Tag Archives: Ilya Erenburg

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

Click on photos to enlarge.


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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Ilya Erenburg house, Tomsk


If you’re the kind of person who likes to avoid the obvious, it’s rather difficult to write briefly about Ilya Erenburg (1891-1967). The fact of the matter is this: his most enduring contribution to Russian culture and literature is that his novella The Thaw (1954) gave one of the Soviet Union’s most important eras its name. The novel itself, like so many Soviet novels, is pretty close to unreadable these days. Its formulaic characters and situations are served up as literary Functions, with a capital F, and there is very little life or air to be found in the story. But whenever we discuss the post-Stalin Thaw, or the Khrushchev Thaw, we are doing so, lexically speaking, thanks to Erenburg.
In fact, the man was a fascinating figure. Being revolution-minded early in his life, he spent time in prison as a political prisoner in 1908, after which he left for Paris. There he began his literary life as a poet and a newspaper correspondent. He returned to Moscow in 1917, but, unhappy with the turn that the Revolution took, he headed back to his beloved France. He remained in Europe as a news correspondent until 1940, when he returned to the Soviet Union and became one of the country’s most beloved and respected war correspondents. While in Europe, Erenburg wrote extensively, and with understanding, about avant-garde art, doing a good job of informing Europe about the Soviet Union and keeping the Soviet Union up-to-date about European art. During the 1930s he traveled back to the U.S.S.R. on short trips that allowed him to collect material for his creative writing. One of those trips in 1932 brought him temporarily to Tomsk, where he occupied an apartment in a simple, but attractive wooden building bearing the addresses of 11 Herzen Street, and 17 Belinsky Street. The first two photos here show the building from the street, while the last two photos show it from the courtyard, which, according to my friend and Tomsk expert Pavel Rachkovsky, is probably where the writer would have entered and exited the building.


While living in this house Erenburg gathered the material for, and partially wrote, his novel Day Two (1933). According to research done by Yury Varshaver under the pseudonym of Yury Shcheglov, Erenburg befriended a young student whose last name was Safronov and he turned the young man into the lead character of his novel, giving him the name of Vladimir Safonov. In the following paragraph from the novel one sees references to Tomsk’s history as a place occupied by political prisoners, present and former, and as a place with great energy and potential:
“Tomsk might have died, but Tomsk had a university. Tens of thousands of students came to Tomsk. They did not know the city’s history. They didn’t care about the whims of the merchant Gorokhov, the sufferings of Potanin, or the wooden carvings on the gates of old estates. They came to study physics, chemistry or medicine. […] They filled Tomsk with noise and laughter. They found their ways into the homes of unfortunate, disenfranchised people. They shared their rations of bread and sugar with the disenfranchised, and the disenfranchised let them into their holes, filled with dust, moths and mould. They could sleep on sawhorses, on flat boards or on the floor. They slept with a sleep that is called the sleep of the dead. But early in the morning they jumped up and ran to the wash basin filled with icy water. On the run they recited their chemical formulas and the names of skull bones. There were 40,000 of them. Among them were Buryats, Ostyaks, Tunguses and Yakuts. They knew that in a few years they would be running the country, that they would be healing and teaching people, building factories, running collective farms, drilling into mountains, sketching the plans for bridges and would be traveling into the deepest corners of the immense country, joyously rousing people from their slumber, bursting through blinds with their energetic rays just as a bright, sunny day roused them. Thus did Tomsk begin to live a second life.”
Erenburg’s legacy is mixed. There is a great deal of suspicion in so-called “liberal circles” about how he was able to live in and travel freely to and from Europe while the vast majority of Soviet citizens were unable to leave the country. There are questions on the side of orthodox Soviet thinkers about what he was doing abroad all that time. In sum, if you are so inclined, you can find enemies and detractors of Erenburg on all sides. In that sense he remains a rather quintessential Soviet figure, steeped in mystery and suspicion, and not lacking in talent.

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