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What do you think when you think of Moscow? Cold. Bitter cold. Lots of snow. So much of it that you can barely trudge through it. That can be taken as a direct description, or as a metaphorical image. Frankly, they both work. Moscow can be, and often is, a cold, nasty, unforgiving place. Fall down in the stuff pictured here in these photos, and unless a good person comes along – see you on the other side. Believe it or not, I know people who would push you into one of these snow drifts. Moscow, especially under current Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, but also with the help of a lot of people who should know better, has become damn near uninhabitable in recent times.
Of course, there is another side to this, and that concerns the person who comes along and finds you face down in the snow. And takes you home to warm you up and bring you back to life. Those people are there too.
One person who fits that description to a “T” lives in the house that is, sort of, depicted in these photos. Her name is Anna Mass, she is the author of I-don’t-know-how-many books, I’m guessing two dozen at least. She lived here for decades with her husband, Viktor Gorshkov, a geologist and poet. He died minutes after voting for Alexei Navalny for Mayor of Moscow in 2013. He walked out of the polling place and fell dead on the sidewalk with Anna at his side.
Anna and Viktor, however, were the second generation of writers to occupy this house. It was built originally in the early 1950s by her father Vladimir Mass (1896-1979), the playwright, screenwriter, poet and painter. I did not have the honor of knowing Vladimir, he passed on, as fate would have it, when I was on my first sojourn to Russia, weathering the brutal cold of St. Petersburg in the fall/winter of 1979. I knew nothing about Mass at that time, and I didn’t come into the circle of the amazing Mass family until 1988, when I first met Anna.
I’ve written about my first meeting with Anna elsewhere, but it’s worth repeating. I called her from a phone booth on Pushkin Square in September 1988. I said I was in Moscow to research the playwright Nikolai Erdman and that I was told she might be able to help me. She immediately said, “Now? Can you come over now?” I stuttered and said yes. I found my way to her Moscow apartment in the Arbat region and knocked on the door. She opened it with a big smile and an easy way about her and said, “Come in!” The deeply reassuring sound of something similar to childlike laughter seemed to hide somewhere in the back of her voice. She already had her father’s substantial Erdman archive laid out on the desk waiting for me, but first she took me in the kitchen to feed me some tea and fresh-baked pirozhki, something she did every time I would return over the next 8 to 10 months. When we finished tea, she sat me at her desk (Vladimir Mass’s desk) and declared, “I have some errands to run. You’ll be fine here. Work at your own speed,” and she left me alone in her apartment. It was during this period that Anna began spending more and more time outside the city in the family dacha. I visited her there, several times, too.
Of all the different ways that a lifelong friendship can begin, that is one.
Before I left Russia for good in 2018, my wife Oksana and I stopped by to spend two days with Anna. By this time Anna had been living exclusively at the dacha for at least two decades. We hadn’t seen each other for some time, but, as always – as it was that first time – it seemed as though we had never parted. I reveled in walking through and around the gorgeous home that Vladimir Mass built almost 70 years ago, and that Viktor Gorshkov expanded every bit as beautifully during the time he lived there. The house stands on a large plot of land just outside the Moscow city limits in what was once called the Writers Colony at Krasnaya Pakhra (the name of the river that runs nearby). Mass’s two closest neighbors were the poet Pavel Antokolsky and Nikolai Erdman. Over the years, other greats of Russian culture – including playwright Viktor Rozov and film director Eldar Ryazanov – moved in to make the area one of the most exclusive in all of suburban Moscow.
Mass and Erdman became famous in the 1920s and ’30s, co-writing sketches, satirical poems, revues (rather like satirical operettas), and screenplays. It was probably Mass who introduced Erdman to Vsevolod Meyerhold in the early 1920s when both were writing reviews and little essays for Novy Zritel (New Spectator), a popular theater magazine. Together they wrote the screenplay for the “first Soviet musical comedy,” Jolly Fellows (1933/34), and, in fact, both were arrested while on location at the film shoot and both were summarily sent into exile, to different Siberian cities, for three years. They never wrote together again, although they remained good friends and neighbors. They visited each other here at their dachas, as well as at their Moscow apartments. On occasion in the later years Mass would pull out some dialogue from his “Erdman archive,” rework it a little and sell it (or gift it, I don’t know the details) to an emcee or variety theater in need of a humorous text.
My approach in these blogs is that I take photos of exteriors – I use images of outsides to look for stories that lead to the inside. But I violate that little rule here today for two reasons. First, the picture of the fire in the fireplace in the top block illustrates the warmth, the coziness, the comfort and the security that one feels in the Mass home. I have rarely been in any place more welcoming than a residence that belongs to Anna Mass. I had to show that, just as I had to include another such image. The second interior shot is below, and it bears especial value for me: It is Nikolai Erdman’s bed. This marvelous object found its way to the Mass home after Erdman’s death in 1970. It now is the bed in a guest room at the Mass dacha/home. Imagine that.