Tag Archives: Georgy Motovilov

Alexei Tolstoy monument, Moscow

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Alexei Tolstoy (1883-1945) will always be a controversial figure in Russian letters. Here is the brief intro to a long, fascinating, highly-respected article-length biography of Tolstoy, originally published by the political activist Valeria Novodvorskaya in 2008:
Alexei Nikolaevich Tolstoy lies farther from grace than even Sholokhov. He was the Bolshevik’s greatest acquisition. A man of impeccable, brilliant talent. Fantastic imagination that playfully, with his left foot, created entire worlds. The gift of a glossarian and reflector of history. A rich, precious style, pictures that cut into your memory forever.”
But, at least in Novodvorskaya’s interpretation, Tolstoy was a man that hungered – perhaps a bit too much – for success and acceptance. He was quite surely an illegitimate child, born into the family of Count Nikolai Tolstoy (a distant relative of Leo), but not the product of true Tolstoyan blood lineage. His mother was a bit of a free-thinking, free-living individual and, by the time she gave birth to little Alyosha, she had long been spending her days and nights with a man by the name of Alexei Bostrom. However, in a gesture of largesse, when the official father died in 1900 he conferred legitimacy and the title of Count upon the son that was not his (and whom he never saw). This put the young man in line to receive a fine inheritance, although Alexei’s mother was already hip to her son’s appetites. She put his inheritance under lock and key and the newly-created count had to live a life much more frugal life than he wished.
Still, Tolstoy found ways to feed his desires. He was a womanizer, he traveled when he could, and – as Novodvorskaya tells us – when his mother sent him money to buy a baby carriage for his new child, he used the money to buy a fancy suit. Once, while visiting his in-laws and his wife (who had taken their child and run from him), he bragged about trying to seduce a local lawyer’s wife, nearly getting whipped for his audacity, which was enough for his in-laws to send him packing.
Tolstoy’s need to be “taken seriously,” to be revered not only for his shaky noble heritage, but for his literature and his so-called social activism, often made him the butt of jokes over the decades. Maybe there was a good dose of jealousy in that. I don’t know. I wasn’t there. And I don’t present these attitudes as proof of their legitimacy, but rather as a picture of what you inevitably get if and when you delve into the Tolstoy story.
I remember being quite surprised by a different attitude when working one day in what was then still called TsGALI, the Central State Archive of Literature, in Moscow. This was back in 1988-89. I was devouring the Nikolai Erdman documents being brought to me daily, and one morning I received a whole pack of letters. In one of them, Erdman went off into dithyrambs about the brilliance of Tolstoy’s new novel, Peter the First.  (It was one of the biggest works of Tolstoy’s prolific career. It came out in two parts – the second never finished – starting in 1929 and running until after his death, as his notebooks were edited to finish the work.) Erdman was not one to say much of anything (let alone praise) other writers. I rarely saw that in his letters (although he loved Dostoevsky and Maxim Gorky). Erdman saw Peter the First as a major work of Russian literature, sufficient to put its author on a level with all the other greats. I don’t know how the novel would read today, but I was surprised to see such lavish praise coming from Erdman back then.

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Whatever history will end up saying about Peter the First, Tolstoy’s place in Russian culture will always be safe for another reason. He was the first to write a major science fiction work Aelita (1923), which was picked up almost immediately and made into one of the biggest cinematic hits in the young Soviet Union by the future great director Yakov Protazanov (with memorable, influential futuristic costumes by the great designer Alexandra Ekster). He followed that with another successful sci-fi novel, The Hyperboloid of Engineer Gagarin (1927). But there was much more to Tolstoy than that. He wrote some 40 plays in his career. He wrote eight novels, including one of the most popular – actually a trilogy of novels – of the Soviet era, The Road to Calvary (1921-40).
The uncomfortable caveats you hear shining through almost everything I have written up to now come about because of Tolstoy’s apparent need to be accepted at all costs. At a certain point, he began to put his work at the service of individuals and a state that were interested in using him to serve their own purposes. He apparently had no qualms about doing that. As the Soviet government began flushing out “undesirable” elements in the world of culture, Tolstoy took up positions and took on tasks that helped them do that. What makes this especially paradoxical is that Tolstoy ran from the Civil War in Russian in 1920, professing his hatred for the Bolsheviks and Lenin. But he was lured back just a few years later with promises of immortality (of the mortal kind – awards, titles, riches and monuments). Here is how Novodvorskaya describes this turn of events: “He would walk over corpses and bones. He would lose the ability to have pity. He would not undermine anyone, would not denounce anyone, would not demand anyone’s head. But he wouldn’t defend anyone either. Not Mandelshtam. Not Meyerhold. He would play the fool for Stalin…” Gleb Struve, the great figure of Russian literature in exile, wrote similarly about Tolstoy as early as 1941. Confirming Tolstoy’s high level of literary talent, even calling him one of the “most gifted Russian writers of the 20th century,” Struve put a stake through Tolstoy’s reputation by stating that he lacked “one quality which distinguished all of the great Russian poets and writers : a sense of moral and social responsibility. His essence is that of a cynic and opportunist.” Throughout the 1930s, Tolstoy was an important Soviet functionary, praising the prisoner-built White Sea Chanel in 1934, acting as chairman of the by-now-repressive Writers Union from 1936 to 1938), becoming a deputy of the Supreme Soviet (1937) and so on.
The Moscow monument to Tolstoy stands just a few hundred meters from the home in which he lived at the end of his life. We’ll come to that someday. He sits, quite contentedly, it would appear, staring at the church where Alexander Pushkin married Natalya Goncharova. That, folks, is one of the most revered little plots of land in Russia. You wonder if he was told in advance that he would get that spot when the time would come. Designed by sculptor Georgy Motovilov and architect Leonid Polyakov, the monument was unveiled July 3, 1957.

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Anton Chekhov bust, Melikhovo

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This, I learned when visiting Anton Chekhov’s estate at Melikhovo a few weeks ago, was the first monument ever raised to Chekhov in Russia. The bust (bronze on a granite pedestal) was sculpted by Georgy Motovilov and unveiled in 1951. Since Aug. 30, 1960, according to act No. 1327 (supplement No. 1) of the Sovet of Ministers of the Russian Federation of the Soviet Union, this bust has been considered a work of art of federal significance. Motovilov was best known for his bas relief work in many of Moscow’s metro stations, but he clearly had a soft spot for Chekhov. He also created a statue of Chekhov in Yalta. Other “literary” sculptures include monuments to Alexei Tolstoy in Moscow and Nikolai Nekrasov in Yaroslavl. He received a Stalin prize for his bas reliefs of Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin in the Kaluzhskaya metro station in 1950. One rather suspects it was this award that led to his receiving the commission to be the first Russian sculptor to honor Chekhov. In any case, commissions like this were often handed out in such a manner. When Motovilov (1892-1963) died he was done the great honor of being buried in the cemetery at the Novodevichy monastery.
The Chekhov bust is a very nice one, oldish-looking now, of course. But that is a plus in this case. It has that sense of Soviet reverence. Chekhov here is a Great Figure, entirely realistic, distant in many ways, yet also human. I think one of the nicest things about it is its placement on the grounds of the Melikhovo estate museum. For our purposes now it is stuck off in a corner, quite hidden by trees and bushes. You almost want to think that this must be especially pleasing to Chekhov, if he ever bothers to look down upon this spot. It is a place of quiet and peace and repose. It’s true that the bust was erected at the end of what used to be the main, ceremonial entrance to Melikhovo in Chekhov’s time. He had a beautiful, long alleway put in and lined it with some three dozen various kinds of lilac bushes. It must have been an extraordinary sight in Spring to come in from dirty, bustling Moscow to visit the writer and to trundle down this gorgeous lane for the last half-kilometer or so of the trip. But that was when Chekhov lived here. Today that entrance is locked up and, I presume, is only opened for very big VIPs, if at all. Thus, although Chekhov is here to greet folks coming in, nobody comes in this way anymore. In fact, this bust stands with its back to the area where most of the museum visitors now enter and walk around. And, as I say, you rather get the feeling that Chekhov, the bust, likes it that way.

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I often travel out to Melikhovo with Americans visiting Moscow. Their initial reaction when I suggest it is always one of excitement. It has never failed. The magic of Chekhov, its hold on the people of the world – especially theater people, but not only – is endless. I got the same reaction when Cuban-American playwright Nilo Cruz was in Moscow a few weeks ago to attend the Moscow premiere of his play Anna in the Tropics at the Stanislavsky Electrotheater. His interest was seconded by his agent Peregrine Whittlesey, whose mother Eunice Stoddard had worked with Konstantin Stanislavsky when the latter was finishing his books on acting. The idea to suggest the trip came to me during a public talk where Nilo and I, along with several others, were talking about his play, Leo Tolstoy, and Russian culture. Nilo mentioned that his favorite writer is probably Chekhov. Here is how I jotted down his comment as I sat next to him at the front table: “I haven’t used any other Russian themes in my plays, but Anton Chekhov is probably my favorite dramatist. The longing and nostalgia of his characters is close to mine.”
Nilo was very generous as Peregrine and I aimed our cameras at him time and time again. Below you can see one of the shots I got of him with the Chekhov bust. There is something similar in their reserved gazes.

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Olga Knipper-Chekhova plaque, Moscow

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If you’re a Moscow Art Theater fan, this building at 5/7 Glinishchevsky Lane is a treasure trove. It was built in 1938 and a whole gaggle of Art Theater employees moved in. At the same time the street was given the name of Nemirovich-Danchenko Street, which held sway until 1993. Writing about this building and the numerous plaques hanging on its outside walls, I could speak of any number of people – Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko himself, the actors Vera Maretskaya, Iosif Tumanov, Vasily Toporkov, Mikhail Shtraukh, Ivan Moskvin, Mikhail Tarkhanov, Alexander Kaidanaovsky, Alla Tarasova and many, many more. Some of you will notice that not all of these people were connected to the Art Theater – this building was one of those Soviet structures that went up for specific purposes, to house people from a particular walk of life. But it so happened that many of those who moved in here in 1938 were from the Art Theater. In any case, one new resident that year was Olga Knipper-Chekhova, the widow of Anton Chekhov. She lived here, as her plaque proclaims, from 1938 until her death in 1959.
The building was erected by architects Vladimir Vladimirov and G. Lutsky (I wasn’t able to ascertain his full first name) with aid from artist Vladimir Favorsky and sculptor Georgy Motovilov (see the last photo below for what I presume is their joint work). It’s an imposing building, perhaps a little too large for the tiny street it stands on, and very official-looking. I personally find I am put off by it lightly when I approach it, although I also recognize its effective compositional design. The dark marble running along the base of the building looks funereal to me, just as many of the plaques look like gravestones.

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Olga Knipper-Chekhova (1868-1959) began a relationship with Chekhov in 1899, just before he sold his small family estate in Melikhovo. She actually visited that home south of Moscow once, maybe twice. I happened to be in Melikhovo with American playwright Nilo Cruz a week or so ago and our tour guide told us that it is thanks in large part to Knipper-Chekhova that the writer’s former estate is now such a respected museum and retreat. The local people, official and otherwise, were not especially interested in having the estate made into a museum. But Knipper-Chekhova threw her weight behind the project and, as I understand it, helped financially, to ensure that the museum was opened and that it survived. Chekhov and Knipper-Chekhova first met in 1898 at rehearsals of Chekhov’s The Seagull and A.K. Tolstoy’s Tsar Fyodor Ioannovich. They were married in 1901 and she was with her husband when he died in Badenweiler, Germany, in 1904.
There are all kinds of words written – good, bad, insulting and indifferent – about the relationship between these two people. I don’t know a thing about that. I do know that Knipper-Chekhova carried the banner of her husband’s greatness for the rest of her life. During his lifetime she played many of the great Chekhovian heroines – Arkadina in The Seagull, Yelena in Uncle Vanya, Masha in Three Sisters, Sarah in Ivanov and Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard. There is a short video of Knipper-Chekhkova reviving her role of Ranevskaya decades later in a kind of concert performance, when she was already an elderly woman. Whatever flaws the advancement of time may have introduced into her performance, you cannot take this from her – she was extremely light on her feet, had a wonderful sense of humor and a feeling for her character that was natural and buoyant. You can see a short clip from that performance on YouTube.
Knipper was born to a German father from Alsace and an ethnically German mother in what was then called Vyatskaya gubernia. He, Leonard Knipper, was an engineer and was the administrator of a local factory. She, Anna Zaltz, was a gifted singer, who gained some fame before her marriage, although her husband would not allow her to continue performing. Olga’s father also forbid Olga to become an actress when she declared that as her life’s dream. Leonard wanted her to become a painter or a translator. She was educated in languages in her early years and was said to have been fluent in English, French and German. Things changed when Leonard died unexpectedly. This left the family in dire straights and most everyone had to go to work. Although Knipper’s mother, like her father, was against the idea of her daughter becoming an actress, she also recognized how strong that dream remained in her daughter’s head. Eventually Olga was allowed to begin studying acting with Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko and the die was cast for history to be made.

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