Tag Archives: Anatoly Efros

Yelena Koreneva’s favorite cafe, Santa Monica, CA

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Yelena Koreneva has had an extraordinary biography and she is still just getting started. You have to begin with the fact that she was one of the best, best loved and best respected actors in Soviet film in the 1970s. That in itself would have made her an historical figure in Russian culture. Her performances in Andrei Konchalovsky’s A Romance about Lovers (1974), Iosif Kheifets’s Asya (1977), Konchalovsky’s The Sibiriade (1978) and Mark Zakharov’s That Same Munchausen (1979) form a blockbuster quartet that defines the decade. But while she was balancing much of Soviet cinema on her own two, rather petite, shoulders, she was also pushing the envelope in theater. From 1975 to 1977 she worked at the popular Sovremennik Theater, where she performed in plays by some of the top authors of the era – two by Viktor Rozov and one by Mikhail Roshchin. Also at the Sovremennik, she performed in the directing debut of beloved Russian actor Oleg Dal – The Princess and the Woodcutter. She was then lured away to the Theater on Malaya Bronnaya by the great Russian director Anatoly Efros. Between 1977 and 1979 she performed in three of his productions – Turgenev’s A Month in the Country (1977), Igor Dvoretsky’s A Veranda in the Woods (1978) and Eduard Radzinsky’s The Continuation of Don Juan (1979). It was an absolutely stunning six or seven years. Was there anyone cooler in Moscow than Yelena Koreneva during that period? I find it hard to believe.
But what everyone found hard to believe at the time was that, right at the top of her game, right at the peak of her success, right at that moment when she could look down and see the whole world – the whole wide world – at her feet, she did something that, at that time in the Soviet Union, amounted to professional suicide. She married an American academic and left for the United States. For the next eleven years she worked at odd jobs in New York, Beverly Hills, San Francisco, and lived in many other cities. Her marriage didn’t last, but she was unable to return to the Soviet Union. I don’t even know if she wanted to – maybe she was just enjoying life as it came to her on a day-to-day basis. Maybe that’s why, when she lived in Southern California, she had three favorite cafes that she would hang out in, perhaps like Otis Redding’s hero, “sitting on the dock of the bay, watching the tide roll away….” There is a deep charm to that. I have done it myself. In any case, all three of the cafes were in Santa Monica and all of them were at or near the beach.
When I told Lena I wanted to write something about her time in Southern California, the first thing she said was, “Maybe you shouldn’t? Maybe it’s not worth it?” But I assured her it was, and is, and I finally convinced her to send me some addresses. Among others, she directed me to this, the Novel Cafe, located at 212 Pier Avenue, just north of the municipal border with Venice Beach.
I remembered the place I loved to spend time – The Novel Cafe in Santa Monica,” she wrote in a small letter of reminiscences. “You can find its exact address via the internet. It is that type of place where one can pick up books and read them – there is a library of a kind… and couches, very cozy. Another cafe nearby was the Rose Cafe – you also can find its exact address through the internet.”
We determined that the Rose Cafe no longer exists, but when my wife Oksana and I pulled up in front of 212 Pier Ave. with my trusty camera in tow, it was quite obvious that, although there may have been a few changes in the last couple of decades, this was, indeed, one of those places where Lena used to hang out.
It is so marvelously and wondrously incongruous – one of the Soviet Union’s greatest actresses of her era quietly sipping coffee, eating carrot cake and plowing through the latest novel that she happened to pull off the bookshelf at random. All entirely anonymously, of course. None of the beachcombers here had the vaguest notion who they were sharing space with! And, knowing Lena, I have little doubt that she never gave off the slightest hint as to who she was. I don’t know this for a fact, but I have no doubt it’s true: She surely enjoyed the anonymity, the cloak-and-dagger quality to it all. It must have been a bit of a game for her, an escape down into one of the nondescript tunnels leading to Alice’s retreat in Wonderland.

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Lena returned to Russia in the early 1990s and wasted no time reminding the public of her presence. She starred in several fascinating theater projects and slowly stepped back into film, as well. In fact, she had not abandoned film entirely during her American years. Her old friend Andrei Konchalovsky cast her in a couple of the films he made during his own American period, including Maria’s Lovers (1984) where she performed alongside Keith Carradine and Nastasja Kinski, and Homer and Eddie (1989). Her film career picked up again full steam in the late 1990s and has never let up since. She has performed in over 25 films since 1997. Her performances in two theatrical extravaganzas directed by the Ukrainian Andrii Zholdak in Moscow put her right back in the heart of the best of avant-garde Russian theater. She was exquisite as the Reader in Carmen. Exodus at the Theater of Nations (2007) and again in the title role of Medea. Psycho at the Contemporary Play School (2008). Here is what I wrote about Medea in The Moscow Times (you can read the entire review here):
The Medea of this story, played with absolute fearlessness by Yelena Koreneva, is a contemporary housewife whose life is shattered when her husband Jason decides to leave her for a younger, more advantageous match… Koreneva is a force of nature as Medea, the embodiment of the old adage that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. Her portrait of Medea is the portrait of truth and justice mauled and maligned. At first she coaxes her man back to her, but when that does not succeed, she becomes threatening. This is enough to convince Creon to suggest she be killed, although Jason is never able to go that far. Nor is Creon, for Medea’s powers of persuasion also work on him. Over the course of the play the image strengthens of Medea as a marauding, enraged figure shadowing the corrupt and immoral people who have destroyed her home and hearth. Zholdak emphasizes this by increasingly broadcasting closeups of Medea’s distorted, contorted facial expressions.”
In recent years Koreneva has devoted much of her time to writing. She is the author of several best-selling volumes of memoirs and novelistic writings, including An Idiot: A Biographical Novel (2001), Net-lenka [an untranslatable title that suggests both “Not Lena” and “Masterpiece”] (2004), and Creatures of Creativity (2009).
Oksana and I often run into Lena at political rallies in Moscow. She is great company, down to earth, has a great sense of humor, and is seemingly entirely lacking in ego. I always like to think back to all those folks in Santa Monica who didn’t know what they were missing by not approaching her to strike up a conversation.

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Writer’s House (Pasternak, Olesha, Ilf & Petrov etc.) on Lavrushinsky, Moscow

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I would call this one of the greatest-kept secrets in Moscow cultural lore. This building, which you have surely seen if you have ever spent time in Moscow (because it is located right across the street from the Tretyakov Gallery and you, of course, have been there), is absolutely chock-full of literary history, real and imagined. This, for example, is the very place to which the slicked-up and scantily-clad Margarita flies and destroys a critic’s living quarters at the end of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. You see, Bulgakov was in line to receive an apartment here in the early 1930s, but was refused. A nit-picking critic who was always yapping at the heels of Bulgakov’s work did receive an apartment here. It pissed Bulgakov off enough that he famously avenged the nasty man through his literature. The only change Bulgakov introduced into the story was that in M&M the building ostensibly stands on the Arbat. In fact, this is it: 17 Lavrushinsky Lane, in the Zamoskvorechye region.
Just look at the list of people who were entered in the list of the winners of the “lottery” to receive apartments a full year before construction on the building was complete in 1937: Boris Pasternak, Ilf and Petrov, Konstantin Paustovsky, Ilya Erenburg, Viktor Shklovsky, Agnia Barto, Vsevolod Vishnevsky, Mikhail Prishvin, Lev Kassil, Nikolai Pogodin. Other luminaries who lived here in later years and decades included Veniamin Kaverin, Valentin Kataev, Yury Olesha, the theater director Anatoly Efros, the singer Lidia Ruslanov and more. In terms of literature and art, this building surely beats out the famed House on the Embankment, located just a mile or two away, for saturation of fame and infamy. I bother to add that second word in large part because of the fact that Vsevolod Vishnevsky, the rabble-rousing playwright, lived here. Vishnevsky was an acid-tongued, often jealous and envious, man who wrapped himself in the cloak of Revolutionary fervor and purity as, behind the scenes, he sent others to their doom. Vishnevsky played no small role in the downfall of Vsevolod Meyerhold, Zinaida Raikh and Nikolai Erdman.
If you know Yury Olesha’s famous last book, No Day Without a Line, you now know where it was written. Here is what Olesha had to say about living here shortly after having moved in: “Constant meetings. The first is Pasternak, who has barely come out his own doors. He’s carrying galoshes. He puts them on after crossing the doorstep, not while still inside. Why? For cleanliness’ sake? Going on about something he says, ‘I talk with you as I would with a brother.’ And then there’s [playwright Vladimir] Bill-Belotserkovsky with his unexpectedly subtle commentaries about Moliere’s long monologues…”
I’ve drawn this quote, as I have much information, from an article on the Writer’s House on the Big City website.

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This building, an article on the Travel2Moscow website tells us, was actually signed off by Joseph Stalin, in large part because Maxim Gorky had convinced him there needed to be not only a home, but a whole neighborhood or small city of writers. Many talk about the distinctive black marble frame of the entrance (see the photo immediately below). It, indeed, is impressive, if not off-putting. And it becomes increasingly so when you think about the reality of the people, the years and the events that converged in this structure. It was built in 1937 and people began moving in precisely as the Great Purges (about which I have often had reason to write, and about which I’m sure I will write more – such is the nature of that beast) were beginning. As such, there were numerous people who were arrested here and sent packing to Siberia, barely having had the opportunity to move in. Could it be that Stalin took Gorky up on the idea of putting a bunch of prominent writers in one place in order to make it easier to spy on them and round them up? I mean, why is the entrance to this building framed in black granite? It looks like a building in permanent mourning. Was Stalin – by way of his architect Ivan Nikolaev – telling the tenants something? ‘Beware all ye, who enter these premises!’ Am I making that up? Maybe. Stalin has been known to do much weirder things. One thing is certain, the building is “within reach” of the Kremlin. Look at the first of the grouping of three photos above. You will see the yellow buildings of the Kremlin rising up there in the distance. The Kremlin is just a hop, skip and trip across the Moscow River away.
Interestingly, the building was erected around an old 17th-century structure that now stands hidden behind the grand facades. You can see that 2-story building in the final photo below.
And now let me, again, turn things over to those who know more than I. This last lovely bit is from the Travel2Moscow site:
“The building’s most famous tenant, Boris Pasternak, wrote a poem that began, ‘The house loomed large like a watchtower…’ Neighbors spread humorous rumors about it, such as the one where Pasternak kept a huge dagger on his wall and could often be seen on the building’s rooftop. Indeed, Pasternak’s apartment was located on the top floor and even had an exit onto the roof. Valentin Kataev wrote that during the war Pasternak (‘at night, without a hat, without a tie, and with shirt collar unbuttoned…’) heroically battled incendiary bombs [launched by the Germans], putting them out with sand. In fact, two of these bombs destroyed five apartments and half of a wing, penetrating five floors into the building. During the bombings Paustovsky’s apartment was damaged. Pasternak himself, unlike many writers, did not leave the building during the war, writing that ‘all the dangers frightened and intoxicated.’ It was precisely in this building that he wrote his famous novel Doctor Zhivago.”
Absolutely fascinating stuff, if you ask me. I have just one question at this point, however. Why in the world would Kataev have considered it odd that Pasternak battled incendiary bombs on the roof of his home “without a hat or tie”? What was he supposed to do, don a tux to greet the German bombs?
I must add here a few words spoken by my wife Oksana after I allowed myself to scoff at bit at Kataev. “The humor is Kataev’s,” she said. “What that means is that Kataev, like everyone else, rarely ever saw Pasternak without a hat or tie.” I.e., the only thing that could induce Pasternak out without a tie were German incendiary bombs. Whatever the case may be, my fascination with this structure and its inhabitants is only going to grow.

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