Alexander Pushkin statue, Moscow

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Another Alexander Pushkin? Oh yeah. We can do that. We can keep doing this for a long time. And we probably will.
Today we’re looking at a small monument that stands in the small Spasopeskovskaya Square in front of the great, big residence of the Ambassador of the United States to Russia. The square, like two streets in this immediate neighborhood, takes its name from the church standing at the south end of the square – Spas na Peskakh, or, Savior in the Sands.
What can I say about this particular monument? I guess most of all that it’s underwhelming. The face strikes me as rather rough and crude, perhaps by choice, or because the sculptor didn’t want it to look like everybody else’s Pushkin. Or, perhaps, because he was in a hurry, or he didn’t have any better ideas. The pose is, like, uh, “been-there-done-that.” I mean, gosh, how many statues of Pushkin have we seen in a long jacket with an overcoat tossed over his shoulder? Let me count them… On second thought, let me not. That’s really something we needed one more of, I’ll tell you.
One thing we do know about the sculptor Yury Dines is that he wanted credit for his work. He “signs” it as Yu. Dines on the back of the pedestal, as is customary, but on the left-hand side he reminds us again what a generous guy he is by writing, “A gift of Yury Dines to the city of Moscow. Erected on donations from Gerhard Jagschitz, city of Vienna, and Kaprito Co.”
As can be seen in the photo immediately below, even though this monument was erected in 1993 – not long ago at all in monument age – it already needs touching up. One of the accompanying elements on a low platform to the left of the statue has been broken off, presumably stolen.  Boy would I love to get a look at that thief. Of all the things to steal – “Hey, guys! I got some hot product! Wanna buy a fleur-de-lis that I ripped off a Pushkin ensemble? I’ll give it to you cheap!”
Maybe I’m just in a sour mood again today, but even the Pushkin quote that Dines chose to lay in a bronze scroll at the poet’s feet is – well, pretty damned forgettable. I mean we’re talking about the greatest writer in Russian history. The most beloved cultural figure there is. The guy who anybody will tell you begat Gogol, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and all the rest, all with a few strokes of his quill. A guy that makes an entire nation melt just to hear his name – and with good reason. I do, too. But this writer, this author of Eugene Onegin, Boris Godunov, of some of the most blistering poems about freedom and independence written in Russia, is represented here by:

Should life ever deceive you,
Weep not, be not angry!
Make your peace with sorrow,
For happiness, believe it, shall come!

Oh, give me a break!

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The stolen element of this statue brings to mind an email I received today from the Moscow City Cultural Heritage department. In it they explained future restorative work they plan to carry out on one of the most famous of all Pushkin statues, the one standing on Pushkin Square in Moscow. (I’ve written about it previously on this site.) Here is a quote from department consultant Yulia Loginova on the topic:
“Thanks to a visual inspection with a genie boom it became evident that the monument is affected by much corroded metal, open cracks, traces of previous restorations, and visible patches. All of this must be brought to a unified state with an eye to returning the monument to exhibit quality during the course of complex restorations. Also in need of restoration is the granite pedestal. Scientific research will be carried out in 2015 and a project for restoration shall be implemented.”
We are informed that the actual restoration will be carried out in 2016.
Now, what does this have to do with Dines’s little statue? Not much. It’s just that you do get a sense of hierarchy of importance when you imagine big, fancy genie booms flying around Pushkin on Pushkin Square, revealing little imperfections whose repair is a matter of state consequence, and then you think about the little Pushkin ensemble on Spasopeskovskaya Square where – perhaps – I am the only person to even notice that a whole chunk of the artist’s work has been ripped off and is missing. You don’t see too many people in the photo immediately below worrying about the ensemble’s defect. In fact, you don’t see anybody paying Pushkin the damndest mind. That doesn’t happen on Pushkin Square, I’ll tell you. People walk around there, their heads in the clouds as they peruse the great man from every angle. These people here only kinda glanced at me askance for an instant as I walked around photographing. As if they were thinking, “What the hell is he up to? But what do we care?”
As for me, I collect these things like baseball cards. I’m almost as thrilled to get a 1963 Al Ferrara, if I don’t have him already, as I am to get a Sandy Koufax. Well, almost, anyway. Enough so, that, despite my curmudgeonly ways today, I’m happy to add this to the till. I mean, how cool is it to walk around town and get to exchange glances with Alexander Pushkin, no matter what shape he’s in?

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Mikhail Bulgakov street art, Moscow

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This street portrait of Professor Preobrazhensky and the dog Sharikov from Mikhail Bulgakov’s popular novella The Heart of a Dog is one of many Bulgakov-related works of street art that were done in Moscow in 2014 by the 33 Plus 1 project as part of the Best City in the World festival. At least nine portraits were created in thin layers of plaster slapped on regular city walls. The plaster “canvas” was then inscribed, if you will, with an image, usually using the edge of a spatula-type instrument. To the fullest I can determine, the series was created by two artists, Pavel Shugurov and Pavel Zyumkin. Also, to the best I can determine, the entire series included images of Begemot, Azazelo, Margarita, Annushka and Korolyov from The Master and Margarita; Preobrazhensky, Shvonder and Sharikov from The Heart of a Dog; and Ivan the Terrible from the play Ivan Vasilievich. Many of the works are located in courtyards or archways tucked away from view. Many, like this one, are in the Arbat region, but some are in other places in the old, historic city center.  At least one of them (Annushka) was vandalized; I don’t know how many remain intact now. This one of Professor Preobrazhensky, in excellent shape, is located on a long, open wall at 3 Krivoarbatsky Lane, in front of building or corpus No. 2. You can see photos and read background stories about them (if you have Russian) on several websites, including  Live Journal and the 33+1 website.  Somebody named Valera who apparently was carrying around a very big black magic marker, or even a thin brush and paint, sort of claimed authorship of the work. Don’t believe him or her. It isn’t true.

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While The Master and Margarita is, hands-down, Bulgakov’s most beloved work, The Heart of a Dog does not lag far behind it. A film of huge cult popularity was made in 1988 by Vladimir Bortko. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that this film, to this day, runs 2 or 3 times a month on some Russian TV channel. Probably even more than that if we were to include all the regional Russian TV channels that show films. I run across it constantly as I channel surf, trying to avoid the bile and lies that dominate Russian TV these days. If you want to watch that film online, you can do so through several online cinema sites, including The film is shot in a kind of sepia two-tone and it stars some very good actors, including Yevgeny Yevstigneev (as Preobrazhensky) and Boris Plotnikov.
Before the film was made, the novella debuted in performance at the Moscow Young Spectator Theater, where Henrietta Yanovskaya unveiled her dramatization in 1987. It was a monstrously successful production that toured the world and drew audiences for decades. Shortly thereafter a second dramatization showed up on the stage of the Stanislavsky Theater, right around the corner from the Young Spectator Theater. So for years and years there were two popular productions of the same work playing side-by-side in theaters located essentially in the same city block.
It’s probably worth explaining a thing or two about the work for Russian literature neophytes. It tells the story of a professor during the Russian Civil War who ignores the mayhem around him while continuing with his scientific experiments. He turns a dog, Sharik (or Ball), into a human, Sharikov. In step, if not in agreement, with the new Soviet state whose goal is to remake mankind and raise it to new levels, Preobrazhensky wants to show that animals can become human. Ultimately all he proves is that a human created out of a kind stray dog is a beast, indeed. Bulgakov’s tale, originally written in 1925 (though not published), seemed to predict early on that nothing would come of the Soviet experiment. For that reason it was banned for decades, and Yanovskaya’s production was the first to bring it to a wide audience simultaneous to the first-ever official publication in 1987.
In a book called What Was That? a fabulous dual memoir published by Yanovskaya and her husband Kama Ginkas in 2014, Yanovskaya wrote how “Bulgakov lived inside that time, while I staged it 60 years after it was written. I was older than he was at that moment and I knew more than he did. I also knew more about the further fate of Preobrazhensky and poor Shvonder. Rage and hatred boiled inside Bulgakov. I had no hatred. I believed all of us were the children who came of the union of Preobrazhensky, Sharikov and Shvonder. They were our parents; I was not about to judge them. When you talk about parents you speak only in terms of sorrow and tenderness. There are degrees of Sharikov, Preobrazhensky and the idealistic Shvonder living in every one of us in this country.”

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Dead Show “Gravestone,” Moscow

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This, as Lewis Carroll might have said, is one of the curiouser memorial plaques in Moscow. Maybe anywhere. It lies in a corner of the Aquarium Garden just off of Triumphal Square (known popularly still as Mayakovsky Square), in front of the right side of the Mossoviet Theater. It first showed up in the year 2000, when Oleg Menshikov, the popular actor and founder of the 814 Theatrical Association, decided to mark the closing of his production of Alexander Griboyedov’s Woe from Wit with a bit of macabre humor. (Menshikov’s shows, until he took over the Yermolova Theater a few years ago, invariably played in Moscow at the Mossoviet, a venue where he once briefly was a member of the company.) Menshikov had a gravestone-like marker made up with the inscription “Production of A.S. Griboyedov’s play Woe from Wit, 1998-2000″ and he sunk it into the ground. Later he added other “dead” shows to the plaque – Maksym Kurochkin’s Kitchen, 2000-2002, and Nikolai Gogol’s The Gamblers, 2002-2005.
However, don’t take everything you read, especially on gravestones, to be the gospel truth. The Gamblers is actually still performed from time to time to this day.  The story on that is as follows: Menshikov is famous for being a dynamic kind of guy. He doesn’t linger long in any once place, doing any one thing. When he begins getting bored with something, he moves on. His credo is that it’s better to close a show when it’s at the peak of its popularity than it is to keep playing until audiences realize the old magic is waning. And anybody who has ever seen an old, wheezing, gasping show that should have been closed long ago will understand this well. Thus did Menshikov close both Woe from Wit and Kitchen when both were still packing audiences in like sardines in a can, raisins in a box, stars in the sky. He did the same with The Gamblers in 2005, but his friend, and one of the performers in the show, Viktor Sukhorukov, was furious. Viktor simply did not understand why anybody would stop playing a production that was so fantastically successful. And so he badgered Menshikov until Menshikov gave in and brought the show back to life. Surely there are few people capable of badgering Menshikov like that, so let’s all stand and give Sukhorukov a round of applause. Very rare instance, indeed. By the time Menshikov brought the show back, however, the news of the “death” of The Gamblers had already been impaled in stone for all of eternity. True or not: RIP – 2002-2005.

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I was present at the unveiling of the second renewing of the plaque on June 25, 2002, the day of the last performance of Kitchen. My wife Oksana Mysina played one of the leads (Queen Kriemhild) and so I was there to attend the big afterparty, which for many, who regretted that the show was ending so soon, did resemble a funeral as much as a celebration. Anyway, after everyone had had plenty of drinks and all the celebrity guests were full of smiles and laughter and had tried out a few wobbly dance steps, Menshikov called everyone out into the late-night dark of the park. The Woe from Wit gravestone was covered with a veil that, when it was ripped off, revealed the birth and death dates of Kitchen itself – a show we had seen still living and breathing just hours before.  At that time nobody knew Menshikov was susceptible to being badgered, so we all took it as final proof that Kitchen would never rise again. At least not in that incarnation. And we were right.
A few more details on this marker.
It spends several months a year buried under snow, so that in the winter few are aware of its existence. Actually, because this is a corner where snow gets dumped when it’s shoveled off the sidewalk, the marker remains buried even for some time after much of the snow is gone. These photos were taken shortly after the last snow disappeared, but well before any of the grass or other greenery began coming in this spring. It seems fitting for a gravestone to be surrounded by gloomy, raw earth and tangly dead branches…
Finally there is the lovely fact that shortly after Kitchen was added to the marker, some grim grave robber came into the park one shadowless late night and made off with the whole plaque as a souvenir. Menshikov had to have a second version made and this time, the word is, he attached it to an incredibly deep and heavy base that goes who-knows-how-far into the earth.
Still, not all is gloom and doom here, as you will notice if you click on the last photo below and take a good look. It so happened that as I was taking that picture, I entirely by accident caught a couple embracing and kissing against the neon backdrop of an American diner that stands across the park from the Mossoviet Theater. As the Latin scholars said, art is short but love is long. Or something like that…

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Knave of Diamonds exhibit site, Moscow

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I’m struggling through a bit of confusion again today. It’s in the air. Believe me. At a certain point you really begin to sympathize with John Lennon, who famously sang, “There’s nothing you can know that isn’t known.” I am currently swimming in what isn’t known. And as a result I’ve been having a hell of a time getting this post up, although I will finish today come hell or high water. But it is a fact of my life that the internet simply does not want to give me reliable information about the Russian group of artists known as the Knave of Diamonds, or the Jack of Diamonds. The art encyclopedias I own do not provide convincing information either. So I’m letting this one fly half-baked. (WordPress insists on labeling the publish date of this post as April 18, which is the day I started writing it. All my attempts to change it to April 21, when I actually completed it, are in vain. So I’m really not friends with the internet today.)
One thing that is known is that the building I present today is, in some way, connected with the Knave of Diamonds. Whether this is the site of the group’s first exhibit or a later exhibit, I simply have not determined. However, let me first present a bit of background.
The first Knave of Diamonds exhibit, wherever it was located, took place from December 1910 to January 1911 and it was a huge event, an explosive cultural statement. It presented to the world the then-strange, neo-primitivist, geometrical, color-saturated works of 53 artists, some of whom went on to become major names in history. They included Natalya Goncharova, Vasily Kandinsky, Pyotr Konchalovsky, Mikhail Larionov, Aristarkh Lentulov, Kazimir Malevich, Robert Falk, Alexandra Ekster, Natan Altman, and the Burlyuk brothers David and Vladimir. For those of you who think we need mass movements or popular support to change the world, consider this: One source tells me that the first exhibit, which had such an effect on Russian art, was visited by approximately 200 people. That’s 100 folks plus the moms and dads of each artist. (Although, in the unknowing spirit of the day, I have also seen claims that there were many visitors at the exhibit. Is 200 “many”? Are these sources talking about the same thing, or is this another case of warring information?)
In any case, one of those visitors was the great poet Maximilian Voloshin, who left behind a detailed review of the exhibit in the April 1911 issue of Russian Artistic Chronicle.  Here is a bit of what he wrote:

“… They did their best to infuriate the visitor’s eye. In the first room they hung the extremely thorny and geometrically angular compositions of Takke and Falk. In the central hall we came upon Mashkov’s  huge canvas, as if a statement, depicting himself nude with magnificent muscles and Pyotr Konchalovsky in a warrior’s costume….
The Knave of Diamonds’ method of hanging the paintings (canvases are almost exclusively large format and in a very narrow frames) is governed by the rule of hanging them as closely together as possible, in four rows – one above the other, at different levels, and mixing paintings that do not mix well, and positioning them in a way that each picture negates the next.
The human eye is the most conservative and intolerant of all the creatures that inhabit the human body. It is naturally inclined to resent anything new, anything dissimilar. Great care is required in order for the eye to catch new impressions, in order to enrich it with new experience. For a human being is intelligent, though slow to perceive . The Knaves neglected all these methods, demonstrating their extreme youth, levity and carelessness.”

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Now, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty of this stately structure erected by architect Adolf Erikhson just around the corner from Pushkin Square at 32 Bolshaya Dmitrovka. I went out and photographed it because I ran across an interesting website devoted to the work of Pyotr Konchalovsky that stated in a timeline that the first Knave of Diamonds exhibit took place right here. Here is the line directly from the site: “10 December 1910 – 16 January 1911 – participates in the Knave of Diamonds exhibit, organized by M.F. Larionov in the Levisson [sic! it’s actually Levinson] House (32 Bolshaya Dmitrovka) in Moscow.” As I worked on this, I found another source also claiming this as the site of the first exhibit. But there’s a catch. This other site repeats the Konchalovsky site’s typographical error in the spelling of the name of the building’s owner as Levisson rather than Levinson. That’s a good indication that these guys just grabbed info from the Konchalovsky site without checking it. The fact is that more sites claim that the first exhibit took place at 11 Bolshaya Dmitrovka. Here is one of them here. (But then these are also the guys who claim there were a lot of visitors at the exhibit, whereas Russian Wikipedia puts the number at 200… Who and what are you going to believe?) Furthermore, I came upon a site that names the building pictured in this post as the site of the second exhibit which took place in 1914. I finally began to realize why many sites simply write that the first exhibit took place “on Bolshaya Dmitrovka,” but don’t provide the actual number of the building. Because nobody is entirely sure what happened where when.
As a skit on my family’s old comedy record spoofing John Kennedy used to say, Let me say this about that: Having done some armchair research I feel safe in making the claim that this building is bound up in the history of the Knave of Diamonds group. It was, at one point or another, the site of at least one of the association’s public showings. Which one, I don’t know.  If anybody out there does know, I would love to hear from you.

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Konstantin Balmont plaque, Moscow

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It happens almost every time: I went out yesterday looking for one thing and ended up finding another. Finding much more, in fact, than I planned or expected. As these things go, I did not find a single thing I was actually looking for. And what I did find turned out not to be what I, or even others, thought it was. Let that sink in.
We have here a plaque claiming that the poet Konstantin Balmont (1867-1942) lived in this building in the Arbat region at 15 Bolshoi Nikolopeskovsky Lane from 1915 to 1920. That would mean he spent his last years in Russia here, between two periods of emigration – one lasting from 1906 to 1913 (obviously precipitated by the failed revolution of 1905), and a second that lasted from 1920  until his death in France.
A bit of research, however, turns up the suggestion that Balmont actually did not live at this address, but rather in the next building over, at 13 Bolshoi Nikolopeskovsky Lane.  You can see No. 13 in the last two photos below. It is the four-story structure to the “left” of the two-story building on which the plaque hangs. I don’t know how or why the plaque was hung in the wrong place, but it’s a nice plaque, rather more creative and atmospheric than most.
Whether or not the plaque belongs where it hangs, it suits Balmont well for, among other things, he was one of the spiffiest members of the Russian literary clan. He sported one of the finest aggregations of facial hair in the field. In the image on the plaque you see a well-trimmed mustache and beard. But at times Balmont went to wonderful extremes, making the beard into a goatee, letting his hair grow shoulder-length, sharpening, straightening, twirling or lengthening the mustache. You can see his admirable hirsutian creativity for yourself by googling his name and clicking on ‘images.’ It’s worth your while.

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Balmont was a hard-working writer. Assuming Russian Wikipedia has it correctly, he produced 35 books of poetry and  20 books of prose in his lifetime. He wrote memoirs, philosophy, essays, criticism and literary history. He was a major translator, putting into Russian the works of William Blake, Edgar Allan Poe, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Oscar Wilde, Gerhart Hauptmann and others. In all he translated works from Spanish, Slovakian, Georgian, Bulgarian, Lithuanian and Japanese. While he definitely knew English well – he even lectured at Oxford – he obviously often made use of helper translators who provided him with line-by-lines. Still, his talent for giving foreigners a voice in Russian was one of the finest and most enduring.
He was one of the leading figures of the so-called Silver Age of Russian literature and is routinely described as a Symbolist, although it’s obvious from what little I’ve already written that Balmont was much too heterogeneous to fit perfectly into a simple category like that. As for the label of Silver Age, I add the caveat because of an old, but recently-republished, interview with the respected scholar and historian Nikolai Khardzhiev. In it the learned man, somewhat famously already, poo-pooed the notion of a Silver Age. Following is what Khardzhiev said in an interview with Irina Vrubel-Golubkina in 1996 for the Israel-based journal Zerkalo (Mirror). It was dug up again recently for Moscow’s Afisha (Marquee) magazine and caused a bit of a flurry:
“In any case, there can be no talk of a second flourishing. These days some people try calling the beginning of the [20th] century the Silver Age of Russian poetry. That’s a myth, a fiction, and a very stupid one. This term belonged to the Symbolist poet Pyast, who applied it to poets of the second half of the 19th century – Fofanov and others. This was a period of decline in poetry, before Symbolism, after the 1860s. There were, of course, wonderful phenomena, such as Sluchevsky, but the Pushkin and Nekrasov (that is, the raznochintsy) periods of poetry were stronger. He came up with that term: silver – something that’s not gold. That was picked up by Sergey Makovsky, who published his memoirs in exile. And since he was a second-rate poet himself, he applied the term to the poetry of the 20th century, which was, in fact, a true golden age of Russian poetry including the Symbolists, the Acmeists, the Futurists and the Oberiuty (who came to flourish for inexplicable reasons). It was an unheard of, unprecedented flowering of Russian poetry, which did not exist even in the time of Pushkin.”
The original publication of the interview was also referred to in Omry Ronen’s book, The Fallacy of the Silver Age. That’s for all you folks out there with grudges against those calling Russian poetry in the early 20th century second best. 
So this was kind of a day of missed opportunities and wild goose chases. I went out looking for homes in which a bunch of actors lived in the 1930s and found none, but came upon this house where a plaque says Konstantin Balmont lived, but really didn’t, a poet who was a member of the Russian Silver Age which didn’t actually exist. What a day for discoveries and the overturning of myths!
For the record, as you look up and down the street here in the final photos, you can imagine Mikhail Bulgakov’s Margarita flying in one direction or another. This is one of the streets that Bulgakov described by name in his itinerary of Margarita’s magical flight.
And, just to bring the tale back to Balmont, allow me to provide a translation of a part of one of the poet’s early works, “The Black Year,” written about the famine of 1890. As so often happens these days, I find his words, written in the late 19th century, could easily have been written by my own contemporary:

My native people, you bleed profusely!
O, if only you could find a friend,
Who, leaning to you with affection,
Could shed the burden of wicked torment!
But he does not exist…

And one more thing. For those of you with Russian, there is a very cool website devoted to the study of Balmont’s life and work.  Give it a look.





Vladimir Mayakovsky bust and museum, Moscow

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This bust of the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky is very powerful. It presents the “great Soviet poet” as a most contentious and threatening force. Unveiled in 1993 near the entrance to the Mayakovsky Museum right across the street from the Lubyanka – where many of Mayakovsky’s friends were incarcerated or murdered – this image is one that shouts reproach. Surely it was planned by sculptor Yury Orekhov that Mayakovsky’s gaze would be averted away from the headquarters of the GPU/NKVD/KGB/FSB. Even in 1993, one of the most liberal periods in Russia, I don’t think it would have been tolerated for this gaze to be aimed at the walls of the building where Mayakovsky’s friend, the director Vsevolod Meyerhold, was murdered in 1940.
Of course, Mayakovsky himself did not live to know about Meyerhold’s murder. Experiencing unbearable pressure in both his personal and public lives, Mayakovsky took his own life by gunshot on April 14, 1930.
Well, I’ll be damned. That was 85 years ago today. I didn’t plan on that. It happened on its own.
Mayakovsky, as Boris Pasternak said with such insight, suffered two deaths. One occurred when he left this mortal coil; another, when, in 1935, Joseph Stalin, giving orders to NKVD head Nikolai Yezhov, raised the dead poet to the status of state hero. Mayakovsky could not possibly have been a Stalinist hero. It doesn’t matter that he wrote no small amount of poetry extolling the wonders of the new Soviet state. That was an honest desire on the part of the poet to believe that change, of which he had dreamed, was indeed bringing forth good. The problem was that the rift between the rhetoric and reality of the time was growing too big. The crimes and evil being done in the name of progress were killing people. Indirectly, but no less effectively, they killed Mayakovsky, too.
You see most of that in Orekhov’s bust. You see anger, you see rebellion, you see power and strength and talent and you see, somehow, in this red marble, a terrible vulnerability. I can’t find it specifically. I can’t say, “Look at this picture and look at the eyebrow or the earlobe and you’ll see it.” It’s not there to be picked out and set aside. But it’s there. In this bulk of rock, with its hawk-like gaze, you see loss and failure and deception and the treachery of history weighing it down. Maybe it’s the anger – maybe that’s too much anger for a human to bear. Mabye that’s where the fatal flaw lies. In anger.

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Those of us in Russia again live in an age of animosity and anger. In ways that parallel only the times of Mayakovsky, we have seen the field of culture become a battle ground. That has touched on Mayakovsky’s legacy even in regards to the famous museum that once marked his life and work in this world.
It is interesting to see how changes at the Mayakovsky Museum dovetail with the advancement of history. The first Mayakovsky Museum, a predecessor to the one we now know, was established at a different address in 1937, during the height of the Purges. The current museum was created in 1967-68 in the building where Mayakovsky shot himself. History buffs recognize this as the tail end of The Thaw era. Major reconstructions were undertaken in 1987-89, the height of Perestroika. The museum was closed and its exhibits were partly vandalized in several scandalous moves by the authorities in 2013 – the beginning of the period in which we now live, filled with cultural attacks, raids on places of culture and the plundering of art, past and present, for money and power.
Just as Stalin was necessary to bring Mayakovsky back into the ranks of hero following his suicide (a real no-no for Soviet propaganda’s sake), Leonid Brezhnev was pulled into conflicts that affected the fate of the museum in the 1960s. My point is that Mayakovsky and his legacy continue to act as a kind of litmus test determining which way political and cultural winds are blowing.
As you can see in the photo immediately below, the museum is now abandoned and “under reconstruction.” There is no way of knowing what form the museum will take in the future, just as there is no way of knowing where all the cultural conflict in Russia today is leading us. One can expect that, wherever it leads, it will be reflected in some way in the Mayakovsky Museum. In the final photo below you see the plaque identifying the museum on the inside of the archway that leads to the museum entrance. Beyond it and across the street stands the FSB headquarters at Lubyanka. There is a symbiotic relationship here that feels eternal, whether we like that or not.

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Vasily Pushkin house, Moscow

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I attended an event at the new Teatr.doc yesterday, which is located at 3 Spartakovskaya Street just two doors down from Razgulyai Square. It was a concert organized to take place simultaneously with protests occurring in Novosibirsk and St. Petersburg in response to the banning of the opera “Tannhauser” at the Novosibirsk Opera and Ballet Theater. There’s a lot more to it than that, but that’s not my point today. My point is Alexander Pushkin and his uncle Vasily. You see, Vasily Pushkin lived just a few doors up, and across the street, from where the new Teatr.doc is located. In fact, if you head back in the other direction along Spartakovskaya, going past Teatr.doc, you quickly come upon the imposing Church of the Epiphany in Yelokhovo where itty-bitty baby Pushkin was christened when he was two days old in 1799. There are other “Pushkin places” around here, most of which I’ll end up writing about in this space one day or another.
For that reason it seems entirely fitting that yesterday’s concert at Teatr.doc – a literary recital, during which actors, writers and directors recited various Russian poetry that has been banned over the last 200 years – began and ended with poetry by Pushkin – “Ode to Liberty,” and “Deep in the Siberian Mines.” After all, as little Pushkin ran around this area in his early years, he would have seen the 18th-century building that now serves as the 21st-century Teatr.doc. The walls of this small building witnessed the extraordinary sight of little Pushkin running up and down the street.
Vasily Pushkin was a poet himself, and not a bad one. Of course, he has been eclipsed entirely by his nephew. So it is that on the house he occupied in the first years of the 19th century, there are two plaques proclaiming the presence of Alexander and two proclaiming the presence of Vasily. The nicest one, with crude lettering on white marble states: “Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin used to spend time in this house of his uncle, the poet V.L. Pushkin” (see below). There is also a fancy golden plaque at the gate leading into the courtyard which proclaims this building at 36 Staraya Basmannaya Street the Vasily Pushkin House Museum. Although in small letters above you see that this is an affiliate of the greater Alexander Pushkin complex of museums around Moscow. For the record, this is a relatively new museum in Moscow – it was opened in 2013.

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Vasily Pushkin (1766-1830) was a well-known man-about-town in his time. He served in the army, wrote lyrical poetry and satires, hosted great parties and took part in the great debate about changes occurring in the Russian language at the turn of the century. He came down on the side of Nikolai Karamzin, who was a progressive, if you will, and against Alexander Shishkov, an admiral and government official who imagined himself a writer and struck a bold pose against allowing Russian to grow and change with the times. Guess who won that argument? However, Vasily Pushkin was dead set against any attempt among Russian writers to give in to the inclination to write in the vein of the Romantics. Being progressive was one thing, but succumbing to all that romantic balderdash was another! Vasily’s best-known work is a satirical narrative poem called “The Dangerous Neighbor,” about a rake’s visit to a brothel. The well-known poet Yevgeny Baratynsky, a good friend of Alexander’s, was of such a high opinion of “The Dangerous Neighbor” that he suggested the elder Pushkin, not particularly accomplished before this time, must have made a pact with the Devil suddenly to begin writing with such talent.
Thus are we encouraged to believe that the whole legend of the great bluesman Robert Johnson meeting the Devil at a crossroads in Mississippi and selling his soul to learn how to play the guitar, has its roots in Russian literary history. Doesn’t this make the whole legend of Alexander Pushkin being of African descent take on new sheen?
Anyway, even the grumpy critic Vladimir Nabokov afforded “The Dangerous Neighbor” faint (or is it feint?) praise. “The immodest poem,” Nabokov reportedly said, “is more properly gallant, in the French sense of the word, than ribald (although it is full of rough-and-tumble little words in the vernacular).
Vasily was an important person in Alexander’s life. It is often said that Vasily “taught” Sasha how to write verse – although it might make more sense to say he was the one to encourage him to do it. As the plaque suggests, Sasha hung out here from time to time as a child, and Alexander was one of the first people, to whom Vasily entrusted “The Dangerous Neighbor” when it was completed. It is worth noting that this poem, written in 1811, remained banned in Russia until 1901. Alexander introduced the character of Buyanov from “The Dangerous Neighbor” into his great novel-in-verse Yevgeny Onegin as a minor figure. And when Alexander was exiled from St. Petersburg to Moscow in connection with the revolt of the Decembrists, it was to Vasily’s house – the one pictured here – that he immediately came.
According to Alexander’s father, the young future poet learned several of his uncle’s poems by heart and “thereby quite pleased the venerable relative.” It was the uncle who first espied talent in the nephew and it was he who brought Pushkin to the famous Lyceum where he began his studies in 1811. The younger Pushkin identified the elder as a “tender, subtle,  keen” poet. However, he did know that they were separated by a gulf. In an epigram to his uncle the young Alexander wrote, in part:

…No, No, you’re not at all my brother; 
Even on Parnassus you are my uncle.

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Anton Chekhov bust, Melikhovo

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This, I learned when visiting Anton Chekhov’s estate at Melikhovo a few weeks ago, was the first monument ever raised to Chekhov in Russia. The bust (bronze on a granite pedestal) was sculpted by Georgy Motovilov and unveiled in 1951. Since Aug. 30, 1960, according to act No. 1327 (supplement No. 1) of the Sovet of Ministers of the Russian Federation of the Soviet Union, this bust has been considered a work of art of federal significance. Motovilov was best known for his bas relief work in many of Moscow’s metro stations, but he clearly had a soft spot for Chekhov. He also created a statue of Chekhov in Yalta. Other “literary” sculptures include monuments to Alexei Tolstoy in Moscow and Nikolai Nekrasov in Yaroslavl. He received a Stalin prize for his bas reliefs of Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin in the Kaluzhskaya metro station in 1950. One rather suspects it was this award that led to his receiving the commission to be the first Russian sculptor to honor Chekhov. In any case, commissions like this were often handed out in such a manner. When Motovilov (1892-1963) died he was done the great honor of being buried in the cemetery at the Novodevichy monastery.
The Chekhov bust is a very nice one, oldish-looking now, of course. But that is a plus in this case. It has that sense of Soviet reverence. Chekhov here is a Great Figure, entirely realistic, distant in many ways, yet also human. I think one of the nicest things about it is its placement on the grounds of the Melikhovo estate museum. For our purposes now it is stuck off in a corner, quite hidden by trees and bushes. You almost want to think that this must be especially pleasing to Chekhov, if he ever bothers to look down upon this spot. It is a place of quiet and peace and repose. It’s true that the bust was erected at the end of what used to be the main, ceremonial entrance to Melikhovo in Chekhov’s time. He had a beautiful, long alleway put in and lined it with some three dozen various kinds of lilac bushes. It must have been an extraordinary sight in Spring to come in from dirty, bustling Moscow to visit the writer and to trundle down this gorgeous lane for the last half-kilometer or so of the trip. But that was when Chekhov lived here. Today that entrance is locked up and, I presume, is only opened for very big VIPs, if at all. Thus, although Chekhov is here to greet folks coming in, nobody comes in this way anymore. In fact, this bust stands with its back to the area where most of the museum visitors now enter and walk around. And, as I say, you rather get the feeling that Chekhov, the bust, likes it that way.

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I often travel out to Melikhovo with Americans visiting Moscow. Their initial reaction when I suggest it is always one of excitement. It has never failed. The magic of Chekhov, its hold on the people of the world – especially theater people, but not only – is endless. I got the same reaction when Cuban-American playwright Nilo Cruz was in Moscow a few weeks ago to attend the Moscow premiere of his play Anna in the Tropics at the Stanislavsky Electrotheater. His interest was seconded by his agent Peregrine Whittlesey, whose mother Eunice Stoddard had worked with Konstantin Stanislavsky when the latter was finishing his books on acting. The idea to suggest the trip came to me during a public talk where Nilo and I, along with several others, were talking about his play, Leo Tolstoy, and Russian culture. Nilo mentioned that his favorite writer is probably Chekhov. Here is how I jotted down his comment as I sat next to him at the front table: “I haven’t used any other Russian themes in my plays, but Anton Chekhov is probably my favorite dramatist. The longing and nostalgia of his characters is close to mine.”
Nilo was very generous as Peregrine and I aimed our cameras at him time and time again. Below you can see one of the shots I got of him with the Chekhov bust. There is something similar in their reserved gazes.

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Tretyakov brothers plaque, Moscow

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My friend Michael Nemirsky, who sometimes reads these posts, sent me a question the other day asking when most of Moscow’s memorial plaques were put up. I don’t have an answer for that grounded in hard fact, but experience tells me that most of the plaques we see these days were put up after the 1950s, some before, and on through the end of the Soviet period. Memorial plaques were one of the ways that the Soviet government paid off people who did its bidding. That’s why many of them are people with checkered biographies, while some of those people that we consider great today are not so  honored. Plaques and monuments still go up in our day, but not as frequently in the past.
Literally just a few hours after Michael put that question to me I happened to be on Nikolskaya Street near the Kremlin when I came upon the tiny street, even alleyway, called Tretyakovsky Passage. It was, and remains, a street that was privately built in the 1870s by the Tretyakov  brothers Pavel (1832-1898) and Sergei (1832-1892) on land which originally had been built up in the 18th century. And right there in the archway leading to the tiny street was a very old memorial tablet. It is so old that it is written in the typescript that was used before the Russian language underwent a reformation that took place on Jan. 1, 1918. With that lovely old-fashioned hard sign finishing off each word or name on the plaque, it directs attention to the “Honorable Citizens P.M. and S.M. Tretyakov.” You can see the marble plaque in the first photo above. I don’t know when it was placed here on this wall, I haven’t been able to find that information. But it obviously would have been before 1918, making it one of the oldest memorial plaques in Moscow.

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The Tretyakov brothers – two of the greatest collectors of paintings in Russian history – began building their collections some time before they built the two rows of stores and boutiques (as we call them today). I’m assuming that art collection, even in the second half of the 19th century, was a profitable endeavor. The stores on Tretyakov Passage were very respectable in their day. There were stores here which traded in furniture, tea, women’s clothing and other items. I remember a time in the late Soviet period when most of these places were empty or abandoned. In recent years they have been resurrected and turned into one of the poshest places in Moscow. Bentley Motors, Ferrari, Maserati, Armani, Gucci, Dolce and Gabbana, Yves Saint Laurent and many other “top” western brands have outlets here. Fashion Week in Moscow is usually held in this little alleyway these days. I particularly love the Tretyakov Spa, pictured above, which opens at 11 a.m. I mean, who, among the hoity-toity in Moscow are going to get out of bed before 11 a.m. to work out? After all, you don’t even have to be hoity-toity in Moscow to sleep in until 11 a.m.
I don’t know if they did it by agreement or if it happened by chance, but Pavel Tretyakov, who was born in December 1832, spent most of his time collecting Russian art, while his brother Sergei, born in January the same year, primarily collected European art. Pavel’s works ended up forming the basis of the famed Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, which specializes in Russian art. Sergei actually started out collecting the work of Russian artists too. Some of his first acquisitions were painted by Alexei Bogolyubov, Vasily Vereshchagin, Ivan Kramskoi, Arkhip Kuindzhi and others. But his heart was in collecting the European painters – Jacques-Louis David, Gustave Courbet, Theodore Rousseau, Jean-Paul Laurens, Anton Mauve, Baldomero Galofre Jimenez and many, many more.
The fine arts in Russia are synonymous with the Tretyakov name. I find it has a lot more cache than all the big names tossed around on storefronts here today. Somehow one has the feeling that something along the lines of, say, Dolce & Gabbana may be here today but will be gone tomorrow, while one senses that, whoever else may blow in here in the future, the name Tretyakov will still be in place and will still carry weight. The hotshots here lean on the Tretyakovs for prestige, not the other way around.

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Sofya Giatsintova plaque, Moscow

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This famous apartment building in Moscow was home to the actress Sofya Giatsintova for a staggering 54 years. She lived here, as the plaque says, from 1928 to 1982. Giatsintova, who was born in 1895 and died in 1982, is one of those names that constantly hovers over anyone working or studying in the sphere of Russian theater. She was educated at the young Moscow Art Theater and she began acting there in 1910, when she was 15 years old. Throughout her long career she worked at many prominent Moscow playhouses, including the Second Moscow Art Theater, the Mossovet Theater and Lenkom, where she was artistic director from 1951 to 1957 (some sources say 1952 to 1958).
The building at 12 Bryusov Lane is the very one into which Vsevelod Meyerhold and his wife Zinaida Raikh moved at the same time as Giatsintova and many other famous performers. In fact, the entire street may claim the greatest concentration of actors/artists/ composers/musicians/dancers/writers of all Moscow’s streets. If you read Russian you might be interested to take a look at the Russian Wikipedia entry on Bryusov Lane – it is packed with information.
Giatsintova’s name came from her first husband, a sailor who ended up emigrating to the United States during the Russian Civil War. Their marriage was later annulled and around 1924 – I haven’t pinned down the exact date – Giatsintova married the famous actor and director Ivan Bersenev. His plaque hangs a few window-frames away from Giatsintova’s. They remained together until 1949 when Bersenev left Giatsintova for the great ballerina Galina Ulanova. Bersenev died in 1951 at the age of 62.
The big Moscow Art Theater encyclopedia, published in 1998 on the occasion of the theater’s 100th anniversary, mentions that Giatsintova was born into an elite family. Her father was a professor and writer; her mother came from the Chaadayev family, hearkening back to the famous writer, philosopher and political prisoner Pyotr Chadayev.

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That encyclopedia provides one of those pithy, encyclopedia-like descriptions of Giatsintova: “”G’s lyrical gift combined with taste and a vividly cheerful talent for character roles.” She also commanded, the encyclopedia tells us, a highly “expressive” quality with a penchant for the “grotesque.” This apparently served her well in productions like Alexander Afinogenov’s The Oddball, the famous dramatization of Andrei Bely’s novel Petersburg, and Deval’s A Prayer for the Living in the 1920s and ’30s. Like everyone else at the Second Moscow Art Theater, she had to move on when the theater was broken up by the Soviet government in 1936.
Her memoirs, Alone with my Memories, published posthumously and unfinished in 1985, are considered to be of great value for the rich information they contain about her early years. Her story of over 500 pages breaks off as the Second Moscow Art Theater is ending its life. In a long appreciation-afterword to the book, the great Soviet theater scholar Konstantin Rudnitsky writes, “Giatsintova commanded an inquisitive mind, a subtle power of observation, and a lively sense of humor that joyously illuminates some of the pages of her reminiscences.” He points out how her many stories of the pain of loss and death are usually colored with a detectable smile. The book has been reprinted many times since it first appeared.
One of the sadder chapters in Giatsintova’s life occurred in 1973, following the publication in Pravda of a text damning Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Giatsintova was one of a large number of famous Soviet artists and writers who jumped on the bandwagon to demonize Solzhenitsyn. Here is the short text she wrote: “I have never read anything by Solzhenitsyn, so I cannot judge his literary talents. But in a personal sense his behavior strikes me as disgusting. In general this whole story strikes me as revolting. It’s simply terrifying that such people live in our country.”
Not one of the great actress’s best moments. It’s galling. So few were able to stay off the bandwagons – bandwagons we still see rumbling up and down Russia’s streets today.

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