Tag Archives: Alexei Koltsov

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.



Alexei Koltsov bust, Voronezh

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There is much of interest to tell about the poet Alexei Koltsov and the bust that honors him at the southwest end of Koltsov Square in Voronezh. But what catches my eye first of all is the fact that, according to Russian Wikipedia, an American diplomat, “a fan of Koltsov’s poetry,” attended the unveiling of this marble monument on October 27, 1868. An American fan of Koltsov’s poetry? In 1868? Amazing. Most American diplomats in Russia these days hardly know poetry from ping pong. In all my 28 years in Moscow I have known two, perhaps three, individuals at the American embassy who would have. Which makes me look upon Eugene Schuyler as a bona fide miracle. I had never heard about Schuyler; now I want to know as much about him as possible. He was one of the first Americans to receive a PhD from an American Univeristy (Yale). A chance meeting with some Russian sailors in New York in 1863 gave rise to Schuyler’s interest in Russian language and, eventually, literature. In 1867, on his own request, he was sent to Russia as a consul. This guy was not one to waste opportunities. En route to Moscow, he stopped in Baden-Baden to introduce himself to Ivan Turgenev (whose literary translator he would subsequently become). Impressed, Turgenev gave him a letter of introduction that he took to Leo Tolstoy in Moscow, and he translated Tolstoy’s The Cossacks in 1868. Imagine that at the U.S. embassy in Moscow – the consul sitting around translating Tolstoy and Turgenev.
Schuyler knew Koltsov only by reputation, of course. Kolstov’s dates were 1809-1842. Schulyer himself was born in 1840. But Schuyler obviously knew Russian literature well enough to make it a point to travel to Voronezh for the unveiling of the bust you see here. Well, maybe he didn’t come specially for this event. He had traveled to Central Asia by way of the Volga in spring of 1868. Maybe he just happened to be coming through on his way home. Also in 1868, he traveled to Yasnaya Polyana, near Tula, to visit Tolstoy, who was finishing War and Peace at that time. Maybe the trip to Voronezh was wrapped around that little journey somehow.
But wait a minute – do you realize what I just wrote? Schuyler visited Tolstoy when the latter was finishing his latest little concoction, War and Peace. Can you imagine dinner talk?

SCHUYLER (Fastening bib on chest): So, Leo. How’s tricks?
LEO (Glaring at his wife who stands in the shadows): Ah. Not good. Natasha’s giving me fits.
          Tolstoy’s wife disappears more deeply into the shadows.
LEO: Oh, nobody. It’s nothing. Natasha. And a guy named Pierre.
SCHUYLER: Hmm. Sounds romantic. (Raises voice. To Tolstoy’s wife in the shadows.) Sofya Andreyevna! The soup is to die for! Turgenev never served me anything like this!
          A satisfied smile shines out of the darkness.
LEO (Paying no attention to last comment): Not really. It’s mostly war, politics and philosophy.
SCHUYLER (Looking back at Tolstoy): Oh, I…
LEO: But it’s a damn lot better than Turgenev.

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But let’s get back to Kolstov, about whom I wrote once before in this space. The bust we see today was created by an Italian sculptor living in St. Petersburg. His name was Avgustin Triscorni, not to be confused with Agostino Triscorni, who was his father or uncle or something, a famous St. Petersburg artist at the end of the 18th/beginning of the 19th century. Triscorni created the monument based on a detailed drawing by local artist Alexander Kyui (sometimes spelled Cui). As such, it is generally considered that the monument is the joint work of Triscorni and Kyui.
There is, in fact, an entire booklet written about this monument. It is called The Monument to A.V. Koltsov and it was written by Valery Kononev. (GoogleBooks lets you get at some of the pages, depending on what you are searching for.) This book, incidentally, tells us that the “foreign guest” Schuyler came “especially” for the unveiling of the bust.
The idea for the monument belonged to Koltsov’s sister. (One source tells us she was A. Andronova; but he also had a sister Anisya Semyonova). Koltsov’s sister organized the raising of funds and she is the one who commissioned Triscorni to do the work. All did not go smoothly, as the fee demanded by the sculptor was not met by the subscriptions purchased by Voronezh residents. According to Kononev’s book, “The money collected in Voronezh was insufficient and on the day of the monument’s unveiling the Council of Nobility opened up a new subscription. Still, the Voronezh authorities were unable to pay up their debt to Trisconi, who, subsequently, twice filed complaints against the Voronezh bureacrats with the Tsar’s office of the Foreign Ministry. Only in 1870 did the City Duma pay off the sculptor ‘out of unused funds collected as aid for families of low-ranking bureaucrats during the Crimean War.’ In all, the monument to the famous Voronezh citizen cost the city 3,413 rubles.”
The completed monument arrived in Voronezh from St. Petersburg on December 19, 1867. The Nadezhda, or Hope, transport company charged 955 rubles, 55 kopecks, for the honor of moving the piece of art. It was originally planned to be unveiled on Oct. 2, 1868, but the ceremony was put off until Oct. 27. Nobody bothered to cover the “un-unveiled” monument for these three weeks, so someone reportedly put a visor hat on top of it. As Kononev tells us, there was no particular publicity in regards to the unveiling, the result of which is that very few people came. That only makes us admire the now mythical Eugene Schuyler all the more.
The square around the monument was the first of its kind in Voronezh, and this monument itself was only the second to be unveiled in the city. The first honored Peter the Great. Subsequently a gaping hole in the city, named Lenin Square, formed behind the Koltsov bust. In the final photo here you can see Lenin in the distance, waving at us as though he hopes we won’t forget him. Fat chance. My new hero is Eugene Schuyler.

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Alexei Koltsov monument, Voronezh

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I think this monument to Alexei Koltsov (1809-1842) is absolutely fabulous. I love it. I’m not always won over entirely by the Soviet monumental style, although I’m rarely able to reject it entirely. There is something about it, when it’s done with talent, that just comes right after you. That sure happens with this monument by sculptor Pavel Bondarenko and architect Igor Savichev (I’m not 100% sure on that first name – Russian sources are stubborn in listing him only with his initials, I.A.). In fact, it is so bold that many in Voronezh did not like it when it was erected in 1976. Twenty-one years later, in 1997, it was moved away from a nearby church (Pokrovsky cathedral) and re-positioned more deeply among the trees in Soviet Square where it wouldn’t be quite as dominant. I don’t know, I think it’s wonderful. I love everything about it – the granite-wave coif; the huge, single-fold “dress” he’s wearing; the pockmarks in the granite; the severe gaze out from under the monstrous eyebrows; the graceful, left hand with the elongated fingers; the clunky, brute fist of his right hand;the angle of the “dress” coming up at the bottom that reveals he has no feet or legs; the clearly visible horizontal lines marking where the separate chunks of granite were attached to make a single piece big enough to handle this monster. I like the pedestal with the old-fashioned lettering. I like the fact that the bottom support platform is low enough and deep enough for young people of flesh and blood to gather and sit leisurely beneath this mighty chunk of rock. I even love the deep blue Voronezh sky, dotted with pure-cotton clouds behind his head. Okay, I realize that’s not the doing of the sculptor, but he knew what kind of skies Voronezh has, and he knew people would be looking up at them, when he designed this thing. I give him credit for that. A good artist thinks of everything, including what he can’t entirely control.
Oh, wow, I was just digging around for some more information and I ran across one tidbit that is quite intriguing. There apparently exists a legend that this was originally to be a monument to Joseph Stalin. Bondarenko (1917-1992) was, in fact, awarded the Stalin Prize in 1950 for bas reliefs that he made of Lenin and Stalin. That could very easily have engendered a subsequent commission to do full honor to the so-called, self-proclaimed People’s Leader. That would certainly explain the huge size of it all. I find it hard to believe that that lovely left hand could ever have belonged to Stalin, even in an artist’s wildest dreams. But that clunky right fist might well have.
Does this make me rethink anything I have said up to now? No, it doesn’t. I look at this thing from left to right and top to bottom, over and over again, and I only see an admittedly exaggerated, heroic monument to the so-called “people’s” or “folk” poet Alexei Koltsov. It all looks very organic and germane to me.

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Koltsov was born Oct. 3, 1809, into a well-to-do “bourgeois” family (as the Soviet and Russian tradition often puts it) in Voronezh. A website called Litra.ru declares, with similar cliched phrasing, I fear, that Koltsov’s father was the proverbial crude, cruel tyrant and his mother was the proverbial “kind, illiterate woman” who had such an influence on her son. He was not particularly educated. He started in at a local Voronezh school, but didn’t last long. Vissarion Belinsky, the critic, and a champion of Koltsov’s work, had this to say about the poet: “We have no idea how he was advanced to the second grade, or what he studied at that school, because, although we knew him only a short time, we never saw any signs in him of even the most basic education.” I am quoting this from a biographical website, which also adds: “Koltsov’s first mentor in poetry was the Voronezh bookseller Dmitry Kashkin, who gave the young man the opportunity to use books from his library for free. Kashkin was direct, smart and honest, for which the city’s youth loved him. Kashkin’s bookstore was something of a club for them. Kashkin loved Russian literature, read it often and wrote verses himself. Presumably Koltsov showed his first experiments to him.” Another major influence on Koltsov was a tragedy visited upon him by his father, who would not allow him to marry a peasant girl that he loved. Koltsov wrote his first poetry at the age of 16 (“Three Visions,” which he subsequently destroyed); he published his first verses at the age of 22 in Literary gazette. He was championed in Moscow by Belinsky and, when he traveled to St. Petersburg in 1836, he met Alexander Pushkin, who apparently took a liking to him. Pushkin published his poem “Harvest” in the literary journal Sovremennik (The Contemporary). None of this impressed Koltsov’s family, his father particularly. As much as the young man wished to devote himself to a life of literature, his father would not have it. And when the young man contracted tuberculosis, no one in his family seemed to care much. He was, essentially, left to die in isolation at the age of 33.
This makes Koltsov a contemporary of Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol and other writers who basically brought Russian literature out of the past into the present. Over time, his poetry tended to last because it was suited greatly to music. Many of Koltsov’s best writings became popular songs.

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