Tag Archives: Eldar Ryazanov

The Mass dacha, outside Moscow

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What do you think when you think of Moscow? Cold. Bitter cold. Lots of snow. So much of it that you can barely trudge through it. That can be taken as a direct description, or as a metaphorical image. Frankly, they both work. Moscow can be, and often is, a cold, nasty, unforgiving place. Fall down in the stuff pictured here in these photos, and unless a good person comes along – see you on the other side. Believe it or not, I know people who would push you into one of these snow drifts. Moscow, especially under current Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, but also with the help of a lot of people who should know better, has become damn near uninhabitable in recent times.
Of course, there is another side to this, and that concerns the person who comes along and finds you face down in the snow. And takes you home to warm you up and bring you back to life. Those people are there too.
One person who fits that description to a “T” lives in the house that is, sort of, depicted in these photos. Her name is Anna Mass, she is the author of I-don’t-know-how-many books, I’m guessing two dozen at least. She lived here for decades with her husband, Viktor Gorshkov, a geologist and poet. He died minutes after voting for Alexei Navalny for Mayor of Moscow in 2013. He walked out of the polling place and fell dead on the sidewalk with Anna at his side.
Anna and Viktor, however, were the second generation of writers to occupy this house. It was built originally in the early 1950s by her father Vladimir Mass (1896-1979), the playwright, screenwriter, poet and painter. I did not have the honor of knowing Vladimir, he passed on, as fate would have it, when I was on my first sojourn to Russia, weathering the brutal cold of St. Petersburg in the fall/winter of 1979. I knew nothing about Mass at that time, and I didn’t come into the circle of the amazing Mass family until 1988, when I first met Anna.
I’ve written about my first meeting with Anna elsewhere, but it’s worth repeating. I called her from a phone booth on Pushkin Square in September 1988. I said I was in Moscow to research the playwright Nikolai Erdman and that I was told she might be able to help me. She immediately said, “Now? Can you come over now?” I stuttered and said yes. I found my way to her Moscow apartment in the Arbat region and knocked on the door. She opened it with a big smile and an easy way about her and said, “Come in!” The deeply reassuring sound of something similar to childlike laughter seemed to hide somewhere in the back of her voice. She already had her father’s substantial Erdman archive laid out on the desk waiting for me, but first she took me in the kitchen to feed me some tea and fresh-baked pirozhki, something she did every time I would return over the next 8 to 10 months. When we finished tea, she sat me at her desk (Vladimir Mass’s desk) and declared, “I have some errands to run. You’ll be fine here. Work at your own speed,” and she left me alone in her apartment. It was during this period that Anna began spending more and more time outside the city in the family dacha. I visited her there, several times, too.
Of all the different ways that a lifelong friendship can begin, that is one.

Before I left Russia for good in 2018, my wife Oksana and I stopped by to spend two days with Anna. By this time Anna had been living exclusively at the dacha for at least two decades. We hadn’t seen each other for some time, but, as always – as it was that first time – it seemed as though we had never parted. I reveled in walking through and around the gorgeous home that Vladimir Mass built almost 70 years ago, and that Viktor Gorshkov expanded every bit as beautifully during the time he lived there. The house stands on a large plot of land just outside the Moscow city limits in what was once called the Writers Colony at Krasnaya Pakhra (the name of the river that runs nearby). Mass’s two closest neighbors were the poet Pavel Antokolsky and Nikolai Erdman. Over the years, other greats of Russian culture – including playwright Viktor Rozov and film director Eldar Ryazanov – moved in to make the area one of the most exclusive in all of suburban Moscow.
Mass and Erdman became famous in the 1920s and ’30s, co-writing sketches, satirical poems, revues (rather like satirical operettas), and screenplays. It was probably Mass who introduced Erdman to Vsevolod Meyerhold in the early 1920s when both were writing reviews and little essays for Novy Zritel (New Spectator), a popular theater magazine. Together they wrote the screenplay for the “first Soviet musical comedy,” Jolly Fellows (1933/34), and, in fact, both were arrested while on location at the film shoot and both were summarily sent into exile, to different Siberian cities, for three years. They never wrote together again, although they remained good friends and neighbors. They visited each other here at their dachas, as well as at their Moscow apartments. On occasion in the later years Mass would pull out some dialogue from his “Erdman archive,” rework it a little and sell it (or gift it, I don’t know the details) to an emcee or variety theater in need of a humorous text.
My approach in these blogs is that I take photos of exteriors – I use images of outsides to look for stories that lead to the inside. But I violate that little rule here today for two reasons. First, the picture of the fire in the fireplace in the top block illustrates the warmth, the coziness, the comfort and the security that one feels in the Mass home. I have rarely been in any place more welcoming than a residence that belongs to Anna Mass. I had to show that, just as I had to include another such image. The second interior shot is below, and it bears especial value for me: It is Nikolai Erdman’s bed. This marvelous object found its way to the Mass home after Erdman’s death in 1970. It now is the bed in a guest room at the Mass dacha/home. Imagine that.

 

Leonid Gaidai statue, Moscow

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I must say this is the first time I have posted a work of Zurab Tsereteli in this space. I’m not a fan. Everybody in Moscow knows him for several reasons, few of which work in his favor. He has long been the main art consultant for Moscow, overseeing the erection of numerous tasteless monuments created by himself and his cronies. He created the monstrous (in all senses of the word) sculpture of Peter the Great that looms uglily (you think that’s not a word? go see what I’m talking about…) over the Moscow River and the New Tretyakov Gallery. The legend on that is that Tsereteli wanted to give the statue to St. Petersburg and they refused it. Several sources even tell us that he planned on making it a statue of Christopher Columbus and giving it to the U.S., but the Americans – that time at least – couldn’t be duped.
Enough of that, however, my real topic today is film director Leonid Gaidai.
Leonid Gaidai (1923-1993) had one of the great runs of success in Soviet film. From 1965 to 1973 he unveiled five consecutive hit comedies that were not just hit comedies. They were films that mythologized the comic characters of Soviet history for all times. They are films that everyone knows and loves even today because they all run frequently on Russian television. Their scripts are adapted for theater and played on stage. Their characters are beloved figures – the actors who played them are national heroes. The words they spoke are often quoted, the predicaments they got into are familiar and referred to often.
The string began with Operation Y and Other Adventures of Shurik (1965). It continued with The Prisoner Girl of the Caucasus, or, The New Adventures of Shurik (1966), The Diamond Arm (1968), The Twelve Chairs (1971), and Ivan Vasilyevich Changes his Profession (1973). The Twelve Chairs was based on the popular comic novel by Ilf and Petrov, while Ivan Vasilyevich was based on Mikhail Bulgakov’s play Ivan Vasilyevich. Gaidai was always a member of the team that wrote the screenplays.
Gaidai had a special love and appreciation of actors. He was a star-maker, and he was quite loyal to the actors who enjoyed success with him. His Russian Wikipedia article has an entire section devoted to actors and the lists there are quite impressive. Numerous actors worked with him on eight, nine or 10 films. Many of them, huge stars, owe their popularity specifically to their work with Gaidai.
The actor who played Shurik, Alexander Demyanenko (1937-1999) worked in an enormous number of films, at least 110, but throughout his career he was known to the public as “Shurik.” So important was “Shurik” to Gaidai, and Gadai to Shurik, and so popular was the figure of “Shurik,” Tsereteli gave his sculpture of Gaidai some of the same features as his beloved character. So, when you look over these images of Gaidai, you also see more than a little of Shurik. It was a rare clever stroke for Tsereteli, who is better at being obvious with overkill than subtle with humor.

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Gaidai was born in a small town in the Far East, moving with his family later to Irkutsk. During the war Moscow’s Satire Theater was evacuated to Irkutsk where it continued performing new and old shows until the war ended. The young Gaidai worked as a stagehand for awhile at the Irkutsk Drama Theater, apparently handling many of the Satire Theater shows. Perhaps it’s a little romantic to think so, but one wants to think that the exposure to Moscow’s best satire (this was one of the capital’s most popular theaters at that time) had an effect on the young future film director. After the war, during which he was seriously injured, stepping on a mine, he attended and graduated from the Irkutsk Theater Institute in 1947. He studied film directing at the State Film Institute in Moscow from 1949 to 1955. That year he was hired as a staff director at Mosfilm. His first film, The Long Journey, co-directed with Valentin Nevzorov, was released in 1956. It was based on a story by Vladimir Korolenko and told the tragic tale of young love in Siberia. His second film, The Groom from the Other World (1958), was a satire of Soviet bureaucracy and caused the director enormous troubles. The authorities found this film so offensive that they cut half of it out before allowing it to be released. In the process, the film was downgraded from a feature film comedy to a short. In an effort to help the young Gaidai rehabilitate himself in the eyes of the authorities, Mosfilm’s general director Ivan Pyryev essentially forced Gaidai to take on a patriotic topic for his third film, Thrice Resurrected. Although it was scripted by the highly regarded playwright and songwriter Alexander Galich, Gaidai never warmed to this work. A few more years of floundering found him making a couple more short films until he hit his stride with Operation Y and Other Adventures of Shurik. Over his career Gaidai made 15 features and three shorts.
The statue that you see here is one of three made by Tsereteli for the foyer in Eldar Ryazanov’s Eldar Film Club, located at 105 Leninsky Prospect. The other two are of Ryazanov and still another great Soviet film director Georgy Danelia. More about them another time.

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Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya grave, Moscow

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These are not the best of days for those of us who, by love, have devoted our lives to the study of Russian culture. Russia’s reputation, damaged by wars, corruption, subterfuge, lies,  belligerence and bad politics is at an all-time low. In just the last week the Russian government has launched numerous campaigns against “internal and external enemies,” that is, those who would like to see Russia be a land that respects the rule of law and the freedom of conscience. Just today the government officially accused former tycoon, and now, social activist, Mikhail Khodorkovsky of two murders and the masterminding of four more. This comes two days after Khodorkovsky declared in a public speech that revolution might be necessary to force regime change in Russia. Yesterday the Russian Prosecutor General launched a massive investigation into the life and work practices of the muck-raking opposition leader Alexei Navalny. This came one week after Navalny released a stunning 45-minute film detailing the mafia-like corruption of the two sons of the Russian Prosecutor General. All of these events are sandwiched in and around an event that is enormous for those of us in Russia, but may slip by those who aren’t watching the territory closely – that is, the three-year prison conviction handed down to a young man, Ildar Dadin, whose crime it was to participate in four political protests where he was detained by police. Dadin is the first individual to be prosecuted under a relatively new, draconian law, which makes it a crime to be detained four times at political protests. Thus, while there are many people sitting in prisons in Russia right now for political reasons, Dadin has become the first actually to be arrested, tried and convicted for nothing other than the fact that he makes it a point to protest the policies of the Russian government. (Incidentally, the prosecutor asked for two years in prison; the eager-beaver judge handed down a sentence of three.) This, meanwhile, coincides with an enormous strike being led by Russian truck drivers to protest unfair and unfairly high road taxes. Thousands of truck drivers, with their trucks, have descended on Moscow, and are prepared to stop traffic in the city in order to make their demands be heard.
In short, things are bleak and confrontational around here these days.
Thus, it seems the proper moment to combine pain and joy into one. We seek joy to offset our pain – thus this entire blog site arose, as I explained some time ago. And, yet, we refuse to turn our eyes away from what pains us. Thus everything I have written up to this point today.
In short, I now wish to ponder the final resting place of two of Russia’s greatest citizens of any era – the cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich and the soprano Galina Vishnevskaya. I photographed their grave at the Novodevichy Cemetery last week when passing by it to attend the burial of the great film director Eldar Ryazanov, still another fine citizen whom this nation could not afford to lose.

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But if the pain of losing Ryazanov was, and still is, acute, fresh and unabated, the joy of coming upon Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya was equally as sharp. The mere pronunciation of either of these two names is enough to bring a smile to anyone’s face who knows.
To be sure, we are not entirely at ease with the notion that these two extraordinary people are no longer with us. For contemporaries who were affected by them – and that is half of Russia, half of the world – that nagging pain may lessen to a certain level of discomfort, but it does not go away. Yet, the joy that they brought us is, obviously, what prevails. I must insert here a comment that I randomly discovered on the internet. I think it perfectly sums up the public attitude to this pair:
I hold this man [Rostropovich] in veneration not because he was a GREAT musician, but simply because he was a marvelous PERSON. The vaccines purchased by the Vishnevskaya-Rostropovich Foundation saved the health of thousands of Russian children. Vaccines against Hepatitis B and cancer found their way to many regions and corners of Russia. We remember...”
The comment is signed “galsvanidze.”
These two great citizens of their nation, the Soviet Union and Russia, were personal friends of Dmitry Shostakovich during the years when the composer was persecuted by the Soviet government, as well as of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the writer whom they sheltered at their dacha outside Moscow when he was under attack from the officials. Rostropovich, defying the fears of his wife, jumped on an airplane to join protesters on Moscow’s streets during the attempted coup by hardliners seeking to depose Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991. You can read about that in the L.A. Times. He had done the same so as to be present when the Berlin Wall fell in 1889 – he felt compelled to be there to play his cello for that historical event. You can see him do so on YouTube.
As for Vishnevskaya, she was every bit as fierce a defender of freedom, truth and art as her husband. Although her native land essentially forced her into emigration in 1974, when it became possible to return and work in Russia, she  set about establishing a Moscow-based, world class school for opera musicians, the Galina Vishnevskaya Opera Center. Since its opening in 2002, it has been one of the strongest bearers of Russia’s cultural traditions. As a declaration on the center’s website puts it, “The principal task of the Galina Vishnevskaya Opera Centre is to perpetuate Russia’s great operatic traditions and to cause Russian opera to be perceived anew.”
Throughout difficult times in Russia from the end of the 1980s until Rostropovich’s death in 2007, and Vishnevskaya’s death in 2012, these two individuals brought hope, light, courage, humor and strength to everyone around them. I remember what a joy it was to hear or see that one or the other, or both, had arrived in Moscow for a concert or a personal appearance. It was as though old friends had come home to visit. Their presence, the knowledge that they were with us, was a powerful antidote to the negativity that can seep into one’s bones in Moscow.
At times like the present we look to individuals like Rostropovich, Vishnevskaya, Ryazanov, Shostakovich and Solzhenitsyn to remind ourselves why we fell in love with the art they made and the culture they helped build and sustain, sometimes against all odds. Now it is our turn to carry that flame, as best as we can, and flicker as it might.

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Nikita Khrushchev grave, Moscow

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Nikita Khrushchev (in Russian pronounced Khru-shchOF with the long ‘o’ sound, for those who don’t know) is one of those deeply controversial characters of Russian history. He led a de-Stalinization campaign after wresting power behind the scenes in the first years following Stalin’s death. The Stalinists were never happy about that and they had their revenge when power was wrested back from Khrushchev’s hands in 1964. While Khrushchev acted in a Stalinist manner with his rivals in the mid-50s – having his main rival Lavrenty Beria shot in a basement – those who deposed him a decade later behaved in a Khrushchevian manner: They put him out to pasture in his beautiful dacha in the woods outside of Moscow and left him alone, even letting him write his memoirs (although they could be published only when smuggled to the West).
I have an incredibly tenuous, but deeply memorable, real connection to Khrushchev. I was working as a freelance consultant and translator for ABC News in 1990, and we went out to the famed dacha to interview Khrushchev’s son Sergei about the changes then happening in Russia. I wasn’t much needed on that little trip, because Sergei spoke very good English. In fact, within a year he emigrated to the United States where he took up teaching positions in various East Coast universities. However, before the TV crew got down to the business of filming and interviewing Sergei, there were a few moments of chit chat. I exchanged a few words with Sergei and the conversation went quickly to the beauty of an artifact that stood, or hung, right in the entryway. This was a gorgeous old burka, a traditional Georgian coat that had been given as a gift to Nikita on some state occasion. The family kept it, surely because of its beauty, for all those years afterwards. And then Sergei said to me, “Why don’t you put it on?” And he went to pull if off the stand on which it hung. He put it over my shoulders, a photographer snapped a photo or two (which I have never seen), everyone laughed and declared it a beautiful fit, and then Sergei removed it from my shoulders and put it back on the rack. From there everybody got down to work.
Even now, 25 years later, I can still feel the weight of that burka on my shoulders. For me it was an intimate moment spent with Khrushchev, a moment almost inside the man who brought as much change to Russia as any other individual who ever lived. (For the record: Burkas can be black or white, but my burka, Khrushchev’s burka, was white and looked precisely like the one on this man’s shoulders in a photo I found on the internet.)
Khrushchev had a huge impact on Russian culture. It wasn’t always good. One of his most famous moves was to shut down an exhibit of nonconformist art in 1962. As he walked through the exhibit he grew increasingly angry and shouted obscenities at the artists, threatening to deport them. Not one of his better days. But Khrushchev also unleashed The Thaw, that short-lived, but powerful era in Soviet history which gave rise to a completely new attitude, style and content in Russian culture. The nonconformist art that Khrushchev so hated was made possible by his radical change in government policy.  In just a few short years, Soviet theater, literature, painting, film and every other form of art were transformed. The spirit of youth flooded into a cultural territory that had been dominated by the old and the gray.
Folks in the West know Khrushchev as a bit of a caricature for the threat he made to “bury the West” and for the – very possibly apocryphal – incident when he “banged” his shoe on a table at the U.N. Wikipedia gives you some info on that.
But Khrushchev was not a caricature. He was a man of flesh and blood and conscience. I will not dig too deeply into the complicated catacombs of the latter, for historians have broken more pens, typewriters and computers on that one than I have time to deal with at the present moment. But it is a fact that Khrushchev was a figure who fully encompassed the dark and the light of his age.
That is precisely why the great sculptor Ernst Neizvestny, when creating the monument for Khrushchev’s grave, enclosed a very sympathetic image of the leader’s head in a twisted, unsymmetrical jungle, if you will, of black and white blocks.
Neizvestny, by the way, was one of those artists whose work Khrushchev lambasted in 1960. He called his sculptures degenerate and accused him of distorting the faces of the Soviet people. One applauds the Khrushchev family for asking Neizvestny to create the sculpture for the grave site, and one sees Neizvestny’s grace in the beautiful, human, realistic (not “distorted”) rendition of Khrushchev in a moment of peace and repose. So much has been written about this that it can easily slip into cliche. But when you stand before the monument, as I did yesterday, one sees nothing but the beauty and the quiet power of the work.

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I happened to pass by Khrushchev’s monument at the Novodevichy Cemetery yesterday because I was attending the funeral of the great Soviet-Russian filmmaker Eldar Ryazanov, a man I admired deeply and who was a cherished family friend.
Arguably, no single artist defined the Soviet experience from the period of the The Thaw until the present day better than Ryazanov (1927-2015). It is received wisdom that his best films were made between 1956 and the late 1970s, and that his work was of less interest from the 1980s on. People are going to argue that until they are blue in the face. That statement will remain with us, and it will remain without a definitive answer. As such, I have no interest getting into that. I mention it because it’s there, but the magnitude, the impact, the contribution made by Ryazanov to his nation from his first film in the the 1950s until his last in 2007 is, frankly, incalculable.
I don’t think Russians of the last 50-60 years loved anyone with the love and respect that they had for Ryazanov. When with him, I saw crowds of people – whether on foot or in cars – come to a dead stop when they saw him coming. I once felt as though I were following Moses through the Red Sea as Ryazanov stopped heavy traffic on a four-lane road merely by stepping into the flow of cars. He didn’t bother to look first, he didn’t bother to hold up his hand. He just stepped off the curb and went, and cars on all sides respectfully came to a stop to let him – and us with him – pass. If you know Russian traffic, you know this simply does not happen. Russian drivers do not stop for anyone. They did for Ryazanov.
I will have plenty of opportunities to write more about Eldar Ryazanov. I will seek them out.
But today, the day after we laid him to rest, I want to keep it simple. I want to share a few words that others have spoken in his regard. The phrase I have heard most often is, “the end of an era.” Every one who said that felt compelled to admit that this is a clichéd phrase, but that, in regards to Ryazanov, it is quite simply the truth.
The playwright and director Sergei Kokovkin wrote to me that “an entire continent has sailed away from us.”
The actress Tatyana Dogileva echoed many when she said at the public farewell that Ryazanov had educated and fine-tuned the conscience of several generations of Russians.
Also speaking at the public farewell, Lia Akhedzhakova, one of Ryazanov’s favorite actresses, told how Ryazanov freed her to speak the truth openly and forcefully. “He taught me to open my mouth and to tell the truth,” she said.
Radio personality Ksenia Larina wrote, “Ryazanov valued freedom ferociously, because he knew what life was like for an artist without freedom: not one of his Soviet-period films escaped the censor’s scissors.”
The journalist Alexander Timofeevsky wrote, “”Ryazanov is being mourned in Moscow as [Hans Christian] Andersen was mourned in Copenhagen, as [Antoni] Gaudi in Barcelona.”
My wife, Oksana Mysina, who acted for Ryazanov in his penultimate film, called him the “conscience of the nation.”
As for me, I was incapable of looking at Ryazanov without seeing a whole nation. He was that big. His aura was that full and strong. This has nothing to do with his famous love for food. (He loved his food and, more importantly, he loved his appetite. He recognized it as an expression of his prodigious love for life and anything that sustained it.) It has everything to do with the magnitude of the phenomenon that was Eldar Ryazanov. He was as simple and as down-to-earth as anyone you can possibly imagine. He was approachable, he was generous and kind. And yet he had a full knowledge of his importance, and of the responsibility he carried as a man in whom an entire nation saw itself reflected.
Ryazanov’s first feature film, the classic Carnival Night, came into being, in large part, because of Nikita Khrushchev. Ryazanov told the story about how he, a fairly successful documentary filmmaker (he made seven documentary films between 1950 and 1955), became a maker of feature films. One day in 1955 he was called into the office of Ivan Pyryev, a legendary Soviet film director who was appointed the head of Mosfilm Studios in 1954. Pyryev told Ryazanov that if he didn’t produce a good comedy in short order, he would be fired. The word had come down from on high: We want a comedy. But there was no one in the stable of Soviet directors capable of making one. There was, however, this documentary director Ryazanov, whose sense of humor and purpose was already legendary. It was Pyryev’s belief and his hunch that Ryazanov might be the answer to the problem. Indeed, Carnival Night was a monstrous hit, easily becoming the most popular film of the year. As it tells the story of a New Year celebration with wit, intelligence and affection – as well as with some pointedly barbed political statements – it has continued to be shown with regularity every New Year right down to our own time.
Ryazanov now rests about 50 yards away from Khrushchev. Look at the middle photo in the block above. You’ll see a red wall in the back. Ryazanov’s plot of earth is located just beyond that, a little to the right.
As the Russians say: May the earth be down to him.

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