Click on photos to enlarge.
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.
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.