All posts by russianmonuments

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

Dimitri Tiomkin house, Los Angeles

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

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

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Lidia Yavorskaya, London

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

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

 

Vladimir Nabokov house, museum, St. Petersburg

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

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

Alexander Pushkin statue, Sofia, Bulgaria

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Surely there are more monuments erected to the memory of Alexander Pushkin than to any other Russian cultural figure – or of any other Russian, period. I can’t imagine who could beat him at this point. Lenin, perhaps? Stalin must have had more at one point, but, like the monuments to Lenin, the Stalin statues were pulled down at a high rate for about 60 years following his death in 1953. True, he’s making a comeback as Russian cities rush to show their support for Vladimir Putin’s re-Stalinization of Russia. So, maybe this little topic requires a bit more research.
Somebody else will have to do that, however, because, frankly, I don’t give a damn about monuments to Lenin and Stalin. And, anyway, I digress.
Pushkin. What is there left to say about Pushkin? I have a whole stash of photos of Pushkin monuments in my archives but I never get around to posting them because I have no desire to repeat myself and I have kind of exhausted my thoughts on this be-all and end-all of Russian everything. It doesn’t mean I love him any less, maybe I love him all the more for that – how many writers have taken you all the way to the end of your thoughts? But it doesn’t make me want to rush to my computer to squeeze a few new words out of my increasingly addled brain.
But I just happened to pass through Sofia, Bulgaria, a week or two ago, and I had the good fortune to encounter still another monument to Pushkin. This one is located behind the Russian church  in the center of the city on Tsar Osvoboditel (The Liberator Tsar) Boulevard at the intersection with Georgi S. Rakovski Street. Seeing as how this will be my first post originating in Bulgaria, I didn’t want to delay posting it.
There are at least three monuments to Pushkin in Bulgaria – the one you see here, another in Burgas and another in Pliska. There may have been a fourth addition just recently that Wikipedia hasn’t found yet – I ran across an article from 2016 about a new sculpture unveiled at the A.S. Pushkin Middle School in Sofia, just  few blocks from the Russian Church.
The Wikipedia article about monuments to Pushkin is chock full of fun information. We won’t take its numbers as absolutes, but it definitely provides an impressive picture of the world’s attempts to further the memory of Russia’s greatest and favorite poet.
There are nearly 290 monuments to Pushkin around the world. Around 142 of them are in Russia, 145 more are spread out among 45 other countries. There are over 60 such monuments in Ukraine alone. Several Ukrainian cities, such as Kiev (4), Kamenka (2), Lugansk (2), Mariupol (3), Odessa (3) and Ternopol (2) have multiple monuments.
Moldova comes in a distant second to Ukraine with 9 statues, busts, what-have-you spread out over 7 cities. Of course, Moldova, known as Bessarabia in Pushkin’s times, was the site of Pushkin’s first period spent in exile in the early 1920s – he was there for three years – so it makes sense that people there would feel a strong connection to him. Two of his most popular works were written there – The Captive of the Caucasus and The Fountain of Bakhchysarai. An article by Anastasia Fletcher in the International Identities online journal , “Alexander Pushkin in Bessarabia: literature and identity politics in the periphery,” offers a great deal of information about Pushkin in Moldova/Bessarabia:
Memory of the great Russian poet’s exile in Bessarabia has been inseparable from the identity collisions in the region. Pushkin matters as heritage both as text and as context. The category of ‘text’ includes Pushkin’s own writings and the various texts of his contemporaries. The poet invented Bessarabia as a romanticized and exotic land of released authentic freedom. Various memoirs authored by people who met, or pretended to have met, Pushkin in Chisinau, reinforced this image of the region. This urban mythology is an auth- entic piece of the intangible cultural heritage of the city and of the region. The category of ‘context’ includes scholarship of local origin, a monument, topography and two museums.”

Pushkin, of course, never traveled to Bulgaria, as he did not travel to almost all of the “foreign” countries that now offer monuments to his memory. Most of the statues erected in relatively recent times (the Sofia monument was unveiled in June 2001) have had some sort of political undertone to them – they are usually attempts by cities and governments around the world to find common ground with Russia and Russian culture – and who better than Pushkin to embody such a thing? (A few years ago in this space I wrote about a monument to Leo Tolstoy that went up in Budapest just before Putin visited that gorgeous city, and was specifically intended to make the Russian leader feel “at home” in Hungary.)
Some of the monuments, however, were probably not expressions of political expediency. A few are very old, thus predating the era of contemporary global politics. Some of the oldest outside Russia include a bronze bust in Tbilisi, Georgia (1892); Chișinău, Moldova (1885); and Ashgabat, Turkmenia (1911). I am fascinated to see that there are three Pushkin statues in the United States – one each in Washington, D.C., Jackson, New Jersey, and Monroe, New York.
The oldest object memorializing the poet is no longer in existence. It was erected August 12, 1817 in Tsarskoye Selo near St. Petersburg by Pushkin’s fellow classmates. Pushkin had just turned 18 at the time. It was a marble block engraved with the words “genus loci.” It was moved into the city in 1844 then lost. The oldest extant monuments appear to be the one in Moscow on Pushkin Square – it was unveiled in 1880 – and one on Pushkin St. in St. Petersburg – it went public in 1884.
For the record there are 9 monuments to Pushkin in St. Petersburg (not counting the lost marble block), and 11 in Moscow.
The monument in Sofia was created by Russian sculptor Vyacheslav Klykov (1939-2006). He is known for his monumental sculptures, often on patriotic topics. He was a monarchist in his later years and was involved in numerous right-leaning political movements. His likeness of Pushkin – a more or less human-sized work – is perfectly passable, though, to my eye, not distinguished in any way. It’s a vision of Pushkin that we recognize and have seen a million times or more. According to one Russian blog post, the idea for erecting the monument belonged to the Pushkin Fund, while the mayor of Sofia covered the local costs that were incurred in putting it up. Klykov appears to have donated his work to the city free of charge.

 

Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin house, St. Petersburg

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I think one of the most enigmatic figures in all of Russian literature must  have been Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin (1826-1889). Even his name seems caught in a swirl of confusion, and that is, by far, the least of it all.
His real name was Saltykov and it was under that name that the civil servant who lived and worked in numerous Russian provincial cities was known. As a writer he took the pseudonym of Shchedrin and reading Russians of the second half of the 19th century knew him as such. Over time we have grown accustomed to a dual name that mixes the real and pseudo – thus in the historical and scholarly literature one more often than not encounters him as Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin.
It was as Saltykov that he lived for awhile in 1845 in this building in St. Petersburg with his brother on what was then known as Kolomenskaya Street. Today the street address is Soyuza Pechatnikov Street 21/8; it stands on the corner of the crossing with Masterskaya Street. At the time Saltykov lived here, he was at the beginning of his adult life, let alone the beginning of his life in letters. He had run into some trouble as a free-thinker in school due to his poetry, and some of that poetry – which he later rejected and is generally considered juvenilia by scholars – had been printed in various publications. His first publications in the famed publication Sovremennik (The Contemporary) came at this time, as well. Good, bad or indifferent, the attitude expressed in his early poetry had earned him the nickname of the “gloomy lycée student” among his peers at school.
In the late 1840s Saltykov, in addition to the publication of his first prose works, ran afoul – again – of the authorities. He was sent in exile to the city of Vyatka in 1848 – freethinking again – where he continued to work as a civil servant, spending some eight valuable years observing Russia and Russians at close distance through his work.  By the middle of the next decade, when he was allowed to leave Vyatka, Mikhail Shchedrin was prepared to burst upon the public as a popular writer. From the 1850s until his death, Shchedrin would publish frequently – although with occasional lapses due to his busy schedule as a civil servant who moved around from city to city (Penza, Tula and Ryazan are among the cities where he lived and worked). He was also active as an editor, and, therefore, mentor to many young Russian writers, primarily at the legendary Notes of the Fatherland, although he also worked for The Sovremennik for a time as well.
But let’s get to what I think made him so enigmatic.
Shchedrin was a wickedly satirical writer. Sardonic. Mordant. He emerged in a field of writers that included or soon would include Nikolai Gogol and Alexander Sukhovo-Kobylin. Of these three Gogol was the more fully rounded stylist, while Sukhovo-Kobylin and Schedrin were of a much “nastier,” gloves-off type of satire. Sukhovo-Kobylin, who was a fascinating individual in his own right, was a society lion who ran afoul of the law and wrote three bitter plays unmasking corruption and evil. Shchedrin had elements of Gogol’s breadth and depth as a writer, while his wicked satire even outdid Sukhovo-Kobylin’s in its withering, fierce intensity.
I don’t know how much people actually read Shchedrin these days (none of my classes through to a PhD in Russian literature ever touched on Shchedrin) but his winged phrases, to use that lovely Russian expression, still fly high today, maybe even more so than they did during his lifetime. Nowadays his observations sound not only funny or accurate, they sound like prophecy. As you will see if you look below the next block of photos, Shchedrin’s wit was made for the Facebook/Twitter age. I rather suspect many encounter him there for the first time.

I suspect a full list of Shchedrin’s pithy phrases would require a full book-size publication. But here is a selection of my favorites.
1. “If I fall asleep and wake up in a hundred years and someone asks me what is happening in Russia now, I will answer: they are drinking and stealing.”
2. “When has it been that a bureaucrat was not convinced that Russia is a cake which you may approach freely and have a bite of?”
3. “The Russian authorities must keep their people in a state of constant astonishment.”
4. “Reforms are necessary, but no less so than punctuation. In other words: Put reforms in place, then – enough, put a period to that.”
5. “The severity of Russian laws is mitigated by the lack of their binding enforcement.”
6. “No, it’s clear that there are corners in God’s world, where all times are times of transition.”
7. “Any disgrace has its decent side.”
8. “Young ladies ask, am I washing my neck for a high or low décolleté?”
9. “Introduce enlightenment in moderation, if possible avoiding bloodshed.”
10. “You couldn’t quite call Strunnikov stupid in the rude sense of the word, but it’s true he was clever enough, as they say, not to eat wax candles or dry himself with glass.”
11. “Many tend to confuse two concepts: ‘The Fatherland’ and ‘Your Excellency’.”
12. “It is frightening when a person speaks and you do not know why he is speaking, what he is saying, and whether he will ever finish.”
13. “The stubbornness of stupidity is a tremendous power.”
14. “The system is quite simple: never directly allow anything, and never forbid anything directly.”
15. “As you attempt to spread sensible thoughts, it is inevitable that someone will call you a nasty imbecile.”
16. “Everyone in Russia steals. And at the same time, laughing, they add: ‘But when will it all end?'”
17. “What is better – condescension without indulgence, or severity in league with contempt?”
18. “Man is so made that even happiness must be imposed on him.”
19. “There is nothing more dangerous than a man to whom humanity is alien, who is indifferent to the destinies of his native country, to the destinies of his neighbor, and to everything except the fates of the coins he has put into circulation.”
20. “Civic maturity is transitioning from making scandalous jokes to catching the bosses’ eyes more accurately.”
21. “Nothing discourages vice like the awareness that it has been detected and that someone has already had a laugh about it.”
22. “He wanted something: either a constitution, the sturgeon with horseradish, or to haul off and whack someone.”
23. “There are masses of hotheads who have the ‘State’ on their tongues, but a pie filled with state goodies in their thoughts.”
24. “For the sake of science we don’t regret spending someone else’s money.”
25. “In need even the snipe will whistle like a nightingale.”

 

Anton Chekhov monument, Zvenigorod

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On July 14, 1884, the 24 year-old Anton Chekhov wrote to his friend, the writer and editor Nikolai Leikin, “In front of my window there is a hill with pines, to the right there is a prisoner’s house, and further to the right there is a shabby little town, formerly a capital city…” The town he had in mind was Zvenigorod, where the monument you see pictured here was erected in 2010, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Chekhov’s birth.
Chekhov had an acid tongue and pen, and legion are the little and big towns and cities that bore the brunt of his sarcasm over the years. No small effort has been spent in most of those places to find later comments that might lead us to think that the good doctor’s caustic comments weren’t as bad as they seemed, or were later overturned by other, softer opinions. That’s true in the case of Zvenigorod, where most of the texts about Chekhov’s few months here go on to quote him much later in life when he even expressed the wish to his future wife Olga Knipper that they could marry in Zvenigorod. According to an anonymous piece on Chekhov in Zvenigorod in the internet, Chekhov in 1901 wrote to his future bride, “”It really was quite nice in Zvenigorod, I worked there in the hospital once… it would be nice not to go home from the church, but to go directly to Zvenigorod, or get married in Zvenigorod.”
It’s true that Zvenigorod was an important, if brief, way-station for the new doctor and future writer. It was here, just following his graduation from the school of medicine at Moscow University, that he first practiced medicine professionally. There was only one doctor in the city and it was his duty, when leaving on vacation, to find a replacement for his time of absence. Chekhov was the choice, in this case. He spent two weeks as the temporary supervisor of the regional hospital in Zvenigorod, apparently seeing hundreds of patients and taking part in autopsies. It is considered that his stories “The Dead Body” and “The Investigator” published, respectively, in 1885 and 1887 in Petersburg Newspaper under the pseudonym of A. Chekhonte, were inspired by his experiences here.
Zvenigorod has done a decent job keeping the memory of Chekhov alive. The house where he lived with his brother Ivan  on the Istra River is still standing. The hospital where he worked bears his name, and on the hospital grounds both a bust and a plaque commemorate his presence there. It is safe to say I will never again have the opportunity to find and photograph those items, so fans of Chekhov’s life in Zvenigorod will have to dig deeper than this to find information and images of them. My train of knowledge stops here.

This monument – relatively large once you find it, and quite elusive until you do – stands in a city square between Ukrainskaya and Moskovskaya Streets. It was done with an admirable degree of professionalism and affection by sculptor Vladimir Kurochkin. As his website shows, Kurochkin has done a number of sculptures on artistic themes (primarily Russian writers and Western painters), but the bulk of his public works – busts and monuments – has been devoted to military figures.
The Zvenigorod Chekhov is rather routine. Everything is in place, the dog, the walking cane, the pince nez, the goatee, the overcoat… everything you might expect to see in a likeness of Chekhov. The facial similarity meets our expectations, and – no small thing, I suspect, – the hands are sensitive and gentle. Another nice aspect is the bench on which Chekhov sits. It is part of the monument, so that visitors are encouraged to sit down with the great man on common ground and share some thoughts, or even give his dog a scratch behind its perky ears.
This is the “great” Chekhov here, not the young man who came to begin his career in medicine, but the famed and respected writer who apparently even considered buying a dacha in Zvenigorod in 1903, about a year before he died. He came back to visit the town with the potential purchase in mind, but nothing ever came of it. Perhaps that explains the somewhat blank look in his eyes?
If I’m coming across as underwhelmed in my response to this monument, it’s because I am. But I think the surroundings also have something to do with it. The park itself, for all its motley greenery, is quite faceless. Furthermore, Chekhov is shoved way off to the side for some reason. He is backed right up against a fence that cannot hide the nondescript contemporary city street right behind him. He’s not really part of either world – the modern city or the generic park.
Having said all that, however, I will admit that there is always something pleasant about being able to walk up to Anton Chekhov and sit down with him as if for a chat. It’s not the excitement, humor and intellectual stimulation you get from wandering around Leonty Usov’s brilliant monument in Tomsk, but it’ll do if you’re in Zvenigorod and in the need of some Chekhov.

 

Leonid Gaidai statue, Moscow

Click on photos to enlarge.

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I must say this is the first time I have posted a work of Zurab Tsereteli in this space. I’m not a fan. Everybody in Moscow knows him for several reasons, few of which work in his favor. He has long been the main art consultant for Moscow, overseeing the erection of numerous tasteless monuments created by himself and his cronies. He created the monstrous (in all senses of the word) sculpture of Peter the Great that looms uglily (you think that’s not a word? go see what I’m talking about…) over the Moscow River and the New Tretyakov Gallery. The legend on that is that Tsereteli wanted to give the statue to St. Petersburg and they refused it. Several sources even tell us that he planned on making it a statue of Christopher Columbus and giving it to the U.S., but the Americans – that time at least – couldn’t be duped.
Enough of that, however, my real topic today is film director Leonid Gaidai.
Leonid Gaidai (1923-1993) had one of the great runs of success in Soviet film. From 1965 to 1973 he unveiled five consecutive hit comedies that were not just hit comedies. They were films that mythologized the comic characters of Soviet history for all times. They are films that everyone knows and loves even today because they all run frequently on Russian television. Their scripts are adapted for theater and played on stage. Their characters are beloved figures – the actors who played them are national heroes. The words they spoke are often quoted, the predicaments they got into are familiar and referred to often.
The string began with Operation Y and Other Adventures of Shurik (1965). It continued with The Prisoner Girl of the Caucasus, or, The New Adventures of Shurik (1966), The Diamond Arm (1968), The Twelve Chairs (1971), and Ivan Vasilyevich Changes his Profession (1973). The Twelve Chairs was based on the popular comic novel by Ilf and Petrov, while Ivan Vasilyevich was based on Mikhail Bulgakov’s play Ivan Vasilyevich. Gaidai was always a member of the team that wrote the screenplays.
Gaidai had a special love and appreciation of actors. He was a star-maker, and he was quite loyal to the actors who enjoyed success with him. His Russian Wikipedia article has an entire section devoted to actors and the lists there are quite impressive. Numerous actors worked with him on eight, nine or 10 films. Many of them, huge stars, owe their popularity specifically to their work with Gaidai.
The actor who played Shurik, Alexander Demyanenko (1937-1999) worked in an enormous number of films, at least 110, but throughout his career he was known to the public as “Shurik.” So important was “Shurik” to Gaidai, and Gadai to Shurik, and so popular was the figure of “Shurik,” Tsereteli gave his sculpture of Gaidai some of the same features as his beloved character. So, when you look over these images of Gaidai, you also see more than a little of Shurik. It was a rare clever stroke for Tsereteli, who is better at being obvious with overkill than subtle with humor.

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Gaidai was born in a small town in the Far East, moving with his family later to Irkutsk. During the war Moscow’s Satire Theater was evacuated to Irkutsk where it continued performing new and old shows until the war ended. The young Gaidai worked as a stagehand for awhile at the Irkutsk Drama Theater, apparently handling many of the Satire Theater shows. Perhaps it’s a little romantic to think so, but one wants to think that the exposure to Moscow’s best satire (this was one of the capital’s most popular theaters at that time) had an effect on the young future film director. After the war, during which he was seriously injured, stepping on a mine, he attended and graduated from the Irkutsk Theater Institute in 1947. He studied film directing at the State Film Institute in Moscow from 1949 to 1955. That year he was hired as a staff director at Mosfilm. His first film, The Long Journey, co-directed with Valentin Nevzorov, was released in 1956. It was based on a story by Vladimir Korolenko and told the tragic tale of young love in Siberia. His second film, The Groom from the Other World (1958), was a satire of Soviet bureaucracy and caused the director enormous troubles. The authorities found this film so offensive that they cut half of it out before allowing it to be released. In the process, the film was downgraded from a feature film comedy to a short. In an effort to help the young Gaidai rehabilitate himself in the eyes of the authorities, Mosfilm’s general director Ivan Pyryev essentially forced Gaidai to take on a patriotic topic for his third film, Thrice Resurrected. Although it was scripted by the highly regarded playwright and songwriter Alexander Galich, Gaidai never warmed to this work. A few more years of floundering found him making a couple more short films until he hit his stride with Operation Y and Other Adventures of Shurik. Over his career Gaidai made 15 features and three shorts.
The statue that you see here is one of three made by Tsereteli for the foyer in Eldar Ryazanov’s Eldar Film Club, located at 105 Leninsky Prospect. The other two are of Ryazanov and still another great Soviet film director Georgy Danelia. More about them another time.

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