All posts by russianmonuments

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

The Almost Russian Theater, Los Angeles, CA

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Among my far-flung searches for places connected to Russian culture this surely is one of my favorite finds. As I was doing my scattershot, though deeply immersive, research this summer on Russian artists in LA., one thing led me to another which led me to another and I ended up reading bits and pieces of Sergei Bertensson’s book In Hollywood with Nemirovich-Danchenko, 1926-1927. Imagine my astonishment (well, you can’t if you already knew this, but it was new to me) when I read the following diary entry from June 1927:
Two of the directors of the Hollywood Playhouse payed a visit to Vladimir Ivanovich to discuss the possibility of organizing a permanent drama theater in Hollywood, a true art theater. Both of them are naive and primitive enough, one of them is frankly thinking only of profit. Vladimir Ivanovich spoke about three possibilities: 1) to organize a permanent company on the basis of the Art Theatre, 2) to stage one play using the tasks and methods of the Moscow Art Theatre in order that this play becomes a model for the future work, 3) to work out a detailed plan (artistic, administrative, juridicial) according to which the owners of this theatre could run the company without the help of Vladimir Ivanovich. Vladimir Ivanovich promised to inform them of his acceptance of the first or second plan no earlier than in a month when his plans for the future became clear. He could work out the third plan now. It has been decided to have a tour of the building of the Hollywood Playhouse in two days’ time and after that to come to the conclusion.”
Holy Moses! There was almost a Moscow Art Theater, or maybe a Nemirovich-Danchenko Theater in Los Angeles! Well, as you read on, you realize that this “almost” – like so many “almosts” in life, especially in the life of anyone trying to bridge the cultural gap between Russia and the United States – probably wasn’t much of a real “almost.” And yet, and yet… Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, while in Hollywood, actually visited this theater, the Hollywood Playhouse, and actually did consider – at least for a few moments – the idea of opening a Moscow Art Theater-type theater in Los Angeles.
Indeed, two days later, on June 17, Nemirovich-Danchenko and his secretary Sergei Bertensson headed over to the Playhouse, which you see photographed here in loving delight, for a meeting with the owners. I think it’s interesting – though it may or may not be important – that when the director discovered he had mistakenly scheduled two meetings at the same time, he chose to honor not a meeting with a big Hollywood honcho (Irving Thalberg, the boy wonder at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) who wanted to do a film with him, he went to the Hollywood Playhouse for a tour of the plant and a discussion of the possibilities of collaboration.
The idea – at least of Nemirovich-Danchenko directing a play – remained alive until mid-October. Simeon Gest, brother of the more famous Russian-emigre producer Morris Guest, conducted the negotiations for the Russian director with the American theater owners.  According to Bertensson, the owners were to have informed him of their decision to go ahead with the project or not on Oct. 12, but asked for another day to consider. On Oct. 13 Bertensson writes in his diary, “All the business with the Hollywood Playhouse has fallen through, as the management either cannot or do not want to risk giving Vladimir Ivanovich the necessary financial guarantees. When from high-sounding words we proceeded to dollars, all their pathos disappeared immediately. And the Academy refused to support the initiative officially, referring to the point that the stage is beyond the scope of their interests as they only deal with pure cinematography. However, admitting the general significance of such an event as a production by Vladimir Ivanovich, certain members of the Academy promise their assistance!? Words, words, words...”
Ah, yes, Words! We have heard words, too. But allow me to brush aside my lyrical outburst and provide the proper bibliographical information for my quotes. They were drawn from pages 129-30, and 156 in Bertensson’s published memoir.

When I set out in search of this little theater-that-couldn’t-quite, I never expected to actually find it. I thought for sure it would be one of those places that has since fallen to the bulldozer and the parking lot. But no. As I drove north on Las Palmas Ave. toward Sunset Boulevard from De Longpre Ave. with my sister Margie riding shotgun, my eyes began to grow bigger and bigger as we drove through a mostly residential block in which a strangely theater-like building stood up ahead on the left, right about where 1445 N. Las Palmas Avenue should be. I jumped out of the car and began taking photos, hoping against hope this was what I thought it was. Then I walked around a big bougainvillea plant and looked up. I might as well have seen a live dinosaur. There it was, the old Hollywood Playhouse sign still intact. A bit worse for the wear, a bit faded for the years, but there was no mistaking what it said. I must also say that the maniac in me began having incredibly wild ideas, because there it is, written on two places on the building – the place is available for rent. Anybody got a couple million dollars they want to invest? With Russians flooding abroad these days (I recently read an article about 100 top Russian intellectuals who have abandoned Putin’s Russia in recent years), this could be the next big thing in L.A. Anybody think? I’ve got contact information here, if you get my drift… I got ideas…
Back to earth, however.
As much as it pains me to say it, this location had at least one more brush with Russian emigre cultural figures. I happened upon that tidbit recently when researching Ivan Lebedeff’s biography. You see, Alisa Rosenbaum’s debut play was staged here. Alisa Rosenbaum? Oh, you mean, Ayn Rand. Ugh. Yes. Ayn Rand.
As reported in Anne C. Heller’s Ayn Rand and the World She Made, Rand’s first stage play, The Night of January 16thopened as Woman on Trial at the Hollywood Playhouse in October 1934, in a production by sometime actor E. E. Clive and featuring former silent-screen actress Barbara Bedford. Critics and a star-studded first-night audience, including Rand’s Polish idol Pola Negri, Frank Capra, Jesse Lasky, Mary Pickford, Gloria Swanson, Marlene Dietrich, three members of the White Russian aristocratic diaspora, and Rand’s friend Ivan Lebedeff, among other film celebrities, praised the plot and were beguiled by the volunteer jury” [drawn from the audience].
So there you have it. Stand back and squint. Do you see Nemirovich-Danchenko, looking not at all Hollywood-like in his heavy Russian beard, entering the door? Is that Bertensson – who would immigrate to the U.S. a few years later and would publish his notes of his time with Nemirovich and later write a biography of Sergei Rachmaninoff – following his friend in the door? Or is it Rand, the Russian wannabe emigre writer, sneaking out after the premiere of her play, not wanting to be noticed because she really didn’t like people? Or might that dashing figure coming out now be Lebedeff, monocled and mustachioed, who absolutely loved opening nights and Hollywood crowds!
Whoever it is, there are some pretty good Russian ghosts here.

 

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Vasily Gilbert plaque, Tula

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It was getting late in Tula in October and the sun was not providing a lot of light. That, combined with the still-blue sky and the blue building I was photographing, gave a wonderful blue hue to all the pictures I took of this building in which the artist Vasily Gilbert once plied his art. I had just finished photographing a neighboring building that had something to do with Leo Tolstoy – one that was on my list – when I happened upon this one at 49 Gogolevskaya Street – which was not. I had never heard of Vasily Gilbert and, if you’re not from Tula, you may not have either. He is not mentioned in John Milner’s massive A Dictionary of Russian and Soviet Artists, 1420-1970, and the cookie cutter bios on the Russian net suggest his work is not held in collections far beyond Tula. These biographical accounts also bury the fact that Gilbert was murdered in the Purges of 1938 at the very end of the bios, adding no explanation or elaboration. We’ll get to that in a moment. The only English reference I find to him is in the ArtHive website, which provides a translation of the basic circulating Russian text.
Gilbert was born in the city of Samara in 1874. His father was an Englishman, surely named Thomas since Gilbert’s patronymic in Russian is Foma. Thomas immigrated to Russia in 1860, for reasons I have not discerned. In any case, he apparently had some artistic talent, because he gave drawing and painting lessons to all his sons when they were young of age. In 1894 Gilbert began studies at the Moscow College of Portraiture, Sculpture and Architecture where he was fortunate enough to study at least some under the tutelage of Valentin Serov and Isaac Levitan, two of the finest Russian painters of that time. It’s hard to tell how much he actually worked with them, but it is a recorded fact that he did his graduate project with another artist, Alexander Stepanov, described by Milner as a “painter of landscape and animal subjects” who was “known as one of the so-called Young Wanderers.”
Gilbert moved to Tula in 1904 and remained there until his death in 1938. He apparently made the move to take up a position teaching art in three different schools, including a local boys’ gymnasium. He also taught at a trade school and the famous local arms factory. According to an online Tula library, “The students immediately fell in love with their new teacher, an incredibly gentle man with a friendly manner of teaching. The artist taught students to see nature, to understand the subtlest shades of its moods, to apply light, soft tones in their painting.”
In addition to the landscapes and animal portraiture that Gilbert created, he spent a good deal of time illustrating texts for some of Russia’s top publishers. He drew and painted illustrations for the popular periodical Nature and Hunting, and illustrated the poetry of Alexei Koltsov, Alexander Pushkin, and Leo Tolstoy for the famed Moscow publisher Ivan Sytin.
Gilbert lived in Tula during the last six years of Tolstoy’s life. I do not find any proof that they met or knew each other, although it is a fact that Gilbert would often take his students on Sunday excursions to Tolstoy’s estate in Yasnaya Polyana to paint and draw the landscapes there. I don’t know whether these trips were taken before or after Tolstoy’s death.

The same online library mentioned above has a fairly concise description of Gilbert’s place in Tula’s artistic life and I might as well just let their text speak for itself:
Gilbert took an active part in the life of the Tula Arts and Crafts College, where he taught artistic casting, forging from metal, and where he gave lessons evenings and Sundays for anyone who wished to attend. At the beginning of the 20th century, the artist made a trip to Arkhangelsk and Solovki, whence he brought many watercolors depicting the harsh, poetic nature and architecture of the North. Gilbert’s Mooses, painted in 1910 and exhibited at the Tula Museum of Fine Arts, is done in the best traditions of Russian art of the second half of the 19th century. Gilbert took the revolution to heart and worked hard for the new government. He wrote slogans, posters and panels, and decorated public houses and clubs.”
Gilbert occupied a visible place in Tula’s cultural life for the first four decades of the 20th century. Whenever there was an art exhibit, it seemed he was a participant. Whenever a new school or new classes were opened, it seemed he was there to help and participate. His illustrations were frequently published in local magazines and journals. He appears to have been a truly popular and genuinely beloved figure in the city. That online biography ends with these words: “Gilbert’s works are held in Tula museums and private collections, and when you study them, you see a figure of an outstanding, intelligent, kind person, a talented painter whose whole life and work placed him in the ranks of the older generation of Russian artists.
I’m not entirely sure what an achievement it was to be “placed in the ranks of the older generation of Russian artists,” but we’ll skip over that for the time being in order to come quickly to two sentences in the bio that kill me: “His last personal exhibition opened in 1936. Soon he was arrested and in 1938 he was shot near Tula in the Nikolskoye forest.”
What?! What happened to all the “love” and “respect” and “adoration” that the city lavished on Vasily Gilbert?
The Russian Nekropole website has only the barest of information. His date of execution is given as April 7, 1938. The sentence is listed as VMN (ВМН in Russian), which means literally, “highest degree of punishment,” usually translated into English as “capital punishment,” and, in actual fact, meaning that Gilbert was shot.
Another site, Open List,  repeats this basic information, adding only that Gilbert is buried in the Tesnitsky forest.
I spent more than the usual time surfing the net to find more details, if not an explanation, about Gilbert’s demise. Every one of the deaths in the purges was unbearably heinous. Gilbert’s is no less so and it makes me want to have answers. If anyone knows more, I would love to hear from you.

 

 

Ivan Lebedeff gravesite, Glendale, CA

 

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Ivan Lebedeff is not exactly one of the household names in the Tinseltown pantheon. Nevertheless, the actor – often called “Hollywood’s champion hand-kisser” – had quite a career. That, in itself, is clear from the fact that his burial place lies in the rarified shadows of the grand tomb of Mary Pickford in the Gardens of Memory at Forest Lawn cemetery in Glendale, CA. The inscription on the bronze plaque is somewhat confusing. It states that Lebedeff was the “beloved husband of Wera [Engels-Lebedeff] and Mary’s devoted friend.” That and, which I put in italics, implies that Ivan was Mary’s close friend, when by all accounts, it was Wera and Mary who were close. Maybe the and was supposed to have been a comma, I don’t know. But the fact remains a fact – Lebedeff and his wife are both buried here in this hallowed ground.
Before launching into his life as a film actor, Lebedeff had already lived quite a life. He was born June 18, 1894, on his parents’ family estate in Ushpol (later known as Užpaliai) in Lithuania, which, at that time, was a part of the Russian empire. His father Vasily was well-placed in St. Petersburg society, by all accounts an advisor or confidant of the Tsar. This made it possible for the young Ivan to study at the Lyceum at Tsarskoe Tselo, the same lyceum where Alexander Pushkin was educated 100 years earlier. The young Lebedev (the double-F ending would become the norm only after emigrating to the West) was apparently headed for a life in the diplomatic corps, but World War I put a stop to that. I will let William Donati, author of The Life and Death of Thelma Todd, pick up the story:
…At the outbreak of the Great War, he enlisted in the Corps of Pages, a privileged military school for future guard officers. He fought against the Germans and was decorated. In the revolution he fought against the Bolsheviks but was captured and imprisoned. He escaped to Paris where he survived as a stock broker, playwright, and actor. After making pictures in Vienna and Paris, he attracted the attention of D.W. Griffith, who hired him for The Sorrows of Satan.”
It is worth pointing out that Lebedev was one of those who suffered from mustard gas in the First World War and he received a St. George’s Cross, the highest Russian honor, from the hand of Nikolai II himself, and, also, that his escape from prison was something out of a fairy tale. It just so happened that his family’s former lackey was one of the guards in the prison and he helped his former master escape. He did so by going first through Constantinople, Turkey, and then on to Europe. Here, let me allow a Russian web biography pick up the story – it puts a bit of a different slant on things, particularly on the “stock broker” tidbit:
…At the end of the Civil War, in August 1919 Lebedev boarded the French cruiser Tuareg to Constantinople. There [he made a living selling] antiques and works of art. He then went to Vienna and, in the hope of making big money, played the stock market. He became involved in a huge financial scandal, lost everything and became a beggar. From there he went to Frankfurt, Milan, Amsterdam, Paris and Zurich … His wanderings were caused by his desperate situation and his lack of money. Luck smiled on Lebedev in Berlin, where he met a director named Robinson in a tram. Robinson immediately offered his companion a role. In 1922, Lebedev starred in the silent film King Frederick, and beginning in 1924, in France in the silent films The Happy Death, The Artist’s Soul, 600,000 Francs a Month, and The Charming Prince.
One can imagine both Robinson and D.W. Griffith hiring Lebedeff (as his name would have been spelled now) on short notice. He was a dashing, handsome man, who retained all the manners and mannerisms of a nobleman and an officer. He was everything the moving pictures of the time adored.

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Once in Hollywood he launched into a relatively successful career as a character actor. The imdb website lists 67 credits between 1926 and his death in 1953. (They do not list his European credits, nor do they list at least one other Hollywood film, The Voice of Hollywood, No. 3, released August 2, 1931 (citation: Edwin M. Bradley’s The First Hollywood Sound Shorts, 1926-31). True, of those films, 16 were uncredited roles, one was a short and another was a film in which all of Lebedeff’s scenes were left on the cutting floor. You get a feel for the way he was typecast by perusing the characters he was asked to play – five Princes, five Counts, four Barons, four Marquises, three Captains, and so forth. At least one film seems never to have happened. In it he was to have played the lead in a script that he co-wrote himself with British playwright Benn Levy. According to a 1931 gossip column he was signed to play the lead in Strange Women, a tale based on his own life. The famed teacher Richard Boleslavsky was to have directed, and Irene Dunn was slated to play the female lead. Several years later he did play a small part in a film called Strange Wives (1934), but this would appear to be something else entirely – the director, screenwriter and stars are completely different. The extent to which Lebedeff’s career tumbled in the later years is borne out by a still photo of Lebedeff sitting with Mary Pickford in 1952. The caption identifies him not as an actor, but rather as the Los Angeles director for the National Economic Council of New York. Still, Lebedeff did play featured roles opposite Jean Harlow, Mae West and other top stars.
Thanks to a fabulous fan blog we have access to a marvelous three-page feature that Harry Lang wrote about Lebedeff in Photoplay magazine in November 1931. It is chock-full of the tidbits any Tinseltowner would love to hear – all about Lebedeff’s philosophy of kissing hands, his use of his monocle (his vision was actually so bad he could not drive), his shaving practices, his haberdashery habits, his likes and dislikes in women and food. I’d love to quote the entire article, it is that good. But, assuming you’ll go read it yourself, I’ll limit myself to this lovely bit about his walking cane:
The reason he carries a stick is because, while in Russian military service in his earlier life, he formed the habit of holding in his left hand the hilt of his sword. When he abandoned the uniform, he felt so uncomfortable without something in his hand that he adopted the habit of carrying a stick, always. He owns half a dozen sticks – all bamboo and all alike. He does not swing the stick when walking. He carries it rigidly.”
In short, the more you read about Lebedeff the more you like him. And then you run across the fact that he was a close friend of Ayn Rand! Could there be anyone more loathsome? Ann C. Heller, in Ayn Rand and the World She Made, writes about a party that Lebedeff threw for his friend at the Russian Eagle cafe after the premiere of her play The Night of January 16th in 1934. Rand, of course, though we hate to acknowledge it, was another member of the struggling Russian emigre community at that time. Born Alisa Rosenbaum in St. Petersburg, she would soon become a celebrated writer whose philosophy of extreme individualism poisoned American politics in the early 21st century. One is tempted to write the Lebedeff-Rand friendship off as unimportant, but then you run across another tidbit that makes you wonder. Lebedeff’s widow, Wera Engels-Lebedeff returned to her homeland of Germany after her husband’s death in the 1950s and lived out most of the rest of her life with a certain Erna Hoffmann, the widow of Adolf Hitler’s notorious friend and personal photographer Heinrich Hoffmann. Hitler and Rand; not the best of company to keep.
A few more details, beginning with Lebedeff’s first name. He was apparently known generally among friends by the diminutive “Vanichka” (which would be transliterated as “Vanechka” these days). His first name was pronounced in the American style as EYE-van, rather than in the Russian pronunciation of ee-VAHN.
The Russian site referenced above tells us that Lebedeff spoke eight languages fluently – Russian, English, German, Italian, Greek, Armenian, Turkish and French. And it quotes a Hollyood gossip columnist as writing in 1930 that, “Not a single social event is held in Hollywood without the participation of Ivan Lebedev. Men hate him, and women admire him, but Lebedev pays no attention to that!”

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Vasily Zhukovsky bust, Tula

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Vasily Zhukovsky is the guy who came before Alexander Pushkin. Talk about getting thrown into the shadows. If you’re a baseball fan, call him the Wally Pipp of Russian literature. Or, if American music is your thing, call him the guy who set the stage for Bob Dylan. These are all silly comparisons, of course, intended solely to get a grin or a groan, either of which is fine. The fact of the matter is that Zhukovsky was the greatest Russian poet for awhile, until Pushkin came along… He had only recently surpassed the previous “great Russian poet” Gavriil Derzhavin, thus taking over that coveted place. Of course, there wasn’t much in it at that time. The stakes were raised, a tradition was solidified, a national literary heritage was established once Pushkin came on the scene. The writers who preceded him were stepping stones, of a sort. Still, having said all that, Zhukovsky was, and remains, one of the great Russian writers. He had every right to wear the laurels of “the greatest” in his time. Listen to this lead-in to an article in a Tula online encyclopedia: “Vasily Andreevich Zhukovsky went down in the history of Russian literature as a poet, prose writer, journalist, publisher, editor, critic, artist and educator.” I’ll bet he did windows, too.
Zhukovsky was born in the village of Mishenskoe in the Tula region on January 29, 1783. He was the illegitimate son of a provincial landowner (Afanasy Bunin) and a Turkish slave houseworker (Salha – I don’t find her true last name, although she apparently told her son she was from a family of pashas from the Silistra region of Turkey. When forcefully christened, she was given the name of Yelizaveta Dementyevna Turchaninova). Zhukovsky’s last name and patronymic were “lent” him by a neighbor friend. Despite the uncomfortable circumstances of his birth, his father’s wife (and other family members) welcomed him into the family. He was given a good education in Tula and, later, from the age of 14, in Moscow. While still in Tula, he attended school while living with his aunt, who often organized literary and artistic salons, thus awakening in the boy his earliest interest in the arts. In 1817 he was appointed to teach language and literature to the children of the Russian royal family. He was tutor to Alexander II. He continued to work in this capacity until 1841, at which time he moved to Germany where he married the 18 year-old daughter of one of his friends and sired a son and a daughter. He  died April 12, 1852, in Baden Baden.
Zhukovsky’s first published poem was “With Thoughts at a Tomb” in 1797. Throughout his early years as a student in Moscow, he published many other poems, most of them exhibiting the popular youthful sentiment of melancholy. After completing his education at the Moscow University Pansion, the future poet returned to the village of his birth for a full six years (1802-1808). Here he did not publish much, but clearly used his time to work on his craft. As noted in a Tula website, he wrote a letter to his friend Alexander Turgenev at this time, relating that he was continuing a program of self-education, studying world and Russian history, while also acquiring other “serious and weighty” knowledge. During this time he translated and adapted several works from European languages, and tried his hand at prose, also adapting the works of others, including Mikhail Karamzin’s short story “Poor Liza.” Zhukovsky considered the great Karamzin to be his mentor.

The first half of the second decade saw Zhukovsky fight in the war against Napoleon only to be mustered out when he fell ill with typhus. At this time he experienced an unhappy love affair that was blocked by the mother of his intended. Both young people suffered long and terribly from their failure to unite. Although it came too late to solve his romantic sufferings, Zhukovsky’s place in the world was settled in 1814 when he wrote “Missive to Emperor Alexander.” This work came to the attention of the Empress Maria Fyodorovna (whom, incidentally, my wife Oksana Mysina played in Vitaly Melnikov’s great film Poor, Poor Pavel) and she reportedly declared on the spot that she wanted this poet to come to St. Petersburg. The poet, indeed, picked up and went to the Russian capital, leaving behind his unhappy love, but not before writing her a beautiful, heart-wrenching letter of farewell.
I will never forget that all the happiness I have in life is due to you, that you always offered the best intentions, that all the best in me was bound up in my affection for you, that, in sum, I owe to you the most beautiful act of my heart, which was compelled to sacrifice you… I shall try to be worthy of you in my thoughts and feelings! Everything in life is a tool for the marvelous!
These years – roughly the second decade of the century – were arguably Zhukovsky’s peak as a writer. His value as a translator was enormous, especially when you take into account the fact that his translations of Shakespeare, Schiller, La Fontaine, Goethe, Homer and dozens other major writers, made these works available to the Russian reader for the first time. Consider that Zhukovsky introduced Russia to the world. So good were his translations of classic literature that great numbers of them are still published and read by readers today. It is no wonder that Zhukovsky has always been one of my favorite “characters” in the pantheon of Russian writers.
The bust shown here stands in the courtyard of the former Lugin Palace (now the Leo Tolstoy Pedagogical University in Tula), a place that is connected to many of the great cultural figures in Tula. Sculpted by the prolific Moscow sculptor Alexander Burganov, it was unveiled on February 14, 2014. I’m not often happy with Burganov’s work, but I am pleased that he chose to show Zhukovsky in his youth. The usual depiction of Zhukovskys is as a rather rotund, balding, aging man. This likeness (we can hardly know if it really is a likeness, of course) allows us to see Russian literature in its youth, which is precisely where it was when Zhukovsky came along to help it mature.

 

Leo Tolstoy grave, Yasnaya Polyana

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The first time I visited Yasnaya Polyana it was in the dead of winter. Shoveled snow was piled up shoulder-high and higher alongside the walkways and paths around the sprawling gardens of Leo Tolstoy’s former estate about a half hour’s drive south of Tula. It was one of those wonderful Russian winter days when the temperature had dropped below -10C (14F), which meant the snow underfoot was giving off marvelous squeaky crunches with every step Oksana and I took.  If I remember correctly, the temperature that day was around -13C or -14C (8F), so the crunchy briskness around us was downright delicious. I might add that this is not at all a cold temperature. When the temp falls below -10C pretty much all of the moisture is frozen out of the air, so that the air is very dry and quite comfortable. Naturally, you’re well dressed and that takes care of it. But back for a moment to the crunchy briskness all around us: you see, one of the marvelous things about Yasnaya Polyana is that you rarely run into other people, and the noises of the city are far, far away. Sure a few people pass here and there, a handful of other pilgrims like yourself, or gardeners or tour guides making their way from one place to another. But for all intents and purposes, Yasnaya Polyana provides you a one-on-one experience. You are virtually alone with your thoughts and with whatever nature has to offer you that day. On my first trip that made the crunch and the crackle of the snow underfoot (as well as of the tree branches bending and occasionally groaning under the weight of heavy snow) all the louder. It was more than enough to throw one into a state of revery.
There was much that was remarkable about my first trip to Yasnaya Polyana, but the unequivocal highlight was our long walk through the woods to Tolstoy’s gravesite. I would guess that it is at least a 15 minute walk from the house, maybe 20. The entire way takes you through wild woods, apple groves, small, grassy glades, and gorgeous, winding pathways. On that winter afternoon in the early 2000s, there was a special quality to the day’s waning light. The trees, as I have said, were laden down with snow, thus cutting out much of what was left of the available sunlight. Everything around us seemed dark and mysterious, making the beauty it commanded even more powerful. The walk is long enough that you are lulled into thinking you might never reach your destination. You become so attuned to the sounds and sights around you – constantly changing and monotonous all at once – that you become one with the road. The journey becomes the destination and you accept the fact that what you are doing – walking down a winding path – is entirely a self-sufficient activity. You give yourself up to the moment and to the specific location that you occupy at each passing moment, understanding that this, in itself, is what you have come for.
And then it happened. We turned a slight bend in the path and both Oksana and I gasped together. We both saw it, it hit us both. Up ahead of us, around a small patch of snow-covered ground, light was emanating from below, from the earth itself. This was not light coming from above, it was light shining as if coming up out of the earth. A few steps more and we realized: this is where Leo Tolstoy is buried. There it was, a long, narrow mound of earth stacked with pine branches all covered in snow. We could not help but ask – and I did ask Oksana out loud – can it be possible that Tolstoy’s burial place gives off light? Well, of course it doesn’t, and, of course, there is an explanation. We recognized it quickly enough. Throughout the forest the entire way to the gravesite no one bothers to clear away thick, old dead branches that clog up the light from the sky, especially when they are covered in snow. You feel you are making your way through an enchanted darkness. All around Tolstoy’s grave, however, gardeners are careful to keep the tree canopy at a minimum. They also clear away fallen branches and other natural debris that might fall near it. The result is that more sunlight pours down upon the grave in this small spot than anywhere around it. Furthermore – and this is the key to the magic – the brilliantly white, snow-covered ground all around the mound where Tolstoy’s body was laid to rest fully reflects all of the light that reaches it from above. In short, the gardeners at Yasnaya Polyana work hard and meticulously to be certain that, during snowy weather, it will seem as if the earth Tolstoy is buried in gives off light.
Believe me. It doesn’t matter that it is a kind of sleight of hand. The effect is stunning and lasting. In my mind, ten or more years later, I still see that light emanating from the earth around Tolstoy’s grave.

After traveling to Yasnaya Polyana in mid-October 2017, I can say that the “special effects” of the walk to Tolstoy’s grave are different in fall, though no less stunning. The golds and reds and greens and yellows and browns shimmering against a milky gray sky offer a sensory overload of visual pleasure and spiritual calm. This time the sounds are of rustling and shuffling as your feet traipse over a bed of fallen leaves and the wind ripples gently through the hundreds of thousands, or millions, or billions, of branches and leaves. As you see from the photos here the gardeners are fast at work in autumn, too. They keep the grave covered in fresh pine branches, while making sure that falling leaves do not blot out the green mound standing amidst a sea of yellow.
As I walked around the grave taking photos, I was fascinated to find that my camera refused to let me place the grave front and center in the frame. I am a fan (though not a fanatic) of purposeful “flat, frontal” photography. Especially in urban settings. I like that simplicity. I like to take measure of a thing centered in its surroundings, shown front on, with its face able to speak to us. But Tolstoy’s grave simply would not “go” to the center of my viewfinder. It wanted to be in a corner, it wanted to be a part of an ensemble of figures (whether that be trees, carpets of leaves, green spots, ravines or walkways wandering away). It wanted to be modest, though not necessarily shy. Now is that not another aspect of the magic of which I wrote above? I believe it is. Of all the photos I took of the grave only one (the first in the block above) allowed me to bring the grave close to center (although not entirely). This was only because I was already walking away and was already at some distance. But look at the first photo I took upon seeing the grave for the first time (the first photo at the very top): even there my camera lens wandered off to the left of the grave. The focal point point was the road leading us to the grave, not the grave itself. Although in my mind I was photographing the grave, not the path.
Two facts:
1) Tolstoy himself chose this site for his grave. It was one of his favorite spots in childhood, a place he called “the place of the green wand,” where his beloved brother Nikolai and he used to come to play.
2) Tolstoy insisted that there be no marker over his grave. He reportedly said (I am paraphrasing, not quoting), “A rich man will spend much money to erect a grand monument to himself, but no one will come see it. A righteous man will do nothing to mark his final resting place, but if he has deserved it, people will come.” His long-suffering wife Sofya was adamant that her great husband should be honored with a fitting gravestone. She even went so far as to have it designed. But her children prevailed and stopped her from having any marker erected. It’s a good thing. Leo Tolstoy’s gravesite provides an astonishing spiritual experience.
Epilogue: I have written at length elsewhere on this site about the influence that Tolstoy and, specifically, War and Peace, had on my life. I won’t repeat that now. But I will add this: when I was preparing to leave for my first trip to Russia in 1979, it was entirely a result of having read War and Peace and then Anna Karenina and then Resurrection, and then… and then… By that time, Dostoevsky and Gogol and Turgenev and Pushkin and Lermontov had all made deep impressions, but it was always Tolstoy, and War and Peace, that brought me to that moment in my life that my bags were packed and I was to head to the airport the next morning. That evening, on the eve of my departure, I stood in the dining room of my parents’ house and talked to my mother. I wasn’t much of one to open up emotionally to my family, but at that moment, I was compelled to say, “Mom, you know, I feel very strongly that I will not come back from Russia the same person. I will come back a different person.” Mom, with the wisdom and understanding that she always had, looked at me as if I didn’t even need to have said that. “I’m sure you will, JEF,” she said, calling me by the name everyone uses for me in my family. “I don’t doubt it.”
Mom was right, as she always was.

 

Cathedral of Sergei Rachmaninoff farewell, Los Angeles

Click on photos to enlarge.

The location of this neat, compact and beautiful Russian Orthodox cathedral is quite unexpected. Partially protected from the neighborhood around it by medium-height hedges, it stands in the middle of a mostly residential area at the corner of Micheltorena and Ellsworth streets in the Silver Lake region of Los Angeles. The official address is 650 Micheltorena.
According to an informational leaflet that you can pick up in the modest, but lovely front courtyard, the first liturgy was read here in 1923. The cathedral has played an active part in Russian emigre life ever since. As these photographs attest, it is in beautiful shape today.
We come to this cathedral today because this is where several services were observed in memory of Sergei Rachmaninoff after his death in 1943. (I have written about the house in which he died in Beverly Hills elsewhere in this space.) The cathedral’s website notes that the composer and pianist was a member of its parish. I do not know how frequently he came here during his relatively brief sojourn in Los Angeles. But, according to information contained in a short, but detailed piece on the Russian Novy Journal site,  there were actually three services for Rachmaninoff at this cathedral over the course of 39 hours. I draw this conclusion from the article, “At the Coffin of S. V. Rachmaninoff,” originally printed April 2, 1943, in the San Francisco-based New Dawn Russian-language newspaper. (The article, signed “V.K.,” is given as a facsimile on the cathedral website, but I couldn’t make out much because the image was so small.) It is packed full of information and I will refer to it liberally below. I would like to acknowledge George (Zhorzh) Sheron, who republished the article in Novy Zhurnal and wrote the commentary to it.
The chain of events begins at the end: Sergei Rachmaninoff died at 1:20 a.m. on Sunday, March 28, 1943, at his Beverly Hills home. He had been given the last rites on Saturday morning. A requiem was read at home over the body Sunday morning before the composer’s body was removed from his deathbed. The body arrived at the cathedral at 7 p.m. on the 28th, and at 8 p.m. a great requiem was observed. Incidentally, one of the wreaths presented at the coffin was from the vice-consul of the Soviet Union who attended the service. A second requiem was observed the following day, also at 8 p.m. It was followed on Tuesday, March 30, by a requiem Mass at 11 a.m. Newspapers, including the Los Angeles and New York Times (“Rachmaninoff Rites Held in Los Angeles,” The New York Times [March 31, 1943]; “Rachmaninoff Paid Tribute in Russian Services,” Los Angeles Times [March 31, 1943]) and San Francisco’s New Dawn, indicated that the body, now in a 2,000 pound zinc coffin (as New Dawn reports), was to be held at Rosedale Cemetery until such time as it could be returned to Russia for final burial. In fact, the burial took place two months later in Kensico Cemetery in the town of Valhalla in upstate New York. I have not seen an explanation why it ended up in New York, rather than Russia, but if one considers that World War II was then raging, it probably doesn’t take much imagination to figure it out.

On the burial in New York, Rachmaninoff’s widow Natalia wrote the following: “I could not go home to New York for an entire month because of various formalities. Sergei Vasilyevich’s coffin was temporarily placed in the city mausoleum. At the end of May Irina and I returned to New York and we quickly were able to purchase a plot for Sergei Vasilyevich’s grave in the Kensico cemetery. The burial took place on June 1.”
In her memoirs, Natalia also left a fairly detailed description of Rachmaninoff’s death and the aftermath (like the previous quote, this is drawn from a Live Journal blog entry titled “The Grave of Sergei Rachmaninoff.”): “…On March 26 Doctor Golitsyn suggested we call a priest for the last rites. Father Grigory (who also read the requiem) read the last rites at 11 a.m.. Sergei Vasilyevich had already lost consciousness.  The death throes began on the 27th, around midnight and on the 28th at 1 a.m., he died. He had a wonderfully calm and good expression on his face. People from the funeral parlor took him quickly in the morning and then transported him to the church. This was the marvelous little Holy Virgin Mary the Savior cathedral somewhere on the outskirts of Los Angeles…”
There is something touching about knowing the exact (or, in this case, almost exact) hour of someone’s death. It makes death not quite so abstract. It gives it a specificity that marks the precise, irreversible end of a life. It gives death itself an end, for death can only happen at that one moment when it happens. Everything afterwards is something else. Prior to that very moment Sergei Rachmaninoff (in our case) is a world-renowned musician and composer, however hampered he may be in his final hours. After that moment he belongs to history. His widow writes that he died at 1 a.m., which, since we have the more specific time of 1:20 a.m. from the San Francisco correspondent, encourages me to believe she was giving an approximation. I can’t help but think of a monologue from Nikolai Erdman’s tragicomedy The Suicide, in which a man contemplating taking his own life philosophizes on the difference between “tick and tock,” that is, the vastly different states of being that are separated by that brief, precise moment when death cuts life short. To paraphrase Erdman slightly, “I understand everything about ‘tick,’ I understand nothing about ‘tock.'” Thus it is that I am pleased in some deeply scholarly way to know that Sergei Rachmaninoff passed from one world to another at 1:20 a.m. Somehow it seems to provide a modicum of solace.
Our sources (V.K. and Rachmaninoff’s widow) tell us that the choirs sang beautifully at all the services. There were some celebrities in attendance (Michael Chekhov was apparently there), and the church was said to be packed, although it is a very small space and it wouldn’t take many people to fill it.
As V.K. sums up his account, “The funeral services of the great musician and a Russian man of great soul, were conducted simply but in a touching manner.”
Such was the farewell to Sergei Rachmaninoff.

 

Vladimir Bakaleinikov home, Moscow

Click on photos to enlarge.

I have been chasing after Vladimir Bakaleinikoff (Bakaleinikov) and his brothers Constantin (Konstantin) and Mischa (Mikhail) for several years now. I have followed their traces all over Los Angeles numerous times, always armed with new locations. I have addresses for them in several places. I have information about their burial places in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale. And every time I come up empty. Every house that they occupied in the L.A. area – at least as far as I can determine – has been torn down and replaced since the time they lived there. And, as I suggested, even their grave sites turned out to be fictive. I have the plots for Vladimir and Constantin and I had the directions from the cemetery staff. My sister Margie and I even plugged the coordinates into the Forest Lawn internet app on her iPhone – and still no go. We went back to the office to ask again and they said there was nothing more they could do. They suggested that maybe the grave markers have not been maintained and are lost. Elusive guys, these Bakaleinikoffs!
But I am nothing if not tenacious. And one day when I was researching the homes in Moscow’s Arbat region, I happened upon a building that ties Vladimir Bakaleinikov to the earth on Bolshoi Afanasyevsky Lane, house No. 30. I would have preferred to locate a Los Angeles address for at least one of the brothers, because the U.S. is where their careers in music flourished. On the other hand, this location in Moscow was the site of at least a few of Vladimir’s formative years.
Let’s get past the Bakaleinikov/Bakaleinikoff dichotomy for those who may be confused. As I have pointed out many times in these pages, these are alternate English spellings which occurred often in the post-revolutionary years. Broadly speaking, though not exclusively so, the two “ff”‘s for the soft, final Russian “v” were used in Europe. Any emigrant who spent much time in Europe grew used to the “ff” spelling and kept it. To this day, for example, most people recognize the spelling of Rachmaninoff as “correct.” Having said that it would appear that the Bakaleinikovs chose to use the “ff” spelling without any European influence. in 1927 Vladimir headed straight from Moscow to Cincinnati, of all places. Constantin went from Moscow to Hollywood in 1929. (In this post I will use the “ff” spelling when referring to the family in the U.S., while I will employ the stricter, more “proper” “v” transliteration when referring to them in Russia.
Vladimir Bakaleinikov was actually quite an accomplished musician (viola), conductor and composer before he left Russia. Born into a poor clarinetist’s family in 1885, his talent allowed him to begin studies at the Moscow Conservatory at the tender age of nine. He was the conductor of the Theater of Musical Drama in Petrograd from 1914 to 1916, and was employed in the musical studio of the Moscow Art Theater from 1920 to 1927. He taught at the Petrograd Conservatory from 1918 to 1920, and at the Moscow Conservatory from 1920 to 1924.
Konstantin (1896-1966) was significantly younger, and appears not to have had much of a career until he left Russia. At least a moderate internet search turns up no major information about him in Russia other than the fact that he studied at the Moscow Conservatory, graduating in 1916, and that he emigrated to the U.S. with his brother Mischa (more about whom in a moment) in 1929. One Russian site states plainly in a cursory bio that he began his career in 1929 in the U.S. That debut was a film called Father and Son, although it was another four years before his second major Hollywood job came along – Only Yesterday (1933), for which he again served as composer. Over the years, Constantin was nominated for four Oscars for best original score – Something to Sing About (1936), The Fallen Sparrow (1944), Higher and Higher (1945) and None but the Lonely Heart (1945). Throughout his career Constantin (as his first name was spelled in the U.S.) was the musical director at Paramount Pictures, MGM and Grand National Pictures. At times he was associated with local symphony orchestras in the L.A. area.
In his book Russians in Hollywood, Hollywood’s Russians, Harlow Robinson throws the emigration date of Constantin into question by claiming it was 1920, but also provides a nice anecdotal description of him: “…he played the cello briefly in the Los Angeles Philharmonic before being hired by the producer Sid Grauman as musical director for his movie theaters, conducting the orchestra for silent films shown at such palaces as the Egyptian and the legendary Grauman’s Chinese Theater. So familiar was he with movie audiences that they started calling him by the nickname of ‘Backy.‘”
I am pleased to report that in the game of six degrees of separation I am only a handshake removed from Constantin Bakaleinikoff. The great Pearl Bailey starred with Nat King Cole in Constantin’s last major motion picture, St. Louis Blues (1958), while Ms. Bailey was a Cub Scout den mother in my hometown of Apple Valley, CA, around 1960-61. I once won a 45 rpm record of hers from her own hands for performing some Cub Scout stunt that I have long forgotten. That lovely hand of hers figuratively could have reached out and touched Constantin Bakaleinikoff.

For the record, Vladimir and Konstantin had two other talented brothers, Nikolai (1881-1957) and Mikhail (known in the U.S. as Mischa Bakaleinikoff, 1890-1960). Mischa performed in the Columbia Studios orchestra and scored over 20 films in a career that ran from 1930 to his death in 1960. U.S. Wikipedia claims he left for the U.S. in 1926, while I find the 1929 departure date in other sources. Since he apparently began his Hollywood career in 1930, and since his brother Constantin (apparently) made the move in 1929, I’m tentatively sticking with that date.
Vladimir’s career in the U.S. was full, if not quite as spectacular as that of his oft Oscar-nominated brother. He was chief conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra from 1927 to 1937, at which time he followed his brothers to Hollywood. However, after two years, he apparently felt the pull for more serious work and accepted an invitation to head up the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (1948-1952). He was a well-known teacher and one of his prize pupils was Lorin Maazel, who began studies with Vladimir at the age of seven. Vladimir wrote a book, Elementary Rules of Conducting for Orchestra, Band and Chorus (in English, 1938), and memoirs under the title of The Notes of a Musician (in Russian, 1943). 
Aside from a stint with Sergei Diaghileff’s Ballets Russes before the Revolution, the eldest brother Nikolai Bakaleinikov spent his entire life in Russia or the Soviet Union. He was a noted flutist, a conductor and a composer. Not surprisingly, with three brothers skipping out of the Soviet Union in the 1920s, Nikolai found himself moving to Sverdlovsk – far from the cultural centers of Moscow and Leningrad – in 1931. One wonders if the move was voluntary. He remained in Sverdlovsk (today’s Yekaterinburg) until his death.
I have not been able to pin down what, if any, connection Nikolai, Konstantin, and Mikhail might have had to the building that is pictured in today’s post. I do find a tantalizing link on the Russian net which seems to connect Nikolai to this address, but the link will not open. In any case, we know that Vladimir lived here, and, since the family was apparently quite close-knit, at least early on, I’m guessing every one of the brothers was here at one time or another, even if they didn’t live here.
Vladimir wrote in his memoirs that, “My father earned very little. We, the children, helped him earn money by playing at weddings, in restaurants, and by giving lessons, and, subsequently, concerts. We children did not scorn any kind of work. It was shameful not to work, seeing how our mother did the washing, cooking and sewing for everyone, while serving us all.
It is worth noting that this remembrance would not have been connected with the home I show here. An apartment in this house, built brand new in 1906, would have been out of the reach of the younger Bakaleinikov family. This would have been accessible to them only after Nikolai and Vladimir’s careers in Moscow had taken a significant upturn.
P.S. Some additional information on emigration dates for the brothers. FamilySearch.com tells us that “Mihail” Bakaleinikoff arrived as an emigrant in Los Angeles harbor in 1930 and that he was naturalized in 1931. For Constantin I find he was naturalized in Los Angeles in 1927, and that he was married in Cincinnatti, Ohio, on Dec. 23, 1925. I don’t find an immigration date for him. Finally, the information on Vladimir is somewhat confusing. FamilySearch offers several different immigration dates, the earliest of which might be 1924. A notation suggests that a border crossing into Vermont may have happened as early as 1924 (although the actual date given is 1924-1952). Another notation, giving the spelling “Bakaleinicoff,” suggests a 1925 arrival (“immigration”) to New York in 1925. A third posits a Sept. 2, 1930, arrival in Detroit, although this may simply have been a return trip from abroad. I’m guessing that the 1925 date is pretty close to correct.