All posts by russianmonuments

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

Sergei Rachmaninoff at the Savage Club, London

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Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) had four years left to live, but when he performed on tour in the UK in 1939 he was looking so haggard that even the newspapers were writing about it. Sergei Rachmaninoff: A Lifetime in Music pulls together several comments about the pianist’s declining health at this time, such as one paper calling him a “weary titan,” and Rachmaninoff himself admitting in an interview in the Northern Echo that he had been ill for five days straight and wasn’t entirely sure he would be well enough to travel to Middlesbrough, let alone perform.
Perform he did, however, and apparently after the concert he told friends he was back to normal health again. It was either a case of Rachmaninoff brushing off comments of concern, or it was an example of that miracle known as “the stage heals.” Many a performer has walked onto a stage feeling under the weather; many have come back off feeling quit chipper.
Of course there is that one last time it doesn’t work, and that moment would come upon Rachmaninoff at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville on Feb. 17, 1943. Having pushed himself farther than he could go, he had to cancel the rest of that tour and return home to Los Angeles where he would die five weeks later.
But back to the UK in 1939. In February and March of that year Rachmaninoff undertook a tour that saw him perform 12 concerts in 25 days. He opened on Feb. 16 in Birmingham and appears to have concluded in Cardiff on March 12.  Other cities were London (Feb. 18), Liverpool (Feb. 19), Sheffield (Feb. 21), Southampton (Feb. 24), Middlesbrough (Feb. 28), Glasgow (Mar. 2), Edinburgh (Mar. 4), Oxford (Mar. 7), Manchester (Mar. 9), London (Mar. 11). Scott Davie’s wonderful Rachmaninoff site lists the Cardiff show on the 12th, although I have seen comments elsewhere stating that the March 11 London  performance at the old Queen’s Hall (destroyed two years later during the bombing of London) was the last of the UK concerts for that tour – and his last ever performances in the UK. It is after the London show – where his performances included Bach, Beethoven, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt and some of his own works – that Rachmaninoff would be taken to the Sydney Savage Club in the heart of London at One Whitehall Place, which you see pictured here from several angles. Fortunately, a monster delivery truck parked smack dab in front of the entrance for the entire time I was shooting, finally left after I decided to leave, so I ran back and got a few of the straight-on shots that you see here.
On the evening he spent at the Savage Club, Rachmaninoff came as the guest of his good friend, Odessa-born pianist Benno Moiseiwitsch. The Evening News reported the event as follows: “After his concert at Queen’s Hall on Saturday afternoon he was taken to the Savage Club, where, to his surprise, they made him an honorary member. A musician friend of mine who was a guest tells me it was amusing to see the great pianist’s reaction to the carefree abandon of the gathering.” Even today the Savage Club’s website still lists Rachmaninoff as an honorary member, along with Mark Twain, Charlie Chaplin, Charles Dickens, Dylan Thomas and others. Thanks to Sergei Bertensson and Jay Leda, the authors of A Lifetime in Music, we know it was Moiseiwitsch that brought Rachmaninoff to the club because they inserted that information in brackets in the middle of the Evening News report.

Benno Moiseiwitsch (1890-1963) can now occasionally be found in “forgotten pianist” lists, although that seems awfully harsh. He was a deep admirer of Rachmaninoff, who was also a Moiseiwitsch fan, the former calling the latter his “spiritual heir.” As for Moiseiwitsch’s performances of Rachmaninoff’s works, here is what Grammophone wrote in a review of  The Moiseiwitsch-Rachmaninov Recordings, 1937-43: “No pianist other than the composer himself has been more intimately associated with Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto and Paganini Rhapsody than Moiseiwitsch. And, as a corollary, no other pianist has played either work with such a feline ease and sensitivity.” Fortunately for us, Abram Chasins, a U.S. composer, pianist, author, and radio executive, did a radio interview with Moiseiwitsch in 1950 that we can still listen to on YouTube.
There Moiseiwitsch sheepishly tells of his first meeting with Rachmaninoff following his own piano recital at Carnegie Hall in New York in 1919. He had actually attended Rachmaninoff’s performance a week earlier but was too embarrassed to approach the great man. Rachmaninoff had no such qualms and came backstage with a friend to introduce himself after the Moiseiwitsch recital. Benno opines that it was his performance of three or four of Rachmaninoff’s preludes that was the “link that started our friendship.”
When I last saw him it was the year when the war broke out and he was in London in March, and he told me he was coming back in September to play his First Concerto for the first time. So although I studied it – they wanted me to play – I said I would not play, because I want Rachmaninoff to give the first performance. So we waited, and, of course, Rachmaninoff went back to America and [there] was no likelihood of his coming to play in England. So I was the first to play this work, in the new version at any rate.”
Later in the interview – which is definitely worth listening to in full – Moiseiwitsch tells more about the last time he saw Rachmaninoff in his hotel room – I’m guessing this would have been a day or two after the visit to the Savage Club. The two gossiped about numerous of their pianist colleagues, praising each for something, but damning each for something else. As Moiseiwitsch was leaving the room, Rachmaninoff said, “Thank you!”
No, thank you,” said the younger of the two men.
But Rachmaninoff continued, “No, I want to thank you because you killed everybody except me!”
To which Moiseiwitsch, clearly more emboldened than at their first meeting 20 years before, shot back, “Wait a moment, next week I’m lunching with [Josef] Hofmann. Then we’ll kill you! So the last I saw of him was mouth wide opened, roaring with silent laughter.”
I would like to acknowledge Natalia Dissanayake’s wonderful book Russian Fates in London (Russkie sud’by v Londone, London, NED, 2016), where I first ran across reference to Rachmaninoff’s visit to the Savage Club on pg. 243. Thanks also to Larissa Itina, who let me run off with her only copy of the book. I’ll have reason to refer to it again in the future.

 

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Maria Ouspenskaya grave, Los Angeles/Glendale

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“We increasingly live among the dead.”
The thought hardly belongs to Maksym Kurochkin, you can find all kinds of people who said it before I heard him make the comment one day at the Actors House in Moscow, probably around 1999. But it’s a fact of my own biography that the first time I was ever confronted by the notion stated so clearly was when Max uttered it during a post-performance discussion of some show I have long since forgotten. The show is gone from memory, the actors, the director, almost all of the audience around me – all familiar faces at the time – all of them wiped clean. Max’s comment continues to live on in me with that very tenacity of the dead.
It comes back to me as I post more photos of a gravesite, this one the final resting place of Maria Ouspenskaya, a Moscow Art Theater alumna who had a significant impact on American theater and film in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s.
Ouspenskaya (1887-1949) was born in Tula, Russia. She died a rather grisly death, almost as if from one of the horror movies in which she acted – she fell asleep with a lit cigarette in hand and woke up amidst a fire. The wounds that she suffered from the fire, as well as the stroke it induced, were lethal. She died a few days later. I actually went in search of the house where she died, but, as far as I can tell, it no longer exists. My guess is that – if anything was left of from the fire in the first place – it later fell victim to the widening of the 101 freeway that runs through Los Angeles.
As some, rather empty, compensation, she now lies in a peaceful setting beneath the branches of a huge tree in the Forest Lawn cemetery in Glendale. Her marker lies about 30 yards to the left of the right border of the cemetery’s Eventide section. She is in the first row along Arlington Road, plot 3741-6, just to the left of the tree. Visitors can look up to a sloping hill behind her, and back down across segments of East Los Angeles below her. There is a legend out there that she demanded to be addressed, and credited in films, as “Madam Ouspenskaya,” and, sure enough, that is how she is identified on her grave marker – “our beloved Madam.”
This Madam was a formidable woman, actress and teacher despite, or perhaps, because of her slight build. One source tells us she never weighed more than 90 pounds in her life. Others point out that she was demanding as hell and could be extremely hard on students. She referred to her hard nose attitude in an interview in 1941: “All through my life I have been stubborn about my dreams! Nothing could ever stop me from dreaming. If there is determination – if the wish is strong and built on a foundation of joy – in one way or another it will come true.” (Quoted in Pamela Sue Heilman’s PdD dissertation, The American Career of Maria Ouspenskaya (1887-1949): Actress and Teacher [1999]. It’s a fount of information, I highly suggest you read it if you’re interested in Ouspenskaya).

Ouspenskaya (whose name would be transliterated as Uspenskaya were it done today) studied singing in Warsaw and acting in Moscow in Alexander Adashev’s private dramatic courses. She joined the Moscow Art Theatre in 1911 and remained in the company until 1924, when she jumped ship, metaphorically speaking, and stayed in New York to play her trade there. She performed in at least five Soviet short films, although there is something fishy about the fifth,  Tanya the Tavern Girl, which the iMDB site writes came out in 1929, at least five years after she settled in New York. I don’t know whether the film was just late in coming out, or if there is another explanation. Her first film was in the relatively well known screen version of The Cricket on the Hearth (1915), starring Mikhail Chekhov and the rest of the cast of the famed Moscow Art Theatre First Studio production. Ouspenskaya was a founding member of the First Studio.
Her first work in American film was William Wyler’s Dodsworth in 1936. She often played countesses or baronesses; in this case she played Baroness von Obersdorf. She spoke with a lovely Russian accent that Broadway and Hollywood loved – she was often the go-to actress for severe-looking European high society women. Her demeanor also made her perfect in the budding genre of the horror film, and, at least for armchair historians, she is now most famed for her performance opposite Lon Chaney, Jr., in The Wolf Man (1941). She figures prominently in the trailer for the film which, thanks to YouTube, you can watch right now. The Classic Monsters site says this about her performance: “As Maleva the Gypsy Woman, she played opposite Lon Chaney in Universal’s most important horror movie of the 1940s, The Wolf Man. Bela Lugosi also starred as Maleva’s hapless son Bela and, despite the film being one of the strongest of all the Universal horrors, not to mention the Wolf Man himself being one of their most iconic monsters, it is Maria Ouspenskaya’s superlative performance that adds an extra finesse, making an already excellent film outstanding.” Her character Maleva was reprised in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943). She was nominated for Oscars in 1937 (Dodsworth) and 1940 (Love Affair).
In her time at the Art Theater, Ouspenskaya played numerous roles both as a replacement for other actors, and creating original roles. She was one of seven Art Theater actors to remain in New York when the company headed back to Moscow in 1924. She soon began teaching and performing – with surprising frequency and admirable success – in New York playhouses. Along with Richard Boleslawsky, one of those Art Theater actors to remain in the States, Ouspenskaya helped to found and run the American Laboratory Theater in New York. Her first English-language foray on the American stage captured a rave notice in the New York Times: “The cheers for Saturday night’s audience were rather for Maria Ouspenskaya, stepping from the ensemble of the Moscow Art Theatre to play her first role in English— and to play it, to the astonishment of everyone, easily and colloquially.” Chapters Five and Six in Heilman’s dissertation, whence this last quote, provide a wealth of information about Ouspenskaya’s work in the U.S. theater.

 

Ivan Lebedeff home, Los Angeles

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I’ve written about Ivan Lebedeff here in the past; he was a marvelous character, one of the defining figures of the so-called “White emigration” in Hollywood in the early years. Never famous in the direct sense of the word, he was ever-present on the star scene. He always had a starlet at his arm, his mustachio, like his monocle, was always in perfect position, and he himself was always at the hottest premiere or the coolest bar and restaurant where the tinsel shimmered and glittered in the warm Southern California summer breezes. Looking for something new to write about him today, I happened upon a web book called Who’s Who in California (Volume 1942-43), which has a wealth of details I had not previously discovered. In addition to confirming that Lebedeff lived at 8888 Appian Way in the Hollywood Hills, it provides many specifics about his life in Russia before he emigrated.
He received a Master of Literature degree at the age of 20 at the University of St. Petersburg in 1914, following that with a Master of Law degree from the Imperial Lyceum of Alexander I (St. Petersburg) in 1917. It was a propitious time for a nobleman to receive such a status, since just months later the Russian Revolution swept the standing government out of power.
Lebedeff was a much-decorated soldier. His military service began when he enlisted as a volunteer in the 3rd Regiment of Dragoons, with which he participated in the East Prussian campaign. In 1915 he was appointed Commander of Guerilla troops in the Pinsk Marshes, and, in that capacity, led his men on over one hundred raids. 1916 was an active year for Lebedeff as World War I continued to unfold. That year he received the commission of 2nd, then 1st Lieutenant, participated in the capture of German Lieutenant-General Von Fabarius (read more about that here), and was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant-Captain. In 1917 he fought on the Rumanian front and was promoted to the rank of Major. His awards and medals included: St. George Medal, 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Class; St. George Cross, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Class; St. Stanislaus, 2nd and 3rd Class; St. Anna, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Class; St. Vladimir, 4th Class; and the Order of the Knight of St. George, 4th Class.
One has the feeling that Lebedeff himself provided all this information for the book; it’s otherwise too detailed and complete to believe that some researcher would have unearthed all this for the book on his or her own. As such, one can almost picture Lebedeff pulling down a dusty old box from a high shelf somewhere in this house at 8888 Appian Way, and looking over all his medals as he carefully jotted them down in a list to send to the editors. Even though most refugees from the Soviet Union left with little on their backs, one feels certain that Lebedeff, who clearly put a great deal of stock in his years as a soldier for the Tsar, would have left behind much, but not those medals. In fact, Lebedeff only lists two organizations of which he was a member in these years, and one of them was the Russian World War Veterans (an honorary membership). The other was the Motion Pictures Actors Guild.

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Unexpected for me was the fact that Lebedeff was an oft-published author of fiction and non-fiction.  He wrote the original story for The Gay Diplomat, a 1931 film in which he performed as an actor. He was also the author of a novel titled Legion of Dishonor (NY: Liveright Publishing Co., 1940). The book can even be had today online for a very reasonable $10. A rarer copy is available for $85 should you be a collector. His interest in foreign affairs led to him penning an essay titled “Japan will swallow China” for the Los Angeles Times (Dec. 6, 1931). Lebedeff had been inclined to test his powers as a writer even before he left Russia. He wrote the short stories “Temple of Beauty,” Nurse Natasha,” and “Woman and Tiger” in the years 1915-16. (The source suggests these tales were published in “Lyceum Monthly,” although my brief internet research does not turn up any reference to such a historical publication.) (Add note: see comment below by LanguageHat to clarify this publication.) On military affairs Lebedeff published “Psychological Strategy in Guerilla Warfare” (New Time; St. Petersburg, 1916), and the apparently prescient “Second World War Inevitable” in the Revue de Deux Mondes (Paris, 1923).
To fill out the wealth of information provided in this book, we shall add that Lebedeff enjoyed horse-riding and hunting, he was a member of the Russian-Orthodox Church (it actually says the “Greek Orthodox Church”), and the Republican Party. I provided information in the last blog about Lebedeff that he was a close friend of, God forbid, Ayn Rand, and that he had friends among fascists in Germany. Times were tough, we do need to remember that.
Finally, the book lists 8888 Appian Way as Lebedeff’s home and business address.
The Movieland Directory puts Lebedeff in this house from 1944 to 1948, based on voting records. It puts him at other addresses, including 8419 De Longpre Ave. in the 1930s and up to at least 1940 (again, as per voting records). But we know from the book referenced so heavily above that that he was resident at 8888 Appian Way at least as early as 1942-43. Lebedeff, born in 1894, died in 1953. I do not know if he was still resident here for those last five years of his life. At present (2018), the home on Appian Way has four bedrooms, one bath, and consists of 1,690 square feet of living space on a lot of 6,842 square feet. As you can see in one of the last photos below, it looks out over the Los Angeles basin from the Hollywood Hills.

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Maximilian Voloshin apartment, St. Petersburg

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Three people come together in today’s brief and fragmentary tale: Maximilian Voloshin, Oksana Mysina, and Konstantin Olonovsky.
I never met Kostya Olonovsky, although his role in, and influence on, my life has been enormous. Kostya was a film director, an experimenter who loved to play with images, music, poetry and the intersection of art and life. My wife Oksana performed in a couple of his films; his last – unmade – screenplay was written for Oksana; and he made music videos of at least two songs by Oksana’s band Oxy Rocks (The World on Edge, and The Sky Above Me). When Oksana and I were looking for advice on where to travel in Greece a few years ago, she called Kostya and asked him because he – with partial Greek heritage – had lived and worked there for a time. His answer was that we should go to Chania, Crete, because “Chania is like a living film location.” We took his advice, we immediately fell in love with Chania and the island of Crete, and it has now become an integral part of our lives. A few years ago Kostya made a film called Whisper. The Silver Age, for which, among others, Oksana recited the work of several Russian Silver Age poets. As he prepared to enter the film in a European festival he wrote and asked me to look over some internet translations of the poetry – he needed to submit the film with English subtitles. I immediately came back to him with the offer to translate the poems myself. I do not consider myself particularly adept at translating poetry, but I knew I could surely do better than Google. The poets whose work I Englished for Kostya were Alexander Blok, Vyacheslav Ivanov, Andrei Bely and Maximilian Voloshin. I don’t know if he ever inserted the subtitles, I don’t know if he ever submitted the film to the festival. (The internet version of the film which I link to above does not have subtitles.) I do know that at about that time he was diagnosed with a virulent strain of cancer that soon after stopped him from working, stopped him from leaving his bed, and finally killed him in late summer 2017. He was 33 years old. Oksana, with Konstantin’s creative team, and the blessing of Konstantin’s widow, is currently preparing to make a film based on the director’s last screenplay. To do so, she has removed herself from the cast of actors and will take on the task of directing.
I thought about a lot of this the last time I was in St. Petersburg. Among the many landmarks I happened upon was the one pictured here today – the first building in which Maximilian Voloshin lived in St. Petersburg. The address is 153 Nevsky Prospect and it is located almost at the very end of that famed thoroughfare – not far at all from the Aleksandro-Nevsky monastery, and on the same side of the street. Voloshin was 26 when in 1903 he took up residence in apartment No. 61, one of the living spaces high up under the roof. Voloshin wrote and published his first poetry while living here, although at the the time he was more inclined to see himself as a future painter. He apparently only spent a few months here before moving on.
When one reads the excerpts of the Voloshin poem that Olonovsky included in Whisper. The Silver Age, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that he already sensed danger in his near future. Even more than that, however, one sees in the verses the sensibility that marked Kostya as a director. Kostya clearly had a kinship with Voloshin. I’m grateful for everything that Konstantin Olonovsky brought to my family – including the opportunity to allow even just a little bit of Maximilian Voloshin to pass through me into English.

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Maximilian Voloshin
A fragment chosen by Konstantin Olonovsky from the “Rebellion” segment of the poem cycle “In Cain’s Footsteps” (more literally, “By the Paths of Cain”).
Translated by John Freedman

The world is a ladder on whose steps
Man rose.
We can feel
What he has left along his way.
Animals and stars are the toxins of flesh
That burned in the creative fire:
They all in their turn served man
As footing,
And every step
Was a rebellion of creative spirit.
Only two paths are open to any being
Caught in the trap of equilibrium:
The way of mutiny and the way of conforming.
Mutiny is madness;
The laws of nature do not change.
But in the battle for the truth of the impossible
The madman
Transubstantiates himself,
And, having conformed, stops still
On the step that he passed.
The beast adapts to the inflections of nature,
While a man stubbornly rows
Against the waterfall that carries
The universe
Back to ancient chaos.
He affirms God by his mutiny,
Creates by lack of faith, builds by denial.
He’s an architect:
His model is death,
His clay – the crosswinds of his spirit.

A man’s flesh is a scroll on which
All the dates of being are noted.

They are waymarks, leaving on the road
His brothers fallen by the side:
Birds and beasts and fish.
He walked the way of fire through nature.
Blood is the first sign of earthly mutiny;
The second sign
Is a torchlight blowing in the wind.
In the beginning there was the only Ocean,
Smoking on a white-hot bed.
And from this heated womb there sprang
The inextricable knot of life: flesh,
Shot through with breathing and beating.
The planet cooled.
Life caught flame.
Our progenitor, the one from the cooling waters
Who dragged his fishy carcass onto land,
Kept with him all that ancient Ocean
With the breathing of the swaying tides,
The primordial warmth and salty water –
Live blood coursing through its veins,
The monstrous creatures multiplied
On the beaches.
The sculptor, ever the perfectionist,
Wiped from the face of earth and made anew
All likenesses and forms.
Man
Was nowhere seen amid the earthly flock.
Sliding from the poles, great icy masses
Pushed out the life that teemed in the valleys.
Only then did the blaze of a bonfire
Inform the beasts about man.

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Fyodor Dostoevsky plaque, St. Petersburg

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I’m coming to you with Dostoevsky today because I have been inside of Dostoevsky’s head all morning and afternoon. I began my day at my computer early this morning as my wife slept and I translated (portions of) Dostoevsky’s The Idiot into English on an empty stomach. It was one of the most memorable few hours of my life not only as a translator, but of my life, plain and simple. By the time Oksana came out and we shared our breakfast of oatmeal, I felt as though someone had plugged me into an electrical outlet. I think my eyes were giving off light. I think my skin was twitching. I could feel the air move through the hairs on my arms. I was as alive as one gets on a Sunday morning before breakfast. When she got up, Oksana asked me the usual question, “Did you have your glass of water?” I said, “No. I’m translating Dostoevsky. I’ve never felt so alive.”
Dostoevsky has followed me my entire adult life. He came quickly after Tolstoy when I was in high school. It was War and Peace then Anna Karenina then Crime and Punishment. I don’t remember the order anymore, but the next three reads were: The Brothers Karamazov, The Demons (The Possessed), and The Idiot, whatever the order was.
As I said, I was with The Idiot this morning. One of the segments I was translating (for supertitles for a theatre production of The Idiot) was the famous description of a condemned man waking in the morning, thinking he has a week to live – a whole, long week – and he finds out he has hours left to live – whole, long hours. It’s one of the great passages in world literature and I was privileged to have it pass through me today and emerge in English of some kind.
Dostoevsky is surely the most crooked, whacked-out, unorthodox, clumsy, prolix, confusing writer that ever put pen to paper. And therein, of course, lies his greatness. He is one of the chosen few who trusted his own instincts to the very end and went with them. Nobody ever wrote like Dostoevsky, clunking, tripping, stumbling, slogging along with interjections, bare naked adverbs, truncated thoughts, U-turns in logic, ellipses run amok, feverish exclamations, sentences jammed into one another that seem never to end, falling over commas, semi-colons, colons, dashes and whatever other signs he could conjure up and throw in between his words. And every trip and every stumble and every whip-around back in the opposite direction drives deeply into your heart, your soul and the soft matter of your brain. That man, that writer, was plugged into the truth. The truth is messy and complex and Dostoevsky, writing the truth, wrote messily and complexly. He is hell on steroids for a translator, and I’ve never enjoyed hell as I have done translating large excerpts from The Idiot these last weeks. Today was an epiphany, it was fireworks, it was the piece de resistance, the cornerstone of the work I’ve been doing. It was as if I climbed Olympus and Homer was there to greet me. Only Homer had Dostoevsky’s beard. It was joy, sheer, unadulterated joy.

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In honor of this splendid day I have spent, I am showing you ground zero in St. Petersburg: the building in which Dostoevsky lived when he wrote Crime and Punishment. Surely when you think “Dostoevsky,” you think Crime and Punishment. As I say, it was the first Dostoevsky novel I read, and it was my third Russian novel in a youthful, drunken literary spree that – thank you, Lord – took me in different directions from Brett Kavanaugh. But my connections to Crime and Punishment are deeper than that, for I have lived the last quarter century with one of the seemingly peripheral characters of Dostoevsky’s great novel of suffering, discovery and redemption. By that I mean to say that Oksana Mysina, my wife, has, for 25 years, played Katerina Ivanovna, the wife of the drunkard Marmeladov, in Kama Ginkas’s great (the word is used properly here) production called K.I. from ‘Crime’, which, in its two and a half decades, has performed in some 20 countries even as it continues to run in Moscow. I could write a book about what it’s like to live with a character shaped not only by a genius writer, but by a genius theater director, but I won’t say a single other word about that now. That’s a whole other can of worms.
The building pictured here (now a light pink – I don’t know what it was like 150 years ago) stands at the corner of Stolyarny Lane 14 and Kaznacheiskaya Street 7. (Kaznacheiskaya was called Malaya Meshchanskaya Street when Dostoevsky lived there.) The plaque hanging on the wall on the Kaznacheiskaya side declares: “Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky lived in this house from 1864 to 1867. Here was written the novel Crime and Punishment.” But that only tells one quarter of the story of this street crossing. Dostoevsky lived or spent time in all four of the buildings that stand on this corner!  Two have plaques, one has information put up by a cafe proprietor, and the other was under reconstruction when I photographed it this summer. I couldn’t tell if anything was written there. But the point is, when you stand in the middle of this intersection, Dostoevskian winds blow at you from all sides – rather like they do in his novels.
When Dostoevsky lived here the building belonged to Ivan Alonkin, a merchant, tea-seller, and apartment-house owner. Dostoevsky occupied Apt. 36 on the second floor. In addition to Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky wrote the novellas Notes from Underground and The Gambler while living here. The building was originally erected in 1822 and was rebuilt/restructured several times since.
This is the place where Dostoevsky declared his love for his stenographer Anna, who subsequently became his wife and, quite probably, saved his life. Thanks to Anna’s memoirs, we even know a little about Alonkin and the apartment. According to an online Dostoevsky encyclopedia, Anna recalled Alonkin describing Dostoevsky as a “great worker. When I go to morning prayers and I see the light on in his study, it means he is working.” Anna went on about Alonkin: “He never bothered reminding us about the rent, knowing that when money would come in, Fyodor Mikhailovich would pay him. Fyodor Mikhailovich loved talking to the venerable old man. In my opinion, Fyodor Mikhailovich relied on his [Alonkin’s] physical appearance to shape the merchant Samsonov, Grushenka’s patron, in The Brothers Karamazov.”
The rent for Apt. 36, Malaya Meshchanskaya was 25 rubles a month. Dostoevsky paid two months in advance (without signing a rental contract), plus a 10 ruble deposit the day before he officially rented the space.

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Lyubov Orlova statue, Zvenigorod

 

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My wife and I happened to drive through Zvenigorod a few weeks ago, and who should I see when we stopped to make a left turn, but Lyubov Orlova. I’m probably the last person – in Russia, at least – who did not now that the popular actress, the Soviet Union’s first sex symbol, was born in Zvenigorod, a sleepy little town due west of Moscow. The statue is relatively new – it was unveiled September 10, 2016. To be entirely honest, I can’t say I’m much of a fan. Sculptor Alexander Rozhnikov seems to have conjured all the kitsch he could muster. It doesn’t help that the square on which the statue is located is terribly nondescript. Bits and pieces of Zvenigorod have the feel of a cozy old Russian town, but not the area that is dominated by the Lyubov Orlova Cultural Center. That building – the creme colored structure behind the statue – is as faceless as everything else on this block. As for the statue, it shows Orlova in a “typical” glamour shot – one hand behind the back of her head, the other saucily planted on her left hip. Presumably the image is inspired by Orlova’s performance in her first major film – Jolly Fellows (1934). In any case, in that film she wore a similar top hat with a feather on the left-hand side, as you see in the photos of the sculpture here. I have to take issue with my old friend Nonna Golikova, Orlova’s great-niece, who said at the unveiling that the dress made of film reels “is a very precise metaphor, wonderful!” I’m more inclined to say that the dress flowing down into rolls of film is about as cliched as one could get. As for Orlova’s face, is it generic or is it completely lacking in character? Sorry folks, I just can’t get behind this one at all.
Having said that, I have to admit it was a thrill to run across something like this in a small Russian town. The Orlova Cultural Center tells us that this is the first and the only statue honoring Orlova in Russia.
Orlova was born on the summer estate belonging to her mother Yevgenia Sukhotina in Zvenigorod in 1902 – February 11 according to the Grigorian calendar, January 29 by the Julian calendar, which was in effect in Russia at that time. Both her mother and her father Pyotr Orlov were from noble families. They were sufficiently well-known and well-placed in society that Fyodor Chaliapin was a frequent family guest in Zvenigorod when Orlova was a girl. According to legend, she once performed in a children’s production at Chaliapin’s home in Moscow, making an indelible impression on the great singer. Here is the account of that great event from the Lyubov Orlova website.
At his Moscow home on Novinsky Boulevard Fyodor Ivanovich Chaliapin often organized holidays for children. Sometimes they staged children’s plays. Lyubochka Orlova participated in one of these productions, the musical fairy tale Mushroom Trouble. She was then no more than six years old. The performance was carefully prepared, rehearsals were conducted, the little performers were outfitted in fine costumes. The production was prepared by two directors: Chaliapin’s wife Ilya Ilyaevna and Alexander Adashev, an actor of the Moscow Art Theater. Lyubochka performed the role of the Turnip, and her singing and dancing charmed the audience. Following the performance, Chaliapin picked the girl up in her magnificent pink dress and shouted: ‘This girl will be a famous actress!“‘

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Be that as it may, Orlova’s parents were not convinced that their daughter’s future lay in acting, and they sent her to the Moscow Conservatory in 1919 where she studied piano for three years. She did not complete her education there, however. Some sources say that her musical ear was damaged due to an illness and she could not continue, while others suggest that the hard times hitting Russia in 1922 forced her to go out into the world and earn a living. She did, however, switch over to what we now know as GITIS (the state theater institute) to complete her education. Upon graduating from GITIS Orlova joined the company of the Moscow Art Theater strictly as a dancer in the corps de ballet. From 1920 to 1926 she earned extra cash by accompanying silent films at various Moscow cinemas as a pianist. Apparently the one she most often played at was the Ars cinema on Tverskaya Street. It so happens that I now work for the theater – the Stanislavsky Electrotheatre – that is located in that very space. Orlova was famously discovered by the filmmaker Grigory Alexandrov in 1933, and he cast her in Jolly Fellows, his first full-length film, making both of them overnight legends. They were married that same year and remained together until Orlova’s death in 1975.
The Orlova family, in addition to counting Chaliapin among their friends, were also related to Leo Tolstoy by way of Orlova’s mother’s family. Orlova’s great-Uncle Mikhail Sukhotin married Tolstoy’s daughter Tatyana in 1899. Supposedly, Orlova would bounce on Leo’s knee when he came to visit. She owned a copy of Tolstoy’s The Prisoner of the Caucasus, which he signed and presented to her, although it’s possible that she herself had little to do with that gift. One can find a story which states that Orlova’s mother actually wrote to Tolstoy asking him to send her daughter the gift. According to this source, “The fact is that her mother was an incredibly vain woman who composed family legends and did shocking things on behalf of her daughters.” Still, we are inclined to take Orlova’s own account into consideration. This is what she wrote about the gift in 1945. “One day my mother let me read Tolstoy’s children’s stories. I liked them very much, and I asked her to give me another book. Mother did not have anything more like it. So I said I would write to Grandpa Tolstoy and ask him to send me another book. Mother laughed, but let me do it, and I wrote the following: ‘Dear Grandfather Tolstoy! I read your book. I liked it very much. Please send me another of your books to read.’ Responding to this child’s request, the great writer sent as a gift the book The Prisoner of the Caucasus with the inscription, ‘To Lyubochka – L. Tolstoy.’

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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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