Georgy Alexi-Meskhishvili workspace, Hanover, NH

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Georgy Alexi-Meskhishvili (born 1941) has gotten around throughout his career. One of the great Georgian theater designers of his generation, he has worked extensively in Russia and the United States (including the Metropolitan Opera in New York), leaving quite a mark in both of those countries. I won’t be able to recall exactly the first time I encountered his work, although it was probably when I saw all the shows of the stunning Moscow tour of the Rustaveli Theater of Tbilisi, Georgia, in Moscow in 1994. Those sets to soaring, eye-opening and heart-rending productions by Robert Sturua (Meskhishvili did not design them all) were fabulously eclectic, suggestive and beautiful. The use of large expanses of open space, coupled with well-considered props, seemed to be the epitome of theatrical to me. Here’s what I wrote about Sturua’s rendition of Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle in an article about that tour for the journal Slavic and East European Performances ( later reprinted in my book Moscow Performances: The New Russian Theater 1991-1996):
The set by Georgy Alexi-Meskhishvili implied a forlorn outpost. Battered fortress walls lined the walls of the large, empty stage, the center of which often revolved, delivering or carrying away actors in statue-like poses. A few artist’s implements stood bunched at forestage right (the Storyteller’s “studio”), a messenger occasionally appeared atop a kind of Trojan horse, and spare props such as a bed, a wash tub or a scaffold (in Act III) were brought in from time to time. But the stage was primarily an open platter that served up the actors and the action.”
(A little more research indicates that I actually probably first encountered his work in 1992 or 1993 – this would have been Temur Chkheidze’s production of Schiller’s Love and Intrigue for the Bolshoi Drama Theater of St. Petersburg – although I apparently did not write about it, so I can’t offer up a fresh impression here.)
Later I saw numerous sets that Meskhishvili created for Lev Dodin’s Maly Drama Theatre and Valery Gergiev’s Mariinsky Theater of St. Petersburg, and numerous more that he created for Sturua’s many productions in Moscow at the Et Cetera Theater. You can see a bit of one of those shows, The Tempest, on YouTube. It’s well worth it. Meskhishvili has worked in London, Dusseldorf, Helsinki, Paris, Bordeaux, Venice, Munich and Bologna in Europe. He also created sets and costumes for productions in Tel Aviv and Buenos Aires, and he was a founding member of the highly-regarded Synetic Theater in Washington, D.C.
What I did not know when my wife Oksana and I arrived for a three-week residency with the New York Theatre Workshop at Dartmouth College last August, was that Alexi-Meskhishvili had taught design in the theater department at Dartmouth for 20 years. In fact, he apparently had just cleaned out his office and headed back to Tbilisi shortly before we arrived in August 2015. He joined the faculty as a visiting professor in 1996. So, not only did I find myself routinely walking the same halls that he had walked for so long, I also heard his former students referring to him with love and affection as Gogi, the Georgian diminutive for Georgy. It all struck me as slightly bizarre and quite fascinating.

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Alexi-Meskhishvili – for at least part of his tenure at Dartmouth – occupied office 117 in the Hopkins Center, certain aspects of which you can see in these photos. The first two shots in the block immediately above show the design workshop that is located on the ground floor of the Hopkins Center. The three photos below show some of the Dartmouth students’ design work that would have been done under Alexi-Meskhishvili’s tutelage. The display cabinet is located in the Hopkins Center basement, adjacent to the entrance to the Bentley Theater space (directly under the Moore Theatre space) where most student productions are performed. I hazard to say that most of the design models show the Meskhishvili influence. Compare, for instance, the last photo below with the set you see in the video of The Tempest above. I definitely see a connection. These designs are not the typical sit-comish kitchen or living room scenes that American theater throws at us so often.
Alexi-Meskhishvili returned to Tbilisi in the late summer of 2015 in order to devote his time more heavily to the Georgy Alexi-Meskhishvili Modern Theater Art School at the Rustaveli Theatre (the school officially opened in 2014). According to an announcement on the website of the Georgian Ministry of Culture, the school is free of charge to the students (hear that, United States?). I wrote to my friend Maya Mamaladze, a Moscow-educated Georgian theater scholar and critic, and asked if she could share any details about the school. She replied that she attended a student exhibit in the foyer of the Rustaveli Theater in October 2015: “Very good works, models and installations,” she wrote.
Alexi-Meskhishvili’s own work has pulled down a bundle of awards, if you’re into things like that. The one I find of particular interest – not because of the award itself, but because of the project – is the Felix award for best design at the Berlin Film Festival in 1989. This was for his work on Ashik-Kerib, the great Sergei Parajanov’s last finished film.
Pamela Howard, in her book What is Scenography? asked a large number of designers from around the world to answer the question posed by her book title. I can’t say that most of the respondents shined in their answers. Alexi-Meskhishvili, however, gave a good one: “Scenography – playing the game by my own rules in the magic box of stage.”

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Vladimir Vysotsky statue, Voronezh

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I have hesitated to post these photos for some time. Every time I look at them in my archive, I lean my head to one side, hold it there a minute, then pass by. These were the first photos I took in Voronezh when I was in that very cool city about a year ago. The monument to beloved actor and singer-songwriter Vladimir Vysotsky (1938-1980) is located just a stone’s throw from the Voronezh Chamber Theater where my wife Oksana and I were staying on a short working visit. We went out to have breakfast at one of the few cafes open early Sunday morning and happened upon Vysotsky. I shot him on an empty stomach, could that be part of the problem?
In fact, I am hardly the first person to have questions about this statue created by Maxim Dikunov and unveiled Sept. 9, 2009 in front of the Physical Education Institute at 59 Karl Marx Street. Everywhere you run into snide comments that Vysotsky, who died of drink and did anything but lead a so-called “healthy life,” does not belong in front of this institution. There are more complaints that Vysotsky, apparently, was never in Voronezh. None of this bothers me in the least.
I am, however, of two minds about the sculpture itself. My first reaction was that it was kitsch, although an interesting bit of kitsch. It’s not down on the rather gross level with the Vysotsky-Marina Vlady statue in Yekaterinburg. And if you think about the Moscow statue that stands at the corner of Strastnoi Boulevard and Petrovka, you begin to realize that there seems to be a problem in Russia with depicting one of its most popular heroes of the last half-century.
I don’t like the slickness of this likeness in Voronezh. It’s too shiny and buffed and glossy. It’s almost as if the sculptor never really bothered to listen to Vysotsky’s voice, or watch clips of him move on stage at the Taganka Theater. I’m confused about the facial expression. I can’t quite decide if he’s suffering from hemorrhoids or if he’s just hiding some secret from us.  The turned-around chair shouldn’t be a problem (in art you can do whatever you can get away with), but in the context – the gloss, the grin, the weird left hand, the guitar wielded more as Peter Townshend might than Vysotsky (for whom the guitar most of the time was just a prop on which he plunked out of tune) – this whole ensemble has an uncomfortable look. As I walked around, and as I look at the pictures I brought home with me, I find myself wriggling my shoulders and hips and elbows trying to shake out a sensation of awkwardness.
But there is a test that all sculptures and monuments have to pass (or not): the test of “do you want to go back and look?” And, I must say, during my three days in Voronezh, I came back here several times. I even photographed it a second time, wondering if I might find some new angles (I didn’t). And as I walked past it each time, I sensed the human quality of the statue. I might bicker with it as an image, but its ability to reach me on a personal, human level was undeniable. I get that same feeling when I look at the photos here, no matter how much I want to gripe about them.

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Meanwhile, the sculpture is passing a pretty interesting test over at Trip Advisor. Random people go on there and comment on the monument. As of this writing, twenty-one people have expressed their opinion. And wouldn’t you know – most are in favor of it. Maybe there’s some supportive trolling going on, but I can’t know that. I just see things like, “a very worthy piece of work”; “The reaction of locals was complex – after all Vysotsky was never in Voronezh – but the sculpture is interesting”; “I’ve seen monuments to Vysotsky in Rostov, Volzhsky and Sochi, but I thought the one in Voronezh was the best”; “Excellent work by the sculptor!” and so on.
Among the negative responses one catches my eye because part of me feels the same thing: “This sculpture scares you off more than it  makes a positive impression.”
As for the topic of whether Vysotsky was ever in Voronezh, there are rumors that he hung out at someone’s private party there in the 1960s. There is also talk that he once gave a closed concert for approximately 100 spectators at the city’s Green Theater near Dynamo Park. In any case, that is what one website tells us as it tries to find five things that attach the memory of Vysotsky to Voronezh. Another connection is the fact that a samizdat collection of Vysotsky’s poems/lyrics circulated in August 1980 before an official publication of his work was ever printed. We can also add that a group at the Voronezh State Pedagogical University has hosted an annual “Vysotskiana” conference ever since 1988. Oh, yes, and there is a tiny street, hardly more than a couple of blocks, that is named after Vysotsky on the east side of town across the Voronezh Reservoir.
The upshot, of course, is that the connections are thin, indeed. Although, what does that mean? I saw a very cool statue of Shakespeare in Budapest, and what the hell, other than influence, connects the Bard to Budapest? Of course, that’s the point: Vysotsky’s influence on his and all later generations, all over Russia and the Soviet Union, was huge. Ergo: there is every reason for the folks in Voronezh to want to honor him. As to whether this particular monument is fully successful in doing that, let’s leave that question open for the time being.

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Ballets Russes at the Lyceum Theatre, London

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The critics ate the Ballets Russes alive when they opened for a short, “low-priced,” season in London at the Lyceum Theatre on 21 Wellington St. at the end of 1926. All kinds of stuff about them going pop (in the local lingua of the time, of course). They’d lost their moxie. They were pandering to the public. That kind of stuff. Oh, really? I’ll bet you’d have a hell of a time finding a critic who didn’t fawn on The Lion King, which opened at this same venue in 1999 and is still running today! So much for critics, so much for standards, so much for taste! In fact, when you walk around London’s West End, as I did a few months ago, and you see all those cotton candy musicals gumming up the city’s stages, you wonder how London’s reputation as a great theater center has survived. But that’s just an aside. I’m here to think about the Ballets Russes today.
The show that really caught in the London critics’ collective craw in 1926 was The Triumph of Neptune. It premiered Dec. 3, 1926, and was composed by Lord Berners, choreographed by George Balanchine. It was the first work that Diaghilev ever commissioned from a British composer. It was considered populist and folkloric and decidedly beneath the great Ballets Russes. Here is what the critic for The Nation wrote:
The excited giggles that greeted some of the more bizarre elements of the newer ballets betrayed a large sprinkling of a less highbrow audience. The season which opened at the Lyceum Theatre in November 1926 brought out an even motlier public, an enormous army of admirers, who make up an audience as unintelligent as any other, and apparently quite incapable of discriminating between one ballet and another.”
Oh, yes, where have I seen this before? If only the stupid public and the talentless artists would listen to us, the genius critics! But I keep digressing today…
Still, the razzes were not unanimous. In a friendly contemporary essay about the ballet, one scholar dug up something resembling a positive response and put it into context:
In fact Diaghilev was as attuned to trends as ever,” writes Anne Witchard in “Bedraggled Ballerinas on a Bus Back to Bow: The ‘Fairy Business’.” “It was a craze for mid-century Victoriana among London’s so-called Bright Young Things that persuaded him to commission the eccentric peer and composer Lord Berners and his friend Sacheverell Sitwell to create the ballet score and libretto. The Triumph of Neptune was a combination of surreal pastiche, camp sentiment, and fierce nostalgia, and it prompted the normally anti-Diaghilev Daily Express critic, Hannen Swaffer, to state: ‘We saw at the Lyceum last night the beginnings of a British ballet.’ This was not quite what Haskell had meant. Where Haskell was referring to the artistic credibility of English ballet dancing as a nascent phenomenon thanks to Russian intervention, what Swaffer saw in The Triumph of Neptune was the rediscovery of an already credible native tradition. The flamboyant dandy-aesthetes of the 1920s embraced a ‘High-coloured Victorian England’ as wholeheartedly as pre-war Bloomsbury had rejected it, and Diaghilev’s company offered ways of making aesthetic connections to that tradition.”

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The Triumph of Neptune was joined in rep by, among other titles, Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird and Constant Lambert’s Romeo and Juliet. This latter work premiered in Monte Carlo a few months before London, and received a bit of a scandalous reception in Paris after Monte Carlo, but before London. The Parisians, apparently always quick to complain (or quick to give Diaghilev the publicity he craved) were unhappy that the pair of lovers in this version are swept away to safety on a new-fangled airplane rather than can kill themselves in the finale. Here, in a review of a CD containing both The Triumph of Neptune and Romeo and Juliet, is a description of the ballet as it unfolded on stage:
This Romeo and Juliet is perhaps an irreverent treatment of Shakespeare’s tragedy, taking less than thirty-one minutes for performance.  The first tableaux is ‘In a ballet classroom,’ in which the two principal dancers fall in love while practicing for the performance.  The second tableaux is ‘At a rehearsal of scenes from Romeo and Juliet‘ in which the first meeting of the two lovers  is depicted in a Sinfonia (3:03), the duel between Romeo and Tybalt by a Toccata (2:33), the balcony scene by a Musette (2:42), the death of Juliet by an Adagietto (1:59), and a Finale (3:22) after which the leading dancers do not take their curtain call—they have eloped by aeroplane.”
Romeo was danced by Serge Lifar (Serhiy Lyfar in transliteration from his native Ukrainian); Juliet by Alice (Alisa) Nikitina. You can see them in a photo on Pinterest.
A third ballet that played with the other two was a new version of Stravinsky’s The Firebird. As Alexander Golovin’s sets and Leon (Lev) Bakst’s costumes to the famous 1910 production had been damaged beyond repair, Diaghilev had Natalya Goncharova create a new environment for the piece. (You can see a nice shot of her backdrop here.) According to The London Stage 1920-1929: A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel, The Firebird opened Nov. 22, 1926, and played 10 times through Dec. 11. It used the original Michel Fokine (Mikhail Fokin) choreography, and starred Serge Lifar  as Ivan Tsarevich and Lydia Lopokova (Lidia Lopukhova) as the Firebird. Chatty birds even today tell us that Lopokova did not like working with Lifar, but she put on a game face and did it anyway.
There were apparently several other works that joined these main pieces during the London “low-priced” season. The fine AusStage website informs us that on Thursday, Nov. 25, the following combination of ballets and symphonic pieces opened: The Three-Cornered HatThe Firebird,  L’Apres Midi D’un Faune, and Prince Igor, plus the interludes of Largo by Gemignani (first performance in England), Jeux en Plein Air by Tailleferre (first performance in England) and Scherzo by Borodin.
Look at all that cheap, populist stuff! Right here at the Lyceum, November and December 1926.

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Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev and Walt Disney, Los Angeles

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Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) and Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) were three giants of Russian music in the 20th century. Their lives and professional paths snaked in and around each other in many different ways in many different countries of the world, although none of them ever became particularly close. Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff entered the same alien, but attractive, universe of Hollywood and Los Angeles as a result of Hitler’s rise in Germany. (Their shy dance in space and time began when Rachmaninoff’s family moved to St. Petersburg in 1882, the year of Stravinsky’s birth in that city.) Prokofiev seemed to move in an orbit farther from the other two. In fact, more or less as Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff were settling in Los Angeles, Prokofiev made his last visit there before returning to the Soviet Union. There is, however, one name that brings them all together, albeit briefly and abstractly. Today we look at a place that was a mutual point of interest for all three of the composers: Walt Disney’s home at 4053 Woking Way.
Prokofiev, as it turns out, is the closest of all three to this topic. He met with Disney in 1938 after having seen and loved the film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). At this point the great filmmaker was already fast at work on Fantasia (eventually released in 1940), the animated feature film that would set the standard for its genre for decades to come. Prokofiev was one of those whose work he thought might suit his plans. As such, he invited the composer to his house for a chat. According to Harlow Robinson’s book Russians in Hollywood, Hollywood’s Russians: Biography of an Image, Prokofiev even left us a brief record of that visit:
It’s very warm here,” Prokofiev wrote back to his family in Russia, “I’ve forgotten what an overcoat is. and the trees are covered with oranges and pineapples. Most American films are made in Hollywood and they build whole houses, castles and even cities of cardboard for them. Today I went to a filming session. A big tall warehouse had been turned into the square of an old town and people galloped through it on horses. I have also been to the house of Mickey Mouse’s papa, that is, the man who first thought up the idea of sketching him.”
So there we have it – Prokofiev visiting this house, the home of Mickey Mouse’s father. But, in fact, there is much more to the story and fortunately Disney himself chose to tell some of it. Even though none of Prokofiev’s music made it into Fantasia, Disney was transfixed by one particular work – Peter and the Wolf. He would end up making a film of it in 1946, and it would be nearly as popular and famous as Fantasia. So memorable was the meeting of the two men, that Disney had himself recorded telling the story of how Prokofiev, who spoke no English, came and played for the host, who spoke no Russian. The piano at which Prokofiev sat and performed still remained in Disney’s house at the time of the recording, and the video begins with Disney himself playing a few bars from Peter and the Wolf on the famous keyboard.
I remember how his fingers flew over our battered old piano,” Disney says with a bit of a wistful smile, “how his face glistened with perspiration as he concentrated on the music. And all the time I could see pictures. I could see his lovely fantasy coming to life on the screen.”
It’s a wonderful video. Check it out if you haven’t seen it.
(And, while this has nothing to do with the meetings of these great men, I can’t refuse to direct you to one of my favorite recordings of Peter and the Wolf ever – done by my wife Oksana Mysina with the Russian National Wind Quartet. Consider this a bonus track.)

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So, in regards to Fantasia, Prokofiev fell by the wayside early. One can’t help but wonder if Disney already knew that he wanted to devote an entire film to Peter and the Wolf, choosing not to “dilute” it in a miscellany. Be that as it may, Fantasia was originally intended to include music by both Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky. But the road to success is long and winding. And, in fact, the final cut featured only an abridged version of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Stravinsky’s The Firebird was also discussed for possible inclusion at some point, but was finally abandoned. Both scenes worked up to Rachmaninoff compositions – “Troika” and Prelude in G Minor – either ended up on the cutting room floor or were set aside at an earlier stage.
If any of this caused any jealousy or friction between the two men, it doesn’t seem to have been recorded anywhere. Stravinsky was usually respectful of Rachmaninoff and his place in history, if also somewhat uninspired by his colleague’s more traditional approach to the art of music. Rachmaninoff over the decades wavered between skepticism and enthusiasm about Stravinsky. According to Keenan Reesor’s paper, “Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky in Los Angeles to 1943,” Rachmaninoff in 1918 “described Stravinsky ‘as a force to be reckoned with,’ noting that the early ballets ‘represented a high order of talent, if not genius.'” Stravinsky seems to have circled coolly around Rachmaninoff’s accomplishments with similar emotional reserve. According to Neeson:
In his only recorded assessment of Rachmaninoff’s music, published almost twenty years after the latter’s death, Stravinsky stopped short agreeing with those who said he didn’t like Rachmaninoff’s music but admitted that ‘it is true we composed very differently.’ Stravinsky described Rachmaninoff’s earliest pieces as ‘watercolors’ but said that ‘at twenty-five he turned to “oils” and became a very old composer. But,’ he continued, ‘do not expect me to denigrate him for that. In fact he was an awesome man, and there are too many others to be denigrated long before him. As I think about him, his silence looms as a noble contrast to the self-approbations that are the only conversation of most musicians. Besides, he was the only pianist I have ever seen who did not grimace when he played. That says a great deal.'”
Whatever the real feelings may have been between the two men, as recalled by Sergei Bertensson in Nicholas Slonimsky’s book Slonimsky’s Book of Musical Anecdotes, Rachmaninoff was an ardent fan of The Firebird.
I recall as we listened to the solemn and triumphant finale of The Firebird Rachmaninoff’s eyes filled with tears, and he exclaimed: ‘Great God! What a work of genius this is! This is true Russia.’ And when he was told that Stravinsky liked honey, he bought a large jar and personally took it in his car to Stravinsky’s house.”
I don’t know it for a fact, but I take pleasure in imagining that Rachmaninoff drove his beloved Cadillac over to Stravinsky’s house at North Wetherly Drive from his own place on Elm Drive. I have written about both of these places elsewhere in this space.
For those who appreciate tangents, playwright Frederick Stroppel wrote a play, Small World, about Stravinsky meeting Disney and hashing out their ideas over Fantasia. You can read about a 2015 production here.

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Ivan Goncharov plaque, Moscow

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You have to think that Ivan Goncharov (1812-1891) just doesn’t get the love. He was one of the major Russian writers, his classic novel Oblomov putting him among the great myth makers of Russian culture. Yet does anybody ever think of him before Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Gogol, Pushkin, Ostrovsky? You get my drift. Then when they get around to giving him a plaque, he has to share it with somebody else, in this case the historian Sergei Solovyov. And since his connection to this building at 38 Ostozhenka Street in Moscow came two years after Solovyov’s (who was born here in 1820), he is pushed down to number two on the plaque. Goncharov went to school in this building from 1822, at the age of ten, until 1830, when he turned 18. He spent three more years in Moscow at Moscow University, then went to live and work in St. Petersburg.
(For the record, Solovyov [1820-1879] was the author of the first full-fledged history of Russia titled The History of Russia from Ancient Times. This work, which took him some 30 years to complete, was an improvement over the histories of Mikhail Karamzin and others, whose histories were basically chronicles of the state and major statesmen.)
Goncharov was born in the city of Simbirsk (known as Ulyanovsk today, the home city of Vladimir Lenin), on the Volga River. A year after his father died he was sent to Moscow to study at a commercial college – the building you see here, which today is the Moscow State University of Linguistics. This structure was originally built in the 18th century by Matvei Kazakov, who radically reconfigured the center of Moscow in the last quarter of the 18th century in the Palladian style. At least 20 major buildings designed by Kazakov still stand today. None of that seems to have had any effect on Goncharov. It is said that his years at the college were difficult and uninteresting. While studying here he did, however, take up reading, and that became his real schooling. He began by exploring the works of Mikhail Karamzin, Gavriil Derzhavin, Ivan Dmitriev, Vladislav Ozerov and, as he put it, “even Mikhail Kheraskov who was considered a poet at school.”
It’s fascinating to think about, of course – Goncharov began his literary searches before the full-fledged appearance of Pushkin, before Gogol, before almost anything that we now consider Russian literature. As such, Goncharov’s reaction upon encountering Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin for the first time – as it was being published periodically in a journal – is telling.
My Lord!” he wrote. “What light, what a magical expanse appeared all around, and what truths and poetry and just life in general – moreover, contemporary and accessible –  surged forth from this source, and with such brilliance, and in such sounds!
There you have it, an eyewitness account of the impact of Pushkin pushing his way into a culture that was struggling at that time to move from one age into another. The walls of this building looked down silently upon the young Vanya Goncharov as he came in one morning having first encountered Eugene Onegin after living almost happily on a diet of Kheraskov, Dmitriev and Ozerov. That’s a game-changer, isn’t it?

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One senses the tedium that Goncharov experienced here. True, I was out photographing on a dreary, overcast day. It wasn’t quite cold, but it was anything but warm. The sky almost refused to offer any light at all. Everything looked bleached and bleak and tired. Still, you get the feeling that this structure would have a hard time perking up much even in finer weather. It seems neglected and under-appreciated. I ran back and forth, came up close, went back as far as I could on the other side of the street, and I never really did find an angle that does the place justice. Perhaps it was the perfect Goncharovian experience.
Despite the fact that Goncharov’s most famous novel (Oblomov) is about a man who is fatally lazy, and despite the fact that the writer’s nickname in St. Petersburg was Prince de Len’ (that is, the Prince of Lazy), he was a man of considerable interest. He wrote his first novel, A Common Story, in 1847. It tells the story of a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed young kid who comes from the provinces to the big city and is corrupted by a cynical relative and mentor. I’ve never heard of this work being picked up in the West in the lists of Russian must-reads, but it might be there were it not for the huge number of other great works competing with it from that same era. As was shown a year ago by Kirill Serebrennikov’s excellent dramatization of the novel at the Gogol Center, it still has a very strong and lively message to offer us.
Goncharov’s second major work was The Frigate Pallas (1857), the origins of which I, at least, find quite amazing. He was assigned to accompany the great Russian Admiral Yevfimy Putyatin on a mission to try to open up Japan to the world. (American Admiral Matthew Perry was given the same task at the same time by the U.S. government.) Thus, this writer who loved kicking his feet up on the sofa more than anything else (or so goes the legend), found himself sailing the seven seas and, it seems quite certain, becoming the best-traveled Russian writer in history. During the two and a half year journey (1852-1854), Goncharov had the opportunity to see: England, South Africa, Indonesia, Japan, China, the Phillipines, and numerous islands in the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans. Not too shabby for a grumpy sit-at-home.
Goncharov held various jobs throughout his middle years. He was a teacher of philology (at one point teaching the Tsar’s son), an assistant to Admiral Putyatin, a state-employed literary censor, a member of the Academy of Sciences, a bureaucrat in the Council of Book Publishing (where he was, effectively, the No. 1 censor in the land), and the editor-in-chief of Northern Mail magazine.
Goncharov’s greatest novel, Oblomov, was published in 1859 and it immediately added a new word to the rich Russian language. “Oblomovoshchina,” or, Oblomovism,  refers to the acute laziness that destroys the title character Ilya Oblomov. It is a phenomenon that goes far beyond a single literary character, however, and describes a national trait. The novel’s continued importance for contemporary Russian culture has been shown many times, including in an excellent film by Nikita Mikhalkov (1979), and in a highly-regarded play adaptation called Oblom-Off (2001) by Mikhail Ugarov.
Goncharov’s last important novel was The Precipice (1869), after which he seems to have lost touch with his muse. He wrote several essays and some criticism, but he did not return to “big” literature over the last two-plus decades of his life. An interesting tidbit about him is that when his longtime lackey Karl Treigut died in 1878, leaving behind a widow and three young children, Goncharov took on the task of caring for them. Nevertheless, he died alone and suffering from depression in his adopted hometown of St. Petersburg in 1891.

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Alexei Tolstoy monument, Moscow

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Alexei Tolstoy (1883-1945) will always be a controversial figure in Russian letters. Here is the brief intro to a long, fascinating, highly-respected article-length biography of Tolstoy, originally published by the political activist Valeria Novodvorskaya in 2008:
Alexei Nikolaevich Tolstoy lies farther from grace than even Sholokhov. He was the Bolshevik’s greatest acquisition. A man of impeccable, brilliant talent. Fantastic imagination that playfully, with his left foot, created entire worlds. The gift of a glossarian and reflector of history. A rich, precious style, pictures that cut into your memory forever.”
But, at least in Novodvorskaya’s interpretation, Tolstoy was a man that hungered – perhaps a bit too much – for success and acceptance. He was quite surely an illegitimate child, born into the family of Count Nikolai Tolstoy (a distant relative of Leo), but not the product of true Tolstoyan blood lineage. His mother was a bit of a free-thinking, free-living individual and, by the time she gave birth to little Alyosha, she had long been spending her days and nights with a man by the name of Alexei Bostrom. However, in a gesture of largesse, when the official father died in 1900 he conferred legitimacy and the title of Count upon the son that was not his (and whom he never saw). This put the young man in line to receive a fine inheritance, although Alexei’s mother was already hip to her son’s appetites. She put his inheritance under lock and key and the newly-created count had to live a life much more frugal life than he wished.
Still, Tolstoy found ways to feed his desires. He was a womanizer, he traveled when he could, and – as Novodvorskaya tells us – when his mother sent him money to buy a baby carriage for his new child, he used the money to buy a fancy suit. Once, while visiting his in-laws and his wife (who had taken their child and run from him), he bragged about trying to seduce a local lawyer’s wife, nearly getting whipped for his audacity, which was enough for his in-laws to send him packing.
Tolstoy’s need to be “taken seriously,” to be revered not only for his shaky noble heritage, but for his literature and his so-called social activism, often made him the butt of jokes over the decades. Maybe there was a good dose of jealousy in that. I don’t know. I wasn’t there. And I don’t present these attitudes as proof of their legitimacy, but rather as a picture of what you inevitably get if and when you delve into the Tolstoy story.
I remember being quite surprised by a different attitude when working one day in what was then still called TsGALI, the Central State Archive of Literature, in Moscow. This was back in 1988-89. I was devouring the Nikolai Erdman documents being brought to me daily, and one morning I received a whole pack of letters. In one of them, Erdman went off into dithyrambs about the brilliance of Tolstoy’s new novel, Peter the First.  (It was one of the biggest works of Tolstoy’s prolific career. It came out in two parts – the second never finished – starting in 1929 and running until after his death, as his notebooks were edited to finish the work.) Erdman was not one to say much of anything (let alone praise) other writers. I rarely saw that in his letters (although he loved Dostoevsky and Maxim Gorky). Erdman saw Peter the First as a major work of Russian literature, sufficient to put its author on a level with all the other greats. I don’t know how the novel would read today, but I was surprised to see such lavish praise coming from Erdman back then.

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Whatever history will end up saying about Peter the First, Tolstoy’s place in Russian culture will always be safe for another reason. He was the first to write a major science fiction work Aelita (1923), which was picked up almost immediately and made into one of the biggest cinematic hits in the young Soviet Union by the future great director Yakov Protazanov (with memorable, influential futuristic costumes by the great designer Alexandra Ekster). He followed that with another successful sci-fi novel, The Hyperboloid of Engineer Gagarin (1927). But there was much more to Tolstoy than that. He wrote some 40 plays in his career. He wrote eight novels, including one of the most popular – actually a trilogy of novels – of the Soviet era, The Road to Calvary (1921-40).
The uncomfortable caveats you hear shining through almost everything I have written up to now come about because of Tolstoy’s apparent need to be accepted at all costs. At a certain point, he began to put his work at the service of individuals and a state that were interested in using him to serve their own purposes. He apparently had no qualms about doing that. As the Soviet government began flushing out “undesirable” elements in the world of culture, Tolstoy took up positions and took on tasks that helped them do that. What makes this especially paradoxical is that Tolstoy ran from the Civil War in Russian in 1920, professing his hatred for the Bolsheviks and Lenin. But he was lured back just a few years later with promises of immortality (of the mortal kind – awards, titles, riches and monuments). Here is how Novodvorskaya describes this turn of events: “He would walk over corpses and bones. He would lose the ability to have pity. He would not undermine anyone, would not denounce anyone, would not demand anyone’s head. But he wouldn’t defend anyone either. Not Mandelshtam. Not Meyerhold. He would play the fool for Stalin…” Gleb Struve, the great figure of Russian literature in exile, wrote similarly about Tolstoy as early as 1941. Confirming Tolstoy’s high level of literary talent, even calling him one of the “most gifted Russian writers of the 20th century,” Struve put a stake through Tolstoy’s reputation by stating that he lacked “one quality which distinguished all of the great Russian poets and writers : a sense of moral and social responsibility. His essence is that of a cynic and opportunist.” Throughout the 1930s, Tolstoy was an important Soviet functionary, praising the prisoner-built White Sea Chanel in 1934, acting as chairman of the by-now-repressive Writers Union from 1936 to 1938), becoming a deputy of the Supreme Soviet (1937) and so on.
The Moscow monument to Tolstoy stands just a few hundred meters from the home in which he lived at the end of his life. We’ll come to that someday. He sits, quite contentedly, it would appear, staring at the church where Alexander Pushkin married Natalya Goncharova. That, folks, is one of the most revered little plots of land in Russia. You wonder if he was told in advance that he would get that spot when the time would come. Designed by sculptor Georgy Motovilov and architect Leonid Polyakov, the monument was unveiled July 3, 1957.

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Sofya Onikienko plaque, Voronezh

Click on photos to enlarge.

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Today I may bring you a somewhat obscure story, but, surely, it is only the greater for that. The plaque pictured here honors Sofya Onikienko (1898-1993) for her “heroic rescue of books of the Voronezh State University library during the years of the Great Patriotic War.” Imagine that, kids! Books used to be something one rescued. You not only didn’t toss them out or delete them from the memory of your tablet, you actually made the effort to save them. And wait until you hear about the lengths to which Sofya Onikienko went to save books during World War II.
I don’t quite know why the city chose the year of 2010 to hang out this plaque honoring the diligent librarian. In the somewhat scant and repetitive information on the web I find nothing connecting 2010 to Onikienko’s deed. But who cares? That’s a formality. The fact remains that this plaque, looking a bit too much like a gravestone, but offering a lovely photo of the subject, and offering clear information, was unveiled on the wall of korpus No. 3 of the University, located at 24 Revolution Prospect on May 7, 2010. To help those out looking for it, it is about 15 steps away from the large monument recently erected in honor of hometown hero Andrei Platonov. (See my post on that elsewhere on this blog.)
Onikienko was born in Moscow where she graduated from the gymnasium in 1915. She finished the Higher Women’s Courses, soon to be renamed the 2nd Moscow State University, in the history and philology department in 1919. She concurrently completed a year-long course in library science. In 1934 she was sent to Voronezh to take over the university library and organize a fast-growing, though still chaotic, collection of books on all topics. By the time the war began, she had put together an impressive collection. This following quote comes from the Voronezh Kommuna blog:
In the Fall of 1942 the head of the main ‘Ukraine’ workers group, Sturmbannführer Georg Anton reported to Berlin that, in Voronezh, ‘book collections well worthy of attention had been discovered and were rescued by the Wehrmacht and sent to Kursk.’ The fascists deported approximately 700,000 books on various topics from the libraries of Voronezh State University, the Agrarian Institute and the public library. Selections of the most valuable books were made in Kursk.”
The Voronezh University website picks up the story, which takes place in the spring of 1942:
The head librarian of that time, Sofya Panfilovna Onikienko, wrote: ‘All the history books, particularly on ancient Rus, were sent to Kiev. Part of the Russian and foreign literature collection ended up in Kharkov, while books bearing the stamps of Voronezh State University and the former Yuryev University, were shipped to Derpt. A large number of books were transported to Berlin.‘”
However, as we have noted, the Nazis sent the largest number of books to the city of Kursk. Again, the Voronezh University website picks up the narrative:
It turns out that the Third Reich had a special Ministry of Eastern Lands whose job it was to plunder occupied territories. Having seized the right bank of our city, the Hitlerites quickly realized that the Voronezh library was priceless. Library specialists were sent by the Special Command, which was involved in shipping out cultural treasures from the occupied lands.”
Then, as if in a detective movie, a Russian soldier from Voronezh University, passing through Kursk with his division, happened to see a book with a Voronezh stamp on it. He sent word back home and the search was on.

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As  soon as the Soviet army liberated Kursk from the Germans in mid-July 1943, Onikienko began her mission of bringing back her library. She traveled to Kursk, with battles still raging all around, and she even tried to begin shipping books back. That proved impossible, however, for shipping libraries and fighting national wars don’t quite mix. Onikienko and her helper Pavla Khakhalaeva had been able to box many of the books up and stash them in an abandoned building, but when the battles heated up again, they had to flee the city on foot. When the front moved further West in 1944, Onikienko returned to Kursk, and, indeed, began repatriating her library. She got federal permission to fill as many as four box cars with books in order to ship them back to Voronezh. But first she had to get the books to the train station. As Onikienko later recalled herself, she was helped in this task by Soviet soldiers recuperating in a nearby eye hospital:
Deputy Chief [Mikhail] Matveev of the Evacuation Hospital offered enormous, invaluable assistance. Moved by my tearful pleas, he put at my disposal 100 soldiers from the eye department and four trucks. But the university could not send me an order for gasoline. So I again appealed to Matveev and he gave me the gasoline. We immediately evacuated four train car loads.”
That was hardly the end of the story, however. Onikienko continued searching for, and returning books that had been sent to various cities. Most of the books transported to Kharkov were returned. Most of the books sent to Tartu, Estonia, were not. One of the nicer twists of the story took place in August 1945, shortly after the war ended. British troops entering an Austrian monastery found 82 boxes containing 6,954 valuable books that the Germans had planned to send to a university that was to be established for the Nazi elite following the war.
The author of the article published in the Kommuna blog added this interesting personal recollection to his account:
I well remember,” Stal Penkin wrote, “that after the war, in 1950, we would receive albums and magazines in the reading room that bore the stamps of the thieves – an eagle and swastika. We students did not know that these were books that had been saved by Onikienko.”
Sofya Onikienko was head librarian of Voronezh State University from 1934 to 1958. I had never heard of her before walking up to the wall of the building pictured here and reading the words of the plaque honoring her. She now is one of my heroes.

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