Category Archives: Writer’s Homes

The Mass dacha, outside Moscow

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What do you think when you think of Moscow? Cold. Bitter cold. Lots of snow. So much of it that you can barely trudge through it. That can be taken as a direct description, or as a metaphorical image. Frankly, they both work. Moscow can be, and often is, a cold, nasty, unforgiving place. Fall down in the stuff pictured here in these photos, and unless a good person comes along – see you on the other side. Believe it or not, I know people who would push you into one of these snow drifts. Moscow, especially under current Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, but also with the help of a lot of people who should know better, has become damn near uninhabitable in recent times.
Of course, there is another side to this, and that concerns the person who comes along and finds you face down in the snow. And takes you home to warm you up and bring you back to life. Those people are there too.
One person who fits that description to a “T” lives in the house that is, sort of, depicted in these photos. Her name is Anna Mass, she is the author of I-don’t-know-how-many books, I’m guessing two dozen at least. She lived here for decades with her husband, Viktor Gorshkov, a geologist and poet. He died minutes after voting for Alexei Navalny for Mayor of Moscow in 2013. He walked out of the polling place and fell dead on the sidewalk with Anna at his side.
Anna and Viktor, however, were the second generation of writers to occupy this house. It was built originally in the early 1950s by her father Vladimir Mass (1896-1979), the playwright, screenwriter, poet and painter. I did not have the honor of knowing Vladimir, he passed on, as fate would have it, when I was on my first sojourn to Russia, weathering the brutal cold of St. Petersburg in the fall/winter of 1979. I knew nothing about Mass at that time, and I didn’t come into the circle of the amazing Mass family until 1988, when I first met Anna.
I’ve written about my first meeting with Anna elsewhere, but it’s worth repeating. I called her from a phone booth on Pushkin Square in September 1988. I said I was in Moscow to research the playwright Nikolai Erdman and that I was told she might be able to help me. She immediately said, “Now? Can you come over now?” I stuttered and said yes. I found my way to her Moscow apartment in the Arbat region and knocked on the door. She opened it with a big smile and an easy way about her and said, “Come in!” The deeply reassuring sound of something similar to childlike laughter seemed to hide somewhere in the back of her voice. She already had her father’s substantial Erdman archive laid out on the desk waiting for me, but first she took me in the kitchen to feed me some tea and fresh-baked pirozhki, something she did every time I would return over the next 8 to 10 months. When we finished tea, she sat me at her desk (Vladimir Mass’s desk) and declared, “I have some errands to run. You’ll be fine here. Work at your own speed,” and she left me alone in her apartment. It was during this period that Anna began spending more and more time outside the city in the family dacha. I visited her there, several times, too.
Of all the different ways that a lifelong friendship can begin, that is one.

Before I left Russia for good in 2018, my wife Oksana and I stopped by to spend two days with Anna. By this time Anna had been living exclusively at the dacha for at least two decades. We hadn’t seen each other for some time, but, as always – as it was that first time – it seemed as though we had never parted. I reveled in walking through and around the gorgeous home that Vladimir Mass built almost 70 years ago, and that Viktor Gorshkov expanded every bit as beautifully during the time he lived there. The house stands on a large plot of land just outside the Moscow city limits in what was once called the Writers Colony at Krasnaya Pakhra (the name of the river that runs nearby). Mass’s two closest neighbors were the poet Pavel Antokolsky and Nikolai Erdman. Over the years, other greats of Russian culture – including playwright Viktor Rozov and film director Eldar Ryazanov – moved in to make the area one of the most exclusive in all of suburban Moscow.
Mass and Erdman became famous in the 1920s and ’30s, co-writing sketches, satirical poems, revues (rather like satirical operettas), and screenplays. It was probably Mass who introduced Erdman to Vsevolod Meyerhold in the early 1920s when both were writing reviews and little essays for Novy Zritel (New Spectator), a popular theater magazine. Together they wrote the screenplay for the “first Soviet musical comedy,” Jolly Fellows (1933/34), and, in fact, both were arrested while on location at the film shoot and both were summarily sent into exile, to different Siberian cities, for three years. They never wrote together again, although they remained good friends and neighbors. They visited each other here at their dachas, as well as at their Moscow apartments. On occasion in the later years Mass would pull out some dialogue from his “Erdman archive,” rework it a little and sell it (or gift it, I don’t know the details) to an emcee or variety theater in need of a humorous text.
My approach in these blogs is that I take photos of exteriors – I use images of outsides to look for stories that lead to the inside. But I violate that little rule here today for two reasons. First, the picture of the fire in the fireplace in the top block illustrates the warmth, the coziness, the comfort and the security that one feels in the Mass home. I have rarely been in any place more welcoming than a residence that belongs to Anna Mass. I had to show that, just as I had to include another such image. The second interior shot is below, and it bears especial value for me: It is Nikolai Erdman’s bed. This marvelous object found its way to the Mass home after Erdman’s death in 1970. It now is the bed in a guest room at the Mass dacha/home. Imagine that.

 

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Gleb Uspensky childhood house, Tula

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Gleb Uspensky was born in Tula in 1840 and this home, which looks fairly modest these days, is where he spent his childhood years from the 1840s into the 1850s. It is an old-style wooden home, of which there are still several in Tula. Plenty of the neighboring homes are newer structures, which allows us to assume that this particular building survived because of the famous writer who once resided here.
Uspensky is one of those that most everyone interested in Russian literature knows by name, but not many read any more. He was a leftist who was generally interested in the fate of the powerless, the poor, the down and out. In his early years as a writer he wrote about people he knew, urban commoners and petty clerks. Later in his life, his focus shifted relatively subtly to the same poor people, but now his heroes tended to be village dwellers. An adherent of the People’s Will movement, in the mid-1870s he even moved to a village near Novgorod to be “closer to the people,” while taking an administrative job on the local railroad.
Uspensky is still a good place to go to get a feeling for a Russia that is long gone, the same Russia, more or less, that appears in the admittedly much more accomplished novels of Lev Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Ivan Turgenev. Knowing well the people he was writing about, Uspensky provides us with trustworthy, lively pictures of Russia and Russians in the 19th century.
The future writer grew up in a home that fed his rich imagination. His father was a government official, to whom people of all sorts came asking for help or favors. Uspensky’s cousin Nikolai, a writer in his own right, left us a brief, though colorful essay describing what it all might have looked like to the young Gleb:
The yard at the house belonging to Ivan Yakovlevich (Gleb Ivanovich’s father), was rushed daily by hordes of people, among which one might meet a gypsy selling a horse, and a village elder hung with medals and holding a vast tub filled with live carp and a fabulous number of burbot, as well as numerous clergymen, sextons, seminarians, and even drunken former seminary professors, teachers of ‘hermeneutics and accusatory theology,’ stumbling and tripping through the flower beds in the lovely garden…”
Although the family fell on hard times when Gleb’s father died, at least in the eyes of Nikolai (1837 – 1889), his relative lived a privileged childhood.
I was a humble seminarian,” wrote Nikolai, ” raised ‘on copper money’ and held “tightly in check,” while he [Gleb] took a gymnasium course and enjoyed all the earthly benefits of the table of ‘rich Lazarus’ – his father, who held the position of secretary in the state property chamber and had the opportunity not only to live the high life, but also to aid his ‘kin’ (of which there was a whole legion), marrying female relative to rural teachers, deacons, or ‘chamber’ officials, and supplying with money and advice to the occasional dubious, impoverished sexton, who presented himself as a former neighbor, a fellow villager, or fellow seminarian...”

Since Nikolai was there and I was not, I think it is worth turning over this short tale to his memoirs again, in order to achieve a fuller picture of Gleb’s early years in this house.
The predominant contingent of Gleb Ivanovich’s father’s visitors were impoverished peasants standing in line in regards to their ‘serving military service’ … each of which was stocked with the expected offering. Most were crowded in a continuous mass in a long, spacious corridor that resembled a railway station …
“Our talented contemporary writer Gleb Ivanovich Uspensky spent his childhood and adolescence in this environment. It can’t be said this did not favor the development of his creative powers. From a young age he was familiar with certain types, the rural elder or headman, a rural Orthodox clerk, or some sadly dying man...”
Uspensky had a great desire to study law and he tried twice, failing both times. He first entered the law department of St. Petersburg University in 1861, but was compelled to drop out shortly thereafter for lack of funds. That was repeated in 1862, only this time at Moscow University. Following this second humiliating failure Uspensky  turned to literature in order to make enough money to live on. His first publication (1862) was under the pseudonym of G. Bryzgin in Lev Tolstoy’s pedagogical Yasnaya Polyana magazine. His first popular works were The Mores of Rasteryaeva Street (1866) and Impoverishment (1869). Two trips abroad in the first half of the 1870s brought him together with revolutionary-minded Russians in Germany, France and England, and brought him closer to the People’s Will Party. From 1868 to 1884 he published exclusively in the famed and prestigious “thick journal,” Notes of the Fatherland. According to a biography on dic.academic.ru, the “honesty and independence of Uspensky’s beliefs, along with his ardent warm-heartedness and tireless search for truth, make him one of the most remarkable and attractive writers of his generation and time.
In 1889 Uspensky’s health took a turn for the worse. Increasingly suffering from split-personality and paralysis, he died in a sanatorium in 1902.
The house pictured here stands at 57 Turgenev St. in Tula. Uspensky left here in 1856 to study at the gymnasium in Chernigov.

 

Vladimir Nabokov house, museum, St. Petersburg

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Vladimir Nabokov, as the plaque on the wall of this building at 47 Bolshaya Morskaya Street in St. Petersburg states, was born here in 1899. He died, every bit the contemporary of people of my generation, in Switzerland in 1977. By then his novels had made him famous and rich. The one that helped him turn the corner to fame was Lolita (1955), although there is much discussion about which of his works are the best and most-loved. That’s an open topic, you don’t need me to weigh in on it. Especially since I’ve never been infected by the fascination that many have for his craft.
In the spring of 2019 controversy came to this building where a Nabokov museum has been located for many years. In one of those typically contemporary Russian incidents, conflict came out of the blue for those who had been charged with overseeing the writer’s cultural legacy. The museum was closed with no warning, several employees were fired, others had their pay cut, the museum director was threatened, and workmen answering to someone else moved in and began restoring the building. A hue and cry went up, with many prominent individuals, including novelist Viktor Yerofeev, coming to the museum’s defense. It seems the museum somehow had been taken over by St. Peterburg University (a nominal “parent” in the past) and was being put in the hands of a St. Petersburg writer and teacher named Andrei Astvatsaturov. After a month or so of confusion in the media, the new director officially stepped into his position on April 26. He declared that all was now well, that his new leadership was in place, and that he was preparing to transform the Nabokov Museum into an international cultural and conference center. One of the reports, surprisingly neutral in its tone since it belongs to the scandal-mongering NTV network, admits in the last line that the former director, Tatyana Ponamaryov, knew nothing about the new one.
If all of that doesn’t sound fishy, you haven’t paid attention to real estate conflicts in Russia over the last 20 or 30 years. By the nature of my work over that period – writing about culture for a Moscow newspaper – I can say that this has all the hallmarks of a hostile takeover. You do it quickly, without fanfare, close things up for “restoration and renovation” so nobody can get in and see what’s happening, and you trust to your connections in the “courts,” or just hope your opponent will take the hint and disappear. As the old saying goes, “possession is nine-tenths of the law.” In any case, the museum is now open again, and Mr. Astvatsaturov (a descendant of the famed literary scholar and linguist Viktor Zhirmunsky) is in control.
This is the way Nikita Mikhalkov essentially stole the Cinema Museum from Naum Kleiman in 2013 in Moscow, and it’s similar to a scandal at Moscow’s Mayakovsky Museum, which was closed ages ago in a battle over who is going to control it. I can’t say for sure that the situation at the Nabokov Museum is exactly the same, but when there’s smoke, one does tend to wonder if there is fire.

The basic building at 47 Bolshaya Morskaya was erected around 1740. The street at that time was called Bolshaya Gostinaya (Great Parlor St.), was known popularly, though not officially, as Brilliantovaya (Diamond Street) at the time of Nabokov’s birth, and officially took on the name of Bolshaya Morskaya (Great Sea St.) in 1902. It was known as Herzen Street for most of the Soviet period. At the time of its original construction it was a single-story structure over a raised basement. You can see the lines of the original house in the full photos above and below – it corresponds to the red first floor in today’s configuration. As I understand it, a second story was added at the end of the 18th/beginning of the 19th centuries, followed by significant additions to the sides and interior in 1874. Finally, a third floor was added in 1900-02, while much of the external decoration was moved, apparently with some care. This came shortly after the building was acquired by Nabokov’s grandfather in 1898 with the purpose of turning it over to the future writer’s mother Yelena Rukavishnikova at the beginning of her marriage to Vladimir Nabokov, son the Russia’s Minister of Justice Dmitry Nabokov, and future prominent journalist and statesman in his own right.
Depending on the source, one can find dates that are off by one or two years from those I offer here. Some sources say the house was purchased by Grandpa Rukavishnikov in 1897, some say the last renovations took place beginning in 1901, various sources claim that Nabokov lived here either 18 or 20 years. I follow the dates offered in a relatively detailed and convincing piece on the website of a company whose business is renovation, but let’s agree that they are approximate. Nabokov described this home in varying degrees in his autobiographical works Other Shores and Speak, Memory! His room, following the reconstruction, was located on the third floor.
From that same website:
The Nabokov House is a vivid synthesis of architecture and decorative art. The building is topped with what can be safely called a mosaic frieze that runs the entire width of the facade under the wooden rafters of the roof overhangs, created by the well-known workshop of V. A. Frolov. Thin lacy patterns of wrought metal contrast with the stone surface: parapet fences, flag holders, forged leaves, flowers, curls, and so on. The mansion is notable for its rich interiors, preserved from the former owner of the house, N. M. Polovtsova. All rooms are designed in various historical styles, to which modernity has been added.”

Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin house, St. Petersburg

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I think one of the most enigmatic figures in all of Russian literature must  have been Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin (1826-1889). Even his name seems caught in a swirl of confusion, and that is, by far, the least of it all.
His real name was Saltykov and it was under that name that the civil servant who lived and worked in numerous Russian provincial cities was known. As a writer he took the pseudonym of Shchedrin and reading Russians of the second half of the 19th century knew him as such. Over time we have grown accustomed to a dual name that mixes the real and pseudo – thus in the historical and scholarly literature one more often than not encounters him as Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin.
It was as Saltykov that he lived for awhile in 1845 in this building in St. Petersburg with his brother on what was then known as Kolomenskaya Street. Today the street address is Soyuza Pechatnikov Street 21/8; it stands on the corner of the crossing with Masterskaya Street. At the time Saltykov lived here, he was at the beginning of his adult life, let alone the beginning of his life in letters. He had run into some trouble as a free-thinker in school due to his poetry, and some of that poetry – which he later rejected and is generally considered juvenilia by scholars – had been printed in various publications. His first publications in the famed publication Sovremennik (The Contemporary) came at this time, as well. Good, bad or indifferent, the attitude expressed in his early poetry had earned him the nickname of the “gloomy lycée student” among his peers at school.
In the late 1840s Saltykov, in addition to the publication of his first prose works, ran afoul – again – of the authorities. He was sent in exile to the city of Vyatka in 1848 – freethinking again – where he continued to work as a civil servant, spending some eight valuable years observing Russia and Russians at close distance through his work.  By the middle of the next decade, when he was allowed to leave Vyatka, Mikhail Shchedrin was prepared to burst upon the public as a popular writer. From the 1850s until his death, Shchedrin would publish frequently – although with occasional lapses due to his busy schedule as a civil servant who moved around from city to city (Penza, Tula and Ryazan are among the cities where he lived and worked). He was also active as an editor, and, therefore, mentor to many young Russian writers, primarily at the legendary Notes of the Fatherland, although he also worked for The Sovremennik for a time as well.
But let’s get to what I think made him so enigmatic.
Shchedrin was a wickedly satirical writer. Sardonic. Mordant. He emerged in a field of writers that included or soon would include Nikolai Gogol and Alexander Sukhovo-Kobylin. Of these three Gogol was the more fully rounded stylist, while Sukhovo-Kobylin and Schedrin were of a much “nastier,” gloves-off type of satire. Sukhovo-Kobylin, who was a fascinating individual in his own right, was a society lion who ran afoul of the law and wrote three bitter plays unmasking corruption and evil. Shchedrin had elements of Gogol’s breadth and depth as a writer, while his wicked satire even outdid Sukhovo-Kobylin’s in its withering, fierce intensity.
I don’t know how much people actually read Shchedrin these days (none of my classes through to a PhD in Russian literature ever touched on Shchedrin) but his winged phrases, to use that lovely Russian expression, still fly high today, maybe even more so than they did during his lifetime. Nowadays his observations sound not only funny or accurate, they sound like prophecy. As you will see if you look below the next block of photos, Shchedrin’s wit was made for the Facebook/Twitter age. I rather suspect many encounter him there for the first time.

I suspect a full list of Shchedrin’s pithy phrases would require a full book-size publication. But here is a selection of my favorites.
1. “If I fall asleep and wake up in a hundred years and someone asks me what is happening in Russia now, I will answer: they are drinking and stealing.”
2. “When has it been that a bureaucrat was not convinced that Russia is a cake which you may approach freely and have a bite of?”
3. “The Russian authorities must keep their people in a state of constant astonishment.”
4. “Reforms are necessary, but no less so than punctuation. In other words: Put reforms in place, then – enough, put a period to that.”
5. “The severity of Russian laws is mitigated by the lack of their binding enforcement.”
6. “No, it’s clear that there are corners in God’s world, where all times are times of transition.”
7. “Any disgrace has its decent side.”
8. “Young ladies ask, am I washing my neck for a high or low décolleté?”
9. “Introduce enlightenment in moderation, if possible avoiding bloodshed.”
10. “You couldn’t quite call Strunnikov stupid in the rude sense of the word, but it’s true he was clever enough, as they say, not to eat wax candles or dry himself with glass.”
11. “Many tend to confuse two concepts: ‘The Fatherland’ and ‘Your Excellency’.”
12. “It is frightening when a person speaks and you do not know why he is speaking, what he is saying, and whether he will ever finish.”
13. “The stubbornness of stupidity is a tremendous power.”
14. “The system is quite simple: never directly allow anything, and never forbid anything directly.”
15. “As you attempt to spread sensible thoughts, it is inevitable that someone will call you a nasty imbecile.”
16. “Everyone in Russia steals. And at the same time, laughing, they add: ‘But when will it all end?'”
17. “What is better – condescension without indulgence, or severity in league with contempt?”
18. “Man is so made that even happiness must be imposed on him.”
19. “There is nothing more dangerous than a man to whom humanity is alien, who is indifferent to the destinies of his native country, to the destinies of his neighbor, and to everything except the fates of the coins he has put into circulation.”
20. “Civic maturity is transitioning from making scandalous jokes to catching the bosses’ eyes more accurately.”
21. “Nothing discourages vice like the awareness that it has been detected and that someone has already had a laugh about it.”
22. “He wanted something: either a constitution, the sturgeon with horseradish, or to haul off and whack someone.”
23. “There are masses of hotheads who have the ‘State’ on their tongues, but a pie filled with state goodies in their thoughts.”
24. “For the sake of science we don’t regret spending someone else’s money.”
25. “In need even the snipe will whistle like a nightingale.”

 

Maximilian Voloshin apartment, St. Petersburg

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Three people come together in today’s brief and fragmentary tale: Maximilian Voloshin, Oksana Mysina, and Konstantin Olonovsky.
I never met Kostya Olonovsky, although his role in, and influence on, my life has been enormous. Kostya was a film director, an experimenter who loved to play with images, music, poetry and the intersection of art and life. My wife Oksana performed in a couple of his films; his last – unmade – screenplay was written for Oksana; and he made music videos of at least two songs by Oksana’s band Oxy Rocks (The World on Edge, and The Sky Above Me). When Oksana and I were looking for advice on where to travel in Greece a few years ago, she called Kostya and asked him because he – with partial Greek heritage – had lived and worked there for a time. His answer was that we should go to Chania, Crete, because “Chania is like a living film location.” We took his advice, we immediately fell in love with Chania and the island of Crete, and it has now become an integral part of our lives. A few years ago Kostya made a film called Whisper. The Silver Age, for which, among others, Oksana recited the work of several Russian Silver Age poets. As he prepared to enter the film in a European festival he wrote and asked me to look over some internet translations of the poetry – he needed to submit the film with English subtitles. I immediately came back to him with the offer to translate the poems myself. I do not consider myself particularly adept at translating poetry, but I knew I could surely do better than Google. The poets whose work I Englished for Kostya were Alexander Blok, Vyacheslav Ivanov, Andrei Bely and Maximilian Voloshin. I don’t know if he ever inserted the subtitles, I don’t know if he ever submitted the film to the festival. (The internet version of the film which I link to above does not have subtitles.) I do know that at about that time he was diagnosed with a virulent strain of cancer that soon after stopped him from working, stopped him from leaving his bed, and finally killed him in late summer 2017. He was 33 years old. Oksana, with Konstantin’s creative team, and the blessing of Konstantin’s widow, is currently preparing to make a film based on the director’s last screenplay. To do so, she has removed herself from the cast of actors and will take on the task of directing.
I thought about a lot of this the last time I was in St. Petersburg. Among the many landmarks I happened upon was the one pictured here today – the first building in which Maximilian Voloshin lived in St. Petersburg. The address is 153 Nevsky Prospect and it is located almost at the very end of that famed thoroughfare – not far at all from the Aleksandro-Nevsky monastery, and on the same side of the street. Voloshin was 26 when in 1903 he took up residence in apartment No. 61, one of the living spaces high up under the roof. Voloshin wrote and published his first poetry while living here, although at the the time he was more inclined to see himself as a future painter. He apparently only spent a few months here before moving on.
When one reads the excerpts of the Voloshin poem that Olonovsky included in Whisper. The Silver Age, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that he already sensed danger in his near future. Even more than that, however, one sees in the verses the sensibility that marked Kostya as a director. Kostya clearly had a kinship with Voloshin. I’m grateful for everything that Konstantin Olonovsky brought to my family – including the opportunity to allow even just a little bit of Maximilian Voloshin to pass through me into English.

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Maximilian Voloshin
A fragment chosen by Konstantin Olonovsky from the “Rebellion” segment of the poem cycle “In Cain’s Footsteps” (more literally, “By the Paths of Cain”).
Translated by John Freedman

The world is a ladder on whose steps
Man rose.
We can feel
What he has left along his way.
Animals and stars are the toxins of flesh
That burned in the creative fire:
They all in their turn served man
As footing,
And every step
Was a rebellion of creative spirit.
Only two paths are open to any being
Caught in the trap of equilibrium:
The way of mutiny and the way of conforming.
Mutiny is madness;
The laws of nature do not change.
But in the battle for the truth of the impossible
The madman
Transubstantiates himself,
And, having conformed, stops still
On the step that he passed.
The beast adapts to the inflections of nature,
While a man stubbornly rows
Against the waterfall that carries
The universe
Back to ancient chaos.
He affirms God by his mutiny,
Creates by lack of faith, builds by denial.
He’s an architect:
His model is death,
His clay – the crosswinds of his spirit.

A man’s flesh is a scroll on which
All the dates of being are noted.

They are waymarks, leaving on the road
His brothers fallen by the side:
Birds and beasts and fish.
He walked the way of fire through nature.
Blood is the first sign of earthly mutiny;
The second sign
Is a torchlight blowing in the wind.
In the beginning there was the only Ocean,
Smoking on a white-hot bed.
And from this heated womb there sprang
The inextricable knot of life: flesh,
Shot through with breathing and beating.
The planet cooled.
Life caught flame.
Our progenitor, the one from the cooling waters
Who dragged his fishy carcass onto land,
Kept with him all that ancient Ocean
With the breathing of the swaying tides,
The primordial warmth and salty water –
Live blood coursing through its veins,
The monstrous creatures multiplied
On the beaches.
The sculptor, ever the perfectionist,
Wiped from the face of earth and made anew
All likenesses and forms.
Man
Was nowhere seen amid the earthly flock.
Sliding from the poles, great icy masses
Pushed out the life that teemed in the valleys.
Only then did the blaze of a bonfire
Inform the beasts about man.

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Fyodor Dostoevsky plaque, St. Petersburg

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I’m coming to you with Dostoevsky today because I have been inside of Dostoevsky’s head all morning and afternoon. I began my day at my computer early this morning as my wife slept and I translated (portions of) Dostoevsky’s The Idiot into English on an empty stomach. It was one of the most memorable few hours of my life not only as a translator, but of my life, plain and simple. By the time Oksana came out and we shared our breakfast of oatmeal, I felt as though someone had plugged me into an electrical outlet. I think my eyes were giving off light. I think my skin was twitching. I could feel the air move through the hairs on my arms. I was as alive as one gets on a Sunday morning before breakfast. When she got up, Oksana asked me the usual question, “Did you have your glass of water?” I said, “No. I’m translating Dostoevsky. I’ve never felt so alive.”
Dostoevsky has followed me my entire adult life. He came quickly after Tolstoy when I was in high school. It was War and Peace then Anna Karenina then Crime and Punishment. I don’t remember the order anymore, but the next three reads were: The Brothers Karamazov, The Demons (The Possessed), and The Idiot, whatever the order was.
As I said, I was with The Idiot this morning. One of the segments I was translating (for supertitles for a theatre production of The Idiot) was the famous description of a condemned man waking in the morning, thinking he has a week to live – a whole, long week – and he finds out he has hours left to live – whole, long hours. It’s one of the great passages in world literature and I was privileged to have it pass through me today and emerge in English of some kind.
Dostoevsky is surely the most crooked, whacked-out, unorthodox, clumsy, prolix, confusing writer that ever put pen to paper. And therein, of course, lies his greatness. He is one of the chosen few who trusted his own instincts to the very end and went with them. Nobody ever wrote like Dostoevsky, clunking, tripping, stumbling, slogging along with interjections, bare naked adverbs, truncated thoughts, U-turns in logic, ellipses run amok, feverish exclamations, sentences jammed into one another that seem never to end, falling over commas, semi-colons, colons, dashes and whatever other signs he could conjure up and throw in between his words. And every trip and every stumble and every whip-around back in the opposite direction drives deeply into your heart, your soul and the soft matter of your brain. That man, that writer, was plugged into the truth. The truth is messy and complex and Dostoevsky, writing the truth, wrote messily and complexly. He is hell on steroids for a translator, and I’ve never enjoyed hell as I have done translating large excerpts from The Idiot these last weeks. Today was an epiphany, it was fireworks, it was the piece de resistance, the cornerstone of the work I’ve been doing. It was as if I climbed Olympus and Homer was there to greet me. Only Homer had Dostoevsky’s beard. It was joy, sheer, unadulterated joy.

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In honor of this splendid day I have spent, I am showing you ground zero in St. Petersburg: the building in which Dostoevsky lived when he wrote Crime and Punishment. Surely when you think “Dostoevsky,” you think Crime and Punishment. As I say, it was the first Dostoevsky novel I read, and it was my third Russian novel in a youthful, drunken literary spree that – thank you, Lord – took me in different directions from Brett Kavanaugh. But my connections to Crime and Punishment are deeper than that, for I have lived the last quarter century with one of the seemingly peripheral characters of Dostoevsky’s great novel of suffering, discovery and redemption. By that I mean to say that Oksana Mysina, my wife, has, for 25 years, played Katerina Ivanovna, the wife of the drunkard Marmeladov, in Kama Ginkas’s great (the word is used properly here) production called K.I. from ‘Crime’, which, in its two and a half decades, has performed in some 20 countries even as it continues to run in Moscow. I could write a book about what it’s like to live with a character shaped not only by a genius writer, but by a genius theater director, but I won’t say a single other word about that now. That’s a whole other can of worms.
The building pictured here (now a light pink – I don’t know what it was like 150 years ago) stands at the corner of Stolyarny Lane 14 and Kaznacheiskaya Street 7. (Kaznacheiskaya was called Malaya Meshchanskaya Street when Dostoevsky lived there.) The plaque hanging on the wall on the Kaznacheiskaya side declares: “Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky lived in this house from 1864 to 1867. Here was written the novel Crime and Punishment.” But that only tells one quarter of the story of this street crossing. Dostoevsky lived or spent time in all four of the buildings that stand on this corner!  Two have plaques, one has information put up by a cafe proprietor, and the other was under reconstruction when I photographed it this summer. I couldn’t tell if anything was written there. But the point is, when you stand in the middle of this intersection, Dostoevskian winds blow at you from all sides – rather like they do in his novels.
When Dostoevsky lived here the building belonged to Ivan Alonkin, a merchant, tea-seller, and apartment-house owner. Dostoevsky occupied Apt. 36 on the second floor. In addition to Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky wrote the novellas Notes from Underground and The Gambler while living here. The building was originally erected in 1822 and was rebuilt/restructured several times since.
This is the place where Dostoevsky declared his love for his stenographer Anna, who subsequently became his wife and, quite probably, saved his life. Thanks to Anna’s memoirs, we even know a little about Alonkin and the apartment. According to an online Dostoevsky encyclopedia, Anna recalled Alonkin describing Dostoevsky as a “great worker. When I go to morning prayers and I see the light on in his study, it means he is working.” Anna went on about Alonkin: “He never bothered reminding us about the rent, knowing that when money would come in, Fyodor Mikhailovich would pay him. Fyodor Mikhailovich loved talking to the venerable old man. In my opinion, Fyodor Mikhailovich relied on his [Alonkin’s] physical appearance to shape the merchant Samsonov, Grushenka’s patron, in The Brothers Karamazov.”
The rent for Apt. 36, Malaya Meshchanskaya was 25 rubles a month. Dostoevsky paid two months in advance (without signing a rental contract), plus a 10 ruble deposit the day before he officially rented the space.

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Igor Severyanin house in St. Petersburg

 

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This house at 5 Srednyaya Podyacheskaya Street in St. Petersburg is presumably where the poet Igor Severyanin lived when he became famous. (See final graph for possible ambiguities.) The building – and, in fact, the entire street – are incredibly easy to miss among Piter’s seemingly millions of beautiful structures, streets, alleys, canals and boulevards. Both building and street are grungy and monotonous. According to one site that tells the story of Severyanin’s life here in great detail, this street was a haven for hooligans over the decades – it was so in Severyanin’s time and it was still so, apparently, in the mid-to-late Soviet period. It doesn’t surprise me. You’d think anyone growing up here would have a chip on their shoulder.
The sources are not unanimous on this, but I am going to stick with the claim of the nnre.ru site, which dates Severyanin’s arrival here to the year of 1907. He lived here with his mother until he went into emigration in 1918. Also with him here for awhile was his common-law wife Yelena Zolataryova-Semyonova. Their relationship – like most that the poet was involved in – was complex, and it ran for much longer than the time she lived with him at Srednyaya Podyacheskaya, from 1912-1915. The street is a short one located in the heart of historic St. Petersburg, right in the same general area where Nikolai Gogol and Fyodor Dostoevsky occupied numerous apartments. In fact, Dostoevsky once lived in the next building over from Severyanin, only a few decades earlier (more about that another time). The street is located on the inside of a bend in the Griboyedov Canal so sharp that the street both begins and ends at the Canal.
The poet Georgy Ivanov even left us a brief description of the apartment: “Igor Severyanin lived in apartment No. 13. This fateful number was chosen outside the will of its inhabitant. The house administration, for understandable reasons, gave that number to the smallest, dirtiest apartment in the whole house. The entrance was from the courtyard where cats scooted along the scuffed-up staircase.”
That was not, however, the full extent of what Ivanov had to say. Not hiding his aversion to the place (and, perhaps, the poet), Ivanov also wrote: “The business card tacked to the front door bore an autograph with a large flourish over the hard sign: ‘Igor Sverianin.’ I rang the bell and a little old woman with her hands in soapy foam opened it. ‘Are you here to see Igor Vasilievich? Wait, I’ll tell them now…’ I looked around. This was no entry, but rather a kitchen. The stove boiled and billowed with black smoke. The table was piled with unwashed dishes. Something dripped on me: I was standing beneath a rope with linen that was hung out to dry. The ‘Prince of Violets and Lilacs’ greeted me, covering his neck with his hand: he was lacking a collar. There was exemplary order in his small room with a bookshelf, some pathetic furniture, and a decadent picture of some kind on the wall.
For the record, the “decadent picture of some kind” was a reproduction of Mikhail Vrubel’s painting “The Muse.”
Severyanin did respond to Ivanov, however, writing, “Our apartment was light and dry. As for cats, indeed, these rather common house pets were present in our house, but they did not fly over the c-l-e-a-n private staircase, they merely walked and ran, as did Mr. Ivanov No. 2  himself.
Ooh, that “Ivanov No. 2 himself” is a good dig, dropping Georgy to the second spot, distinctly behind the more highly respected Vyacheslav Ivanov.

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Valery Bryusov was a more famous and more welcome visitor to the apartment on Srednyaya Podyacheskaya. In fact, when he first arrived here, he could be said to have brought fame with him.
Severyanin, as was the custom in his time, had sent some of his poetry to Bryusov in Moscow in hopes of receiving back a few words of encouragement, if not of praise. Instead, Bryusov, apparently on his next trip to St. Petersburg, took the time to visit Severyanin personally. Bryusov was so taken with Severyanin that he began trumpeting his name on every corner, touting him as the next great poet. That didn’t always work in Severyanin’s favor, as many poets were put off by Bryusov’s effusive praise, and took a skeptical approach to the young writer. But it was Severyanin himself who broke with Bryusov a few years later when the elder allowed himself to be less than ecstatic about Severyanin’s second book, Golden Lyre.
Next up among the guests traipsing a path to Severyanin’s door was Mayakovsky. Only this time the tables were turned. Mayakovsky came here as a neophyte seeking the masterly Severyanin’s approval. And he did receive it. But as had happened with Bryusov, the Severyanin-Mayakovsky alliance could only last so long. Two men with two such healthy egos could never have hung together for long. It didn’t help that Mayakovsky impregnated one of Severyanin’s many girlfriends, causing her to get an abortion.
For all Severyanin’s success with women – and he was famous for that – it seems like all the writers leaving behind impressions of his apartment were distinctly ill-willed. Here is what the poet Benedikt Livshits had to say: “Severyanin lived on Srednyaya Podyacheskaya… To reach him, one had to pass either through the laundry or the kitchen… We found ourselves in a completely dark room with tightly boarded windows. The figure of Severyanin emerged from the corner and gestured for us to sit on a huge sofa whose springs rattled and rolled. When my eyes grew accustomed to the semi-darkness, I began examining the environment around us… it seemed there was nothing there but folders stacked on the floor, and an enormous number of dried bouquets hung on the walls and attached wherever possible.”
Not much more generous was the artist and writer David Burliuk, who wrote: “One entered the apartment from the yard by a stone staircase with broken steps – you came in directly through the kitchen where steamy laundry hung, the smell of of cooking was pervasive, and an elderly woman walked you down the corridor to Igor Vasilievich’s study. If you remember Naumov’s engraving “A Search of Belinsky’s Room as he Lay Dying,” the room depicted by the artist reminds one of Severyanin’s study: one or two bookcases, something between a couch or a bed, and nothing on the table, but an inkstand and several sheets of paper. Above it, in a frame under glass, hangs a splendid charcoal and ink drawing of Igor Severyanin by Vladimir Mayakovsky which quite resembles the original.
Finally, in my constant odyssey for the truth about Russian literature, I cannot fail to add the following paragraph which the moles.ee site offers us: “Doubts have arisen about the numbering of the houses, since the corner house on the odd side of the street overlooking the Griboedov Canal does not have a number on Srednyaya Podyacheskaya (the corner house on the even side has double numbering). It is possible that house No. 5 is actually house No. 7. In that case one should look for the poet’s apartment in house No. 3, which in reality is house No. 5. By the way, the left side of the yard of house No. 3 is completely closed off, and the apartment on the mezzanine level on the right, the sunny, side resembles well-known descriptions.
So, there you have it. This is, or isn’t, the building in which Severyanin lived from 1907 to 1918. That doesn’t change the stories about it. But I guess we have to consider that the photos remain in question.

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