Sergei Gandlevsky readings, Hanover NH

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Sergei Gandlevsky (born 1952) is one of the most respected Russian poets of our time. He is often mentioned together with Dmitry Prigov (1940-2007) and Lev Rubinstein (born 1947), although that may just be internet laziness, whereby everyone (myself included, now) just copies what someone else writes. Gandlevsky has been represented well in English. His poetry has been translated by American poet Philip Metres, and Metres has accompanied Gandlevsky on at least two reading tours of the United States, once in 2003, another time in 2005. According to notes published by John Carroll University in December 2015, Metres is now completing a memoir of his travels with Gandlevsky, tentatively to be titled Moscow on the Cuyahoga: On the Road with a Russian Poet. It would appear you can read a brief excerpt from this book in Cleveland Magazine.  Here is the beginning of the piece:
I wanted to impress him the way you want to impress a father, having just settled into a new city and taken my first real job.
He was Sergey Gandlevsky, a famous Russian poet whose work I’d been translating for 10 years, who once took me under his grubby wing when I visited him in Moscow.
Now we sped from Cleveland Hopkins Airport on bridges over industrial steelworks still puffing like geriatric asthmatic dragons, yellowing the gray skies. I longed to show him the beautiful of Cleveland, but there was no way around the gaps in the mouth of this city, its industrial-hangover breath.
Gandlevsky nodded at smokestacks and industrial plants sprawling in the valley. ‘Just like home,’ he said.”
Metres has published a collection of his translations of Gandlevsky’s poetry as A Kindred Orphanhood (2003). One of several interviews he has done can be found in The Conversant.  Susanne Fusso published a translation of Gandlevsky’s creative autobiography Trepanation of the Skull in 2014.  A review of it in World Literature Today begins:
Nearly all the recognizable elements of Russian literature can be found within the pages of Sergey Gandlevsky’s autobiographical novel, Trepanation of the Skull—dangerous amounts of vodka, Pushkin, a duel (of sorts), doses of superstition, pathos, cynicism, pessimism, fatalism, byzantine bureaucracy, and, most profoundly, the struggle to reconcile unjustified suffering with an omnipotent god.”
I have never crossed Gandlevsky’s path, although we have walked the same corridors many times in many places. As an editor of the respected Foreign Literature thick journal, he had an office just a few blocks down the road from where I currently live on Pyatnitskaya Street. I wrote about those offices (which recently moved to a new location) a year or two ago in this space. I would go there from time to time to hang out with my friend, the prose writer and playwright Maxim Osipov, who also had a small working office there. Max would mention Gandlevsky and wave his hand, as if to illustrate that the poet was just a few doors down. Other corridors I have shared with Gandlevsky are those leading to the Princeton University office of my old friend and former roommate Michael Wachtel; the aisles at Schoenhof’s bookstore in Cambridge, MA, across the street from Harvard University; and the Russian department at Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH, where I spent three weeks with the New York Theater Workshop in the summer of 2015. You can see a photo of Gandlevsky in Michael Wachtel’s office in a photo gallery of the 2005 Gandlevsky-Metres tour, while an old listserve announcing the 2003 tour indicates that Gandlevsky read his poetry at the legendary Schoenhof’s the very next day after his Dartmouth appearance. I spent half of my life at Schoenhof’s when doing my PhD at Harvard in the 1980s.

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To the best of my ability to ascertain, Gandlevsky’s reading at Dartmouth would have taken place in the old Russian Department building at 44 North College Street. The department has moved to another building these days, but John Kopper, the department chair, told me that this lovely colonial structure pictured here today would have been the site of Gandlevsky’s visits. That photo gallery I mentioned of the 2005 tour includes a rather nondescript photo of the poet at Dartmouth.
Thanks to the listserve announcement I link to above we can pinpoint Gandlevsky’s first visit to Dartmouth as November 14, 2003. We can even fix the time of the reading at 4 p.m.
Gandlevsky shared a relationship of mutual admiration with the Russian emigre poet Lev Loseff, who was the chairman of the Russian Department at Dartmouth for many years. (See my blog about Loseff on this site.) Gandlevsky wrote a highly-regarded introductory essay, “An Uncruel Talent,” to a collection of Loseff’s poetry published in St. Petersburg in 2012, and Loseff, in his own turn, had written a poem, “Strolling With Gandlevsky,” a decade or so before that. Since I live in the neighborhood next to Yakimanka, mentioned here as Gandlevsky’s home turf, I provide the whole poem, as translated by G.S. Smith, for your perusal. It’s just one more bit of proof that Sergei Gandlevsky and I keep circling around one another, entirely incapable of ending up in the same place at the same time.

Sergei, I recall your Tartar-style yard,
threading back from the Yakimanka,
and your little white boxer lifting his paw
to the old farewell march, the ‘Slavyanka’.

The April-time blah blended in with the brass,
the corpulent tubes blew their noses,
as if we had managed to make a sly pass
into 1913, from those closed-in

Tartar back yards, and rear-entrance ways,
with wind licking over the ice skim,
past trashcan cats with vigilant gaze —
then we waved down a lift (unofficial),

bowled bold through the puddles to Trubnaya Place,
at an inn left a bottle much dryer,
and set free some birds, from one rouble apiece,
and higher, and higher, and higher.

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Pushkin and Gorky Posters, Moscow

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What better way to do a dirty deed than to cover it up with Alexander Pushkin? That is, if you can cover it up. Some things just can’t be hidden.
Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin is going to improve the city he runs come hell or high water. And the best way for him to do that – as he has proved many times in the past – is to make life as difficult for the city’s residents as he possibly can. Like, first turn every nook and cranny of the city’s streets into income-generating parking spaces. Then, narrowing half the city’s streets to wipe out those income-generating parking spaces (after sucking money from the populace for a year or two), so that you can neither park your car anywhere, nor can you drive anywhere with any speed because the streets are so narrow they’re always jammed. Stores, restaurants and cafes that people used to be able to stop in and patronize are empty and going out of business because there’s no place to park your car anymore.
Sobyanin has decided to undo what Joseph Stalin did back in the 1930s. Stalin went to great lengths to widen Tverskaya Street, Moscow’s main drag, even going so far as to put buildings on rollers and roll them back 16 to 20 meters (tearing down churches that were in the way, of course). Now, Sobyanin has decided to narrow the street back down again. He’s turning much of the thoroughfare into a fashionable walking and bicycle zone. I’m assuming he’ll plant trees, but one is often loathe in this nation to assume anything of such a modestly positive nature. Just a few years ago Sobyanin already “improved” Tverskaya by putting in new parking spaces and trees. They are all gone now. For at least the next few months there is hardly anywhere to walk on Tverskaya between the Kremlin and a block  past Pushkin Square, nor is there any place to drive. There is constant gridlock on Tverskaya these days.
Which brings me back to my first comment above – if you’re going to spit in people’s faces, why not do it in a cultured way, right? Make their lives miserable and shove Pushkin and Maxim Gorky down their throats while you’re at it. Actually, there are four figures that the authorities decided would make Muscovites’ lives more pleasant while Tverskaya is an absolute and total mess – Pushkin, Gorky,  Ivan Filippov and Grigory Yeliseev. Filippov (1824-1978) was a famous baker and merchant who controlled much of the commercial space on Tverskaya in his day. Yeliseev (1864-1949) headed up the family concern that opened and ran the famous Yeliseev grocery store on Tverskaya Street until the Revolution put the store in the hands of the state. Muscovites, however, never accepted the new name of Gastronom No. 1, and called it “Yeliseevsky” throughout the Soviet era, even as they do now, after the original name has been restored. Pushkin and Gorky need no particular introduction, but they are held up as decoration to this construction project for specific reasons.

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Gorky, of course, lent his name to Tverskaya Street for many decades during the Soviet period. Curiously, I’m having trouble nailing down the actual dates when Tverskaya was renamed Gorky Street. Russian Wikipedia and other sites tell us it was in 1932. Other seemingly trustworthy sources say it was 1935. In either case, Gorky didn’t die until June 18, 1936, so the authorities had figuratively put his feet in cement already when he was still kicking.
The Gorky banner on Tverskaya declares that the street was renamed for the writer in 1932, but do we accept that information? After all, earlier in the text we can read this carefully worded description that, in fact, distorts the truth seriously. “Considered the founder of Soviet literature, M. Gorky went abroad for health reasons in 1921 and only in 1928, at the invitation of the Soviet government, came to Moscow for a short while. Thousands of Muscovites met him ceremoniously on the square in front of the Belorussia train station.”
The problem with that is that the real reason Gorky remained abroad in the 1920s was because he was highly skeptical of what was happening following the Revolution, and had had serious disagreements with his former friend Vladimir Lenin. So what we have here today on Tverskaya Street is a whitewashing of the facts. But, then, tell me something new.
The text accompanying the Pushkin banner is less controversial. Let me reproduce it in full:
Tverskaya Street played an important role in the life of the famous poet. Whenever he came to Moscow he customarily stayed in one of the local hotels, spent time at balls hosted by General-Governer D.V. Golitsyn (bldg. 13), and regularly visited the literary salon of Countess Zinaida Volkonskaya (bldg. 14). It is said that, not far away, on Tverskoi Boulevard, the poet, for the first time, saw his future wife Natalya Goncharova. In 1880 a monument to Pushkin, financed by a subscription conducted by graduates of the Tskarskoe Selo Lyceum, was erected on Tverskoi Boulevard just across the way from Gorky Street (now Tverskaya). However, in one night’s time in 1950 it was moved to the square which had been created on the spot where Strastnoi Monastery had been razed.”
Since we began with a few snide comments about “General-Governor” Sobyanin, I can’t help but recall here another of his recent “great deeds,” now fixed forever in the history books as The Night of the Long Scoops, a bitter take-off on Hitler’s Night of the Long Knives. On the Night of the Long Scoops, Feb. 8 to 9, 2016, Sobyanin’s henchmen, wielding skip loaders, wiped out nearly 100 small stores and kiosks around Moscow, virtually without warning. Most still had their wares inside, a few had people. Just as it was in Stalin’s time, it’s the way things are done in Moscow/Russia these days. Somebody somewhere in a big office decides something – wipe out someone’s livelihood, destroy the city’s historical layout, or snarl city traffic – and it’s done overnight.
One final note in the event that you are unconvinced by my argument that the current Moscow authorities are barbarians hiding behind the cultural luster of bakers, grocers and writers. Consider this: During the digs accompanying the current reconfigurations of Tverskaya Street, the spectacular discovery of an ancient 16th to 17th-century wooden sidewalk was made. But no sooner had they found it than than they busted the thing up and went on about their business of “improving” Moscow. There are some excellent photos of the sidewalk, which, as the blogger Anna Nikolaeva suggests, had survived the Time of Troubles, the Napoleon Fire and German bombs, but could not survive Sergei Sobyanin’s urban improvements. Yeah, but we got Pushkin! Yeah, but we got Gorky!

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Mikhail Bulgakov plaque, Moscow

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It’s not much of a plaque, and, frankly, it’s not much of a reason for one: A “house where M.A. Bulgakov spent time.” Russian cultural bureaucrats haven’t honored many others with memorial plaques for such a skimpy reason. I would hazard to guess that only Pushkin and Lenin get similar treatment. As for the plaque, it’s not one of those nice ones done by some artist getting a cushy commission; just one of those functional things that lets you look the place up on that cool Know Moscow website.  (The Russian page is here.) But if you happen upon it – as I did a few months back – you have to take notice, don’t you?
Bulgakov met and befriended the attorney David Kiselgof in 1922 and that is why he occasionally hung out in this house at 25 Skatertny Lane. Kiselgof lived here in Apt. No. 2. It’s possible that Bulgakov would have come here, at least on occasion, with his wife Tatyana Lappa. (She was the first of three.) In September 1922 the couple was reunited in Moscow after a good deal of journeying which had taken them to Tiflis (now Tbilisi), Batumi, Odessa and Kiev. Bulgakov at the time was a military doctor and was being sent wherever he was needed most. Tatyana, whom everyone usually called Tasya, would follow him as best as she could, sometimes falling behind, sometimes catching up. In any case, the couple mostly remained in Moscow after the autumn of 1921 (divorcing in April 1924), so we can imagine the two approaching the door you see in some of the pictures below.
I should add that some sources say Kiselgof and Lappa first met only in 1923 at the home of another lawyer friend of Bulgakov’s, Vladimir Komorsky. But even if that’s true, there would still have been plenty of time for Lappa to visit this location before her break with Bulgakov.
Why is this of particular interest? Because some 25 years later, around 1947, Lappa would marry Kiselgof (he would be her third husband). It is quite obvious that this is not a case of the lawyer and the writer’s wife falling into a passionate affair that they hid until they could hide it no longer. I am guessing it was more a case of two aging people attempting to recapture some special moment from their younger days. Consider it something like Bob Dylan fan Steve Jobs falling in love with Joan Baez, an occurrence that Jobs himself described as “a serious relationship between two accidental friends who became lovers.” Rolling Stone magazine adds that some of Job’s friends “believed that one thing that drew Jobs to Baez was the fact that she used to date Bob Dylan.” Well, I’m thinking the Lappa-Kiselgof relationship had similarities. I’m not saying at all that it wasn’t serious – I have no idea about that one way or the other. I’m just saying it probably grew out of the mutual affection both continued to feel for someone – Bulgakov – who had gone out of their lives long ago, and who died in 1940.

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A nice biography of Lappa on the internet Bulgakov encyclopedia contains several observations that suggest my hunch is correct. It gives voice to the general belief that Lappa continued to love Bulgakov to the end of her days, and that, after they parted, Bulgakov occasionally turned to her in difficult moments (such as when he had just asked Stalin in person to let him emigrate, and received a refusal). Much is made of the jealousy of Lappa’s second husband (their marriage was common-law), a certain Alexander Kreshkov. He, too, might have been another Bulgakov substitute for Lappa, since he was the brother of one of Bulgakov’s best friends from his youth. Kreshkov would rifle through Lappa’s possessions, tossing Bulgakov mementos around and accusing her of still loving her first husband. He finally destroyed everything – photos, letters, other items – that Lappa had kept and cherished.
In any case, the connection between the former husband and wife was strong. We are told that, when he lay dying, Bulgakov called out for Lappa.
Indeed, Lappa had saved Bulgakov’s skin more than once. When he was a raging morphine addict in the ‘teens, she is the one who pulled him out of the tailspin – even though he chased her with a gun and threatened to kill her if she didn’t get him more of the drug. (She is the prototype of Anna Kirillovna in his famous story, “Morphine.”)  In 1920, when he fell deathly ill with typhus,  Lappa stood by him until he recovered.
Many years later, in the 1970s, Lappa reminisced about her third husband, Kiselgof, at precisely the time she might have been visiting him as Bulgakov’s wife: “Davy loved writers very much,” she said. “He had a marvelous room with beautiful easy chairs. He worked as an attorney, but he loved literature, was interested in it, and he would invite various writers to visit him.”
As for Kiselgof, he told the Bulgakov scholar Marietta Chudakova in 1970: ” You see, he [Bulgakov] was never able to make sense of Soviet reality, that’s the thing. That was his tragedy. He wrote like Ilf and Petrov, they were also comic writers, they also saw our deficiencies, but they also could see positive sides! He couldn’t do that. He looked on it all from a remove. I think that tormented him. Even now they’re afraid to publish him. If he had been able to make sense of our reality, his entire life would have been different.”
(See the Bulgakov Museum website for my source for these quotes.)
I’m not so sure we need to take Kiselgof’s conclusion seriously, and I’m not so sure the comparison with Ilf and Petrov is quite right. But, hey, today we’re looking at photos of the home in which Kiselgof received Bulgakov and (perhaps) his wife Tatyana as guests. I think that gives him the right to be heard.
But to wrap things up, let’s go back to Bulgakov and Lappa’s break in 1924. Here is what a Master and Margarita site has to say:
Bulgakov became famous in Moscow’s literary circles. One day he came home with a champagne bottle and said, ‘What do you say we part?’ These words came down, as if from heaven, breaking over her like a crystal vase. What could Tasya say? ‘All I did was wash and prepare meals and sell things at the market. He went everywhere, I stayed at home.’ They separated in April 1924. Mikhail said, ‘You know, it’s easy for me to say I’m married. Don’t worry. Everything will be as before. We’ll just separate formally.’ ‘You mean I’m Lappa again?’ Tasya asked. ‘Yes. And I’m Bulgakov.’ They continued to live on Bolshaya Sadovaya Street. But in November Mikhail moved out on Tasya.”
P.S. Despite Lappa’s comment that she usually “stayed at home” while Bulgakov was out on the town, I’m not convinced she never visited Kiselgof’s apartment. After all, she did go visiting with Bulgakov to Komorsky’s apartment in 1923, and, in that 1970 interview, she describes the interior of Kiselgof’s “marvelous room with beautiful easy chairs” as she would had she seen it with her own eyes. I think that nice room and lovely chairs were right here, behind these walls.

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Leo Tolstoy estate, Moscow

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I have a heck of a time visiting Leo Tolstoy. This is the third Tolstoy home/museum that has been closed when I came to visit. In the case of this estate where Tolstoy and much of his family wintered from 1882 to 1901, I picked the one day in the month when it was closed. Consequently, I ended up sneaking around taking whatever photos I could from the outside. To get some shots of the inside grounds I either stuck my hand through the gate slats (second and third photos in the block immediately below) or shimmied up a narrow space between two walls on the property’s south side. From there I got a bit of a view down into the back yard (the last two photos at the bottom). It was here among the trees that Tolstoy would set up a skating rink for the family during the months of ice and snow.
None of my walk-around left me with much of a feeling that I had encountered the writer in any meaningful way. Everything seemed to have its back turned to me that day – walls, gates, fences, houses, ghosts… But with a little help from Tolstoy’s diaries – and the copious annotations done by Tolstoy scholars – we can slip back the curtain on life here, if only ever so slightly.
Tolstoy purchased this home and plot of land in the Khamovniki district west of central Moscow on July 14, 1882, from Collegiate Assessor Ivan Arnautov. The street name at the time was Dolgo-Khamovnichesky Lane. Today, not surprisingly, it is Leo Tolstoy Street. The Tolstoys actually moved into the house only three months later, on October 8, 1882. Among other things, the house and its fences and various wings were among the very few structures to survive the great Moscow fire of 1812 when Napoleon invaded the city. Later, it was one of the first major literary museums created in the Soviet period. It has had that status since 1921. That’s quite an event when you consider that the young Soviet state was still bogged down in a Civil War and was struggling seriously financially.
The State Tolstoy Museum website tells us that of Leo and Sofya Tolstoy’s 13 children, 10 spent at least some time living in this house. They were Tatyana, Maria, Alexandra, Sergei, Ilya, Lev, Andrei, Mikhail, Alexei and the couple’s last son, little Vanechka, who died of scarlet fever at the age of seven.
Vanechka was born here at the Khamovniki house in 1888. He went down in the memories of his parents as an angel of love who came to bless them before he left. The stories are legion and they are touching. Vanya was a handsome boy (see a photo here), who had a lasting effect on everyone who encountered him. There was an asylum on the other side of the wall where a man came to live when he had a nervous breakdown after his own son died. In a turn of events that might strike us as prescient if not miraculous, he befriended Vanya and was cured of his illness. Here is an account of that transformation from
In a clinic for the mentally ill that stood next to the garden of the Khamovniki house there lived a patient who fell ill after the death of his only child. He found comfort in spending time with Vanechka. They often communicated over the fence. But the conversations were of the most serious kind. The boy assured the sick man that there was still much love in the world, and that one must love everyone. After these conversations the desire to live again awakened in the sick man’s soul. In a thank you note to Sofya Tolstoy, he wrote: ‘It wasn’t the doctor who cured me, but God sent your Vanechka, that angel, for my comfort. He gave me the happiness of a new love for him, and through him, for all children and all people.”
The Tolstoys lost another child here. Alexei was born in 1881, the year before they moved in, but died January 18, 1886, before reaching the age of five. This terrible event would have happened when the family was at the Khamovniki house.
The only child, aside from Vanechka, who was born during the Tolstoys tenure in Khamovniki was the last daughter Alexandra (1884-1979). However, she was born in Yasnaya Polyana on June 18, in the dead of the summer when the family was always together at that country estate near Tula.

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Men and women, great and otherwise, made pilgrimages to meet and greet with Tolstoy at his home. We see evidence of this in some of the writer’s diaries, all of which are available online. Because of the nature of diaries, we don’t always get more than a barebones report, and we obviously get nothing more than what Tolstoy jotted down. But, for the record, we know that the writer Vsevolod Garshin paid Tolstoy a visit at his home in Khamovniki on January 31 (or thereabouts), 1885, “but did not find him home.” Anatoly Alexandrov, a tutor of one of Tolstoy’s sons and later a well-known literary editor, actually lived in the wing of the main house in 1988 and 1989. At some point in 1891-92, the Serb Giuseppe Modrich stopped by, later describing his talks with Tolstoy in a chapter called “Visiting Count Tolstoy. His Social Catechism” in his book, Russia: Notes and Memories of Travels (Rome, 1892). The French literary historian and translator Jules Legras visited in 1893.
One of the best known visits to Khamovniki was paid by Maxim Gorky on January 16, 1900. It was the first meeting ever of the two writers. In part because Gorky was with the journalist Vladimir Posse, and in part because the event made such an impression on Gorky, there has been quite a bit written about it. Posse recalled that Tolstoy was very animated during the meeting, speaking with Gorky openly and freely. Tolstoy told Gorky that he hadn’t been able to slog through his novel Foma Gordeev. “Everything in it is artificial,” he told his young visitor. He did, however, name other works that made a good impression on him – “Varenka Olesova” and “26 Men and a Girl,” among them. Still, the initial criticism apparently blinded Gorky so that he didn’t fully hear Tolstoy tell him how much he enjoyed meeting him, that he would do well as a writer, and that he was a “real man.” What better praise could a Russian male give a Russian male?!
At first blush, Gorky wrote to Posse that the visit had not made much of an impression. He compared it to Finland: “nothing familiar, nothing alien, but quite cold.” However, as a sign that Gorky did have a conscience, he seemed to warm up to the experience the more distant it grew in time. On January 18 or 19 he wrote an almost gushing letter to Tolstoy: “I’m very happy that I saw you and I’m very proud of having done so. In general I knew that you are very straight and kind with people, but, to be honest, I didn’t expect you to be so kind to me!”
If you’re interested, there’s a fairly detailed description of the visit and later comments by all concerned on the site that publishes Tolstoy’s complete works.
In all, Tolstoy wrote some 100 works at the estate in Khamovniki. Among them were the novel Resurrection, and the stories “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” “The Kreutzer Sonata” (one of the most odious pieces of literature ever committed to paper), and “Father Sergius.” The very last thing he wrote here was “My Reply to the Synod,” after the Russian Orthodox Church excommunicated him for breaking with its teachings. It is a rift that continues even today, as the Church continues to claim Tolstoy cannot be reinstated because he never renounced his heretical  views.

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Lydia Lopokova house, London

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DSCN7131Most of the world knows her as Lydia Lopokova, although she was born and grew up in St. Petersburg as Lidia Lopukhova. The “pseudonym” (if you’re generous) or the abomination of her real name (if you’re honest) was visited upon us by Sergei Diaghilev. When he hired Lopukhova to join the Ballets Russes in 1910, he resolved that the world would not know what to do with the “Lopukhova” configuration… as though “Lopokova” were a great improvement. But history is what it is (just for the record, Russian folk wisdom calls it a turkey) so we have what we have: Lydia Lopokova (1892-1981) , one of the stars of the Ballets Russes. She never again lived in Russia and, for many years, lived at this house at 46 Gordon Square, Kings Cross, London, with her husband John Maynard Keynes, the famed economist and member of the Bloomsbury group of intellectuals.
Lopokova’s father Vasily was a simple man from the Tambov region of Russia. After moving to St. Petersburg he accepted a job as a ticket taker at the Alexandrinsky Theater. But there must have been something balletic in his genes – or in those of his wife, Rosalia Constanza Karlovna Douglas. In any case, we are told that Rosalia loved the ballet. Russian Wikipedia notes that all six of the Lopukhov children became dancers, with Lydia’s oldest brother Fyodor (1886-1973) becoming an innovative choreographer at the Mariinsky Theater, after having danced at that storied venue from 1905 to 1922. Another brother Andrei (1898-1947) was a leading character dancer at the Mariinsky from 1916 to 1945. A sister Yevgenia (1884-1943) was a popular dancer in the variety theater and then began performing operetta after she quit dancing in the 1920s. These three siblings made major contributions to Russian/Soviet ballet and theater during their lives.
Lopokova began her ballet training in early childhood at the Imperial Ballet School, from which she graduated in 1909 (some sources say 1910). She may or may not have performed from time to time on the stage of the Mariinsky when still young, but it was in 1910 that she accepted an offer from Diaghilev to join the Ballets Russes (the union didn’t last long, although she rejoined the company in 1916 when she paired with Vaclav Nijinsky).
Again, sources split on the details of her first performing tour abroad. One Russian source tells us that she toured the United States with her brother Fyodor and Anna Pavlova from 1907-1910. Many other sources, remaining silent about those dates, put Lopokova in the United States from 1912 to 1916, where she often performed on Broadway stages. The Spartacus Educational website tells us that during that period she was drawing a salary of ₤16,000 per month. Not too shabby.

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Much has been written about Lopokova’s active and sometimes unorthodox love life; all you need do is Google it if you’re interested. (Igor Stravinsky was just one of many dalliances.) But it was her encounter with Keynes that appears to have given her emotional life a center. He fawned over her in Diaghilev’s 1921  production of Sleeping Beauty (renamed Sleeping Princess because, Diaghilev claimed, “I have no beauties in my company”), attending the theater night after night and lavishing her with attention. She married Keynes in 1925 and their union was strong, despite much small-minded carping from his famous Bloomsbury friends. (They were apparently shocked to see their friend Keynes move from male lovers to a woman. If you need information on Keynes’ sexual proclivities, an article in the Independent provides plenty.) When Keynes fell seriously ill in 1937, Lopokova left the public eye entirely in order to devote all her time to him. She essentially acted as his caretaker for the last nine years of his life. Much of the time the two spent together from 1921 until 1946 would have been at the home pictured here. (They first met in 1918 during one of the Ballets Russes tours in London.)
Judith Mackrell, the author of the Lopokova biography Bloomsbury Ballerina, described Lopokova’s appearance at Gordon Square in an article she wrote for The Guardian in 2008.
By the spring of 1923, only weeks after they became lovers, Keynes installed Lopokova in a flat in Gordon Square, just a few doors away from his own house. The move put her at the heart of Bloomsbury, as she occupied rooms below Vanessa Bell at number 50 [see the final photo below] and joined in the collective meals and parties held at number 46. A newcomer had never been so forcibly inserted into the circle’s daily life, and it didn’t take long for Bloomsbury to close ranks against her.”
One of Lopokova’s early appreciators and later one of her biggest detractors also lived right here on Gordon Square. That would have been Virginia Woolf, who, over the years, became quite catty about Lopokova. According to Mackrell, Woolf once fumed, “You cannot argue solidly in her presence. She has no head piece.” (The comment is quoted in an article Mackrell wrote for The Guardian in 2008.) Interestingly, it doesn’t appear that Lopokova ever cared. She seems to have been a woman of strong fortitude; she didn’t let little things bother her.
Lopokova,” writes Mackrell in The Guardian, “was unlike any Russian ballerina that London had seen. A 27-year-old former child dancer with the Russian Imperial Ballet who had enjoyed an itinerant career, including a starring spell in Broadway musicals, she was an entirely different type from Diaghilev’s prewar ballerinas. While Anna Pavlova and Tamara Karsavina had set the mould with their darkly classical beauty, Lopokova was a witty soubrette, her performances on stage less a refinement of pure technique than the product of a vivid, versatile intelligence and a fizzing personality. As Clive Bell argued in a long, theoretical essay, Lopokova was the embodiment of the new modernist ballet.”
Lopokova left the ballet after performing twice in Coppélia at the Royal Opera House in 1933. Despite a heavy Russian accent, she played several dramatic roles on the English stage – Shakespeare, Ibsen and Moliere – although her performing life ended abruptly when Keynes fell ill.
Rupert Christiansen, in a review of Mackrell’s Bloomsbury Ballerina, wrote: “Although some found her irritating, nobody thought her faux. Lydia Lopokova was the real thing, possessed of what Virginia Woolf described as ‘the genius of personality’. […]  Through her 35 years of widowhood, she became increasingly reclusive, living like a peasant babushka at Tilton in Sussex, the farmhouse she and Keynes had made their home, just over the hill from Bloomsbury’s retreat at Charleston. She showed no resentment and no desire to dwell on past glories, but faded into her dotage without complaint, ‘grandly indifferent to what anyone else thought of her’, her ‘genius of personality’ undimmed to the last.”

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Alexei Novikov-Priboi plaque, Moscow

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There are few things I love to do more than to violate rules and standards set up by others. Any writing teacher worth their salt will tell you that you cannot begin an article or any piece of writing with an apology or a caveat. It is said to undercut your position as author. Pshaw! Reminds me of an editor I once had who cut a key phrase from one of my reviews. When I objected that that was my favorite phrase in the piece, I was treated to a stern lecture that can be boiled down to this: “My writing teacher always taught us that we should go through anything we write and cut out the phrase we love the most.” This left me pondering two things: Which is worse, a bad teacher or a bad pupil?
Anyway, sorry for the lousy photos today. This was not an easy place to get. The lush trees (a rarity in Moscow), combined with a locked fence surrounding the former home of Alexei Novikov-Priboi at 5-7 Bolshoi Kislovsky Lane made it a challenge to get any photos at all. In the old days I might have just hopped the fence and grabbed my shots, but the old days in Moscow are not the new days in Moscow. Somebody might mistake my eager leap for something it was not – and just you try explaining to a security guard (or worse) that, “I’m just an American taking pictures of cultural landmarks.” Especially when you consider that this building was, and presumably still is, occupied by many high-ranking military officials. (You can see plenty of other plaques in the few photos here – they’re all to generals and admirals.) No thanks. I got what shots I could through the cracks in the leaves and left it at that.
But enough of all that: Alexei Novikov-Priboi (1877-1944). I mentioned him to my wife Oksana as soon as she got up this morning and she said, “Oh! Something straight out of my childhood!” Yes, Novikov-Priboi would be one of those writers that young people would devour. Let’s see if the name will help you understand that. You see, this writer was born Alexei Silantyevich Novikov in the Tambov region. While spending time as a prisoner of war in 1903 during the Russo-Japanese War, he came up with the notion of describing the events of his life in writing. His first published works, Madmen and Fruitless Victims and For the Sins of Others (1906) addressed his activities on board a ship during the battle of Tsushima. He served in the Russian navy from 1899 to 1906 so that, for him, writing was an opportunity to  go back to sea in his imagination. His first collection of stories, published in 1917, was called Sea Stories. And that brings us back to Novikov’s name. For good measure, as a writer of sea tales, he added the second handle of Priboi – that is, Surf – to his last name. But that’s not all. He also simplified his patronymic (the “middle” Russian name which stands for “son of” or “daughter of”) from Silantyevich to Silych. Thus he became not “son of Silanty,” but “son of Sila” – that is, “son of Power.” You begin to feel the aura of the name – Alexei “Son of Power” Novikov-Surf!

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Novikov-Priboi led an eventful life. After the publication of his first two tales (as independent brochures), he immediately found himself on the wrong side of the political battles then still simmering following the failure of the so-called 1905 Revolution. Both works were banned and, in order to avoid arrest, Novikov left the country. Over the course of six years (until 1913), working as a merchant marine, he spent time in Finland, England, France, Spain, Italy and North Africa. In 1912 and 1913 Novikov lived on the island of Capri with Maxim Gorky.
Gorky, in fact, played a beneficial role in Novikov’s literary career. He very much liked Novikov’s story “In the Dark” – a description of the events of the 1905 Revolution – and he interceded in order to get the piece published in the Sovremennik journal in 1912. Of Gorky Novikov-Priboi  said, “Gorky put me on my feet. After studying with him I firmly and independently entered the literary world.”
The writer Konstantin Paustovsky penned a short essay about Novikov-Priboi in 1937 (yes, that year does make one shudder). In it he describes Novikov’s most famous book, Tsushima (1932):
“Tsushima was the writer’s great success. Its theme stuns so that you cease to notice what we are accustomed to noticing in writers: language, style, composition. When a book stuns you so that you cease to note how it was written – that is success. That means that it has been created according to laws of genuine literary mastery that are not yet revealed to us.
“Tsushima‘s power is not only in its simplicity and accuracy. Its power is in the abundance of exciting material, and in its topic: an enormous but clueless fleet goes to his death as if lying down beneath the executioner’s ax. Everybody knows what it happening. This [tale] takes us through the entire world, through sweltering oceans, the equator, the tropics, storms and calm, blue waters.
The tragedy of this funereal journey is so great that one wants to read more and more about it. In the general light of this tragedy every details takes on special significance and power.”
Novikov-Priboi lived in this home in the Arbat region from 1930 until his death in 1944. As such, his novel Tsushima was at least finished here, if not written in its entirety.
One final note on Tsushima – research in recent years has shown that Soviet editors, little by little, drop by drop, letter by letter, bowdlerized Novikov-Priboi’s original text. In each subsequent edition the details of the novel, its attitude toward the Tsarist navy, and even many of the historical facts were “amended” to suit current political needs. If you’re going to read the novel, I suggest you find an edition published in 1932.

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Maria Sollogub’s literary salon, Moscow

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This is one of the nicer homes in my expanded neighborhood. Someday I’ll have to leave it behind, but it will always remain strong in my memory. It stands cattycorner across from the Tretyakov Gallery, and directly across from the famous Writers’ house on Lavrushensky Lane. (If you’re one of those, like a benighted editor I once had, who doesn’t know the word cattycorner [or caddycorner], expand your vocabulary: The Grammarist, in a lovely, long article tells us that it means “positioned diagonally across a four-way intersection, but … can work in other contexts relating to one thing being diagonal from another.” It’s a very useful word.) But I already digress.
The main structure at 3 Bolshoi Tolmachyovsky Lane dates back to 1772, while most of the decoration, added after the Moscow Fire of 1812, dates to 1814. The gorgeous wrought-iron gate and fences were originally created in the 1760s, but were not put up here until the 1820s. The wings to either side of the building were added in the years 1849-1859 by then-owner Maria Fyodorovna Sollogub (1821-1888), who is the reason for this post today. (Note that in the historical record her last name is sometimes found spelled with a single “L” but the accepted spelling for her family is with the double “L”.) Maria was born into a well-known and well-connected family in St. Petersburg. Her father was Fyodor Samarin, a military man, and her mother was Sofya Neledinskaya-Meletskaya (whose father, in turn, was something of a poet – one of his poems became the popular romance, “Whenever I Go Out to the River”). Two of her brothers had connections to what today we might call the “creative class” – Dmitry Samarin wrote essays and small books defending Slavophile views, while Yury Samarin was a philosopher and a good friend of many writers, including Konstantin Aksakov, Ivan Kireevsky, Alexei Khomyakov and others. In this family of learned, prominent people, Maria had the opportunity to meet many of the early great Russian writers – including Alexander Pushkin and Nikolai Gogol. Maria was well-educated (at home) and had a sharp, inquisitive mind. She was known to her contemporaries as a brilliant conversationalist. The philosopher and jurist Boris Chicherin called her “one of the most worthy women I ever met in my life” and noted her “solid, clear and fundamental intellect.” As was the rule for the time, she was groomed for marriage and one of the pretenders, if I may put it that way, was Andrei Karamzin, the son of the great historian Nikolai Karamzin. However, her authoritarian father prevailed and in 1846 she was handed in marriage to Lev Sollogub, the older brother of the then well-known writer Vladimir Sollogub, best known for his light society tales and his vaudevillian dramas. In short, Maria was – right from the beginning of her life on through into the thick of it – surrounded by literature and writers.

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That marriage not only brought Maria to Moscow, it turned out to be something of a disaster when, after a few years, Lev Sollogub lost, shall we say, contact with reality, and Maria was left to care for him until he died in 1852. The couple’s only child – Fyodor Sollogub (1848-1890) – became a costume designer for theater, as well as a sometime poet and actor.  (Don’t confuse him with the symbolist Fyodor Sologub, whose real last name was Teternikov.) He was a good friend of Leo Tolstoy’s and stood at the origins of a small theatrical organization with the bland name of the Moscow Society of Lovers of Art and Literature. We remember this society today because it is the place where Konstantin Stanislavsky took his first baby steps in the theater world before moving on to found the Moscow Art Theater. In fact, Stanislavsky credited Sollogub with being one of the few people whose ideas and support helped him consolidate his thoughts on a new kind of theater.
Maria clearly loved and appreciated good company and good talk, for the “evenings” or “get-togethers” or “salons” that she hosted in her home were well-known and well attended. The Russian Field website tells us that “the Sollogub home became a popular literary-political salon, frequenters of which included Alexei Khomyakov, the Kireevsky brothers [Ivan and Pyotr], the Aksakov brothers [Konstantin and Ivan], Konstantin Kavelin, Ivan Turgenev, Boris Chicherin and others. In other words, Slavophiles and Westerners alike gathered here in comfort.”
Details about Maria’s salon are not easy to come by although I did find a description of a theater production of an early Turgenev play that was put on there. Here is a text drawn from a Turgenev website:
“The Provincial Lady was performed on the amateur stage of Countess Sollogub in early January 1851. The author ignored the first performance. But, having heard of its success, he attended the second. Countess M. F. Sollogub was the wife of Lev Alexandrovich Sollogub, a cousin of the Vasilchikovs and Countess Cherkasskaya. Visiting her home, Turgenev naturally met her many relatives, but Countess Cherkasskaya, who played the lead role in the play, disappointed the writer. In a letter to Pauline Viardot on January 5, 1851, he wrote, ‘Day before yesterday I had a great success. The actors were loathsome, especially the heroine (Countess Cherkasskaya), although that did not stop either the public from applauding excessively or me from going backstage to congratulate them heartily. Still and all, I was satisfied that I attended the performance. I think that my play will have success on the theatrical stage, since it has been appreciated, even though it was abominated by dilettantes… I received many congratulations, compliments et cetera. You know, it’s amusing to see your own work on the stage.”
In fact, Turgenev in another letter to his love Viardot (published on the Turgenev page of the site), reveals that he was quite nervous about the little premiere. Here is an excerpt from a letter he wrote New Year’s Day 1851:
This evening one of my manuscript comedies will be played on the amateur stage at Countess Sollogub’s. I was invited to attend the performance but I, of course, will refrain from that; I am too afraid that I will play a silly role. I’ll write to you about what results.”
As such, in addition to all the interesting conversations and meetings that these walls witnessed during the years that Sollogub lived here, it was also the place of the world premiere of Turgenev’s The Provincial Lady. Sollogub sold the estate in 1882 and it became a gymnasium (high school). It is currently the K.D. Ushinsky pedagogical library.

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Nikolai Okhlopkov plaque, Moscow

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I have tried to photograph the Okhlopkov plaque and the Mayakovsky Theatre several times. I have never liked what I got, now matter what the time of day, no matter what the season. The plaque is an awkward one to get, right there on the corner of Maly Kislovsky Lane and Bolshaya Nikitskaya Street. There are a bunch of street signs in the way, traffic is always humming, people parking where they shouldn’t be, narrow sidewalks leaving no space, electrical wires making a mess of sight angles from a distance, the light and shadows playing nasty tricks.
Or maybe this place is just jinxed. One of the times I was photographing here, I noticed somebody shooting me. When he dropped his camera from his face I recognized my friend, the playwright and journalist Mikhail Kaluzhsky. We exchanged pleasantries and went our own ways. Later that day he posted a photo of me on Facebook that made my usually steely nerves begin wobbling like water. Until then I hadn’t known that the beer belly of a person taking a photo increases three times in size – even if you don’t drink beer. Jinxed, jinxed, the place is jinxed!
Consider this: Vsevolod Meyerhold took this theater over in 1922 when it was called the Theater of the Revolution, but was gone by 1924, when he moved on to create his own Meyerhold Theater. It was actually here that Meyherhold first expected to stage Nikolai Erdman’s The Warrant, but when he bolted and went out on his own, he took Erdman’s play with him (it eventually premiered in 1925). The theater was run by Alexei Popov from 1931 to 1942. When Nikolai Okhlopkov (1900-1967) took it over it was renamed the Moscow Drama Theater and the year after Stalin died, that is, in 1954, it was renamed the Vladimir Mayakovsky Theater. Okhlopkov remained in charge of the playhouse until it killed him in 1967. Okay, so I’m pushing the jinx thing.
Okhlopkov had been an actor in Meyerhold’s theater, so there was a certain justification in his being named to take over the Revolution Theater. Moreover, during the time that Erdman’s The Warrant was performing as one of Meyerhold’s most popular productions, and as Erdman was sitting down to write his next play for Meyerhold (it would be The Suicide), Okhlopkov undertook to make a film of Erdman’s filmscript Mitya. This was in 1926. But that is hardly the end of the connections. As Anna Kovalova writes in the excellent introduction to her anthology of Erdman’s film scripts (Nikolai Erdman/Film Scripts), in 1925 “it was expected that V.E. Meyerhold would direct [Mitya], and Mitya would be played by Erdman himself. Later, N.P. Okhlopkov was assigned to direct, and he ended up playing the lead role…”
Okhlopkov, seemingly out of his league, had a hell of time making Mitya, and he begged Erdman to come south where the shooting was taking place to lend a helping hand. Erdman did travel down as soon as he could, but the problems remained. Again quoting from Kovalova’s essay: “The press noted that the creators of the film got carried away with models of American lyrical comedies in which the main hero, usually someone of uncertain means, constantly becomes the victim of curious circumstances.” Many years later the film director Sergei Yutkevich wrote about the innovative nature of Mitya in his memoirs, but by that time not only was the film long forgotten, it could never be seen again. The only copies had been destroyed. These days we only have the screenplay to judge it by. I found an incomplete copy of it when I was trawling the archives in the late 1980s, but Kovalova came up with the whole thing and published it in her book. It’s hilarious, touching, subtle and – as everything Erdman ever wrote – incredibly well-suited to performance.

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Why do I linger on this obscure, early episode in Okhlopkov’s life, you ask? Well, here’s why. Because when Stalin died in 1953 and the so-called Thaw got underway a couple of years later, Okhlopkov did what appeared to be a wonderful thing. He reached out to Erdman and offered to stage The Suicide, banned since 1932, and the main cause of Erdman’s arrest and exile in 1933. He payed Erdman an advance and asked for the play script. This was an extraordinary move on the part of Okhlopkov. It would mean the rehabilitation of one of the Soviet Union’s greatest playwrights (Erdman had abandoned writing for the theater, focusing exclusively on writing his own screenplays or doctoring those of others). But it was not meant to be. Okhlopkov, having re-read the play, got cold feet. A few other famous “friends” of Erdman also put in their two-bits that the play was “not right for the times,” that it “needed work,” and other such nonsense.
That’s when things took a turn for the bizarre. Rather than just quietly let things drop, Okhlopkov pulled a nasty, petty move. He demanded that Erdman return the advance on the grounds that Erdman “did not deliver the play” they had agreed upon. Erdman, who was an extraordinarily calm, even-keeled man, figuratively hit the roof. Fury turned to farce, though, when Okhlopkov’s Mayakovsky Theater sued Erdman and sent authorities to his apartment on Tverskaya Street to confiscate his furniture until such time as he would pay up. Erdman wrote a scathing letter to the court, but, as far as I know, he lost that battle. Okhlopkov, after figuratively pulling the rug out from under his old friend’s feet, got his money back. What I don’t know for a fact, but what I strongly suspect, is that following this ugly incident Erdman and Okhlopkov never communicated again.
And so, having somewhat clumsily wended my way through this story today, I finally think I have come to understand why my pictures of Okhlopkov’s plaque never come out. I don’t like the guy. He begs Erdman for help in dire times and Erdman comes to his side. Then he goes and sticks a knife in his old friend’s back 30 years later. And that, folks, is why I can’t get any decent photos in these environs. The place isn’t jinxed, but I have no love for it. And, as anybody knows, you can’t do anything of value without love. These photos are the best I’m going to get.

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