Tag Archives: Boris Pasternak

Marina Tsvetaeva’s Slavia Cafe, Prague, CZ

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I rarely do this, but I’m fudging again. I did not take these photos. My wife Oksana Mysina did while she was recently in Prague shooting scenes for a documentary film about the great Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva.
Tsvetaeva (1892-1941) spent the better part of the years 1922-1925 in Czechoslovakia. By all accounts she loved the country and its capital Prague and she missed it greatly when she had to leave it. At the same time life here was never easy. Her family life was undergoing enormous stress and she had little, if anything, to live on. She had come to Czechoslovakia to be with her husband Sergei Efron, a former white army soldier, who, at one point she had thought killed in the Civil War, and who would attend Charles University in Prague. But they had virtually no money and lived, at best, from hand to mouth.
Tsvetaeva’s was a seeking heart and while struggling to stay alive with her husband and her daughter Ariadne, she fell into a widely publicized affair with a former military officer Konstantin Rodzevich. After this ended in 1923 she embarked on an epistolary love affair with Boris Pasternak. Although they did not actually meet until 1935 in Paris, the peak of their epistolary relationship made theirs one of the most famous love affairs joining Russian writers. For good measure, the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke also briefly became a part of the relationship as they all exchanged thoughts, poetry and emotional aspirations in a lively correspondence that ended abruptly with Rilke’s death in 1926.
My friend and colleague Alexandra Smith posted what appears to be a text by Anastasia Koprshivova that describes the details of this period so well that I hereby just turn things over to it:
In Prague itself, Tsvetaeva lived less than a year, from autumn 1923 to spring 1924. In the capital Efron settled in an attic room in the Smikhov area on Swedish (Švédská) street in house number 51, on whose wall a memorial plaque dedicated to the poetess was unveiled in 1989. Remembering this apartment, Tsvetaeva wrote: ‘In Prague I have fine, large windows revealing the whole city and the whole sky, the streets with their stairs, distances, trains and fog.’
Marina Tsvetaeva daily visited places teeming with Russian emigres, whose center was the church of St. Nicholas in the Old Town Square and the Hotel Beranek (Bělehradská 110, Tylovo nám.). In the spacious hotel halls, cultural evenings were organized by the Czech-Russian Association headed by Anna Teskova, who later became Tsvetaeva’s closest and most faithful friend. In her letters to Teskova from France to Czechoslovakia, Tsvetaeva wrote in detail about her fascination with Prague. Their correspondence lasted almost ten years, from 1925 to 1939, and was permanently interrupted after the Efron family returned to the USSR.
Marina Tsvetaeva loved long walks, she measured out Prague in her own steps. In letters to Teskova, she often recalls Deer Trench near Prague Castle, calling it Bear Trench in honor of the Siberian bears that lived there. She liked to wander along the paths of Petrzhin hill, which reminded her of ‘the breast of a recruit laid low by a projectile.’ For hours she would admire the city’s patches of parks, the sea from graying, time-worn roofs and observed the bends of the Vltava River with its islands.
She loved the black and white cobbles of sidewalks resembling a chessboard, along which the invisible hand of fate rearranged people like pawns – ‘as someone plays at being us.’ She loved the lights after sunset, which plunged the city into an atmosphere of mysteries and riddles. She loved Charles Bridge. There, on the banks of the Vltava, a monument to Brunzvik, a knight with a golden sword and a hairstyle just like hers, was always waiting for her. In the thirties, in a letter to Anna Teskova, Tsvetaeva asked her to send photos to Paris of ‘my knight,’ the general view of the city, and ‘the sea of ​​roofs with Prague’s bridges.’
The Prague period remains one of the brightest in Tsvetaeva’s work. Throughout all subsequent years the poet carefully preserved in her memory the city she loved.”

Aside from the places mentioned above, another of Tsvetaeva’s favorite haunts in Prague was the Slavia Cafe. She often had reason to be in this neighborhood because the editorial offices of the Russian emigre journal The Will of Russia were located nearby. Tsvetaeva often published her poetry in this publication that was edited by famed emigre literary figure Mark Slonim (often spelled in English as Marc). Tsvetaeva, who had no spare change to spend on the luxuries of a popular cafe, reportedly would often take just a glass of water and sit here for hours writing poetry. The building itself dates back to the 14th century. It has housed the famed Slavia Cafe since 1881. Even today one easily sees the romanticism and old-world charm of the place. One assumes that not much has changed here since Tsvetaeva was a regular. One thing that has changed is the famous painting hanging on the cafe’s back wall. Today we see a copy of Viktor Oliva’s The Absinthe Drinker, while in Tsvetaeva’s day the painting in that space was of Slavia, the mother of the Slavs. (That painting, despite the protests of Prague’s residents, was moved to Prague’s gallery of art in 1997.)
The Slavia has been a hangout for artists and artisans almost from its very beginning. It is located on the Smetana Embankment directly across from the National Theater, and right on the banks of the Vltava. Lore has it that the great Czech composer Bedrich Smetana was a regular here in the cafe’s first years, while in later decades it was also frequented by writer-turned-president Vaclav Havel, poets Jiři Kolář and Jaroslav Seifert, and Symbolist painter Jan Zrzavý. Surely Tsvetaeva was not the only Russian emigre to spend time here in the 1920s, although I have yet to find record of others.

 

 

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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Literature in the metro, Moscow

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One encounters the tool of literature in the Moscow metro relatively frequently. Even when it’s not used as a club, you come away feeling as though someone is trying really hard to make an impression on you.
I immediately think of two examples of this more benign, latter, approach that I encountered in recent years. I would guess one occurred 4 or 5 years ago – this was on the circle line – the other 3 or 4 years ago, on the light blue, Filyovskaya line.
In the former case, almost every single car traveling the circle line for a month or more was completely wallpapered with children’s poetry and colorful kid-like drawings. Stepping into a car on that line at that time felt like stepping into the hermetic set of a children’s theater show. As one might imagine, there were a lot of poems by Alexander Pushkin and the great fabulist Ivan Krylov, but there were also excerpts of short stories by various writers from Pushkin’s time up to the middle of the 20th century. I couldn’t possibly remember them all, and I don’t think there were any contemporary authors, but the scope of writers included was impressive.
This was actually the second time I had seen the space of the metro turned into a platform for literature. The first incident, maybe a year before that, was when official stickers of mostly patriotic poetry were pasted above the windows and doors of the metro cars – this method proved to be more long-lasting, for we still come upon it today, as can be seen in the photo following immediately below – which I took yesterday. It shows a portrait of the Slavophile essayist and poet Ivan Aksakov next to a phrase he once wrote:
If a hue and cry arises about Russia’s lust for power and lust for expansionism, you should know that some Western European regime is preparing a most conscienceless seizure of someone else’s territory.”
Frankly, as often as I have seen this kind of crude utilitarianism in my 28 years in Moscow, I continue to be astonished when I encounter it. It reaches the kind of low-blow propaganda – rather on the level one hears in the U.S. these days from, say, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz or Sarah Palin and their ilk – that is so blatant and transparent, that you can’t believe anyone would actually resort to it. For the record, this particular quote is offered up as part of a program called Russia, My History, which is now underway at the Historical Park of the All-National Exhibition of Economic Achievements.
But, back now to that literary campaign I encountered on the Filyovskaya Line.  (Unfortunately, I did not get photos of it or of the kids’ literary paradise on the circle line – I was not yet doing this blog; it didn’t occur to me to photograph them.) This one was extremely short-lived. In fact, I saw it just once, even though I then traveled that line with some regularity. I don’t know if it was just a try-out on a single train, or if it was a larger program that was abandoned quickly, but it was gone virtually as soon as it began. It was also my favorite of them all. You see, the interior of every car in the train I rode was painted deep red, and every free centimeter of space was covered in photographs of Vladimir Mayakovsky. There were all manners of photos of him reciting poetry, making drawings, talking to friends, reading books, sitting in chairs, standing at podiums. You name it, it was there. I, Nikolai Erdman’s biographer, was especially gratified when I noticed right before my face, a photo of Mayakovsky standing next to Vsevelod Meyerhold and Erdman. Other photos had him with other greats – Boris Pasternak, Dmitry Shostakovich, Sergei Eisenstein – and it was then, even then, right there in that metro car, that I began to wonder seriously about this curious exhibit. If you think about it, every individual I mention here was, to one extent or another, at serious odds with the Soviet cause – at least at some point in their lives. Meyerhold was executed. Erdman and Pasternak’s literary output was seriously curtailed. Shostakovich and Eisenstein found themselves doing the bidding of the state against their will. At least to anyone who knew, there was something downright seditious about this whole thing, which, of course, made it especially delicious. What a shame I never saw it again, nor had the opportunity to photograph it…

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Far more common, of course, is the use of art to buck up the patriotism of the lumpen proletariat. The Aksakov quote, appearing as Russia continues to pursue military objectives in Syria and Ukraine, is, perhaps, extreme. But I was not the least surprised to see patriotic, war-themed poems by Mikhail Lermontov suddenly appear in metro cars shortly after Russia went to war with Ukraine. The last photo above and the three following were all taken in June 2014. They show a series of Lermontov’s war poems plastered just above the eye-level of any standing passenger, though banked conveniently to point them toward anyone seated as well. (One photo shows a woman in a red jacket looking at a biographical text about Lermontov affixed next to the door.) The poem pictured in the last photo below reads,

And he said, his eyes a-flashing,
“Men! Isn’t Moscow behind us?
     Then let’s die near Moscow,
As our brothers died!”
And we promised to die
And we kept our oath of honor
     During the Battle of Borodino.

Perhaps my favorite photo is the one immediately above. Click on it to enlarge it and then look it over well. That’s what a subway car in a time of “petty,” “dirty” wars looks like.
Finally, there is the photo I offer at the top. It was taken in May of 2013, before this blog began, although I was apparently beginning to suspect I might one day need photos like this. A whole series of texts bearing patriotically religious messages went up over metro escalators at this time. I remember seeing quotes from Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Leo Tolstoy, in addition to the one I photographed of Fyodor Dostoevsky proclaiming, “Christianity is the Russian land’s only refuge from all of its evils.”
I don’t recall now if the Solzhenitsyn and Tolstoy quotes were as provocative (or as double-edged) as this one, but this clearly made me want to save it for posterity.
There is something of the train wreck in these things. Something lurid, distasteful, obnoxious and impossible to ignore. The problem is that when art is turned into a weapon it can only be a weapon. There is no room then left for art.

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Ivan Bunin plaque, Moscow

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Povarskaya Street was a hopping cultural hub in the early 20th century. In 1905 Konstantin Stanislavsky rented a space in the Nemchinov building right at the beginning of Povarskaya where Vsevolod Meyerhold briefly, but famously, ran his Studio on Povarskaya. (That building was torn down in the Soviet era when Kalinin Prospect was widened.) Right around the corner from Povarskaya, on Borisoglebsky Lane, the poet Marina Tsvetaeva moved into her new digs in 1914 and remained there until 1922. The famous Lithuanian poet Jurgis Baltrushaitis lived at 24 Povarskaya from 1920 to 1939 when he was the first ambassador of Lithuania to the Soviet Union. But today we have our eye on Povarskaya 26, the next building over. This was the home of Ivan Bunin, who was later to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature during his time in European exile. As the plaque on the building’s front facade declares, Bunin lived here from 1912 to 1918. That is particularly interesting because it means that Bunin and Tsvetaeva were neighbors for the course of about four years. There’s a park right across the street from Bunin’s building and, assuming it was there 100 years ago, one wants to imagine the occasional warm spring day when both writers might have stepped out to catch some fresh air and ended up sharing a bench together, or, at least, one of them passing by the other, who might have been sitting and reading or jotting down notes.
A couple of people missed crossing paths with Bunin here. One was Mikhail Lermontov, who lived in a different building, now lost, on this very spot in 1829 and 1830 when he wrote, among other works, his great narrative poem The Demon. Anyone who knows Boris Pilnyak’s great novel The Naked Year will recognize my little homage to Pilnyak in that little phrase of “now lost…” In his novel, to great effect, Pilnyak lists things and places that were fast disappearing at the time he wrote The Naked Year. That novel begins with the words, “On the city fortress wall gates it was written (now destroyed): Save, O, Lord/This city and your people…” It’s just the first of many such times he plays with that device.
And so now I can bear my own device: Boris Pilnyak is one of those who lived in this very building, although not at the same time as Bunin. Bunin moved out in 1918, Pilyak moved in two years later, in 1920. Pilnyak’s presence here is not recorded in any way. Perhaps that is fitting, as if to say: Boris Pilnyak, now gone, did live here once, though there is nothing here to prove that true.

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Somehow Bunin (1870-1953) and I sort of pass like ships in the night. I have read his short stories (some, not all, by any stretch of the imagination); I have seen theater performances created of his stories; I have read about him and seen movies about him. I know the basic story well – the fine, subtle writer who spanned all the way back to the late 19th-century and the Chekhov era, yet who lived well into the 1950s, i.e., the post-war and even post-Stalin age. But I have never connected with his work as I have with so many others – Pilnyak included, I might add.
My little shortcomings in taste and knowledge aside, others have had a different view. Bunin was the first Russian writer to be honored with the Nobel Prize in Literature; he received it in 1933. Like other, later Russian winners of that prize, it is usually assumed that there was more than a little politics in the choice. Bunin was considered by some to be the greatest living Russian writer in exile (he left the Soviet Union in 1920 and never went back). The prize, say some, was intended to support the difficult situation surrounding Russian writers in exile, and to highlight the lack of freedom writers enjoyed in the Soviet Union. (Tsvetaeva, for example, would have a tough time in Europe and returned to the Soviet Union where she committed suicide in 1941.) Other Russian Nobel winners were Boris Pasternak (1958), the official Soviet novelist Mikhail Sholokhov (1965) and Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1970). Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn were both persecuted to varying degrees, and their prizes reflected that. Sholokhov, it is believed, was given the prize to mollify the Soviet authorities after the “insults” of Bunin and Pasternak’s wins. None of this will ever be proved until the Nobel committee opens its archives, which will probably be never. As such, the conversations and speculation continue.
Bunin was very much of the grand old school of Russian realism (whether that term is legitimate or not). He is often compared in style and impact to Tolstoy and Chekhov. He is similar to the former in his belief in the great power that literature can wield, while he is closer to the latter in stylistic spirit. Bunin, like Chekhov, was a master of the short story. He was concise, clear and unwavering in his insistence on painting the nuances of life in their proper dark tones.
Bunin was born in the city of Voronezh and, as fate would have it, I travel there myself for the first time ever in a few days. If, in any way, I have slighted the great man’s memory with this post, I will seek to rectify that with a post I expect to write soon after visiting his place of birth.

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Writer’s House (Pasternak, Olesha, Ilf & Petrov etc.) on Lavrushinsky, Moscow

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I would call this one of the greatest-kept secrets in Moscow cultural lore. This building, which you have surely seen if you have ever spent time in Moscow (because it is located right across the street from the Tretyakov Gallery and you, of course, have been there), is absolutely chock-full of literary history, real and imagined. This, for example, is the very place to which the slicked-up and scantily-clad Margarita flies and destroys a critic’s living quarters at the end of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. You see, Bulgakov was in line to receive an apartment here in the early 1930s, but was refused. A nit-picking critic who was always yapping at the heels of Bulgakov’s work did receive an apartment here. It pissed Bulgakov off enough that he famously avenged the nasty man through his literature. The only change Bulgakov introduced into the story was that in M&M the building ostensibly stands on the Arbat. In fact, this is it: 17 Lavrushinsky Lane, in the Zamoskvorechye region.
Just look at the list of people who were entered in the list of the winners of the “lottery” to receive apartments a full year before construction on the building was complete in 1937: Boris Pasternak, Ilf and Petrov, Konstantin Paustovsky, Ilya Erenburg, Viktor Shklovsky, Agnia Barto, Vsevolod Vishnevsky, Mikhail Prishvin, Lev Kassil, Nikolai Pogodin. Other luminaries who lived here in later years and decades included Veniamin Kaverin, Valentin Kataev, Yury Olesha, the theater director Anatoly Efros, the singer Lidia Ruslanov and more. In terms of literature and art, this building surely beats out the famed House on the Embankment, located just a mile or two away, for saturation of fame and infamy. I bother to add that second word in large part because of the fact that Vsevolod Vishnevsky, the rabble-rousing playwright, lived here. Vishnevsky was an acid-tongued, often jealous and envious, man who wrapped himself in the cloak of Revolutionary fervor and purity as, behind the scenes, he sent others to their doom. Vishnevsky played no small role in the downfall of Vsevolod Meyerhold, Zinaida Raikh and Nikolai Erdman.
If you know Yury Olesha’s famous last book, No Day Without a Line, you now know where it was written. Here is what Olesha had to say about living here shortly after having moved in: “Constant meetings. The first is Pasternak, who has barely come out his own doors. He’s carrying galoshes. He puts them on after crossing the doorstep, not while still inside. Why? For cleanliness’ sake? Going on about something he says, ‘I talk with you as I would with a brother.’ And then there’s [playwright Vladimir] Bill-Belotserkovsky with his unexpectedly subtle commentaries about Moliere’s long monologues…”
I’ve drawn this quote, as I have much information, from an article on the Writer’s House on the Big City website.

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This building, an article on the Travel2Moscow website tells us, was actually signed off by Joseph Stalin, in large part because Maxim Gorky had convinced him there needed to be not only a home, but a whole neighborhood or small city of writers. Many talk about the distinctive black marble frame of the entrance (see the photo immediately below). It, indeed, is impressive, if not off-putting. And it becomes increasingly so when you think about the reality of the people, the years and the events that converged in this structure. It was built in 1937 and people began moving in precisely as the Great Purges (about which I have often had reason to write, and about which I’m sure I will write more – such is the nature of that beast) were beginning. As such, there were numerous people who were arrested here and sent packing to Siberia, barely having had the opportunity to move in. Could it be that Stalin took Gorky up on the idea of putting a bunch of prominent writers in one place in order to make it easier to spy on them and round them up? I mean, why is the entrance to this building framed in black granite? It looks like a building in permanent mourning. Was Stalin – by way of his architect Ivan Nikolaev – telling the tenants something? ‘Beware all ye, who enter these premises!’ Am I making that up? Maybe. Stalin has been known to do much weirder things. One thing is certain, the building is “within reach” of the Kremlin. Look at the first of the grouping of three photos above. You will see the yellow buildings of the Kremlin rising up there in the distance. The Kremlin is just a hop, skip and trip across the Moscow River away.
Interestingly, the building was erected around an old 17th-century structure that now stands hidden behind the grand facades. You can see that 2-story building in the final photo below.
And now let me, again, turn things over to those who know more than I. This last lovely bit is from the Travel2Moscow site:
“The building’s most famous tenant, Boris Pasternak, wrote a poem that began, ‘The house loomed large like a watchtower…’ Neighbors spread humorous rumors about it, such as the one where Pasternak kept a huge dagger on his wall and could often be seen on the building’s rooftop. Indeed, Pasternak’s apartment was located on the top floor and even had an exit onto the roof. Valentin Kataev wrote that during the war Pasternak (‘at night, without a hat, without a tie, and with shirt collar unbuttoned…’) heroically battled incendiary bombs [launched by the Germans], putting them out with sand. In fact, two of these bombs destroyed five apartments and half of a wing, penetrating five floors into the building. During the bombings Paustovsky’s apartment was damaged. Pasternak himself, unlike many writers, did not leave the building during the war, writing that ‘all the dangers frightened and intoxicated.’ It was precisely in this building that he wrote his famous novel Doctor Zhivago.”
Absolutely fascinating stuff, if you ask me. I have just one question at this point, however. Why in the world would Kataev have considered it odd that Pasternak battled incendiary bombs on the roof of his home “without a hat or tie”? What was he supposed to do, don a tux to greet the German bombs?
I must add here a few words spoken by my wife Oksana after I allowed myself to scoff at bit at Kataev. “The humor is Kataev’s,” she said. “What that means is that Kataev, like everyone else, rarely ever saw Pasternak without a hat or tie.” I.e., the only thing that could induce Pasternak out without a tie were German incendiary bombs. Whatever the case may be, my fascination with this structure and its inhabitants is only going to grow.

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Leonid Pasternak home, Oxford UK

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Everybody kept telling me, “it’s on the Crescent, but I don’t know exactly where.” That wasn’t doing me any good. I had no idea what a crescent was, at least in the local lexicon. It obviously meant something very specific. I only had two days to find it – and, in fact, I didn’t even have close to two days. I had a few hours spread out over a few days. I was busy at a conference that was running pretty much all the time I was in Oxford. I could only get away in the morning and, briefly, at meal breaks. But I wasn’t having any luck. I had a host of friends and colleagues telling me, “Oh, yeah, it’s right around here somewhere. You’ve been walking by it on your way to Wolfson. You’ve seen the Park Town sign?” Yes, I had seen the Park Town sign. I just saw it 20 minutes ago. “Well, it’s right there somewhere.”
“Somewhere” wasn’t good enough for me. I needed a photo. I needed a couple. I needed them to be specific and right. You can’t post a photo of just any old thing and say, “this is somewhere near what I’m talking about.” You need to know. And time was running out. In less than 24 hours I had a flight back to Moscow. In five minutes the next conference session would begin and then I’d be busy well into the dark night and my quest would be in vain. But sometimes little miracles happen.
What I am talking about is the apartment at 20 Park Town in Oxford where Leonid Pasternak lived for years and died in 1945. Leonid was Boris’s father. Everybody knows Boris because of Doctor Zhivago, in the English-speaking world anyway. They should probably know him for his poetry, because he was a great poet long before he wrote a novel that would win him the Nobel Prize. But that’s being rather picky. Especially when poetry translates about as well as a mud pie. This, by the way, is a word of warning to all you ambitious poets out there – write a novel, too, before you’re done. It’ll make it easier for people to find your poems.
But I was in search of Leonid, not Boris. Leonid was a marvelous painter, impressionistic in his often slightly blurred, dimly-colored images. But his drawings, I suspect, are what really set him apart as a major artist of his time. In his drawings he somehow maintains his impressionistic gaze while also bringing a paradoxical clarity to whatever his subject may be. Moreover, his drawings, especially, preserve for us a living glance at some of the great figures of his time – he drew portraits of Leo Tolstoy, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Alexander Scriabin, Albert Einstein, Rainer Maria Rilke and many others. That is to say nothing of the enormous series of portraits and paintings he did of Boris from his childhood into his adult years. Many of these works, incidentally, are still held, and occasionally exhibited, at the Pasternak residence in Park Town.

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I was not giving up, although there was every reason to do so. I simply had no time left, and there was no reason to think that, in 25 minutes’ time, I would be running around outside Pasternak’s apartment, photographing it from various angles. But, again, it was my friend, the translator Oliver Ready, who tossed out some last-minute information that gave me flickering hope that I might yet solve this self-imposed riddle. Now I needed the internet to check it, and, sure enough, sitting right in my line of sight was Maria Kozlovskaya Wiltshire, a translator of Olga Mukhina’s play Tanya-Tanya, whom I had just met. She was sitting with her computer open, dabbling around online. I raced to her, we plugged the new information in and – voila! – up came the address, 20 Park Town, Leonid Pasternak. I grabbed my coat and away I ran. I hated to miss the beginning of a panel devoted to Noah Birksted-Breen’s production of a documentary play called Grandchildren: The Second Act by Mikhail Kaluzhsky and Alexandra Polivanova, but there was no stopping me now. I trotted through the drizzling rain back to Park Town and took a couple of shots of the street sign. That was just in case I still couldn’t find the place I was looking for. I peered in at every address on every house, waiting to see that number 20 I was looking for. I was still a long way off. And then the street took a brief jog to the left and, once again – voila! – there it was! Now I knew what they all meant by “the crescent.” There stood a handsome pair of two long buildings that wrap in a curve around a small park between them. The addresses on one side are all odd numbers, the addresses on the opposite side are all even – and there was number 20, not quite in the middle of the building on my right. I had to play hooky to find it, but as anybody, anywhere knows, that only made my success all the sweeter.
Leonid Pasternak (1862-1945) was born Yitzhok-Leib Pasternak in Odessa. In that kind of thrashing way that seems to suit artists, he studied medicine and then law before dropping both of them in favor of art. His first exhibited painting was purchased by none other than the great collector Pavel Tretyakov (whose collection would become the Tretyakov Gallery) and he was quickly accepted into a prestigious circle of major painters, including Valentin Serov, Isaac Levitan, Mikhail Nesterov and others. He married the promising pianist Rosa Kaufman in 1889 and the young couple welcomed their first child Boris the following year. (See my blogs on the Tretyakov Gallery and on Boris Pasternak’s birthplace on this blogsite.) Pasternak went to Germany in 1921 for an eye operation but chose not to return to Russia. Anticipating danger in Berlin, Pasternak traveled to England in 1938, ending up at this address of 20 Park Town that I had to scramble so to find in such a short period of time.

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Boris Pasternak’s birthplace, Moscow

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I have driven or walked by this building at 3 Oruzheiny Lane dozens, maybe more than a hundred times, over the years and never noticed what I happened to glimpse one night as my wife and I were driving home from her parents’ house three blocks away: Boris Pasternak was born in this house. I saw the little blue plaque from the passenger’s seat of my wife’s car – Oksana’s the driver in this mad town, not I – and I felt like a kid who’d just been given 50 cents for no good reason at all. I felt excitement well up inside me and burble out into the open. “Oh, my God!” I said, “Pasternak was born there!” We had already turned left and were preparing to turn left again a long way away already. “Who? Where?” Oksana asked automatically, more worried about merging traffic. “Pasternak, for God’s sake!” I said, irritated. How could news like that fail to register the first time?
It’s no wonder, apparently, that I had not noticed the plaque earlier, although it actually was erected in 1990 in honor of Pasternak’s centennial. It seems that over the last 25 years or so various stores and cafes occupying the ground floor here essentially covered the plaque up with their own signs and advertisements. That information comes to me by way of a pretty neat website called Moscow Perspective. The plaque on the building, known historically as the Vedeneev House, is not a traditional memorial plaque; it is one of those plaques that goes up in conjunction with a great official website that tells the stories of hundreds of interesting historical sites in Moscow. The page devoted to this building – with more information than just that pertaining to Pasternak – can be found here.  I’ll lean on it for some of the basic information that follows.
Pasternak’s parents Leonid, a well-known painter, and Rosa, an accomplished concert pianist, had married Feb. 14, 1889. They moved into the large, six-room apartment No. 3 on the third floor in the fall of 1889. The future poet Boris was born Feb. 10, 1890. By fall of 1891 the family moved to other quarters, largely because none of the rooms was suitable for a painter’s studio for Leonid, and because the price was higher than the young family could afford.
A relatively frequent visitor to the Pasternaks was pianist Arthur Rubinstein. Leonid would later sketch a pencil portrait of Rubinstein sitting in a chair, listening to music, perhaps in this very apartment as Rosa played the piano. But now I’m letting my imagination run a little too freely.

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Still another cool site called Real Estate, and curated by the RIA Novosti news agency, points out that Pasternak had this building of his birth in mind when he described the fictional “Chernogoria” neighborhood where Lara (Larisa) lived in Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago. The site quotes from the novel: “These were the worst places in Moscow, reckless drivers and dens of iniquity, entire streets given over to debauchery, slums full of ‘fallen creatures…'” The site also offers the following descriptive information: “According to the plot of Doctor Zhivago Lara’s mother Amalia Karlovna attempts to commit suicide by poisoning in ‘Chernogoria.’ This is where Yury Zhivago, who came in the company of Alexander Alexandrovich Gromeko, sees Lara for the first time.”
For the last tidbit today I’ll go back to the Moscow Perspective site (link above). It  quotes at some length a description of this building and the neighborhood contained in a biography of Pasternak by the poet’s son Yevgeny.
“They [Pasternak’s parents] rented an apartment located on the border between a wealthier neighborhood and the coachmen’s garages, where the prices were not as high – at the Old Triumphal Gates (now Mayakovsky Square). The Vedeneev House had a large courtyard and carpenters’ workshops, and stands between what is now 2nd Tverskaya-Yamskaya, Oruzheiny Lane and 3rd Tverskaya-Yamskaya. Apartment No. 3 consisted of six small rooms, all of which were badly suited to an artist’s workshop. This is what created the impression of cramped space throughout the whole apartment, as noted in Leonid Pasternak’s diaries. They paid 50 rubles a month for it.”

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