Konstantin Alexeyev (Stanislavsky) plaque, Moscow

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Moscow, damn it, is fabulous. You’re out for a mindless stroll and all of a sudden you run up against this: one of the first theaters Stanislavsky ever performed in. No big deal, just a run-down three story structure. Just a place where the founder of the Moscow Art Theater got his start. I had no idea this was here. It’s located off the main paths most culture consumers in Moscow take. If you’re heading to the Russian Academy of Theater Arts or the Mayakovsky Theater or the Theater at Nikitsky Gates – you miss this little street – Nizhny Kislovsky Lane. If you’re going to concerts at the Conservatory or the Tchaikovsky Music School, you are most likely to take another route. All these places are within spitting distance of the building you see here, but few are going to bring you into contact with the place bearing a plaque that reads, “City Estate, 19th century, Main House 1860. Here from 1860 to 1892 was located the famous Moscow theater of P.F. Sekretaryov (‘Sekrataryovka’), on the stage of which K.S. Alexeyev (Stanislavsky) performed.” Boom, how about that? This is the place, ground zero, where Alexeyev became Stanislavsky. It was while performing here that he assumed his now-famous pseudonym.
Pyotr Sekretaryov was not your run-of-the-mill citizen. His last name came about because his father was secretary to Grigory Potyomkin and Catherine the Great. He, meaning Pyotr, occupied one of the most beautiful homes in Moscow located at what is now known as 5/2 Gogolevsky Boulevard. But he liked to spend his money for the public good, and, being a fan of theater, he kept a rare-at-that-time private theater here at 6 Nizhny Kislovsky Lane. The theater’s story, at least as told on Russian Wikipedia, is quite interesting. It seems that Sekretaryov’s brother-in-law was active in finding private spaces where banned plays by the great Alexander Ostrovsky could be performed by a small group of amateur performers – many of whom were quite famous individuals, including the great philanthropist Savva Mamontov. That apparently prompted Sekretaryov to open his own space. Here is a paragraph lifted directly from the article on the theater:
“On his piece of land Sekretaryov erected a new theater building. Despite its small size (the journalist Vlas Doroshevich called it a ‘tobacco box’), the two-story auditorium included an orchestra, balconies, boxes, a gallery, an orchestra pit and backstage wings. The entry for the actors and the stage were located in the right side of the facade, while the spectators entered by way of an entrance on the left [you can see that door in the top photo and the second photo immediately below – JF]. The first floor had a coat check room and a kitchen, and the second floor had a dance hall and cafeteria.”
The third story that we now see atop the building was added later.

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Ah, but isn’t there, in this life, always more than meets the eye? It certainly is true of this little place. Because just about as Sekretaryov was preparing to give up his little endeavor, the Society of Art and Literature moved in as renting tenants. If you don’t recognize that name immediately, let me explain – that is the organization headed by Stanislavsky (with help from his friends) which led more or less directly to the founding of the Moscow Art Theater.
But the miracles do not end there, for, from 1917 to 1924, this very space was used by the now-famous Habima Jewish Theater, where one of the pedagogues was none other than Stanislavsky’s star pupil Yevgeny Vakhtangov.
None of this, by the way, is mentioned anywhere on the building itself. The walls here guard all these riches in mute silence. But that, too, is not the end of the interesting goings on at this address. The future famous actor Modest Pisarev performed on this stage when he was young and, in fact, his future career was apparently kick-started when he ran into the great actor Mikhail Shchepkin in the theater’s foyer.
In 1881 Yakov Bryusov – father of the future poet Valery – staged an amateur show here. Like virtually everything that was performed here, it was without a poster advertising it, without programs and without tickets for purchase. This was the rule at Sekretaryovka, because so often the works offered were not permitted to be performed publicly by the censor. This goes for, among others, Ostrovsky’s A Profitable Post. My understanding is that this was not quite an “underground” theater hiding from the authorities, but a location where well-heeled and well-placed noblemen and aristocrats could dabble in art, especially that which was outside the officially accepted fare.
If there is anyone out there with nothing to do, I highly recommend a book or, at least, an article, detailing the extraordinary cultural heritage of this unassuming building. I have gone through dozens of websites, encyclopedias and books to glean the skimpy information provided here. There is nothing, for example, about this place in the five-volume Soviet Theater Encyclopedia. The two-volume Moscow Art Theater encyclopedia has nothing either. Even my seven-volume, Soviet-era History of the Russian Dramatic Theater does not mention Sekretaryov by name. All the websites crib from one another, rehashing the same finite number of facts, just as I have done. I would love to see some original research on this place.

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Mstislav Rostropovich plaque, Voronezh

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Today we look at a plaque that hangs on the wall of the Voronezh Music College and informs all who bother to stop and read, that the great musician Mstislav Rostropovich (1927-2007), an honorary citizen of the city of Voronezh, conducted master classes here in 2002, 2004 and 2006. But there is more than just a plaque here. As you can see in the middle of the three photos immediately below, the institution located at 41 Revolution Prospect is called the Voronezh Musical College and is named after the Rostropoviches. There is a good reason for that, just as there is a good reason that Rostropovich, already well aged, would have come to Voronezh to offer master classes over the course of five years at a time when he was surely very busy and slowing down.
You see, Witold Rostropovich (1856-1913), Mstislav’s grandfather, spent most of his adult life in Voronezh. A pianist, composer and publisher, Witold moved to Voronezh in 1879 and stayed there until his death. He taught at the men’s gymnasium and performed concerts from time to time. His son Leopold Rostropovich (1892-1942), Mstislav’s father, was born in Voronezh, later attending the conservatory in St. Petersburg. Leopold was a cellist, teacher and conductor, who subsequently worked in Saratov and Baku – where Mstislav was born.
The college itself was founded in 1904 as an affiliate of the Imperial Russian Musical Society of Music Classes. It received the status of a musical college in 1911. A nice history of the college on a Voronezh-based website tells us that, thanks to Witold Rostropovich, even before the college opened, aspiring local musicians were able to study their craft. On August 24, 1922, Leopold Rostropovich returned to his native city to perform a concert of works by Sergei Rachmaninov at this location. The college was officially named after the Rostropovich family in 2002, and in 2004, as noted above, Mstislav came to participate in the ceremony marking the college’s 100th anniversary. According to the site I’m crimping from, Rostropovich’s appearance was a “genuine triumph,” and the five master-classes he conducted over the years were “unforgettable.” The site also quotes a “touching” telegram from Vladimir Putin on the occasion, but I trust we can skip quoting that. The master classes offered by Rostropovich in February 2002, February 2004 and December 2006 were the last ones he ever conducted.

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I now have the pleasure of sharing one of the most fascinating, entertaining and funny videos I have ever encountered. Someone in 1980 – and who was videotaping in 1980? – had the incredible smarts to turn a video camera on Rostropovich, Vishnevskaya and the legendary pianist Arthur Rubinstein and just let it run while the trio ate and drank together at table. This took place in Deauville, France. The trio switch back and forth between Russian, English and French as any true globetrotters might. Their topics of conversation are broad, indeed – language itself, the smoking of cigars (Vishnevskaya insists she never smoked anything but cigars), the necessity of salt on food, Rostropovich’s adulation of Rubinstein, Rostropovich getting Rubinstein to sing a Tchaikovsky melody, and much, much more. This video is nine minutes and fourteen seconds of well-spent leisure time. This is one of those rare things that, once you have seen it, you will never forget it. Rostropovich is a ham deluxe, goading people on, teasing them, hogging attention and lavishing love on a legend.
Voronezh got a good deal of mileage out of Rostropovich. They had him there in person when, in 2002, they unveiled a plaque honoring his grandfather on the home where Witold lived. He was there again in 2006 when a plaque was unveiled honoring the fact that Mstislav’s friend Dmitry Shostakovich performed a concert in Voronezh in 1957 (I’ll be writing about that sometime in the future).
And there is one more little detail about Rostropovich’s 2004 visit. I take this directly from a report in Komsomolskaya Pravda Voronezh in 2006:
“During his last visit Mstislav Rostropovich received what was probably the most unusual title of his entire career. And that is keeping in mind that he is an honorary professor at fifty places of higher learning in the world. During the Third Traditional Tournament of Free-Style Karate in Voronezh, he was given an honorary black belt! The famous musician commented on the gift as follows: ‘I long ago surpassed Brezhnev in the number of orders and medals I have received. But I seriously doubt that any of my colleagues can claim that, among their honors, they are honorary karate specialists! It is an ancient form of battle, no less so than the art of playing the cello. I am quite touched’…”
And, finally, I must quote a description of Rostropovich drawn from the supporting text to a video of him in Voronezh on a local TV station. This about says it all:
“Mstislav Rostropovich is a distinguished cellist, conductor and pianist. His exceptional talent, his unflagging energy, his unique combination of being a great artist and humanist of uncommon power and of magnetically attractive personality, have determined his entirely unique place in the history of classical music.”

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Vera Komissarzhevskaya presence, Voronezh

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I am stretching things here today but you’ll see why soon enough. Vera Komissarzhevskaya (1864-1910) has very little to do with Voronezh. The great actress of the late 19th-early 20th century was born and lived in St. Petersburg. She became a star on the stage of the Alexandrinsky Theater after she joined that company in 1896. She made history when she founded her own theater, the Dramatic Theater, in 1904. She famously invited Vsevolod Meyerhold to work with her in 1906 and, in the course of a single season, he staged  an insane number of productions there – thirteen. Although several of them went down in history and provided cachet for Komissarzhevskaya forever more, the two did not hit it off. After sending Meyerhold packing she invited the poet Valery Bryusov to collaborate with her, but that didn’t last long, either. In the spirit of the time, Komissarzhevskaya occasionally barnstormed around the country, playing  provincial venues, and that is how the Komissarzhevskaya-Voronezh connection arises.
She spent seven days in Voronezh, from May 16 to 22 in 1903, putting on six performances: Ignaty Potapenko’s The Magical Fairy Tale, Hermann Sudermann’s Homeland and Battle of the Butterflies, Alexander Ostrovsky’s The Savage Girl and Without a Dowry, and Alexei Suvorin’s The Question. She clearly made a serious impression on the city. Despite the fact that she only made one trip there, the city fathers saw fit to name one of the local central streets after her, as you can see in the photo at the top. I noted in a recent post about Mikhail Lermontov that Voronezh seems to have a thing about people passing through. And I say that as a great compliment. A city can be so busy with itself, and so ignorant of everything going on around it, that it hardly takes notice of its place in the world. Voronezh is not like that. It does take note of brief but noteworthy encounters, and it sees itself as a part of the greater whole of Russian culture. That impresses me.
The rest of the photos here are of the city’s main drama theater, now known in full by one of those horrid official monikers – The Voronezh State Academic Theater named after Alexei Koltsov. It’s an old theater that dates back to 1787 or 1802, depending upon your source.  The building you see in these photos has little in common with whatever existed then, just as it has little to do with what the theater looked like when Komissarzhevskaya performed here.  At that time it was called the City Winter Theater. In fact, the physical plant even has little to do with what the theater looked like in the mid-1930s when the exiled poet Osip Mandelstam (see yesterday’s post) worked here briefly as the theater’s literary manager.The arched windows and the basic box are still the same. Much of the roof line is gone, however, and the rather cliched columns in front have been added. The excellent downtown.ru site tells the story of the theater and provides some excellent old photos.
But here I must digress from Komissarzhevskaya for a moment to finish up a thought about Mandelstam. It is fascinating what the “institution” of exile in the Soviet period did for provincial theaters. Exiled great writers often found employment and some safety by taking jobs as literary managers or consultants at local theaters. It is a job that the playwright Nikolai Erdman held in Tomsk when he was in exile there from 1934-36. I have no idea what actual work Mandelstam did for the theater – if any – but my heart is warmed by the notion of theaters providing shelter to great artists.

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Komissarzhevskaya was one tough cookie. An absolutely fabulous letter that she wrote to a producer or manager Yevtikhy Karpov has come down to us, and it deserves to be aired in full in English. It concerns a series of performances that she plans to give in St. Petersburg in the near future. The Suvorin to whom she refers is Alexei Suvorin, a minor writer who ran his own theater in St. Petersburg and was a good friend and publisher of Anton Chekhov. My wife Oksana Mysina, an actress who has had plenty of memorable encounters with producers and managers, read this letter and howled with delight. “This should be included in the education of all young actresses!” she said. Here is the letter, translated from a site that publishes Komissarzhevskaya’s archive:

“It’s all wrong and you tell Suvorin that you mixed everything up because I am not to blame here. 
1) I will not perform before September 15.
2) I refuse to play less than four plays.
3) I will provide two plays myself and you give me two more. As for the money, I did not say That for Suvorin’s sake. For you I said the word ‘or’ because I Thought you yourself would decide what was best for me, and that you would say so.
In all good conscience I cannot ask for more than 300 rubles, but I do not have a single acquaintance who would fail to tell me that this is very little. Since I take 300 rubles in the provinces, 300 rubles would be too little from Suvorin, whose take is 2,400 rubles. I also have in mind that in Petersburg I have to perform 15 shows for them, which means I live there for two months. I had thought that, taking all that into account, you would do what is best and so I turned the affair over to you entirely.
I read your
Happiness again [a footnote tells us that this may refer to a play by Izabella Grinevskaya (thanks to a reader for that first name!) based on Polish writer Eliza Orzeszkowa’s novel The Foundling], and it’s no good. Boring. I’ll send you Fairy Tale. And then, what does your phrase ‘if there is a good box office take’ mean? If I’m receiving a percent, then I depend on the take, but if I am receiving a set sum, I couldn’t care less what the take is – I get my sum. I bring this all out in the open because you have 75 managers there and my conditions must be clear: Please pass this all on to Suvorin. If he doesn’t want to, that’s his business. And I already see how poorly you think of me. I finish up here [Voronezh] tomorrow. We made 800 rubles on the turn here. [“On the turn” is a phrase I don’t know how to translate. It’s a phrase that had to do with the way money was paid out for benefit performances in the old Russian system of touring actors and shows.] The first city was terrible, too much – six shows. We now head for Saratov – all sold out, all six shows. I rented the Hermitage [probably meaning Moscow] on the 2nd and 3rd. For the Holy Week I’ll be with Masha in Znamenka. Easter week I’ll be in Samara and then three shows in Orenburg, four in Simbirsk and beyond that I don’t know the dates, but Kazan and Nizhny Novgorod remain. Write me about Chernyshov, are you taking him on? Well, goodbye. Your letter, in essence was horrible! Christ be with you.”

Following are some excerpts from reviews of the Voronezh tour, drawn from the Gallery of Chizhov website:

“There was something special, something inexpressibly pleasant and touching in the actress’s performance. From her very first entrance her tender figure and her tense, subtle face with sad eyes grabbed the attention of the spectators. This was not just attention paid to an exceptional actor, but rather more like attention one would pay to a near and dear person. […] With every gesture, every intonation, one thinks everything must be precisely like this and not otherwise. […] The ticket prices were very high, but the theater was filled.” – Voronezh Telegraph, review of The Magical Fairy Tale.

“Anyone who saw the previous performance would have been amazed by the change in everything about the actress. What happened to the pale, oval face, the sad eyes, the nervous grace of the body? Her face now smiles entirely, her manners are loose and wildly graceful as she purses her lips or jerks her shoulders. The audience enjoyed every minute.” – From a review of The Savage Girl.

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Osip Mandelshtam plaque, Voronezh

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There is no getting around the emotion that comes with the territory of artists and writers who were repressed during the Purges. It is a wound that does not heal. People do what they can – they write books, they translate poetry, they put up monuments or memorial plaques, they name festivals or streets or cultural centers after them – and that’s all great and wonderful. No doubt about it. But the pain and the anger do not go away.
Osip Mandelshtam (1891-1938) was one of the finest and most distinctive Russian poets ever to live. “Russian,” of course, is a reference to language. Had Mandelshtam remained where he was born (Warsaw), he probably would have written in Polish and the Poles would have claimed him. He was born Jewish and so is often referred to as a Jewish writer, although he converted to the Christian faith in 1911 in order to be able to enter the Romantic and Germanic section of the History and Philology Department of Moscow University. Although I must immediately say that, indeed, Mandelshtam remained a Jewish writer throughout his life. His decision to accept Christianity was undertaken because of his love for literature, language and knowledge, and for no other reason. But I bring it up because I think this is a great opportunity to remind ourselves what difficulties we encounter when we begin labeling people and their work.
Mandelshtam began running into troubles with the Soviet authorities in the early 1930s. He was first arrested May 13, 1934 and sent into exile to the city of Cherdyn. Thanks to the intervention of Anna Akhmatova, he was able to move with his wife Nadezhda (who later became famous as the author of memoirs about Mandelshtam) to Voronezh. They occupied several different apartments while in Voronezh, but it is the one located at 13 Fridrikh Engels Street that has been graced with a memorial plaque. It is a huge, long building that runs almost half a long, city block. At one corner of the building – the farthest point from where the plaque is located – there is a food store with a picture of ground meat hanging outside. It seems rather fitting. The Mandelshtams lived here for part of 1936.
The plaque itself has been put under siege by an ignorant insurance company, Zhaso, that damn near set its little advertising marquee right on the top of the plaque. Just to the left of the doorway that Zhaso added to the building by way of an old window, you’ll see a proper doorway under an arch. One assumes, since the plaque is located at this end of the building, that this is the door Mandelshtam would have used to go in and out.

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If you look closely at the middle photo in the trio above, you’ll see dots of wet spots caused by big rain drops hitting the building. The fact is that almost as soon as Oksana and I arrived at this spot in town, a cloud burst above us. It began as huge drops of rain whacking us, and others, in the face, but quickly turned into large chunks of hailstones that bounced off of everything like crazy. We took cover under an awning across the street and pondered our, and Mandelshtam’s, place in the world.
In April 1935, that is, before Mandelshtam moved into the apartment at this address, he wrote a short poem, which I will provide here in a hasty translation. It plays with verbs and nouns that echo the sound of the name “Voronezh,” for which I will not find adequate replacements. But here goes a translation for general meaning (followed by a transliteration and the original Russian so you can see his word and sound play):

Let me go, give me up, Voronezh:
Whether you drop me or you fumble me,
Let me slip or send me back –
Voronezh is bliss, Voronezh is a raven, a knife.

Pusti menia, otdai menia, Voronezh:
Uronish’ ty menia il’ provoronish’,
Ty vyronish’ menia ili vernyosh’, –
Voronezh – blazh’, Voronezh – voron, nozh.

Пусти меня, отдай меня, Воронеж:
Уронишь ты меня иль проворонишь,
Ты выронишь меня или вернешь,—
Воронеж — блажь, Воронеж — ворон, нож.

According to one Russian poetry site, Mandelshtam wrote over 80 poems in Voronezh between April 1935 and May 4, 1937.
Back in Moscow, in the middle of the night between May 1 and 2, 1938, Mandelshtam was arrested again and, essentially, sent immediately to Siberia by way of a couple of Godforsaken towns in the outlying Moscow region. He died of typhus on December 27, 1938 in a labor camp near Vladivostok.
There are several sites that offer English translations of Mandelshtam’s poetry  by A.S. Kline, Ilya Shambat, and others. But as you can see from the poem above, if you really want to know Mandelshtam, do what I did when I knew I had to know Tolstoy better: Learn Russian.

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Mikhail Lermontov plaque, Voronezh

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I recently took a short trip to the great city of Voronezh, the city, which, if you didn’t know, supported the False Dmitry against Boris Godunov during the Time of Troubles in the early 17th century. That has nothing to do with today’s post, I just thought it was so interesting that I had to get that in right away.
This plaque honoring the memory of poet Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841) was only one of a huge number of plaques, buildings and monuments that I photographed in Voronezh. But I think it’s my favorite. Aside from those plaques you occasionally run across proclaiming that “George Washington Slept Here” or “Vladimir Lenin Herein Took Tea,” this may be one of the most inconsequential reasons for a memorial plaque I have ever run across. I’ll quote what’s written here as closely to the original as possible: “In the years 1837-1841 the great Russian poet Mikhail Yuryevich Lermontov would stop at the Voronezh post office.” The verb could also be translated as “stayed,” in which case there would be a little more to it – that is, something along the lines of “George Washington Slept Here.” But if my first instinct as a translator is correct (supported by information that follows below), then we are dealing with a case of a plaque being erected to honor the fact that somebody stopped in here from time to time to send home a post card or two.
Although that could also be wrong. Post offices, post stations, or way stations, in those years were places where you could stop and exchange your tired horse for a rested one. So maybe Lermontov was coming by here in order to speed on further down the line.
A nice page on a website called the Literary Map of Voronezh Oblast has some good info about Lermontov in Voronezh.  I’m not going to beat what they have to say on my own, so here is a chunk right from the website:
“Lermontov was frequently in the Voronezh region, because one of the main railroads linking the center of Russia and the Caucasus passed through Voronezh. On his way to the Caucasus in the early summer of 1840, the poet stayed at the estate of A.L. Potapov, his comrade in the Imperial Guard of the Hussars. This was in the  village of Semidubravnoe of Zemlyansky county in the Voronezh province (now the village of Novaya Pokrovka in the Semiluksky area). According to legend, it was here that Lermontov set  his ‘Cossack lullaby’ poem to music, although the music has not survived.
At the end of January 1841 Lermontov stayed in Voronezh as he traveled from the Caucasus to St. Petersburg. This fact can be verified by the February 1, 1841, issue of  the Voronezh Provincial Gazette, which published information ‘about guests arriving and leaving Voronezh between January 24 and 30,’ including ‘one Lieutenant Lermontov arriving from Cherkassk.’ The poet stayed at Kolybikhin’s hotel located in the city center on Konnaya (Horse) Square, approximately where the Opera and Ballet Theater is now situated.
When returning to his regiment in the Caucasus in late April – early May of that year, Lermontov once again stayed in Voronezh (at the home of his relative and friend A.A. Stolypin (Mongo). This is verified in an entry in the Voronezh Provincial News on May 3, 1841, in the section entitled ‘On guests arriving in, and leaving, Voronezh from April 25  to May 2.’ Here we read that captain Stolypin and Lieutenant Lermontov are listed as guests in the Hotel Yevlakhov,’ located on Bolshaya Dvoryanskaya (now Revolution Prospect).”

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The memorial plaque on the impressive facade of the Voronezh post office was erected November 30, 2004. It apparently cheats a bit. According to an account on the Kultura VRN site,  there is only speculation – no proof – that Lermontov was in Voronezh before 1840. If he did pass through, or spend time in, the city in 1837, it would have been when he was on his way to the Caucasus, having been sent there in the first of several instances of exile for participating in a duel. In fact, the last trip through Voronezh, the one documented above in April-May 1841, came just prior to the duel that killed the hot-blooded poet on July 27 of that year at the age of 26.
Interest in Lermontov in Voronezh remains relatively high. A little over a year ago there was a movement begun to put up a bust honoring the poet’s occasional forays into and out of the city. As was reported in the Voronezh office of RIA Novosti on March 15, 2014, a letter was sent to the governor asking him to support the project:
“The time spent by Lermontov in our region was reflected in his works, which is extremely useful for the patriotic education of our generation. In October this year the multinational peoples of Russia and all progressive mankind (on the level of UNESCO) will widely celebrate the 200th anniversary of M.Yu. Lermontov. The Mayor’s office of Voronezh supports the idea of erecting a monument, but a problem arises in the absence of funds for such a goal in the budget…”
Oops. We’re ready to be patriotic if you’ll just give us the money.
The article ends with a lovely little caveat: “Among opinions, of course, the notion is popular that Voronezh does not need a monument to Lermontov. There exists a list of those to whom it ‘would be better’ to honor with a monument.”
Who am I to jump into this argument? I am a firm believer in the opinion that the more monuments the merrier. In fact, I’d be very happy to see half, maybe three-quarters, of the world’s politicians replaced by monuments – not to them, of course, but to those who oppose them. But I digress. And let me finish by saying that this plaque honoring Lermontov will always occupy a special place in my heart.
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Sergei Yesenin home, Moscow

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I’ve been working under a double whammy that has kept me from making posts to this blog. I’ve been crazy busy, and then my computer with all my photos died. The guy at the shop swears he’ll fix it, but until he does, I’m running on zero. As a result I just now ran out with my camera to grab some shots of a place not far from where I live – the house in which the poet Sergei Yesenin (1895-1925) was registered as a resident from 1911 to 1918. (Many sources say he did not actually move here from his birthplace in the Ryazan region until 1912.) He didn’t live here for that entire period, but this home apparently was his official place of residence.
It’s an odd little location. I can hardly think of a better place to put something that you want no one ever to find or enjoy once they’ve found it. The address is 24 Bolshoi Strochenovsky Lane, bldg. 2. A small plaque announcing the presence of the museum is almost lost in a small sea of other plaques indicating the location here of five or six businesses. The building itself is located behind a tall fence and is blocked off from access by one of those awful little booths manned by a grumpy guard. You pass through a double door and, when you reach the guard, he is just itching to tell you you can’t go through. There’s a huge sign: “Entry by pass only!” But a magical little thing happens when you say you want to visit the Yesenin museum – the guard’s face goes limp with disappointment and he waves you through the second door, the one to the left. What cracked me up was that it doesn’t matter if you go through the door to the left or the one to the right – where you must have a pass to pass – you still end up in the same open courtyard in front of the Yesenin house. But them’s just details.
Yesenin lived here in Apartment No. 6 with his father Alexander Yesenin, who worked in a butcher shop belonging to a certain N.V. Krylov. This two-story, wooden building, erected in 1891, belonged to Krylov. The original structure perished in a fire and it was rebuilt  in 1992, becoming the Yesenin museum in 1995. Apparently, the original idea was to make the entire building into a museum, but economic realities were such that, in the end, just two rooms of approximately 40 square meters each were turned over to the museum. The second floor is occupied by one or more business concerns.

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The young poet was still searching for himself and his place in the world at the time he was registered here as a resident . At first he took a job alongside his father in Krylov’s meat store, but did not last long there. This was much to the chagrin of his father, who hoped his son would follow in his footsteps. In March 1913 Yesenin took a job as a corrector’s assistant at the nearby Sytin printing press, about which I have written previously in this space.  Yesenin’s first wife Anna Izryadnova had this to say about this period in the poet’s life (as quoted in the Walks in Moscow site):
“His mood was depressed – he was a poet, no one wanted to understand that. Editors were not publishing him, his father was grumbling that he was loafing and that he should get a job. He had the reputation of a leader, he attended meetings [of the Surikov literary-musical circle? – JF] and distributed illegal literature. He would throw himself at books, spent all his free time reading, wasted all his pay on books and magazines, never at all thinking about how to live…”
Yesenin and Izryadnova met on the job at the Sytin printing concern where she was also a corrector. They never were married officially, although they had a son, Yury, in December 1914. That, incidentally, is precisely the month that Yesenin quit his job working for Sytin and devoted himself entirely to a life of writing poetry. His first ever published poem, “Birch Tree,” appeared in January 1914 in a magazine, The Little World (Mirok), published by Sytin in January 1914. In 1915 he headed for St. Petersburg for awhile, although this home in Moscow continued to be his official residence.
I could not enter the museum today because I ran out not thinking of anything but shooting photos. The entry fee is 200 rubles and I didn’t have a kopeck on me. However, the door was open so I snapped the picture immediately below, of a small statue of Yesenin that stands in the entryway. If you’d like to see some of the exhibits inside, another Moscow Walks site hosts a fairly large gallery of photos.

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Ivan Bunin plaque, Moscow

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Povarskaya Street was a hopping cultural hub in the early 20th century. In 1905 Konstantin Stanislavsky rented a space in the Nemchinov building right at the beginning of Povarskaya where Vsevolod Meyerhold briefly, but famously, ran his Studio on Povarskaya. (That building was torn down in the Soviet era when Kalinin Prospect was widened.) Right around the corner from Povarskaya, on Borisoglebsky Lane, the poet Marina Tsvetaeva moved into her new digs in 1914 and remained there until 1922. The famous Lithuanian poet Jurgis Baltrushaitis lived at 24 Povarskaya from 1920 to 1939 when he was the first ambassador of Lithuania to the Soviet Union. But today we have our eye on Povarskaya 26, the next building over. This was the home of Ivan Bunin, who was later to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature during his time in European exile. As the plaque on the building’s front facade declares, Bunin lived here from 1912 to 1918. That is particularly interesting because it means that Bunin and Tsvetaeva were neighbors for the course of about four years. There’s a park right across the street from Bunin’s building and, assuming it was there 100 years ago, one wants to imagine the occasional warm spring day when both writers might have stepped out to catch some fresh air and ended up sharing a bench together, or, at least, one of them passing by the other, who might have been sitting and reading or jotting down notes.
A couple of people missed crossing paths with Bunin here. One was Mikhail Lermontov, who lived in a different building, now lost, on this very spot in 1829 and 1830 when he wrote, among other works, his great narrative poem The Demon. Anyone who knows Boris Pilnyak’s great novel The Naked Year will recognize my little homage to Pilnyak in that little phrase of “now lost…” In his novel, to great effect, Pilnyak lists things and places that were fast disappearing at the time he wrote The Naked Year. That novel begins with the words, “On the city fortress wall gates it was written (now destroyed): Save, O, Lord/This city and your people…” It’s just the first of many such times he plays with that device.
And so now I can bear my own device: Boris Pilnyak is one of those who lived in this very building, although not at the same time as Bunin. Bunin moved out in 1918, Pilyak moved in two years later, in 1920. Pilnyak’s presence here is not recorded in any way. Perhaps that is fitting, as if to say: Boris Pilnyak, now gone, did live here once, though there is nothing here to prove that true.

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Somehow Bunin (1870-1953) and I sort of pass like ships in the night. I have read his short stories (some, not all, by any stretch of the imagination); I have seen theater performances created of his stories; I have read about him and seen movies about him. I know the basic story well – the fine, subtle writer who spanned all the way back to the late 19th-century and the Chekhov era, yet who lived well into the 1950s, i.e., the post-war and even post-Stalin age. But I have never connected with his work as I have with so many others – Pilnyak included, I might add.
My little shortcomings in taste and knowledge aside, others have had a different view. Bunin was the first Russian writer to be honored with the Nobel Prize in Literature; he received it in 1933. Like other, later Russian winners of that prize, it is usually assumed that there was more than a little politics in the choice. Bunin was considered by some to be the greatest living Russian writer in exile (he left the Soviet Union in 1920 and never went back). The prize, say some, was intended to support the difficult situation surrounding Russian writers in exile, and to highlight the lack of freedom writers enjoyed in the Soviet Union. (Tsvetaeva, for example, would have a tough time in Europe and returned to the Soviet Union where she committed suicide in 1941.) Other Russian Nobel winners were Boris Pasternak (1958), the official Soviet novelist Mikhail Sholokhov (1965) and Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1970). Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn were both persecuted to varying degrees, and their prizes reflected that. Sholokhov, it is believed, was given the prize to mollify the Soviet authorities after the “insults” of Bunin and Pasternak’s wins. None of this will ever be proved until the Nobel committee opens its archives, which will probably be never. As such, the conversations and speculation continue.
Bunin was very much of the grand old school of Russian realism (whether that term is legitimate or not). He is often compared in style and impact to Tolstoy and Chekhov. He is similar to the former in his belief in the great power that literature can wield, while he is closer to the latter in stylistic spirit. Bunin, like Chekhov, was a master of the short story. He was concise, clear and unwavering in his insistence on painting the nuances of life in their proper dark tones.
Bunin was born in the city of Voronezh and, as fate would have it, I travel there myself for the first time ever in a few days. If, in any way, I have slighted the great man’s memory with this post, I will seek to rectify that with a post I expect to write soon after visiting his place of birth.

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Sasha and Natasha Pushkin mural, Moscow

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What a cool find this was yesterday! Oksana and I were driving home and she turned right off of Malaya Bronnaya Street onto Tverskoi Boulevard and, as my great grandparents probably would have described it, I fairly gasped. Staring at me with great, big brown eyes was Sasha Pushkin. As you see in this mural located on the side of the building at 25 Nikitsky Boulevard, this is Sasha, rather than Alexander, Pushkin. And, in a travesty of the truth, there is Sasha’s sweet wife Natasha – known to the world as Natalie Goncharova – staring up at her punkin’ pie, also with great, big brown eyes. Where is the ‘travesty of the truth’? In the word ‘up.’
Natalie Goncharova, whom I take the liberty of calling Natasha thanks to this wonderful cartoon image, was taller than her husband. That doesn’t stop artists from depicting a lie, however. There is a monument to the two just across the street at this very street corner, which kind of sneaks around the problem. It depicts Pushkin and Wife as being the same height, although it wriggles out of presenting an outright falsehood by showing Pushkin looking upwards at Natalie. There’s a similar sculpture of the two on the Arbat. I’ll get around to showing and telling about them some other day. But right now I’m more interested in this cartoon version of poetic love that I ran across yesterday.
Very much in the spirit of modern-day kitsch, it depicts Pushkin taking a selfie on his iPad. In the background of the “photo” is the church located across the street (not the one in the background of my photos), where the pair were married in February 1831. The internet tells me the mural was unveiled in mid-April. It would appear, according to the reliable serge-elephant blog on Live Journal that it first appeared on or around April 10.  Serge is disappointed that he cannot divulge the true name of the author of this piece. Some sources have listed the artist as a group called Nezo, but Serge insists this is not true. I find another name in another post put up by the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper. They say the mural was created by the Kaspersky Laboratory – the folks who bring us the Kaspersky anti-virus system – and, indeed, you can see the Kaspersky name at the bottom of the painting. The newspaper informs us that the artist is Roman Shipunov. I haven’t seen a response to that from Serge. According to Serge, this mural was completed in two nights’ work.

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Pushkin, as much as any other Russian cultural icon, suits the tongue-in-cheek form of a cartoon selfie. Pushkin is funny, though not in the way that Gogol is funny. Gogol is the kind of funny that makes you hurt. He causes you pain. He makes you wince. His humor reminds you of what dolts and idiots we all can be. Pushkin is – damn! this could really slip into cliche quick! but here goes: Pushkin is joy and laughter and lightheartedness and health and all those things that turn so quickly into Hallmark cards, but which are anything but in his hands. Pushkin is of the life force. And therefore he not only can withstand parody and jokes – they suit him to a “T”.
Some of the greatest and most quoted short literary works in Russian are the “jokes” about Pushkin by the absurdist Daniil Kharms. Sure, he wrote these things about Gogol and Tolstoy, too. But some of the Pushkin ones are perfect, again, because of the way Pushkin, as an artist, as a person, as an icon, can absorb and embrace them. In addition to a hilarious short dramatic sketch called “Pushkin and Gogol,” in which the two writers keep bumping into each other and falling on the ground, Kharms wrote a whole series of jokes called “Anecdotes about Pushkin.” Here are two of them:

Pushkin loved to throw rocks. No sooner would he see a rock than he would start throwing it. Sometimes he would get so carried away he would turn all red, waving his arms and throwing rocks. It was just terrible!

Pushkin had four sons and they were all idiots. One of them didn’t even know how to sit on a chair and he would constantly fall off. Pushkin himself didn’t sit on chairs very well. Sometimes it was really hilarious. They’d be sitting at the table, Pushkin at one end all falling off his chair, and, at the other end, his son. Saints alive that was funny!

For the record, Pushkin and Natalie (Pushkin and Natalie, incidentally, was the name of a famous 1979 production in St. Petersburg by Kama Ginkas that also played on the myths and misconceptions and humorous side of Pushkin’s nature) did have four children, although they had two boys (Alexander and Grigory) and two girls (Maria and Natalya). As far as I know, none had problems sitting on chairs or standing on their own two feet.
As for Natalie, she may be shrouded in more mystery than any other woman in Russian history. Did she love Pushkin? Did he love her? Did she cheat on Pushkin? (Did he cheat on her??? Duh!) Did she have an affair with the dashing French officer Georges D’Anthes, thus leading to the duel in which D’Anthes killed Pushkin one cold, early morning in the woods outside of St. Petersburg at the age of 37?
I don’t know. All I know today is that this mural of Sasha and Natasha is a marvelous, wonderful kick. Leave it to Pushkin to lift your spirits when you need a shot of merriment.

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Anton Chekhov statue, Melikhovo

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I had late lunch yesterday with my friend Maxim Osipov. I have no interest whatsoever in putting Max on the spot, but he is sort of the modern-day Anton Chekhov. Max is a practicing doctor as well as an excellent writer who started out writing short stories, and later began writing plays. Just to make the connection even a bit more fun, Max began publishing when he was 44 years old, the age that Mr. Chekhov had his last glass of champagne, rolled over in his bed in Badenweiler, Germany, and expired, leaving bereft his wife Olga Knipper-Chekhova, his contemporaries and every lover of literature and theater since. Anyway, as Max and I left the restaurant in the late afternoon and we walked out into the bright, sparkling, spring sunlight that was flooding Moscow so generously, Max began to expound upon his theory that Chekhov never quite loved Melikhovo. “All those women who work there, do!” he laughed. “But I don’t think Chekhov loved it very much. Do you?”
I was a bit taken aback by the question. I’d never considered what Chekhov might have thought about his home. I guess I just always assumed he lived there because he liked it, and he liked it because he lived there. Rather like most of us do wherever we live. That’s why you get musicians coming into Topeka or Poughkeepsie  and getting huge cheers from the crowd when they shout out, “Great to be here in Poughkeepsie tonight!” Because everybody in Poughkeepsie loves Poughkeepsie insofar as they live in Poughkeepsie. That kind of thing. And so when Max blindsided me with that question, I did what I often do when caught off-guard – I hemmed and hawed as intelligently as I could and wriggled out of answering it. Now, the truth is that I don’t know what Chekhov loved or didn’t love. It is certainly true that all those times I have visited Melikhovo, the women who run the roost there harangue me and other visitors with lovely tales of Chekhov’s love for every lovable object, every plant, every nook and every cranny of the grounds and buildings that make up the small estate where Chekhov lived with his family for much of the 1890s. If I have always taken their exuberant affection for everything Chekhovian with a certain grain of salt, I have never doubted the love.

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Be that as it may, Max’s tossed-off comment got me thinking about Melikhovo and Chekhov again. It wasn’t long ago that I wrote about visiting the estate in March with the Cuban-born, American playwright Nilo Cruz. On that occasion I posted some photos of a bust of Chekhov that stands hidden behind a small grove of trees, way off the beaten path. But actually, upon arriving on the museum grounds, everyone these days is greeted by another likeness of the writer that stands just on the other side of the entrance booth. This full-length sculpture of Chekhov, created and erected in 2002 by Yury Chernov, kind of has dual purposes. On one hand, it is one of those typical, ceremonial kinds of monuments. The right hand grabs the right lapel in a way that declares, “This is a solemn moment!” And yet, Chekhov stands jauntily on one leg, the other folded underneath him for purposes of balance alone. And the left hand is partially slipped into the pants pocket, maintaining a folksiness that offsets the lofty mission of the right hand. There’s something about the face here that I like, even though it leans toward the generic. Maybe it’s the flecks of blue that have begun to seep out of the bronze. As you can see in the top two photos, they, at least, match the gorgeous blue March sky well. But there is something strong about the expressionless visage that suits the writer and his purpose as a museum greeter. And, anyway, maybe there’s more life in this hunk of bronze than I give it credit for. In the last of the three photos immediately above, you can see Nilo whipping around, as if he just heard Chekhov whispering something to him. As though he is saying, “What did you say to me? Did you just say something?”
I guess Max Osipov would say he was saying, “I really don’t like this place, you know!” but I myself didn’t hear anything. So I can’t weigh in on the subject.

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Yevgeny Vakhtangov statue, Moscow

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These days students coming and going at the Vakhtangov Theater’s Shchukin Theater Institute at 10 Bolshoi Nikolopeskovsky Lane in Moscow’s Arbat region pass under the gaze of the spiritual founder of their institution. That has been true since October 13, 2014, when a small crowd gathered in the school’s courtyard to attend the unveiling of a new statue honoring Yevgeny Vakhtangov, one of the great directors of the pre- and post-revolutionary period in Russia. I am sad to say the ranking official that day was Russian Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky, an odious, anti-culture figure, whom Russia will spend years, if not decades attempting to forget. Mark my word. But he was not the only person there that day, thank goodness, so we can also point out the presence of the great Konstantin Raikin, Alexander Shirvindt, Vasily Lanovoi and other first-rank actors who graduated from Shchuka, as the institute is referred to colloquially.
Speaking to the crowd, Raikin declared, “In the very difficult conditions of a totalitarian regime, Yevgeny Vakhtangov coined a phrase, ‘fantastic realism.’ With his inclination for exaggeration, for theatrical poetry, he, nonetheless, was able to preserve the world ‘realism,’ which was required as a kind of password for what was permissible.”
Actually, Raikin pushed it a bit, because Vakhtangov (1883-1922) was dead before the restriction of cultural activity became Soviet policy. Raikin is, hereby, to be entirely exonerated, however, for I have little doubt he was less interested in historical veracity than in poking Medinsky in the ribs for this clueless bureaucrat’s often oppressive actions. Interestingly, Medinsky’s most notorious action to date, the destruction of Timofei Kulyabin’s much-admired production of Tannhauser in Novosibirsk, had not yet been foisted on us at this moment. That was to come just a month later.
This statue, which stands a good eight-to-ten feet tall (including the pedestal), is interesting for its sense of smallness, even petiteness. Sculptor Alexei Ignatov made Vakhtangov bigger than life, but gives us a full sense of Vakhtangov’s delicate build.
Ignatov also spoke at the unveiling and here is what he had to say, according to the same report, from which I already quoted on the Vakhtangov Theater website: “This monument has a very interesting fate. At first we thought we would erect it as a home statue, but then it became evident it was a people’s statue, and that it wouldn’t be possible to hide from people.”
Now, frankly, I haven’t the vaguest notion what Ignatov is talking about. Maybe you had to be there. Ignatov is identified in all the reports of the unveiling as a “young sculptor” who graduated from the Grekov Studio of Military Artists. I had no idea such a place existed, but you might keep that in mind when you read the penultimate sentence in this post…

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Vakhtangov’s fame is rather astonishing, considering his extremely short career. He died at the age of 29, having staged just a handful of productions. But his reputation as a brilliant pupil of Konstantin Stanislavsky at the Moscow Art Theater, and the huge influence of the shows he did stage, placed him in the pantheon of Russia’s greatest theater artists. He is always mentioned right along with the other great names of the age – Stanislavsky, Vsevolod Meyerhold and Alexander Tairov. Vakhtangov began collaborating closely with Stanislavsky in 1911; he then was working methodically (initiates will get the pun) on his acting system. Vakhtangov was one of several young actors who functioned as guinea pigs for the great man’s research. He worked in, and helped to found, the Art Theater’s 1st and 3rd Studios. As an actor he particularly shone in the famous production of Dickens’s The Cricket on the Hearth at the 1st Studio.  He also worked at many other theaters and clubs and cabarets around Moscow, including the Jewish Habima Studio, attracting the attention and respect of many important Russian cultural figures, including Alexander Blok and Maxim Gorky. His most famous productions included Maeterlinck’s The Miracle of St. Anthony (first version 1917, second version 1921), Ibsen’s  Romersholm (1918), Strindberg’s Erik XIV (1921), Ansky’s The Dybbuk (1922) and Gozzi’s Princess Turandot (1922). The production of Turandot was, and remains, a cornerstone of what officially became the Vakhtangov Theater, when the 3rd Studio was renamed for the deceased director in 1926. Turandot, featuring its umpteenth cast, and having gone through numerous recalibrations over the years, is still to be found in the theater’s active repertoire.
The last day of rehearsals of Turandot was the last day Vakhtangov set foot in a theater. His stomach ulcers had advanced to such a degree that he was wracked with pain. For details I offer parts of an interesting account on a site called Ask Alyona. Biography:
“Vakhtangov hurried to complete his production, working day and night. The last day of rehearsals was Feb. 24, 1922. He was in very bad shape. He sat in a fur coat, his head wrapped in a wet towel. At four a.m. the lighting had been set and Yevgeny Bagrationovich shouted out: ‘The whole performance, from beginning to end!’
After the rehearsal, he was taken home in a carriage. He never came back to the theater. […] Turandot was shown to Stanislavsky and the Art Theater team on Feb. 27. […] ‘In the 23 years of the Art Theater’s existence,’ Stanislavsky said, addressing the company, ‘we have had few such accomplishments. You have discovered what many theaters have sought so long in vain.’ [Vakhtangov’s] health took a turn for the worse on May 24. He no longer recognized family members, became disoriented because of the morphine, and imagined himself a military commander… Vakhtangov died on Monday, May 29, 1922, at 10 a.m.”

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