Tag Archives: Alexander Pushkin

Ivan Bek gravesite, St. Petersburg

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Ivan Bek (1808-1842) is not one of the first names that comes to mind when one thinks of Russian literature. He may not be among the first 100. Or 500. I’m not being facetious, or, at least, I’m not trying to be.  It’s just a fact. In the Russian internet the first Ivan Bek I encounter is Yvan Bek, a Serbian footballer from the first half of the 20th century. Ivan Bek, the Russian poet and diplomat, comes up only second.
There are dozens of biographies of Bek online. And virtually every one copies the others word for word. Finding alternative information about Bek, at least in the popular media, is damn near impossible. Vladimir Putin these days, looking to cut Russia off from the rest of the world – even as he looks to cut the rest of the world off from itself – has announced that an autonomous new Russian internet will replace Wikipedia with a homegrown variant. I’ll bet my last pair of shoes that when the bio on Ivan Bek appears on the new Ru-net, it will copy Wikipedia – and all the other sources – verbatim. The only text that differs in any way is that of the Russian Biographical Dictionary (1896-1918), which is slightly shorter than the others, but which provides the basic descriptions that are later cribbed by everyone else.
(For the record, Bek was born December 25, 1807 according to the Old Style calendar. Since that date is now recognized as January 6, 1808, I give the latter as his year of birth.)
According to the story that goes around as if it were written in stone, Bek entered the chronicles of Russian literature thanks, in large part, to meeting Ivan Turgenev in Dresden in 1827. But let’s back that up. In 1827 Bek was 19 years old. Turgenev was 10. All  sources follow that meeting immediately with Turgenev’s comment that Bek’s early poetry posses “true talent and a certain kind of taste that that very talent has divined.” That doesn’t sound like something Turgenev would have said or written at the time of their meeting. What Turgenev was doing in Dresden in 1827 and why he met Bek there, I don’t know. It is true that in that year Turgenev’s father enrolled him in the Weidengammer Pansion in Moscow, so maybe he was travelling in Germany to continue his education. Another Turgenev quote is tacked on to the first, stating that “He [Bek] is testing his powers in translating Virgil and gives shape to his taste by way of the ancient and new classics.” Now that could be something even a ten year-old Turgenev could have written to a mother or father – so maybe I’m wrong to discount the fact that the first comment could have been made at that time. In any case, I can’t dig any deeper for the earliest Turgenev letters available online are from 1831, and none of the biographies that quote Turgenev give references.
The Russian Biographical Dictionary (RBD)  tells us that Bek did not publish much, and that he primarily contributed to the journals, Moscow Observer,  Literary Supplement to Russian Invalid, Library for Reading, The Contemporary, and Morning Dawn, from 1836 to 1841. It is interesting to note that Vissarion Belinsky began editing the Literary Supplement to Russian Invalid in 1836, so he would have been the editor accepting and printing Bek’s contributions there.  RBD writes, “Almost all of these poems sing the praise of love, which is occasionally illustrated by the poet as our guarantee of immortality.” Bek published “very good” (RBD) translations of excerpts from Goethe’s Faust in The Contemporary in 1837. All of the sources, parroting one another, express surprise that this translation was attributed not to Bek, but to a certain E. Guber, although, in fact, Bek occasionally published his poems under the pseudonym of “E. Gubert.” All of the sources, beginning with RBD, declare that, in addition to literature, Bek showed talent in “painting and music,” although what that means specifically, I cannot discern. He was an important enough figure that the great Russian painter Karl Bryullov painted his portrait.

Bek was primarily a diplomat, beginning his career in Moscow in 1828. He later served in Holland (years unknown to me) and Dresden, 1835-36. He served in the Russian Department of Foreign Affairs from 1837 to 1841. His service in Holland is important for there he served alongside Prince Pavel Vyazemsky, the son of Pyotr Vyazemsky the poet and bosom buddy of Alexander Pushkin.  Pavel himself was something of a writer, with an interest in the history of Russian literature and paleography. He was also interested enough in Bek’s wife Maria Stolypina that he married her after Bek’s death. Stolypina, for those who enjoy these things, was Mikhail Lermontov’s aunt once removed.
Bek’s sarcophagus lies in the 18th-century Necropolis at the Alexander Nevsky Cemetery in St. Petersburg. It stands next to vessels holding the remains of his father Alexander and his mother Nadezhda, both of whom died after their son. An inscription on the north side of the sarcophagus reads: “Grieving parents, to their unforgettable son, who was their final comfort in life.” The coffin’s end facing West is decorated with a likeness of Christ (as can be seen above).
If Bek harbored beliefs that love was our ticket to immortality, his image of the world we inhabit in our lifetimes was not especially joyful.  In a poem entitled “To A.B. and G.T,” published in The Contemporary in Vol. VI, 1837 (and signed as “E. Gubert”), he wrote:

Tormented by sultry passions,
I called my people to my breast;
But in the cold hoards of the relentless crowd
I encountered none who were my friends…
Deceitful thoughts flew by like arrows,
Sadness overcame me and I wept at length,
And bitterly anguished, lacking sense or goal,
I dragged the heavy shackles of this earthly coil…

 

Alexander Pushkin statue, Sofia, Bulgaria

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Surely there are more monuments erected to the memory of Alexander Pushkin than to any other Russian cultural figure – or of any other Russian, period. I can’t imagine who could beat him at this point. Lenin, perhaps? Stalin must have had more at one point, but, like the monuments to Lenin, the Stalin statues were pulled down at a high rate for about 60 years following his death in 1953. True, he’s making a comeback as Russian cities rush to show their support for Vladimir Putin’s re-Stalinization of Russia. So, maybe this little topic requires a bit more research.
Somebody else will have to do that, however, because, frankly, I don’t give a damn about monuments to Lenin and Stalin. And, anyway, I digress.
Pushkin. What is there left to say about Pushkin? I have a whole stash of photos of Pushkin monuments in my archives but I never get around to posting them because I have no desire to repeat myself and I have kind of exhausted my thoughts on this be-all and end-all of Russian everything. It doesn’t mean I love him any less, maybe I love him all the more for that – how many writers have taken you all the way to the end of your thoughts? But it doesn’t make me want to rush to my computer to squeeze a few new words out of my increasingly addled brain.
But I just happened to pass through Sofia, Bulgaria, a week or two ago, and I had the good fortune to encounter still another monument to Pushkin. This one is located behind the Russian church  in the center of the city on Tsar Osvoboditel (The Liberator Tsar) Boulevard at the intersection with Georgi S. Rakovski Street. Seeing as how this will be my first post originating in Bulgaria, I didn’t want to delay posting it.
There are at least three monuments to Pushkin in Bulgaria – the one you see here, another in Burgas and another in Pliska. There may have been a fourth addition just recently that Wikipedia hasn’t found yet – I ran across an article from 2016 about a new sculpture unveiled at the A.S. Pushkin Middle School in Sofia, just  few blocks from the Russian Church.
The Wikipedia article about monuments to Pushkin is chock full of fun information. We won’t take its numbers as absolutes, but it definitely provides an impressive picture of the world’s attempts to further the memory of Russia’s greatest and favorite poet.
There are nearly 290 monuments to Pushkin around the world. Around 142 of them are in Russia, 145 more are spread out among 45 other countries. There are over 60 such monuments in Ukraine alone. Several Ukrainian cities, such as Kiev (4), Kamenka (2), Lugansk (2), Mariupol (3), Odessa (3) and Ternopol (2) have multiple monuments.
Moldova comes in a distant second to Ukraine with 9 statues, busts, what-have-you spread out over 7 cities. Of course, Moldova, known as Bessarabia in Pushkin’s times, was the site of Pushkin’s first period spent in exile in the early 1920s – he was there for three years – so it makes sense that people there would feel a strong connection to him. Two of his most popular works were written there – The Captive of the Caucasus and The Fountain of Bakhchysarai. An article by Anastasia Fletcher in the International Identities online journal , “Alexander Pushkin in Bessarabia: literature and identity politics in the periphery,” offers a great deal of information about Pushkin in Moldova/Bessarabia:
Memory of the great Russian poet’s exile in Bessarabia has been inseparable from the identity collisions in the region. Pushkin matters as heritage both as text and as context. The category of ‘text’ includes Pushkin’s own writings and the various texts of his contemporaries. The poet invented Bessarabia as a romanticized and exotic land of released authentic freedom. Various memoirs authored by people who met, or pretended to have met, Pushkin in Chisinau, reinforced this image of the region. This urban mythology is an auth- entic piece of the intangible cultural heritage of the city and of the region. The category of ‘context’ includes scholarship of local origin, a monument, topography and two museums.”

Pushkin, of course, never traveled to Bulgaria, as he did not travel to almost all of the “foreign” countries that now offer monuments to his memory. Most of the statues erected in relatively recent times (the Sofia monument was unveiled in June 2001) have had some sort of political undertone to them – they are usually attempts by cities and governments around the world to find common ground with Russia and Russian culture – and who better than Pushkin to embody such a thing? (A few years ago in this space I wrote about a monument to Leo Tolstoy that went up in Budapest just before Putin visited that gorgeous city, and was specifically intended to make the Russian leader feel “at home” in Hungary.)
Some of the monuments, however, were probably not expressions of political expediency. A few are very old, thus predating the era of contemporary global politics. Some of the oldest outside Russia include a bronze bust in Tbilisi, Georgia (1892); Chișinău, Moldova (1885); and Ashgabat, Turkmenia (1911). I am fascinated to see that there are three Pushkin statues in the United States – one each in Washington, D.C., Jackson, New Jersey, and Monroe, New York.
The oldest object memorializing the poet is no longer in existence. It was erected August 12, 1817 in Tsarskoye Selo near St. Petersburg by Pushkin’s fellow classmates. Pushkin had just turned 18 at the time. It was a marble block engraved with the words “genus loci.” It was moved into the city in 1844 then lost. The oldest extant monuments appear to be the one in Moscow on Pushkin Square – it was unveiled in 1880 – and one on Pushkin St. in St. Petersburg – it went public in 1884.
For the record there are 9 monuments to Pushkin in St. Petersburg (not counting the lost marble block), and 11 in Moscow.
The monument in Sofia was created by Russian sculptor Vyacheslav Klykov (1939-2006). He is known for his monumental sculptures, often on patriotic topics. He was a monarchist in his later years and was involved in numerous right-leaning political movements. His likeness of Pushkin – a more or less human-sized work – is perfectly passable, though, to my eye, not distinguished in any way. It’s a vision of Pushkin that we recognize and have seen a million times or more. According to one Russian blog post, the idea for erecting the monument belonged to the Pushkin Fund, while the mayor of Sofia covered the local costs that were incurred in putting it up. Klykov appears to have donated his work to the city free of charge.

 

Yakov and Yekaterina Knyazhnin gravesite, St. Petersburg

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There aren’t many of us left who can make sense of this one. Look at the first photo above. Even if you know Russian extremely well, you may not be able to make out that the name on this monument is Yakov Borisovich Knyazhnin (1742-1791). I wouldn’t have been able to read it had I not been informed about it by the map at the entrance to the Lazarevskoe cemetery (18th-century necropolis) at the Alexandro-Nevskaya Lavra in St. Petersburg. You see that map directly below – Knyazhnin’s grave marker is No. 49. Note that the No. 49 stands under the left of two columns. That is because this precisely is the monument to Knyazhnin, one of the most important playwrights and poets of the late 18th century in Russia.
The monument on the right, however, is also of interest to us (see second photo immediately below). It commemorates the life of Knyazhnin’s wife Yekaterina (1746-1797), who was not only the daughter of Russia’s first great playwright Alexander Sumarokov, she was, according to many sources, the first woman to have published poetry in Russia. It’s a hard story to follow on short-notice research, and I do not claim to present the gospel truth here. But it would appear that some of her work, usually with the support of her famous father, perhaps sometimes with the aid of her husband, did make it into print during her lifetime. Some claim these were actually poems written by Sumarakov, and, naturally, there are claims that her work was “edited” by her father and her husband. It was once believed that several of her songs were put to music by the Russia-based German composer German Raupach, but that apparently has been disproved. One can also find conjecture that Knyazhnina published several of her poems under pseudonyms – not at all unexpected for the late 18th century. We do know that she published a poem, “Oh, You, Who Is Always,” in the March 1759 issue of the literary journal The Busy Bee. This is the one that marks her as Russia’s first published woman writer.
Both Knyazhnin and his wife took it on the chin from Ivan Krylov, Russia’s first great writer of fables. In a comedy called Pranksters, Krylov satirized Knyazhnin as Verse-Stealer (Rifmokrad) and Knyazhnina as Babbler (Taratora). Supposedly it was Knyazhnina who insulted Krylov and pushed him to attack her family, although the details of the incident are not readily available to an internet-searcher. Most sources simply state that the attack was “probably” due to some personal insult.
The couple was originally buried in the Smolenskoye Cemetery in St. Petersburg, but were moved to the 18th-century necropolis in the 1950s, where their monuments are crammed in tightly and rather forlornly among other prominent personages of the 18th and early 19th centuries.

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Yakov Knyazhnin doesn’t get a whole lot of respect in the historical record. Krylov’s attack on him as a verse-stealer didn’t help, although it is common knowledge that writers in the 18th century freely borrowed from others, particularly if the source was in a foreign language. Krylov himself, for God’s sake, honed his pen by copying/translating the fables of de La Fontaine. Pushkin called him “imitative.” Knyazhnin, like Sumarokov before him, leaned heavily on the great writing of Europe to provide him inspiration. Sometimes he called his work a translation, other times he took authorship for himself. In fact, Knyazhnin was highly educated and spoke French, German and Italian. His profession was translator.
His first play was apparently the melodrama Orpheus (1763), while his first genuine literary success was the tragedy Didon, written in 1767 (some sources 1769), eight years after his wife’s first published poem, by the way.
The 1770s were an eventful decade for the fledgling writer. While giving in to a passion for cards and losing enormous sums of money, he also wrote several works that were popular at the time – the tragedy Vladimir and Yaropolk  (a reworking of Racine’s Andromaque, 1772) and the comic work Misfortune from a Carriage (1779).  However, he was plunged into disgrace when he embezzled 5,773 rubles. He was originally condemned to death, but that sentence was commuted to a demotion to the rank of simple soldier. Catherine the Great,  also a prominent playwright of the time, took pity on the disgraced soldier, overturned his sentence and gave him the rank of captain. This was in 1777. He wisely chose to get out of the service while he could and retired immediately, throwing himself into literary work, translating Voltaire’s epic poem Henriade (1777) as well as several tragedies by Corneille and Claude Crebillon. He penned another tragedy, Rosslav, which I remember reading with some pleasure in grad school, in 1784. It was another hit, if we can speak of plays as “hits” in those years.
Over the last decade of his life, Knyazhnin turned out numerous works of note. They included three “serious” works, The Mercy of Titus (1778), Sofonisba (1786), and Vladisan (1786), and numerous light works – either comedies or comic operas – The Miser (1782?, music by Vasily Pashkevich), The Fisherman and the Spirit (1781), The Braggart (1784/5), The Honey-Mead Maker (1783), The Failed Mediator (?), Odd Fellows (1790), Mourning, or The Widow Consoled (?), and The Woman who Faked Insanity (?).
Knyazhnin, labeled as a Russian classicist, had the reputation of writing works on patriotic themes while remaining a bit of a freethinker. This became particularly apparent in his last work, the tragedy Vadim of Novgorod (1788/9), in which his sympathies lay not with the ruler Ryurik, but with the rebel Vadim. The play is sprinkled with attacks on the notion of tyranny and tyrants, which could not possibly have pleased Catherine. Understanding this well, Knyazhnin originally gave Vadim of Novgorod to a theater for staging, but changed his mind and stopped the production. When it was published after his death, Catherine had the copies hunted down and destroyed. Fortunately, she could not get to all of them, and the play text, like most of what he wrote, has come down to us.
One Russian source sums his work up this way: “One of Knyazhnin’s merits was that he developed what was, for his time, an excellent style, and, relative to Sumarokov, light, attractive versification. Knyazhnin, thanks to his translations, introduced the most relevant current works of Western literature into his cultural sphere. Additionally, his use of blank verse for the first time in Russian literature was innovative.

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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.

 

Alexander Herzen’s Free Russian Press, London

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If you ever plan to write about Russian cultural figures in London, get in line behind Sarah J. Young. She’s already written about it, no matter what you want to say. And there is also this guarantee: She has done it really well.
Today I pick on a topic she has fingerprints all over: the plaque honoring a location where Alexander Herzen ran his Free Russian Press for the years 1854 to 1856. You see, when the plaque was unveiled on June 26, 2013, at 61 Judd Place, Young was invited to aid in the ceremony. She had done much of the research leading to the choice of this address as the place where a plaque would be hung. It was a no-brainer (the choice, not the research) because previous and subsequent locations were no longer of use – they had long been torn down. Necessary fact: what is now 61 Judd Place was 82 Judd Place when the Free Press was there.
The Free Russian Press began its work, according to Russky London, “in the spring of 1853 on the premises of the already established Polish Democratic Press at 38 Regent Square (since demolished). In December 1856 the press moved to 2 Judd Street, directly opposite number 61 (since demolished and now the site of a dog-walking area).” Sarah J. Young, as always, offers clarification here in her exhaustive blog about the Press: she tells us that Herzen moved the Press from Regent Square to Judd St. in December 1854. Wikipedia misses the first address at Regent Square, but provides all the other various locations from which the Press worked in its London years of 1853-1865.

  • Judd Street, 82; Brunswick Square
  • Judd Street, 2; Brunswick Square
  • Thornhill Place, 5; Caledonian Road
  • Thornhill Place, 136 and 138; Caledonian Road
  • Elmfield House, Teddington, Middlesex
  • Jessamine Cottage, New Hampton, Middlesex

Herzen ultimately moved the Press to Geneva in April 1865, but turned the workings of it over to a colleague. It closed in August 1867, having spent time at two Geneva locations:  Pre l’Eveque, 40, and Place Bel-Air, Ancient Hotel des Postes.
The early years at the location shown here were important for Herzen and the Free Press. It was here in August 1855 that he began publishing his famous Polyarnaya Zvezda (The Polar Star) periodical. The second issue came out only in May 1856. The Press remained at the first Judd St. location until the middle of December, 1856.
During the two years at this address, Herzen was busy attempting to engage Russians all over the world in contributing to his brainchild. He understood that if only London-based Russians, or even, European-based Russians, were to support and contribute to his press, it would remain a marginal enterprise. His first two major undertakings after moving from this location to the one across the street were the ones that would fix his Press in history. In July 1856 he began publishing Voices from Russia, which did bring him the contributions he needed from his former homeland. A year later, on June 22, 1857, on the fourth anniversary of the founding of the Press, he began publishing The Bell (Kolokol), which would become one of the most important political publications in Russian history. Here is how Sarah J. Young describes it in one of her blogs:
Thousands of copies were smuggled in to Russia through Herzen’s various contacts, and it was read not only by the intelligentsia or the radicals, but by everybody in authority, including the Tsar. In Herzen’s wonderful memoirs My Past and Thoughts, we read, ‘”The Bell is an authority,”‘ I was told in London in 1859 by, horrible dictu, Katkov’, referring to the arch-conservative journalist and publisher of Dostoevsky’s novels. If such a notoriously reactionary figure was prepared to admit this, it can only mean that The Bell was indeed highly significant.

More proof of the importance of Herzen’s work is to be found at the Russian National Library in St. Petersburg. They have a collection called the Free Russian Press, which includes much more than just publications issued by Herzen. But it is telling that they would use Herzen’s Press as the name for their entire collection of political, news and banned publications from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Here is the library’s own description of its holdings:
The National Library possesses one of Russia’s most complete collections of 15,000 banned and illegal publications which were produced both at home and abroad between 1853 and 1917. They were originally stored in the holdings of the Secret Department which existed in the Library until the 1917 Revolution. Grouped together under the title ‘The Free Russian Press,’ this collection contains many books, newspapers and periodicals which have already become bibliographical rarities. Among them are such noted publications as Alexander Herzen’s Kolokol (The Bell) of the 1850s-60s and Lenin’s Iskra (The Spark) of 1900-03, as well as leaflets which caused a stir in their time…
Young writes about the activities of the Press when it was at its first address: “It was at this address that the work of the Free Russian Press really took off. In 1855, Herzen published the first volume of Poliarnaia zvezda [Polar Star]. Much of the first volume was written by Herzen himself, although there were also letters by Michelet, Proudhon, Mazzini, and Hugo, and the correspondence between Belinsky and Gogol. In the following year, in addition to the second volume of Poliarnaia zvezda, the first volume of the collection Golosa iz Rossii [Voices from Russia], which featured articles by Konstantin Kavelin and Boris Chicherin, was also published at the same address…
In addition to journalism, the Free Russian Press published numerous works banned in Russia, including poetry by Alexander Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov and others. It reprinted Alexander Radishchev’s seminal Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow.
Edith W. Clowes writes about the importance of Herzen and his publishing activities in an article in Encyclopedia of the EssayFirst she quotes Herzen’s own description of what he intended The Bell to do: “The Bell will resound with whatever touches it – the absurd decree, or the senseless persecution of Old Believers, grandee’s thievery or the ignorance of the Senate. The comic and the criminal, the malicious and the crude – all will play to the sound of The Bell.” Clowes then adds: “Here for the first time in Russian history was a consistent, long-term assault on the internal politics of the tsarist regime. It is not by chance that Herzen became known as a ‘second government.’
For the record, Françoise Kunka published a book in 2011 entitled Alexander Herzen and the Free Russian Press in London: 1852 to 1866

 

 

Vasily Gilbert plaque, Tula

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It was getting late in Tula in October and the sun was not providing a lot of light. That, combined with the still-blue sky and the blue building I was photographing, gave a wonderful blue hue to all the pictures I took of this building in which the artist Vasily Gilbert once plied his art. I had just finished photographing a neighboring building that had something to do with Leo Tolstoy – one that was on my list – when I happened upon this one at 49 Gogolevskaya Street – which was not. I had never heard of Vasily Gilbert and, if you’re not from Tula, you may not have either. He is not mentioned in John Milner’s massive A Dictionary of Russian and Soviet Artists, 1420-1970, and the cookie cutter bios on the Russian net suggest his work is not held in collections far beyond Tula. These biographical accounts also bury the fact that Gilbert was murdered in the Purges of 1938 at the very end of the bios, adding no explanation or elaboration. We’ll get to that in a moment. The only English reference I find to him is in the ArtHive website, which provides a translation of the basic circulating Russian text.
Gilbert was born in the city of Samara in 1874. His father was an Englishman, surely named Thomas since Gilbert’s patronymic in Russian is Foma. Thomas immigrated to Russia in 1860, for reasons I have not discerned. In any case, he apparently had some artistic talent, because he gave drawing and painting lessons to all his sons when they were young of age. In 1894 Gilbert began studies at the Moscow College of Portraiture, Sculpture and Architecture where he was fortunate enough to study at least some under the tutelage of Valentin Serov and Isaac Levitan, two of the finest Russian painters of that time. It’s hard to tell how much he actually worked with them, but it is a recorded fact that he did his graduate project with another artist, Alexander Stepanov, described by Milner as a “painter of landscape and animal subjects” who was “known as one of the so-called Young Wanderers.”
Gilbert moved to Tula in 1904 and remained there until his death in 1938. He apparently made the move to take up a position teaching art in three different schools, including a local boys’ gymnasium. He also taught at a trade school and the famous local arms factory. According to an online Tula library, “The students immediately fell in love with their new teacher, an incredibly gentle man with a friendly manner of teaching. The artist taught students to see nature, to understand the subtlest shades of its moods, to apply light, soft tones in their painting.”
In addition to the landscapes and animal portraiture that Gilbert created, he spent a good deal of time illustrating texts for some of Russia’s top publishers. He drew and painted illustrations for the popular periodical Nature and Hunting, and illustrated the poetry of Alexei Koltsov, Alexander Pushkin, and Leo Tolstoy for the famed Moscow publisher Ivan Sytin.
Gilbert lived in Tula during the last six years of Tolstoy’s life. I do not find any proof that they met or knew each other, although it is a fact that Gilbert would often take his students on Sunday excursions to Tolstoy’s estate in Yasnaya Polyana to paint and draw the landscapes there. I don’t know whether these trips were taken before or after Tolstoy’s death.

The same online library mentioned above has a fairly concise description of Gilbert’s place in Tula’s artistic life and I might as well just let their text speak for itself:
Gilbert took an active part in the life of the Tula Arts and Crafts College, where he taught artistic casting, forging from metal, and where he gave lessons evenings and Sundays for anyone who wished to attend. At the beginning of the 20th century, the artist made a trip to Arkhangelsk and Solovki, whence he brought many watercolors depicting the harsh, poetic nature and architecture of the North. Gilbert’s Mooses, painted in 1910 and exhibited at the Tula Museum of Fine Arts, is done in the best traditions of Russian art of the second half of the 19th century. Gilbert took the revolution to heart and worked hard for the new government. He wrote slogans, posters and panels, and decorated public houses and clubs.”
Gilbert occupied a visible place in Tula’s cultural life for the first four decades of the 20th century. Whenever there was an art exhibit, it seemed he was a participant. Whenever a new school or new classes were opened, it seemed he was there to help and participate. His illustrations were frequently published in local magazines and journals. He appears to have been a truly popular and genuinely beloved figure in the city. That online biography ends with these words: “Gilbert’s works are held in Tula museums and private collections, and when you study them, you see a figure of an outstanding, intelligent, kind person, a talented painter whose whole life and work placed him in the ranks of the older generation of Russian artists.
I’m not entirely sure what an achievement it was to be “placed in the ranks of the older generation of Russian artists,” but we’ll skip over that for the time being in order to come quickly to two sentences in the bio that kill me: “His last personal exhibition opened in 1936. Soon he was arrested and in 1938 he was shot near Tula in the Nikolskoye forest.”
What?! What happened to all the “love” and “respect” and “adoration” that the city lavished on Vasily Gilbert?
The Russian Nekropole website has only the barest of information. His date of execution is given as April 7, 1938. The sentence is listed as VMN (ВМН in Russian), which means literally, “highest degree of punishment,” usually translated into English as “capital punishment,” and, in actual fact, meaning that Gilbert was shot.
Another site, Open List,  repeats this basic information, adding only that Gilbert is buried in the Tesnitsky forest.
I spent more than the usual time surfing the net to find more details, if not an explanation, about Gilbert’s demise. Every one of the deaths in the purges was unbearably heinous. Gilbert’s is no less so and it makes me want to have answers. If anyone knows more, I would love to hear from you.

 

 

Ivan Lebedeff gravesite, Glendale, CA

 

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Ivan Lebedeff is not exactly one of the household names in the Tinseltown pantheon. Nevertheless, the actor – often called “Hollywood’s champion hand-kisser” – had quite a career. That, in itself, is clear from the fact that his burial place lies in the rarified shadows of the grand tomb of Mary Pickford in the Gardens of Memory at Forest Lawn cemetery in Glendale, CA. The inscription on the bronze plaque is somewhat confusing. It states that Lebedeff was the “beloved husband of Wera [Engels-Lebedeff] and Mary’s devoted friend.” That and, which I put in italics, implies that Ivan was Mary’s close friend, when by all accounts, it was Wera and Mary who were close. Maybe the and was supposed to have been a comma, I don’t know. But the fact remains a fact – Lebedeff and his wife are both buried here in this hallowed ground.
Before launching into his life as a film actor, Lebedeff had already lived quite a life. He was born June 18, 1894, on his parents’ family estate in Ushpol (later known as Užpaliai) in Lithuania, which, at that time, was a part of the Russian empire. His father Vasily was well-placed in St. Petersburg society, by all accounts an advisor or confidant of the Tsar. This made it possible for the young Ivan to study at the Lyceum at Tsarskoe Tselo, the same lyceum where Alexander Pushkin was educated 100 years earlier. The young Lebedev (the double-F ending would become the norm only after emigrating to the West) was apparently headed for a life in the diplomatic corps, but World War I put a stop to that. I will let William Donati, author of The Life and Death of Thelma Todd, pick up the story:
…At the outbreak of the Great War, he enlisted in the Corps of Pages, a privileged military school for future guard officers. He fought against the Germans and was decorated. In the revolution he fought against the Bolsheviks but was captured and imprisoned. He escaped to Paris where he survived as a stock broker, playwright, and actor. After making pictures in Vienna and Paris, he attracted the attention of D.W. Griffith, who hired him for The Sorrows of Satan.”
It is worth pointing out that Lebedev was one of those who suffered from mustard gas in the First World War and he received a St. George’s Cross, the highest Russian honor, from the hand of Nikolai II himself, and, also, that his escape from prison was something out of a fairy tale. It just so happened that his family’s former lackey was one of the guards in the prison and he helped his former master escape. He did so by going first through Constantinople, Turkey, and then on to Europe. Here, let me allow a Russian web biography pick up the story – it puts a bit of a different slant on things, particularly on the “stock broker” tidbit:
…At the end of the Civil War, in August 1919 Lebedev boarded the French cruiser Tuareg to Constantinople. There [he made a living selling] antiques and works of art. He then went to Vienna and, in the hope of making big money, played the stock market. He became involved in a huge financial scandal, lost everything and became a beggar. From there he went to Frankfurt, Milan, Amsterdam, Paris and Zurich … His wanderings were caused by his desperate situation and his lack of money. Luck smiled on Lebedev in Berlin, where he met a director named Robinson in a tram. Robinson immediately offered his companion a role. In 1922, Lebedev starred in the silent film King Frederick, and beginning in 1924, in France in the silent films The Happy Death, The Artist’s Soul, 600,000 Francs a Month, and The Charming Prince.
One can imagine both Robinson and D.W. Griffith hiring Lebedeff (as his name would have been spelled now) on short notice. He was a dashing, handsome man, who retained all the manners and mannerisms of a nobleman and an officer. He was everything the moving pictures of the time adored.

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Once in Hollywood he launched into a relatively successful career as a character actor. The imdb website lists 67 credits between 1926 and his death in 1953. (They do not list his European credits, nor do they list at least one other Hollywood film, The Voice of Hollywood, No. 3, released August 2, 1931 (citation: Edwin M. Bradley’s The First Hollywood Sound Shorts, 1926-31). True, of those films, 16 were uncredited roles, one was a short and another was a film in which all of Lebedeff’s scenes were left on the cutting floor. You get a feel for the way he was typecast by perusing the characters he was asked to play – five Princes, five Counts, four Barons, four Marquises, three Captains, and so forth. At least one film seems never to have happened. In it he was to have played the lead in a script that he co-wrote himself with British playwright Benn Levy. According to a 1931 gossip column he was signed to play the lead in Strange Women, a tale based on his own life. The famed teacher Richard Boleslavsky was to have directed, and Irene Dunn was slated to play the female lead. Several years later he did play a small part in a film called Strange Wives (1934), but this would appear to be something else entirely – the director, screenwriter and stars are completely different. The extent to which Lebedeff’s career tumbled in the later years is borne out by a still photo of Lebedeff sitting with Mary Pickford in 1952. The caption identifies him not as an actor, but rather as the Los Angeles director for the National Economic Council of New York. Still, Lebedeff did play featured roles opposite Jean Harlow, Mae West and other top stars.
Thanks to a fabulous fan blog we have access to a marvelous three-page feature that Harry Lang wrote about Lebedeff in Photoplay magazine in November 1931. It is chock-full of the tidbits any Tinseltowner would love to hear – all about Lebedeff’s philosophy of kissing hands, his use of his monocle (his vision was actually so bad he could not drive), his shaving practices, his haberdashery habits, his likes and dislikes in women and food. I’d love to quote the entire article, it is that good. But, assuming you’ll go read it yourself, I’ll limit myself to this lovely bit about his walking cane:
The reason he carries a stick is because, while in Russian military service in his earlier life, he formed the habit of holding in his left hand the hilt of his sword. When he abandoned the uniform, he felt so uncomfortable without something in his hand that he adopted the habit of carrying a stick, always. He owns half a dozen sticks – all bamboo and all alike. He does not swing the stick when walking. He carries it rigidly.”
In short, the more you read about Lebedeff the more you like him. And then you run across the fact that he was a close friend of Ayn Rand! Could there be anyone more loathsome? Ann C. Heller, in Ayn Rand and the World She Made, writes about a party that Lebedeff threw for his friend at the Russian Eagle cafe after the premiere of her play The Night of January 16th in 1934. Rand, of course, though we hate to acknowledge it, was another member of the struggling Russian emigre community at that time. Born Alisa Rosenbaum in St. Petersburg, she would soon become a celebrated writer whose philosophy of extreme individualism poisoned American politics in the early 21st century. One is tempted to write the Lebedeff-Rand friendship off as unimportant, but then you run across another tidbit that makes you wonder. Lebedeff’s widow, Wera Engels-Lebedeff returned to her homeland of Germany after her husband’s death in the 1950s and lived out most of the rest of her life with a certain Erna Hoffmann, the widow of Adolf Hitler’s notorious friend and personal photographer Heinrich Hoffmann. Hitler and Rand; not the best of company to keep.
A few more details, beginning with Lebedeff’s first name. He was apparently known generally among friends by the diminutive “Vanichka” (which would be transliterated as “Vanechka” these days). His first name was pronounced in the American style as EYE-van, rather than in the Russian pronunciation of ee-VAHN.
The Russian site referenced above tells us that Lebedeff spoke eight languages fluently – Russian, English, German, Italian, Greek, Armenian, Turkish and French. And it quotes a Hollyood gossip columnist as writing in 1930 that, “Not a single social event is held in Hollywood without the participation of Ivan Lebedev. Men hate him, and women admire him, but Lebedev pays no attention to that!”

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