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Ivan Lebedeff home, Los Angeles

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I’ve written about Ivan Lebedeff here in the past; he was a marvelous character, one of the defining figures of the so-called “White emigration” in Hollywood in the early years. Never famous in the direct sense of the word, he was ever-present on the star scene. He always had a starlet at his arm, his mustachio, like his monocle, was always in perfect position, and he himself was always at the hottest premiere or the coolest bar and restaurant where the tinsel shimmered and glittered in the warm Southern California summer breezes. Looking for something new to write about him today, I happened upon a web book called Who’s Who in California (Volume 1942-43), which has a wealth of details I had not previously discovered. In addition to confirming that Lebedeff lived at 8888 Appian Way in the Hollywood Hills, it provides many specifics about his life in Russia before he emigrated.
He received a Master of Literature degree at the age of 20 at the University of St. Petersburg in 1914, following that with a Master of Law degree from the Imperial Lyceum of Alexander I (St. Petersburg) in 1917. It was a propitious time for a nobleman to receive such a status, since just months later the Russian Revolution swept the standing government out of power.
Lebedeff was a much-decorated soldier. His military service began when he enlisted as a volunteer in the 3rd Regiment of Dragoons, with which he participated in the East Prussian campaign. In 1915 he was appointed Commander of Guerilla troops in the Pinsk Marshes, and, in that capacity, led his men on over one hundred raids. 1916 was an active year for Lebedeff as World War I continued to unfold. That year he received the commission of 2nd, then 1st Lieutenant, participated in the capture of German Lieutenant-General Von Fabarius (read more about that here), and was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant-Captain. In 1917 he fought on the Rumanian front and was promoted to the rank of Major. His awards and medals included: St. George Medal, 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th Class; St. George Cross, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Class; St. Stanislaus, 2nd and 3rd Class; St. Anna, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Class; St. Vladimir, 4th Class; and the Order of the Knight of St. George, 4th Class.
One has the feeling that Lebedeff himself provided all this information for the book; it’s otherwise too detailed and complete to believe that some researcher would have unearthed all this for the book on his or her own. As such, one can almost picture Lebedeff pulling down a dusty old box from a high shelf somewhere in this house at 8888 Appian Way, and looking over all his medals as he carefully jotted them down in a list to send to the editors. Even though most refugees from the Soviet Union left with little on their backs, one feels certain that Lebedeff, who clearly put a great deal of stock in his years as a soldier for the Tsar, would have left behind much, but not those medals. In fact, Lebedeff only lists two organizations of which he was a member in these years, and one of them was the Russian World War Veterans (an honorary membership). The other was the Motion Pictures Actors Guild.

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Unexpected for me was the fact that Lebedeff was an oft-published author of fiction and non-fiction.  He wrote the original story for The Gay Diplomat, a 1931 film in which he performed as an actor. He was also the author of a novel titled Legion of Dishonor (NY: Liveright Publishing Co., 1940). The book can even be had today online for a very reasonable $10. A rarer copy is available for $85 should you be a collector. His interest in foreign affairs led to him penning an essay titled “Japan will swallow China” for the Los Angeles Times (Dec. 6, 1931). Lebedeff had been inclined to test his powers as a writer even before he left Russia. He wrote the short stories “Temple of Beauty,” Nurse Natasha,” and “Woman and Tiger” in the years 1915-16. (The source suggests these tales were published in “Lyceum Monthly,” although my brief internet research does not turn up any reference to such a historical publication.) (Add note: see comment below by LanguageHat to clarify this publication.) On military affairs Lebedeff published “Psychological Strategy in Guerilla Warfare” (New Time; St. Petersburg, 1916), and the apparently prescient “Second World War Inevitable” in the Revue de Deux Mondes (Paris, 1923).
To fill out the wealth of information provided in this book, we shall add that Lebedeff enjoyed horse-riding and hunting, he was a member of the Russian-Orthodox Church (it actually says the “Greek Orthodox Church”), and the Republican Party. I provided information in the last blog about Lebedeff that he was a close friend of, God forbid, Ayn Rand, and that he had friends among fascists in Germany. Times were tough, we do need to remember that.
Finally, the book lists 8888 Appian Way as Lebedeff’s home and business address.
The Movieland Directory puts Lebedeff in this house from 1944 to 1948, based on voting records. It puts him at other addresses, including 8419 De Longpre Ave. in the 1930s and up to at least 1940 (again, as per voting records). But we know from the book referenced so heavily above that that he was resident at 8888 Appian Way at least as early as 1942-43. Lebedeff, born in 1894, died in 1953. I do not know if he was still resident here for those last five years of his life. At present (2018), the home on Appian Way has four bedrooms, one bath, and consists of 1,690 square feet of living space on a lot of 6,842 square feet. As you can see in one of the last photos below, it looks out over the Los Angeles basin from the Hollywood Hills.

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Lyubov Orlova statue, Zvenigorod

 

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My wife and I happened to drive through Zvenigorod a few weeks ago, and who should I see when we stopped to make a left turn, but Lyubov Orlova. I’m probably the last person – in Russia, at least – who did not now that the popular actress, the Soviet Union’s first sex symbol, was born in Zvenigorod, a sleepy little town due west of Moscow. The statue is relatively new – it was unveiled September 10, 2016. To be entirely honest, I can’t say I’m much of a fan. Sculptor Alexander Rozhnikov seems to have conjured all the kitsch he could muster. It doesn’t help that the square on which the statue is located is terribly nondescript. Bits and pieces of Zvenigorod have the feel of a cozy old Russian town, but not the area that is dominated by the Lyubov Orlova Cultural Center. That building – the creme colored structure behind the statue – is as faceless as everything else on this block. As for the statue, it shows Orlova in a “typical” glamour shot – one hand behind the back of her head, the other saucily planted on her left hip. Presumably the image is inspired by Orlova’s performance in her first major film – Jolly Fellows (1934). In any case, in that film she wore a similar top hat with a feather on the left-hand side, as you see in the photos of the sculpture here. I have to take issue with my old friend Nonna Golikova, Orlova’s great-niece, who said at the unveiling that the dress made of film reels “is a very precise metaphor, wonderful!” I’m more inclined to say that the dress flowing down into rolls of film is about as cliched as one could get. As for Orlova’s face, is it generic or is it completely lacking in character? Sorry folks, I just can’t get behind this one at all.
Having said that, I have to admit it was a thrill to run across something like this in a small Russian town. The Orlova Cultural Center tells us that this is the first and the only statue honoring Orlova in Russia.
Orlova was born on the summer estate belonging to her mother Yevgenia Sukhotina in Zvenigorod in 1902 – February 11 according to the Grigorian calendar, January 29 by the Julian calendar, which was in effect in Russia at that time. Both her mother and her father Pyotr Orlov were from noble families. They were sufficiently well-known and well-placed in society that Fyodor Chaliapin was a frequent family guest in Zvenigorod when Orlova was a girl. According to legend, she once performed in a children’s production at Chaliapin’s home in Moscow, making an indelible impression on the great singer. Here is the account of that great event from the Lyubov Orlova website.
At his Moscow home on Novinsky Boulevard Fyodor Ivanovich Chaliapin often organized holidays for children. Sometimes they staged children’s plays. Lyubochka Orlova participated in one of these productions, the musical fairy tale Mushroom Trouble. She was then no more than six years old. The performance was carefully prepared, rehearsals were conducted, the little performers were outfitted in fine costumes. The production was prepared by two directors: Chaliapin’s wife Ilya Ilyaevna and Alexander Adashev, an actor of the Moscow Art Theater. Lyubochka performed the role of the Turnip, and her singing and dancing charmed the audience. Following the performance, Chaliapin picked the girl up in her magnificent pink dress and shouted: ‘This girl will be a famous actress!“‘

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Be that as it may, Orlova’s parents were not convinced that their daughter’s future lay in acting, and they sent her to the Moscow Conservatory in 1919 where she studied piano for three years. She did not complete her education there, however. Some sources say that her musical ear was damaged due to an illness and she could not continue, while others suggest that the hard times hitting Russia in 1922 forced her to go out into the world and earn a living. She did, however, switch over to what we now know as GITIS (the state theater institute) to complete her education. Upon graduating from GITIS Orlova joined the company of the Moscow Art Theater strictly as a dancer in the corps de ballet. From 1920 to 1926 she earned extra cash by accompanying silent films at various Moscow cinemas as a pianist. Apparently the one she most often played at was the Ars cinema on Tverskaya Street. It so happens that I now work for the theater – the Stanislavsky Electrotheatre – that is located in that very space. Orlova was famously discovered by the filmmaker Grigory Alexandrov in 1933, and he cast her in Jolly Fellows, his first full-length film, making both of them overnight legends. They were married that same year and remained together until Orlova’s death in 1975.
The Orlova family, in addition to counting Chaliapin among their friends, were also related to Leo Tolstoy by way of Orlova’s mother’s family. Orlova’s great-Uncle Mikhail Sukhotin married Tolstoy’s daughter Tatyana in 1899. Supposedly, Orlova would bounce on Leo’s knee when he came to visit. She owned a copy of Tolstoy’s The Prisoner of the Caucasus, which he signed and presented to her, although it’s possible that she herself had little to do with that gift. One can find a story which states that Orlova’s mother actually wrote to Tolstoy asking him to send her daughter the gift. According to this source, “The fact is that her mother was an incredibly vain woman who composed family legends and did shocking things on behalf of her daughters.” Still, we are inclined to take Orlova’s own account into consideration. This is what she wrote about the gift in 1945. “One day my mother let me read Tolstoy’s children’s stories. I liked them very much, and I asked her to give me another book. Mother did not have anything more like it. So I said I would write to Grandpa Tolstoy and ask him to send me another book. Mother laughed, but let me do it, and I wrote the following: ‘Dear Grandfather Tolstoy! I read your book. I liked it very much. Please send me another of your books to read.’ Responding to this child’s request, the great writer sent as a gift the book The Prisoner of the Caucasus with the inscription, ‘To Lyubochka – L. Tolstoy.’

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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!

 

 

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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