claims to gather together most all of the extant video footage of Rachmaninoff walking, talking and sitting.
It is a real pleasure to read the commentaries to these rare recordings. I swore off reading internet commentary years ago. It seems to me the only thing a self-respecting person can do. But, lo and behold! Rachmaninoff inspires people to actually share interesting information, offer up valuable insights and exchange useful bits of considered opinion. One commenter calling him/herself Haotian Yu expressed surprise that Rachmaninoff once was considered a bad composer and is nowadays sometimes reviled as a bad pianist, and added, “Rachmaninoff has ‘arms of steel and a heart of gold’; I need nothing more. ”
Another commenter, Stephen Gallucci, spoke about the speed with which Rachmaninoff performed his Piano Concerto No. 3: “Rachmaninoff was the greatest without a doubt.  His ability to play this at this speed with such each [sic – ease?] and naturalness sets him apart from everyone, even Hoffman or Horowitz.  It is very sad that many modern pianists don’t understand or appreciate the late 19th-early 20th century approach to pianism and choose the homogenized approach.  The heart of Rachmaninoff’s approach as well as other golden age virtuosi  was spontaneity. Tempo fluctuation, varied detache, crescendo and diminuendo were free.  When this height of greatness has been reached the heart takes over completely and nothing else matters in comparison.​”

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“Alexander Pushkin,” Keanea Peninsula, Maui, HI

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Alexander Pushkin is in the eye of the beholder. That is all I can conclude from a trip my wife and I recently took to the Keanea Peninsula on the famous road to Hana in Maui, Hawaii. Oksana refused to see Pushkin either in the lava rock formation or in my pictures of it. “Where?! Where is he?!” she kept asking me as the waves came crashing over the rocks. “I don’t see him! He’s not there!” She said the same thing again when we got home and I pointed out all the fine points I had captured in a series of photos. “You’re making that all up!” she said.
I turned to my mother for support, forgetting that Mom wouldn’t know Pushkin from Presley. My mother knows a hell of a lot, much more than I ever will. It’s a truism in our family: If you don’t know something, just ask Mom. She knows everything. Almost everything, anyway. Everything except Russian literature and rock ‘n’ roll…

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But my mom – let’s leave her alone. Oksana, my wife, now, is another thing. She’s Russian. And like any Russian she can stand on one leg and recite Pushkin’s poetry until every foreigner in the room drops from exhaustion. How could she let me down? How could she not share this great discovery with me?
Maybe I’m thinking of a cross between the famous photos of his death mask and some of the famous portraits by Orest Kiprensky or Vasily Tropinin, but he’s right there, isn’t he? The sideburns, the curly hair… Okay, I’ll admit he’s got Dostoevsky’s beard. But you know what I find remarkable? The fact that Dostoevsky’s beard actually suits Pushkin really well. Why shouldn’t it if Dostoevsky admitted that all Russian literature emerged from Nikolai Gogol’s “The Overcoat” and Nikolai Gogol, as we all know, purportedly wrote his famous play The Inspector General based on an idea Pushkin tossed him… Hence…
Logic not sound enough? Well, I’ve never been a great fan of hard logic, but when I see Alexander Pushkin in a chunk of Hawaiian lava, I know what I see.

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“Mayakovsky” bust et al, Laguna Beach, CA

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“That’s not Mayakovsky!” you say. And you’re right. It’s not. But that is the Nutcracker Himself right there across from Not-Mayakovsky. And despite the fact that it was a German – E.T.A. Hoffmann to be exact – who first imagined the nutcracker as a character, where would the Nutcracker be without the Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky? And when you have been outside of Russia for nearly a month, as I have, and you see a hard chiseled face with a bit of a futuristic look in his eyes, you just might be fooled for an instant into thinking that this stoney bust I found at the Madison Square Garden Cafe in Laguna, CA, was of Vladimir Mayakovsky. I didn’t cling to that mistaken belief very long. My wife ridiculed me hard enough and quick enough to take care of that. But even by the time I left the cafe after a fabulous plate of Eggs Benedict I still thought this bust could easily be mistaken for some other Soviet Realist hero, say, one of the characters out of Alexander Fadeyev’s famous novel The Young Guard. If you want to test my hypothesis you can compare this bust to some of the sculptures of Fadeyev and his characters, about whom I wrote in this space a couple of months ago.

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But in Laguna, CA, you don’t have to settle for fake Mayakovskys or oversized Nutcrackers if your Russian culture fix is getting thin. Later on the same day that I photographed “Mayakovsky” I ran across something more substantial as my wife and I passed by the Fingerhut Gallery on Coast Highway. I looked up through a window into the second floor where I saw some beautiful paintings by the Moscow painter Sergei Smirnov (1953-2006). I’ll admit I did not know Smirnov or his paintings, but what we discovered in Laguna makes me wish I had. He had a beautiful, subtle stroke that allowed him to paint women’s portraits with a touch of the Russian icon in them as well as a whiff of Eastern mystery. I went up to the second floor to look at the paintings you see here as well as several others, and I learned that Smirnov’s last two paintings were created on commission from Mr. Fingerhut himself, who was a big fan and patron. As I was told, Smirnov always left a newly-finished painting to dry two days  before he would go back and put on the final touches. The night he completed his last two paintings in 2006, he signed them and set them aside to finish in two days. The next day he reportedly enjoyed a big meal with his family and lay down to sleep happily. He never awoke, and those two paintings he made for Fingerhut were his last. If anyone is interested, there are numerous signed and numbered prints of Smirnov’s works still on sale at the Fingerhut Gallery, as well as a rare sculpture that has a price tag of $15,000. The top price that a Smirnov painting grabbed at the Fingerhut Gallery, I am told, was around $65,000.
This was an interesting enough discovery for me, but there was still another surprise waiting for me on the second floor of that gallery – a trio of signed, colored Marc Chagall illustrations on biblical themes. In all, today wasn’t a bad day for Russian culture in my life. From a fake Mayakovsky to three real Chagalls, all just a few steps from each other on California’s Pacific Coast Highway.
This all reminds me of a phrase one of my favorite aunts once uttered as we walked through the verdant Connecticut woods one summer day about two decades ago. Flowers were blooming and underbrush was thick beneath spreading canopies of trees laden with leaves. My Aunt Jen, who is now 103 I might add, looked down at the ground and happened to find a flower that she didn’t expect at that time of year and she uttered a phrase I have quoted whenever possible ever since: “That nature,” Aunt Jen exclaimed, “it just pops up everywhere!” Doesn’t it? It’s just like Russian culture in my life.

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