Alexei Suvorin plaque, Voronezh

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Alexei Suvorin (1834-1912) is one of those people that casual lovers of Russian culture may not know, but anyone up to their neck knows quite well. I think it is safe to say that Suvorin is best remembered as Anton Chekhov’s publisher and friend. That’s no small thing already. He would probably next be known as a major publisher – of books and periodicals. He turned the New Era newspaper into a thriving, popular publication. Not everyone appreciated him for that. Even though he began as a relatively liberal, democratically-minded individual, he increasingly was seen as a conservative whose views did not represent progressive thought. Vladimir Korolenko said that Suvorin formed one of the “sad pages in the dramatic history of Russian journalism.”
It is worth pointing out that the relationship between Suvorin and Chekhov, strong as it was at times, was often put under great strain by the two men’s divergent political views. They corresponded often over a 17-year period. We only have access to Chekhov’s 337 letters because Suvorin removed all of his letters from Chekhov’s archive after the great playwright’s death. Whether or not Suvorin destroyed these letters I do not know, although we are told that none of them, aside from a stray postcard or so, have surfaced in the ensuing 110 years.  The Chekhov>Suvorin letters are available online on a bibliographical site.
At the remove of over 100 years, I have the luxury of not choosing sides on this one. I’m primarily interested in looking for a moment at a man who made huge contributions to his country and left a legacy that still is felt today.
Suvorin had a hand in all kinds of different activities, which the historical website does a very good job of describing. Let me draw directly from it:
Suvorin studied at the Voronezh Cadet Corps, then in special classes of the Regiment of the Nobility, but, having rejected a military career, he took a job as a teacher outside of the city, later teaching history and geography in Voronezh. He began to publish his writings in provincial publications in 1858. In 1861 he moved to Moscow where he became close to writers of a democratic bent, including Nikolai Chernyshevsky and Leo Tolstoy. He earned respect and recognition as one of the best theater critics. He wrote popular books on history, and biographies of great people. At the end of 1862 he moved to St. Petersburg. A talented journalist with good business acumen, Suvorin in 1876 became the owner of the New Era newspaper, which he made popular by skillfully combining the interests of the general public with the interests of court circles. New Era became a household name denoting nationalist agitation in favor of pogroms. … Suvorin was known as a passionate theater-goer and, in 1895 he founded his own theater in St. Petersburg. He was an interesting conversationalist, and a friend of Anton Chekhov, Fyodor Dostoevsky and others, He was a sharp observer (who left behind an interesting diary), and a major book publisher, who published numerous book series (The Cheap Library Russian and foreign classics, the All Petersburg, All Moscow, All Russia and Russian Calendar reference books, works on the history of Russia, and others). He amassed a large fortune.

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Suvorin wrote several plays, none of which – to my knowledge – are of particular interest today. They included Tatyana Repina (1899, to which Chekhov famously wrote a brief “sequel” using the same title), Medea (1883, co-authored with Viktor Burenin), Tsar Dmitry the Imposter and Ksenia the Tsarevna (1902), Stock Market Frenzy, Not a Thief if not Captured, He in Retirement, The Honest Word, Women and Men (1887),  and others. He wrote a novel The End of an Era. Love (1893), which, in 1903, he adapted as a play, The Question, with the help of Chekhov. He was also the author of several books of prose: Drama Competition (1860), All Kinds (1866), Essays and Pictures (1875), and the posthumously published Stories (1913). He began publishing in 1872 and, over his life, put out over 1600 books. He was also the owner of a network of bookstores around the country, which gave him the ability to distribute his books easily and quickly.
Suvorov was born in the village of Korshev in the Voronezh region. He studied in Voronezh and worked there for some time before leaving for the big cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg. The plaque on this building at 30 Revolution Prospect in Voronezh informs us that Suvorin lived here in 1855. Over the years one suspects he would have had many addresses in town, especially if you count places he stayed when returning to Voronezh, which he apparently did regularly. I wrote a bit here on this site about a trip Chekhov made to Voronezh in 1892 with Suvorin. At that time they both stayed at the Central Hotel, just a few blocks down the road from this building.
I am making the small leap of assuming that Suvorin lived in the building pictured here temporarily because he taught history and geography at the college in the town of Bobrov from 1854 to 1858 or thereabouts. Unless he lived here and traveled to Bobrov for his lectures, that would indicate that his time in this stately, columned building was a short-term affair.
The plaque on this building, which has connections to other famous people and events about which I will write another time, was unveiled in 2003.

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Mitrofan Pyatnitsky bust and monument, Voronezh

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Pardon me if I repeat myself. But there are times I think that, were it not for this blog, I would be completely and utterly ignorant. Doing the little bit of research I do for many of my posts, I have learned things I had never dreamed of. And it’s happened again today.
Most anybody who knows Russian culture has heard of the great Pyatnitsky Choir of Russian folk music. If you haven’t, you can go to YouTube and watch an entire recent concert that was put on to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Pyatnitsky’s birth. Pyatnitsky was born June 21, 1864, in the village of Alexandrovka in the Voronezh region. He died January 21, 1927, in Moscow and is buried in the Novodevichy Monastery cemetery. He was born into the family of a priest and he studied at a Russian Orthodox school. His brother went on to be a priest, while Mitrofan went, perhaps, in a different direction. He was fascinated by folk music and he became one of Russia’s great collectors of folk songs. Meanwhile, after moving to Moscow in 1897, he began working at a Moscow hospital in 1899, remaining in employ there until 1923. During World War I he found a way to combine these activities, creating a so-called “invalid choir” out of patients and nurses and hospital workers.  In 1904 he published his first book of collected songs, Twelve Russian Folk Songs. He made major song collecting expeditions in 1904, 1910, 1920 and 1925. He founded his first folk choir – the one that continues to be known as the Pyatnitsky Choir today – in 1910 or 1911; sources differ on that. It does appear to be fact that he created the choir on the basis of singers from the Voronezh and Ryazan regions, and that their first Moscow concert was held March 2, 1911. From 1921 to 1925 Pyatnitsky taught singing at the the Moscow Art Theater Third Studio, that is, the studio that Konstantin Stanislavsky gave over to Yevgeny Vakhtangov.
There, in a nutshell, you have Pyatnitsky’s basic encyclopedic biography. So now for the interesting stuff.
Pyatnitsky’s departure from the seminary as a youth was fraught with difficulties. It seems his teacher, a strict priest, not only frowned upon the young man’s interest in folklore, he forbade it. According to a detailed article on the Three Ages website, which is the source of much that follows, Mitrofan “secretly” bought a book of folk songs and spent his evenings and nights memorizing them. When his teacher found him out, he was furious. He wrote a letter to Mitrofan’s father telling the father precisely how he should go about beating his son as punishment. Mitrofan, a sensitive young man, could not bear to give his father the letter, and, from worry and anger, soon experienced a mental breakdown. It was called “brain fever” at the time. After he righted himself (because I doubt there was much help of value), he begged his father not to send him back to the seminary, and showed him the letter that he had held for months. His father, thankfully, agreed not to make him go back to school. This was in 1876 and Mitrofan was 12 years old at the time.

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At first Pyatnitsky helped his mother look after the geese around their home. Then he learned several trades. He became a metal worker and worked in the city. He worked also as a scribe, later became a bookkeeper and an “economist” – that is, someone who looked after an organization’s financial affairs. As fate would have it, he got a job doing just that at the seminary where he now worked for the priest who once had wanted him to be beaten for singing folk songs.
After seeing a traveling troupe of Italian opera singers perform in Voronezh, Mitrofan decided he wanted to sing like that, too. His boss and old nemesis tried to talk him out of it. But when he realized the young man’s talent – God love him – he helped him find a proper teacher. So successful were Mitrofan’s studies that he eventually, in 1896, was able to gain entrance to the Moscow Conservatory. This was unheard of for someone his age and background. But such was his talent. There was a hitch, however: he had to work as a financial officer for the Conservatory while matriculating. As financially unadvantageous and humiliating as this was, he agreed. It was an opportunity he could not afford to ignore.
First, however, he had another hurdle to jump. While still in Voronezh he happened to be walking by the river one day. And right before his eyes a young woman leaped in and tried to drown herself. Pyatnitsky also jumped in the water and pulled her to safety. He learned that she had fallen in love with a traveling rake, given in to him one time, and had become pregnant. The rake, of course, skipped town. Pyatnitsky, however, not only fell in love with her. He took her under his wing, giving her a place to live and providing her support and comfort. Finally, the young woman agreed to marry her benefactor. But – benefactors everywhere, take note! – Pyatnitsky’s noble behavior was not enough. When one week was left before the wedding, the rake returned and, in an echo of Alexander Ostrovsky’s great play Without a Dowry, he swept the girl off her feet again. The pair absconded, leaving Pyatnitsky devastated.
History remains mum as to the further fate of the passionate lovers, but it records much about what happened to the jilted groom. Pyatnitsky could not bring himself to go to Moscow to begin his studies, and, instead, literally hid out at his parents’ home in the country. He refused to come out of a shed and would talk to no one. He grew so weak something had to be done. He was put in a straightjacket and admitted to an insane asylum in Voronezh.
Believe it or not, it was his old nemesis again – the priest who wanted to have his father beat him – who came to his rescue. The priest arranged to have Pyatnitsky admitted to the best hospital in Moscow, a place where he was treated with dignity and good care. Straightjackets were not among the methods they used. After some two and a half years, Pyatnitsky was able to leave and rejoin the world without serious lingering difficulties.
By this time, of course, the Conservatory’s offer was long forgotten. However, Pyatnitsky, now in his mid-to-late 30s, refused to give up on his dream of becoming a singer. He would sing for free whenever he could and at one point was even able to get the great bass Fyodor Chaliapin to give him an audition. Chaliapin was so impressed that he arranged to schedule a special concert to show off Pyatnitsky’s talent. But even this worked against him. The night of the concert Pyatnitsky was struck so badly with a case of nerves that he lost his voice. That humiliation caused him to suffer still another nervous breakdown. Chaliapin, however, did not abandon the man whose talent he recognized. He visited him in the hospital and when it became possible, helped Pyatnitsky join the Moscow University Society of Natural Sciences, Anthropology and Ethnography. This was in 1903, and it, essentially, put a serious start to the great career that is summarized at the beginning of this blog.
A few words on the monument. It was erected September 17, 1988 (about a week after I arrived in Moscow to stay – although I did not know that at the time). It is located in the center of a small square that stands next to the Officer’s House on Revolution Prospect. It was created by the local sculptors Elza Pak and Ivan Dikunov, and consists of the bust and a few bronze instruments that lay leisurely on a bronze drape spilling over one end of a marble semicircle behind the bust. The leafy birch trees planted behind all of this, we are told by those who know, are intended to represent the many voices of Pyatnitsky’s choir.
One final thing. Take a look at the last two photos. Poor Pak and Dikunov surely had no idea that one day someone would open a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant right next to their monument. How could they know that Colonel Sanders himself would spend 24 hours of every day peering at the serious-faced Pyatnitsky with a grin that almost achieves ridicule. Pyatnitsky just stares straight ahead, doing his best to ignore the Colonel.

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Alexander Pushkin birthplace, Moscow

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I get a kick out of this. When I googled “birthplace of…” in Russian several options leaped out at me. The first was “birthplace of Christ.” The second was “birthplace of Aphrodite.” The third was “birthplace of Pushkin.” He’s in good company, which is what we would have expected.
The little plaza fronting School No. 353 at 40 Baumanskaya Ulitsa in Moscow does a fine job of commemorating the birth of Russia’s first great, and still greatest, poet. A cute little bust of prepubescent Pushkin stands in the middle of a neat ensemble combining pedestals, protective chains and small, parallel flower beds. Pushkin’s African heritage and his curly hair – already forming into the shape of a laurel wreath – are very much in evidence. There is a smart, witty kid hiding behind that gaze.  The bust was sculpted by Yekaterina Belashova and was unveiled in 1967. Almost directly behind it is a memorial plaque that hangs next to the entrance to the school, which, we are told, is located where the house in which Pushkin was born once stood. Precisely, the text on the plaque reads: “Here was the house, in which A. S. Pushkin was born on May 26 (June 6), 1799.” The plaque also features the image of little Sasha – a bas relief of him, perhaps, sitting at a school desk and gazing out the window as he daydreamed about modernizing the Russian language. Or maybe not.
For those who don’t know about Russia’s thing with dating, let me explain. Until the Revolution Russia used the Julian calendar, while most of the rest of the world had long gone over to the more precise Gregorian calendar. Thus, Russian dates before the switchover in 1918 are often give in a dual manner, as above. I.e., it was May 26 in Russia when Pushkin was born, but, looking back retroactively, we know it was June 6 almost everywhere else around the world that day.
So, although it may be slightly confusing, we can, indeed, say what day, what date, Pushkin was born. The question of where that happened, the bust and plaque here notwithstanding, are another thing altogether.

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It seems safe to say that the great event did not happen here where it is commemorated at present. This address – which is currently 40 Baumanskaya Street but would have been known as Nemetskaya Street at the time of Pushkin’s birth – is almost certainly mistaken information. (Real buffs of Russian literature will immediately recall that in Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters, Vershinin recalls how he lived at one time on Nemetskaya Street. It’s a nice little added bit of color.)
To cut to the chase I will say it is now more or less accepted that Pushkin was born in a structure that stood at the intersection of Malaya Pochtovaya [Small Post] Street and Gospitalny [Hospital] Lane. This was verified by the Moscow historian Sergei Romanyuk, whose books and articles I have used often in putting together these blogs. He wrote a long essay detailing Pushkin’s many different birth addresses in Science and Life magazine in 1999. I refer to that piece repeatedly here.
There have been other addresses as well. Until the time of the Revolution it was thought the birthplace was located in the back lot at 57 Baumanskaya Street [Nemetskaya Street]. A plaque, which is apparently lost now, once hung there. The plaque we see on the current school building, and which is seen in two photos here, was made in 1927.
Pushkin himself used to say that he was born on Bolshaya Molchanovka Street located near Sobachya [Dog’s] Square and Borisoglebsky Lane. But, according to Romanyuk, it is likely that this merely meant that Pushkin lived here when he was young and it was, perhaps, the first place he remembered living in. As Romanyuk points out, it is easy to confuse the addresses. Pushkin’s parents occupied 12 different addresses between the years of 1798 and 1812. There was one year during that period when they lived at three different locations. During that 14 year period they had six children. So one might be willing to admit that nobody in the family really remembered who was born when and where.
To add to the fun – because I love chaos, legends and fractured facts – let us enter for the record that it was thought during Pushkin’s life that he was born in St. Petersburg. The philologist and journalist Nikolai Grech, author of a textbook on new Russian literature in Pushkin’s time, wrote that Pushkin was born in the city on the Neva River. As Romanyuk tells it, “Grech’s textbook was published in early 1821 when Pushkin was in Bessarabia, and in October 1822, in a letter to his brother Lev, Alexander Sergeevich asked him to send Grech’s book. That book is still held in Pushkin’s library.”

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Teatr.doc 2, Moscow

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“Farewell, we hardly knew ye!”
“Welcome back to the fold!”
Two phrases that suit Teatr.doc this week.
Because for the second time in six months, the Moscow city authorities have driven Doc out of its working space. And for the second time in this period they quickly found another place to move to. The first eviction happened in December (you can read a little about that on this blog site); the second one happened about a month ago. Technically, the culprit was a show called The Bolotnaya Square Case, which tells the story of the family members of people arrested and thrown in prison for taking part in a legally-sanctioned protest on May 6, 2012. To say the authorities are trigger-happy about that incident and everything involving it is to say nothing at all. Waves of policemen and women, investigators, interrogators, tax police, fire marshals and the Lord knows what all else descended upon Doc the day before they opened the show on May 6, 2015. The next day – as you can see in the second and third photos immediately below – they were there in force again for the premiere. Three weeks later the boom came down – Doc’s lease for this building at 3 Spartakovskaya Street was cancelled. You can read a bit more about that in my Moscow Times articles here and here.
Of course, Doc founders Yelena Gremina and Mikhail Ugarov are not exactly the type of folk who roll over and give up when presented with a challenge. When Doc was kicked out of its first home last December, Gremina defiantly announced the theater would reopen Feb. 14 and by season’s end they would premiere 10 shows. When in late May they were kicked out of this new space, Gremina again defiantly announced they would reopen in a new space on June 23 and that they would open the new 2015-2016 season with five news shows.
So far Yelena has done remarkably well in her promises and prognoses. The space on Spartakovskaya did, in fact, open Feb. 14, as can be seen in several photos here, and by the time they abandon this space on June 22, Doc will have opened 9 of those 10 promised new shows. As for the June 23 reopening elsewhere – Gremina found a new space in another Moscow neighborhood within days of losing her lease, and that space is being readied for the first customers as we speak.
When we talk about Doc and Gremina and Ugarov and the people who work with them and the folks who support them – we are talking about some very serious people. People like this in other eras have been called heroes.
Right now I’d like to say a few words of farewell to the short-lived Doc on Spartakovskaya Street. It was a wonderful space that, thanks to the huge efforts of fans and colleagues, and donations of time, money and labor, was transformed from an abandoned old shack into a wonderful small theater in almost no time flat. As you can see in the photo immediately below, it is/was located just a long block from one of Moscow’s central cathedrals, Yelokhovskaya, where Alexander Pushkin was christened. The building, which Doc occupied (seen in the immediate two photos below on the far left and then the far right), was there when baby Pushkin was sprinkled with holy water. Pushkin was born in 1799, the Doc building was already standing at that point.

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Doc did an incredible hurry-up job of turning the crumbling old structure into a usable space. They were planning on doing much more – in fact, the day they were told they were being evicted, they had just put a new coat of paint on the outside of the main building, and they were preparing to start fixing up the courtyard in the back. There were plans to create a second performance space in the basement beneath the main hall. There was a wonderful atmosphere in the hall, as you can see in the second photo below, taken the night of the space’s opening performance on Feb. 14, 2015. In the fourth photo below you see what the hall looked like when it was empty – this shot was taken from the street through the farthest left window.
I have no doubts that the historical significance of this place will be pushed into oblivion very soon. After all, just a week or so ago a building that Pushkin lived in was torn down in the center of Moscow by greedy builders while corrupt politicians looked the other way. If nobody gives a damn about the historical and spiritual connections to Russia’s most beloved poet, who is going to care about a little theater that only occupied some ragged building for six months before being chased on further by voracious, fear-mongering city officials?
In fact, my wife Oksana Mysina and I happened to pass by the old Doc a few weeks ago, the one on Tryokprudny Lane that Doc was kicked out of in Dec. We were curious to see what it looked like and we stepped into the familiar, tiny courtyard where the entrance used to be. There was nothing left of Doc or its atmosphere. There was just a tipsy worker sitting on some sacks of construction materials that belonged to the construction company that now is based there. Oksana asked the man if he worked there.
“Yes, I do,” he said.
“Did you know this used to be a theater?” Oksana asked.
“A theater!?” he replied in surprise. “No.”
“Yes,” Oksana said. “A famous theater called Teatr.doc. They were kicked out by the city.”
“Wow,” the guy said. “Thanks for telling me. Now I’ll know.”
That’s the same basic reason for this post here today – so that people will know. Maybe some construction company or hair salon or grocery store will move in here to replace Doc. Or maybe the little abandoned building will just be abandoned again. Today is Saturday, June 20. Three more shows are left to be performed here. Then it’s on to the new space at 19 Maly Kazyonny Lane in the Pokrovka region of Moscow. Gremina and company – with help again from all kinds of people, including even a group of American students led by Professor Marc Robinson – have whipped the new space into shape in one month’s time. I don’t doubt it will be as welcoming and inspiring as the last two Docs have been. As for now, let’s give a proper send-off to Doc No. 2. It didn’t last long, but it gave us a wonderful six months of real life and real life theater. That’s no small thing.

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Lubyanka headquarters, Moscow

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What the hell is this doing here? Well, some of Russia’s greatest artists were persecuted here in the basement or other places. Some, maybe many, were tortured or shot here. This building – figuratively and in fact – ended the careers and/or lives of many of Russia’s greatest, most talented citizens.
The structure was built in 1898 to house the All-Russia Insurance Company. Following the Revolution it was taken over by the state and given to the first of many organizations whose business it has been ever since to spy and meddle in people’s lives at home in Russia and abroad. (Let’s not get too righteous about this stuff – the U.S. has the CIA and the FBI to do similar things in and for the States.) As for the organization that has occupied the building at Lubyanka Square since 1918, the acronyms have been many: the CHeKa, the GPU, the OGPU, the NKVD, the KGB and now, in modern times, the FSB. A rose by any other name… All of them have been one version or another of what is often called the secret police.
Those passing through the doors of this establishment not by their own choice make an astonishing list – Vsevolod Meyerhold, Isaac Babel, Nikolai Erdman, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Alexander Zinovyev, to name just a very few. This is the place where the so-called Night of the Murdered Poets took place August 12, 1952. Thirteen Jews that night were shot in the basement, several of them writers or translators – David Hofstein, Leib Kvitko, David Bergelson, Leon Talmy and Chaika Ostrovskaya. The others included a journalist, a historian, a lawyer, and an editor. One, Benjamin Zuskin, a theater director and actor, had been a longtime partner of the great actor Solomon Mikhoels at the Moscow State Jewish Theater. Mikhoels was murdered in 1948 by the organization occupying this building, although they did him the favor of killing him on a roadside near Minsk rather than in a grungy basement.
For years it has been the rule to say that Meyerhold was shot here one night then dumped in an unmarked grave. Recently, however, I have seen information suggesting it was even worse than that. There is a version out there now, claiming origin from official archives, that Meyerhold was tortured before death by having all his fingers broken one by one, and then killed by drowning in sewage. Sound far fetched? I wouldn’t discount it. One of the sources publishing that version is a site called So They’ll Remember.
According to Patrick M. O’Neal’s book Great World Writers: Twentieth Century, Solzhenitsyn was beaten here before being sentenced to eight years of hard labor.
I don’t usually quote at length from English-language Wikipedia articles, because you can access them yourself  if you’re interested. But this account about Babel’s arrest on May 15, 1939 by Babel’s common-law wife Antonina Pirozhkova is worth a longer look here. It is quoted from Pirozhkova’s memoir, At His Side (1996). Arresting agents arrived at their Moscow apartment and she actually led them to him at their dacha, where the writer was taken into custody. Pirozhkova picks up the story:
In the car, one of the men sat in back with Babel and me while the other one sat in front with the driver. ‘The worst part of this is that my mother won’t be getting my letters’, and then he was silent for a long time. I could not say a single word. Babel asked the secret policeman sitting next to him, ‘So I guess you don’t get too much sleep, do you?’ And he even laughed. As we approached Moscow, I said to Babel, ‘I’ll be waiting for you, it will be as if you’ve gone to Odessa… only there won’t be any letters….’ He answered, ‘I ask you to see that the child not be made miserable.’ … At this point, the man sitting beside Babel said to me, ‘We have no claims whatsoever against you.’ We drove to the Lubyanka Prison and through the gates. The car stopped before the massive, closed door where two sentries stood guard. Babel kissed me hard and said, ‘Someday we’ll see each other…’ And without looking back, he got out of the car and went through that door.”

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It was here during an interrogation that Nikolai Erdman made one of my favorite comments. He and his friend and co-author Vladimir Mass were accused of writing anti-Soviet fables. Said Erdman in his signed “confession,” dated October 15, 1933: “…Finally, I recognized and recognize that I am responsible also for fables of an anti-Soviet character, which I myself (or in tandem with Mass) did not write, but which were an imitation of that genre which Mass and I created together.”
Read that a couple of times and let it sink in. Erdman “admits” he did not write the fables he’s been arrested for – they are merely imitations. However, they are imitations of a genre that he and his friend Vladimir Mass created. So he didn’t write the fables, he just created the genre in which the fables were not written.
Now, Nikolai Erdman was an absolute master of the comic paradox. I don’t care how frightened he was that night – even if he wasn’t laughing inwardly as the ignorant interrogator wrote down that sentence and handed it to Erdman for a signature, he definitely appreciated the nonsense he just helped to turn into an official document. I quote this archival document from the book Give Me Back Freedom!, compiled and edited from holdings in the Lubyanka archive by Vladimir Kolyazin.
Allow me one short personal note. One day I was walking through a rainy Moscow. I began my trek at the Library of Foreign Literature in the Taganka area and I was headed for a downtown theater, I’ve forgotten which one. I had lots of time and so, instead of taking the metro as I would usually do, I walked the entire way. As I say it was raining and at times the rain came down hard, with wind kicking up in strong gusts. This happened again as I neared the center of the city. I put my umbrella in front of me as if it were a shield, put my head down and just plowed on, looking at my feet as they took one step forward at a time – left/right, left/right. I saw nothing around me and I did not know where I was specifically. Suddenly I began to feel uncomfortable. I could swear my right shoulder and the outside surface of my right forearm began burning. They were downright hot. I even rubbed my upper right arm with my left hand to try to relieve the unpleasant sensation. The burning lasted for several long seconds and finally it was enough to make me stop and look around. I could not figure out what was happening. When I pulled the umbrella up and looked, I saw I was standing right next to that grim, gray wall that you see in all but one of the photos posted here today. I was a little over mid-way through (imagining I was walking right to left in these photos) probably just past the high, two-story main entrance. I was stunned when I saw where I was.  And I immediately believed I was sensing the residual fear, anger, despair and horror of all those who had ever been tortured and murdered in the basement of this building over decades of time. I am not a great mystic, but to this day I have never doubted that conclusion. This is a building whose walls have seen untold and untellable horrors. That horror is imbedded in the bricks and stones of this former insurance company headquarters. I have felt it on my own skin.

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Chekhov, Mayakovsky, Uspensky hotel plaque, Voronezh

Click on photos to enlarge. IMG_5911.jpg2 IMG_5942.jpg2 If you happen lose yourself in your thoughts as you walk down the main drag in Voronezh you might be excused for thinking at a certain moment that you had taken a wrong turn and wound up in some Mediterranean or even Caribbean resort. That would happen as you look up at the three-story building at 42/44 Revolution Prospect (formerly Bolshaya Dvoryanskaya [Grand Nobility] Street). It’s a beautiful, happy structure with lovely, earthy colors, hispanic-looking mosaics, seemingly non-functional towers, and lacy window frames that look like they could be anywhere but in the middle of Russia. This is the former Central Hotel, where, after it was built in the early 1880s, most everybody who was anybody stayed when they were in town. As the plaque on the street-side wall proclaims, the writers Gleb Uspensky, Anton Chekhov and Vladimir Mayakovsky all checked in here at one time or another. I can’t find much about Uspensky’s visit. Even a website devoted to the plaque itself provides no more information that the fact that he “lived here in February 1890.” End of that story, at least for now. Chances are he was here while traveling around the country collecting material for his essays and stories on Russian life. Elsewhere on this blog I write a little about his short stay in a hotel in Tomsk in the summer of 1888. Chekhov showed up with his friend and publisher Alexei Suvorin in tow in February of 1892. They spent five days here while on business in connection with Chekhov’s charity work. Based on letters published in that spectacular, blue, 30-volume collected works that every Russianist owns or wants to own, Chekhov arrived on February 3 and departed on the 7th. He was always active in fighting famines and epidemics. According to Russian Wikipedia, the Famine of Fall 1891 to Summer 1892 involved most of the so-called Black Earth and Central Volga areas of the country. It was kicked off by a bad harvest in the spring of 1891, and it quickly turned into a catastrophe, destroying the local economy and setting off problems with typhus and cholera. This, of course, is where Doctor Chekhov came in. He, along with another doctor-writer Vikenty Veresaev, were instrumental in getting help and medicine to the afflicted. Chekhov’s experience with this famine/epidemic found reflection in his story “The Wife,” published the same year that he was in Voronezh. The first note written by Chekhov on Feb. 3 is to local resident Grigory Lepnev. In it he states he will depart the next day for a trip around the region, but it didn’t happen as soon as the good doctor expected. On Feb. 6, he wrote to Yefgraf Yegorov, a retired officer in the Nizhgorod area, “The same thing happened that happened in Nizhny, which is to say, the governor invited me to dine and I had to speak, and listen to, much about the famine… Voronezh is filled with activity. The battle with the famine here is set much better than in the Nizhgorod region. They aren’t only giving out bread here, but also transportable stoves and coal. There are workshops set up and many cafeterias. Yesterday there was a benefit for famine victims at the theater – the house was full.” Chekhov’s father and paternal grandfather, incidentally, were born in the Voronezh area. They famously were serfs there in the household of Alexander Chertkov, a well-known archaeologist, historian, book collector and publisher. IMG_5901.jpg2 IMG_5907.jpg2 IMG_5913.jpg2 Mayakovsky appeared in Voronezh on the morning of November 22, 1926. Thanks to a detailed description of his visit on the Communa website, we know that nobody met him at the train station and he made his own way to the hotel, where he met with Nina Logofet, a member of the local Black Earth writers group. She, apparently, was in charge of his schedule during his stay. That evening he appeared at a reading at the theater – I don’t know which one specifically. Mayakovsky delivered a talk called “My Discovery of America,” then spent “several hours in the company of his fans.” He did not return to his hotel room until dawn. Thanks to this meeting, the local poets Logofet and Vladimir Korablinov were soon published in Moscow in the literary journal New LEF. Mayakovsky promised them he would publish their work and he kept his promise. On November 25 the first public account of Mayakovsky’s visit appeared in the newspaper Voronezh Commune. It was written by the poet Ivan Belyaev, a huge fan of Mayakovsky’s who recently had come to Voronezh from Estonia. For the record, Belyayev had less than a year to live at this point – he was arrested in the summer of 1927 and sent to prison in Moscow, where he perished. Mayakovsky himself was almost on borrowed time by now – he shot himself on April 30, 1930, in Moscow. That sad deed occurred in a building I have written about elsewhere on this blog site. You can hear Mayakovsky himself read his poetry by going to the very cool openculture website, which has two audio links to Mayakovsky reading his own work, as well as a link to a video of the 1918 film The Lady and the Hooligan, in which you can see Mayakovsky act. In the final photo below you can see an old photograph of the hotel taken, I assume, at around the turn of the century. It looks very much like it does today, aside from the garish advertisements on the street level. I took the photo of the photo in a marvelous basement cafe in the old building. IMG_5904.jpg2 IMG_5909.jpg2 IMG_5916.jpg2

Fyodor Dostoevsky monument, Moscow

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I recently hinted I would write about this monument to Fyodor Dostoevsky soon and I’ve been itching to ever since. Because I love this thing. It seems like a great big secret right out in the open of the big city. That is not just me talking, it was actually intended that way. You see, this monument created by Sergei Merkurov was originally unveiled November 7, 1918, on Tsvetnoi Boulevard, where it would have been extremely prominent. But guess who didn’t like it there in the 1930s? Yeah, well. If it wasn’t Joe Stalin himself, it was someone very close to him, close enough to answer for the Big Man. And so this strange, wonderful piece of sculpture was relegated to the square by the building where Dostoevsky was born (see my blog of a few days ago) and in front of the former hospital where his father worked. The removal of the monument to this location took place in 1936. It is set back quite a ways from the street behind a tall fence with several locked gates. To get to the monument you have to circle way around the left side of the building complex and come in from the garages. When you finally get there you feel very isolated and you sense Dostoevsky’s isolation. There are no people around. Nobody really seems to be caring for the space – the grass is left to grow as it will and I traipsed through knee-high weeds to get some of my favorite shots here, including the two immediately below.
Those who know Dostoevsky will understand that these are quite incongruous shots, and that this is an unusual setting for a monument to Dostoevsky. He was an urban animal through and through. Tolstoy and Turgenev loved Russian nature and they described it with beauty and power. Dostoevsky, one might think, never noticed a tree or, at least, a group of trees in his life. His settings were the jungle of St. Petersburg, its asphalt streets packed with indifferent people, its artificial canals, its dark, foreboding, manmade buildings. And here he is, exiled, if you will, to a tiny patch of lush, billowing nature in the middle of Moscow. It’s almost shocking to see when you come upon it.

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The image itself is almost daunting. It is actually off-putting at first glance. You rebel against it. It is too weird and too sick. Those hands, twisted and clenched, suggest a man losing his mind. The hunched posture combined with the severe gaze aimed at the earth all suggest pain and confusion. There is in this a reminder of the fact that Dostoevsky always provided an earth-bound view of humanity in his works, as opposed to Tolstoy, who so easily slipped into a God’s-eye view of things. Dostoevsky, for all his religious sufferings, grappled with the battles that occur on earth. And when you draw back from the sculpture and consider the image in relation to the earth on which it stands, you can even see a tad of squeamishness in Dostoevsky. Is he horrified by what he sees? Is it something awful? Is that the dead pawnbroker lying in a pool of blood down there, or is it Raskolnikov refusing to repent?
Why has Dostoevsky’s drape slipped off his left shoulder? Is he in an asylum? Is this a hospital gown? Then look at the left-side profile (third photo in the next section) and you realize the extent to which this is not a realistic portrait at all. The haircut, the shape of the beard – they’re not abstract, but they are definitely geometrical or Cubist-influenced.
Of course, all of these things together provide the answer to why the Soviet authorities finally had to hide this masterful piece of sculpture. It called into question too much of what they then were preaching.
What’s interesting, however, is how strong and powerful a figure Dostoevsky makes here. Yes, he’s sick. Yes, he’s confused and, perhaps, squeamish. But look at that massive body, that thick, powerful neck rising from broad shoulders. He is, with all of his pallid sickliness, a robust, almost crushingly mighty presence. Paradoxical? Weak-strength? Strong-weakness? Well, you see, Merkurov was working his way right into the essence of Dostoevsky. Which is why, when you spend time with this work of art, you are drawn into its orbit. It’s beautiful. It works.

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Merkurov (1881-1952) was a much-lauded Soviet sculptor, winning two Stalin Prizes and an Order of Lenin. He created numerous statues of both Stalin and Lenin. He was a leader in the genre, or movement, of monumentalism. He was the creator of the three largest monumental sculptures in the Soviet Union. Many of his works – because they were of Lenin and Stalin – have been destroyed in the last 25 years. But Merkurov was already a major artist before the Soviet period began. This Dostoevsky sculpture was actually conceived in 1905 and created in 1914. Interestingly, one of the two individuals commissioning this sculpture was Lev Tolstoy. Every bit as interesting is the fact that the future great cabaret singer Alexander Vertinsky stood in as the model for the work. That, actually, partly explains the monument’s fluid, rather odd physical gestures. Vertinsky had a very distinct physical manner about him.
Merkurov studied philosophy in Zurich beginning in 1902, where he occasionally attended lectures and discussions involving Lenin. At that time he became interested in sculpture and he moved to Paris where he lived and worked from 1905 to 1907. Merkurov was considered one of the great creators of death masks, and he was specifically invited to create the death mask of Tolstoy in 1910. He created the fine sculpture of Tolstoy that stands in the courtyard of the main Tolstoy museum in Moscow. (You can see photos of that in a blog I wrote a year or so ago.)

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Vladimir Gordeichev plaque, Voronezh

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IMG_5971.jpg2Chances are Vladimir Gordeichev has not made it into your purview. He hadn’t made it into mine until I traveled to Voronezh. But, there it was, as Oksana and I walked past the aging, even crumbling, building at 4 Komissarzhevskaya Street – a plaque commemorating the poet Vladimir Grigoryevich Gordeichev, who was born in 1930 and died in 1995. The information on the plaque is a tad misleading. One could read it that the poet lived in this building his entire life, although he did not. He was born, the son of a peasant, in the village of Kastornoe in the Kursk region. Some sources clarify that Kastornoe was basically just a train station – perhaps as my grandmother would have said it, “a wide spot in the road.” It was in Kastornoe that Gordeichev went to school. He later attended the pedagogical institute in Voronezh, graduating in 1950, and then studied at the Gorky Literary Institute in Moscow, where he graduated in 1957.  Here his classmates and companions included Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Robert Rozhdestvensky, Bella Akhmadulina and Andrei Voznesensky, in other words, those who were to become the most famous and popular poets of the Thaw era and, in some cases, beyond.
Gordeichev taught at a rural school from 1948 to 1950, and he published his first verse in 1950. Throughout his life he published over 30 collections of poetry and one volume of memoirs – Pages of Remembrance (1987).  He was 57 when he published that book, several years younger than I am now. Lord almighty, is it really time for that?
Gordeichev lived his entire adult life in Voronezh, where he was the chairman of the Voronezh Writers Union three different times. He was elected Secretary of the Writers Union of Russia a year before he died. I have no idea if any of these things mean anything. I’m not much of one for regalia, but I mention it here because I know virtually nothing about this poet and everything I see or read about him is new for me. He spent his early teenage years living under the German occupation, thus experiencing that hardship first hand. It left a mark on him not only personally, but professionally, as many of his poems would reference the war. For many years he was the poetry editor for the Ascent literary journal and, as was common for Soviet writers, he was the author of numerous translations from Azerbaijanian, Belorussian and Greek, presumably from line-by-line cribs, although I don’t know that for a fact.

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The website for the Agency of Innovation and Development of Voronezh has this to say about its native poet: “V. Gordeichev in his poetry always responded to events of the day, capturing with his verses the entire palette of daily life… The poet was convinced that a ‘new commonwealth of ideas worthy of great spaces’ would come about. His poems were lively, energetic and forceful, and they provide an impulse to untangling the theorems of life. His heroes seek new words and prepare for new deeds. The municipal library was named for him in the year 2000.”
Honestly? Praise like that could bury a man, right along with his reputation. But let us not judge the man by the praise others offer him. He doesn’t answer for that, after all. You do wonder, however, if perhaps someone in charge of the the plaque honoring Gordeichev could clean away a bit of that rust that has cropped up in the last 20 years…
The poetry website, which contains one of the most complete biographies I found, has this to say about Gordeichev’s poetry: “His sense of citizenship was not bathetic, but rather very sincere and earthy... Vladimir Gordeichev belonged to that group of poets and prose writers whose roots went down into the native earth. He lived and created on it, fed off of its living, epic strength, while giving it all the beauty and energy of his talent.”
Several Russian sources (probably at a loss, like I, to write in detail about someone they don’t know well) resort to quoting from the encyclopedic entry on Gordeichev in Wolfgang Kasack’s highly-respected Dictionary of Russian Literature Since 1917 (Eng., 1988). I could do worse. Kasack, indeed, is trustworthy and insightful. Here is what he says:
Gordeichev’s poems show his dues to the nature of his native region, in which he is able to find the beautiful even in the unprepossessing. The world of plants and animals serves him as a metaphor for his ethical messages. He is in favor of acting in accordance with one’s conscience, he admires human purity and resolution and he fights against the abdication of responsibility. He admonishes his readers to respect natural forces instead of trusting exclusively in science. Publicistic rhetoric is as foreign to him as experimentation with form. Gordeichev professes to follow in the tradition of Alexander Tvardovsky, Vladimir Lugovskoi, and Boris Kornilov; he has found general recognition as a writer since Vladimir Soloukhin’s favorable review of his first volume.”

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Fyodor Dostoevsky birth plaque, Moscow

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I haven’t written much about Dostoevsky here. Which is pretty silly, since there are only two other Russian writers who can claim to have influenced my life as much – Leo Tolstoy and Nikolai Erdman. Dostoevsky blows open young American, and not only American, minds. He did mine when I was in high school and I read his great novels one-after-the-other, consuming them like candy. (Sometimes feeling just as wrecked by them, as I would have been by a candy binge.) He was a mess and he was a genius. He took his own personal demons and enriched the world with them. His books made the world smarter, wiser and more aware of the abyss we stand on every moment of our every day.
I was recently in a hurry to get from one place to another. My subway route took me through the fabulous Dostoevskaya stop on Moscow’s metro. I have written about that elsewhere on this blog, if you’re interested. I love the artwork on the platform columns there and I occasionally get out when I’m passing through just to walk around and look at the mosaics until the next train comes along. I have been planning for ages to do more than that. You see, the home in which Dostoevsky was born is located almost directly on top of that metro station. And it’s been a long time since I paid my respects. So as the train approached ‘Dostoevskaya’ the other day, I pulled out my pocket watch and calculated how much time I could spare and still make the show I was going to. If I hustled, I could make it.
You can see the building in which Dostoevsky was born on November 11, 1821, in the three photos following immediately below. This is the right wing of the Mariinsky Hospital for the poor, where Fyodor’s father Mikhail worked as a doctor. These days the three-story structure is rather dwarfed by the monstrous Russian Army Theater located right next to it. Today the street is called Dostoevsky Street and the building number is 2. When Dostoevsky was born here, the street had the name of Bozhedomka, which sounds rather like “God’s home.” That little-known fact is “published,” if you will, in the entrance to the metro stop. It’s still another touch that makes the ‘Dostoevskaya’ stop my favorite. Everybody walking into or out of that stop is greeted with that information, as you can see in the second photo above. It doesn’t mean anybody pays it any attention, but, hey, that’s the way it is with all knowledge. It’s up to you whether you see stuff or not. Now, Dostoevsky lived in his parents’ apartment in the right (South) wing of the hospital for another two years before moving to a different apartment in the left (North) wing. The plaque honoring Dostoevsky’s birth usually hangs in the proper place, but, at present, the structure is being renovated, so the plaque has been moved temporarily to the other wing (see first photo above). A temporary paper note bearing that information is nailed to the wall beneath the granite plaque. This second one reads: “Memorial plaque has temporarily been moved in connection with the restoration of the right (South) wing. F.M. Dostoevsky lived in this (North) wing from 1823 to May 1837.” So, thanks to these little informational plaques, we get a picture of the first 15 years of the future writer’s life. Two years in the crib on one side, 13 more years running around loose on the other.

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In between the two wings is the main building of the former hospital, an imposing, columned structure that, at least now, is painted in that luscious Russian yellow that combines so beautifully with a blue sky dappled with white clouds. A very interesting statue of Dostoevsky stands in the courtyard before the main house, which you can see from a distance in the photo immediately below. I’ll do a separate post on that monument, probably sooner than later.
So the building that actually is most closely connected to Dostoevsky’s life is the one you see in the last three photos below. Here he went from being a toddler to being a young man. It was largely here, inside these walls, that Dostoevsky’s world view came together. Fittingly, I guess, it is also in this wing where the small Dostoevsky museum is located. I’ve never been inside. I’m actually not a big fan of these kinds of museums. I’m thrilled they exist. They provide a very important service. But somehow they usually leave me unmoved. But on this day when I was running around, photographing, I didn’t have time to stop, and, anyway, the place was closed.
For the record, the museum was opened by a remarkable woman named Vera Nechaeva in 1928, something that is actually a minor miracle. Dostoevsky was not a popular writer with the head Soviet honchos. He was officially considered a sick writer of sick, dangerous problems, and his novels were published rarely and in smaller press-runs than other “likable” writers such as Tolstoy or Chekhov. Of course, his novel The Devils (often The Possessed in American English – that’s how it was known when I first read it) was a huge no-no. Its depiction of revolutionaries as cruel, thoughtless and opportunistic was – what? – it hit too close to home, I guess you could say. Timing is everything, of course, and Nechaeva was “lucky” to have opened her museum just prior to a time when cultural policies went south seriously. She would never have been able to open the museum ten or even five years later, maybe even one or two. Dostoevsky Street replaced the old name of New Bozhedomka in 1954. Note that that is just one year after the death of Joseph Stalin. The renaming of this street was a sign that Dostoevsky was about to be “rehabilitated,” as it was that a Thaw was about to begin.
Finally, one more tidbit on the street name Bozhedomka. I found this on the website:
A Lord’s house, or more properly, a poor house for deprived, poverty-stricken people was the name used in Russia for a place where the bodies of deceased, unidentified wanderers, or those who died violent deaths, were brought.”
So that’s precisely where Dostoevsky grew up, in an institution whose job it was to heal and care for the poor sick, and where the bodies of the abandoned dead were brought. A little bit of food for thought.

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Alexei Koltsov monument, Voronezh

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I think this monument to Alexei Koltsov (1809-1842) is absolutely fabulous. I love it. I’m not always won over entirely by the Soviet monumental style, although I’m rarely able to reject it entirely. There is something about it, when it’s done with talent, that just comes right after you. That sure happens with this monument by sculptor Pavel Bondarenko and architect Igor Savichev (I’m not 100% sure on that first name – Russian sources are stubborn in listing him only with his initials, I.A.). In fact, it is so bold that many in Voronezh did not like it when it was erected in 1976. Twenty-one years later, in 1997, it was moved away from a nearby church (Pokrovsky cathedral) and re-positioned more deeply among the trees in Soviet Square where it wouldn’t be quite as dominant. I don’t know, I think it’s wonderful. I love everything about it – the granite-wave coif; the huge, single-fold “dress” he’s wearing; the pockmarks in the granite; the severe gaze out from under the monstrous eyebrows; the graceful, left hand with the elongated fingers; the clunky, brute fist of his right hand;the angle of the “dress” coming up at the bottom that reveals he has no feet or legs; the clearly visible horizontal lines marking where the separate chunks of granite were attached to make a single piece big enough to handle this monster. I like the pedestal with the old-fashioned lettering. I like the fact that the bottom support platform is low enough and deep enough for young people of flesh and blood to gather and sit leisurely beneath this mighty chunk of rock. I even love the deep blue Voronezh sky, dotted with pure-cotton clouds behind his head. Okay, I realize that’s not the doing of the sculptor, but he knew what kind of skies Voronezh has, and he knew people would be looking up at them, when he designed this thing. I give him credit for that. A good artist thinks of everything, including what he can’t entirely control.
Oh, wow, I was just digging around for some more information and I ran across one tidbit that is quite intriguing. There apparently exists a legend that this was originally to be a monument to Joseph Stalin. Bondarenko (1917-1992) was, in fact, awarded the Stalin Prize in 1950 for bas reliefs that he made of Lenin and Stalin. That could very easily have engendered a subsequent commission to do full honor to the so-called, self-proclaimed People’s Leader. That would certainly explain the huge size of it all. I find it hard to believe that that lovely left hand could ever have belonged to Stalin, even in an artist’s wildest dreams. But that clunky right fist might well have.
Does this make me rethink anything I have said up to now? No, it doesn’t. I look at this thing from left to right and top to bottom, over and over again, and I only see an admittedly exaggerated, heroic monument to the so-called “people’s” or “folk” poet Alexei Koltsov. It all looks very organic and germane to me.

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Koltsov was born Oct. 3, 1809, into a well-to-do “bourgeois” family (as the Soviet and Russian tradition often puts it) in Voronezh. A website called declares, with similar cliched phrasing, I fear, that Koltsov’s father was the proverbial crude, cruel tyrant and his mother was the proverbial “kind, illiterate woman” who had such an influence on her son. He was not particularly educated. He started in at a local Voronezh school, but didn’t last long. Vissarion Belinsky, the critic, and a champion of Koltsov’s work, had this to say about the poet: “We have no idea how he was advanced to the second grade, or what he studied at that school, because, although we knew him only a short time, we never saw any signs in him of even the most basic education.” I am quoting this from a biographical website, which also adds: “Koltsov’s first mentor in poetry was the Voronezh bookseller Dmitry Kashkin, who gave the young man the opportunity to use books from his library for free. Kashkin was direct, smart and honest, for which the city’s youth loved him. Kashkin’s bookstore was something of a club for them. Kashkin loved Russian literature, read it often and wrote verses himself. Presumably Koltsov showed his first experiments to him.” Another major influence on Koltsov was a tragedy visited upon him by his father, who would not allow him to marry a peasant girl that he loved. Koltsov wrote his first poetry at the age of 16 (“Three Visions,” which he subsequently destroyed); he published his first verses at the age of 22 in Literary gazette. He was championed in Moscow by Belinsky and, when he traveled to St. Petersburg in 1836, he met Alexander Pushkin, who apparently took a liking to him. Pushkin published his poem “Harvest” in the literary journal Sovremennik (The Contemporary). None of this impressed Koltsov’s family, his father particularly. As much as the young man wished to devote himself to a life of literature, his father would not have it. And when the young man contracted tuberculosis, no one in his family seemed to care much. He was, essentially, left to die in isolation at the age of 33.
This makes Koltsov a contemporary of Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol and other writers who basically brought Russian literature out of the past into the present. Over time, his poetry tended to last because it was suited greatly to music. Many of Koltsov’s best writings became popular songs.

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