Nikolai Zadonsky plaque, Voronezh

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Until today I knew zilch about Nikolai Zadonsky (1900-1974). But, again, I am fascinated by the way a long, wandering walk around a city of culture can bring you bits and pieces of an education that you lack. Had it not been for this plaque hanging on the flaking walls of building 6A on Kommissarzhevskaya Street in Voronezh, the chances are I would never have found my way to this writer.
The first thing that struck me when I began digging into the facts is that Zadonsky has a weak, though glancing, connection to Nikolai Erdman, about whom I like to think I know quite a bit. The connection – and I said it was weak – is that Zadonsky, from his home in Voronezh, chose to align himself with Sergei Yesenin’s Imagist group of poets. Here’s how Zadonsky put it remembering those days in the early 1920s:
In those days there was a fashion of sorts – you joined up with some sort of literary school. We had Futurists and Acmeists and even some ‘nobodyists’ in Voronezh. Well, Boris Derptsky and I declared we were Imagists.”
The point here, of course, is that Zadonsky would not have crossed Erdman’s path and so there is no reason I would have run across his name. And yet, knowing this little fact about Zadonsky widens the picture for me. The Imagists are generally considered the runts of the poetic movements of the ‘teens and ‘twenties in Russia in the 20th century. The Futurists and Acmeists, especially, were high-octane. They had followings all over the country and the high quality of the poets that attached themselves to one or the other group, ensured that there was good reason to keep them in mind. The Imagists, grouped around Yesenin as the only well-known member, were often disparaged as a not-very-serious group who were more into playing pranks than anything else. Group members Anatoly Mariengof, Vadim Shershenevich, Erdman, and a few others have grown in stature over the decades, but only Erdman has achieved a fame that can stand, to one degree or another, in the vicinity of Yesenin, Vladimir Mayakovsky (Futurist), Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam (Acmeists at one time or another). All of these poets and their groups would have had strong support and popularity outside of Moscow. I’ve never thought of the Imagists in that way – but here we have Zadonsky and his friend Derptsky (born? – 1923, a little-known Voronezh poet and journalist who committed suicide when still quite young) choosing to attach themselves to Yesenin’s group. That, for me, is a small, but interesting discovery.
Zadonsky’s connection to the Imagists did not last for long, however, He traveled to Moscow in 1923 (just as the Imagists were falling apart as a group) and, with the help of Shershenvich, was introduced to Yesenin. The young poet from the provinces handed over some of his poetry to his famed hero and asked what he thought. Yesenin put an end to the young man’s illusions of grandeur. Again, let’s let Zadonsky himself tell it (as reported, like the previous quote, in a bibliographical work about Yesenin and his circle):
Yesenin reportedly told Zadonsky, “There are some good lines in your poetry. But you are a long way from genuine mastery. You’ve got to work hard. You must write poems in such a way that they set the human soul on fire, turn it inside out, and leave no one impassive. If you can’t write like that, you’re better off not writing at all!”
Zadonsky sums up the little story by adding, “After that I quit writing poetry.”

Zadonsky did not, however, quit writing. Throughout the 1920s and ’30s he wrote plays and worked as a journalist. A well-researched online biography published on the excellent Literary Map of Voronezh Oblast states he wrote over 2,000 newspaper items between 1918 and 1924. His first play, “Money,” was published in Voronezh in 1920 and he wrote a large number of plays after that. Again, I must say that, although I have studied Soviet-era theater and drama in relative detail over the last few decades, I had never come across any plays by Zadonsky. Leaning on information in various places I can verify that he wrote a minimum of 15 plays, but since sources often add the words “and others” to their lists, I suspect the real number was higher yet. In 1934 Maxim Gorky signed the paper declaring that Zadonsky was admitted as a “candidate” to the Writers Union – and throughout his life he preserved this document as a keepsake. He received full membership in the Writers Union in 1939.
The most successful and fruitful years of Zadonsky’s life as a writer began in 1942, prompted by one of those wonderful haphazard things that life tends to throw our way, and continued even after he suffered a stroke in 1965. That great Voronezh Literary Map website tells the story as follows: “The soldiers of the Workers-Peasant Red Army and the partisans of the Denis Davydov squadron sent the writer a letter in 1942 in connection with their reading of Zadonsky’s essay, ‘Partisans.’ In their letter the soldiers gave the writer the idea of researching and telling the story of the life of D.V. Davydov in more detail.
And, indeed, Zadonsky began traveling around the country, visiting places connected to life of Davydov, a famed poet and hussar from Alexander Pushkin’s group of friends, and he ended up producing a work of such depth, detail and veracity, that he almost had no choice but to accept historical prose as his new calling. Zadonsky’s first so-called “historical chronicle,” Denis Davydov, was published (to the best I can determine) in 1952 in Kuibyshev. It has been reprinted countless times since then. He followed this study with other, equally popular “historical chronicles,” such as,  A Troubled Time (1954), Kondraty Bulavin (1959), Liberia on Don (1960), The Decembrist’s Grandson (1963), Secrets of Bygone Days (1964), and Mountains and Stars (1965, about Nikolai Muravyov, a Russian statesman whose life was devoted to developing Siberia). Again, there appear to have been even more of these historical studies/novels, but the online sources are incomplete and sometimes contradictory.
Zadonsky apparently carried on a long friendship with fellow Voronezh son Andrei Platonov, about whom he wrote in his literary memoirs Amid the Stream of Life (1969). Among other books about writers was his There, Where a Great Writer Lived, about Lev Tolstoy and Yasnaya Polyana.
Zadonsky (whose real last name was Koptev) was born in the city of Zadonsk in the Voronezh gubernia (similar to a county). He  struck out on his own by finding work as a typographer in Yelets at the age of 16 then moved to the big city of Voronezh in 1918. He later moved back to Yelets for awhile, but lived the majority of his adult life in Voronezh. He occupied an apartment in the building pictured here from 1953 until his death in 1974.

 

 

Alexander Herzen house and plaque, London

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Of all the places I could be today (save Chania, Crete), I think I would choose London. Maybe it’s the old blood burbling up in whatever is in me of my mother’s line. Maybe it’s because I seem to have the extraordinarily good luck of invariably hitting London when spectacular weather reigns supreme. Maybe it’s because the city is just so damn beautiful, I can never devour it enough with my eyes. So, it’s to London we go today.
London has been the choice of many a good (and shady) Russian over the centuries. I don’t give a hoot about the sold souls who own football teams and sell colleagues into prison or worse. My gaze is a bit more fastidious. Surely one of the most famous Russian residents of London was Alexander Herzen (1812-1870), who lived in the British capital from 1852 until 1864. I have written several times already about him and specific places connected with his name and work in both Moscow and London. He is a man who left his mark, and left it in a way that has made people want to remember him. One of the great liberal or even radical Russian thinkers, Herzen’s name stands for revolution, for freedom and for equality. Most of all, perhaps, it stands for bucking the status quo. He had a quick, insightful mind and a talent for words that made him a focal point of most any society he found himself in. That is certainly true of his time in London, where he produced important revolutionary writings of his own, published an important newspaper (Kolokol, or, The Bell) and ran an important publisher (the Russian Free Press, which I will get to someday in this space). He spent some of his time in London in close contact with his great friend and romantic rival, the poet Nikolai Ogaryov (see elsewhere on this blog site), the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, and many others. In her wonderful, all-too-brief series of blogs about Russians in London, Sarah J. Young provides this list of Herzen’s visitors: Ivan Turgenev, Nikolai Chernyshevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Nikolai Nekrasov, Pavel Annenkov, the critic and translator Vasily Botkin and the leftist writer Vasily Sleptsov. She adds: “It’s certainly true to say that neither his closest friend Nikolai Ogarev nor Bakunin would have ended up in London if Herzen hadn’t been here.”
The building we peruse today is a lovely piece of architecture, still in excellent condition. You walk up to the door of One Orsett Terrace in Westminster and you can fully imagine what that very experience would have been like for Turgenev, for Dostoevsky, for Tolstoy as they came by for an evening’s visit. It really makes you want to lift that heavy brass, lion-headed knocker and let it whack a couple of times. I actually fought back my desires to do that because – well, do you know how easy it is to become the stupid American tourist? Imagine someone answering my knock and I, covering my disappointment, saying, “I was hoping Herzen might open up. Who are you?” Or something like that. So I left that experience to my imagination – which could well be why it still affects me so viscerally when I see that brass lion’s head in my photos. Anyway, Tolstoy would have come by here in March of 1861. The indispensable Sarah J. Young writes: “Tolstoy arrived in London on 2nd March 1861, and left on 17th. He had not met Herzen before, but it is known that they saw each other regularly during the sixteen days of Tolstoy’s stay.  Lucas (p. 33) describes Herzen’s daughter Natalya’s recollections of seeing Tolstoy, whom she knew as the author of Childhood, at Orsett House, Westbourne Terrace. He states that Natalya was disappointed that Tolstoy wasn’t the heroic figure she was expecting, but he doesn’t give a source for the scene. Lucas also quotes Herzen as saying ‘I am seeing a great deal of Tolstoy. We have quarrelled. He is stubborn and talks nonsense, but is naive and a good man’, from Aylmer Maude, Family Views of Tolstoy (p. 71).”
(It is thanks to this specific post of Young’s that I hunted down and found this place to photograph.)

Dostoevsky would have been here a little over a year later. Again, I turn things over to Young, for there is no point in pretending I know more than she does: Dostoevsky “visited London for 8 days – his only trip to Britain – arriving on 9th July [1862]  (Dryzhakov, p. 328). Like many other writers, one of his chief aims was to see Herzen, and he certainly did so on 16th July, as well as probably also on Sunday 11th. According to [Joseph] Frank, the two men, who found they had a great deal more in common than they had on their previous meeting, in 1846, discussed recent events: Chernyshevsky’s arrest, the spate of fires that had engulfed Petersburg that spring, and the revolutionary Young Russia proclamation that had been published to much furore in May (Frank, pp. 145-59, 188-92). Given the closeness of Herzen’s circle, and his habit of entertaining on Sundays at Orsett House, it seems likely that on 11th July, Dostoevsky also met Bakunin and Ogarev.”
Turgenev, who was a frequent traveler to London and the U.K. in general, met often with Herzen. How frequently he came to this specific house, however, is less certain. Young, God bless her, tells us this (she begins with a reference to a passage in Patrick Waddington’s Turgenev and England and then clarifies): “…in May 1862, when Turgenev finally arrived with the writer Vasily Botkin after many delays, there was no room for him at the Herzen residence on Westbourne Terrace and ‘he had to stay with neighbours, possibly in the very house where Michael Bakunin was now living’. But we know that Bakunin was by this time living at 10 Paddington Green, which by no stretch of the imagination could be described as neighbouring Orsett House. A rift with Bakunin marked the end of Turgenev’s visits to this most famous group of Russian exiles….”
It is also worth quoting a section from Leonard Schapiro’s book Turgenev: His Life and Times (pp. 195-196): “On his short visit to London, Turgenev had engaged in lengthy argument with Herzen on the nature and future of Russian society. The result of this debate was a series of eight articles by Herzen, entitled ‘Ends and Beginnings,’ cast in the form of open letters to a friend, published in the Bell in the second half of 1862. Turgenev originally intended to print his reply in the same journal, but in consequence of a general warning from the Russian authorities not to write for that paper, thought better of it. Turgenev’s views in the debate therefore appear in his private letters to Herzen of the period, and in summaries of his arguments incorporated in Herzen’s articles. Herzen’s open letters, written with the brilliance and exuberance which characterized his style at its best, expound a theme which is familiar enough in his writings – that Western civilization has reached the end of its creative potential, and is destined to sink into the slough of vulgar, bourgeois self-satisfaction.
Well, I guess it’s good to see that Western civilization is still dying – for, surely, it is doing that these days. I am less happy to see that Turgenev did what so many of my contemporaries now do – agree to self-censorship when confronted by the authorities. But what is eternal is eternal, I guess.
Finally, Schapiro’s comments allow us to say that Herzen’s “Ends and Beginnings” were surely written right here in the home you see pictured today.

 

 

LA school hosts Russian artists

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I would never have known about this place were it not for my friend Volodya Ferkelman who drove my wife Oksana and me around LA in 2015 looking for places connected to Russian culture. I had a big list I had put together from my research, but the Michael Jackson Auditorium of the Gardner Street School was not on it. If I remember correctly we were on our way from shooting an old home where Vladimir Nabokov had lived out west of the 405 Freeway and were on our way to shoot a home in Hollywood where the emigre actor Akim Tamiroff had lived just north of Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards. Volodya didn’t even slow down as he said, “You could photograph this place, too, I guess.” “Why’s that?” I asked. “Lots of Russians come here to perform,” he said as he pulled up even with the school. “Like who?” I asked as he drove on by. “Shenderovich. Voinovich. Yelena Kamburova,” he said, continuing on down Hawthorne Avenue. “Whoa!” I said. “Back it up, please!”
And that’s how these photos came about.
Gardner Street School, located at 7450 Hawthorne Avenue (don’t ask me!) at the juncture with Vista Street, is a pretty cool place actually. It has more than the usual share of fame and notoriety for an elementary school (K through 6). You see, this is the last public school that Michael Jackson attended (apparently for a few months) before stardom subsumed his life. There was a big to-do when the school named the auditorium after its illustrious alum – Jackson actually attended the opening in Oct. 1989. There was then a big kerfuffle when Jackson was accused of improper behavior with a minor in 2003 and concerned parents and other folk had the name covered over with plyboard. That changed again after his death in 2009 – a year later it was decided to rededicate the auditorium to the singer in his memory.
As such, I realize that in the grand, popular scheme of popular things, nothing more I can say will interest 99.9% of my potential readership. After Michael Jackson, who cares about anybody else, right? But I’m going to plow on ahead anyway.
I’m guessing that Shenderovich, Voinovich and Kamburova are not the only Russian artists who have visited Gardner, because, after all this is one of the few schools in LA with a large Russian-speaking student body. It is located more or less in the heart of the Russian district in LA. It all makes perfect sense. And yet I still find it noteworthy that this place, christened by Michael Jackson, if you will, has also hosted Russian celebrities.
The first of the trio I mentioned performing here was Viktor Shenderovich, the satirist, playwright and wicked political commentator. Shenderovich (born 1958) is one of our great contemporaries. He was the chief writer for the famed Puppets political satire series that kept Russians glued to their television sets until the then-new Russian president Vladimir Putin took offense and had the program shut down in 2002. In fact, Shenderovich left the program in 2001, after which the bite of the satire was not nearly the same. The closing down of Puppets was closely intertwined with one of Putin’s first big attacks on free speech when he crushed the NTV channel, the freest, leading source for independent information at that time. Shenderovich studied directing and taught at a handful of theatre institutes in his early years. He published his first book of satirical stories in 1991. Since then he has published over two dozen more books. His plays have been performed at several Moscow theaters, including the Tabakov Theater and the Satire Theater. Even now, over 15 years after the Puppets and NTV incidents, he is still under an unwritten – as far as I know – ban from appearing on major Russian TV channels. He is a popular political commentator on such outlets as Echo Moskvy radio and Dozhd (Rain) TV.
Shenderovich appeared at the Gardner St. School on November 1, 2003, when the hoopla around Puppets and NTV was still quite fresh. The Los Angeles Times ran a large piece about him, quoting his thoughts of the time and putting them in perspective:
“‘If things in Russia keep going at this rate, we’ll be eased out, forced to become dissidents in the Soviet sense of the word,’ he said, referring to the intellectuals and writers sent to the gulag as opponents of the Communist regime.
“‘My friends and I are not kamikazes. We try to find compromises. We are trying to stay in the media. But you have to know where compromise ends and defeat begins and to know the point where you have given everything away. If I began to praise the war in Chechnya, they would find me a job at any national television station tomorrow, but I wouldn’t be able to practice my journalism anymore.‘”
A Russian site advertised the evening (titled “Raisins from the Bun”) as such: “In Russia [Shenderovich] is sometimes compared to Saltykov-Shchedrin. The English language equivalent to that could only be Swift. Viktor Shenderovich’s political  acuity and acerbity and his metaphorical style give every reason for such a comparison.”
Ticket prices for the Shenderovich recital ran from $20 to $30 and the evening began at 7 p.m.

Next up was the singer Yelena Kamburova. A listing on Baraban.com, a site devoted to Russian cultural events in the U.S., announces that she was to perform at the school on April 2, 2006, from 7 to 9 p.m. Tickets that night ran from $30 to $35 and the listing was accompanied by the following blurb: “You can not forget her voice. Her every new performance is a discovery. The best poets and composers dream of her performing their works. She is the only one of all the Russian performers who received standing ovations from audiences at the most prestigious venues in the world: “Olimpia” in Paris, “Queen Victoria” in London. Elena Kamburova comes to Los Angeles with a new program, “In the evening vanity” – one concert only. Sellout crowds are expected!
Kamburova (born 1940) has been a popular singer since the 1960s. She put out her first record in 1964 and has either released or been represented on over 70 albums or CDs since then. She opened her own theater, the Yelena Kamburova Theater of Music and Poetry in 1992. Her enormous repertoire of songs ranges from folk and contemporary songs to songs in the classical tradition and contemporary tunes written to classical poetry.
As fate would have it, novelist, playwright and poet Vladimir Voinovich (born 1932) spoke and read from his work on June 5, 2015, just a month before the photos here were taken. As reported in a short piece on TheHollywoodTimes.net, “Renowned Russian writer and dissident Vladimir Voinovich held a reading for an audience that numbered in the hundreds at the Gardner School’s Michael Jackson Auditorium located at 7450 Hawthorn Avenue in West Hollywood. Voinovich spoke from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. and a question and answer period followed. Highlights from the reading included stories from both Soviet and émigré life.”
A poster that is reproduced with this article, as well as with an announcement on a Russian-language site, stated that, “Chonkin lived, Chonkin is alive, and Chonkin will live!” This, of course, is a reference to Voinovich’s most popular, one might even say immortal, novel, The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin (1969 – originally published in Germany because the Soviet censor would not pass it.) The ad also declares, “Voinovich’s singular humor makes miracles – you will laugh until you cry!”
Voinovich was stripped of his Soviet citizenship in 1980 and he lived in the US and Germany until 1990 when his legal status was restored by Mikhail Gorbachev. Although he was one of the famous dissidents of the late Soviet period, he has retained his relevance and position as a respected writer and commentator on current events. I saw him speak at Harvard in the 1980s, but that tale will have to wait for another prompt because I’m out of time and space today.

 

Marina Tsvetaeva’s Slavia Cafe, Prague, CZ

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I rarely do this, but I’m fudging again. I did not take these photos. My wife Oksana Mysina did while she was recently in Prague shooting scenes for a documentary film about the great Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva.
Tsvetaeva (1892-1941) spent the better part of the years 1922-1925 in Czechoslovakia. By all accounts she loved the country and its capital Prague and she missed it greatly when she had to leave it. At the same time life here was never easy. Her family life was undergoing enormous stress and she had little, if anything, to live on. She had come to Czechoslovakia to be with her husband Sergei Efron, a former white army soldier, who, at one point she had thought killed in the Civil War, and who would attend Charles University in Prague. But they had virtually no money and lived, at best, from hand to mouth.
Tsvetaeva’s was a seeking heart and while struggling to stay alive with her husband and her daughter Ariadne, she fell into a widely publicized affair with a former military officer Konstantin Rodzevich. After this ended in 1923 she embarked on an epistolary love affair with Boris Pasternak. Although they did not actually meet until 1935 in Paris, the peak of their epistolary relationship made theirs one of the most famous love affairs joining Russian writers. For good measure, the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke also briefly became a part of the relationship as they all exchanged thoughts, poetry and emotional aspirations in a lively correspondence that ended abruptly with Rilke’s death in 1926.
My friend and colleague Alexandra Smith posted what appears to be a text by Anastasia Koprshivova that describes the details of this period so well that I hereby just turn things over to it:
In Prague itself, Tsvetaeva lived less than a year, from autumn 1923 to spring 1924. In the capital Efron settled in an attic room in the Smikhov area on Swedish (Švédská) street in house number 51, on whose wall a memorial plaque dedicated to the poetess was unveiled in 1989. Remembering this apartment, Tsvetaeva wrote: ‘In Prague I have fine, large windows revealing the whole city and the whole sky, the streets with their stairs, distances, trains and fog.’
Marina Tsvetaeva daily visited places teeming with Russian emigres, whose center was the church of St. Nicholas in the Old Town Square and the Hotel Beranek (Bělehradská 110, Tylovo nám.). In the spacious hotel halls, cultural evenings were organized by the Czech-Russian Association headed by Anna Teskova, who later became Tsvetaeva’s closest and most faithful friend. In her letters to Teskova from France to Czechoslovakia, Tsvetaeva wrote in detail about her fascination with Prague. Their correspondence lasted almost ten years, from 1925 to 1939, and was permanently interrupted after the Efron family returned to the USSR.
Marina Tsvetaeva loved long walks, she measured out Prague in her own steps. In letters to Teskova, she often recalls Deer Trench near Prague Castle, calling it Bear Trench in honor of the Siberian bears that lived there. She liked to wander along the paths of Petrzhin hill, which reminded her of ‘the breast of a recruit laid low by a projectile.’ For hours she would admire the city’s patches of parks, the sea from graying, time-worn roofs and observed the bends of the Vltava River with its islands.
She loved the black and white cobbles of sidewalks resembling a chessboard, along which the invisible hand of fate rearranged people like pawns – ‘as someone plays at being us.’ She loved the lights after sunset, which plunged the city into an atmosphere of mysteries and riddles. She loved Charles Bridge. There, on the banks of the Vltava, a monument to Brunzvik, a knight with a golden sword and a hairstyle just like hers, was always waiting for her. In the thirties, in a letter to Anna Teskova, Tsvetaeva asked her to send photos to Paris of ‘my knight,’ the general view of the city, and ‘the sea of ​​roofs with Prague’s bridges.’
The Prague period remains one of the brightest in Tsvetaeva’s work. Throughout all subsequent years the poet carefully preserved in her memory the city she loved.”

Aside from the places mentioned above, another of Tsvetaeva’s favorite haunts in Prague was the Slavia Cafe. She often had reason to be in this neighborhood because the editorial offices of the Russian emigre journal The Will of Russia were located nearby. Tsvetaeva often published her poetry in this publication that was edited by famed emigre literary figure Mark Slonim (often spelled in English as Marc). Tsvetaeva, who had no spare change to spend on the luxuries of a popular cafe, reportedly would often take just a glass of water and sit here for hours writing poetry. The building itself dates back to the 14th century. It has housed the famed Slavia Cafe since 1881. Even today one easily sees the romanticism and old-world charm of the place. One assumes that not much has changed here since Tsvetaeva was a regular. One thing that has changed is the famous painting hanging on the cafe’s back wall. Today we see a copy of Viktor Oliva’s The Absinthe Drinker, while in Tsvetaeva’s day the painting in that space was of Slavia, the mother of the Slavs. (That painting, despite the protests of Prague’s residents, was moved to Prague’s gallery of art in 1997.)
The Slavia has been a hangout for artists and artisans almost from its very beginning. It is located on the Smetana Embankment directly across from the National Theater, and right on the banks of the Vltava. Lore has it that the great Czech composer Bedrich Smetana was a regular here in the cafe’s first years, while in later decades it was also frequented by writer-turned-president Vaclav Havel, poets Jiři Kolář and Jaroslav Seifert, and Symbolist painter Jan Zrzavý. Surely Tsvetaeva was not the only Russian emigre to spend time here in the 1920s, although I have yet to find record of others.