Category Archives: Memorial Plaques to Writers

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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Alexander Fadeev plaque, Moscow

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This is one of the gloomiest places in Moscow, I think. I feel the oppression of the surroundings whenever I am here, and I have been here many hundreds, if not thousands of times over the last 28 years. The heavy, stone walls. The pompous columns crammed into space too small to fit and too high to see properly. The messy pipes and sloppy stray wiring and unused decorative grills. The noise and the arrogance of Tverskaya Street… All of these things influence what I feel when I am here. But there’s a lot more to it than that. One building away from here is the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall, stolen from Vsevolod Meyerhold before he could build his planned theatre here in the late 1930s, and before he was shot in a Lubyanka basement in 1940. A towering monument to Vladimir Mayakovsky, all bright and  bushy-tailed, stands a few hundred feet from here on Triumphal Square – yes, the poet who shot himself out of despair at the age of 37 in 1930. I’ve written about all these places elsewhere in this space. Go to Meyerhold or Mayakovsky or Lubyanka if you’re interested.
But there is another reason for the morbidity and despondency that overcome me here. Alexander Fadeev lived here at 27 Tverskaya Street from 1948 to 1956. I’ve written about Fadeev a time or two on this blog, so I’ve already laid out the basic facts of this tragic personality’s biography. It goes from the high hopes and praise garnered by an early novel (The Rout, 1927), to a self-inflicted bullet wound that in 1956 killed the man, an alcohol-soaked, bought-and-sold government functionary at the age of 54. Although this precise spot on the map is not where Fadeev did his final deed – that was done at his dacha in Peredelkino – still, as his last address of record it is closely bound up in his ultimate, despairing act of self-destruction suggesting that conscience had not yet abandoned him entirely.
Look at how short a human being’s life is. Consider how little time we have to make our mistakes, take our chances, and reap what we will from that. First major success in 1927. Dead by suicide 1956, 29 years later.
The fact of the matter is that Fadeev supported or led many of the most heinous Soviet policies by which writers and other artists were not only driven out of their professions, but were often arrested, tortured and/or killed. He once called Joseph Stalin “the greatest humanist the world has ever known.” (Interesting fact: Most of today’s leading Russian writers and artists – I know many of them personally – would not be caught dead sharing space with the “humanist” word. It is considered an evil, horrible notion. When we look at the way the notion of “humanist” was mutilated and transmogrified into its precise opposite by folks such as Fadeev, we begin to understand the squeamishness of our contemporaries.) Fadeev stood by as dozens of the greatest Russian artists of his time were persecuted and executed. Occasionally he just stood by silently; sometimes he even helped them out; but there were times he was part of the machine that sent the most talented minds of the time to a bitter end. What did this do to the man? Here is something he said about himself later in his life, drawn from a detailed biography on the So People Will Remember website:
God gave me a soul that is capable of seeing, remembering and feeling good, happiness and life, but since I am constantly distracted by life’s swells and am incapable of controlling myself or putting my will at the service of reason, rather than express to people this life-spirit and good in my own personal life – as elemental and vain as it is – I transform this life-spirit and good into its opposite and, since I am easily offended and I have the conscience of a tax-collector, I am particularly weak when I feel I am guilty of something, and, as a result, I torment myself and I repent and I lose all sense of spiritual equilibrium.”

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Throughout his adult life Fadeev mixed the life of a writer with that of a bureaucrat. He once admitted that he could not imagine life without conflict – it wouldn’t be life otherwise. Even before the publication of his first major novel he played a major role in the creation and running of RAPP, the notorious Russian Association of Proletarian Writers. It was one of the first “cultural” organizations in the early Soviet period that took it upon itself to police and chastise artists who strayed from the Communist Party line. Remaining with RAPP until its dissolution in 1932, he immediately joined the Writers Union and worked his way up the ladder there. That increasingly repressive organization made him one of the most powerful, feared and hated individuals in the Soviet literary world. He was secretary of the Union from 1939 to 1944; the general secretary from 1944 to 1954; and secretary of the board from 1954 to 1956. You will notice that within a year of Stalin’s death (1953) Fadeev was kicked upstairs and that within three months of Nikita Khrushchev’s famous denunciation of Stalinism at the 20th Party Congress in February 1956, Fadeev was dead.
If you like numbers, you will also see that Fadeev moved into the prestigious digs at the apartment building on Tverskaya Street just two years after his most famous novel, the patriotic The Young Guard, was published in 1946.
Fadeev’s suicide note (not published until 1990) was long, angry and despairing. The writer/bureaucrat lashed out at all kinds of enemies, but also revealed his own personal pain and, perhaps, guilt. Dated the day of his death, May 13, 1956, and addressed to the Central Committee of the Communist Party, it begins with the following words:
I see no possibility of living on since the art, to which I devoted my life, has been destroyed by the self-assured, ignorant leadership of the party, and now nothing can be done to correct that. The best cadres of literature –  in number so much greater than the Tsar’s strongmen could ever have dreamed – were physically destroyed, or were lost due to the criminal connivance of those in power. The best men of literature died too early; the rest, still of some value, and capable of creating true values, died before reaching the age of 40-50.”
He rants at bureaucrats and other evil people who destroyed lives and art, almost as if he doesn’t realize the brutal irony – that he stood at the head of one of those horrible machines. But then he adds:
Born to make great art in the name of communism, associated with the party, workers and peasants for 16 years, and possessing extraordinary, God-given talent, I was filled with the highest thoughts and feelings which can come into being only due to the life of the people, coupled with the beautiful ideas of communism.” Then there comes that but, that huge, crushing but: “But I was turned into a draft horse. I spent my entire life groaning under the weight of mediocre, unjustifiable and countless bureaucratic affairs that could have been performed by anyone.”
Backing off slightly from his former adoration of Stalin, Fadeev declares that the new people who have come into power are utterly worthless and that “we can expect worse from them than even from the strongman Stalin. He was at least educated – these are ignoramuses.”
Yes, yes, yes. All of that, I say all of that blows in the wind around the building at 27 Tverskaya Street. The place has the look and the temperature of death, ignorance, lies…
And of messy paradoxes… Let me add one more story from an article by Pavel Basinsky in 2015. Just one month before Fadeev shot himself, the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova presented Fadeev with a collection of her poetry and signed it, “To a big writer and a good person.” That may be even more bizarre than any of the contradictions wending through Fadeev’s biography. After all, Fadeev was one of the leaders of the so-called Zhdanovism attacks on writers in 1946. He personally called Akhmatova out as a “vulgarity of Soviet literature.” In 1939, doing his bureaucratic duty, he personally banned the publication of some of her poetry. Meanwhile, as a bureaucrat, he helped her find an apartment when she needed one and he even nominated her for a Stalin Prize in 1940.
Go figure. But I come back to what I say. The air around 27 Tverskaya Street is as rotten as it is anywhere in this city.

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Grisha Gurvich’s Bat Cabaret No. 2, Moscow

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

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

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Pushkin place of christening, Moscow

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I wanted to begin this post by saying something like, “this is the place where we can actually pinpoint the earliest known location of Alexander Pushkin in Moscow, in Russia, on Planet Earth.” After all, the plaque on the wall next to the entry to the cathedral states: “A.S. Pushkin was christened in the cathedral of the Epiphany of the Lord in Yelokhovo on June 8, 1799.”
But wait a minute. Let your eyes ride up just the slightest, to the next plaque that hangs immediately above the one proclaiming the information about Pushkin’s christening. And here we read: “Architectural monument: The cathedral of the Epiphany in Yelokhovo was built in 1845 by architect Ye[vgraf] D. Tyurin.”
Oops. So, like so much in history, this is and this is not where Pushkin was christened. That is, he was christened here, in a stone cathedral that was originally built in 1717 and stood until 1837, when it was pulled down in order to make way for the next incarnation. For the record, the original cathedral that stood in this place – the one that preceded the stone version of 1717 – was probably built sometime in the middle 1400s. So, yes, it was here somewhere. Someplace in these immediate environs, the naked, presumably chubby, little Pushkin (see the balloon-shaped bas relief of the baby boy on the plaque), all of two days old, was presented to a priest who blessed him and dunked him in holy water. Where that happened precisely, I am not prepared to say, although one website tells us the great event took place “in the refectory which has remained intact to our days.” Still another site has a tad bit more information: “It was in this cathedral, according to the  scribal ledgers, that A.S. Pushkin was christened in 1799. The christening took place in the refectory, and since that building has survived one can see the place where the newborn son of Sergei Lvovich Pushkin received his name and accepted his christening.”
I should add that the actual document about Pushkin’s christening is considered important enough to warrant a place of preservation in the State Archive.
Still, until such time as I snoop around here again at 15 Spartakovskaya Street with my camera and my notebook, I will have to leave the information about Pushkin’s christening place vague. That is fitting, I guess, since there is so much confusion and misinformation about the future poet’s birthplace. (I’ve written about that earlier in this space. Track it down if you’re interested.)

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Our loss of contact with Pushkin’s early days is interesting. It makes you realize just how far removed we now are from the man who reformed the Russian language and helped turn it into the incredible artistic tool that it has been ever since. The language we speak, when we speak Russian, is largely Pushkin’s. He was one of the first Russians to use such an elegant, clear and efficient manner of verbal expression. It’s possible that we are beginning to lose touch with that now as the 21st century moves on towards its third decade. The Russian language has been under attack from various corners for well over 100 years. The Soviet bureaucracy dealt beauteous Russian a severe blow. Modern technology, unscrupulous politicians, underhanded admen and undereducated contemporaries are now chipping away at it even more. But, for the time being, we still look to Pushkin as the guy who historically codified the language we know and use.
But to get back to the topic at hand…
Don’t be fooled by the old-looking plaque informing us about Pushkin’s christening. It was actually erected only 1992. You can see that by clicking on the photo of the plaque above then looking at the lower right-hand corner of the enlargement. There you will see an inscription of N. Avvakumov, 1992. Nikolai Avvakumov is the artist who created the plaque. He frequently creates works for, or connection with, the Orthodox Church.
I find virtually nothing on the net about the unveiling of the plaque. That’s not odd, perhaps, seeing as how it occurred well before the net existed as a mass media. Still, the date of 1992 is interesting. That would be 193 years since the poet’s birth, and 155 years following his death. Not particularly “round” numbers, as the Russians like to say. But 1992 is closely connected with the historical changes then going on in Russia – the end of the Communist era and the beginning of an attempt at Russia as a democratic republic. The Yelokhovo cathedral was one of the few major churches in Moscow that remained a functioning house of worship throughout the Soviet era. As such, when the country, then under the leadership of Boris Yeltsin, sought to distance itself from its recent past and sought to embrace a larger, broader view of its history, it would have been natural to want to raise the reputation of this place by reminding one and all of its connections to Russia’s greatest poet. Yeltsin, essentially, established Yelokhovsky cathedral as the nation’s number one place of worship for he often came here to mark major Russian holidays. Vladimir Putin has also come here to worship (if you can call his stiff, awkward attempts to stand at attention during services “worship”), although he has moved the focus away to other cathedrals as well. It’s just as well. Pushkin doesn’t need Putin any more than Yelokhovsky cathedral does. His, or even Yeltsin’s presence here, is but a wisp of wind against the gale that is the name of Pushkin.

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Andrei Platonov plaque, Voronezh

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Voronezh has done well by Andrei Platonov. When I was there last year I photographed three locations where the city mothers and fathers have commemorated the fact that this hometown boy did good. (There is a fourth that I did not get to.) Today I present the plaque honoring Platonov’s work as a young journalist in the Voronezh Commune newspaper from 1919 to 1925. It was unveiled in October 1987 and was the first of the plaques and monuments that would appear over the next few decades. The paper’s editorial offices were located in this building at 39 Revolution Prospekt, the town’s main drag. The paper, incidentally, has a rich history. It was founded in 1917, coming out under several different names until 1919, when the moniker of Voronezh Commune stuck for almost a decade. The city name was dropped in 1928 and the paper began appearing under the name of Commune, which it continues to do to this day.
Platonov (which is a pseudonym – his real last name was Klimentov) used numerous aliases when writing for the local press early in his life. Aside from Platonov, these assumed names included A. Firsov, Yelpidifor Baklazhanov, Iogann Pupkov and Foma Chelovekov. Excellent names, all of them! He published short fictions as well as journalistic articles, all while working on local construction projects involving the railroad, electric stations and other major objects. He gave up writing (more or less) for awhile in 1921 when Russia was hit particularly hard by a drought and ensuing famine. He is quoted as saying at the time, “How boring merely to write about the suffering millions, when you can take action and feed them.” Be that as it may, he published his first collection of poetry, The Blue Depth, in Krasnodar in 1922. (I’m grateful to the online Encyclopedia of Voronezh Life for many of the tidbits offered here.)
At this very same time Platonov married Maria Sheremetyeva, from the famous line of nobles, and remained with her until his death in 1951. Maria – as well as the couple’s first son Platon, and later their daughter Maria –  was later instrumental in saving and protecting Platonov’s large archive of unpublished stories, novels and plays. (Here I cannot pass over the fact that Platonov died from tuberculosis that was brought back to him from the labor camps by his son Platon, who, most likely, was arrested for the sin of being his father’s son.) Stories like this, of brave people preserving priceless archives in the Soviet years, are legion. And far be it from me to say that one archive was more important than another! How are you going to put numerical values on archives left behind, say, by Osip Mandelstam, Vsevolod Meyerhold, or Andrei Platonov? Nonsense. And yet. And yet. In recent decades, in the estimation of many esteemed and knowledgeable individuals, Platonov has emerged as the greatest writer of the Soviet era. I worked for a couple of years with British director Tim Supple and Ukrainian playwright Maksym Kurochkin on a doomed – alas! – project that was intended to engage full-on the excruciating 20th century in the Soviet Union, and Platonov’s name came up time after time, as a model, a paradigm for excellence, resistance, and insight during that benighted period. The novelist Viktor Yerofeev wrote in the Times Literary Supplement, “In Russia it is Platonov who is increasingly described as the best writer of the post-revolutionary epoch.” None less than Joseph Brodsky said the following: “I squint back on our century and I see six writers I think it will be remembered for. They are Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, Robert Musil, William Faulkner, Andrei Platonov and Samuel Beckett… They are summits in the literary landscape of our century… What’s more, they don’t lose an inch of their status when compared  to the giants of fiction from the previous century.”

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These last two quotes are offered as testimonials on the back cover of a book you cannot have seen yet. It is Fourteen Little Red Huts and Other Plays, edited by Robert Chandler, in the new Russian Library series published by Columbia University Press. An uncorrected proof of the book, planned for publication on December 6, 2016, found its way into my hands a week or so ago, thus reminding me that I had not yet shared my photos of the plaque honoring Platonov’s time as a writer for Voronezh Commune. This volume seems a fitting way to launch this important series that, I presume is intended not only to bring us new versions of writings that we already love, but to acquaint us with writers we may not yet know. Platonov, therefore, is at the head of the juggernaut which the Russian Library promises to be.
Chandler is a well-known translator of Russian literature with Platonov, Pushkin, Nikolai Leskov, Vasily Grossman and many others under his belt. He offers up a 23-page introduction to the book, and I offer up here a brief excerpt from it:
“…There are still aspects of his [Platonov’s] work that have hardly been explored at all. His six film scripts are almost unknown; his eight finished and two unfinished plays plays are still seldom staged, even in Russia. At least two of these plays, however, are masterpieces. The Hurdy-Gurdy (1930) and Fourteen Little Red Huts (1933) anticipate the work of Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco. They are as bold in their political satire as Bertolt Brecht at his most biting. And they are also important as documents of historical witness. Along with the short novel The Foundation Pit, they constitute Platonov’s most impassioned, and penetrating, response to Stalin’s assault on the Soviet peasantry – the catastrophes of the collectivization of agriculture (1930) and the ensuing Terror Famine (1932-1933).”
That was all to come afterwards. It began right here, on this street, in this building in the center of Voronezh.

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