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I’m afraid there isn’t much that can be done photographically with this blandly imposing Soviet-style apartment house at 6-8 Smolensky Boulevard in Moscow unless your name is Igor Tabakov or Vladimir Filonov – the two great Moscow Times photographers I have had the honor to work with for nearly 25 years. But there are plenty of stories I can attach to it. Vsevolod Yakut (1912-1991) lived here for the last years, if not decades, of his life. I don’t know when he moved in, but I know he lived here when he died, and I visited him a time or two in the late ’80s/early ’90s when he clearly had been living here for some time with his wife. Their apartment was accessed by way of the No. 2 entrance, pictured immediately below, and I recall that they lived somewhere around the 6th to 8th floor.
Yakut, whose real name was Abramovich and whose stage name was taken from the Siberian region from which he had come, was one of the greatest and most popular actors of his time. His loudest claim to fame – although he had many – was the longtime performance of Alexander Pushkin in Andrei Globa’s verse play Pushkin. The play opened at the Yermolova Theater in 1949 and ran for 20 years. Yakut played the role 840 times. Other plays and roles that sustained his fame included Nazim Hikmet’s The Eccentric (1956), Hikmet’s Two Stubborn Men (1959), Nikolai Pogodin’s My Friend (1961), and Eduardo de Filippo’s Saturday, Sunday, Monday (1962). All of that was way before my time in Moscow, although my wife, who was born just one year before Saturday, Sunday, Monday opened, saw it when she was a teenager. That’s how long that show ran. We still have posters and programs from Yakut’s shows in our family archive. I came to know him ever so briefly because my wife’s sister Marina married Maxim Yakut, one of Vsevolod’s sons. Thus it happens that my nephew Ivan is Vsevolod Yakut’s grandson. And the stories begin with Vanya – now an accomplished bassoonist living in Spain – in part because his is maybe the best of them all. A year or two before I came into the picture Vanya, who was, perhaps, 6 or 7 at this point, was riding the elevator with his famous grandfather in the old Actors House on Pushkin Square. There were two elevators side-by-side, very small, and they could almost comfortably fit four people. On this evening Vanya squeezed in as the fifth. And some friendly person looked down and asked the young boy, “So, are you going to be an actor like your grandfather here?” Vanya, who had played a child’s role for a year or two in a production at the Maly Theater thanks to connections his aunt, my future wife Oksana, provided, looked up with pride and replied, “I already was!”
The strangest and most lasting impression I have of Yakut came from a brief meeting that occurred probably in 1990. It followed a holiday evening at Oksana’s parents’ apartment – Yakut would occasionally come over for New Year’s or a birthday. Anyway, he took an interest in Oksana, whose acting career was just getting underway, and he invited us to see him perform. The show was Ronald Harwood’s The Dresser. It was a huge hit, with Yakut playing an actor performing Lear in King Lear and another highly popular actor Zinovy Gerdt playing his set-upon dresser and personal assistant. Oksana and I sat third row center in the Yermolova Theater, where Yakut had been a company member since 1938 (having been a member of the Yermolova Studio from 1931 to 1934). We were absolutely enthralled. The Yakut-Gerdt team was a stunning one. We later learned that some of the sparks that flew between them on stage were generated by a healthy rivalry in life – but that’s what theater wants, the real thing. Anyway, we were slayed by Yakut’s enormous performance. He was monumental in every way. He breathed as one would expect King Lear to breathe. He towered over everything on the stage as one playing Lear should do. We sat there in the third row, staring up in awe at this giant of an actor playing a man of mammoth proportions. And after the show, following Yakut’s orders, we dutifully found our way backstage to his dressing room to pay our respects. We came to a stop before his door where the name “Vsevolod Yakut” was engraved in a modest metal plaque. For a moment we stood not quite knowing what to do. Was it too early to knock? Had we come too late? Oksana, I think, finally stepped forth and rapped on the door with her knuckles. We heard a booming voice from inside say, “Just a moment!” and we waited a moment more. Both of us – rather tall individuals – stood almost at attention and both of us were looking up at the top part portion of the door. That is more or less where we expected our eyes to meet those of Yakut when he finally would greet us. At that moment the door flung open and both Oksana and I found ourselves looking through blank air at the ceiling of the actor’s dressing room. We both slowly corrected our aim, dropping it a significant distance until we saw Yakut’s tired, but smiling face somewhere down around the level of our shoulders. We both were shocked and we have often talked about this instance since. What the magic of the stage can do! Even though we had spent numerous hours in the company of Yakut, even though we knew him quite well, the power of his presence on stage had completely blown our memories out. In those two hours of performing, Yakut became a giant. And we fully expected him to be a giant even after the show had ended. Actually, he remained so for us both. I have always thought of Yakut as a giant after having seen him perform. I don’t care that he was actually a small man in real life. Real life has nothing on the power that actor had over spectators.
Yakut was so popular he never had to pay for a taxi ride home after shows. He would walk out from the stage door of the Yermolova onto Tverskaya Street – Moscow’s main drag a stone’s throw from Red Square and the Kremlin – and there taxis would be waiting. He could always step into one and be sure the driver would not accept payment for the honor of taking the great man home. It hadn’t always been that way. At our family gatherings, Yakut would tell of years, or at least months, of sleeping under bridges and underpasses to keep dry when he had no work and no place to go. In his early years he acted as a clown in an itinerant circus in Irkutsk. He made his way to Moscow – when he spent time sleeping under the sky when weather permitted – and finally gained admission to the institute and, shortly thereafter, began acting.
On March 3, 1991, the Yermolova had scheduled the final pre-premiere dress rehearsal of Albert Camus’ Caligula, directed by the young Andrei Zhitinkin. Oksana and I asked Yakut if we could come, but he said it would be better to wait. The show hadn’t gelled yet, he wanted us to see it when it was ready. The next day we received a call – Yakut had performed in the dress rehearsal but had fallen dead before leaving his beloved theater. Thus it was that the last time Oksana and I saw Vsevolod Yakut was in his coffin. The public farewell took place at the old Art Workers’ House on Kuznetsky Most. A religious ceremony was held at the so-called “actors church” at the Church of the Resurrection on Yeliseyevskaya Street. I remember streams of elderly women, their tear-stained faces covered under kerchiefs, standing in line to kiss Yakut’s forehead one last time. He was buried in a tiny plot next to a tree in the Vagankovskoe Cemetery, a burial place that was long ago closed to new “arrivals” because every inch was full. But they found a tiny space big enough to squeeze in Yakut. That evening we attended the family memorial dinner – right here in Yakut’s apartment on Moscow’s so-called Ring Road. This was where Oksana and I first met the composer Alexander Bakshi and his wife Lyudmila – they had worked on Caligula. Also there that evening was the relatively young Valery Fokin. He was the artistic director of the Yermolova, which had recently undergone a mutiny, with half the theater – mostly the older actors – breaking away from Fokin and his “radical” ideas. Yakut was one of the few of the old guard who strongly backed Fokin and who gave Fokin gravitas by his support.
There is no memorial plaque stating that Vsevolod Yakut once lived here. Aside from a handful of posters in the foyer at the Yermolova Theater, there are virtually no other reminders in Moscow now of Yakut. He will always be a giant in my mind.