All posts by russianmonuments

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

Tamara Karsavina plaque, London

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Tamara Karsavina (1885-1978) remains one of the greatest names in world ballet to this day. She worked with almost all of the greats of her time, and even George Balanchine, with whom she did not work, apparently used to admire her when they were both students at the famed Vaganova ballet school in St. Petersburg. I drew this little tidbit from Nataliya Dissanayake’s fabulous book Russkie sud’by v Londone (Russian Lives in London). I – as you should do, if you are interested in the general topic – will lean heavily on what Dissanayake writes about Karsavina. I’ll also draw here and there from Karsavina’s memoirs, Theatre Street: The Reminiscences of Tamara Karsavina. Karsavina’s life in London was a long one, stretching from 1918, when she left the company of the Mariinsky Ballet in St. Petersburg, until her death in 1978 at the age of 93.
The future dancer was born into a highly-cultured family, her father Platon Karsavin being a fine dancer himself, the student of Marius Petipa and the teacher of Mikhail Fokin (Michel Fokine). She graduated from the Vaganova school in 1902, but began dancing professionally before that. Her talent was never doubted and she made a meteoric rise from a position in the corps de ballet to soloist. She danced in Giselle and Swan Lake at the Mariinsky, and in 1909 was invited by Sergei Diaghilev to join the Ballet Russes. She danced for them on and off until 1922. One might argue that her entire repertoire with the Ballet Russes was a highlight. Those highlights grew even brighter in 1913 when she was first paired with Vaclav Nijinsky.
Karsavina’s permanent move to London came as the Russian Civil War intensified and as she married British diplomat Henry James Bruce. By 1920, just two years later, she had already put herself at the head of British ballet, serving as one of the founders of the Royal Academy of Dancing. Over the years, Karsavina became quite enamoured of England and the English, and, although she first appeared in London in 1909 not speaking a word of English, by the time she wrote her memoirs in 1931, she apparently – according to her husband – wrote the entire book in English herself.
Those memoirs are particularly memorable for Karsavina’s in-depth description of her departure from Russia with her husband. Perhaps it wasn’t the most harrowing of escapes in an era when harrowing escapes were routine, but it was dramatic and dangerous enough to make for some wonderful, extended reading. The transition began with Karsavina’s husband having to leave Russia without her when the British mission was closed. He came back several months later to get her, and they took an arduous, uncertain boat ride out of the collapsing country by way of the Neva River, Lake Ladoga and the Onega River. From the village of Povenets, they rode on horse-carts, often dovetailing – if not dodging – British troops advancing south from the north, and Soviet troops defending their land. “For several days we met no impediment on the way, but the sense of lurking danger was with us the whole time,” Karsavina wrote, then added, “We were playing for high stakes and playing blindfold.” At one point they were delivered to a Commissar who mysteriously gave them a short window in which they were allowed to hurry to the White Sea and reach some semblance of safety. The mystery of the Commissar’s permission came into focus when they arrived at the seaport – the British navy was moored here as the Soviet army retreated – they had finally passed into friendly territory.
In general, Karsavina’s memoirs make for a lively read. She is always ready to laugh at herself and her own weaknesses (she apparently cried often when things didn’t go her way), and she never takes it upon herself to even scores in the many instances when taking offense would quite be in order.

Karsavina’s 1909 London debut took place at the Coliseum, an imposing old theatre that was not fit for ballet at all. While the promoter H.B. Marinelli gushed on about the Coliseum’s beauty, Karsavina worried about the cold drafts and unsuitable stage with tiny brass plates everywhere. Karsavina wrote:
Excellent linoleum has since been spread over the brass plates, but I was a pioneer of ballet at the Coliseum, where the stage was then all it ought not to be for dancing purposes. An extremely hard floor and the unavoidable brass bruised my toes and made them bleed. My first week was hardly over, and I dreaded the remaining three. Worse than my blistered toes was to me the feeling of not belonging anywhere in my present surroundings. I bore a grudge against the stained windows of the restaurant in my hotel, the noisy barrel-organ in the side street ; it played in the morning, it played in the afternoon when I came to rest between performances. There may have been relays of barrel-organs in that street, or one single one of unique obduracy. There were some nocturnal goings and comings in my hotel. At times I thought I heard aggressive voices. That was all I knew of London this time, that and the Coliseum.”
But, aside from the difficult circumstances of performing in an alien space in an alien country, what really made Karsavina miss home was the differences in attitude to art that one encountered in the highly-cultured St. Petersburg and the quite commercial London.
The glamor and romance of the theatre was  what I missed badly,” she wrote in her memoirs.
But if it took Karsavina time to warm up to the charms of London – she eventually even claimed to love its fog for the way it made a crackling fireplace so cozy – London took to her immediately. And when she died, she was honored with a plaque on the wall in St. Paul’s Church, Covent Garden. St. Paul’s is known as the Actor’s Church in London, and among the many theater people it honors, there are some who would have worked with Karsavina in the Ballet Russes productions. Still, the majority of performers commemorated here were were British. Karsavina is the only major Russian artist among them. Her plaque, a simple oval, gives the dates of her life and describes her with highest honor as prima ballerina assoluta. Like many of the plaques and monuments to be found in St. Paul’s, it almost appears that Karsavina’s plaque was hung without any real thought to aesthetics. It seems to be stuck in a corner next to a window on the wall facing northwest. Nearest to her plaque are others honoring Australian dancer and choreographer Robert Helpman, and British dancer and choreographer Anton Dolin.

 

Erdman and Mayakovsky at the Hotel D’Europe, St. Petersburg

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There are surely 1001 tales I could tell about Russian writers, musicians, painters, actors, directors, and architects at the famed Hotel D’Europe in St. Petersburg. Who hasn’t stayed here at one time or another? And even if they didn’t stay here, who only hasn’t dined in the famed dining room on the top floor? Even I have done that. It wasn’t much of a restaurant when I was there in 1979, but it beat the hell out of almost all the rest of the slop joints in town at that time. I have a hunch that these days the restaurant is back in favor as a St. Petersburg hotspot. I’ll never know that for a fact, however, because I won’t be going back there again.
Today we go way-way back in the time machine to the late 1920s. Waiting to greet us are two of the most celebrated writers of the time – the poet and playwright Vladimir Mayakovsky and the playwright Nikolai Erdman. Our conduit, our gondolier on the time machine taking us back, is Valentin Pluchek, then a young actor in the company of the Meyerhold Theater. But before we get all the way back to the 1920s, let’s jump ahead almost 60 years exactly to when you will find me sitting in Pluchek’s office in the Satire Theater in Moscow. The date is October 3. The year is 1988. One of the first things I notice about Pluchek, the theater’s artistic director, is how much he looks like his cousin Peter Brook. There is no mirror image there, but the resemblance cannot be denied. I had only just recently heard about that familial connection and it didn’t take more than a quick look to realize it was true. My understanding is that the two directors got together privately on rare occasion, but neither of them ever made a big deal about it. That’s not what Pluchek and I are talking about today, however. I am there to pick his brain about Nikolai Erdman. I’m starting my work on my PhD dissertation about Erdman, and I want to hear anything and everything I can from anyone who ever crossed paths with him. Pluchek, who was 79 at the time, was one of the first people to respond to my queries. I’ve always been grateful to him for that. He could have brushed off a kid from the States, but he didn’t. He responded immediately to my request for an interview, and he spent a good deal of time with me. I took that as a sign of his respect for Erdman. He was happy to contribute to a fuller picture of the writer’s life and work. Pluchek not only told some good anecdotes (one follows soon), but he shared some wonderful insights into Erdman’s writing. I published the bulk of my interview with Pluchek in the Russian periodical Contemporary Drama in the late 1990s. [The bibliographical information for those who might want to track it down: “Vspominaya Erdmana,” Sovremennaya dramaturgiya, No. 1 (1997), 227-242.] Pluchek also pulled a few rare items out of his archive and presented them to me as gifts – a program and a poster from the short-lived production he did of Erdman’s The Suicide in 1982. It lasted for just six performances before it was banned.

My favorite story of all those Pluchek told that day  concerned  Erdman and  Mayakovsky.  It involved an incident that took place during the Meyerhold Theater’s tour of Leningrad where, among other things, they performed the premiere of Mayakovsky’s newest  play, The  Bedbug. Here is the way the story made it into my book, Silence’s Roar: The Life and Drama of Nikolai Erdman. Pluchek, who performed in Meyerhold’s production of The Bedbug, is the de facto narrator here, although I didn’t put his words into quotes in the book:
“When the performance had ended, the troupe waited in vain for the author to come out and accept the plaudits of the crowd. Later, when they returned to the hotel they found Mayakovsky and Erdman engrossed in a game of billiards. Asked why he hadn’t come to the performance, Mayakovsky replied, ‘Because I need the money. And right now I’m going to whip this fop, here. I need money more than I do fame.'” The hotel in question was the Hotel D’Europe, where Mayakovsky had put up for the duration of the Meyerhold Theater’s performances in Leningrad.
But this was not the only time that the Hotel D’Europe played a role in the Erdman-Mayakovsky relationship. I again quote from my book:
“On April 13, [1930], the eve of Mayakovsky’s suicide in Moscow, Erdman read
The Suicide to a small group of actors and officials of the Moscow Art Theater in a room at the Yevropeiskaya Hotel in Leningrad. In a twist of fate that now rings with almost mystical overtones, this reading took place in the very room that Mayakovsky had occupied on his last trip to Leningrad.”
Could that have been the same night that Mayakovsky “whipped that fop” Erdman at a game of billiards?
The Hotel D’Europe, as a plaque on the wall informs us, was designed by architect Ludwig Frantsevich Fontana in the 1870s and reconstructed by the architect Fyodor Lidval (aka Johan Fredrick Lidvall) between 1907 and 1914. It is located at 1 Mikhailovskaya Street, right between Nevsky Prospect and the famous St. Petersburg monument to Alexander Pushkin.

 

 

Vasily Polenov and the Parthenon, Athens

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It has been called the most influential architectural structure in history; it has been called the most beautiful. I can only trust that the former claim is true, while the latter, I will say can only be understood as an understatement. Beauty, as great as the concept is, is not nearly sufficient to describe the impact one feels when standing beneath the columns of the Parthenon.
My approach to the Parthenon today is by way of the Russian painter Vasily Polenov (1844-1927). I recently wrote about a painting Polenov did of the Erechtheion, a structure right next to the Parthenon, in the course of approximately eleven days in the spring of 1882. Now I would like to spend a few moments considering the painter’s rendition of the Parthenon itself, done at the same time. Now hanging in the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, it is the first image above.
I am pretty sure, though not certain, that Polenov painted the Parthenon’s short western face and the longer northern facade. This is the angle that all visitors first come upon when they enter the Acropolis through the Propylaea. (See photo immediately below.) If I am right about this, then the tiny fragment of a building we see in the far left of Polenov’s painting is of the Erechtheion, the other structure that interested him these days.
However, one could also argue that the painting was done from the “back” side, from the east, capturing the short eastern face and the longer southern facade. (My second photo above is taken from this angle.) These two images do fit, don’t they, because you see the damaged middle columns in the very same place in both the photo and the painting. But that can be explained away easily enough, for the major restorations undertaken by Nikolaos Balanos from 1894 to 1933 had not even yet begun when Polenov visited the Acropolis in 1882. And the middle columns had been severely damaged on both sides ever since the Venetians tossed a bomb up into Turkish ammunition reserves in the Parthenon on 26 September 1687. In fact, the structure then lay in ruins for nearly 200 years before the first minor attempts at renovation were undertaken in 1845. But it was not until the Balanos campaign that major repairs were done. (This goes beyond my topic, but I can’t help but mention it: It is considered that, for all his wonderful intentions, Balanos may have done more harm that good with his “repairs” because of the materials and methods he employed. But we’ll skip over that, now.) If, indeed, this is the angle from which Polenov worked, then the fragment of some structure in the far left of the painting would be a corner of the Propylaea.

Still, I am inclined to think that in The Parthenon. The Temple of Athena Parthenos, Polenov painted the western and northern facades. There are several reasons for this (aside from it being the most common view that all visitors see). The expanse to the left of Polenov’s Parthenon, to say nothing of that in front of it, is very much like the space that separates the structure from the Erechtheion and the Propylaea. The southern side has quite limited space, for here the Parthenon stands close to the Acropolis wall, overlooking the old Roman theater and the Greek Dionysian theater. The tiny figures of trees in the distance would correspond to several trees that still stand on that (far eastern) end today.
The loose stones we see in the foreground of the painting probably don’t tell us a lot. There are quite a few stones strewn around at both ends of the Parthenon today.
Polenov saw more of the (partially restored?) tympanum atop the Parthenon than we do today – that is the flat triangle space under what should be a roof, and over (what should be) the frieze. These are areas that once displayed beautiful sculptures and bas reliefs, many of which were cut out crudely and shipped back to England by Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin, in the early 19th century. These items, many of which are displayed in the British Museum in London, are known as the Elgin Marbles. There is a concerted effort now underway to get the British government to return the artworks. The possibility of this actually happening has increased thanks to Brexit, although one still assumes the chances are still slim it will happen. In any case, it has become a topic of regular diplomatic conversation nowadays.
In my previous piece about Polenov and Athens I quoted a few lines from his diaries of the time. So as not to repeat that here, but to provide as full a picture of Polenov and Athens as possible, I insert here what Polenov noted in his diary on a second trip to Athens on July 16 (July 29 Old Style), 1911:
Athens is now a large European city, with marvelous Greek buildings. We spent the mornings yesterday and today on the Acropolis. Very hot, but I work. In general, painting eases the exhaustion of traveling, and in recent days my exhaustion has increased due to the heat and everything I have seen… Tomorrow we go to Delphi…
I don’t know what “but I work” refers to. As far as I know, Polenov only did the two paintings in the Acropolis in 1882. If anyone can shine a light on my ignorance, there’s a place to do it in the comments below. Language Hat?

 

Ivan Bunin at the Acropolis, Athens, Greece

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Ivan Bunin (1870-1953) traveled to Athens during a tour – as was said then – of the “East” in 1907. According to “Antique Motifs and Images in the Work of I.A. Bunin,” a paper by Natalya Yablonovskaya, the journey had direct influence on Bunin’s later writing. She mentions at least eight poems that grew out of the experience, although a full listing of works bearing the mark of his experience of, and interest in, Greece is much larger. Bunin left a vivid description of his traveling company’s approach to Athens by sea, the ascent to the Acropolis in a carriage, and the entry into it on foot through the Propylaea. It was included in the book, The Shadow of a Bird, a collection of journal entries from 1907 to 1911.
When I recently visited the Acropolis for the first time, I made an attempt, if only on a small scale, to approach it as Bunin had. I, too, was stunned at my first glimpse of the Acropolis from afar; I, too, rose up the circular paths to the entrance (although on foot); I, too, took note of the “slippery slabs” leading to the Propylaea; I, too, noted bright flowers sticking up through slabs of marble. One thing I experienced in reverse: Bunin arrived in Athens by ship and gazed up at the Acropolis from afar; I, on the other hand, only looked back out to sea once I already stood amidst the stately ruins of the Parthenon, the Erechtheion and the Propylaea. I, too, noted the “purple-blue flame of the sky.” I, too, exclaimed, “My Lord, how simple, old and beautiful it is!”
In short, my own reaction to visiting the Acropolis was quite similar to that of Bunin. It felt as if the gods had come to consort with me. As if they had raised me up to give me a one-time-only glimpse of the world from their vantage point. I perceived the visit as a privilege. I felt at times that I was walking on eggs, and that it was my responsibility not to leave even the slightest crack behind me. At the same time, I felt very much at home. I also felt that way about the thousands of others who wandered amongst the marble walls and columns with me – this was a place built for us all, but it was a place that encouraged us to dig down deep inside ourselves to find the proper response.
My first glimpse of the Acropolis came the night before my wife Oksana and I walked up the mountain to visit it. We were in a cab that had been zigzagging through the narrow streets of Athens for so long I think we despaired we would ever leave that car again. Then I gasped and Oksana – as she told me just then – burst into tears. We looked out the window of our taxi which had just taken a sharp right turn and there it was, floating over us like a brilliant ship of light in the black night sky. It was an impossible vision – as though Gulliver on a self-illuminated flying machine was making a night landing in Athens. Bunin’s first glimpse was memorable; I wouldn’t trade it for my own.
The text that follows, a short excerpt from The Shadow of a Bird, includes pretty much everything Bunin wrote about his trip to the Acropolis. I accessed it on a Russian blog site about Athens. The translation is mine.

What will the Acropolis be like? All binoculars searched for it, some Greeks on the quarter-deck excitedly pointed their fingers into the distance. I finally discerned something vaguely yellow on a rocky hill, standing lonely behind a sea of ​​roofs in a valley – something like a small wild fortress. And, having gazed upon this naked hill of the Pelasgians, I sensed antiquity for the first time in my life with my whole being.
The horses slowly pull us along the stone chalk road, the pathway crunching underneath us, advancing up the hill in a circular motion and rising all the way up — I look around on all sides at the tanned stone of the walls of the Acropolis and its grooved columns… Finally, the carriage stops right in front of an entrance through a granite wall, behind which a wide staircase of glossy marble rises to the Propylaea and the Parthenon… And for a moment I am lost… Lord, how simple, old and beautiful it is! To the left, in the streaked shadows of the olive trees, stands another carriage. A tall, upright man with binoculars slung over his shoulder, in a gray suit and tropical hat, and a tall thin woman, also in a gray helmet and phyllode-patterned gloves, with a long thin stick in one hand and a book in the other, are directed toward the entrance. But even these most tranquil of people stare with amazed, round eyes at the golden ruins shining before us in the hot blue sky, at the fact that it is so divinely simple and harmoniously piled on the granite fortifications that have grown into the crown of this ‘Altar of the Sun.’ They enter, climb the stairs, growing small among the surviving columns of the Propylaea… I also walk on and look… But I have already seen everything!
“I walk on, but from the steamboat I had already touched the soul of antiquity which created all this. And then the divine perfection of the Acropolis is revealed in a single glance.
“Now I’m walking up the slippery slabs to the Propylaea and the Temple of Victory. I am lost in the boundless expanse of the Aegean Sea and I see from here the small port at Piraeus, and the infinitely distant silhouettes of some blue islands, and Salamis, and Aegina. And when I turn around, I am struck by the blue-purple flame of the sky flowing among the ruins of the temples, among the burnt-golden marble of the colonnades and capitals, among the grooved pillars of such beauty, power and harmony that words are powerless before them. I enter the colossus of the Parthenon splayed open, I see slippery marble slabs, a bright poppy in their crevices… What could create all this if not the sky and the sun?

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“Erechtheion. The Portico of Caryatids,” Vasily Polenov, Athens

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Vasily Polenov (1844-1927) made his painting, Erechtheion. The Portico of Caryatids during his first visit to the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. I have placed a reproduction of the painting at the top of the photos here. Polenov visited Greece in the spring of 1882 at the end of a journey through the ancient world that lasted from November 1881 to April 1882.  A small post on a Russian art site quotes Polenov’s own words about the visit:
We spent eleven days in Athens to April 4… The Acropolis is far from modern Athens, and you can dream of the great events that these buildings witnessed amongst the privacy of the clouds that cover the entire Acropolis. During our stay, the grass bloomed, and the scent of chamomile, which filled the air, delighted me.”
I don’t recall catching the scent of chamomile when I visited the Acropolis last week in mid-December, but the grass was even thicker than the day Polenov made his painting.
One could write a novel about this painting, what preceded it and what has followed since. It involves a marauding Brit in the early 1800s, Polenov’s delicate approach to his work in the 1880s, and even more delicate restorative work that took place in Athens in the 1970s and ’80s.
Polenov’s trip to the Acropolis came some 80 years after a disastrous visit by Lord Elgin, aka, Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin. At that time, under Ottoman rule, Greece’s archeological riches were vulnerable, and the authorities simply turned a blind eye to the fact that Elgin, over a period of ten years (!), systematically looted and defaced the architectural and artistic riches of the Acropolis. Let us note that Elgin hacked out a full 75 meters of the frieze atop the Parthenon and took it all back to  decorate his home in Scotland! But that is only the beginning of his barbarous activities, which are much too enormous for me to cover in this small blog. Suffice it to say that he also stole one of the famed caryatids that stood on the so-called “porch of the maidens” on the north side of the Erechtheion.  Here Elgin succeeded in chopping out a full figure (second from the left on the front row) and transporting it back to Scotland, while another, the one in the back right, proved harder to remove. His men started hacking and sawing away at it, virtually destroying it, then leaving its pieces behind when they realized it was no longer of use to them. You can see what is left of this figure in the first photo below – the caryatid in the far back exists now only in shards. I’ll explain that photo in a minute, but let’s jump to Polenov at this point.
When the famed Russian painter set up his easel to paint the caryatids of the Erechtheion, they were still missing the sister who had been hauled away by Lord Elgin. In order to cover that breach, Polenov took up an angle that allowed him to smudge over the missing sculpture. Interestingly, he also seems to have ignored the figure that was so badly damaged in the back. It simply doesn’t exist in his painting, although, if I understand correctly, the crudely repaired sculpture had been put back into place by then.
I was not able, in my photos, to replicate the exact angle from which Polenov painted his work. Guard ropes have been put up in order to keep people away from the sculptures.

Back now to the first photos in the block immediately above. These were taken in the gorgeous new Acropolis Museum that stands below the south side of the Acropolis. Here, on the second floor, now stand the original caryatids, the ones that Polenov painted. They were moved off-site from the Acropolis in the 1970s and 1980s when Greek restorers made the rather momentous and potentially controversial decision to replace the originals with copies that would be as exact as possible. The reason for this is that modern pollution was wreaking havoc on the sculptures, destroying them much more slowly, but ever as inevitably, as Lord Elgin. By moving the originals into a controlled environment, the restorers were able to stop the deterioration and even turn back the clock in some little way – by modern methods they continue to clean the caryatids little by little of the junk that has built up on them over the centuries and millennia. The reproduction work carried out by the restorers – including creating a copy of the stolen caryatid that now stands in the British Museum – was so detailed and so successful that the entire project was given the Europa Nostra award for restoration.
So it is that, while one can stand almost in the place where Polenov stood when making his painting, in order to to gaze upon the actual monuments that he painted, one must go the new Acropolis Museum.
My wife Oksana and I wandered back and forth at length in front of the original figures. We apparently were so intent in our actions that a museum guard came up to ask what we were doing. Oksana explained to her that I was planning on writing a blog about a painting of the caryatids by a famous Russian painter, and to make her point better, she googled Polenov’s painting and showed it to the guard, who was fascinated by the information. While Oksana still had a reproduction of the painting on her phone screen, I took it and held it up to the caryatids to show them how Vasily Polenov had depicted them some 135 years ago. I suspect that made little impression on the caryatids, but it did make an impression on the three of us standing beside them. Somehow 2,500 years of history all come together in that one moment.
As an epilogue let me bring in two other items.
1) First is brand new news indicating that the names “Parthenon” and “Erechtheion” – which we have used for thousands of years – may actually be incorrect. A team of Dutch scholars announced a week or so ago that the ancient Greeks used the word “Parthenon” to refer to what we know as the Erechtheion, while they would have used the word “Hekatompedon” to refer to what we have long called the Parthenon. If they are right, Polenov’s painting should actually be called Parthenon. The Portico of Caryatids, while his painting Parthenon, about which at a later date, should be called Hekatompedon.
2) Finally, sentiment in Greece supporting the return of the so-called “Elgin marbles” continues to grow. In November 2019 the Greek prime minister met with his Chinese counterpart, who agreed to support Greece’s claim to the cultural monuments. As recently as January 2019, the British Museum claimed it would “never return” the marbles, rather bizarrely describing their original removal as a “creative act.”  If you’re interested in following efforts to return the Parthenon marbles, see Jim Mellas’s Reunite The Parthenon Facebook page.

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Ivan Bek gravesite, St. Petersburg

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Ivan Bek (1808-1842) is not one of the first names that comes to mind when one thinks of Russian literature. He may not be among the first 100. Or 500. I’m not being facetious, or, at least, I’m not trying to be.  It’s just a fact. In the Russian internet the first Ivan Bek I encounter is Yvan Bek, a Serbian footballer from the first half of the 20th century. Ivan Bek, the Russian poet and diplomat, comes up only second.
There are dozens of biographies of Bek online. And virtually every one copies the others word for word. Finding alternative information about Bek, at least in the popular media, is damn near impossible. Vladimir Putin these days, looking to cut Russia off from the rest of the world – even as he looks to cut the rest of the world off from itself – has announced that an autonomous new Russian internet will replace Wikipedia with a homegrown variant. I’ll bet my last pair of shoes that when the bio on Ivan Bek appears on the new Ru-net, it will copy Wikipedia – and all the other sources – verbatim. The only text that differs in any way is that of the Russian Biographical Dictionary (1896-1918), which is slightly shorter than the others, but which provides the basic descriptions that are later cribbed by everyone else.
(For the record, Bek was born December 25, 1807 according to the Old Style calendar. Since that date is now recognized as January 6, 1808, I give the latter as his year of birth.)
According to the story that goes around as if it were written in stone, Bek entered the chronicles of Russian literature thanks, in large part, to meeting Ivan Turgenev in Dresden in 1827. But let’s back that up. In 1827 Bek was 19 years old. Turgenev was 10. All  sources follow that meeting immediately with Turgenev’s comment that Bek’s early poetry posses “true talent and a certain kind of taste that that very talent has divined.” That doesn’t sound like something Turgenev would have said or written at the time of their meeting. What Turgenev was doing in Dresden in 1827 and why he met Bek there, I don’t know. It is true that in that year Turgenev’s father enrolled him in the Weidengammer Pansion in Moscow, so maybe he was travelling in Germany to continue his education. Another Turgenev quote is tacked on to the first, stating that “He [Bek] is testing his powers in translating Virgil and gives shape to his taste by way of the ancient and new classics.” Now that could be something even a ten year-old Turgenev could have written to a mother or father – so maybe I’m wrong to discount the fact that the first comment could have been made at that time. In any case, I can’t dig any deeper for the earliest Turgenev letters available online are from 1831, and none of the biographies that quote Turgenev give references.
The Russian Biographical Dictionary (RBD)  tells us that Bek did not publish much, and that he primarily contributed to the journals, Moscow Observer,  Literary Supplement to Russian Invalid, Library for Reading, The Contemporary, and Morning Dawn, from 1836 to 1841. It is interesting to note that Vissarion Belinsky began editing the Literary Supplement to Russian Invalid in 1836, so he would have been the editor accepting and printing Bek’s contributions there.  RBD writes, “Almost all of these poems sing the praise of love, which is occasionally illustrated by the poet as our guarantee of immortality.” Bek published “very good” (RBD) translations of excerpts from Goethe’s Faust in The Contemporary in 1837. All of the sources, parroting one another, express surprise that this translation was attributed not to Bek, but to a certain E. Guber, although, in fact, Bek occasionally published his poems under the pseudonym of “E. Gubert.” All of the sources, beginning with RBD, declare that, in addition to literature, Bek showed talent in “painting and music,” although what that means specifically, I cannot discern. He was an important enough figure that the great Russian painter Karl Bryullov painted his portrait.

Bek was primarily a diplomat, beginning his career in Moscow in 1828. He later served in Holland (years unknown to me) and Dresden, 1835-36. He served in the Russian Department of Foreign Affairs from 1837 to 1841. His service in Holland is important for there he served alongside Prince Pavel Vyazemsky, the son of Pyotr Vyazemsky the poet and bosom buddy of Alexander Pushkin.  Pavel himself was something of a writer, with an interest in the history of Russian literature and paleography. He was also interested enough in Bek’s wife Maria Stolypina that he married her after Bek’s death. Stolypina, for those who enjoy these things, was Mikhail Lermontov’s aunt once removed.
Bek’s sarcophagus lies in the 18th-century Necropolis at the Alexander Nevsky Cemetery in St. Petersburg. It stands next to vessels holding the remains of his father Alexander and his mother Nadezhda, both of whom died after their son. An inscription on the north side of the sarcophagus reads: “Grieving parents, to their unforgettable son, who was their final comfort in life.” The coffin’s end facing West is decorated with a likeness of Christ (as can be seen above).
If Bek harbored beliefs that love was our ticket to immortality, his image of the world we inhabit in our lifetimes was not especially joyful.  In a poem entitled “To A.B. and G.T,” published in The Contemporary in Vol. VI, 1837 (and signed as “E. Gubert”), he wrote:

Tormented by sultry passions,
I called my people to my breast;
But in the cold hordes of the relentless crowd
I encountered none who were my friends…
Deceitful thoughts flew by like arrows,
Sadness overcame me and I wept at length,
And bitterly anguished, lacking sense or goal,
I dragged the heavy shackles of this earthly coil…

 

Daniil Kharms plaque and home, St. Petersburg

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

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

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

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

 

Leo Tolstoy monument, Tula

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

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

 

The Mass dacha, outside Moscow

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What do you think when you think of Moscow? Cold. Bitter cold. Lots of snow. So much of it that you can barely trudge through it. That can be taken as a direct description, or as a metaphorical image. Frankly, they both work. Moscow can be, and often is, a cold, nasty, unforgiving place. Fall down in the stuff pictured here in these photos, and unless a good person comes along – see you on the other side. Believe it or not, I know people who would push you into one of these snow drifts. Moscow, especially under current Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, but also with the help of a lot of people who should know better, has become damn near uninhabitable in recent times.
Of course, there is another side to this, and that concerns the person who comes along and finds you face down in the snow. And takes you home to warm you up and bring you back to life. Those people are there too.
One person who fits that description to a “T” lives in the house that is, sort of, depicted in these photos. Her name is Anna Mass, she is the author of I-don’t-know-how-many books, I’m guessing two dozen at least. She lived here for decades with her husband, Viktor Gorshkov, a geologist and poet. He died minutes after voting for Alexei Navalny for Mayor of Moscow in 2013. He walked out of the polling place and fell dead on the sidewalk with Anna at his side.
Anna and Viktor, however, were the second generation of writers to occupy this house. It was built originally in the early 1950s by her father Vladimir Mass (1896-1979), the playwright, screenwriter, poet and painter. I did not have the honor of knowing Vladimir, he passed on, as fate would have it, when I was on my first sojourn to Russia, weathering the brutal cold of St. Petersburg in the fall/winter of 1979. I knew nothing about Mass at that time, and I didn’t come into the circle of the amazing Mass family until 1988, when I first met Anna.
I’ve written about my first meeting with Anna elsewhere, but it’s worth repeating. I called her from a phone booth on Pushkin Square in September 1988. I said I was in Moscow to research the playwright Nikolai Erdman and that I was told she might be able to help me. She immediately said, “Now? Can you come over now?” I stuttered and said yes. I found my way to her Moscow apartment in the Arbat region and knocked on the door. She opened it with a big smile and an easy way about her and said, “Come in!” The deeply reassuring sound of something similar to childlike laughter seemed to hide somewhere in the back of her voice. She already had her father’s substantial Erdman archive laid out on the desk waiting for me, but first she took me in the kitchen to feed me some tea and fresh-baked pirozhki, something she did every time I would return over the next 8 to 10 months. When we finished tea, she sat me at her desk (Vladimir Mass’s desk) and declared, “I have some errands to run. You’ll be fine here. Work at your own speed,” and she left me alone in her apartment. It was during this period that Anna began spending more and more time outside the city in the family dacha. I visited her there, several times, too.
Of all the different ways that a lifelong friendship can begin, that is one.

Before I left Russia for good in 2018, my wife Oksana and I stopped by to spend two days with Anna. By this time Anna had been living exclusively at the dacha for at least two decades. We hadn’t seen each other for some time, but, as always – as it was that first time – it seemed as though we had never parted. I reveled in walking through and around the gorgeous home that Vladimir Mass built almost 70 years ago, and that Viktor Gorshkov expanded every bit as beautifully during the time he lived there. The house stands on a large plot of land just outside the Moscow city limits in what was once called the Writers Colony at Krasnaya Pakhra (the name of the river that runs nearby). Mass’s two closest neighbors were the poet Pavel Antokolsky and Nikolai Erdman. Over the years, other greats of Russian culture – including playwright Viktor Rozov and film director Eldar Ryazanov – moved in to make the area one of the most exclusive in all of suburban Moscow.
Mass and Erdman became famous in the 1920s and ’30s, co-writing sketches, satirical poems, revues (rather like satirical operettas), and screenplays. It was probably Mass who introduced Erdman to Vsevolod Meyerhold in the early 1920s when both were writing reviews and little essays for Novy Zritel (New Spectator), a popular theater magazine. Together they wrote the screenplay for the “first Soviet musical comedy,” Jolly Fellows (1933/34), and, in fact, both were arrested while on location at the film shoot and both were summarily sent into exile, to different Siberian cities, for three years. They never wrote together again, although they remained good friends and neighbors. They visited each other here at their dachas, as well as at their Moscow apartments. On occasion in the later years Mass would pull out some dialogue from his “Erdman archive,” rework it a little and sell it (or gift it, I don’t know the details) to an emcee or variety theater in need of a humorous text.
My approach in these blogs is that I take photos of exteriors – I use images of outsides to look for stories that lead to the inside. But I violate that little rule here today for two reasons. First, the picture of the fire in the fireplace in the top block illustrates the warmth, the coziness, the comfort and the security that one feels in the Mass home. I have rarely been in any place more welcoming than a residence that belongs to Anna Mass. I had to show that, just as I had to include another such image. The second interior shot is below, and it bears especial value for me: It is Nikolai Erdman’s bed. This marvelous object found its way to the Mass home after Erdman’s death in 1970. It now is the bed in a guest room at the Mass dacha/home. Imagine that.

 

Gleb Uspensky childhood house, Tula

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

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