Tag Archives: Alexei Tolstoy

Pavel Vasilyev plaque, Moscow

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It  seems to be a time of discovering poets for me. A few days ago it was Richard Ter-Pogosian. Now it is another. I was walking through my former city of Moscow yesterday and happened upon a plaque I didn’t know commemorating a poet I’d never heard of – Pavel Vasilyev, who lived in this building at 26 Fourth Tverskaya-Yamskaya Street in 1936 and 1937. Yes, you probably guessed right: that latter date is also the poet’s year of death. The meat grinder year. The year of blood. The year of hatred, lies, villainy and infamy. What will ever be done to wash away the sins of that year? Nothing? Can nothing wash those sins away? And what happens if that is true?
But let’s narrow the conversation a bit; bring it back to this new poet in my life. These days, with our instant access to information, it is not difficult to begin understanding the stature that Vasilyev enjoyed for a brief time in his life. The number of poets, writers and others singing his praises in the late 1920s, early 1930s is more than merely impressive – it is downright imposing. As Valentin Antonov wrote in an eye-opening blog in 2009, you can begin the list with Alexei Tolstoy, Anatoly Lunacharsky, Ryurik Ivlev and Vladimir Soloukhin. Our purposes today will be served by Boris Pasternak, who wrote in 1956 (presumably taking part in Vasilyev’s “rehabilitation,” which occurred that year):
At the beginning of the 1930s Pavel Vasilyev impressed me upon first discovery approximately as had Yesenin and Mayakovsky before him. He was comparable to them, particularly to Yesenin, by his creative expressiveness, the power of his gift and his great, infinite promise, because he lacked the tragic explosiveness, which internally cut short the lives of the latter two, and he commanded a cold composure allowing him to control his turbulent instincts. He possessed that bright, happy and quick imagination, without which great poetry does not exist, the likes of which in such abundance I have never seen again in all the years that have passed since  his death.”
That is no rote, routine recommendation. Pasternak here, in just a few lines, places Vasilyev among (and to some extent, above) the greatest poets of his time.
Wolfgang Kasack, the great German scholar, called Vasilyev’s poetry “antiurban, erotic and associated with the free life of the Cossacks.” Later in his entry in his Dictionary of Russian Literature since 1917, he adds: “Vasilyev’s poetry is characterized by an earthy, graphic power. Fairy-tale elements mingle with Cossack history and a revolutionary present. Strong characters, powerful animals, fierce action and the colorful landscape of the steppes are expressively combined in scenes that create great forward momentum with varied rhythms. Bloody revolutionary events experienced in Vasilyev’s childhood are presented without reference to historical persons or incidents.”
Vasilyev’s stance – and one did have to have a stance in those years; it was virtually impossible to stand and watch tumultuous events pass by – was a confused one. As an 11 year-old schoolboy he wrote a poem dedicated to Vladimir Lenin that was picked up and turned into a song by his teacher and classmates. He seemed to sing the praises of the Revolution at times, while at others he was clearly at odds with its consequences. By the early 1930s he was constantly running into trouble. His fate was probably sealed when Maxim Gorky (yes, that slipperly ol’ Maxim Gorky again) in 1934 accused him of “drunkenness, hooliganism and violating the law on residence registration.”
What the hell? Was Gorky playing the role of the pot calling the kettle black? I don’t know; I’ll have to look into this some day. But here are some of the facts of the end process:
Vasilyev was first arrested in 1932, although was released before long. Gorky jumped on his back in 1934 and, surely consequently, Vasilyev was kicked out of the brand-new Writers Union in January 1935. Six months later he was arrested again, this time for engaging in what, by all accounts, was a nasty, drunken, public fight with a poet known as Jack (Yakov) Altauzen. Judging by the record, Vasilyev’s antisemitic views were well known, and this brawl appears to have been a flare-up of racist behavior. Vasilyev was released early again, in 1936. In February 1937 he was arrested still again for the supposed crime of belonging to a terrorist group whose purpose was to assassinate Joseph Stalin. He was condemned to be shot and the sentence was carried out July 16, 1937, in the Lefortovo prison. Similar to his contemporary, Vsevolod Meyerhold, his remains lie in an unmarked grave in the Donskoi Monastery.

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Pavel Vasilyev (1909-1937) was a restless man. Even with his family as a youth he traveled often from town to town. His father was a teacher and held many different jobs. The poet was born in the town of Zaisan in what is now known as the Republic of Kazakhstan. Other cities figuring in his biography are Pavlodar, Sandyktav Station, Atbasar, Petropavlovsk, Omsk, Vladivostok, Khabarovsk, Novosibirsk and Moscow. He spent time as a fisherman and prospector on the Irtysh and Selemidzha rivers. He also worked as a journalist, leading him toward the life of writer and poet. His first published poem was called “October,” and was printed in Vladivostok on Nov. 6, 1926. His poems were soon picked up by many of the top publications in the Soviet Union, including Izvestia, Novy Mir, Literary gazette, Ogonyok and many others. At the same time, much of his work could not be published. For example, in the early 1930s he wrote a series of ten folkloric, historical verse epics, although only one, The Salt Riot (1934), saw the light of day. Either because of his poetry, his personality, or his intolerant world view – or, perhaps, because of all three together – he eventually came upon his downfall. It is accepted knowledge that Vasilyev was the prototype for the main character, an antihero, spy and ruffian named Andrei Abrikosov in Ivan Pyryev’s popular film The Party Ticket (1936). Note that he was portrayed here as a spy a year before he was executed for being a spy…
I don’t know enough about Vasilyev to take sides for or against him in regards to his character or lack thereof. I do, however, see a depressingly familiar case of a talented, unusual person being singled out by the in-crowd and turned into a victim and a scapegoat. The story of Pavel Vasilyev may be messy and paradoxical. But it ends with a gunshot – probably to his head – which gives him certain rights in retrospect.
Here is a poem written in February 1937, presumably after he had been arrested:

Red-breast finches flutter up…
So soon, to my misfortune,
I’ll see the green eye of the wolf
In hostile northern lands.

We shall be heartsick and forlorn,
Though fragrant as wild honey.
Unnoticed, time frames will collapse
As gray enshrouds our curls.

And then I’ll tell you, sweet:
“The days fly by like leaves upon the wind,
It’s good that in a former life
We found each other then lost it all…”

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Alexei Tolstoy monument, Moscow

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Alexei Tolstoy (1883-1945) will always be a controversial figure in Russian letters. Here is the brief intro to a long, fascinating, highly-respected article-length biography of Tolstoy, originally published by the political activist Valeria Novodvorskaya in 2008:
Alexei Nikolaevich Tolstoy lies farther from grace than even Sholokhov. He was the Bolshevik’s greatest acquisition. A man of impeccable, brilliant talent. Fantastic imagination that playfully, with his left foot, created entire worlds. The gift of a glossarian and reflector of history. A rich, precious style, pictures that cut into your memory forever.”
But, at least in Novodvorskaya’s interpretation, Tolstoy was a man that hungered – perhaps a bit too much – for success and acceptance. He was quite surely an illegitimate child, born into the family of Count Nikolai Tolstoy (a distant relative of Leo), but not the product of true Tolstoyan blood lineage. His mother was a bit of a free-thinking, free-living individual and, by the time she gave birth to little Alyosha, she had long been spending her days and nights with a man by the name of Alexei Bostrom. However, in a gesture of largesse, when the official father died in 1900 he conferred legitimacy and the title of Count upon the son that was not his (and whom he never saw). This put the young man in line to receive a fine inheritance, although Alexei’s mother was already hip to her son’s appetites. She put his inheritance under lock and key and the newly-created count had to live a life much more frugal life than he wished.
Still, Tolstoy found ways to feed his desires. He was a womanizer, he traveled when he could, and – as Novodvorskaya tells us – when his mother sent him money to buy a baby carriage for his new child, he used the money to buy a fancy suit. Once, while visiting his in-laws and his wife (who had taken their child and run from him), he bragged about trying to seduce a local lawyer’s wife, nearly getting whipped for his audacity, which was enough for his in-laws to send him packing.
Tolstoy’s need to be “taken seriously,” to be revered not only for his shaky noble heritage, but for his literature and his so-called social activism, often made him the butt of jokes over the decades. Maybe there was a good dose of jealousy in that. I don’t know. I wasn’t there. And I don’t present these attitudes as proof of their legitimacy, but rather as a picture of what you inevitably get if and when you delve into the Tolstoy story.
I remember being quite surprised by a different attitude when working one day in what was then still called TsGALI, the Central State Archive of Literature, in Moscow. This was back in 1988-89. I was devouring the Nikolai Erdman documents being brought to me daily, and one morning I received a whole pack of letters. In one of them, Erdman went off into dithyrambs about the brilliance of Tolstoy’s new novel, Peter the First.  (It was one of the biggest works of Tolstoy’s prolific career. It came out in two parts – the second never finished – starting in 1929 and running until after his death, as his notebooks were edited to finish the work.) Erdman was not one to say much of anything (let alone praise) other writers. I rarely saw that in his letters (although he loved Dostoevsky and Maxim Gorky). Erdman saw Peter the First as a major work of Russian literature, sufficient to put its author on a level with all the other greats. I don’t know how the novel would read today, but I was surprised to see such lavish praise coming from Erdman back then.

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Whatever history will end up saying about Peter the First, Tolstoy’s place in Russian culture will always be safe for another reason. He was the first to write a major science fiction work Aelita (1923), which was picked up almost immediately and made into one of the biggest cinematic hits in the young Soviet Union by the future great director Yakov Protazanov (with memorable, influential futuristic costumes by the great designer Alexandra Ekster). He followed that with another successful sci-fi novel, The Hyperboloid of Engineer Gagarin (1927). But there was much more to Tolstoy than that. He wrote some 40 plays in his career. He wrote eight novels, including one of the most popular – actually a trilogy of novels – of the Soviet era, The Road to Calvary (1921-40).
The uncomfortable caveats you hear shining through almost everything I have written up to now come about because of Tolstoy’s apparent need to be accepted at all costs. At a certain point, he began to put his work at the service of individuals and a state that were interested in using him to serve their own purposes. He apparently had no qualms about doing that. As the Soviet government began flushing out “undesirable” elements in the world of culture, Tolstoy took up positions and took on tasks that helped them do that. What makes this especially paradoxical is that Tolstoy ran from the Civil War in Russian in 1920, professing his hatred for the Bolsheviks and Lenin. But he was lured back just a few years later with promises of immortality (of the mortal kind – awards, titles, riches and monuments). Here is how Novodvorskaya describes this turn of events: “He would walk over corpses and bones. He would lose the ability to have pity. He would not undermine anyone, would not denounce anyone, would not demand anyone’s head. But he wouldn’t defend anyone either. Not Mandelshtam. Not Meyerhold. He would play the fool for Stalin…” Gleb Struve, the great figure of Russian literature in exile, wrote similarly about Tolstoy as early as 1941. Confirming Tolstoy’s high level of literary talent, even calling him one of the “most gifted Russian writers of the 20th century,” Struve put a stake through Tolstoy’s reputation by stating that he lacked “one quality which distinguished all of the great Russian poets and writers : a sense of moral and social responsibility. His essence is that of a cynic and opportunist.” Throughout the 1930s, Tolstoy was an important Soviet functionary, praising the prisoner-built White Sea Chanel in 1934, acting as chairman of the by-now-repressive Writers Union from 1936 to 1938), becoming a deputy of the Supreme Soviet (1937) and so on.
The Moscow monument to Tolstoy stands just a few hundred meters from the home in which he lived at the end of his life. We’ll come to that someday. He sits, quite contentedly, it would appear, staring at the church where Alexander Pushkin married Natalya Goncharova. That, folks, is one of the most revered little plots of land in Russia. You wonder if he was told in advance that he would get that spot when the time would come. Designed by sculptor Georgy Motovilov and architect Leonid Polyakov, the monument was unveiled July 3, 1957.

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Marina Tsvetaeva plaque, Moscow

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This has to be one of the most horrible plaques in Moscow. It seems to me crudely done, lacking in nuance and feeling. The “likeness,” which I can only put in quotes, is abominable. And yet, what a pleasure to walk down the great Sivtsev Vrazhek street in the Arbat region of Moscow and happen upon a reminder that the great poet Tsvetaeva once lived here. It wasn’t for long, and she wasn’t quite Marina Tsvetaeva yet. But who cares? That makes it even more interesting. The plaque informs us that she lived at 19 Sivtsev Vrazhek from the end of 1911 until the beginning of 1912. The details of that short stay add some color to the tale. According to the great Know Moscow website, Tsvetaeva and her future husband Sergei Efron moved in here shortly after the building was built. They, along with Efron’s two sisters, occupied Apt. 11 on the 6th floor from Oct.  2, 1911 to early March 1912, when the couple set out for Europe on their honeymoon following a wedding on Jan. 27. Tsvetaeva herself wrote: “I have a big window with a view of the Kremlin. In the evening I lie down on the windowsill and look at the lights in the buildings and the dark silhouettes of the towers. Our apartment has come to life. My room is dark, heavy, clumsy and sweet. It has a large book shelf, a large desk, a large sofa – all very weighty and clunky. There is a globe on the floor as well as my trunk and traveling bags that I never part with. I don’t much believe that I will be here for long, I very much want to travel!”

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It was while Tsvetaeva lived in this building that she prepared her second book of verses for publication (The Magic Lantern). It was published in Feb. 1912 and she proudly presented a copy of it to her friend, the great poet Alexander Voloshin when he visited her at this address.
The novelist Alexei Tolstoy dubbed the building the “Nest of Numskulls” (Obormotnik) because it was inhabited by a large number of bohemians. At one time or another this building gave shelter from the elements to Voloshin’s eccentric mother, whom friends knew as “Pra” or “Proto,” as in “protomother” and the poet and novelist Andrei Bely. I’ve drawn these latter tidbits from a blog by Yelena Khorvatova.
Shortly after moving into this building, the likes of which were replacing many old, smaller structures, Tsvetaeva wrote a poem called “Little Houses of Old Moscow,” which begins:

The glory of our languorous grandmothers,
Little houses of old Moscow,
You are, all of you, disappearing
From these modest little backstreets

Like grand ice castles
At the wave of a baton.
Where are your decorated ceilings
And your great, ceiling-high mirrors?…

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