Yevgeny Shvarts Plaque, St. Petersburg

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Yevgeny Schwartz (1896-1958) is famed for his “fairy-tale” plays. They often run in children’s theaters, although I suspect it is the parents who get the most out of them. Not to say they don’t work on the pure level of fairy-tale entertainment – they do. But there is a lot more to them than that. This explains why, in the Soviet period, Schwartz ran into trouble with the censor from time to time, and why directors who produced even the “safe” plays had their share of problems on occasion. Schwartz loved the tale of the “stupid” and the “evil king.” On that note Wikipedia offers an excellent quote from the play An Ordinary Miracle: “Why? Why? Because I’m a foolish despot, that’s why!”
Schwartz was born in the Russian city of Kazan, 800 kilometers, or 500 miles, east of Moscow. Kazan has always been marked by a mix of cultural influences. It was founded by the Golden Horde at the end of the 13th century, was seized by Ivan the Terrible in 1552, destroyed during the Pugachyov Rebellion in the mid-1770s, later to be rebuilt by Catherine the Great. The rich mix of Orthodox believers, Muslims and Jews gave the city a flavor and color that not every Russian city could boast. Schwartz’s father was a christened Jew, his mother was a Russian, and when the boy was seven, his father had him christened to protect him from the frequent pogroms that plagued Russia especially in the early years of the 20th century. The young man grew up with a heightened sense of right and wrong, in large part, probably, because his father was active in revolutionary activities, which forced the family to move often from town to town, staying one step ahead of the police. Under the influence of his father, Schwartz’s first choice for a profession was the law. He studied in the law department of Moscow University from 1914 to 1916, but, having lost interest in that, went back to his family. He joined the so-called Volunteer, or White, Army and was seriously injured with a contusion in 1918. Upon leaving the army in 1919, Schwartz moved to Rostov-on-Don, where an interest he had acquired in Moscow – theater – became a way of life. He began working for a company called the Theater Workshop, and found a wife in the actress Gayane Khalaidzhieva (stage name Kholodova). Both travelled with the theater to Petrograd in January 1922, but when the tour and theater broke up, the young couple remained in the city on the Neva River.

Ultimately, Schwartz’s keen eye and sharp tongue made a writer of him. He began as a journalist in 1923, writing and editing for several newspapers and journals, and meeting several key figures of Petrograd culture, including Samuil Marshak, Damiil Kharms, Nikolai Oleinikov and others. His first play, Underwood, was completed and staged in 1929. Throughout his life he wrote in many genres, including drama (over two dozen plays), screenplays (over a dozen), poetry, prose, memoirs and journalism. But it was the genre of the fairy-tale that attracted him most. “The principle of the folk tale which employs the same motifs, situations, and heroes without end, corresponded ‘organically’ to the nature of Schwarz’s creative talent,” writes Valentina Golovchiner, Russia’s leading Schwarz scholar, in her book, Epic Drama in Russian Literature of the 20th Century (p. 195). The first of his major plays, The Emperor with No Clothes, aka, The Naked King, was written in 1934 and pointed to a theme, or even topic, that he would return to repeatedly throughout his life. Other major plays to follow were The Snow Queen (1938), The Shadow (1940), The Dragon (1944), and An Ordinary Miracle (1956).
Schwartz’s work enjoyed peaks of success during The Thaw and Perestroika eras. That is not to say he was ignored entirely in the eras preceding and following those two monumental times of relative freedom in Russian history, but the production history of his works outside those periods is definitely thin. In present-day Russia, which increasingly embraces Stalinism and Stalinist tactics, one does not see a rush to stage Schwartz’s plays. During his lifetime, his work generally had an outlet at Nikolai Akimov’s Theater of Comedy in Leningrad regardless of the political color of the day, while, after his death, Moscow director Mark Zakharov made memorable films of An Ordinary Miracle in 1978, and of The Dragon (as To Kill the Dragon) in 1989.
The building that we see here at 8 Malaya Posadskaya Street on the “Petrograd Side” of St. Petersburg is where Schwartz lived out the final years of his life. It was built especially for writers by the Leningrad Litfond in 1953, and Schwartz, along with many other well-known writers moved in around 1955. The building, hugging to the street on which it is located, curves gently from the northeast to the northwest. Built in the style of Stalinist neo-classicism, it is an imposing structure with two thick columns setting off the main entry, and eight faux, decorative columns spread across the rest of the first floor, four on either side of the door. Schwartz, who had parted with his first wife in 1930 and was remarried to Yekaterina Zilber the same year, occupied an apartment on the second floor with his second wife.
The plaque commemorating Schwarz was unveiled to the public on December 1, 1996. It is the work of two sculptors – Pavel Ignatyev and Sergei Shevchenko – and the architect Gennady Bekarevich. The materials, we are told by, are bronze and gabbro. The text on the upper part of the marble slab reads: “To the kind storyteller Yevgeny Schwartz, who lived in this house.” The text on the lower half, a quote of Schwartz, reads: “‘The secrets we have will make you howl with laughter.”


2 thoughts on “Yevgeny Shvarts Plaque, St. Petersburg”

  1. A wonderful account of a wonderful writer — I should really reread my battered collection of his plays. But you should change the opaque, and indeed self-contradictory, phrase “the revolutionary volunteer army,” which will mislead those who don’t know anything about the Civil War and baffle those who do. The Volunteer Army was anti-revolutionary; writing for specialists you could simply say he joined the Volunteer Army, but for a general audience “the White army” would be better, or simply “he fought against the Bolsheviks.” Which means he was a lucky man, as was Shklovsky (who also fought the Reds, though not with the Volunteer Army) — it wasn’t easy to survive into the post-Stalin period with those credentials…

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