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Sergei Rachmaninoff at the Trinity Auditiorium, LA Debut

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Hard as it is to believe, you’d better not blink or you might miss it. The Trinity Auditorium Building in downtown Los Angeles is a glorious piece of architecture and history. But nobody seems to give a damn at the moment. Sure, there’s talk about renovating it, and, it would seem, a few folks are even trying to do something about it. However, for all that, as of September 2017, the building remains empty and abandoned. Who knows what fate awaits it? (See after the jump for some more details on this.) Similar other buildings are gone – such as the Philharmonic Auditorium where Igor Stravinsky made his Los Angeles debut. You can read all about that triumph in Keenan Reesor’s wonderful paper, “Rachmaninoff and Stravinsky in Los Angeles to 1943.” But you can’t go see the place where it happened anymore. It’s gone.
Thankfully for us, at least for now, we can still go and stand in front of the Trinity Auditorium Building at 855 S. Grand Avenue, where Sergei Rachmaninoff made his LA debut on February 2, 1923. It looks a bit forlorn these days. The wide, busy street right next to a metro hub looks too modern, too naked for this wonderful old building. It wants a cozier, more old-fashioned feel. It’s one of the things that makes me worry – I can imagine somebody with nothing but dollar signs in his or her eyes thinking the same thing, and having the ability to say, “Let’s modernize this block!” Everything else around it has been “updated,” why not do the same to the lot that somewhat incongruously still holds the old Trinity?
Here is what Reesor writes about Rachmaninoff’s LA debut: “In 1923, Rachmaninoff appeared in person for the first time in Los Angeles—not as composer but as pianist. His performance was greeted with ecstasy by Times critic Edwin Schallert. ‘Art and the personality in art assumed a new significance with the first piano concert of Sergei Rachmaninoff in this city,’ he wrote. ‘He played last night at Trinity Auditorium, and before a throng that had apparently long anticipated his appearance proved himself a giant of the keyboard.’ Rachmaninoff would offer in total twenty-eight performances in the greater Los Angeles area.
(I will remind the forgetful reader of this space that I have already written about one of those venues, Bridges Auditorium in my former hometown of Claremont, CA. You can look that up on this site.)
Imagine that: Los Angeles before and after Sergei Rachmaninoff! You don’t think about something like that very often, but there we have it: The Trinity stands as a landmark that divides Southern California into before-and-after. These walls witnessed life before Rachmaninoff brought his art into a world that John Barrymore, Clara Bow, Charlie Chaplin, Lilian Gish and hundreds of other pioneer film stars were quickly transforming from a backwater into a cultural mecca. (In fact, the Trinity was used as backdrops for scenes in films by Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and others.) Rachmaninoff was one of the first great international artists to bite and come ply his art in this little town that was on the verge of a major metamorphosis.
You even sense a little bit of that historical yearning for change in Edwin Schallert’s review, which specifically notes that the “throng” in attendance at Rachmaninoff’s recital “had apparently long anticipated his appearance.” It was a town just waiting for the pianist to bring his art to them, and here is the place where it happened.

The cost of real estate on S. Grand must be astronomical. Imagine how much money you could make by pulling this thing down and putting up a high rise hotel? Or, the other way around, imagine how much money you could save by not going to the hassle of preserving this extraordinary building that houses inside a famed concert house? A very cool blog site called Los Angeles Theatres actually tells us quite a bit about what has been going on – and what hasn’t – in regards to the Trinity. Apparently it was expected to open in 2016 as a new hotel complex. As of fall 2017 (precisely when I was there), the site claimed that elevators were being updated in preparation for a grand opening. But I must say, I saw no signs of life whatsoever when I visited the site on September 12, 2017, peering in windows and walking around corners.
Some bare facts on the auditorium thanks, again, to the Los Angeles Theatres site. Its grand opening took place in 1914 and, over the years, it was used as a concert hall (the first significant time that happened being 1919), a church and a hotel. Here is what the site has to say about the auditorium’s capacity: “Seating: 1,600 more or less. Some estimates go as high as 2,500. Originally the main floor was sloped and had fixed theatre seating. It got leveled out at some time in the past. The auditorium features balconies on three sides and a massive ceiling dome with a stained glass medallion at its center.”
Drop down toward the bottom of the post on the LA Theatres site to see some fabulous photos – period and contemporary – of the inside of the auditorium.
In any case, the Los Angeles Times’ critic left no doubt that Rachmaninoff’s LA debut was memorable. Here is some more of what he wrote: Rachmaninoff’s “recital will be remembered many a day as one of the great events of the present musical season, and perhaps, pianistically speaking, of many seasons.
On Rachmaninoff’s performance technique the reviewer wrote: “…brilliant to the very ultimate. In fact, it approached the dazzling…”; “…crashing chords, and madly racing notes. There were riotous moments In ‘The Beautiful Blue Danube’ waltz…”; and, finally, “Chopin was his leading offering, and he brought before his hearers all its rhythmical bigness, and its somber tonal fire.”
(Quotes are drawn from the Los Angeles Times website.)
Welcome to Los Angeles, Sergei Rachmaninoff! Welcome, Los Angeles, to the music of Sergei Rachmaninoff!

 

 

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Konstantin Leontyev in Chalepa, Crete, Greece

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We have Theocharis Detorakis to thank for today’s blog (and one more that will follow soon). It was in his book History of Crete that I discovered what I had thought was undiscoverable – a direct link between Russian literature and the gorgeous old Cretan town of Chania. It so happens that the well-known 19th-century Russian writer, critic and conservative philosopher Konstantin Leontyev (1831-1891) lived in the Chalepa district of the then-capitol city of Crete, Chania, for several months in the 1860s. The first photo above and the first below show the Chalepa part of Chania, looking east from the eastern wall of Chania’s Old Town. Don’t get too excited by the baby blue cupola of the Russian Orthodox Church in the middle of Chalepa: Like most everything else in the district, it was not there when Leontyev was a resident. Chalepa was a kind of high-rent and diplomatic ghetto in the 19th century and when, after 700 years of servitude to the Venetians and the Turks it received independence in the late 19th century, it underwent major reconstruction. In my research, I found that the vast majority of “famous, old” buildings now standing in Chalepa were constructed between the 1880s and the first decade of the 20th century. Unlike Old Town Chania, where every street has some relic dating back 300, 600, 1,000 or even 5,000 years, Chalepa is a relatively modern place. As such, I had to put in some footwork in order to find a few shots and angles that at least suggest views Leontyev might have seen himself when he wandered around the city. My choices may not be 100% on target, but I suspect Leontyev would find familiar the images I have gathered here today.
Crete, then called Candia, was a strategic location for Russia in the 19th century in large part because of the Russo-Turkish Wars. The Turks were then in charge of Crete/Candia, having wrested it from the Venetians in the second half of the 17th century. But under the Turks, the fiercely independent Cretans mounted no fewer revolts and rebellions than they had against the Venetians. As such, Russia was one of the nations that would try to lend Candia a hand now and then. Leontyev probably arrived on the island shortly after the New Year of 1864 (he was appointed a translator and liaison at the Russian consulate on Oct. 25, 1863 – but reported himself in his writings that he spent only seven months in Chalepa, thus my suggestion of the later arrival). Whenever he may have arrived, his Candian career came to an abrupt end in August 1864 after he, infuriated by an insulting comment made about Russia by the French consul, took it upon himself to give the offending Gaul a lash of the whip. The Russians, to avoid any more scandal than had already accrued, quickly moved Leontyev to their diplomatic office in Adrianopolis, Turkey, on August 27.
Leontyev at the time was going through a major reconsideration of his beliefs. Like so many Russians before and after him, he started out his adult life with so-called “liberal” leanings, but at the very time that he was appointed to work in Candia, he made a radical switch to Slavophile views, colored deeply by a newly-found faith in Russian Orthodoxy. This would have made the local population all the more attractive to him, since it – through all the tribulations of Catholic and Muslim occupation – had clung to its Greek Orthodox roots.

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Leontyev appeared to be quite happy in Candia. (His Russian biographer Olga Volkogonova called these Leontyev’s “happy years” in her book Konstantin Leontyev.) He wrote several stories and/or essays about his brief time there, displaying a tangible affinity with the people about whom he wrote. Here is how Volkokgonova described his Cretan life:
There were few pressing affairs at the consulate. Leontyev, who came to the post of Secretary, had almost nothing to do, but he was never bored. He often went for walks, rode on horseback, or made the acquaintance of the locals, all the while reading and writing … Cretan life provided him material […] for “Sketches of Crete” (1866), as well as a charming epistolary story of romantic love between a Greek and a Turk named “Chryso” (1868), the story “Hamid and Manoli” (1869), and the story “Sfakiot” (1877). The days stretched out lazily, but were not tedious. Through the words of the hero of the story “Chryso,” Leontyev says to an imaginary friend: “… If only you knew how pleasant laziness is here <…> What a marvelous place! What name shall I give my heavenly island? A corner of paradise? A garden of gardens? The ornament of the seas?
In fact, let’s add what Leontyev writes immediately after that (from “Chryso“):
No! I call it a basket of flowers on the menacing waves of the sea. You must see the local Greek! How clean is his house, how joyful is our Chalepa! The seaside houses are all white and clean. Instead of roofs they have terraces, all covered in green. Here lemons and oranges bloom like fallen snow; and to let you know that this is not theater but real life, someone’s simple, poor laundry hangs drying on the branches…
Ah, my native land! Oh, my precious Crete!
Volkogonova continues the tale of Leontyev’s Cretan sojourn:
The Leontyevs lived in the village of Chalepa, in the consular house. Nearby were the consulates of England and France, but rather than communicating with foreign diplomats, Konstantin preferred ethnographical ‘sorties’ out into the traditional villages and towns.
The island was mountainous, and the people cultivated oranges and grapes, made wonderful olive oil and wine, and bred sheep and goats. Leontyev admired the Greeks: Cretan men were almost all tall, wearing bright clothes – with long socks squeezing their tight, strong calves, their broad trousers tied with ribbons, and their unusual fez and jackets – all this lent them poetry and originality in Leontyev’s eyes . The women were dark-eyed, slender and maintained themselves modestly, but with dignity. ‘In my seven months in Chalepa I saw no drunkenness, no dirty, riotous behavior, no fights. When family feuds do take place, they are ashamed of them and they hide them. Husbands do not chase disheveled wives through the streets of the village with whips and sticks. Here you see no smashed faces, and no drunken women. The ideal family is strict, but strict for everyone, not just for the younger ones or for women,’ – he wrote about Cretan life.”
Here is still another of Leontyev’s remarks about Chalepa drawn from the story “Chryzo”:
You ask what is Chalepa, Chalepa, Chalepa? You don’t know where it is. That’s true, I apologize. It seemed to me that the entire world should know my priceless Chalepa!
Most of the photos here show street scenes or landscapes similar to something that Leontyev might have encountered on his walks around Chalepa. Three of them – the second in the first block, and the second and fourth below – show the Old Town of Chania (known as Canea in Leontyev’s time), with its prominent fortress walls and lighthouse. I took shots from angles that would approximate something that Leontyev could have seen from the Chalepa heights, looking westward toward Canea/Chania.

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Chekhov’s Little “House,” Melikhovo

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This wonderfully funny little structure is ground zero for modern drama. It is the place on Anton Chekhov’s country estate in the village of Melikhovo where the dramatist wrote The Seagull, the first of his four major plays. The plaque on the front wall quotes Chekhov himself from the back of a photo that he sent to his future wife Olga Knipper on May 5, 1999. Chekhov’s original jottings say, “The outbuilding at Melikhovo. My house where The Seagull was written. With good memories to Olga Leonardovna Knipper.” The plaque reprints just the middle phrase.
We can “observe” the last few days of Chekhov’s work on the play by perusing his letters.
On November 14, 1895, he wrote to Dmitry Garin-Vinding, an actor and playwright then based at the Maly Theater in Moscow, “I have almost finished a play. There are about two days of work left. A comedy in four acts. It is called: The Seagull.
In fact, four days later, November 18, he writes to the singer and writer Yelena Shavrova-Yust, “I finished a play. It is called: The Seagull. It didn’t come out so hot. Speaking in general: I’m not much of a playwright.”
Three days hence, on November 21, he wrote to his friend the famed lawyer and literary dabbler Alexander Urusov: “Incidentally, yesterday I finished a new play that bears an avian name: The Seagull. A comedy in four acts. I will be in Moscow in December (the Grand Moscow Hotel) and, should you wish it, I will send you or bring you this play. I would be very, very happy if you would take upon yourself the labor of reading it. This labor will be somewhat eased because the play will be printed* and you will not need to make out my scribbly writing.” The asterisk to “will be printed” leads to Chekhov’s clarification below that the printing will be done “on a Remington.”
It was not until March 15, 1896, that Chekhov officially sent The Seagull to the authorities (the censor) in order to receive permission for his play to be performed on the imperial stages. Here is that formal request in full:

15 March 1896. Melikhovo.
To the Director of the Imperial theaters. 
A Petition
Of Anton Pavlovich Chekhov 

Presenting herewith a play of my composition under the title of The Seagull, in four acts, in two copies, I have the most humble honor of asking that it be submitted to the Theatrical-Literary Committee for permission to present it in the Imperial theaters. 

Anton Chekhov.
15 March 1896.
Lopasnya, Moscow Province.

Such is the modest, yet insistent beginning of a play that would change the way drama in the western world would be written, staged, acted and perceived for well over a century. Actually, for that hefty influence among playwrights let us add the name of Henrik Ibsen, whose plays, most written prior to Chekhov’s major works, were no less groundbreaking. But it has fallen to Chekhov, in part because of the impending partnership with Konstantin Stanislavsky, to be considered the founder of 20th century drama and theater.
The Seagull premiered at the Alexandrinsky Theater in St. Petersburg on October 17, 1896. This outing was a fiasco, however, with some members of the audience heaping vocal abuse on the actors, and ending with Chekhov famously skedaddling out of town before anyone could see or talk to him.
The renowned Russian film director Vitaly Melnikov made a wonderful, sensitive film about Chekhov in 2012 that includes numerous references to The Seagull. It’s called The Admirer. The first frames (and later ones too) show Stanislavsky rehearsing the play in the late 1890s, while the whole disaster at the Alexandrinsky is shown in detail later in the film. (In Melnikov’s interpretation a dastardly critic encourages a plant to begin the audience rebellion.) You can watch a decent online version on the Big Cinema site.  The scenes showing the first performance of The Seagull begin at approximately 1:01:00. (Unfortunately, this copy of the film does not include the English subtitles that I created for the director, but it does include the performance of my wife Oksana Mysina as an eccentric and haughty society lady who considers it her right to hound Mr. Chekhov.)
To round out the historical aspect of this post let me add that Stanislavsky’s rendition of The Seagull premiered in Moscow December 17, 1898. This was a production of the Moscow Art Theater, but it was not performed on the stage that the whole world now knows as the Art Theater. Stanislavsky’s homeless troupe performed on the stage of the Hermitage Theater in the Hermitage Garden for the first three years of its existence.

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The outbuilding in Melikhovo consists of just 20 square meters and two rooms, plus a mudroom or entryway. Chekhov kept his doctor’s medicines in this abbreviated front area and on days when he treated the local peasants (always for free), he ran a small red flag up the flag pole in front of the structure. (See photo immediately above.) A miniature widow’s walk, or balcony, was constructed over this part of the house, and it gave a nice three-way view of the surrounding territory. The building is located towards the back (the north end) of the Melikhovo property and is separated from the main house by a large garden, a grove and two lovely walkways. (See one of those in the following block of photos below.) The actual distance between the two houses is not large, but because of the layout of the land the writer’s retreat has a marvelous sense of seclusion to it – especially when the plants and trees are in full bloom.
Only rarely can visitors get inside the outbuilding any more, but I was fortunate a decade ago to spend quite a bit of time in there while making a small documentary film about Chekhov. The main part of the house is split into two narrow rooms. In the first there is just enough room for a large writing table and one chair on either side. In the second there is just enough room for a small single bed that stands along the back wall and runs almost the full length of the room. There is a night table next to the bed and a single functional wooden chair – to help you get your socks off or toss your shirt and pants over the back. Knowing a little about the way writing works, I suspect much of The Seagull was at least imagined, if not jotted down, here while Chekhov napped or rested between writing bouts.
A place like this always makes us answer hard questions. Is it capable of bringing up the ghost of him that made it famous? I won’t lie: the answer for me wavers between yes and no. When I stood before the desk and looked at the blotter and ink well, I didn’t see any letters from The Seagull, or any of the many other works he wrote here, rising into the air as smoke. In the little bedroom the clean white linens did not aid me in believing that I could see Chekhov’s long, hairy legs disappearing beneath them for a nap. But taken as a whole, this is a quite extraordinary little location on the map. The detail that went into the building of it (see the lacy carved wood in many of the photos), the modesty of the place, the comfortably cramped quarters, the presence of Dr. Chekhov’s glass vials still standing on two shelves in the entryway, the sense of isolation and retreat that everything here represents, combined with the richness and the beauty of the nature surrounding it all (even in the “dead” season) all adds up to more than a few tingles running down the spine.
There are a few places in Russia where I love to just stand and stare as my thoughts go where they will. This is one of them.

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Bulgakov-inspired bas relief, Moscow

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Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940) again. He is as ubiquitous in Moscow as Pushkin. This time we’re looking at another in the series of illustrations of characters from BB’s writings that showed up on city walls and archways as part of the Best City in the World Festival in 2014. This particular bas relief, etched out in a thin layer of cement, is of Tsar Ivan the Terrible, from BB’s play Ivan Vasilyevich. Like the others, it was created by Novatek Art. Unlike most of the others, this image is not in a readily visible position. In fact, it occupies a fairly forlorn spot behind a wayward post not far from some junk gathering behind a tiny, leftover wall, and squeezed on all sides by a rough paint job. If you’re looking for it, go to 36 Starokonyushenny Lane in the Arbat district and peek around the right corner of the building from the street.
Ivan Vasilyevich is simultaneously an obscure Bulgakov play and one of his most popular. How does that work? Easy. It was made into a film called Ivan Vasilyevich Changes his Profession by the great Soviet comic film director Leonid Gaidai in 1973. The film – the top grossing Soviet film for that year (it was seen by over 60 million spectators) – became an instant classic and still maintains its cult popularity today.
The play itself – a comedy about two Soviet citizens being carried back into the 16th century by a time machine which also tosses Ivan the Terrible into the 20th century – has lived a much quieter life. It was written in the mid-1930s for the Satire Theater, but it didn’t see the light of day until it was published in a small collection of Bulgakov’s plays in 1965. Even then it was not until Gaidai got hold of it that anyone really paid it any attention. And, truth to be told, even following that wildly popular film, theaters did not clamor to stage it. In my nearly 30 years of theater-going in Russia I have never seen a production of it.
In fact, Ivan Vasilyevich began life as a play called Bliss. That early variant was written roughly between spring and fall of 1934 but the Satire Theater declined to stage it. Director Nikolai Gorchakov and actors at the theater encouraged Bulgakov to keep working on the play. He did just that and it is considered that he finished it on Sept. 30, 1935, giving a reading of the play in his home for the Gorchakov crew on Oct. 2. The play was proverbially received enthusiastically by the company, although that did not stop them or Bulgakov from believing that it needed to be reworked severely. That mutual agreement was reached on Oct. 29. Bulgakov went back to the drawing board, changing the comedy drastically – the new version was no longer a science-fiction tale of time travel, but now became an unreal tale of a man having a strange dream. This version was completed in April 1936. I haven’t found when the play went into rehearsals (it was  probably before April), but a dress rehearsal was held on May 13 and was promptly banned after that.
Gaidai’s film of the play introduced a large number of changes and innovations. Not surprisingly, in it the characters travel back and forth between the 16th century and the 1970s, rather than the 1930s of Bulgakov’s original.

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Gaidai (1923-1993) was one of the most beloved makers of comedies in the Soviet era. I think we would be safe in calling them screwball comedies. He made approximately 20 films between 1955 and 1992. Ivan Vasilyevich Changes his Profession was the last in a fivesome of unsurpassed successes. The run began in 1965 with Operation Y, and Shurik’s Other Adventures, hitting stride with The Captive Girl of the Caucausus (1966, aka Kidnapping, Caucasian Style), The Diamond Hand (1968) and The Twelve Chairs (1971, not to be mistaken, of course, for Mel Brooks’ Hollywood version of this classic comic novel by Ilf and Petrov). Every one of these films is spoken of with the greatest love and reverence by virtually anyone who has grown up in the Soviet Union or Russia since the 1960s. The films are wacky, off the wall and fast-paced, and Ivan Vasilyevich is no different.
What is interesting about Ivan Vasilyevich Changes his Profession is that Gaidai – despite the wave of success he was enjoying at the time – apparently had a difficult time casting it. He wrote the script with the great clown and actor Yury Nikulin in mind, but Nikulin – who had starred with such success in The Diamond Hand – curiously wanted nothing to do with the project. According to Russian Wikipedia, the reason for Nikulin’s reticence was that he didn’t expect this film featuring a satirical vision of Ivan the Terrible ever to pass the censor, and he had no desire to waste his time making a film no one would see. Frankly, that sounds a little simplistic to me, but I have no reason to buck Wikipedia’s received wisdom.
Another eight actors – most of them big stars – auditioned for the lead, which was a dual role of Ivan the Terrible and one of the hapless Soviet citizens being sent back into the past. They included Yevgeny Yevstigneev, Georgy Vitsin and Yevgeny Lebedev – all of them legends in their own right. However, the part eventually fell to Yury Yakovlev, who emerged in the 1970s as one of Soviet cinema’s finest lyrical/comic actors.
Of course, it is Gaidai’s film, and not Bulgakov’s original play, that made the Novatek artists want to memorialize the character of Ivan the Terrible in the series of Bulgakov-inspired bas reliefs that still dot the city of Moscow today. Bulgakov only returned to Russian readers in the 1960s when the unofficial ban on his works was lifted. As such, Gaidai’s film of the obscure Ivan Vasilyevich Changes his Profession was the first successful film adaptation of the writer’s works. It helped cement the writer’s fast-growing reputation as the people’s favorite.

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Sergei Gandlevsky readings, Hanover NH

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Sergei Gandlevsky (born 1952) is one of the most respected Russian poets of our time. He is often mentioned together with Dmitry Prigov (1940-2007) and Lev Rubinstein (born 1947), although that may just be internet laziness, whereby everyone (myself included, now) just copies what someone else writes. Gandlevsky has been represented well in English. His poetry has been translated by American poet Philip Metres, and Metres has accompanied Gandlevsky on at least two reading tours of the United States, once in 2003, another time in 2005. According to notes published by John Carroll University in December 2015, Metres is now completing a memoir of his travels with Gandlevsky, tentatively to be titled Moscow on the Cuyahoga: On the Road with a Russian Poet. It would appear you can read a brief excerpt from this book in Cleveland Magazine.  Here is the beginning of the piece:
I wanted to impress him the way you want to impress a father, having just settled into a new city and taken my first real job.
He was Sergey Gandlevsky, a famous Russian poet whose work I’d been translating for 10 years, who once took me under his grubby wing when I visited him in Moscow.
Now we sped from Cleveland Hopkins Airport on bridges over industrial steelworks still puffing like geriatric asthmatic dragons, yellowing the gray skies. I longed to show him the beautiful of Cleveland, but there was no way around the gaps in the mouth of this city, its industrial-hangover breath.
Gandlevsky nodded at smokestacks and industrial plants sprawling in the valley. ‘Just like home,’ he said.”
Metres has published a collection of his translations of Gandlevsky’s poetry as A Kindred Orphanhood (2003). One of several interviews he has done can be found in The Conversant.  Susanne Fusso published a translation of Gandlevsky’s creative autobiography Trepanation of the Skull in 2014.  A review of it in World Literature Today begins:
Nearly all the recognizable elements of Russian literature can be found within the pages of Sergey Gandlevsky’s autobiographical novel, Trepanation of the Skull—dangerous amounts of vodka, Pushkin, a duel (of sorts), doses of superstition, pathos, cynicism, pessimism, fatalism, byzantine bureaucracy, and, most profoundly, the struggle to reconcile unjustified suffering with an omnipotent god.”
I have never crossed Gandlevsky’s path, although we have walked the same corridors many times in many places. As an editor of the respected Foreign Literature thick journal, he had an office just a few blocks down the road from where I currently live on Pyatnitskaya Street. I wrote about those offices (which recently moved to a new location) a year or two ago in this space. I would go there from time to time to hang out with my friend, the prose writer and playwright Maxim Osipov, who also had a small working office there. Max would mention Gandlevsky and wave his hand, as if to illustrate that the poet was just a few doors down. Other corridors I have shared with Gandlevsky are those leading to the Princeton University office of my old friend and former roommate Michael Wachtel; the aisles at Schoenhof’s bookstore in Cambridge, MA, across the street from Harvard University; and the Russian department at Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH, where I spent three weeks with the New York Theater Workshop in the summer of 2015. You can see a photo of Gandlevsky in Michael Wachtel’s office in a photo gallery of the 2005 Gandlevsky-Metres tour, while an old listserve announcing the 2003 tour indicates that Gandlevsky read his poetry at the legendary Schoenhof’s the very next day after his Dartmouth appearance. I spent half of my life at Schoenhof’s when doing my PhD at Harvard in the 1980s.

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To the best of my ability to ascertain, Gandlevsky’s reading at Dartmouth would have taken place in the old Russian Department building at 44 North College Street. The department has moved to another building these days, but John Kopper, the department chair, told me that this lovely colonial structure pictured here today would have been the site of Gandlevsky’s visits. That photo gallery I mentioned of the 2005 tour includes a rather nondescript photo of the poet at Dartmouth.
Thanks to the listserve announcement I link to above we can pinpoint Gandlevsky’s first visit to Dartmouth as November 14, 2003. We can even fix the time of the reading at 4 p.m.
Gandlevsky shared a relationship of mutual admiration with the Russian emigre poet Lev Loseff, who was the chairman of the Russian Department at Dartmouth for many years. (See my blog about Loseff on this site.) Gandlevsky wrote a highly-regarded introductory essay, “An Uncruel Talent,” to a collection of Loseff’s poetry published in St. Petersburg in 2012, and Loseff, in his own turn, had written a poem, “Strolling With Gandlevsky,” a decade or so before that. Since I live in the neighborhood next to Yakimanka, mentioned here as Gandlevsky’s home turf, I provide the whole poem, as translated by G.S. Smith, for your perusal. It’s just one more bit of proof that Sergei Gandlevsky and I keep circling around one another, entirely incapable of ending up in the same place at the same time.

Sergei, I recall your Tartar-style yard,
threading back from the Yakimanka,
and your little white boxer lifting his paw
to the old farewell march, the ‘Slavyanka’.

The April-time blah blended in with the brass,
the corpulent tubes blew their noses,
as if we had managed to make a sly pass
into 1913, from those closed-in

Tartar back yards, and rear-entrance ways,
with wind licking over the ice skim,
past trashcan cats with vigilant gaze —
then we waved down a lift (unofficial),

bowled bold through the puddles to Trubnaya Place,
at an inn left a bottle much dryer,
and set free some birds, from one rouble apiece,
and higher, and higher, and higher.

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Pushkin and Gorky Posters, Moscow

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What better way to do a dirty deed than to cover it up with Alexander Pushkin? That is, if you can cover it up. Some things just can’t be hidden.
Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin is going to improve the city he runs come hell or high water. And the best way for him to do that – as he has proved many times in the past – is to make life as difficult for the city’s residents as he possibly can. Like, first turn every nook and cranny of the city’s streets into income-generating parking spaces. Then, narrowing half the city’s streets to wipe out those income-generating parking spaces (after sucking money from the populace for a year or two), so that you can neither park your car anywhere, nor can you drive anywhere with any speed because the streets are so narrow they’re always jammed. Stores, restaurants and cafes that people used to be able to stop in and patronize are empty and going out of business because there’s no place to park your car anymore.
Sobyanin has decided to undo what Joseph Stalin did back in the 1930s. Stalin went to great lengths to widen Tverskaya Street, Moscow’s main drag, even going so far as to put buildings on rollers and roll them back 16 to 20 meters (tearing down churches that were in the way, of course). Now, Sobyanin has decided to narrow the street back down again. He’s turning much of the thoroughfare into a fashionable walking and bicycle zone. I’m assuming he’ll plant trees, but one is often loathe in this nation to assume anything of such a modestly positive nature. Just a few years ago Sobyanin already “improved” Tverskaya by putting in new parking spaces and trees. They are all gone now. For at least the next few months there is hardly anywhere to walk on Tverskaya between the Kremlin and a block  past Pushkin Square, nor is there any place to drive. There is constant gridlock on Tverskaya these days.
Which brings me back to my first comment above – if you’re going to spit in people’s faces, why not do it in a cultured way, right? Make their lives miserable and shove Pushkin and Maxim Gorky down their throats while you’re at it. Actually, there are four figures that the authorities decided would make Muscovites’ lives more pleasant while Tverskaya is an absolute and total mess – Pushkin, Gorky,  Ivan Filippov and Grigory Yeliseev. Filippov (1824-1978) was a famous baker and merchant who controlled much of the commercial space on Tverskaya in his day. Yeliseev (1864-1949) headed up the family concern that opened and ran the famous Yeliseev grocery store on Tverskaya Street until the Revolution put the store in the hands of the state. Muscovites, however, never accepted the new name of Gastronom No. 1, and called it “Yeliseevsky” throughout the Soviet era, even as they do now, after the original name has been restored. Pushkin and Gorky need no particular introduction, but they are held up as decoration to this construction project for specific reasons.

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Gorky, of course, lent his name to Tverskaya Street for many decades during the Soviet period. Curiously, I’m having trouble nailing down the actual dates when Tverskaya was renamed Gorky Street. Russian Wikipedia and other sites tell us it was in 1932. Other seemingly trustworthy sources say it was 1935. In either case, Gorky didn’t die until June 18, 1936, so the authorities had figuratively put his feet in cement already when he was still kicking.
The Gorky banner on Tverskaya declares that the street was renamed for the writer in 1932, but do we accept that information? After all, earlier in the text we can read this carefully worded description that, in fact, distorts the truth seriously. “Considered the founder of Soviet literature, M. Gorky went abroad for health reasons in 1921 and only in 1928, at the invitation of the Soviet government, came to Moscow for a short while. Thousands of Muscovites met him ceremoniously on the square in front of the Belorussia train station.”
The problem with that is that the real reason Gorky remained abroad in the 1920s was because he was highly skeptical of what was happening following the Revolution, and had had serious disagreements with his former friend Vladimir Lenin. So what we have here today on Tverskaya Street is a whitewashing of the facts. But, then, tell me something new.
The text accompanying the Pushkin banner is less controversial. Let me reproduce it in full:
Tverskaya Street played an important role in the life of the famous poet. Whenever he came to Moscow he customarily stayed in one of the local hotels, spent time at balls hosted by General-Governer D.V. Golitsyn (bldg. 13), and regularly visited the literary salon of Countess Zinaida Volkonskaya (bldg. 14). It is said that, not far away, on Tverskoi Boulevard, the poet, for the first time, saw his future wife Natalya Goncharova. In 1880 a monument to Pushkin, financed by a subscription conducted by graduates of the Tskarskoe Selo Lyceum, was erected on Tverskoi Boulevard just across the way from Gorky Street (now Tverskaya). However, in one night’s time in 1950 it was moved to the square which had been created on the spot where Strastnoi Monastery had been razed.”
Since we began with a few snide comments about “General-Governor” Sobyanin, I can’t help but recall here another of his recent “great deeds,” now fixed forever in the history books as The Night of the Long Scoops, a bitter take-off on Hitler’s Night of the Long Knives. On the Night of the Long Scoops, Feb. 8 to 9, 2016, Sobyanin’s henchmen, wielding skip loaders, wiped out nearly 100 small stores and kiosks around Moscow, virtually without warning. Most still had their wares inside, a few had people. Just as it was in Stalin’s time, it’s the way things are done in Moscow/Russia these days. Somebody somewhere in a big office decides something – wipe out someone’s livelihood, destroy the city’s historical layout, or snarl city traffic – and it’s done overnight.
One final note in the event that you are unconvinced by my argument that the current Moscow authorities are barbarians hiding behind the cultural luster of bakers, grocers and writers. Consider this: During the digs accompanying the current reconfigurations of Tverskaya Street, the spectacular discovery of an ancient 16th to 17th-century wooden sidewalk was made. But no sooner had they found it than than they busted the thing up and went on about their business of “improving” Moscow. There are some excellent photos of the sidewalk, which, as the blogger Anna Nikolaeva suggests, had survived the Time of Troubles, the Napoleon Fire and German bombs, but could not survive Sergei Sobyanin’s urban improvements. Yeah, but we got Pushkin! Yeah, but we got Gorky!

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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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