Yury Nikulin. The words “great” and “legend” were imagined by mankind at one point to describe people like this. Nikulin, the great clown, the great actor, the great man. Funny as hell and as warm, human and as personable as they come. Without Nikulin you’d have to downgrade Soviet comic cinema by 50%. This guy was like Chaplin but not a copy in any way. His characters were clumsy, silly, sometimes stupid and almost always naive. They were so rich in heart, so lovable, so vulnerable, that you felt about them the way you felt about your fuzzy-blankey, your teddy-bear, your imaginary friend, whatever it was that meant warmth and love when you were a child.
I remember Nikulin for all that, for every film I have ever seen rerun on television over the last quarter century (I arrived here too late to see any of them in original release), but what I really remember him for was seeing him joke with the coat-check women at the coat rack at the Actors House on Arbat. He was bigger than life – a very big man, tall and broad. But he was Yury Nikulin, so when he would walk into the Actors House it was rather like the world drew back to let him pass. Smiles appeared on the faces of everyone present. People stopped what they were doing, even if it was just walking by. They watched him and smiled and it was as though you could feel them becoming better people for those brief moments. The rest of us had to turn our coats over to the coat-check woman for which we were given a little plastic tag to keep until we wanted our coat back. Nikulin just walked into the coat-check area and hung his own coat up in the back. No waiting in line for him, coming or going. And the whole while he cracked jokes, told anecdotes, teased the coat-check women and make them blush and laugh – not because they were uncomfortable, but because they were so flattered. This guy was History moving amongst us. He was Greatness and Humanity, all in one. He was one of those people who make you wonder if genuine Greatness requires this kind of warmth and humility. It probably doesn’t, but in my more sentimental moments I might be convinced to say I wish it did. The photos posted here were taken on a rainy day in front of the Circus on Tsvetnoi Boulevard, where Nikulin worked for, it seemed, an entire age. Wikipedia tells me his dates were 1921 to 1997, and my mind I can’t possibly believe it has been 17 years or more since I last saw Nikulin cutting up with the coat-check women at the Actors House.
Ah, the Chekhov sculpture in Tomsk! I love it! This was hugely controversial when it was erected in 2004 for the city’s 400th anniversary. Many thought (and still do) that this interpretation of a slightly grumpy Chekhov by sculptor Leonty Usov was an abomination. I say this is what statues and monuments are all about – witty, honest, bold and filled with chutzpah. The text ringing the base of the sculpture says, “Anton Chekhov as seen through the eyes of a drunken peasant, lying in a ditch, who has never read [the beloved children’s story] ‘Kashtanka’.” It is intended to be, and succeeds in being, a light-hearted response to Chekhov’s famous blasting of Tomsk in a letter he wrote while on his way to Sakhalin Island, “Tomsk isn’t worth a brass nickel,” he wrote in 1890, “an incredibly boring city…. the people are incredibly boring… the city is full of drunks… endlessly muddy… the maid at the local tavern wiped my spoon on her butt before giving it to me… The dinners here are excellent, unlike the women who are rough to the touch…”
The statue stands on the banks of the Tom River, for which Tomsk, naturally, is named, and it faces the Slavyansky Bazaar restaurant (the red brick building below), where the writer apparently had at least some culinary satisfaction.
The appearance in 2011 of a plaque commemorating the fact that the great playwright Nikolai Erdman worked at the Tomsk Drama Theater was one of those little miracles that make life worth living. Erdman, arrested in 1933 during the filming of the great “first Soviet musical” Jolly Fellows, was exiled to Siberia in less than a week’s time. He was sent to Yeniseisk; his co-screenwriter Vladimir Mass on the film was sent to Tobolsk. Although the two had worked together frequently since the mid-20s or so, they would never do so again. Erdman, apparently in gratitude for his good behavior in Yeniseisk, was moved to Tomsk in 1934. He remained there until his three-year sentence was up in 1936.
Tomsk has long been one of the biggest, most important Siberian cities. It was a central point for political prisoners and exiles being moved further into Siberia or keeping them from moving back to European Russia. As such, the city has a rich history of political prisoners contributing to the local culture. Erdman during his stay was officially employed at the Tomsk Drama Theater as literary director, and, while he was there, he wrote a dramatization of Maxim Gorky’s novel Mother, which was performed with some success.
The plaque on the wall of the former Tomsk Drama Theater (now the city’s Young Spectator Theater) was unveiled on a crisp day at the end of March 2011. The event was the culmination of four years of work carried out by Professor Valentina Golovchiner, a Yevgeny Shvarts scholar, who had studied under the most important Erdman scholar of the Soviet era, Nikolai Kiselyov. According to Golovchiner she got the idea of launching the campaign to erect the plaque (designed by great local sculptor Leonty Usov) from me when, one day, without thinking, I blurted out that someone ought to commemorate the fact that Erdman once worked in this building at Pereulok Nakhanovicha, 4. Be that as it may, this is the essence of the matter: Golovchiner showed heroic tenacity in pushing the plaque through all the stages of permissions, bureaucratic hoop-jumping and signature-collecting that were required to bring the project to fruition. As much as it is a truly satisfying recognition of Erdman’s contribution to Russian literature, drama and theater – for me it will also always be a monument to Valentina Golovchiner’s commitment to her calling as a scholar and historian of Russian culture. Following is a 2014 snapshot of Golovchiner pointing to the desk where Kiselyov used to work at the Tomsk State University Library, followed by a portrait of Kiselyov that hangs in a corridor on the second floor of the main university building.
What a seat of events the Taganka Theater has been over the decades! From Yury Lyubimov’s founding of the theater in 1964 (by firing almost the entire company that was there before him); the staging of some of the greatest productions in the history of Soviet Theater (The Good Person of Szechuan (1964), Hamlet (1971) and The Master and Margarita (1975); the exile of Lyubimov in 1984; the hiring and death of Anatoly Efros in the mid 1980s; the triumphant return of Lyubimov in 1989; the rancorous split that cut the theater in two by 1991; the scandalous break between Lyubimov and his troupe in 2011 which ended with Lyubimov resigning at the age of 93 and going solo; the bitter 50th anniversary season in 2013-2014 when a small group of disgruntled actors sought to sabotage official celebratory events throughout the season. And those are just SOME of the highlights… These images, taken in late fall 2013 on a snowy/drizzly day, seem to suggest that this theater will continue to live a vibrant life no matter what battles are going on inside it. In fact, it seems the more strife there is here, the more life there is.
Not many think much of this monument to Yesenin. It’s located on Tverskoi Boulevard more or less between the Yermolova Apartment museum on the north side of the boulevard and the Gorky Moscow Art Theater on the south side. I rather think of the statue as a too-sweet drink. I love sweets, so that’s not entirely bad. But, as has been said elsewhere by another fine poet, “too much of nothing can make a man ill at ease.” As far as we can tell from old photos the statue looks very much like Yesenin. That’s something, I guess. It’s possible we can see in it the pretty face that made Isadora Duncan lose her mind for the young poet. But it’s no coincidence that when I went walking around the statue I couldn’t find any angles that gave me any new information. Every shot I took looked the same, just some were closer up, others were farther away. Yesenin was actually an interesting person and an interesting poet. He was considered something of a “hooligan” and when he, according to the official version at the time, committed suicide at the age of 30 in 1925, there was a scandalous wave of copy-cat suicides. It was only after Perestroika and the fall of the Soviet Union that theories arose that Yesenin was actually murdered by the secret police on Dec. 28 in his room in the Angleterre Hotel in Leningrad. I like the drip of pigeon waste running down Yesenin’s right breast in the close up here. Oddly enough, there’s something humanizing about it.
Yury Trifonov, the author of “House on the Embankment” and many other of the finest prose works of the late Soviet period once lived in this building on what is now called Second Peschannaya Ulitsa. It is a clean, neat building located across from a large and attractive park well north of Moscow city center, on the west side of Leningradsky Prospekt. For a time the street bore the name of Romanian politician Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej and that is who the street was named after when Yury Trifonov lived here in the 1970s. I wrote about this and a few other locations connected with writers in Moscow in my Theater Plus blog space on the site of The Moscow Times.