All posts by russianmonuments

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

Igor Severyanin house in St. Petersburg

 

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This house at 5 Srednyaya Podyacheskaya Street in St. Petersburg is presumably where the poet Igor Severyanin lived when he became famous. (See final graph for possible ambiguities.) The building – and, in fact, the entire street – are incredibly easy to miss among Piter’s seemingly millions of beautiful structures, streets, alleys, canals and boulevards. Both building and street are grungy and monotonous. According to one site that tells the story of Severyanin’s life here in great detail, this street was a haven for hooligans over the decades – it was so in Severyanin’s time and it was still so, apparently, in the mid-to-late Soviet period. It doesn’t surprise me. You’d think anyone growing up here would have a chip on their shoulder.
The sources are not unanimous on this, but I am going to stick with the claim of the nnre.ru site, which dates Severyanin’s arrival here to the year of 1907. He lived here with his mother until he went into emigration in 1918. Also with him here for awhile was his common-law wife Yelena Zolataryova-Semyonova. Their relationship – like most that the poet was involved in – was complex, and it ran for much longer than the time she lived with him at Srednyaya Podyacheskaya, from 1912-1915. The street is a short one located in the heart of historic St. Petersburg, right in the same general area where Nikolai Gogol and Fyodor Dostoevsky occupied numerous apartments. In fact, Dostoevsky once lived in the next building over from Severyanin, only a few decades earlier (more about that another time). The street is located on the inside of a bend in the Griboyedov Canal so sharp that the street both begins and ends at the Canal.
The poet Georgy Ivanov even left us a brief description of the apartment: “Igor Severyanin lived in apartment No. 13. This fateful number was chosen outside the will of its inhabitant. The house administration, for understandable reasons, gave that number to the smallest, dirtiest apartment in the whole house. The entrance was from the courtyard where cats scooted along the scuffed-up staircase.”
That was not, however, the full extent of what Ivanov had to say. Not hiding his aversion to the place (and, perhaps, the poet), Ivanov also wrote: “The business card tacked to the front door bore an autograph with a large flourish over the hard sign: ‘Igor Sverianin.’ I rang the bell and a little old woman with her hands in soapy foam opened it. ‘Are you here to see Igor Vasilievich? Wait, I’ll tell them now…’ I looked around. This was no entry, but rather a kitchen. The stove boiled and billowed with black smoke. The table was piled with unwashed dishes. Something dripped on me: I was standing beneath a rope with linen that was hung out to dry. The ‘Prince of Violets and Lilacs’ greeted me, covering his neck with his hand: he was lacking a collar. There was exemplary order in his small room with a bookshelf, some pathetic furniture, and a decadent picture of some kind on the wall.
For the record, the “decadent picture of some kind” was a reproduction of Mikhail Vrubel’s painting “The Muse.”
Severyanin did respond to Ivanov, however, writing, “Our apartment was light and dry. As for cats, indeed, these rather common house pets were present in our house, but they did not fly over the c-l-e-a-n private staircase, they merely walked and ran, as did Mr. Ivanov No. 2  himself.
Ooh, that “Ivanov No. 2 himself” is a good dig, dropping Georgy to the second spot, distinctly behind the more highly respected Vyacheslav Ivanov.

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Valery Bryusov was a more famous and more welcome visitor to the apartment on Srednyaya Podyacheskaya. In fact, when he first arrived here, he could be said to have brought fame with him.
Severyanin, as was the custom in his time, had sent some of his poetry to Bryusov in Moscow in hopes of receiving back a few words of encouragement, if not of praise. Instead, Bryusov, apparently on his next trip to St. Petersburg, took the time to visit Severyanin personally. Bryusov was so taken with Severyanin that he began trumpeting his name on every corner, touting him as the next great poet. That didn’t always work in Severyanin’s favor, as many poets were put off by Bryusov’s effusive praise, and took a skeptical approach to the young writer. But it was Severyanin himself who broke with Bryusov a few years later when the elder allowed himself to be less than ecstatic about Severyanin’s second book, Golden Lyre.
Next up among the guests traipsing a path to Severyanin’s door was Mayakovsky. Only this time the tables were turned. Mayakovsky came here as a neophyte seeking the masterly Severyanin’s approval. And he did receive it. But as had happened with Bryusov, the Severyanin-Mayakovsky alliance could only last so long. Two men with two such healthy egos could never have hung together for long. It didn’t help that Mayakovsky impregnated one of Severyanin’s many girlfriends, causing her to get an abortion.
For all Severyanin’s success with women – and he was famous for that – it seems like all the writers leaving behind impressions of his apartment were distinctly ill-willed. Here is what the poet Benedikt Livshits had to say: “Severyanin lived on Srednyaya Podyacheskaya… To reach him, one had to pass either through the laundry or the kitchen… We found ourselves in a completely dark room with tightly boarded windows. The figure of Severyanin emerged from the corner and gestured for us to sit on a huge sofa whose springs rattled and rolled. When my eyes grew accustomed to the semi-darkness, I began examining the environment around us… it seemed there was nothing there but folders stacked on the floor, and an enormous number of dried bouquets hung on the walls and attached wherever possible.”
Not much more generous was the artist and writer David Burliuk, who wrote: “One entered the apartment from the yard by a stone staircase with broken steps – you came in directly through the kitchen where steamy laundry hung, the smell of of cooking was pervasive, and an elderly woman walked you down the corridor to Igor Vasilievich’s study. If you remember Naumov’s engraving “A Search of Belinsky’s Room as he Lay Dying,” the room depicted by the artist reminds one of Severyanin’s study: one or two bookcases, something between a couch or a bed, and nothing on the table, but an inkstand and several sheets of paper. Above it, in a frame under glass, hangs a splendid charcoal and ink drawing of Igor Severyanin by Vladimir Mayakovsky which quite resembles the original.
Finally, in my constant odyssey for the truth about Russian literature, I cannot fail to add the following paragraph which the moles.ee site offers us: “Doubts have arisen about the numbering of the houses, since the corner house on the odd side of the street overlooking the Griboedov Canal does not have a number on Srednyaya Podyacheskaya (the corner house on the even side has double numbering). It is possible that house No. 5 is actually house No. 7. In that case one should look for the poet’s apartment in house No. 3, which in reality is house No. 5. By the way, the left side of the yard of house No. 3 is completely closed off, and the apartment on the mezzanine level on the right, the sunny, side resembles well-known descriptions.
So, there you have it. This is, or isn’t, the building in which Severyanin lived from 1907 to 1918. That doesn’t change the stories about it. But I guess we have to consider that the photos remain in question.

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Yakov and Yekaterina Knyazhnin gravesite, St. Petersburg

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There aren’t many of us left who can make sense of this one. Look at the first photo above. Even if you know Russian extremely well, you may not be able to make out that the name on this monument is Yakov Borisovich Knyazhnin (1742-1791). I wouldn’t have been able to read it had I not been informed about it by the map at the entrance to the Lazarevskoe cemetery (18th-century necropolis) at the Alexandro-Nevskaya Lavra in St. Petersburg. You see that map directly below – Knyazhnin’s grave marker is No. 49. Note that the No. 49 stands under the left of two columns. That is because this precisely is the monument to Knyazhnin, one of the most important playwrights and poets of the late 18th century in Russia.
The monument on the right, however, is also of interest to us (see second photo immediately below). It commemorates the life of Knyazhnin’s wife Yekaterina (1746-1797), who was not only the daughter of Russia’s first great playwright Alexander Sumarokov, she was, according to many sources, the first woman to have published poetry in Russia. It’s a hard story to follow on short-notice research, and I do not claim to present the gospel truth here. But it would appear that some of her work, usually with the support of her famous father, perhaps sometimes with the aid of her husband, did make it into print during her lifetime. Some claim these were actually poems written by Sumarakov, and, naturally, there are claims that her work was “edited” by her father and her husband. It was once believed that several of her songs were put to music by the Russia-based German composer German Raupach, but that apparently has been disproved. One can also find conjecture that Knyazhnina published several of her poems under pseudonyms – not at all unexpected for the late 18th century. We do know that she published a poem, “Oh, You, Who Is Always,” in the March 1759 issue of the literary journal The Busy Bee. This is the one that marks her as Russia’s first published woman writer.
Both Knyazhnin and his wife took it on the chin from Ivan Krylov, Russia’s first great writer of fables. In a comedy called Pranksters, Krylov satirized Knyazhnin as Verse-Stealer (Rifmokrad) and Knyazhnina as Babbler (Taratora). Supposedly it was Knyazhnina who insulted Krylov and pushed him to attack her family, although the details of the incident are not readily available to an internet-searcher. Most sources simply state that the attack was “probably” due to some personal insult.
The couple was originally buried in the Smolenskoye Cemetery in St. Petersburg, but were moved to the 18th-century necropolis in the 1950s, where their monuments are crammed in tightly and rather forlornly among other prominent personages of the 18th and early 19th centuries.

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Yakov Knyazhnin doesn’t get a whole lot of respect in the historical record. Krylov’s attack on him as a verse-stealer didn’t help, although it is common knowledge that writers in the 18th century freely borrowed from others, particularly if the source was in a foreign language. Krylov himself, for God’s sake, honed his pen by copying/translating the fables of de La Fontaine. Pushkin called him “imitative.” Knyazhnin, like Sumarokov before him, leaned heavily on the great writing of Europe to provide him inspiration. Sometimes he called his work a translation, other times he took authorship for himself. In fact, Knyazhnin was highly educated and spoke French, German and Italian. His profession was translator.
His first play was apparently the melodrama Orpheus (1763), while his first genuine literary success was the tragedy Didon, written in 1767 (some sources 1769), eight years after his wife’s first published poem, by the way.
The 1770s were an eventful decade for the fledgling writer. While giving in to a passion for cards and losing enormous sums of money, he also wrote several works that were popular at the time – the tragedy Vladimir and Yaropolk  (a reworking of Racine’s Andromaque, 1772) and the comic work Misfortune from a Carriage (1779).  However, he was plunged into disgrace when he embezzled 5,773 rubles. He was originally condemned to death, but that sentence was commuted to a demotion to the rank of simple soldier. Catherine the Great,  also a prominent playwright of the time, took pity on the disgraced soldier, overturned his sentence and gave him the rank of captain. This was in 1777. He wisely chose to get out of the service while he could and retired immediately, throwing himself into literary work, translating Voltaire’s epic poem Henriade (1777) as well as several tragedies by Corneille and Claude Crebillon. He penned another tragedy, Rosslav, which I remember reading with some pleasure in grad school, in 1784. It was another hit, if we can speak of plays as “hits” in those years.
Over the last decade of his life, Knyazhnin turned out numerous works of note. They included three “serious” works, The Mercy of Titus (1778), Sofonisba (1786), and Vladisan (1786), and numerous light works – either comedies or comic operas – The Miser (1782?, music by Vasily Pashkevich), The Fisherman and the Spirit (1781), The Braggart (1784/5), The Honey-Mead Maker (1783), The Failed Mediator (?), Odd Fellows (1790), Mourning, or The Widow Consoled (?), and The Woman who Faked Insanity (?).
Knyazhnin, labeled as a Russian classicist, had the reputation of writing works on patriotic themes while remaining a bit of a freethinker. This became particularly apparent in his last work, the tragedy Vadim of Novgorod (1788/9), in which his sympathies lay not with the ruler Ryurik, but with the rebel Vadim. The play is sprinkled with attacks on the notion of tyranny and tyrants, which could not possibly have pleased Catherine. Understanding this well, Knyazhnin originally gave Vadim of Novgorod to a theater for staging, but changed his mind and stopped the production. When it was published after his death, Catherine had the copies hunted down and destroyed. Fortunately, she could not get to all of them, and the play text, like most of what he wrote, has come down to us.
One Russian source sums his work up this way: “One of Knyazhnin’s merits was that he developed what was, for his time, an excellent style, and, relative to Sumarokov, light, attractive versification. Knyazhnin, thanks to his translations, introduced the most relevant current works of Western literature into his cultural sphere. Additionally, his use of blank verse for the first time in Russian literature was innovative.

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Vikenty Veresaev house, Tula

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Vikenty Veresaev, real last name Smidovich, was born in this house in Tula in 1867. He lived here until 1884, when he left for St. Petersburg to study literature and history at St. Petersburg University. Even as his various professions and aspirations took him to other cities for long periods of time – notably Tartu, where he studied medicine, and later Moscow, where he was a famed writer – this was a home he would return to frequently. Its address today is 82 Gogolevskaya Street (Peshekhonskaya Street when Veresaev lived here), just five blocks from Tula’s main drag, then called Kievskaya Street, now called Lenin Prospekt.
Veresaev is one of an elite club of Russian writers, whose first job was as a medical doctor. The most famous of them are Anton Chekhov, Mikhail Bulgakov, Vasily Aksyonov, Grigory Gorin and Alexander Rozenbaum. In fact, Veresaev felt so called to medicine that he chose to take it up as a profession after already completing his first degree as a historian-philologist. He officially became a doctor in 1894 upon graduation from Derptsky University in Tartu (it actually had been renamed Yuryevsky University in 1893 – and is now known as the famed Tartu University).
Veresaev moved to St. Petersburg in 1894 where, in 1896, he took up a position at the city’s hospital for contagious diseases (later to be named Botkin Hospital) where he doubled as a resident physician and the head of the hospital library.
Veresaev had had inclinations to write ever since his school days. His first publication was a poem called “Contemplation” in 1885. He published his first story, “Enigma,” in 1887. By this time he was using the pseudonym of Veresaev. Even as he completed his medical studies, Veresaev was embarking on an active literary career. He wrote and published numerous short stories in the early 1890s and, in 1892, he published a series of essays, The Kingdom of the Underworld, about the life of miners in Donetsk. For the most part he published his work in the Marxist press. The same year that he graduated from medical school, 1994, he published his first significant novella, No Way (aka No Road), following it with another highly-touted work, Pestilent Air, in 1898. Both works captured the growing sensation among Russian youth (and not only youth) that the stagnant political and social realities of the time were leading the country to a crisis. At this time Veresaev was more or less in complete agreement with liberal and social groups. In fact, his decision to become a doctor had been influenced by his desire to have the opportunity to “go to the people” and help them. The notoriety that Veresaev earned with No Way and Pestilent Air turned to downright popularity when,  in 1901, he published his first major, and still best-known, collection, A Doctor’s Notes (aka Memoirs of a Physician). Here he shocked some and thrilled others with unblinking portraits of real life told from the viewpoint of a doctor. Veresaev addressed the mixed reaction in his introduction to the collection as a book:
This resentment strikes me as symbolic. We so fear the truth in all things, and are so unaware of how important it is, that all we need do is barely open up one small corner of it for people to begin feeling uneasy: Why did you do that? What is the use? What will the uninitiated say? How will they understand the truth presented?
Plus ça change, I guess I want to say to that!

Notes of a Doctor not only put Veresaev into the first ranks of contemporary Russian writers, it also brought down on him the attention of the Russian secret police. For his “crime” of protesting the brutal treatment of students demonstrating against the government, he was sent back to Tula in 1901 to make it easier for the authorities to keep an eye on him. In 1903, however, he was allowed to return to Moscow, and, shortly thereafter, was drafted into service as a military doctor for the duration of the Russo-Japanese War. This led to his next prominent work, a series of essays written from 1904 to 1906 about his experiences at war.
From roughly 1905 until the Russian Revolution in 1917, Veresaev wrote and published less than he had in the past, although he did not stop writing altogether. Significantly, he published a work titled A Life Alive: On Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, in 1910. At the time it may have seemed like an unexpected foray into history and criticism, but, in fact, this would be a pointer to his future. Also in 1910 Veresaev travelled to Greece where his lifelong love for that culture was reawakened. When he reemerged after the revolution, it was primarily as a literary historian. It was his second birth, if you will, as a writer. His books about Gogol, Chekhov and Pushkin have been highly regarded ever since they appeared in print in the 1920s and 1930s. Of particular value are Pushkin in Life (1926) and Gogol in Life (1933).
According to one online Russian-language biography, “Vikenty Veresaev linked his literary destiny with the ‘new life,’ in this he echoed Maxim Gorky. His writing style is characterized not only by vivid realism, but also by the subtlest psychological observations about his own experiences. Autobiography was a distinctive feature of his work.
Translation was another field of activity that Veresaev devoted himself to for almost his entire adult life. He began toying with translation as a young man – he knew ancient Greek – and his translations of Homer’s The Odyssey and The Iliad are still read today. He was awarded the Pushkin Prize in 1919 for his translations of ancient Greek literature, and he was awarded the Stalin Prize (first degree) in 1943 for the sum of his life’s work.
One doesn’t see much commentary about this former liberal’s attitude to events as they unfolded in the early Soviet years. There is, however, his novel Deadlocked (1922), which showed an aversion to the violence being unleashed at the time by the Bolsheviks. In any case, two facts stand out – 1) his increased interest in the past in his writings after the Revolution, and 2) his receiving of the Stalin Prize, something that was always handed out by the Leader as thanks for perceived loyalty. Veresaev appears to have receded into a relatively safe space in the years leading up to and including the Purges, when so many of his colleagues would have suffered or disappeared.
A few words on Veresaev’s parents who were rather remarkable people themselves. His father Vikenty Smidovich was of Polish and German extraction, and was one of the leading Tula doctors of his time. He founded the first hospital in Tula as well as the city’s first sanitary commission, which sought to minimize unhealthy public practices. Veresaev’s mother Yelizaveta Yunitskaya was a noblewoman from the Mirgorod area of Ukraine. She also had Greek ancestors. The organizer of the first kindergarten in Russia in 1872, she gave birth to 11 children, of whom eight survived.
Veresaev died in 1945, just less than a month after the end of World War II. He was buried in Moscow’s Novodevichy cemetery.

 

Alexander Herzen’s Free Russian Press, London

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If you ever plan to write about Russian cultural figures in London, get in line behind Sarah J. Young. She’s already written about it, no matter what you want to say. And there is also this guarantee: She has done it really well.
Today I pick on a topic she has fingerprints all over: the plaque honoring a location where Alexander Herzen ran his Free Russian Press for the years 1854 to 1856. You see, when the plaque was unveiled on June 26, 2013, at 61 Judd Place, Young was invited to aid in the ceremony. She had done much of the research leading to the choice of this address as the place where a plaque would be hung. It was a no-brainer (the choice, not the research) because previous and subsequent locations were no longer of use – they had long been torn down. Necessary fact: what is now 61 Judd Place was 82 Judd Place when the Free Press was there.
The Free Russian Press began its work, according to Russky London, “in the spring of 1853 on the premises of the already established Polish Democratic Press at 38 Regent Square (since demolished). In December 1856 the press moved to 2 Judd Street, directly opposite number 61 (since demolished and now the site of a dog-walking area).” Sarah J. Young, as always, offers clarification here in her exhaustive blog about the Press: she tells us that Herzen moved the Press from Regent Square to Judd St. in December 1854. Wikipedia misses the first address at Regent Square, but provides all the other various locations from which the Press worked in its London years of 1853-1865.

  • Judd Street, 82; Brunswick Square
  • Judd Street, 2; Brunswick Square
  • Thornhill Place, 5; Caledonian Road
  • Thornhill Place, 136 and 138; Caledonian Road
  • Elmfield House, Teddington, Middlesex
  • Jessamine Cottage, New Hampton, Middlesex

Herzen ultimately moved the Press to Geneva in April 1865, but turned the workings of it over to a colleague. It closed in August 1867, having spent time at two Geneva locations:  Pre l’Eveque, 40, and Place Bel-Air, Ancient Hotel des Postes.
The early years at the location shown here were important for Herzen and the Free Press. It was here in August 1855 that he began publishing his famous Polyarnaya Zvezda (The Polar Star) periodical. The second issue came out only in May 1856. The Press remained at the first Judd St. location until the middle of December, 1856.
During the two years at this address, Herzen was busy attempting to engage Russians all over the world in contributing to his brainchild. He understood that if only London-based Russians, or even, European-based Russians, were to support and contribute to his press, it would remain a marginal enterprise. His first two major undertakings after moving from this location to the one across the street were the ones that would fix his Press in history. In July 1856 he began publishing Voices from Russia, which did bring him the contributions he needed from his former homeland. A year later, on June 22, 1857, on the fourth anniversary of the founding of the Press, he began publishing The Bell (Kolokol), which would become one of the most important political publications in Russian history. Here is how Sarah J. Young describes it in one of her blogs:
Thousands of copies were smuggled in to Russia through Herzen’s various contacts, and it was read not only by the intelligentsia or the radicals, but by everybody in authority, including the Tsar. In Herzen’s wonderful memoirs My Past and Thoughts, we read, ‘”The Bell is an authority,”‘ I was told in London in 1859 by, horrible dictu, Katkov’, referring to the arch-conservative journalist and publisher of Dostoevsky’s novels. If such a notoriously reactionary figure was prepared to admit this, it can only mean that The Bell was indeed highly significant.

More proof of the importance of Herzen’s work is to be found at the Russian National Library in St. Petersburg. They have a collection called the Free Russian Press, which includes much more than just publications issued by Herzen. But it is telling that they would use Herzen’s Press as the name for their entire collection of political, news and banned publications from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Here is the library’s own description of its holdings:
The National Library possesses one of Russia’s most complete collections of 15,000 banned and illegal publications which were produced both at home and abroad between 1853 and 1917. They were originally stored in the holdings of the Secret Department which existed in the Library until the 1917 Revolution. Grouped together under the title ‘The Free Russian Press,’ this collection contains many books, newspapers and periodicals which have already become bibliographical rarities. Among them are such noted publications as Alexander Herzen’s Kolokol (The Bell) of the 1850s-60s and Lenin’s Iskra (The Spark) of 1900-03, as well as leaflets which caused a stir in their time…
Young writes about the activities of the Press when it was at its first address: “It was at this address that the work of the Free Russian Press really took off. In 1855, Herzen published the first volume of Poliarnaia zvezda [Polar Star]. Much of the first volume was written by Herzen himself, although there were also letters by Michelet, Proudhon, Mazzini, and Hugo, and the correspondence between Belinsky and Gogol. In the following year, in addition to the second volume of Poliarnaia zvezda, the first volume of the collection Golosa iz Rossii [Voices from Russia], which featured articles by Konstantin Kavelin and Boris Chicherin, was also published at the same address…
In addition to journalism, the Free Russian Press published numerous works banned in Russia, including poetry by Alexander Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov and others. It reprinted Alexander Radishchev’s seminal Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow.
Edith W. Clowes writes about the importance of Herzen and his publishing activities in an article in Encyclopedia of the EssayFirst she quotes Herzen’s own description of what he intended The Bell to do: “The Bell will resound with whatever touches it – the absurd decree, or the senseless persecution of Old Believers, grandee’s thievery or the ignorance of the Senate. The comic and the criminal, the malicious and the crude – all will play to the sound of The Bell.” Clowes then adds: “Here for the first time in Russian history was a consistent, long-term assault on the internal politics of the tsarist regime. It is not by chance that Herzen became known as a ‘second government.’
For the record, Françoise Kunka published a book in 2011 entitled Alexander Herzen and the Free Russian Press in London: 1852 to 1866

 

 

Alla Nazimova grave site, Glendale, CA

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If you’re in the know, the name Alla Nazimova makes the blood rush a bit hotter and quicker. She was a fascinating and fabulous celebrity, a great actress, and an icon of both film and theater. I wrote a little about her already in this space when I published photos of a house she lived in late in the 1930s. (Thanks to a response to the blog from Jon Ponder of the wonderful Alla Nazimova Society website, many of my speculative claims there were put into a firmer factual context.) Nazimova (1879-1945) studied under Stanislavsky at the Moscow Art Theater, and became one of the great luminaries of early Hollywood.
Nazimova was born into a Jewish family that fell apart when she was still a young girl. She bounced around among relatives and friends in the Crimea until she made her way to Moscow. She was a restless, rebellious spirit, and, despite her success in Moscow and St. Petersburg, she headed off looking for more in the United States in 1905, long before the famed wave of Russian emigres who would have such an impact on Hollywood. With her companion, actor Pavel Orlyonov, she founded a Russian theater in New York. It quickly went bust and Orlyonov headed back to Moscow. Nazimova stayed and hit it big thanks to her tour de force performance of Hedda Gabler in 1906. It made her a star in New York. She made her film debut in 1916, and the next year she signed a deal in Hollywood for $13,000 a week. According to Saving.org, that would be over a quarter of a million dollars per week today.
We have moved on terribly far from the world that Nazimova inhabited. Who sees her films today? And yet, the lure is still strong. Actress Chloë Sevigny acknowledged both the plus and minus sides of what I just suggested in an interview, “I’d love to do a film about Alla Nazimova, the Russian silent film star.” However, she then immediately added, “but I doubt people would want to see it.”
In 2016 and 2017 New York actress Romy Nordlinger wrote, mounted and performed a piece called Places, which told the story of Nazimova, as the promo material claims, the “most famous star you never heard of.”
A recent article in Italian (thank you Google translator) discusses the story of Salome on screen and stage and adds this interesting tidbit that was new to me: “[Salome] is a character you hate. It is she, in fact, at the center of Oscar Wilde’s homonymous drama, which in 1923 Charles Bryant brought to the big screen with the striking Alla Nazimova, in what – legend has it – was one of the first films with a cast entirely composed of homosexual or bisexual actors.”
Nazimova was a lesbian in an age when it was relatively easy and desirable to hide one’s sexual preference behind a marriage of convenience. She did that, in fact, by marrying the actor Sergei Golovin at the end of the 19th century and – although they soon parted – she never divorced him. In the 1920s, her sprawling Garden of Alla home, later the Garden of Alla Hotel, was – if legends are to believed – the site of wild, semi-public sexual shenanigans involving half of Hollywood’s A-list of the time. The sexual stuff naturally continues to feed Nazimova’s fame, usually, if not always, to the detriment of her art.

 

Nazimova was enthusiastic about the new form of cinematic art that she became involved in. A wonderful site called Bizarre Los Angeles posts a myriad of quotes, in which, over and over again, Nazimova extols the importance of film and her excitement about it.
If the actor or actress hopes to live beyond the little span of years in which they appear on the stage, they must place their art upon the screen. It is the only way that we can be saved from oblivion” (1916).
“[French actress Gabrielle} Rejane, too, has glimpsed the future, and several of her most famous impersonations have been preserved to posterity by the celluloid films” (1912).
It will not be long until the individual Moving Picture machine will be found in as many home as the phonograph is today” (1912).
She had plenty to say about the art of acting as well. One of my favorite comments is this one, undated and copied from Brainy Quotes:
The actor should not play a part. Like the Aeolian harps that used to be hung in the trees to be played only by the breeze, the actor should be an instrument played upon by the character he depicts.”
Nazimova died at her home on Sunset Boulevard in 1945, slightly less than two months after the end of World War II. She was buried at Forest Lawn in Glendale. Even with the added aid of my sister Margie and a helpful administrative staff, I had a hell of a time finding the grave marker. It was the first grave we went looking for that day, but was the last we found, almost on a lark, as we were already on our way out and decided to give it one more try. But we did finally come upon it. As were so many of the great Russian actresses in Hollywood, she is honored on this plate as Madame Alla Nazimova. For some reason she was given two plots adjacent to each other: 1689-4 and 3. One of them, as you can see in the photos, remains empty to this day. The grave is located on the western downslope of a hill that rises gently on the northern section of the cemetery’s Whispering Pines section.

 

Nikolai Beloborodov house and plaque, Tula

Click on photos to enlarge.

Nikolai Beloborodov ran a dye business in Tula. His father had been the manager of a rich man’s estate. His mother came from a family that had made its living working in the famous Tula armory factory. None of this gives us a hint as to why we remember Beloborodov today – which is because, in the first half of the 1870s, he invented the first accordion (button box, squeeze box) that was equipped with half-tones.
A paragraph on a very nice Tula-based website tells the story with both brevity and interesting detail:
At the age of 11 he became fascinated with playing the accordion, for which endeavor he independently learned to read music. Possessing extraordinary abilities, he achieved notable success in his mastery of the instrument, but the primitiveness of the harmonies existing at the time severely limited his performing abilities. Therefore, in 1875 (according to other sources, in 1870) he commissioned a fundamentally new instrument from the renowned Tula master Leonty Alexeevich Chulkov.  The novelty of the instrument consisted in the construction of a right-hand keyboard consisting of 23 keys, which included all 12 sounds of the chromatic scale.”
Still, apparently, the difficulties of the new instrument were such that it required further development. Beloborodov, who was now fascinated by new plans and ideas, did not continue work on the new instrument. At first his thoughts were occupied with the idea of putting together the first accordion trio – which he found relatively easy to do, since he took up one of the places, while his daughters Maria (Kuvaldina by marriage) and Sofya Beloborodova took up the other two places. Then he was inspired to create an entire orchestra of accordions. He gathered amateur musicians (for the notion of a “professional” accordionist was ahead of its time) and rehearsed them at his home on Sunday afternoons and evenings. All of them played on the new-fangled chromatic-scale accordions.
Ah, but our hero was not even close to being finished. Presumably somewhat taken aback by the roar of an entire orchestra of identical accordions – no matter how many half-notes they could play – Beloborodov began to realize that a whole array of different accordions was needed. As such, he commissioned the creation of a series of accordions “of different ranges and timbres: piccolo-accordion, prima-accordion, alto-accordion, cello-accordion, bass-accordion, and double bass-accordion” (I’m quoting from the same site). Even I, as I sit here and write 150 years later, can hear the drastic changes taking place in Beloborodov’s living room as he gathers each week with his musician friends. All of a sudden a monotonous wall of sound begins morphing into a nuanced pattern of sounds that begins to sound like sophisticated music.

And yet, and yet… Beloborodov was not done. Now that he had put together such a versatile combination of accordions, he began commissioning works written or adapted specifically for accordion or an accordion orchestra. Thus his orchestra was able to play not only sophisticated versions of folk music, but it could also play popular classical works by Mikhail Glinka, Franz von Suppé, Johann Strauss and others. When this greatly enlarged repertoire was not enough to satisfy Beloborodov, he began writing his own works. His “Fantasia” polka, “The Hunt” quadrille and his Waltz were, therefore, the first works ever written for chromatic scale accordion. If that wasn’t enough, Beloborodov also wrote the first instruction manual for this new instrument.
Once again, that Tula website provides a nice description of the orchestra’s activities:
The orchestra’s first performance took place in the hall of the Tula Assembly of the Nobility in 1897. Further, the collective repeatedly demonstrated its skills not only in Tula, but also in Kaluga, Serpukhov, Aleksin, and Yefremov. Great events in the life of the orchestra were a concert at the Moscow Conservatory, a recording session, and, in the summer of 1893, a performance for Leo Tolstoy in Yasnaya Polyana, where the orchestra presented the great Russian writer with an honorary address and a membership card at the Tula Society of Music and Dramatic Artists.”
Beloborodov was born February 27, 1828 and he died December 28, 1912. He lived his entire life in Tula. His mother died shortly after he was born; his father wanted his son to be educated, but not too educated. He saw to it that a priest taught Nikolai to read in Old Church Slavonic, but one the pupil began making progress at that, the father stopped his education. He considered that that was enough to get him through life. His father also died when he was relatively young, and the young man set up his dye business in his home. It brought him precious little money and he and his family were often short of necessary funds.
The point here, of course, is the extraordinary nature of Beloborodov’s fascination  with, and dedication to, his chosen – it was never really a profession for him, but rather more an obsession.
The plaque at the top of this post reads: “Nikolai Ivanovich Beloborodov (1828-1912), the inventor of the chromatic scale accordion, and the organizer of the world’s first accordion orchestra, lived in this building.”
This building, located at 16 Lenin Prospekt, was turned into a museum commemorating Beloborodov’s life and work in 1995.

 

 

Plaque Honoring Alexei Savrasov, Moscow

Click on photos to enlarge.

Alexei Savrasov (1830-1897) created some of the most haunting paintings ever made of Russian landscapes. He was a founding member of the Wanderers, which, for a time, unified many of the greatest 19th century Russian artists, and he was a famed pedagogue at what was originally known as the College of Painting and Sculpting in Moscow. It is now known as the Russian Academy of Painting, Sculpting and Architecture, and is run by Ilya Glazunov, one of many controversial figures who have pushed their way to the top of the fine arts in Russia in recent decades. That’s a topic for another time, however. Today I’m interested in Savrasov.
Savrasov was born into a merchant family in Moscow and, when he began exhibiting a talent for art as a young man, his father tried to discourage his interest in painting. Fortunately for us, the young man remained true to himself. In 1844, at the age of 14, he entered the school you see here (it looked somewhat different at the time, although my understanding is that it hasn’t changed terribly). It wasn’t long before the young man’s paintings were catching the eye of his elders, even if today you can read that some of his earliest works were “uneven.” But the fact of the matter is that Savrasov’s innate ability to express the soul of nature was obvious to all, even if it was appreciated to lesser or greater degrees depending upon the painting. He graduated from the College in 1854 and two of his paintings, including View of the Surroundings of Oranienbaum, were included in an exhibit at the College. View is a spectacular piece, an entire universe of natural details crammed tastefully and forcefully into a single image. As one might expect of a young artist (he was just 24 at the time), there are lovely touches of optimism and lightness – the sun streaming through young leaves; the sunlight falling on an old, aged rock, illuminating it as if it has enjoyed a rebirth; light, white, fluffy clouds in a blue sky; a carefree sailboat skipping over the waves in the background; an apparently curious individual in the distance following the “events” of the painting; bright colors preparing to burst out in the coming days or weeks… These are all things one can say with certainty about this painting. But when you know the full sum of Savrasov’s work over a lifetime, you also see here the beginnings of what would become a personal style – elements of fear, foreboding, and death.
See in the left foreground the tree cut dead. See, in the upper left-hand corner, the white, fluffy clouds beginning to darken. Note in the right foreground the almost impenetrable black gloom on our side of the lichen-covered rocks. And as for the bits and pieces of red that I suggested above might be a sign of impending flowers in bloom – we can read that another way. In fact, if we know Savrasov’s later work, we see signs of alarm in these bits of red.
Later in his life, time and time again, Savrasov would paint landscapes as if the world were in conflagration, either already in full burning flame, or on the verge of exploding. Consider his paintings Evening or Sunset – they are washed in a bloody red in the not-too-distant background that bodes nothing good. Furthermore, the bloody, fiery red is almost always mixed with a daunting darkness in which details can barely – if at all – be made out. The more I peruse the work of Savrasov, the more I think he was one of the great painters of impending doom.

People are rarely of interest to Savrasov. The vast majority of his pictures either lack people at all, or offer such tiny little figures that their only function appears to be to demonstrate how insignificant an individual is against the fiery, gloaming onslaught of nature. He occasionally painted graves in the wilderness, giving them a prominence that he almost never gave a living human figure. He has a lovely painting of a shipwreck, in which everyone surely is going down in the deep.
He has a painting called Landscape with Rainbow. You see a title like that and you have lovely, lyrical thoughts of happiness. But then you actually look at the painting and you are taken aback. The almost colorless rainbow peters out in mid-picture, wasted and useless. It hangs ominously over a dead and dying bog. There appears to be some bright sunlight way off in the distance, but hovering over this patch of light is a black, black cloud.
Savrasov’s most famous painting – it is even depicted in the background, so to speak, of the memorial plaque that hangs on the wall of the Academy of Painting – is called The Rooks Have Arrived. And, again, we are witness to an eerie, unsettling image that makes us want to look over our shoulder to see what calamity is gaining on us from behind. It is a beautiful painting, like so many of his works are, but it is clearly the beauty of danger, catastrophe and even horror.
You can read all kinds of nonsense about Savrasov. His student, the famed landscape painter Isaak Levitan, did him a great disfavor, in my opinion, but saying, “Lyricism in landscape paintings, and an endless love for his native earth, appeared with Savrasov…” Thanks to Levitan, one can read over and over again about Savrasov’s “love” either for his “native earth,” or for his “motherland.”
Yes, he loved the earth and the land that give rise to his sensibilities, but it was no “lyrical,” sappy love. This was the love of a man who felt pain and fear for the land around him. The Russia that he painted is a dangerous, threatening place. It is dark and ready to explode. It is drowning and dying even as it gives off spectacular flashes of beauty and power.
Another opinion you can read is that Savrasov was the author of two or three great paintings, but that the rest of his work is sloppy and unrealized. Ba-lo-ney! Google his paintings. Look at them long and hard. You can’t help but be moved, I would think. They are too strong, too brave, too powerful to leave one indifferent.
Apparently Savrasov suffered from alcoholism increasingly after 1870 and he ended up dying destitute. I’ve seen a few comments on the net that seem to use that information as proof that he should be considered an artist of lesser significance. I think all that means is that, yes, the darkness we see in his paintings was something he knew intimately. It takes nothing away from him; it only confirms that he “knew his song well.”
The plaque pictured above hangs on the rotunda wall of the building at Myasnitskaya Ulitsa 21, today the Russian Academy of Painting, etc. It was unveiled in 1980, and is the work of sculptor Oleg Kiryukhin.

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