Imagist Bookstore, Moscow

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Now here’s a case of something I had completely forgotten. I knew it once; I remember being flabbergasted when I first found out about it. But then it slipped my mind. As my friend the choreographer and movement guru Gennady Abramov jokes about the delights of growing older and losing memory: “Isn’t it wonderful? Every day is full of news!”
Well, that applies to me in regards to this small little monument to Russian literary history on Bolshaya Nikitskaya Street. The address for sticklers is 15, Bldg. 1. I now remember coming upon it some 25 or 26 years ago when I first arrived in Moscow, soaked wet behind the ears, to begin my research on the playwright Nikolai Erdman. I knew well that Erdman had begun his life in literature as a poet and that he had published a handful of his poems in various publications put out by the Imagists, a group of writers who congregated around the famous poet Sergei Yesenin. I’d never seen any of the actual publications, but that is one of the things I expected to be able to do soon at the Lenin Library, where I had an application put in for a reader’s card. But this day I was merely out walking around Moscow, getting a feel for the city I expected to be living in for just the next 10 months. And then it happened. I looked up at a little plaque on a building as I approached the Moscow Conservatory from the north, and I was thunderstruck. The plaque stated that Sergei Yesenin had worked right here in a small bookshop that sold, among other things, the books and magazines published by the Imagists. Holy Moses. A real-live, brick and mortar place to put Erdman and his colleagues in a real context. I walked back and forth and looked in the window and walked inside and just looked around at the air there. It was a marvelous discovery.
And then life set in and I forgot. I didn’t stay in Moscow 10 months, I stayed 26 years and counting. You’d be amazed at all I’ve forgotten in that period! That is, until I was recently walking along Bolshaya Nikitskaya towards the Mayakovsky Theater from the south and – boom! – there it was. Again. That reminder of Yesenin and Erdman and Rostislav Ivlev and Shershenevich and Anatoly Mariengof… the Imagists. As Gena Abramov promised me, I experienced the thrill of discovery all over again!
The Imagists, as the name implies, refers to a short-lived group of Russian poets from about 1918 to 1922 who ostensibly played around with images in their poetry. They put out a handful of manifestos, like everybody else did, proclaiming the greatness of their task. It was all very much in the spirit of the day. They may have put out one more issue of their eclectic periodical Inn for Travelers in the Sublime in 1923, but, still, by that time they were done for. In the historical record the Imagists are routinely referred to as a group of semi-harmless hooligans, not nearly worthy of the respect and attention that is offered to, say, the Futurists or the Acmeists. It may be a fair assessment, although the Imagists were of no small interest. Every single individual connected with them was quite a personality. These days the memoirs written by Ivlev and Mariengof are oft-quoted and Mariengof has even become something of a cult figure.

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The fact of the matter is that, in their time, the Imagists – purportedly – were more famous for their hijinks than their high culture. In one famous, frequently-mentioned, incident, they all went out late at night when everybody else was sleeping and they “vandalized” several street signs around what we now know as Strastnoi Boulevard. They blacked or whitened out the name of various streets, replacing them with their own names. Thus, as the legend goes, Muscovites awoke in the morning to be greeted by the unfamiliar names of Yesenin Street, Erdman Lane and Mariengof Road. If I remember correctly, the police even got into the act at some point.
Still, I wonder if the Imagists have been given short shrift. Even to this day one of the most important studies of the Imagists – Russian Imagism 1919-1924 – remains a work written by the great scholar Vladimir Markov. It’s very nice that he wrote a book about the Imagists, but Markov was a specialist on the Futurists. He couldn’t have been a little biased there, could he? I’m just asking.
I’ve always thought (in those periods when I have not been visited by forgetfulness) that this little bookstore says something important about the Imagists. I mean, if you’re going to actually rent a space, find the money to pay the rent, get people to work for you (or, as Yesenin apparently did, actually spend hours out of your day working at the store yourself), doesn’t this imply a seriousness of intent that goes beyond that which would be expected of some “hooligans”? Again, I’m just saying. One thing I do know is that the historical record is clumsy and distorted. It can’t be otherwise. It’s written by human beings.
With that thought in mind, allow me to insert the ending of a poem, “Let Time Strike the Hours,” that Erdman wrote in 1921, and which was first published in 1987 in the popular Soviet magazine Ogonyok (rather like the old Life magazine in the U.S.) by poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko:

But I know weighty glory shall sprinkle
Even my cold lips with dust.
And my head will exchange this burnished steel helmet of hair
For one made of silver.
But I shall not stagger beneath it, I shall not tremble,
I will accept the joyless gift as my due,
And a rainbow shall unfurl before a frozen road
Into the heavens with a triumphal arc.

Children! Children!
Study the polar silence of the night…

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Mosselprom Building, Moscow

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Definitely one of the coolest buildings in Moscow – the Mosselprom building. It hasn’t looked as pretty as this very often over the decades. It was something like this – though not exactly – when the great avant-garde artists Alexander Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova teamed up with the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky to decorate it in the mid-1920s. That was at the height of the NEP period – the New Economic Policy, during which private commerce was again briefly made legal in the young Soviet Union. By 1937, Mosselprom, an organization representing manufacturers and sellers of food, drink and small consumer items, was gone. The decorations and advertisements created by Rodchenko, Stepanova and Mayakovsky lasted a few years more but eventually were removed. From the early 1940s until the late 1990s the building remained a fairly dowdy one, not anything that really grabbed your attention. But in 1997 a decision was made to restore the building to its former, short-lived glory. Thus, on what I’m guessing is the eastern or northeastern-facing wall, we can again see Mayakovsky’s famous slogan, “Nowhere if not at Mosselprom!” You can see that in the second photo above, the small white letters against the narrow dark background ending in a huge red exclamation point.
I don’t know why Mayakovsky’s slogan was so famous. But it was. You almost always meet the word “famous” before the word “slogan” in descriptions of it. Maybe it was because this was a pleasant throwback to former commercial frivolity. Maybe because these were among the first-ever huge advertisements on a building – forerunners to our billboards – so that attracted attention. There is a jaunty rhythm to Mayakovsky’s phrase – nigde, krome kak v Mossel’prome – but I don’t find it anything out of the ordinary. Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe I’m too jaded by the mad men of Madison Avenue. Mayakovsky himself was of a very high opinion of his phrase. “Despite the poetic razzes, I consider [the slogan] to be poetry of the very highest qualification.” So, take that, naysayers, myself included.
There may be another reason why it became so famous – Mayakovsky and Rodchenko teamed up to create dozens of advertisements and slogans for Mosselprom in the  second half of the 1920s. You can see a bunch of their advertising posters on Google. One that surely amused Mayakovsky as he wrote it was, “Better pacifiers have never been. I’ll suck them until I’m an old man.” Pardon, as the French say, but the Russian word for “pacifier” is quite simply “nipples.” But the point is that all of these ads were popular and ubiquitous at the time. Their popularity would have rubbed off on the paintings and slogans on the wall of the building.
(By the way, as a non-sequitur, may I ask all those dread bores who complain about Bob Dylan occasionally allowing his music to be used for advertisements to think upon the implications of this post? Thank you.)

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The Mosselprom building bears the address of 2/10 Kalashny Lane. It is located right around the corner from the Russian Academy of Theater Arts on Maly Kislovsky Lane (RATI, formerly GITIS, actually occupies rooms in the Mosselprom building now too), and it is located next to the building on Maly Kislovsky that formerly housed the mighty Iskusstvo, or Art, publishing house. After the building’s glory years, from 1964 until his death in 1969, the great Russian linguist and literary scholar Viktor Vinogradov lived here with his library of 20,000 books. I used his books – the ones he wrote – when studying Russian at an advanced stage.
The building in its current state is rather closer to what Rodchenko intended when he created his designs in the 1920s. He had wanted his artwork to be painted on plaster covering the base construction material of bricks. However, probably in an economizing move, the original builders skipped the plaster and had the words and colors painted directly onto the bricks. The advertisements were painted on plywood boards that were hung on the walls. Today all the painting is done directly on the plaster. And, as Science and Life magazine tells us, the paints now used are a special acrylic that can withstand temperatures as low as -50 C (-58 F).
The basic building was erected in 1913 by architect Nikolai Strukov. It was expanded in 1925 especially for Mosselprom by Artur Loleit. Actually, the building has a checkered history. Parts of it fell down when it was first built and it was restructured several times. One can find all kinds of architects’ names involved in the various stages of the work. But it looks to me like Strukov answers for the basic building, while Loleit answers for what it looked like when it became famous in 1925.

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Vsevolod Yakut home, Moscow

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I’m afraid there isn’t much that can be done photographically with this blandly imposing Soviet-style apartment house at 6-8 Smolensky Boulevard in Moscow unless your name is Igor Tabakov or Vladimir Filonov – the two great Moscow Times photographers I have had the honor to work with for nearly 25 years. But there are plenty of stories I can attach to it. Vsevolod Yakut (1912-1991) lived here for the last years, if not decades, of his life. I don’t know when he moved in, but I know he lived here when he died, and I visited him a time or two in the late ’80s/early ’90s when he clearly had been living here for some time with his wife. Their apartment was accessed by way of the No. 2 entrance, pictured immediately below, and I recall that they lived somewhere around the 6th to 8th floor.
Yakut, whose real name was Abramovich and whose stage name was taken from the Siberian region from which he had come, was one of the greatest and most popular actors of his time. His loudest claim to fame – although he had many – was the longtime performance of Alexander Pushkin in Andrei Globa’s verse play Pushkin. The play opened at the Yermolova Theater in 1949 and ran for 20 years. Yakut played the role 840 times. Other plays and roles that sustained his fame included Nazim Hikmet’s The Eccentric (1956), Hikmet’s Two Stubborn Men (1959), Nikolai Pogodin’s My Friend (1961), and Eduardo de Filippo’s Saturday, Sunday, Monday (1962). All of that was way before my time in Moscow, although my wife, who was born just one year before Saturday, Sunday, Monday opened, saw it when she was a teenager. That’s how long that show ran. We still have posters and programs from Yakut’s shows in our family archive. I came to know him ever so briefly because my wife’s sister Marina married Maxim Yakut, one of Vsevolod’s sons. Thus it happens that my nephew Ivan is Vsevolod Yakut’s grandson. And the stories begin with Vanya – now an accomplished bassoonist living in Spain – in part because his is maybe the best of them all. A year or two before I came into the picture Vanya, who was, perhaps, 6 or 7 at this point, was riding the elevator with his famous grandfather in the old Actors House on Pushkin Square. There were two elevators side-by-side, very small, and they could almost comfortably fit four people. On this evening Vanya squeezed in as the fifth. And some friendly person looked down and asked the young boy, “So, are you going to be an actor like your grandfather here?” Vanya, who had played a child’s role for a year or two in a production at the Maly Theater thanks to connections his aunt, my future wife Oksana, provided, looked up with pride and replied, “I already was!”
The strangest and most lasting impression I have of Yakut came from a brief meeting that occurred probably in 1990. It followed a holiday evening at Oksana’s parents’ apartment – Yakut would occasionally come over for New Year’s or a birthday. Anyway, he took an interest in Oksana, whose acting career was just getting underway, and he invited us to see him perform. The show was Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser. It was a huge hit, with Yakut playing an actor performing Lear in King Lear and another highly popular actor Zinovy Gerdt playing his set-upon dresser and personal assistant. Oksana and I sat third row center in the Yermolova Theater, where Yakut had been a company member since 1938 (having been a member of the Yermolova Studio from 1931 to 1934). We were absolutely enthralled. The Yakut-Gerdt team was a stunning one. We later learned that some of the sparks that flew between them on stage were generated by a healthy rivalry in life – but that’s what theater wants, the real thing. Anyway, we were slayed by Yakut’s enormous performance. He was monumental in every way. He breathed as one would expect King Lear to breathe. He towered over everything on the stage as one playing Lear should do. We sat there in the third row, staring up in awe at this giant of an actor playing a man of mammoth proportions. And after the show, following Yakut’s orders, we dutifully found our way backstage to his dressing room to pay our respects. We came to a stop before his door where the name “Vsevolod Yakut” was engraved in a modest metal plaque. For a moment we stood not quite knowing what to do. Was it too early to knock? Had we come too late? Oksana, I think, finally stepped forth and rapped on the door with her knuckles. We heard a booming voice from inside say, “Just a moment!” and we waited a moment more. Both of us – rather tall individuals – stood almost at attention and both of us were looking up at the top part portion of the door. That is more or less where we expected our eyes to meet those of Yakut when he finally would greet us. At that moment the door flung open and both Oksana and I found ourselves looking through blank air at the ceiling of the actor’s dressing room. We both slowly corrected our aim, dropping it a significant distance until we saw Yakut’s tired, but smiling face somewhere down around the level of our shoulders. We both were shocked and we have often talked about this instance since. What the magic of the stage can do! Even though we had spent numerous hours in the company of Yakut, even though we knew him quite well, the power of his presence on stage had completely blown our memories out. In those two hours of performing, Yakut became a giant. And we fully expected him to be a giant even after the show had ended. Actually, he remained so for us both. I have always thought of Yakut as a giant after having seen him perform. I don’t care that he was actually a small man in real life. Real life has nothing on the power that actor had over spectators.

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Yakut was so popular he never had to pay for a taxi ride home after shows. He would walk out from the stage door of the Yermolova onto Tverskaya Street – Moscow’s main drag a stone’s throw from Red Square and the Kremlin – and there taxis would be waiting. He could always step into one and be sure the driver would not accept payment for the honor of taking the great man home. It hadn’t always been that way. At our family gatherings, Yakut would tell of years, or at least months, of sleeping under bridges and underpasses to keep dry when he had no work and no place to go. In his early years he acted as a clown in an itinerant circus in Irkutsk. He made his way to Moscow – when he spent time sleeping under the sky when weather permitted – and finally gained admission to the institute and, shortly thereafter, began acting.
On March 3, 1991, the Yermolova had scheduled the final pre-premiere dress rehearsal of Albert Camus’ Caligula, directed by the young Andrei Zhitinkin.  Oksana and I asked Yakut if we could come, but he said it would be better to wait. The show hadn’t gelled yet, he wanted us to see it when it was ready. The next day we received a call – Yakut had performed in the dress rehearsal but had fallen dead before leaving his beloved theater. Thus it was that the last time Oksana and I saw Vsevolod Yakut was in his coffin. The public farewell took place at the old Art Workers’ House on Kuznetsky Most. A religious ceremony was held at the so-called “actors church” at the Church of the Resurrection on Yeliseyevskaya Street. I remember streams of elderly women, their tear-stained faces covered under kerchiefs, standing in line to kiss Yakut’s forehead one last time. He was buried in a tiny plot next to a tree in the Vagankovskoe Cemetery, a burial place that was long ago closed to new “arrivals” because every inch was full. But they found a tiny space big enough to squeeze in Yakut. That evening we attended the family memorial dinner – right here in Yakut’s apartment on Moscow’s so-called Ring Road. This was where Oksana and I first met the composer Alexander Bakshi and his wife Lyudmila – they had worked on Caligula. Also there that evening was the relatively young Valery Fokin. He was the artistic director of the Yermolova, which had recently undergone a mutiny, with half the theater – mostly the older actors – breaking away from Fokin and his “radical” ideas. Yakut was one of the few of the old guard who strongly backed Fokin and who gave Fokin gravitas by his support.
There is no memorial plaque stating that Vsevolod Yakut once lived here. Aside from a handful of posters in the foyer at the Yermolova Theater, there are virtually no other reminders in Moscow now of Yakut. He will always be a giant in my mind.



Smoktunovsky sighting, Moscow Art Theater, Moscow

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These photos of the Moscow Art Theater were taken either in Dec. 2013 (the first and last) or Jan. 2015 (all others). A lot of snow has been shoveled since the small event took place that I’m actually writing about. That would have been, I am guessing, in the late spring or early summer of 1993. It could have been a year later, because the great actor Innokenty Smoktunovsky did not die until August 1994. But I don’t think it was that late. I’m quite sure that it was not the summer of 1992 or before, because Smoktun’s great last performance as Johann Sebastian Bach didn’t open until Dec. 1992, and I’m pretty sure I had seen that by the time about which I’m fixing to tell a short tale.
I didn’t see Smoktunovsky perform all that often – just twice, in fact. I saw him in a pretty dusty production of Uncle Vanya (all you Chekhov-porn addicts out there can now cut loose – I’ve mentioned Chekhov and the Art Theater in a single entry), and I saw that fabulous production of Paul Barz’s The Possible Meeting, imagining a tete-a-tete between Handel and Bach. It is certainly safe to say that Smoktunovsky was the most revered and cherished Russian actor of the second half of the 20th century. He’d have some tough competition if we were to extend that “title” to the entire 20th century. But who cares? I mean, when we’re talking about greatness on this level – or, even if we’re just talking about popularity on this level – all methods of comparison begin to look silly and warped. The fact is that, beginning with his legendary performance of Prince Myshkin in Georgy Tovstonogov’s production of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot in 1957, Smoktunovsky simply eclipsed all other actors of his time. His performance of Hamlet in Grigory Kozintsev’s film of Hamlet was another seal of greatness. That’s taking nothing whatsoever away from his contemporaries. In fact, I’ll tell you this: in that fabulous production of The Possible Meeting, I’ve always felt that the greatest of the two performances in that duel was turned in by Oleg Yefremov as Handel. Yefremov had the wisdom, the nerve and the confidence to underplay his Handel and allow him to be a straight man to Smoktunovsky’s outrageous Bach. That meant that Smoktun got all the laughs, all the sighs, all the applause – all earned – while Yefremov remained content to serve his partner, believing in his heart all the while, of course, that he was no second fiddle. That might have been one of the most courageous performances I have seen. My hat’s off to Yefremov, also one of the greats. But I’m here to talk about Smoktunovsky at the moment.

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You see, one summer day let’s call it, I happened to be walking along Kamergersky Lane, on which the Moscow Art Theater stands. I was probably there just killing time. In those years I lived in the Moscow suburb of Lyubertsy and if I had business in town during the day and was to see a show in the evening, I couldn’t go home – it was much too long of a trip. So I would just wander the city, taking in the sounds and sights. That surely is why I was on Kamergersky Lane that day when I looked up and saw Innokenty Smoktunovsky walking in my direction from Bolshaya Dmitrovka Street. I was coming at the theater from Tverskaya Street. Kamergersky wasn’t a popular foot district filled with cafes at that time, it was just a fairly nondescript little street. All the more did Smoktunovsky stand out. He was a strange man in some ways – although I want to take that back now that I’ve written it. Let me explain: By strange I mean he was unusual. He did not live like others, did not act like others, did not, surely, see the world like others. This particular day he was clearly in a kind of dream land of his own making. I stopped and watched him as he dreamily approached the theater he had worked in for approximately 20 years. He looked – how shall I put this? – extremely content with himself. You could actually see this in his expression, his gait – he looked like a man who was not only at peace with himself, but probably loved himself quite deeply. Why not, with all that talent? And so I was transfixed as I watched Smoktunovsky approach and pass me. My wonderment increased when I saw him approach one of the posters in the windows on the theater’s front wall. He stood before a photograph of himself in the role of Uncle Vanya, I think it was, and admired it fully. He smiled and rocked gently back and forth on his feet contentedly. Having extracted as much pleasure from that photograph as he could, he moved on to the next, before which he stopped again to admire his own image at length. After Smoktunovsky had admired all his photos on the theater’s front wall, he moved across the little square in front of the box office to another series of posters near the stage door entrance. There, again, he walked up to a larger-than-life picture of himself and leaned back to get a good look at it. Smiling all the time and standing before a larger image of his own self, he basked in the affection he had for that actor in the photo. Finally, having admired all the photos there were to admire of himself, he contentedly, and with a light gait, disappeared inside the stage door entrance.
It had been an extraordinary five-to-eight minute public performance of self-love. And I hardly noticed a smidgen of narcissism in it! It was not that kind of self-love. He wasn’t gloating, he wasn’t bragging. He wasn’t calling attention to himself. I think he really thought he was pretty anonymous there in his little dream world. He just couldn’t help but admire himself. There are lots of stories – quite legitimate – about how Smoktunovsky could be quite abusive of his partners and directors. Read some of his comments about Kozintsev someday. They don’t show Smoktunovsky in the best light. He can sound petty and mean. But that is not the Smoktunovsky I saw that day on Kamergersky Lane. This man was a man at ease with the world and with himself. He was a man in the throes of generous self-love. And if anybody is thinking at this point that I am being snide or facetious – shame on you! You’ve missed my whole point. It was one of my most vivid and cherished memories in the 25+ years I have spent observing Russian theater from the outside and in. I’ve never forgotten those eight minutes when I witnessed greatness come upon the image of greatness.

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Yelena Gremina/Mikhail Durnenkov rooms, Oxford, UK

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I took these photos on November 7, 2014, more or less thinking I would put them away for 20 years and come back to them as if they were relics – assuming I’m still alive in 20 years. But then I realized that today is the ideal day to pull these photos out, still green, as yet unencumbered by the lovely lichen of legend, but quite timely. You see, Yelena Gremina, a playwright and one of the co-founders of Teatr.doc, and Mikhail Durnenkov, a playwright and head of Teatr.doc’s Lyubimovka new play festival, stayed here in these rooms at Wolfson College, Oxford University for three November nights in 2014. And today, February 14, 2015, Gremina and Durnenkov will be among the most prominent people welcoming guests to the opening of Teatr.doc’s new home in Moscow on Spartakovskaya Street 3.
It so happens that I was with Gremina and Durnenkov (as were Mikhail Kaluzhsky, Alexandra Polivanova, Ukrainian playwright Natalya Vorozhbyt and several other talented and fascinating people) when they – well, we – appeared at a conference entitled “Back to the U.S.S.R.? Drama and Theatre in Putin’s Russia.” It was hosted by Julie Curtis, Noah Birksted-Breen, Sasha Dugdale and Philip Bullock, all of whom have made significant contributions to the making or study of contemporary Russian theater.
As anyone who reads the posts on this space probably knows, I ran around Oxford in the short few days I was there photographing as many places connected with Russian culture as I could. It was as I came back from photographing the hotel in which Anna Akhmatova once stayed that I realized I had an opportunity to get one step ahead of history. Just as I was fascinated to know where Akhmatova had rested her weary head and feet after receiving her honorary doctorate in 1965, I assumed that those who follow me would one day be intrigued to know where Gremina and Durnenkov were quartered during their stay at Oxford. It was easy enough to record that information. I merely followed Misha Durnenkov back to his room one day under the pretext of small talk. We photographers have to do that sometimes – prevaricate in order to get what we crave so badly. After I saw Misha back to his room and ascertained that he was occupying room D, I asked which room Gremina was staying in. “The one next to me,” Misha answered, somewhat suspiciously. “That one there. Room C.” As the quizzical look still lingered on his face, I asked if I could photograph him in front of his door. Before he could say “yes,” I snapped the picture so as to capture for all times that slightly baffled look of his. Like, “Okay, but what the hell are you doing?”

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Wolfson College is a modern building ensconced among the old and very old buildings that make up the town of Oxford and the university named after it. It is quite attractive in part because of the extraordinary English talent for making greens and gardens. I don’t know that the architects can take much credit for that, but the gardeners certainly can. The inner quad is a lovely, rolling green with a few strategically placed trees. It stands at the very end of Linton Road near the Cherwell Boathouse on the River Cherwell. On the outside a kind of a lagoon wends off the river up close to the building, as you can see in the final image below. For those who require more information to fill out the future legend of Durnenkov and Gremina at Oxford, I can tell you that on the evening of Nov. 8 there was a fireworks display celebrating Bonfire Night (you can Google it, it’s interesting) and Misha and Lena both viewed the show from their rooms, the windows of which are on the third floor just to the right of the L-bend in the last photo below. Misha told me the next day on our 2-hour bus ride to the airport that the view was quite impressive. For you sticklers out there, I think I can even quote Misha directly. I believe he said, “The view of the fireworks was great.”
To my knowledge the only fireworks connected with the re-opening of Teatr.doc tonight will be theatrical. I’m told there are something like 16 different scenes being rehearsed by various actors and directors. Since this will only happen in about 2 hours I only know specifically about one as yet – a short skit written by Rodion Beletsky, directed by Anastasia Patlay, and starring Alexei Maslodudov and my wife Oksana Mysina who will play a post-death Joseph Stalin encountering a petty bureaucrat whose job it was to close down Teatr.doc. You see, Teatr.doc has been forced to reopen in a new space because Moscow’s authorities did their damndest to shut it down in the final months of 2014. This was one of the primary topics of discussion at the Oxford conference – what would happen to Doc? Well, now we know. It is alive and well and it reopens tonight. It’s about time for me to put on my tux and tails, grab my camera and head out for another historic event involving the always surprising people of Teatr.doc.

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Nikolai Erdman apartment, Moscow

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I don’t have the good collection of photos I’d like to have for this post. I took these shots several years ago when I was only vaguely thinking of doing a blog like this some day. As such, I wasn’t thinking about details, angles, various perspectives. I just took a close shot, a long shot and one that grabbed the address. It wasn’t much more than a couple of mugshots of one of the many homes that sheltered iconic playwright and screenwriter Nikolai Erdman in Moscow at various times. It’s one of the things on my long to-do list to get back out one day and reshoot all of Erdman’s addresses. I’ll do it, I’ll do it. I will do it someday.
But today I am going with the pathetic few I have for 15 Chistoprudny Boulevard, a place where Erdman lived a few years in the second half of the 1940s after returning from exile. There’s a reason I’m putting these photos up before I really want to – and it’s because this week a statue of Joseph Stalin was unveiled in Crimea. You may have heard about it. It’s not just Stalin; Churchill and Roosevelt are there with him. But let’s be honest. The very first public monument unveiled in Crimea precisely one year after Russia grabbed that peninsula from Ukraine and set a nasty, deadly war in motion includes Joseph Stalin. Does anybody have any doubts about the forces, the influences and the affinities at work here? I have no doubts and it infuriates me.
Thus the Erdman post today. Nikolai Erdman – I and the world have said this so many times it has become a cliche – was “lucky.” He was not shot in a basement. He was not starved or frozen to death in a Siberian labor camp. He was not lined up in front of a firing squad and dumped in a pit like nearly 20,000,000 of his countrymen. Hell! Erdman never even did time in the camps. He spent a few days in prison in the Lubyanka where he was interrogated and “processed,” but was then sentenced to three years in exile – a historical blip that saved his life. This happened in 1933 and when his period of exile ended in 1936 he was not given permission to return to Moscow. He actually didn’t receive official permission to live in Moscow until 1948. The point here is that when Stalin’s meatgrinding Purges cranked up in 1937 – Erdman was nowhere to be found. He was hanging out, utterly bored to tears, in places like Kalinin or Tver, sometimes sneaking back into Moscow for days or weeks on end to spend time with friends.
In my book Silence’s Roar: The Life and Drama of Nikolai Erdman I ran a count of the ways that Erdman and Stalin crossed paths during their lives. In one of his early satirical works Erdman poked fun at a government official. But it was pointed out to him that this guy was too high-ranked. It might cause problems. As a safety measure Erdman chose as his target a low-ranking figure nobody really knew or took seriously – Joseph Stalin. About a decade later Stalin would get involved in the rehearsals of Erdman’s greatest work, The Suicide, at the Moscow Art Theater. After the play had been banned officially several times, Stalin stepped in and gave permission to Stanislavsky to continue rehearsals, even though he, Stalin, “was not of a high opinion” of the play. After Erdman was arrested and exiled, his first official address in the Siberian town of Yeniseisk was – Stalin Street. In fact, many believe that the reason Erdman was arrested in the first place was that the Moscow Art Theater actor Vasily Kachalov read several barbed fables at a party in the Kremlin hosted by Stalin. The latter didn’t think the fables as funny as the former did, and he took steps to get rid of their authors – both Erdman and his co-author Vladimir Mass were arrested the same night in the Black Sea resort town of Gagry on Oct. 10, 1933. No one knows what the offending fable really was, but it might have been “Lullaby,” which ended: “All the people in the world / Sleep in millions of different beds… / But only Comrade Stalin / Never sleeps in the Kremlin.” Stalin was notoriously touchy about his work and sleep habits – he definitely didn’t like writers making fun of them. Numerous other clear and vague incidents brought Erdman and Stalin into each other’s orbit throughout the years – not the least of which was when Stalin deigned to award Erdman the Stalin Prize (second class) for his script for the film Courageous People in the early 1950s. But the fact of the matter is this: Erdman’s first two major plays, written in the 1920s, put him in the first rank of Soviet playwrights. Few could match his power of language and his command of humor. In one of those iconic stories that gets retold all the time, Vladimir Mayakovsky once said to Erdman, “Kolya, teach me how to write plays!” After Stalin’s arrest order, however, and the exile that followed, Erdman never again wrote anything of substance for the dramatic theater. Russian drama and theater lost one of its greatest figures. He wrote many excellent – and, because it’s the lot of the screenwriter, mostly anonymous – filmscripts over the last 40 years of his life, but nary an original dramatic play.


Erdman lived in a basement apartment at 15 Chistoprudny Boulevard for a short time – maybe a year or two. He occupied the room just to the right of the building entrance, the one with the window disappearing underground. In fact, it was right here, beneath that window, that Erdman, in tandem with his friend Mikhail Volpin, wrote one of his most enduring works – the Russian adaptation to Johann Strauss’ Der Fledermaus. It was a hilarious text that did not shy from making plenty of barbed commentary. Erdman particularly gave himself free reign when taking on the scenes of von Eisenstein being sentenced to eight days in prison, with all the ensuing comedy involving the prison warden Frank. Certainly the average operetta fan just saw these scenes as well-honed farce. But anyone who knew Erdman’s past knew there was blood dripping on the page along with the ink.
The very first time I saw this building on Chistoprudny Boulevard I was with Erdman’s former wife, Natalya Chidson, the second of three. She was with him at the time Erdman lived here. She told how Volpin would come over late in the evening and the two writers would smoke the room blue and drink cognac, talking about whatever topic arose that day, while weaving in thoughts about their work on the script. Around midnight or one a.m. Volpin would put on his coat and go on his way. Chidson would retire to bed and Erdman would sit at his desk and write until the first light of dawn. It is pretty much accepted that in the Erdman-Volpin version of the Der Fledermaus, the dramatic dialogues are writtten by Erdman, while the song lyrics are written by Volpin.
Over the years Volpin and Erdman worked together frequently. They co-wrote the script for the famous comedy Volga-Volga (1938), one of Stalin’s favorite movies. Reliable legend has it that Stalin, in the middle of the night, would often demand that his own personal film projectioneer be called in to set up Volga-Volga for still another showing.
It shouldn’t be surprising that Der Fledermaus is not taken particularly seriously in the history of Soviet theater. It’s just a fun and frothy operetta, after all. Who cares, really? But it surely is one of the longest-running shows in the Russian canon. It opened in the summer of 1947. It was closed for a short time, I’ve now forgotten when – either in the early 1950s or the early 1960s – but was soon revived again and it entered an unbroken run, involving numerous casts over the decades, until around 2013 or 2014. I have a picture of myself standing in front of the Moscow Operetta Theater’s poster for the show on Sept. 5, 2012. The implication would be that it ran at least through the end of that 2012-2013 season. I saw the show at least twice, maybe three times in the 1980s and 1990s. Even then, 40 and 50 years after it had first appeared, audiences were beside themselves with laughter. I was stunned, I must say. I expected to be seeing some dusty, boring old show, and it was anything but. Erdman’s text was still cracking people up half a century after it was written. Bursts of laughter raced around the hall like strings of firecrackers going off in synch.
Erdman wrote nothing more for theater or film for the next two years. So I’m guessing that Der Fledermaus was the only thing of importance that he wrote while living in this basement apartment.
But in a week when there are lots of people talking about Stalin and that damn monument going up in Crimea, I am compelled to remember Nikolai Erdman and the millions upon millions of others whose lives were damaged, destroyed or ended, by Comrade Stalin and his evil madness.




Mikhail Nesterov plaque, Moscow

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Mikhail Nesterov (1862-1942) seems to have belonged to two different eras entirely. He was a major painter before the 19th century had run out. His paintings were being acquired by the great collector Pavel Tretyakov (whose collection would become the Tretyakov Gallery) as early as the 1880s. And yet he lived until the early 1940s, well into the Soviet period. (He even won a Stalin Prize a year before he died, while two years before that, in 1938, he was arrested and held for two weeks before being released, while his son-in-law was shot and his daughter was sent to the labor camps.) If you love Russian mysticism and the Russian fairy-tale style (not only in fairy tales, but in mainstream culture as well), Nesterov is for you. I am a huge fan. I am fortunate to have an extraordinary collection of original Nesterovs just a few blocks from where I live. He provided the paintings and decorative art for the Marfo-Mariinskaya Convent whose address these days is 34 Bolshaya Ordynka Street. I stop by and admire his work there whenever I happen to be walking by, and at some point I’ll get around to making a post out of what I have seen. If you have never encountered Nesterov, you can get a crash course thanks to Google, which has collected a lot of his stuff in one place (with some other artists thrown in for no reason). Some might see similarities to the work of the pre-Raphaelites, especially Dante Gabriel Rossetti. They share a certain reverence for the world, a religiousness that might have pagan undertones, and a love of rich, deep colors. As a rule, before the Revolution Nesterov painted genre scenes, often with religious implications. After the Revolution he tended to paint more portraits, although they were as full of spirituality as anything he had painted before.
Although Nesterov was born in the far-flung city of Ufa, just west of the Southern Urals, he lived much of his adult life in Moscow. He traveled a lot, including Kiev and European capitals, but, still, Moscow was his primary home. He lived in the building pictured here – 43 Sivtsev-Vrazhek Lane – from 1920 until his death in 1942.

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Sivtsev-Vrazhek, on which Nesterov’s former home stands, is surely one of Moscow’s most culturally rich streets. It is connected with dozens and dozens of writers, artists, novels and such, from Leo Tolstoy to Mikhail Bulgakov, from The Master and Margarita to War and Peace. The name of the street is a combination of Sivets or Sivka, the name of a small river that used to run through this region of Moscow, and the word vrazhka, coming from the word ovrag, which means ravine. Nesterov lived at 43 Sivtsev-Vrazhek in an imposing building erected in 1906 by architect Grigory Oltarzhevsky. It looks like a home made especially for an artist, with its white columns, fanned window over the entrance and its bay windows here and there. As you can see in the final photo below, the building now stands in the shadows of the Russian Foreign Ministry, one of Moscow’s so-called “wedding cake” Stalinist buildings. The shadow cast by that building is long and heavy. It is an alien growth in this otherwise beautiful old neighborhood. It reminds me a little of the stills from Godzilla, with the Japanese monster towering over a modern metropolis. I’m not being facetious and I’m not trying to be metaphorical. I mean this all quite directly. Look again at that photo below and you will see how a wonderful old yellow, one-story building, probably from the late 18th century, fairly cowers in the shadow of the Ministry Monstrosity. Oh, I shouldn’t have allowed myself that last word…
“I avoided depicting the so-called great passions,” Nesterov reportedly said. “I preferred our quiet landscapes, an individual living a [rich] inner life. Here is a little Russian river; there a church. Everything is in its place, familiar, beloved. Ah, how I always loved our pitiful, senseless and great motherland!”

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Yury Zavadsky plaque, Moscow

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Yury Zavadsky (1894-1977) lived in this building at 15 Tverskaya Street, the very heart of Moscow, from 1940 until his death. We now remember Zavadsky as a famous director, the principal director of the Mossoviet Theater, also from 1940 until his death. But he had also been a leading actor at the Vakhtangov and Moscow Art Theaters, and was, according to legend, one of Yevgeny Vakhtangov’s favorite students. Marina Tsvetaeva happened to meet Zavadsky and see him on stage sometime in 1918, and she wrote an entire cycle of poems – 25 to be exact – inspired by him. Entitled “The Comedian” (as in the French, meaning “actor”), the collection bears the following dedication: “To the actor who played the Angel, or to the Angel who played the Actor – isn’t it all the same, since, by Your grace, instead of the snowy winter routine of 1919 the routine I carried out was filled with tenderness.” The first of the poems was written Nov. 2, 1918, the last of them – in March 1919. The Zavadsky Studio (1924-1936) was a well-known experimental theater in its time, and it gave starts to a number of major actors, including Vera Maretskaya, Rostislav Plyatt, Nikolai Mordvinov and Pavel Massalsky. Maretskaya was married to Zavadsky for a short while, as was the great ballerina Galina Ulanova. I’m a little confused about the dates because some sources say Zavadsky met Ulanova in 1940, some say he was married to her in the 1930s. In any case he was married to Maretskaya before he was married to Ulanova. If the exact dates are truly important to you – be my guest: research them.

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It is our good fortune – if not Zavadsky’s! – that one of Zavadsky’s actors at the Mossoviet was the great Faina Ranevskaya. Ranevskaya – about whom I’m going to have to find a reason to write in more detail – was not only considered one of the great Russian actresses of the 20th century. Possessing a truly bitter sense of humor, she was arguably the funniest. She and others have left behind a treasure trove of anecdotes and memoirs that have been gathered into several best-selling books. Because of her relationship with Zavadsky, many stories involve him. Here is one:
“Oh, did you know Zavadsky had a terrible misfortune?”
“He died.”
“Ranevskaya was frequently late to rehearsals, which really irritated Zavadsky. One day he asked all the actors to merely ignore her when she entered. When she did finally come in, huffing and puffing, she said ‘Hello!’ Nobody answered. ‘Hello!’ she repeated. Still no answer. ‘Hello!’ she said a third time and still got no reaction. ‘Ah!’ she said. ‘There’s nobody here! Then I’ll just go take a piss!'”
Surely one of Ranevskaya’s most immortal pokes at Zavadsky was this:
“Zavadsky once shouted at Ranevskaya from the auditorium: ‘Faina, you chewed up my entire idea!’ Faina grumbled rather loudly, ‘Well, I thought I had the feeling I’d just eaten shit,’ to which Zavadsky reportedly shouted: ‘Get out of this theater!’ Ranevskaya walked to the edge of the stage and shouted back, ‘Get out of art!'”
Ranevskaya saved some of her most barbed epithets for Zavadsky. She reportedly called him: “a reduced-price Meyerhold” and she was heard to say that, “Zavadsky will catch a cold only at my funeral”; “Zavadsky gets awards not because he deserves them but because he wants them. The only award he doesn’t have yet is ‘Hero Mother'”; “Zavadsky dreams that he’s buried on Red Square”; and “How I would love to smack the faces of everyone who fakes it, but I hold my temper. I tolerate crudeness and lies, I tolerate a pitiful, poverty-stricken life. I tolerate them all and will continue to until the end of my life. I even tolerate Zavadsky…”
I didn’t intend to turn this into a Zavadsky roast, but, hey. He’s got all that stuff about being a Socialist Hero, a Hero of Labor, a Lenin Prize winner and a People’s Artist splashed out on his memorial plaque, so he can stand a few barbs tossed off by one of the best actors he ever worked with. 

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Vasily Klyuchevsky house, Moscow

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Officially, Vasily Klyuchevsky lived at the address of 6 1st Khvostov Lane in the Yakimanka district of Moscow. But if you had gone looking for him at 6 Malaya Polyanka Street, you would have found him there, too, as you can see in the photo immediately below. He apparently lived in this specific building from 1883 to 1895, although according to Boris Arsenyev’s book, Inexhaustible Yakimanka: In the Center of Moscow, in the Heart of History, Kluchevsky lived in this general neighborhood of Yakimanka for over 40 years. (I’d like to give a shout-out to Sergei Romanyuk and his book From the History of Moscow’s Small Streets, for providing the exact years of Klyuchevsky’s residence here. Most sources just round it off to the “1880s-1890s,” which is not nearly as interesting or satisfying. Romanyuk’s entire book is available online here.)
Klyuchevsky (1841-1911) was one of the great Russian historians. As seems to be true of an inordinate number of prominent Russian cultural figures of the 19th century, he was the son of a village priest. As an adult he became an expert in old Russian history, although his work covered many periods. His first book was Tales of Foreigners about the Moscow [or Muscovy] State (1866). You can find a complete scan of the 1st edition on Google books.  Klyuchevsky’s fame and influence was such that Leonid Pasternak, about whom you can read on this blog, did a large painting of him. Thanks to Wikipedia you can go there and see it right now. Russian Wikipedia does such a concise job of describing Klyuchevsky’s place in history that I might as well simply insert that here: “V.O. Klyuchevsky was one of the leading representatives of Russian liberal historiography of the 19th -20th centuries, an adherent of a state theory who, at the same time, created his own original model of Russian history, and was recognized as a leader of the Moscow school of history.” There is both a Klyuchevsky museum and a monument to Klyuchevsky in his birth town of Penza. A stamp featuring Klyuchevsky’s likeness was issued in 1991 in the waning days of the Soviet Union. In 2005 Valentina Mazalova wrote a PhD dissertation entitled The Contribution of V.O. Klyuchevsky in the Development of Historical Sociology. You can read a detailed extract online or even purchase the entire study.

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Some of the books Klyuchevsky wrote while living in this unique building erected in the late 18th-early 19th century, include: The Russian Ruble of the XVI-XVIII Centures and its Relation to the Current Ruble (1884); The Origins of Serfdom in Russia (1885);  and Eugene Onegin and His Predecessors (1887). His five-course history of Russia is a classic. It, like many of Klyuchevsky’s other works, is still readily available for purchase in bookstores and online.
What we now know as 1st Khvostov Lane was actually called 1st Petropavlovsky Lane when Klyuchevsky lived here. It was renamed in 1922, receiving a very rare name for that time. In the early ’20s most renamed streets, plazas and parks honored some new Soviet hero. The case of Khvostov Lane, however, refers way back to a character from old Russian history – Alexei Petrovich “Khvost” Bosovolkov (? – 1357). He was a high-ranking nobleman in medieval Russia, the owner of most of the lands surrounding this location.  I don’t know whether Klyuchevsky’s connection to this region had anything to do with the choice of the Khvostov name or not. I quite doubt it. But, intended or not, it is fitting that the name of the street Klyuchevsky once lived on would refer to something out of the ancient, murky, Russian past.
The building itself is a rather odd-looking thing. It is almost too long for proper proportion. And that orange color (surely not the color it was painted 130 years ago) also makes it stick out like a sore thumb in this quiet neighborhood. It is, however, a landmark. You remember this two-story structure like no other around it. Everything else seems to be there as background padding. There is no marker indicating that Klyuchevsky lived here. That’s just something you have to find out on your own.

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