Tag Archives: Alexei Suvorin

Lidia Yavorskaya, London

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I have Natalia Dissanayake and her wonderful book Russian Lives in London (Russkie sud’by v Londone) to thank for today’s post. The photos have been lying around in my archive for several years, waiting for a reason to be used. Surely I had a reason to take them – there must have been some Russia-connected event that took place here at some time – mostly likely a performance of the Ballet Russes. Then I happened to pick up Dissanayake’s book the other day and, as I often do, I leafed through the pages looking for interesting stories. It’s chock full of them, I’m never disappointed. And sure enough, on pages 290 to 292 I came upon the tale of Lidia Yavorskaya, about whom I knew very little other than the fact that history claims she was a model for Anton Chekhov’s Arkadina.
Yavorskaya was a star in Moscow at the turn from the 19th to the 20th century, and she had a good deal of success in London as well. Born in Kiev in 1871, she studied with Vladimir Davydov in St. Petersburg, and in Paris with François Jules Edmond Got, an actor of the Comédie-Française. With her parents opposing her desire to be an actress, she simply forged ahead. She married – against her parents’ will – and quickly divorced him when it became clear he did not support her either. She debuted in 1893 in the city we now know as Tallinn, Estonia, and quickly found herself playing star roles in Moscow at the famed independent (non-state) Korsh Theater. Two years later Alexei Suvorin invited her to St. Petersburg to take the lead with his troupe in the Literary-Art Circle Theater. She remained in St. Petersburg for over a decade, continuing her successes. However, she once again showed her independence by taking the brave step of leaving her position at the theater when she refused to perform in a play that she deemed to be anti-semitic. She performed for several years in a theater of her own making, the Novy, or New, Theater, where she favored cutting-edge, contemporary drama – Anton Chekhov, Lev Tolstoy, Maxim Gorky, Henrik Ibsen, plus plays by her husband Vladimir Baryatinsky. According to Dissanayake, the New Theater was particularly popular with young people. However Yavorskaya and Baryatinsky struck out in 1907 on a series of tours that took them to Russian provincial cities as well as, eventually, Vienna, Paris and London. It was in 1909 that they arrived in London. According to Dissanayake:
“[Yavorskaya’s] small troupe had such success at His Majesty’s Theatre on Haymarket Street, that people began urging the actress to perform in English. She spoke French and German fluently, but she had to put a good deal of work into her English pronunciation and, despite excellent results, she limited herself to playing foreigners. She debuted in John Pollock’s Rosamund and a one-act play by her husband, Nablotsky’s Career, at the Little Theatre on what was then known as John Street. There she also played Nina Zarechnaya in The Seagull, and at the Kingsway Theatre staged the first production in England of Chekhov’s vaudeville The Bear.”
So, there we have Yavorskaya at His Majesty’s Theatre, as it was known from 1901 to 1952. It is, of course, currently known as Her Majesty’s Theatre.

Life, however, interrupted what looked like was going to be a sustained period of success for Yavorskaya. Her husband, homesick, headed back to St. Petersburg at the beginning of World War I. She followed him, but was blindsided when he asked for a divorce in 1916. The Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church granted Baryatinsky’s request and forbade Yavorskaya from remarrying for some time. She, however, always the rebel, headed back to London in 1918 after getting the Russian government to remove the ban, and married the playwright John Pollock in 1920. She died a year later of throat cancer at the age of 50. She is buried in a church cemetery in Old Shoreham, Sussex.
There are plenty of opinions about Yavorskaya. One Russian site boils down many of them into a single paragraph:
The popular dramatic actress Lidia Yavorskaya was one of the most controversial figures in the theatrical world of the early 20th century. One could not deny her astonishing work ethic and dedication, but that was combined with vanity, egocentrism and ambition. Theater critic Suvorin called her a phony creature, made of pretense and envy. Chekhov considered her an intelligent woman, but an overly loud and mannered actress. Despite this, they had an affair and it is said that Yavorskaya served as the prototype for Arkadina in Chekhov’s The Seagull.”
Other sites collect a whole bunch of catty comments about Yavorskaya by famous or semi-famous people. But if you know how to read these things, you see the limitation is stronger on the part of the writer or speaker than on the part of the individual being described. There is something mean and petty in a lot of the comments. I suspect we see more of the actress in Dissanayake’s description of her:
She was very interesting, with big, gray-blue, ‘mermaid’ eyes, a quick smile, golden curls, a beautiful figure, light, energetic movements and a kind of snake-like grace. Those who loved her said, ‘She’s no beauty, she’s better.'”
After returning to London in 1918 Yavorskaya was very outspoken in her opposition to the new Soviet regime, even as she did much to collect money to help feed the hungry in the Soviet Union. She was the chair of the Britain-Poland-Galicia fond, and she created the Society for Aid to Russian Artists, Victims of the Bolshevik Regime.
The anarchist Pyotr Kropotkin dubbed her Lidia Miss Freedom (Lidia Svobodnitsa) for her convictions and actions.
In her final years, Yavorskaya continued to perform in London at such venues as the Royalty Theatre on Dean St., the Coliseum on St. Martin’s Lane, the Ambassadors Theatre on West Street, the Scala on Charlotte Street, and elsewhere. It was at these latter two venues that she performed the title role in Anna Karenina, one of the highlights of her career.


Alexei Suvorin plaque, Voronezh

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Alexei Suvorin (1834-1912) is one of those people that casual lovers of Russian culture may not know, but anyone up to their neck knows quite well. I think it is safe to say that Suvorin is best remembered as Anton Chekhov’s publisher and friend. That’s no small thing already. He would probably next be known as a major publisher – of books and periodicals. He turned the New Era newspaper into a thriving, popular publication. Not everyone appreciated him for that. Even though he began as a relatively liberal, democratically-minded individual, he increasingly was seen as a conservative whose views did not represent progressive thought. Vladimir Korolenko said that Suvorin formed one of the “sad pages in the dramatic history of Russian journalism.”
It is worth pointing out that the relationship between Suvorin and Chekhov, strong as it was at times, was often put under great strain by the two men’s divergent political views. They corresponded often over a 17-year period. We only have access to Chekhov’s 337 letters because Suvorin removed all of his letters from Chekhov’s archive after the great playwright’s death. Whether or not Suvorin destroyed these letters I do not know, although we are told that none of them, aside from a stray postcard or so, have surfaced in the ensuing 110 years.  The Chekhov>Suvorin letters are available online on a bibliographical site.
At the remove of over 100 years, I have the luxury of not choosing sides on this one. I’m primarily interested in looking for a moment at a man who made huge contributions to his country and left a legacy that still is felt today.
Suvorin had a hand in all kinds of different activities, which the Chronos.ru historical website does a very good job of describing. Let me draw directly from it:
Suvorin studied at the Voronezh Cadet Corps, then in special classes of the Regiment of the Nobility, but, having rejected a military career, he took a job as a teacher outside of the city, later teaching history and geography in Voronezh. He began to publish his writings in provincial publications in 1858. In 1861 he moved to Moscow where he became close to writers of a democratic bent, including Nikolai Chernyshevsky and Leo Tolstoy. He earned respect and recognition as one of the best theater critics. He wrote popular books on history, and biographies of great people. At the end of 1862 he moved to St. Petersburg. A talented journalist with good business acumen, Suvorin in 1876 became the owner of the New Era newspaper, which he made popular by skillfully combining the interests of the general public with the interests of court circles. New Era became a household name denoting nationalist agitation in favor of pogroms. … Suvorin was known as a passionate theater-goer and, in 1895 he founded his own theater in St. Petersburg. He was an interesting conversationalist, and a friend of Anton Chekhov, Fyodor Dostoevsky and others, He was a sharp observer (who left behind an interesting diary), and a major book publisher, who published numerous book series (The Cheap Library Russian and foreign classics, the All Petersburg, All Moscow, All Russia and Russian Calendar reference books, works on the history of Russia, and others). He amassed a large fortune.

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Suvorin wrote several plays, none of which – to my knowledge – are of particular interest today. They included Tatyana Repina (1899, to which Chekhov famously wrote a brief “sequel” using the same title), Medea (1883, co-authored with Viktor Burenin), Tsar Dmitry the Imposter and Ksenia the Tsarevna (1902), Stock Market Frenzy, Not a Thief if not Captured, He in Retirement, The Honest Word, Women and Men (1887),  and others. He wrote a novel The End of an Era. Love (1893), which, in 1903, he adapted as a play, The Question, with the help of Chekhov. He was also the author of several books of prose: Drama Competition (1860), All Kinds (1866), Essays and Pictures (1875), and the posthumously published Stories (1913). He began publishing in 1872 and, over his life, put out over 1600 books. He was also the owner of a network of bookstores around the country, which gave him the ability to distribute his books easily and quickly.
Suvorov was born in the village of Korshev in the Voronezh region. He studied in Voronezh and worked there for some time before leaving for the big cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg. The plaque on this building at 30 Revolution Prospect in Voronezh informs us that Suvorin lived here in 1855. Over the years one suspects he would have had many addresses in town, especially if you count places he stayed when returning to Voronezh, which he apparently did regularly. I wrote a bit here on this site about a trip Chekhov made to Voronezh in 1892 with Suvorin. At that time they both stayed at the Central Hotel, just a few blocks down the road from this building.
I am making the small leap of assuming that Suvorin lived in the building pictured here temporarily because he taught history and geography at the college in the town of Bobrov from 1854 to 1858 or thereabouts. Unless he lived here and traveled to Bobrov for his lectures, that would indicate that his time in this stately, columned building was a short-term affair.
The plaque on this building, which has connections to other famous people and events about which I will write another time, was unveiled in 2003.

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Chekhov, Mayakovsky, Uspensky hotel plaque, Voronezh

Click on photos to enlarge. IMG_5911.jpg2 IMG_5942.jpg2 If you happen lose yourself in your thoughts as you walk down the main drag in Voronezh you might be excused for thinking at a certain moment that you had taken a wrong turn and wound up in some Mediterranean or even Caribbean resort. That would happen as you look up at the three-story building at 42/44 Revolution Prospect (formerly Bolshaya Dvoryanskaya [Grand Nobility] Street). It’s a beautiful, happy structure with lovely, earthy colors, hispanic-looking mosaics, seemingly non-functional towers, and lacy window frames that look like they could be anywhere but in the middle of Russia. This is the former Central Hotel, where, after it was built in the early 1880s, most everybody who was anybody stayed when they were in town. As the plaque on the street-side wall proclaims, the writers Gleb Uspensky, Anton Chekhov and Vladimir Mayakovsky all checked in here at one time or another. I can’t find much about Uspensky’s visit. Even a website devoted to the plaque itself provides no more information that the fact that he “lived here in February 1890.” End of that story, at least for now. Chances are he was here while traveling around the country collecting material for his essays and stories on Russian life. Elsewhere on this blog I write a little about his short stay in a hotel in Tomsk in the summer of 1888. Chekhov showed up with his friend and publisher Alexei Suvorin in tow in February of 1892. They spent five days here while on business in connection with Chekhov’s charity work. Based on letters published in that spectacular, blue, 30-volume collected works that every Russianist owns or wants to own, Chekhov arrived on February 3 and departed on the 7th. He was always active in fighting famines and epidemics. According to Russian Wikipedia, the Famine of Fall 1891 to Summer 1892 involved most of the so-called Black Earth and Central Volga areas of the country. It was kicked off by a bad harvest in the spring of 1891, and it quickly turned into a catastrophe, destroying the local economy and setting off problems with typhus and cholera. This, of course, is where Doctor Chekhov came in. He, along with another doctor-writer Vikenty Veresaev, were instrumental in getting help and medicine to the afflicted. Chekhov’s experience with this famine/epidemic found reflection in his story “The Wife,” published the same year that he was in Voronezh. The first note written by Chekhov on Feb. 3 is to local resident Grigory Lepnev. In it he states he will depart the next day for a trip around the region, but it didn’t happen as soon as the good doctor expected. On Feb. 6, he wrote to Yefgraf Yegorov, a retired officer in the Nizhgorod area, “The same thing happened that happened in Nizhny, which is to say, the governor invited me to dine and I had to speak, and listen to, much about the famine… Voronezh is filled with activity. The battle with the famine here is set much better than in the Nizhgorod region. They aren’t only giving out bread here, but also transportable stoves and coal. There are workshops set up and many cafeterias. Yesterday there was a benefit for famine victims at the theater – the house was full.” Chekhov’s father and paternal grandfather, incidentally, were born in the Voronezh area. They famously were serfs there in the household of Alexander Chertkov, a well-known archaeologist, historian, book collector and publisher. IMG_5901.jpg2 IMG_5907.jpg2 IMG_5913.jpg2 Mayakovsky appeared in Voronezh on the morning of November 22, 1926. Thanks to a detailed description of his visit on the Communa website, we know that nobody met him at the train station and he made his own way to the hotel, where he met with Nina Logofet, a member of the local Black Earth writers group. She, apparently, was in charge of his schedule during his stay. That evening he appeared at a reading at the theater – I don’t know which one specifically. Mayakovsky delivered a talk called “My Discovery of America,” then spent “several hours in the company of his fans.” He did not return to his hotel room until dawn. Thanks to this meeting, the local poets Logofet and Vladimir Korablinov were soon published in Moscow in the literary journal New LEF. Mayakovsky promised them he would publish their work and he kept his promise. On November 25 the first public account of Mayakovsky’s visit appeared in the newspaper Voronezh Commune. It was written by the poet Ivan Belyaev, a huge fan of Mayakovsky’s who recently had come to Voronezh from Estonia. For the record, Belyayev had less than a year to live at this point – he was arrested in the summer of 1927 and sent to prison in Moscow, where he perished. Mayakovsky himself was almost on borrowed time by now – he shot himself on April 30, 1930, in Moscow. That sad deed occurred in a building I have written about elsewhere on this blog site. You can hear Mayakovsky himself read his poetry by going to the very cool openculture website, which has two audio links to Mayakovsky reading his own work, as well as a link to a video of the 1918 film The Lady and the Hooligan, in which you can see Mayakovsky act. In the final photo below you can see an old photograph of the hotel taken, I assume, at around the turn of the century. It looks very much like it does today, aside from the garish advertisements on the street level. I took the photo of the photo in a marvelous basement cafe in the old building. IMG_5904.jpg2 IMG_5909.jpg2 IMG_5916.jpg2

Vera Komissarzhevskaya presence, Voronezh

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I am stretching things here today but you’ll see why soon enough. Vera Komissarzhevskaya (1864-1910) has very little to do with Voronezh. The great actress of the late 19th-early 20th century was born and lived in St. Petersburg. She became a star on the stage of the Alexandrinsky Theater after she joined that company in 1896. She made history when she founded her own theater, the Dramatic Theater, in 1904. She famously invited Vsevolod Meyerhold to work with her in 1906 and, in the course of a single season, he staged  an insane number of productions there – thirteen. Although several of them went down in history and provided cachet for Komissarzhevskaya forever more, the two did not hit it off. After sending Meyerhold packing she invited the poet Valery Bryusov to collaborate with her, but that didn’t last long, either. In the spirit of the time, Komissarzhevskaya occasionally barnstormed around the country, playing  provincial venues, and that is how the Komissarzhevskaya-Voronezh connection arises.
She spent seven days in Voronezh, from May 16 to 22 in 1903, putting on six performances: Ignaty Potapenko’s The Magical Fairy Tale, Hermann Sudermann’s Homeland and Battle of the Butterflies, Alexander Ostrovsky’s The Savage Girl and Without a Dowry, and Alexei Suvorin’s The Question. She clearly made a serious impression on the city. Despite the fact that she only made one trip there, the city fathers saw fit to name one of the local central streets after her, as you can see in the photo at the top. I noted in a recent post about Mikhail Lermontov that Voronezh seems to have a thing about people passing through. And I say that as a great compliment. A city can be so busy with itself, and so ignorant of everything going on around it, that it hardly takes notice of its place in the world. Voronezh is not like that. It does take note of brief but noteworthy encounters, and it sees itself as a part of the greater whole of Russian culture. That impresses me.
The rest of the photos here are of the city’s main drama theater, now known in full by one of those horrid official monikers – The Voronezh State Academic Theater named after Alexei Koltsov. It’s an old theater that dates back to 1787 or 1802, depending upon your source.  The building you see in these photos has little in common with whatever existed then, just as it has little to do with what the theater looked like when Komissarzhevskaya performed here.  At that time it was called the City Winter Theater. In fact, the physical plant even has little to do with what the theater looked like in the mid-1930s when the exiled poet Osip Mandelstam (see yesterday’s post) worked here briefly as the theater’s literary manager.The arched windows and the basic box are still the same. Much of the roof line is gone, however, and the rather cliched columns in front have been added. The excellent downtown.ru site tells the story of the theater and provides some excellent old photos.
But here I must digress from Komissarzhevskaya for a moment to finish up a thought about Mandelstam. It is fascinating what the “institution” of exile in the Soviet period did for provincial theaters. Exiled great writers often found employment and some safety by taking jobs as literary managers or consultants at local theaters. It is a job that the playwright Nikolai Erdman held in Tomsk when he was in exile there from 1934-36. I have no idea what actual work Mandelstam did for the theater – if any – but my heart is warmed by the notion of theaters providing shelter to great artists.

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Komissarzhevskaya was one tough cookie. An absolutely fabulous letter that she wrote to a producer or manager Yevtikhy Karpov has come down to us, and it deserves to be aired in full in English. It concerns a series of performances that she plans to give in St. Petersburg in the near future. The Suvorin to whom she refers is Alexei Suvorin, a minor writer who ran his own theater in St. Petersburg and was a good friend and publisher of Anton Chekhov. My wife Oksana Mysina, an actress who has had plenty of memorable encounters with producers and managers, read this letter and howled with delight. “This should be included in the education of all young actresses!” she said. Here is the letter, translated from a site that publishes Komissarzhevskaya’s archive:

“It’s all wrong and you tell Suvorin that you mixed everything up because I am not to blame here. 
1) I will not perform before September 15.
2) I refuse to play less than four plays.
3) I will provide two plays myself and you give me two more. As for the money, I did not say That for Suvorin’s sake. For you I said the word ‘or’ because I Thought you yourself would decide what was best for me, and that you would say so.
In all good conscience I cannot ask for more than 300 rubles, but I do not have a single acquaintance who would fail to tell me that this is very little. Since I take 300 rubles in the provinces, 300 rubles would be too little from Suvorin, whose take is 2,400 rubles. I also have in mind that in Petersburg I have to perform 15 shows for them, which means I live there for two months. I had thought that, taking all that into account, you would do what is best and so I turned the affair over to you entirely.
I read your
Happiness again [a footnote tells us that this may refer to a play by Izabella Grinevskaya (thanks to a reader for that first name!) based on Polish writer Eliza Orzeszkowa’s novel The Foundling], and it’s no good. Boring. I’ll send you Fairy Tale. And then, what does your phrase ‘if there is a good box office take’ mean? If I’m receiving a percent, then I depend on the take, but if I am receiving a set sum, I couldn’t care less what the take is – I get my sum. I bring this all out in the open because you have 75 managers there and my conditions must be clear: Please pass this all on to Suvorin. If he doesn’t want to, that’s his business. And I already see how poorly you think of me. I finish up here [Voronezh] tomorrow. We made 800 rubles on the turn here. [“On the turn” is a phrase I don’t know how to translate. It’s a phrase that had to do with the way money was paid out for benefit performances in the old Russian system of touring actors and shows.] The first city was terrible, too much – six shows. We now head for Saratov – all sold out, all six shows. I rented the Hermitage [probably meaning Moscow] on the 2nd and 3rd. For the Holy Week I’ll be with Masha in Znamenka. Easter week I’ll be in Samara and then three shows in Orenburg, four in Simbirsk and beyond that I don’t know the dates, but Kazan and Nizhny Novgorod remain. Write me about Chernyshov, are you taking him on? Well, goodbye. Your letter, in essence was horrible! Christ be with you.”

Following are some excerpts from reviews of the Voronezh tour, drawn from the Gallery of Chizhov website:

“There was something special, something inexpressibly pleasant and touching in the actress’s performance. From her very first entrance her tender figure and her tense, subtle face with sad eyes grabbed the attention of the spectators. This was not just attention paid to an exceptional actor, but rather more like attention one would pay to a near and dear person. […] With every gesture, every intonation, one thinks everything must be precisely like this and not otherwise. […] The ticket prices were very high, but the theater was filled.” – Voronezh Telegraph, review of The Magical Fairy Tale.

“Anyone who saw the previous performance would have been amazed by the change in everything about the actress. What happened to the pale, oval face, the sad eyes, the nervous grace of the body? Her face now smiles entirely, her manners are loose and wildly graceful as she purses her lips or jerks her shoulders. The audience enjoyed every minute.” – From a review of The Savage Girl.

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