Tag Archives: Ivan Bersenev

Sofya Giatsintova plaque, Moscow

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This famous apartment building in Moscow was home to the actress Sofya Giatsintova for a staggering 54 years. She lived here, as the plaque says, from 1928 to 1982. Giatsintova, who was born in 1895 and died in 1982, is one of those names that constantly hovers over anyone working or studying in the sphere of Russian theater. She was educated at the young Moscow Art Theater and she began acting there in 1910, when she was 15 years old. Throughout her long career she worked at many prominent Moscow playhouses, including the Second Moscow Art Theater, the Mossovet Theater and Lenkom, where she was artistic director from 1951 to 1957 (some sources say 1952 to 1958).
The building at 12 Bryusov Lane is the very one into which Vsevelod Meyerhold and his wife Zinaida Raikh moved at the same time as Giatsintova and many other famous performers. In fact, the entire street may claim the greatest concentration of actors/artists/ composers/musicians/dancers/writers of all Moscow’s streets. If you read Russian you might be interested to take a look at the Russian Wikipedia entry on Bryusov Lane – it is packed with information.
Giatsintova’s name came from her first husband, a sailor who ended up emigrating to the United States during the Russian Civil War. Their marriage was later annulled and around 1924 – I haven’t pinned down the exact date – Giatsintova married the famous actor and director Ivan Bersenev. His plaque hangs a few window-frames away from Giatsintova’s. They remained together until 1949 when Bersenev left Giatsintova for the great ballerina Galina Ulanova. Bersenev died in 1951 at the age of 62.
The big Moscow Art Theater encyclopedia, published in 1998 on the occasion of the theater’s 100th anniversary, mentions that Giatsintova was born into an elite family. Her father was a professor and writer; her mother came from the Chaadayev family, hearkening back to the famous writer, philosopher and political prisoner Pyotr Chadayev.

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That encyclopedia provides one of those pithy, encyclopedia-like descriptions of Giatsintova: “”G’s lyrical gift combined with taste and a vividly cheerful talent for character roles.” She also commanded, the encyclopedia tells us, a highly “expressive” quality with a penchant for the “grotesque.” This apparently served her well in productions like Alexander Afinogenov’s The Oddball, the famous dramatization of Andrei Bely’s novel Petersburg, and Deval’s A Prayer for the Living in the 1920s and ’30s. Like everyone else at the Second Moscow Art Theater, she had to move on when the theater was broken up by the Soviet government in 1936.
Her memoirs, Alone with my Memories, published posthumously and unfinished in 1985, are considered to be of great value for the rich information they contain about her early years. Her story of over 500 pages breaks off as the Second Moscow Art Theater is ending its life. In a long appreciation-afterword to the book, the great Soviet theater scholar Konstantin Rudnitsky writes, “Giatsintova commanded an inquisitive mind, a subtle power of observation, and a lively sense of humor that joyously illuminates some of the pages of her reminiscences.” He points out how her many stories of the pain of loss and death are usually colored with a detectable smile. The book has been reprinted many times since it first appeared.
One of the sadder chapters in Giatsintova’s life occurred in 1973, following the publication in Pravda of a text damning Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Giatsintova was one of a large number of famous Soviet artists and writers who jumped on the bandwagon to demonize Solzhenitsyn. Here is the short text she wrote: “I have never read anything by Solzhenitsyn, so I cannot judge his literary talents. But in a personal sense his behavior strikes me as disgusting. In general this whole story strikes me as revolting. It’s simply terrifying that such people live in our country.”
Not one of the great actress’s best moments. It’s galling. So few were able to stay off the bandwagons – bandwagons we still see rumbling up and down Russia’s streets today.

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Serafima Birman home, Moscow

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Serafima Birman (1890-1976) is one of the names from the Soviet era of theater and film that invariably attract the epithet of “great.” She was among the first group of actors to study with Stanislavsky, officially a member of the Moscow Art Theater into the mid-1920s. She was also a member of Mikhail Chekhov’s Moscow Art Theater 2. She was a founding member of the Lenkom Theater. She acted, directed and taught both disciplines. Her appearances in film were few and far between, but once seen, she was impossible to forget. A Russian blogger who calls herself Mary Quite Contrary wrote this about Birman’s performance of Yefrosinia Staritskaya in Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan The Terrible: “But the real shit hits the fan, of course, with Serafima Birman’s Yefrosinia Staritskaya. She is such a snake in the grass, but is performed so brilliantly that you can’t take your eyes off her massive black silhouette and hissing voice.” You can find this comment as well as a couple of stills of Birman in the film at Contrary Mary’s blogsite. You can see one of Birman’s scenes from the second half of the movie on YouTube.  Birman actually got this role in a backhanded way. It was originally going to be Birman’s great contemporary Faina Ranevskaya who would play Yefrosinia, but the studio decided that they did not like Ranevskaya’s “strong Semitic features.” As a result, the role went to Birman, every bit as much a Jewess as Ranevskaya, but who was listed in her passport as “Moldovan” because she was born in Kishinyov.
A lot is made of Birman’s physical appearance. One female journalist on the Russian Showbiz Daily website goes really overboard by calling Birman “unbelievably ugly” (neveroyatno nekrasivaya), although she does, at least, allow that she was a “genius.” This same post, as well as many others, go into great detail about Birman’s “unusual” visage, her desire to be “beautiful,” etc. It gets pretty damn annoying, I must say. I’d love to ignore this part of Birman lore, but it’s everywhere, and so I mention it in order to call it out. Not only is it bunk, it has nothing to do with anything. Period. Let’s be done with that nonsense.
Birman’s pedigree in Russian acting couldn’t be better. She began studying with Stanislavsky with Mikhail Chekhov, Yevgeny Vakhtangov, and Sofia Giatsintova. I haven’t found a source in English for one great story about Birman, but it’s worth quoting the Russian (Showbiz Daily) just in case it’s true. Arthur Miller was in Moscow and someone took him to see a dramatization of Dostoevsky’s Uncle’s Dream starring Ranevskaya and featuring Birman in a small role. Supposedly, Miller said, “Ranevskaya is a marvelous actress, but what she does is two-times-two-equals-four. What Miss Birman does is two-times-two-equals-five.” (That’s a back-translation from the Russian and doesn’t pretend to be a true quote of Miller.)

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Birman in the late 1920s lived in Apt. 6 at building No. 18 on Vspolny Lane, just a block from the famous Patriarch’s Pond. There’s nothing on the yellow building to indicate she lived here, but I know she did thanks to a wonderful catalogue of theater addresses that I own and which I mentioned in a recent blog about Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko. In a couple of years she moved to another address and I rather imagine I will have to show you that place in good time.
Birman had – and still has – the reputation of an extremely demanding artist. As we all know, that means that the label of “hard to work with,” or “difficult personality” has also stuck to her. And, as we all know, that just means that people who don’t know what they’re talking about are writing about her. Still, it makes for some good stories, and good stories are always welcome. Here’s one I have shaved down a bit from a site called So People Will Remember:
Birman once dropped in to see her friend Ivan Bersenev rehearsing a show at the Lenkom Theater where they both worked. Peering in from the wings, she was horrified to see Bersenev, sitting at his director’s table in the hall, munching on a sandwich. Birman was furious. “How could you? You?! In the cathedral of art! And you call yourself a director! This is a cathedral, a holy place!” That evening Birman refused to ride home with Bersenev in his car, as was her custom, choosing to walk instead. Bersenev and the actress Sofia Giatsintova drove slowly alongside her in the car. “Sima! Don’t be silly!” they shouted at her. Birman pretended not to hear them the whole way home.
My wife Oksana Mysina played Birman in a relatively recent TV biopic about the actress Valentina Serova, one of Birman’s best friends. You can see one of their scenes from Yury Kara’s “A Star of the Age” on YouTube.

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