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Vikenty Veresaev, real last name Smidovich, was born in this house in Tula in 1867. He lived here until 1884, when he left for St. Petersburg to study literature and history at St. Petersburg University. Even as his various professions and aspirations took him to other cities for long periods of time – notably Tartu, where he studied medicine, and later Moscow, where he was a famed writer – this was a home he would return to frequently. Its address today is 82 Gogolevskaya Street (Peshekhonskaya Street when Veresaev lived here), just five blocks from Tula’s main drag, then called Kievskaya Street, now called Lenin Prospekt.
Veresaev is one of an elite club of Russian writers, whose first job was as a medical doctor. The most famous of them are Anton Chekhov, Mikhail Bulgakov, Vasily Aksyonov, Grigory Gorin and Alexander Rozenbaum. In fact, Veresaev felt so called to medicine that he chose to take it up as a profession after already completing his first degree as a historian-philologist. He officially became a doctor in 1894 upon graduation from Derptsky University in Tartu (it actually had been renamed Yuryevsky University in 1893 – and is now known as the famed Tartu University).
Veresaev moved to St. Petersburg in 1894 where, in 1896, he took up a position at the city’s hospital for contagious diseases (later to be named Botkin Hospital) where he doubled as a resident physician and the head of the hospital library.
Veresaev had had inclinations to write ever since his school days. His first publication was a poem called “Contemplation” in 1885. He published his first story, “Enigma,” in 1887. By this time he was using the pseudonym of Veresaev. Even as he completed his medical studies, Veresaev was embarking on an active literary career. He wrote and published numerous short stories in the early 1890s and, in 1892, he published a series of essays, The Kingdom of the Underworld, about the life of miners in Donetsk. For the most part he published his work in the Marxist press. The same year that he graduated from medical school, 1994, he published his first significant novella, No Way (aka No Road), following it with another highly-touted work, Pestilent Air, in 1898. Both works captured the growing sensation among Russian youth (and not only youth) that the stagnant political and social realities of the time were leading the country to a crisis. At this time Veresaev was more or less in complete agreement with liberal and social groups. In fact, his decision to become a doctor had been influenced by his desire to have the opportunity to “go to the people” and help them. The notoriety that Veresaev earned with No Way and Pestilent Air turned to downright popularity when, in 1901, he published his first major, and still best-known, collection, A Doctor’s Notes (aka Memoirs of a Physician). Here he shocked some and thrilled others with unblinking portraits of real life told from the viewpoint of a doctor. Veresaev addressed the mixed reaction in his introduction to the collection as a book:
“This resentment strikes me as symbolic. We so fear the truth in all things, and are so unaware of how important it is, that all we need do is barely open up one small corner of it for people to begin feeling uneasy: Why did you do that? What is the use? What will the uninitiated say? How will they understand the truth presented?”
Plus ça change, I guess I want to say to that!
Notes of a Doctor not only put Veresaev into the first ranks of contemporary Russian writers, it also brought down on him the attention of the Russian secret police. For his “crime” of protesting the brutal treatment of students demonstrating against the government, he was sent back to Tula in 1901 to make it easier for the authorities to keep an eye on him. In 1903, however, he was allowed to return to Moscow, and, shortly thereafter, was drafted into service as a military doctor for the duration of the Russo-Japanese War. This led to his next prominent work, a series of essays written from 1904 to 1906 about his experiences at war.
From roughly 1905 until the Russian Revolution in 1917, Veresaev wrote and published less than he had in the past, although he did not stop writing altogether. Significantly, he published a work titled A Life Alive: On Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, in 1910. At the time it may have seemed like an unexpected foray into history and criticism, but, in fact, this would be a pointer to his future. Also in 1910 Veresaev travelled to Greece where his lifelong love for that culture was reawakened. When he reemerged after the revolution, it was primarily as a literary historian. It was his second birth, if you will, as a writer. His books about Gogol, Chekhov and Pushkin have been highly regarded ever since they appeared in print in the 1920s and 1930s. Of particular value are Pushkin in Life (1926) and Gogol in Life (1933).
According to one online Russian-language biography, “Vikenty Veresaev linked his literary destiny with the ‘new life,’ in this he echoed Maxim Gorky. His writing style is characterized not only by vivid realism, but also by the subtlest psychological observations about his own experiences. Autobiography was a distinctive feature of his work.”
Translation was another field of activity that Veresaev devoted himself to for almost his entire adult life. He began toying with translation as a young man – he knew ancient Greek – and his translations of Homer’s The Odyssey and The Iliad are still read today. He was awarded the Pushkin Prize in 1919 for his translations of ancient Greek literature, and he was awarded the Stalin Prize (first degree) in 1943 for the sum of his life’s work.
One doesn’t see much commentary about this former liberal’s attitude to events as they unfolded in the early Soviet years. There is, however, his novel Deadlocked (1922), which showed an aversion to the violence being unleashed at the time by the Bolsheviks. In any case, two facts stand out – 1) his increased interest in the past in his writings after the Revolution, and 2) his receiving of the Stalin Prize, something that was always handed out by the Leader as thanks for perceived loyalty. Veresaev appears to have receded into a relatively safe space in the years leading up to and including the Purges, when so many of his colleagues would have suffered or disappeared.
A few words on Veresaev’s parents who were rather remarkable people themselves. His father Vikenty Smidovich was of Polish and German extraction, and was one of the leading Tula doctors of his time. He founded the first hospital in Tula as well as the city’s first sanitary commission, which sought to minimize unhealthy public practices. Veresaev’s mother Yelizaveta Yunitskaya was a noblewoman from the Mirgorod area of Ukraine. She also had Greek ancestors. The organizer of the first kindergarten in Russia in 1872, she gave birth to 11 children, of whom eight survived.
Veresaev died in 1945, just less than a month after the end of World War II. He was buried in Moscow’s Novodevichy cemetery.