Ivan Bunin monument, Voronezh

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I got into the mood for this little excursion today by re-reading a Facebook post that many of my friends posted in recent days. You see, I will unleash a bit of bile myself before this is all over, so we might as well make this whole thing a journey down a ragged road. Actually, I’ll start with my own grievances. They have to do with this monument unveiled by Moscow sculptor Alexander Burganov in 1995 on the occasion of the 125th anniversary of Ivan Bunin’s birth in Voronezh. (For that event this little park located at the meeting of Plekhanovskaya and Ordzhonikidze streets, right in front of the local Oblast court, was renamed Bunin Square.)
Burganov is an ubiquitous sculptor in Moscow. It would appear that he is a good friend of that blight on Moscow culture Zurab Tsereteli, because, after Tsereteli himself, no one seems to get as many commissions to slap up monuments as Burganov. The latter’s work – like so many “official” Russian “public” artists, including Tsereteli and the abominable Soviet-era painter Ilya Glazunov – is simplistic and cartoony. Look at Bunin’s face here; you can’t see a feature anywhere that is not generic. There are the requisite attributes – a beard, cheekbones, ears, a nose, a mustache – but they look like they come from that kids’ game we used to play, remember? the one with the plastic parts of a body and a face that you slapped together on a slick surface to create different images of a human being? Look at the mustache and beard in the second photo below – they’re stuck on there like plastic strips. You almost suspect that if Burganov were to have received a more lucrative assignment while he was working on this one, he could have just used the basic carcass and slapped different features on it in order to have a quick turn-around time.
The dog, we’re told by Russian Wikipedia, symbolizes isolation and the fading of the noble class in Russia… What the hell? I’ll tell you what I think the dog is doing here: Burganov finished the sculpture (or, at least, the drawing and model) with just Bunin sitting there, and he realized, Holy Moses! this is boring! Just at that moment, Burganov’s dog ran up and licked his hand, or he heard a dog bark in the distance – and, voila! the monument was saved. Sort of. It’s like when a theater director doesn’t know how to end a scene and so he just turns the volume of the music up really loud. The dog is like bling. It sprinkles sparkly dust in your eyes so you don’t think too much about how vapid Bunin looks. You can just hear people coming up to the monument:
MAN: Aw! Isn’t he cute?
WOMAN: Coochie-coochie-coo!
MAN: Look at him stretching! Here, let me give him a rub on his butt!
WOMAN: Who is this guy here?
MAN: I dunno. Who cares?
Okay, so I made up the details, but not the essence. This monument succeeds in being pompous and bland all at the same time. That, of course, is an accomplishment, although not one you look for in your public art.
But, enough of that. Let me return to Bunin.

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I don’t know the original source, but the poet Andrei Permyakov posted an informational chart about Ivan Bunin on Facebook on Oct. 23 that really made the rounds. As of midday Oct. 28, it had been “liked” nearly 1700 times and had been “shared” nearly 200 times. (For the record, I include a screen shot of it after the last photo below.) This chart shows 16 nasty comments that Bunin, the 1933 Nobel Prize winner in the field of literature, made about illustrious colleagues.
Isaac Babel was “one of the most despicable heretics.”
Alexander Blok was “an unbearably poetic poet” who “hoodwinks the public with gibberish.”
Vladimir Nabokov was “a charlatan and a phrasemonger (often merely tongue-tied).”
Mikhail Kuzmin was “a pederast with a half-naked forehead and a funereal face painted up like a prostitute’s corpse.”
Mikhail Voloshin was “a fat, curly-haired aesthete.”
Of those Bunin rakes over the coals, the great experimental poet Velemir Khlebnikov seems to have come off relatively well amidst the insults: He was “a rather gloomy youth, silent, perhaps hungover but at least not pretending to be hungover.”
On Andrei Bely: “There’s nothing left to say about his simian furies.”
He wasted few words on Leonid Andreev (“drunken tragedian”) and Maxim Gorky (“monstrous hack”).
Of the 16 targets, only two are women. I don’t know if that means Bunin was more appreciative of women writers or less. In any case:
Marina Tsvetaeva is singled out for her “unending, lifelong flow of wild words and sounds in her poetry.”
Zinaida Gippius was merely “an uncommonly repulsive harpy.”
And to think that a man so bursting in personality, passion and opinion should be condemned to sit forever in front of a court building in his birth town with a blank, empty expression on his face, upstaged by a dog.
God works in wondrous ways.

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Bunin Chart

Leo Tolstoy plaque, Moscow

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I think I first learned about this little house in Anna Benn and Rosamund Bartlett’s book Literary Russia: A Guide. It’s a wonderful travel tool if you want to walk up and down Russia’s streets doing what I do in this blog – hunt for cool cultural connections between the world in which we live and a  world that once existed. I’ve had these photos lying around for awhile, waiting for an impulse to put them up (you don’t make posts just to make posts – you do it when you’re compelled). Well, I found the reason yesterday. As I was wandering the grounds of one of my favorite places outside of Moscow – Anton Chekhov’s Melikhovo estate museum – I ran into a woman I began to chat with. Turned out it was Anna Benn. How’s that for a cool coincidence? Hence, my Leo Tolstoy photos taken at 34 Sivtsev Vrazhek quickly raced up the waiting list to the top.
Benn and Bartlett inform us that Tolstoy arrived at this tiny little house for an extended stay in 1850. He came up from his huge estate at Yasnaya Polyana. He was 22 years old.  I pick up their narrative verbatim:
“[Tolstoy] had left Kazan University in the middle of his course, his agricultural and educational experiments at Yasnaya Polyana had not led anywhere, and he now came to Moscow to play cards, go into high society and find someone to marry. He was also beginning to read a great deal, however, particularly the writings of Sterne and Rousseau, and it was while he was living here that he made his first attempts at writing fiction. The house makes a fictional appearance in War and Peace: it is where Nikolay Rostov and his mother and Sonya move after the French invasion of Moscow. Tolstoy stayed here until April 1851, when he set off for the Caucasus with his brother.”
A walking tour website in Russian tells very much the same story, but with some nice, added details. Here we learn that Tolstoy arrived at this home with “five windows” on Dec. 5, 1850, which actually indicates that Tolstoy spent little more than four months here. Let me quote further from the site:
Sofya Andreevna Tolstaya [Tolstoy’s wife] later jotted down Lev Nikolaevich’s words about how he took up the pen: ‘He had the notion of describing something for the first time when he lived in Moscow. Having read Sterne’s Sentimental Voyage, excited and entranced by this reading, he sat down one day by a window and, after giving it some thought, he looked at everything that was happening on the street.’ ‘There goes a street policeman on his beat. Who is he? What is his life like? Now there goes a carriage – who is in it and where are they going, what are they thinking of? And who lives in that house, what kind of inner life do they have? How interesting it would be to describe all that…’ Thus arose the idea for ‘Stories of Yesterday,’ Tolstoy’s first tale which augured much for the history of world literature.”
Ah, but which of the five windows? (There are actually six these days, so one must assume that the left side of the building was added after Tolstoy lived there.) Now we’ll have people lining up at these windows peering in to try to imagine Tolstoy peering back out.
(For the record, Russian Wikipedia tells us that the first story Tolstoy wrote here was “Tales from Gypsy Life.”)

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In fact, this little house’s role in War and Peace is just about as thin as paper. It appears once in Epilogue One, Chapter Five; while the street on which it is located – Sivtsev Vrazhek – is mentioned one other time, in Book Eight, Chapter One (using the usual chapter numbering in English, not Russian).
The street’s first appearance (without the house) actually throws us back to Sofya Tolstaya’s little tale about young Tolstoy looking out his window. One can’t help but wonder if Tolstoy, as he wrote this little chunk of his greatest novel (yes, it’s better than Anna Karenina, regardless of what U.S. TV talk show hosts may claim), wasn’t thinking back to the impressions he had that first time he sat down by the window to look at the world outside and describe it. Here is the text offered in a dubious translation on the internet:
In Moscow as soon as he [Pierre] entered his huge house in which the faded and fading princesses still lived, with its enormous retinue; as soon as, driving through the town, he saw the Iberian shrine, with innumerable tapers burning before the golden settings of the icons, the Kremlin Square with its snow undisturbed by vehicles, the sledgedrivers and hovels of the Sivtsek Vrazhok [sic], those old Muscovites who desired nothing, hurried nowhere, and were ending their days leisurely, when he saw those old Moscow ladies, the Moscow balls and the English Club, he felt himself at home in a quiet haven. In Moscow he felt at peace, at home, warm and dirty as in an old dressing-gown.”
The second and final appearance of Sivtsev Vrazhek comes as the novel winds down, everyone’s great hopes for the future have given way to reality, and the former future “star” Nikolai (Nicholas) Rostov is seriously downsizing his dreams. Again, I provide the excerpt by way of a questionable internet translation of the novel:
Not one of the plans Nicholas tried succeeded… He could not rejoin the army, where he would have been made colonel at the next vacancy, for his mother now clung to him as her one hold on life; and so despite his reluctance to remain in Moscow among people who had known him before , and despite his abhorrence of the civil service, he accepted a post in Moscow in that service, doffed the uniform of which he was so fond, and moved with his mother and Sonya to a small house on the [sic] Sivtsev Vrazhek.”
So, this small house which bore witness to Leo Tolstoy’s first inclination to write, serves in his imagination many years later as the end of the line for Nikolai Rostov and his family. Isn’t that like a writer to turn the beginning into an end?

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Anton Chekhov House and Museum, Moscow

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Doctor Chekhov (that’s what the little plaque at the top of this post says – Doctor A. P. Chekhov, to be exact) has haunted a lot of dreams over the last 130 years. He began haunting mine long ago, probably when I was in high school in the early 1970s, although the first connection might have happened as early as the late 1960s. I do remember quite specifically the first time I encountered his work in performance. It was at my girlfriend’s house and she had the TV on. One of those Saturday Afternoon Playhouse series things was on and there was a real live Chekhov play unfolding before my eyes. It’s possible that I didn’t happen upon the broadcast by chance, it’s entirely possible, considering my infatuation with things Russian at that time, that I asked my girlfriend to turn the TV on so we could see the broadcast. My memory doesn’t offer me any more details. I’m not going to be able to say which of the plays it was (although I have an impulse to say it was Uncle Vanya), and I can’t say for sure who was performing – although I have a feeling it was a British production. That might be a quirk in my head, however, because, when I was growing up, American actors often imitated British accents when playing Chekhov. I guess they thought it made them sound more cultured. I do remember thinking the whole thing seemed rather stuffy.
These days Chekhov haunts my dreams because he haunts my wife Oksana’s dreams unmercifully. He always has. She often says that Chekhov wrote The Cherry Orchard because he knew she was going to be born to play Ranevskaya. That nagging dream almost became a reality many years ago when a major director at a major theater cast Oksana in the role of Ranevskaya. It took death to stop that from happening. That, of course, only increased the power of her dreams – often to the point of excruciating pain. She has played bits and pieces of Ranevskaya and other Chekhov heroines in Dmitry Krymov’s experimental productions of Tararabumbia and Auction. But, well into a storied career, Oksana still has not played Chekhov “proper.” That surely is one of the reasons why he continues to haunt her. It has reached the point that Oksana now often sleeps with Chekhov. She puts The Cherry Orchard under her pillow at night and lets the writer’s words seep into her brain from there. I myself hear a few floating around from time to time from my corner of the bed.
But I got carried away here, for my real purpose today is to present the famous house at 6 Sadovaya-Kudrinskaya where Chekhov and his family lived from 1886 to 1890. Today it’s a funny-looking little place, dwarfed by large architectural monoliths to the east. You can just see that somebody at one point or another really wanted to bring in a bulldozer and knock this little two-story building down to make room for something that would either make more money or serve more people. Fortunately, all such impulses have been denied, and the Chekhov home still stands, sticking out like a sore thumb because of its size, its shape and its color. The building now houses one of many Chekhov museums in Moscow and its environs. I hate to say it’s not a very thrilling museum. There are a few paintings, some archival materials – manuscripts and such – quite a few photos, and a fair amount of books. They’re all presented under glass or hanging in frames on walls. You don’t really get much information from them, and you don’t really get a sense for this having been a place where Chekhov actually lived. I personally tend to be most impressed by the exterior of the place, its quirks and its incongruities. It’s always such a joy to walk or drive by this place and to be reminded for a moment, that Chekhov hung out here.

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A lot of great literature was created inside these walls. The big collected works devotes the better part of five volumes to works written during Chekhov’s stay here. A very rough count of the stories conceived here comes to around 165. Some, like “I Want to Sleep,” “The Steppe,” “The Kiss” and “Kashtanka,” were to become classics. These titles bear witness to the fact that it was in this home that Chekhov made the final turn from popular and well-known writer into the territory of one of the leading literary figures of his day. Here, too, Chekhov began truly honing his pen as a playwright. His Ivanov made its first appearance in the world here, in 1887. It is interesting to see the ambivalence that Chekhov’s drama evoked in spectators right from the beginning. The very first newspaper notice regarding the premiere of Ivanov at the Korsh Theater on November 19, 1887 was published a month earlier, on Oct. 9. Here is what it said (my added italics): “A.P Chekhov, as we hear it, wrote a comedy in four acts….”
As we hear it! But maybe we could be wrong! Maybe we got this all mixed up. And, really, what is this Chekhov guy up to anyway?! There it was in plain black and white, before Ivanov, not even one of the major plays yet, had been performed. Is this guy funny or is his work deadly? Folks are still trying to figure that out. He’s still haunting us about that.
Other dramatic works written while Chekhov lived here were some of his great one-acts, The Bear, The Proposal and The Wedding. Also written here were The Wood Demon (which would transform into Uncle Vanya in very different form) and the short play Tatyana Repina.
It was from this house that Chekhov shoved off to visit Sakhalin in the farthest east of Siberia, one of the most important events in his life and writing career. It not only served to broaden and deepen Chekhov’s world view, thus pushing him over the top and into the realm of greatness, but it also surely served to shorten his life. There is no way a man as sick as Chekhov was with tuberculosis should have undertaken a brutally strenuous trip like that. Which only goes to show you – sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.
That’s what this place means to me.

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Alexei Koltsov bust, Voronezh

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There is much of interest to tell about the poet Alexei Koltsov and the bust that honors him at the southwest end of Koltsov Square in Voronezh. But what catches my eye first of all is the fact that, according to Russian Wikipedia, an American diplomat, “a fan of Koltsov’s poetry,” attended the unveiling of this marble monument on October 27, 1868. An American fan of Koltsov’s poetry? In 1868? Amazing. Most American diplomats in Russia these days hardly know poetry from ping pong. In all my 28 years in Moscow I have known two, perhaps three, individuals at the American embassy who would have. Which makes me look upon Eugene Schuyler as a bona fide miracle. I had never heard about Schuyler; now I want to know as much about him as possible. He was one of the first Americans to receive a PhD from an American Univeristy (Yale). A chance meeting with some Russian sailors in New York in 1863 gave rise to Schuyler’s interest in Russian language and, eventually, literature. In 1867, on his own request, he was sent to Russia as a consul. This guy was not one to waste opportunities. En route to Moscow, he stopped in Baden-Baden to introduce himself to Ivan Turgenev (whose literary translator he would subsequently become). Impressed, Turgenev gave him a letter of introduction that he took to Leo Tolstoy in Moscow, and he translated Tolstoy’s The Cossacks in 1868. Imagine that at the U.S. embassy in Moscow – the consul sitting around translating Tolstoy and Turgenev.
Schuyler knew Koltsov only by reputation, of course. Kolstov’s dates were 1809-1842. Schulyer himself was born in 1840. But Schuyler obviously knew Russian literature well enough to make it a point to travel to Voronezh for the unveiling of the bust you see here. Well, maybe he didn’t come specially for this event. He had traveled to Central Asia by way of the Volga in spring of 1868. Maybe he just happened to be coming through on his way home. Also in 1868, he traveled to Yasnaya Polyana, near Tula, to visit Tolstoy, who was finishing War and Peace at that time. Maybe the trip to Voronezh was wrapped around that little journey somehow.
But wait a minute – do you realize what I just wrote? Schuyler visited Tolstoy when the latter was finishing his latest little concoction, War and Peace. Can you imagine dinner talk?

SCHUYLER (Fastening bib on chest): So, Leo. How’s tricks?
LEO (Glaring at his wife who stands in the shadows): Ah. Not good. Natasha’s giving me fits.
          Tolstoy’s wife disappears more deeply into the shadows.
LEO: Oh, nobody. It’s nothing. Natasha. And a guy named Pierre.
SCHUYLER: Hmm. Sounds romantic. (Raises voice. To Tolstoy’s wife in the shadows.) Sofya Andreyevna! The soup is to die for! Turgenev never served me anything like this!
          A satisfied smile shines out of the darkness.
LEO (Paying no attention to last comment): Not really. It’s mostly war, politics and philosophy.
SCHUYLER (Looking back at Tolstoy): Oh, I…
LEO: But it’s a damn lot better than Turgenev.

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But let’s get back to Kolstov, about whom I wrote once before in this space. The bust we see today was created by an Italian sculptor living in St. Petersburg. His name was Avgustin Triscorni, not to be confused with Agostino Triscorni, who was his father or uncle or something, a famous St. Petersburg artist at the end of the 18th/beginning of the 19th century. Triscorni created the monument based on a detailed drawing by local artist Alexander Kyui (sometimes spelled Cui). As such, it is generally considered that the monument is the joint work of Triscorni and Kyui.
There is, in fact, an entire booklet written about this monument. It is called The Monument to A.V. Koltsov and it was written by Valery Kononev. (GoogleBooks lets you get at some of the pages, depending on what you are searching for.) This book, incidentally, tells us that the “foreign guest” Schuyler came “especially” for the unveiling of the bust.
The idea for the monument belonged to Koltsov’s sister. (One source tells us she was A. Andronova; but he also had a sister Anisya Semyonova). Koltsov’s sister organized the raising of funds and she is the one who commissioned Triscorni to do the work. All did not go smoothly, as the fee demanded by the sculptor was not met by the subscriptions purchased by Voronezh residents. According to Kononev’s book, “The money collected in Voronezh was insufficient and on the day of the monument’s unveiling the Council of Nobility opened up a new subscription. Still, the Voronezh authorities were unable to pay up their debt to Trisconi, who, subsequently, twice filed complaints against the Voronezh bureacrats with the Tsar’s office of the Foreign Ministry. Only in 1870 did the City Duma pay off the sculptor ‘out of unused funds collected as aid for families of low-ranking bureaucrats during the Crimean War.’ In all, the monument to the famous Voronezh citizen cost the city 3,413 rubles.”
The completed monument arrived in Voronezh from St. Petersburg on December 19, 1867. The Nadezhda, or Hope, transport company charged 955 rubles, 55 kopecks, for the honor of moving the piece of art. It was originally planned to be unveiled on Oct. 2, 1868, but the ceremony was put off until Oct. 27. Nobody bothered to cover the “un-unveiled” monument for these three weeks, so someone reportedly put a visor hat on top of it. As Kononev tells us, there was no particular publicity in regards to the unveiling, the result of which is that very few people came. That only makes us admire the now mythical Eugene Schuyler all the more.
The square around the monument was the first of its kind in Voronezh, and this monument itself was only the second to be unveiled in the city. The first honored Peter the Great. Subsequently a gaping hole in the city, named Lenin Square, formed behind the Koltsov bust. In the final photo here you can see Lenin in the distance, waving at us as though he hopes we won’t forget him. Fat chance. My new hero is Eugene Schuyler.

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Nikolai Erdman Tverskaya Street apartment, Moscow

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Many plaques honor the many great and famous individuals who lived in this prominent building at 25/9 Tverskaya Street, mid-distance between Pushkin Square and Mayakovsky (Triumphal) Square. Someday I’ll write about them. Today, for my 200th blog since opening this space up, I will write about someone who is not honored here and probably will not be any time soon – Nikolai Erdman (1900-1970), the author of the classic tragicomedy The Suicide (1928-32), and the co-screenwriter of the classic Soviet film comedies Jolly Fellows (1933) and Volga-Volga (1938).
This huge, imposing apartment complex was one of the many Stalin-era structures that went up and changed the face of Tverskaya Street in the mid 20th century. It was built specifically for employees of the Bolshoi Theater, which is why so many famous people lived here – choreographers, dancers, musicians, singers. Erdman was none of those, but he had just married Natalya Chidson, a lovely ballerina who danced at the Bolshoi, so that gave him his “in.” The two moved into the new accommodations as husband and wife in 1950. They had been a couple since the early 1940s, probably 1941,  but married officially only in ’50. This Tverskaya Street apartment was Erdman’s first sustained address since he was exiled to Siberia in the fall of 1933. In the interim 17 years he bounced from room to room, from cramped apt. to apt., often in cities outside Moscow – Yeniseisk, Tomsk, Tver, Nizhny Novgorod, Vyshny Volochok and many others. (I wrote about one of the temporary Moscow addresses here.) The Tverskaya address was not to be terribly long-lived either, however. The once-happy couple split up in the summer of 1953 as Chidson transferred her affections to the renowned choreographer Leonid Lavrovsky, whom she married shortly thereafter. Erdman, ever the gentleman, agreed to move into Lavrovsky’s apartment across the street from the U.S. Embassy on the so-called Garden Ring, in order to let the new husband share quarters with his new – Erdman’s former – wife.
A letter has come down to us marking this change in the life of these individuals. Erdman, now at the age of 53 and, perhaps, not quite as resilient as he once was in matters of the heart, sounds, well, irritated. At least at first. Referring to his last conversation with Chidson, obviously not a particularly pleasant one, Erdman attempts to bring Chidson’s new love into the discussion, but can’t – or doesn’t want to.
Forgive me, Natasha, but I have gotten so old and have become so sclerotic that I simply cannot remember the name of your choreographer.
“…It’s a shame that for the longest, latest time you have answered everything I tried to ask you with silence, or that you have wrapped your responses in such secrecy that I still have no idea of what your plans and intentions are. Whatever they may be, I would be in despair were I inadvertently to force you to change them in any way. I will leave Moscow at the end of August or in early September. I will return shortly in October and then will leave again.”
Then, after some news about friends and family, he concludes the letter:
Sleep soundly, my sweet, and, if I am correct in my assumptions that you prefer to live apart – do live at home. Don’t forget that we lived together for 12 years and we parted in five minutes. You can’t make sense of everything in five minutes. 
“I kiss you, Nikolai.
“Answer me, please.”
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I visited Natalya Chidson in this very apartment – No. 9 on the 6th floor – several times. This would have been in 1988, 1989 and again in 1995. She was a gracious woman who seemed relatively comfortable with the fact that she really did not know much about Nikolai Erdman. In fact, it became quite evident that she really had no idea of his stature even when they were together. She so much as admitted that once – she had known nothing about The Suicide or The Warrant, plays Erdman wrote for Vsevolod Meyerhold. She knew her husband as the author of occasional screenplays or operetta librettos. She was quite surprised when people began seeking her out in the 1980s as “Erdman’s widow,” something that she never was, of course. I don’t recall talking to her about this, but she surely would have know about Erdman’s receiving a Stalin Prize for the film Courageous People in 1951. This was a kind of bone Stalin threw Erdman, a sign to let him know that the old offenses which had led to his exile and the banning of The Suicide, were now forgotten. Chidson had nothing to say about this, which indicates to me that Erdman himself had little or nothing to say about it.
There were just a handful of items in the apartment left from the time that Erdman lived there. The very old sofa in the drawing room had belonged to Erdman and, according to Chidson, is where Erdman’s father Robert Erdman, died in 1950. More affecting to me was the huge, old potted cactus on the windowsill looking out at what is now Mamonov Lane. That, according to Chidson, had been living and growing there since Erdman’s time. I must admit, it made me do a double take. In some ways I felt that this living, breathing, growing, dying, surviving plant was the closest I had ever come to the writer whose works I studied for so many years. Meeting his friends, colleagues and family members was always fascinating and exciting. But people are people. They have their own agendas, their own quirks, their own personalities, all of which tend to lead you away from the person you are trying to learn about. This plant had no such agenda. It was huge. Its spikes and shoots and roots roiled and rolled and  folded up all over themselves in that old clay pot and, somehow, I suddenly imagined Erdman standing there with a pot of water, watering this very plant.
Of course, this little story is less about how unexpected objects help us connect to the past, than it is about how difficult it is to make that connection.
I also recall having a momentary feel for the real person when Chidson told me a humorous story that followed their marriage. By Soviet law, the newlyweds were bound to appear at a housing office to register as a married couple living together in this Tversakaya Street apartment. These housing offices were often located in or near police precincts. But Erdman had had enough of policemen and similar officials during his time of exile, and he refused to accompany Chidson to the office to make the official declaration. Chidson quoted her former husband as saying, “You do as you please. But I’m not going to the police.” She ended up going down to register their marriage on her own.
On my last visit to this apartment Chidson walked me into the back bedroom – something she had not done previously – and mentioned that when she couldn’t find Erdman at home, she would look for him here, on the balcony in the back where he would often go to smoke. As I was leaving, we stood in the entryway as Chidson told old, oft-repeated stories of Erdman’s drunken friends coming at all hours of the night, banging on the door, begging to be let in to hang out with the writer. It obviously wasn’t one of Chidson’s favorite memories, but it might have been one of the most vivid and longest lasting. No wonder, perhaps, that she ended up finding solace in the arms of a choreographer.

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Alexander Kushner lecture site, Dartmouth College

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I attended a poetry reading by Alexander Kushner (born 1936) in Boston in the late 1980s. I can’t say where it was exactly, but I do think it was in Boston, where I lived, not in Cambridge, where I was going to grad school. I don’t remember many details, but I remember the general atmosphere well. I remember it being low-key. I remember the evening having a sense of innate structure, of it being conducted on a high intellectual level. I recall the respect and commitment of the large audience. I remember Kushner seeming small as a physical entity, but large as a poet, as a man standing before others performing his poetry. I remember that one of the attendees was Alexander Yesenin-Volpin, son of the poet Sergei Yesenin, prominent mathematician and Soviet dissident. That, by the way, jogs my memory and makes me quite sure that the reading took place at Boston University, where Yesnin-Volpin taught. I seem to remember the place of the reading being somewhere on Mass. Ave. It’s even possible that Yesenin-Volpin had something to do with Kushner being invited to speak. I remember that he – Yesenin-Volpin – seemed an important part of the evening.
And there, at least for the present, is the grand sum of my memories of seeing Kushner recite his work.
Stop the presses.
On a lark I just ran a search of an old, long-forgotten hard drive and I hit gold. There, in a folder called Vignettes, I found a text I wrote on December 12, 1987, to jog my memory in the future. It is titled “Aleksandr Kushner. December 12, 1987. Boston University.”
It is not very pretty reading. But it sure does show why taking notes is a good idea if you want to recall details of your life later on. Here are a few excerpts of the impressions I took away that night from Kushner’s reading:
When talking about current events he is a bit lost, choppy, confused, angry, hopeful. When reading his poetry it is as if he hits an athletic stride, smooth, straight, clean, pure, with a quiet certainty.”
As the conversation turns almost exclusively to political affairs, Kushner’s unease grows tremendously. It has absolutely nothing to do with fear, but with his unease at using a poet’s platform for a social tribune. This is a man who is through and through a poet, and as a poet he has a great sense of calm and inner strength, outside of that role, however, his sense of wholeness clearly begins to break down.”
As he begins to talk about Leningrad, one senses he has a great deal invested in his relationship to the city. He talks about it with a quiet passion which is also visible in him while he is reading his poems. ‘There are dozens of totally unknown Leningrad poets who give up nothing whatsoever to Moscow poets who are incomparably better known. Moscow is an easier place to publish and to become known’.”
I will hold off revealing the entire text until I do another planned post about Kushner in the near future. Stay tuned.
For the time being, let’s finally move on to the original reason for this post: a reading Kushner gave at Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH, on November 11, 1993.
It took me a couple of days to nail down the precise location where Kushner’s Dartmouth appearance took place. An account in the college newspaper, The Dartmouth, states it was in the “faculty lounge of the Hopkins Center.” It was easy to find the Hopkins Center (known locally as the HOP) because my wife Oksana and I worked there almost every day for most of the month of August. Problems arose with my determining where the “faculty lounge” was located. I started, as I always do, by just going out and looking. I walked up and down floors and corridors, taking stairs, using elevators, peering through peek holes and under doors. I came up with nothing. Then I asked some locals where the faculty lounge would be located. A few shook their heads. One said, “Oh, it’s on the second floor in the next building over. You just take the passageway, turn right, go up the stairs, turn right again and then look to your left. It’s right there.”
With a few caveats not worth going into,  my friend was right. In any case, I did find what is now called The Palmer Lounge – the only place labeled a lounge in the Hopkins Center for the Performing Arts. I have no idea what it looks like on the inside, but the exterior of the lounge would be a challenge for photographers even of the prowess of Igor Tabakov or Vladimir Filonov of The Moscow Times. I cheated when taking the second photo below, for there were two huge trash cans standing right by the entrance to the lounge – that would be the gray door. I moved the bins out of sight, although I can’t say it improved the image. This photo is for those of you who would harbor thoughts that a poet’s life is always one of beauty and tragedy mixed mellifluously with exaltation and insurmountable suffering. Sometimes, in fact, it is just a banal, gray door tucked away in a tedious elevator landing.
But enough. Below the break, I offer Melissa Marroncelli’s entire November 15, 1993,  article, “Poetry and Russian Politics,” about Alexander Kushner’s reading at Dartmouth. It is copied from The Dartmouth website.

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Leading Russian poet and essayist Alexander Kushner said it is difficult to separate politics from poetry in today’s Russia.“Now we, in Russia, are living through very difficult times when we see the breakaway of mentality,” Kushner told a predominantly Russian-speaking audience in the faculty lounge of the Hopkins Center Thursday night. “We used to live in a real big country and now it is cut down in size by nearly twice. This is more difficult for poetry. These changes are telling upon the words we say.”

Kushner presented his speech called “Poetry and Politics” in Russian with Russian Professor Barry Scherr helping with some parts of the translation. The event was part of a three-day conference called”The Future of Russian Democracy,” that ran Wednesday through Friday.

Although political affairs is an integral part of Kushner’s poetry, he said it was still better if Russian poets did not substitute their poetry for political writing because poets who directly address political ideas in their poetry are often defeated by the statesmen.

Kushner gave an example of how he was once unable to publish in St. Petersburg for two years because of an official who said, “if he doesn’t like it, he should leave,” Kushner recounted.

During his speech, Kushner also read several poems from his collection, “Apollo in the Snow,” during his presentation.

In a poem called “Hoffman” he describes a character who “creeps along in a bureaucracy’s machine.”

In another poem, Kushner described the simplicity in living for Russians. “If you sleep and your warm shoulder isn’t abruptly jarred,” then the Russian can be expected to be happy, Kushner said. The poem expresses the desire for simple comforts that most people would take for granted.

At the conclusion of the poem Kushner said, “Is there something more? For us [Russians] there isn’t.”

The last poem Kushner read was “Apollo in the Snow,” the namesake of his collection, which he wrote after seeing”an Apollo in the snow on a cold winter’s day.”

Here he speaks of the statue as a symbol of courage: “The ice and twilight have locked in its cracks …, here is courage,” the poem reads.

He said his poems apply to anyone because they deal with real life situations, such as life, death, and suicide.

“The twentieth century has taught us to value simple things,” said Kushner, whose poems touch on such ideas as the history, the values and the “terrible experience” of the Russian people.

Mikhail Bakunin prison site, Olomouc, CZ

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Mikhail Bakunin (1814-1876) was a revolutionary and anarchist. You read those words (or you write them, as I just have) and you realize how incredibly loaded they are. Not by anything you want to put in there, but by the connotations society has given those words over the years. I am neither an anarchist nor a revolutionary, and I am not going to get into a big discussion of either of these philosophical and/or political notions. But I am a lover of language and I believe deeply in the right of a word to define a tiny fragment of the reality we encounter daily. Free of the connotations routinely foisted upon them, the words “revolutionary” and “anarchist” are fascinating, to say the least. One could even call them encouraging. If a revolutionary is someone who desires to turn a bad political or social or economic status into a better one, he has my support. I am similarly intrigued if an anarchist is someone who believes in the goodness and rightness of the individual, believes that man-made governments are aberrations that enslave the individual, and, ultimately, believes that the individual, if left to his or her own devices, will create a society more just and fair. An anarchist might be said to be the ultimate optimist.
If you suspect I am being excessively naive, you are always free to run to the opinion of Joseph Frank, the famous Dostoevsky scholar. In his book Through the Russian Prism: Essays on Literature and Culture, he wrote, “Mikhail Bakunin, best known as the father of revolutionary anarchism, raged like a stormy petrel across the skies of 19-century European history, becoming a legend in his own lifetime. Since then he has served as a constant inspiration to various dissident groups intoxicated by his inflammatory tirades and raging pronunciamentos, and his apocalyptic vision of a new world of total freedom and perfect social justice and harmony emerging after the old one – the existing one – has been thoroughly destroyed in an all-consuming revolutionary holocaust.”
By all accounts, Bakunin was an extremely intelligent, well-spoken individual. His photos, with a bit of wild hair taking off here and there, tend to fit the notion of the “mad anarchist.” He was extremely well-connected throughout Europe. He fought alongside Richard Wagner during the uprising of Dresden in 1849, finding time to encourage Wagner to write an opera on the themes of Prometheus. When Bakunin was held in the St. Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg, his old friend Ivan Turgenev arranged to have a piano brought to the revolutionary’s cell to help him spend his time more creatively.
I’ll come back to Bakunin’s cultural connections in a moment, but first let me connect him to the photos I post today.
After the Dresden uprising, Bakunin was arrested and held in prisons in Prague and Olmütz, today’s Olomouc in the Czech Republic, before being extradited to Russia where he landed in the St. Peter and Paul Fortress. In Olmütz, Bakunin was famously bound in chains attached to the wall of his cell. According to a plaque in Olomouc that commemorates the prison which held many political prisoners in the uneasy years beginning in 1848 and immediately following, Bakunin was held in Olmütz for part of the year in 1851.
The prison itself is long gone. The plaque reminding of its existence hangs on the wall of the Olomuc University Philosophy Department, which is located on Třídě Svobody, or Freedom Avenue, and bears the following message:
Across from this building the cells of a former military prison stood on the left bank of a ditch until 1904. These inmates suffered for their love of country, for freedom. These opponents of Austria and the Habsburgs participated in the May conspiracy in Prague in 1849.”
As I understand it, the ditch spoken of here more or less corresponds to Freedom Avenue, which now runs around the outskirts of the old center of the city of Olomouc. An old city gate now left standing incongruously in the middle of an empty lot is one of the few structures left standing that would have been there at the same time as Bakunin. You see that in the photo immediately below. When taking this picture, my back was to the wall of the Philosophy Department, perhaps 20 or 30 yards from where the plaque hangs. Other photos below show nearby brick city walls that would have been in place concurrently with Bakunin’s incarceration. Of all things, a Facebook page on anarchists provides us with a few details I find nowhere else: “14th of March 1851. The Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, after first being jailed in Prague, is sent today to the Olmütz fortress in Austria, where he is sentenced in May to hang. Although the death sentence is commuted, Bakunin is chained hand and foot to the prison wall and suffers acutely.”

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Bakunin was one of the most influential radical political thinkers of his age. In fact, his importance is still acknowledged today. His best known works were God and the State (1871) and Statism and Anarchy (1873). But, in all honesty, Bakunin – or, at least, his shadow – now usually reaches us by way of literature or literary tales. Here is a graph from a piece called “A History of Russian Nihilism” on a site dedicated to the study of nihilism and anarchy:
More influential for the New People than philosophy, or political texts, was literature. The expression of the tension between generations by Bazarov in [Turgenev’s] Fathers and Sons as the rejection of the romantic and idealistic postures, guaranteed his position as an icon of the nihilist movement. This was even though Turgenev’s intention was to portray the New People in a less than flattering light. The publication of [Nikolai] Chernyshevsky’s What is to Be Done? (1863), which was written in prison, became the guiding light to the movement. Within its pages was a vision of the socialist values of the nihilist, an exposition of how to live with radical values intact, and how to practice nihilist non-monogamy. The power of literature on the movement is ironic because, of course, most of our modern understanding of the nihilist movement comes from the novels of Turgenev and Dostoyevsky. While Turgenev was non-judgmental in his depiction of the New People (and respected by the nihilists, Chernyshevsky having held correspondence with him), Dostoyevsky was in violent reaction to them. While Dostoyevsky was involved in radical activity against the Tsar in the 1840′s, during his exile in Siberia he became a Orthodox Christian, upon his return he became quite upset at nihilism in general and Chernyshevsky specifically. The last five novels of Dostoyevsky dealt with nihilism to some degree either centrally or as a major theme.”
It is generally accepted that Dostoevsky modeled his revolutionary Stavrogin in The Devils, in part, on Bakunin. According to Janko Lavrin in Tolstoy: An Approach Bound with Dostoevsky, “Dostoevsky saw and heard [Bakunin] on September 9, 1867, in Geneva, during the congress of the International League of Peace and Freedom. The discussions he had witnessed at the congress must have stirred up in him quite a number of ideas later embodied in his novel” [The Devils, aka The Possessed, aka, The Demons].
Another famous radical in Russian literature is Turgenev’s aforementioned Bazarov in Fathers and Sons. It is generally accepted that Bazarov was fashioned, in part, on the figure of Alexander Herzen rather than Bakunin. But Bakunin and Turgenev knew each other well. They studied together in Germany in 1840-41, and, for awhile around this time, Turgenev was enamored of Bakunin’s sister Tatyana. In any case, Turgenev himself declared that his sharp-minded, loquacious character of Dmitry Rudin in the novel Rudin, was based on his friend Bakunin.
For the record, Bakunin’s influence on Russian literature did not stop in the 19th century. He was put forth as the lead character in the 1931 novel The Scythian by the emigre writer and publisher Roman Gul.

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Ivan Nikitin monument, Voronezh

Click on photos to enlarge.


Ivan Nikitin (1824-1861) seems to be everywhere in Voronezh. There are plaques honoring him, a museum dedicated to his memory, and there is this imposing monument to him on Nikitin Square in the center of the city. Nikitin was born here, lived his whole life here, and died here much too early, at the age of 37, suffering from tuberculosis. I ran across one of those English-language travelogues that informs foreign visitors to Voronezh that Nikitin was a “second-rate poet.” (I really hate that stuff. Sorry, but there is no such thing. You are either a poet or you’re not a poet. Your poetry may resonate more or less with more or fewer people, you may not be Pushkin or Pasternak but that doesn’t knock you down imaginary rungs on some imaginary ladder to poetic perfection. Don’t get me wrong – you can argue the value or the quality of a writer’s poetry. I’m not saying everyone’s great who ever wrote a poem. But that is another topic, in my mind. The use of the phrase “second-rate poet” seems aimed to maim, if not to kill. I not only resent it, I reject it. In any case, there are numerous Russian sources that call Nikitin “a great Russian poet.” So who are you going to believe?)
Nikitin had a tough life and he wrote about it. You can also see it in the few drawings of him that have come down to us. He appears to have been a handsome man, with strong features that are wracked by pain and suffering. The most famous or popular portrait was clearly used for the monument pictured here today. The monument adds something the drawings don’t have – it puts the poet in a bent, almost defensive, position, one of resignation and isolation.
Created by Ivan Shuklin (1879-1958) after he took second place in a contest conducted, for some reason, in St. Petersburg, the statue was unveiled in Voronezh in 1911. At that time the square was called Theater Square, for the main city playhouse is located just across the main street from it. It was renamed Nikitin Square in 1918. Quite surprisingly, I would say, YouTube offers a fine-quality, nearly minute-long, video showing the unveiling of the monument in 1911.

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Nikitin’s father was a hard-drinking merchant who ran his candle business into the ground and, essentially, hounded his wife to death. The young man studied in the local seminary, but was compelled to leave it at the age of 19 to support his failing family. The candle factory was sold to pay off bills and the family – which actually means Nikitin himself – took over a way station as a way to keep afloat. Here the future poet saw his fill of human tragedy. The Chronos literary website quotes from one of Nikitin’s letters, in which he recalls this period in his life: “My love for our native literature, our native Russian word did not die in me… My heart bled to see such filthy scenes. But with the aid of good will I did not spoil my soul. Finding a free moment, I would disappear into some far corner of my home. There I would acquaint myself with what comprises the pride of mankind; there I would compose modest poems that begged to emerge from my heart.”
Nikitin became associated with the movement or genre of peasant poetry, although he was not a peasant and never lived among them. He was, however, a highly sensitive and observant person, and his position in the way station gave him an understanding for, and a feeling of, a way of life that differed from his, but was no easier.
In November of 1853 Nikitin submitted three poems to a local newspaper, the Voronezh Gubernia News. One of them, “Rus,” brought him almost immediate popularity throughout the city. The following year, other of his poems began appearing in Moskvityanin, Notes of the Fatherland, and Library for Reading. His narrative poem Kulak (1854-57) was arguably the most popular and most-praised of all his works.
Below I offer a somewhat hastily translated poem from 1849 (someday I’ll find a way to fix the sloppy rhythm of the last phrase). It provides a good example, I think, of the way sadness and even depression formed Nikitin’s poetic sensibility.

Still another day extinguished
To which I listlessly say “farewell,”
And now I greet the silent wraith of night
Like a dreary visitor from hell.
Alas! Its soundless silence
Shall never, ever bring me sleep!
All day my soul did ache in secret
For others and for me…
By now you’d think my soul were free
Of vulgar tongues and evil deeds,
Of life so filthy and so melancholy…
But how? It cannot be!

As soon as morn peeks at the world,
No sooner does night’s shade be gone,
Another sad and heavy day,
Another tiresome day does come.
Again the soul begins to ache
As evil torments do exult.
Again you shed your tears in silence,
Beaten back by injury, and by insult.

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