Dmitry Sverbeev, Yekaterina Semyonova house, Moscow

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This house at 37/1 Arbat is a throwback to another age. It was built in the late 18th century – the oldest remaining building on the Arbat – and, after damage suffered in the fires associated with the Napoleonic War of 1812, it was reconstructed. What we see today is the result of work done in 1834. Quite a few people of note have lived in or visited this home. Today we’re interested primarily in Dmitry Sverbeev (1799-1874), who was born here,  and Yekaterina Semyonova (1786-1849) who lived here for a time from 1834 to 1835.
Sverbeev was a diplomat who loved literature and writers and befriended many of them. He described his own interest as such: “I sometimes love to read a bit and listen to intelligent conversations.” He knew Alexander Pushkin and appeared to be rather close to Nikolai Gogol, which is a little bit like a tiny planet orbiting two super-suns. Sverbeev spent a good deal of time with Gogol abroad and, when the writer found himself in financial difficulties, the friend generously gave him money to keep going on. (Sverbeev in general seems to have been a generous man, often helping out people who were not as well-situated as he. In a stroke that says much about him as a person, he never wrote about any of this in his memoirs.) Sverbeev was not as close to Pushkin as he was to Gogol, although the poet did attend Sverbeev’s salons in Moscow in the 1830s, and they crossed paths in various places for many years.
Interestingly, one story from Sverbeev’s memoirs, My Notes (written in retirement in Switzerland and never intended for publication), involves Pushkin and Semyonova, a famed actress who counted Pushkin among her admirers.
In 1820 when Pushkin was visiting the theatres in Moscow, he attended a performance of Semyonova and caused a bit of a ruckus. I’ll let the Prometheus website finish the tale: “Pushkin brought to the theatre a portrait of the French artisan Louvel, who had recently been executed for assassinating in Paris the Duc de Berry, an heir to the throne. The portrait bore a  sweeping inscription: “A Lesson to Tsars.” After the first act, the portrait was passed around the rows of the theatre. Incidentally, it is precisely Dmitry Sverbeev who tells us about this incident from the life of the poet.”
There is some slight confusion about the actual years Sverbeev spent at this house on the Arbat. At least I don’t find hard evidence of the date he left for good. The plaque on the building facade states he lived here from 1799 to 1825, but I haven’t been able to corroborate that. What I do find is that he was posted to the Russian embassy in Geneva in 1824. What exactly he did in the immediately preceding years, I do not know (he graduated from Moscow University in 1817). I’m guessing that the famous literary salons that he hosted were not begun until he left the Arbat, even though the Prometheus site claims he “organized a circle in his own home on the Arbat.” It is known that his most famous salon gatherings were held when he lived at 10 Strastnoi Boulevard and later at 25 Tverskoi Boulevard (I’ve written about this location previously as one of Osip Mandelstam’s addresses in the early 20th century.)

Semyonova is one of those shooting stars that history tosses up every now and then. She was an uneducated, apparently illiterate peasant who, thanks to her fiery temperament, became one of St. Petersburg’s and Moscow’s most popular actresses of her time. She particularly shone in the romantic dramas and tragedies of Vladislav Ozerov, himself a huge star playwright whose fantastic popularity died utterly within just years. He had the misfortune of being a pre-Pushkinian writer, and was soon wiped from the memory of his countrymen. (You will see Pushkin do a bit of the wiping himself in a long quote offered shortly below.) Nobody has performed Ozerov plays for decades, if not centuries. Be that as it may, four of Semyonova’s first six major roles were in plays by Ozerov (stress on the first syllable) – Oedipus in Athens (1804), Fingal (1805), Dmitry Donskoi (1807) and Polyxena (1809). She also shined in Yakov Knyazhnin’s Rosslav (1805) and several foreign plays: Friedrich Schiller’s Maria Stuart (1809), Corneille’s Ariana (1811) and Racine’s Iphigenie (1815). She debuted in 1802 and joined the company of the Alexandrinsky Theater in 1805.
As I have mentioned, Pushkin was a huge fan and in a long defense of Semyonova (whom some in St. Petersburg compared unfavorably to the popular French actress known as Mademoiselle Georges), he wrote:
Speaking of Russian tragedy you speak of Semyonova, and, perhaps, only about her. Gifted with talent, beauty and a lively, true temperament, she came into being all on her own. Semyonova never had a model. The soulless French actress Georges and the eternally enthusiastic poet [Nikolai] Gnedich could only hint at the secrets of art which she understood as a revelation of her soul. Her performances are always unencumbered, always clear, with noble, lively movement, her voice is clean, smooth, pleasant and often reveals gusts of true inspiration – all these belong to her alone and are not borrowed from anyone. She decorated the imperfect creations of the sad Ozerov, creating the roles of Antigone and Moine; She animated the pedestrian lines of Lobanov; In her mouth we appreciated the Slavonic verses of Katenin, full of strength and fire, but lacking in taste and harmony. In colorful anonymous translations which, unfortunately, today are much too ordinary, we heard nothing but Semyonova. The actress’s genius gave stage life to all these lamentable works translated by allied teams of poets, where each of them individually renounced his participation. Semyonova has no rival; The occasional gossip, brief battles and invented hearsay have ceased; She remains the unanimous queen of the tragic stage.”
Pushkin so admired Semyonova that he mentioned her in his great novel-in-verse Eugene Onegin. Celebrating his young years when he frequented the theatre, Pushkin in Chapter 1, stanza 28, wrote: “There Ozerov shared the involuntary tribute / of people’s tears and applause / with the young Semyonova.”
Depending upon the source, you can read all kinds of probable nonsense about Semyonova; what a hothead she was, how ignorant she was, how lazy she was, how covetous she was… You can always read things like that about popular, to say nothing of great, actors. I think Pushkin’s characterizations beat the hell out of all the snippers, snappers and snipers combined. I just have a feeling (say I with no small sarcasm).
In any case, Semyonova’s career took a downturn in the years 1815 to 1820 and from then on she performed less and with less success. She moved to Moscow in 1827 and the following year married Count Ivan Gagarin, the man who had been her lover and had given her several children. It wasn’t the happiest of arrangements, but it became worse after his death in 1832. At least as late as 1830, Pushkin is said to have attended her performance in an amateur production in Moscow, but it was a far cry from her glory days. By the time Semyonova lived briefly on the Arbat, her acting days were effectively behind her.

 

Nikolai Gogol Bust at School No. 59, Moscow

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When you think about it, the idea of a school named for Nikolai Gogol is rather weird. Not that I don’t think it’s admirable. Don’t get me wrong. The world’s kids would be a lot better off were they to grow up reading, and understanding, Nikolai Gogol. The key there is “understanding,” of course. Gogol’s dark vision of the world has led to him being called a satirist for a couple of centuries. There’s no doubt he satirized most anything he could reach with  his pen, but just sending stuff up wasn’t what he was about. He peeled back the facade of a phony world, revealing the incongruity, the quirks, the cruelty, the mendacity (thank you, Tennessee Williams!), the isolation that lurked beneath the surface. I’m not going to give you a Gogol lecture today, but I do want to point out the lovely oddness of the fact that someone chose to name a school after this writer of dark, cutting, often wicked tales.
School No. 59, located at 18-20 Starokonyushenny Lane in the Arbat region of Moscow, until recently was what in the U.S. would be called a common elementary/high school. Unlike many Russian schools that focus on specific topics – mathematics, music, the sciences – it was a general-topic school. Since 2013 it has been subsumed in some far-reaching, octupus-like educational conglomerate bearing the name of Gogol’s fellow writer Alexander Griboedov. That’s not of much interest to us, but what happened here in the past is.
This is actually the site of a fairly famous place of education. It was originally founded June 8, 1901, across town on Povarskaya Street as a gymnasium (essentially a high school). The funding was provided from a grant left by a rich merchant by the name of Ivan Medvednikov, and the gymnasium was called the Medvednikov gymnasium. The building on Starokonyushenny, which still stands today, was opened in 1904. Over the next decade and a half it turned out numerous individuals who subsequently made important contributions to Russian history, science and culture. Among them were famed Russian theatre director Yury Zavadsky (1894-1977), architect and theater designer Georgy Golts (1893-1946), philosopher Sergei Fudel (1900-1977), art historian Sergei Sidorov (1891-1978) and others. The revolution brought changes to the school. In the 1920s alone it changed its name and profile five times. It underwent several more changes until it was named after Gogol on February 9, 1952, 100 years, give or take a month, after the writer’s death. Whatever the school was called, it continued to churn out illustrious students. Vitaly Kostomarov (born 1930), an influential linguist and the future head of the Pushkin Institute of Russian Language, was one of them. You had to know your Kostomarov when studying/teaching Russian at Harvard in my day. Also matriculating here were the writer and dissident Vladimir Bukovsky (born 1942), philosopher Grigory Pomerants (1918-2013), actors Rostislav Plyatt (1908-1989) and Vyacheslav Shalevich (born 1934), and writers Kir Bulychyov (1934-2003) and Mikhail Shishkin (born 1961).

The bust of Gogol that stands in a corner of the school’s courtyard, essentially pleases us because it looks like what you would expect. This is the generic Gogol executed with an attractive hard edge to the features and the gaze. I don’t find anywhere who the sculptor is, but I don’t think I need to. After all, if you back up and take in the bust in its environs, you see that it stands in front of a huge banner topped with the words “Burganov House.” The two Corinthian columns pictured on the banner are photograph images of columns that, indeed, stand outside the Burganov House, which is the semi-gallery and workshop of popular Moscow sculptor Alexander Burganov (born 1935). Leave it to Burganov to put up a modest little bust of Gogol and surround it with a huge advertisement to himself.
Burganov is a friend of Moscow’s head sculptor Zurab Tsereteli (born 1934), the notorious self-promoting sculpture-factory who makes huge, awful sculptures then tries to give them to cities for free. Usually, they turn them down, showing that most cities of the world have better taste than Moscow. His rejects often end up somewhere in Moscow; too often in the line of sight. Anyway, Burganov kind of runs around in Tsereteli’s shadow, getting all kinds of prime commissions to “illustrate Moscow with culture.” There’s no denying Burganov’s flair as a sculptor – he’s a pro. But most of his work looks to me like it’s come off a conveyer belt. Do I, for example, see anything of Burganov in this Gogol bust? I do not. Although I see the work of every other sculptor who has ever sculpted Gogol’s face.
By this time the astute among you may have asked themselves the question – so what’s this author’s bone to pick with Burganov? Well, as long as you ask, let me tell you.
Back in the deep past a good friend named Mikhail Pushkin was looking for an unusual place to stage Jean Anouilh’s Antigone. He found Burganov’s studio in the Arbat district and had a talk with the sculptor. Burganov probably thought nothing would come of this proposal and, even if something did, it wouldn’t last long. So he gave his okay. Pushkin staged a brilliant indoor-outdoor Antigone that made use of an underground bunker whose glass windows up top looked out on trees and old brick walls. It was a spectacular production and Burganov was clearly caught off-guard. Somebody had actually done something truly creative in his midst and it irked the conveyer-belt sculptor. When Pushkin’s company came in to play the next block of shows, he found that Burganov had placed two of his sculptures in the middle of the bunker – the main performance space, and he demanded that they remain there from now on. The director was furious, refused to agree, and that was the end of that show. Short-lived but genuinely brilliant. Ever since then I have been unable to think of Burganov as anything but a jealous, ignorant individual who couldn’t care less about art and is only interested in his place in art – preferably front-stage-center, as he wanted to be in Misha Pushkin’s Antigone, and more or less as he put himself in that banner towering over Gogol at School No. 59.

 

 

Ivan Leonidov mural, Moscow

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Moscow was graced a few years ago by the appearance of numerous wonderful street murals in a very short time. They all came about thanks to the Heritage project within the Moscow – Best City on Earth campaign. I’ve written about quite a few and there are still many I have not gotten around to photographing or highlighting here. I have yet to see one of these murals that I don’t like. They fit the Moscow style well. There are lots of “canvases” out there in Moscow, as you can see in this portrait of innovative architect Ivan Leonidov (1902-1959) – flat, open building sidings that are just waiting for someone to come along and spiff them up. In fact, look at the last shot in the block of photos below – there behind the mural of our choice today you see yet another mural, this one a comics-like urban scene. My former neighborhood of Zamoskvorech’e was the site of one of my favorite street murals in all of Moscow, an extremely delicate rendering of a perfectly symmetrical flowering tree. It is not humorous, makes no declarations, has no references (to my knowledge), but is just downright beautiful. On the rare occasion that I think about Zamoskvorech’e these days, I often recall that tree.
But back to the topic at hand.
Leonidov is not a household name although his contribution to Russian culture is deep. It would have been deeper yet had he come of age in a different era. Few of his major designs were actually built. There were really only a few years (1927 to 1930) when he worked at more or less full capacity. One of his most important designs was for the Lenin Institute in 1927. The TotalArch website describes it and Leonidov’s contribution to Soviet architecture of the time:
This project revealed Leonidov’s innovative understanding of the principles of building a modern city, and the spatial organization of its elements. For him a modern urban architectural ensemble was not a piece of organized space carved out of a tightly built city, but formed an ensemble in clusters of buildings that compositionally ‘dominate’ a certain area of space which plays a  unifying, rather than subordinate, role. Leonidov recognized the connection between architecture and nature, not only by taking into account the landscape and surrounding vegetation, but primarily in the interaction of the building with space.”
He was a frequent contributor to, and a member of, the editorial board of Contemporary Architecture magazine. When his work, much of it designed in the Constructivist style, came under attack from Party hacks beginning in 1929 (“Leonidovitis and its Harm” in Art for the Masses magazine), he used the pages of CA to answer his critics. The result was that the magazine was shut down and Leonidov was fired from his teaching job at the architecture institute.

Leonidov is one of the Russian architects associated with the “genre,” if you will, of “paper architecture” or “visionary architecture.” That is, many of his projects never made it further than the design table and the paper they were drawn on. In part this was because some of his ideas were ahead of their time and could not yet be realized with the tools then available. But it was also because his work was generally ignored or rejected. You can see some of his designs in a Russian Live Journal post (the pictures of actual buildings here belong to other architects). One of Leonidov’s legendary, unrealized designs was called City of the Sun. Its central theme was, no more and no less, the happiness of people.
Leonidov appears not to have known a great deal of happiness in his life, at least, not once the Communists began messing with his work. He was born in a village outside St. Petersburg. His father was a forest ranger. He came to study in Moscow in the mid-1920s and his first successful designs were for improved peasant huts. He also designed living quarters for workers in the city of Ivanovo, a building for Belorussian University in Minsk, and standardized workers clubs  that could be erected most anywhere. Throughout the 1930s – after the attacks on him – he worked at various “odd” jobs in various brigades, often in the provinces. Professionally, however, and for someone who had begun with such promise, his career was virtually on hold. In 1943, during World War II, he received a concussion in battle and was demobilized from the army. Things got so bad that, after the war, he was occasionally relegated to curating museum exhibits. He continued to work on his City of the Sun, but to no avail.
The mural located at 5 Sretenka Street in the northern center of Moscow, was unveiled in December 2014. According to an apparently reliable Russian website, it was created by an artist who goes by the name of Jem and works for a group whose name is sometimes given as kARTina Repina (Repin’s PAINTing) or, as it is given on the mural wall, KARTINAREPINA. The Heritage and Best City on Earth campaigns were curated by Novatek Art.

 

Konstantin Leontyev and Chania, Crete

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Awhile back I wrote about Russian writer, critic and philosopher Konstantin Leontyev in regards to the neighborhood of Chalepa in the city of Chania, where he lived when he was a Russian diplomat on the island of Crete in 1864 (maybe or maybe not catching a few days or weeks at the tail end of 1863). As I pointed out, Leontyev was quite enamored of Chalepa and of Crete’s villages, to which he apparently traveled with frequency. He was less fond of Chania proper, which, in those days, was still closed entirely behind fortress walls that were locked shut each evening and did not open again until morning. Here is how Leontyev described it in an exotic love story titled “Chryso”: “Our city, you know, is cramped. The streets are narrow. The walls surrounding the city are fat. The gates of the fortress are locked up overnight and there is no way to escape unless you throw yourself into the sea. The city’s Christians were terrified. [Leontyev refers to a time when the Turks went on a rampage against the local Christians who could not escape the city.] As soon as night came not a soul was to be seen. It was as if cruel death were trailing after you! What do you do? Where do you run?
Today I select several photos of Chania (Leontyev, using the name of the time, called it Canea) that represent images which Leontyev probably saw more or less as they still are today. Before I begin I should allow Leontyev to make one of his most categorical statements about Chania (this, too, is drawn from “Chryso”): “I almost never go to Canea.” But the “almost” and the great detail that he provides of why he did not like the city makes it quite clear that he did in fact go there and remembered it well. As such, I feel safe suggesting that he would have seen much that I show here today.
I start above with four shots of what was, and still is, one of the main entrances and exits from the city in the far east of the Splantzia neighborhood nearby the Sabbionara Bastion, or Rampart (the rounded structure that juts out into the Cretan Sea). The gate located here, the only one that still exists in the city, was called Sabbionara Gate (the Italian meaning of which is the Gate of the Sand) or Koum-Kapi (the Turkish name meaning the same thing). Of course, there is no actual “gate” today, just a gaping hole that vehicles and pedestrians walk through. However, the post for the guards at the gate is preserved, as you see in the arched section of the wall in the topmost photo. That interior there is now used for art exhibits. If you look closely at the upper part of the wall of the bastion, you will see the Venetian emblem of the lion of St. Mark with wreath and insignia. It dates to 1591, when the structure of the bastion was built on an artificial peninsula jutting out into the sea. The “gate” and fortress walls that we see today were changed forever in 1645 when the Turks attacked the wall and destroyed much of it. Leontyev, when walking into Chania from his home in Chalepa, would have passed through this area many times and would have seen it very much as it looks here. Since the Turks still ruled Crete for most of the 19th century (they slowly wrested it from the Venetians between 1645 and 1669), Leontyev probably would have called this gate and area Koum-Kapi. (He probably didn’t see the gate in snow as the second photo depicts, as snow is quite rare in Chania. But since he arrived in December or January, he would have experienced the local winter, which is spectacular in its skies, winds, rain and rapidly changing weather.) If you wish to see an old photo of the gate and bastion as Leontyev presumably would have seen them, here is a good one.
Five of the six photos below show aspects of Chania (Canea) that Leontyev would readily recognize today. The first looks back at the central part of the city over the famed Venetian Port. It would have looked very similar to this, though perhaps less colorful. The Muslim mosque that you see at left center, and which is an exhibition hall these days, would have been a functioning place of worship in Leontyev’s time here.
The famed lighthouse which is arguably Chania’s central focus nowadays, began to appear in the last five years of the 16th century, constructed by the Venetians (who ruled Crete from 1206 to the middle of the 17th century). It was rebuilt by the Turks who completed renovations in 1839, making the tower resemble a minaret. It was reconstructed again in 2006, softening, but not removing entirely, the Turkish influence, and returning, to some degree, the original Venetian design.
Right across the port entrance from the lighthouse is the famed Firka fortress. It was built in 1629 and has virtually not changed since then. Aside from the slightly modernized lighthouse on the right, the only real anachronism in the photo of the fortress below is the Greek flag flying high above it. That first appeared here in 1913 when the Turkish flag was lowered for the last time.
Next in line is a photo of the church of St. Nicholas (Agios Nikolaos), located in the heart of the Splantzia district. Construction on it was begun in 1205 and completed in 1320. After the Turkish conquest began in 1645, the church was converted to a mosque, and we still see the minaret which was erected by the Turks to tower over the Orthodox Christian bell tower. I find it fascinating, and telling of the local world attitude, that the Greek Orthodox Church has never attempted to remove the minaret. It remains as a monument to history, as do many other minarets around the city. (See one of the photos in the last block below.) Leontyev could very easily have seen an image like my photo of the church against a full moon and winter sky.
The last two photos in the block below show two aspects of the wall that reaches from the far east of the old city out to the lighthouse. It serves as a breakwater that is especially important in stormy weather. The penultimate photo in the section below shows what was once the Bastion of St. Nicholas of Molos. As part of the active defenses of the city where soldiers could take cover and fire on the enemy, this was also a small chapel. I do not know if this would have been functioning during Leontyev’s tenure in the region, but he would have seen the structure itself more or less as we do now.

In his story “Sfakiot” (1877), Leontyev wrote, “You know, the walls of the Canea fortress are enormous, high, ancient, right by the sea. And the whole city (it’s not big, only 14,000 residents) lives inside the walls. And the sea is right there. Right beneath the walls at the sea there is a smooth place, sand.
The first photo below, of the north wall of the Sabbionara Bastion, could be one of the places that Leontyev had in mind when writing those phrases. For the record, in this same photo  one sees Leontyev’s neighborhood of Chalepa in the distance across the bay. With one exception, the other photos below are simply images that I feel quite certain Leontyev would have seen in Chania to one extent or another – the narrow streets, birds and bougainvillea, and the spectacle of nature showing off audaciously over the Cretan Sea.
The fourth photo below shows the Venetian dockyards, which, since the 16th century, have been among Chania’s most prominent structures. At their peak, in 1599, there were 17 dockyards where you now see seven. In all, there were 23 dockyards spread around the port of Chania. Leontyev, a lover of taking walks, despite his distaste for Canea, would surely have walked out on the spectacular breakwater and would have looked back, like I, to see the remaining docks, numerous sailboats, as well as one of the city’s minarets rising up over the rooftops.
Leontyev’s dislike for the cramped, dark quality of 19th-century Chania was preponderant, even if, on occasion, he allowed a grudging admiration to slip into his comments, as he does here in a general takedown of the city in his tale “Chryso”:
But Canea is Europe. The powers that be here are worldly – a Pasha who speaks French; here hang the consular flags of every nation, there is ‘la colonie européenne’ here; a handful of merchants of moderate wealth, doctors, European skippers, bureaucrats. Canea is our St. Petersburg, the ‘crayfish of Crete,’ as Rosenzweig [a character in the tale] put it.*
True, I don’ t know if it’s a crayfish or not and whether it will devour our national physiognomy, but I do at least know that the city is dirty and stuffy and locked up in a fortress, cramped and boring. But there is in it, if you like, a certain poetry. It reminds one of descriptions and pictures of the Middle Ages: narrow streets that until recently (under Veli-Pasha) fairly flowed red with blood… There are no carriages. Hordes of pedestrians and horse riders. All heavy objects are transported on mules and asses. Clothes are motley, conversations are loud, the shops are bad. As soon as the sun goes down the fortress gates are locked and they won’t let anyone in or out of the city except, of course, for consuls and consulate clerks, but even for them they open up the tiniest little wicket gate, through which even a man of modest size passes with the greatest of difficulty.”
* [Crete on a map looks something like a crayfish or lobster.]
Leontyev was a virtual unknown when he lived briefly on Crete. He had published only one novel, in 1861. A second was published in 1864, apparently when he lived in Chalepa/Chania. His writing took off and gained a readership in the 1870s and 1880s. Leontyev wrote in many genres on many different topics. He wrote journalism, essays, short stories, novels, philosophical treatises and literary criticism. I personally first discovered him as an astute critic of Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky when I was inhaling Russian literature at Widener Library at Harvard in the 1980s. A meeting with famed Russian religious figure Amvrosy at Otyma Pustyn in the mid-1870s had a major impact on Leontyev’s world outlook. Throughout his adult years he grew increasingly conservative, coming to believe that “liberalism” was the greatest danger that the Russian empire had to face. He moved to Optyma Pustyn in 1887 and took monastic vows in August 1891, assuming the name Kliment. He died three months later.