Category Archives: Architecture, Various

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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Tolstoy at the Athenaeum Club, London

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In her book Tolstoy: A Russian Life Rosamund Bartlett writes, “There is sadly very little documentation about Tolstoy’s only visit to England, but we do know that the well-connected lawyer and journalist Henry Reeve sponsored his honorary membership of the Athenaeum Club in Pall Mall from 5 March to 6 April 1861.”
This dearth of information about Tolstoy in London, and at the Atheneum in specific, is repeated all over the place. I chose to quote Bartlett’s phrase because it appears to have more information than any other, adding the name of the person who helped Tolstoy join the club, and adding the dates of his membership. These bare shards of tidbits came as a result of Bartlett’s own research at the Club, as her footnote on pg. 466 indicates – the source was Jennie de Protani, the club’s archivist.
Well, here it is, the Athenaeum Club located at the intersection of Waterloo Place and Pall Mall (official address appears to be 107 Pall Mall, but I didn’t see that anywhere). It’s a beautiful place that fairly sparkles in the sunlight, and – thanks to the bronze statue of Athena – in the shade as well. Here is how the official website of the club describes itself, in part:
The club was founded as a meeting place for men and women who enjoy the life of the mind. Over the years the membership criteria have been widened and now extend to persons of attainment or promise in any field of an intellectual or artistic nature and of substantial value to the community.
“Today many of the Members of the Athenæum, indeed a majority, are professionals concerned with science, engineering or medicine, but the clergy, lawyers, writers, artists, civil servants and academics of all disciplines are also heavily represented on the roll, with a small number from business and politics.”
The frieze surrounding the top of the building is a copy of a marble frieze salvaged (or is that “plundered”?) from the Parthenon in Athens at the time that the club was being built around 1824, four years before Tolstoy was born.

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As I wrote in a previous post about Tolstoy in London (his visit to the Octagon School), he had primarily come to Europe to study school systems. In 1859 (still four years before he would begin writing War and Peace) he had opened his own first schools in Russia. On Sept. 20, 1860 his oldest brother Nikolai died at the age of 37, distressing Leo deeply. It is said he went into a period of depression following that, and one can’t help but assume that the trip abroad was also expected to help bring him out of that.
In fact, the Spring 1861 trip to London finds Tolstoy at a crossroads. Having just lost his brother, he also now nears his marriage to Sofya Behrs in September 1862. He will begin writing War and Peace in 1863 (finishing it in 1869). For a bit of perspective, his first literary publication (the novella Childhood) had taken place in 1852. Furthermore, just as Tolstoy was arriving in London, on March 3, 1861, Russian Emperor Alexander II officially abolished serfdom, an event that was extremely important to Tolstoy. In other words, he was, at the time of this trip, a fledgling, though published, writer, who had just experienced a traumatic loss and was on the verge of great and momentous changes in his personal life, his public life and in his career as a writer. He, of course, would not have been known at all in London at this time. Or, if he was, it could only have been by a handful of people who either might have crossed his path personally, or who would have been impressed by his wealth and aristocratic position. Apparently Londoners have a long tradition of bending the knee before wealthy and powerful Russians coming to town…

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Nijinsky opens ‘Rite of Spring’ at Drury Lane, London

DSCN7240 DSCN7248Isn’t it the way? What the French called scandalous barely caused the Brits to wiggle and waggle their stiff upper lips. We are talking about Vaclav Nijinsky’s famous, legendary, incendiary, monumental ballet choreographed to Igor Stravinsky’s revolutionary and seminal 20th-century music – The Rite of Spring. Everybody and their uncle knows of the “riot” that occurred opening night in Paris on May 29, 1913. Whether or not there really was a riot is a different story, and it has been told many a time from many an angle.
Lydia Sokolova, one of the dancers on the stage that night, said the audience came prepared,” the BBC reports. ‘They had got themselves all ready. They didn’t even let the music be played for the overture. As soon as it was known that the conductor was there, the uproar began,’ she said in an interview recorded in 1965.”
Sergei Diaghilev, the impresario of the Ballets Russes, which put on the performance, is said to have been hankering for a scandal. What impresario isn’t? The BBC again: “‘He knew there was going to be trouble,’ said Lydia Sokolova, and there are some signs that he was hoping for a scandal. Announcing the Rite of Spring in the Parisian press, Diaghilev had suggested it would cause ‘impassioned debate.’ In so doing, Esteban Buch suggests, he was setting the scene ‘for maybe not a riot, but at least a controversy.’ He certainly got one.”
Stravinsky is on record as having said that the storm only broke after the overture, “when the curtain opened on the group of knock-kneed and long-braided Lolitas jumping up and down.”
According to a piece in The Arts Desk, “the newspapers dubbed it ‘Le Massacre du printemps.’ Diaghilev’s satisfied comment was, ‘Exactly what I wanted.’”
Whether or not 40 people were arrested that night will probably remain a point of contention at least until someone decides to research the police records for that night in the Champs Elysees precinct.
But let’s now leave Paris to Paris, for today, in fact, we wander the streets of the City of Westminster, where, a month later, the scandalous Rite of Spring was offered to the judgment of London’s theatergoers at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Following the six-day run in Paris in May-June 1913, the four-day London run opened July 11.
Today the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, like so many London houses, hosts one of those abominable, endlessly-running musicals. In this case, it’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, about which we couldn’t possibly care less. Do your best, when perusing the photos, to blot the Charlie marquees out in your mind. It will be easier, and more pleasant, to imagine Diaghilev, Sokolova, Nijinsky and company perhaps nervously arriving at the theater and furtively entering by way of the stage door on Russell Street. Imagine crowds of excited ticket holders gathering outside the front of the theater, waiting for the doors to open so that they could take their seats and get a glimpse for themselves of this dastardly ballet…

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Except that it appears London didn’t see anything dastardly at all. Here, as quoted in a book called Confronting Stravinsky: Man, Musician and Modernist, is what Henry Cope Colles, the music critic for The Times of London, had to say:
The functions of the composer and the producer are so balanced that it is possible to see every movement on the stage and at the same time to hear every note of the music. But the fusion goes deeper than this. The combination of the two elements of music and dancing does actually produce a new compound result, expressible in terms of rhythm – much as the combination of oxygen and hydrogen produces a totally different compound, water.”
Damn! “Balanced!” “Fusion!” “New compound result!”
Where are the flying tomatoes? The razzes? The fights and the arrests?
I would like to point out, by the way, that this review appeared in the Times the next morning after the London premiere. That is, Colles winged this – he hurried from the theater to wherever he was wont to write, and he filed this story on short deadline in order to make the morning’s papers. And look at that clarity of thought, the insight, the ability to make sense of what we now know was something absolutely, entirely new. Folks, I’m impressed. My hat’s off to Henry Cope Colles, my new hero.
On the occasion of the work’s 100th anniversary in 2013, James S. Murphy, seeking to debunk the old tale about a riotous premiere, discussed the London premiere  in the Paris Review:
When the Times of London reviewed the British premier (sic), it declared in the first sentence, ‘London takes both its pleasures and its pains more quietly than Paris.’ The review notes that ‘the applause was measured, but so were the cries of disapproval.’ The Rite went off without any major incident, as it had done in the four subsequent performances in Paris after the premiere. This is worth remembering, particularly since the anniversary has provided the occasion for several critics to indulge a nostalgia for the good old days of repression, when art could still shock. An essay in the New York Times this year by the eminent Stravinsky scholar Richard Taruskin captured this consternation perfectly in its headline: ‘Shocker Cools into a Rite of Passage.’ While several people have pointed to Walt Disney’s cooptation of Stravinsky’s music for Fantasia in 1940 as the moment when the work officially lost its edge, reports on the subsequent performances in Paris and the reviews of the London premiere show that it did not take three decades—or even three years—for audiences to see past the shock and find the beauty in The Rite. It took a few weeks.
Murphy goes on:
“…The extent to which this [Paris first-night] disturbance counts as a riot really is beside the point, as is the question of what actually happened that night. What matters most is that whatever it was, it never happened again. Not once. Some small disturbances were reported at the second performance four days later, but nothing of note occurred at the final two performances of the ballet in Paris. A report on the third performance in London speculated that the English audience ‘is either surprisingly quick or surprisingly careless in accommodating ourselves to new forms of art. The first performance of [The Rite] evoked something like a hostile demonstration from a section of the audience. The third and last performance [my understanding is that there were four] was received with scarcely a sign of opposition.’ That the scandal of France could be accommodated so quickly by an English audience bewildered the reviewer and has continues (sic) to bedevil many lovers of the work.”
Fascinating stuff, I say. If you’re interested in the reasons for, and the background of, this story, start your search with the sources I have quoted. There is good information to be had. But my purpose is not to dot the last “i” in this tale, but rather, simply, to take the time to walk around the walls of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and to take the time to think about what it might have been like that opening night in London in the summer of 1913. How might it have felt, how might it have looked and sounded. Apart from the vile Charlie marquees (and that moronic quote of some critic who shall never deserve to share his profession with H.C. Colles [“Dazzling Charlie is Choc-Full of Delights!!!!!!!”]) this structure affords us a nice opportunity to do that. It appears to have changed little in the 100+ years since Nijinsky, Diaghilev and Stravinsky stormed into London to play The Right of Spring.
One more tidbit: The four London performances were the last ever of the original Nijinsky choreography. Shortly thereafter, Nijinsky ran off and married Romola de Pulszky, infuriating, and breaking the heart of, Diaghilev beyond measure. As such, this theater here marks the end of the “scandalous” first performances of The Rite of Spring, as well as the end of the storied collaboration between Diaghilev and Nijinsky.

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Tchaikovsky and the Dieudonne Hotel, London

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This moderately attractive brick structure in  in the City of Westminster, London, is presently the home of Christie’s auction house. It used to be, however, a French-run hotel called the Dieudonné (the God-Given, no less), and this is where, according to a letter Pyotr Tchaikovsky wrote to the London-based Russian singer Alexandra Svyatlovskaya on April 13,  1893,  the great composer “usually” stayed when in London. Here is what he wrote specifically: “I usually stop in London at the Hotel Dieudonné somewhere near St. James Hall, although I simply can’t remember the street.” We can tell you it was Ryder Street and that the address was No. 9. Actually, another letter written a month or so later throws some confusion into things, but it would appear that it is a matter of the composer’s confusion. In any case, Tchaikovsky wrote to his friend and confidant, the pianist Alexander Ziloti that he was staying at the Dieudonné and gave the address as “Redgent Street.” To my knowledge there is only, and has only been, a “Regent” Street in London. And, in any case, all sources provide Ryder Street as the location of the Dieudonné. I think we can conclude that Tchaikovsky, although a flawless master of musical notes, was less than flawless when it came to other manners of signs and markers. One of the reasons why Tchaikovsky seemed unable to properly remember the address of his favorite hotel might have been that he, apparently, did not think much of London. In that same letter to Ziloti, he wrote, “I travel to London and Cambridge with uncommon aversion.” (Please note that the English translation that Wikipedia offers of this sentence is incorrect.) A brief check of various contradictory – as usual – sources indicates that Tchaikovsky stayed here at least in 1888 and 1893. He may have stayed here one other time as well.
Peter Gordon’s book Musical Visitors to Britain has the following to say about Tchaikovsky’s 1888 sojourn:
He left Paris in a snowstorm on 19 April 1888 for the Channel Crossing from Calais and boasted that he was the only passenger who was not sea-sick. For his five-day stay in London, Tchaikovsky chose the luxurious Hotel Dieudonné in Ryder St., off Piccadilly,  and within walking distance of the St. James Hall where he was to conduct. The two rehearsals had proved to be difficult, partly because of language problems, as Tchaikovsky spoke little English, and partly due to his less than perfect conducting technique… He wrote to his brother Modest two days later: ‘The concert was a brilliant success.’ He was called back three times after performing the Serenade, and London audiences acknowledged the presence of a gifted musician in their midst.”
Gordon offers up several quotes reminding us of the low esteem in which Tchaikovsky held London. On May 29, 1893, he wrote to his nephew of once again being in “this quite horrible city” where he could “never find anything” – “no men’s lavatories, no money exchange offices; it was with difficulty that I found a hat to fit my head.” Gordon also quotes a long letter that Tchaikovsky wrote describing the unrelenting, nasty fog that made him feel as if he were “sitting in a dismal underground dungeon.”
“Even without the fog, I find London very antipathetic,” Gordon quotes him as writing.

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David Brown’s Tchaikovsky: The Man and his Music tells a similar story about the composer’s 1888 stay in London, concluding with this: “In London he had been spared the social round that had been forced on him in France, but instead found himself often bored, and London itself cheerless.” This is despite the fact that the promoters who had brought Tchaikovsky to London were so pleased with the results that they voluntarily increased the agreed-upon honorarium from £20 to £25. Writes Brown: “Though [Tchaikovsky] had conducted in only one concert, he would find that his popularity had become greater in Britain than in any other foreign country than the United States.”
The importance of Tchaikovsky’s personal presence in London to his international reputation is borne out in Gareth James Thomas’s PhD dissertation, The Impact of Russian Music in England, 1893-1929. Thomas writes:
“The first Russian composer to enter the broader English public’s consciousness was Tchaikovsky but the appreciation of his music was initially hampered by the somewhat sporadic presentation of each new work. The first major work to be heard in England was the First Piano Concerto (1874-75) in 1876, to be followed by the fantasy overture Romeo & Juliet (1869-70) and the Violin Concerto (1878) presented to London on 4 November 1876 and 8 May 1882 respectively, but neither appears to have attracted much attention. The publication of a number of piano pieces in 1883 (including Chant sans paroles Op. 2 No. 3, the first in England) and in July 1886 the 12 Morceaux Op. 40 and his most famous song, None but the lonely heart (Op. 6 No. 6), no doubt marked Tchaikovsky’s entrance into the wider conscience of the English musical public and by the end of the decade a nascent interest in his music is apparent, to which the Philharmonic Society responded by inviting Tchaikovsky to London. On 22 March 1888 Tchaikovsky made his first professional visit to London to conduct a concert at the Philharmonic Society. Despite his questionable celebrity his music was an immediate success with audience and musicians alike. The new works presented were the Serenade for Strings (1880) and the Theme and Variations Finale from the Third Suite (1884). Tchaikovsky’s rise was regarded alongside the more general interest that had developed in Slavonic music, as Joseph Bennett observed: ‘Nothing in the musical world is more interesting than the achievements and promise of the Sclavonic [sic] peoples, who only within a recent period have attracted notice to themselves in any special degree. That they are now closely watched by amateurs of thoughtful and far-seeing minds is due to the appearance among them of unusual talent, and to the steady manner in which Sclavonic compositions are making progress.'”
It was in and around these walls at Ryder Street that Tchaikovsky took significant steps in making the transition from obscure foreign visitor in London to one of the most popular composers of his, or any other, age.

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Alexander Kushner poetry reading site, Olomouc, CZ

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This building was a nice little find I made when I was in Oloumuc, in the Czech Republic, a few months ago. I should be more exact about that. I, indeed, did find the location, after traipsing around the city for some time. But there were several reasons I went looking for it in the first place. One is that I found brief reference on the net to a reading that the St. Petersburg poet Alexander Kushner gave in Oloumuc at the Poetry without Borders festival in 2002. It didn’t say where it it was; just that it happened. That’s when I did what usually works best – I leaned on a friend. I wrote to Martina Pálušová, a scholar and teacher at the university in Olomouc, and asked her if she knew anything about this reading. Sure enough, she did, and she knew it had taken place in the Divadlo hudby (Theater of Music). I dug around in the net for the address and came up with 47 Denisov Street. Convinced I had my prey in my sights now, I pulled out my map and headed for my destination. When I arrived there, however, I was confused. There was an Art Museum there, and a cafe. I didn’t see a Theater of Music. I took some shots of the exterior just in case, but went on my way assuming I had misunderstood the information I gathered. About 20 minutes later I ran into Martina on the street, as if the gods were stepping in to help. She asked if I was having luck with my searches and I explained that I couldn’t make sense of the Art Museum/Theater of Music. She grabbed me by the arm and marched me back over to Denisov Street. “Come on in here,” she said. And she opened the front door to the building. Sure enough, there in front of me was the sign that no one, myself included, would ever have seen from the street – in Czech and in English, no less – Theater of Music. (See second to last photo below.) Martina was not finished, however. She rang a doorbell and when a young man came to the door she explained what we were doing there. He smiled and shook my hand and, in English, said, “Come on in. I’ll show you the hall.” Which he did. So, even though my photo did not come out well in the available lighting, you can see in the final shot below the auditorium in which Kushner would have read his poetry.
Amidst the information that Martina sent me about Kushner’s reading, she sent a link to an interview Kushner did while in Oloumuc. In it, Kushner talks about his status as a quiet, unassuming poet, unlike those with big, spectacular biographies. He suggests that poems are capable of surviving authorities, social hostility or anything else, for that matter. “When they are good,” he says, “they have a long life. Sometimes it is only necessary to patiently wait for their time to come around.” He talks about how difficult it has become for poets to make a living in the post-Soviet era. He used to get decent royalties from books with press runs of 25,000 or even 50,000. Now, however, in the early 21st century, the press runs of two or three thousand bring in “peanuts.” “I feel for contemporary young poets,” he says, “who have lost readers as well as earnings.” Google Translate does a decent job of making the interview accessible to non-Czech readers. Give it a try if you’re interested. It’s what I used for my quotes here.

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But today I want to come back to an old text of my own that I discovered almost by accident when earlier writing about a reading Kushner gave at Dartmouth College in 1993. You see, I, myself,  had seen Kushner speak in Boston in 1987. Somehow, a text I wrote up about that event remained with me for nearly 30 years. I had forgotten about it, but there it was when I went digging through my old electronic archive: “Aleksandr Kushner. December 12, 1987. Boston University.”
I quoted a few excerpts from it in that previous post, but I’ll provide the whole thing here today. It is something of a historical document. It captures some of the flavor of an event of Russian culture abroad in the Perestroika era:

“Kushner is a relatively slight man who at first doesn’t make much of an impression. He appears to be quiet, modest, somewhat introverted, though not shy. As time goes on, one also comes to realize that he is completely at home as a poet, and with his poetry, but that as soon as he must step out of the poet’s role, he is more inclined to show a certain uneasiness and confusion. He begins by reading selections from new and old poetry for about 30 – 40 minutes, after which he takes questions from the floor. I would guess that the questions lasted for another 40 minutes or so, after which he again read from his works for maybe 20 minutes. He would give a short narrative introduction to most of the poems he read. Most everything in this account can presumably be checked against the video tape which was done by Boston University.
      When introducing a poem ostensibly about the hard winter of 1978-79, he says, ‘Here is a poem about the surovaya zima [hard winter] of 1979. The hard winter somehow reflected something about the times.’ Several people throughout the audience began whispering among themselves quite seriously, ‘correcting’ his dating to 1978. They did not seem to realize that the date had nothing to do with the poem, since for Kushner, the event of the hard winter was a pretext for poetry, not a subject of it.
      He introduces one poem as having a title, ‘Michelangelo’: ‘I don’t like to give titles to my poems, but my editor said no one will understand this if I don’t give it a title.’
      As Kushner continues to read, you begin to get the feeling that he is a being who is almost entirely accepting of the world around him. He begins to exude (I say ‘begins,’ because it is only with time that one begins to perceive it – obviously, it is there at all times for those who would see) a sense of great patience. At the same time it is clear that he is a man who has a sense of his own value. Ego is entirely an improper word, I would say, to use in discussing him. Because to say he is without ego, is overstating it, while to say that he has a sense of his own ego is also overstating it. In any case, despite his sense of timidity before the animal/audience, he also presents the picture of a man who has a sense of wholeness and sense of self about him. At one point, he cuts off in mid-sentence while speaking and goes to close the door. ‘Open doors somehow irritate me,’ he says.
      He says a few words about his trip to the United States: ‘I’m amazed to be here in America. Nothing like this ever happened and I never expected anything like it. It is my first time abroad, if you don’t count Hungary. That, by the way, was this year too. I’m only here for 10 days, and I haven’t seen much because Americans like to talk a lot. New York, of course, made an enormous impression.’
      He reads a poem which contains direct references to the purges (‘he was shot in 1937’), which he says was turned down by Novy Mir, but accepted by Oktiabr.
       His reading style, though chanting-like in the Russian manner, is not at all dramatic. Nothing whatsoever like Brodsky or Akhmadulina. But it is, in time, very hypnotic and sensitive. Everything about Kushner seems to sneak up on you – his presence, his manner, his poetry. His reading style is hypnotizing both by what it doesn’t reveal (emotion), and by what it does (language, verse, sensitivity). A certain softness, quiet strength and incredible goodness seem to emanate from his face and eyes.
       After reading for about 20 minutes he hesitates to go on and says, ‘I know it’s tiring to listen to too much poetry.’ Several calls of ‘no’ are heard from the audience, and Naum Korzhavin shouts out, ‘That’s what we’ve come for.’
       Shortly thereafter Kushner reads a poem, which he introduces by saying, ‘This poem can’t be published even today – maybe v sleduiushchuiu epokhu [in the next era].’ It contains the line, ‘i glasnost’ nuzhna; i pravda‘ [‘glasnost is necessary, as is truth’], which, of course elicits much murmuring among the crowd. But I am most struck that he succeeds in using the term ‘glasnost’ in a way that both refers to its new status as a slogan, while also retrieving the word’s original meaning [of openness] from inside the new cliche.
        He reads a poem inspired by a recent trip to Armenia: ‘Last summer I visited Armenia for the first time, and despite the fact I had read much about it’ (he mentions several authors including Mandelshtam and Bitov among others), – ‘Da, eto chudo [Yes, it’s a marvel].’ He says it with a kind of quizzical smile and a sense of inner knowing, the kind which might appear on someone’s face who is referring to some miraculous, but long past and now irretrievable experience.
       In reference to a question about an article he recently published in Yunost’ [magazine] which discussed the Leningrad-Moscow difference (I believe it was Mikhail Kreps who posed the question), Kushner says, ‘Leningrad forms its people. Muscovites, as Zoshchenko said, are nervnye liudi [nervous people].’ As he begins to talk about Leningrad, one senses he has a great deal invested in his relationship to the city. He talks about it with a quiet passion which is also visible in him while he is reading his poems. ‘There are dozens of totally unknown Leningrad poets who give up nothing whatsoever to Moscow poets who are incomparably better known. Moscow is an easier place to publish and to become known.’
       He lists three of his favorite poets as Annensky, Akhmatova, Mandelshtam. He lists three new Leningrad poets who he feels are genuine poets (I did not get their names clearly; I think two of them were: Kunin and Meshchersky). He also mentions Yelena Shvarts, who he says will soon become better known. ‘Ona nerovny poet, mozhet byt’, no xoroshii [She may be an uneven poet, but she’s good].’
      ‘A cynical life attitude is now influencing poetry, which might be concisely formulated as zhizn’ – bardak [life is a mess]. There is a sense that many poets feel there is nothing of value in life. But poetry is an accumulator of life energy. A poet sits and works, attempting to use this energy. That is what is called inspiration. Mandelshtam is the greatest poet of the 20th century. He was able to capture the minutiae of life like no one else.’ 
      ‘Poezzia – ona nichego ne dolzhna – no esli ona dolzhna chto-to – ona dolzhna sokhranit’ podrobnosti zhizni. [Poetry is not bound to do anything, but if it does have a duty, it is to preserve the details of life].’
     Kushner was asked a question: ‘What has changed?’ (i.e., in current affairs).
      Answer: ‘The life of the intelligentsia, i.e. the needs of the intelligentsia has definitely changed for the better. But if you’re talking about life for the average person and for people’s everyday needs, then nothing much has changed. These changes must come gradually, I agree with that.’
     As the conversation turns almost exclusively to political affairs, Kushner’s unease grows tremendously. It has absolutely nothing to do with fear, but with his unease at using a poet’s platform for a social tribune. This is a man who is through and through a poet, and as a poet he has a great sense of calm and inner strength; outside of that role, however, his sense of wholeness clearly begins to break down. There are a few in the audience who would force the conversation to continue on about politics (Alexander Sergeevich Yesenin-Volpin is one), but the majority, and certainly Kushner himself, want the meeting to return to poetry. Kushner is obviously interested in, and concerned about, politics, but as a poet, and at a lectern, he feels extremely uncomfortable with it. When too many questions keep coming about the reactionary Pamiat’ group, he gets frustrated, nearly upset. One can see how much he wants to get back on the topic of poetry. In reference to a question about Slavophiles such as Yury Bondarev and others (‘Are they dangerous?’), he says, with some annoyance, or at least discomfort, ‘Da, opasnye [Yes, dangerous].’ The conversation also turns for some time to the subject of various recent anti-Semitic incidents in Leningrad. He shows a genuine sense of outrage about it and clearly feels the need, as a person, not only to distance himself from such things, but to condemn them. He seems to feel cornered into expressing his attitude on Jews: ‘I think a Jew in Russia is a Russian, a Jew in Germany is a German.’ One also senses his distaste for even having to actually say such a simple, obvious thing.
      When talking about current events he is a bit lost, choppy, confused, angry, hopeful. When reading his poetry it is as if he hits an athletic stride, smooth, straight, clean, pure, with a quiet certainty.
      In trying to return the talk to poetry, Kushner says, ‘Poezzia nuzhdaetsja v predelakh [Poetry requires limits]. Real poetry,’ he says, ‘is a bad place for helping along these changes. I can’t stand journalistic poetry.’
       He finally succeeds in overcoming the few who insist on talking about politics, and does return to poetry. However, for a moment, he has a difficult time. ‘I can’t just start reading again. I need the proper mood.’ After a question about his method of writing, he does begin reading again. After he has read for 10 or fifteen minutes more, there are 4 or 5 encores (one of which is an excerpt from a poem by Mandelstam). His final comments after the last reading are: ‘For some reason I found it very easy to read today. That is rare. Reading is a very hard thing. I would also like to say that I have a great sense of feeling for you who have come here today’ [clearly referring to the emigres, including Korzhavin, Kreps and Yesenin-Volpin, who make up 90% of the audience]. ‘I know how hard it is for you, and I want you to know that Russia has lost a great deal due to your absence.’
       There is an incredible sense that this man and his poetry stand for the absolute best of what Russia can offer. Depth of intelligence, sensitivity, wisdom, insight, strength and modesty. When you watch him read his poems, you realize that you are watching a true poet, and that you are hearing true poetry.”

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Vera Komissarzhevskaya presence, Voronezh

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I am stretching things here today but you’ll see why soon enough. Vera Komissarzhevskaya (1864-1910) has very little to do with Voronezh. The great actress of the late 19th-early 20th century was born and lived in St. Petersburg. She became a star on the stage of the Alexandrinsky Theater after she joined that company in 1896. She made history when she founded her own theater, the Dramatic Theater, in 1904. She famously invited Vsevolod Meyerhold to work with her in 1906 and, in the course of a single season, he staged  an insane number of productions there – thirteen. Although several of them went down in history and provided cachet for Komissarzhevskaya forever more, the two did not hit it off. After sending Meyerhold packing she invited the poet Valery Bryusov to collaborate with her, but that didn’t last long, either. In the spirit of the time, Komissarzhevskaya occasionally barnstormed around the country, playing  provincial venues, and that is how the Komissarzhevskaya-Voronezh connection arises.
She spent seven days in Voronezh, from May 16 to 22 in 1903, putting on six performances: Ignaty Potapenko’s The Magical Fairy Tale, Hermann Sudermann’s Homeland and Battle of the Butterflies, Alexander Ostrovsky’s The Savage Girl and Without a Dowry, and Alexei Suvorin’s The Question. She clearly made a serious impression on the city. Despite the fact that she only made one trip there, the city fathers saw fit to name one of the local central streets after her, as you can see in the photo at the top. I noted in a recent post about Mikhail Lermontov that Voronezh seems to have a thing about people passing through. And I say that as a great compliment. A city can be so busy with itself, and so ignorant of everything going on around it, that it hardly takes notice of its place in the world. Voronezh is not like that. It does take note of brief but noteworthy encounters, and it sees itself as a part of the greater whole of Russian culture. That impresses me.
The rest of the photos here are of the city’s main drama theater, now known in full by one of those horrid official monikers – The Voronezh State Academic Theater named after Alexei Koltsov. It’s an old theater that dates back to 1787 or 1802, depending upon your source.  The building you see in these photos has little in common with whatever existed then, just as it has little to do with what the theater looked like when Komissarzhevskaya performed here.  At that time it was called the City Winter Theater. In fact, the physical plant even has little to do with what the theater looked like in the mid-1930s when the exiled poet Osip Mandelstam (see yesterday’s post) worked here briefly as the theater’s literary manager.The arched windows and the basic box are still the same. Much of the roof line is gone, however, and the rather cliched columns in front have been added. The excellent site tells the story of the theater and provides some excellent old photos.
But here I must digress from Komissarzhevskaya for a moment to finish up a thought about Mandelstam. It is fascinating what the “institution” of exile in the Soviet period did for provincial theaters. Exiled great writers often found employment and some safety by taking jobs as literary managers or consultants at local theaters. It is a job that the playwright Nikolai Erdman held in Tomsk when he was in exile there from 1934-36. I have no idea what actual work Mandelstam did for the theater – if any – but my heart is warmed by the notion of theaters providing shelter to great artists.

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Komissarzhevskaya was one tough cookie. An absolutely fabulous letter that she wrote to a producer or manager Yevtikhy Karpov has come down to us, and it deserves to be aired in full in English. It concerns a series of performances that she plans to give in St. Petersburg in the near future. The Suvorin to whom she refers is Alexei Suvorin, a minor writer who ran his own theater in St. Petersburg and was a good friend and publisher of Anton Chekhov. My wife Oksana Mysina, an actress who has had plenty of memorable encounters with producers and managers, read this letter and howled with delight. “This should be included in the education of all young actresses!” she said. Here is the letter, translated from a site that publishes Komissarzhevskaya’s archive:

“It’s all wrong and you tell Suvorin that you mixed everything up because I am not to blame here. 
1) I will not perform before September 15.
2) I refuse to play less than four plays.
3) I will provide two plays myself and you give me two more. As for the money, I did not say That for Suvorin’s sake. For you I said the word ‘or’ because I Thought you yourself would decide what was best for me, and that you would say so.
In all good conscience I cannot ask for more than 300 rubles, but I do not have a single acquaintance who would fail to tell me that this is very little. Since I take 300 rubles in the provinces, 300 rubles would be too little from Suvorin, whose take is 2,400 rubles. I also have in mind that in Petersburg I have to perform 15 shows for them, which means I live there for two months. I had thought that, taking all that into account, you would do what is best and so I turned the affair over to you entirely.
I read your
Happiness again [a footnote tells us that this may refer to a play by Izabella Grinevskaya (thanks to a reader for that first name!) based on Polish writer Eliza Orzeszkowa’s novel The Foundling], and it’s no good. Boring. I’ll send you Fairy Tale. And then, what does your phrase ‘if there is a good box office take’ mean? If I’m receiving a percent, then I depend on the take, but if I am receiving a set sum, I couldn’t care less what the take is – I get my sum. I bring this all out in the open because you have 75 managers there and my conditions must be clear: Please pass this all on to Suvorin. If he doesn’t want to, that’s his business. And I already see how poorly you think of me. I finish up here [Voronezh] tomorrow. We made 800 rubles on the turn here. [“On the turn” is a phrase I don’t know how to translate. It’s a phrase that had to do with the way money was paid out for benefit performances in the old Russian system of touring actors and shows.] The first city was terrible, too much – six shows. We now head for Saratov – all sold out, all six shows. I rented the Hermitage [probably meaning Moscow] on the 2nd and 3rd. For the Holy Week I’ll be with Masha in Znamenka. Easter week I’ll be in Samara and then three shows in Orenburg, four in Simbirsk and beyond that I don’t know the dates, but Kazan and Nizhny Novgorod remain. Write me about Chernyshov, are you taking him on? Well, goodbye. Your letter, in essence was horrible! Christ be with you.”

Following are some excerpts from reviews of the Voronezh tour, drawn from the Gallery of Chizhov website:

“There was something special, something inexpressibly pleasant and touching in the actress’s performance. From her very first entrance her tender figure and her tense, subtle face with sad eyes grabbed the attention of the spectators. This was not just attention paid to an exceptional actor, but rather more like attention one would pay to a near and dear person. […] With every gesture, every intonation, one thinks everything must be precisely like this and not otherwise. […] The ticket prices were very high, but the theater was filled.” – Voronezh Telegraph, review of The Magical Fairy Tale.

“Anyone who saw the previous performance would have been amazed by the change in everything about the actress. What happened to the pale, oval face, the sad eyes, the nervous grace of the body? Her face now smiles entirely, her manners are loose and wildly graceful as she purses her lips or jerks her shoulders. The audience enjoyed every minute.” – From a review of The Savage Girl.

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Chekhov’s choice restaurant, Tomsk

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This is to satisfy everyone’s craving for Chekhov porn. I could write the most interesting little essay of my life about some fascinating person you haven’t heard of and I’ll get a handful of brave readers. I can write “Chekhov” and quote the phone book and readers will swoop in drooling from all over the world.
So, swoop in and drool.
I once got in huge trouble being facetious about Chekhov. An editor at a Chekhov newsletter asked me if I’d like to shake up the somnambulant Chekhov community around the world by writing a polemical essay for him – you know, a little thing done tongue-in-cheek? I’d just written a review of a horrible production of Ivanov and I had admitted I was sick and tired of seeing bean-pushing productions of Chekhov, those soporific outings in which “innovation” lurks in the director’s decision to have the actor playing the doctor sit with legs crossed or arms akimbo. I gladly took on the challenge and I unloaded a bit of frustration – leaving plenty of admiration in place for those who know how to read – and always leaving my tongue in my cheek.
It turned out there are a lot of people who can’t read, and who haven’t the vaguest notion what to do with a tongue in a cheek! My humble little essay “Back off, Chekhov!” (the title itself being a pun on the famous essay by Anatoly Lunacharsky, “Back to Ostrovsky!” – I still haven’t seen anybody pick up on that) stirred a real hornet’s nest. I was ridiculed by Chekhovites and Chekhovians the world ’round. Being someone who has always taken Satchel Paige, John Lee Hooker and Bob Dylan seriously, most of the time I don’t look back. So I knew nothing of the tempest in the teapot in which my essay was being boiled to a nub until a friend one day asked me, “What did you do to tick off all the Chekhov people?”
I won’t go into that any more at this point. If you’re interested, I wrote a bit about it in the bibliographical entry to “Back Off, Chekhov!” on my website. Just follow this link then drop down to that title to find the text in fine print. I also referred to the situation in a blog I wrote for The Moscow Times in 2009.
But all of that is prologue to what I’m really up to today – casting about a few thoughts about Chekhov’s brief stay in Tomsk. It’s a place where Anton Chekhov once ate a hearty meal at the Slavyansky Bazaar restaurant, and a place where a – God forbid! – irreverent statue of Chekhov now stands. I wrote about Leonty Usov’s great monument some time ago in this space – go there to see some photos of his fabulous work.
Chekhov came through Tomsk on his way to Sakhalin, about which he wanted to write a book – and did so later. He arrived in Tomsk on May 15, 1890 and took a room at the Rossia Hotel (on the corner of Nechaevskaya and Spasskaya Streets, a structure torn down long ago). It was a hard trip, made on trains, carts, carriages, boats, rafts and maybe even horseback. As such, we must understand that our Shining Example of a Writer wasn’t always in the best frame of mind. Things obviously came to a head in Tomsk. There was a policeman who wanted to talk shop – that is, literature – with Chekhov, but only succeeded in keeping the Great Man from writing. Here is what Chekhov said about him in a letter sent back to Moscow:
“I have been informed that an assistant of the Chief of Police wishes to see me. What is that all about? But my alarm was unfounded. It turns out the policeman is a lover of literature and even writes, thus did he come to me to pay his respects. He went home in search of his drama and, I think, he wants to entertain me with it. He’ll come now and again interrupt my writing…”

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Chekhov continued, “The policeman came back. He did not read his drama although he brought it. But he did entertain me with a story. Not bad, but too local. He showed me a gold ingot. Asked for some vodka. I can’t recall a single Siberian member of the intelligentsia who hasn’t asked for vodka when visiting me. He told me that he has acquired a “little love girl,” a married woman, and let me read the petition sent to a high-placed official asking for a divorce. Then he suggested we go take a look at the Tomsk bordellos.”
It’s uncertain how much of that vodka Chekhov himself partook of, but here is how he described his visit to the ladies of the night:
“Returned from the bordellos. Disgusting. Two a.m. Tomsk is a boring city, drunken, not a single pretty woman, filled with Asian lawlessness. The only fine thing about this city is that the governors in it die.”
Oops! What happened to everyone’s refined, sad, pouting, melancholy, wistful, sensitive, kind Anton Chekhov?
The Slavyansky Bazaar, pictured here and built between 1886 and 1888,  is practically the only 19th-century building left in this part of the city, on the banks of the Tom’ River. Chekhov ate here around May 16 or 17 and apparently enjoyed it.
“They have a Slavyansky Bazaar,” he wrote to his publisher Alexei Suvorin, hinting, presumably, at the famous Slavyansky Bazaar restaurant in Moscow. “The dinners are good, although getting to this bazaar is not easy – unsurpassable mud. Today (May 17), I’ll go to the bathhouse. They say there is only one good bath attendant in all of Tomsk, a man named Arkhip.”
By the way, a brief digression on bathhouses: My friend Bryon MacWilliams wrote a wonderful book about Russian bathhouses called With Light Steam. In it you learn why a good bath attendant is so important, as well as many other important things.
But back to Chekhov and Tomsk.
“The folks here are good, kind and have wonderful traditions. Their rooms are arranged simply, but cleanly, their beds are soft, made of down with big pillows and their floors are decorated and covered with homemade canvas rugs. … True, one old woman who gave me a teaspoon wiped it on her backside, but at least they don’t sit you down to tea without a tablecloth. They don’t burp in your presence, they don’t hunt in their heads [for lice?], don’t hold their fingers inside the glass when bringing you water or milk. The plates are clean and the kvas is transparent… They bake the most tasty  bread. Their pies and pancakes and potato pies are all tasty too…”
Still, the women of Tomsk gave him no peace and inspired no respect.
“The women here are not interesting,” he wrote. “They are cold, do not know how to dress, don’t sing, don’t laugh, and are not good looking…”
Chekhov left Tomsk on May 21 (which, according to the contemporary calendar is June 4). He never returned. The people of Tomsk have never forgotten him.

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Imagist Bookstore, Moscow

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Now here’s a case of something I had completely forgotten. I knew it once; I remember being flabbergasted when I first found out about it. But then it slipped my mind. As my friend the choreographer and movement guru Gennady Abramov jokes about the delights of growing older and losing memory: “Isn’t it wonderful? Every day is full of news!”
Well, that applies to me in regards to this small little monument to Russian literary history on Bolshaya Nikitskaya Street. The address for sticklers is 15, Bldg. 1. I now remember coming upon it some 25 or 26 years ago when I first arrived in Moscow, soaked wet behind the ears, to begin my research on the playwright Nikolai Erdman. I knew well that Erdman had begun his life in literature as a poet and that he had published a handful of his poems in various publications put out by the Imagists, a group of writers who congregated around the famous poet Sergei Yesenin. I’d never seen any of the actual publications, but that is one of the things I expected to be able to do soon at the Lenin Library, where I had an application put in for a reader’s card. But this day I was merely out walking around Moscow, getting a feel for the city I expected to be living in for just the next 10 months. And then it happened. I looked up at a little plaque on a building as I approached the Moscow Conservatory from the north, and I was thunderstruck. The plaque stated that Sergei Yesenin had worked right here in a small bookshop that sold, among other things, the books and magazines published by the Imagists. Holy Moses. A real-live, brick and mortar place to put Erdman and his colleagues in a real context. I walked back and forth and looked in the window and walked inside and just looked around at the air there. It was a marvelous discovery.
And then life set in and I forgot. I didn’t stay in Moscow 10 months, I stayed 26 years and counting. You’d be amazed at all I’ve forgotten in that period! That is, until I was recently walking along Bolshaya Nikitskaya towards the Mayakovsky Theater from the south and – boom! – there it was. Again. That reminder of Yesenin and Erdman and Rostislav Ivlev and Shershenevich and Anatoly Mariengof… the Imagists. As Gena Abramov promised me, I experienced the thrill of discovery all over again!
The Imagists, as the name implies, refers to a short-lived group of Russian poets from about 1918 to 1922 who ostensibly played around with images in their poetry. They put out a handful of manifestos, like everybody else did, proclaiming the greatness of their task. It was all very much in the spirit of the day. They may have put out one more issue of their eclectic periodical Inn for Travelers in the Sublime in 1923, but, still, by that time they were done for. In the historical record the Imagists are routinely referred to as a group of semi-harmless hooligans, not nearly worthy of the respect and attention that is offered to, say, the Futurists or the Acmeists. It may be a fair assessment, although the Imagists were of no small interest. Every single individual connected with them was quite a personality. These days the memoirs written by Ivlev and Mariengof are oft-quoted and Mariengof has even become something of a cult figure.

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The fact of the matter is that, in their time, the Imagists – purportedly – were more famous for their hijinks than their high culture. In one famous, frequently-mentioned, incident, they all went out late at night when everybody else was sleeping and they “vandalized” several street signs around what we now know as Strastnoi Boulevard. They blacked or whitened out the name of various streets, replacing them with their own names. Thus, as the legend goes, Muscovites awoke in the morning to be greeted by the unfamiliar names of Yesenin Street, Erdman Lane and Mariengof Road. If I remember correctly, the police even got into the act at some point.
Still, I wonder if the Imagists have been given short shrift. Even to this day one of the most important studies of the Imagists – Russian Imagism 1919-1924 – remains a work written by the great scholar Vladimir Markov. It’s very nice that he wrote a book about the Imagists, but Markov was a specialist on the Futurists. He couldn’t have been a little biased there, could he? I’m just asking.
I’ve always thought (in those periods when I have not been visited by forgetfulness) that this little bookstore says something important about the Imagists. I mean, if you’re going to actually rent a space, find the money to pay the rent, get people to work for you (or, as Yesenin apparently did, actually spend hours out of your day working at the store yourself), doesn’t this imply a seriousness of intent that goes beyond that which would be expected of some “hooligans”? Again, I’m just saying. One thing I do know is that the historical record is clumsy and distorted. It can’t be otherwise. It’s written by human beings.
With that thought in mind, allow me to insert the ending of a poem, “Let Time Strike the Hours,” that Erdman wrote in 1921, and which was first published in 1987 in the popular Soviet magazine Ogonyok (rather like the old Life magazine in the U.S.) by poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko:

But I know weighty glory shall sprinkle
Even my cold lips with dust.
And my head will exchange this burnished steel helmet of hair
For one made of silver.
But I shall not stagger beneath it, I shall not tremble,
I will accept the joyless gift as my due,
And a rainbow shall unfurl before a frozen road
Into the heavens with a triumphal arc.

Children! Children!
Study the polar silence of the night…

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Mosselprom Building, Moscow

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Definitely one of the coolest buildings in Moscow – the Mosselprom building. It hasn’t looked as pretty as this very often over the decades. It was something like this – though not exactly – when the great avant-garde artists Alexander Rodchenko and Varvara Stepanova teamed up with the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky to decorate it in the mid-1920s. That was at the height of the NEP period – the New Economic Policy, during which private commerce was again briefly made legal in the young Soviet Union. By 1937, Mosselprom, an organization representing manufacturers and sellers of food, drink and small consumer items, was gone. The decorations and advertisements created by Rodchenko, Stepanova and Mayakovsky lasted a few years more but eventually were removed. From the early 1940s until the late 1990s the building remained a fairly dowdy one, not anything that really grabbed your attention. But in 1997 a decision was made to restore the building to its former, short-lived glory. Thus, on what I’m guessing is the eastern or northeastern-facing wall, we can again see Mayakovsky’s famous slogan, “Nowhere if not at Mosselprom!” You can see that in the second photo above, the small white letters against the narrow dark background ending in a huge red exclamation point.
I don’t know why Mayakovsky’s slogan was so famous. But it was. You almost always meet the word “famous” before the word “slogan” in descriptions of it. Maybe it was because this was a pleasant throwback to former commercial frivolity. Maybe because these were among the first-ever huge advertisements on a building – forerunners to our billboards – so that attracted attention. There is a jaunty rhythm to Mayakovsky’s phrase – nigde, krome kak v Mossel’prome – but I don’t find it anything out of the ordinary. Maybe I’m missing something. Maybe I’m too jaded by the mad men of Madison Avenue. Mayakovsky himself was of a very high opinion of his phrase. “Despite the poetic razzes, I consider [the slogan] to be poetry of the very highest qualification.” So, take that, naysayers, myself included.
There may be another reason why it became so famous – Mayakovsky and Rodchenko teamed up to create dozens of advertisements and slogans for Mosselprom in the  second half of the 1920s. You can see a bunch of their advertising posters on Google. One that surely amused Mayakovsky as he wrote it was, “Better pacifiers have never been. I’ll suck them until I’m an old man.” Pardon, as the French say, but the Russian word for “pacifier” is quite simply “nipples.” But the point is that all of these ads were popular and ubiquitous at the time. Their popularity would have rubbed off on the paintings and slogans on the wall of the building.
(By the way, as a non-sequitur, may I ask all those dread bores who complain about Bob Dylan occasionally allowing his music to be used for advertisements to think upon the implications of this post? Thank you.)

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The Mosselprom building bears the address of 2/10 Kalashny Lane. It is located right around the corner from the Russian Academy of Theater Arts on Maly Kislovsky Lane (RATI, formerly GITIS, actually occupies rooms in the Mosselprom building now too), and it is located next to the building on Maly Kislovsky that formerly housed the mighty Iskusstvo, or Art, publishing house. After the building’s glory years, from 1964 until his death in 1969, the great Russian linguist and literary scholar Viktor Vinogradov lived here with his library of 20,000 books. I used his books – the ones he wrote – when studying Russian at an advanced stage.
The building in its current state is rather closer to what Rodchenko intended when he created his designs in the 1920s. He had wanted his artwork to be painted on plaster covering the base construction material of bricks. However, probably in an economizing move, the original builders skipped the plaster and had the words and colors painted directly onto the bricks. The advertisements were painted on plywood boards that were hung on the walls. Today all the painting is done directly on the plaster. And, as Science and Life magazine tells us, the paints now used are a special acrylic that can withstand temperatures as low as -50 C (-58 F).
The basic building was erected in 1913 by architect Nikolai Strukov. It was expanded in 1925 especially for Mosselprom by Artur Loleit. Actually, the building has a checkered history. Parts of it fell down when it was first built and it was restructured several times. One can find all kinds of architects’ names involved in the various stages of the work. But it looks to me like Strukov answers for the basic building, while Loleit answers for what it looked like when it became famous in 1925.

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Teatr.doc, Moscow

Note: Click on photos to enlarge.



This post aims to look at the present as if it were the past. It will be easy to do, because Moscow’s ground-breaking Teatr.doc, although it is alive and well, is on the verge of great changes. A murky, backroom conflict with the authorities in Moscow – specifically the Moscow Property Department – has led to the demise of Teatr.doc as we know it. I emphasize “as we know it,” because founders Yelena Gremina and Mikhail Ugarov are currently taking steps to find a new space for this little playhouse whose influence on Russian drama, theater and film in the 2000s is enormous. The city chose to break off its rental agreement with Teatr.doc, forcing it off of the stage it has occupied since 2002. There are all kinds of reasons tossed around as to why the city wants Doc, as it is commonly called, out of the center of Moscow. Is it too politically bold? Does it occupy a space the city could receive much more money for? Does somebody not like someone personally? The official reason is that Doc allegedly violated safety rules when putting in a new entrance door from the street. But it was the Moscow fire marshal who demanded that they do that, and all the construction work was carried out under the guidance of officials. In short, the real reason as to why Teatr.doc is vacating its famous quarters is still yet to be determined. But the fact that it will no longer occupy this space, beloved of its army of fans, is incontrovertible. When the December schedule is played out, Doc at this space will be no more.
It is (was) a theater that is (was) hard to find the first time you went. Only a tiny little black sign with an arrow at the bottom gave you directions back into a tiny courtyard it would never occur to you to go into otherwise. (Even that wasn’t there in the beginning, of course.) And, a few steps later, when you reached the tiny courtyard, nothing here really looked like it had anything to do with a theater. In the last few years stencils of “Teatr.doc” appeared on window blinds and the door, but for years there was only a tiny little sign by the door, almost as if someone wanted to keep the place incognito.
Doc, once it got going, was anything but incognito. Young people made a bee-line for this place almost from the very beginning. Here was a space where they could hear and see people talking about hard issues in a language that was familiar and accessible. Shows here touched on difficult social issues such as homelessness, murder, prison life and such. Over the years the shows and readings and evenings hosted here became more and more political. This is not the place to write a history of Teatr.doc, but suffice it to say that such productions as September.doc (about the Beslan terrorist attack at an elementary school), One Hour Eighteen (about the murder to muckraking attorney Sergei Magnitsky in prison), BerlusPutin (a spoof of Russian president Vladimir Putin and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi) and Two in Your House (about the aftermath of rigged presidential elections in Belarus) could not possibly have been pleasing to the authorities. Nor could they have been happy with the many politically charged evenings, such as those organized by Varvara Faer to bring attention to the plight of Pussy Riot, when the members of that group were still in prison.
But all of this – and this is a lot – cannot come close to giving a sense of the importance of all the new play development projects hosted by Doc. The major one was (and, one assumes, will continue to be) the Lyubimovka new play festival, which has run every Sept. for many years. Over the last decade and half I think it is safe to say that Doc, through its various play development works, has unleashed 400 to 500 new plays into the world. It has been a place that discovers new writers as well as helping established writers try out their new work. Maksym Kurochkin, one of those whom Gremina considers a co-founder of the theater, has used Lyubimovka virtually every year to unveil some new, wonderfully wild work. You can sort of see Maksym in the second photo below, chatting with my wife Oksana Mysina near the entrance to the performance space. Beneath that you see a typical use of the stage space – this was for a production of Kurochkin’s Circuit Breaker, mounted by the Brusnikin Studio, but it could have been for any number of Doc’s barebones shows.

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On some days or evenings, one suspects that the walls at Doc bulged outwards. Look at the photo immediately below. This was taken during the reading of Yury Muravitsky’s Pornography a couple of years ago, presented at Lyubimovka. That’s the stage you’re looking at. And those are spectators packing the stage – leaving the actors only a tiny space on which to move. And, yes, that is a photographer taking pictures from outside through one of the windows, while below her a spectator who couldn’t get into the hall found a decent vantage point from which to follow the goings-on. It was at this very event that I counted, I believe it was, 136 people in the hall. The two outside topped the attendance off at 138. It is an example of how a tiny stage fit for about 50 or 60 spectators could handle more than twice as many. The next photo below shows Doc’s minuscule foyer, including the table where Vika Kholodova has sat selling tickets and handing out comps for I-don’t-know-how-many-years. On the right you see a few of the dozens of awards and plaques that the theater has earned over the years. Finally, below, is the stage entrance door. Behind it is the cramped little dressing room, if it can be called that. When the theater is overflowing with spectators at a reading, this door will be thrown open so that another eight to twelve people can stand on chairs or a table and peer from behind the backs of others in front of them to get a feel for what is happening. When that door closes for the last time later this month it will be a shame. And from that point on, the little basement at 11/13 Tryokhprudny Pereulok, Bldg. 1, will pass into history.

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