Category Archives: Gravesites

George Blagoi gravestone, Los Angeles

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You almost can’t find this guy under his real name – Yury Blagoi. Even on most Russian sites he is listed as George. And even when you do find information about Yury/George Blagoi, it is of the skimpiest kind, often just a name in long lists of actors who performed in some film, appeared at some party, or were part of some Hollywood hotshot’s entourage.
I tracked Mr. Blagoi down at plot 119 in the Chandler Garden of the Hollywood Forever cemetery at 6000 Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles. The birth-death dates there are almost correct. That is, his birth date of August 27, 1895, in Moscow is true if you consider that it is in the so-called Old Style. This was still 20-some years before Russia joined the rest of the world by jettisoning the Julian calendar and embracing the more accurate Gregorian calendar. So on the day that Blagoi was born it was actually September 8 in most of the world. The gravestone indicates that the date listed is by Old Style, but does not offer the true contemporary date. Virtually all internet sources pick up the date off of the gravestone, therefore providing for posterity an incorrect date of birth for this Russian emigre actor. His death date of June 24, 1971 in Los Angeles is not in dispute.
It is interesting that this man, who appeared in close to four dozen films over the span of his career, chose to identify himself in death as a military Major and a Prince with the full last name of Blagoi-Obolensky, a member of the Imperial Army and Navy before the Revolution, and a descendant of the noble Smolensky and Zabolotsky families. At least by the end of his life, these aspects of his biography clearly had become the most important.
For those interested in the full scoop in regards to what is written on Blagoi’s grave marker – the phrase at the top is a quote from John 11:25: “I am the Resurrection and the Life.”
One of the longest descriptions I found about Blagoi’s biography is a single sentence in a Russian Wikipedia article about his older brother Dmitry, who was a well-known literary scholar and specialist in the works of Alexander Pushkin. Here it is: Dmitry’s “brother Yury Dmitrievich Blagoi, a participant in the Civil War, abandoned Russia with the Whites, and lived in Hollywood where he performed in the cinema as George Blagoi and Lieutenant Blagoi.”
It’s not much to go on, but it’s something.

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It’s no easy task even coming up with a good list of the films Blagoi acted in, although the always-reliable site is the best. This listing suggests Blagoi was in at least 31 feature films and at least 14 television programs or serials. Over the years he worked with some major directors, including John Ford and Josef von Sternberg. With the exception of his very first film, Into Her Kingdom (1926), where he was credited as Lieutenant Blagoi, virtually every other one of his roles was uncredited. Could this be why we have such a difficult time scaring up information about this actor? On the other hand, he was there hands-on at the making of many of American TV’s best early serials. Get a load of this, he appeared (again, uncredited) in I Love Lucy (1956, where he played a passenger on a ship), Perry Mason (1957), The Untouchables (1959-60, three episodes – one credited!), The Twilight Zone (1961), The Andy Griffith Show (1963), Dr. Kildare (1963), Rawhide (1963), The Fugitive (1964), Bonanza (1965) The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1967) and It Takes a Thief (1968). I and a couple of generations grew up watching every single one of those shows.
A Russian site suggests that he worked on the 1959 feature film The Buccaneer where he was a stand-in for Yul Brynner.  He was an extra in Around the World in 80 Days (1956). The kind of roles he played can pretty much be summed up as follows: bar/cafe patron, clerk, officer/sailor/soldier, party guest, judge on a panel, juror, courtroom spectator, medicine show spectator,  barn fight spectator, mourner at wake, dinner patron, club patron, customs man and the like. It’s a great working man’s resume! That made me particularly curious when I ran across a site that promised to tell me George Blagoi’s net worth – just to see what a small-time working man in Hollywood made back in the day. I clicked on the bait and found that “George Blagoi’s net worth is under review.”
Blagoi was married to Tina Blagoi, apparently born as Valentina Ivanova ( writes “Ivanovna” but that is a patronymic, not a last name), also in Moscow, in 1900. She died in 1986. She had a short career in film, too, with at least seven credits. She too was uncredited in all her roles.
And on that note, ladies and gentlemen, I have exhausted what I have to say about Major Prince Yury Dmitrievich Blagoi-Obolensky, a man who appeared to live a life as unusual and unexpected as any in Tinsel Town. That’s an achievement and I take my hat off to him. If you think I’m being facetious, you don’t know me.

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Richard Ter-Pogosian grave, Los Angeles

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I’ve been working for awhile now with the majors – your Dostoevskys and Bulgakovs and such. But not by Pushkin alone is Russian literature Russian literature. And so on this day, so dreary, rainy and quiet where I live, I have succumbed to the desire to search a little farther than usual and to dig into the more obscure reaches of my topic. I’ll tell you right here: I had never heard of the poet Richard Ter-Pogosian until I happened upon his grave about a year ago in the Hollywood Forever cemetery. I would not have known that Richard Saakovich was a poet, had not his gravestone proclaimed it quite assertively in proverbial black and white. We can quickly summarize the information which I carried away with me from this place: Ter-Pogosian was born in 1911 and he died in his mid-90s in 2005. His wife Maria, nee Yevtushenko, was born in 1918 and preceded her husband in death in 2003. As I say, Mr. Ter-Pogosian was a poet, which is borne out not only by the word itself, but by the quill next to the word atop of the stone cross above his name. His name, of course, indicates he was of Armenian descent, although the fact that the gravestone offers it in Russian (as it does the word “poet”) implies that he considered himself a Russian poet. The name is given in English on the stone cross as Ter-Boghossian, although that rings no more bells than Ter-Pogosian. (Unless it makes us wonder if there is any connection between our poet and Eric Bogosian, the American playwright of Armenian extraction.) And that is it. That puts me at the end of my pitifully meagre knowledge.
A few things came to me long after I made these photos in the summer of 2015. By which I mean to say I only noticed them today as I began editing them. One is that there appear to be two cups of some kind lying on their side between the two graves. Perhaps these are vessels for flowers that have been put aside for the moment. I mention them because they seem to bear some specific kind of design. I don’t know if there is anything in that which might expand our knowledge or not. The other thing is the clay pot at the foot of Richard’s gravestone. Look closely at the photo above. Yes, you’re right. That is a baby’s boot in the pot. Not exactly the first thing you would expect to see in a flower pot on a grave. But there it is – the reality of it is undeniable. (The flower pot on Maria’s grave appears to be empty.) Now, if you think I am struggling to come up with something to write, you are absolutely correct. On the other hand, when presented with an absolute dearth of information, one can only begin with whatever is at hand. I have done that now, and now I have exhausted it. Utterly. As such, it is time to turn to the god of contemporary information, and to ask it, as our forbears once appealed to the Oracles, for whatever enlightenment They should so deem to share.

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The first bit of information I come upon is posted on, a Russian-language site that offers a page listing the writers of the Second Wave of emigration. This is important, because we now know that Ter-Pogosian left the Soviet Union during or shortly after World War II. As the site suggests, from the years 1938 to 1947, 10 million Soviet citizens found ways to leave the Soviet Union. The Second Wave is considered to have continued into the 1950s. There are 74 individuals in this list of writers (expanded to include historians, academics, journalists, etc.). No information is offered about anyone, aside from birth-death dates.
Next we come upon a Russian-language book published by Vladimir Agenosov in 2014. It is entitled Those Who Arose from Oblivion: An Anthology of DP (displaced persons) Writers and the Second Emigration. It includes poetry by Ter-Pogosian. An interesting statistic offered up in a review of this book is that approximately 13,000 displaced persons settled in the UK; 77,400 in the US; 25,200 in Australia; 23,200 in Canada…
Mikhail Yupp, in a long article on the internet, tells of tracking down Ter-Pogosian after finding one of his poems reprinted in a 1966 calendar put out by a Russians abroad organization. He also gets in a few digs at a Russian scholar who had published a collection, Coasts, dealing with the topic of DP poets. Unlike Yupp, he had not been able to find Ter-Pogosian when doing his research. I’ll quote Yupp’s description of the incident, because it is the only reference to the poet’s own speech that I have uncovered as of yet:
In the summer of 1992 one of the editors of the Coasts collection was in Los Angeles and he called Richard Saakovich. When asked, ‘How did Yupp find you?’ Ter-Pogosian replied:
‘He who seeks shall always find. However, why didn’t you, respected editor, appeal to Yupp? After all, you both live in the same city.’
The poem that Yupp discovered was called “Greatcoat” and tells of thoughts visited upon the poet when, one day, he pulls an old greatcoat out of a trunk. “Greatcoat” contains lines that might allow us to draw some conclusions about Ter-Pogosian’s escape from the Soviet Union. Here, in a hasty translation, are the final three quatrains from that work:

…At war and in bitter battles
Your gray hue lost its color.
You’re full of holes and stains of blood –
Traces of those cruel years!

So much woe and deprivation
Settled on your shoulders!
On the fields of wild battle
And in German labor camps!

I brought you with me here
To these lands so faraway.
We are inseparable now,
My gray greatcoat and I.

As such, we may conjecture that Ter–Pogosian was one of those (like two of my first teachers of Russian) who slipped out of the Soviet Union by way of Germany during, or shortly after, the war. He also appears to have survived time as a POW.
To the best of my ability to determine, Ter-Pogosian published at least four volumes of poetry in his lifetime. (See P.S. below.) In any case you can see four books listed on a Russian bookseller’s webpage:
1. Poems (3rd edition), Paris, 1960.
2. Lively Brook, Madrid, 1972.
3. Along Boundaries, Los Angeles, 1988.
4. Herbarium, Los Angeles, 1991.
The price set for the four volumes is, according to today’s exchange rate, approximately $540.
Note the cities of publication. Does this mean that Ter-Pogosian resided in Europe into the 1970s then found his way to the United States at about the time that the Third Wave of emigration was taking place from the Soviet Union? Possibly. Or it is possible that publishers in Paris and Madrid were simply willing to publish his work.
At present I have no more answers to these or any other questions about Richard Ter-Pogosian. I’ll be looking, though…

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I am compelled to add a P.S. several days after my original post thanks to a letter from my friend Peter Greenleaf, who somehow always seems to have been where I have not yet gone. It proved true again in connection with Ter-Pogosian. Please look at the photos below and behold: a portrait of the poet, a listing of the poetry collections he published, and a shot of two book covers, one of them being Lively Brook, the other being Collected Poetry. There were more than I knew. The photos are of items that Peter holds in his personal library. For the record, here are the books as we now know them:
1. Poems, Paris, 1960.
2. Lively Brook, Madrid, 1972.
3. Along Boundaries, Los Angeles, 1988.
4. Herbarium, Los Angeles, 1991.
5. Evening Bell (p. & d. undetermined)
6. Rainbow (p. & d. undetermined)
7. Collected Poetry (p. & d. undetermined)
We also see that Ter-Pogosian had at least one unpublished book, Epilogue.
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Vladimir Sokoloff crypt, Los Angeles, CA

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Vladimir Sokoloff (1889-1962) was still another of those Moscow Art Theater comets that landed in Hollywood in the 1920s and 1930s. He may never have been a big star, but he was highly respected, memorable in every one of his roles – no matter how bad the film – and he was always in demand among directors and producers looking for a good actor. He performed in over 115 films from the beginning of his career in Germany on through his last – Taras Bulba with Yul Brynner (another Russian-born Hollywood denizen) – in the last year of his life.
Vladimir Sokoloff was born Vladimir Sokolov in Moscow a few months after my maternal grandmother was born in Avon, IL, in the U.S. There’s no connection whatsoever; I just like taking advantage of any opportunity to remember my wonderful grandmother. Sokolov studied at Moscow University – several sources say his chosen fields of study were literature and philosophy. But he had the acting bug and he next studied  with Konstantin Stanislavsky at the Moscow Art Theater, where he was admitted to the company in 1913. He jumped ship to Alexander Tairov’s Chamber Theater around 1920 and was one of the ensemble who accompanied that theater on a tour to Germany in 1923. He caught the eye of the great German director Max Reinhardt, who offered him work in Germany. Seeing as how things were chaotic and uncertain in Russia, Sokolov took up the offer. This is when he became Wladimir Sokoloff. The first name would revert to Vladimir when he moved to the States 15 years later, but the spelling of Sokoloff stuck with him for the rest of his life. He spent ten years in Germany performing often on stage and on screen, then spent another five in France, where he performed in Jean Renoir’s film of Maxim Gorky’s play The Lower Depths (1932). Presumably sensing the onset of madness and mayhem, Sokoloff made the leap to the United States in 1937. He quickly found work both in New York theatre and in Hollywood films, easily filling in the “ethnic niche” in dozens of films. He once said that he played characters of at least 35 different nationalities over the course of his Hollywood career.  The Movie Morlocks website discusses this topic concisely:
Of course, in an era when native people were rarely cast as Asian, Native Americans, Mexican or any other nationality that might have seemed logical due to conventions of the period, Sokoloff‘s busy work life might seem unfair in retrospect, but he was a gifted man, who imbued these shorthand characters with a humane weight that few others could have conjured up for the often sketchily written roles. By his own estimate, Vladimir Sokoloff believed that he had played at least 35 different nationalities, with particular emphasis on Spanish characters (Juarez, The Baron of Arizona, The Magnificent Seven) and a few Russian types such as a remarkably benign Mikhail Kalinin, one of Stalin’s closest allies in the notoriously (and later controversial) sympathetic Mission to Moscow (1943). You may have seen him as an Asian drug smuggler in Macao (1952-Josef von Sternberg), a French gardener in Till We Meet Again (1944-Frank Borzage), a sagacious inmate in Passage to Marseille (1944-Michael Curtiz), an Italian physicist in Cloak and Dagger (1946-Fritz Lang), a violent radical leader in The Real Glory (1939-Henry Hathaway) and an Old Man in Mexico whose quiet dignity and faith in The Magnificent Seven (1960-John Sturges) galvanizes the mercenaries to help his village.”

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Sokoloff is interred in a crypt in the Sanctuary of Light section of the Hollywood Forever cemetery at 6000 Santa Monica Boulevard. I have written about several other Russian transplants to Hollywood who now lay – eternally? – here in this huge city block. If you’re interested in finding this specific place, you enter the grounds, hang right at the first opportunity, then go left at the next opportunity. You will then come upon a lovely Arabic-looking vision as you see in the third photo below. From there the Sanctuary of Light hall is the second one on your left. Sokoloff and his wife Elizabeth (1895-1948) are about 2/3 of the way up the wall about 2/3 of the way back on the right.
Sokoloff maintained a healthy sense of humor as far as his professional origins were concerned. A nice little interview article called “Hollywood Glances!” published in the Miami Daily News-Herald on April 20, 1960, offers a few glimpses into Sokoloff’s own attitude to himself, his work and his teacher, Stanislavsky, who, the actor admitted (chuckling, it’s necessary to add), “tortured” him “personally.”
To hell,” he said, “with ALL the acting theories, including the Stanislavsky method. Before he died in 1938, Stanislavsky himself told me: ‘Adapt and adjust, Vladimir. No longer accept my method letter for letter. The world is changing. Acting is changing and it will change even more.”
The interview, conducted by Erskine Johnson, circles around this topic some more and I think it’s worth bringing it back out of obscurity here.
Today, playing the Wise Old Man of a sleepy Mexican village in The Magnificent Seven, on location near here, Vladimir shudders at the world’s dramatic coaches applying the Stanislavsky acting method ‘so blindly.’ 
‘It is foolish,’ he told me, his eyes bright and clear, ‘to use the same recipes of 50 years ago. You can’t play the same part as you played it 50 years ago.’
‘Audiences are different; countries are different; the world is different. All life is different. If he were alive today, Stanislavsky would be different with his method, too.’
What is Sokoloff’s method now?
‘I have learned,’ he said quietly, ‘to work by my five senses alone. It is not difficult to pretend one is eating hot soup. Yet when I appeared off Broadway not long ago in Power of Darkness, one critic said’:
‘To watch Vladimir Sokoloff eat hot soup is a revelation.’
‘I laughed. What is so difficult about it? It is just the touch, the taste, the feel. Acting is as simple as that. The five senses. If you have any talent, there is little need to study any method.'”
I’d like to see some of Sokoloff’s wisdom printed alongside the reams of reverence that get published in the Stanislvasky System industry. It might put a little perspective back into things.

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Tamara Toumanova grave site, Los Angeles

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I’m tempted to just quote Jack Anderson’s New York Times May 31, 1996, obituary for Tamara Toumanova (1919-1996) in full. I won’t. But I’m sorely tempted. It’s chock full of the kind of information I love. Let me provide some snippets:
Tamara Toumanova, a child-prodigy ballerina of the 1930’s who became familiar to American audiences as one of the most glamorous stars of 20th-century dance, died on Wednesday at the Santa Monica Hospital in Santa Monica, Calif. She was 77 and lived in Beverly Hills…
“By the time she was 13, Miss Toumanova was internationally acclaimed as one of the three so-called baby ballerinas of Col. W. de Basil’s Ballets Russes. She and two other phenomenally gifted daughters of Russian emigres — Irina Baronova and Tatiana Riabouchinska — were discovered in Parisian ballet studios by George Balanchine…
“Adoring fans nicknamed Miss Toumanova ‘the black pearl of the Russian ballet.’ Even as a teen-ager, her beauty was as remarkable as her technique…
“A founding member of the de Basil Ballets Russes in 1932, Miss Toumanova inspired two of this century’s greatest choreographers. She created roles in Balanchine’s Cotillon and Concurrence and in Leonide Massine’s Jeux d’Enfants with the company…
“Miss Toumanova was born on March 2, 1919, in a boxcar in Siberia. She was the daughter of a czarist army colonel and his wife, who were fleeing the Bolsheviks. The couple settled in Paris, where their daughter became a pupil of Olga Preobrajenska, a Russian-born teacher…
And on it goes. Wow. Born in a train car in Siberia (just outside the city of Tyumen, for those who like details), fleeing revolution… Does that sound iconic, or what? With a beginning like that, Toumanova simply had to become a Hollywood star. Hollywood exists to capitalize precisely on such extraordinary biographies.
I mean, look at this little story that Wikipedia carries:
In 1936, while Toumanova was performing ballet in Chicago, an 18-year-old boy named Burr Tillstrom came to see her perform. Following the ballet, Burr went backstage to meet her. As they talked, Toumanova and Tillstrom became friends. Some time later, Tillstrom showed her a favorite puppet he had made and she, surprised by his revelation, exclaimed, “Kukla” (Russian for ‘puppet’). Burr Tillstrom went on to create a very early (1947) television show for children, titled, Kukla, Fran and Ollie.
Now, how many of us who grew up watching Kukla, Fran and Ollie had any idea that Kukla was a Russian word (I only made the connection just now, having read this blurb) and that it had been suggested by the great Toumanova, who was all of 17 at that point?
She began studying with the great Preobrazhenskaya when she was still nearly an infant. She made her first memorable appearance at the grand age of six, chosen out of a group to perform by the great Anna Pavlova. She broke in with the world-class emigres Balanchine and Massine (Myasin, in its Russian form) when she was not yet a teenager (she was 12). Throughout the core of her career she dazzled audiences in Paris, London, New York, Monte Carlo, Milan, while touring to Central American, Canada, Spain and Cuba. She made her film debut in 1944 in a picture, Days of Glory, that featured Gregory Peck making his own debut. Through 1970 she played in five more films, always playing a dancer. Everything about Toumanova sounds like a fairy-tale.
Virtually nothing tied the dancer-actor to Russia itself. I don’t know how long she remained within Russian/Soviet borders after her birth, but it may have been only weeks, it may have been months. It doesn’t appear to have been a year. And yet, before she died, she donated what costumes she had in her possession to the Vaganova Choreographic Museum in St. Petersburg.

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Ethnically, Toumanova was her own personal melting pot. Or so it would seem. You can find references to her alleged Georgian, Armenian, Polish, Ukrainian and Russian roots. The name Toumanova derived from her mother’s maiden name, Tumanishivili, which is a prominent Georgian name. There have been several great Georgian directors with that name. I don’t know if there is a relation or not, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find there is. On the other hand, one of Toumanova’s best friends apparently claimed she did not have a drop of Georgian blood in her. Sounds rather impossible with such a name, but I don’t make up the news here, I just report it. Her father’s name is usually given as Vladimir Khassidovitch. In a semi-backstage editing-war report at Wikipedia, you can read the following, which indicates how difficult it is to determine Toumanova’s blood heritage: “…She is of Polish/Ukrainian and Georgian descent, not just Georgian (or Armenian), her father was Khazidowich-Boretski, a Pole from Ukraine. Secondly, Tamara herself, her mother and her family and friends have stated that her mother is Georgian. These are primary sources and should be taken as facts, the rest is speculation and rumours.” I will add, as someone else does elsewhere in the long, often contentious report, that the name Khassidovitch or Khazidowich, might also indicate Jewish connections.
Whatever the sources that went into the making of this extraordinary woman, they worked.  As the British ballet critic A.V. Coton is reported to have said, “she was the loveliest creature in the history of the ballet.”
Toumanova is buried next to her mother Yevgenia (Eugenie) Dmitrievna Toumanova, at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles. Eugenie was her daughter’s constant companion, manager, make-up woman, costume-lady and what-all throughout the younger woman’s career.
I will tell you that Toumanova’s grave is located at Section 8, Lot 111, grave 7 in the Garden of Legends section of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, although that will hardly help you find it. I walked back and forth on the little hillside overlooking an artificial pond, not far from Fyodor Ozep’s grave, for well over a half an hour before finding the site. I hate to say it, but all of those graves begin looking the same at a certain point. Most are not like the Johnny Ramone memorial (straight across the pond from Toumanova), with a cheap look-alike statue and a guitar. If you make the trek yourself, look out for Toumanova’s whispering cherub. That’s what will help you find her.

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Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya grave, Moscow

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These are not the best of days for those of us who, by love, have devoted our lives to the study of Russian culture. Russia’s reputation, damaged by wars, corruption, subterfuge, lies,  belligerence and bad politics is at an all-time low. In just the last week the Russian government has launched numerous campaigns against “internal and external enemies,” that is, those who would like to see Russia be a land that respects the rule of law and the freedom of conscience. Just today the government officially accused former tycoon, and now, social activist, Mikhail Khodorkovsky of two murders and the masterminding of four more. This comes two days after Khodorkovsky declared in a public speech that revolution might be necessary to force regime change in Russia. Yesterday the Russian Prosecutor General launched a massive investigation into the life and work practices of the muck-raking opposition leader Alexei Navalny. This came one week after Navalny released a stunning 45-minute film detailing the mafia-like corruption of the two sons of the Russian Prosecutor General. All of these events are sandwiched in and around an event that is enormous for those of us in Russia, but may slip by those who aren’t watching the territory closely – that is, the three-year prison conviction handed down to a young man, Ildar Dadin, whose crime it was to participate in four political protests where he was detained by police. Dadin is the first individual to be prosecuted under a relatively new, draconian law, which makes it a crime to be detained four times at political protests. Thus, while there are many people sitting in prisons in Russia right now for political reasons, Dadin has become the first actually to be arrested, tried and convicted for nothing other than the fact that he makes it a point to protest the policies of the Russian government. (Incidentally, the prosecutor asked for two years in prison; the eager-beaver judge handed down a sentence of three.) This, meanwhile, coincides with an enormous strike being led by Russian truck drivers to protest unfair and unfairly high road taxes. Thousands of truck drivers, with their trucks, have descended on Moscow, and are prepared to stop traffic in the city in order to make their demands be heard.
In short, things are bleak and confrontational around here these days.
Thus, it seems the proper moment to combine pain and joy into one. We seek joy to offset our pain – thus this entire blog site arose, as I explained some time ago. And, yet, we refuse to turn our eyes away from what pains us. Thus everything I have written up to this point today.
In short, I now wish to ponder the final resting place of two of Russia’s greatest citizens of any era – the cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich and the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya. I photographed their grave at the Novodevichy Cemetery last week when passing by it to attend the burial of the great film director Eldar Ryazanov, still another fine citizen whom this nation could not afford to lose.

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But if the pain of losing Ryazanov was, and still is, acute, fresh and unabated, the joy of coming upon Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya was equally as sharp. The mere pronunciation of either of these two names is enough to bring a smile to anyone’s face who knows.
To be sure, we are not entirely at ease with the notion that these two extraordinary people are no longer with us. For contemporaries who were affected by them – and that is half of Russia, half of the world – that nagging pain may lessen to a certain level of discomfort, but it does not go away. Yet, the joy that they brought us is, obviously, what prevails. I must insert here a comment that I randomly discovered on the internet. I think it perfectly sums up the public attitude to this pair:
I hold this man [Rostropovich] in veneration not because he was a GREAT musician, but simply because he was a marvelous PERSON. The vaccines purchased by the Vishnevskaya-Rostropovich Foundation saved the health of thousands of Russian children. Vaccines against Hepatitis B and cancer found their way to many regions and corners of Russia. We remember...”
The comment is signed “galsvanidze.”
These two great citizens of their nation, the Soviet Union and Russia, were personal friends of Dmitry Shostakovich during the years when the composer was persecuted by the Soviet government, as well as of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the writer whom they sheltered at their dacha outside Moscow when he was under attack from the officials. Rostropovich, defying the fears of his wife, jumped on an airplane to join protesters on Moscow’s streets during the attempted coup by hardliners seeking to depose Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991. You can read about that in the L.A. Times. He had done the same so as to be present when the Berlin Wall fell in 1889 – he felt compelled to be there to play his cello for that historical event. You can see him do so on YouTube.
As for Vishnevskaya, she was every bit as fierce a defender of freedom, truth and art as her husband. Although her native land essentially forced her into emigration in 1974, when it became possible to return and work in Russia, she  set about establishing a Moscow-based, world class school for opera musicians, the Galina Vishnevskaya Opera Center. Since its opening in 2002, it has been one of the strongest bearers of Russia’s cultural traditions. As a declaration on the center’s website puts it, “The principal task of the Galina Vishnevskaya Opera Centre is to perpetuate Russia’s great operatic traditions and to cause Russian opera to be perceived anew.”
Throughout difficult times in Russia from the end of the 1980s until Rostropovich’s death in 2007, and Vishnevskaya’s death in 2012, these two individuals brought hope, light, courage, humor and strength to everyone around them. I remember what a joy it was to hear or see that one or the other, or both, had arrived in Moscow for a concert or a personal appearance. It was as though old friends had come home to visit. Their presence, the knowledge that they were with us, was a powerful antidote to the negativity that can seep into one’s bones in Moscow.
At times like the present we look to individuals like Rostropovich, Vishnevskaya, Ryazanov, Shostakovich and Solzhenitsyn to remind ourselves why we fell in love with the art they made and the culture they helped build and sustain, sometimes against all odds. Now it is our turn to carry that flame, as best as we can, and flicker as it might.

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Nikita Khrushchev grave, Moscow

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Nikita Khrushchev (in Russian pronounced Khru-shchOF with the long ‘o’ sound, for those who don’t know) is one of those deeply controversial characters of Russian history. He led a de-Stalinization campaign after wresting power behind the scenes in the first years following Stalin’s death. The Stalinists were never happy about that and they had their revenge when power was wrested back from Khrushchev’s hands in 1964. While Khrushchev acted in a Stalinist manner with his rivals in the mid-50s – having his main rival Lavrenty Beria shot in a basement – those who deposed him a decade later behaved in a Khrushchevian manner: They put him out to pasture in his beautiful dacha in the woods outside of Moscow and left him alone, even letting him write his memoirs (although they could be published only when smuggled to the West).
I have an incredibly tenuous, but deeply memorable, real connection to Khrushchev. I was working as a freelance consultant and translator for ABC News in 1990, and we went out to the famed dacha to interview Khrushchev’s son Sergei about the changes then happening in Russia. I wasn’t much needed on that little trip, because Sergei spoke very good English. In fact, within a year he emigrated to the United States where he took up teaching positions in various East Coast universities. However, before the TV crew got down to the business of filming and interviewing Sergei, there were a few moments of chit chat. I exchanged a few words with Sergei and the conversation went quickly to the beauty of an artifact that stood, or hung, right in the entryway. This was a gorgeous old burka, a traditional Georgian coat that had been given as a gift to Nikita on some state occasion. The family kept it, surely because of its beauty, for all those years afterwards. And then Sergei said to me, “Why don’t you put it on?” And he went to pull if off the stand on which it hung. He put it over my shoulders, a photographer snapped a photo or two (which I have never seen), everyone laughed and declared it a beautiful fit, and then Sergei removed it from my shoulders and put it back on the rack. From there everybody got down to work.
Even now, 25 years later, I can still feel the weight of that burka on my shoulders. For me it was an intimate moment spent with Khrushchev, a moment almost inside the man who brought as much change to Russia as any other individual who ever lived. (For the record: Burkas can be black or white, but my burka, Khrushchev’s burka, was white and looked precisely like the one on this man’s shoulders in a photo I found on the internet.)
Khrushchev had a huge impact on Russian culture. It wasn’t always good. One of his most famous moves was to shut down an exhibit of nonconformist art in 1962. As he walked through the exhibit he grew increasingly angry and shouted obscenities at the artists, threatening to deport them. Not one of his better days. But Khrushchev also unleashed The Thaw, that short-lived, but powerful era in Soviet history which gave rise to a completely new attitude, style and content in Russian culture. The nonconformist art that Khrushchev so hated was made possible by his radical change in government policy.  In just a few short years, Soviet theater, literature, painting, film and every other form of art were transformed. The spirit of youth flooded into a cultural territory that had been dominated by the old and the gray.
Folks in the West know Khrushchev as a bit of a caricature for the threat he made to “bury the West” and for the – very possibly apocryphal – incident when he “banged” his shoe on a table at the U.N. Wikipedia gives you some info on that.
But Khrushchev was not a caricature. He was a man of flesh and blood and conscience. I will not dig too deeply into the complicated catacombs of the latter, for historians have broken more pens, typewriters and computers on that one than I have time to deal with at the present moment. But it is a fact that Khrushchev was a figure who fully encompassed the dark and the light of his age.
That is precisely why the great sculptor Ernst Neizvestny, when creating the monument for Khrushchev’s grave, enclosed a very sympathetic image of the leader’s head in a twisted, unsymmetrical jungle, if you will, of black and white blocks.
Neizvestny, by the way, was one of those artists whose work Khrushchev lambasted in 1960. He called his sculptures degenerate and accused him of distorting the faces of the Soviet people. One applauds the Khrushchev family for asking Neizvestny to create the sculpture for the grave site, and one sees Neizvestny’s grace in the beautiful, human, realistic (not “distorted”) rendition of Khrushchev in a moment of peace and repose. So much has been written about this that it can easily slip into cliche. But when you stand before the monument, as I did yesterday, one sees nothing but the beauty and the quiet power of the work.

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I happened to pass by Khrushchev’s monument at the Novodevichy Cemetery yesterday because I was attending the funeral of the great Soviet-Russian filmmaker Eldar Ryazanov, a man I admired deeply and who was a cherished family friend.
Arguably, no single artist defined the Soviet experience from the period of the The Thaw until the present day better than Ryazanov (1927-2015). It is received wisdom that his best films were made between 1956 and the late 1970s, and that his work was of less interest from the 1980s on. People are going to argue that until they are blue in the face. That statement will remain with us, and it will remain without a definitive answer. As such, I have no interest getting into that. I mention it because it’s there, but the magnitude, the impact, the contribution made by Ryazanov to his nation from his first film in the the 1950s until his last in 2007 is, frankly, incalculable.
I don’t think Russians of the last 50-60 years loved anyone with the love and respect that they had for Ryazanov. When with him, I saw crowds of people – whether on foot or in cars – come to a dead stop when they saw him coming. I once felt as though I were following Moses through the Red Sea as Ryazanov stopped heavy traffic on a four-lane road merely by stepping into the flow of cars. He didn’t bother to look first, he didn’t bother to hold up his hand. He just stepped off the curb and went, and cars on all sides respectfully came to a stop to let him – and us with him – pass. If you know Russian traffic, you know this simply does not happen. Russian drivers do not stop for anyone. They did for Ryazanov.
I will have plenty of opportunities to write more about Eldar Ryazanov. I will seek them out.
But today, the day after we laid him to rest, I want to keep it simple. I want to share a few words that others have spoken in his regard. The phrase I have heard most often is, “the end of an era.” Every one who said that felt compelled to admit that this is a clichéd phrase, but that, in regards to Ryazanov, it is quite simply the truth.
The playwright and director Sergei Kokovkin wrote to me that “an entire continent has sailed away from us.”
The actress Tatyana Dogileva echoed many when she said at the public farewell that Ryazanov had educated and fine-tuned the conscience of several generations of Russians.
Also speaking at the public farewell, Lia Akhedzhakova, one of Ryazanov’s favorite actresses, told how Ryazanov freed her to speak the truth openly and forcefully. “He taught me to open my mouth and to tell the truth,” she said.
Radio personality Ksenia Larina wrote, “Ryazanov valued freedom ferociously, because he knew what life was like for an artist without freedom: not one of his Soviet-period films escaped the censor’s scissors.”
The journalist Alexander Timofeevsky wrote, “”Ryazanov is being mourned in Moscow as [Hans Christian] Andersen was mourned in Copenhagen, as [Antoni] Gaudi in Barcelona.”
My wife, Oksana Mysina, who acted for Ryazanov in his penultimate film, called him the “conscience of the nation.”
As for me, I was incapable of looking at Ryazanov without seeing a whole nation. He was that big. His aura was that full and strong. This has nothing to do with his famous love for food. (He loved his food and, more importantly, he loved his appetite. He recognized it as an expression of his prodigious love for life and anything that sustained it.) It has everything to do with the magnitude of the phenomenon that was Eldar Ryazanov. He was as simple and as down-to-earth as anyone you can possibly imagine. He was approachable, he was generous and kind. And yet he had a full knowledge of his importance, and of the responsibility he carried as a man in whom an entire nation saw itself reflected.
Ryazanov’s first feature film, the classic Carnival Night, came into being, in large part, because of Nikita Khrushchev. Ryazanov told the story about how he, a fairly successful documentary filmmaker (he made seven documentary films between 1950 and 1955), became a maker of feature films. One day in 1955 he was called into the office of Ivan Pyryev, a legendary Soviet film director who was appointed the head of Mosfilm Studios in 1954. Pyryev told Ryazanov that if he didn’t produce a good comedy in short order, he would be fired. The word had come down from on high: We want a comedy. But there was no one in the stable of Soviet directors capable of making one. There was, however, this documentary director Ryazanov, whose sense of humor and purpose was already legendary. It was Pyryev’s belief and his hunch that Ryazanov might be the answer to the problem. Indeed, Carnival Night was a monstrous hit, easily becoming the most popular film of the year. As it tells the story of a New Year celebration with wit, intelligence and affection – as well as with some pointedly barbed political statements – it has continued to be shown with regularity every New Year right down to our own time.
Ryazanov now rests about 50 yards away from Khrushchev. Look at the middle photo in the block above. You’ll see a red wall in the back. Ryazanov’s plot of earth is located just beyond that, a little to the right.
As the Russians say: May the earth be down to him.

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Fedor Ozep burial site, Hollywood, CA

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American soil does not shower gold on everyone who comes to it. Fedor Ozep, as he is known in the West (Fyodor Otsep in common transliteration from Russian) bears witness to that. One of the most active and most influential figures in the new Soviet cinema, he had less and less success the further he distanced himself from Moscow. He ended up in Hollywood after the beginning of WWII – slipping out of Europe by way of Morocco – but directed only two or three films there. (Various sources say it was one, two or three.) The usually reliable IMDb cinema site gives him five U.S. credits, although only two in the 1940s employ US-based writers and actors – Three Russian Girls (1943); and Whispering City (1947). In these final years (he was born in 1895 –  despite what you see on the gravestone pictured above – and died in 1949) he also made two films in Canada (Le Pere Chopin [1945] and The Fortress [1947]), and one in Portugal, Cero en conducta (1945). You’re excused for not knowing them.
Obviously Ozep was flirting with Hollywood money in the mid-1930s, as he made a series of films in Europe with European production teams, although the films are listed as U.S. productions.
Relatively short sojourns in Germany and France produced a half-dozen films, of which The Brothers Karamazoff (Germany, 1931) was his best known. That same year  he made another film in Germany called The Killer Dmitri Karamasoff.
But it was Ozep’s (or, more properly, Otsep’s) work in the Soviet Union that provided him a place in history. The sources, again, are contradictory, so I am culling information from many places and trying not to sin against reality too badly. I wouldn’t take everything I’m writing here as gospel truth; consider it an invitation to dig further for the real facts if you need them.
One thing is certain – Otsep  directed and scripted the film version of Leo Tolstoy’s wrenching moral drama The Living Corpse (1929). It was this success that brought about the invitations to work in Germany and France, leading to the director’s decision to emigrate as the cultural and social and political situation in the Soviet Union grew increasingly dangerous. Some sources (not all) posit Otsep as co-director, with Boris Barnet, of the wildly popular film Miss Mend (1926). You can find sources that give him partial directing and scripting credit on Yakov Protazanov’s equally popular and famous film The Man from the Restaurant (1927), but that appears to be erroneous. It’s possible that Otsep’s name shows up here because of his widespread activities at Mezhrabpomfilm, the leading Soviet film studio at that time. He was, at various times, the head script man and the artistic director of the concern.
Otsep’s one acting gig would appear to have been in Chess Fever (1926), which marked the directing debut of the future great Vsevolod Pudovkin.
Otsep also was something of a composer, as it turns out. At least, he is listed as the author of the music to a revolutionary ditty, the sheet music to which was published in March 1917, that is, before the late-autumn triumph of the Bolsheviks. The words to the song are attributed to a certain Valentinov, while the music, listed as Opus No. 10, is prominently attributed to Fyodor Otsep. You can see a copy of the sheet music on a Russian-based old music website.
Otsep was an important screenwriter. In the ‘teens he helped introduce Russian film to the literary classics by scripting silents made to Alexander Pushkin’s The Snowstorm (1918) and The Queen of Spades (1916). With popular playwright of the time Alexei Faiko (whose first two major plays were produced by Vsevolod Meyerhold), he co-wrote the scripts to the famous films of Aelita (1924), a ground-breaking sci-fi feature based on a novel by Alexei Tolstoy, and the comedy The Cigarette Girl from Mosselprom (1924). If you’re interested, you can read a post I wrote here about the Mosselprom building, whence came Otsep’s and Faiko’s cigarette girl…

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Ozep died of a heart attack in Hollywood in 1949 and was buried in a beautiful, sprawling cemetery that backs up to Paramount Studios. It is called Hollywood Forever, is located at 6000 Santa Monica Boulevard (see the last photo below), and it cares for the remains of an enormous number of Russians, Georgians, Armenians, Jews and other nationalities that have emigrated to the Los Angeles area from the Soviet Union and Russia over the last century.
It was no easy thing finding Mr. Ozep’s final resting place. Oksana and I tried one day, without success. Curiosity brought us back a few days later, however, and this time we stopped by the office first to ask. A properly serious woman stoically took my request to locate five graves and then disappeared for a good 20 or 30 minutes. I imagined her sitting in a back room sharing ghastly laughs with someone over a cup of coffee at the idiots out there in the lobby who thought she was actually looking up grave sites for them.  But, sure enough, in time, she returned – this time holding two maps with the requested locations marked in yellow. So much for my cynicism. We thanked the woman profusely and headed out on our hunt for the dead.
Ozep is located in the Garden of Legends section on the east side of the cemetery (see first photo in the block immediately above). However, the information that was provided to us – that Ozep’s grave is in Section 8 (Garden of Legends), lot 217, grave 21 – did us precious little good. There are no markers on the actual cemetery grounds, so you can’t just count down to whatever location you are seeking. At least 80% of the grave markers are identical, gray, black-lined slabs flush with the earth, so there is very little to catch your eye. We wandered up and down and all around in search of Ozep until fate and a bird conspired to aid us. You see, a duck was waddling around Ozep’s marker as I criss-crossed back and forth in the grassy area overlooking a fake lake with a fake island. The duck was the first thing to catch my attention, followed by Ozep’s grave.
By all accounts, the birth year of 1893 on the grave is incorrect. Virtually all sources that I consulted indicate he was born February 9, 1895.

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