Fyodor Dostoevsky Bust, Wiesbaden, Germany

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Today we break the rules a bit, always an occasion for celebration. This is my 270th entry on this site and it will be the first time I will write about photos taken by another. It has always been my rule to use only photos that I take of places I have been myself and seen with my own eyes. But when my wife Oksana Mysina told me she was going to be performing on tour in Wiesbaden with her theater company, all the little rules in my head broke down. Wiesbaden! Dostoevsky was in Wiesbaden! Dostoevsky lost “all his money” (or so they say) in Wiesbaden! Dostoevsky wrote his novel The Gambler about the last time he ever played there, thus getting out from under a terrible contract with a nasty publisher, while finding a good wife and, even, perhaps, some happiness, into the bargain. Wiesbaden! Oksana, my own wife, almost my own flesh and blood, would be right there at the casino (her hotel and theater were located right across the street from it)! How could I justify not taking advantage of this? I could not. And I would not. That became even clearer when I did some armchair research and learned that a bust of Dostoevsky by the Russian emigre sculptor Gavriil (a/k/a Gabriel) Glikman was erected right there beside the casino on February 3, 1997. As it happened, Oksana’s hotel was located directly across the street from the bust – Oksana could just walk out the door, cross the street, and spend time with Fyodor Mikhailovich, if she chose.
Of course, to put this into perspective, you have to know a little about Oksana, whose most famous performance (running now for 22 years) is a one-woman show based on the character of Katerina Ivanovna (Marmeladov’s wife) from Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment. Staged by the great Kama Ginkas in 1994, K.I. from ‘Crime’ is one of the key landmarks of Russian theater of the last three decades, and it continues to play to full houses today. As such, there are not many on this planet who have spent more time in an intimate, artistic embrace with the great writer than Oksana. Figure that my friend Oliver Ready recently spent a couple of years translating Crime and Punishment for Penguin books. Okay, a couple of years of intimacy. Oksana has been inside Dostoevsky’s head, and has carried him around in hers, for over 22 years… Shall we talk about accomplishments?
In fact, while Oksana was walking around the bust photographing it, she called Ginkas on the phone to tell him where she was. As such, the photos you see here bring together Ginkas, Oksana and Dostoevsky all in a single breath or two. Moments like that are what give life its sheen, you know.

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A bit about the bust itself. Gavriil Glikman created it in 1994 as you can see by the inscription on the back of the neck in the photo immediately above. The plaque on the front of the pedestal indicates that Glikman gifted the sculpture to the casino in 1996, which may well be true. But it would appear that the actual installation and unveiling of the bust took place on February 3, 1997. Glikman is an interesting figure. He was born in in 1913 in the Vitebsk region (that is, not far from Marc Chagall’s home turf), and Russian Wikipedia tells us that, as a child, he would go to Chagall’s workshop in Vitebsk and watch the great painter work. When he was in his ‘teens his family moved to Leningrad, which is where he spent the greater part of his life. Known primarily as a sculptor, many of his closest friends – Dmitry Shostakovich, Yevgeny Mravinsky – knew that he also painted. However, because his personal style did not fit with the demands of Soviet art, he rarely if ever showed this work. We are told he made an attempt to exhibit his paintings in 1968 and ran into trouble serious enough that his career was threatened. Glikman emigrated to Germany in 1980, settling in Munich in 1982. He lived in Munich until his death in 2003.
The story of how exactly this bust ended up where it did has eluded me. Why 1997? (The 225 years since Dostoevsky’s birth mentioned on the plaque seems a kind of far-fetched date to me.) Why Wiesbaden (the fact Dostoevsky lost tons of money here hardly seems the proper reason to commemorate the great writer)? One Russian blog site puts forth the conjecture that Glikman ran up a bigger bill than he could pay to the casino and the two sides agreed to write the debt off for a sculpture in exchange. It’s an attractive explanation, but I see absolutely no corroboration anywhere in any other sources. One Russian-language travel site suggests that a visit to Wiesbaden by Mikhail Gorbachev in the mid-1990s is the impulse that set things going. A journalist who had been with Gorbachev told Glikman about Dostoevsky’s Wiesbaden connections, etc. That sounds thin and unconvincing – at least on the level that the story is told. Would Glikman, who had painted and sculpted Dostoevsky many times before, really not have known about the Weisbaden connection?
Whatever the backstory may be, the bust is a powerful piece of work. It is incredibly, I would say, aggressively, and, of course, entirely purposefully, crude. Bits and pieces of face, along with bits and pieces of bronze, pile up in the wrong places, out of line, and out of whack. Eyes are crooked, as is the nose and mouth. The ears are big chunks slapped on the side of the head. The haircut is almost humorous to me, rather like Dostoevsky’s mother put a bowl over his head and cut off everything that stuck out below it. All taken together this image epitomizes the power of character, a vessel of suffering and deep-seated intelligence. It all adds up to Dostoevsky as we rather expect he was.
One thing surprises me greatly, however. Look at the second photo below, particularly, and you will see how beautifully and how naturally this Dostoevsky melts into the surrounding ecology, the trees, the leaves, the bushes, the sky. Dostoevsky, in this setting, is just another element of nature. And that is what is so unexpected. This is a writer who rarely wasted his powers of description or observation on nature. Dostoevsky never gives us those convoluted, head-spinning descriptions of fields and forests that Tolstoy and Turgenev are so famous for. Dostoevsky is always rummaging around in the heads of his characters (rather like Oksana rummages around inside his in order to play K.I. from ‘Crime’). He never – or almost never – has the time or inclination to notice flowers blooming or trees growing. There is, of course, that famous exception in The Brothers Karamazov where Ivan exclaims to his brother Alyosha, “Though I may not believe in the order of the universe, yet I love the sticky little leaves as they open in spring. I love the blue sky…” Konstantin Mochulsky, in Dostoevsky: His Life and Work, wrote that, “Leaves, ‘little sticky green leaves,’ are a favorite symbol of Dostoevsky’s. For him all the beauty of God’s world is contained in this humble image. A little green leaf is to his heroes the most irrefutable proof of the existence of God and the coming transfiguration.” But you see how it works in Dostoevsky – he comes back to this one image, never feeling the need to expand it. In fact, even in The Karamazovs he trots out his beloved sticky, green leaves, jumps to a generic declaration of love for the blue sky, and then leaps back into people, their deeds and what their enigmatic hearts hold.
So it is that the image of Dostoevsky blending so organically and naturally into the green world around him in the park behind the casino at Wiesbaden is a revelation. For Dostoevsky, indeed, was a work of nature himself. A huge, powerful, moving, exciting, irritating, thrilling piece of nature. Look how beautifully he blends in with the flowers – the flowers! – in the last photo below. He stands virtually unseen at the far right and there is something wonderful and right in that. Then watch the video at the end that Oksana made so I could feel as though I had actually been there. Instinctively (they have been inside each others’ heads for over 22 years!) she spins around him, ending by spiraling up and directing our sight at the sticky green leaves of a tree canopy above, and on through them into the blue sky that Dostoevsky claimed so to love.
In short, don’t tell me I haven’t been here! Thank you, Oksana, for the virtual trip.

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Chekhov’s Little “House,” Melikhovo

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This wonderfully funny little structure is ground zero for modern drama. It is the place on Anton Chekhov’s country estate in the village of Melikhovo where the dramatist wrote The Seagull, the first of his four major plays. The plaque on the front wall quotes Chekhov himself from the back of a photo that he sent to his future wife Olga Knipper on May 5, 1999. Chekhov’s original jottings say, “The outbuilding at Melikhovo. My house where The Seagull was written. With good memories to Olga Leonardovna Knipper.” The plaque reprints just the middle phrase.
We can “observe” the last few days of Chekhov’s work on the play by perusing his letters.
On November 14, 1895, he wrote to Dmitry Garin-Vinding, an actor and playwright then based at the Maly Theater in Moscow, “I have almost finished a play. There are about two days of work left. A comedy in four acts. It is called: The Seagull.
In fact, four days later, November 18, he writes to the singer and writer Yelena Shavrova-Yust, “I finished a play. It is called: The Seagull. It didn’t come out so hot. Speaking in general: I’m not much of a playwright.”
Three days hence, on November 21, he wrote to his friend the famed lawyer and literary dabbler Alexander Urusov: “Incidentally, yesterday I finished a new play that bears an avian name: The Seagull. A comedy in four acts. I will be in Moscow in December (the Grand Moscow Hotel) and, should you wish it, I will send you or bring you this play. I would be very, very happy if you would take upon yourself the labor of reading it. This labor will be somewhat eased because the play will be printed* and you will not need to make out my scribbly writing.” The asterisk to “will be printed” leads to Chekhov’s clarification below that the printing will be done “on a Remington.”
It was not until March 15, 1896, that Chekhov officially sent The Seagull to the authorities (the censor) in order to receive permission for his play to be performed on the imperial stages. Here is that formal request in full:

15 March 1896. Melikhovo.
To the Director of the Imperial theaters. 
A Petition
Of Anton Pavlovich Chekhov 

Presenting herewith a play of my composition under the title of The Seagull, in four acts, in two copies, I have the most humble honor of asking that it be submitted to the Theatrical-Literary Committee for permission to present it in the Imperial theaters. 

Anton Chekhov.
15 March 1896.
Lopasnya, Moscow Province.

Such is the modest, yet insistent beginning of a play that would change the way drama in the western world would be written, staged, acted and perceived for well over a century. Actually, for that hefty influence among playwrights let us add the name of Henrik Ibsen, whose plays, most written prior to Chekhov’s major works, were no less groundbreaking. But it has fallen to Chekhov, in part because of the impending partnership with Konstantin Stanislavsky, to be considered the founder of 20th century drama and theater.
The Seagull premiered at the Alexandrinsky Theater in St. Petersburg on October 17, 1896. This outing was a fiasco, however, with some members of the audience heaping vocal abuse on the actors, and ending with Chekhov famously skedaddling out of town before anyone could see or talk to him.
The renowned Russian film director Vitaly Melnikov made a wonderful, sensitive film about Chekhov in 2012 that includes numerous references to The Seagull. It’s called The Admirer. The first frames (and later ones too) show Stanislavsky rehearsing the play in the late 1890s, while the whole disaster at the Alexandrinsky is shown in detail later in the film. (In Melnikov’s interpretation a dastardly critic encourages a plant to begin the audience rebellion.) You can watch a decent online version on the Big Cinema site.  The scenes showing the first performance of The Seagull begin at approximately 1:01:00. (Unfortunately, this copy of the film does not include the English subtitles that I created for the director, but it does include the performance of my wife Oksana Mysina as an eccentric and haughty society lady who considers it her right to hound Mr. Chekhov.)
To round out the historical aspect of this post let me add that Stanislavsky’s rendition of The Seagull premiered in Moscow December 17, 1898. This was a production of the Moscow Art Theater, but it was not performed on the stage that the whole world now knows as the Art Theater. Stanislavsky’s homeless troupe performed on the stage of the Hermitage Theater in the Hermitage Garden for the first three years of its existence.

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The outbuilding in Melikhovo consists of just 20 square meters and two rooms, plus a mudroom or entryway. Chekhov kept his doctor’s medicines in this abbreviated front area and on days when he treated the local peasants (always for free), he ran a small red flag up the flag pole in front of the structure. (See photo immediately above.) A miniature widow’s walk, or balcony, was constructed over this part of the house, and it gave a nice three-way view of the surrounding territory. The building is located towards the back (the north end) of the Melikhovo property and is separated from the main house by a large garden, a grove and two lovely walkways. (See one of those in the following block of photos below.) The actual distance between the two houses is not large, but because of the layout of the land the writer’s retreat has a marvelous sense of seclusion to it – especially when the plants and trees are in full bloom.
Only rarely can visitors get inside the outbuilding any more, but I was fortunate a decade ago to spend quite a bit of time in there while making a small documentary film about Chekhov. The main part of the house is split into two narrow rooms. In the first there is just enough room for a large writing table and one chair on either side. In the second there is just enough room for a small single bed that stands along the back wall and runs almost the full length of the room. There is a night table next to the bed and a single functional wooden chair – to help you get your socks off or toss your shirt and pants over the back. Knowing a little about the way writing works, I suspect much of The Seagull was at least imagined, if not jotted down, here while Chekhov napped or rested between writing bouts.
A place like this always makes us answer hard questions. Is it capable of bringing up the ghost of him that made it famous? I won’t lie: the answer for me wavers between yes and no. When I stood before the desk and looked at the blotter and ink well, I didn’t see any letters from The Seagull, or any of the many other works he wrote here, rising into the air as smoke. In the little bedroom the clean white linens did not aid me in believing that I could see Chekhov’s long, hairy legs disappearing beneath them for a nap. But taken as a whole, this is a quite extraordinary little location on the map. The detail that went into the building of it (see the lacy carved wood in many of the photos), the modesty of the place, the comfortably cramped quarters, the presence of Dr. Chekhov’s glass vials still standing on two shelves in the entryway, the sense of isolation and retreat that everything here represents, combined with the richness and the beauty of the nature surrounding it all (even in the “dead” season) all adds up to more than a few tingles running down the spine.
There are a few places in Russia where I love to just stand and stare as my thoughts go where they will. This is one of them.

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Alexander Pushkin statue, Voronezh

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I was bound to come around to this sooner or later. I have a ton of Pushkins in my quiver. And as everyone knows, who knows Russian drama and literature, if you have a Pushkin in your quiver it will have to be shot. Which, I am tempted to say, is just what this particular statue deserves. To be shot. Out of a cannon, say, onto the other side of the Voronezh Reservoir where only the bears go.
Let me say this immediately: I love Voronezh, and I think Voronezh has done a wonderful job of putting itself in public touch with its cultural icons. I love the plaque on the wall of the post office where Mikhail Lermontov stopped a couple of times. The sculpture of Gavriil Troepolsky’s literary dog Bim is very cool. The monument to martyred poet Iosif Mandelstam in the park across the street from where he lived in exile is very moving. I think the plaque honoring librarian Sofya Onikienko for saving her book collection during WWII is wonderful. I’ve written about these and many other fine, noteworthy cultural monuments in Voronezh. But I always knew I would come to Pushkin one day, and, as it turns out, this is the day.
It’s a rainy, drizzly day in Moscow; dreary, unseasonably cold, a kind of day that makes you think of St. Petersburg. And how can you think of St. Petersburg without thinking of Pushkin? But since I still haven’t gotten around to visiting the City on the Neva with my camera in hand and blog in mind, my thoughts of St. Petersburg and Pushkin are hereby diverted to Voronezh.
Am I blowing smoke? Could you tell? You see, the thing is I really hate this truncated sculpture (it shows Pushkin from the trunk up) that stands right smack dab in the middle of the great city of Voronezh. It is both pompous and cheap at the same time. Sounds like an American presidential candidate. If you have to guess which one, we’re not on the same wavelength at all.
This Pushkin was created by the local sculptor team of Ivan Dikunov and Elza Pak. They’ve done some nice work elsewhere, although their muse was at rest when they did this one. Maybe it was because they were in a rush? Well, there is a version of this monument’s history that would support that. A tourist website tells us that the good people of Voronezh had long wanted to honor Pushkin’s memory, but they either had no money or could not find a work of art they liked. Twice they brought in existing sculptures, but in both cases rejected them. They tried raising funds on occasion, but that didn’t work either. Which is where Dikunov and Pak entered the story. They have done a lot of monuments in the city and, presumably, have been paid well for their services. So – and this is to their great credit – they offered to do a Pushkin statue for free. Sounds like a deal that can’t be beat? Well, don’t forget that ditty about getting what you pay for.
Anyway, the 200th anniversary of Pushkin’s birth was coming up fast and, it seems, everyone decided this would finally be the time to put up Pushkin in Voronezh. And so Dikunov-Pak “in a very short period of time” (I’m quoting the website) cast their likeness of the great poet. It was unveiled on what would have been the poet’s 200th birthday, June 6, 1999. The place is a small square that is now called Pushkin Square. It stands next to the city’s opera house and the cavernous Lenin Square that looks like 10 helipads strung together.

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The half-image of Pushkin (not time for a whole one?) is done in metal, which may be one of the first reasons why this particular object looks so cheap. (If you look around the base you’ll see rust spreading from the metal to the pedestal.) The whole thing has a tinny look to it. Some sources say the likeness is set inside a gazebo, others say it is inside a rotunda. We don’t need any sources because we can see for ourselves that it is a – well… either a rotunda or a gazebo. A slab of something (it’s not marble) behind Pushkin bears his famous lines: “And I will long be loved among the people for the kind feelings I awakened with my lyre.” Pushkin stiffly leans forward just the slightest and holds out both hands symmetrically. His right hand holds a sheet or sheets of paper while his left hand, to quote the website again, “gesticulates.” I’m not so sure, however, that this hand is gesturing. It may just be held out in confusion, as if to say, “What the hell am I doing here?”
As often happens in smaller cities that put up monuments to famous people, the question has been asked: Did Pushkin ever visit Voronezh? The answer is quite surely no. We are told of great battles and arguments among scholars. A certain journalist and Pushkinist named V.V. Chirkov is said to have stated in no uncertain terms that Pushkin “had to have passed through” Voronezh during one of his travels about Russia. Oh, yes, that old iron-clad proof, “had to have…” The closest anyone can place him for sure, however, is in the relatively nearby town of Yelets, on his way to the Caucasus in the spring of 1829. Pushkin himself wrote about that in his Journey to Erzurum. For the record, Yelets is located 142 kilometers (88 miles) to the north of Voronezh. And here is what a nameless author wrote about this for the Voronezh.pro website:
Pushkin complained that the road to Yelets was awful. It was muddy and his carriage got stuck in the mire of the road. Finally the poet espied the Voronezh steppe and ‘freely rolled upon the green plain.’ There! This is the place where the provincial steppe, along which the writer traveled, was mentioned. Over the ensuing 100 years historians and Pushkinists have argued desperately about how the journey went from there.
But Alexander chose not to disclose the details of his trip from Yelets to Novocherkassk. Nor do any of his contemporaries lift the veil of secrecy that hangs over this part of the journey. There is no documentation about where the poet stopped as he traveled from one place to another.”

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Alexander Scriabin house, Moscow

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Alexander Scriabin (1871-1915), the pianist and composer, rented rooms in this house at 11 Bolshoi Nikolopeskovsky Lane, just north of the Arbat, for the last three years of his life. He died on the very day that his rental contract expired. (His landlord was Apollon Grushka, a prominent philologist, a specialist in historical Latin grammar and Roman poetry.) Thanks in large part to the efforts of Scriabin’s common-law widow Tatyana Shlyotser, the building was turned into a museum honoring Scriabin’s memory in 1922 – just as Shlyotser herself died. Today it continues its life as a museum and a cultural center where concerts and other cultural events are often held. The plaque that hangs on the second floor of the building (a rare enough occurrence) is probably one of the oldest in Moscow. It was surely made and first displayed within two or three years of the composer’s death for it uses the pre-revolutionary script, including the so-called hard sign that is added to the end of several of the words. The plaque reads: “Here lived and died Alexander Nikolaevich Scriabin.”
Scriabin’s reputation has gone up and down over time. I doubt that means much; I mention it as a fact. During his life, especially in the later years, Scriabin was hugely famous. More importantly, his influence on other musicians, Russian and otherwise, was significant. As Arnold Schoenberg was developing his form of atonal music in Europe, Scriabin was independently performing similar experiments in Russia. I have never had a close personal connection to his music and so I asked my wife Oksana Mysina, a musician by education, what she might say about him. “He is an elemental storm,” she said. “His music comes crashing at you like a storm at sea. His compositions are for pianists what Paganini’s are for violinists.” Scriabin was and remains an enigmatic figure, a mystic, a symbolist, a Theosophist. A Russian biography site begins with a nice, if somewhat florid, description of the man and musician:
“Scriabin’s works embody ideas of ecstatic aspiration for unknown ‘cosmic’ spheres, as well as the idea of art as a transformative power. His music is characterized by great tension and a range of images from inspired idealism to the expressively heroic. He was a brilliant innovator of musical methods of expression, particularly in the field of harmony. He developed the notion of light music [see below] and was the first to introduce a part for light into musical practice – this in his symphonic poem “Prometheus”…
Alexander was a very suspicious and religious man. His abrupt mood swings frightened his family and friends, as did his views on current events. In addition to his unique music, he was also the first in history to employ and popularize color music. According to doctors, Alexander suffered from schizophrenia…”

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Scriabin’s work with color and light in music is much better known in Russia than in the West. You can find all kinds of writings on the topic in the Russian netsphere (go here, for instance). I did find one source, originally written in Russian, but translated into English, that offers views on some of the complexities of Scriabin’s experiments. This piece, titled “Was Scriabin a Synaesthete?” goes into much detail about topics that are translated variously as “colored hearing”; “color tonal”; “color sound”; “light-music synthesis”; “light-sound synaesthesia” &cetera.
There are geniuses,” the poet Konstantin Balmont wrote, “who are not only brilliant in their artistic achievements, but who are brilliant in their every step, their gait, in every aspect of their personal being. You look at one of these individuals – they are pure spirit, beings of  a complete other kind, from another dimension. Of all the particular people who are no longer entirely human, or who have, at least, gazed deeply and often into the non-human, into whatever is done outside the three dimensions – it was Scriabin who gave me the impression of being the most complete and inexhaustible genius.”
Balmont, incidentally, lived two doors up from the house pictured here. I wrote about it some time ago on this site.
Scriabin himself wrote the following in regards to the “moment of truth” when an individual would awaken to the full potential of the world:

Let’s be born into a whirlwind!
Let’s awaken into the heavens!
Let’s mix feelings in a single wave!
And in the luxurious splendor
Of the final dawn
As we appear to each other
In the naked beauty
Of glittering souls
We shall disappear…
We shall melt…

He was not of this world, either as a man or as a musician,” said Scriabin’s biographer Leonid Sabaneev.
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov called Scriabin “a star of the first magnitude.”
Upon hearing one of Scriabin’s piano miniatures, Leo Tolstoy is said to have proclaimed, “Very sincere. Sincerity is valuable. This one piece alone allows us to call him a major artist.

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Bulgakov-inspired bas relief, Moscow

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Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940) again. He is as ubiquitous in Moscow as Pushkin. This time we’re looking at another in the series of illustrations of characters from BB’s writings that showed up on city walls and archways as part of the Best City in the World Festival in 2014. This particular bas relief, etched out in a thin layer of cement, is of Tsar Ivan the Terrible, from BB’s play Ivan Vasilyevich. Like the others, it was created by Novatek Art. Unlike most of the others, this image is not in a readily visible position. In fact, it occupies a fairly forlorn spot behind a wayward post not far from some junk gathering behind a tiny, leftover wall, and squeezed on all sides by a rough paint job. If you’re looking for it, go to 36 Starokonyushenny Lane in the Arbat district and peek around the right corner of the building from the street.
Ivan Vasilyevich is simultaneously an obscure Bulgakov play and one of his most popular. How does that work? Easy. It was made into a film called Ivan Vasilyevich Changes his Profession by the great Soviet comic film director Leonid Gaidai in 1973. The film – the top grossing Soviet film for that year (it was seen by over 60 million spectators) – became an instant classic and still maintains its cult popularity today.
The play itself – a comedy about two Soviet citizens being carried back into the 16th century by a time machine which also tosses Ivan the Terrible into the 20th century – has lived a much quieter life. It was written in the mid-1930s for the Satire Theater, but it didn’t see the light of day until it was published in a small collection of Bulgakov’s plays in 1965. Even then it was not until Gaidai got hold of it that anyone really paid it any attention. And, truth to be told, even following that wildly popular film, theaters did not clamor to stage it. In my nearly 30 years of theater-going in Russia I have never seen a production of it.
In fact, Ivan Vasilyevich began life as a play called Bliss. That early variant was written roughly between spring and fall of 1934 but the Satire Theater declined to stage it. Director Nikolai Gorchakov and actors at the theater encouraged Bulgakov to keep working on the play. He did just that and it is considered that he finished it on Sept. 30, 1935, giving a reading of the play in his home for the Gorchakov crew on Oct. 2. The play was proverbially received enthusiastically by the company, although that did not stop them or Bulgakov from believing that it needed to be reworked severely. That mutual agreement was reached on Oct. 29. Bulgakov went back to the drawing board, changing the comedy drastically – the new version was no longer a science-fiction tale of time travel, but now became an unreal tale of a man having a strange dream. This version was completed in April 1936. I haven’t found when the play went into rehearsals (it was  probably before April), but a dress rehearsal was held on May 13 and was promptly banned after that.
Gaidai’s film of the play introduced a large number of changes and innovations. Not surprisingly, in it the characters travel back and forth between the 16th century and the 1970s, rather than the 1930s of Bulgakov’s original.

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Gaidai (1923-1993) was one of the most beloved makers of comedies in the Soviet era. I think we would be safe in calling them screwball comedies. He made approximately 20 films between 1955 and 1992. Ivan Vasilyevich Changes his Profession was the last in a fivesome of unsurpassed successes. The run began in 1965 with Operation Y, and Shurik’s Other Adventures, hitting stride with The Captive Girl of the Caucausus (1966, aka Kidnapping, Caucasian Style), The Diamond Hand (1968) and The Twelve Chairs (1971, not to be mistaken, of course, for Mel Brooks’ Hollywood version of this classic comic novel by Ilf and Petrov). Every one of these films is spoken of with the greatest love and reverence by virtually anyone who has grown up in the Soviet Union or Russia since the 1960s. The films are wacky, off the wall and fast-paced, and Ivan Vasilyevich is no different.
What is interesting about Ivan Vasilyevich Changes his Profession is that Gaidai – despite the wave of success he was enjoying at the time – apparently had a difficult time casting it. He wrote the script with the great clown and actor Yury Nikulin in mind, but Nikulin – who had starred with such success in The Diamond Hand – curiously wanted nothing to do with the project. According to Russian Wikipedia, the reason for Nikulin’s reticence was that he didn’t expect this film featuring a satirical vision of Ivan the Terrible ever to pass the censor, and he had no desire to waste his time making a film no one would see. Frankly, that sounds a little simplistic to me, but I have no reason to buck Wikipedia’s received wisdom.
Another eight actors – most of them big stars – auditioned for the lead, which was a dual role of Ivan the Terrible and one of the hapless Soviet citizens being sent back into the past. They included Yevgeny Yevstigneev, Georgy Vitsin and Yevgeny Lebedev – all of them legends in their own right. However, the part eventually fell to Yury Yakovlev, who emerged in the 1970s as one of Soviet cinema’s finest lyrical/comic actors.
Of course, it is Gaidai’s film, and not Bulgakov’s original play, that made the Novatek artists want to memorialize the character of Ivan the Terrible in the series of Bulgakov-inspired bas reliefs that still dot the city of Moscow today. Bulgakov only returned to Russian readers in the 1960s when the unofficial ban on his works was lifted. As such, Gaidai’s film of the obscure Ivan Vasilyevich Changes his Profession was the first successful film adaptation of the writer’s works. It helped cement the writer’s fast-growing reputation as the people’s favorite.

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