Yekaterina Furtseva plaque, Moscow

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Damn. I wish you could make this stuff up. If you could, you might be able to undo it as quickly. But I’m afraid you can’t. I’m afraid this stuff happens according to some nasty, irrevocable law of human existence. I’m talking about the declaration made today by deputy chief of the Administration of the President of the Russian Federation Magomedsalam Magomedov. Responding to an event we thought we were done with two weeks ago when a judge threw out the state’s case against a director and a theater manager for a controversial production of Tannhauser in Novosibirsk, Mr. Magomedov suggested that the Russian federal government should begin looking at theater productions before they open. Mr. Magomedov may or may not remember that this is precisely the way theater was censored in the Soviet era. You remember all those famous banned productions at the Taganka, the Sovremennik, the Vakhtangov, the Satire Theater, even the Meyerhold Theater in the early 1930s? Well, that’s how they were banned: a government committee would come and watch a dress rehearsal then pass judgment: thumbs up, thumbs down. Mr. Magomedov is still another of those who would grab us all by the collar – if not the neck – and drag us back into the Soviet era.
This is another aspect of a massive attack taking place in Russia against culture, art and the freedom of expression. Magomedov’s chilling suggestion comes on the heels of still another regressive act on the part of Russia’s Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky. Unable to accept the Novosibirsk court’s decision that there was no crime offending the faith of Orthodox believers, Medinsky has now fired the managing director of the Novosibirsk Theater of Opera and Ballet where director Timofei Kulyabin staged the so-called “offensive” version of Wagner’s Tannhauser. But wait! Not only did Medinsky fire managing director Boris Mezdrich, who had vowed to stand with Kulyabin and Tannhauser, he replaced him with a man from St. Petersburg who attacked the production of Tannhauser publicly on the website of Medinsky’s own Ministry of Culture. Here is what the replacement, Vladimir Kekhman, wrote: “As a believer who has been christened in the Orthodox faith, and as a Jew, I take this [production] as an insult. It is a demonstration of internal godlessness in the style and in the spirit of a union of warring infidels. I won’t hide that I spoke today with Mezdrich and he told me that he won’t abandon this production and will stand to the end. I consider that he must resign and that this production must be removed from the repertoire.”
How do you like them apples? Thanks to Mr. Kekhman, we now know just what to do in order to fast-track our careers in theater management – denounce your colleagues on the Culture Ministry website.
It apparently doesn’t matter that Mr. Kekhman is a snitch and an opportunist of the blackest order, it doesn’t matter that lawyers are saying that Medinsky’s firing of Mezdrich violates Russian law, it doesn’t matter that a court has spoken and declared that Kulyabin’s production did not violate anyone’s rights – the Russian government, through its various representatives, continues to mount an all-out war against artists and those who would enable them.

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Okay, let me catch my breath and explain what this has to do with the plaque and building that are pictured in today’s post. You see, the one-time Soviet Minister of Culture Yekaterina Furtseva (1910-1974) lived at 9 Tverskaya Street, right across from the Moscow Art Theater, from 1949 to 1960. That is, Furtseva lived here right up until she was appointed to the position of culture minister. She held that position from 1960 until her death under suspicious circumstances in 1974. (Officially she died of a heart attack; whispers remain strong that she drowned herself in her bathtub.) She was a controversial figure who some believed attempted to protect culture in a difficult time, while others saw her as a symbol of the repression of the Soviet state against art. She was mercurial and could be kind and understanding, as well as imperious and vengeful. So strong is that latter opinion that Russian Wikipedia actually has a titled section dealing with the events that Furtseva banned. They included productions at the Taganka, performances by Mstislav Rostropovich (her stance against him for giving shelter to Alexander Solzhenitsyn forced him to emigrate to the West), as well as planned concerts by The Beatles and Rolling Stones.
The plaque honoring Furtseva on the building where she once resided is clearly a sympathetic one. She is given a romantic, thoughtful gaze that rather suggests she was a victim herself. There are those, especially in recent years, who have sought to resurrect her reputation. It is a fact, plain and simple, that Furtseva achieved a level of power in the Soviet government that no other woman did before or after her. In addition to being Minister of Culture, she was the First Secretary of the Moscow Committee of the Communist Party, and she was a member of the Politburo of the Communist Party of the USSR. Women in places of power can irritate men and women alike. Apparently, the higher the power, the more they irritate. But Furtseva also earned the dislike of many of her peers. For everyone she helped, she slapped someone else back down.
I can see how, with time, the desire comes upon us to see a figure like this from neutral ground. We know that life is difficult and that maneuvering one’s way through politics is a dirty business. We know that we, ourselves, have made a few dubious choices in our lives, and it means something to us to look at controversial figures and to justify them, at least to some degree. I myself do that from time to time in this space and I’m willing to allow that Furtseva is a candidate for that kind of treatment.
It is harder to take that approach with contemporaries. So, when I see Magomedsalam Magomedov and Vladimir Medinsky and others like them attacking art and artists, and when I see them working hard to take us back to the days and tactics once used by people like Yekaterina Furtseva and others worse than she, I am appalled. I am infuriated. I have no desire to approach either Mr. Magomedov or Mr. Medinsky from a neutral point of view. They are seeking through their policies to destroy the way art is made today in Russia. They are attempting to destroy a world I have spent my life trying to build and support.
If I am willing to allow someone to tell me why I shouldn’t be so hard on Yekaterina Furtseva, I don’t have the time of day for Messers Magomedov or Medinsky. I stand with those of my contemporaries calling for Medinsky to step down as Russian Culture Minister, and I condemn Magomedov for his attempt to haul us even further back into a world resembling the Soviet Union. Let somebody else in 50 years argue the case for Medinsky et al. In real time people like this must be opposed. Period.



Angelina Stepanova apartment, Moscow

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Here is still another of those buildings in Moscow that housed large numbers of interesting people. It was built between 1930 and 1933 as a cooperative intended for actors working at the Second Moscow Art Theater. As of today it still bears no markings of its historical value. In fact, as photos taken from the courtyard show, it is in pretty bad shape. It doesn’t look like it has ever been painted, and the bricks are showing wear and tear from the harsh Moscow winters. It would appear that the top floor was reconstructed with new bricks sometime in the recent past, but I can’t verify that. The street-side facade, with its cement covering on top of the bricks, still looks fairly good, if heavily weathered.
I took note of this building at 1/12 Gazetny Lane after going through one of the directories of theaters and theater workers that I have in my personal library. (At the time under discussion Gazetny Lane was called Ogaryov Street.) This Theater Directory, published in 1936, provides addresses and phone numbers for many actors, directors and writers for that year. I kept a running list as I ran through the book and was interested to see this building crop up with high frequency. There were more people of interest who lived here, but here are some of the residents:
Vera Pashennaya, actress, Maly Theater, apt. 10. Her phone number was 3-80-55.
Olga Androvskaya, actress, Moscow Art Theater, apt. 36. Tel. 1-29-80.
Angelina Stepanova, actress, Moscow Art Theater, apt. 49. Tel. 2-43-19.
Serafima Birman, actress MOSPS Theater (today’s Mossovet Theater), apt. 60. Tel. 1-14-14.
Alla Tarasova, actress Moscow Art Theater, apt. 71. Tel. 1-10-93.
I am attaching this post to Angelina Stepanova (1905-2000) for several reasons, one being that I photographed the entrance she would have used when living here. The door itself would have been different, of course, but the entrance below, providing access to apartments 41 to 65, would have been Stepanova’s. It stands in the crux of the building’s bend in the courtyard area. Stepanova moved here from her previous places of residence on Krivoarbatsky Lane and Maly Vlasyevsky Lane, which were (are) located in the famous Arbat district. More about them some other time.
Stepanova was one of the leading ladies at the Moscow Art Theater from the 1920s through the 1970s and even ’80s.
I came within a hair of seeing her perform in her last role in Lyudmila Petrushevskaya’s The Moscow Choir (1988). She played the character of Lika in turn with Iya Savvina, and Savvina performed the night I saw that show.

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Another reason I chose to write about Stepanova today is that she played a large part in the life of the playwright and screenwriter Nikolai Erdman in the late 1920s and first half of the 1930s. They were lovers, although both were married: he to the dancer Natalya Vorontsova, she to the director Nikolai Gorchakov. The affair was strong and deep and it undoubtedly meant much to both. It is also clear that Stepanova would have liked it to become permanent, while Erdman, not the greatest committer-to-relationships, ultimately remained emotionally ambiguous and sexually promiscuous. The building pictured here is a physical reference to that time when Erdman and Stepanova lost touch with one another – 1935/1936. Surely one of the great culprits in that break was Erdman’s arrest in mid-October 1933 and his exile to Siberia which lasted until fall 1936.
By the time Stepanova moved into Apt. 49 at Ogaryov Street she was well on her way to finalizing her divorce with Gorchakov and marrying the writer Alexander Fadeev (about whom you can read more elsewhere in this blog). That marriage took place in 1936.
Stepanova’s affair with Erdman began no later than 1928. In her archive there remains a short note from Erdman that year which reads:

If you knew how many times I began writing letters to you, you would understand how often I think about you. I am agonizingly bad about writing letters. Don’t incriminate me, Lina, but rather allow me to write to you without end and without beginning as often as I am able to. Answer me, sweetheart, the very day that you receive this note. I miss you very much. I dream of seeing you, Nikolai.

The last letter from Erdman to Stepanova, whom he often affectionately called “Skinny,” was written from Erdman’s place of exile in Tomsk, probably in 1935, but possibly in 1936. As he usually did when writing her from Siberia, he sent the letter to Stepanova’s place of work, the Moscow Art Theater. This last letter begins as follows:

My mother writes: “Lina is very sad, she receives no letters.” My young lady, what are we to do? I wrote you letters, then began sending post cards – for awhile I wrote them every day, then I began writing letters again. I hope you have received at least some of them. I had nothing from you for over a month. Nothing at all. Not a single line. Before that were a few stray post cards. I don’t know if others are writing me or not, but I receive almost no letters at all – perhaps, of course, because no one is writing...

Stepanova once traveled to the small city of Yeniseisk, where Erdman lived in exile from 1933 to 1934. But by the time he was moved to the larger city of Tomsk in 1934, they were drifting apart. Stepanova learned that other women were making the long trek to Siberia to visit the writer and it understandably didn’t sit well with her. That does not mean she forgot the man whom many decades later she called the love of her life. In fact, in a rather twisted turn of events, she began to hound her new husband Fadeev, who was in good standing with Soviet officials, to help ease Erdman’s lot. For several years in the 1950s Erdman and Stepanova lived in buildings just two long blocks from each other on Tverskaya Street. As strange as it seems, they never once saw each other, or so Stepanova claimed. Their last meeting took place in 1957 after Fadeev’s suicide. It happened in the apartment of Erdman’s brother Boris, and Stepanova recollected that  “oceans of time” had passed since their last meeting, nothing was left of their former feelings.
I’ve drawn quotes and information on the Stepanova-Erdman relationship from Vitaly Vulf’s annotated collection of their correspondence.

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Olga Knipper-Chekhova plaque, Moscow

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If you’re a Moscow Art Theater fan, this building at 5/7 Glinishchevsky Lane is a treasure trove. It was built in 1938 and a whole gaggle of Art Theater employees moved in. At the same time the street was given the name of Nemirovich-Danchenko Street, which held sway until 1993. Writing about this building and the numerous plaques hanging on its outside walls, I could speak of any number of people – Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko himself, the actors Vera Maretskaya, Iosif Tumanov, Vasily Toporkov, Mikhail Shtraukh, Ivan Moskvin, Mikhail Tarkhanov, Alexander Kaidanaovsky, Alla Tarasova and many, many more. Some of you will notice that not all of these people were connected to the Art Theater – this building was one of those Soviet structures that went up for specific purposes, to house people from a particular walk of life. But it so happened that many of those who moved in here in 1938 were from the Art Theater. In any case, one new resident that year was Olga Knipper-Chekhova, the widow of Anton Chekhov. She lived here, as her plaque proclaims, from 1938 until her death in 1959.
The building was erected by architects Vladimir Vladimirov and G. Lutsky (I wasn’t able to ascertain his full first name) with aid from artist Vladimir Favorsky and sculptor Georgy Motovilov (see the last photo below for what I presume is their joint work). It’s an imposing building, perhaps a little too large for the tiny street it stands on, and very official-looking. I personally find I am put off by it lightly when I approach it, although I also recognize its effective compositional design. The dark marble running along the base of the building looks funereal to me, just as many of the plaques look like gravestones.

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Olga Knipper-Chekhova (1868-1959) began a relationship with Chekhov in 1899, just before he sold his small family estate in Melikhovo. She actually visited that home south of Moscow once, maybe twice. I happened to be in Melikhovo with American playwright Nilo Cruz a week or so ago and our tour guide told us that it is thanks in large part to Knipper-Chekhova that the writer’s former estate is now such a respected museum and retreat. The local people, official and otherwise, were not especially interested in having the estate made into a museum. But Knipper-Chekhova threw her weight behind the project and, as I understand it, helped financially, to ensure that the museum was opened and that it survived. Chekhov and Knipper-Chekhova first met in 1898 at rehearsals of Chekhov’s The Seagull and A.K. Tolstoy’s Tsar Fyodor Ioannovich. They were married in 1901 and she was with her husband when he died in Badenweiler, Germany, in 1904.
There are all kinds of words written – good, bad, insulting and indifferent – about the relationship between these two people. I don’t know a thing about that. I do know that Knipper-Chekhova carried the banner of her husband’s greatness for the rest of her life. During his lifetime she played many of the great Chekhovian heroines – Arkadina in The Seagull, Yelena in Uncle Vanya, Masha in Three Sisters, Sarah in Ivanov and Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard. There is a short video of Knipper-Chekhkova reviving her role of Ranevskaya decades later in a kind of concert performance, when she was already an elderly woman. Whatever flaws the advancement of time may have introduced into her performance, you cannot take this from her – she was extremely light on her feet, had a wonderful sense of humor and a feeling for her character that was natural and buoyant. You can see a short clip from that performance on YouTube.
Knipper was born to a German father from Alsace and an ethnically German mother in what was then called Vyatskaya gubernia. He, Leonard Knipper, was an engineer and was the administrator of a local factory. She, Anna Zaltz, was a gifted singer, who gained some fame before her marriage, although her husband would not allow her to continue performing. Olga’s father also forbid Olga to become an actress when she declared that as her life’s dream. Leonard wanted her to become a painter or a translator. She was educated in languages in her early years and was said to have been fluent in English, French and German. Things changed when Leonard died unexpectedly. This left the family in dire straights and most everyone had to go to work. Although Knipper’s mother, like her father, was against the idea of her daughter becoming an actress, she also recognized how strong that dream remained in her daughter’s head. Eventually Olga was allowed to begin studying acting with Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko and the die was cast for history to be made.

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Marietta Shaginyan plaque, Moscow

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Marietta Shaginyan (1888-1982) is not one of the first names that comes to mind when you think of Soviet/Russian literature. I, frankly, have never read any of her work. The first time I ever heard of her was when I was in grad school and my colleague Cynthia Vakareliyska told me she was writing a research paper on Shaginyan. I had to ask who that was and Cynthia’s response was enough to make me carry Shaginyan’s name in my mind with a deep sense of curiosity  for the last 30+ years.
Shaginyan was a highly controversial figure, but she was fascinating. Of Armenian descent, she was born in Moscow, was well educated and became active in public life at a relatively young age. She graduated from the history and philosophy department of Moscow’s Higher Women’s Courses in 1912. She became friends with Zinaida Gippius and Dmitry Merezhkovsky during a trip to St. Petersburg that very year, and she went on to study philosophy in Heidelburg  from 1912 to 1914. She worked for several years as a newspaper reporter and she taught aesthetics and the history of art in the Rostov-on-Don conservatory from 1915-1918. Not bad for someone just reaching the age of 30.
Much of the rest of her life was equally full and eventful. She ended up winning most of the “great” Soviet awards during her life, including a Hero of Socialist Labor award, the Lenin Prize, and the State Prize of the USSR. You didn’t receive honors like that for nothing – see below. These awards are trotted out on the plaque that hangs by the doorway at 43 Arbat Street, honoring the fact that Shaginyan lived there from 1936 to 1961.
After spending five years in Armenia at the end of the 1920s, she returned to Moscow in 1931. And throughout the 1930s she continued her unusual life path. Suffice it to say that she entered the State Plan Academy to study mineralogy, energetics and weaving (!) and, after graduation, lectured on these and other topics at factories around the Soviet Union. She eventually earned a PhD in 1942 for her book on the Ukrainian writer Taras Shevchenko and she became a member of the Academy of Sciences of Armenia in 1950.
And I’m just skimming, here, folks.

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The Arbat today looks nothing like it did when Shaginyan lived here. There was no Moo-Moo Restaurant on the corner (see last photo below) and there was no Wetzels-Pretzels cafe next to the door Shaginyan would have used to come and go. If the sanctions and economic crash currently underway continue much longer, these places may soon disappear from the current-day Arbat too, but that’s another topic. The Arbat in Shaginyan’s day was not a walking mall, but rather a cozy, regular street with two-way traffic on it.
Shaginyan wrote her first poetry at the age of 15, in 1903. Over the next 10-15 years she published numerous books of poetry, some quite popular. Russian Wikiipedia, which I have plundered for much of the information in this little text, declares that in the ‘teens the Russian public appreciated Shaginyan’s poetry more than that of Marina Tsvetaeva. A ten-day trip to Germany in 1914 apparently caused Shaginyan’s political sensations to awaken and, after the Revolution, she wrote numerous prose works putting forth a woman’s point of view on a changing world.
One can find in the record plenty of smart-aleck comments about Shaginyan. Maxim Gorky – who, if you ask me, shouldn’t have been throwing stones – once wrote that “for her novel Changes she should have to eat a sandwich of English straight pins.”
But it’s true that she earned some of the harshest criticism.
Gaito Gazdanov, an emigre Russian writer, damned Shaginyan with strong language in 1971: “There will always be authors like Marietta Shaginyan,” he said, “who began writing poetry like this:

On this night from the Caspian to the Nile
No other maiden shall smell as sweetly as I…

and finished by writing a book in honor of Beria and spending her nights reading Lenin.”
It’s a fact that the Soviet era was a strange one, an unnatural one in many ways. People were bent backwards by the elements of the times. Some of them snapped.
I’m not here today to defend, justify or condemn Shaginyan. I don’t know enough to do any of those things. She was obviously a strong woman and, I’ll tell you what, throughout history strong women usually have not received the benefit of the doubt. Still, questions arise, serious ones. But for me they remain questions. I also know that Shaginyan was attracted to such figures as Ivan Krylov, Johann von Goethe, William Blake, Sergei Rachmaninov, Vladislav Khodasevich and many others, about whom she wrote. Khodasevich himself wrote a small piece about Shaginyan in 1925. It is available in full on one of those wonderful internet library sites. In it the poet writes with a great deal of irony about Shaginyan’s ecstatic, perhaps even disingenuous personality.
“…I recall [Shaginyan] and I want to smile. Not without bitterness, perhaps, but I want to smile. Poor Marietta! […] Who knows who her idol is these days? Or what she understands about this idol? From whom is she taking dictation for her articles, even though she doesn’t realize it herself? Who will dictate what she will write tomorrow?”
One other curious Shaginyan moment was brought to light by historian Alexander Kutenev. He declared in an interview in 2008 that Shaginyan, while researching a book about Lenin, discovered that the great Proletarian leader was gay. Shaginyan was moved to report this news to Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, whose right-hand man Mikhail Suslov argued that Shaginyan should be shot. Brezhnev, however, called her in for a talk. According to Kutenev, a deal was made. Shaginyan would get the Lenin Prize for her book and, in return, she would bury her evidence and keep her mouth shut about her discovery.

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Lenin Library busts, Mosow

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These things can look rather like cemeteries or crematoriums or -what is not any better, really – bad facades of bad schools. I’m talking about long rows of busts on important public buildings attempting to honor great men. Don’t get me wrong – I’m more than happy to honor great women. I hunt out opportunities to do that as often as possible in this space. But you don’t always have that opportunity in the real world when the topic is Russian literature, ca. 19th century. In the case at hand I deal with what I’m dealt – a whole bunch of men, many of them with beards.
The good thing about the east wall of the Lenin Library, located in Moscow at 5 Mokhovaya Street, is that it rises above the level of a crematorium. It’s a little surprising, perhaps, because the building itself is, in my opinion, a disaster. I don’t care if it is one of the few Constructivist-inspired buildings in Moscow to have been completed. It has a deathly gray pallor and its boxy, cinderblock construction almost looks like it’s ready to have urns of ashes slipped into each one.
But I’m letting sarcasm get the better of me today.
I’m actually writing this post because I love this wall. There is something exciting in having the opportunity to commune with a whole bunch of great and good writers all at one time. And, when it’s autumn, as it was when these pictures were taken, you have the added stroke of some beautiful, bright yellow fall leaves playing against the monotonous gray-bound background.
A few steps from left to right and back again and you can travel from Pushkin to Tolstoy, from Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin to Ivan Turgenev. Each of them looks down upon you with a sense of purpose, that purpose that most of us, at least, have grown to expect from a Russian writer.
I did an interview last year with the Ukrainian playwright Maksym Kurochkin. I asked him about some of the difficulties of living in Russia and writing in Russian as his homeland was under attack from Russia. You can imagine the corner he is backed into – or maybe you can’t. Not many of us have been in his shoes. Anyway, at one point Maksym admitted that part of him is completely alienated from his environs and those surrounding him. And yet he declared that he is proud to be considered a member of the new Russian drama movement, because, he said, “it is honorable to have a relationship with the best of Russian drama. Russian new drama for me is undoubtedly a progressive force.”
You see, that’s what Russian literature has always been – at least when it is at its best. And when you look up at the faces on the Lenin Library wall, you sense that quite clearly. Principled writers with something to say gathered here in one place.


I am particularly grateful to the makers of this pantheon for including Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin (1826-1889, the first photo in the block below). I don’t know any place else in Moscow where one can go to pay respects to this wonderful, bitter, satirical writer. If there are any monuments or plaques in Moscow commemorating his life and work, I don’ t know of them. This makes some sense because Moscow did not play a large part in Saltykov-Shchedrin’s life. He did study for awhile as a boy at the Moscow School for the Nobility. But most of his adult life was spent either in St. Petersburg or in the provinces to which he was occasionally banished. Since I touched briefly on the topic of the sexes at the beginning here today, I think it’s worth pointing out that, while Saltykov-Shchedrin was in political exile in Vyatka in the late 1840s – he called these the years of his “Vyatka captivity” – he expressly wrote a history book for young women. He was appalled at the lack of education for girls and he wrote and published a series of lectures to counteract that.
“Captivity” and “exile” during the Tsarist years – Alexander Solzhenitsyn has written about this – were nothing compared to what occurred in the Soviet age and later. While in “captivity” Saltykov-Shchedrin continued to hold a government post and he ended up marrying the daughter of the local governor. Imagine Osip Mandelstam marrying a Soviet commissar’s daughter before being murdered in Siberia in 1938; or imagine one of the Pussy Riot members marrying the son of a local bigwig before being released. Still, Saltykov-Shchedrin’s experiences were galling enough to turn him into one of the most wickedly critical writers ever to wield a pen in Russia. He has never quite received his due abroad and even in Russia he still remains somehow almost too hot to handle. It’s good to see him here as a colleague among equals.
I haven’t been able to pin down who, exactly, are the sculptors who created the busts on the east wall. The best information I found was that a large group of artists was involved. They included Sergei Yevseyev, Matvei Manizer, Yelena Yanson-Manizer, Nadezhda Krandievskaya, Vsevolod Lishyov and Vera Mukhina.

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Alexei Surkov plaque, Moscow

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As is evident in several of the photos here, the poet Alexei Surkov (1899-1983) has sort of been pushed into the dark corners of Russian literary history. It’s possible that the kiosk standing almost in front of the plaque proclaiming that Surkov lived in this building across from Pushkin Square has now been removed. I took these photos about nine months ago and many Moscow kiosks have been removed in that time. All of this, however, suits the little I have to say today – back and forth, into and out of the shadows.
Surkov was – to put it lightly – a controversial figure. Having served as the First Secretary of the Soviet Writers Union from 1953 to 1959, he couldn’t help it. It’s true that he came in just as Stalin died and, thus, was part of the Thaw era changes, but, still, his post was a nasty one. He was one of the leading “proletarian” writers from the ’20s through the ’50s, rarely being far from the ruling parties that took great care to marginalize, at best, the most important writers of the time.
Thus, when last year I came upon Surkov’s plaque pushed back into a dark corner I found in that some sense of moral justice. And if, indeed, it has been freed and is out in the open again, that would be something of a sign of the times, too.
You see, the art of the “artistic denunciation,” so popular in Surkov’s time, has again become a part of Russian life. We have seen this repeatedly over the last year or two – ideological purehearts unload their bile on artists who dare to step outside the bounds of normalcy in their work. Politicians climb on the bandwagon, corrupt journalists do the same. It’s a disgusting and infuriating turn of events. Some of you may know about the case against theater director Timofei Kulyabin, which was, mercifully, thrown out of court. But in just the last few days we again have witnessed another of these “artistic battles.” In this one the once controversial music video-maker Yury Grymov publicly attacked the director Alexander Ogaryov for having an actress pee on stage in a humorous scene in Nilo Cruz’s Anna in the Tropics at the new Stanislavsky Electrotheater. Ogaryov responded in kind, expressing amazement that the former bad-boy Grymov could be so offended by such a harmless theatrical incident.
We can thank people like Surkov for the revival of these nasty cultural habits. They sit deeply ingrained in the Russian consciousness.

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Surkov was a much-honored man in his time. He was loaded down with government awards – two Stalin Prizes, a Hero of Socialist Labor award, four Lenin Orders and on down the line. He was extremely active in Soviet literary life – serving on committees and in groups, while writing his poetry, editing major publications (Literary Gazette, Ogonyok), writing criticism and running the Literary Institute. In 1947 he penned the article “On the Poetry of Pasternak,” attacking the great writer, and he was one of the signatories of an open letter sent to Izvestia newspaper in 1973 attacking Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov. The great Soviet-era translator Lilliana Lungina (translator of the eternally popular Pippi Longstocking, and mother of famed film director Pavel Lungin, who, coincidentally, has just premiered on Russian Channel One a multi-part TV mini-series devoted to the KGB!) had this to say about Surkov: “He was a malicious, sly, dangerous man; a typical apparatchik.”
Surkov was the author of some 40 books, including several collected works. He translated the poetry of Mao Zedong. Very little of his work has been republished since his death.
Surkov’s archive was rediscovered a few years ago in a used bookstore by the bibliophile Mikhail Seslavinsky. Shortly thereafter he donated it to the Literary Museum in Moscow. Our Heritage magazine (2013, No. 108) described the archive as consisting of “hundreds of documents carefully preserved by Surkov, including personal correspondence with colleagues, Party and Soviet leaders, denunciations sent to the leadership of the Writers Union with the purpose of upholding Party vigilance and exposing class enemies…”
One such document, a denunciation from the writer Konstantin Konichev, is printed with the article in Our Heritage. It bears the notation, “Urgent. For Comrade Surkov.” The letter slanders the writer  Pyotr Semynin, stating he has recently applied for membership in the Writers Union and that he “should be investigated.” Among other things, the letter claims that Semynin, while living in Novosibirsk (where the Kulyabin court case took place, by the way), “conducted anti-Party affairs in literature…”
How many steps is it from Konichev to Grymov? From Surkov to those who demanded that Kulyabin be sent to prison for “insulting Christian believers”?
Surkov lived in the building pictured here at 19 Tverskaya Street from 1949 until death presumably took him to a better place in 1983.


Alexandra Yablochkina plaque, Moscow

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I think that most Muscovites who still recognize the name of Alexandra Yablochkina think of her as something of a grandmother figure. Just look at the image on the plaque commemorating the fact that she lived in this building at 4/2 Bolshaya Dmitrovka Street from 1906 to 1964. I don’t know about your family, but she looks like a cross among all the grandmothers, great-grandmothers and great aunts in my own maternal line. I have no reason to do this whatsoever, but I always somehow internally acknowledge this plaque when I pass it by, as I often do. I feel like I am in the presence of someone near and dear.
Alexandra Yablochkina (1866-1964) was born into a family of actors in St. Petersburg, but was one of Moscow’s leading actresses for a very long time. She grew up partly in Tiflis (now Tbilisi), Georgia, where her father performed on stage, and she herself made her acting debut in Tiflis at the age of six. Reaching adulthood, she spent one year, 1885, performing at the Tiflis Theater of Russian Drama. There’s a great little tale that goes with her childhood debut, and I quote it here from the Russian Celebrities website:
“The family’s great friend O.A. Pravdin was staging a show called A Ruined Life, which had a part for a little boy. [Pravdin] gave the role to Alexandra. However, there were problems at the premiere. When she walked out on stage and saw a house full of people the little girl was taken aback and became tongue-tied during a long phrase. She did not lose her wits, however, and blamed the prompter for the problem. Bending over the prompter’s booth, she said, ‘Please do not make noise down there. You only confuse me and I know my role without you.’ She then turned back to the actor on stage with whom she was supposed to speak and, this time, loudly and clearly spoke the difficult phrase from beginning to end. The audience greeted this with laughter and a burst of applause. After the performance a friend said to Alexandra’s mother, ‘Your Vladimir is a fine lad!’ and was amazed to learn that the role of Petya was played by her daughter Sasha, not her son Volodya.”
Yablochkina relocated to Moscow in 1886 and remained there for the rest of her life. She became a star that year when she played the role of Sofya in Alexander Griboedov’s Woe from Wit at the Korsh Theater. She joined the troupe at the Maly Theater in 1888 and remained there until her death. She was obviously a woman of great stability and loyalty. That is also evident in her relationship to an actors’ organization in Moscow that has gone under various names over the decades, but is now called the Actors House. She became its chairwoman in 1915 when it was called the Russian Theater Society. She remained in that position until she died in 1964. By then known as the All-Russia Theater Society, it was then named after her. What we now know as the Moscow Actors House still bears her honorary name today.

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Yablochkina performed a staggering number of roles. Russian Wikipedia informs us that she played 22 different roles in just the two-or-so years she spent at the Korsh Theater, from 1886-1888. The Korsh, which was one of Russia’s very few private theaters made its living by putting up new shows all the time. Shows did not run for long, particularly if they didn’t have success. But, surely, preparing for what is an average of 11 new shows per year two seasons in a row must have been an extraordinary way for the young actress to throw herself into her profession. During that brief period she played roles in major works by Moliere, Alexander Ostrovsky, Griboedov, Denis Fonvizin, Alexander Pushkin and others.
She obviously could not keep up a pace like that for her entire life, but the list of productions she performed in at the Maly Theater over a period of 76 years is impressive indeed. The total exceeds 150! I can’t even imagine what kind of life that must have been, averaging two new shows every year for three-quarters of a century! Actually, her last performance took place in 1961 when she was 95 years old. That day she played the role of Miss Crowley in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, a show that had premiered Dec. 27, 1958.
Another story about another of her debuts – this time in Moscow – provides a nice snapshot in time. I quote this from the same site as above.
“I was to perform in the role of Tatyana in an excerpt from Yevgeny Onegin, Yablochkina reminisced. “When it came time to perform our scene, I began shaking and I sensed that I wanted to run home. Nervousness and fear, I remember well, seized me with such power that I had only one desire – to escape this looming trial. It felt like it would be an execution. I ran to Fedotova [her teacher, and a great actress in her own right] and begged her to let me go home. I told her I did not want to be an actress. Glikeria Nikolaevna understood my frame of mind and calmed me down. Using wise words she cooled my excited state and made me muster my courage. She led me onstage herself. I don’t recall how I spoke my monologue to the end. The curtain dropped and I heard applause. Glikeria Nikolaevna came to me, her face beaming, and said, ‘Good girl, Sanya! You’ve been christened in battle!'”

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Sergei Prokofiev plaque, Moscow

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I asked my wife Oksana Mysina why she loves Sergei Prokofiev and her answer came quickly: “For everything.” I’m sure Sergei’s mother would be happy with that answer, but I wasn’t. “But what is it specifically?” I asked predictably. “It’s his dissonances,” she shot back. “They are unlike anyone else’s. You can tell a piece was written by Prokofiev instantly.  His music is extremely expressive, but never sentimental.”
Anyone who reads this space knows by now that I am a typical, deeply handicapped American when it comes to classical music. I know Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet,” in part, because I made myself listen to it as an educational exercise decades ago. If I remember correctly, I liked it very much – but I couldn’t tell you a thing about it today, unless I went back and listened again.
“Peter and the Wolf” is a different story. I remember that extremely well; I listened to that a lot as a kid and I loved it. I still do. I love the playfulness and humor of it. That reminds me, by the way, that Oksana recorded an abbreviated version of “Peter and the Wolf” with the Russian National Wind Quintet several years ago. I really love their version. You can see it on YouTube.
Interestingly, for me, anyway, is the difference in the way that Russian and American cultures have locked onto certain composers and works. Kids from my generation, at least, all knew “Peter and the Wolf.” That made me assume the same was similar in Russia. But judging from Oksana’s comments that’s not true at all. It apparently is a more marginal work in Russia. The same can be said of some other works Americans consider true classics. I was knocked out, for example, when I found that Oksana didn’t even know Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture,” something I even – God forbid! – go around whistling sometimes. Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker,” too, is not the staple here it is the U.S. In recent years you do see it played more than the usual at Christmas/New Year’s time, but that’s as much to grab the foreigners in town as anything else. But I’ve gone a bit far afield.

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Prokofiev (1891-1953) had a fascinating biography. Born in a small Ukrainian village (near the region that is now plunged into war), he became one of the great musicians and composers of his time. Already being a composer of note, he emigrated to the United States in 1918, not long after the Russian Revolution. He lived for four years in the States, spent a short time in the Bavarian Alps, then settled in Paris in 1923. In the late 1920s (1927 and 1929, to be exact), when more and more Russian artists were feeling trapped by the politics of the day, Prokofiev toured the Soviet Union triumphantly. Then in 1936, just as the Great Purges were about to get underway (that happened in 1937), Prokofiev returned to Russia with his family. Between then and his death he left the Soviet Union only twice, in 1936-37 and 1938-39. In 1948, although he had written no small number of politically motivated works glorifying Soviet/Russian power and history, he was named along with several others in an attack on “formalist” art. It was a blow, some say, that he never quite recovered from. He died the same day that Joseph Stalin did – March 5, 1953. And, as all sources say, his death was not mentioned in a single Soviet newspaper.
Today a couple of museums are dedicated to Prokofiev’s memory in Moscow. The one pictured here is at 6 Kamergersky Lane, just across from the Moscow Art Theater. Prokofiev lived here, as is proclaimed on the plaque honoring him, from 1942 to 1953. I don’t know whether he actually moved in physically in 1942, or whether that is when this apartment on one of Moscow’s most prestigious streets was assigned to him. I do know that in the summer of 1941 he was evacuated to the Northern Caucasus as the German army drew closer to Moscow. (For the record, a reader informs me that the entrance to Prokofiev’s apartment was not this door by the plaque, but the next door to the right.)
In any case, this residence proved to be a good place to work. Over the last eleven years of his life Prokofiev wrote many works that are now considered among his best. The opera “War and Peace” is just one of them.
Prokofiev was a good player of chess and he made some nice quotes about the game. “Chess rules are made to be broken”; “Chess is primarily a battle with your own mistakes”; and “Chess for me is a particular world – a world in which plans and passions do battle.”
His story of his entrance exam at the Moscow Conservatory is also worth quoting: “My entrance exam came off rather effectively. Before me a bearded man brought in a romance without accompaniment as his entire baggage of work. I entered, stooped from the weight of two folders holding four operas, two sonatas, a symphony and quite a few pieces for fortepiano. ‘I like this!’ said Rimsky-Korsakov, who was conducting the exam.”
I’ve pulled all of these quotes from the Russian language Wikiquotes site.

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Chekhov’s choice restaurant, Tomsk

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This is to satisfy everyone’s craving for Chekhov porn. I could write the most interesting little essay of my life about some fascinating person you haven’t heard of and I’ll get a handful of brave readers. I can write “Chekhov” and quote the phone book and readers will swoop in drooling from all over the world.
So, swoop in and drool.
I once got in huge trouble being facetious about Chekhov. An editor at a Chekhov newsletter asked me if I’d like to shake up the somnambulant Chekhov community around the world by writing a polemical essay for him – you know, a little thing done tongue-in-cheek? I’d just written a review of a horrible production of Ivanov and I had admitted I was sick and tired of seeing bean-pushing productions of Chekhov, those soporific outings in which “innovation” lurks in the director’s decision to have the actor playing the doctor sit with legs crossed or arms akimbo. I gladly took on the challenge and I unloaded a bit of frustration – leaving plenty of admiration in place for those who know how to read – and always leaving my tongue in my cheek.
It turned out there are a lot of people who can’t read, and who haven’t the vaguest notion what to do with a tongue in a cheek! My humble little essay “Back off, Chekhov!” (the title itself being a pun on the famous essay by Anatoly Lunacharsky, “Back to Ostrovsky!” – I still haven’t seen anybody pick up on that) stirred a real hornet’s nest. I was ridiculed by Chekhovites and Chekhovians the world ’round. Being someone who has always taken Satchel Paige, John Lee Hooker and Bob Dylan seriously, most of the time I don’t look back. So I knew nothing of the tempest in the teapot in which my essay was being boiled to a nub until a friend one day asked me, “What did you do to tick off all the Chekhov people?”
I won’t go into that any more at this point. If you’re interested, I wrote a bit about it in the bibliographical entry to “Back Off, Chekhov!” on my website. Just follow this link then drop down to that title to find the text in fine print. I also referred to the situation in a blog I wrote for The Moscow Times in 2009.
But all of that is prologue to what I’m really up to today – casting about a few thoughts about Chekhov’s brief stay in Tomsk. It’s a place where Anton Chekhov once ate a hearty meal at the Slavyansky Bazaar restaurant, and a place where a – God forbid! – irreverent statue of Chekhov now stands. I wrote about Leonty Usov’s great monument some time ago in this space – go there to see some photos of his fabulous work.
Chekhov came through Tomsk on his way to Sakhalin, about which he wanted to write a book – and did so later. He arrived in Tomsk on May 15, 1890 and took a room at the Rossia Hotel (on the corner of Nechaevskaya and Spasskaya Streets, a structure torn down long ago). It was a hard trip, made on trains, carts, carriages, boats, rafts and maybe even horseback. As such, we must understand that our Shining Example of a Writer wasn’t always in the best frame of mind. Things obviously came to a head in Tomsk. There was a policeman who wanted to talk shop – that is, literature – with Chekhov, but only succeeded in keeping the Great Man from writing. Here is what Chekhov said about him in a letter sent back to Moscow:
“I have been informed that an assistant of the Chief of Police wishes to see me. What is that all about? But my alarm was unfounded. It turns out the policeman is a lover of literature and even writes, thus did he come to me to pay his respects. He went home in search of his drama and, I think, he wants to entertain me with it. He’ll come now and again interrupt my writing…”

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Chekhov continued, “The policeman came back. He did not read his drama although he brought it. But he did entertain me with a story. Not bad, but too local. He showed me a gold ingot. Asked for some vodka. I can’t recall a single Siberian member of the intelligentsia who hasn’t asked for vodka when visiting me. He told me that he has acquired a “little love girl,” a married woman, and let me read the petition sent to a high-placed official asking for a divorce. Then he suggested we go take a look at the Tomsk bordellos.”
It’s uncertain how much of that vodka Chekhov himself partook of, but here is how he described his visit to the ladies of the night:
“Returned from the bordellos. Disgusting. Two a.m. Tomsk is a boring city, drunken, not a single pretty woman, filled with Asian lawlessness. The only fine thing about this city is that the governors in it die.”
Oops! What happened to everyone’s refined, sad, pouting, melancholy, wistful, sensitive, kind Anton Chekhov?
The Slavyansky Bazaar, pictured here and built between 1886 and 1888,  is practically the only 19th-century building left in this part of the city, on the banks of the Tom’ River. Chekhov ate here around May 16 or 17 and apparently enjoyed it.
“They have a Slavyansky Bazaar,” he wrote to his publisher Alexei Suvorin, hinting, presumably, at the famous Slavyansky Bazaar restaurant in Moscow. “The dinners are good, although getting to this bazaar is not easy – unsurpassable mud. Today (May 17), I’ll go to the bathhouse. They say there is only one good bath attendant in all of Tomsk, a man named Arkhip.”
By the way, a brief digression on bathhouses: My friend Bryon MacWilliams wrote a wonderful book about Russian bathhouses called With Light Steam. In it you learn why a good bath attendant is so important, as well as many other important things.
But back to Chekhov and Tomsk.
“The folks here are good, kind and have wonderful traditions. Their rooms are arranged simply, but cleanly, their beds are soft, made of down with big pillows and their floors are decorated and covered with homemade canvas rugs. … True, one old woman who gave me a teaspoon wiped it on her backside, but at least they don’t sit you down to tea without a tablecloth. They don’t burp in your presence, they don’t hunt in their heads [for lice?], don’t hold their fingers inside the glass when bringing you water or milk. The plates are clean and the kvas is transparent… They bake the most tasty  bread. Their pies and pancakes and potato pies are all tasty too…”
Still, the women of Tomsk gave him no peace and inspired no respect.
“The women here are not interesting,” he wrote. “They are cold, do not know how to dress, don’t sing, don’t laugh, and are not good looking…”
Chekhov left Tomsk on May 21 (which, according to the contemporary calendar is June 4). He never returned. The people of Tomsk have never forgotten him.

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Vladimir Lenin apartment, London UK

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I’m cheating a bit today. I do that from time to time. Vladimir Lenin was not a writer (although his complete collected works fill 55 volumes with over 3,000 documents). He was not a cultural figure in any strict application of that term. But you don’t need me to tell you that Lenin’s influence on Russian art, literature, music and other cultural activities after the beginning of the 20th century was enormous. If you look at the list of tags to the left you will see I have “preferred” Joseph Stalin when writing about the state’s effect on Russian art. Isn’t it time Lenin got his due?
Lenin, like that ever-buzzing gnat Stalin, is on one’s mind a lot today. There are so many reasons for that, I will end up skipping most. But here are a few:
1) Lenin lived in London. as the plaque above shows, in 1908. He lived at 21 Tavistock Place (the building is now numbered 36) while he was – yes – writing one of his essays, “Materialism and Empirio-criticism.” Not exactly beach reading, but, hey – neither is anything I do. London and Russian culture are deeply intertwined. I’m not talking about Roman Abramovich and the Chealsea football team, I’m talking about Herzen and his group of intellectuals and revolutionaries in the 19th century. Vladimir Nabokov spent time in England as a young man, matriculating at Trinity College in Cambridge. That experience was reflected in at least two of his novels, Glory and The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. These days its not culture but politics, dirty politics, that dominates the Russia-England connection. The murder of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, probably at the orders of Vladimir Putin, stands at the center of that.
2) As these words are typed into my computer, the world is on a Vladimir Putin watch. He disappeared on March 5 and it is currently March 14. Where did he go? Nobody knows. There are lots and lots of rumors, but one of them is that the guy who oversaw the murder of Litvinenko has masterminded the “disappearance” of Putin. Probably not, but it’s one of the rumors out there, and it’s got me thinking about London. You see, as things have gotten worse and worse in Russia for thinking people over the last three years, we see definite signs that the Russian state, under the tutelage of Mr. Putin, is returning more and more to policies, attitudes and practices originally put into place by Mr. Lenin and his wayward pupil Mr. Stalin. We are currently seeing an outflux of intellectuals and writers that may soon match the peak emigrations of the 1980s, 1970s and 1920s. It was Lenin who codified “emigration” as a useful government policy when he oversaw the so-called “philosopher ships” in 1922 and 1923. That was sort of his attempt to be humane. Rather than arrest, torture and murder them, like he was doing to many “lesser” people, he had great Russian minds put on boats and sent abroad. A book was written about this in 2007: Lesley Chamberlain’s Lenin’s Private War: The Voyage of the Philosophy Steamer and the Exile of the Intelligentsia.

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3) Lenin’s tastes in literature and art were quite simple and direct. He liked the Russian classics such as Tolstoy, but was suspect of classics like Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky, in fact, after the Russian Revolution, went into a period of 40 or 50 years in eclipse. He never quite disappeared – he was too strong for that – but his works were hard to find and were not “appreciated” by official critics. Dostoevesky, by the way, owes a certain debt to one of England’s greatest writers, Charles Dickens, and there is a Dickens-Lenin connection, as reported by none less that George Orwell, who satirized Lenin’s ideas brutally in his novels Animal Farm and 1984. In his essay “Why Socialists Don’t Believe in Fun,” Orwell wrote that Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was read “to Lenin on his deathbed and according to his wife, he found its ‘bourgeois sentimentality’ completely intolerable. Now in a sense Lenin was right: but if he had been in better health he would perhaps have noticed that the story has interesting sociological implications.”
4) Lenin was the guy who honed, if not perfected, the use of chaos, confusion, misinformation, lies, fear, terror and violence as a basis to build a political power base. (The “perfection” he left to Mr. Stalin and we are seeing this method revived in new forms under Putin – or his successor? – today.) This is why Russia inseminated world literature with such an embarrassment of riches throughout the 20th century. Ivan Bunin, Nabokov, Yevgeny Zamyatin (Orwell’s biggest direct influence) and Marina Tsvetaeva are just a few of the major figures who left or were driven out of the Soviet Union in the early years. It’s easy to see why these individuals skipped town. Look at the list of some who didn’t – Osip Mandelstam, Isaak Babel, Vladimir Mayakovsky and Vsevolod Meyerhold were all murdered in prison. Tsvetaeva chose to come back home and ended up hanging herself. That is work Mr. Lenin can take credit for.
5) Lenin liked Maxim Gorky. Gorky liked Lenin sometimes, and even liked Stalin sometimes. Solzhenitsyn hated Gorky. I often don’t trust Solzhenitsyn (while admiring him greatly), but I share his dislike of Gorky. Does that put me within the six degrees of separation with Lenin?
Whether it does or not, I feel entirely safe in stating that I and my contemporaries in Russia today are grappling with the living legacy of Vladimir Lenin. It is a world of madness, suspicion, evil plots, dastardly deeds, death and assassination.
I feel as safe saying that as Lenin surely felt safe cozying up to his books and working on his revolutionary essays in his London abode. Thanks, London. Thanks a lot.

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