Category Archives: Writer’s Homes

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.”

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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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Vikenty Veresaev house, Tula

Click on photos to enlarge.

Vikenty Veresaev, real last name Smidovich, was born in this house in Tula in 1867. He lived here until 1884, when he left for St. Petersburg to study literature and history at St. Petersburg University. Even as his various professions and aspirations took him to other cities for long periods of time – notably Tartu, where he studied medicine, and later Moscow, where he was a famed writer – this was a home he would return to frequently. Its address today is 82 Gogolevskaya Street (Peshekhonskaya Street when Veresaev lived here), just five blocks from Tula’s main drag, then called Kievskaya Street, now called Lenin Prospekt.
Veresaev is one of an elite club of Russian writers, whose first job was as a medical doctor. The most famous of them are Anton Chekhov, Mikhail Bulgakov, Vasily Aksyonov, Grigory Gorin and Alexander Rozenbaum. In fact, Veresaev felt so called to medicine that he chose to take it up as a profession after already completing his first degree as a historian-philologist. He officially became a doctor in 1894 upon graduation from Derptsky University in Tartu (it actually had been renamed Yuryevsky University in 1893 – and is now known as the famed Tartu University).
Veresaev moved to St. Petersburg in 1894 where, in 1896, he took up a position at the city’s hospital for contagious diseases (later to be named Botkin Hospital) where he doubled as a resident physician and the head of the hospital library.
Veresaev had had inclinations to write ever since his school days. His first publication was a poem called “Contemplation” in 1885. He published his first story, “Enigma,” in 1887. By this time he was using the pseudonym of Veresaev. Even as he completed his medical studies, Veresaev was embarking on an active literary career. He wrote and published numerous short stories in the early 1890s and, in 1892, he published a series of essays, The Kingdom of the Underworld, about the life of miners in Donetsk. For the most part he published his work in the Marxist press. The same year that he graduated from medical school, 1994, he published his first significant novella, No Way (aka No Road), following it with another highly-touted work, Pestilent Air, in 1898. Both works captured the growing sensation among Russian youth (and not only youth) that the stagnant political and social realities of the time were leading the country to a crisis. At this time Veresaev was more or less in complete agreement with liberal and social groups. In fact, his decision to become a doctor had been influenced by his desire to have the opportunity to “go to the people” and help them. The notoriety that Veresaev earned with No Way and Pestilent Air turned to downright popularity when,  in 1901, he published his first major, and still best-known, collection, A Doctor’s Notes (aka Memoirs of a Physician). Here he shocked some and thrilled others with unblinking portraits of real life told from the viewpoint of a doctor. Veresaev addressed the mixed reaction in his introduction to the collection as a book:
This resentment strikes me as symbolic. We so fear the truth in all things, and are so unaware of how important it is, that all we need do is barely open up one small corner of it for people to begin feeling uneasy: Why did you do that? What is the use? What will the uninitiated say? How will they understand the truth presented?
Plus ça change, I guess I want to say to that!

Notes of a Doctor not only put Veresaev into the first ranks of contemporary Russian writers, it also brought down on him the attention of the Russian secret police. For his “crime” of protesting the brutal treatment of students demonstrating against the government, he was sent back to Tula in 1901 to make it easier for the authorities to keep an eye on him. In 1903, however, he was allowed to return to Moscow, and, shortly thereafter, was drafted into service as a military doctor for the duration of the Russo-Japanese War. This led to his next prominent work, a series of essays written from 1904 to 1906 about his experiences at war.
From roughly 1905 until the Russian Revolution in 1917, Veresaev wrote and published less than he had in the past, although he did not stop writing altogether. Significantly, he published a work titled A Life Alive: On Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, in 1910. At the time it may have seemed like an unexpected foray into history and criticism, but, in fact, this would be a pointer to his future. Also in 1910 Veresaev travelled to Greece where his lifelong love for that culture was reawakened. When he reemerged after the revolution, it was primarily as a literary historian. It was his second birth, if you will, as a writer. His books about Gogol, Chekhov and Pushkin have been highly regarded ever since they appeared in print in the 1920s and 1930s. Of particular value are Pushkin in Life (1926) and Gogol in Life (1933).
According to one online Russian-language biography, “Vikenty Veresaev linked his literary destiny with the ‘new life,’ in this he echoed Maxim Gorky. His writing style is characterized not only by vivid realism, but also by the subtlest psychological observations about his own experiences. Autobiography was a distinctive feature of his work.
Translation was another field of activity that Veresaev devoted himself to for almost his entire adult life. He began toying with translation as a young man – he knew ancient Greek – and his translations of Homer’s The Odyssey and The Iliad are still read today. He was awarded the Pushkin Prize in 1919 for his translations of ancient Greek literature, and he was awarded the Stalin Prize (first degree) in 1943 for the sum of his life’s work.
One doesn’t see much commentary about this former liberal’s attitude to events as they unfolded in the early Soviet years. There is, however, his novel Deadlocked (1922), which showed an aversion to the violence being unleashed at the time by the Bolsheviks. In any case, two facts stand out – 1) his increased interest in the past in his writings after the Revolution, and 2) his receiving of the Stalin Prize, something that was always handed out by the Leader as thanks for perceived loyalty. Veresaev appears to have receded into a relatively safe space in the years leading up to and including the Purges, when so many of his colleagues would have suffered or disappeared.
A few words on Veresaev’s parents who were rather remarkable people themselves. His father Vikenty Smidovich was of Polish and German extraction, and was one of the leading Tula doctors of his time. He founded the first hospital in Tula as well as the city’s first sanitary commission, which sought to minimize unhealthy public practices. Veresaev’s mother Yelizaveta Yunitskaya was a noblewoman from the Mirgorod area of Ukraine. She also had Greek ancestors. The organizer of the first kindergarten in Russia in 1872, she gave birth to 11 children, of whom eight survived.
Veresaev died in 1945, just less than a month after the end of World War II. He was buried in Moscow’s Novodevichy cemetery.

 

Vladimir Vysotsky guest home, Fountain Valley, CA

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I’ve been sitting on this one for two years. I’ve done that on purpose. I wanted the dust to settle a little from the kerfuffle that arose in the Vladimir Vysotsky world when my old colleague Carl Schreck dug up and collated a ton of heretofore unshared information about Vladimir Vysotsky hanging out in the LA area in the 1970s. I say “kerfuffle” because Carl’s article for RFE/RL knocked my own personal hat off. And, since I know a thing or two about Russian culture, I guarantee you that nobody had ever come up with the deets that Carl scared up. So if his article did not cause a ruckus at the time, it will in the future, when the rest of the world catches up to it. Because Vysotsky is one of the great Russian cultural figures of all time – that’s not hyperbole – and any off-the-map episodes in his much-studied life are worth their weight in gold.
In his piece “When the Legendary Soviet Bard Vladimir Vysotsky Hit Hollywood” Carl outlines a few well-documented evenings and instances when Vysotsky encountered the Hollywood elite at cocktail and swim parties in the second half of the 1970s. You should definitely go and read the whole thing, it’s a fun ride. But I’ll provide a few excerpts here anyway.
On a balmy summer evening in the posh Los Angeles neighborhood of Pacific Palisades, movie stars and industry players mingled around the pool and on the veranda, nursing drinks and clouding the air with plumes of expensive cigar smoke.
The partygoers, according to witnesses, included Hollywood royalty and rising talent alike: Gregory Peck, Natalie Wood, Liza Minnelli, Robert De Niro, Anthony Hopkins, Michael Douglas, and Sylvester Stallone, whose film Rocky would make him a worldwide star after its release four months later in November 1976.
A stranger dressed in pale blue maneuvered his short, sturdy frame through the crowd as well. His intense eyes ‘glistened with excitement’ on that evening, and an implant of the antialcoholism drug disulfiram had helped liberate him temporarily from his bondage to the bottle, his wife would later write.
At some point during the evening, the host of the party, Hollywood producer Mike Medavoy, introduced the man, who had brought his own seven-string guitar to the star-studded gathering.”
The guest, of course, was Vysotsky. His wife, who would later describe this evening in her memoir, was the famous French actress Marina Vlady.
The producer Mike Medavoy graciously and loquaciously shared his memories of Vysotsky with Carl, providing some of the juiciest sections of the article. For example:
“‘It was a typical party in Hollywood with lots of people in the business, some who knew each other and others who didn’t,’ said Medavoy, who has been involved in seven Best Picture Oscar-winners and at the time served as head of production at United Artists. ‘And the thing that was different was having Vysotsky. Obviously, nobody knew who he was.’
That was something that Vysotsky, who died 35 years ago this week, had hoped to change in what turned out to be the final chapter of his short, hard-lived life. Vysotsky’s iconic status in his homeland derived from his poignant, ironic, and cleverly subversive songs — delivered in a passionate, guttural rasp — that circulated hand-to-hand on underground recordings across the Soviet Union’s 11 time zones. But he was also a Soviet stage and movie star. And having already conquered the hearts of his compatriots, in his last years Vysotsky turned his ambitions toward Tinseltown, where he hobnobbed with celebrities and ultimately sought to make a splash on the silver screen. For Vysotsky, the concert at Medavoy’s house would become a launching point of sorts for this mission, his inaugural plunge deep into the exclusive world of Hollywood stardom with his wife, the French actress Marina Vlady, by his side.”

I contacted Carl the day his piece came out two years ago and asked if he had addresses for any of the stories he told. He didn’t, but as a man properly obsessed with his topic, he shot me several internet links that led me towards one of the lesser locations that Vysotsky lived at during his LA trips.
One particularly was a blurry photo of a man named Dick Finn standing next to Vysotsky and Vlady  in front of a typically nondescript LA suburban home. The Russian caption reads: “Dick Flinn, Vladimir Vysotsky, and Marina Vlady in America, August 1976.” If you look carefully you can make out the house number 9876 on the facing of the roof. Carl put that together with a Google Maps image of a house at 9876 Sturgeon Ave. in Fountain Valley, CA. The resemblance was good. Then a note from Flinn confirmed that he had lived in this house and that Vysotsky had visited him there.
Boom. So here we are. One of the places where Vysotsky hunkered down while looking for ways to become a part of the Hollywood machine. The house has been spiffed up and modernized since Vysotsky was there, but the brickwork, the chimney, the large front window and the main entrance with its narrow walkway are all still there to bear witness to Vysotsky’s presence.
Carl brings Finn into his story at one point:
Vysotsky’s singular growl reverberated through Medavoy’s house and drifted out into the California night, drawing the attention of guests milling about in the backyard.
‘As he kept singing with his rough voice and delivery, others were coming in [saying]: “Who is this guy singing like this?” said Dick Finn, a retired Los Angeles-based businessman and a friend of Vysotsky’s, who attended the party. ‘They were mesmerized by his performance.’
Finn, 74, hosted Vysotsky and Vlady several times in Los Angeles. He recalled in a recent interview with RFE/RL that De Niro and Minnelli, who were shooting the Martin Scorcese-directed film New York, New York at the time, came to the party straight from the set, still wearing their costumes.”
So, the big parties with all the stars may not have been at this house. But Vysotsky himself was, who, for our purposes, outweighs all the Tinseltown lovelies put together.
My purpose in this short piece is not to tell the story of Vysotsky in LA. Carl Schreck has already done that beautifully. My goal is more modest – to share images of a location in the greater Los Angeles area that is connected with the great actor, singer-songwriter’s life. Enjoy. There is Russian cultural history even in the wastelands of the LA suburbs. As for the whole story: Go to Carl’s article and read it. It’s a wonderful tale.