Tag Archives: Anatoly Lunacharsky

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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Anatoly Lunacharsky plaques, Moscow

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Still another of those questionable personalities. It couldn’t be any other way, not from the time of the Russian Revolution. People are paradoxical enough as it is – toss them into the vortex of paradoxes that any revolution is, and you have a genuine mess. That said, this building at 9/6 Denezhny Lane in the Arbat region is the home in which Antoly Lunacharsky, routinely labeled as the first Soviet Commissar of Enlightenment [a commissariat combining culture and education], lived from 1923 to 1933. Lunacharsky (1875-1933) was one of those there to make the Russian Revolution happen who is often (but not always – see below) well spoken of. He was smart, he was idealistic, he was talented, he recognized talent. Not only was he the equivalent of the first Soviet Minister of Culture, he was a well-known writer himself. He was the author of numerous plays, several staged at the Maly Theater in Moscow, and he was a trusted and respected critic of literature and theater. He wrote something like 15 full-length plays between 1906 and 1930, and he wrote another dozen or so one-act plays. None remained in the national repertoire any longer than he occupied a position of power, but he is credited with being one of the writers of that era to introduce contemporary themes into his plays. He had the misfortune of bearing a certain resemblance to Lenin, something that in subsequent generations may have dampened his reputation. He rather looks like a nasty son-of-a-bitch. The writer Leonid Andreyev surely didn’t have much good to say about him.
“[Bolshevism] ate up an enormous number of educated people, destroyed them physically and decimated them morally with its system of baitings and buy-offs,” Andreyev wrote in a letter in 1919 that is published on the Chronos biography site. “In this sense Lunacharsky with his fox tail is more terrible and worse than all the other Devils of this vicious pack. He is a coward and a goodie-two-shoes. He wants to maintain proper appearances while confusing as many people as possible… A bright ray of light in a dark kingdom; that is probably the way he sees himself, for in addition to all else, he is a vulgar and short-sighted man.”
Wham! You always wonder: Who is going to write something like that about you? Andreyev, of course, got his comeuppance from no less than Leo Tolstoy, whose take-down of Andreyev and the “scary” tales that made the junior writer famous, is one of the most quoted in all of Russian literature. “Andreyev frightens us,” Tolstoy wrote, “but we are not frightened.”
Some facts come down in Lunacharsky’s favor. He was the only member of the commissariat system who never belonged to the Central Committee of the Communist Party. I.e., either he kept his distance or they held him at a distance. He threatened to resign when the advancing Bolsheviks launched bombs at the Kremlin in November 1917 because he was horrified at the damage that might be done to cultural relics. Chances are it is no coincidence that Lunacharsky was moved out of a position in power in 1929 just shortly after Stalin began to consolidate power. Say what anyone will, Andreyev included, Lunacharsky was not of Stalin’s ilk.

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I heard plenty of less-than-flattering things about Lunacharsky from his nephew Anatoly Agamirov (1936-2006), a well-known music critic and commentator (and a former student of Mstislav Rostropovich). Agamirov, who co-wrote a circus sketch with Nikolai Erdman in the 1960s, told of the day Lunacharsky invited  Erdman to his home to read his play The Suicide, which was already becoming controversial.  Pardon me while I now pick the story up from my book on Erdman, Silence’s Roar: The Life and Drama of Nikolai Erdman.
“According to a family legend related by Agamirov, and confirmed by Erdman’s niece Irina Kamyshova, Lunacharsky planned to provide Erdman a showcase for his newly written play. This would have been natural, since Erdman was a frequent visitor of Lunacharsky’s regular Monday gatherings which were always attended by the elite of cultural Moscow. To provide the most influential audience, Lunacharsky purposefully invited a large contingent of his political colleagues. When the crowd had gathered, Erdman read the play in its entirely. […] But while Stanislavsky and other artists may have appreciated the subtlety of Erdman’s art [at readings at the Moscow Art Theater and other places], it had a decidedly different effect on the group of politicians and petty bureaucrats gathered at Lunacharsky’s apartment. They listened in stone silence… not once responding to the humor of his play or his delivery. After all the guests had left, Lunacharsky reportedly took Erdman aside and told him that he had written a play of genius, ‘but as long as I am the Commissar of Education, your play will never be produced on the Soviet stage.'”
How closely does Agamirov’s tale capture the reality of that evening at Lunacharsky’s house? While there is no doubt that Agamirov loved to embellish a good story, I never found reason to doubt the essential truth of anything he told me. So there we are, left with this tantalizing story of Lunacharsky setting out to be of aid to a struggling writer, but actually turning against him in a moment when he sensed he was standing on shaky ground.
Be all this as it may, as of 2013 there were 565 “geographical objects” throughout Russia honoring Lunacharsky’s name. They included streets, plazas, theaters, schools and a conservatory, Russian Wikipedia tells us. The museum located at Denezhny Lane is generally known as “the Lunacharsky office.”

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