Olga Knipper-Chekhova plaque, Moscow

Click on photos to enlarge.

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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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