Ivan Turgenev bust, Moscow

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I have always read an unkind cut into a line that Chekhov wrote in The Seagull. You may remember it; it comes as Trigorin, the veteran writer in the play, talks about his place in Russian letters.
When I die, my friends will pass my grave and say: “Here lies Trigorin. He was a good writer, but he wrote worse than Turgenev.”
This pithy little phrase is the punch line, if you will, of a long monologue in which Trigorin also admits he can’t hold a candle to Tolstoy. But it’s the Turgenev comparison that lives a life of it’s own – a good writer, but worse than Turgenev. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’ve always read a jab into that “worse than Turgenev.” It’s almost as if Chekhov originally wrote “even worse” but then thought better of it and cut that out. And yet the scribbled-out word continues to show through in the text even today.
I’m making a mountain out of a molehill. I’m probably wrong. But that’s never stopped me before. Being wrong is one of the ways we find out things about the world and ourselves. So I’ll just go along imagining that I can hear – even if I can’t see it – that crossed-out “even” in Trigorin’s little speech.
But enough of that, for we are here today to do honor to Turgenev. And, damn it, it’s rather hard to do! He was a good writer, but he was “worse” than Tolstoy, “worse” than Dostoevsky, his contemporaries. He was not as daring a writer as Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, not as expressive a writer as Alexander Ostrovsky, not as unique as Nikolai Leskov…
Maybe I got up on the wrong side of the bed today. Yesterday I took these photos of a bust honoring Turgenev (1818-1883) and I thought, “What a nice thing that I finally found something honoring Turgenev.” Because one doesn’t really sense his presence in Moscow. Gogol, Tolstoy, even Dostoevsky, who belongs to St. Petersburg, have a good grip on the consciousness of the city. Pushkin – well, Pushkin is everywhere. Turgenev is generally considered to be among that pantheon, but where do you find him if you’re looking for him in Moscow? Аside from a little bust among a dozen others on the facade of the Lenin Library (about which you can read elsewhere on this blog), it’s only here, at the Turgenev Library at 6 Bobrov Lane. And there’s something rather after-thoughtish about this bust and its environs.
It stands in the courtyard of the Turgenev Memorial Library. Sounds wonderful. Except that the original library, built specifically as a library honoring Turgenev in 1885, was levelled by the Moscow authorities in 1972 when they were “improving streets.” It was rebuilt, using old plans, between 1995 and 2004. It’s a nice copy, but it is a copy and so I chose not to include it in this selection of photos.

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The bust itself is also something of a curiosity. Nowhere on it or on the pedestal does it bear the name of the sculptor. There apparently is a good reason for that, since the image of this marble bust created by Nikolai Kosov is, in fact, a mere copy of a clay bust created earlier by Sergei Konenkov. This clay bust stood for some 30 years inside the library but time took its toll and, even well out of the dangers of Moscow’s severe weather, the clay deteriorated beyond repair. It was then decided to create this marble copy of the original, and to place it where it would be accessible to anyone passing by.
All of this just seems too little and too petty for the man who wrote Fathers and Sons (more correctly, Fathers and Children), The Notes of a Hunter, A Nest of Gentlefolk, Torrents of Spring, the seminal Russian drama A Month in the Country, and much more. This little bust, a copy of a clay original, doesn’t reflect the stature which Gustave Flaubert attributed to Turgenev: “I have considered you a master for a long time. But the more I study you, the more your skill leaves me gaping. I admire the vehement yet restrained quality of your writing, the fellow feeling that extends to the lowest of human creatures and brings landscapes to life.” (That’s pulled from a New York Times review of a publication of the correspondence between Turgenev and Flaubert.) But even there, look at Flaubert’s much sexier, much more explosive comment that the NYT editors pulled up into the title of the review article: “Thank you for making me read Tolstoy’s novel!” (He meant War and Peace, naturally.)
Ai-yai-yai! Does anyone hear a “Gosh, you’re a good writer, you really are, but that Tolstoy, you write worse than him!”
Turgenev, like Trigorin, knew full well what it was like to live in the shadow of those who were greater still.
Then there’s the insult that adds disgrace to injury… Take a close look at Ivan’s nose in these photos. Yes, it’s true. Some nasty, culture-hating street urchin hauled off and gave the marble Turgenev such a whack on the nose that he knocked it clean off. You can see quite clearly where the bust has been repaired.
But by bothering to drag that into my story I have really sunk too low.
Turgenev doesn’t deserve my sarcasm. I am giving free reign today to all that is base and mean in me. Turgenev was the third Russian writer I encountered (following Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, in that order). I read him with… I read him with… I read him with thoughts of, “Mmm, this is nice. I wonder where I can get some more Dostoevsky…” Damn, there I go again. But as the Russians say, you can’t toss words out of a song, and what was is what was. And what did, indeed, take place as I swept through Russian literature in my youth (as it swept through me) is that Tolstoy and Dostoevsky put stakes in my heart. Turgenev was nice. Very nice. And then Gogol and Pushkin put me flat on my back. Those are the words of that song, and it’s the only way to sing it.
It’s a whole other thing that I, and maybe not only I, could use a rediscovery of Turgenev. Maybe I’m not seeing him, like Muscovites can hardly see him. Maybe I’m blinded and prejudiced and ignorant and confused. If so, all I can say is: Bring on enlightenment. I’m ready.
Finally, I ran across a piece hanging around in the internet for over two years that indicates there have been conversations about erecting another, more prominent, monument to Turgenev in Moscow. This would be outside the house on Ostozhenka where the writer’s mother lived in the 1840s and 1850s. It is now a Turgenev museum, an affiliate (hear that?! hear that?!) of the Pushkin Museum. Anyway, as far as I know, nothing has ever been done about actually making the proposed monument a reality. Maybe everybody just got bored and fell asleep after bringing the topic up…
Slap my hands! Slap my hands!

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Fedor Ozep burial site, Hollywood, CA

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American soil does not shower gold on everyone who comes to it. Fedor Ozep, as he is known in the West (Fyodor Otsep in common transliteration from Russian) bears witness to that. One of the most active and most influential figures in the new Soviet cinema, he had less and less success the further he distanced himself from Moscow. He ended up in Hollywood after the beginning of WWII – slipping out of Europe by way of Morocco – but directed only two or three films there. (Various sources say it was one, two or three.) The usually reliable IMDb cinema site gives him five U.S. credits, although only two in the 1940s employ US-based writers and actors – Three Russian Girls (1943); and Whispering City (1947). In these final years (he was born in 1895 –  despite what you see on the gravestone pictured above – and died in 1949) he also made two films in Canada (Le Pere Chopin [1945] and The Fortress [1947]), and one in Portugal, Cero en conducta (1945). You’re excused for not knowing them.
Obviously Ozep was flirting with Hollywood money in the mid-1930s, as he made a series of films in Europe with European production teams, although the films are listed as U.S. productions.
Relatively short sojourns in Germany and France produced a half-dozen films, of which The Brothers Karamazoff (Germany, 1931) was his best known. That same year  he made another film in Germany called The Killer Dmitri Karamasoff.
But it was Ozep’s (or, more properly, Otsep’s) work in the Soviet Union that provided him a place in history. The sources, again, are contradictory, so I am culling information from many places and trying not to sin against reality too badly. I wouldn’t take everything I’m writing here as gospel truth; consider it an invitation to dig further for the real facts if you need them.
One thing is certain – Otsep  directed and scripted the film version of Leo Tolstoy’s wrenching moral drama The Living Corpse (1929). It was this success that brought about the invitations to work in Germany and France, leading to the director’s decision to emigrate as the cultural and social and political situation in the Soviet Union grew increasingly dangerous. Some sources (not all) posit Otsep as co-director, with Boris Barnet, of the wildly popular film Miss Mend (1926). You can find sources that give him partial directing and scripting credit on Yakov Protazanov’s equally popular and famous film The Man from the Restaurant (1927), but that appears to be erroneous. It’s possible that Otsep’s name shows up here because of his widespread activities at Mezhrabpomfilm, the leading Soviet film studio at that time. He was, at various times, the head script man and the artistic director of the concern.
Otsep’s one acting gig would appear to have been in Chess Fever (1926), which marked the directing debut of the future great Vsevolod Pudovkin.
Otsep also was something of a composer, as it turns out. At least, he is listed as the author of the music to a revolutionary ditty, the sheet music to which was published in March 1917, that is, before the late-autumn triumph of the Bolsheviks. The words to the song are attributed to a certain Valentinov, while the music, listed as Opus No. 10, is prominently attributed to Fyodor Otsep. You can see a copy of the sheet music on a Russian-based old music website.
Otsep was an important screenwriter. In the ‘teens he helped introduce Russian film to the literary classics by scripting silents made to Alexander Pushkin’s The Snowstorm (1918) and The Queen of Spades (1916). With popular playwright of the time Alexei Faiko (whose first two major plays were produced by Vsevolod Meyerhold), he co-wrote the scripts to the famous films of Aelita (1924), a ground-breaking sci-fi feature based on a novel by Alexei Tolstoy, and the comedy The Cigarette Girl from Mosselprom (1924). If you’re interested, you can read a post I wrote here about the Mosselprom building, whence came Otsep’s and Faiko’s cigarette girl…

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Ozep died of a heart attack in Hollywood in 1949 and was buried in a beautiful, sprawling cemetery that backs up to Paramount Studios. It is called Hollywood Forever, is located at 6000 Santa Monica Boulevard (see the last photo below), and it cares for the remains of an enormous number of Russians, Georgians, Armenians, Jews and other nationalities that have emigrated to the Los Angeles area from the Soviet Union and Russia over the last century.
It was no easy thing finding Mr. Ozep’s final resting place. Oksana and I tried one day, without success. Curiosity brought us back a few days later, however, and this time we stopped by the office first to ask. A properly serious woman stoically took my request to locate five graves and then disappeared for a good 20 or 30 minutes. I imagined her sitting in a back room sharing ghastly laughs with someone over a cup of coffee at the idiots out there in the lobby who thought she was actually looking up grave sites for them.  But, sure enough, in time, she returned – this time holding two maps with the requested locations marked in yellow. So much for my cynicism. We thanked the woman profusely and headed out on our hunt for the dead.
Ozep is located in the Garden of Legends section on the east side of the cemetery (see first photo in the block immediately above). However, the information that was provided to us – that Ozep’s grave is in Section 8 (Garden of Legends), lot 217, grave 21 – did us precious little good. There are no markers on the actual cemetery grounds, so you can’t just count down to whatever location you are seeking. At least 80% of the grave markers are identical, gray, black-lined slabs flush with the earth, so there is very little to catch your eye. We wandered up and down and all around in search of Ozep until fate and a bird conspired to aid us. You see, a duck was waddling around Ozep’s marker as I criss-crossed back and forth in the grassy area overlooking a fake lake with a fake island. The duck was the first thing to catch my attention, followed by Ozep’s grave.
By all accounts, the birth year of 1893 on the grave is incorrect. Virtually all sources that I consulted indicate he was born February 9, 1895.

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Alexander Kushner poetry reading site, Olomouc, CZ

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This building was a nice little find I made when I was in Oloumuc, in the Czech Republic, a few months ago. I should be more exact about that. I, indeed, did find the location, after traipsing around the city for some time. But there were several reasons I went looking for it in the first place. One is that I found brief reference on the net to a reading that the St. Petersburg poet Alexander Kushner gave in Oloumuc at the Poetry without Borders festival in 2002. It didn’t say where it it was; just that it happened. That’s when I did what usually works best – I leaned on a friend. I wrote to Martina Pálušová, a scholar and teacher at the university in Olomouc, and asked her if she knew anything about this reading. Sure enough, she did, and she knew it had taken place in the Divadlo hudby (Theater of Music). I dug around in the net for the address and came up with 47 Denisov Street. Convinced I had my prey in my sights now, I pulled out my map and headed for my destination. When I arrived there, however, I was confused. There was an Art Museum there, and a cafe. I didn’t see a Theater of Music. I took some shots of the exterior just in case, but went on my way assuming I had misunderstood the information I gathered. About 20 minutes later I ran into Martina on the street, as if the gods were stepping in to help. She asked if I was having luck with my searches and I explained that I couldn’t make sense of the Art Museum/Theater of Music. She grabbed me by the arm and marched me back over to Denisov Street. “Come on in here,” she said. And she opened the front door to the building. Sure enough, there in front of me was the sign that no one, myself included, would ever have seen from the street – in Czech and in English, no less – Theater of Music. (See second to last photo below.) Martina was not finished, however. She rang a doorbell and when a young man came to the door she explained what we were doing there. He smiled and shook my hand and, in English, said, “Come on in. I’ll show you the hall.” Which he did. So, even though my photo did not come out well in the available lighting, you can see in the final shot below the auditorium in which Kushner would have read his poetry.
Amidst the information that Martina sent me about Kushner’s reading, she sent a link to an interview Kushner did while in Oloumuc. In it, Kushner talks about his status as a quiet, unassuming poet, unlike those with big, spectacular biographies. He suggests that poems are capable of surviving authorities, social hostility or anything else, for that matter. “When they are good,” he says, “they have a long life. Sometimes it is only necessary to patiently wait for their time to come around.” He talks about how difficult it has become for poets to make a living in the post-Soviet era. He used to get decent royalties from books with press runs of 25,000 or even 50,000. Now, however, in the early 21st century, the press runs of two or three thousand bring in “peanuts.” “I feel for contemporary young poets,” he says, “who have lost readers as well as earnings.” Google Translate does a decent job of making the interview accessible to non-Czech readers. Give it a try if you’re interested. It’s what I used for my quotes here.

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But today I want to come back to an old text of my own that I discovered almost by accident when earlier writing about a reading Kushner gave at Dartmouth College in 1993. You see, I, myself,  had seen Kushner speak in Boston in 1987. Somehow, a text I wrote up about that event remained with me for nearly 30 years. I had forgotten about it, but there it was when I went digging through my old electronic archive: “Aleksandr Kushner. December 12, 1987. Boston University.”
I quoted a few excerpts from it in that previous post, but I’ll provide the whole thing here today. It is something of a historical document. It captures some of the flavor of an event of Russian culture abroad in the Perestroika era:

“Kushner is a relatively slight man who at first doesn’t make much of an impression. He appears to be quiet, modest, somewhat introverted, though not shy. As time goes on, one also comes to realize that he is completely at home as a poet, and with his poetry, but that as soon as he must step out of the poet’s role, he is more inclined to show a certain uneasiness and confusion. He begins by reading selections from new and old poetry for about 30 – 40 minutes, after which he takes questions from the floor. I would guess that the questions lasted for another 40 minutes or so, after which he again read from his works for maybe 20 minutes. He would give a short narrative introduction to most of the poems he read. Most everything in this account can presumably be checked against the video tape which was done by Boston University.
      When introducing a poem ostensibly about the hard winter of 1978-79, he says, ‘Here is a poem about the surovaya zima [hard winter] of 1979. The hard winter somehow reflected something about the times.’ Several people throughout the audience began whispering among themselves quite seriously, ‘correcting’ his dating to 1978. They did not seem to realize that the date had nothing to do with the poem, since for Kushner, the event of the hard winter was a pretext for poetry, not a subject of it.
      He introduces one poem as having a title, ‘Michelangelo’: ‘I don’t like to give titles to my poems, but my editor said no one will understand this if I don’t give it a title.’
      As Kushner continues to read, you begin to get the feeling that he is a being who is almost entirely accepting of the world around him. He begins to exude (I say ‘begins,’ because it is only with time that one begins to perceive it – obviously, it is there at all times for those who would see) a sense of great patience. At the same time it is clear that he is a man who has a sense of his own value. Ego is entirely an improper word, I would say, to use in discussing him. Because to say he is without ego, is overstating it, while to say that he has a sense of his own ego is also overstating it. In any case, despite his sense of timidity before the animal/audience, he also presents the picture of a man who has a sense of wholeness and sense of self about him. At one point, he cuts off in mid-sentence while speaking and goes to close the door. ‘Open doors somehow irritate me,’ he says.
      He says a few words about his trip to the United States: ‘I’m amazed to be here in America. Nothing like this ever happened and I never expected anything like it. It is my first time abroad, if you don’t count Hungary. That, by the way, was this year too. I’m only here for 10 days, and I haven’t seen much because Americans like to talk a lot. New York, of course, made an enormous impression.’
      He reads a poem which contains direct references to the purges (‘he was shot in 1937’), which he says was turned down by Novy Mir, but accepted by Oktiabr.
       His reading style, though chanting-like in the Russian manner, is not at all dramatic. Nothing whatsoever like Brodsky or Akhmadulina. But it is, in time, very hypnotic and sensitive. Everything about Kushner seems to sneak up on you – his presence, his manner, his poetry. His reading style is hypnotizing both by what it doesn’t reveal (emotion), and by what it does (language, verse, sensitivity). A certain softness, quiet strength and incredible goodness seem to emanate from his face and eyes.
       After reading for about 20 minutes he hesitates to go on and says, ‘I know it’s tiring to listen to too much poetry.’ Several calls of ‘no’ are heard from the audience, and Naum Korzhavin shouts out, ‘That’s what we’ve come for.’
       Shortly thereafter Kushner reads a poem, which he introduces by saying, ‘This poem can’t be published even today – maybe v sleduiushchuiu epokhu [in the next era].’ It contains the line, ‘i glasnost’ nuzhna; i pravda‘ [‘glasnost is necessary, as is truth’], which, of course elicits much murmuring among the crowd. But I am most struck that he succeeds in using the term ‘glasnost’ in a way that both refers to its new status as a slogan, while also retrieving the word’s original meaning [of openness] from inside the new cliche.
        He reads a poem inspired by a recent trip to Armenia: ‘Last summer I visited Armenia for the first time, and despite the fact I had read much about it’ (he mentions several authors including Mandelshtam and Bitov among others), – ‘Da, eto chudo [Yes, it’s a marvel].’ He says it with a kind of quizzical smile and a sense of inner knowing, the kind which might appear on someone’s face who is referring to some miraculous, but long past and now irretrievable experience.
       In reference to a question about an article he recently published in Yunost’ [magazine] which discussed the Leningrad-Moscow difference (I believe it was Mikhail Kreps who posed the question), Kushner says, ‘Leningrad forms its people. Muscovites, as Zoshchenko said, are nervnye liudi [nervous people].’ 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.’
       He lists three of his favorite poets as Annensky, Akhmatova, Mandelshtam. He lists three new Leningrad poets who he feels are genuine poets (I did not get their names clearly; I think two of them were: Kunin and Meshchersky). He also mentions Yelena Shvarts, who he says will soon become better known. ‘Ona nerovny poet, mozhet byt’, no xoroshii [She may be an uneven poet, but she’s good].’
      ‘A cynical life attitude is now influencing poetry, which might be concisely formulated as zhizn’ – bardak [life is a mess]. There is a sense that many poets feel there is nothing of value in life. But poetry is an accumulator of life energy. A poet sits and works, attempting to use this energy. That is what is called inspiration. Mandelshtam is the greatest poet of the 20th century. He was able to capture the minutiae of life like no one else.’ 
      ‘Poezzia – ona nichego ne dolzhna – no esli ona dolzhna chto-to – ona dolzhna sokhranit’ podrobnosti zhizni. [Poetry is not bound to do anything, but if it does have a duty, it is to preserve the details of life].’
     Kushner was asked a question: ‘What has changed?’ (i.e., in current affairs).
      Answer: ‘The life of the intelligentsia, i.e. the needs of the intelligentsia has definitely changed for the better. But if you’re talking about life for the average person and for people’s everyday needs, then nothing much has changed. These changes must come gradually, I agree with that.’
     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. There are a few in the audience who would force the conversation to continue on about politics (Alexander Sergeevich Yesenin-Volpin is one), but the majority, and certainly Kushner himself, want the meeting to return to poetry. Kushner is obviously interested in, and concerned about, politics, but as a poet, and at a lectern, he feels extremely uncomfortable with it. When too many questions keep coming about the reactionary Pamiat’ group, he gets frustrated, nearly upset. One can see how much he wants to get back on the topic of poetry. In reference to a question about Slavophiles such as Yury Bondarev and others (‘Are they dangerous?’), he says, with some annoyance, or at least discomfort, ‘Da, opasnye [Yes, dangerous].’ The conversation also turns for some time to the subject of various recent anti-Semitic incidents in Leningrad. He shows a genuine sense of outrage about it and clearly feels the need, as a person, not only to distance himself from such things, but to condemn them. He seems to feel cornered into expressing his attitude on Jews: ‘I think a Jew in Russia is a Russian, a Jew in Germany is a German.’ One also senses his distaste for even having to actually say such a simple, obvious thing.
      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.
      In trying to return the talk to poetry, Kushner says, ‘Poezzia nuzhdaetsja v predelakh [Poetry requires limits]. Real poetry,’ he says, ‘is a bad place for helping along these changes. I can’t stand journalistic poetry.’
       He finally succeeds in overcoming the few who insist on talking about politics, and does return to poetry. However, for a moment, he has a difficult time. ‘I can’t just start reading again. I need the proper mood.’ After a question about his method of writing, he does begin reading again. After he has read for 10 or fifteen minutes more, there are 4 or 5 encores (one of which is an excerpt from a poem by Mandelstam). His final comments after the last reading are: ‘For some reason I found it very easy to read today. That is rare. Reading is a very hard thing. I would also like to say that I have a great sense of feeling for you who have come here today’ [clearly referring to the emigres, including Korzhavin, Kreps and Yesenin-Volpin, who make up 90% of the audience]. ‘I know how hard it is for you, and I want you to know that Russia has lost a great deal due to your absence.’
       There is an incredible sense that this man and his poetry stand for the absolute best of what Russia can offer. Depth of intelligence, sensitivity, wisdom, insight, strength and modesty. When you watch him read his poems, you realize that you are watching a true poet, and that you are hearing true poetry.”

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Yelena Koreneva’s favorite cafe, Santa Monica, CA

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Yelena Koreneva has had an extraordinary biography and she is still just getting started. You have to begin with the fact that she was one of the best, best loved and best respected actors in Soviet film in the 1970s. That in itself would have made her an historical figure in Russian culture. Her performances in Andrei Konchalovsky’s A Romance about Lovers (1974), Iosif Kheifets’s Asya (1977), Konchalovsky’s The Sibiriade (1978) and Mark Zakharov’s That Same Munchausen (1979) form a blockbuster quartet that defines the decade. But while she was balancing much of Soviet cinema on her own two, rather petite, shoulders, she was also pushing the envelope in theater. From 1975 to 1977 she worked at the popular Sovremennik Theater, where she performed in plays by some of the top authors of the era – two by Viktor Rozov and one by Mikhail Roshchin. Also at the Sovremennik, she performed in the directing debut of beloved Russian actor Oleg Dal – The Princess and the Woodcutter. She was then lured away to the Theater on Malaya Bronnaya by the great Russian director Anatoly Efros. Between 1977 and 1979 she performed in three of his productions – Turgenev’s A Month in the Country (1977), Igor Dvoretsky’s A Veranda in the Woods (1978) and Eduard Radzinsky’s The Continuation of Don Juan (1979). It was an absolutely stunning six or seven years. Was there anyone cooler in Moscow than Yelena Koreneva during that period? I find it hard to believe.
But what everyone found hard to believe at the time was that, right at the top of her game, right at the peak of her success, right at that moment when she could look down and see the whole world – the whole wide world – at her feet, she did something that, at that time in the Soviet Union, amounted to professional suicide. She married an American academic and left for the United States. For the next eleven years she worked at odd jobs in New York, Beverly Hills, San Francisco, and lived in many other cities. Her marriage didn’t last, but she was unable to return to the Soviet Union. I don’t even know if she wanted to – maybe she was just enjoying life as it came to her on a day-to-day basis. Maybe that’s why, when she lived in Southern California, she had three favorite cafes that she would hang out in, perhaps like Otis Redding’s hero, “sitting on the dock of the bay, watching the tide roll away….” There is a deep charm to that. I have done it myself. In any case, all three of the cafes were in Santa Monica and all of them were at or near the beach.
When I told Lena I wanted to write something about her time in Southern California, the first thing she said was, “Maybe you shouldn’t? Maybe it’s not worth it?” But I assured her it was, and is, and I finally convinced her to send me some addresses. Among others, she directed me to this, the Novel Cafe, located at 212 Pier Avenue, just north of the municipal border with Venice Beach.
I remembered the place I loved to spend time – The Novel Cafe in Santa Monica,” she wrote in a small letter of reminiscences. “You can find its exact address via the internet. It is that type of place where one can pick up books and read them – there is a library of a kind… and couches, very cozy. Another cafe nearby was the Rose Cafe – you also can find its exact address through the internet.”
We determined that the Rose Cafe no longer exists, but when my wife Oksana and I pulled up in front of 212 Pier Ave. with my trusty camera in tow, it was quite obvious that, although there may have been a few changes in the last couple of decades, this was, indeed, one of those places where Lena used to hang out.
It is so marvelously and wondrously incongruous – one of the Soviet Union’s greatest actresses of her era quietly sipping coffee, eating carrot cake and plowing through the latest novel that she happened to pull off the bookshelf at random. All entirely anonymously, of course. None of the beachcombers here had the vaguest notion who they were sharing space with! And, knowing Lena, I have little doubt that she never gave off the slightest hint as to who she was. I don’t know this for a fact, but I have no doubt it’s true: She surely enjoyed the anonymity, the cloak-and-dagger quality to it all. It must have been a bit of a game for her, an escape down into one of the nondescript tunnels leading to Alice’s retreat in Wonderland.

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Lena returned to Russia in the early 1990s and wasted no time reminding the public of her presence. She starred in several fascinating theater projects and slowly stepped back into film, as well. In fact, she had not abandoned film entirely during her American years. Her old friend Andrei Konchalovsky cast her in a couple of the films he made during his own American period, including Maria’s Lovers (1984) where she performed alongside Keith Carradine and Nastasja Kinski, and Homer and Eddie (1989). Her film career picked up again full steam in the late 1990s and has never let up since. She has performed in over 25 films since 1997. Her performances in two theatrical extravaganzas directed by the Ukrainian Andrii Zholdak in Moscow put her right back in the heart of the best of avant-garde Russian theater. She was exquisite as the Reader in Carmen. Exodus at the Theater of Nations (2007) and again in the title role of Medea. Psycho at the Contemporary Play School (2008). Here is what I wrote about Medea in The Moscow Times (you can read the entire review here):
The Medea of this story, played with absolute fearlessness by Yelena Koreneva, is a contemporary housewife whose life is shattered when her husband Jason decides to leave her for a younger, more advantageous match… Koreneva is a force of nature as Medea, the embodiment of the old adage that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. Her portrait of Medea is the portrait of truth and justice mauled and maligned. At first she coaxes her man back to her, but when that does not succeed, she becomes threatening. This is enough to convince Creon to suggest she be killed, although Jason is never able to go that far. Nor is Creon, for Medea’s powers of persuasion also work on him. Over the course of the play the image strengthens of Medea as a marauding, enraged figure shadowing the corrupt and immoral people who have destroyed her home and hearth. Zholdak emphasizes this by increasingly broadcasting closeups of Medea’s distorted, contorted facial expressions.”
In recent years Koreneva has devoted much of her time to writing. She is the author of several best-selling volumes of memoirs and novelistic writings, including An Idiot: A Biographical Novel (2001), Net-lenka [an untranslatable title that suggests both “Not Lena” and “Masterpiece”] (2004), and Creatures of Creativity (2009).
Oksana and I often run into Lena at political rallies in Moscow. She is great company, down to earth, has a great sense of humor, and is seemingly entirely lacking in ego. I always like to think back to all those folks in Santa Monica who didn’t know what they were missing by not approaching her to strike up a conversation.

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Ginkas’s White Room 2, Moscow

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It was bound to happen sooner or later. At some point I was going to have reason to write about the same place a second time. I’m sure I will even come back to some places a third time – maybe even this one. This is a return to Kama Ginkas’s White Room at the Moscow Young Spectator Theater, located at 8 Mamonovsky Lane. I wrote about it once already, you can read that entry here. That was just nine months ago and I had no idea – maybe no one did – that the sad story I told then was about to come to an end. In brief, it is this: Kama Ginkas staged a historical production called We Play Crime, based on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment in this small building in 1991. The idea at the time was that Ginkas would use this little affiliate attached in spirit, but not in fact, to the Young Spectator Theater for many of his future works. But evil stepped in. An unscrupulous manager at the theater somehow irreversibly leased the little building away for 24 years to some business concern. Ginkas’s brilliant use of the space in that 1991 show could not be repeated or built upon, at least not in the same space. He lost access to this place that suited his art and vision so well. Now, however, this little building has been returned to the ownership of the theater and Ginkas wasted no time putting it to use. But not only is he putting it to theatrical use, he has had the whole place renovated in the style of the time it was built – some 200 years ago. But those are not the only changes. The first photo in the final block of photos below shows the space’s new entrance. In 1991 we walked into the space directly from the street (see the door at left in the two photos above). Now we walk around the building from the other side (see photo immediately below), and enter through a courtyard and patio. Once inside we are greeted by several gorgeous, brightly painted rooms that imitate what rooms might have looked like in the old days. There is a blue library with an old velvet sofa, a reddish sitting room with a fireplace, a video room where you can sit and watch video clips of the theater’s shows, a long, green corridor that leads from the entrance directly to the white performance space.  (You can see the library and sitting room in the last block of photos below. In fact, the final photo shows how the architects left cutaways in walls in each room, revealing materials still left over from the original construction 200 years ago.)

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Ginkas tells the story of the renovated space well in a post that was made to Facebook. Here is a translation of the pertinent segment of his post:
Hurrah! I congratulate myself, Moscow Young Spectator Theater and everyone who understands! Today, unofficially as yet, we performed our production on the new (old!) stage that we call ‘Games in the Affiliate.’ Friends! For those who understand these things. This structure is at least 200 years old. It may be one of the few buildings left in Moscow after the fire. Do you understand? After Napoleon! After almost all of Moscow burned. This tiny little building in the empire style. Nobody knows what was here. But it still retains the charm of the old Moscow buildings of the nobility. And so – we renovated it and gave it (as best we could) the feel of old Moscow comfort. In the awful modern plaster drywall, without which you cannot do these days, unfortunately, we cut small windows that allow you to see the real wooden walls which have been standing there for two centuries. There is a tiny cafe next to a fireplace where you can have coffee or an inexpensive open-faced sandwich. There is a little library where you can sit and, by the light of a lamp, look through books about theater, and not only… There is a tiny room where you can watch videos of our shows….
I revisited this spectacular space last night for the first time since 1991. It was quite an experience, I must say. The occasion was Ginkas’s new production called On the Road to… Like We Play Crime, it is based on separate chapters from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, but, unlike the former production which focused on the characters of the intellectual assassin Raskolnikov and and the wily detective Porfiry Petrovich, this one looks at Raskolnikov and the mysterious figure of Svidrigailov, who, as Ginkas puts it, is a jester, a killer and a philosopher. Ginkas quotes from the old show liberally, but repeats nothing. He plays with the same old devices of shadows, a window, a bucket, but uses them in entirely new circumstances. Did I have the feeling that I was traveling back in time? Almost. Almost, but not quite. Because, like any great theater artist, Kama Ginkas is of the present moment. Always. And On the Road to... is of the present moment. It tells the hard, harsh and very sad tale of two men who have lost their way, for whom murder has been a sign of their lives and character, although, surely, neither one ever planned on that. But this is not the place to write a review. I am here today to celebrate the return to the Moscow theater map of one of its great spaces, lost since 1991. Now back in service and at the beck and call of Kama Ginkas and Moscow theater-goers.
A comment on a few of the photos above. Note the beautiful, clearly-traced shadows of a single tree spreading across the facade of the building. You can see it best in the second photo at the top. This ghostly apparition seemed so perfect, so appropriate, that I took that second shot specifically so as to enhance the arboreal shadow. It, indeed, was a night of shadows and specters and ghosts coming to life in a way that enriched the lives we are living today. That’s theater, yes. That’s Kama Ginkas.

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Alexander Sumbatov-Yuzhin plaque, Moscow

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So is it Sumbatov-Yuzhin, as I have written it? Or is is Yuzhin-Sumbatov, as the people who made the plaque honoring this actor and writer put it? Or is it just Yuzhin, as Russian Wikipedia tells us, although his real last name was Sumbatov. (Yuzhin, roughly suggesting “southerner” in Russian, was a pseudonym.) But the authenticity of Sumbatov is not entirely true, either, because the man in our sights today was born into the princely Georgian Sumbatashvili family, hence, he was properly Sumbatashvili.
Just to make things more fun, the first time our southern Sumbat ever performed on stage – this was in Tiflis (today Tbilisi), Georgia, in 1876 – he used the pseudonym of Solntsev.
The fact of the matter is that none of the above variants is wrong. It all depends on what activity and what part of the man’s life you are referring to. I own a collection of his plays where we can find the following sentence embedded in the introduction:
“…These views and convictions of Yuzhin-the-actor found their most vivid expression in the plays of Sumbatov.”
We won’t pursue precisely what these views and convictions were in the eye of the author T. Knyazevskaya. The article was written in 1961 and is filled with all the ideological pathos of the Soviet Union of that time. (For example, my five-volume Russian Theater Encyclopedia, published about the same time, writes that Yuzhin’s mission as an actor was to carry the kernel of good to his public. Pardon me while I wipe the spittle from my shirt-front.) We are more interested in cutting through the morass of enforced opinion in order to discover a bit of the reality surrounding this fascinating, influential, talented man of the Russian theater. As far, then, as the name is concerned, he was Yuzhin-Sumbatov (or just Yuzhin), if you are talking about his work as one of the great actors at the Maly Theater from 1882 until his death in 1927. If you have in mind his considerable work as a playwright (he wrote at least a dozen plays and was considered by the influential critic Alexander Kugel to to be one of the finest Russian playwrights of the late 19th century) he was either Sumbatov-Yuzhin or Sumbatov.
Alexander Sumbatashvili was born in 1857 in the marvelously-named village of Kukui not far from Tula, which is south of Moscow. As I have mentioned, he died in 1927, a giant in the field of Russian theater. He was a man for whom just one hat was never enough. And he excelled at everything he did, as an actor, a writer, an administrator, and a manager. Like Alexander Ostrovsky before him, he was often the brains and motor behind the Maly Theater during much of his tenure there. He held various administrative duties from 1909 on. He was the managing director from 1923 to 1926.
For most of his years in Moscow he occupied apartments (I purposefully use the old-fashioned plural, because surely he occupied a suite of rooms) in a beautiful Moscow building at 5/1 Bolshoi Palashyovsky Lane, just a stone’s throw from Pushkin Square. Actually the building is located equally at the beginning of Tryokhprudny Lane, but the main, arched, entrance is located on Bolshoi Palashyovsky.
The plaque honoring Sumbatov-Yuzhin was unveiled in 1959. The entire building, including the plaque, was given a major face lift just recently. If I am not mistaken, the scaffolding only came off this year after several years of work. It would appear to have been worth the wait. From the outside, at least, the building is gorgeous.

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After the actor named Solntsev began his career in Tiflis in the mid-1870s, he moved on to St. Petersburg where he performed in 1878 and 1879. He joined the company of the independent Brenko troupe in Moscow in 1881, and then settled into his storied career at the Maly Theater in 1882. Yuzhin excelled in the great, classical roles, in both tragedy and comedy. He played Moliere and Shakespeare as if he owned them. (This doesn’t surprise me – the Georgian temperament is, indeed, Shakespearean.) He started out by playing Schiller and Hugo. You get the picture. A Russian film site, which provides a detailed bio for the actor, says this: “In Yuzhin’s passionate, exalted theatrical performances, contemporaries espied heroic motives, so attractive to the liberal-minded youth of the time.” As is fitting of a great star, he played Macbeth in Macbeth (1890), Coriolanus in Coriolanus (1902), Richard III in Richard III (1897), Ruy Blas in Ruy Blas (1891), Othello in Othello (1908), and Figaro in The Marriage of Figaro (1910)… He performed in over 20 plays by Alexander Ostrovsky and played two of the great Russian roles in different productions of Alexander Griboedov’s Woe from Wit (Repetilov in 1911, Famusov in 1915).  That film site suggests it was Yuzhin, whose memorable performance of Repetilov (essentially just one scene in the play), expanded that seemingly small role into one of the tradition’s classic roles.
You can hear an audio recording of Yuzhin’s Othello on YouTube.
Sumbatov-the-playwright virtually disappeared from sight after the author’s death. His plays were not produced, nor were they published with any regularity. Thus I remember with what interest I set out for the Sovremennik Theater in 2010 to see Yevgeny Kamenkovich’s production of Sumbatov’s The Gentlemen, originally written in 1893, published in 1896 and first performed in 1897. It would be my first-ever opportunity to see a Sumbatov play on stage. Here is the beginning of the review I subsequently wrote in The Moscow Times:
The notion of Yevgeny Kamenkovich directing The Gentleman at the Sovremennik Theater would seem to be someone’s weird idea of a joke. 
“The play is a totally forgotten comedy about the excesses, dangers and cruelty of wealth by the once-famous, now rather obscure, actor and playwright Alexander Sumbatov-Yuzhin. Written in 1897, it has rarely been revived since.”
If you are so inclined, you can read the rest of what I wrote on what is left of the website of The Moscow Times. The nutshell is that I was knocked out by the play itself. I could see the kind of national character portraits that Ostrovsky was so good at painting; I could see an author who knew exactly how the stage works; I could see an author who knew human foibles well and knew how to exploit them in a dramatic fashion.
I can’t say that I expected a Sumbatov boom to follow the wonderful production at the Sovremennik (where it continues to play in repertoire five years down the road), but I would have liked to have seen it. It didn’t happen. As such, for the time being, Sumbatov the writer remains deeply obscure, regardless of how unfair that may be. I, however, always doff my imaginary cap to the man – both the actor and the writer – whenever I pass by his former residence in central Moscow.

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Monument to Troepolsky’s Bim, Voronezh

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It’s time for a bit of canine culture today. Allow me to present to you the famous Bim, imagined into legend by Voronezh writer Gavriil Troepolsky in the much-anthologized story “White Bim Black Ear.” Written in 1971, it became a classic virtually instantly. A film was made of it by Stanislav Rostotsky in 1977. You will note that the Voronezh-based sculptors Elza Pak and Ivan Dikunov represented the black ear (and a bit of a paw) with bronze, and the white dog with stainless steel. It’s a lovely little monument that obviously gets many kids of all ages to stop by and rub Bim’s snout and the top of his head. It stands in a large open plaza at 50 Revolution Prospekt in front of the Voronezh Puppet Theater, also known by the name of Jester.
So popular was Troepolsky’s story that by 1985, less than 15 years after the first publication, the sculptors not only had the idea of creating a monument to Bim, but they began work on it, not knowing when or where it would be unveiled. It wasn’t until Sept. 5, 1998, that the finished product was offered up to the public eye. Troepolsky, who was born in 1905 and died in 1995, was a consultant on the sculptors’ work, but was not alive to see it make its public bow.
I hate to admit that I remember the story badly. I did read it, relatively shortly after it was published. It was one of the pieces of contemporary Russian literature that were part of my basic undergraduate education in Russian language and literature at the University of California at Irvine in the late 1970s. Let me credit department chair Helen Weil, many years deceased, now, alas, for including the tale in my reading list. At a time when contemporary Russian prose crept into American college syllabi rather slowly, if at all, Helen did a marvelous job of acquainting me with the important writers of the day. So it is no fault of Helen’s if I remember “White Bim Black Ear” badly. That’s down to me and my rather wooden ear when it comes to things faunal.

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“White Bim Black Ear” tells the tale of an unusual Gordon setter who lives in harmony with his beloved master, a lonely former journalist and veteran of World War II. The two are inseparable and the retired Ivan Ivanych (rather like John Doe in English) often takes Bim for walks and hunting in the woods. One day, however, Ivan Ivanych is taken ill and is hurried off to a hospital in Moscow. Left in the care of neighbors, Bim escapes in search of his master and wanders around town, witnessing numerous acts of human stupidity, cruelty and, occasionally, kindness. Deemed undesirable by a neighbor, Bim is dumped off at a dog shelter where he dies before his master can rescue him.
Now, put away the hankies, sniffle a few times, and bat your eyes to dry them.
Troepolsky’s Bim, indeed, became a Soviet-Russian cultural icon. For the story Troepolsky was awarded the State Prize (the highest civilian prize in the Soviet Union and, now, in Russia), sealing his position as one of the most famous writers of his generation. Rostotsky’s film won many awards and was a nominee for an Oscar in 1978. The role of Ivan Ivanych was played by the great Vyacheslav Tikhonov. The role of Bim, since his coloring is not found in Gordon setters, was played by an English setter named Steve (nicknamed Styopa). Steve had a body double named Dandy. According to Russian Wikipedia, the filming process was so intense that it undermined Steve’s health, and a few months after the filming was completed, he died.
Perhaps ironically, the winner of the Foreign Film Oscar when White Bim Black Ear was nominated was Bertrand Blier’s Get Out Your Handkerchiefs (France).
Which leaves me with little else to say.

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