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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.”
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.