All posts by russianmonuments

I am a writer and translator living in Moscow since 1988.

Daniil Kharms plaque and home, St. Petersburg

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As things get curiouser and curiouser in Russia, one is drawn to such figures as Daniil Kharms, generally considered the founder of the Russian absurd. He is frequently quoted in my home, which for the better part of 30 years has comprised a hydra-headed theater family – the union of an actress and a theater historian / critic / translator / chronicler / props man / stagehand / sounding board / pin cushion, whatever. You get the drift. In our rendition this is how it sounds: “There will be no show today. We’re all sick. B-a-a-a-a-r-r-r-f-f!” It’s what the actress in the house has often said, attempting to conjure a sense of humor as she goes off to perform when a hot toddy and a warm bed would be much more in line. The other guy in the house has used it for the same reasons as he headed out into sub-zero wintry conditions, coughing and choking, half dead from a cold, but headed out for the theatre anyway. Let me offer Kharms’s entire mini-play right here:

The Unsuccessful Performance
Enter Petrakov-Gorbunov who wants to say something, but burps. He starts throwing up. Exit.
Enter Pritykin.
Pritykin: Mr. Petrakov-Gorbunov was to have sa… (He throws up, runs offstage).
Enter Makarov.
Makarov: Yegor… (Makarov throws up. Runs off.)
Enter Serpukhov.
Serpukhov: So as not to… (He throws up, runs off).
Enter Kurova.
Kurova: I would… (She throws up, she runs off).
Enter a little girl.
Little Girl: Daddy said to tell you all that the theater is closed. We’re all sick.
CURTAIN

The show must go on. As it does not happen in Kharms’s wacko little gem.
Everybody has their favorite Kharms poems, plays, anecdotes, sketches, or whatever you call them. But aside from the barfing theater, my favorites are the so-called literary anecdotes, little stories and dramatic sketches that put the all-hallowed Pushkin, Gogol, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky into bizarre narratives that nobody before Kharms ever could possibly have imagined. There’s the one where Pushkin and Gogol furiously throw stones back and forth at each other, and there’s the one where Pushkin and Gogol are in some theater performance and they keep tripping on each other as they enter and exit. The stories are so precise, so funny, and so desirous of having continuation, that others have also picked up the gauntlet and written wonderfully bizarre Kharmsian tales taking down Russia’s pantheon of greats with great humor and affection. Some of the best anecdotes written by Natalya Dobrokhotova-Maikova and Vladimir Pyatnitsky begin with the line, “Gogol once dressed up as Pushkin and went to visit…” [insert various names].

Daniil Yuvachyov was born December 30, 19905, in St. Petersburg. That is, he came into a world that was topsy-turvy. The so-called Revolution of 1905 was underway and would not be put down until the child was 18 months old. Putting it simply, things didn’t get much better as time went on. There was the backlash to the revolution, there was World War I, followed by the 1917 Coup or Revolution or whatever it’s called these days, then the Russian Civil War and the clamping down on all dissent that began to rear its head again in the late 1920s. The boy’s father spent time in prison for his political beliefs, so the family knew the peculiarities of this incoming age firsthand. The young Yuvachyov began referring to himself under the pseudonym of Kharms when he was in school. Several reasons are offered to explain his choice – it may be a play on the English words “charm,” and/or “harm,” and it might also be a play on the last name of the detective Sherlock Holmes. Whatever the reasons, this unusual writer of bizarre short tales and dramatic sketches would forever after be known as Daniil Kharms.
The apartment house at 11 Mayakovsky Street in St. Petersburg – it runs from Nevsky Prospect to Kirochnaya St. – is where Kharms wrote the vast majority of his works. According to the plaque on the wall, he lived here from 1925 to 1941. He left under arrest and would not return. He was accused of spreading gloom and doom and avoided being executed only because he pretended so convincingly to be insane. That did not help him for long, however. He died of starvation while incarcerated during the German blockade of Leningrad. His death came February 2, 1942. He was 36 years of age.
Kharms was well regarded by his contemporaries in the know in the 1920s and 1930s. With a more or less likeminded group of unorthodox writers, he founded the famed OBERIU group in 1928. It did not have a great impact at the time, although when rediscovered a few decades later, it was acknowledged to be a harbinger of the absurdist literature that emerged following World War II in Europe. Kharms, like many of his unorthodox fellow writers found refuge in the 1930s by writing children’s stories. The writer and editor Samuil Marshak offered protection for many, Kharms included, at Detgiz (State Children’s Publisher) in Leningrad. It was a sign of the times that his ability to protect people like Kharms could only last a few years.
The plaque commemorating Kharms’s residence in the building  pictured here was unveiled December 22, 2005. The flattened corner of the building is graced by a portrait of Kharms created by the artists Pasha Kas and Pavel Mokich. According to blogger Nikolai Podosokorsky it was painted in 2016 as part of a citywide street art festival. The street was called Nadezhdinskaya St. when Kharms moved in, but was changed to Mayakovsky St. on January 16, 1936, when the canonization of that complex, but now comfortably-dead writer (comfortable for the authorities) was just beginning.

 

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Leo Tolstoy monument, Tula

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I had about five or six hours to photograph everything I could reach in Tula. The city is not huge, so I had high hopes. But it’s not exactly small, either, and many of my hopes were dashed. I also made the mistake of wearing a bad pair of shoes that day and by the time evening fell I was ready to fall into a ditch and be washed away with the daily slop.
I started out as I always do on my photograph hunts with a bold step, a keen eye, and visions of sheer pleasure. By the time I reached the monument to Leo Tolstoy at the far end of the city, I was, as The Band put it so succinctly, “about half-past dead.” If that wasn’t enough, I had lost the light of day. The last few objects I photographed before Tolstoy were done in a murky, grainy gray that makes the photos borderline unusable. They may have to wait to be posted here until I have used up virtually everything else in my huge photo archive. At the rate I’m posting these days, the chances are good I will die before I get to those photos. But I digress.
I was encouraged when I came upon Tolstoy from behind – having worked my way through the Belousov Central Park of Culture and Recreation – because there were lights everywhere. And most of them were there to illuminate Tolstoy. In fact, the results were mixed at best. These photos don’t give an honest, all-around picture of the monument that was sculpted from bronze by Vyacheslav Buyakin in 1973. Most of the details are lost in unnatural sparkles and shadows. The camera couldn’t decide whether to flush Tolstoy in gold or in silver. But my camera did capture something otherworldly in a few of the shots that I find intriguing. In fact, when I did a little research and saw what this hunk of metal looks like in natural light, I began to feel I had lucked out. Buyakin, I’m afraid, was not a sculptor of great subtlety. His well-known monuments of Lenin in Moscow, Syktyvkar and elsewhere seem to have made his fame more than any great personal vision he brought to his work. He is semi-notorious for being the sculptor who in 1967 hammered out a Lenin that replaced a Stalin which had stood in Moscow’s Izmailovsky Park for several years.
Buyakin’s Tolstoy is the proverbial peasant-friendly figure in his peasant shirt, the rope for a belt, and the wind blowing his beard as he presumably steps forward through a field of – shall we say – wheat. He’s really big, so that clearly makes us think of Tolstoy, and the rough-hewn facial resemblance, never realistic, leaves no doubt as to who it is.

But there’s the rub. It is virtually impossible to make anything negative stick to Tolstoy. I don’t care if this isn’t the greatest image of him ever done. I don’t care if it blends into the sea of all the other Tolstoy likenesses ever done. I don’t care that they stuck a bathetic quote at his feet – “My writing is all of me,” or, “My writing is all that I am” – something that now seems so Soviet, and so pompous. I don’t care if this is just another of those monumental monuments that can start out in the workshop as Lenin, Stalin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky or God for the first half of the job, and then only be turned in one direction or another by a few strokes here and there. None of that matters. What matters is that you’re in Tula, more or less Tolstoy’s hometown, and you have come across something resembling the great man casually striding across a plaza (officially – Tolstoy Square) as if there were nothing curious about that at all. The more I walked around this Tolstoy and photographed him, the more I didn’t want to leave. I had a theater opening to make and it was a good long walk from way out here at the end of Lenin Prospect to where I had to go, but I just kept lingering, looking for one more angle, one more shot. For those of us who never had the opportunity to meet the author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina, this is the about the best we’re ever going to get – to run around his big bronze feet and stare up into his metallic gaze and pretend that we are in attendance at his presence.
I’m not sure why, but in such moments I never waste my time thinking of all the reasons Tolstoy drives me mad – from some of those horrible, misogynistic late stories, to so many of the holier-than-thou passages that increasingly populated his writings as he aged. I love to shake a fist at Tolstoy. I know what a despot he was at home, how he mistreated his wife, and used his servant girls as playthings. That’s all there. It’s part of the package. I don’t forget it. But I never feel as though I have the right to judge this man too harshly. I have never walked a step, let alone a mile, in his shoes. In his presence – the presence of artistic likenesses – I am humbled. Here is what Gary Saul Morson wrote about Tolstoy in the Encyclopedia Britannica: “Some viewed Tolstoy as the embodiment of nature and pure vitality, others saw him as the incarnation of the world’s conscience, but for almost all who knew him or read his works, he was not just one of the greatest writers who ever lived but a living symbol of the search for life’s meaning.”
Beat that.

 

The Mass dacha, outside Moscow

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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.

 

Gleb Uspensky childhood house, Tula

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Gleb Uspensky was born in Tula in 1840 and this home, which looks fairly modest these days, is where he spent his childhood years from the 1840s into the 1850s. It is an old-style wooden home, of which there are still several in Tula. Plenty of the neighboring homes are newer structures, which allows us to assume that this particular building survived because of the famous writer who once resided here.
Uspensky is one of those that most everyone interested in Russian literature knows by name, but not many read any more. He was a leftist who was generally interested in the fate of the powerless, the poor, the down and out. In his early years as a writer he wrote about people he knew, urban commoners and petty clerks. Later in his life, his focus shifted relatively subtly to the same poor people, but now his heroes tended to be village dwellers. An adherent of the People’s Will movement, in the mid-1870s he even moved to a village near Novgorod to be “closer to the people,” while taking an administrative job on the local railroad.
Uspensky is still a good place to go to get a feeling for a Russia that is long gone, the same Russia, more or less, that appears in the admittedly much more accomplished novels of Lev Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Ivan Turgenev. Knowing well the people he was writing about, Uspensky provides us with trustworthy, lively pictures of Russia and Russians in the 19th century.
The future writer grew up in a home that fed his rich imagination. His father was a government official, to whom people of all sorts came asking for help or favors. Uspensky’s cousin Nikolai, a writer in his own right, left us a brief, though colorful essay describing what it all might have looked like to the young Gleb:
The yard at the house belonging to Ivan Yakovlevich (Gleb Ivanovich’s father), was rushed daily by hordes of people, among which one might meet a gypsy selling a horse, and a village elder hung with medals and holding a vast tub filled with live carp and a fabulous number of burbot, as well as numerous clergymen, sextons, seminarians, and even drunken former seminary professors, teachers of ‘hermeneutics and accusatory theology,’ stumbling and tripping through the flower beds in the lovely garden…”
Although the family fell on hard times when Gleb’s father died, at least in the eyes of Nikolai (1837 – 1889), his relative lived a privileged childhood.
I was a humble seminarian,” wrote Nikolai, ” raised ‘on copper money’ and held “tightly in check,” while he [Gleb] took a gymnasium course and enjoyed all the earthly benefits of the table of ‘rich Lazarus’ – his father, who held the position of secretary in the state property chamber and had the opportunity not only to live the high life, but also to aid his ‘kin’ (of which there was a whole legion), marrying female relative to rural teachers, deacons, or ‘chamber’ officials, and supplying with money and advice to the occasional dubious, impoverished sexton, who presented himself as a former neighbor, a fellow villager, or fellow seminarian...”

Since Nikolai was there and I was not, I think it is worth turning over this short tale to his memoirs again, in order to achieve a fuller picture of Gleb’s early years in this house.
The predominant contingent of Gleb Ivanovich’s father’s visitors were impoverished peasants standing in line in regards to their ‘serving military service’ … each of which was stocked with the expected offering. Most were crowded in a continuous mass in a long, spacious corridor that resembled a railway station …
“Our talented contemporary writer Gleb Ivanovich Uspensky spent his childhood and adolescence in this environment. It can’t be said this did not favor the development of his creative powers. From a young age he was familiar with certain types, the rural elder or headman, a rural Orthodox clerk, or some sadly dying man...”
Uspensky had a great desire to study law and he tried twice, failing both times. He first entered the law department of St. Petersburg University in 1861, but was compelled to drop out shortly thereafter for lack of funds. That was repeated in 1862, only this time at Moscow University. Following this second humiliating failure Uspensky  turned to literature in order to make enough money to live on. His first publication (1862) was under the pseudonym of G. Bryzgin in Lev Tolstoy’s pedagogical Yasnaya Polyana magazine. His first popular works were The Mores of Rasteryaeva Street (1866) and Impoverishment (1869). Two trips abroad in the first half of the 1870s brought him together with revolutionary-minded Russians in Germany, France and England, and brought him closer to the People’s Will Party. From 1868 to 1884 he published exclusively in the famed and prestigious “thick journal,” Notes of the Fatherland. According to a biography on dic.academic.ru, the “honesty and independence of Uspensky’s beliefs, along with his ardent warm-heartedness and tireless search for truth, make him one of the most remarkable and attractive writers of his generation and time.
In 1889 Uspensky’s health took a turn for the worse. Increasingly suffering from split-personality and paralysis, he died in a sanatorium in 1902.
The house pictured here stands at 57 Turgenev St. in Tula. Uspensky left here in 1856 to study at the gymnasium in Chernigov.

 

Dimitri Tiomkin house, Los Angeles

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And now we come back to Dimitri Tiomkin (1894-1979). This time it is to show the house into which he moved in the spring of 1950. This ethnic Jew, Ukrainian-born pianist and composer was already one of Hollywood’s top names by now, but he still had a long, successful, creative life ahead of him. More or less as he was moving his furniture into this home he was nominated for an Oscar for Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture for Champion (1949). Just three years on he would win the first two of his Oscars – one for Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture for High Noon (1952), and another (with Ned Washington) for Best Music, Original Song for High Noon (1952) for “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin’,” as sung by Tex Ritter. Also in 1953 he would win the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Score for High Noon (1952). It was a man at the top of his game who brought his life and family into this house. He had previously lived in Beverly Hills (about which I will write in the future), but if one can move up by leaving Beverly Hills, Tiomkin did so by purchasing this mansion in the Windsor Square neighborhood of Central Los Angeles, near Wilshire. Virtually all of his neighbors were famous – all of them were rich. The official address of this home was, and still is, 333 S. Windsor Boulevard.
Tiomkin had grown up in what was known during the Russian empire (and later in Soviet times) as the Ukraine – a place out on the edges, the far limits, so to speak. His town of birth was Kremenchuk, near Poltava. He was taught the piano by his mother Maria Tartakovskaya, who had plans of him being a concert pianist one day. She surely expected those dreams to come true when Tiomkin was admitted to the St. Petersburg Conservatory to study under the great Alexander Glazunov and Felix Blumenfeld. What she did not expect was the Revolution that would come along in 1917 and shake the Russian empire to the core. Tiomkin left Russia for Berlin in 1921 then moved on to Paris in 1924. He struck out for New York as a member of the Dimitri Tiomkin/Michael Khariton piano duo in 1925. However, with the US economy taking a dive in 1929, Tiomkin headed west in search of better pay. In short, Hollywood was calling, and by 1929 he hit upon several small jobs. According to the imdb website, Tiomkin wrote the ballet music for Devil-May-Care and Pointed Heels, both uncredited, and the music for a short called A Night at the Shooting Gallery, all in 1929. By 1930, his career was off and running.

The house in Windsor Park can’t help but remind one of a Russian estate. The stately, columned entrance, the decorations on the walls, the classical box of a many-roomed mansion, all bear a resemblance to places Tiomkin might have seen in his childhood, or, certainly, in St. Petersburg. One of the first things Tiomkin did at the new house was to add a swimming pool, the total cost of which was $2,550.
In the end, however – in the course of one night, in fact – this house was darkened by evil and Tiomkin sold it and left it without ever looking back.
It happened on the night of the funeral of Albertina Rasch, his second wife, in early October 1967. A small report in the Los Angeles Times (republished here) puts it as follows:
Several hours after his wife’s funeral Thursday, composer Dimitri Tiomkin was attacked by thieves in his home at 333 S. Windsor Blvd. 
Three men and a woman forced their way into the home, police said, and one of the intruders struck Tiomkin over the head with a gun. He was not seriously hurt. 
Tiomkin and his secretary, Martha Harrington, were tied up and the intruders searched the house. However, they obtained only $13 in cash, police said. 
Inurnment services for Mrs. Tiomkin, the former Albertina Rasch, had been held at Forest Lawn Memorial-Park. 
Mrs. Tiomkin, who was a former ballerina, died Monday at Motion Picture Country Hospital after a lengthy illness. The composer is her only survivor.”
Almost immediately, Tiomkin sold the house and left Los Angeles. He spent the last 12 years of his life living in London (where he died) and  in Paris. After his death, Tiomkin’s ashes were brought back to Los Angeles where they were interred in a mausoleum at Forest Lawn in Glendale.

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Lidia Yavorskaya, London

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I have Natalia Dissanayake and her wonderful book Russian Lives in London (Russkie sud’by v Londone) to thank for today’s post. The photos have been lying around in my archive for several years, waiting for a reason to be used. Surely I had a reason to take them – there must have been some Russia-connected event that took place here at some time – mostly likely a performance of the Ballet Russes. Then I happened to pick up Dissanayake’s book the other day and, as I often do, I leafed through the pages looking for interesting stories. It’s chock full of them, I’m never disappointed. And sure enough, on pages 290 to 292 I came upon the tale of Lidia Yavorskaya, about whom I knew very little other than the fact that history claims she was a model for Anton Chekhov’s Arkadina.
Yavorskaya was a star in Moscow at the turn from the 19th to the 20th century, and she had a good deal of success in London as well. Born in Kiev in 1871, she studied with Vladimir Davydov in St. Petersburg, and in Paris with François Jules Edmond Got, an actor of the Comédie-Française. With her parents opposing her desire to be an actress, she simply forged ahead. She married – against her parents’ will – and quickly divorced him when it became clear he did not support her either. She debuted in 1893 in the city we now know as Tallinn, Estonia, and quickly found herself playing star roles in Moscow at the famed independent (non-state) Korsh Theater. Two years later Alexei Suvorin invited her to St. Petersburg to take the lead with his troupe in the Literary-Art Circle Theater. She remained in St. Petersburg for over a decade, continuing her successes. However, she once again showed her independence by taking the brave step of leaving her position at the theater when she refused to perform in a play that she deemed to be anti-semitic. She performed for several years in a theater of her own making, the Novy, or New, Theater, where she favored cutting-edge, contemporary drama – Anton Chekhov, Lev Tolstoy, Maxim Gorky, Henrik Ibsen, plus plays by her husband Vladimir Baryatinsky. According to Dissanayake, the New Theater was particularly popular with young people. However Yavorskaya and Baryatinsky struck out in 1907 on a series of tours that took them to Russian provincial cities as well as, eventually, Vienna, Paris and London. It was in 1909 that they arrived in London. According to Dissanayake:
“[Yavorskaya’s] small troupe had such success at His Majesty’s Theatre on Haymarket Street, that people began urging the actress to perform in English. She spoke French and German fluently, but she had to put a good deal of work into her English pronunciation and, despite excellent results, she limited herself to playing foreigners. She debuted in John Pollock’s Rosamund and a one-act play by her husband, Nablotsky’s Career, at the Little Theatre on what was then known as John Street. There she also played Nina Zarechnaya in The Seagull, and at the Kingsway Theatre staged the first production in England of Chekhov’s vaudeville The Bear.”
So, there we have Yavorskaya at His Majesty’s Theatre, as it was known from 1901 to 1952. It is, of course, currently known as Her Majesty’s Theatre.

Life, however, interrupted what looked like was going to be a sustained period of success for Yavorskaya. Her husband, homesick, headed back to St. Petersburg at the beginning of World War I. She followed him, but was blindsided when he asked for a divorce in 1916. The Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church granted Baryatinsky’s request and forbade Yavorskaya from remarrying for some time. She, however, always the rebel, headed back to London in 1918 after getting the Russian government to remove the ban, and married the playwright John Pollock in 1920. She died a year later of throat cancer at the age of 50. She is buried in a church cemetery in Old Shoreham, Sussex.
There are plenty of opinions about Yavorskaya. One Russian site boils down many of them into a single paragraph:
The popular dramatic actress Lidia Yavorskaya was one of the most controversial figures in the theatrical world of the early 20th century. One could not deny her astonishing work ethic and dedication, but that was combined with vanity, egocentrism and ambition. Theater critic Suvorin called her a phony creature, made of pretense and envy. Chekhov considered her an intelligent woman, but an overly loud and mannered actress. Despite this, they had an affair and it is said that Yavorskaya served as the prototype for Arkadina in Chekhov’s The Seagull.”
Other sites collect a whole bunch of catty comments about Yavorskaya by famous or semi-famous people. But if you know how to read these things, you see the limitation is stronger on the part of the writer or speaker than on the part of the individual being described. There is something mean and petty in a lot of the comments. I suspect we see more of the actress in Dissanayake’s description of her:
She was very interesting, with big, gray-blue, ‘mermaid’ eyes, a quick smile, golden curls, a beautiful figure, light, energetic movements and a kind of snake-like grace. Those who loved her said, ‘She’s no beauty, she’s better.'”
After returning to London in 1918 Yavorskaya was very outspoken in her opposition to the new Soviet regime, even as she did much to collect money to help feed the hungry in the Soviet Union. She was the chair of the Britain-Poland-Galicia fond, and she created the Society for Aid to Russian Artists, Victims of the Bolshevik Regime.
The anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin dubbed her Lidia Miss Freedom (Lidia Svobodnitsa) for her convictions and actions.
In her final years, Yavorskaya continued to perform in London at such venues as the Royalty Theatre on Dean St., the Coliseum on St. Martin’s Lane, the Ambassadors Theatre on West Street, the Scala on Charlotte Street, and elsewhere. It was at these latter two venues that she performed the title role in Anna Karenina, one of the highlights of her career.

 

Vladimir Nabokov house, museum, St. Petersburg

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Vladimir Nabokov, as the plaque on the wall of this building at 47 Bolshaya Morskaya Street in St. Petersburg states, was born here in 1899. He died, every bit the contemporary of people of my generation, in Switzerland in 1977. By then his novels had made him famous and rich. The one that helped him turn the corner to fame was Lolita (1955), although there is much discussion about which of his works are the best and most-loved. That’s an open topic, you don’t need me to weigh in on it. Especially since I’ve never been infected by the fascination that many have for his craft.
In the spring of 2019 controversy came to this building where a Nabokov museum has been located for many years. In one of those typically contemporary Russian incidents, conflict came out of the blue for those who had been charged with overseeing the writer’s cultural legacy. The museum was closed with no warning, several employees were fired, others had their pay cut, the museum director was threatened, and workmen answering to someone else moved in and began restoring the building. A hue and cry went up, with many prominent individuals, including novelist Viktor Yerofeev, coming to the museum’s defense. It seems the museum somehow had been taken over by St. Peterburg University (a nominal “parent” in the past) and was being put in the hands of a St. Petersburg writer and teacher named Andrei Astvatsaturov. After a month or so of confusion in the media, the new director officially stepped into his position on April 26. He declared that all was now well, that his new leadership was in place, and that he was preparing to transform the Nabokov Museum into an international cultural and conference center. One of the reports, surprisingly neutral in its tone since it belongs to the scandal-mongering NTV network, admits in the last line that the former director, Tatyana Ponamaryov, knew nothing about the new one.
If all of that doesn’t sound fishy, you haven’t paid attention to real estate conflicts in Russia over the last 20 or 30 years. By the nature of my work over that period – writing about culture for a Moscow newspaper – I can say that this has all the hallmarks of a hostile takeover. You do it quickly, without fanfare, close things up for “restoration and renovation” so nobody can get in and see what’s happening, and you trust to your connections in the “courts,” or just hope your opponent will take the hint and disappear. As the old saying goes, “possession is nine-tenths of the law.” In any case, the museum is now open again, and Mr. Astvatsaturov (a descendant of the famed literary scholar and linguist Viktor Zhirmunsky) is in control.
This is the way Nikita Mikhalkov essentially stole the Cinema Museum from Naum Kleiman in 2013 in Moscow, and it’s similar to a scandal at Moscow’s Mayakovsky Museum, which was closed ages ago in a battle over who is going to control it. I can’t say for sure that the situation at the Nabokov Museum is exactly the same, but when there’s smoke, one does tend to wonder if there is fire.

The basic building at 47 Bolshaya Morskaya was erected around 1740. The street at that time was called Bolshaya Gostinaya (Great Parlor St.), was known popularly, though not officially, as Brilliantovaya (Diamond Street) at the time of Nabokov’s birth, and officially took on the name of Bolshaya Morskaya (Great Sea St.) in 1902. It was known as Herzen Street for most of the Soviet period. At the time of its original construction it was a single-story structure over a raised basement. You can see the lines of the original house in the full photos above and below – it corresponds to the red first floor in today’s configuration. As I understand it, a second story was added at the end of the 18th/beginning of the 19th centuries, followed by significant additions to the sides and interior in 1874. Finally, a third floor was added in 1900-02, while much of the external decoration was moved, apparently with some care. This came shortly after the building was acquired by Nabokov’s grandfather in 1898 with the purpose of turning it over to the future writer’s mother Yelena Rukavishnikova at the beginning of her marriage to Vladimir Nabokov, son the Russia’s Minister of Justice Dmitry Nabokov, and future prominent journalist and statesman in his own right.
Depending on the source, one can find dates that are off by one or two years from those I offer here. Some sources say the house was purchased by Grandpa Rukavishnikov in 1897, some say the last renovations took place beginning in 1901, various sources claim that Nabokov lived here either 18 or 20 years. I follow the dates offered in a relatively detailed and convincing piece on the website of a company whose business is renovation, but let’s agree that they are approximate. Nabokov described this home in varying degrees in his autobiographical works Other Shores and Speak, Memory! His room, following the reconstruction, was located on the third floor.
From that same website:
The Nabokov House is a vivid synthesis of architecture and decorative art. The building is topped with what can be safely called a mosaic frieze that runs the entire width of the facade under the wooden rafters of the roof overhangs, created by the well-known workshop of V. A. Frolov. Thin lacy patterns of wrought metal contrast with the stone surface: parapet fences, flag holders, forged leaves, flowers, curls, and so on. The mansion is notable for its rich interiors, preserved from the former owner of the house, N. M. Polovtsova. All rooms are designed in various historical styles, to which modernity has been added.”