Tag Archives: Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Varlam Shalamov plaque, Moscow

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Varlam Shalamov, as the text says on the plaque, “lived in this house between arrests from 1934 to 1937.” The house is in the Arbat district of Moscow, building No. 8 on Chisty (Clean, or, Pure) Lane. The image of the long-suffering writer peering out at us from behind three books, was created by Georgy Frangulyan. It was unveiled to the public on Oct. 30, 2013, and was timed to coincide with the annual memorial day for victims of political repressions.
Shalamov today is a giant in the pantheon of Russian writers. But I’m hazarding a guess (without running much of a risk, I think) to say that outside the tight world of Slavists, Shalamov is either under-appreciated or not known at all. If I write “Alexander Solzhenitsyn,” everyone has a response. Everyone knows, at least in general, who he was, what he did and why. There are some who would criticize Solzhenitsyn for his fame, which I feel is going much too far. Solzhenitsyn earned his fame and his notoriety. Whether you buy into his belief system, or even accept his picture of history, you cannot deny his courage, his strength and his enormous impact.
But there is a reason why Shalamov, among those in the know, is placed on a pedestal far above that of Solzhenitsyn. One reason is that Shalamov was a genuinely great writer. Solzhenitsyn was a powerful, controversial thinker and revisionist historian. Shalamov was an artist, a writer who had perfect command over every letter, every sentence, every paragraph that he wrote. Like Anton Chekhov, perhaps, he was a man of such detail and perfection, that he could only write in short bursts. But fate, as it often has done to humans over the centuries, put him in the way of an evil state machine that saw fit to attempt to destroy him. The machine could not destroy Shalamov, but it wreaked havoc on his life. As such, Shalamov’s brilliant stories and poems were mostly written about life in the prison camps, or at least were “inspired” by it, if I dare use such a word in this context. In English, as in Russian, his main body of work is known by the title of Kolyma Tales, or Tales from Kolyma, Kolyma being the Godforsaken outpost where Shalamov and hundreds of thousands of others lived and died in the Siberian prison camps.
Shalamov (1907-1982) began to publish as a writer – both as a journalist and a short-story writer – in the early-to-mid 1930s. This was after he spent three years in the camps (1929-32) for the crime of  supposedly belonging to a Trotskyite group. He was arrested again in 1937 – the year of the Great Terror – and remained in prison work camps until 1951. (He claimed that he was re-arrested for the crime of calling Ivan Bunin a classic of Russian literature, and there is evidence to back up his claim.) While in prison he began writing poetry, probably because poems were easier to commit to memory than prose. He began writing what would become known as the Kolyma Tales around 1954. But, as I have said, these stories were often extremely short – his story “Through Snow,” written in 1956, consists of just two paragraphs and 236 words. Surely, the genre of brevity, which living in the camps forced on him originally, by now had become a kind of artistic method. This is how life and reality had shaped Shalamov’s talent.

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A couple of years ago my friend Maksym Kurochkin was commissioned to write a play for Breaking String Theater in Austin, TX. Graham Schmidt, who did the commissioning, asked Max to write something that would resonate in Austin. It was not an easy task for the playwright, not the least of which reasons was the fact that Russia had just attacked Max’s home country of Ukraine. To put it lightly, Max’s thoughts were fiercely occupied at the time. The writing of the play and the staging of it became something of a torture for many, although, as often happens in art after a bit of a struggle, it came out quite well. But my point here is that one of the many sticking points was a little detour that Max tossed in at the end of his first act. The main character in the play (Dulcey and Roxy at City Hall) decides to put on his teaching cap and inform the public about someone and something they probably don’t know. He offers a brief narrative about Shalamov, his nature and his importance, and then he quotes one of Shalamov’s poems. Keeping in mind Max’s anger over the Russia-Ukraine war, you will easily understand why he introduced this writer and this poem into his play. But aside from that, I’ve always thought Max’s brief excursus, together with the poem he quotes, is as good an introduction to Shalamov as any.  Here it is, Varlam Shalamv via Maksym Kurochkin:

…VADIM: There was this writer and poet by the name of Shalamov. He was like Solzhenitsyn only he was talented. As talented as O. Henry. But he was also diabolical. Righteously diabolical. Because he went through the prison camps and he remembered everything. And he came to the conclusion that you can’t forget murder. This is a poem. And it has a context. Shalamov opposes killers. Killers of all times and nations. He opposes cannibals as well as their mercenaries and volunteers. And their damn jesters. Here he is: Varlam Tikhonovich Shalamov. “A Slavic Oath.”

VADIM recites.

I swear until my death
to avenge those foul bastards
whose sick science I now know by heart.
I’ll wash my hands with my enemy’s blood
when that blessed moment comes.
For all to see, in Slavic fashion,
I’ll drink from a split skull,
that skull of mine own enemy,
as Svyatoslav did drink.
I’ll throw this funeral feast
the way the old Slavs did –
Eclipsing every fame and glory
of those who disappeared in death.

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Literature in the metro, Moscow

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One encounters the tool of literature in the Moscow metro relatively frequently. Even when it’s not used as a club, you come away feeling as though someone is trying really hard to make an impression on you.
I immediately think of two examples of this more benign, latter, approach that I encountered in recent years. I would guess one occurred 4 or 5 years ago – this was on the circle line – the other 3 or 4 years ago, on the light blue, Filyovskaya line.
In the former case, almost every single car traveling the circle line for a month or more was completely wallpapered with children’s poetry and colorful kid-like drawings. Stepping into a car on that line at that time felt like stepping into the hermetic set of a children’s theater show. As one might imagine, there were a lot of poems by Alexander Pushkin and the great fabulist Ivan Krylov, but there were also excerpts of short stories by various writers from Pushkin’s time up to the middle of the 20th century. I couldn’t possibly remember them all, and I don’t think there were any contemporary authors, but the scope of writers included was impressive.
This was actually the second time I had seen the space of the metro turned into a platform for literature. The first incident, maybe a year before that, was when official stickers of mostly patriotic poetry were pasted above the windows and doors of the metro cars – this method proved to be more long-lasting, for we still come upon it today, as can be seen in the photo following immediately below – which I took yesterday. It shows a portrait of the Slavophile essayist and poet Ivan Aksakov next to a phrase he once wrote:
If a hue and cry arises about Russia’s lust for power and lust for expansionism, you should know that some Western European regime is preparing a most conscienceless seizure of someone else’s territory.”
Frankly, as often as I have seen this kind of crude utilitarianism in my 28 years in Moscow, I continue to be astonished when I encounter it. It reaches the kind of low-blow propaganda – rather on the level one hears in the U.S. these days from, say, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz or Sarah Palin and their ilk – that is so blatant and transparent, that you can’t believe anyone would actually resort to it. For the record, this particular quote is offered up as part of a program called Russia, My History, which is now underway at the Historical Park of the All-National Exhibition of Economic Achievements.
But, back now to that literary campaign I encountered on the Filyovskaya Line.  (Unfortunately, I did not get photos of it or of the kids’ literary paradise on the circle line – I was not yet doing this blog; it didn’t occur to me to photograph them.) This one was extremely short-lived. In fact, I saw it just once, even though I then traveled that line with some regularity. I don’t know if it was just a try-out on a single train, or if it was a larger program that was abandoned quickly, but it was gone virtually as soon as it began. It was also my favorite of them all. You see, the interior of every car in the train I rode was painted deep red, and every free centimeter of space was covered in photographs of Vladimir Mayakovsky. There were all manners of photos of him reciting poetry, making drawings, talking to friends, reading books, sitting in chairs, standing at podiums. You name it, it was there. I, Nikolai Erdman’s biographer, was especially gratified when I noticed right before my face, a photo of Mayakovsky standing next to Vsevelod Meyerhold and Erdman. Other photos had him with other greats – Boris Pasternak, Dmitry Shostakovich, Sergei Eisenstein – and it was then, even then, right there in that metro car, that I began to wonder seriously about this curious exhibit. If you think about it, every individual I mention here was, to one extent or another, at serious odds with the Soviet cause – at least at some point in their lives. Meyerhold was executed. Erdman and Pasternak’s literary output was seriously curtailed. Shostakovich and Eisenstein found themselves doing the bidding of the state against their will. At least to anyone who knew, there was something downright seditious about this whole thing, which, of course, made it especially delicious. What a shame I never saw it again, nor had the opportunity to photograph it…

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Far more common, of course, is the use of art to buck up the patriotism of the lumpen proletariat. The Aksakov quote, appearing as Russia continues to pursue military objectives in Syria and Ukraine, is, perhaps, extreme. But I was not the least surprised to see patriotic, war-themed poems by Mikhail Lermontov suddenly appear in metro cars shortly after Russia went to war with Ukraine. The last photo above and the three following were all taken in June 2014. They show a series of Lermontov’s war poems plastered just above the eye-level of any standing passenger, though banked conveniently to point them toward anyone seated as well. (One photo shows a woman in a red jacket looking at a biographical text about Lermontov affixed next to the door.) The poem pictured in the last photo below reads,

And he said, his eyes a-flashing,
“Men! Isn’t Moscow behind us?
     Then let’s die near Moscow,
As our brothers died!”
And we promised to die
And we kept our oath of honor
     During the Battle of Borodino.

Perhaps my favorite photo is the one immediately above. Click on it to enlarge it and then look it over well. That’s what a subway car in a time of “petty,” “dirty” wars looks like.
Finally, there is the photo I offer at the top. It was taken in May of 2013, before this blog began, although I was apparently beginning to suspect I might one day need photos like this. A whole series of texts bearing patriotically religious messages went up over metro escalators at this time. I remember seeing quotes from Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Leo Tolstoy, in addition to the one I photographed of Fyodor Dostoevsky proclaiming, “Christianity is the Russian land’s only refuge from all of its evils.”
I don’t recall now if the Solzhenitsyn and Tolstoy quotes were as provocative (or as double-edged) as this one, but this clearly made me want to save it for posterity.
There is something of the train wreck in these things. Something lurid, distasteful, obnoxious and impossible to ignore. The problem is that when art is turned into a weapon it can only be a weapon. There is no room then left for art.

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Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya grave, Moscow

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These are not the best of days for those of us who, by love, have devoted our lives to the study of Russian culture. Russia’s reputation, damaged by wars, corruption, subterfuge, lies,  belligerence and bad politics is at an all-time low. In just the last week the Russian government has launched numerous campaigns against “internal and external enemies,” that is, those who would like to see Russia be a land that respects the rule of law and the freedom of conscience. Just today the government officially accused former tycoon, and now, social activist, Mikhail Khodorkovsky of two murders and the masterminding of four more. This comes two days after Khodorkovsky declared in a public speech that revolution might be necessary to force regime change in Russia. Yesterday the Russian Prosecutor General launched a massive investigation into the life and work practices of the muck-raking opposition leader Alexei Navalny. This came one week after Navalny released a stunning 45-minute film detailing the mafia-like corruption of the two sons of the Russian Prosecutor General. All of these events are sandwiched in and around an event that is enormous for those of us in Russia, but may slip by those who aren’t watching the territory closely – that is, the three-year prison conviction handed down to a young man, Ildar Dadin, whose crime it was to participate in four political protests where he was detained by police. Dadin is the first individual to be prosecuted under a relatively new, draconian law, which makes it a crime to be detained four times at political protests. Thus, while there are many people sitting in prisons in Russia right now for political reasons, Dadin has become the first actually to be arrested, tried and convicted for nothing other than the fact that he makes it a point to protest the policies of the Russian government. (Incidentally, the prosecutor asked for two years in prison; the eager-beaver judge handed down a sentence of three.) This, meanwhile, coincides with an enormous strike being led by Russian truck drivers to protest unfair and unfairly high road taxes. Thousands of truck drivers, with their trucks, have descended on Moscow, and are prepared to stop traffic in the city in order to make their demands be heard.
In short, things are bleak and confrontational around here these days.
Thus, it seems the proper moment to combine pain and joy into one. We seek joy to offset our pain – thus this entire blog site arose, as I explained some time ago. And, yet, we refuse to turn our eyes away from what pains us. Thus everything I have written up to this point today.
In short, I now wish to ponder the final resting place of two of Russia’s greatest citizens of any era – the cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich and the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya. I photographed their grave at the Novodevichy Cemetery last week when passing by it to attend the burial of the great film director Eldar Ryazanov, still another fine citizen whom this nation could not afford to lose.

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But if the pain of losing Ryazanov was, and still is, acute, fresh and unabated, the joy of coming upon Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya was equally as sharp. The mere pronunciation of either of these two names is enough to bring a smile to anyone’s face who knows.
To be sure, we are not entirely at ease with the notion that these two extraordinary people are no longer with us. For contemporaries who were affected by them – and that is half of Russia, half of the world – that nagging pain may lessen to a certain level of discomfort, but it does not go away. Yet, the joy that they brought us is, obviously, what prevails. I must insert here a comment that I randomly discovered on the internet. I think it perfectly sums up the public attitude to this pair:
I hold this man [Rostropovich] in veneration not because he was a GREAT musician, but simply because he was a marvelous PERSON. The vaccines purchased by the Vishnevskaya-Rostropovich Foundation saved the health of thousands of Russian children. Vaccines against Hepatitis B and cancer found their way to many regions and corners of Russia. We remember...”
The comment is signed “galsvanidze.”
These two great citizens of their nation, the Soviet Union and Russia, were personal friends of Dmitry Shostakovich during the years when the composer was persecuted by the Soviet government, as well as of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the writer whom they sheltered at their dacha outside Moscow when he was under attack from the officials. Rostropovich, defying the fears of his wife, jumped on an airplane to join protesters on Moscow’s streets during the attempted coup by hardliners seeking to depose Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991. You can read about that in the L.A. Times. He had done the same so as to be present when the Berlin Wall fell in 1889 – he felt compelled to be there to play his cello for that historical event. You can see him do so on YouTube.
As for Vishnevskaya, she was every bit as fierce a defender of freedom, truth and art as her husband. Although her native land essentially forced her into emigration in 1974, when it became possible to return and work in Russia, she  set about establishing a Moscow-based, world class school for opera musicians, the Galina Vishnevskaya Opera Center. Since its opening in 2002, it has been one of the strongest bearers of Russia’s cultural traditions. As a declaration on the center’s website puts it, “The principal task of the Galina Vishnevskaya Opera Centre is to perpetuate Russia’s great operatic traditions and to cause Russian opera to be perceived anew.”
Throughout difficult times in Russia from the end of the 1980s until Rostropovich’s death in 2007, and Vishnevskaya’s death in 2012, these two individuals brought hope, light, courage, humor and strength to everyone around them. I remember what a joy it was to hear or see that one or the other, or both, had arrived in Moscow for a concert or a personal appearance. It was as though old friends had come home to visit. Their presence, the knowledge that they were with us, was a powerful antidote to the negativity that can seep into one’s bones in Moscow.
At times like the present we look to individuals like Rostropovich, Vishnevskaya, Ryazanov, Shostakovich and Solzhenitsyn to remind ourselves why we fell in love with the art they made and the culture they helped build and sustain, sometimes against all odds. Now it is our turn to carry that flame, as best as we can, and flicker as it might.

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Lubyanka headquarters, Moscow

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What the hell is this doing here? Well, some of Russia’s greatest artists were persecuted here in the basement or other places. Some, maybe many, were tortured or shot here. This building – figuratively and in fact – ended the careers and/or lives of many of Russia’s greatest, most talented citizens.
The structure was built in 1898 to house the All-Russia Insurance Company. Following the Revolution it was taken over by the state and given to the first of many organizations whose business it has been ever since to spy and meddle in people’s lives at home in Russia and abroad. (Let’s not get too righteous about this stuff – the U.S. has the CIA and the FBI to do similar things in and for the States.) As for the organization that has occupied the building at Lubyanka Square since 1918, the acronyms have been many: the CHeKa, the GPU, the OGPU, the NKVD, the KGB and now, in modern times, the FSB. A rose by any other name… All of them have been one version or another of what is often called the secret police.
Those passing through the doors of this establishment not by their own choice make an astonishing list – Vsevolod Meyerhold, Isaac Babel, Nikolai Erdman, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Alexander Zinovyev, to name just a very few. This is the place where the so-called Night of the Murdered Poets took place August 12, 1952. Thirteen Jews that night were shot in the basement, several of them writers or translators – David Hofstein, Leib Kvitko, David Bergelson, Leon Talmy and Chaika Ostrovskaya. The others included a journalist, a historian, a lawyer, and an editor. One, Benjamin Zuskin, a theater director and actor, had been a longtime partner of the great actor Solomon Mikhoels at the Moscow State Jewish Theater. Mikhoels was murdered in 1948 by the organization occupying this building, although they did him the favor of killing him on a roadside near Minsk rather than in a grungy basement.
For years it has been the rule to say that Meyerhold was shot here one night then dumped in an unmarked grave. Recently, however, I have seen information suggesting it was even worse than that. There is a version out there now, claiming origin from official archives, that Meyerhold was tortured before death by having all his fingers broken one by one, and then killed by drowning in sewage. Sound far fetched? I wouldn’t discount it. One of the sources publishing that version is a site called So They’ll Remember.
According to Patrick M. O’Neal’s book Great World Writers: Twentieth Century, Solzhenitsyn was beaten here before being sentenced to eight years of hard labor.
I don’t usually quote at length from English-language Wikipedia articles, because you can access them yourself  if you’re interested. But this account about Babel’s arrest on May 15, 1939 by Babel’s common-law wife Antonina Pirozhkova is worth a longer look here. It is quoted from Pirozhkova’s memoir, At His Side (1996). Arresting agents arrived at their Moscow apartment and she actually led them to him at their dacha, where the writer was taken into custody. Pirozhkova picks up the story:
In the car, one of the men sat in back with Babel and me while the other one sat in front with the driver. ‘The worst part of this is that my mother won’t be getting my letters’, and then he was silent for a long time. I could not say a single word. Babel asked the secret policeman sitting next to him, ‘So I guess you don’t get too much sleep, do you?’ And he even laughed. As we approached Moscow, I said to Babel, ‘I’ll be waiting for you, it will be as if you’ve gone to Odessa… only there won’t be any letters….’ He answered, ‘I ask you to see that the child not be made miserable.’ … At this point, the man sitting beside Babel said to me, ‘We have no claims whatsoever against you.’ We drove to the Lubyanka Prison and through the gates. The car stopped before the massive, closed door where two sentries stood guard. Babel kissed me hard and said, ‘Someday we’ll see each other…’ And without looking back, he got out of the car and went through that door.”

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It was here during an interrogation that Nikolai Erdman made one of my favorite comments. He and his friend and co-author Vladimir Mass were accused of writing anti-Soviet fables. Said Erdman in his signed “confession,” dated October 15, 1933: “…Finally, I recognized and recognize that I am responsible also for fables of an anti-Soviet character, which I myself (or in tandem with Mass) did not write, but which were an imitation of that genre which Mass and I created together.”
Read that a couple of times and let it sink in. Erdman “admits” he did not write the fables he’s been arrested for – they are merely imitations. However, they are imitations of a genre that he and his friend Vladimir Mass created. So he didn’t write the fables, he just created the genre in which the fables were not written.
Now, Nikolai Erdman was an absolute master of the comic paradox. I don’t care how frightened he was that night – even if he wasn’t laughing inwardly as the ignorant interrogator wrote down that sentence and handed it to Erdman for a signature, he definitely appreciated the nonsense he just helped to turn into an official document. I quote this archival document from the book Give Me Back Freedom!, compiled and edited from holdings in the Lubyanka archive by Vladimir Kolyazin.
Allow me one short personal note. One day I was walking through a rainy Moscow. I began my trek at the Library of Foreign Literature in the Taganka area and I was headed for a downtown theater, I’ve forgotten which one. I had lots of time and so, instead of taking the metro as I would usually do, I walked the entire way. As I say it was raining and at times the rain came down hard, with wind kicking up in strong gusts. This happened again as I neared the center of the city. I put my umbrella in front of me as if it were a shield, put my head down and just plowed on, looking at my feet as they took one step forward at a time – left/right, left/right. I saw nothing around me and I did not know where I was specifically. Suddenly I began to feel uncomfortable. I could swear my right shoulder and the outside surface of my right forearm began burning. They were downright hot. I even rubbed my upper right arm with my left hand to try to relieve the unpleasant sensation. The burning lasted for several long seconds and finally it was enough to make me stop and look around. I could not figure out what was happening. When I pulled the umbrella up and looked, I saw I was standing right next to that grim, gray wall that you see in all but one of the photos posted here today. I was a little over mid-way through (imagining I was walking right to left in these photos) probably just past the high, two-story main entrance. I was stunned when I saw where I was.  And I immediately believed I was sensing the residual fear, anger, despair and horror of all those who had ever been tortured and murdered in the basement of this building over decades of time. I am not a great mystic, but to this day I have never doubted that conclusion. This is a building whose walls have seen untold and untellable horrors. That horror is imbedded in the bricks and stones of this former insurance company headquarters. I have felt it on my own skin.

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Ivan Bunin plaque, Moscow

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Povarskaya Street was a hopping cultural hub in the early 20th century. In 1905 Konstantin Stanislavsky rented a space in the Nemchinov building right at the beginning of Povarskaya where Vsevolod Meyerhold briefly, but famously, ran his Studio on Povarskaya. (That building was torn down in the Soviet era when Kalinin Prospect was widened.) Right around the corner from Povarskaya, on Borisoglebsky Lane, the poet Marina Tsvetaeva moved into her new digs in 1914 and remained there until 1922. The famous Lithuanian poet Jurgis Baltrushaitis lived at 24 Povarskaya from 1920 to 1939 when he was the first ambassador of Lithuania to the Soviet Union. But today we have our eye on Povarskaya 26, the next building over. This was the home of Ivan Bunin, who was later to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature during his time in European exile. As the plaque on the building’s front facade declares, Bunin lived here from 1912 to 1918. That is particularly interesting because it means that Bunin and Tsvetaeva were neighbors for the course of about four years. There’s a park right across the street from Bunin’s building and, assuming it was there 100 years ago, one wants to imagine the occasional warm spring day when both writers might have stepped out to catch some fresh air and ended up sharing a bench together, or, at least, one of them passing by the other, who might have been sitting and reading or jotting down notes.
A couple of people missed crossing paths with Bunin here. One was Mikhail Lermontov, who lived in a different building, now lost, on this very spot in 1829 and 1830 when he wrote, among other works, his great narrative poem The Demon. Anyone who knows Boris Pilnyak’s great novel The Naked Year will recognize my little homage to Pilnyak in that little phrase of “now lost…” In his novel, to great effect, Pilnyak lists things and places that were fast disappearing at the time he wrote The Naked Year. That novel begins with the words, “On the city fortress wall gates it was written (now destroyed): Save, O, Lord/This city and your people…” It’s just the first of many such times he plays with that device.
And so now I can bear my own device: Boris Pilnyak is one of those who lived in this very building, although not at the same time as Bunin. Bunin moved out in 1918, Pilyak moved in two years later, in 1920. Pilnyak’s presence here is not recorded in any way. Perhaps that is fitting, as if to say: Boris Pilnyak, now gone, did live here once, though there is nothing here to prove that true.

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Somehow Bunin (1870-1953) and I sort of pass like ships in the night. I have read his short stories (some, not all, by any stretch of the imagination); I have seen theater performances created of his stories; I have read about him and seen movies about him. I know the basic story well – the fine, subtle writer who spanned all the way back to the late 19th-century and the Chekhov era, yet who lived well into the 1950s, i.e., the post-war and even post-Stalin age. But I have never connected with his work as I have with so many others – Pilnyak included, I might add.
My little shortcomings in taste and knowledge aside, others have had a different view. Bunin was the first Russian writer to be honored with the Nobel Prize in Literature; he received it in 1933. Like other, later Russian winners of that prize, it is usually assumed that there was more than a little politics in the choice. Bunin was considered by some to be the greatest living Russian writer in exile (he left the Soviet Union in 1920 and never went back). The prize, say some, was intended to support the difficult situation surrounding Russian writers in exile, and to highlight the lack of freedom writers enjoyed in the Soviet Union. (Tsvetaeva, for example, would have a tough time in Europe and returned to the Soviet Union where she committed suicide in 1941.) Other Russian Nobel winners were Boris Pasternak (1958), the official Soviet novelist Mikhail Sholokhov (1965) and Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1970). Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn were both persecuted to varying degrees, and their prizes reflected that. Sholokhov, it is believed, was given the prize to mollify the Soviet authorities after the “insults” of Bunin and Pasternak’s wins. None of this will ever be proved until the Nobel committee opens its archives, which will probably be never. As such, the conversations and speculation continue.
Bunin was very much of the grand old school of Russian realism (whether that term is legitimate or not). He is often compared in style and impact to Tolstoy and Chekhov. He is similar to the former in his belief in the great power that literature can wield, while he is closer to the latter in stylistic spirit. Bunin, like Chekhov, was a master of the short story. He was concise, clear and unwavering in his insistence on painting the nuances of life in their proper dark tones.
Bunin was born in the city of Voronezh and, as fate would have it, I travel there myself for the first time ever in a few days. If, in any way, I have slighted the great man’s memory with this post, I will seek to rectify that with a post I expect to write soon after visiting his place of birth.

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Sofya Giatsintova plaque, Moscow

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This famous apartment building in Moscow was home to the actress Sofya Giatsintova for a staggering 54 years. She lived here, as the plaque says, from 1928 to 1982. Giatsintova, who was born in 1895 and died in 1982, is one of those names that constantly hovers over anyone working or studying in the sphere of Russian theater. She was educated at the young Moscow Art Theater and she began acting there in 1910, when she was 15 years old. Throughout her long career she worked at many prominent Moscow playhouses, including the Second Moscow Art Theater, the Mossovet Theater and Lenkom, where she was artistic director from 1951 to 1957 (some sources say 1952 to 1958).
The building at 12 Bryusov Lane is the very one into which Vsevelod Meyerhold and his wife Zinaida Raikh moved at the same time as Giatsintova and many other famous performers. In fact, the entire street may claim the greatest concentration of actors/artists/ composers/musicians/dancers/writers of all Moscow’s streets. If you read Russian you might be interested to take a look at the Russian Wikipedia entry on Bryusov Lane – it is packed with information.
Giatsintova’s name came from her first husband, a sailor who ended up emigrating to the United States during the Russian Civil War. Their marriage was later annulled and around 1924 – I haven’t pinned down the exact date – Giatsintova married the famous actor and director Ivan Bersenev. His plaque hangs a few window-frames away from Giatsintova’s. They remained together until 1949 when Bersenev left Giatsintova for the great ballerina Galina Ulanova. Bersenev died in 1951 at the age of 62.
The big Moscow Art Theater encyclopedia, published in 1998 on the occasion of the theater’s 100th anniversary, mentions that Giatsintova was born into an elite family. Her father was a professor and writer; her mother came from the Chaadayev family, hearkening back to the famous writer, philosopher and political prisoner Pyotr Chadayev.

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That encyclopedia provides one of those pithy, encyclopedia-like descriptions of Giatsintova: “”G’s lyrical gift combined with taste and a vividly cheerful talent for character roles.” She also commanded, the encyclopedia tells us, a highly “expressive” quality with a penchant for the “grotesque.” This apparently served her well in productions like Alexander Afinogenov’s The Oddball, the famous dramatization of Andrei Bely’s novel Petersburg, and Deval’s A Prayer for the Living in the 1920s and ’30s. Like everyone else at the Second Moscow Art Theater, she had to move on when the theater was broken up by the Soviet government in 1936.
Her memoirs, Alone with my Memories, published posthumously and unfinished in 1985, are considered to be of great value for the rich information they contain about her early years. Her story of over 500 pages breaks off as the Second Moscow Art Theater is ending its life. In a long appreciation-afterword to the book, the great Soviet theater scholar Konstantin Rudnitsky writes, “Giatsintova commanded an inquisitive mind, a subtle power of observation, and a lively sense of humor that joyously illuminates some of the pages of her reminiscences.” He points out how her many stories of the pain of loss and death are usually colored with a detectable smile. The book has been reprinted many times since it first appeared.
One of the sadder chapters in Giatsintova’s life occurred in 1973, following the publication in Pravda of a text damning Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Giatsintova was one of a large number of famous Soviet artists and writers who jumped on the bandwagon to demonize Solzhenitsyn. Here is the short text she wrote: “I have never read anything by Solzhenitsyn, so I cannot judge his literary talents. But in a personal sense his behavior strikes me as disgusting. In general this whole story strikes me as revolting. It’s simply terrifying that such people live in our country.”
Not one of the great actress’s best moments. It’s galling. So few were able to stay off the bandwagons – bandwagons we still see rumbling up and down Russia’s streets today.

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Mstislav Rostropovich Monument, Moscow

IMG_3545.jpg2This monument to Mstislav Rostropovich appeared in the little square at the crux of Moscow’s Bryusov Pereulok and Yeliseyevsky Pereulok in 2012, five years after the cellist died. He was one of the great artists and great citizens of the world. He sheltered Alexander Solzhenitsyn in the early 1970s, when that writer was under attack from the Soviet authorities. But I don’t want to get into listing all of this cellists great deeds – I’ll never get anything else said.

IMG_3546.jpg2 IMG_3552.jpg2I used to see Rostropovich perform frequently in the 1980s in Washington, D.C., when he was the musical director and principal conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra. I loved him for his temperament, his enthusiasm, his passion. No symphony orchestra could merely play under the direction of his baton. The musicians had to perform. With Shostakovich at the helm, the National Symphony Orchestra was a beast – a live, living organism that breathed and seethed. I know, I know. There are those who thought Rostropovich, especially as a conductor, was too emotional. In my book: Baloney. Rostropovich brought class, quality, breadth and depth to classical music in D.C. during his tenure. He breathed life and importance into a sleepy art form in a sleepy, or as the song has it – a “bourgeois” – town.

IMG_3547.jpg2IMG_3553.jpg2In Moscow, from the Perestroika era on, Rostropovich was a frequent and welcome guest. He rarely missed an opportunity to make it known what side he was on politically – showing up to play his cello as the Berlin Wall fell, and showing up in Moscow during the coup in Moscow to lend his support to Boris Yeltsin. The monument in Moscow is a multi-layered work by sculptor Alexander Rukavishnikov and architect Igor Voskresensky. Among other things, it includes a page from the music to one of the works that Sergei Prokofiev wrote expressly for the musician.

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