Category Archives: Architecture, Various

Konstantin Leontyev and Chania, Crete

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Awhile back I wrote about Russian writer, critic and philosopher Konstantin Leontyev in regards to the neighborhood of Chalepa in the city of Chania, where he lived when he was a Russian diplomat on the island of Crete in 1864 (maybe or maybe not catching a few days or weeks at the tail end of 1863). As I pointed out, Leontyev was quite enamored of Chalepa and of Crete’s villages, to which he apparently traveled with frequency. He was less fond of Chania proper, which, in those days, was still closed entirely behind fortress walls that were locked shut each evening and did not open again until morning. Here is how Leontyev described it in an exotic love story titled “Chryso”: “Our city, you know, is cramped. The streets are narrow. The walls surrounding the city are fat. The gates of the fortress are locked up overnight and there is no way to escape unless you throw yourself into the sea. The city’s Christians were terrified. [Leontyev refers to a time when the Turks went on a rampage against the local Christians who could not escape the city.] As soon as night came not a soul was to be seen. It was as if cruel death were trailing after you! What do you do? Where do you run?
Today I select several photos of Chania (Leontyev, using the name of the time, called it Canea) that represent images which Leontyev probably saw more or less as they still are today. Before I begin I should allow Leontyev to make one of his most categorical statements about Chania (this, too, is drawn from “Chryso”): “I almost never go to Canea.” But the “almost” and the great detail that he provides of why he did not like the city makes it quite clear that he did in fact go there and remembered it well. As such, I feel safe suggesting that he would have seen much that I show here today.
I start above with four shots of what was, and still is, one of the main entrances and exits from the city in the far east of the Splantzia neighborhood nearby the Sabbionara Bastion, or Rampart (the rounded structure that juts out into the Cretan Sea). The gate located here, the only one that still exists in the city, was called Sabbionara Gate (the Italian meaning of which is the Gate of the Sand) or Koum-Kapi (the Turkish name meaning the same thing). Of course, there is no actual “gate” today, just a gaping hole that vehicles and pedestrians walk through. However, the post for the guards at the gate is preserved, as you see in the arched section of the wall in the topmost photo. That interior there is now used for art exhibits. If you look closely at the upper part of the wall of the bastion, you will see the Venetian emblem of the lion of St. Mark with wreath and insignia. It dates to 1591, when the structure of the bastion was built on an artificial peninsula jutting out into the sea. The “gate” and fortress walls that we see today were changed forever in 1645 when the Turks attacked the wall and destroyed much of it. Leontyev, when walking into Chania from his home in Chalepa, would have passed through this area many times and would have seen it very much as it looks here. Since the Turks still ruled Crete for most of the 19th century (they slowly wrested it from the Venetians between 1645 and 1669), Leontyev probably would have called this gate and area Koum-Kapi. (He probably didn’t see the gate in snow as the second photo depicts, as snow is quite rare in Chania. But since he arrived in December or January, he would have experienced the local winter, which is spectacular in its skies, winds, rain and rapidly changing weather.) If you wish to see an old photo of the gate and bastion as Leontyev presumably would have seen them, here is a good one.
Five of the six photos below show aspects of Chania (Canea) that Leontyev would readily recognize today. The first looks back at the central part of the city over the famed Venetian Port. It would have looked very similar to this, though perhaps less colorful. The Muslim mosque that you see at left center, and which is an exhibition hall these days, would have been a functioning place of worship in Leontyev’s time here.
The famed lighthouse which is arguably Chania’s central focus nowadays, began to appear in the last five years of the 16th century, constructed by the Venetians (who ruled Crete from 1206 to the middle of the 17th century). It was rebuilt by the Turks who completed renovations in 1839, making the tower resemble a minaret. It was reconstructed again in 2006, softening, but not removing entirely, the Turkish influence, and returning, to some degree, the original Venetian design.
Right across the port entrance from the lighthouse is the famed Firka fortress. It was built in 1629 and has virtually not changed since then. Aside from the slightly modernized lighthouse on the right, the only real anachronism in the photo of the fortress below is the Greek flag flying high above it. That first appeared here in 1913 when the Turkish flag was lowered for the last time.
Next in line is a photo of the church of St. Nicholas (Agios Nikolaos), located in the heart of the Splantzia district. Construction on it was begun in 1205 and completed in 1320. After the Turkish conquest began in 1645, the church was converted to a mosque, and we still see the minaret which was erected by the Turks to tower over the Orthodox Christian bell tower. I find it fascinating, and telling of the local world attitude, that the Greek Orthodox Church has never attempted to remove the minaret. It remains as a monument to history, as do many other minarets around the city. (See one of the photos in the last block below.) Leontyev could very easily have seen an image like my photo of the church against a full moon and winter sky.
The last two photos in the block below show two aspects of the wall that reaches from the far east of the old city out to the lighthouse. It serves as a breakwater that is especially important in stormy weather. The penultimate photo in the section below shows what was once the Bastion of St. Nicholas of Molos. As part of the active defenses of the city where soldiers could take cover and fire on the enemy, this was also a small chapel. I do not know if this would have been functioning during Leontyev’s tenure in the region, but he would have seen the structure itself more or less as we do now.

In his story “Sfakiot” (1877), Leontyev wrote, “You know, the walls of the Canea fortress are enormous, high, ancient, right by the sea. And the whole city (it’s not big, only 14,000 residents) lives inside the walls. And the sea is right there. Right beneath the walls at the sea there is a smooth place, sand.
The first photo below, of the north wall of the Sabbionara Bastion, could be one of the places that Leontyev had in mind when writing those phrases. For the record, in this same photo  one sees Leontyev’s neighborhood of Chalepa in the distance across the bay. With one exception, the other photos below are simply images that I feel quite certain Leontyev would have seen in Chania to one extent or another – the narrow streets, birds and bougainvillea, and the spectacle of nature showing off audaciously over the Cretan Sea.
The fourth photo below shows the Venetian dockyards, which, since the 16th century, have been among Chania’s most prominent structures. At their peak, in 1599, there were 17 dockyards where you now see seven. In all, there were 23 dockyards spread around the port of Chania. Leontyev, a lover of taking walks, despite his distaste for Canea, would surely have walked out on the spectacular breakwater and would have looked back, like I, to see the remaining docs, numerous sailboats, as well as one of the city’s minarets rising up over the rooftops.
Leontyev’s dislike for the cramped, dark quality of 19th-century Chania was preponderant, even if, on occasion, he allowed a grudging admiration to slip into his comments, as he does here in a general takedown of the city in his tale “Chryso”:
But Canea is Europe. The powers that be here are worldly – a Pasha who speaks French; here hang the consular flags of every nation, there is ‘la colonie européenne’ here; a handful of merchants of moderate wealth, doctors, European skippers, bureaucrats. Canea is our St. Petersburg, the ‘crayfish of Crete,’ as Rosenzweig [a character in the tale] put it.*
True, I don’ t know if it’s a crayfish or not and whether it will devour our national physiognomy, but I do at least know that the city is dirty and stuffy and locked up in a fortress, cramped and boring. But there is in it, if you like, a certain poetry. It reminds one of descriptions and pictures of the Middle Ages: narrow streets that until recently (under Veli-Pasha) fairly flowed red with blood… There are no carriages. Hordes of pedestrians and horse riders. All heavy objects are transported on mules and asses. Clothes are motley, conversations are loud, the shops are bad. As soon as the sun goes down the fortress gates are locked and they won’t let anyone in or out of the city except, of course, for consuls and consulate clerks, but even for them they open up the tiniest little wicket gate, through which even a man of modest size passes with the greatest of difficulty.”
* [Crete on a map looks something like a crayfish or lobster.]
Leontyev was a virtual unknown when he lived briefly on Crete. He had published only one novel, in 1861. A second was published in 1864, apparently when he lived in Chalepa/Chania. His writing took off and gained a readership in the 1870s and 1880s. Leontyev wrote in many genres on many different topics. He wrote journalism, essays, short stories, novels, philosophical treatises and literary criticism. I personally first discovered him as an astute critic of Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky when I was inhaling Russian literature at Widener Library at Harvard in the 1980s. A meeting with famed Russian religious figure Amvrosy at Otyma Pustyn in the mid-1870s had a major impact on Leontyev’s world outlook. Throughout his adult years he grew increasingly conservative, coming to believe that “liberalism” was the greatest danger that the Russian empire had to face. He moved to Optyma Pustyn in 1887 and took monastic vows in August 1891, assuming the name Kliment. He died three months later.

 

 

 

 

Alexander Pushkin bust, Moscow

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I have written in this space about what a folk figure Alexander Pushkin has become over the centuries. He is a talisman, a hero, a friend, a savior, a protector, someone you can trust when there is no one left to trust. He is the epitome of beauty, honesty, wit, dignity, courage, wisdom – he represents everything good in the Russian people and in mankind in general. Pushkin as the end-all and be-all, as I have noted more than once, leads at times to wonderful things like the absurdist stories that Daniil Kharms wrote about him throwing rocks and such. And then there is something like I encountered just a few days ago, in fact, one day following the biggest political protest in Russia in at least five years.
But this requires a short detour.
You see, Vladimir Putin and other friends of Donald Trump (you may boo, I’ll pause happily to allow that) had beaten back the Russian opposition so badly since a series of huge protests took place in 2011 and 2012, that protest either went underground, to jail, or merely died (or, in the case of Boris Nemtsov, was murdered). And then, to everyone’s surprise, to the astonishment of all from politicians and rebels to parents and schoolmasters, an enormous group of disgruntled young kids – virtually all still teenagers – poured out on the streets March 26, 2017, to let the world know they were unhappy with Putin’s government and policies. They were called out by a fearless man named Alexei Navalny, but it is one thing to be called, and it is another to answer the call. What took place March 26 had commentators reaching for superlatives in a way I had not seen in regards to this topic for half a decade.
Facebook and Twitter were abuzz. Who were these kids? Where did they come from? What is going on? There were many answers, many details, many excellent explanations as to why and how such a huge, virtually spontaneous demonstration could come about. Those analyses are important and I suggest you track them down if you’re interested in the topic. But in the aftermath I found one response that beat the hell out of everyone else’s. It was a parable written by a writer I first encountered when her name was Oksana Velikolug. She now goes by the name of Kseniyka Smit (or Smith – she married an admirably disgruntled Brit who has lived in Russia with her for many years now). Kseniyka is a writer and performer (I first saw her on stage in Boris Yukhananov’s brilliant production called The Tale of the Upstanding Man a decade or so ago.) And she responded to the March 26 protest as a writer would – she condensed it into a few pithy thoughts, a couple of laughs and a few wicked satirical barbs, then put it out into the world to live its own life.
Digression No. 2. The protest march the other day ended up centering around Pushkin Square in the center of Moscow. The monument to the poet there became something of a participant as protesters and police occasionally climbed up the sides of the pedestal chasing one another. Or, perhaps that was artistic license taken by Smit. I do know for a fact that there were a few chases up and down light poles. But this is moot as regards Kseniyka’s story, as you will see. What Kseniyka did was to place this event squarely in the middle of the rich field of Russian Pushkin lore. She brings Pushkin to life in the guise of all those qualities I mentioned above – savior, protector, wiseman, defender. She has good precedent for doing so, since in one of Pushkin’s own most famous narrative poems, The Bronze Horseman, Pushkin brings a statue of Peter the Great to life and sends him chasing after a young man who dared curse him. For good measure, Pushkin also wrote a brilliant, brief version of the Don Juan story, called The Stone Guest, in which the statue of a man Don Juan murdered comes to life and clasps his hand in a deathly handshake. Kseniyka refers to that in her nod to “the Commodore” in her little story. But where Pushkin’s Bronze Horseman and Don Juan were threatening, vengeful figures, Smit’s Pushkin is a knight in white (perhaps green) armor, a kind, loving grandfather, a genius of pure beauty (if I may allow myself that little quote). I loved Kseniyka’s story so much that I translated it the moment I found it on Facebook and reposted it. You can find the full translation after the jump here.
However, first let me take care of business. Since I have already written about the Pushkin monument on Pushkin Square, I decided to let a bust that stands in front of a Moscow library named for Pushkin do the pictorial honors for today’s post. Pushkin was christened in the cathedral across the street from here, and he grew up running around his uncle’s house just down the street. So there’s a good reason for the bust and the library named after him to be located at this spot at 9 Spartakovskaya Street, Bldg. 1. The library was founded in 1900. The bust appears to have been made by Vladimir Domogatsky (1876-1939), although the exact date of its unveiling may have been lost. A webpage discussing the history of the library and its environs states that the bust “may have been” erected in 1937 (one hundred years after Pushkin’s death).
And now back to Kseniyka Smit’s story…

On the square flooded with a spring sunshine, still not entirely confident in its own powers, policemen seek to restore order, beating protesters with clubs. The protesters, seeking to preserve their human dignity and the freedom of their children and grandchildren, appeal to the heavens. Beyond all this, somewhat green from all the years, Pushkin gazes down upon the goings-on. Suddenly… wild squeals pierce the air. Policemen who had clambered up onto the monument’s pedestal recoil in horror and retreat helter-skelter. Lord Almighty!!! Pushkin has twitched! The Commodore has come alive! The protesters are frightened too and are just on the verge of turning tail and running, but they stop in their tracks, petrified. A powerful foot comes down on the ground, followed by another. An enormous hand carefully plucks up a few youngsters and a few oldsters, too, and plants them on the towering height of a pair of shoulders.
          “You are violating law and order!” shout the police . “You have no right to interfere with the passage of citizens!”
           “You say I have not the right to do that?” a voice rumbles, seeming to come from somewhere beyond the clouds.
           “Ale ….. Alexander Sergeevich!” shouts the chief of police, stuttering and blushing. “You… you….. you… but we…. but this is our job, Alexander Sergeich!”
            The policeman doffs his combat helmet.
           “My dear man!!!” – windows tremble in every neighboring building – “My dear, good sir! Beating up children and the elderly is no job. That is a crime!!!”
            Pushkin takes a step.
            “These people come to preserve freedom and truth, and by extension, me. For poetry is impossible without truth… Follow me, ladies and gentlemen! Where is this ruler of yours, so weak and deceitful?”
            The people applaud joyfully and the crowd moves down Tverskaya Street, leaving the riot police behind. There is no point in arresting anyone now. Pushkin steps hard, shaking the whole city. Helpless helicopters and paddy wagons now seem so tiny. Everywhere are shouts, as if in one loud voice, “Putin is a thief!”
Pushkin seats people on his shoulders and walks and walks and walks… all across Russia… until he comes upon the presidential motorcade racing toward the border. Pushkin thoughtfully plucks up the presidential car and shakes the President out of it. The President falls in his palm.

            “Oh, such a tiny one!” he says and bursts into laughter. President Putin is white with fear and rage. He would burn this monument if he could. Pushkin cradles him in his hand, and throws him high up in the air… far, far, far away….

Need it be said that this story, as originally published in Russian on Facebook, is fully copyrighted by the author Kseniyka Smit, 2017. It may not be reproduced without her permission, and my translation of it may not be reproduced without my permission. Should it be necessary we can both be reached right here by way of this blog site.

 

Mikhail Ugarov’s Moscow Debut

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A few thoughts today on what is gone, what is lost, and what suits my present frame of mind (I suspect not only mine). Not long ago I walked past this spot next to Pushkin Square. It’s nothing at all. Less than nothing now. What once was here is long gone. What once provided me a reason to be here has long disappeared. Nothing is the same that once was here, just as no one is the same who was once here with me. All these “nothings” bring to mind one of my favorite songs by a Nobel Prize winner. The song is only partly about what I plan to print below, but it does connect well with the frame of mind that I currently find myself in (see my previous post if you can’t guess the reason for that): “Now, too much of nothing,” writes Bob Dylan,

Can make a man feel ill at ease
One man’s temper might rise
While another man’s temper might freeze
In the day of confession
We cannot mock a soul
Oh, when there’s too much of nothing
No one has control.

You see the wooden cover over what used to be (may still be underneath) stair steps? There was a bar down those steps. I spent a few hours there one evening, that’s it. Later they moved out the bar and moved in a shopping center. Then they moved out the shopping center and boarded things up. That’s called “business” – big and small – in Russia these days.
Anyway, that bar you can’t see because it isn’t there once hosted a small group of quiet revelers. There were five of us. The date was June 11, 1997. The occasion, now that I think about it, was no small thing. It was the Moscow debut of playwright Mikhail Ugarov. These days Misha Ugarov is one of the most famous theater makers in Moscow. He’s so famous, in fact, that the Russian government refused to let him travel to Berlin a few weeks ago to accompany a production he had directed. They claimed it was because he owed back fees on an old apartment. But if you look at his Facebook page the night before he was turned away at passport control at Sheremetyevo airport, you’ll see that he had some sharp words for the FSB (that’s the present-day KGB for those of you who don’t keep up with things Russian). Coincidence? Maybe.
Misha Ugarov and his wife Yelena Gremina are the founders of what is surely Russia’s feistiest, bravest, most honest theater. It’s called Teatr.doc and it has become world famous not only because the authorities have persecuted it repeatedly over the last few years, but because they have produced some of the most important theater productions of their time; they have midwifed some of the most powerful writers of their time; they have given kick-starts to some of the most talented directors of their age; and they have schooled many of the top young actors in today’s Russia.
I trust you get my drift. Misha Ugarov and Lena Gremina are national treasures, especially at a time when their nation rarely treasures anyone but bootlickers.
Well, there was a time when Misha Ugarov was no regular guest in the Moscow theater world. By the mid-to-late ’90s he had written a half-dozen plays that many admired, and a few had been produced in other cities (St. Petersburg, especially). But he was anything but recognized. The change from a man looking in from the outside to one of the most active and respected theater practitioners of his day came only over the course of many years. When Misha’s first play was produced in Moscow, there was hardly anyone there to see it (the house held a grand total of 40 people). The play, a kind of ironic fragment knocked off of Alexander Pushkin’s Boris Godunov, was the gentle, but acerbic, tale of three monks getting in for more than they had planned. It was called Doves, both ironically and not, and it was staged by the bad-boy director of the moment, Vladimir Mirzoyev, at the Stanislavsky Drama Theater, a place, perhaps bizarrely, where I now work (although it’s called the Stanislavsky Electrotheatre these days).
Mirzoyev had just opened another show days or weeks before and he was stretching himself a bit thin. I happen to know a bit about it because my wife Oksana Mysina was a performer in the other show, a play called That, This Other World, written by our friend Alexei Kazantsev. I heard plenty of tales. Still, Doves premiered on time as planned, while Other World struggled to get itself going.
Oksana and I were big fans, I would even flatter myself to say friends, of Ugarov’s and Gremina’s. We had known them a long time, having watched Gremina’s plays make their way onto some of the smallest and biggest stages in the nation’s capital – all at a time when playwrights in Russia got no respect at all from theaters, directors, actors, critics, even the doormen and women at stage door entrances. We were thrilled to see Misha finally making his Moscow debut and were among the first people to take our seats in the hall. But that was just the beginning of the night that ended at that now non-existent bar below the editorial offices of Izvestia newspaper, across from Pushkin Square. Also long gone are the productions of Doves and That, This Other World. Mirzoyev no longer works at the Stanislavsky, but I do. Gone are the days that Misha was unproduced in Moscow. Gone is Kazantsev, one of Ugarov’s mentors, he died a decade ago. Gone are the days when you could not hear yourself think in a Moscow cafe because the music was so loud. Gone are the days when bars and restaurants were opening up like crazy; these days they’re closing down with almost the same ferocity. And yet, when I recently stood before that wooden cover over stairs that once took me down into a dark, rather cheap, entirely empty bar on June 11, 1997, I had a moment when I felt like I was existing in two planes of time at once. And it was then I remembered that I had probably written something about this evening in a diary that I kept from about 1990 into the early 2000s.
Today, with Bob Dylan ringing in my ears, I went back into an old hard drive to find my old diaries and sure enough, there it was. In this entry made June 13, 1997, the second half rather matter-of-factly tells a brief story about Mikhail Ugarov’s Moscow debut. You can read it below the photos (note that I refer to Oksana Mysina as “O”).

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June 13, 1997
…The night before we attended the premiere of Vladimir Mirzoyev’s production of Mikhail Ugarov’s Doves. I had forgotten this, but it was the first professional production of an Ugarov play in Moscow. He’s been staged all over Russia and in many theaters in Germany, but nobody in Moscow had got around to him until now. The production is quite nice, small and intimate like the play itself. Mirzoyev backed off his usual heavy-handed approach, leaving the text and characters almost exactly as written. The few directorial touches which he did add – such as one of the characters walking around flapping his arms and cooing like a dove – were on the money. There was some feeling that the show came off a bit too understated, but that’s only if we’re getting picky.
Much worse was the treatment Ugarov got from the theater. By the time he and his wife Lena Gremina came into the hall (which only seats about 40), all the seats were full. Nobody lifted a finger to do anything about it. The theater’s literary director (whose job it is to deal with authors) sat in her chair and looked off in the other direction. Misha and Lena finally left. He went to the actors’ dressing rooms and apologized, “Sorry guys, but I won’t be able to watch today. They don’t have a seat for me.” Mirzoyev heard what was going on and he finally asked someone to sit on the floor to give Misha and Lena seats.
The same kind of treatment continued after the show. Mirzoyev pulled Misha up on stage for the bows, but it ended there. Nobody had arranged any banquet of any kind. Everybody moved off into their own groups, leaving Misha and Lena standing there alone. I found them standing on the street by themselves, while Mirzoyev was surrounded by a bunch of actors. It was pathetic. I went up to Misha and Lena and asked if there was going to be a banquet. They said no, and asked me if I would photograph them next to the poster. I did so and went back into the theater looking for O. But even before I found her, I realized things couldn’t just end like that. So I turned around and went back out on the street. Misha and Lena were still standing there forlornly. I said I had no money, but I had a credit card, so let’s go someplace and celebrate. They happily accepted. I ran back inside, found O and invited Masha Kivva, one of O’s partners in That, This Other World, to come along. We headed out to look for a place to park ourselves.
That is no longer a problem in the new Moscow. There are restaurants and bars on every corner. But, as luck would have it, every one we stopped at was full. We did find one place with nice soft seats in the back, but no sooner did we sit down than the waitress came up, plopped a menu down in front of us, pointed to some lettering and left without a word. We read there that we were to be charged $6 a head for a cover charge for a musical program that was to begin soon. I figured, to hell with the cover charge, but if the music was going to be loud, what would be the point of staying? So I got up, found the waitress and said, “Uh, is your music loud? Because we came in here to talk.” She looked at me for a second trying to decide if I was a moron or not and said, “Our music is VERY loud.” I thanked her and we left.
We passed up another place or two because they were all full, but finally, I think it was nearly an hour later, we found a bar with NOBODY in it. Normally, that would be a bad sign, but after our sojourn, we were delighted. Actually, Masha Kivva thought maybe we ought to keep trying to find a better place, but Lena reminded her that, with our luck, the next step would probably be buying a bottle of port and huddling together on a park bench. We stayed and had a very nice evening.

Hardly an earth-shattering story. But one whose muted tones suit these photos and my prevailing mood. I usually don’t let others’ words draw conclusions for me, but I’m okay with Bob doing it this time, with the chorus from “Too Much of Nothing”:

Say hello to Valerie
Say hello to Vivian
Send them all my salary
On the waters of oblivion.

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Maria Sollogub’s literary salon, Moscow

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This is one of the nicer homes in my expanded neighborhood. Someday I’ll have to leave it behind, but it will always remain strong in my memory. It stands cattycorner across from the Tretyakov Gallery, and directly across from the famous Writers’ house on Lavrushensky Lane. (If you’re one of those, like a benighted editor I once had, who doesn’t know the word cattycorner [or caddycorner], expand your vocabulary: The Grammarist, in a lovely, long article tells us that it means “positioned diagonally across a four-way intersection, but … can work in other contexts relating to one thing being diagonal from another.” It’s a very useful word.) But I already digress.
The main structure at 3 Bolshoi Tolmachyovsky Lane dates back to 1772, while most of the decoration, added after the Moscow Fire of 1812, dates to 1814. The gorgeous wrought-iron gate and fences were originally created in the 1760s, but were not put up here until the 1820s. The wings to either side of the building were added in the years 1849-1859 by then-owner Maria Fyodorovna Sollogub (1821-1888), who is the reason for this post today. (Note that in the historical record her last name is sometimes found spelled with a single “L” but the accepted spelling for her family is with the double “L”.) Maria was born into a well-known and well-connected family in St. Petersburg. Her father was Fyodor Samarin, a military man, and her mother was Sofya Neledinskaya-Meletskaya (whose father, in turn, was something of a poet – one of his poems became the popular romance, “Whenever I Go Out to the River”). Two of her brothers had connections to what today we might call the “creative class” – Dmitry Samarin wrote essays and small books defending Slavophile views, while Yury Samarin was a philosopher and a good friend of many writers, including Konstantin Aksakov, Ivan Kireevsky, Alexei Khomyakov and others. In this family of learned, prominent people, Maria had the opportunity to meet many of the early great Russian writers – including Alexander Pushkin and Nikolai Gogol. Maria was well-educated (at home) and had a sharp, inquisitive mind. She was known to her contemporaries as a brilliant conversationalist. The philosopher and jurist Boris Chicherin called her “one of the most worthy women I ever met in my life” and noted her “solid, clear and fundamental intellect.” As was the rule for the time, she was groomed for marriage and one of the pretenders, if I may put it that way, was Andrei Karamzin, the son of the great historian Nikolai Karamzin. However, her authoritarian father prevailed and in 1846 she was handed in marriage to Lev Sollogub, the older brother of the then well-known writer Vladimir Sollogub, best known for his light society tales and his vaudevillian dramas. In short, Maria was – right from the beginning of her life on through into the thick of it – surrounded by literature and writers.

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That marriage not only brought Maria to Moscow, it turned out to be something of a disaster when, after a few years, Lev Sollogub lost, shall we say, contact with reality, and Maria was left to care for him until he died in 1852. The couple’s only child – Fyodor Sollogub (1848-1890) – became a costume designer for theater, as well as a sometime poet and actor.  (Don’t confuse him with the symbolist Fyodor Sologub, whose real last name was Teternikov.) He was a good friend of Leo Tolstoy’s and stood at the origins of a small theatrical organization with the bland name of the Moscow Society of Lovers of Art and Literature. We remember this society today because it is the place where Konstantin Stanislavsky took his first baby steps in the theater world before moving on to found the Moscow Art Theater. In fact, Stanislavsky credited Sollogub with being one of the few people whose ideas and support helped him consolidate his thoughts on a new kind of theater.
Maria clearly loved and appreciated good company and good talk, for the “evenings” or “get-togethers” or “salons” that she hosted in her home were well-known and well attended. The Russian Field website tells us that “the Sollogub home became a popular literary-political salon, frequenters of which included Alexei Khomyakov, the Kireevsky brothers [Ivan and Pyotr], the Aksakov brothers [Konstantin and Ivan], Konstantin Kavelin, Ivan Turgenev, Boris Chicherin and others. In other words, Slavophiles and Westerners alike gathered here in comfort.”
Details about Maria’s salon are not easy to come by although I did find a description of a theater production of an early Turgenev play that was put on there. Here is a text drawn from a Turgenev website:
“The Provincial Lady was performed on the amateur stage of Countess Sollogub in early January 1851. The author ignored the first performance. But, having heard of its success, he attended the second. Countess M. F. Sollogub was the wife of Lev Alexandrovich Sollogub, a cousin of the Vasilchikovs and Countess Cherkasskaya. Visiting her home, Turgenev naturally met her many relatives, but Countess Cherkasskaya, who played the lead role in the play, disappointed the writer. In a letter to Pauline Viardot on January 5, 1851, he wrote, ‘Day before yesterday I had a great success. The actors were loathsome, especially the heroine (Countess Cherkasskaya), although that did not stop either the public from applauding excessively or me from going backstage to congratulate them heartily. Still and all, I was satisfied that I attended the performance. I think that my play will have success on the theatrical stage, since it has been appreciated, even though it was abominated by dilettantes… I received many congratulations, compliments et cetera. You know, it’s amusing to see your own work on the stage.”
In fact, Turgenev in another letter to his love Viardot (published on the Turgenev page of the az.lib.ru site), reveals that he was quite nervous about the little premiere. Here is an excerpt from a letter he wrote New Year’s Day 1851:
This evening one of my manuscript comedies will be played on the amateur stage at Countess Sollogub’s. I was invited to attend the performance but I, of course, will refrain from that; I am too afraid that I will play a silly role. I’ll write to you about what results.”
As such, in addition to all the interesting conversations and meetings that these walls witnessed during the years that Sollogub lived here, it was also the place of the world premiere of Turgenev’s The Provincial Lady. Sollogub sold the estate in 1882 and it became a gymnasium (high school). It is currently the K.D. Ushinsky pedagogical library.

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Georgy Alexi-Meskhishvili workspace, Hanover, NH

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Georgy Alexi-Meskhishvili (born 1941) has gotten around throughout his career. One of the great Georgian theater designers of his generation, he has worked extensively in Russia and the United States (including the Metropolitan Opera in New York), leaving quite a mark in both of those countries. I won’t be able to recall exactly the first time I encountered his work, although it was probably when I saw all the shows of the stunning Moscow tour of the Rustaveli Theater of Tbilisi, Georgia, in Moscow in 1994. Those sets to soaring, eye-opening and heart-rending productions by Robert Sturua (Meskhishvili did not design them all) were fabulously eclectic, suggestive and beautiful. The use of large expanses of open space, coupled with well-considered props, seemed to be the epitome of theatrical to me. Here’s what I wrote about Sturua’s rendition of Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle in an article about that tour for the journal Slavic and East European Performances ( later reprinted in my book Moscow Performances: The New Russian Theater 1991-1996):
The set by Georgy Alexi-Meskhishvili implied a forlorn outpost. Battered fortress walls lined the walls of the large, empty stage, the center of which often revolved, delivering or carrying away actors in statue-like poses. A few artist’s implements stood bunched at forestage right (the Storyteller’s “studio”), a messenger occasionally appeared atop a kind of Trojan horse, and spare props such as a bed, a wash tub or a scaffold (in Act III) were brought in from time to time. But the stage was primarily an open platter that served up the actors and the action.”
(A little more research indicates that I actually probably first encountered his work in 1992 or 1993 – this would have been Temur Chkheidze’s production of Schiller’s Love and Intrigue for the Bolshoi Drama Theater of St. Petersburg – although I apparently did not write about it, so I can’t offer up a fresh impression here.)
Later I saw numerous sets that Meskhishvili created for Lev Dodin’s Maly Drama Theatre and Valery Gergiev’s Mariinsky Theater of St. Petersburg, and numerous more that he created for Sturua’s many productions in Moscow at the Et Cetera Theater. You can see a bit of one of those shows, The Tempest, on YouTube. It’s well worth it. Meskhishvili has worked in London, Dusseldorf, Helsinki, Paris, Bordeaux, Venice, Munich and Bologna in Europe. He also created sets and costumes for productions in Tel Aviv and Buenos Aires, and he was a founding member of the highly-regarded Synetic Theater in Washington, D.C.
What I did not know when my wife Oksana and I arrived for a three-week residency with the New York Theatre Workshop at Dartmouth College last August, was that Alexi-Meskhishvili had taught design in the theater department at Dartmouth for 20 years. In fact, he apparently had just cleaned out his office and headed back to Tbilisi shortly before we arrived in August 2015. He joined the faculty as a visiting professor in 1996. So, not only did I find myself routinely walking the same halls that he had walked for so long, I also heard his former students referring to him with love and affection as Gogi, the Georgian diminutive for Georgy. It all struck me as slightly bizarre and quite fascinating.

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Alexi-Meskhishvili – for at least part of his tenure at Dartmouth – occupied office 117 in the Hopkins Center, certain aspects of which you can see in these photos. The first two shots in the block immediately above show the design workshop that is located on the ground floor of the Hopkins Center. The three photos below show some of the Dartmouth students’ design work that would have been done under Alexi-Meskhishvili’s tutelage. The display cabinet is located in the Hopkins Center basement, adjacent to the entrance to the Bentley Theater space (directly under the Moore Theatre space) where most student productions are performed. I hazard to say that most of the design models show the Meskhishvili influence. Compare, for instance, the last photo below with the set you see in the video of The Tempest above. I definitely see a connection. These designs are not the typical sit-comish kitchen or living room scenes that American theater throws at us so often.
Alexi-Meskhishvili returned to Tbilisi in the late summer of 2015 in order to devote his time more heavily to the Georgy Alexi-Meskhishvili Modern Theater Art School at the Rustaveli Theatre (the school officially opened in 2014). According to an announcement on the website of the Georgian Ministry of Culture, the school is free of charge to the students (hear that, United States?). I wrote to my friend Maya Mamaladze, a Moscow-educated Georgian theater scholar and critic, and asked if she could share any details about the school. She replied that she attended a student exhibit in the foyer of the Rustaveli Theater in October 2015: “Very good works, models and installations,” she wrote.
Alexi-Meskhishvili’s own work has pulled down a bundle of awards, if you’re into things like that. The one I find of particular interest – not because of the award itself, but because of the project – is the Felix award for best design at the Berlin Film Festival in 1989. This was for his work on Ashik-Kerib, the great Sergei Parajanov’s last finished film.
Pamela Howard, in her book What is Scenography? asked a large number of designers from around the world to answer the question posed by her book title. I can’t say that most of the respondents shined in their answers. Alexi-Meskhishvili, however, gave a good one: “Scenography – playing the game by my own rules in the magic box of stage.”

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Ballets Russes at the Lyceum Theatre, London

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The critics ate the Ballets Russes alive when they opened for a short, “low-priced,” season in London at the Lyceum Theatre on 21 Wellington St. at the end of 1926. All kinds of stuff about them going pop (in the local lingua of the time, of course). They’d lost their moxie. They were pandering to the public. That kind of stuff. Oh, really? I’ll bet you’d have a hell of a time finding a critic who didn’t fawn on The Lion King, which opened at this same venue in 1999 and is still running today! So much for critics, so much for standards, so much for taste! In fact, when you walk around London’s West End, as I did a few months ago, and you see all those cotton candy musicals gumming up the city’s stages, you wonder how London’s reputation as a great theater center has survived. But that’s just an aside. I’m here to think about the Ballets Russes today.
The show that really caught in the London critics’ collective craw in 1926 was The Triumph of Neptune. It premiered Dec. 3, 1926, and was composed by Lord Berners, choreographed by George Balanchine. It was the first work that Diaghilev ever commissioned from a British composer. It was considered populist and folkloric and decidedly beneath the great Ballets Russes. Here is what the critic for The Nation wrote:
The excited giggles that greeted some of the more bizarre elements of the newer ballets betrayed a large sprinkling of a less highbrow audience. The season which opened at the Lyceum Theatre in November 1926 brought out an even motlier public, an enormous army of admirers, who make up an audience as unintelligent as any other, and apparently quite incapable of discriminating between one ballet and another.”
Oh, yes, where have I seen this before? If only the stupid public and the talentless artists would listen to us, the genius critics! But I keep digressing today…
Still, the razzes were not unanimous. In a friendly contemporary essay about the ballet, one scholar dug up something resembling a positive response and put it into context:
In fact Diaghilev was as attuned to trends as ever,” writes Anne Witchard in “Bedraggled Ballerinas on a Bus Back to Bow: The ‘Fairy Business’.” “It was a craze for mid-century Victoriana among London’s so-called Bright Young Things that persuaded him to commission the eccentric peer and composer Lord Berners and his friend Sacheverell Sitwell to create the ballet score and libretto. The Triumph of Neptune was a combination of surreal pastiche, camp sentiment, and fierce nostalgia, and it prompted the normally anti-Diaghilev Daily Express critic, Hannen Swaffer, to state: ‘We saw at the Lyceum last night the beginnings of a British ballet.’ This was not quite what Haskell had meant. Where Haskell was referring to the artistic credibility of English ballet dancing as a nascent phenomenon thanks to Russian intervention, what Swaffer saw in The Triumph of Neptune was the rediscovery of an already credible native tradition. The flamboyant dandy-aesthetes of the 1920s embraced a ‘High-coloured Victorian England’ as wholeheartedly as pre-war Bloomsbury had rejected it, and Diaghilev’s company offered ways of making aesthetic connections to that tradition.”

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The Triumph of Neptune was joined in rep by, among other titles, Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird and Constant Lambert’s Romeo and Juliet. This latter work premiered in Monte Carlo a few months before London, and received a bit of a scandalous reception in Paris after Monte Carlo, but before London. The Parisians, apparently always quick to complain (or quick to give Diaghilev the publicity he craved) were unhappy that the pair of lovers in this version are swept away to safety on a new-fangled airplane rather than can kill themselves in the finale. Here, in a review of a CD containing both The Triumph of Neptune and Romeo and Juliet, is a description of the ballet as it unfolded on stage:
This Romeo and Juliet is perhaps an irreverent treatment of Shakespeare’s tragedy, taking less than thirty-one minutes for performance.  The first tableaux is ‘In a ballet classroom,’ in which the two principal dancers fall in love while practicing for the performance.  The second tableaux is ‘At a rehearsal of scenes from Romeo and Juliet‘ in which the first meeting of the two lovers  is depicted in a Sinfonia (3:03), the duel between Romeo and Tybalt by a Toccata (2:33), the balcony scene by a Musette (2:42), the death of Juliet by an Adagietto (1:59), and a Finale (3:22) after which the leading dancers do not take their curtain call—they have eloped by aeroplane.”
Romeo was danced by Serge Lifar (Serhiy Lyfar in transliteration from his native Ukrainian); Juliet by Alice (Alisa) Nikitina. You can see them in a photo on Pinterest.
A third ballet that played with the other two was a new version of Stravinsky’s The Firebird. As Alexander Golovin’s sets and Leon (Lev) Bakst’s costumes to the famous 1910 production had been damaged beyond repair, Diaghilev had Natalya Goncharova create a new environment for the piece. (You can see a nice shot of her backdrop here.) According to The London Stage 1920-1929: A Calendar of Productions, Performers, and Personnel, The Firebird opened Nov. 22, 1926, and played 10 times through Dec. 11. It used the original Michel Fokine (Mikhail Fokin) choreography, and starred Serge Lifar  as Ivan Tsarevich and Lydia Lopokova (Lidia Lopukhova) as the Firebird. Chatty birds even today tell us that Lopokova did not like working with Lifar, but she put on a game face and did it anyway.
There were apparently several other works that joined these main pieces during the London “low-priced” season. The fine AusStage website informs us that on Thursday, Nov. 25, the following combination of ballets and symphonic pieces opened: The Three-Cornered HatThe Firebird,  L’Apres Midi D’un Faune, and Prince Igor, plus the interludes of Largo by Gemignani (first performance in England), Jeux en Plein Air by Tailleferre (first performance in England) and Scherzo by Borodin.
Look at all that cheap, populist stuff! Right here at the Lyceum, November and December 1926.

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Stravinsky, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev and Walt Disney, Los Angeles

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Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) and Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) were three giants of Russian music in the 20th century. Their lives and professional paths snaked in and around each other in many different ways in many different countries of the world, although none of them ever became particularly close. Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff entered the same alien, but attractive, universe of Hollywood and Los Angeles as a result of Hitler’s rise in Germany. (Their shy dance in space and time began when Rachmaninoff’s family moved to St. Petersburg in 1882, the year of Stravinsky’s birth in that city.) Prokofiev seemed to move in an orbit farther from the other two. In fact, more or less as Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff were settling in Los Angeles, Prokofiev made his last visit there before returning to the Soviet Union. There is, however, one name that brings them all together, albeit briefly and abstractly. Today we look at a place that was a mutual point of interest for all three of the composers: Walt Disney’s home at 4053 Woking Way.
Prokofiev, as it turns out, is the closest of all three to this topic. He met with Disney in 1938 after having seen and loved the film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). At this point the great filmmaker was already fast at work on Fantasia (eventually released in 1940), the animated feature film that would set the standard for its genre for decades to come. Prokofiev was one of those whose work he thought might suit his plans. As such, he invited the composer to his house for a chat. According to Harlow Robinson’s book Russians in Hollywood, Hollywood’s Russians: Biography of an Image, Prokofiev even left us a brief record of that visit:
It’s very warm here,” Prokofiev wrote back to his family in Russia, “I’ve forgotten what an overcoat is. and the trees are covered with oranges and pineapples. Most American films are made in Hollywood and they build whole houses, castles and even cities of cardboard for them. Today I went to a filming session. A big tall warehouse had been turned into the square of an old town and people galloped through it on horses. I have also been to the house of Mickey Mouse’s papa, that is, the man who first thought up the idea of sketching him.”
So there we have it – Prokofiev visiting this house, the home of Mickey Mouse’s father. But, in fact, there is much more to the story and fortunately Disney himself chose to tell some of it. Even though none of Prokofiev’s music made it into Fantasia, Disney was transfixed by one particular work – Peter and the Wolf. He would end up making a film of it in 1946, and it would be nearly as popular and famous as Fantasia. So memorable was the meeting of the two men, that Disney had himself recorded telling the story of how Prokofiev, who spoke no English, came and played for the host, who spoke no Russian. The piano at which Prokofiev sat and performed still remained in Disney’s house at the time of the recording, and the video begins with Disney himself playing a few bars from Peter and the Wolf on the famous keyboard.
I remember how his fingers flew over our battered old piano,” Disney says with a bit of a wistful smile, “how his face glistened with perspiration as he concentrated on the music. And all the time I could see pictures. I could see his lovely fantasy coming to life on the screen.”
It’s a wonderful video. Check it out if you haven’t seen it.
(And, while this has nothing to do with the meetings of these great men, I can’t refuse to direct you to one of my favorite recordings of Peter and the Wolf ever – done by my wife Oksana Mysina with the Russian National Wind Quartet. Consider this a bonus track.)

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So, in regards to Fantasia, Prokofiev fell by the wayside early. One can’t help but wonder if Disney already knew that he wanted to devote an entire film to Peter and the Wolf, choosing not to “dilute” it in a miscellany. Be that as it may, Fantasia was originally intended to include music by both Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky. But the road to success is long and winding. And, in fact, the final cut featured only an abridged version of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. Stravinsky’s The Firebird was also discussed for possible inclusion at some point, but was finally abandoned. Both scenes worked up to Rachmaninoff compositions – “Troika” and Prelude in G Minor – either ended up on the cutting room floor or were set aside at an earlier stage.
If any of this caused any jealousy or friction between the two men, it doesn’t seem to have been recorded anywhere. Stravinsky was usually respectful of Rachmaninoff and his place in history, if also somewhat uninspired by his colleague’s more traditional approach to the art of music. Rachmaninoff over the decades wavered between skepticism and enthusiasm about Stravinsky. According to Keenan Reesor’s paper, “Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky in Los Angeles to 1943,” Rachmaninoff in 1918 “described Stravinsky ‘as a force to be reckoned with,’ noting that the early ballets ‘represented a high order of talent, if not genius.'” Stravinsky seems to have circled coolly around Rachmaninoff’s accomplishments with similar emotional reserve. According to Neeson:
In his only recorded assessment of Rachmaninoff’s music, published almost twenty years after the latter’s death, Stravinsky stopped short agreeing with those who said he didn’t like Rachmaninoff’s music but admitted that ‘it is true we composed very differently.’ Stravinsky described Rachmaninoff’s earliest pieces as ‘watercolors’ but said that ‘at twenty-five he turned to “oils” and became a very old composer. But,’ he continued, ‘do not expect me to denigrate him for that. In fact he was an awesome man, and there are too many others to be denigrated long before him. As I think about him, his silence looms as a noble contrast to the self-approbations that are the only conversation of most musicians. Besides, he was the only pianist I have ever seen who did not grimace when he played. That says a great deal.'”
Whatever the real feelings may have been between the two men, as recalled by Sergei Bertensson in Nicholas Slonimsky’s book Slonimsky’s Book of Musical Anecdotes, Rachmaninoff was an ardent fan of The Firebird.
I recall as we listened to the solemn and triumphant finale of The Firebird Rachmaninoff’s eyes filled with tears, and he exclaimed: ‘Great God! What a work of genius this is! This is true Russia.’ And when he was told that Stravinsky liked honey, he bought a large jar and personally took it in his car to Stravinsky’s house.”
I don’t know it for a fact, but I take pleasure in imagining that Rachmaninoff drove his beloved Cadillac over to Stravinsky’s house at North Wetherly Drive from his own place on Elm Drive. I have written about both of these places elsewhere in this space.
For those who appreciate tangents, playwright Frederick Stroppel wrote a play, Small World, about Stravinsky meeting Disney and hashing out their ideas over Fantasia. You can read about a 2015 production here.

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