Category Archives: Memorial Plaques to Writers

Vladimir Nabokov house, museum, St. Petersburg

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Vladimir Nabokov, as the plaque on the wall of this building at 47 Bolshaya Morskaya Street in St. Petersburg states, was born here in 1899. He died, every bit the contemporary of people of my generation, in Switzerland in 1977. By then his novels had made him famous and rich. The one that helped him turn the corner to fame was Lolita (1955), although there is much discussion about which of his works are the best and most-loved. That’s an open topic, you don’t need me to weigh in on it. Especially since I’ve never been infected by the fascination that many have for his craft.
In the spring of 2019 controversy came to this building where a Nabokov museum has been located for many years. In one of those typically contemporary Russian incidents, conflict came out of the blue for those who had been charged with overseeing the writer’s cultural legacy. The museum was closed with no warning, several employees were fired, others had their pay cut, the museum director was threatened, and workmen answering to someone else moved in and began restoring the building. A hue and cry went up, with many prominent individuals, including novelist Viktor Yerofeev, coming to the museum’s defense. It seems the museum somehow had been taken over by St. Peterburg University (a nominal “parent” in the past) and was being put in the hands of a St. Petersburg writer and teacher named Andrei Astvatsaturov. After a month or so of confusion in the media, the new director officially stepped into his position on April 26. He declared that all was now well, that his new leadership was in place, and that he was preparing to transform the Nabokov Museum into an international cultural and conference center. One of the reports, surprisingly neutral in its tone since it belongs to the scandal-mongering NTV network, admits in the last line that the former director, Tatyana Ponamaryov, knew nothing about the new one.
If all of that doesn’t sound fishy, you haven’t paid attention to real estate conflicts in Russia over the last 20 or 30 years. By the nature of my work over that period – writing about culture for a Moscow newspaper – I can say that this has all the hallmarks of a hostile takeover. You do it quickly, without fanfare, close things up for “restoration and renovation” so nobody can get in and see what’s happening, and you trust to your connections in the “courts,” or just hope your opponent will take the hint and disappear. As the old saying goes, “possession is nine-tenths of the law.” In any case, the museum is now open again, and Mr. Astvatsaturov (a descendant of the famed literary scholar and linguist Viktor Zhirmunsky) is in control.
This is the way Nikita Mikhalkov essentially stole the Cinema Museum from Naum Kleiman in 2013 in Moscow, and it’s similar to a scandal at Moscow’s Mayakovsky Museum, which was closed ages ago in a battle over who is going to control it. I can’t say for sure that the situation at the Nabokov Museum is exactly the same, but when there’s smoke, one does tend to wonder if there is fire.

The basic building at 47 Bolshaya Morskaya was erected around 1740. The street at that time was called Bolshaya Gostinaya (Great Parlor St.), was known popularly, though not officially, as Brilliantovaya (Diamond Street) at the time of Nabokov’s birth, and officially took on the name of Bolshaya Morskaya (Great Sea St.) in 1902. It was known as Herzen Street for most of the Soviet period. At the time of its original construction it was a single-story structure over a raised basement. You can see the lines of the original house in the full photos above and below – it corresponds to the red first floor in today’s configuration. As I understand it, a second story was added at the end of the 18th/beginning of the 19th centuries, followed by significant additions to the sides and interior in 1874. Finally, a third floor was added in 1900-02, while much of the external decoration was moved, apparently with some care. This came shortly after the building was acquired by Nabokov’s grandfather in 1898 with the purpose of turning it over to the future writer’s mother Yelena Rukavishnikova at the beginning of her marriage to Vladimir Nabokov, son the Russia’s Minister of Justice Dmitry Nabokov, and future prominent journalist and statesman in his own right.
Depending on the source, one can find dates that are off by one or two years from those I offer here. Some sources say the house was purchased by Grandpa Rukavishnikov in 1897, some say the last renovations took place beginning in 1901, various sources claim that Nabokov lived here either 18 or 20 years. I follow the dates offered in a relatively detailed and convincing piece on the website of a company whose business is renovation, but let’s agree that they are approximate. Nabokov described this home in varying degrees in his autobiographical works Other Shores and Speak, Memory! His room, following the reconstruction, was located on the third floor.
From that same website:
The Nabokov House is a vivid synthesis of architecture and decorative art. The building is topped with what can be safely called a mosaic frieze that runs the entire width of the facade under the wooden rafters of the roof overhangs, created by the well-known workshop of V. A. Frolov. Thin lacy patterns of wrought metal contrast with the stone surface: parapet fences, flag holders, forged leaves, flowers, curls, and so on. The mansion is notable for its rich interiors, preserved from the former owner of the house, N. M. Polovtsova. All rooms are designed in various historical styles, to which modernity has been added.”

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Fyodor Dostoevsky plaque, St. Petersburg

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I’m coming to you with Dostoevsky today because I have been inside of Dostoevsky’s head all morning and afternoon. I began my day at my computer early this morning as my wife slept and I translated (portions of) Dostoevsky’s The Idiot into English on an empty stomach. It was one of the most memorable few hours of my life not only as a translator, but of my life, plain and simple. By the time Oksana came out and we shared our breakfast of oatmeal, I felt as though someone had plugged me into an electrical outlet. I think my eyes were giving off light. I think my skin was twitching. I could feel the air move through the hairs on my arms. I was as alive as one gets on a Sunday morning before breakfast. When she got up, Oksana asked me the usual question, “Did you have your glass of water?” I said, “No. I’m translating Dostoevsky. I’ve never felt so alive.”
Dostoevsky has followed me my entire adult life. He came quickly after Tolstoy when I was in high school. It was War and Peace then Anna Karenina then Crime and Punishment. I don’t remember the order anymore, but the next three reads were: The Brothers Karamazov, The Demons (The Possessed), and The Idiot, whatever the order was.
As I said, I was with The Idiot this morning. One of the segments I was translating (for supertitles for a theatre production of The Idiot) was the famous description of a condemned man waking in the morning, thinking he has a week to live – a whole, long week – and he finds out he has hours left to live – whole, long hours. It’s one of the great passages in world literature and I was privileged to have it pass through me today and emerge in English of some kind.
Dostoevsky is surely the most crooked, whacked-out, unorthodox, clumsy, prolix, confusing writer that ever put pen to paper. And therein, of course, lies his greatness. He is one of the chosen few who trusted his own instincts to the very end and went with them. Nobody ever wrote like Dostoevsky, clunking, tripping, stumbling, slogging along with interjections, bare naked adverbs, truncated thoughts, U-turns in logic, ellipses run amok, feverish exclamations, sentences jammed into one another that seem never to end, falling over commas, semi-colons, colons, dashes and whatever other signs he could conjure up and throw in between his words. And every trip and every stumble and every whip-around back in the opposite direction drives deeply into your heart, your soul and the soft matter of your brain. That man, that writer, was plugged into the truth. The truth is messy and complex and Dostoevsky, writing the truth, wrote messily and complexly. He is hell on steroids for a translator, and I’ve never enjoyed hell as I have done translating large excerpts from The Idiot these last weeks. Today was an epiphany, it was fireworks, it was the piece de resistance, the cornerstone of the work I’ve been doing. It was as if I climbed Olympus and Homer was there to greet me. Only Homer had Dostoevsky’s beard. It was joy, sheer, unadulterated joy.

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In honor of this splendid day I have spent, I am showing you ground zero in St. Petersburg: the building in which Dostoevsky lived when he wrote Crime and Punishment. Surely when you think “Dostoevsky,” you think Crime and Punishment. As I say, it was the first Dostoevsky novel I read, and it was my third Russian novel in a youthful, drunken literary spree that – thank you, Lord – took me in different directions from Brett Kavanaugh. But my connections to Crime and Punishment are deeper than that, for I have lived the last quarter century with one of the seemingly peripheral characters of Dostoevsky’s great novel of suffering, discovery and redemption. By that I mean to say that Oksana Mysina, my wife, has, for 25 years, played Katerina Ivanovna, the wife of the drunkard Marmeladov, in Kama Ginkas’s great (the word is used properly here) production called K.I. from ‘Crime’, which, in its two and a half decades, has performed in some 20 countries even as it continues to run in Moscow. I could write a book about what it’s like to live with a character shaped not only by a genius writer, but by a genius theater director, but I won’t say a single other word about that now. That’s a whole other can of worms.
The building pictured here (now a light pink – I don’t know what it was like 150 years ago) stands at the corner of Stolyarny Lane 14 and Kaznacheiskaya Street 7. (Kaznacheiskaya was called Malaya Meshchanskaya Street when Dostoevsky lived there.) The plaque hanging on the wall on the Kaznacheiskaya side declares: “Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky lived in this house from 1864 to 1867. Here was written the novel Crime and Punishment.” But that only tells one quarter of the story of this street crossing. Dostoevsky lived or spent time in all four of the buildings that stand on this corner!  Two have plaques, one has information put up by a cafe proprietor, and the other was under reconstruction when I photographed it this summer. I couldn’t tell if anything was written there. But the point is, when you stand in the middle of this intersection, Dostoevskian winds blow at you from all sides – rather like they do in his novels.
When Dostoevsky lived here the building belonged to Ivan Alonkin, a merchant, tea-seller, and apartment-house owner. Dostoevsky occupied Apt. 36 on the second floor. In addition to Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky wrote the novellas Notes from Underground and The Gambler while living here. The building was originally erected in 1822 and was rebuilt/restructured several times since.
This is the place where Dostoevsky declared his love for his stenographer Anna, who subsequently became his wife and, quite probably, saved his life. Thanks to Anna’s memoirs, we even know a little about Alonkin and the apartment. According to an online Dostoevsky encyclopedia, Anna recalled Alonkin describing Dostoevsky as a “great worker. When I go to morning prayers and I see the light on in his study, it means he is working.” Anna went on about Alonkin: “He never bothered reminding us about the rent, knowing that when money would come in, Fyodor Mikhailovich would pay him. Fyodor Mikhailovich loved talking to the venerable old man. In my opinion, Fyodor Mikhailovich relied on his [Alonkin’s] physical appearance to shape the merchant Samsonov, Grushenka’s patron, in The Brothers Karamazov.”
The rent for Apt. 36, Malaya Meshchanskaya was 25 rubles a month. Dostoevsky paid two months in advance (without signing a rental contract), plus a 10 ruble deposit the day before he officially rented the space.

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Alexander Herzen’s Free Russian Press, London

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If you ever plan to write about Russian cultural figures in London, get in line behind Sarah J. Young. She’s already written about it, no matter what you want to say. And there is also this guarantee: She has done it really well.
Today I pick on a topic she has fingerprints all over: the plaque honoring a location where Alexander Herzen ran his Free Russian Press for the years 1854 to 1856. You see, when the plaque was unveiled on June 26, 2013, at 61 Judd Place, Young was invited to aid in the ceremony. She had done much of the research leading to the choice of this address as the place where a plaque would be hung. It was a no-brainer (the choice, not the research) because previous and subsequent locations were no longer of use – they had long been torn down. Necessary fact: what is now 61 Judd Place was 82 Judd Place when the Free Press was there.
The Free Russian Press began its work, according to Russky London, “in the spring of 1853 on the premises of the already established Polish Democratic Press at 38 Regent Square (since demolished). In December 1856 the press moved to 2 Judd Street, directly opposite number 61 (since demolished and now the site of a dog-walking area).” Sarah J. Young, as always, offers clarification here in her exhaustive blog about the Press: she tells us that Herzen moved the Press from Regent Square to Judd St. in December 1854. Wikipedia misses the first address at Regent Square, but provides all the other various locations from which the Press worked in its London years of 1853-1865.

  • Judd Street, 82; Brunswick Square
  • Judd Street, 2; Brunswick Square
  • Thornhill Place, 5; Caledonian Road
  • Thornhill Place, 136 and 138; Caledonian Road
  • Elmfield House, Teddington, Middlesex
  • Jessamine Cottage, New Hampton, Middlesex

Herzen ultimately moved the Press to Geneva in April 1865, but turned the workings of it over to a colleague. It closed in August 1867, having spent time at two Geneva locations:  Pre l’Eveque, 40, and Place Bel-Air, Ancient Hotel des Postes.
The early years at the location shown here were important for Herzen and the Free Press. It was here in August 1855 that he began publishing his famous Polyarnaya Zvezda (The Polar Star) periodical. The second issue came out only in May 1856. The Press remained at the first Judd St. location until the middle of December, 1856.
During the two years at this address, Herzen was busy attempting to engage Russians all over the world in contributing to his brainchild. He understood that if only London-based Russians, or even, European-based Russians, were to support and contribute to his press, it would remain a marginal enterprise. His first two major undertakings after moving from this location to the one across the street were the ones that would fix his Press in history. In July 1856 he began publishing Voices from Russia, which did bring him the contributions he needed from his former homeland. A year later, on June 22, 1857, on the fourth anniversary of the founding of the Press, he began publishing The Bell (Kolokol), which would become one of the most important political publications in Russian history. Here is how Sarah J. Young describes it in one of her blogs:
Thousands of copies were smuggled in to Russia through Herzen’s various contacts, and it was read not only by the intelligentsia or the radicals, but by everybody in authority, including the Tsar. In Herzen’s wonderful memoirs My Past and Thoughts, we read, ‘”The Bell is an authority,”‘ I was told in London in 1859 by, horrible dictu, Katkov’, referring to the arch-conservative journalist and publisher of Dostoevsky’s novels. If such a notoriously reactionary figure was prepared to admit this, it can only mean that The Bell was indeed highly significant.

More proof of the importance of Herzen’s work is to be found at the Russian National Library in St. Petersburg. They have a collection called the Free Russian Press, which includes much more than just publications issued by Herzen. But it is telling that they would use Herzen’s Press as the name for their entire collection of political, news and banned publications from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Here is the library’s own description of its holdings:
The National Library possesses one of Russia’s most complete collections of 15,000 banned and illegal publications which were produced both at home and abroad between 1853 and 1917. They were originally stored in the holdings of the Secret Department which existed in the Library until the 1917 Revolution. Grouped together under the title ‘The Free Russian Press,’ this collection contains many books, newspapers and periodicals which have already become bibliographical rarities. Among them are such noted publications as Alexander Herzen’s Kolokol (The Bell) of the 1850s-60s and Lenin’s Iskra (The Spark) of 1900-03, as well as leaflets which caused a stir in their time…
Young writes about the activities of the Press when it was at its first address: “It was at this address that the work of the Free Russian Press really took off. In 1855, Herzen published the first volume of Poliarnaia zvezda [Polar Star]. Much of the first volume was written by Herzen himself, although there were also letters by Michelet, Proudhon, Mazzini, and Hugo, and the correspondence between Belinsky and Gogol. In the following year, in addition to the second volume of Poliarnaia zvezda, the first volume of the collection Golosa iz Rossii [Voices from Russia], which featured articles by Konstantin Kavelin and Boris Chicherin, was also published at the same address…
In addition to journalism, the Free Russian Press published numerous works banned in Russia, including poetry by Alexander Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov and others. It reprinted Alexander Radishchev’s seminal Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow.
Edith W. Clowes writes about the importance of Herzen and his publishing activities in an article in Encyclopedia of the EssayFirst she quotes Herzen’s own description of what he intended The Bell to do: “The Bell will resound with whatever touches it – the absurd decree, or the senseless persecution of Old Believers, grandee’s thievery or the ignorance of the Senate. The comic and the criminal, the malicious and the crude – all will play to the sound of The Bell.” Clowes then adds: “Here for the first time in Russian history was a consistent, long-term assault on the internal politics of the tsarist regime. It is not by chance that Herzen became known as a ‘second government.’
For the record, Françoise Kunka published a book in 2011 entitled Alexander Herzen and the Free Russian Press in London: 1852 to 1866

 

 

Monument to Nikolai Leskov’s Lefty, Tula

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It has gone under a lot of different titles in English, but Nikolai Leskov’s popular tale about a metal-working craftsman is known just one way in Russian – as one of the iconic short stories in the canon. That’s no mean feat. Figure that any course in Russian short fiction of the 19th century will include works by Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Ivan Turgenev, Anton Chekhov and a few others… No shabby competition.
Leskov was a fabulous writer. He’s hell to translate because he wrote in a colloquial narrative that is so rich in Russian it rattles off your tongue in big, clattering chunks and juicy drops. In literary criticism there is even a term to describe Leskov’s (and not only Leskov’s) manner of writing – skaz. I’m not going to be able to translate that for you either, except to say that’s what we mean by the phrase “colloquial narrative.” Skaz literally means something like tale or telling (it comes from the verb “to say”). It also can mean “a” or “the tale,” which is how Leskov employs it in his title of this story, “The Tale of Cross-eyed Lefty from Tula and of the Steel Flea.” Leskov wrote the story in 1881 and, as far as I can determine, it was first translated into English by Isabel F. Hapgood in 1916. She called it merely “The Steel Flea.” I must say, because I love it so much, that this translation of the story was, as the title page declares, “privately printed for the Company of Gentlemen Adventurers at the Merrymount Press, Boston.” (Wikipedia prints a picture of the title page.) That’s right, that’s the kind of gentlemen adventurers we used to have in the United States! They craved stories by one of Russia’s most untranslatable writers. These days it takes Oprah to say Anna Karenina to get anyone to read a Russian book. Ekh!
Anyway, here is the story about Lefty (Levsha) in short.
The Russian Tsar traveled to England where he encountered an astonishing thing – a minuscule dancing, mechanical flea. So amazed was he that he brought the little engineering miracle home with him to see if some Russian master could equal or better the feat. The mechanical flea is naturally sent to the city of Tula, which was, is and always will be famed around Russia for its metal works. This is where most of Russia’s weaponry was and still is made. The city’s buttons pop with pride for the guns, swords, tanks and samovars that their metal factories turn out.
Anyway, the job of besting the Brits is turned over to three of the best metalworkers in town. They hole themselves up and go to work in secret. Eventually, they emerge, flushed and exhausted. When the fruits of their labors are delivered to the Tsar – Lefty, one of the trio, was chosen to go to Moscow to show off their work – everyone is disappointed. They can’t see that anything has been done to better the mechanical flea. That is when Lefty puts the Emperor in his place: “Take a closer look,” he says. “You just haven’t noticed yet.” That is when, with the help of a strong magnifying glass, the Sovereign realizes that his Russian craftsmen have put tiny little shoes on the tiny little mechanical flea. Moreover, each has left his signature on the shoes.  Lefty himself made the nails that attached the shoes to the flea’s feet, and they are so small that you can’t even see them. Nobody seems to care much that the mechanical flea will no longer dance…
The story goes on. Lefty is sent to England, which he doesn’t like and, on his way home, he befriends a British sailor with whom he drinks a bit too much. The result is that he is thrown in jail in St. Petersburg where he is left to die. It’s a Russian story, of course, so it goes on even further, but now it’s up to you to find the story and read it yourself if you want to know it. Isabel F. Hapgood’s translation for those gentlemen adventurers can be read online, should you wish to do that.

The monument to Lefty in Tula now stands on a small plaza on Sovetskaya Street just across from the Svyato-Nikolsky cathedral, south of the Upa River, and right at the perimeter of the huge Levsha (Lefty) Armory Company. It was originally erected on the grounds of the Tula Machine-Building Plant in 1989, coming a little too late to mark the 100th anniversary of the publishing of Leskov’s story. It was moved to its current location in 2009 so that mere mortals would be able to see it (it was behind a locked gate in its original location). It’s nice to note that the statue was created by a local sculptor, an employee of the metalworks, Bronislav Krivokhin. The base of the pedestal bears quotes from various local celebrities who have had their say about the story or about the fame of Tula’s metalworks. The quote I show in a photo below is from Leskov’s story. It reads, “Look at that, why don’t you! Why, those sly dogs, they have shoed that English flea with shoes!”
I’m not quite sure I can get behind the enthusiastic descriptions of the monument made by local observers. First, the location for the statue is anything but ideal. It feels rather out of place – there’s a high fence right behind it, and the square in front of it has no aesthetic structure to it at all. Lefty looks rather like he’s been hung out to dry here, as, indeed, he was in the original story.
As for Lefty himself, he’s looking pretty heroic here to me. He’s got that blank Soviet gaze into the future as he looks upon the fruits of his labor. His expression is deadly serious, his hair is well-coiffed. He’s got the body of Adonis. He’s got buns like a ballet dancer. His left arm, holding his work tool, is ready to go back to work at any moment. I don’t quite see the “cross-eyed” Tulan metal worker here. One website writes: “An inimitable facial expression conveys the hero’s inner state. The whole figure radiates positive contentment and pride.” I’ll agree with that first phrase, but the second, I don’t believe, is in the favor of this piece of public art. In any case, we all understand that the city and the factory needed what they needed, and so that is what they got…
Having said all that – I love the idea of the monument. In fact, I got a big kick out of the monument itself. I love the idea of a monument to a literary figure. I would say it is an even bigger sign of Leskov’s accomplishment than if they would have erected a bust or sculpture of him. When your literary creations live their own life to the extent that Lefty does, that’s success. My hat’s off to Tula for putting this statue up, no matter what I say about it.

 

 

Fyodor Dostoevsky plaque, Wiesbaden, Germany

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And now back to Wiesbaden, Germany, where we are able to travel in our minds thanks to my wife Oksana Mysina, who shot these photos when she was on a theater tour there last fall. This, according to legend, anyway, is the casino at which Fyodor Dostoevsky came up with the idea of writing a novel, The Gambler, which would save him financially. The plaque that hangs on the wall of the casino and spa (for it was originally built as such) indicates that is true, noting that the writer depicts Wiesbaden as “Roulettenburg” in his novel. The plaque also adds that the building was erected in 1808-1810, was the center of Wiesbadian haute société, and that Johann von Goethe lived here in 1814-1815. (If my rusty German has failed me, feel free to let me know, just don’t tell my old professors at Harvard who, probably, generously passed me on my German reading exam.)
In actual fact, Dostoevsky’s “Roulettenburg” was most likely a composite portrait of several casino cities that he knew – Wiesbaden, Baden-Baden, and Homburg (today known as Bad-Homburg). We know his first trip to Wiesbaden took place on June 12, 1862. Return trips were made in late summer 1863, the second half of 1865, and again in 1871.
The visit of June 12 was apparently the first time he gambled. He did not lose much that night, but was fortunate he had to move on soon in his travels. For he could tell that the gambling bug hit him.
His second trip to the casino we see pictured here came at a dramatic moment in his life. He was on his way to Paris to meet withAppolinaria Suslova, his lover and the model for many of the femmes fatales in his later novels. He did not know it yet, but it would be the end of his affair with Suslova. When he did finally make it to Paris, she was informed that it was all over, she had fallen in love with another. One can, perhaps, imagine one of the reasons why: Chances are Dostoevsky arrived looking like something the cat had dragged in, because the gambling bug had hit him hard this time. He had gone to the tables believing he had discovered a foolproof system to beat the croupier. And, indeed, he won big at first – 10,400 francs. He did have enough presence of mind to take half and send it to friends and family – even after he had lost the rest. Frankly, that’s no small sign of character. Here is how he described it in a letter to a friend (as quoted in the Delphi Complete Works of Fyodor Dostoevsky):
I have, dear Varvara Dmitriyeva, won 5,000 francs; or rather I had won at first 10,400 francs, taken the money home, put it in my wallet and resolved to depart next day and not go into the gaming rooms again. But I did not hold out and played away half the money again…
He actually sent the 5,000 that he had the wherewithal to hang onto to friends and relatives. Still, he arrived in Paris with nothing in his pocket, which can’t have made him look very attractive in Appolinaria’s eyes.

His third trip to Wiesbaden was even more dramatic. After his brother’s death, he had taken on his sibling’s debts and had no way to clear them up quickly. Presumably recalling the quick win on his last trip (and not quite remembering how quickly he lost the second half of his winnings), he set out for Germany precisely to win a large amount of money and correct his financial situation. Naturally, the opposite happened. He blew everything he had brought with him and was not even able to pay his hotel bill. To add insult to injury (as well as to make his situation totally unbearable), the hotel owner essentially put him under house arrest until he paid up what he owed. From his room Dostoevsky began shooting letters out to friends and acquaintances, asking for money. Ivan Turgenev, God bless him, was among those who sent him small sums. But it was a local priest who finally came and bailed him out, paying up the entire amount owed and even providing enough to send Dostoevsky home.
This, of course, is the incident to which the plaque on the Wiesbaden casino refers. For when Dostoevsky returned to St. Petersburg he was faced with signing a brutal contract by which he would have given away the rights to everything he had written for nine years, in return for having all his debts paid up. He was given a month or so to write a new novel that the publisher could sell, in order to avoid having the bad contract take effect.
As bad as Dostoevsky’s luck may have been on the roulette tables, his luck in life, at least this time, was significantly better. It was precisely at this moment that he hired a young woman, Anna Snitkina, to whom he would try to dictate his new novel in the small amount of time given him. Anna was modest, a hard worker, smart and organized. And, largely thanks to her, Dostoevsky delivered his novel, The Gambler, in 26 days. At 57 pages, it was more a novella than a novel, but it was enough to save him from a most humiliating fate. Anna Snitkina, became Dostoevsky’s third wife and, to the extent that it was possible, she was the one who tamed the tiger in him. One might even go so far as to say we have her to thank for the great novels. Would Dostoevsky have been able to write them had he lost the rights to his work for a nine year period? What might have happened in those nine years? No one can know that, of course, but one thing is certain: the impact of Snitkina on the great writer was enormous.
One more visit to Wiesbaden finishes off this little story. It came in 1871 – six years after Dostoevsky’s last debacle. He had sworn off gambling and, with the support of his wife Anna, had held true to his oath. But there is no victory without a fall. Dostoevsky just could not deny his desire to try his luck again, and so headed out for Weisbaden. When he blew the first amount he had taken with him, he wrote his wife and asked for a small sum that he would use to come home with. She sent it. And, what did you really expect? He blew that too. However, Anna finally got him home, and Dostoevsky would never gamble again.
So, there, in short, with a few corners cut and a few frills added, is the tale of Fyodor Dostoevsky and the casino at Wiesbaden.

 

Marina Tsvetaeva plaque, Všenory, CZ

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I come back today to some photographs that my wife Oksana Mysina took when she was recently in Prague to participate in a documentary film about Marina Tsvetaeva. The photos are wonderfully evocative. Even though there isn’t all that much left from the time when Tsvetaeva lived here in the village of Všenory with her husband Sergei Efron and her daughter Araidna, there is more than enough to trigger thoughts. Primarily what is left are the old wall on which a plaque was erected in honor of Tsvetaeva in 2012; the little green side house which stood next to the building (now gone) where the family resided; perhaps a garden gate; and the steep slope across the road from the residence. In the last photos below you can see the road leading up to and down to the Tsvetaeva site, with the slope across the way.
In a letter quoted by my brief, but honored, acquaintance Simon Karlinsky in his book Marina Tsvetaeva: The Woman, Her World, and Her Poetry, the poet wrote: “A tiny mountain village. We live on its very edge, in a simple peasant hut. The dramatis personae of our life: a church-shaped well to which I run to fetch water, mostly at night or early in the morning; a chained dog; a squeaky garden gate. Directly beyond us is a forest. To the right a high rocky crest. There are brooks all over the village. Two grocery stores, like in our provinces. A Catholic Church with a flowery churchyard. A school. Two restaurants. Music every Sunday.”
There are many confusions about this place and this time. I was all set to speak of Všenory unquestioningly, until I ran across a note on a Tsvetaeva page on LiveJournal reminding us that there were two Všenorys, Všenory I and Všenory II. It was in the latter that Tsvetaeva and family lived from November 1922 to August 1923. As the author, Ellenai, points out, one should not mistake this Všenory with the Všenory (Všenory I) that the family moved to in 1924, where Tsvetaeva gave birth to her son Georgy.
If you are to look for this location today, you must seek 521 V Chaloupkách. However, at the time Tsvetaeva lived here it was 33 Horni Mokropsy. In a letter to a friend, here is precisely how Tsvetaeva gave her address: New address: Praha P.P. Dobřichovice, Horni Mokropsy, čislo 33, u Pana Grubnera — to me, name of Efron. Dobřichovice would appear to be the train station nearby. Is Horni Mokropsy the name of the village or the name of the road? Or maybe both, since the place was so tiny. Pan Grubner’s home, where the Tsvetaevas occupied one of three rooms, was the last building on the street at that time.
In her memoirs, No Love Without Poetry: The Memoirs of Marina Tsvetaeva’s Daughter, Ariadna left a description of this time and place by way of a quotation from her own diary:
The house where we live lies in a valley. It has three rooms, one of which we occupy. The yard is small, the garden medium, and there is a dog named Lowe and some chickens. The house is painted yellow and white, and the roof is pink tile. Seven people live here, four of them children. Not far from here is a large village called Všenory. It has two stores, three-story houses and a railroad station…

Another description of this location comes in a letter Tsvetaeva sent to Boris Pasternak on November 19, 1922, that is, almost immediately after moving in (quoted from the LiveJournal site above):
I live in Czechia (near Prague) in Mokropsy, in a village hut. It’s the last house in the village. At the bottom of the hill is a stream from which I haul water. A third of the day is expended on stoking a huge tile stove. Life is not much different from that in Moscow, the daily chores of it – probably even more meagre! – but in addition to poetry: family and nature. I see no one for months. All morning I write and walk: there are marvelous hills here.”
Tsvetaeva wrote some important works here, including Poem of the End, and she apparently began her tragedy Theseus-Ariadne here.
The plaque was unveiled June 22, 2012. For reasons unexplained on the website that provides the information, it was made in Carrara, Italy. In addition to providing the barebones information that Marina Tsvetaeva lived here in 1923, it shows a fragment of a Tsvetaeva manuscript. It has a drawing of a lion (Efron, whose knickname was Lev/Lion) balancing on a chair while it madly prepares a meal, as a kitten (a child?) lies almost cowering under the covers in bed. The text says: “Cheese, butter, milk outside the window. Cheese and butter on the right. Don’t neglect the milk. (!!!) Don’t forget the letters. – Say goodbye!!!-
The implication is that this text refers to Tsvetaeva’s time living here in Všenory a/k/a Horni Mokropsy, but our friends at LiveJournal once again throw shade upon this assumption.
The commemorative plaque unveiled at house number 521 replicates a note from M. Tsvetaeva (with her drawing), which was addressed to her husband. However, this note, now kept in the Marina Tsvetaeva Museum in Bolshevo, refers not to 1923, but to a later time – probably it’s already Paris, where the family moved in November 1925.”
The author, Ellenai, suggests that the child cowering in bed is the baby boy Georgy who had been born in Všenory I, i.e., after the family had lived at Všenory II, a/k/a Horni Mokropsy…
In short, this kind of stuff is right up my alley. As my old friend Volodya Ferkelman would say, “The devil himself will break his leg” on this one.
One final note:
Take a look at the middle photo below. The pinkish house in the background behind the green structure (which, as I said, is an original from that time) is where the Tsvetaeva/Efron house was located. I cannot determine without a doubt whether the orginal house has been torn down and replaced, or whether it has just been renovated and expanded. In any case, this little view offered by Oksana’s photo is one that approximates what Tsvetaeva might have seen when coming home lugging pails of water.

 

 

Nikolai Zadonsky plaque, Voronezh

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Until today I knew zilch about Nikolai Zadonsky (1900-1974). But, again, I am fascinated by the way a long, wandering walk around a city of culture can bring you bits and pieces of an education that you lack. Had it not been for this plaque hanging on the flaking walls of building 6A on Kommissarzhevskaya Street in Voronezh, the chances are I would never have found my way to this writer.
The first thing that struck me when I began digging into the facts is that Zadonsky has a weak, though glancing, connection to Nikolai Erdman, about whom I like to think I know quite a bit. The connection – and I said it was weak – is that Zadonsky, from his home in Voronezh, chose to align himself with Sergei Yesenin’s Imagist group of poets. Here’s how Zadonsky put it remembering those days in the early 1920s:
In those days there was a fashion of sorts – you joined up with some sort of literary school. We had Futurists and Acmeists and even some ‘nobodyists’ in Voronezh. Well, Boris Derptsky and I declared we were Imagists.”
The point here, of course, is that Zadonsky would not have crossed Erdman’s path and so there is no reason I would have run across his name. And yet, knowing this little fact about Zadonsky widens the picture for me. The Imagists are generally considered the runts of the poetic movements of the ‘teens and ‘twenties in Russia in the 20th century. The Futurists and Acmeists, especially, were high-octane. They had followings all over the country and the high quality of the poets that attached themselves to one or the other group, ensured that there was good reason to keep them in mind. The Imagists, grouped around Yesenin as the only well-known member, were often disparaged as a not-very-serious group who were more into playing pranks than anything else. Group members Anatoly Mariengof, Vadim Shershenevich, Erdman, and a few others have grown in stature over the decades, but only Erdman has achieved a fame that can stand, to one degree or another, in the vicinity of Yesenin, Vladimir Mayakovsky (Futurist), Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam (Acmeists at one time or another). All of these poets and their groups would have had strong support and popularity outside of Moscow. I’ve never thought of the Imagists in that way – but here we have Zadonsky and his friend Derptsky (born? – 1923, a little-known Voronezh poet and journalist who committed suicide when still quite young) choosing to attach themselves to Yesenin’s group. That, for me, is a small, but interesting discovery.
Zadonsky’s connection to the Imagists did not last for long, however, He traveled to Moscow in 1923 (just as the Imagists were falling apart as a group) and, with the help of Shershenvich, was introduced to Yesenin. The young poet from the provinces handed over some of his poetry to his famed hero and asked what he thought. Yesenin put an end to the young man’s illusions of grandeur. Again, let’s let Zadonsky himself tell it (as reported, like the previous quote, in a bibliographical work about Yesenin and his circle):
Yesenin reportedly told Zadonsky, “There are some good lines in your poetry. But you are a long way from genuine mastery. You’ve got to work hard. You must write poems in such a way that they set the human soul on fire, turn it inside out, and leave no one impassive. If you can’t write like that, you’re better off not writing at all!”
Zadonsky sums up the little story by adding, “After that I quit writing poetry.”

Zadonsky did not, however, quit writing. Throughout the 1920s and ’30s he wrote plays and worked as a journalist. A well-researched online biography published on the excellent Literary Map of Voronezh Oblast states he wrote over 2,000 newspaper items between 1918 and 1924. His first play, “Money,” was published in Voronezh in 1920 and he wrote a large number of plays after that. Again, I must say that, although I have studied Soviet-era theater and drama in relative detail over the last few decades, I had never come across any plays by Zadonsky. Leaning on information in various places I can verify that he wrote a minimum of 15 plays, but since sources often add the words “and others” to their lists, I suspect the real number was higher yet. In 1934 Maxim Gorky signed the paper declaring that Zadonsky was admitted as a “candidate” to the Writers Union – and throughout his life he preserved this document as a keepsake. He received full membership in the Writers Union in 1939.
The most successful and fruitful years of Zadonsky’s life as a writer began in 1942, prompted by one of those wonderful haphazard things that life tends to throw our way, and continued even after he suffered a stroke in 1965. That great Voronezh Literary Map website tells the story as follows: “The soldiers of the Workers-Peasant Red Army and the partisans of the Denis Davydov squadron sent the writer a letter in 1942 in connection with their reading of Zadonsky’s essay, ‘Partisans.’ In their letter the soldiers gave the writer the idea of researching and telling the story of the life of D.V. Davydov in more detail.
And, indeed, Zadonsky began traveling around the country, visiting places connected to life of Davydov, a famed poet and hussar from Alexander Pushkin’s group of friends, and he ended up producing a work of such depth, detail and veracity, that he almost had no choice but to accept historical prose as his new calling. Zadonsky’s first so-called “historical chronicle,” Denis Davydov, was published (to the best I can determine) in 1952 in Kuibyshev. It has been reprinted countless times since then. He followed this study with other, equally popular “historical chronicles,” such as,  A Troubled Time (1954), Kondraty Bulavin (1959), Liberia on Don (1960), The Decembrist’s Grandson (1963), Secrets of Bygone Days (1964), and Mountains and Stars (1965, about Nikolai Muravyov, a Russian statesman whose life was devoted to developing Siberia). Again, there appear to have been even more of these historical studies/novels, but the online sources are incomplete and sometimes contradictory.
Zadonsky apparently carried on a long friendship with fellow Voronezh son Andrei Platonov, about whom he wrote in his literary memoirs Amid the Stream of Life (1969). Among other books about writers was his There, Where a Great Writer Lived, about Lev Tolstoy and Yasnaya Polyana.
Zadonsky (whose real last name was Koptev) was born in the city of Zadonsk in the Voronezh gubernia (similar to a county). He  struck out on his own by finding work as a typographer in Yelets at the age of 16 then moved to the big city of Voronezh in 1918. He later moved back to Yelets for awhile, but lived the majority of his adult life in Voronezh. He occupied an apartment in the building pictured here from 1953 until his death in 1974.