Category Archives: Architecture

Alexander Herzen house and plaque, London

Click on photos to enlarge.

Of all the places I could be today (save Chania, Crete), I think I would choose London. Maybe it’s the old blood burbling up in whatever is in me of my mother’s line. Maybe it’s because I seem to have the extraordinarily good luck of invariably hitting London when spectacular weather reigns supreme. Maybe it’s because the city is just so damn beautiful, I can never devour it enough with my eyes. So, it’s to London we go today.
London has been the choice of many a good (and shady) Russian over the centuries. I don’t give a hoot about the sold souls who own football teams and sell colleagues into prison or worse. My gaze is a bit more fastidious. Surely one of the most famous Russian residents of London was Alexander Herzen (1812-1870), who lived in the British capital from 1852 until 1864. I have written several times already about him and specific places connected with his name and work in both Moscow and London. He is a man who left his mark, and left it in a way that has made people want to remember him. One of the great liberal or even radical Russian thinkers, Herzen’s name stands for revolution, for freedom and for equality. Most of all, perhaps, it stands for bucking the status quo. He had a quick, insightful mind and a talent for words that made him a focal point of most any society he found himself in. That is certainly true of his time in London, where he produced important revolutionary writings of his own, published an important newspaper (Kolokol, or, The Bell) and ran an important publisher (the Russian Free Press, which I will get to someday in this space). He spent some of his time in London in close contact with his great friend and romantic rival, the poet Nikolai Ogaryov (see elsewhere on this blog site), the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, and many others. In her wonderful, all-too-brief series of blogs about Russians in London, Sarah J. Young provides this list of Herzen’s visitors: Ivan Turgenev, Nikolai Chernyshevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Nikolai Nekrasov, Pavel Annenkov, the critic and translator Vasily Botkin and the leftist writer Vasily Sleptsov. She adds: “It’s certainly true to say that neither his closest friend Nikolai Ogarev nor Bakunin would have ended up in London if Herzen hadn’t been here.”
The building we peruse today is a lovely piece of architecture, still in excellent condition. You walk up to the door of One Orsett Terrace in Westminster and you can fully imagine what that very experience would have been like for Turgenev, for Dostoevsky, for Tolstoy as they came by for an evening’s visit. It really makes you want to lift that heavy brass, lion-headed knocker and let it whack a couple of times. I actually fought back my desires to do that because – well, do you know how easy it is to become the stupid American tourist? Imagine someone answering my knock and I, covering my disappointment, saying, “I was hoping Herzen might open up. Who are you?” Or something like that. So I left that experience to my imagination – which could well be why it still affects me so viscerally when I see that brass lion’s head in my photos. Anyway, Tolstoy would have come by here in March of 1861. The indispensable Sarah J. Young writes: “Tolstoy arrived in London on 2nd March 1861, and left on 17th. He had not met Herzen before, but it is known that they saw each other regularly during the sixteen days of Tolstoy’s stay.  Lucas (p. 33) describes Herzen’s daughter Natalya’s recollections of seeing Tolstoy, whom she knew as the author of Childhood, at Orsett House, Westbourne Terrace. He states that Natalya was disappointed that Tolstoy wasn’t the heroic figure she was expecting, but he doesn’t give a source for the scene. Lucas also quotes Herzen as saying ‘I am seeing a great deal of Tolstoy. We have quarrelled. He is stubborn and talks nonsense, but is naive and a good man’, from Aylmer Maude, Family Views of Tolstoy (p. 71).”
(It is thanks to this specific post of Young’s that I hunted down and found this place to photograph.)

Dostoevsky would have been here a little over a year later. Again, I turn things over to Young, for there is no point in pretending I know more than she does: Dostoevsky “visited London for 8 days – his only trip to Britain – arriving on 9th July [1862]  (Dryzhakov, p. 328). Like many other writers, one of his chief aims was to see Herzen, and he certainly did so on 16th July, as well as probably also on Sunday 11th. According to [Joseph] Frank, the two men, who found they had a great deal more in common than they had on their previous meeting, in 1846, discussed recent events: Chernyshevsky’s arrest, the spate of fires that had engulfed Petersburg that spring, and the revolutionary Young Russia proclamation that had been published to much furore in May (Frank, pp. 145-59, 188-92). Given the closeness of Herzen’s circle, and his habit of entertaining on Sundays at Orsett House, it seems likely that on 11th July, Dostoevsky also met Bakunin and Ogarev.”
Turgenev, who was a frequent traveler to London and the U.K. in general, met often with Herzen. How frequently he came to this specific house, however, is less certain. Young, God bless her, tells us this (she begins with a reference to a passage in Patrick Waddington’s Turgenev and England and then clarifies): “…in May 1862, when Turgenev finally arrived with the writer Vasily Botkin after many delays, there was no room for him at the Herzen residence on Westbourne Terrace and ‘he had to stay with neighbours, possibly in the very house where Michael Bakunin was now living’. But we know that Bakunin was by this time living at 10 Paddington Green, which by no stretch of the imagination could be described as neighbouring Orsett House. A rift with Bakunin marked the end of Turgenev’s visits to this most famous group of Russian exiles….”
It is also worth quoting a section from Leonard Schapiro’s book Turgenev: His Life and Times (pp. 195-196): “On his short visit to London, Turgenev had engaged in lengthy argument with Herzen on the nature and future of Russian society. The result of this debate was a series of eight articles by Herzen, entitled ‘Ends and Beginnings,’ cast in the form of open letters to a friend, published in the Bell in the second half of 1862. Turgenev originally intended to print his reply in the same journal, but in consequence of a general warning from the Russian authorities not to write for that paper, thought better of it. Turgenev’s views in the debate therefore appear in his private letters to Herzen of the period, and in summaries of his arguments incorporated in Herzen’s articles. Herzen’s open letters, written with the brilliance and exuberance which characterized his style at its best, expound a theme which is familiar enough in his writings – that Western civilization has reached the end of its creative potential, and is destined to sink into the slough of vulgar, bourgeois self-satisfaction.
Well, I guess it’s good to see that Western civilization is still dying – for, surely, it is doing that these days. I am less happy to see that Turgenev did what so many of my contemporaries now do – agree to self-censorship when confronted by the authorities. But what is eternal is eternal, I guess.
Finally, Schapiro’s comments allow us to say that Herzen’s “Ends and Beginnings” were surely written right here in the home you see pictured today.

 

 

LA school hosts Russian artists

Click on photos to enlarge.

I would never have known about this place were it not for my friend Volodya Ferkelman who drove my wife Oksana and me around LA in 2015 looking for places connected to Russian culture. I had a big list I had put together from my research, but the Michael Jackson Auditorium of the Gardner Street School was not on it. If I remember correctly we were on our way from shooting an old home where Vladimir Nabokov had lived out west of the 405 Freeway and were on our way to shoot a home in Hollywood where the emigre actor Akim Tamiroff had lived just north of Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards. Volodya didn’t even slow down as he said, “You could photograph this place, too, I guess.” “Why’s that?” I asked. “Lots of Russians come here to perform,” he said as he pulled up even with the school. “Like who?” I asked as he drove on by. “Shenderovich. Voinovich. Yelena Kamburova,” he said, continuing on down Hawthorne Avenue. “Whoa!” I said. “Back it up, please!”
And that’s how these photos came about.
Gardner Street School, located at 7450 Hawthorne Avenue (don’t ask me!) at the juncture with Vista Street, is a pretty cool place actually. It has more than the usual share of fame and notoriety for an elementary school (K through 6). You see, this is the last public school that Michael Jackson attended (apparently for a few months) before stardom subsumed his life. There was a big to-do when the school named the auditorium after its illustrious alum – Jackson actually attended the opening in Oct. 1989. There was then a big kerfuffle when Jackson was accused of improper behavior with a minor in 2003 and concerned parents and other folk had the name covered over with plyboard. That changed again after his death in 2009 – a year later it was decided to rededicate the auditorium to the singer in his memory.
As such, I realize that in the grand, popular scheme of popular things, nothing more I can say will interest 99.9% of my potential readership. After Michael Jackson, who cares about anybody else, right? But I’m going to plow on ahead anyway.
I’m guessing that Shenderovich, Voinovich and Kamburova are not the only Russian artists who have visited Gardner, because, after all this is one of the few schools in LA with a large Russian-speaking student body. It is located more or less in the heart of the Russian district in LA. It all makes perfect sense. And yet I still find it noteworthy that this place, christened by Michael Jackson, if you will, has also hosted Russian celebrities.
The first of the trio I mentioned performing here was Viktor Shenderovich, the satirist, playwright and wicked political commentator. Shenderovich (born 1958) is one of our great contemporaries. He was the chief writer for the famed Puppets political satire series that kept Russians glued to their television sets until the then-new Russian president Vladimir Putin took offense and had the program shut down in 2002. In fact, Shenderovich left the program in 2001, after which the bite of the satire was not nearly the same. The closing down of Puppets was closely intertwined with one of Putin’s first big attacks on free speech when he crushed the NTV channel, the freest, leading source for independent information at that time. Shenderovich studied directing and taught at a handful of theatre institutes in his early years. He published his first book of satirical stories in 1991. Since then he has published over two dozen more books. His plays have been performed at several Moscow theaters, including the Tabakov Theater and the Satire Theater. Even now, over 15 years after the Puppets and NTV incidents, he is still under an unwritten – as far as I know – ban from appearing on major Russian TV channels. He is a popular political commentator on such outlets as Echo Moskvy radio and Dozhd (Rain) TV.
Shenderovich appeared at the Gardner St. School on November 1, 2003, when the hoopla around Puppets and NTV was still quite fresh. The Los Angeles Times ran a large piece about him, quoting his thoughts of the time and putting them in perspective:
“‘If things in Russia keep going at this rate, we’ll be eased out, forced to become dissidents in the Soviet sense of the word,’ he said, referring to the intellectuals and writers sent to the gulag as opponents of the Communist regime.
“‘My friends and I are not kamikazes. We try to find compromises. We are trying to stay in the media. But you have to know where compromise ends and defeat begins and to know the point where you have given everything away. If I began to praise the war in Chechnya, they would find me a job at any national television station tomorrow, but I wouldn’t be able to practice my journalism anymore.‘”
A Russian site advertised the evening (titled “Raisins from the Bun”) as such: “In Russia [Shenderovich] is sometimes compared to Saltykov-Shchedrin. The English language equivalent to that could only be Swift. Viktor Shenderovich’s political  acuity and acerbity and his metaphorical style give every reason for such a comparison.”
Ticket prices for the Shenderovich recital ran from $20 to $30 and the evening began at 7 p.m.

Next up was the singer Yelena Kamburova. A listing on Baraban.com, a site devoted to Russian cultural events in the U.S., announces that she was to perform at the school on April 2, 2006, from 7 to 9 p.m. Tickets that night ran from $30 to $35 and the listing was accompanied by the following blurb: “You can not forget her voice. Her every new performance is a discovery. The best poets and composers dream of her performing their works. She is the only one of all the Russian performers who received standing ovations from audiences at the most prestigious venues in the world: “Olimpia” in Paris, “Queen Victoria” in London. Elena Kamburova comes to Los Angeles with a new program, “In the evening vanity” – one concert only. Sellout crowds are expected!
Kamburova (born 1940) has been a popular singer since the 1960s. She put out her first record in 1964 and has either released or been represented on over 70 albums or CDs since then. She opened her own theater, the Yelena Kamburova Theater of Music and Poetry in 1992. Her enormous repertoire of songs ranges from folk and contemporary songs to songs in the classical tradition and contemporary tunes written to classical poetry.
As fate would have it, novelist, playwright and poet Vladimir Voinovich (born 1932) spoke and read from his work on June 5, 2015, just a month before the photos here were taken. As reported in a short piece on TheHollywoodTimes.net, “Renowned Russian writer and dissident Vladimir Voinovich held a reading for an audience that numbered in the hundreds at the Gardner School’s Michael Jackson Auditorium located at 7450 Hawthorn Avenue in West Hollywood. Voinovich spoke from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. and a question and answer period followed. Highlights from the reading included stories from both Soviet and émigré life.”
A poster that is reproduced with this article, as well as with an announcement on a Russian-language site, stated that, “Chonkin lived, Chonkin is alive, and Chonkin will live!” This, of course, is a reference to Voinovich’s most popular, one might even say immortal, novel, The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin (1969 – originally published in Germany because the Soviet censor would not pass it.) The ad also declares, “Voinovich’s singular humor makes miracles – you will laugh until you cry!”
Voinovich was stripped of his Soviet citizenship in 1980 and he lived in the US and Germany until 1990 when his legal status was restored by Mikhail Gorbachev. Although he was one of the famous dissidents of the late Soviet period, he has retained his relevance and position as a respected writer and commentator on current events. I saw him speak at Harvard in the 1980s, but that tale will have to wait for another prompt because I’m out of time and space today.

 

Marina Tsvetaeva’s Slavia Cafe, Prague, CZ

Click on photos to enlarge.

I rarely do this, but I’m fudging again. I did not take these photos. My wife Oksana Mysina did while she was recently in Prague shooting scenes for a documentary film about the great Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva.
Tsvetaeva (1892-1941) spent the better part of the years 1922-1925 in Czechoslovakia. By all accounts she loved the country and its capital Prague and she missed it greatly when she had to leave it. At the same time life here was never easy. Her family life was undergoing enormous stress and she had little, if anything, to live on. She had come to Czechoslovakia to be with her husband Sergei Efron, a former white army soldier, who, at one point she had thought killed in the Civil War, and who would attend Charles University in Prague. But they had virtually no money and lived, at best, from hand to mouth.
Tsvetaeva’s was a seeking heart and while struggling to stay alive with her husband and her daughter Ariadne, she fell into a widely publicized affair with a former military officer Konstantin Rodzevich. After this ended in 1923 she embarked on an epistolary love affair with Boris Pasternak. Although they did not actually meet until 1935 in Paris, the peak of their epistolary relationship made theirs one of the most famous love affairs joining Russian writers. For good measure, the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke also briefly became a part of the relationship as they all exchanged thoughts, poetry and emotional aspirations in a lively correspondence that ended abruptly with Rilke’s death in 1926.
My friend and colleague Alexandra Smith posted what appears to be a text by Anastasia Koprshivova that describes the details of this period so well that I hereby just turn things over to it:
In Prague itself, Tsvetaeva lived less than a year, from autumn 1923 to spring 1924. In the capital Efron settled in an attic room in the Smikhov area on Swedish (Švédská) street in house number 51, on whose wall a memorial plaque dedicated to the poetess was unveiled in 1989. Remembering this apartment, Tsvetaeva wrote: ‘In Prague I have fine, large windows revealing the whole city and the whole sky, the streets with their stairs, distances, trains and fog.’
Marina Tsvetaeva daily visited places teeming with Russian emigres, whose center was the church of St. Nicholas in the Old Town Square and the Hotel Beranek (Bělehradská 110, Tylovo nám.). In the spacious hotel halls, cultural evenings were organized by the Czech-Russian Association headed by Anna Teskova, who later became Tsvetaeva’s closest and most faithful friend. In her letters to Teskova from France to Czechoslovakia, Tsvetaeva wrote in detail about her fascination with Prague. Their correspondence lasted almost ten years, from 1925 to 1939, and was permanently interrupted after the Efron family returned to the USSR.
Marina Tsvetaeva loved long walks, she measured out Prague in her own steps. In letters to Teskova, she often recalls Deer Trench near Prague Castle, calling it Bear Trench in honor of the Siberian bears that lived there. She liked to wander along the paths of Petrzhin hill, which reminded her of ‘the breast of a recruit laid low by a projectile.’ For hours she would admire the city’s patches of parks, the sea from graying, time-worn roofs and observed the bends of the Vltava River with its islands.
She loved the black and white cobbles of sidewalks resembling a chessboard, along which the invisible hand of fate rearranged people like pawns – ‘as someone plays at being us.’ She loved the lights after sunset, which plunged the city into an atmosphere of mysteries and riddles. She loved Charles Bridge. There, on the banks of the Vltava, a monument to Brunzvik, a knight with a golden sword and a hairstyle just like hers, was always waiting for her. In the thirties, in a letter to Anna Teskova, Tsvetaeva asked her to send photos to Paris of ‘my knight,’ the general view of the city, and ‘the sea of ​​roofs with Prague’s bridges.’
The Prague period remains one of the brightest in Tsvetaeva’s work. Throughout all subsequent years the poet carefully preserved in her memory the city she loved.”

Aside from the places mentioned above, another of Tsvetaeva’s favorite haunts in Prague was the Slavia Cafe. She often had reason to be in this neighborhood because the editorial offices of the Russian emigre journal The Will of Russia were located nearby. Tsvetaeva often published her poetry in this publication that was edited by famed emigre literary figure Mark Slonim (often spelled in English as Marc). Tsvetaeva, who had no spare change to spend on the luxuries of a popular cafe, reportedly would often take just a glass of water and sit here for hours writing poetry. The building itself dates back to the 14th century. It has housed the famed Slavia Cafe since 1881. Even today one easily sees the romanticism and old-world charm of the place. One assumes that not much has changed here since Tsvetaeva was a regular. One thing that has changed is the famous painting hanging on the cafe’s back wall. Today we see a copy of Viktor Oliva’s The Absinthe Drinker, while in Tsvetaeva’s day the painting in that space was of Slavia, the mother of the Slavs. (That painting, despite the protests of Prague’s residents, was moved to Prague’s gallery of art in 1997.)
The Slavia has been a hangout for artists and artisans almost from its very beginning. It is located on the Smetana Embankment directly across from the National Theater, and right on the banks of the Vltava. Lore has it that the great Czech composer Bedrich Smetana was a regular here in the cafe’s first years, while in later decades it was also frequented by writer-turned-president Vaclav Havel, poets Jiři Kolář and Jaroslav Seifert, and Symbolist painter Jan Zrzavý. Surely Tsvetaeva was not the only Russian emigre to spend time here in the 1920s, although I have yet to find record of others.

 

 

Ivan Leonidov mural, Moscow

Click on photos to enlarge.

Moscow was graced a few years ago by the appearance of numerous wonderful street murals in a very short time. They all came about thanks to the Heritage project within the Moscow – Best City on Earth campaign. I’ve written about quite a few and there are still many I have not gotten around to photographing or highlighting here. I have yet to see one of these murals that I don’t like. They fit the Moscow style well. There are lots of “canvases” out there in Moscow, as you can see in this portrait of innovative architect Ivan Leonidov (1902-1959) – flat, open building sidings that are just waiting for someone to come along and spiff them up. In fact, look at the last shot in the block of photos below – there behind the mural of our choice today you see yet another mural, this one a comics-like urban scene. My former neighborhood of Zamoskvorech’e was the site of one of my favorite street murals in all of Moscow, an extremely delicate rendering of a perfectly symmetrical flowering tree. It is not humorous, makes no declarations, has no references (to my knowledge), but is just downright beautiful. On the rare occasion that I think about Zamoskvorech’e these days, I often recall that tree.
But back to the topic at hand.
Leonidov is not a household name although his contribution to Russian culture is deep. It would have been deeper yet had he come of age in a different era. Few of his major designs were actually built. There were really only a few years (1927 to 1930) when he worked at more or less full capacity. One of his most important designs was for the Lenin Institute in 1927. The TotalArch website describes it and Leonidov’s contribution to Soviet architecture of the time:
This project revealed Leonidov’s innovative understanding of the principles of building a modern city, and the spatial organization of its elements. For him a modern urban architectural ensemble was not a piece of organized space carved out of a tightly built city, but formed an ensemble in clusters of buildings that compositionally ‘dominate’ a certain area of space which plays a  unifying, rather than subordinate, role. Leonidov recognized the connection between architecture and nature, not only by taking into account the landscape and surrounding vegetation, but primarily in the interaction of the building with space.”
He was a frequent contributor to, and a member of, the editorial board of Contemporary Architecture magazine. When his work, much of it designed in the Constructivist style, came under attack from Party hacks beginning in 1929 (“Leonidovitis and its Harm” in Art for the Masses magazine), he used the pages of CA to answer his critics. The result was that the magazine was shut down and Leonidov was fired from his teaching job at the architecture institute.

Leonidov is one of the Russian architects associated with the “genre,” if you will, of “paper architecture” or “visionary architecture.” That is, many of his projects never made it further than the design table and the paper they were drawn on. In part this was because some of his ideas were ahead of their time and could not yet be realized with the tools then available. But it was also because his work was generally ignored or rejected. You can see some of his designs in a Russian Live Journal post (the pictures of actual buildings here belong to other architects). One of Leonidov’s legendary, unrealized designs was called City of the Sun. Its central theme was, no more and no less, the happiness of people.
Leonidov appears not to have known a great deal of happiness in his life, at least, not once the Communists began messing with his work. He was born in a village outside St. Petersburg. His father was a forest ranger. He came to study in Moscow in the mid-1920s and his first successful designs were for improved peasant huts. He also designed living quarters for workers in the city of Ivanovo, a building for Belorussian University in Minsk, and standardized workers clubs  that could be erected most anywhere. Throughout the 1930s – after the attacks on him – he worked at various “odd” jobs in various brigades, often in the provinces. Professionally, however, and for someone who had begun with such promise, his career was virtually on hold. In 1943, during World War II, he received a concussion in battle and was demobilized from the army. Things got so bad that, after the war, he was occasionally relegated to curating museum exhibits. He continued to work on his City of the Sun, but to no avail.
The mural located at 5 Sretenka Street in the northern center of Moscow, was unveiled in December 2014. According to an apparently reliable Russian website, it was created by an artist who goes by the name of Jem and works for a group whose name is sometimes given as kARTina Repina (Repin’s PAINTing) or, as it is given on the mural wall, KARTINAREPINA. The Heritage and Best City on Earth campaigns were curated by Novatek Art.

 

A school for art and artists, Moscow

Click on photos to enlarge.

dscn8177 dscn8175

Today this building at Prechistenka 32 in Moscow  houses two children’s schools – one for music (the left half, if you stand facing the facade) and the other for fine art (the right half). Surely there are many well-known contemporary artists and performers who have emerged from these premises. I don’t know any of them. What I can say is that when this was the Polivanov Gymnasium (high school) from 1868 to 1917,  it counted among its students at various times the future philosopher Vladimir Solovyov (1853-1900), and the future poets Valery Bryusov (1873-1924) and Maximilian Voloshin (1877-1932). I know that because of a small plaque that hangs on the wall under the eaves of the left side of the structure. That in itself is enough to send us looking for stories that may lay hidden here.
There are, however, two other reasons that make this place special in the history of Russian culture. In the mid-1990s a small hall in the left wing served as the stage for two very important theater productions. The first, transpiring in 1993, was the performance of Alexei Burykin’s N. Nijinsky, staged by and starring the matinee idol Oleg Menshikov, and produced by the brand new Bogis agency. Bogis (the name has nothing to do with “God – Bog,” but is an acronym of the two women who founded the agency – Galina BOGolyubova and Larisa ISaeva) would become a leader in quality, non-state funded theater in the coming years. The second was Olga Mukhina’s Tanya-Tanya, directed by Pyotr Fomenko in early 1996 for the new, as-yet homeless, Fomenko Studio.
Tanya-Tanya was a landmark in Russian drama and theater. This was a time when no critic, journalist, director, actor or any wo/man on the street would ever have dared to think that a new play was of any interest to anyone. It was the mantra of the age; silly and ignorant, but all-powerful. Tanya-Tanya, however, blew a hole in that wall of darkness. Almost everyone suddenly loved a new play. The Fomenko Studio, already popular with hip, young audiences in Moscow, was raised several notches higher in the pecking order of the capitol’s top theaters, Fomenko himself – a well-known director in his 60s who suddenly could do no wrong – was splashed with more of the gold dust that would soon turn him into a living legend. Mukhina was celebrated as the first and greatest playwright of modernity. The young actors in the Fomenko company, already minor stars, fit Mukhina’s restless, charmingly aimless young characters so perfectly and so convincingly that their own canonization as great performers of their time was advanced several more steps.
The famed notion of “New Russian Drama” would not come about for another five or six years. But when it did, it and its proponents had Mukhina and Tanya-Tanya to thank for the interest it accrued. After the success of Tanya-Tanya, other playwrights and new plays began making inroads into the public consciousness. Directors who had scorned them began seeking them out. Actors who had not wanted to perform in them began asking for them. Audiences suddenly seemed to realize what a bore it was to do nothing but watch plays in which you knew in advance every turn of the night’s coming action, and they began clambering for new plays. This led to a ground swell that came together as the tsunami now known as Russia’s new drama.
The first droplet of that ground swell took place right here in this building. The rather modest door you see immediately below is what separated our past from our future on those cold January/February nights when Tanya-Tanya opened.

dscn8180 dscn8181 dscn8179 dscn8188

One detail needs to be added to this story, a true one that has become obscured by mythology over time. Nowadays, everyone speaks without blinking about Fomenko’s brilliant production of Tanya-Tanya. In fact, it was staged by Andrei Prikhodko, one of Fomenko’s students, who played the lead role of Okhlobystin. Prikhodko’s staging was set to open in mid-January, but at the last minute invitations were canceled. We later learned that Fomenko had attended a dress rehearsal, was not pleased, and moved in to take over the entire project himself. When the show actually did open approximately two weeks later, the programs still listed Prikhodko as director, but with Fomenko’s name looming over it as producing director. Other than those on the inside, no one now will ever know the extent to which Fomenko changed Prikhodko’s work, but in coming years Prikhodko’s name would disappear from the production’s credits. Prikhodko now pursues an active theater career in Ukraine. A TV version of Tanya-Tanya, filmed in 2001, may be seen in its entirety on YouTube.
In fact, the historical performances of Tanya-Tanya were preceded by a similar event – the mounting of Alexei Burykin’s N. Nijinsky in February 1993. Although only three years separated these two productions, they occurred in vastly different worlds. Nijinsky appeared in the era of a deep-freeze in terms of playwriting. Critics and audiences may have felt safe praising the cast of this unusual play, which split Nijinsky into two characters; they may have loved the story; they were willing to be excited by the spectacle; but they were not ready to admit that a writer, a lowly, unknown writer, could have had anything to do with that.
I will never forget my astonishment as I watched review after review come out praising Menshikov and his partner Alexander Feklistov, raving about the fascinating tale, welcoming the appearance of a non-state production company (that was very new at the time), but unloading vitriol on the “hapless” writer who “had no idea how to write a play” and was “saved” by the brilliant production team. Because of Menshikov’s fame and popularity, this show was written up in every print source Moscow had to offer (and that was a huge amount of sources in 1993), and all but two eviscerated – or entirely ignored – Burykin. Curiously, both of these dissenters were apparently freedom-loving individuals, for one was named Yury Fridshtein, the other, John Freedman.
I don’t know this for a fact, but I strongly suspect that the appearance of Tanya-Tanya in this building on Prechistenka Street came about thanks to N. Nijinsky. You see, the Nijinsky team tried out several famous directors during the rehearsal period. One was Pyotr Fomenko, with whom Menshikov had worked in a famous production of Caligula in 1990. But whatever clicked that time did not click again during the preparations of Nijinsky. Fomenko, like the other famed names, was sent packing and Menshikov ended up taking directing credits. But surely Fomenko remembered this unorthodox performance space – usually used by children’s orchestras – when it came time to open Tanya-Tanya.
You can see bits and pieces of N. Nijinsky on YouTube in numbered fragments. Begin here with No. 1.

dscn8174 dscn8190 dscn8184 dscn8187 dscn8178

 

 

Old Actors House, Moscow

Click on photos to enlarge.

dscn0851

Today another phantom, and almost in the very same place. My last entry was about a place with some small cultural significance that no longer exists on the north side of Pushkin Square. Today I’ll do a bit of reminiscing about a place of genuine cultural importance that once was located on the south side of Pushkin Square. This was the Actors House, or, as the old-timers still refer to it over two decades later, VTO (the All-Russian Theater Organization).
What is it now? Nothing. A big, fat, glorified nothing.
In the past it was really quite something.
With a bit of a stretch we can reach back to 1877 to find its beginnings. That was when the Society for Mutual Aid for Russian Actors was founded. It was followed by several other similar social aid programs for needy actors, but the name Russian Theater Organization (RTO) first appeared in 1894. That was changed to VTO in 1932 and that proud name remained in force until the mid-1980s, when a series of successors bearing various names approximating the “Theater Union of the Soviet Union/Russian Federation” came into being one after the other. And yet, the old-timers still call the building at Tverskaya 16 “VTO” even though this particular address lost connection with theater way back in the 1990s.
Now, what happened to this building is interesting because it is telling of the age. It was one of the first arsons used to wrest valuable property out of the hands of people who weren’t using it to make money by those who were just itching to make money. I said “arson,” didn’t I. Yes, I did. And I meant it. Although I don’t believe I can prove that. You see, like so many murders and hostile takeovers and “sudden fires” that have happened in Moscow and Russia over the last 25 years, nobody ever officially solved the mystery of what happened to the old VTO. Oh, someone somewhere said that a short circuit somewhere started a fire and blah-blah-blah. To which I, and everyone else who knows about these things, say, “Bull.” That’s what they used to fluff it off. Everybody knows perfectly well that the VTO was torched. The firemen got there too late to save the organization, but just in the knick of time to save the building’s structure. The VTO (now called the Actors Union) was hurriedly given digs elsewhere in the city (near the Arbat) and this prime real estate was quickly put in other hands. After a couple of years of backstabbing and infighting, a sparkling new shopping center – with elite offices in the upper floors – opened its doors. In “honor” of the displaced Actors Union, the shopping center was named the Actors Gallery. Or was that mockery? Not sure on that one.
Anyway, it’s nice to see bad folks get their comeuppance now and then. I say that because the economic crisis that pounds silently though heavily at Russia’s doors these days has taken down even the Actors Gallery. When you walk up to the entrances to the short-lived shopping center (the VTO and its successors are around 140 years and counting – the Actors Gallery lasted less than 20 years, I’d guess), you see permanently closed doors and empty windows on the street level.

dscn0858 dscn0990 dscn0994

Meanwhile, Moscow actors and theater people over 60 years old still speak dreamily about the VTO, its famous restaurant, its tiny old elevators filled to the gills (4 or 5 people tops) with stars, its concerts, its social work, its work in preserving the history of Russian theater and promoting those who worked contemporaneously. It was an astonishing place. I had the great fortune to spend a good deal of time there because an extraordinary woman named Eleonora Matveevna Krasnovskaya sort of took me under her wing. She didn’t do it because she liked me, but because this tiny woman with more energy than four tanks had a habit of taking under her prodigious, angelic wings virtually everyone who ever came within spitting distance of her office on, I believe, the fifth floor. “Well, come on in here!” she’d bark at you. “What do you want now?!” I wanted everything and she was just about up to delivering it all. I needed to contact a Nikolai Erdman scholar in Tomsk? Done. I wanted to get into a sold-out show? Done. I wanted to meet someone who never met with anyone? Done. I wanted advice on what was hot and new? Done. I mean, Eleonora Matveevna, or Nora, or Norochka, as I ended up calling her, was the gate-keeper to Nirvana. She didn’t like everything in Nirvana and she’d tell you so. “John. I got you tickets to thus-and-such a show. Now, I didn’t like it much myself. But everybody’s talking about it. So, you must see it.” Got something else to do that night? Tough. Nora got you tix to the hottest show in town. Nora sent me to the first shows I ever saw directed by Kama Ginkas, Yury Lyubimov, Mark Zakharov, Pyotr Fomenko, Valery Fokin, and virtually everyone else, I guess. She once thought I needed to have a chat with Naum Orlov, a director who had made his fame working in the city of Chelyabinsk, and so when he was in the building one day, she sat me in a chair in the corridor and brought him to me. It was her way of promoting “provincial” talent, which, indeed, was horribly undervalued in the Soviet period. She didn’t like that and she bucked it. She introduced me to the playwright Alexei Kazantsev – another one of those things she just figured I needed to do. She had no hopes, I don’t think, that I could appreciate what she was doing for me, but she was on a mission. If I was thick in the head, that was my problem, not hers. As it happened, I ended up becoming quite close to Kazantsev. I was thrilled when my old friend founded one of the most important theaters at the turn of the millennium – the Playwright and Director Center – and I was devastated when he died suddenly of a heart attack only a few years later.
I had the special honor on occasion of taking lunch with Nora in the famed VTO restaurant, where for 3 to 5 rubles you could eat as if you were at Maxim in Paris. If I happened to come by before lunch, she’d drag me down there, disgusted at me for some reason, but intent on giving me some culture, dang-blast it, and some food. Look at the photo immediately above – you see the “turret” at the left. The restaurant was in the ground floor in the turret. I can’t walk by without seeing Nora pushing food in front of me, introducing me to people, regaling me with stories and always reminding me why I probably wasn’t worth all this attention. Did I forget to add that her eyes would twinkle when saying things like that? Did I really need to?
When I desperately wanted to get into a sold-out concert organized by Grigory Gurvich (he had not yet opened his soon-to-be famous Bat Cabaret Theater), Nora took care of it. When Oksana Mysina and I – not yet married – desperately wanted to get into a sold-out concert by Alla Bayanova, a romance-singer who had lived for decades in exile in Bulgaria but had now come home to Moscow, it was Nora who whisked us past the ticket takers.
Oh, yes, on Oksana. Nora once informed me that I was accompanying her out to an event in Melikhovo, the estate where Anton Chekhov lived for much of the 1890s. “You need to see this place,” Nora told me, “maybe it’ll even do you some good.” So I met the hired bus at the appointed time and Nora and I took seats next to each other to the left of the aisle, about 1/3 of the way back behind the driver. I was a bit dreamy that day. I had met Oksana perhaps a month before and I wasn’t thinking about much else at the time. The bus door slammed shut, lurched forward and we were off. I still remember where we were when Nora asked about Oksana – it was on Zemlyanoi Val, just after we had passed the Kursk train station. And Nora, assuming all rights to meddle wherever she so pleased, asked point blank, “So, I hear you’ve taken up with that Mysina girl from the Spartakovskaya Theater. Is that so?” I wasn’t the least taken aback. I hadn’t told Nora about that, but I certainly never would have doubted that she would know whatever there was to know out there. “Yes,” I said, probably a bit cowed. She turned to me and let her eyes burn into me for a second or two and said, “Do you love her?” I looked back at her, surely still cowed, but now less so, and said, “Yes, I do.” She shifted in her seat and looked straight again again. “Good!” she said. “She’s a fine young girl.”
Somewhere in my archive I have a photo of us taken later that day, in Melikhovo. Or maybe I lost it in my last move. What I do know is that I can never lose Eleonora, Nora, Norochka, just as I’ll never lose the sensations I experienced under her wings at the old VTO.
Nora, by the way, just turned 90. Happy birthday Norochka Matveevna!

dscn0854 dscn0991 dscn0996 dscn0855

 

 

Grisha Gurvich’s Bat Cabaret No. 2, Moscow

Click on photos to enlarge.

img_5742 img_5753 img_5754

One could write a book about this building. In fact, I used to own a small book about it in one of those libraries I collected along my way before jettisoning as I moved on in life. The way some people are with umbrellas, sunglasses, gloves and the like, I am with libraries. They come of their own, but when I go, they go. Be that as it may, I don’t need any book to write about his distinctive building at 10 Bolshoi Gnezdikovsky Lane in the center of Moscow. My memories are full without books.
Still, let me begin with some acquired information because this really is an extraordinary location. Two plaques hanging on the exterior wall are of interest to us here. One (the first above) reads as such: “Memorial of history and culture. This is the first ‘skyscraper’ in the capital, engineered by E[rnst] K. Nirnzee in 1912. Beginning in 1915 Nikita Baliev’s the Bat Cabaret began working in the basement, as did the Romen Gypsy Theater and the F[yodor] Kaverin Theater-Studio and others. A winter film pavilion of the V. Vengerov and V[ladimir] Gardin Film Partnership was located on the roof of the building. This building is associated with the names of M. Bulgakov, K. Paustovsky, Yu. Burliuk, V. Mayakovsky and others.”
(The reference to “Yu. Burlyuk” appears to be an error. The avant-garde poet, painter and all-around artistic hooligan David Burliuk was a close associate of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s, while his brothers Vladimir and Nikolai were of some note, too. I suspect it is David that is meant here. I don’t know of a “Yu. Burliuk.”)
The second plaque is significantly more economical in terms of facts, but it tells a similar story: “Apartment House 1912-1923. Engineer E.K. Nirnzee. This building is associated with the history of the development of Russian theater and film.”
This is all very impressive, and I am sure there are plenty of facts and stories out there waiting to be tracked down and retold about all those mentioned here. But I only have room in my mind today for one person and his work and vision. He is not mentioned on either of the plaques from the past, and who knows what eras overseen by what kind of people we have yet to go through in the future? Does anyone today care about Grigory Gurvich? Obviously, many do. He touched the lives of thousands. But does anyone in a position of power and authority remember him? That’s a harder question to answer. Who knows what folks like that are thinking these days.
Grigory Gurvich (1957-1999) was utterly unlike anyone else. He came into prominence during the hard, harsh, ugly era of the death of the Soviet experiment, and he greeted it with humor, style and elegance. It was not a particularly friendly time, but Grisha – as I will allow myself to call him – was everybody’s friend. He had a smile, a good word, a handshake or a twinkle in his eye for everyone who ever came through the doors of his theater located in this building. The idea for his theater was a small stroke of genius. It was not so much a resurrection of the famed Bat Cabaret opened here on the same stage by Nikita Baliev in 1915, as it was an attempt to do that famous enterprise honor in a new age. It was better than a resurrection. It was a whole new theater, with a new idea and a new plan, but one that took inspiration from Baliev and his company which, soon enough, disbanded and headed for world-famous tours of Europe and then a fairly long residency in New York under the name of La Chauve-Souris. (I should mention that Baliev’s name became Balieff in the transition from the Soviet Union to Europe and the States.) Baliev’s theater was a true cabaret, with actors coming in late nights after performing in the “legit theater” to sing songs and improvise skits with other famous actors, who mingled with the performers from Baliev’s troupe. Opening its doors late at night, when actors and audiences got out of other performances, it would run into the wee hours of the morn.

img_5737 img_5743 img_5740 img_5739

Grisha Gurvich’s Bat Cabaret Theater (note the addition of “theater”) was an actual theater company. It put on plays and performed them in a repertory schedule like most other Russian theaters might do. What distinguished Gurvich’s work (he wrote or, at least, compiled most of the plays he directed) from other theaters was that each piece was put together from the kinds of skits you might see in a cabaret variety show. But he tied them together, put them into a connected, winding string that created a narrative story. His first show, which opened right here on May 26, 1989, on the basement stage at what has been known over the decades as the GITIS student theater, was called The Reading of a New Play. It was a mystification of sorts that mixed the characters of Baliev’s troupe on the verge of breaking up, with the individuals of Gurvich’s company, which was on the verge of a great beginning. It was nostalgic, sweet, painful, intelligent and always funny. Gurvich, as was his wont, moved through the piece as a narrator or an emcee, tying loose ends together, or, sometimes just leaving them to hang and dangle. The first performances of The Reading of a New Play were wildly successful, as few things can be wildly successful in our days. News of the fabulous new show and theater traveled like wildfire. The next night (when I attended) there may have been two people crashing the door for every seat in the house. The audience was electrified. It exploded into fiery bursts of laughter and applause constantly throughout the evening.
Originally, Gurvich had rented the space for six performances. But because this was right where Baliev’s Bat Cabaret had performed, he very much wanted to stay right here. And the success of that first short run did guarantee a residency that lasted for nearly half a decade. As a resident company in this space, Gurvich’s Bat Cabaret Theater opened its next four shows here, including: I Tap Dance about Moscow (at the turn of 1991/92)and 100 Years of Cabaret (November 1994). It was the latter show that caused me to write a few paragraphs that I have treasured throughout the decades. 100 Years of Cabaret was not Gurvich’s best show. It was slicker than the deeper, more successful first outings. But it lacked none of the excitement, energy and humor that Gurvich always put into everything he did. So, in a review for The Moscow Times that acknowledged a few flat spots and sour notes throughout evening, here is how I wrapped up what I had witnessed:
But Gurvich has the ultimate trump card up his sleeve: his own personality.
Call him the sultan of suave, the wizard of wit, or the king of charisma, but when he takes the stage to the slinky accompaniment of Roman Berchenko at the piano, he soothes everything over. He isn’t just the show’s author, he is its heart and soul.
Meanwhile, amidst the uneven collection of sketches, some are as good as ever. The best include a wildly energetic medley of American pop from Elvis Presley to Chubby Checker; some thunderous, top-flight tap-dancing; and a beautifully-done interactive film skit that has actors climbing onto and off of the screen a la Federico Fellini or Woody Allen.
But the star is Gurvich. Were there such a thing, he would be Mr. Moscow, the man who brings warmth and respect to the town he loves. And a few slips notwithstanding, it is always a pleasure to watch him do it.”
Pleasure, hell. It was an honor. It was the opportunity of a lifetime. It all ended much too fast. After Gurvich directed five shows in the wonderful old space of the basement stage at 10 Bolshoi Gnizdikovsky Lane, the landlords at the theater – GITIS – kicked Gurvich out. He had become too big a star and, for some reason, they couldn’t handle the competition. Grisha took his company elsewhere; they performed on rented stages around town, but it was never the same. Then around 1996 he became the host of a hit TV show called This Old Apartment. That took most of the air out of what was left of the Bat Cabaret Theater. Moreover, what most of us did not know was that Grisha Gurvich was deathly ill. He died of leukemia in Israel before the century could run out.
One very visible trace of Grigory Gurvich’s short tenure in this famed building remains for us to see. That is the art nouveau front door and awning that Gurivch had put in before he was asked to vacate the premises. It was his little gift to history – a door erected in the 1990s to honor an era gone by, the last few years before the Russian Revolution. Had Baliev put in a fancy front door to his Bat Cabaret, it might well have looked something like this door that Gurvich had designed and built 80 years later.
These days, frankly, it looks forlorn and out of place. Without the crowds storming the door to get in for the night’s performance, without Gurvich there to greet you, without any rhyme or reason for its being there, the beautiful, well-illuminated entrance strikes one now as a heavy reproach. It seems to frown on those fools who kicked Gurvich out of here 20 years ago. It seems to mock those who walk past or even enter the premises now – as if to say, “Who are you and what are you doing here? You have no idea what my purpose was!” For me personally, it stands as a small cluster of light amidst the darkness that has descended on Bolshoi Gnezdikovsky Lane ever since Grisha Gurvich last left it. Every time I pass it by it seems to say, “Grisha was here and you and I remember that. Can’t speak for the rest of the folk around here.”

img_5750 img_5738 img_5755 img_5746