Tag Archives: Ilf and Petrov

Bulgakov-inspired bas relief, Moscow

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Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940) again. He is as ubiquitous in Moscow as Pushkin. This time we’re looking at another in the series of illustrations of characters from BB’s writings that showed up on city walls and archways as part of the Best City in the World Festival in 2014. This particular bas relief, etched out in a thin layer of cement, is of Tsar Ivan the Terrible, from BB’s play Ivan Vasilyevich. Like the others, it was created by Novatek Art. Unlike most of the others, this image is not in a readily visible position. In fact, it occupies a fairly forlorn spot behind a wayward post not far from some junk gathering behind a tiny, leftover wall, and squeezed on all sides by a rough paint job. If you’re looking for it, go to 36 Starokonyushenny Lane in the Arbat district and peek around the right corner of the building from the street.
Ivan Vasilyevich is simultaneously an obscure Bulgakov play and one of his most popular. How does that work? Easy. It was made into a film called Ivan Vasilyevich Changes his Profession by the great Soviet comic film director Leonid Gaidai in 1973. The film – the top grossing Soviet film for that year (it was seen by over 60 million spectators) – became an instant classic and still maintains its cult popularity today.
The play itself – a comedy about two Soviet citizens being carried back into the 16th century by a time machine which also tosses Ivan the Terrible into the 20th century – has lived a much quieter life. It was written in the mid-1930s for the Satire Theater, but it didn’t see the light of day until it was published in a small collection of Bulgakov’s plays in 1965. Even then it was not until Gaidai got hold of it that anyone really paid it any attention. And, truth to be told, even following that wildly popular film, theaters did not clamor to stage it. In my nearly 30 years of theater-going in Russia I have never seen a production of it.
In fact, Ivan Vasilyevich began life as a play called Bliss. That early variant was written roughly between spring and fall of 1934 but the Satire Theater declined to stage it. Director Nikolai Gorchakov and actors at the theater encouraged Bulgakov to keep working on the play. He did just that and it is considered that he finished it on Sept. 30, 1935, giving a reading of the play in his home for the Gorchakov crew on Oct. 2. The play was proverbially received enthusiastically by the company, although that did not stop them or Bulgakov from believing that it needed to be reworked severely. That mutual agreement was reached on Oct. 29. Bulgakov went back to the drawing board, changing the comedy drastically – the new version was no longer a science-fiction tale of time travel, but now became an unreal tale of a man having a strange dream. This version was completed in April 1936. I haven’t found when the play went into rehearsals (it was  probably before April), but a dress rehearsal was held on May 13 and was promptly banned after that.
Gaidai’s film of the play introduced a large number of changes and innovations. Not surprisingly, in it the characters travel back and forth between the 16th century and the 1970s, rather than the 1930s of Bulgakov’s original.

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Gaidai (1923-1993) was one of the most beloved makers of comedies in the Soviet era. I think we would be safe in calling them screwball comedies. He made approximately 20 films between 1955 and 1992. Ivan Vasilyevich Changes his Profession was the last in a fivesome of unsurpassed successes. The run began in 1965 with Operation Y, and Shurik’s Other Adventures, hitting stride with The Captive Girl of the Caucausus (1966, aka Kidnapping, Caucasian Style), The Diamond Hand (1968) and The Twelve Chairs (1971, not to be mistaken, of course, for Mel Brooks’ Hollywood version of this classic comic novel by Ilf and Petrov). Every one of these films is spoken of with the greatest love and reverence by virtually anyone who has grown up in the Soviet Union or Russia since the 1960s. The films are wacky, off the wall and fast-paced, and Ivan Vasilyevich is no different.
What is interesting about Ivan Vasilyevich Changes his Profession is that Gaidai – despite the wave of success he was enjoying at the time – apparently had a difficult time casting it. He wrote the script with the great clown and actor Yury Nikulin in mind, but Nikulin – who had starred with such success in The Diamond Hand – curiously wanted nothing to do with the project. According to Russian Wikipedia, the reason for Nikulin’s reticence was that he didn’t expect this film featuring a satirical vision of Ivan the Terrible ever to pass the censor, and he had no desire to waste his time making a film no one would see. Frankly, that sounds a little simplistic to me, but I have no reason to buck Wikipedia’s received wisdom.
Another eight actors – most of them big stars – auditioned for the lead, which was a dual role of Ivan the Terrible and one of the hapless Soviet citizens being sent back into the past. They included Yevgeny Yevstigneev, Georgy Vitsin and Yevgeny Lebedev – all of them legends in their own right. However, the part eventually fell to Yury Yakovlev, who emerged in the 1970s as one of Soviet cinema’s finest lyrical/comic actors.
Of course, it is Gaidai’s film, and not Bulgakov’s original play, that made the Novatek artists want to memorialize the character of Ivan the Terrible in the series of Bulgakov-inspired bas reliefs that still dot the city of Moscow today. Bulgakov only returned to Russian readers in the 1960s when the unofficial ban on his works was lifted. As such, Gaidai’s film of the obscure Ivan Vasilyevich Changes his Profession was the first successful film adaptation of the writer’s works. It helped cement the writer’s fast-growing reputation as the people’s favorite.

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Writer’s House (Pasternak, Olesha, Ilf & Petrov etc.) on Lavrushinsky, Moscow

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I would call this one of the greatest-kept secrets in Moscow cultural lore. This building, which you have surely seen if you have ever spent time in Moscow (because it is located right across the street from the Tretyakov Gallery and you, of course, have been there), is absolutely chock-full of literary history, real and imagined. This, for example, is the very place to which the slicked-up and scantily-clad Margarita flies and destroys a critic’s living quarters at the end of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. You see, Bulgakov was in line to receive an apartment here in the early 1930s, but was refused. A nit-picking critic who was always yapping at the heels of Bulgakov’s work did receive an apartment here. It pissed Bulgakov off enough that he famously avenged the nasty man through his literature. The only change Bulgakov introduced into the story was that in M&M the building ostensibly stands on the Arbat. In fact, this is it: 17 Lavrushinsky Lane, in the Zamoskvorechye region.
Just look at the list of people who were entered in the list of the winners of the “lottery” to receive apartments a full year before construction on the building was complete in 1937: Boris Pasternak, Ilf and Petrov, Konstantin Paustovsky, Ilya Erenburg, Viktor Shklovsky, Agnia Barto, Vsevolod Vishnevsky, Mikhail Prishvin, Lev Kassil, Nikolai Pogodin. Other luminaries who lived here in later years and decades included Veniamin Kaverin, Valentin Kataev, Yury Olesha, the theater director Anatoly Efros, the singer Lidia Ruslanov and more. In terms of literature and art, this building surely beats out the famed House on the Embankment, located just a mile or two away, for saturation of fame and infamy. I bother to add that second word in large part because of the fact that Vsevolod Vishnevsky, the rabble-rousing playwright, lived here. Vishnevsky was an acid-tongued, often jealous and envious, man who wrapped himself in the cloak of Revolutionary fervor and purity as, behind the scenes, he sent others to their doom. Vishnevsky played no small role in the downfall of Vsevolod Meyerhold, Zinaida Raikh and Nikolai Erdman.
If you know Yury Olesha’s famous last book, No Day Without a Line, you now know where it was written. Here is what Olesha had to say about living here shortly after having moved in: “Constant meetings. The first is Pasternak, who has barely come out his own doors. He’s carrying galoshes. He puts them on after crossing the doorstep, not while still inside. Why? For cleanliness’ sake? Going on about something he says, ‘I talk with you as I would with a brother.’ And then there’s [playwright Vladimir] Bill-Belotserkovsky with his unexpectedly subtle commentaries about Moliere’s long monologues…”
I’ve drawn this quote, as I have much information, from an article on the Writer’s House on the Big City website.

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This building, an article on the Travel2Moscow website tells us, was actually signed off by Joseph Stalin, in large part because Maxim Gorky had convinced him there needed to be not only a home, but a whole neighborhood or small city of writers. Many talk about the distinctive black marble frame of the entrance (see the photo immediately below). It, indeed, is impressive, if not off-putting. And it becomes increasingly so when you think about the reality of the people, the years and the events that converged in this structure. It was built in 1937 and people began moving in precisely as the Great Purges (about which I have often had reason to write, and about which I’m sure I will write more – such is the nature of that beast) were beginning. As such, there were numerous people who were arrested here and sent packing to Siberia, barely having had the opportunity to move in. Could it be that Stalin took Gorky up on the idea of putting a bunch of prominent writers in one place in order to make it easier to spy on them and round them up? I mean, why is the entrance to this building framed in black granite? It looks like a building in permanent mourning. Was Stalin – by way of his architect Ivan Nikolaev – telling the tenants something? ‘Beware all ye, who enter these premises!’ Am I making that up? Maybe. Stalin has been known to do much weirder things. One thing is certain, the building is “within reach” of the Kremlin. Look at the first of the grouping of three photos above. You will see the yellow buildings of the Kremlin rising up there in the distance. The Kremlin is just a hop, skip and trip across the Moscow River away.
Interestingly, the building was erected around an old 17th-century structure that now stands hidden behind the grand facades. You can see that 2-story building in the final photo below.
And now let me, again, turn things over to those who know more than I. This last lovely bit is from the Travel2Moscow site:
“The building’s most famous tenant, Boris Pasternak, wrote a poem that began, ‘The house loomed large like a watchtower…’ Neighbors spread humorous rumors about it, such as the one where Pasternak kept a huge dagger on his wall and could often be seen on the building’s rooftop. Indeed, Pasternak’s apartment was located on the top floor and even had an exit onto the roof. Valentin Kataev wrote that during the war Pasternak (‘at night, without a hat, without a tie, and with shirt collar unbuttoned…’) heroically battled incendiary bombs [launched by the Germans], putting them out with sand. In fact, two of these bombs destroyed five apartments and half of a wing, penetrating five floors into the building. During the bombings Paustovsky’s apartment was damaged. Pasternak himself, unlike many writers, did not leave the building during the war, writing that ‘all the dangers frightened and intoxicated.’ It was precisely in this building that he wrote his famous novel Doctor Zhivago.”
Absolutely fascinating stuff, if you ask me. I have just one question at this point, however. Why in the world would Kataev have considered it odd that Pasternak battled incendiary bombs on the roof of his home “without a hat or tie”? What was he supposed to do, don a tux to greet the German bombs?
I must add here a few words spoken by my wife Oksana after I allowed myself to scoff at bit at Kataev. “The humor is Kataev’s,” she said. “What that means is that Kataev, like everyone else, rarely ever saw Pasternak without a hat or tie.” I.e., the only thing that could induce Pasternak out without a tie were German incendiary bombs. Whatever the case may be, my fascination with this structure and its inhabitants is only going to grow.

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