Category Archives: Memorial Plaques to Writers

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.

 

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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.

 

 

Alexander Herzen house and plaque, London

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

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

 

 

Alexander Nemirovsky plaque, Voronezh

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Chances are my introduction to Alexander Nemirovsky will be yours as well: Scholar, PhD, Professor, founder of Etruscan studies in the Soviet Union, founder of the Department of Antiquities at Voronezh University, author of 70 books of prose, monographs, historical novels, novellas, children’s books, poetry, popular science and textbooks.
Enough for you? Enough for a life?
Alexander Nemirovsky (1919-2007) was a remarkable man who lived a remarkable life, to put it lightly. He managed to mix being one of the most important scholars of his time in his field with writing several best-selling historical novels, translating some of the great European poets and leaving behind an impressive collection of original poetry as well. He had a sense of humor about his voracious appetite for work and writing:

Between scholarly bruises and the muses
I wasted the heat of my soul.
I raced around between pockets
Like a cueball smacked by a cue

Nemirovsky introduced the Soviet Union to Rainier Maria Rilke when he published the first Russian translations of the great German poet in the Voronezh magazine Ascent in 1958. But that is barely the start of the writer’s work as a translator. From the German he translated Rilke, Herman Hesse, Hugo Huppert and Johannes Becher. His translations of writers from antiquity included Virgil, Catullus, Ovid, Martialis, Horatio, the Gilgamesh epic, “Song of Songs” from the Bible and more. He translated Giogos Seferis from the Greek, and he spearheaded the rediscovery of the forgotten, “repressed” poet Boris Zubakin, as well as being one of the first scholars to publish “lost” poetry by Osip Mandelstam in 1966.
The Mandelstam connection is interesting, and not only because the poet German Getsevich called him a “poet of a Mandelstamian nature.” He also wrote poetry dedicated to Mandelstam, who coincidentally or not, had, during one of his periods of exile in the 1930s, lived directly across the street from the apartment building Nemirovsky would call home between 1957 and 1978. Mandelstam lived at 13 Friedrich Engels Street (see my piece about that location elsewhere in this blog); Nemirovsky at 14 Friedrich Engels Street.
In a fine internet essay about Nemirovsky (from which I have culled many facts), Getsevich wrote:
Alexander Iosifovich Nemirovsky wrote not only with words but with feelings, and he translated not just the words, but the meanings of many foreign languages. Poetry lovers responded well to his collections, Scroll, Memory of War, Immersion, The Year of Verse and others. The last collection that the author was able to prepare was First Snow. … I personally see a book collecting his poetry and his translations in a format no less than the Literary Monuments series, accompanied by good scholarly apparatus.”
I am particularly enamored of one quatrain Getsevich quotes:

Life never showed us any comfort,
For that we were too lofty.
It just whacked our heads with pleasure
On massive door beams hanging low.

I can’t help but notice that in the two small, virtually random, quatrains that I chose to quote, we encounter the notion of getting smacked around. Is this incidental? Is this a theme of Nemirovsky’s work? Or is it mine? I’m too much a novice to know.

Nemirovsky’s historical novels (primarily written for teenage readers) included The Elephants of Hannibal (1963, reworked 1992), Purple and Hell (1973),  Behind the Columns of Melqart (1959), Pythagorus (1998), I am a Legionnaire (1968), Tiberius Gracchus (1963), The White Deer (1964),  The White, the Blue and Nix the Dog (1966), The Etruscan Mirror (1969), Ariadne’s Thread (1972), In the Circle of Lands (1995), and Carthage Must Fall (2010?). (Dates are curiously hard to come by for his novels – I offer with a grain of salt the dates I pulled together from various sources.) Wikipedia states there are approximately six million copies of his historical novels in print. However, it’s possible that this number is low by now, for, if you look for his work on the net, you’ll find his books everywhere, virtually all of them appearing in new editions over the last few years – many in 2017.
As hinted above, Nemirovsky hardly limited his work to the field of antiquity. He also wrote essays of one kind or another on Alexander Griboedov, Nikolai Gumilyov, Marina Tsvetaeva, Georgy Ivanov, Valentin Kataev, Mikhail Bulgakov and Boris Pasternak. He was truly a man deeply bitten by the bug of curiosity.
Nemirovsky was born in Tiraspol, Moldavia. Shortly afterwards his family fled from advancing Ukrainian Jewish pogroms, slipping into what was then called Bessarabia (Romania). When he was seven years old, the family crossed the Dniestr River illegally and made their way back into the Soviet Union, ending up in Moscow where they remained. In the Soviet Union’s crucible year of 1937 – the commencement of the Great Purges – Nemirovsky began attending Moscow University in the history department. Both his parents were arrested that same year but, by some trick of luck I cannot explain he was not only able to continue his studies at the university, he was able to enroll in the Literary Institute in 1938. This was unheard-of for a child of “enemies of the people” and a Jew to boot. I would love to learn some day how it all came about. For now we skip ahead to 1941 and the beginning of World War II. Nemirovsky volunteered to go to the front and he spent the entire war in various hot spots. After the war he completed graduate degrees in history at Moscow University and began his teaching career in Penza. He moved to Voronezh in 1957 when he was hired to teach at Voronezh University. He founded the Department of Antiquities in 1966 and remained in Voronezh until he quit teaching and moved to Moscow to write in 1977 (or 1978 according to the plaque). In his remaining 30 years in Moscow Nemirovsky published over 300 works – do the math on that, folks! His writings were translated into English, Bulgarian, Lithuanian, Moldovan, German, Serbian and Ukrainian. He published 11 collections of poetry in his lifetime; that number has grown by several volumes since. 

 

Dmitry Sverbeev, Yekaterina Semyonova house, Moscow

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This house at 37/1 Arbat is a throwback to another age. It was built in the late 18th century – the oldest remaining building on the Arbat – and, after damage suffered in the fires associated with the Napoleonic War of 1812, it was reconstructed. What we see today is the result of work done in 1834. Quite a few people of note have lived in or visited this home. Today we’re interested primarily in Dmitry Sverbeev (1799-1874), who was born here,  and Yekaterina Semyonova (1786-1849) who lived here for a time from 1834 to 1835.
Sverbeev was a diplomat who loved literature and writers and befriended many of them. He described his own interest as such: “I sometimes love to read a bit and listen to intelligent conversations.” He knew Alexander Pushkin and appeared to be rather close to Nikolai Gogol, which is a little bit like a tiny planet orbiting two super-suns. Sverbeev spent a good deal of time with Gogol abroad and, when the writer found himself in financial difficulties, the friend generously gave him money to keep going on. (Sverbeev in general seems to have been a generous man, often helping out people who were not as well-situated as he. In a stroke that says much about him as a person, he never wrote about any of this in his memoirs.) Sverbeev was not as close to Pushkin as he was to Gogol, although the poet did attend Sverbeev’s salons in Moscow in the 1830s, and they crossed paths in various places for many years.
Interestingly, one story from Sverbeev’s memoirs, My Notes (written in retirement in Switzerland and never intended for publication), involves Pushkin and Semyonova, a famed actress who counted Pushkin among her admirers.
In 1820 when Pushkin was visiting the theatres in Moscow, he attended a performance of Semyonova and caused a bit of a ruckus. I’ll let the Prometheus website finish the tale: “Pushkin brought to the theatre a portrait of the French artisan Louvel, who had recently been executed for assassinating in Paris the Duc de Berry, an heir to the throne. The portrait bore a  sweeping inscription: “A Lesson to Tsars.” After the first act, the portrait was passed around the rows of the theatre. Incidentally, it is precisely Dmitry Sverbeev who tells us about this incident from the life of the poet.”
There is some slight confusion about the actual years Sverbeev spent at this house on the Arbat. At least I don’t find hard evidence of the date he left for good. The plaque on the building facade states he lived here from 1799 to 1825, but I haven’t been able to corroborate that. What I do find is that he was posted to the Russian embassy in Geneva in 1824. What exactly he did in the immediately preceding years, I do not know (he graduated from Moscow University in 1817). I’m guessing that the famous literary salons that he hosted were not begun until he left the Arbat, even though the Prometheus site claims he “organized a circle in his own home on the Arbat.” It is known that his most famous salon gatherings were held when he lived at 10 Strastnoi Boulevard and later at 25 Tverskoi Boulevard (I’ve written about this location previously as one of Osip Mandelstam’s addresses in the early 20th century.)

Semyonova is one of those shooting stars that history tosses up every now and then. She was an uneducated, apparently illiterate peasant who, thanks to her fiery temperament, became one of St. Petersburg’s and Moscow’s most popular actresses of her time. She particularly shone in the romantic dramas and tragedies of Vladislav Ozerov, himself a huge star playwright whose fantastic popularity died utterly within just years. He had the misfortune of being a pre-Pushkinian writer, and was soon wiped from the memory of his countrymen. (You will see Pushkin do a bit of the wiping himself in a long quote offered shortly below.) Nobody has performed Ozerov plays for decades, if not centuries. Be that as it may, four of Semyonova’s first six major roles were in plays by Ozerov (stress on the first syllable) – Oedipus in Athens (1804), Fingal (1805), Dmitry Donskoi (1807) and Polyxena (1809). She also shined in Yakov Knyazhnin’s Rosslav (1805) and several foreign plays: Friedrich Schiller’s Maria Stuart (1809), Corneille’s Ariana (1811) and Racine’s Iphigenie (1815). She debuted in 1802 and joined the company of the Alexandrinsky Theater in 1805.
As I have mentioned, Pushkin was a huge fan and in a long defense of Semyonova (whom some in St. Petersburg compared unfavorably to the popular French actress known as Mademoiselle Georges), he wrote:
Speaking of Russian tragedy you speak of Semyonova, and, perhaps, only about her. Gifted with talent, beauty and a lively, true temperament, she came into being all on her own. Semyonova never had a model. The soulless French actress Georges and the eternally enthusiastic poet [Nikolai] Gnedich could only hint at the secrets of art which she understood as a revelation of her soul. Her performances are always unencumbered, always clear, with noble, lively movement, her voice is clean, smooth, pleasant and often reveals gusts of true inspiration – all these belong to her alone and are not borrowed from anyone. She decorated the imperfect creations of the sad Ozerov, creating the roles of Antigone and Moine; She animated the pedestrian lines of Lobanov; In her mouth we appreciated the Slavonic verses of Katenin, full of strength and fire, but lacking in taste and harmony. In colorful anonymous translations which, unfortunately, today are much too ordinary, we heard nothing but Semyonova. The actress’s genius gave stage life to all these lamentable works translated by allied teams of poets, where each of them individually renounced his participation. Semyonova has no rival; The occasional gossip, brief battles and invented hearsay have ceased; She remains the unanimous queen of the tragic stage.”
Pushkin so admired Semyonova that he mentioned her in his great novel-in-verse Eugene Onegin. Celebrating his young years when he frequented the theatre, Pushkin in Chapter 1, stanza 28, wrote: “There Ozerov shared the involuntary tribute / of people’s tears and applause / with the young Semyonova.”
Depending upon the source, you can read all kinds of probable nonsense about Semyonova; what a hothead she was, how ignorant she was, how lazy she was, how covetous she was… You can always read things like that about popular, to say nothing of great, actors. I think Pushkin’s characterizations beat the hell out of all the snippers, snappers and snipers combined. I just have a feeling (say I with no small sarcasm).
In any case, Semyonova’s career took a downturn in the years 1815 to 1820 and from then on she performed less and with less success. She moved to Moscow in 1827 and the following year married Count Ivan Gagarin, the man who had been her lover and had given her several children. It wasn’t the happiest of arrangements, but it became worse after his death in 1832. At least as late as 1830, Pushkin is said to have attended her performance in an amateur production in Moscow, but it was a far cry from her glory days. By the time Semyonova lived briefly on the Arbat, her acting days were effectively behind her.

 

A school for art and artists, Moscow

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

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

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