Click on photos to enlarge.
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.