Category Archives: Memorial Plaques to Writers

Alexander Radishchev House, Tomsk

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There are few things I love more than facts that cannot be proved. What could be more lifelike? Anyway, the picture you see above shows the so-called Radishchev House in Tomsk. Legend, and some documents, apparently, have it that the prominent writer, economist, lawyer and philosopher Alexander Radishchev – the author of the incendiary travel notes Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow – spent time here on his way to Siberian exile in 1791. Some say he actually stopped at another building, but, be that as it may, it is this structure on today’s Bakunin Street (Yefremovsky Street when Radishchev was or was not here) that bears the plaque and bears the name of the great man in the hearts and minds of this city’s people. If you love Russian culture as I do, surely you have a similar soft spot in your heart for Radischev. He was one of the first Russians to openly and publicly and pointedly stand up and say, “Wait a minute! All is not quite what you say it is!” For that Catherine the Great – about whom I’ve written earlier in this blog – arrested the man, burnt his famous book, and sent him to Siberia. So much for standing up and speaking the truth in Russia. His crime was to open his eyes and see that the splendor of St. Petersburg and Moscow were not even vaguely matched in the dirty, rundown, Godforsaken, poverty-stricken, uneducated villages and towns that lie between those two great cities. Radischev had the ingenious idea of getting into a carriage, making the trip, and writing about what he encountered. Naturally, since the actual state of affairs did not match the version of reality that the Empress chose to believe, and insisted on foisting on her subjects, the author had to be dealt with. Not quite “off with his head!” but six years “out of sight and out of mind” in the Siberian town of Ilimsk from 1791 to 1797. If the prevailing stories of the days spent in transit in Tomsk are true, Radishchev occupied a room or rooms on the low, ground floor of this building. According to Tomsk historian and architect Pavel Rachkovsky, only this floor today remains more or less untouched from the late 18th century. The church that rises behind the building in the background was not there in Radishchev’s times.

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If you really want to get a feel for what Tomsk might have looked like when Radishchev was passing through, you will come at the structure in question from the south side, heading up from the north bank of the small Ushaika River. Bakunin Street – ulitsa Bakunina in Russian – provides an extraordinary glimpse into the past. It is still a rolling, bumpy, uneven cobbled road lined by many old, wooden buildings. Only the occasional Honda or Hyundai, or a pedestrian in a parka on a chilly, windy day, suggests we have not traveled back to the 19th century, if not the 18th. In the sequence of shots below, you see the Radishchev House looming in the distance as we make our way up the road. For the record, Radishchev’s further fate was not particularly happy. He was returned to St. Petersburg in 1797 by Catherine’s successor and much unloved son, Pavel the First, and was given the opportunity to try to institute several legal reforms. Pavel’s position was always tenuous, however, and he was assassinated in 1801. Radishchev, perhaps sensing that the noose figuratively was about to be thrown around his neck again, committed suicide in 1802.

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Pushkin House, London

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I offer this very modest post in honor of three glorious days of the Tour de France ending in London today. Pushkin in London. Pushkin, unlike the Tour de France, was never in London. But Russians in London – there is an age-old tradition. The revolutionary Alexander Herzen lived here in exile and Tom Stoppard wrote a huge three-part play about that, which some people consider good. Vladimir Lenin even lived here, for God’s sake. I didn’t know that until one day I was taking a short walk along Tavistock Place near my hotel and I ran across a plaque commemorating the fact that the Father of the Soviet Union lived in this block in 1908. Just goes to show you – any old riffraff can find its way to London, but London remains a great city anyway. I won’t touch the Russian football people with a ten-foot pole. I get a kick out of the fact that the Pushkin Club in London, the precursor to the Pushkin House, was officially founded in 1954, the year I was born. It gives me some good company; I was also born the same year that Elvis Presley cut his first record with Sam Phillips.

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I spent an evening at the Pushkin House in April 2013. I gave a little talk about Russian theater. That put me in decent company, too, which you can read much more about on the Pushkin House website. But just for the record, Mstislav Dobuzhinsky had an exhibit of paintings here, as did Leonid Pasternak (Boris’s father), poshumously. The prose writer Konstantin Fedin and the poet Alexander Tvardovsky spoke here in 1960. The great, though still underrated, poet Yevgeny Rein  gave two poetry readings here. Also coming through were the poet Irina Ratushinskaya, who had her first reading in the West after going into exile in 1987, and the well-known poet Andrei Voznesensky. I should point out that when I say “here” I am being inexact. Because all of these events, other than my own modest outing, took place in the Pushkin House’s former digs at 46 Ladbroke Grove. The current home pictured here is at 5A Bloomsbury Square, just down the street from the British Museum and just a short walk from Oxford Street.

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Nikolai Klyuev house, Tomsk

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This is not the home from which the authorities took Nikolai Klyuev to be shot in 1937, but he did live here for periods of time during the last two and a half years of his life in exile.  Klyuev was an important poet, hard to pin down, one who at times was different things to different people. He has been identified as a nationalist poet with a deep affection for Russian folklore. He is often termed a peasant poet. He is considered a mystical poet with ties to the Symbolists, at least early in his career. Maxim Gorky called him the “bard of the mystical essence of the peasantry.” He wrote poetry with deep religious feeling. In fact my trusty Victor Terras Handbook of Russian Literature calls him the “semi-official composer of religious songs for a local khlyst (flagellant) religious sect.” Some of his poetry (including some religious poetry) exhibits gay tendencies, although, to my knowledge, this aspect of the poet’s work has not been studied seriously. He was first arrested in 1933 and was, essentially, hounded  by the authorities – arrested, freed, exiled, rearrested – until his death in the waning days of October 1937 at the age of 53. His primary address in Tomsk was the one pictured here, in the home of Anna Kuznetsova at 12 Red Firemen Lane. Two plaques on the exterior walls of the old wooden structure commemorate the time Klyuev spent here.

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Klyuev was moved around a good deal while he was in Tomsk. He spent his first nights in a prison which no longer exists, and which was located not far from the way station in which Nikolai Chernyshevsky stopped for 90 minutes in 1864. (I wrote about that site here several weeks ago.) Klyuev also lived at 38 Mariinsky Lane, a site I have yet to photograph, and he was registered in a home on Staro-Achinskaya Street when he was arrested and taken away to be shot. I’ll never photograph that home for it was recently demolished.  The plaque commemorating Klyuev’s connection to this now-disappeared address was salvaged, however, and is now kept in the Vyacheslav Shishkov museum in Tomsk (I’ll write about that sooner than later). A photo of that plaque follows below, as does a drawing of Klyuev, which is also held in the Shishkov museum.

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The House on the Embankment, Moscow

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The House on the Embankment. Anyone want to argue that a picture isn’t worth a thousand words? One of the most famous buildings in Moscow, sort of across the Moscow River from another of Moscow’s famous structures – the Kremlin. The House on the Embankment was built in the early years of Soviet power (1931) and was intended to house important government officials and their families. It was designed by architect Boris Iofan. One of those government officials was the father of a young man named Yury Trifonov, who grew up to be one of the finest writers in the Soviet Union. Yury’s father Valentin suffered the same fate as an enormous number of residents of this building – he was arrested in June 1937 and shot in March 1938.  His son Yury wrote about that, and about others in the building who suffered a similar fate, in his great novel The House on the Embankment. A plaque commemorating the fact that Trifonov lived here and wrote about the building was erected in 2003.

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The building itself is gorgeous in its massive, yet simple, way. It is full of straight lines creating visual angles and is clearly a “child” of the Constructivist age of architecture.  It is located on the Bersenevskaya Embankment along the Moscow River, and the front section houses a  massive theater that seats some 2,000 people and today is called the Estrada Theater, something like the Variety Theater. The street-level walls of this building are laden with memorial plaques to an inordinate number of famous individuals in the fields of politics, aviation, science, literature, theater and more. I will post some of those plaques at a later date, but this one is meant to focus attention on the building itself.

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I spent an evening in one of the apartments here many years ago. My wife Oksana and I were invited to tea by Marina Murzina, one of the leading Moscow theater critics and theater journalists at the time. She grew up in the building with her father Alexander Murzin, a journalist who ghost-wrote the famous memoir Virgin Soil for former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. Brezhnev was awarded State Prizes for his literary prowess, while those who actually hammered that prowess out were awarded beautiful apartments in one of the nation’s most prestigious buildings.

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Anna Akhmatova house, Moscow

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The building at 17 Bolshaya Ordynka, in the heart of the Zamoskvorech’e section of Moscow, is generally known as the Akhmatova House because the great poet Anna Akhmatova would live here for long periods of time when she made trips to Moscow from her home in Leningrad between the years of 1938 and 1966. The small but tasteful sculpture that commemorates Akhmatova’s connection to this building is a quote of a famous drawing of Akhmatova by the great artist Amadeo Modigliani. By some accounts this home was as important in Akhmatova’s creative biography as the famed House on the Fontanka in Leningrad, where she wrote many of her most important works. The actual Moscow apartment that she stayed in belonged to Viktor Ardov, a very successful comic writer, and his wife Nina Olshanskaya, an actress who was one of Akhmatova’s closest friends. Olshanskaya was an actress at the Moscow Art Theater and later, at the Soviet Army Theater. It was at the Ardov-Olshanskaya home where Akhmatova met face to face for the only time with the other great Soviet-Russian female poet of her time, Marina Tsvetaeva. That happened June 7-8, 1941, just two weeks before Germany invaded the Soviet Union, and two and a half months before Tsvetaeva committed suicide.

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The Ardov-Olshanskaya home was no common home, if for no other reason that Olshanskaya’s young son Alyosha spent his young years here, too. This Alyosha, in whose room Akhmatava would stay when visiting, grew up to be one of the greatest and most beloved of all Soviet film actors – Alexei Batalov. But beyond that this welcoming home was a meeting place for much of the Soviet intelligentsia over the decades. A partial list of other famous guests who would stop by for visits includes Osip Mandelstam, Mikhail Bulgakov, Joseph Brodsky, Mikhail Zoshchenko, Boris Pasternak, the great actress Faina Ranevskaya, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the poet Arseny Tarkovsky (father of the great Soviet film director Andrei Tarkovsky), Dmitry Shostakovich, Kornei Chukovsky and more. Not bad company. But one meeting that took place here must be considered the most amazing of them all. It happened in May 1956 when Akhmatova’s son Lev Gumilyov, the famous literary critic and son of the great poet Nikolai Gumilyov, happened to drop in on the Ardovs. This was no ordinary visit. Gumilyov had just been released following 14 years in the labor camps and he had no idea that his mother was in Moscow, at the Ardovs, at that moment. He was just passing through on his way back to Leningrad and happened to find his mother there.

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Pushkin-Mickiewicz Plaque, Moscow

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Okay, so this is my second post involving Alexander Pushkin in a week. Be forewarned: This is a blog devoted to Russian culture so there’s going to be a lot of Alexander Pushkin. Today we’re looking at a very nice bas relief plaque on the facade of the building at 8 Glinishchevsky Pereulok, or Lane, in the heart of Moscow. It’s a lovely powder blue building that was originally built at the end of the 18th/beginning of the 19th century and belonged to a man named Lavrenty Ober. That name is pronounced with the stress on the second syllable, for Monsieur Ober was the son of French parents. In fact, his mother holds a small place in Russian/French history, for when Napoleon retreated from Moscow in 1812 she famously abandoned her popular clothes shop and followed the troops in order to return home to Paris. She never made it. She died on the road in Vilnius. Her two sons, who were with her, did make it, however, so Lavrenty received a good French education before choosing to return to Moscow to live in the 1820s. It was here in this lovely blue building that he frequently received famous writers in his home. There is a small plaque on the building which states that Pushkin was a frequent guest here throughout the 1820s and 1830s (see final photo below). The sculptured plaque that hangs prominently between two windows on the outside wall of the first floor commemorates one special evening, however – the final meeting between two friends and two great writers, Pushkin and the great Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz.

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Reams have been written about the relationship between Pushkin and Mickiewicz, but here are some basics. They first met in 1826 in Moscow and continued to cross each others’ paths over the next three years in both Moscow and St. Petersburg while Mickiewicz was in exile in Russia. Both referred to each other in some of their writing and both appeared to speak of each other with genuine affection and respect. It was Mickiewicz who introduced Pushkin to the poetry of Byron, presenting him with a gift of The Works of Lord Byron in 1826. At least in the eyes of Anna Akhmatova, Pushkin’s portrait of the brilliant improvising poet in the story “Egyptian Nights” was based on his recollections of Mickiewicz, who dazzled Russian high society with his ability to improvise poetry off the cuff. The Russian translated two ballads by the Polish writer – “The Three Brothers Budrys” and “Wojewoda,” as well as the introduction to the epic poem “Konrad Wallenrod.”

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Nikolai Aseyev Plaque, Moscow

DSCN1641_2Let me be honest from the start. I don’t know much about Nikolai Aseyev. His name and legacy in my understanding is confused and murky. I remember encountering him when I was a grad student, or before. He first appeared to me as one of the top Russian poets of the 1910s. He was an associate of Boris Pasternak and the Tsentrifuga group of the Futurists. He spent time in the Far East with David Burliuk and Sergei Tretyakov, both fascinating figures in the territory of Russian avant-garde art of the 1920s. He was associated with Vladimir Mayakovsky and later in life (1937-40) wrote a well-known epic poem entitled “Mayakovsky Begins.” It is characteristic, however, that when that poem appeared, a section devoted to the great innovator Velemir Khlebnikov was deleted. There, in a nutshell, you have that confusion in my head about Aseyev: the poet receives a Stalin Prize for his poem about Mayakovsky, but (because he?) agrees to cut out a section he wrote about Khlebnikov. From the late 1920s until his death in 1963 (he was born in 1889, the same year as my grandmother), Aseyev was pretty much a Communist Party functionary by way of literature.

DSCN1642_2And yet, when I pass by this plaque commemorating the fact that Aseyev lived in this building on Kamergersky Pereulok across from the Moscow Art Theater from 1931 to 1963, I can’t help but feel that the connection to his early years – before he lived here – is stronger than the rest. If that’s sentimentality, so be it. I do know that in my mind I do not see him at all as the stoney-gazed, hard-jaw figure depicted on this plaque.

DSCN1640_2 DSCN1643_2I don’t know which windows Aseyev looked out of when he took the time to do so. If you look carefully at the top photo here, however, you will see that a statue of Anton Chekhov, peering out from behind a restaurant umbrella, keeps a constant eye on those perusing the Aseyev plaque… Chekhov wasn’t there when Aseyev lived here.