Tag Archives: Boris Pasternak

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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Vladimir Mayakovsky on Triumphal Square, Moscow

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The square where Moscow’s most prominent monument to Vladimir Mayakovsky stands had its name returned to Triumphal Square in 1992, although everyone still calls it Mayakovka. It was officially Mayakovsky Square from 1935 to 1992. That first date, 1935, is no random number. Mayakovsky threw a monkey wrench in the ideologues’ spokes when he committed suicide in 1930. How could the great bard of the Revolution be so self-centered as to kill himself? It took Stalin and his people awhile to figure out what to do about, but they chose in 1935 to “canonize” the dead poet and to sweep his sad end under the rug. His reputation was “rehabilitated” in what Boris Pasternak called his “second death” – from 1935 on, Mayakovsky ceased to be a real poet and a real person with a real biography, that is, with lots of warts and paradoxes. He officially became The Model Poet, the Great Civic Poet, the Great Poet of the Revolution. The statue which we see here was constructed by sculptor Alexander Kibalnikov and erected in 1958. This was another loaded year on the square. Right here on this square a feisty new, freedom-loving theater was opened in 1956 and it was called the Sovremennik, or, the Contemporary. A child of the Thaw, it was a huge success with audiences, taking the opportunity to speak out in ways that most Russian theaters had forgotten could be done. There is still a nagging suspicion that the decision to erect a monument to Mayakovsky was taken by the authorities in order to demolish the building occupied by the Sovremennik and to push the theater out of the city center. The Sovremennik was given fancy digs in a beautiful new building on Chistye Prudy a couple of kilometers away. For awhile, at least, it survived the temptation to become a bourgeois theater in its classy new digs, continuing to be a cutting-edge playhouse, while in its absence on the square a new tradition of free speech arose almost instantly. Poets and wannabe poets, as well as all those who cling to both, began gathering at Mayakovsky’s feet to proclaim the newest and boldest poetry being written. The connection that this small chunk of land has to a striving for freedom has continued into our day. Beginning in 2009 small groups of tenacious protesters would gather here every time a month had a 31st day in order to mark the 31st article of the Russian constitution, which guarantees freedom of assembly. The irony, of course, was that the authorities always threw thousands of storm troopers and paddy wagons at the few hundred protesters, scooping them up almost before they could gather and hauling them away. For a few years, in order to discourage these protests, the authorities even closed off the space around the Mayakovsky monument with chain-link fences and deep pits. Officially they were “reconstructing” the space, although for years I never saw a worker there. In fact, they were attempting to deter the protests. In 2013 the square was, indeed, rebuilt, closed to traffic, and outfitted with small plots of grass and plenty of benches for tired passersby to rest on.

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Mayakovka is one of the most culture-packed locations in all of Moscow. The Satire Theater, founded in 1924, is located here. Right around the corner in the Aquarium Garden stands the Mossoviet Theater. Vsevolod Meyerhold, who directed three of Mayakovsky’s plays, was supposed to have his new theater built here, and construction was begun on it. But when Meyerhold was arrested in 1939 and shot in 1940, the building was turned into a concert hall, which it remains to this day. On the north side of the square across from the Satire Theater and the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall once stood the first film studio and film theater in Moscow, run by Alexander Khanzhonkov. Until recently films continued to be shown there in a cinema called the Khanzhonkov House, but that was eventually closed and turned into a concert hall for pop and rock music. The famous spire-topped Pekin Hotel and restaurant are located behind Mayakovsky’s back and can be seen in several of the photos here. The Pekin is not quite as famous a meeting place for cultural figures as the Metropol Hotel near Red Square, but its walls could still tell many a story. For awhile in the mid-to-late 2000s the back rooms of the Pekin hosted a small club called Last Money (Poslednye den’gi) where my wife’s great band Oxy Rocks rocked the house many a time.

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Nikolai Aseyev Plaque, Moscow

DSCN1641_2Let me be honest from the start. I don’t know much about Nikolai Aseyev. His name and legacy in my understanding is confused and murky. I remember encountering him when I was a grad student, or before. He first appeared to me as one of the top Russian poets of the 1910s. He was an associate of Boris Pasternak and the Tsentrifuga group of the Futurists. He spent time in the Far East with David Burliuk and Sergei Tretyakov, both fascinating figures in the territory of Russian avant-garde art of the 1920s. He was associated with Vladimir Mayakovsky and later in life (1937-40) wrote a well-known epic poem entitled “Mayakovsky Begins.” It is characteristic, however, that when that poem appeared, a section devoted to the great innovator Velemir Khlebnikov was deleted. There, in a nutshell, you have that confusion in my head about Aseyev: the poet receives a Stalin Prize for his poem about Mayakovsky, but (because he?) agrees to cut out a section he wrote about Khlebnikov. From the late 1920s until his death in 1963 (he was born in 1889, the same year as my grandmother), Aseyev was pretty much a Communist Party functionary by way of literature.

DSCN1642_2And yet, when I pass by this plaque commemorating the fact that Aseyev lived in this building on Kamergersky Pereulok across from the Moscow Art Theater from 1931 to 1963, I can’t help but feel that the connection to his early years – before he lived here – is stronger than the rest. If that’s sentimentality, so be it. I do know that in my mind I do not see him at all as the stoney-gazed, hard-jaw figure depicted on this plaque.

DSCN1640_2 DSCN1643_2I don’t know which windows Aseyev looked out of when he took the time to do so. If you look carefully at the top photo here, however, you will see that a statue of Anton Chekhov, peering out from behind a restaurant umbrella, keeps a constant eye on those perusing the Aseyev plaque… Chekhov wasn’t there when Aseyev lived here.