Category Archives: Various

Lidia Yavorskaya, London

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I have Natalia Dissanayake and her wonderful book Russian Lives in London (Russkie sud’by v Londone) to thank for today’s post. The photos have been lying around in my archive for several years, waiting for a reason to be used. Surely I had a reason to take them – there must have been some Russia-connected event that took place here at some time – mostly likely a performance of the Ballet Russes. Then I happened to pick up Dissanayake’s book the other day and, as I often do, I leafed through the pages looking for interesting stories. It’s chock full of them, I’m never disappointed. And sure enough, on pages 290 to 292 I came upon the tale of Lidia Yavorskaya, about whom I knew very little other than the fact that history claims she was a model for Anton Chekhov’s Arkadina.
Yavorskaya was a star in Moscow at the turn from the 19th to the 20th century, and she had a good deal of success in London as well. Born in Kiev in 1871, she studied with Vladimir Davydov in St. Petersburg, and in Paris with François Jules Edmond Got, an actor of the Comédie-Française. With her parents opposing her desire to be an actress, she simply forged ahead. She married – against her parents’ will – and quickly divorced him when it became clear he did not support her either. She debuted in 1893 in the city we now know as Tallinn, Estonia, and quickly found herself playing star roles in Moscow at the famed independent (non-state) Korsh Theater. Two years later Alexei Suvorin invited her to St. Petersburg to take the lead with his troupe in the Literary-Art Circle Theater. She remained in St. Petersburg for over a decade, continuing her successes. However, she once again showed her independence by taking the brave step of leaving her position at the theater when she refused to perform in a play that she deemed to be anti-semitic. She performed for several years in a theater of her own making, the Novy, or New, Theater, where she favored cutting-edge, contemporary drama – Anton Chekhov, Lev Tolstoy, Maxim Gorky, Henrik Ibsen, plus plays by her husband Vladimir Baryatinsky. According to Dissanayake, the New Theater was particularly popular with young people. However Yavorskaya and Baryatinsky struck out in 1907 on a series of tours that took them to Russian provincial cities as well as, eventually, Vienna, Paris and London. It was in 1909 that they arrived in London. According to Dissanayake:
“[Yavorskaya’s] small troupe had such success at His Majesty’s Theatre on Haymarket Street, that people began urging the actress to perform in English. She spoke French and German fluently, but she had to put a good deal of work into her English pronunciation and, despite excellent results, she limited herself to playing foreigners. She debuted in John Pollock’s Rosamund and a one-act play by her husband, Nablotsky’s Career, at the Little Theatre on what was then known as John Street. There she also played Nina Zarechnaya in The Seagull, and at the Kingsway Theatre staged the first production in England of Chekhov’s vaudeville The Bear.”
So, there we have Yavorskaya at His Majesty’s Theatre, as it was known from 1901 to 1952. It is, of course, currently known as Her Majesty’s Theatre.

Life, however, interrupted what looked like was going to be a sustained period of success for Yavorskaya. Her husband, homesick, headed back to St. Petersburg at the beginning of World War I. She followed him, but was blindsided when he asked for a divorce in 1916. The Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church granted Baryatinsky’s request and forbade Yavorskaya from remarrying for some time. She, however, always the rebel, headed back to London in 1918 after getting the Russian government to remove the ban, and married the playwright John Pollock in 1920. She died a year later of throat cancer at the age of 50. She is buried in a church cemetery in Old Shoreham, Sussex.
There are plenty of opinions about Yavorskaya. One Russian site boils down many of them into a single paragraph:
The popular dramatic actress Lidia Yavorskaya was one of the most controversial figures in the theatrical world of the early 20th century. One could not deny her astonishing work ethic and dedication, but that was combined with vanity, egocentrism and ambition. Theater critic Suvorin called her a phony creature, made of pretense and envy. Chekhov considered her an intelligent woman, but an overly loud and mannered actress. Despite this, they had an affair and it is said that Yavorskaya served as the prototype for Arkadina in Chekhov’s The Seagull.”
Other sites collect a whole bunch of catty comments about Yavorskaya by famous or semi-famous people. But if you know how to read these things, you see the limitation is stronger on the part of the writer or speaker than on the part of the individual being described. There is something mean and petty in a lot of the comments. I suspect we see more of the actress in Dissanayake’s description of her:
She was very interesting, with big, gray-blue, ‘mermaid’ eyes, a quick smile, golden curls, a beautiful figure, light, energetic movements and a kind of snake-like grace. Those who loved her said, ‘She’s no beauty, she’s better.'”
After returning to London in 1918 Yavorskaya was very outspoken in her opposition to the new Soviet regime, even as she did much to collect money to help feed the hungry in the Soviet Union. She was the chair of the Britain-Poland-Galicia fond, and she created the Society for Aid to Russian Artists, Victims of the Bolshevik Regime.
The anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin dubbed her Lidia Miss Freedom (Lidia Svobodnitsa) for her convictions and actions.
In her final years, Yavorskaya continued to perform in London at such venues as the Royalty Theatre on Dean St., the Coliseum on St. Martin’s Lane, the Ambassadors Theatre on West Street, the Scala on Charlotte Street, and elsewhere. It was at these latter two venues that she performed the title role in Anna Karenina, one of the highlights of her career.


Monument to Nikolai Leskov’s Lefty, Tula

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It has gone under a lot of different titles in English, but Nikolai Leskov’s popular tale about a metal-working craftsman is known just one way in Russian – as one of the iconic short stories in the canon. That’s no mean feat. Figure that any course in Russian short fiction of the 19th century will include works by Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Ivan Turgenev, Anton Chekhov and a few others… No shabby competition.
Leskov was a fabulous writer. He’s hell to translate because he wrote in a colloquial narrative that is so rich in Russian it rattles off your tongue in big, clattering chunks and juicy drops. In literary criticism there is even a term to describe Leskov’s (and not only Leskov’s) manner of writing – skaz. I’m not going to be able to translate that for you either, except to say that’s what we mean by the phrase “colloquial narrative.” Skaz literally means something like tale or telling (it comes from the verb “to say”). It also can mean “a” or “the tale,” which is how Leskov employs it in his title of this story, “The Tale of Cross-eyed Lefty from Tula and of the Steel Flea.” Leskov wrote the story in 1881 and, as far as I can determine, it was first translated into English by Isabel F. Hapgood in 1916. She called it merely “The Steel Flea.” I must say, because I love it so much, that this translation of the story was, as the title page declares, “privately printed for the Company of Gentlemen Adventurers at the Merrymount Press, Boston.” (Wikipedia prints a picture of the title page.) That’s right, that’s the kind of gentlemen adventurers we used to have in the United States! They craved stories by one of Russia’s most untranslatable writers. These days it takes Oprah to say Anna Karenina to get anyone to read a Russian book. Ekh!
Anyway, here is the story about Lefty (Levsha) in short.
The Russian Tsar traveled to England where he encountered an astonishing thing – a minuscule dancing, mechanical flea. So amazed was he that he brought the little engineering miracle home with him to see if some Russian master could equal or better the feat. The mechanical flea is naturally sent to the city of Tula, which was, is and always will be famed around Russia for its metal works. This is where most of Russia’s weaponry was and still is made. The city’s buttons pop with pride for the guns, swords, tanks and samovars that their metal factories turn out.
Anyway, the job of besting the Brits is turned over to three of the best metalworkers in town. They hole themselves up and go to work in secret. Eventually, they emerge, flushed and exhausted. When the fruits of their labors are delivered to the Tsar – Lefty, one of the trio, was chosen to go to Moscow to show off their work – everyone is disappointed. They can’t see that anything has been done to better the mechanical flea. That is when Lefty puts the Emperor in his place: “Take a closer look,” he says. “You just haven’t noticed yet.” That is when, with the help of a strong magnifying glass, the Sovereign realizes that his Russian craftsmen have put tiny little shoes on the tiny little mechanical flea. Moreover, each has left his signature on the shoes.  Lefty himself made the nails that attached the shoes to the flea’s feet, and they are so small that you can’t even see them. Nobody seems to care much that the mechanical flea will no longer dance…
The story goes on. Lefty is sent to England, which he doesn’t like and, on his way home, he befriends a British sailor with whom he drinks a bit too much. The result is that he is thrown in jail in St. Petersburg where he is left to die. It’s a Russian story, of course, so it goes on even further, but now it’s up to you to find the story and read it yourself if you want to know it. Isabel F. Hapgood’s translation for those gentlemen adventurers can be read online, should you wish to do that.

The monument to Lefty in Tula now stands on a small plaza on Sovetskaya Street just across from the Svyato-Nikolsky cathedral, south of the Upa River, and right at the perimeter of the huge Levsha (Lefty) Armory Company. It was originally erected on the grounds of the Tula Machine-Building Plant in 1989, coming a little too late to mark the 100th anniversary of the publishing of Leskov’s story. It was moved to its current location in 2009 so that mere mortals would be able to see it (it was behind a locked gate in its original location). It’s nice to note that the statue was created by a local sculptor, an employee of the metalworks, Bronislav Krivokhin. The base of the pedestal bears quotes from various local celebrities who have had their say about the story or about the fame of Tula’s metalworks. The quote I show in a photo below is from Leskov’s story. It reads, “Look at that, why don’t you! Why, those sly dogs, they have shoed that English flea with shoes!”
I’m not quite sure I can get behind the enthusiastic descriptions of the monument made by local observers. First, the location for the statue is anything but ideal. It feels rather out of place – there’s a high fence right behind it, and the square in front of it has no aesthetic structure to it at all. Lefty looks rather like he’s been hung out to dry here, as, indeed, he was in the original story.
As for Lefty himself, he’s looking pretty heroic here to me. He’s got that blank Soviet gaze into the future as he looks upon the fruits of his labor. His expression is deadly serious, his hair is well-coiffed. He’s got the body of Adonis. He’s got buns like a ballet dancer. His left arm, holding his work tool, is ready to go back to work at any moment. I don’t quite see the “cross-eyed” Tulan metal worker here. One website writes: “An inimitable facial expression conveys the hero’s inner state. The whole figure radiates positive contentment and pride.” I’ll agree with that first phrase, but the second, I don’t believe, is in the favor of this piece of public art. In any case, we all understand that the city and the factory needed what they needed, and so that is what they got…
Having said all that – I love the idea of the monument. In fact, I got a big kick out of the monument itself. I love the idea of a monument to a literary figure. I would say it is an even bigger sign of Leskov’s accomplishment than if they would have erected a bust or sculpture of him. When your literary creations live their own life to the extent that Lefty does, that’s success. My hat’s off to Tula for putting this statue up, no matter what I say about it.



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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Alexander Grin river boat, Moscow River

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DSCN9795 DSCN9797  My wife Oksana and I recently took up a perch overlooking the Moscow River. Well, it’s not actually the Moscow River. In this particular place it is called the Moscow Canal and just beyond it, on the other side of the bridge, it’s called the Klyazma Reservoir. But it looks and acts and smells (ever so sweetly) like a river to us, and so we call it a river. One of the reasons we feel entirely entitled to do that is because enormous ships navigate the waterways here daily. Huge barges, motor boats, sail boats, yachts, steamboats, houseboats and cargo boats go up the river, down the river, up the river, down the river. I would guess that at least a half-dozen times a day, if not more, we see huge passenger liners going by. They are among our favorites, in part because many have wonderful names – the good ships Mstislav Rostropovich, Igor Stravinsky, Andrei Rublyov, Sergei Yesenin, Mikhail Bulgakov, Nikolai Gogol, Nikolai Karamzin, Alexander Radishchev, Ivan Krylov to name a few. As you see in the final two shots below, Alexander Pushkin and Nikolai Chernyshevsky have their very own liners named after them. Regardless of what they’re called, every time we see one coming or going we run to the windows and hang on the windowsill, just watching the river flow and watching the ship sail on it.
After awhile I began to think – there may be something to write about here. But the Alexander Pushkin? I’ve written about him a million times and I have another million photos involving him that are still waiting to be written about. It’s the same, to lesser degrees, in regards to Bulgakov, Rostropovich, Gogol, Stravinsky and others. But then one day, a few days ago, the perfect boat came chugging down the river, heading in towards Moscow from St. Petersburg. Hoping for something good, I began photographing it before its name came into view. And when the ship did come abreast of me, I was thrilled – it was the Alexander Grin! What a perfect combination! And I’ve never seen any plaque or monument in the cities I’ve inhabited or visited that would give me an opportunity to share a few stories about this fantastic writer.
Alexander Grin (1880-1932) was the son of Stefan Hryniewski, a Pole who had been sent into “eternal exile” in Siberia. As such Alexander’s real last name in Russian was Grinevsky. He appears to have been a restless soul, trying out all kinds of different professions and places of residence. Among his jobs were: woodsman, fisherman, railroad worker, gold miner, bookbinder, scribe and many more. At the age of 16 he set out for the great port city of Odessa with the idea in mind of becoming a sailor. According to Russian Wikipedia, however, Grin was a lousy sailor. On his first voyage he got in an argument with the captain, jumped ship and went home. Before long he was drawn into Russia’s nascent revolutionary movement and he ended up being arrested numerous times for his activities – in various cities such as Kamyshin, Sebastopol and St. Petersburg. In 1905 he was convicted to four years in prison near Tobolsk, but escaped within three days (his dad helped him obtain a false passport). Three years earlier he had deserted his post when serving in the army…
I toss all this together in a jumble in order to declare what should be obvious by now: the only thing Grin was really good for and at, and the only thing he really could do, or wanted to do, was to write. And, indeed, over the last 25 years of his life, Grin became one of the most interesting, beloved and unique writers in the Russian literary canon.

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Encyclopedias tell us about the neoromantic, psychological, philosophical, symbolist, mystical and fantastic elements in Grin’s writings. What most any Russian kid – or adult who has not forgotten his or her childhood – will tell you, though, is that his adventure stories are among the best, most vivid they ever encountered. Although he turned out to be a lousy sailor, some of his best-loved works are about watery voyages. Many of those have been made into popular films, including Scarlet Sails, She Who Runs on Waves, 100 Versts on the River and more. In fact, there have been at least three films made of Scarlet Sails (1961, 1982, 2010), and two of She Who Runs on Waves (1967, 2007).
The world of Grin’s literature (he began writing in 1906) is strange, somewhat foreboding and endlessly attractive. You sense danger in there and you are compelled to move closer to the edge to see what is happening more closely. Many of his works take place in a land that he imagined himself and which came to be known as Grinland (having nothing to do, of course, with Greenland). Notably, virtually none of Grin’s works (he wrote novels, stories and poetry) reflected the life that surrounded him in Russia. This, of course, was a bold, maybe even risky, choice on the part of the writer. In a tradition that (rightly or wrongly) held Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Chekhov and even Gogol on pedestals for the way in which they reflected and commented on the fate of their nation and their people, Grin simply turned his back entirely on reality and used his literature to escape into his own fantasy land. A film of his tale Mister Designer, about an artist who wishes to beat death by means of making sculptures that will live forever, became a huge hit upon release in 1988 and remains a cult favorite today.
Grin did not consider himself the author of fantasies or unreal adventures. He saw himself more as a symbolist. Again I lean on Russian Wikipedia, which has an extraordinarily long and detailed entry on the writer: “Yury Olesha recalled that he once expressed his admiration for the marvelous fantastic idea of a human that flies (“The Brilliant World”), but Grin, in fact, was offended: ‘That is a symbolic novel, not a fantasy novel! That is not a flying person, but rather the soaring of a soul!‘”
During the Soviet years Grin was able to publish only for a short time in the mid-1920s, when the control of the Communist Party was at its laxest. By the late 1920s he was cut off from publishing entirely and his works only began reappearing decades later. He died of cancer of the stomach a month short of his 42nd birthday, in obscurity and poverty. His reputation since then has struggled at times to achieve the respect it deserves. Grin is often referred to as a writer for young adults, but this is a gross simplification. Little by little that prejudice has lost power in recent decades, but Grin still does not fit into the usual overall blueprint of Russian literature. In fact, he was a unique, powerful and talented writer whose imagination has enriched the Russian consciousness for over a century. Sail on, Alexander Grin!

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Diaghilev/Ballets Russes suppliers, London

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There’s no telling how much longer this place will remain, at least in the form it now has. As I was walking around looking for angles from which to photograph the facade of No. 68 Drury Lane in London, a man stopped and asked if he could help me find something. I said, yes, maybe he could. I was looking for No. 68 and I had found Nos. 67 and 69, but there was no No. 68. There was just this unnumbered place between the two. The numbers on the other side of the street were well up into the 100s. So I was pretty sure this was what I wanted, but I wasn’t yet fully convinced. Had I gone up to the door and seen the notice there (see second to last photo, as well as short discussion below), I would have known, but I hadn’t done that yet. So I fell into conversation.
“There was a supplier for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes here,” I said. “I’m pretty sure it was this one here. The house number should be 68.”
“Well,” the man replied, “all the houses are numbered consecutively on this street, so let’s look… Yes,  67 and 69… Yes, so this is what you’re looking for. I live in the next building down, so I know the neighborhood pretty well. What did you say was in here?”
“It was a supplier for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes.”
“My goodness,” the man said. “The Ballets Russes. Right here. And I never knew.” Then after a brief pause, he said, “These buildings are all marked for major reconstruction. They’re going to add a couple of floors on top of each. So they’re not going to look like this much anymore. The Ballets Russes! Somebody should take pictures of these places before they change them.”
“Actually, that’s what I’m doing, ” I said. “I write about buildings and places connected to Russian culture all over the world. I take pictures of these places and I put them on the internet.”
“Well, that’s what people need to do. Take pictures of these places before they are lost!”
And that’s just what I did. They aren’t the most exciting photos I’ve ever taken, but they may turn out to be the last photos taken of this spot more or less as it looked when Brodie and Middleton supplied the Ballets Russes with materials for the making and painting and decorating of sets.

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My photos, unspectacular as they are, capture this place in the first, creeping stages of oblivion. You can find other photos online that still bear the proud name of Brodie and Middleton and Russell and Chapple (late comers after B&M worked with Diaghilev under their own name) emblazoned above the window. You can see those here, if you’re so inclined. In my photos, the name is gone, just the black background left. In the doorway is a sign indicating that “Russell and Chapple” have moved to a new address. Nothing about Brodie and Middleton. At first blush B&M would seem to have fallen by the wayside on their way out of this part of the City of Westminster. So I went to the Russell and Chapple website as listed in the doorway, and, sure enough, found just a sliver of a reference left to the original suppliers, Brodie and Middleton. That moniker remains in the names of a few items that Russell and Chapple continue to provide their customers, such as cellulose varnish, French chalk, Damar crystals, Aqualac matt and gloss glaze, and, perhaps, a few others. Go here to see the name Brodie and Middleton applied to these products. But, lo and behold, Brodie and Middleton is apparently more than just merely a ghost no longer hanging onto its sheet. When I ran a check for this honored name, I came upon a website that looks suspiciously like the Russell and Chapple site, with the same telephone number, the same address, and virtually all of the same products – only without the Russell and Chapple name! So I don’t know what these guys have going, and, frankly, it has nothing anymore to do with the Ballets Russes. So I will let that little mystery remain unexplained and get back to my original topic.
I found this place, as I did numerous others connected to the history of the Ballets Russes, thanks to a very cool page on the website of the Victoria and Albert Museum. It narrates a long walk beginning and ending at the Covent Garden underground stop. In between it offers up 32 addresses, with brief stories, about places that were either important in the history of the Ballets Russes’ connection to London, or which were of minor importance, but fun nonetheless. I only detected a minor error or two in all the information, and most – though not all – of the locations are still there to be seen. This little place, which, under the name of just Brodie and Middleton, supplied Diaghilev’s artists with paints, brushes, pigments, drapes and other materials, will apparently soon join the few other places that have gone the way of all things made by men and women.
For the record, the final shot below is not of Brodie and Middleton or Russell and Chapple. It is merely a shot of the sign designating the street where the old building is located. Since it turned out to be more attractive than the “business” shots, I added it for beauty.

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Russian Literature on Crete, Greece

Crete Bookstore2 Crete Bookstore6Yes, I just happened to be wandering the tiny streets and alleyways of Chania, Crete, Greece, last week, and there he was in all his glory: Ivan Turgenev, or, as the Greeks – Nikos Kazantzakis and Alexandros Papadiamandis among them – would know him: Ιβάν Τουργκένιεφ.
I must admit, I did not recognize the name first, although anyone knowing Russian might be expected to do so relatively quickly, seeing as how written Russian, thanks to efforts of the monks Cyril (Kirill) and Methodius in the 9th century, is built on the basis of the Greek alphabet. But, no, it wasn’t the name that caught my eye: It was the photo of Turgenev, a fairly well-known image, that leaped at me through the window of the Mikro Karavi  (Μικρό Καράβι) bookstore at 59 Daskalogianni Street in the Old City of Chania (that’s pronounced khan-YA). Was this a moment of penance for my having slighted Turgenev a month or so ago in this space? Perhaps. But it is a fact that I reacted to Turgenev’s handsome, cultured and rather melancholy visage as if I had just run across an old friend. I can’t imagine seeing a book by Turgenev displayed prominently in the window of an American bookstore. Let’s not even talk about how long you might have to hunt to find this proverbial American bookstore… It was a jolt of joy.
In any case, Turgenev provided the magnet that made me put the day’s walk on hold for 15 minutes. My wife Oksana and I were headed for the seashore, located about two minutes ahead of us, but I simply could not pass Turgenev by that easily. And when I started to look around I was thrilled to see how prominent the Russians were at this lovely, clean, well-lighted place of a bookshop. Two literary maps on the windows put Leon Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Anton Chekhov, Vladimir Nabakov, Alexander Pushkin and Nikolai Gogol right there in the midst of Haruki Murakami, Jack Kerouac, Ismail Kadare, Amos Oz and many others. But this little ship of books (for that is what mikro karavi means) had more pleasures waiting for me inside, not the least of which was the huge board of writers’ names that hangs behind the cash register. On it, Dostoevsky’s name is matched in size only by those of Euripides, Jorge Luis Borges, Miguel de Cervantes and Omiros (whom you may know better as Homer). A quick search of the shelves – because I’ll admit, the call of the sea was growing stronger – led me to the letter ‘T’ where I found two volumes by Tolstoy (War and Peace and Resurrection) and another by Turgenev (Fathers and Sons). You can see those in the second-to-last photo below.

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There is a good reason why Russian literature would occupy a place of honor not only in Greece, but on Crete specifically, and his name is Nikos Kazantzakis. He was born in the city of Heraklion on Crete, a two hours’ drive to the east of Chania. This was before Crete was part of Greece proper, but that is beyond the pale of my thoughts today. The fact remains that Kazantzakis, one of the great Greek writers, the author of Zorba the Greek, The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, and The Last Temptation of Christ, was deeply affected by Russian culture and literature. One nice little detail that connects Kazantzakis to Chania is that his grave lies near the Chania Gate of the wall surrounding Heraklion. The church refused to allow him to be buried in the city cemetery. Like Leo Tolstoy, who was excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox Church, Kazantzakis had been too much a free-thinker to suit the rigid requirements of the Greek Orthodox Church. According to a wonderful chronology of Kazantzakis’s life, published in The Selected Letters of Nikos Kazantzakis, in October of 1915, Kazantzakis, very much under the influence of Tolstoy’s writings, “decides that religion is more important than literature and vows to begin where Tolstoy left off.”
Kazantzakis had a serious flirtation with Russian culture, and Soviet politics, throughout the 1920s and early 1930s. He traveled to the Soviet Union at least four times between 1925 and 1929 (living and traveling there for a solid 18 months from 1927 to 1929), and he left behind many writings about his experiences. Some were for lectures that he delivered around the world, others were for an Athenian newspaper paying him to send reports, and still others were far more in-depth. Perhaps the peak of Kazantzakis’s involvement with Russian literature came in 1930 when he wrote a two-volume history of the topic.
At one point Kazantzakis had thoughts of settling in the Soviet Union for good. He was witness to a time of turmoil and difficulty. A convinced Communist, he could not have known about the deadly fire that would engulf the next decade and a half in the Soviet Union, but it’s quite clear he was a perceptive observer. On November 4, 1927, he wrote to his future wife Eleni Samiou, “The tempo of Russian life has changed – it’s different from 1925. The official rhythm of life is quieter now; there is a certain embourgeoisement. The arrivistes have arrived and do not budge; the women have begun to descend again to their lowest cravings; the men are tired. Fortunately, the great internal struggle between Trotsky and Stalin lends new life and fire to the Russian soul. This is a critical moment for Russia; everyone expects the Europeans to start a war against them, and every day a horde of women and men queue up at the stores to get an extra supply of flour.”
Thus it is that we now smile as we read Kazantzakis’s references to Moscow as “the red Bethlehem” (as he wrote to Elli Lambridi on the morning of the 10th anniversary of the Revolution). By the end of World War II he had abandoned Communism, though not his leftist beliefs.
Not surprisingly, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky probably had the biggest influence on Kazantzakis of all the Russian writers. He wrote a chapter called “Tolstoy and Dostoevsky” in his book What I Saw in Russia. But he was also moved by the writings of Lev Shestov, the incisive Russian-Jewish philosopher and religious thinker, and Lewis Owens, in his book Creative Destruction: Nikos Kazantzakis and the Literature of Responsibility, devotes an entire chapter to Kazantzakis’s ties to the work of the prominent philosopher Nikolai Berdyayev (usually known as Nicholas Berdyaev in the West). This chapter also notes that Kazantzakis became a close friend of the unique emigre Russian writer Alexei Remizov. In fact, the two were so in synch, that, as we are told, “they never quarreled.” It is interesting to consider and ponder these affinities and friendships, as Shestov, Berdyaev and Remizov were among those who “escaped” the Soviet experiment for the safety of Europe, while their friend Kazantzakis was still very much enthralled with the possibilities of the nation they had given up on and abandoned.

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Anton Chekhov’s dachshunds, Melikhovo

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Let the debates begin!
Are these dachshunds, bassets, badger-dogs, badgerers or turnspits? Frankly, they look like what I called a wiener dog when I was a kid. You can also find “sausage dog” in dictionaries, although, to my mind, that’s not as fun, or as funny, as wiener dog. I’ve seen people nearly come to blows discussing what species of dog these guys might be. I can’t get worked up enough to join the argument.
These pups here are named Brom and Khina (or, more likely, from left, Khina and Brom – see the text after the jump). They belong to the guy who set his hat down on the rock, and that guy, in the grand conception of sculptor Alexander Rozhnikov, is Anton Chekhov. These sculptured pooches, you see, represent real dogs that Anton Chekhov owned when he lived at his suburban Moscow estate of Melikhovo. (You can see the estate’s kitchen and servants’ quarters in the distance through the trees in the two photos immediately below.) Rogozhin’s idea was that Anton was out for a walk with his little friends and found an apple somewhere, picked it up, put it in his hat and then, for reasons that neither art nor history will ever explain for all of eternity, he stepped away and left the dogs alone for a moment. “As such,” Rozhnikov is quoted as saying on a descriptive tablet near the sculpture, “although Chekhov himself is not present in the sculptural composition, his spirit hovers unseen nearby.”
Chekhov’s dogs were the offspring of two other literary canines, Dinka and Pip, who belonged to the St. Petersburg-based playwright, short-story writer and editor Nikolai Leikin. Leikin was Chekhov’s editor for some time at Shards magazine, and the two were good friends. When he – Chekhov – realized his longtime dream of acquiring an estate with land, he promptly set about bringing to fruition another dream: that of owning some pedigreed dogs. He acquired two of Dinka’s and Pip’s pups, transported them to Moscow, and then out to Melikhovo. This would have been in the spring of 1893. According to that informational tablet near the sculpture (let’s be honest, I’m pulling 95% of my info from it today), the dogs immediately took over the rule of the roost. They “barked at the servants, dragged galoshes all over the house, dug up all the flower boxes, and struck fear into the hearts of all the mutts running around the property. Those mutts had never seen such strange dogs.”

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The dogs received their names from Chekhov’s sister Maria, who chose to name them after substances that could be found in Doctor Chekhov’s medicine bag. Brom = bromide; khina = Jesuit’s bark. Apparently as the dogs grew older Chekhov felt it necessary to address them in a more formal manner, and he added patronymics to their names. Thus they became known around Melikhovo as Khina Markovna (Khina, daughter of Mark) and Brom Isaevich (Brom, son of Isiah).
And now let me stop pretending that I am actually writing this post. Better, I think, simply to quote what is left of the text on the tablet.

Chekhov informed Leikin that, “The dachshunds Brom and Khina are well. The former is dexterous and lithe, polite and sensitive. The latter is clumsy, fat, lazy and sly… They both love to weep from an excess of feelings.”
The writer was very partial to his dachshunds. They followed him everywhere, were funny and punctilious. They were allowed to sleep in Anton Pavlovich’s room; he loved having long conversations with them and he staged hilarious homemade plays [
with them]. Mikhail Pavlovich, the youngest of the Chekhov brothers, recalled:
“Brom and Khina were dachshunds, blackish and reddish, while Khina had such short legs that her belly nearly dragged on the ground. Every evening Khina would come up to Anton Pavlovich, put her front paws on his knees and pitifully and loyally stare him in the eyes. He would change his facial expression and, in a shaky, old-man’s voice, would say:
‘Khina Markovna! You poor thing! You should go to the hospital! You would feel better then, yes you would.’
He would spend an entire half hour talking to his dog, thus keeping everyone in the house in stitches. Then it would be Brom’s turn.”
The sculpture of Khina and Brom was unveiled December 22, 2012 and a new tradition began immediately. People rub the dogs’ noses to make their wishes come true. Now Chekhov’s touching and comical dachshunds greet all visitors to the museum at Melikhovo. Gazing at their thoughtful little mugs, one can’t help but remember Chekhov’s words: “crooked paws, long torsos, but uncommonly smart.”

Special readers please note the date that this sculpture was unveiled. If you are one of the special readers, you will recognize this post as a slightly early birthday wish.

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Mikhail Bulgakov mural, Moscow

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I wish there were more of these around Moscow. The city is laid out in such a way that there could be many more full-building murals. There are countless blank and open building walls just waiting to have cool pictures painted on them. Street art, mural art is a wonderful way of personalizing a city. Look how cool this Bob Dylan mural looked in Minneapolis even before it was completed. I have written about several murals in Moscow – including ones depicting Stravinsky and Alexander Pushkin. The one I post today is of Mikhail Bulgakov. It was the first in a series of murals painted in the Heritage project. It was created jointly by the two main (and overlapping, as far as I can tell) “graffiti-advertising” organizations in Moscow – Novotekart and Zuk Club. It is painted on the north-looking wall of the apartment house located at 33 Afanasyevsky Lane in the Arbat district, and it appeared in September 2014. Showing a playful sense of humor, the artists depict Woland’s cat Begemot hanging out up on two stray balconies at the top of the wall. (Woland, of course, being the devilish character in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita who comes to Moscow to do evil, but can do only good….)
Much of the action in The Master and Margarita takes place in this general Arbat region, so the choice of this location for the portrait was not random. Although I read and enjoyed the novel when I first encountered it a couple of decades ago, it has never been an obsession with me like it is with many. The cult of Bulgakov, his novel and his characters is one of the strongest in all of Russian culture. For this reason it is arguably the source for more public art in Moscow than any other artistic work. I ran a net check on the topic on Yandex (the Russian Google) and came up with a huge gallery of photos.
However, people far more impressive than I have been influenced by Bulgakov’s Master, Margarita, Woland, Berlioz, Begemot, Azazello, Pontius Pilate and the rest.

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Arguably the biggest splash that The Master and Margarita had outside of Russia was in the Mick Jagger tune “Sympathy for the Devil.” The first stanzas are pretty much built on Jagger’s reading of the novel:

Please allow me to introduce myself,
I’m a man of wealth and taste.
I’ve been around for a long, long year,
Stole many a man’s soul and faith.

And I was round when Jesus Christ
Had his moment of doubt and pain,
Made damn sure that Pilate
Washed his hands and sealed his fate.

Pleased to meet you,
Hope you guess my name.
But what’s puzzling you
Is the nature of my game.

The song then departs from the novel, but maintains the Russian context by adding:

I stuck around St. Petersburg
When I saw it was a time for a change,
Killed the czar and his ministers;
Anastasia screamed in vain.

A comprehensive Master and Margarita site has this to say about the Stones meeting Bulgakov:
“‘Sympathy for the Devil’ is one of the few Stones songs which Mick Jagger wrote alone, without the help of his buddy Keith Richard. At first, he said it was based on a poem of Baudelaire. But later he said it was inspired by The Master and Margarita, which Marianne Faithfull would have offered to him as a present. Faithfull, who was Jagger’s girlfriend at that time, said during an interview with Sylvie Simmons from the magazine Mojo in 2005: “I got Mick to read The Master and Margarita and out of that, after discussing it at length with me, he wrote that song.”
More recently, Patti Smith tossed a nod in the direction of Bulgakov by naming an album Banga. In a blog for The Moscow Times I pointed out that, “…as any net search will tell you, the mysterious title was drawn from a very minor figure in Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel, The Master and Margarita. Banga in Bulgakov’s creation is Pontius Pilate’s dog, a creature so loyal he is willing to wait for his master virtually forever.”
But Patti didn’t stop there in her plumbing of Bulgakov’s writings, for, as I wrote in the same article, “Smith references another Bulgakovian dog without naming him: Sharik from the novella Heart of a Dog. She name-checks the full title to kick off her narrative, which explores the dark side of loyalty. ‘You can lick it twice, but it won’t lick you,’ she sneers, later adding, ‘Loyal he lives and we don’t know why.'”

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Alexander Kushner lecture site, Dartmouth College

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I attended a poetry reading by Alexander Kushner (born 1936) in Boston in the late 1980s. I can’t say where it was exactly, but I do think it was in Boston, where I lived, not in Cambridge, where I was going to grad school. I don’t remember many details, but I remember the general atmosphere well. I remember it being low-key. I remember the evening having a sense of innate structure, of it being conducted on a high intellectual level. I recall the respect and commitment of the large audience. I remember Kushner seeming small as a physical entity, but large as a poet, as a man standing before others performing his poetry. I remember that one of the attendees was Alexander Yesenin-Volpin, son of the poet Sergei Yesenin, prominent mathematician and Soviet dissident. That, by the way, jogs my memory and makes me quite sure that the reading took place at Boston University, where Yesnin-Volpin taught. I seem to remember the place of the reading being somewhere on Mass. Ave. It’s even possible that Yesenin-Volpin had something to do with Kushner being invited to speak. I remember that he – Yesenin-Volpin – seemed an important part of the evening.
And there, at least for the present, is the grand sum of my memories of seeing Kushner recite his work.
Stop the presses.
On a lark I just ran a search of an old, long-forgotten hard drive and I hit gold. There, in a folder called Vignettes, I found a text I wrote on December 12, 1987, to jog my memory in the future. It is titled “Aleksandr Kushner. December 12, 1987. Boston University.”
It is not very pretty reading. But it sure does show why taking notes is a good idea if you want to recall details of your life later on. Here are a few excerpts of the impressions I took away that night from Kushner’s reading:
When talking about current events he is a bit lost, choppy, confused, angry, hopeful. When reading his poetry it is as if he hits an athletic stride, smooth, straight, clean, pure, with a quiet certainty.”
As the conversation turns almost exclusively to political affairs, Kushner’s unease grows tremendously. It has absolutely nothing to do with fear, but with his unease at using a poet’s platform for a social tribune. This is a man who is through and through a poet, and as a poet he has a great sense of calm and inner strength, outside of that role, however, his sense of wholeness clearly begins to break down.”
As he begins to talk about Leningrad, one senses he has a great deal invested in his relationship to the city. He talks about it with a quiet passion which is also visible in him while he is reading his poems. ‘There are dozens of totally unknown Leningrad poets who give up nothing whatsoever to Moscow poets who are incomparably better known. Moscow is an easier place to publish and to become known’.”
I will hold off revealing the entire text until I do another planned post about Kushner in the near future. Stay tuned.
For the time being, let’s finally move on to the original reason for this post: a reading Kushner gave at Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH, on November 11, 1993.
It took me a couple of days to nail down the precise location where Kushner’s Dartmouth appearance took place. An account in the college newspaper, The Dartmouth, states it was in the “faculty lounge of the Hopkins Center.” It was easy to find the Hopkins Center (known locally as the HOP) because my wife Oksana and I worked there almost every day for most of the month of August. Problems arose with my determining where the “faculty lounge” was located. I started, as I always do, by just going out and looking. I walked up and down floors and corridors, taking stairs, using elevators, peering through peek holes and under doors. I came up with nothing. Then I asked some locals where the faculty lounge would be located. A few shook their heads. One said, “Oh, it’s on the second floor in the next building over. You just take the passageway, turn right, go up the stairs, turn right again and then look to your left. It’s right there.”
With a few caveats not worth going into,  my friend was right. In any case, I did find what is now called The Palmer Lounge – the only place labeled a lounge in the Hopkins Center for the Performing Arts. I have no idea what it looks like on the inside, but the exterior of the lounge would be a challenge for photographers even of the prowess of Igor Tabakov or Vladimir Filonov of The Moscow Times. I cheated when taking the second photo below, for there were two huge trash cans standing right by the entrance to the lounge – that would be the gray door. I moved the bins out of sight, although I can’t say it improved the image. This photo is for those of you who would harbor thoughts that a poet’s life is always one of beauty and tragedy mixed mellifluously with exaltation and insurmountable suffering. Sometimes, in fact, it is just a banal, gray door tucked away in a tedious elevator landing.
But enough. Below the break, I offer Melissa Marroncelli’s entire November 15, 1993,  article, “Poetry and Russian Politics,” about Alexander Kushner’s reading at Dartmouth. It is copied from The Dartmouth website.

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Leading Russian poet and essayist Alexander Kushner said it is difficult to separate politics from poetry in today’s Russia.“Now we, in Russia, are living through very difficult times when we see the breakaway of mentality,” Kushner told a predominantly Russian-speaking audience in the faculty lounge of the Hopkins Center Thursday night. “We used to live in a real big country and now it is cut down in size by nearly twice. This is more difficult for poetry. These changes are telling upon the words we say.”

Kushner presented his speech called “Poetry and Politics” in Russian with Russian Professor Barry Scherr helping with some parts of the translation. The event was part of a three-day conference called”The Future of Russian Democracy,” that ran Wednesday through Friday.

Although political affairs is an integral part of Kushner’s poetry, he said it was still better if Russian poets did not substitute their poetry for political writing because poets who directly address political ideas in their poetry are often defeated by the statesmen.

Kushner gave an example of how he was once unable to publish in St. Petersburg for two years because of an official who said, “if he doesn’t like it, he should leave,” Kushner recounted.

During his speech, Kushner also read several poems from his collection, “Apollo in the Snow,” during his presentation.

In a poem called “Hoffman” he describes a character who “creeps along in a bureaucracy’s machine.”

In another poem, Kushner described the simplicity in living for Russians. “If you sleep and your warm shoulder isn’t abruptly jarred,” then the Russian can be expected to be happy, Kushner said. The poem expresses the desire for simple comforts that most people would take for granted.

At the conclusion of the poem Kushner said, “Is there something more? For us [Russians] there isn’t.”

The last poem Kushner read was “Apollo in the Snow,” the namesake of his collection, which he wrote after seeing”an Apollo in the snow on a cold winter’s day.”

Here he speaks of the statue as a symbol of courage: “The ice and twilight have locked in its cracks …, here is courage,” the poem reads.

He said his poems apply to anyone because they deal with real life situations, such as life, death, and suicide.

“The twentieth century has taught us to value simple things,” said Kushner, whose poems touch on such ideas as the history, the values and the “terrible experience” of the Russian people.

Tretyakov brothers plaque, Moscow

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My friend Michael Nemirsky, who sometimes reads these posts, sent me a question the other day asking when most of Moscow’s memorial plaques were put up. I don’t have an answer for that grounded in hard fact, but experience tells me that most of the plaques we see these days were put up after the 1950s, some before, and on through the end of the Soviet period. Memorial plaques were one of the ways that the Soviet government paid off people who did its bidding. That’s why many of them are people with checkered biographies, while some of those people that we consider great today are not so  honored. Plaques and monuments still go up in our day, but not as frequently in the past.
Literally just a few hours after Michael put that question to me I happened to be on Nikolskaya Street near the Kremlin when I came upon the tiny street, even alleyway, called Tretyakovsky Passage. It was, and remains, a street that was privately built in the 1870s by the Tretyakov  brothers Pavel (1832-1898) and Sergei (1832-1892) on land which originally had been built up in the 18th century. And right there in the archway leading to the tiny street was a very old memorial tablet. It is so old that it is written in the typescript that was used before the Russian language underwent a reformation that took place on Jan. 1, 1918. With that lovely old-fashioned hard sign finishing off each word or name on the plaque, it directs attention to the “Honorable Citizens P.M. and S.M. Tretyakov.” You can see the marble plaque in the first photo above. I don’t know when it was placed here on this wall, I haven’t been able to find that information. But it obviously would have been before 1918, making it one of the oldest memorial plaques in Moscow.

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The Tretyakov brothers – two of the greatest collectors of paintings in Russian history – began building their collections some time before they built the two rows of stores and boutiques (as we call them today). I’m assuming that art collection, even in the second half of the 19th century, was a profitable endeavor. The stores on Tretyakov Passage were very respectable in their day. There were stores here which traded in furniture, tea, women’s clothing and other items. I remember a time in the late Soviet period when most of these places were empty or abandoned. In recent years they have been resurrected and turned into one of the poshest places in Moscow. Bentley Motors, Ferrari, Maserati, Armani, Gucci, Dolce and Gabbana, Yves Saint Laurent and many other “top” western brands have outlets here. Fashion Week in Moscow is usually held in this little alleyway these days. I particularly love the Tretyakov Spa, pictured above, which opens at 11 a.m. I mean, who, among the hoity-toity in Moscow are going to get out of bed before 11 a.m. to work out? After all, you don’t even have to be hoity-toity in Moscow to sleep in until 11 a.m.
I don’t know if they did it by agreement or if it happened by chance, but Pavel Tretyakov, who was born in December 1832, spent most of his time collecting Russian art, while his brother Sergei, born in January the same year, primarily collected European art. Pavel’s works ended up forming the basis of the famed Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow, which specializes in Russian art. Sergei actually started out collecting the work of Russian artists too. Some of his first acquisitions were painted by Alexei Bogolyubov, Vasily Vereshchagin, Ivan Kramskoi, Arkhip Kuindzhi and others. But his heart was in collecting the European painters – Jacques-Louis David, Gustave Courbet, Theodore Rousseau, Jean-Paul Laurens, Anton Mauve, Baldomero Galofre Jimenez and many, many more.
The fine arts in Russia are synonymous with the Tretyakov name. I find it has a lot more cache than all the big names tossed around on storefronts here today. Somehow one has the feeling that something along the lines of, say, Dolce & Gabbana may be here today but will be gone tomorrow, while one senses that, whoever else may blow in here in the future, the name Tretyakov will still be in place and will still carry weight. The hotshots here lean on the Tretyakovs for prestige, not the other way around.

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