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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.
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.