Tag Archives: Georgy Frangulyan

Dmitry Shostakovich monument, Moscow

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Yes, it’s a bit comics-like. Yes, it’s a bit awkward. Yes, it’s a bit crude. But I think all those aspects suit the subject – Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-1975).
There’s no point in trying to determine what artist suffered most during the Soviet period. As harsh as it may sound, that would be like trying to determine which grain of sand on the beach is the biggest or smallest. Just try and figure. If you were going to take on that pointless task you would obviously start with those who were tortured to death, then those who were “just” killed, then those who were “allowed to die,” and then you would go on from there. Shostakovich, thank God, was able to live out his life. He didn’t live it out untouched and he didn’t live it out the way he would have chosen. There’s no way of knowing if he was so worn down by the battles and humiliations that he ran out of gas before he might have under different circumstances, a month short of his 69th birthday. But he did live, and he lived to see his work recognized in his  homeland and abroad. That’s no small thing.
As I pointed out in an earlier post on this site, Shostakovich quickly gained fame for his striking, unusual compositions from a very early age. His ground-breaking opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, based on the dark novella of sex and murder by Nikolai Leskov, was written between 1930 and 1932. It was staged in the composer’s hometown of St. Petersburg in January of 1934 at the Maly Leningrad Opera Theater and was received enthusiastically. However, a notorious attack on the composer and his work appeared in Pravda more or less on the second anniversary of the opera’s premiere. Entitled “Muddle instead of Music,” it cast a dark cloud over Shostakovich that lasted for decades. Wikipedia has a nice story about how that article came about. It’s worth repeating here:
Shostakovich was away on a concert tour in Arkhangelsk when he heard news of the first Pravda article. Two days before the article was published on the evening of 28 January, a friend had advised Shostakovich to attend the Bolshoi Theatre production of Lady Macbeth. When he arrived, he saw that Joseph Stalin and the Politburo were there. In letters written to his friend Ivan Sollertinsky, Shostakovich recounted the horror with which he watched as Stalin shuddered every time the brass and percussion played too loudly. Equally horrifying was the way Stalin and his companions laughed at the love-making scene between Sergei and Katerina. Eyewitness accounts testify that Shostakovich was ‘white as a sheet’ when he went to take his bow after the third act.”
A second public “denunciation” came in 1948 when Shostakovich was named in one of the infamous Zhdanov decrees, this one attacking so-called “formalism” in Soviet music. The document called out Shostakovich, Sergei Prokofiev and Aram Khachaturian, following a similar document that in 1946 had attacked the writers Mikhail Zoshchenko and Anna Akhmatova as well as several theater critics. The composers were not officially “rehabilitated” until 1958, although Stalin himself loosened the screws in 1949 shortly before sending Shostakovich to represent the Soviet Union at the Cultural and Scientific Conference for World Peace in New York.
One cannot be sure whether this was a positive thing for Shostakovich or not. He was, thereby, forced into the position of publicly praising to the world his de facto jailers, the very individuals and system that had tormented him for 15 years. Stalin’s death in 1953 eased the pressure on the composer again, but he never quite escaped the long, hard hand of the Soviet government. He was essentially forced to join the Communist Party in 1960 and from then on he often had to sing its praises in speeches and in his music. It is commonly felt that Shostakovich suffered as much as any artist who survived the excesses of the Soviet period. Of course, his great and sweeping oeuvre stands as a testament to his talent and his inner strength. The art won in the end, thanks to the tenacity of the individual.

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All of this is evident in the monument that Georgy Frangulyan erected in Shostakovich’s memory on the steps of the Moscow House of Music on May 28, 2015. It was the first monument commemorating the great artist in Moscow.
Frangulyan created the image of a deeply private individual, one who is obviously used to withstanding suffering. It may have bent him, it may have distorted his facial expression, but this is the figure of one who has weathered whatever came his way. The hard, exaggerated furrows in his brow bear witness to that. The head is down; it cares nothing about what is going on all around. Passersby, Moscow traffic – none of it exists for him. He is in his own world. The legs are crossed tightly, another sign of a man closing himself off to the world. Chances are his right hand is conducting some snippet of music that this he hears in his head. But it is not a public conductor’s gesture, not one that would be employed from a podium before an orchestra and a hall full of people. This is a private gesture, a small, approximate gesture, one that means something only to Shostakovich. It is, perhaps, his way of personally “hearing” his music with his body. From some angles, as in the second photo below, the hand may be “thinking” about playing notes on a piano. Of course, from other angles, it might be the beginning of him raising his arm to fend of blows – of any kind that might be thrown at him. (See the second and third photos above.) I like this aspect of Frangulyan’s sculpture – the arm gesture is very specific, yet open to interpretation. It is one of the things that give the sculpture life.
It is worth thinking for a moment about the significance of a monument like this appearing in Moscow today (just over a year ago). Increasingly, we are subjected to comments, actions and even attacks from Russian cultural authorities that harken back to the age of the Zhdanov decrees and even the denunciations in the press from the 1930s. We are constantly told by politicians, by media figures and by official patriots, that life in Russia has never been better, that the country is great, its history is great, and there are no problems aside from those that have been created by evil outside forces and the nasty people who support them for evil reasons. Don’t get me wrong. We have not returned – yet – to the exact atmosphere of the Soviet 1930s, but we are living in a time that has borrowed that era’s intonations and general methods.
To see this harried, hunkered, set-upon image of Shostakovich today is to set eyes upon a contemporary. I don’t know if any of the authorities who surely beamed happily the day of the unveiling have any idea about this or not. But it is a fact. When you stand behind Shostakovich here and gaze out on the endless stream of cars racing past on the Garden Ring Road, you realize that contemporary Moscow is as alien to you as it is to this image of Shostakovich.

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Varlam Shalamov plaque, Moscow

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Varlam Shalamov, as the text says on the plaque, “lived in this house between arrests from 1934 to 1937.” The house is in the Arbat district of Moscow, building No. 8 on Chisty (Clean, or, Pure) Lane. The image of the long-suffering writer peering out at us from behind three books, was created by Georgy Frangulyan. It was unveiled to the public on Oct. 30, 2013, and was timed to coincide with the annual memorial day for victims of political repressions.
Shalamov today is a giant in the pantheon of Russian writers. But I’m hazarding a guess (without running much of a risk, I think) to say that outside the tight world of Slavists, Shalamov is either under-appreciated or not known at all. If I write “Alexander Solzhenitsyn,” everyone has a response. Everyone knows, at least in general, who he was, what he did and why. There are some who would criticize Solzhenitsyn for his fame, which I feel is going much too far. Solzhenitsyn earned his fame and his notoriety. Whether you buy into his belief system, or even accept his picture of history, you cannot deny his courage, his strength and his enormous impact.
But there is a reason why Shalamov, among those in the know, is placed on a pedestal far above that of Solzhenitsyn. One reason is that Shalamov was a genuinely great writer. Solzhenitsyn was a powerful, controversial thinker and revisionist historian. Shalamov was an artist, a writer who had perfect command over every letter, every sentence, every paragraph that he wrote. Like Anton Chekhov, perhaps, he was a man of such detail and perfection, that he could only write in short bursts. But fate, as it often has done to humans over the centuries, put him in the way of an evil state machine that saw fit to attempt to destroy him. The machine could not destroy Shalamov, but it wreaked havoc on his life. As such, Shalamov’s brilliant stories and poems were mostly written about life in the prison camps, or at least were “inspired” by it, if I dare use such a word in this context. In English, as in Russian, his main body of work is known by the title of Kolyma Tales, or Tales from Kolyma, Kolyma being the Godforsaken outpost where Shalamov and hundreds of thousands of others lived and died in the Siberian prison camps.
Shalamov (1907-1982) began to publish as a writer – both as a journalist and a short-story writer – in the early-to-mid 1930s. This was after he spent three years in the camps (1929-32) for the crime of  supposedly belonging to a Trotskyite group. He was arrested again in 1937 – the year of the Great Terror – and remained in prison work camps until 1951. (He claimed that he was re-arrested for the crime of calling Ivan Bunin a classic of Russian literature, and there is evidence to back up his claim.) While in prison he began writing poetry, probably because poems were easier to commit to memory than prose. He began writing what would become known as the Kolyma Tales around 1954. But, as I have said, these stories were often extremely short – his story “Through Snow,” written in 1956, consists of just two paragraphs and 236 words. Surely, the genre of brevity, which living in the camps forced on him originally, by now had become a kind of artistic method. This is how life and reality had shaped Shalamov’s talent.

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A couple of years ago my friend Maksym Kurochkin was commissioned to write a play for Breaking String Theater in Austin, TX. Graham Schmidt, who did the commissioning, asked Max to write something that would resonate in Austin. It was not an easy task for the playwright, not the least of which reasons was the fact that Russia had just attacked Max’s home country of Ukraine. To put it lightly, Max’s thoughts were fiercely occupied at the time. The writing of the play and the staging of it became something of a torture for many, although, as often happens in art after a bit of a struggle, it came out quite well. But my point here is that one of the many sticking points was a little detour that Max tossed in at the end of his first act. The main character in the play (Dulcey and Roxy at City Hall) decides to put on his teaching cap and inform the public about someone and something they probably don’t know. He offers a brief narrative about Shalamov, his nature and his importance, and then he quotes one of Shalamov’s poems. Keeping in mind Max’s anger over the Russia-Ukraine war, you will easily understand why he introduced this writer and this poem into his play. But aside from that, I’ve always thought Max’s brief excursus, together with the poem he quotes, is as good an introduction to Shalamov as any.  Here it is, Varlam Shalamv via Maksym Kurochkin:

…VADIM: There was this writer and poet by the name of Shalamov. He was like Solzhenitsyn only he was talented. As talented as O. Henry. But he was also diabolical. Righteously diabolical. Because he went through the prison camps and he remembered everything. And he came to the conclusion that you can’t forget murder. This is a poem. And it has a context. Shalamov opposes killers. Killers of all times and nations. He opposes cannibals as well as their mercenaries and volunteers. And their damn jesters. Here he is: Varlam Tikhonovich Shalamov. “A Slavic Oath.”

VADIM recites.

I swear until my death
to avenge those foul bastards
whose sick science I now know by heart.
I’ll wash my hands with my enemy’s blood
when that blessed moment comes.
For all to see, in Slavic fashion,
I’ll drink from a split skull,
that skull of mine own enemy,
as Svyatoslav did drink.
I’ll throw this funeral feast
the way the old Slavs did –
Eclipsing every fame and glory
of those who disappeared in death.

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Bulat Okudzhava monument, Moscow

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This is one of my favorite monuments in Moscow. How could it not be? It is Bulat Okudzhava.
But it is not only Bulat Okudzhava, one of Russia’s most beloved bards, poets and writers, it is a really nice Okudzhava done with taste, vision and understanding by the sculptor Georgy Frangulyan. The artist did a fine job of capturing Okudzhava probably in the early 1960s, when he was swingin’ and hip along with the rest of leading Soviet society during the Thaw. You can see Okudzhava’s humor and wisdom in his eyes, you can see the freedom in his step. The two arches through which the figure of the poet has walked – and which are inscribed with words from his songs – are like halos of sorts. I don’t mean that in the sense that Frangulyan imparts holiness to him, but it’s as if the air around the man recognizes his greatness and parts to let him through. It’s all very low-key, but filled with meaning. I like the way he’s just out for a stroll, because that’s what everyone’s here to do – to talk a walk. Okudzhava, here, is a man of the people, stylish, yes, a bit lost in concentration, yes, but just out for a stroll like everybody else, with the daily newspaper under his arm.
I forgot to mention that this monument stands on Okudzhava’s beloved Arbat, in the niche of Plotnikov Lane that runs into, and stops, at the Arbat. The Arbat is now a walking district, surely to its detriment, but that was not the case in Okudzhava’s time. It was a regular street with narrow sidewalks that was as filled with personality as any other location in Moscow. Okudzhava wrote many songs commemorating his love for the neighborhood.

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I had the good fortune of spending some time with Okudzhava in California in the late 1970s. I was a student at the University of California at Irvine and Okudzhava was a visiting artist. He conducted a fascinating month-long seminar in contemporary Russian literature and he gave a couple of concerts that were packed to the rafters with Russian emigres from the Los Angeles area. I also accompanied him on a somewhat surreal trip to Disneyland, which I recalled as best as I could in a blog for The Moscow Times back in 2009. Still wanting to say more, I wrote another blog about him for the MT in 2012, this time focusing on the changes that have affected the Arbat district over the decades.
I crossed paths with Okudzhava twice again in the early to mid 1990s in Moscow.  One of those times, the second, I attended an annual concert that he performed at the Contemporary Play School on Victory Day. This was, perhaps, two years before he died in 1997. (For the record his birth-death dates are 1924-1997.) The other time, the first, occurred when he attended a performance at a theater where my wife performed. I didn’t bother to reintroduce myself. I hate that little ritual. For the most part I prefer to leave people with the comfort of their own thoughts. And Okudzhava, for all the warmth of his art and his heart – don’t doubt that one little bit – was a relatively closed, private individual. Indeed, you can see that in this monument on the Arbat. He’s a genuine human being, a man of understanding and integrity. But he is also relatively packed up in his own, busy world. That tight smile on his face in the image immediately below is a private one. He’s not sharing a joke with us here, he’s amused by something only he knows about. I very much felt Okudzhava’s distance as he sat backstage after the performance, surrounding by hordes of people wanting to talk to him, wanted to be noticed by him, wanting to engage him, even if it were for just a few seconds. I didn’t need to be a part of that. I had ridden on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride with the man. What more could I have asked for?

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Aram Khachaturian monument, Moscow

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Born in Georgia, but Armenian by blood, Aram Khachaturian (1903-1978) is another of those great Soviet musicians – composer, in his case – who seemed to come out of nowhere. He, like the great pianist Svyatoslav Richter, came to Moscow with virtually no formal training and ended up making his mark almost immediately.  Numerous of his works are still played regularly around the world, but his ballets Gayane and Spartacus are surely his most enduring. That is, with one exception… Khachaturian is also the author of the short “Sabre Dance,” which, it sometimes seems, has not been played only by the lazy and the incompetent.  This seems like the perfect place for me to make a personal admission. As a child of the American desert (I mean that literally, I was born and grew up in the Mojave desert, but I also mean it figuratively, because I grew up in the barren 1950s and early 1960s), I didn’t get much high culture. With the sole exception of a long playing record of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker in our home, my sole exposure to classical music was through Looney Tunes cartoons. Were it not for Bugs Bunny I wouldn’t have heard a classical composition, other than The Nutcracker, until I was well into my third decade of life. The reason I mention this is that I actually had heard “Sabre Dance” although I had no idea it was written by Khachaturian, or, indeed, that is was even classical music. I knew the tune in the spectacular performance of the great rock ‘n’ roller Dave Edmunds, who had something of a hit with the song in the 1960s with his band Love Sculpture. I guess I should be ashamed of this, but have you ever heard Edmunds play that tune on his guitar? Holy Moses! That’s what the word searing was invented for. I never see Khachaturian’s name or face that I don’t think of Dave Edmunds. I don’t know what the composer would think of that, but there’s nothing I can do about it.

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As for this monument to Khachaturian, it was sculpted by Georgy Frangulyan, based on an architectural design by Igor Voskresensky, and it stands just across the street from the monument to Mstislav Rostropovich, which is also the work of this sculptor-architect team. It was unveiled in 2006 with Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, Russian First Lady Lyudmila Putin and Armenian President Robert Kocharian doing the honors in person. Curiously, just eight years after that event, all three of those individuals have receded into the background. Putin divorced his wife and she plummeted out of the public eye; Luzhkov was removed from the mayor’s office and he, too, became irrelevant overnight; while Kocharian left office in Armenia in 2008 and left the big world of politics. I don’t think that has anything to say about Khachaturian, but it does remind us that ars longa, vita brevis…

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Joseph Brodsky Monument, Moscow (+)

IMG_3425.jpg2The Joseph Brodsky monument in Moscow, located more or less across from the Fyodor Chaliapin house and the old U.S. embassy on Sadovaya-Kudrinskaya Street, seemed to me to come out of nowhere. I just happened to be walking along the street one day and there it was. Voice of Russia tells me it was unveiled in May 2011.  I find it to be one of the most interesting sculptural complexes in Moscow, what with its added people in the background playing off the main character of Brodsky in the foreground.

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