Category Archives: Monuments to Musicians

Dmitry Shostakovich monument, Moscow

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Yes, it’s a bit comics-like. Yes, it’s a bit awkward. Yes, it’s a bit crude. But I think all those aspects suit the subject – Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-1975).
There’s no point in trying to determine what artist suffered most during the Soviet period. As harsh as it may sound, that would be like trying to determine which grain of sand on the beach is the biggest or smallest. Just try and figure. If you were going to take on that pointless task you would obviously start with those who were tortured to death, then those who were “just” killed, then those who were “allowed to die,” and then you would go on from there. Shostakovich, thank God, was able to live out his life. He didn’t live it out untouched and he didn’t live it out the way he would have chosen. There’s no way of knowing if he was so worn down by the battles and humiliations that he ran out of gas before he might have under different circumstances, a month short of his 69th birthday. But he did live, and he lived to see his work recognized in his  homeland and abroad. That’s no small thing.
As I pointed out in an earlier post on this site, Shostakovich quickly gained fame for his striking, unusual compositions from a very early age. His ground-breaking opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, based on the dark novella of sex and murder by Nikolai Leskov, was written between 1930 and 1932. It was staged in the composer’s hometown of St. Petersburg in January of 1934 at the Maly Leningrad Opera Theater and was received enthusiastically. However, a notorious attack on the composer and his work appeared in Pravda more or less on the second anniversary of the opera’s premiere. Entitled “Muddle instead of Music,” it cast a dark cloud over Shostakovich that lasted for decades. Wikipedia has a nice story about how that article came about. It’s worth repeating here:
Shostakovich was away on a concert tour in Arkhangelsk when he heard news of the first Pravda article. Two days before the article was published on the evening of 28 January, a friend had advised Shostakovich to attend the Bolshoi Theatre production of Lady Macbeth. When he arrived, he saw that Joseph Stalin and the Politburo were there. In letters written to his friend Ivan Sollertinsky, Shostakovich recounted the horror with which he watched as Stalin shuddered every time the brass and percussion played too loudly. Equally horrifying was the way Stalin and his companions laughed at the love-making scene between Sergei and Katerina. Eyewitness accounts testify that Shostakovich was ‘white as a sheet’ when he went to take his bow after the third act.”
A second public “denunciation” came in 1948 when Shostakovich was named in one of the infamous Zhdanov decrees, this one attacking so-called “formalism” in Soviet music. The document called out Shostakovich, Sergei Prokofiev and Aram Khachaturian, following a similar document that in 1946 had attacked the writers Mikhail Zoshchenko and Anna Akhmatova as well as several theater critics. The composers were not officially “rehabilitated” until 1958, although Stalin himself loosened the screws in 1949 shortly before sending Shostakovich to represent the Soviet Union at the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace in New York.
One cannot be sure whether this was a positive thing for Shostakovich or not. He was, thereby, forced into the position of publicly praising to the world his de facto jailers, the very individuals and system that had tormented him for 15 years. Stalin’s death in 1953 eased the pressure on the composer again, but he never quite escaped the long, hard hand of the Soviet government. He was essentially forced to join the Communist Party in 1960 and from then on he often had to sing its praises in speeches and in his music. It is commonly felt that Shostakovich suffered as much as any artist who survived the excesses of the Soviet period. Of course, his great and sweeping oeuvre stands as a testament to his talent and his inner strength. The art won in the end, thanks to the tenacity of the individual.

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All of this is evident in the monument that Georgy Frangulyan erected in Shostakovich’s memory on the steps of the Moscow House of Music on May 28, 2015. It was the first monument commemorating the great artist in Moscow.
Frangulyan created the image of a deeply private individual, one who is obviously used to withstanding suffering. It may have bent him, it may have distorted his facial expression, but this is the figure of one who has weathered whatever came his way. The hard, exaggerated furrows in his brow bear witness to that. The head is down; it cares nothing about what is going on all around. Passersby, Moscow traffic – none of it exists for him. He is in his own world. The legs are crossed tightly, another sign of a man closing himself off to the world. Chances are his right hand is conducting some snippet of music that this he hears in his head. But it is not a public conductor’s gesture, not one that would be employed from a podium before an orchestra and a hall full of people. This is a private gesture, a small, approximate gesture, one that means something only to Shostakovich. It is, perhaps, his way of personally “hearing” his music with his body. From some angles, as in the second photo below, the hand may be “thinking” about playing notes on a piano. Of course, from other angles, it might be the beginning of him raising his arm to fend of blows – of any kind that might be thrown at him. (See the second and third photos above.) I like this aspect of Frangulyan’s sculpture – the arm gesture is very specific, yet open to interpretation. It is one of the things that give the sculpture life.
It is worth thinking for a moment about the significance of a monument like this appearing in Moscow today (just over a year ago). Increasingly, we are subjected to comments, actions and even attacks from Russian cultural authorities that harken back to the age of the Zhdanov decrees and even the denunciations in the press from the 1930s. We are constantly told by politicians, by media figures and by official patriots, that life in Russia has never been better, that the country is great, its history is great, and there are no problems aside from those that have been created by evil outside forces and the nasty people who support them for evil reasons. Don’t get me wrong. We have not returned – yet – to the exact atmosphere of the Soviet 1930s, but we are living in a time that has borrowed that era’s intonations and general methods.
To see this harried, hunkered, set-upon image of Shostakovich today is to set eyes upon a contemporary. I don’t know if any of the authorities who surely beamed happily the day of the unveiling have any idea about this or not. But it is a fact. When you stand behind Shostakovich here and gaze out on the endless stream of cars racing past on the Garden Ring Road, you realize that contemporary Moscow is as alien to you as it is to this image of Shostakovich.

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Vladimir Vysotsky statue, Voronezh

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I have hesitated to post these photos for some time. Every time I look at them in my archive, I lean my head to one side, hold it there a minute, then pass by. These were the first photos I took in Voronezh when I was in that very cool city about a year ago. The monument to beloved actor and singer-songwriter Vladimir Vysotsky (1938-1980) is located just a stone’s throw from the Voronezh Chamber Theater where my wife Oksana and I were staying on a short working visit. We went out to have breakfast at one of the few cafes open early Sunday morning and happened upon Vysotsky. I shot him on an empty stomach, could that be part of the problem?
In fact, I am hardly the first person to have questions about this statue created by Maxim Dikunov and unveiled Sept. 9, 2009 in front of the Physical Education Institute at 59 Karl Marx Street. Everywhere you run into snide comments that Vysotsky, who died of drink and did anything but lead a so-called “healthy life,” does not belong in front of this institution. There are more complaints that Vysotsky, apparently, was never in Voronezh. None of this bothers me in the least.
I am, however, of two minds about the sculpture itself. My first reaction was that it was kitsch, although an interesting bit of kitsch. It’s not down on the rather gross level with the Vysotsky-Marina Vlady statue in Yekaterinburg. And if you think about the Moscow statue that stands at the corner of Strastnoi Boulevard and Petrovka, you begin to realize that there seems to be a problem in Russia with depicting one of its most popular heroes of the last half-century.
I don’t like the slickness of this likeness in Voronezh. It’s too shiny and buffed and glossy. It’s almost as if the sculptor never really bothered to listen to Vysotsky’s voice, or watch clips of him move on stage at the Taganka Theater. I’m confused about the facial expression. I can’t quite decide if he’s suffering from hemorrhoids or if he’s just hiding some secret from us.  The turned-around chair shouldn’t be a problem (in art you can do whatever you can get away with), but in the context – the gloss, the grin, the weird left hand, the guitar wielded more as Peter Townshend might than Vysotsky (for whom the guitar most of the time was just a prop on which he plunked out of tune) – this whole ensemble has an uncomfortable look. As I walked around, and as I look at the pictures I brought home with me, I find myself wriggling my shoulders and hips and elbows trying to shake out a sensation of awkwardness.
But there is a test that all sculptures and monuments have to pass (or not): the test of “do you want to go back and look?” And, I must say, during my three days in Voronezh, I came back here several times. I even photographed it a second time, wondering if I might find some new angles (I didn’t). And as I walked past it each time, I sensed the human quality of the statue. I might bicker with it as an image, but its ability to reach me on a personal, human level was undeniable. I get that same feeling when I look at the photos here, no matter how much I want to gripe about them.

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Meanwhile, the sculpture is passing a pretty interesting test over at Trip Advisor. Random people go on there and comment on the monument. As of this writing, twenty-one people have expressed their opinion. And wouldn’t you know – most are in favor of it. Maybe there’s some supportive trolling going on, but I can’t know that. I just see things like, “a very worthy piece of work”; “The reaction of locals was complex – after all Vysotsky was never in Voronezh – but the sculpture is interesting”; “I’ve seen monuments to Vysotsky in Rostov, Volzhsky and Sochi, but I thought the one in Voronezh was the best”; “Excellent work by the sculptor!” and so on.
Among the negative responses one catches my eye because part of me feels the same thing: “This sculpture scares you off more than it  makes a positive impression.”
As for the topic of whether Vysotsky was ever in Voronezh, there are rumors that he hung out at someone’s private party there in the 1960s. There is also talk that he once gave a closed concert for approximately 100 spectators at the city’s Green Theater near Dynamo Park. In any case, that is what one website tells us as it tries to find five things that attach the memory of Vysotsky to Voronezh. Another connection is the fact that a samizdat collection of Vysotsky’s poems/lyrics circulated in August 1980 before an official publication of his work was ever printed. We can also add that a group at the Voronezh State Pedagogical University has hosted an annual “Vysotskiana” conference ever since 1988. Oh, yes, and there is a tiny street, hardly more than a couple of blocks, that is named after Vysotsky on the east side of town across the Voronezh Reservoir.
The upshot, of course, is that the connections are thin, indeed. Although, what does that mean? I saw a very cool statue of Shakespeare in Budapest, and what the hell, other than influence, connects the Bard to Budapest? Of course, that’s the point: Vysotsky’s influence on his and all later generations, all over Russia and the Soviet Union, was huge. Ergo: there is every reason for the folks in Voronezh to want to honor him. As to whether this particular monument is fully successful in doing that, let’s leave that question open for the time being.

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Tchaikovsky monument, Moscow

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Quite a story stands behind this monument honoring Pyotr Tchaikovsky in front of the Moscow Conservatory at 13 Bolshaya Nikitskaya Street. It was conceived, created and almost finished by Vera Mukhina, the great Soviet monumental sculptor. I have written a little about her elsewhere in this blog space. In fact, Mukhina’s first stab at Tchaikovsky was taken in 1929 when she was commissioned by the Tchaikovsky museum in the city of Klin to create a bust of the composer. She was not yet then the renowned artist she would become. By the time a commission came around for her to create a monument to Tchaikovsky that would stand before the main building of the Conservatory, she was at the peak of her fame. This was 1944/45. I don’t think I’m stretching it at all to say that the authorities wanted to honor a universally beloved figure in Russian culture at a time of great national distress. The sufferings that came with the war were still very much in place as this work quietly began its life.
However, the commission that asked Mukhina to create the work did not like her first version, which was intended to depict Tchaikovsky standing and conducting. It was considered that the square in front of the Conservatory was too small to accept the large work she wished to make. Thus arose the plan, more or less, for the monument we now see today. I’ve always found it rather strange, myself: the composer captured in a moment of creative ecstasy as he conducts one of his works – in a seated position. How could anyone conduct one of the great Tchaikovsky works sitting down? At some angles, it looks more like Tchaikovsky is warding off evil ghosts than leading an orchestra. But maybe that’s just me. In any case, even this version suffered plenty of criticism.
As you’ll see in one of the photos below, the ensemble is a large one, with the composer at the middle, but with harps and drapes at either end, some distance from the center. In Mukhina’s conception, there were supposed to be people here, but the commission had her exchange them for harps covered by drapes.
And, still, the commission dragged its feet, constantly delaying the moment when the work would be unveiled to the public. Mukhina tried to hurry the process a couple of times by writing to Joseph Stalin and asking him to intercede, but this did not bring results. Finally, as Mukhina lay dying, some half a year after Stalin’s death, she wrote one more letter, this time to Vyacheslav Molotov, one of the top Soviet statesmen (who was Minister of Foreign Affairs at this point). This seems to be the action which finally brought about the decision to erect the monument. It was too late for Mukhina to see it, she died in October of 1953, but her work was officially unveiled in 1954. Mukhina’s pupils Zinaida Ivanova and Nina Zelenskaya put the finishing touches on the work.
The monument itself, like the outlying harps and drapes, are bronze. The pedestal, which forms a bench where people can sit beneath the composer, is of red granite. The text on the pedestal reads: “To the great Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.”

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Come curiosities involved with a major reconstruction of the monument in 2007 are also worth mentioning. It turned out that some 50 of the musical notes which were depicted in the sheet music beneath Tchaikovsky’s right arm were missing. Also missing was a pencil from his right hand. In fact, that was only part of the serious damage that had been done to the work over time. The sheet music on the music stand had been turned at an angle, several screws, bolts and brackets were missing or broken. The reason for this, apparently, is a student legend that the notes on the monument are good luck charms which bring good grades, a successful career and success in creative work. (Please note that these latter two kinds of success are quite different.) With a legend like that, it is a wonder that any notes were left at all. The notes and the pencil (I don’t know of any legend connected to the pencil, but maybe it was the only thing left that someone could snap off) were all restored during the rebuilding of the monument. I did not climb up on Tchaikovsky’s lap to see if any of them have disappeared since.
The notes included in the monument represent the first few notes from several of Tchaikovsky’s most famous works: the opera Eugene Onegin, the ballet Swan Lake, the 6th Symphony (Pathetique), String Quartet No. 1, the Violin Concerto in D Major, and the romance “Does Day Reign?”

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Mitrofan Pyatnitsky bust and monument, Voronezh

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Pardon me if I repeat myself. But there are times I think that, were it not for this blog, I would be completely and utterly ignorant. Doing the little bit of research I do for many of my posts, I have learned things I had never dreamed of. And it’s happened again today.
Most anybody who knows Russian culture has heard of the great Pyatnitsky Choir of Russian folk music. If you haven’t, you can go to YouTube and watch an entire recent concert that was put on to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Pyatnitsky’s birth. Pyatnitsky was born June 21, 1864, in the village of Alexandrovka in the Voronezh region. He died January 21, 1927, in Moscow and is buried in the Novodevichy Monastery cemetery. He was born into the family of a priest and he studied at a Russian Orthodox school. His brother went on to be a priest, while Mitrofan went, perhaps, in a different direction. He was fascinated by folk music and he became one of Russia’s great collectors of folk songs. Meanwhile, after moving to Moscow in 1897, he began working at a Moscow hospital in 1899, remaining in employ there until 1923. During World War I he found a way to combine these activities, creating a so-called “invalid choir” out of patients and nurses and hospital workers.  In 1904 he published his first book of collected songs, Twelve Russian Folk Songs. He made major song collecting expeditions in 1904, 1910, 1920 and 1925. He founded his first folk choir – the one that continues to be known as the Pyatnitsky Choir today – in 1910 or 1911; sources differ on that. It does appear to be fact that he created the choir on the basis of singers from the Voronezh and Ryazan regions, and that their first Moscow concert was held March 2, 1911. From 1921 to 1925 Pyatnitsky taught singing at the the Moscow Art Theater Third Studio, that is, the studio that Konstantin Stanislavsky gave over to Yevgeny Vakhtangov.
There, in a nutshell, you have Pyatnitsky’s basic encyclopedic biography. So now for the interesting stuff.
Pyatnitsky’s departure from the seminary as a youth was fraught with difficulties. It seems his teacher, a strict priest, not only frowned upon the young man’s interest in folklore, he forbade it. According to a detailed article on the Three Ages website, which is the source of much that follows, Mitrofan “secretly” bought a book of folk songs and spent his evenings and nights memorizing them. When his teacher found him out, he was furious. He wrote a letter to Mitrofan’s father telling the father precisely how he should go about beating his son as punishment. Mitrofan, a sensitive young man, could not bear to give his father the letter, and, from worry and anger, soon experienced a mental breakdown. It was called “brain fever” at the time. After he righted himself (because I doubt there was much help of value), he begged his father not to send him back to the seminary, and showed him the letter that he had held for months. His father, thankfully, agreed not to make him go back to school. This was in 1876 and Mitrofan was 12 years old at the time.

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At first Pyatnitsky helped his mother look after the geese around their home. Then he learned several trades. He became a metal worker and worked in the city. He worked also as a scribe, later became a bookkeeper and an “economist” – that is, someone who looked after an organization’s financial affairs. As fate would have it, he got a job doing just that at the seminary where he now worked for the priest who once had wanted him to be beaten for singing folk songs.
After seeing a traveling troupe of Italian opera singers perform in Voronezh, Mitrofan decided he wanted to sing like that, too. His boss and old nemesis tried to talk him out of it. But when he realized the young man’s talent – God love him – he helped him find a proper teacher. So successful were Mitrofan’s studies that he eventually, in 1896, was able to gain entrance to the Moscow Conservatory. This was unheard of for someone his age and background. But such was his talent. There was a hitch, however: he had to work as a financial officer for the Conservatory while matriculating. As financially unadvantageous and humiliating as this was, he agreed. It was an opportunity he could not afford to ignore.
First, however, he had another hurdle to jump. While still in Voronezh he happened to be walking by the river one day. And right before his eyes a young woman leaped in and tried to drown herself. Pyatnitsky also jumped in the water and pulled her to safety. He learned that she had fallen in love with a traveling rake, given in to him one time, and had become pregnant. The rake, of course, skipped town. Pyatnitsky, however, not only fell in love with her. He took her under his wing, giving her a place to live and providing her support and comfort. Finally, the young woman agreed to marry her benefactor. But – benefactors everywhere, take note! – Pyatnitsky’s noble behavior was not enough. When one week was left before the wedding, the rake returned and, in an echo of Alexander Ostrovsky’s great play Without a Dowry, he swept the girl off her feet again. The pair absconded, leaving Pyatnitsky devastated.
History remains mum as to the further fate of the passionate lovers, but it records much about what happened to the jilted groom. Pyatnitsky could not bring himself to go to Moscow to begin his studies, and, instead, literally hid out at his parents’ home in the country. He refused to come out of a shed and would talk to no one. He grew so weak something had to be done. He was put in a straightjacket and admitted to an insane asylum in Voronezh.
Believe it or not, it was his old nemesis again – the priest who wanted to have his father beat him – who came to his rescue. The priest arranged to have Pyatnitsky admitted to the best hospital in Moscow, a place where he was treated with dignity and good care. Straightjackets were not among the methods they used. After some two and a half years, Pyatnitsky was able to leave and rejoin the world without serious lingering difficulties.
By this time, of course, the Conservatory’s offer was long forgotten. However, Pyatnitsky, now in his mid-to-late 30s, refused to give up on his dream of becoming a singer. He would sing for free whenever he could and at one point was even able to get the great bass Fyodor Chaliapin to give him an audition. Chaliapin was so impressed that he arranged to schedule a special concert to show off Pyatnitsky’s talent. But even this worked against him. The night of the concert Pyatnitsky was struck so badly with a case of nerves that he lost his voice. That humiliation caused him to suffer still another nervous breakdown. Chaliapin, however, did not abandon the man whose talent he recognized. He visited him in the hospital and when it became possible, helped Pyatnitsky join the Moscow University Society of Natural Sciences, Anthropology and Ethnography. This was in 1903, and it, essentially, put a serious start to the great career that is summarized at the beginning of this blog.
A few words on the monument. It was erected September 17, 1988 (about a week after I arrived in Moscow to stay – although I did not know that at the time). It is located in the center of a small square that stands next to the Officer’s House on Revolution Prospect. It was created by the local sculptors Elza Pak and Ivan Dikunov, and consists of the bust and a few bronze instruments that lay leisurely on a bronze drape spilling over one end of a marble semicircle behind the bust. The leafy birch trees planted behind all of this, we are told by those who know, are intended to represent the many voices of Pyatnitsky’s choir.
One final thing. Take a look at the last two photos. Poor Pak and Dikunov surely had no idea that one day someone would open a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant right next to their monument. How could they know that Colonel Sanders himself would spend 24 hours of every day peering at the serious-faced Pyatnitsky with a grin that almost achieves ridicule. Pyatnitsky just stares straight ahead, doing his best to ignore the Colonel.

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Bulat Okudzhava monument, Moscow

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This is one of my favorite monuments in Moscow. How could it not be? It is Bulat Okudzhava.
But it is not only Bulat Okudzhava, one of Russia’s most beloved bards, poets and writers, it is a really nice Okudzhava done with taste, vision and understanding by the sculptor Georgy Frangulyan. The artist did a fine job of capturing Okudzhava probably in the early 1960s, when he was swingin’ and hip along with the rest of leading Soviet society during the Thaw. You can see Okudzhava’s humor and wisdom in his eyes, you can see the freedom in his step. The two arches through which the figure of the poet has walked – and which are inscribed with words from his songs – are like halos of sorts. I don’t mean that in the sense that Frangulyan imparts holiness to him, but it’s as if the air around the man recognizes his greatness and parts to let him through. It’s all very low-key, but filled with meaning. I like the way he’s just out for a stroll, because that’s what everyone’s here to do – to talk a walk. Okudzhava, here, is a man of the people, stylish, yes, a bit lost in concentration, yes, but just out for a stroll like everybody else, with the daily newspaper under his arm.
I forgot to mention that this monument stands on Okudzhava’s beloved Arbat, in the niche of Plotnikov Lane that runs into, and stops, at the Arbat. The Arbat is now a walking district, surely to its detriment, but that was not the case in Okudzhava’s time. It was a regular street with narrow sidewalks that was as filled with personality as any other location in Moscow. Okudzhava wrote many songs commemorating his love for the neighborhood.

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I had the good fortune of spending some time with Okudzhava in California in the late 1970s. I was a student at the University of California at Irvine and Okudzhava was a visiting artist. He conducted a fascinating month-long seminar in contemporary Russian literature and he gave a couple of concerts that were packed to the rafters with Russian emigres from the Los Angeles area. I also accompanied him on a somewhat surreal trip to Disneyland, which I recalled as best as I could in a blog for The Moscow Times back in 2009. Still wanting to say more, I wrote another blog about him for the MT in 2012, this time focusing on the changes that have affected the Arbat district over the decades.
I crossed paths with Okudzhava twice again in the early to mid 1990s in Moscow.  One of those times, the second, I attended an annual concert that he performed at the Contemporary Play School on Victory Day. This was, perhaps, two years before he died in 1997. (For the record his birth-death dates are 1924-1997.) The other time, the first, occurred when he attended a performance at a theater where my wife performed. I didn’t bother to reintroduce myself. I hate that little ritual. For the most part I prefer to leave people with the comfort of their own thoughts. And Okudzhava, for all the warmth of his art and his heart – don’t doubt that one little bit – was a relatively closed, private individual. Indeed, you can see that in this monument on the Arbat. He’s a genuine human being, a man of understanding and integrity. But he is also relatively packed up in his own, busy world. That tight smile on his face in the image immediately below is a private one. He’s not sharing a joke with us here, he’s amused by something only he knows about. I very much felt Okudzhava’s distance as he sat backstage after the performance, surrounding by hordes of people wanting to talk to him, wanted to be noticed by him, wanting to engage him, even if it were for just a few seconds. I didn’t need to be a part of that. I had ridden on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride with the man. What more could I have asked for?

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Viktor Tsoi Wall, Moscow

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One of the most lively places in Moscow. You can virtually always find people hanging out here. In years past there may have been more people around, but still, when I went by to photograph a few days ago, several small groups of people came and went during the few minutes I was there.
This is the so-called Viktor Tsoi wall in Moscow, located on the east wall of Arbat No. 37 (the pink building you see in the photo above is located on the Arbat). The wall faces the back wall of the Actors House on Krivoarbatsky Lane. Viktor Tsoi (1962-1990) was Russia’s finest rock singer, songwriter and group leader. His band Kino was wildly popular in the mid- to late 1980s and the leader and band both remain cult figures to this day. Unlike the vast majority of Russian rock bands whose work is only nominally rock and, at heart, is much closer to pop (at worst) or Russian folklore (at best), Tsoi and Kino tapped into the true source of the rock genre as it was primarily developed by American and, later, British bands. It is tough, bouncy music that can stand alongside, say, The Clash and Gene Vincent. It is music with an attitude and Tsoi’s lyrics, as well as his sneering vocals, are usually smart, witty and deeply thoughtful.
Befitting a rock legend, Tsoi died young, aged 28, when he fell asleep at the wheel of his car while driving through the countryside of Latvia. His car veered out of his lane and slammed into a bus, killing him instantly. To my knowledge, no one in the bus suffered injury. The official report, which is fully accepted as adequate, indicated there were no drugs or alcohol involved.
Tsoi was born in Leningrad to a Russian mother and an ethnic Korean father whose roots were in Kazakhstan. Going through the motions of studying art in his teens and getting kicked out of art school, Tsoi started playing in bands early. When Kino began having an impact the Soviet Union was in the process of collapse. As such, Tsoi’s songs are steeped in the themes of change and uncertainty. The first photo of the last block of three below shows the wall where someone has written a short phrase from one of Tsoi’s most popular and enduring songs – “We’re expecting change” (Note: no exclamation point).

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According to legend and Russian Wikipedia, the wall came into existence the night of Tsoi’s death. Someone came out and wrote in huge letters: “Today Viktor Tsoi died.” Someone else came along and added: “Tsoi Lives.” From there the wall took on a life of its own. People have been drawing and writing and painting on it ever since. As you can see in the last photo of the block just above, one artist with the initials of “Ye.V.A” created a very attractive mosaic portrait of the musician relatively high up on the wall.
Not surprisingly, there has been controversy about the existence of this – what shall we call it? – space of spontaneous people’s art. There’s an organization that calls it a shame and disgrace and works to have it removed. There was, apparently, a raid of sorts in 2006, when a bunch of detractors painted over the entire wall. Before long, however, supporters repainted it with new slogans, pictures, graffiti and such. The idea of a Viktor Tsoi wall was picked up and given life in numerous other cities, including Minsk (Belarus), Dnepropetrovsk (Ukraine), St. Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod, Samara, Yekaterinburg and many other places.
There are scads of videos you can go to; here is one of Tsoi performing one of his most popular songs, the title of which can be loosely translated as “Changes” or “Give Us Change” (Peremen). I’m also partial to his song “Blood Type,” but frankly, I have yet to hear a Tsoi song I don’t love. The third verse of this latter song reads something like the following in English:

I can pay, but I don’t want
Victory at any cost.
I won’t put my foot on anybody’s chest.
I’d just like to remain myself,
To just remain myself,
But that high star in the sky calls me to the road.

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Vladimir Vysotsky statue, Moscow

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Are we still too close to Vladimir Vysotsky (1938-1980) to see him properly? It’s been a hell of a long time since we lost him – he died during the boycotted Moscow Summer Olympics. I well remember hearing the news. I had returned from a six-month residence in Russia seven months earlier and Vysotsky’s music and his presence were still very alive in my mind. I owned two French-made LPs of his songs recorded in France and I absolutely loved them. Still do, in fact. The quality of the recordings was so much better than the primitive arrangements and mixes you got on the few available Soviet 45s and LPs. More to the point, however, my friend Vladimir Ferkelman in Leningrad owned many of the famous reel-to-reel samizdat tapes of Vysotsky singing his songs at parties, at home and at concerts, so I had had the opportunity to experience the singer-songwriter (if I may use that term) the way he was most often experienced in Russia – in somebody’s warm, cramped, inviting, booklined home on an old, soft sofa, with several people hunched over a tape player to hear the man sing. People on both sides of the pond have, from time to time, tried to describe Vysotsky as the Russian Bob Dylan. That’s always irked me. It just doesn’t fit. Bob Dylan is Bob Dylan and you can’t define anyone else using him as a measuring stick. Any more than you can force Vysotsky into a framework built on another artist. But that’s just a little aside. As I say, all of this was still very vivid in my memory when summer 1980 arrived. By then I was living in Washington, D.C., and I was working at a bookstore in Georgetown. I’d make my way to a metro stop at the Pentagon from my apartment in Alexandria, and from there I’d zip into Georgetown to work. One morning I was standing on the platform waiting for the next metro train to approach and I was doing what everyone was doing – I was reading a newspaper that I held out before me. I hesitate to say which newspaper because one might expect it to be the Washington Post, although I’m pretty sure it was the New York Times. Anyway, there was a piece on the front page below the fold telling that Vladimir Vysotsky had died. Boom. That didn’t make any sense, I’ll tell you. The guy was 42.

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I knew Vysotsky as a singer and a writer of his own songs, and that’s what most everyone knew and loved him for. What was less obvious to some – especially a young foreigner wet behind the ears – was that he was also one of the great, charismatic actors of his time. Vysotsky’s Hamlet at Yury Lyubimov’s Taganka Theater is one of the great legends of the Russian stage. It is no secret that when Vysotsky died, Lyubimov lost just a little of his mojo at the Taganka and, before too long – four years later – he found himself in exile in the West. Vysotsky, like everyone else at the Taganka, drank like a fish. The difference was his genius. Lyubimov would fire or discipline other actors for showing up to work drunk, but he let Vysotsky get away with anything. It was almost a love affair. In fact I think Lyubimov’s worship of Vysotsky’s talent and charisma was very reminiscent of romantic love. It certainly sounds that way based on the memoirs and documents that have emerged in recent times.
But to get back to my original comment about our still being too close to Vysotsky to get a real grip on him. I began with that because the sculpture of the singer/actor that stands at the Petrovskiye Vorota plaza in Moscow just doesn’t capture the man for me. I see it as a kind of pop version, one that corresponds to the myth that lives and grows in the public’s mind, but which doesn’t get past the surface of the artist. I guess that’s okay, too. But I tend to respond better to art that is more daring and adventurous. This likeness by sculptor Gennady Raspopov and architect Anatoly Klimochkin seems to picture the performer soaking in the love of the masses. At the same time, his gaze is directed upwards; each of us can decide for ourselves what may or may not have attracted his attention up there. The statue was erected in 1995 and, if I’m not mistaken, it was the first monument raised to the great man, just 15 years after his death (caused by alcohol poisoning). I usually walk by the sculpture with a bit of a shudder and a thought or two of regret that I’d like to get closer to whatever made this man tick, but it’s not going to happen because of this piece of street art.

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