Category Archives: Parks and Plazas

Vera Mukhina statue, Moscow

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This sculptural image of Vera Mukhina (1889-1953) is relatively small, which is an interesting thing. Mukhina was one of the most prominent and important of all the monumentalist sculptors. Many of her  works were huge. Easily her most famous is The Worker and the Kolkhoz Girl, which has stood for decades at the entry to the Exhibit of National Achievements in Moscow. It was set up there after first being unveiled – with wild international success – at the Paris World Fair in 1937. The fascinating School of Life site has many unusual tidbits about Mukhina’s life and work and it points out that the sculpture, created in Moscow, weighed 75 tons and had to be cut into 65 segments transported on 28 train cars in order to get it to Paris. So famous is this sculpture I would say that for awhile it has worked against Mukhina’s reputation. The figure of a young man and a young woman marching forward in lock step as they hold a hammer and cycle on high is so ubiquitous and is so bound up in images of stagnant and hostile eras of Soviet history, that it has long been hard to appreciate the work on its own merits. It looks much more like a cliche than a great work of art today, at least until you stop and take the time to ponder it.
There is no doubt that Mukhina was tight, in some ways, with a state that saw and used monumentalism as a way to express and reinforce its superiority. Mukhina was the recipient of five Stalin Prizes in her career (1941, 1943, 1946, 1951, 1952). She was given prestigious commissions to create centrally-located, highly visible public art. According to her son, however, she never once created a bust or sculpture of leading Soviet politicians, although she was asked to many a time, and her husband, the prominent doctor Alexei Zamkov, was repeatedly harassed by the authorities in those moments when he wasn’t being spared or given unexpected opportunities. In short, the family walked a narrow line in a very difficult time. I wrote in late May about a monumental sculpture of Maxim Gorky that Mukhina was instrumental in completing shortly before her own death and 10 years after the death of the primary sculptor Ivan Shadr. When one digs into the details of Mukhina’s life one sees why she may have been compelled to help finish the image of Gorky – he was instrumental in obtaining permission for Mukhina and her husband to return to Moscow from exile in Voronezh. They had attempted to slip out of the country in the early-to-mid-1930s and were caught, detained and exiled.
Another of Mukhina’s most famous works is the monument to Pyotr Tchaikovsky which stands before the Moscow Conservatory. That was no easy commission, however. The original commission was made in 1940 but work was interrupted by the war. Only in 1945 did Mukhina present her first “draft” of the future monument. It, however, was rejected by the inspection board. A second variant was given the okay two years later, but it still took eight more years to get the official order to place the sculpture before the Conservatory. By the time of the unveiling in 1954, Mukhina had been dead for nearly a year.

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The likeness of Mukhina stands on a tiny, nameless square more or less at the intersection of Prechistensky Lane and Prechistenka Street in the Arbat region. Sculpted by Mikhail Anikushin with the aid of architect Sergei Khadzhibaronov, it was unveiled in 1989 as part of the celebration of Mukhina’s centennial.
The piece reflects her reputation as a principled person with a difficult personality. I mention that latter bit only because you run across it a lot when reading about Mukhina. I don’t doubt it’s true, knowing what I know about her life, her work and the era that she inhabited. What I do doubt is that there is anything of value to be had in applying such epithets to her. That she was a strong person with a strong vision is already evident in the fact that she made sculptures weighing 75 tons. It’s also evident when you consider the tight-rope walk she and her husband had to walk in order to keep working and living. In other words, I report that bit of information that everyone else reports, but I encourage you to toss it out as useless.
Anikushin – perhaps – shows Mukhina wrapped in the same scarf and buffeted by the same wind as the young man in the sculpture of The Worker and the Kolkhoz Girl. It’s a nice little quote and it works especially well because, as I said, this sculpture is relatively small and, in no way, attempts to approximate Mukhina’s own work. Anikushin also did a nice job of imparting to Mukhina’s expression that strength we know she commanded, even if it might be a tad off-putting, while also giving her a very human, thoughtful gaze. There is, in other words, a subtle mix here of the public and private flowing back and forth into one another. There is something in that which captures the essence of at least one aspect of the Soviet experience.
Mukhina and her husband are buried in the hallowed – and prestigious – ground of the Novodevichy Monastery on the banks of the Moscow River. I love the words that are engraved on their headstone. Dr. Zamkov, who died in 1942,  is quoted as saying, “I did for people everything that I could.” When Vera herself was buried, her own words were added: “Me too.”

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Sergei Eisenstein plaque and building, Moscow

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This is quite a place on Moscow’s cultural map. First of all, it’s a nice building. It could use a touch-up of paint and plaster, but we can look past those things. We’re not all about appearances. I like the green. I love Moscow’s, and Russia’s, colored buildings – pink, yellow, green, blue. They’re a great antidote for those who suffer long, gray Russian winters. (I’m not one of them – I love the cold and ice and snow every bit as much as I love the rainbow buildings.)
But I digress.
Sergei Eisenstein (1898-1948) lived here. One of the fathers – if not the father – of modern cinema. For all those poor souls suffering through the withering drought in Russian film that is known as the period running unbroken from the late 1980s to the present, Eisenstein stands as both a rebuke – where are you, new Eisensteins? – and a beacon of hope – yes, it can be done.
Eisenstein lived in Apt. 2 in this building at 23 Chistoprudny Boulevard. It’s right across from the south end of the pond that, for some reason, is named in the plural in Russian – Chistye prudy, or, Clean Ponds.
Another digression, sorry about this. But in the spirit that, with the internet at our fingertips, there is no longer any reason for anyone ever again to claim that they don’t know something, I went to Russian Wikipedia to find out just why this single pond has a name in the plural. And I learned that back in the 17th century there were a series of bogs here known as Foul Swamps! This is where the city dumped its waste from nearby slaughterhouses and meat markets. Wiki doesn’t say it out loud, but the hint is that when folks quit dumping blood and guts into the water here, it came to be known as a place that was clean. And, I’m also assuming, the many swamps, bogs and ponds over time were narrowed into the one we now have.
But back to Eisenstein.
He lived here on Clean Ponds/Chistye prudy from 1920 until 1934. In other words, he regularly pounded the pavement in these environs at that very time that he was doing all of his great early work. That includes his experimental theater pieces done under the influence and tutelage of Vsevolod Meyerhold, as well as his monstrously influential films Strike (1925), The Battleship Potemkin (1925) and October: Ten Days that Shook the World (1927). We see that it was also right here that the great artist’s career suffered its first setbacks. He lived here when he made The General Line (1929), a film that was hindered badly by rapidly changing politics in the Soviet Union. This was also his address when he traveled to Mexico and planned his grandiose, but unfinished ¡Que viva México! (1930). It wasn’t until 1937, three years after leaving the apartment at Clean Ponds, that he made another film (Bezhin Meadow). But it was destroyed, leaving us only with several hundred stills that the great Naum Kleiman and film director Sergei Yutkevich salvaged by collecting into a kind of slide show in the 1960s.

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Eisenstein’s influence on everything cinematic was total. He wasn’t the only film artist pushing the envelope in those early days, but there were few discoveries made that he wasn’t a part of in some way. When my high school and early college girlfriend Laura Greenwood began taking film lessons she had the top of her head sheared off by Eisenstein. “Forget your Fellini!” she used to say. “Eisenstein already did it all!” I have no desire to forget my Fellini, let alone my Kurosawa, Antonioni or Woody Allen. But one gets Laura’s drift. I mean, let’s take it to the level of kitsch and absurd. Remember Johnny Depp in Edward Scissorhands? Nobody will ever convince me that Edward’s ‘do wasn’t taken hair-for-hair from Eisenstein. If you don’t believe me, check out Depp and check out Eisenstein. I rest my case. Or, if you want to take that further, check out this somewhat later Eisenstein and check out Mel Brooks’ Frankenstein. He’s just Eisenstein without the hair. I’m tellin’ ya – Eisenstein is everywhere.
The building at 23 Chistoprudny Boulevard was built in the year 1900 by architect Sergei Barkov for Nikolai Teleshov, who rented out rooms as a way to generate income. (It was originally a four-story building; the three top floors were added in 1947.) Teleshov was a pretty interesting figure himself. He was a poet and prose writer who was the organizing figure behind the famous “Wednesday” literary salon in Moscow from 1899 to 1916. His guests included Maxim Gorky, Alexander Sumbatov-Yuzhin, Valery Bryusov,  Alexander Kuprin, Ivan Bunin, Vikenty Veresaev, Fyodor Chaliapin, Leonid Andreev, Boris Pilnyak and many others. Teleshov was the director of the museum of the Moscow Art Theater in the late 1920s and 1930s. I don’t know whether he lived in the building when Eisenstein did (look it up yourself if you gotta have it), although if so, he would not have been the director’s landlord. By 1920 everybody’s landlord in Russia was the Soviet State.

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Alexander Fadeev monument, Moscow

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If the case of Alexander Fadeev doesn’t make you stop and think about the meaning of success and failure, I suspect nothing can do the job. Fadeev (1901-1956) began his writing career in fine fashion. After writing a handful of undistinguished stories he published his first novel, The Rout (1927), which was hugely popular. That catapulted him into the first rank of Soviet writers. However, he never finished his second novel and, for good or bad measure, he didn’t finish his last, either. It’s true that he produced one blockbuster in between – The Young Guard (1945), a novel that was huge not only as literature, but as the basis for а wildly popular feature film in 1948 as well. A bushelful of Stalin Prizes were handed out to people involved, Fadeev himself grabbing one in 1946 for the novel. A sculptural group honoring Fadeev and his characters was put up in Miusskaya Square not far from the Belorussia train station in Moscow in 1973. It was done by sculptor Vladimir Fyodorov. So what’s the big deal, you ask? Why the gloom and doom beginning to this little note? Well, just 10 years after receiving his Stalin Prize and 17 years before this sculpture went up, Fadeev shot himself dead, that’s why.

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Fadeev attached himself to Soviet power early. He was instrumental in the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers from 1928-1932 and was a champion of socialist realism from the very start. He was named head of the Soviet Writers Union in 1946 – surely on the strength of The Young Guard – and he remained in the post until 1954, shortly after Stalin’s death. During those eight years he was in charge of a great many repressive measures that Stalin instigated against writers and critics. When this and other actions Fadeev had been involved in became public knowledge after Khrushchev’s secret speech about Stalin’s cult of personality on Feb. 25, 1956, Fadeev lost his bearings. He was a heavy drinker as it was – perhaps that was the only way this simple man from Siberia could live with himself all those years – but now he was rarely seen sober. On May 13, 1956 he shot himself with his own revolver while at his dacha in Peredelkino. His wife, the famous Moscow Art Theater actress Angelina Stepanova, was on tour abroad at the time and she was called back home to deal with her husband’s death, although she wasn’t told why she was being called home until she reached Moscow.

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Fyodorov’s sculptural group is a nice one for a family park. As you can see in these photos kids and adults alike enjoy gathering around them. Pigeons also appreciate them. One extremely stubborn pigeon on top of Fadeev’s head refused to budge the entire time I was shooting the pictures. In order to get at least a few shots without it looking like the granite writer had feathers coming out of his head, I had to come right up close to the foot of the monument and shoot from below at a steep angle. I must say there’s something irritatingly attractive about the sculptures. They are faceless and bloodless like so many Soviet works of art. Fadeev, particularly, is almost a blank slate. His face, his greatcoat and his pants are as featureless as they can be. Almost like one thinks may happen after a vampire sucks the blood out of a person leaving behind nothing but an empty shell. Come to think of it, maybe that’s why I find some truth in these images – because I rather suspect that is pretty much what happened to Fadeev. The last photo I include below is taken on Fadeev Street, which runs right behind Miusskaya Square. As the plaque notes, the street was named after Fadeev in 1967, six years before the ensemble of sculptures would go up.

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Igor Severyanin in Bouffe-Garden, Tomsk

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There’s nothing here but a snippet of a story. And not much of a snippet at that. But there is enough to make it worth the telling. I was walking through Tomsk with my friend Pavel Rachkovsky in April 2014 looking for buildings and monuments with connections to Russian cultural figures. I love what happens in the imagination when you stand before a home or a hall or a building of some kind and think about what has gone on there, who has been there, what they did, what they read and what they wrote or painted or composed. The point was to begin gathering photos for a website or something that I might do someday. Like Russian Culture in Landmarks, for instance. Anyway, as you can read in a Moscow Times blog I wrote about that trip I took to Tomsk, Rachkovsky stopped me as we passed a relatively unprepossessing park, the east side of which bordered on Krasnoarmeiskaya Ulitsa, or, Street. Waving his hand at the trees and lawn, he said, “This is Bouffe-Garden and one time the poet Igor Severyanin came here to recite his poetry.” I stood there a few moments to take in the news Pavel had unloaded on me. What an incongruous thought – Severyanin and this park! I snapped a couple of photos, thinking about the tall, imposing poet unleashing his expressive poetry into the Tomsk night, or day, air. One of the most-used books in my library is Victor Terras’s Handbook of Russian Literature. In it Aleksis Rannit writes that Severyanin, “early in his career recited his poems by half-singing with his masculine-lyrical baritone voice of beautiful timbre and perfect vocal technique, and later, after the Revolution, in a simple, slightly incantational manner. His tumultuous successes before large, hysterical crowds were similar to those of Elvis Presley.” Just imagine that in the Bouffe-Garden in Tomsk.

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The city library of Novouralsk provides another glimpse into how Severyanin’s readings were received by the public.
“Snowy Moscow,” a text reads on their website, “drifts cover Staraya Ploshchad [Old Square], a crowd pushes into the amphitheater of the Polytechnical Museum. It’s a madhouse! The king of poets is to be elected. Mayakovsky, Balmont and Burlyuk read their poetry. The last onto the stage is a tall man in a black frock-coat, Igor Severyanin. The audience hears him out in silence. But the moment his voice dies down the hall bursts into applause and cheers. After the votes are counted, the king of poets is Igor Severyanin.”
Perhaps that day or evening in Tomsk Severyanin read his poem “Epilogue,” which, in my extremely hasty and workmanlike translation, begins:

I, the genius, Igor Severyanin,
Am drunk with my own victory:
My face is shown on every screen!
I’m confirmed in every heart!

I’ve drawn a brazen line
From Bayezid to Port Arthur.
I conquered all of literature
And thunderously seized the throne!

“I shall be!” I said a year ago.
A year flamed out and here I am!…

Perhaps in Tomsk,  too, a ruckus was raised, a furore caused, a madhouse foisted on the town. Perhaps the women fainted in pre-Elvis swoons. We’ll never know. Not unless someone unearths a description of that day Severyanin – who was born in 1887 and died in 1941, whose real last name was Lotaryov and whose pen name means ‘The Northerner’ – read his poetry in Bouffe-Garden.  And even then – such a vague, distant and unsatisfying substitute that would be. Nowadays there is nothing in Bouffe-Garden but the occasional cry of a happy child – or not – and the wind whispering in the twiggy trees. That is poetry of a sort, of course. It satisfies many. But it’s not Igor Severyanin, and I must admit, I would have loved to hear the echo of his voice in the park in Tomsk that day.