Sergei Yesenin bust, Voronezh

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Sergei Yesenin (1895-1925) checked into the Angleterre Hotel in St. Petersburg 91 years ago today. Three days later, December 28, 1925, his body would be carried out, dead, by a few friends, including the poet Nikolai Leopoldovich Braun. The official version then, and the version that remained in force until the late ’80s/early ’90s was that Yesenin had committed suicide. He was found hanging from a rope in his hotel room, or so they said. In fact, that version has taken many hits since the Perestroika days. Nobody has proven anything beyond a doubt, and the cautious still tend to posit suicide as the probable reason for the poet’s death at the age of 30, but I must say, that rendition looks weaker and weaker as the years pass.
Yesenin was a bit of a loose cannon and the Soviet State, slowly getting a grip on things and people by the mid-1920s did not like surprises of the kind that Yesenin could toss off. This was particularly true because Yesenin was wildly popular among the people, thus anything he said or did could have serious influence on public opinion. Add to that the fact that authoritarian states simply don’t like anyone or anything that questions order – directly or indirectly. Yesenin, by his freewheeling behavior, did anything but support the notion of moderation or orderliness. He loved to drink, he loved to carouse, he loved to play practical jokes. He had a flair for picking unorthodox wives, one being the American dancer Isador Duncan (at a time when suspicions about foreigners was increasing daily), and another being Sophia Tolstaya, granddaughter of the great writer Leo, and, therefore, a member of a family, the prestige of which the Soviet authorities wished very much to use in their favor. If that wasn’t enough, in the period leading to his death, Yesenin battled clinical depression, even spending some time in an insane asylum where the doctors were “unsuccessful” in treating his illness – if that’s what it was.
I need to say: I am not a Yesenin expert by any stretch of the imagination. I think I would need six months to a year of serious research to catch up on all the writings – serious and scandalous – that have been unleashed on us about Yesenin and his death in recent decades. It remains a hot topic; there is a lot of speculation, even misinformation, out there. Yandex.ru, the Russian version of Google, offers up 17 million leads when you type in “murder of Sergei Yesenin.”
Wikipedia offers up a five-point argument as to why the version of suicide does not hold up. Frankly, I think just one of those points is enough to set off alarms at all levels:
Yesenin had a fresh wound on his shoulder, one on his forehead and a bruise under one of his eyes. A few weeks before his death, many of his friends claimed that he had been carrying a revolver, but this weapon was never discovered. His jacket was missing, and he had to be covered with a sheet from the hotel. The ligature with which he purportedly hanged himself, made from a belt that later disappeared, was reportedly not a hanging one: it was only holding the body to one side, to the right. Nevertheless, no further investigations were documented to have been made in this direction. The room where he died was also not examined.’
Sound like a historical sieve? Does to me.
But that is only just the beginning. We have supposed confessions by at least one of the murderers, Nikolai Leontyev, who is said to have told Viktor Titarenko, a co-worker, in his old age, “Vityok, you know I shot Sergei Yesenin with this hand right here.” Okay, we’ve all read Dostoevsky and we know there are people who for their own reasons wish to confess to crimes they did not commit. Still. That’s only the beginning. Viktor Kuznetsov, the author of a book about the assassination of Yesenin, described the act of murder in more detail in an interview that is published on the Esenin.ru website. His version is that Trotsky had given a secret order to arrest Yesenin in order to interrogate him. Kuznetsov picks up the narrative:
The point of the interrogations was that there was a desire to recruit Yesenin as a secret collaborator with the GPU [for the uninitiated – one of many forerunners to the KGB]. I don’t think Trotsky gave the order to kill the poet, but that’s what happened. Apparently, Yesenin put up a fight and gave [Yakov] Blyumkin a hard shove, after which Blyumkin fell. At that point Leontyev fired… In the photo we can see the mark of a bullet wound. After that Blyumkin hit Yesenin in the forehead with the handle of a revolver. After the murder Blyumkin contacted Trotsky from Leningrad and asked what to do with Yesenin’s body. Trotsky replied that tomorrow a newspaper article would be published under his name about how the unbalanced, decadent poet had taken his own life and everyone would remain silent. That is precisely what happened.”
So there, at least in Kuznetsov’s version of events, are the two men who killed Yesenin: Nikolai Leontyev and Yakov Blyumkin.

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The aforementioned Esenin.ru site is a fount of information. It has a separate section called Death of the Poet that offers 94 links to important sources on this topic. Four of those links are to comments made by Nikolai Nikolaevich Braun, a poet who is the son of another poet, and friend of Yesenin, Nikolai Leopoldovich Braun. According to the younger Braun, his father could not mention what he knew about Yesenin’s death when he wrote his memoirs. However, he did pass on that information to his son, who has spent no small effort seeking to bring that information to the public’s attention. Asked in an interview on Esenin.ru whether he believed that Yesinin had died while being interrogated, Braun replied, “Yes, but to be more exact, as a result of being tortured during interrogation. That is the precise conclusion of my father, the well-known poet Nikolai Leopoldovich Braun, who knew Sergei Yesenin. In December 1925 he and other writers carried his [Yesenin’s] body out of the Angleterre hotel.
Braun provides a wealth of convincing arguments, including this, the story about how Braun, Sr., and Boris Lavrenyov were summoned from the editorial offices of Zvezda magazine to the Angleterre:
“[Pavel Medvedev] asked them to come, saying that Yesenin had committed suicide. The writers were needed to see Yesenin dead and to confirm the version of his suicide. It was Medvedev, [Mikhail] Froman and [Volf] Erlikh who explained how Yesenin had committed suicide in the hotel. But even they, as it turned out, had seen nothing with their own eyes. They had also been ‘told’ about it. The corpse was already prepared for demonstration. However, the original photographs, which we now have, reveal something quite different. Yesenin’s hands had been cut by what appears to be a razor. But the cuts are not made crosswise, but rather lengthwise, as is done in torture. His left eye had been smashed in. There were two holes just above the bridge of the nose and another over the right eye. But Nikolai Leopoldovich told me of a ‘deep, penetrating wound under the right eyebrow,’ which was ‘fatal,’ a ‘bruise under his left eye,’ and ‘bruises from a beating.’ In times of famine, in the years 1919-20, in order to survive, father had worked as an ambulance orderly. He knew anatomy well. He saw many corpses, including those who had hung themselves. But Yesenin had no bluing of the face, nor did his tongue hang out.”
Later in the interview, Braun, Jr., adds:
Braun and Lavrenyov categorically refused to sign the protocol, so to speak, that Yesenin had killed himself. At first glance the protocol was put together clumsily and primitively. Nonetheless it was already signed by the GPU officers Volf Erlikh and Pavel Medvedev, the Secretary of the Writers Union Mikhail Froman and the poet Vsevolod Rozhdestvensky. Nikolai Leopoldovich immediately reproached the latter: ‘Seva, how could you sign this?! You didn’t see Yesenin put the noose over his neck!’ Rozhdestvensky replied, ‘I was told they needed one more signature.'”
As for the images I share today – they are photos of a sculpture by Anatoly Bichukov which stands at the intersection of Kardashov and Karl Marx streets in Voronezh. It was unveiled October 25, 2006 shortly after a film, Yesenin, by Igor Zaitsev, ran on Russian television. Starring popular actor Sergei Bezrukov, and scripted by his father Vitaly Bezrukov, the film embraced the version of death-by-murder. The film was not treated well by critics, but a website where you can watch the film for free gives it a 94.8% positive rating by spectators. Bezrukov himself chose this place for the statue and donated a large amount of money to cover the costs of erecting it. Bezrukov has made a career out of playing dead famous people – Vladimir Vysotsky, Alexander Pushkin and Yesenin. The famous actor Valentin Gaft, who wields a wicked pen when writing popular epigrams, has twice lowered the boom on Bezrukov. One reads, “Dying is not frightening. Frightening is that they’ll make a film about you and Bezrukov will play you.” Gaft also offered up this doozy:

He was Pushkin, Yesenin and Vysotsky.
He was Bely and soon will be Mayakovsky…
Then it will finally be down to Akhmatova…
And there will be no one left in Russia to play!

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Nikolai Ogaryov statue, Moscow

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Nikolai Ogaryov (1813-1877) pretty much emerges from the shadows of the past by way of the light that Alexander Herzen casts on him. The two men were friends from childhood. They shared common interests, they shared bold political views, they shared a life in emigration (primarily in London), they shared their women, they share a place in history together. But by all accounts, Ogaryov was very much a personality unto himself, strong, quixotic, eccentric and interesting.
Ogaryov figures pretty much everywhere as follows: poet, journalist and revolutionary. You can find vastly different attitudes to his poetry. Natalya Laskovskaya, writing on the Book Club website, says it pretty plainly: “It must be admitted, Ogaryov was a weak poet. He wasn’t a poet, but you can’t deny him the ability to pull ‘passion’ out of a privileged life.” On the other hand, Lidia Libedinskaya, in her novelistic biography From the Other Shore: The Tale of Nikolai Ogaryov, describes him as an “outstanding Russian poet.” I’ve been known to have a tin ear where it concerns poetry and so I’m not going to jump into the fray. I will, however, quote a couplet from his poem “Freedom,” written in 1858:

When I was a boy,  quiet and tender,
When I was a youth, passionate and rebellious,
And in my ripe age, too, nearing my dotage –
A word that I heard again, again and again
Was the very same word, never changing:
Freedom! Freedom!

Great poetry? I don’t know. It’s unfair to ask the question in regards to such a tiny chunk, all the more so in hasty translation. But what I like about this is the way it reveals the man; in fact, reveals his biography.
The very first line refers back to his boyhood friend Herzen. Herzen, in his famous book My Past and Thoughts, wrote how, in 1927, when he was 15 and Ogaryov was 14, they went up into the Sparrow Hills area overlooking Moscow and made a pact to devote their entire lives to the “struggle for freedom.” In fact, they did precisely that. Ogaryov wrote that he was also influenced by his young nannies who, during and after the Decembrist revolt, would bring and read him some of the hottest, most politically engaged poetry of the time. It all fell on fertile ground. Ogaryov’s father was a strict man who didn’t fuss with children or things childish (like rebellion). Surely that only made the young man chafe all the more. I can’t prove that as a fact, but something tells me I’m probably close to being right on that…
Ogaryov came under the suspicion of Russia’s secret police in the early 1930s and was arrested and sent into exile for the period from 1835 to 1839. When he was released he wasted no time skipping town and country, making his way to Germany in 1840. He remained abroad until 1846 then returned to his estate in Penza in 1846 where he briefly ran afoul of the law again in 1850. In 1856 he left Russia for good, heading directly for London, catching up with his old friend Herzen who had relocated there four years earlier in 1852. In London the two made history as Ogaryov stood alongside Herzen as the latter founded the Free Russian Press which published books and the, ultimately, influential periodicals Kolokol (The Bell) and the Polar Star, for both of which Ogaryov often wrote articles. In time, these writings made their way back to Russia and had a strong effect on liberal and radical thinking there (although radicals soon turned against both for being “too soft”).

img_9680img_9684 img_9682One might think that things got a bit difficult when the two men began sharing Ogaryov’s second wife Natalya Tuchkova. But apparently it all seemed to be a family affair. Still, it was a bit much when Tuchkova left Ogaryov to live with Herzen in 1857. It didn’t kill the two men’s friendship, although Ogaryov ended up spending increased time hugging a bottle and he began having increased epileptic seizures. Before long he made the chance acquaintance of Mary Sutherland, a “fallen woman from the streets” (all the Russian sources are so delicate – I couldn’t find a single one that would go so far as to explain the reason for Mary’s “fall,” although the always reliable Sarah J. Young, in her blog, does us the favor of saying it straight: Mary was a prostitute). She ended up being Ogaryov’s devoted companion for the last 18 years of his life. It was surely no easy job. Ogaryov by this time was but a shadow of his younger self, sick, lame, and feeble. There is even a scholarly article about this relationship by Hilary Chapman in the New Zealand Slavonic Journal, but, unfortunately, it is protected behind a subscription fee, so I can’t share any insights. In any case, Ogaryov’s friend Pavel Annenkov remembered this about Ogaryov when he had just two years left to live:
He was already a feeble old man, with slow speech and glittering memories in his head, and yet remained unaffected by, and indifferent to, his losses. He would laugh jovially only at his own uselessness for anything and everything, and at the shape his own life had taken toward the end.”
The statue of Ogaryov pictured here stands near the entrance to the main building of Moscow State University in the center of Moscow. Looking quite blissful, I would say, Ogaryov stands to the left of the entrance (if we face the doors ourselves), while his old friend Herzen looms like a bookend on the other side. The two statues, created by Nikolai Andreev, were unveiled the same day, December 3, 1922. The address corresponding to the square where the statues stand is Mokhovaya Ulitsa 11.
Why do the two stand here? Both studied at Moscow State University and both became involved in underground revolutionary activities while here. They went on to become two of the most illustrious revolutionary alums to graduate from Moscow State U.

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Alexander Fadeev plaque, Moscow

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This is one of the gloomiest places in Moscow, I think. I feel the oppression of the surroundings whenever I am here, and I have been here many hundreds, if not thousands of times over the last 28 years. The heavy, stone walls. The pompous columns crammed into space too small to fit and too high to see properly. The messy pipes and sloppy stray wiring and unused decorative grills. The noise and the arrogance of Tverskaya Street… All of these things influence what I feel when I am here. But there’s a lot more to it than that. One building away from here is the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall, stolen from Vsevolod Meyerhold before he could build his planned theatre here in the late 1930s, and before he was shot in a Lubyanka basement in 1940. A towering monument to Vladimir Mayakovsky, all bright and  bushy-tailed, stands a few hundred feet from here on Triumphal Square – yes, the poet who shot himself out of despair at the age of 37 in 1930. I’ve written about all these places elsewhere in this space. Go to Meyerhold or Mayakovsky or Lubyanka if you’re interested.
But there is another reason for the morbidity and despondency that overcome me here. Alexander Fadeev lived here at 27 Tverskaya Street from 1948 to 1956. I’ve written about Fadeev a time or two on this blog, so I’ve already laid out the basic facts of this tragic personality’s biography. It goes from the high hopes and praise garnered by an early novel (The Rout, 1927), to a self-inflicted bullet wound that in 1956 killed the man, an alcohol-soaked, bought-and-sold government functionary at the age of 54. Although this precise spot on the map is not where Fadeev did his final deed – that was done at his dacha in Peredelkino – still, as his last address of record it is closely bound up in his ultimate, despairing act of self-destruction suggesting that conscience had not yet abandoned him entirely.
Look at how short a human being’s life is. Consider how little time we have to make our mistakes, take our chances, and reap what we will from that. First major success in 1927. Dead by suicide 1956, 29 years later.
The fact of the matter is that Fadeev supported or led many of the most heinous Soviet policies by which writers and other artists were not only driven out of their professions, but were often arrested, tortured and/or killed. He once called Joseph Stalin “the greatest humanist the world has ever known.” (Interesting fact: Most of today’s leading Russian writers and artists – I know many of them personally – would not be caught dead sharing space with the “humanist” word. It is considered an evil, horrible notion. When we look at the way the notion of “humanist” was mutilated and transmogrified into its precise opposite by folks such as Fadeev, we begin to understand the squeamishness of our contemporaries.) Fadeev stood by as dozens of the greatest Russian artists of his time were persecuted and executed. Occasionally he just stood by silently; sometimes he even helped them out; but there were times he was part of the machine that sent the most talented minds of the time to a bitter end. What did this do to the man? Here is something he said about himself later in his life, drawn from a detailed biography on the So People Will Remember website:
God gave me a soul that is capable of seeing, remembering and feeling good, happiness and life, but since I am constantly distracted by life’s swells and am incapable of controlling myself or putting my will at the service of reason, rather than express to people this life-spirit and good in my own personal life – as elemental and vain as it is – I transform this life-spirit and good into its opposite and, since I am easily offended and I have the conscience of a tax-collector, I am particularly weak when I feel I am guilty of something, and, as a result, I torment myself and I repent and I lose all sense of spiritual equilibrium.”

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Throughout his adult life Fadeev mixed the life of a writer with that of a bureaucrat. He once admitted that he could not imagine life without conflict – it wouldn’t be life otherwise. Even before the publication of his first major novel he played a major role in the creation and running of RAPP, the notorious Russian Association of Proletarian Writers. It was one of the first “cultural” organizations in the early Soviet period that took it upon itself to police and chastise artists who strayed from the Communist Party line. Remaining with RAPP until its dissolution in 1932, he immediately joined the Writers Union and worked his way up the ladder there. That increasingly repressive organization made him one of the most powerful, feared and hated individuals in the Soviet literary world. He was secretary of the Union from 1939 to 1944; the general secretary from 1944 to 1954; and secretary of the board from 1954 to 1956. You will notice that within a year of Stalin’s death (1953) Fadeev was kicked upstairs and that within three months of Nikita Khrushchev’s famous denunciation of Stalinism at the 20th Party Congress in February 1956, Fadeev was dead.
If you like numbers, you will also see that Fadeev moved into the prestigious digs at the apartment building on Tverskaya Street just two years after his most famous novel, the patriotic The Young Guard, was published in 1946.
Fadeev’s suicide note (not published until 1990) was long, angry and despairing. The writer/bureaucrat lashed out at all kinds of enemies, but also revealed his own personal pain and, perhaps, guilt. Dated the day of his death, May 13, 1956, and addressed to the Central Committee of the Communist Party, it begins with the following words:
I see no possibility of living on since the art, to which I devoted my life, has been destroyed by the self-assured, ignorant leadership of the party, and now nothing can be done to correct that. The best cadres of literature –  in number so much greater than the Tsar’s strongmen could ever have dreamed – were physically destroyed, or were lost due to the criminal connivance of those in power. The best men of literature died too early; the rest, still of some value, and capable of creating true values, died before reaching the age of 40-50.”
He rants at bureaucrats and other evil people who destroyed lives and art, almost as if he doesn’t realize the brutal irony – that he stood at the head of one of those horrible machines. But then he adds:
Born to make great art in the name of communism, associated with the party, workers and peasants for 16 years, and possessing extraordinary, God-given talent, I was filled with the highest thoughts and feelings which can come into being only due to the life of the people, coupled with the beautiful ideas of communism.” Then there comes that but, that huge, crushing but: “But I was turned into a draft horse. I spent my entire life groaning under the weight of mediocre, unjustifiable and countless bureaucratic affairs that could have been performed by anyone.”
Backing off slightly from his former adoration of Stalin, Fadeev declares that the new people who have come into power are utterly worthless and that “we can expect worse from them than even from the strongman Stalin. He was at least educated – these are ignoramuses.”
Yes, yes, yes. All of that, I say all of that blows in the wind around the building at 27 Tverskaya Street. The place has the look and the temperature of death, ignorance, lies…
And of messy paradoxes… Let me add one more story from an article by Pavel Basinsky in 2015. Just one month before Fadeev shot himself, the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova presented Fadeev with a collection of her poetry and signed it, “To a big writer and a good person.” That may be even more bizarre than any of the contradictions wending through Fadeev’s biography. After all, Fadeev was one of the leaders of the so-called Zhdanovism attacks on writers in 1946. He personally called Akhmatova out as a “vulgarity of Soviet literature.” In 1939, doing his bureaucratic duty, he personally banned the publication of some of her poetry. Meanwhile, as a bureaucrat, he helped her find an apartment when she needed one and he even nominated her for a Stalin Prize in 1940.
Go figure. But I come back to what I say. The air around 27 Tverskaya Street is as rotten as it is anywhere in this city.

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Yelena Kiselyova plaque, Voronezh

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Here is another of those wonderful moments when, as the Russians say, I will liquidate my ignorance – right here and right now. Before your very eyes. I may not liquidate much of it, but it will be sufficient to share a wonderful discovery with you.
I had no idea who Yelena Kiselyova was. When I was in Voronezh some time ago I photographed all kinds of plaques, inscriptions and monuments, often not knowing what I was encountering. The idea was that I could always come back and catch up later – as I am doing now. One small, rather unimpressive plaque which I came upon in the shadows of Komissarzhevskaya Street meant nothing to me whatsoever. I didn’t even bother to note that the actual address of the building was 32 Revolution Prospect, where over 100 years ago Voronezh’s Mariinsky gymnasium, an affiliate, I guess we could say, of the Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg, was located. Among many others, the young Kiselyova studied the art of painting and drawing here from 1892 to 1896. This is precisely what the plaque declares: “The artist (1878-1974) Yelena Kiselyova studied here at the Mariinskaya gymnasium from 1892 to 1896.”
Yelena Kiselyova lived a long, eventful life. She was born in Voronezh in 1878 and she died in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, in 1974 at the age of 95. Her father was Andrei Kisleyov, a famous mathematician to whose textbook several generations of Russians learned their numbers. After leaving Voronezh she began studying under none less than the great Ilya Repin at the St. Petersburg Academy of Arts in 1900. Those who knew Repin well said that Kiselyova was one of Repin’s favorite pupils. By 1903 Kiselyova joined with another artist, Yevgenia Milashevskaya, to create a so-called dioramic painting entitled Peter I’s Assembly for the 200th anniversary of St. Petersburg. Four years later she created the painting The Brides: Pentecost which was considered sufficient to grant her not only the official title of artist, but also to give her a stipend to go abroad and continue her studies in Paris. She was, according to one source, the first Russian woman to receive such an honor.
Not everyone was happy with what Kiselyova brought back with her from her travels. According to one detailed article about the artist, “She encountered the new trends and tendencies in painting of the early twentieth century, and when she returned to the Academy, she offered to the Council of academics a painting she had made in France, Parisian Cafe, as a sketch for her thesis. The work was not approved and received the following commentary – ‘while abroad, the young artist, instead of studying real works of art, began imitating screamers and blotters who only seek in some way to draw attention to themselves.‘”
Stung by the criticism, Kiselyova headed back to Paris where she lived from 1908 to 1910 (studying under Eugene Carriere and Rodolphe Julian) and then traveled in Italy in 1911. She participated in various exhibits, including Munich in 1909 and Rome in 1911.
In 1910 Kiselyova became the first woman admitted to the Society of Architects and Artists in St. Petersburg.
Kiselyova was, first and foremost, a painter of portraits. And what portraits she painted! One blogger posted 14 of her paintings, each one more delicious than the next. I am hardly alone in being mad about her Marusya (1913) where she lets colors run wild without ever letting them get out of control. But she is also a master of muted color and shading when she so chooses. When you come upon an artist this strong, with such a clear and powerful command of her art, you really are left wondering what it is you have been doing with your life. Maybe, as Randy Newman put it so bluntly in another context,  you’ve been doing it wrong.

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Kiselyova  waited out the Revolution in Odessa from 1917-1919 and then, in February 1920, when the Red Army began to draw near, she headed for Yugoslavia with her second husband, Anton Bilimovich, who received a job teaching at Belgrade University. They both took Yugoslavian citizenship in 1926. (Yugoslavia was then officially known as the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.) She exhibited her work in Belgrade from time to time, often at exhibitions of Russian emigre artists, but it would appear that painting interested Kiselyova less and less as the years went on.
Kiselyova had given birth to her only child, a son Arseny in 1917. He was arrested by the Gestapo in 1942 and was eventually released, a very sick man, in 1944. Kiselyova painted his portrait, Portrait of a Son on his Death Bed, after which Arseny died and Kiselyova apparently never painted again.
Voronezh, to its credit, did not let her memory die. In 1969 the city mounted a retrospective of 50 of her works in honor of her 90th birthday. It should be pointed out that 1969, following the crushed Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia in 1968, could not have been an easy time to honor a native artist who had abandoned the Soviet Union nearly 50 years ago and had lived all that time in emigration – even if it was within the so-called Soviet bloc.
The plaque commemorating the years when Kiseylova studied art in Voronezh was unveiled October 11, 2006. They could easily have found a more accessible place to put it, but let’s be thankful for what we have. Were it not for this little piece of bronze, I surely would never have learned about Yelena Kiselyova.

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