Category Archives: Gravesites

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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Vsevolod Meyerhold Resting Place, Moscow

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Yesterday I hinted that this post was on its way…
Although very few people know this, this is the final resting place of the great Russian avant-garde director Vsevolod Meyerhold in the Donskoye cemetery in Moscow. The marble slab that stands over the earth occupied by Meyerhold’s ashes bears the inscription: “Common Grave No. 1.  Disposal Place of Unclaimed Ashes From 1930 to 1942 Inclusive.” I wrote in some detail about that earlier today in an article for The Moscow Times, which you can read by going here. If you don’t have the time for that let me provide the bare details. Meyerhold was shot, most probably in a basement of the Lubyanka headquarters of the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, on Feb. 2, 1940. He was a week short of his 66th birthday. I am assuming that his ashes (rather than his body) were dumped in a hole at this site. There are probably thousands of individuals here. They couldn’t all fit here if they hadn’t been cremated.
The location of this as Meyerhold’s probable final resting place was originally published, I believe, in Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper around 1990. My old friend and mentor Alma Law first published the information in English in the now-defunct Slavic and East-European Performance journal.
The first time I visited this location it was just a bit of dirt with a marble slab stuck in the middle. Three or four families had erected homemade memorials to relatives who, like Meyerhold, were dumped here. Over the years, those few markers have been joined by dozens, maybe hundreds more. Look at the photos below to see the enormous number of small memorials stuck into the ground. To date there is no information here indicating that this is Meyerhold’s grave, too. 

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An interesting thing in the photo immediately above: a huge wreath from the prosecutor’s office commemorating the victims buried here stands to the right of the common grave. I found this incredibly odd. I had never seen anything like this before when stopping by to pay my respects. But this was no regular day. Moments before these photos were taken Yury Lyubimov had been laid to rest in his grave on the other side of the cemetery. Could it possibly be that some PR-minded person in the prosecutor’s office knew that a few nosy people like myself would come over to honor Meyerhold while we were there to honor Lyubimov? Hard to believe. Actually, very hard to believe. But what else is this wreath doing here? It is a mystery to me.
Immediately below you see a second marble slab that stands behind the first and faces in the other direction. It bears the inscription: “Here are deposited the remains of innocently martyred and executed victims of political repression, 1930-1942. Eternal memory to them.”
I am always moved by cemeteries and gravesites. There is a solemnity and a mystery to standing so close but so infinitely far from the individual buried at your feet. Jim Morrison’s grave. Anton Chekhov’s grave. Nikolai Erdman’s grave. I feel a deep and personal connection to these and other individuals by visiting their final resting places. That sensation is complicated by other feelings when standing above the earth where Meyerhold’s remains were rudely, crudely, unceremoniously, criminally dumped. You are visited by all the horrible thoughts – of his being betrayed by old friends and colleagues; of his being tortured in the Lubyanka; of his wife being stabbed to death in their home after his arrest; of the crime, the brutal, inhuman injustice of those who had anything to do with any of this. You stand helpless and uncomprehending as these thoughts wash over you with the breeze coming off of shimmering, autumn leaves. Calm does not come. Closure remains at bay. You stand in awe of the crimes humans commit so easily against their own kind. You are horrified by the suffering some individuals are chosen to bear. You are infuriated by the waste of talent and human potential. You are devastated that you can do nothing but bow your head, shuffle your feet and walk away until you come back again to repeat the inadequate little ritual the next time. 

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Nikolai Erdman gravestone, Moscow

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The death of Yury Lyubimov brought me back to Nikolai Erdman’s gravesite again. I come here on occasion to the Donskoye Cemetery to pay my respects to the writer who inspired me to write my first book. You see, Yury Lyubimov, the great director, the founder of the world-famous Taganka Theater, died last week (Oct. 5) at the age of 97 and was buried a mere thirty yards away from the writer who was his friend from the early 1940s until Erdman’s death in 1970. Lyubimov’s death was truly one of those moments when the hands on a country’s cultural clock ticked forward. I first met him because of my research on Erdman. Yury Petrovich was kind enough to spend a couple of hours talking to me about Erdman when he, Lyubimov, was in Cambridge, MA, in 1987. Ever since, although I never became anything even remotely close to a friend of Lyubimov’s, I nurtured a soft spot in my heart for him and had the opportunity to observe him regularly at close range.
One of the first things I did when I found myself in Moscow in the 1988/1989 season was to find a way to get as close as I could to Erdman. One way was by locating and talking to people who had known him. Another was to go to the Donskoye Cemetery to visit his grave. Erdman’s gravestone continues to impress me today as mightily as it did back then. It is a huge slab, much bigger than usual, with a big, crooked top edge.  The only thing written on it is “Erdman,” in very big letters, followed by “Nikolai Robertovich 1902-1970” in much smaller print. It is wonderfully laconic, and all the more so because that birthdate is incorrect. That error reflects how little anyone really knew about Erdman, not only when he died, but for all the time after he was ripped out of the Moscow cultural world in 1933, arrested and exiled to Siberia. Erdman, cooling his heels in the frozen city of Yeniseisk, happened to see that the Great Soviet Encyclopedia had been published with an erroneous birthdate for him – 1902 instead of 1900. He was thrilled to have grown younger by two years and he never bothered to correct the mistake, invariably using the wrong date even in official documents.
If you want to gauge just how close Erdman and Lyubimov now lie in their final resting places, take a close look at the photo immediately below. Just to the left of the upper part of Erdman’s gravestone you can see a man in a blue jacket. He is one of the people digging Lyubimov’s grave.

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After the funeral service at the cemetery chapel I ran into Veniamin Smekhov, the famous Taganka actor, and another very good friend of Erdman’s in the writer’s latter years. He told me how, when he was doing a documentary film about Erdman, he came with a film crew and they hunted all over the cemetery but could not find his gravesite. It turned out that the problem was that Smekhov told the cemetery workers that Erdman died in 1970. “Oh,” they told him, “the 1970s are over here,” and they took Smekhov and his cameraman off in the wrong direction. Actually, Erdman is buried in the 1950s section. That would apparently be because his father Robert Karlovich, who died in 1950, was the first to be buried here. Robert was followed in 1960 by his son, Nikolai’s brother, the prominent theater artist Boris Robertovich Erdman, and then Erdman’s mother Valentina Borisovna Erdman (nee Kormer) in 1964.  They are remembered on a small plaque that lies in the lower left corner of the plot. You see that in the photo immediately above. Also buried here is Inna Kirpichnikova, Erdman’s third wife. They were divorced rather acrimoniously well before Erdman’s death, but her remains lie here, too. A small plaque bearing her name and dates leans against the slab commemorating Erdman.
There is a certain attractive symmetry – if I may use the word “attractive” in regards to a cemetery – in the fact that Erdman and Lyubimov are joined in the earth by Vsevolod Meyerhold, the man who was, essentially, the glue of their friendship. Erdman, of course, wrote for Meyerhold, and Lyubimov was the closest thing Meyerhold had to a disciple in Russian theater.
This is not the place for this story, but I will tease you with this: Meyerhold’s remains lie not far from those of Lyubimov and Erdman, although virtually no one knows that…

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