Tag Archives: Angelina Stepanova

Remains of Angelina Stepanova home, Moscow

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I made my first post on this blog exactly a year ago. It’s changed quite a bit since then. Maybe it’s even grown some. Maybe it will continue to do that in the future. At first I saw it as an opportunity to post photos I thought would be of interest. But as time went on I began looking more and more for stories behind the photos, some directly connected, some not.
The photos in this particular post might not look like much at first glance. In fact they are quite extraordinary. Not the photos themselves, of course, but what is pictured in, and suggested by, them. This is all that is left of a building in which the Moscow Art Theater actress Angelina Stepanova lived in the late 1920s and early 1930s – a single wall, stripped down to the bricks on one side, still painted yellow on the other. To be honest, I can’t be sure this wall was actually part of the structure where people lived. It might have been a garden wall of some sort. One detail in the two photos above makes me suspect it was part of the building proper – that window, which is still visible from the “inside” of the wall, and the traces you can still see on the “outside” of the wall where it was blocked up at some point. The address of 4 Krivoarbatsky Lane, which is where Stepanova lived, is now occupied, if you will, by a fancy new, faux old building. I’m sure the architect thinks it is beautiful and I suspect the people that paid the architect all that money to build it agree with him or her. I think it looks like a damn doll house. It sticks out like a sore thumb. It screams of arrogance. Faking the elements of old architecture, it screams, “I am new and I am hot!” I really took a disliking to it as I walked around it. It made me love the crumbly old wall all the more. There is a sense of reality in that broken, abandoned wall that the new building will never have.

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I should add that Stepanova lived with her husband, the Moscow Art Theater director, Nikolai Gorchakov at this address. They were married in 1924. Before long they would part. That happened in 1933. The reason for the rupture was that Stepanova began a serious affair with the playwright Nikolai Erdman. In her memoirs, edited and published together with her correspondence with Erdman, Stepanova wrote, “The feeling that arose in me for Erdman was so strong that it forced me to divorce my husband.” The two did, however, remain friends for the rest of their lives. Gorchakov worked on several of the Art Theater’s famous productions and he was the author of several books about the Art Theater that retain value even today.
Stepanova’s story of returning home from the theater after performances is worth providing in some detail.
“I performed with Vasily Vasilevich Luzhsky, a splendid actor of the theater’s older generation, in the productions of Tsar Fyodor Iannovich, The Cherry Orchard and The Merchants of Glory. After shows he would return home by carriage and, knowing that I lived on the Arbat, he often gave me a ride. On the way we usually exchanged thoughts about the night’s performance, discussed successful or flawed performances and the public’s reaction. When I would part with him at my Krivoarbatsky Lane, I would thank him and jump down from the cab, and Vasily Vasilyevich, without fail, would say to the cabby, “Oh, oh, Semyon! How much money I have wasted on this actress!!!” Semyon would smile, nod his head, and they would go on further.”
Here is the way Stepanova recalled her home in general (published, like the previous quote, in Nikolai Erdman, Angelina Stepanova, Letters, ed. by Vitaly Vulf, 1995):
“My husband and I lived on Krivoarbatsky Lane. Our home – one large room – was loved by our friends for its warmth and hospitality. Writers, artists and our friends and colleagues from the Art Theater often visited us. We were always able to find something for our guests to snack on, or with which to serve them dinner or supper. Our frequent guests included [Pavel] Markov, [Isaac] Babel, the then-inseparable [Yury] Olesha and [Valentin] Kataev, the artists [Vladimir] Dmitriev and [Pyotr] Vilyams, […] Vladimir Yakovlevich Khenkin, […] Vsevolod Emilievich Meyerhold and Zinaida Raikh. […] Vladimir Zakharovich Mass spent a great deal of time at our place. He was working with my husband then on a dramatization of the melodrama The Gerard Sisters. Vladimir Zakharovich also introduced us to his friend and co-author Nikolai Robertovich Erdman and his wife Dina Vorontsova. We became friends and in our free time we would go as a group to exhibits, concerts and the theater club. It was fun and interesting. Erdman began coming to visit us often. He would come alone. Then he began coming when I was alone. A romance began which lasted – not much, maybe, but not a little – seven years…”
This wall here – now knocked down to a single story in height, still painted yellow on the north side from some time in the past, and scraped back to the original material on the other – is all that is left of the world Stepanova describes. This wall was there to see Vasily Luzhsky drop Stepanova off after performances in his horse-drawn carriage. It witnessed Babel and Olesha and Meyerhold and Raikh coming to visit. It caught glimpses of Erdman when he began sneaking in and out. It was there to watch Stepanova’s marriage to Gorchakov fall apart. It was there in the early 1930s to see her move to another apartment on Ogaryov Street near Tverskaya Street – an address I have written about elsewhere in this blog.
There is something incredibly moving about this – a fragment of lives lived and lost. Everyone mentioned in this story today – although it seems as though they are very much a part of our lives – is dead. Stepanova, who was born in 1905, died in 2000. Erdman died in 1970. Gorchakov died in 1958. Vorontsova, whose real name was Nadezhda Alexandrovna Yashke) died in 1942. They’re all gone. Only this wall remains, threatened, but not yet conquered, by the big blue monster that now towers over it. Knowing how these things go, the wall probably will not last much longer. Take a look while you can.

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Angelina Stepanova apartment, Moscow

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Here is still another of those buildings in Moscow that housed large numbers of interesting people. It was built between 1930 and 1933 as a cooperative intended for actors working at the Second Moscow Art Theater. As of today it still bears no markings of its historical value. In fact, as photos taken from the courtyard show, it is in pretty bad shape. It doesn’t look like it has ever been painted, and the bricks are showing wear and tear from the harsh Moscow winters. It would appear that the top floor was reconstructed with new bricks sometime in the recent past, but I can’t verify that. The street-side facade, with its cement covering on top of the bricks, still looks fairly good, if heavily weathered.
I took note of this building at 1/12 Gazetny Lane after going through one of the directories of theaters and theater workers that I have in my personal library. (At the time under discussion Gazetny Lane was called Ogaryov Street.) This Theater Directory, published in 1936, provides addresses and phone numbers for many actors, directors and writers for that year. I kept a running list as I ran through the book and was interested to see this building crop up with high frequency. There were more people of interest who lived here, but here are some of the residents:
Vera Pashennaya, actress, Maly Theater, apt. 10. Her phone number was 3-80-55.
Olga Androvskaya, actress, Moscow Art Theater, apt. 36. Tel. 1-29-80.
Angelina Stepanova, actress, Moscow Art Theater, apt. 49. Tel. 2-43-19.
Serafima Birman, actress MOSPS Theater (today’s Mossovet Theater), apt. 60. Tel. 1-14-14.
Alla Tarasova, actress Moscow Art Theater, apt. 71. Tel. 1-10-93.
I am attaching this post to Angelina Stepanova (1905-2000) for several reasons, one being that I photographed the entrance she would have used when living here. The door itself would have been different, of course, but the entrance below, providing access to apartments 41 to 65, would have been Stepanova’s. It stands in the crux of the building’s bend in the courtyard area. Stepanova moved here from her previous places of residence on Krivoarbatsky Lane and Maly Vlasyevsky Lane, which were (are) located in the famous Arbat district. More about them some other time.
Stepanova was one of the leading ladies at the Moscow Art Theater from the 1920s through the 1970s and even ’80s.
I came within a hair of seeing her perform in her last role in Lyudmila Petrushevskaya’s The Moscow Choir (1988). She played the character of Lika in turn with Iya Savvina, and Savvina performed the night I saw that show.

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Another reason I chose to write about Stepanova today is that she played a large part in the life of the playwright and screenwriter Nikolai Erdman in the late 1920s and first half of the 1930s. They were lovers, although both were married: he to the dancer Natalya Vorontsova, she to the director Nikolai Gorchakov. The affair was strong and deep and it undoubtedly meant much to both. It is also clear that Stepanova would have liked it to become permanent, while Erdman, not the greatest committer-to-relationships, ultimately remained emotionally ambiguous and sexually promiscuous. The building pictured here is a physical reference to that time when Erdman and Stepanova lost touch with one another – 1935/1936. Surely one of the great culprits in that break was Erdman’s arrest in mid-October 1933 and his exile to Siberia which lasted until fall 1936.
By the time Stepanova moved into Apt. 49 at Ogaryov Street she was well on her way to finalizing her divorce with Gorchakov and marrying the writer Alexander Fadeev (about whom you can read more elsewhere in this blog). That marriage took place in 1936.
Stepanova’s affair with Erdman began no later than 1928. In her archive there remains a short note from Erdman that year which reads:

If you knew how many times I began writing letters to you, you would understand how often I think about you. I am agonizingly bad about writing letters. Don’t incriminate me, Lina, but rather allow me to write to you without end and without beginning as often as I am able to. Answer me, sweetheart, the very day that you receive this note. I miss you very much. I dream of seeing you, Nikolai.

The last letter from Erdman to Stepanova, whom he often affectionately called “Skinny,” was written from Erdman’s place of exile in Tomsk, probably in 1935, but possibly in 1936. As he usually did when writing her from Siberia, he sent the letter to Stepanova’s place of work, the Moscow Art Theater. This last letter begins as follows:

My mother writes: “Lina is very sad, she receives no letters.” My young lady, what are we to do? I wrote you letters, then began sending post cards – for awhile I wrote them every day, then I began writing letters again. I hope you have received at least some of them. I had nothing from you for over a month. Nothing at all. Not a single line. Before that were a few stray post cards. I don’t know if others are writing me or not, but I receive almost no letters at all – perhaps, of course, because no one is writing...

Stepanova once traveled to the small city of Yeniseisk, where Erdman lived in exile from 1933 to 1934. But by the time he was moved to the larger city of Tomsk in 1934, they were drifting apart. Stepanova learned that other women were making the long trek to Siberia to visit the writer and it understandably didn’t sit well with her. That does not mean she forgot the man whom many decades later she called the love of her life. In fact, in a rather twisted turn of events, she began to hound her new husband Fadeev, who was in good standing with Soviet officials, to help ease Erdman’s lot. For several years in the 1950s Erdman and Stepanova lived in buildings just two long blocks from each other on Tverskaya Street. As strange as it seems, they never once saw each other, or so Stepanova claimed. Their last meeting took place in 1957 after Fadeev’s suicide. It happened in the apartment of Erdman’s brother Boris, and Stepanova recollected that  “oceans of time” had passed since their last meeting, nothing was left of their former feelings.
I’ve drawn quotes and information on the Stepanova-Erdman relationship from Vitaly Vulf’s annotated collection of their correspondence.

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Alexander Fadeev monument, Moscow

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If the case of Alexander Fadeev doesn’t make you stop and think about the meaning of success and failure, I suspect nothing can do the job. Fadeev (1901-1956) began his writing career in fine fashion. After writing a handful of undistinguished stories he published his first novel, The Rout (1927), which was hugely popular. That catapulted him into the first rank of Soviet writers. However, he never finished his second novel and, for good or bad measure, he didn’t finish his last, either. It’s true that he produced one blockbuster in between – The Young Guard (1945), a novel that was huge not only as literature, but as the basis for а wildly popular feature film in 1948 as well. A bushelful of Stalin Prizes were handed out to people involved, Fadeev himself grabbing one in 1946 for the novel. A sculptural group honoring Fadeev and his characters was put up in Miusskaya Square not far from the Belorussia train station in Moscow in 1973. It was done by sculptor Vladimir Fyodorov. So what’s the big deal, you ask? Why the gloom and doom beginning to this little note? Well, just 10 years after receiving his Stalin Prize and 17 years before this sculpture went up, Fadeev shot himself dead, that’s why.

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Fadeev attached himself to Soviet power early. He was instrumental in the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers from 1928-1932 and was a champion of socialist realism from the very start. He was named head of the Soviet Writers Union in 1946 – surely on the strength of The Young Guard – and he remained in the post until 1954, shortly after Stalin’s death. During those eight years he was in charge of a great many repressive measures that Stalin instigated against writers and critics. When this and other actions Fadeev had been involved in became public knowledge after Khrushchev’s secret speech about Stalin’s cult of personality on Feb. 25, 1956, Fadeev lost his bearings. He was a heavy drinker as it was – perhaps that was the only way this simple man from Siberia could live with himself all those years – but now he was rarely seen sober. On May 13, 1956 he shot himself with his own revolver while at his dacha in Peredelkino. His wife, the famous Moscow Art Theater actress Angelina Stepanova, was on tour abroad at the time and she was called back home to deal with her husband’s death, although she wasn’t told why she was being called home until she reached Moscow.

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Fyodorov’s sculptural group is a nice one for a family park. As you can see in these photos kids and adults alike enjoy gathering around them. Pigeons also appreciate them. One extremely stubborn pigeon on top of Fadeev’s head refused to budge the entire time I was shooting the pictures. In order to get at least a few shots without it looking like the granite writer had feathers coming out of his head, I had to come right up close to the foot of the monument and shoot from below at a steep angle. I must say there’s something irritatingly attractive about the sculptures. They are faceless and bloodless like so many Soviet works of art. Fadeev, particularly, is almost a blank slate. His face, his greatcoat and his pants are as featureless as they can be. Almost like one thinks may happen after a vampire sucks the blood out of a person leaving behind nothing but an empty shell. Come to think of it, maybe that’s why I find some truth in these images – because I rather suspect that is pretty much what happened to Fadeev. The last photo I include below is taken on Fadeev Street, which runs right behind Miusskaya Square. As the plaque notes, the street was named after Fadeev in 1967, six years before the ensemble of sculptures would go up.

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