Tag Archives: Henrietta Yanovskaya

Emil Gilels plaque, Moscow

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DSCN9201The structure at 25 Tverskaya Street is one of those many in Moscow that has a rich cultural heritage. I have already written about the fact that playwright Nikolai Erdman lived here in the 1950s with his ballerina wife Natalya Chidson. I’ll have occasion to write about others who occupied apartments here, but today we consider Emil Gilels (1916-1985), one of the preeminent pianists of his era.
I, a child of rock and roll, find it ironic, at least, that the first time I ever heard the name “Gilels” was when I was having a conversation with a KGB agent who was following me around Washington, D.C., where I lived in the early 1980s. I’m not quite sure whether the agent befriended me or I befriended him, but the fact of the matter is that we often got together on our lunch breaks to chat about all things – or, at least, many things – Russian culture. It was during one of these chats that my acquaintance mentioned meeting and accompanying Gilels somewhere. The lack of understanding was probably clear on my face and he asked, “You do know who Emil Gilels is, don’t you?” I blithely admitted I did not and my interlocutor eliminated my ignorance on this topic for ever more. “He is the greatest living pianist,” he said. Those words stuck; I never forgot them. When I came to Moscow in the late 1980s and learned that Nikolai Erdman, the topic of my first book (and the reason that the KGB agent had tracked me down in the first place), had lived side-by-side with Gilels, I could not help but be amused. Indeed, the Lord works in wondrous ways.
But that’s a story for another day.
Gilels, like many of the luminaries who lived in this attractive “Stalinist” building, moved in shortly after it was built in 1950. When you look over the plaques on its walls selectively honoring some of its famous inhabitants, you notice that they all began living here in 1950 or 1951. This was because this huge residential building occupying the better part of a long Moscow city block was built to house the elite. Specifically, it was built to provide housing for people who worked at the Bolshoi Theater, although one didn’t necessarily need a direct connection to the Bolshoi to get in. Gilels would be a good example of that. As a famous, touring solo musician, his connection to the Bolshoi would have been tentative, but it would have been enough to put him on the list of people waiting for prestigious apartments when they came available.
In fact, the history of this building is rather complex and quite interesting. Originally, this block was occupied on the north end by a church known as the Church of the Annunciation (erected in the 17th century) and on the south end by an eye hospital that occupied an old private estate  built around 1773. The church, as was often done in the Stalin era, was knocked down in 1929, and construction of a new apartment building was begun alongside the eye hospital. However, Stalin decided in the late 1930s to widen Tverskaya Street and give it a more imperial look. As such, the eye hospital on the lower half of the block was put on rails and moved off of Tverskaya Street, making room for a new building. (Not only was it moved back by about 50 meters, its facade was turned sideways to face what is now the Young Spectator Theater, which now is famously run by Henrietta Yanovskaya and her husband Kama Ginkas.) However, World War II interrupted plans to build the new structure, and construction only got under way in 1949. As indicated above, it was completed a year later. Wisely, the authorities engaged the same architect who had built the first half in the early 1930s to build the new half in 1949. His name was Andrei Burov. He connected the two structures by way of three tall archways somewhat to the left of the middle of the city block. Both sections look virtually alike today.

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One assumes that the building looked much spiffier during Gilels’ tenure here (he lived here until his death in 1985). The facades now are rather grimy and neglected. The runaway capitalism of the 1990s still leaves scars in the way that storefronts do not match the building’s decor or design. The place needs a bit of sanding and paint, but it’s also obvious that even a little work would make the building sparkle. It is a potential jewel standing two blocks north of Pushkin Square.
(At this very moment, the street is completely torn up as current Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, for some reason, decided to undo Stalin’s widening of Tverskaya and is now putting Muscovites through the painful process of having to stand by and watch everything be ripped up as the authorities narrow Tverskaya back down – this time with widened sidewalks and bike lanes.)
But back to Gilels. He began playing piano at the age of five and his first public performance took place in 1929, the year that church was destroyed to make room for the right half of his future home. He performed with success in Odessa in the early 1930s then gained national fame when he won the first All-Union Musician’s Competition in 1933. He graduated from the Odessa Conservatory in 1935 and immediately began winning prestigious competitions in Europe. In 1945, as World War II was ending, he was one of the first Soviet soloists given permission to perform concert series abroad, and in 1950 – the year he moved into the building we see here – he formed a famous trio with Leonid Kogan on violin and Mstislav Rostropovich on cello. He was the first Soviet musician to perform the Salle Playel in Paris in 1954, and the following year became the first Soviet soloist to tour the United States.
Of the famed trio, one Western critic has written: “This group stayed together for most of the 1950s, and broke up largely because Kogan and Rostropovich had very strong political differences and could not continue to get along. What a pity – I’m not sure there has ever been a more spectacular chamber ensemble.”
Russian Wikipedia keeps the list of Gilels’ awards at a neat 22, almost half of them coming from foreign countries. He was, in fact, one of the great musicians of his age, and the 35 years he spent at 25 Tverskaya Street were the time of the flourishing of his talent and fame.

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Mikhail Bulgakov street art, Moscow

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This street portrait of Professor Preobrazhensky and the dog Sharikov from Mikhail Bulgakov’s popular novella The Heart of a Dog is one of many Bulgakov-related works of street art that were done in Moscow in 2014 by the 33 Plus 1 project as part of the Best City in the World festival. At least nine portraits were created in thin layers of plaster slapped on regular city walls. The plaster “canvas” was then inscribed, if you will, with an image, usually using the edge of a spatula-type instrument. To the fullest I can determine, the series was created by two artists, Pavel Shugurov and Pavel Zyumkin. Also, to the best I can determine, the entire series included images of Begemot, Azazelo, Margarita, Annushka and Korolyov from The Master and Margarita; Preobrazhensky, Shvonder and Sharikov from The Heart of a Dog; and Ivan the Terrible from the play Ivan Vasilievich. Many of the works are located in courtyards or archways tucked away from view. Many, like this one, are in the Arbat region, but some are in other places in the old, historic city center.  At least one of them (Annushka) was vandalized; I don’t know how many remain intact now. This one of Professor Preobrazhensky, in excellent shape, is located on a long, open wall at 3 Krivoarbatsky Lane, in front of building or corpus No. 2. You can see photos and read background stories about them (if you have Russian) on several websites, including  Live Journal and the 33+1 website.  Somebody named Valera who apparently was carrying around a very big black magic marker, or even a thin brush and paint, sort of claimed authorship of the work. Don’t believe him or her. It isn’t true.

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While The Master and Margarita is, hands-down, Bulgakov’s most beloved work, The Heart of a Dog does not lag far behind it. A film of huge cult popularity was made in 1988 by Vladimir Bortko. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that this film, to this day, runs 2 or 3 times a month on some Russian TV channel. Probably even more than that if we were to include all the regional Russian TV channels that show films. I run across it constantly as I channel surf, trying to avoid the bile and lies that dominate Russian TV these days. If you want to watch that film online, you can do so through several online cinema sites, including ivi.ru. The film is shot in a kind of sepia two-tone and it stars some very good actors, including Yevgeny Yevstigneev (as Preobrazhensky) and Boris Plotnikov.
Before the film was made, the novella debuted in performance at the Moscow Young Spectator Theater, where Henrietta Yanovskaya unveiled her dramatization in 1987. It was a monstrously successful production that toured the world and drew audiences for decades. Shortly thereafter a second dramatization showed up on the stage of the Stanislavsky Theater, right around the corner from the Young Spectator Theater. So for years and years there were two popular productions of the same work playing side-by-side in theaters located essentially in the same city block.
It’s probably worth explaining a thing or two about the work for Russian literature neophytes. It tells the story of a professor during the Russian Civil War who ignores the mayhem around him while continuing with his scientific experiments. He turns a dog, Sharik (or Ball), into a human, Sharikov. In step, if not in agreement, with the new Soviet state whose goal is to remake mankind and raise it to new levels, Preobrazhensky wants to show that animals can become human. Ultimately all he proves is that a human created out of a kind stray dog is a beast, indeed. Bulgakov’s tale, originally written in 1925 (though not published), seemed to predict early on that nothing would come of the Soviet experiment. For that reason it was banned for decades, and Yanovskaya’s production was the first to bring it to a wide audience simultaneous to the first-ever official publication in 1987.
In a book called What Was That? a fabulous dual memoir published by Yanovskaya and her husband Kama Ginkas in 2014, Yanovskaya wrote how “Bulgakov lived inside that time, while I staged it 60 years after it was written. I was older than he was at that moment and I knew more than he did. I also knew more about the further fate of Preobrazhensky and poor Shvonder. Rage and hatred boiled inside Bulgakov. I had no hatred. I believed all of us were the children who came of the union of Preobrazhensky, Sharikov and Shvonder. They were our parents; I was not about to judge them. When you talk about parents you speak only in terms of sorrow and tenderness. There are degrees of Sharikov, Preobrazhensky and the idealistic Shvonder living in every one of us in this country.”

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