Category Archives: Writer’s Homes

Vikenty Veresaev house, Tula

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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.

 

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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.

 

Yusupov theater site, Moscow

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I am prompted to write about this structure located at the corner of Bolshoi Kharitonyevsky and Bolshoi Kozlovsky Lanes in Moscow thanks to the latest prank pulled by the City of Moscow under the leadership of Mayor Sergei Sobyanin. Sobyanin will surely go down in history as one of the mayors who most hated the city he ran. He was installed by Putin then kept there several years ago in a phony election. Under the guise of “beautification” and “progress,” Sobyanin has lorded over the destruction of many historical Moscow sites. He has also “beautified” Moscow by redoing the streets and sidewalks in such a way that makes it impossible to drive/park in the city, while pedestrians stumble over badly-laid new walkways. I mention that because I wrote about this phenomenon a year or so ago on this site; you can find the piece by seeking links to Pushkin and Gorky.
So, before getting around to today’s main topic, let me begin by saying that the Sobyanin wrecking crew ripped down one of Moscow’s most prominent buildings yesterday at 15 Malaya Bronnaya Street in the city center (not pictured here). This structure, known as the Neklyudova estate, was built in the 1840s and played an important part in the history of the city. It was here that the pianist Sergei Taneyev in 1906 opened a People’s Conservatory. Many important musicians of the time taught or studied here. It’s now gone. The men with the bulldozers showed up at 4 a.m. – isn’t that enough to convict them all of evil in itself? – and before long there was nothing left but rubble.
Okay, I mention this because who knows what will happen to the building I share today, a very old building rich in history that some sources say is located at 17 Bolshoi Kharitonyevsky Lane and others put at 13 Bolshoi Kozlovsky Lane? A stone’s throw from today’s Chistye Prudy, it was in the woods when originally built. (There are unsubstantiated rumors and speculation that the first structure here was a hunting hut or lodge belonging to Tsar Ivan the Terrible in the 16th century.) The building we see today – not in particularly good shape – is one of a series of old structures running a full city block along Bolshoi Kharitonyevsky Lane. If we call ours the first structure, the second and third have been restored quite nicely. You see the reddish-orangish walls of the second building to the right of the white one in some of today’s photos. The white building originally belonged to a deacon Andreyan Ratmanov when it was built in the 17th/18th centuries. According to some sources (including the official Moscow cultural map), it once housed one of the first theaters in Russia, the Yusupov Theater. An official federal government document granting protected status to several buildings in 2013 lists this building as such: “House (Yusupov Theater), end of 18th century, wings of 17th century. Moscow,  13 Bolshoi Kozlovsky Lane.” (Some sources put the theater at 24 Bolshoi Kharitonyevsky Lane.) Whatever the reality, there is no theater left here now. A website dedicated to the Ratmanov estate, where the theater may have been housed, writes: “But in 1812 almost all the wooden homes on this lane and in the Yusupov garden burned down. Also gone was the Yusupov Theater where female dancers tossed off semi-transparent clothing and appeared before the public entirely nude. For this reason we can call Kharitonyevsky Lane the birthplace of Russian striptease.”

A webpage dedicated to the structure at 24 Bolshoi Kharitonyevsky Lane (not pictured here) writes the following about the theater:
In all likelihood, it was here that the new master built the famous Yusupov Theater, which was inferior in importance and popularity only to Sheremetevsky’s theater. Supporting this version is the fact that concerts of opera singers were organized in the hall located on the second floor in the ’60s of the last century. It is unlikely that this theatrical stage was built after the Yusupovs. The responses of contemporaries to the Yusupov Theater were enthusiastic. Their comments were often colored with expressions such as “unprecedented” and “fabulous” in describing “… an extensive hall, illuminated by a chandelier and fringed with a triple belt of boxes.”
I am a little confused by this source’s reference to the “’60s of the last century.” One assumes that means the 1960s, but I find it suspect that opera concerts held in some hall in the 1960s would be proof that this was the location of the original theater. I don’t deny it, I just find it weak as proof. I’m also wondering if we may be talking about two different theaters. Perhaps after the destruction of the first in the War of 1812 with Napoleon, a second was built across the street? I don’t know and I find very little information to go on in the internet.
The respected and reliable Know Moscow site tosses things into deeper confusion by placing the theater in the building now bearing the address of 21 Kharitonyevsky Lane. Here is what it tells us:
The manor was significantly expanded in the 18th century under Prince Nikolai Borisovich Yusupov. A garden with greenhouses was laid out and the Yusupov Theater, famous throughout all Moscow, was built. High society routs were organized in a special house across from the palace. Pushkin’s father Sergey Lvovich rented an apartment on the second floor of the left wing of the Yusupov house in 1801-03. The future poet spent time walking in the Yusupov garden. Pushkin always maintained good relations with Nikolai Yusupov throughout his adult life.”
The Yusupov Theater aside, this building is interesting for another reason – Vasily Sukhovo-Kobylin  purchased it (or a section of it) in 1800. 17 years later his son Alexander was born – the future famed playwright. Sasha Sukhovo-Kobylin, the author of one of the blackest, most bitter dramatic trilogies ever written in any language, lived here for the first 13 years of his life.
To return to my starting point today, I must assume that this building is safe from the marauders. If the two neighboring buildings have been saved, surely this one will be too. But if there’s one thing you learn to do in Russia, particularly in a town run by the people who currently lord over Moscow, it’s that you take nothing for granted. So here are these photos – offered up while I had a chance still to take them.

 

Dmitry Sverbeev, Yekaterina Semyonova house, Moscow

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This house at 37/1 Arbat is a throwback to another age. It was built in the late 18th century – the oldest remaining building on the Arbat – and, after damage suffered in the fires associated with the Napoleonic War of 1812, it was reconstructed. What we see today is the result of work done in 1834. Quite a few people of note have lived in or visited this home. Today we’re interested primarily in Dmitry Sverbeev (1799-1874), who was born here,  and Yekaterina Semyonova (1786-1849) who lived here for a time from 1834 to 1835.
Sverbeev was a diplomat who loved literature and writers and befriended many of them. He described his own interest as such: “I sometimes love to read a bit and listen to intelligent conversations.” He knew Alexander Pushkin and appeared to be rather close to Nikolai Gogol, which is a little bit like a tiny planet orbiting two super-suns. Sverbeev spent a good deal of time with Gogol abroad and, when the writer found himself in financial difficulties, the friend generously gave him money to keep going on. (Sverbeev in general seems to have been a generous man, often helping out people who were not as well-situated as he. In a stroke that says much about him as a person, he never wrote about any of this in his memoirs.) Sverbeev was not as close to Pushkin as he was to Gogol, although the poet did attend Sverbeev’s salons in Moscow in the 1830s, and they crossed paths in various places for many years.
Interestingly, one story from Sverbeev’s memoirs, My Notes (written in retirement in Switzerland and never intended for publication), involves Pushkin and Semyonova, a famed actress who counted Pushkin among her admirers.
In 1820 when Pushkin was visiting the theatres in Moscow, he attended a performance of Semyonova and caused a bit of a ruckus. I’ll let the Prometheus website finish the tale: “Pushkin brought to the theatre a portrait of the French artisan Louvel, who had recently been executed for assassinating in Paris the Duc de Berry, an heir to the throne. The portrait bore a  sweeping inscription: “A Lesson to Tsars.” After the first act, the portrait was passed around the rows of the theatre. Incidentally, it is precisely Dmitry Sverbeev who tells us about this incident from the life of the poet.”
There is some slight confusion about the actual years Sverbeev spent at this house on the Arbat. At least I don’t find hard evidence of the date he left for good. The plaque on the building facade states he lived here from 1799 to 1825, but I haven’t been able to corroborate that. What I do find is that he was posted to the Russian embassy in Geneva in 1824. What exactly he did in the immediately preceding years, I do not know (he graduated from Moscow University in 1817). I’m guessing that the famous literary salons that he hosted were not begun until he left the Arbat, even though the Prometheus site claims he “organized a circle in his own home on the Arbat.” It is known that his most famous salon gatherings were held when he lived at 10 Strastnoi Boulevard and later at 25 Tverskoi Boulevard (I’ve written about this location previously as one of Osip Mandelstam’s addresses in the early 20th century.)

Semyonova is one of those shooting stars that history tosses up every now and then. She was an uneducated, apparently illiterate peasant who, thanks to her fiery temperament, became one of St. Petersburg’s and Moscow’s most popular actresses of her time. She particularly shone in the romantic dramas and tragedies of Vladislav Ozerov, himself a huge star playwright whose fantastic popularity died utterly within just years. He had the misfortune of being a pre-Pushkinian writer, and was soon wiped from the memory of his countrymen. (You will see Pushkin do a bit of the wiping himself in a long quote offered shortly below.) Nobody has performed Ozerov plays for decades, if not centuries. Be that as it may, four of Semyonova’s first six major roles were in plays by Ozerov (stress on the first syllable) – Oedipus in Athens (1804), Fingal (1805), Dmitry Donskoi (1807) and Polyxena (1809). She also shined in Yakov Knyazhnin’s Rosslav (1805) and several foreign plays: Friedrich Schiller’s Maria Stuart (1809), Corneille’s Ariana (1811) and Racine’s Iphigenie (1815). She debuted in 1802 and joined the company of the Alexandrinsky Theater in 1805.
As I have mentioned, Pushkin was a huge fan and in a long defense of Semyonova (whom some in St. Petersburg compared unfavorably to the popular French actress known as Mademoiselle Georges), he wrote:
Speaking of Russian tragedy you speak of Semyonova, and, perhaps, only about her. Gifted with talent, beauty and a lively, true temperament, she came into being all on her own. Semyonova never had a model. The soulless French actress Georges and the eternally enthusiastic poet [Nikolai] Gnedich could only hint at the secrets of art which she understood as a revelation of her soul. Her performances are always unencumbered, always clear, with noble, lively movement, her voice is clean, smooth, pleasant and often reveals gusts of true inspiration – all these belong to her alone and are not borrowed from anyone. She decorated the imperfect creations of the sad Ozerov, creating the roles of Antigone and Moine; She animated the pedestrian lines of Lobanov; In her mouth we appreciated the Slavonic verses of Katenin, full of strength and fire, but lacking in taste and harmony. In colorful anonymous translations which, unfortunately, today are much too ordinary, we heard nothing but Semyonova. The actress’s genius gave stage life to all these lamentable works translated by allied teams of poets, where each of them individually renounced his participation. Semyonova has no rival; The occasional gossip, brief battles and invented hearsay have ceased; She remains the unanimous queen of the tragic stage.”
Pushkin so admired Semyonova that he mentioned her in his great novel-in-verse Eugene Onegin. Celebrating his young years when he frequented the theatre, Pushkin in Chapter 1, stanza 28, wrote: “There Ozerov shared the involuntary tribute / of people’s tears and applause / with the young Semyonova.”
Depending upon the source, you can read all kinds of probable nonsense about Semyonova; what a hothead she was, how ignorant she was, how lazy she was, how covetous she was… You can always read things like that about popular, to say nothing of great, actors. I think Pushkin’s characterizations beat the hell out of all the snippers, snappers and snipers combined. I just have a feeling (say I with no small sarcasm).
In any case, Semyonova’s career took a downturn in the years 1815 to 1820 and from then on she performed less and with less success. She moved to Moscow in 1827 and the following year married Count Ivan Gagarin, the man who had been her lover and had given her several children. It wasn’t the happiest of arrangements, but it became worse after his death in 1832. At least as late as 1830, Pushkin is said to have attended her performance in an amateur production in Moscow, but it was a far cry from her glory days. By the time Semyonova lived briefly on the Arbat, her acting days were effectively behind her.

 

Alexander Ostrovsky birthplace, Moscow

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The calendar in 1823 had turned to a new day just four hours prior to the appearance in the world of Nikolai and Lyubov Ostrovsky’s latest son. At the time, when Russia was still using the Julian calendar, it was in the wee hours of March 31. In the rest of the world where the Gregorian Calendar was in use (as it has been in Russia since 1918), it was April 12. Thus we now celebrate the birth of Alexander Ostrovsky, one of the greatest figures in Russian theater on this date of April 12.
The house that the family inhabited was relatively new to them. They had just rented it and moved in a short time before. The landlord was a local priest and the house, in fact, stood directly across from a church that was originally built in the 17th century. It looks old to us now; it would have looked old even to the Ostrovsky family.
The address today is 9 Malaya (or, Small) Ordynka Street. It is a short side road stuck neatly in between two major thoroughfares – Pyatnitskaya Street and Bolshaya (or, Big) Ordynka – in the Zamoskvorech’ye neighborhood, so called because it is located “beyond” the Moscow River, south of the Kremlin. I lived a few blocks from Ostrovsky’s home for 17 years until Oksana and I packed up and left the area behind a few weeks ago. We did that for several reasons, one being that a former neighbor was murdered one night a year and a half ago not far away on the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge. His name was Boris Nemtsov and he was the leader of Russia’s political opposition. He lived a few blocks from us, quite near to where Ostrovsky was born, even closer to where Leo Tolstoy once lived, and he was on his way home after a late supper when six assassin’s bullets to the back cut him down. Ever since that night the whole area has seemed cursed to us. Out, out, damn spot. It will not come out. The blood on the bridge that led to and from our home became too much to bear. It seemed to spread and seep into our every thought and sensation. It spoiled this beautiful place with so much history and beauty. The beauty and history remain, and they will inspire and please others for as long as Moscow remains standing. But it could not inspire or please us anymore. Our love, our connection, our sense of belonging were cut down together with Boris Nemtsov. Fiends took his life, and extinguished our love.
So it was that on my last day as a resident of Zamoskvorech’ye, as a neighbor in space, if not in time, of one of my most admired historical figures, Alexander Ostrovsky, I decided to take a stroll around the house in which the great writer was born and lived for the first few years of his life.
I also need to say that I had never stopped by to visit Ostrovsky in all my years as a neighbor. I passed his home countless times going to and fro. I always nodded and wished him well, admiring the beautiful old wooden home ensconced among towering, modern buildings. I often stopped to look through the gate at the home’s facade before moving on again. Once, when the territory was closed, I trained my camera on the Ostrovsky monument by the side of the house and hit the zoom lever, but the lighting was so bad, the distance so great, and the surround foliage so rich, that my photos were useless. I never came back to try again. Always in a hurry, always in a hurry. I once attended an exhibit here of photographs by my friend Ken Reynolds, who, in a neighboring building, showed a series of his images of Chekhov productions that he had photographed all over the world. But even for that I just tossed some shoes on bare feet and raced over to look at the photographs and spend a few minutes with Ken, who had flown in that day from the U.K. Then it was back to my own home, back to my work.
Is this what Bob Dylan calls Time out of Mind? A sensation of eternity, of time stopped, even as time ticks down? It never bothered me that I had not stopped in to see Ostrovsky because I could always do that, couldn’t I? That house wasn’t going anywhere, nor was I, was I? We were eternal neighbors; it certainly seemed that way for 17 years. Seventeen long years there was no need for me to hurry over to spend time with Alexander Ostrovsky because I could do it any time. Any time I wanted. Not today, because today I’m busy. Probably not tomorrow. But any other time. Any day, any time. Next week, next month, next year.

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And so on my last day as Alexander Ostrovsky’s neighbor, I paid him a visit. The murder of Nemtsov put the lie to that notion of eternity; his blood washed me out of the neighborhood we all had shared. One day was left. Tomorrow I could not come see Ostrovsky as a neighbor. Tomorrow I would be a “foreigner,” a guest coming from afar, an alien from another borough. I made the short trek and stepped through the wrought iron gate I so often had passed, and through which I often sent vague, warm thoughts.
I was almost immediately transported into another world. Right here in the middle of the city, the city is held at bay. Flower gardens blooming almost madly, thick tree canopies seeming to billow overhead, quaint sandy paths leading around the house, and the simple, but attractive, wooden house itself – they all conspire to erase the 21st century. You take a seat on one of the wooden benches surrounding Ostrovsky’s bust and you realize that Moscow is not at all what you thought it was. At least it was not at one time. This is the countryside! Ostrovsky, the man who almost singlehandedly created the great Russian theater that we know today, the first great Russian playwright, the first great Russian theater manager (he turned the Maly into the institution it is today), the great social activist (he pioneered the notion of social support for actors), was born right here in a sleepy plot, where breezes lap lazily at leaves and the humid air of summer makes you want to wilt and fall asleep every other step you take. A woman sat nearby reading a book. Reading a book?! In the middle of Moscow in the 21st century? Birds twittered. What birds? Where do you see birds besides crows and pigeons in Moscow? Where is this place? Where have I landed?
I had landed in the past. I had entered the last few hours, the last few minutes, of eternity. It was a fine, fitting final day in Zamoskvorech’ye. The past had brought me to Russia in the first place. Tolstoy. Erdman. All the rest. You know the names. You know the alphabet soup. And the past would usher me out of my sad, soured Moscow neighborhood, the place I loved so long but could not bear any longer.
Ostrovsky. He will weather all. When all of it’s gone, when all of them are gone, Ostrovsky will remain. Ostrovsky will reclaim Zamoskvorech’ye. He will redeem it. But that will be done without me. I will welcome it and celebrate it. But I’ll do that from afar, a foreigner again. An alien.

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Leo Tolstoy estate, Moscow

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I have a heck of a time visiting Leo Tolstoy. This is the third Tolstoy home/museum that has been closed when I came to visit. In the case of this estate where Tolstoy and much of his family wintered from 1882 to 1901, I picked the one day in the month when it was closed. Consequently, I ended up sneaking around taking whatever photos I could from the outside. To get some shots of the inside grounds I either stuck my hand through the gate slats (second and third photos in the block immediately below) or shimmied up a narrow space between two walls on the property’s south side. From there I got a bit of a view down into the back yard (the last two photos at the bottom). It was here among the trees that Tolstoy would set up a skating rink for the family during the months of ice and snow.
None of my walk-around left me with much of a feeling that I had encountered the writer in any meaningful way. Everything seemed to have its back turned to me that day – walls, gates, fences, houses, ghosts… But with a little help from Tolstoy’s diaries – and the copious annotations done by Tolstoy scholars – we can slip back the curtain on life here, if only ever so slightly.
Tolstoy purchased this home and plot of land in the Khamovniki district west of central Moscow on July 14, 1882, from Collegiate Assessor Ivan Arnautov. The street name at the time was Dolgo-Khamovnichesky Lane. Today, not surprisingly, it is Leo Tolstoy Street. The Tolstoys actually moved into the house only three months later, on October 8, 1882. Among other things, the house and its fences and various wings were among the very few structures to survive the great Moscow fire of 1812 when Napoleon invaded the city. Later, it was one of the first major literary museums created in the Soviet period. It has had that status since 1921. That’s quite an event when you consider that the young Soviet state was still bogged down in a Civil War and was struggling seriously financially.
The State Tolstoy Museum website tells us that of Leo and Sofya Tolstoy’s 13 children, 10 spent at least some time living in this house. They were Tatyana, Maria, Alexandra, Sergei, Ilya, Lev, Andrei, Mikhail, Alexei and the couple’s last son, little Vanechka, who died of scarlet fever at the age of seven.
Vanechka was born here at the Khamovniki house in 1888. He went down in the memories of his parents as an angel of love who came to bless them before he left. The stories are legion and they are touching. Vanya was a handsome boy (see a photo here), who had a lasting effect on everyone who encountered him. There was an asylum on the other side of the wall where a man came to live when he had a nervous breakdown after his own son died. In a turn of events that might strike us as prescient if not miraculous, he befriended Vanya and was cured of his illness. Here is an account of that transformation from Tolstoy.ru:
In a clinic for the mentally ill that stood next to the garden of the Khamovniki house there lived a patient who fell ill after the death of his only child. He found comfort in spending time with Vanechka. They often communicated over the fence. But the conversations were of the most serious kind. The boy assured the sick man that there was still much love in the world, and that one must love everyone. After these conversations the desire to live again awakened in the sick man’s soul. In a thank you note to Sofya Tolstoy, he wrote: ‘It wasn’t the doctor who cured me, but God sent your Vanechka, that angel, for my comfort. He gave me the happiness of a new love for him, and through him, for all children and all people.”
The Tolstoys lost another child here. Alexei was born in 1881, the year before they moved in, but died January 18, 1886, before reaching the age of five. This terrible event would have happened when the family was at the Khamovniki house.
The only child, aside from Vanechka, who was born during the Tolstoys tenure in Khamovniki was the last daughter Alexandra (1884-1979). However, she was born in Yasnaya Polyana on June 18, in the dead of the summer when the family was always together at that country estate near Tula.

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Men and women, great and otherwise, made pilgrimages to meet and greet with Tolstoy at his home. We see evidence of this in some of the writer’s diaries, all of which are available online. Because of the nature of diaries, we don’t always get more than a barebones report, and we obviously get nothing more than what Tolstoy jotted down. But, for the record, we know that the writer Vsevolod Garshin paid Tolstoy a visit at his home in Khamovniki on January 31 (or thereabouts), 1885, “but did not find him home.” Anatoly Alexandrov, a tutor of one of Tolstoy’s sons and later a well-known literary editor, actually lived in the wing of the main house in 1988 and 1989. At some point in 1891-92, the Serb Giuseppe Modrich stopped by, later describing his talks with Tolstoy in a chapter called “Visiting Count Tolstoy. His Social Catechism” in his book, Russia: Notes and Memories of Travels (Rome, 1892). The French literary historian and translator Jules Legras visited in 1893.
One of the best known visits to Khamovniki was paid by Maxim Gorky on January 16, 1900. It was the first meeting ever of the two writers. In part because Gorky was with the journalist Vladimir Posse, and in part because the event made such an impression on Gorky, there has been quite a bit written about it. Posse recalled that Tolstoy was very animated during the meeting, speaking with Gorky openly and freely. Tolstoy told Gorky that he hadn’t been able to slog through his novel Foma Gordeev. “Everything in it is artificial,” he told his young visitor. He did, however, name other works that made a good impression on him – “Varenka Olesova” and “26 Men and a Girl,” among them. Still, the initial criticism apparently blinded Gorky so that he didn’t fully hear Tolstoy tell him how much he enjoyed meeting him, that he would do well as a writer, and that he was a “real man.” What better praise could a Russian male give a Russian male?!
At first blush, Gorky wrote to Posse that the visit had not made much of an impression. He compared it to Finland: “nothing familiar, nothing alien, but quite cold.” However, as a sign that Gorky did have a conscience, he seemed to warm up to the experience the more distant it grew in time. On January 18 or 19 he wrote an almost gushing letter to Tolstoy: “I’m very happy that I saw you and I’m very proud of having done so. In general I knew that you are very straight and kind with people, but, to be honest, I didn’t expect you to be so kind to me!”
If you’re interested, there’s a fairly detailed description of the visit and later comments by all concerned on the site that publishes Tolstoy’s complete works.
In all, Tolstoy wrote some 100 works at the estate in Khamovniki. Among them were the novel Resurrection, and the stories “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” “The Kreutzer Sonata” (one of the most odious pieces of literature ever committed to paper), and “Father Sergius.” The very last thing he wrote here was “My Reply to the Synod,” after the Russian Orthodox Church excommunicated him for breaking with its teachings. It is a rift that continues even today, as the Church continues to claim Tolstoy cannot be reinstated because he never renounced his heretical  views.

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Alexander Timofeevsky home, Moscow

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I am pleased to be able to say this right off the bat: Alexander Timofeevsky is one of my small household’s best friends. That happened thanks to another great friend of ours, the poet and playwright Viktor Korkia. My wife Oksana Mysina staged a couple of Vitya’s plays (Quixote and Sancho, and Ariston), and Vitya invited his friend Alexander to one of them. Sasha, as we have known him ever since, hung around for an after-party – it was Oksana’s birthday – and he almost immediately began doing one of the things he is famous for: spouting off impromptu poems.
Sasha is something like the Improviser in Pushkin’s “The Egyptian Nights,” he unloads pithy, funny, and/or meaningful short poems on the spot. He may declare he is ready to improvise something, or someone may egg him on – “Come on, Sasha! Give us a poem!” – and he will respond. People know this about him, so there is always at least one person hanging around with pencil and paper at the ready. There are hundreds of Timofeevsky poems out there that continue to exist beyond the moment of their generation thanks entirely to prepared fans. Sasha himself, though he’s happy to date and autograph scraps of paper in order to authenticate them, makes no effort to preserve these impromptu pearls. We have six such scraps of paper lodged in between the pages of Timofeevsky’s books. One of them Oksana jotted down immediately after Timofeevsky unloaded a quatrain on her over the telephone:

On a Whitsunday week
We once shared a popover
Since then you’ve gone batty:
You now love another!

These things are fine around here. Here’s another Sasha wrote on Dec. 4, 2011:

Oksana, dear Oksana,
I’m Cyrano, you’re Roxanna!
Cupid’s arrow took me down,
I don’t even see that you’re with John!

Timofeevsky’s reputation as a wit runs long and deep. For many years when he was unable to publish his serious poetry he made a living writing humorous poems and songs for popular Soviet cartoons. His biggest “claim to fame” (and please note that that is in quotation marks) is a song that virtually every single Russian knows. Literally, every single Russian. Because this is a ditty that has turned into Russia’s birthday song. We in the U.S. sing “Happy Birthday” (Russians do too on occasion), but the song everybody knows in Russian starts with the words,

So what if pedestrians run plopping through puddles?
And water swarms over the road like a sea?
And nobody knows why, in this wacky weather,
I am as happy as I can possibly be?

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But, okay, we’ve had our fun. And, as you might imagine, the whole fame thing associated with the birthday song is rather like a fish bone gone sideways in Timofeevsky’s throat. The fact of the matter is that this man, born in Moscow in 1933, is one of the finest poets of his age. It just took a very long time for others to make that distinction. What happened is that some of Timofeevsky’s poetry appeared in the infamous samizdat miscellany Sintaksis in 1959/60. From there on, Timofeevsky was one of those awful Soviet beasts – the unpublished and unpublishable poet. For the next 30+ years, he wrote “for the desk drawer,” as the Soviet-era saying goes. He would write a poem and file it in his desk, perhaps showing it to a few friends, but rarely more than that. It was not until 1992 that Timofeevsky, then 59 years old, published his first slim collection called To Wintering Birds. His first relatively large collection, Song for the Mournful of Soul, was published in 1998, while his second, bearing the honest and wry title of The Too-Late Shooter, came out in 2003, timed to coincide with his 70th birthday.
These and many other collections that have appeared since are modest in volume, and rich in quality. Arguably, Timofeevsky’s most prodigious achievement to date is his long narrative poem, Tramcar No. 37. It is a sweeping, subtle, fragmentary, yet fully coherent, look at the Russia we live in today as it emerged from the Russia of yesterday. The tramcar number is a clear reference to the fateful year in Soviet history of 1937, one of the bloodiest in all of Russia’s many such years. I quoted a tiny excerpt from the poem in another blog last year, but I see no reason not to repeat that here. These two poetic phrases are, for me, the perfect picture of the Russia I now live in:

Russia was pilfered by aliens.
In five minutes they beamed her up,
Squashed her down, and stuck her in a trunk.
Meanwhile, as you and I were busy dreaming,
Somebody replaced her with a counterfeit.

Just for fun, I pulled out, almost at random, a poem published in the collection Answer of a Roman Friend (2011). It is called “Es War einmal ein Konig” and it is dated as having been written between the years of 1990 and 2010.

Once upon a time there lived a king.
A royal jester,
A minister and a guard
All once lived here too.
They did so pointlessly and senselessly
Just one time only.
I, too, lived here, though not for long,
Faster than an eye can blink.
Es war einmal ein Konig
Es war einmal and I…
German captures well
The instantaneousness of being –
Not much, not half of it,
Just one brief flash in time.
You’d like it to last longer?
You must be crazy, then!

Today while thinking about Sasha we have offered up a few photos of the home in which he lives near the Arbat. The address is 3/5 Bolshoi Lyovshinsky Lane. If you’re interested in reading a little more about him, you can go to a blog I wrote for The Moscow Times about one of his poetry recitals in 2014.

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