Tag Archives: Ivan Turgenev

Fyodor Dostoevsky plaque, Wiesbaden, Germany

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And now back to Wiesbaden, Germany, where we are able to travel in our minds thanks to my wife Oksana Mysina, who shot these photos when she was on a theater tour there last fall. This, according to legend, anyway, is the casino at which Fyodor Dostoevsky came up with the idea of writing a novel, The Gambler, which would save him financially. The plaque that hangs on the wall of the casino and spa (for it was originally built as such) indicates that is true, noting that the writer depicts Wiesbaden as “Roulettenburg” in his novel. The plaque also adds that the building was erected in 1808-1810, was the center of Wiesbadian haute société, and that Johann von Goethe lived here in 1814-1815. (If my rusty German has failed me, feel free to let me know, just don’t tell my old professors at Harvard who, probably, generously passed me on my German reading exam.)
In actual fact, Dostoevsky’s “Roulettenburg” was most likely a composite portrait of several casino cities that he knew – Wiesbaden, Baden-Baden, and Homburg (today known as Bad-Homburg). We know his first trip to Wiesbaden took place on June 12, 1862. Return trips were made in late summer 1863, the second half of 1865, and again in 1871.
The visit of June 12 was apparently the first time he gambled. He did not lose much that night, but was fortunate he had to move on soon in his travels. For he could tell that the gambling bug hit him.
His second trip to the casino we see pictured here came at a dramatic moment in his life. He was on his way to Paris to meet withAppolinaria Suslova, his lover and the model for many of the femmes fatales in his later novels. He did not know it yet, but it would be the end of his affair with Suslova. When he did finally make it to Paris, she was informed that it was all over, she had fallen in love with another. One can, perhaps, imagine one of the reasons why: Chances are Dostoevsky arrived looking like something the cat had dragged in, because the gambling bug had hit him hard this time. He had gone to the tables believing he had discovered a foolproof system to beat the croupier. And, indeed, he won big at first – 10,400 francs. He did have enough presence of mind to take half and send it to friends and family – even after he had lost the rest. Frankly, that’s no small sign of character. Here is how he described it in a letter to a friend (as quoted in the Delphi Complete Works of Fyodor Dostoevsky):
I have, dear Varvara Dmitriyeva, won 5,000 francs; or rather I had won at first 10,400 francs, taken the money home, put it in my wallet and resolved to depart next day and not go into the gaming rooms again. But I did not hold out and played away half the money again…
He actually sent the 5,000 that he had the wherewithal to hang onto to friends and relatives. Still, he arrived in Paris with nothing in his pocket, which can’t have made him look very attractive in Appolinaria’s eyes.

His third trip to Wiesbaden was even more dramatic. After his brother’s death, he had taken on his sibling’s debts and had no way to clear them up quickly. Presumably recalling the quick win on his last trip (and not quite remembering how quickly he lost the second half of his winnings), he set out for Germany precisely to win a large amount of money and correct his financial situation. Naturally, the opposite happened. He blew everything he had brought with him and was not even able to pay his hotel bill. To add insult to injury (as well as to make his situation totally unbearable), the hotel owner essentially put him under house arrest until he paid up what he owed. From his room Dostoevsky began shooting letters out to friends and acquaintances, asking for money. Ivan Turgenev, God bless him, was among those who sent him small sums. But it was a local priest who finally came and bailed him out, paying up the entire amount owed and even providing enough to send Dostoevsky home.
This, of course, is the incident to which the plaque on the Wiesbaden casino refers. For when Dostoevsky returned to St. Petersburg he was faced with signing a brutal contract by which he would have given away the rights to everything he had written for nine years, in return for having all his debts paid up. He was given a month or so to write a new novel that the publisher could sell, in order to avoid having the bad contract take effect.
As bad as Dostoevsky’s luck may have been on the roulette tables, his luck in life, at least this time, was significantly better. It was precisely at this moment that he hired a young woman, Anna Snitkina, to whom he would try to dictate his new novel in the small amount of time given him. Anna was modest, a hard worker, smart and organized. And, largely thanks to her, Dostoevsky delivered his novel, The Gambler, in 26 days. At 57 pages, it was more a novella than a novel, but it was enough to save him from a most humiliating fate. Anna Snitkina, became Dostoevsky’s third wife and, to the extent that it was possible, she was the one who tamed the tiger in him. One might even go so far as to say we have her to thank for the great novels. Would Dostoevsky have been able to write them had he lost the rights to his work for a nine year period? What might have happened in those nine years? No one can know that, of course, but one thing is certain: the impact of Snitkina on the great writer was enormous.
One more visit to Wiesbaden finishes off this little story. It came in 1871 – six years after Dostoevsky’s last debacle. He had sworn off gambling and, with the support of his wife Anna, had held true to his oath. But there is no victory without a fall. Dostoevsky just could not deny his desire to try his luck again, and so headed out for Weisbaden. When he blew the first amount he had taken with him, he wrote his wife and asked for a small sum that he would use to come home with. She sent it. And, what did you really expect? He blew that too. However, Anna finally got him home, and Dostoevsky would never gamble again.
So, there, in short, with a few corners cut and a few frills added, is the tale of Fyodor Dostoevsky and the casino at Wiesbaden.

 

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Alexander Herzen house and plaque, London

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Of all the places I could be today (save Chania, Crete), I think I would choose London. Maybe it’s the old blood burbling up in whatever is in me of my mother’s line. Maybe it’s because I seem to have the extraordinarily good luck of invariably hitting London when spectacular weather reigns supreme. Maybe it’s because the city is just so damn beautiful, I can never devour it enough with my eyes. So, it’s to London we go today.
London has been the choice of many a good (and shady) Russian over the centuries. I don’t give a hoot about the sold souls who own football teams and sell colleagues into prison or worse. My gaze is a bit more fastidious. Surely one of the most famous Russian residents of London was Alexander Herzen (1812-1870), who lived in the British capital from 1852 until 1864. I have written several times already about him and specific places connected with his name and work in both Moscow and London. He is a man who left his mark, and left it in a way that has made people want to remember him. One of the great liberal or even radical Russian thinkers, Herzen’s name stands for revolution, for freedom and for equality. Most of all, perhaps, it stands for bucking the status quo. He had a quick, insightful mind and a talent for words that made him a focal point of most any society he found himself in. That is certainly true of his time in London, where he produced important revolutionary writings of his own, published an important newspaper (Kolokol, or, The Bell) and ran an important publisher (the Russian Free Press, which I will get to someday in this space). He spent some of his time in London in close contact with his great friend and romantic rival, the poet Nikolai Ogaryov (see elsewhere on this blog site), the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, and many others. In her wonderful, all-too-brief series of blogs about Russians in London, Sarah J. Young provides this list of Herzen’s visitors: Ivan Turgenev, Nikolai Chernyshevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Nikolai Nekrasov, Pavel Annenkov, the critic and translator Vasily Botkin and the leftist writer Vasily Sleptsov. She adds: “It’s certainly true to say that neither his closest friend Nikolai Ogarev nor Bakunin would have ended up in London if Herzen hadn’t been here.”
The building we peruse today is a lovely piece of architecture, still in excellent condition. You walk up to the door of One Orsett Terrace in Westminster and you can fully imagine what that very experience would have been like for Turgenev, for Dostoevsky, for Tolstoy as they came by for an evening’s visit. It really makes you want to lift that heavy brass, lion-headed knocker and let it whack a couple of times. I actually fought back my desires to do that because – well, do you know how easy it is to become the stupid American tourist? Imagine someone answering my knock and I, covering my disappointment, saying, “I was hoping Herzen might open up. Who are you?” Or something like that. So I left that experience to my imagination – which could well be why it still affects me so viscerally when I see that brass lion’s head in my photos. Anyway, Tolstoy would have come by here in March of 1861. The indispensable Sarah J. Young writes: “Tolstoy arrived in London on 2nd March 1861, and left on 17th. He had not met Herzen before, but it is known that they saw each other regularly during the sixteen days of Tolstoy’s stay.  Lucas (p. 33) describes Herzen’s daughter Natalya’s recollections of seeing Tolstoy, whom she knew as the author of Childhood, at Orsett House, Westbourne Terrace. He states that Natalya was disappointed that Tolstoy wasn’t the heroic figure she was expecting, but he doesn’t give a source for the scene. Lucas also quotes Herzen as saying ‘I am seeing a great deal of Tolstoy. We have quarrelled. He is stubborn and talks nonsense, but is naive and a good man’, from Aylmer Maude, Family Views of Tolstoy (p. 71).”
(It is thanks to this specific post of Young’s that I hunted down and found this place to photograph.)

Dostoevsky would have been here a little over a year later. Again, I turn things over to Young, for there is no point in pretending I know more than she does: Dostoevsky “visited London for 8 days – his only trip to Britain – arriving on 9th July [1862]  (Dryzhakov, p. 328). Like many other writers, one of his chief aims was to see Herzen, and he certainly did so on 16th July, as well as probably also on Sunday 11th. According to [Joseph] Frank, the two men, who found they had a great deal more in common than they had on their previous meeting, in 1846, discussed recent events: Chernyshevsky’s arrest, the spate of fires that had engulfed Petersburg that spring, and the revolutionary Young Russia proclamation that had been published to much furore in May (Frank, pp. 145-59, 188-92). Given the closeness of Herzen’s circle, and his habit of entertaining on Sundays at Orsett House, it seems likely that on 11th July, Dostoevsky also met Bakunin and Ogarev.”
Turgenev, who was a frequent traveler to London and the U.K. in general, met often with Herzen. How frequently he came to this specific house, however, is less certain. Young, God bless her, tells us this (she begins with a reference to a passage in Patrick Waddington’s Turgenev and England and then clarifies): “…in May 1862, when Turgenev finally arrived with the writer Vasily Botkin after many delays, there was no room for him at the Herzen residence on Westbourne Terrace and ‘he had to stay with neighbours, possibly in the very house where Michael Bakunin was now living’. But we know that Bakunin was by this time living at 10 Paddington Green, which by no stretch of the imagination could be described as neighbouring Orsett House. A rift with Bakunin marked the end of Turgenev’s visits to this most famous group of Russian exiles….”
It is also worth quoting a section from Leonard Schapiro’s book Turgenev: His Life and Times (pp. 195-196): “On his short visit to London, Turgenev had engaged in lengthy argument with Herzen on the nature and future of Russian society. The result of this debate was a series of eight articles by Herzen, entitled ‘Ends and Beginnings,’ cast in the form of open letters to a friend, published in the Bell in the second half of 1862. Turgenev originally intended to print his reply in the same journal, but in consequence of a general warning from the Russian authorities not to write for that paper, thought better of it. Turgenev’s views in the debate therefore appear in his private letters to Herzen of the period, and in summaries of his arguments incorporated in Herzen’s articles. Herzen’s open letters, written with the brilliance and exuberance which characterized his style at its best, expound a theme which is familiar enough in his writings – that Western civilization has reached the end of its creative potential, and is destined to sink into the slough of vulgar, bourgeois self-satisfaction.
Well, I guess it’s good to see that Western civilization is still dying – for, surely, it is doing that these days. I am less happy to see that Turgenev did what so many of my contemporaries now do – agree to self-censorship when confronted by the authorities. But what is eternal is eternal, I guess.
Finally, Schapiro’s comments allow us to say that Herzen’s “Ends and Beginnings” were surely written right here in the home you see pictured today.

 

 

Erotic Pushkin, Gogol and Tolstoy bas reliefs, Moscow

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DSCN9327I had no idea that this place at 4/5 Plotnikov Lane existed. I had never seen nor heard anything about it. Consider, then, my amazement and excitement when I happened to be walking around the Arbat area a couple of weeks ago and I came upon this  – a marvelous home featuring a myriad of mildly erotic bas reliefs of none less than Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol and Leo Tolstoy. Mild as they may be, they are clearly erotic in nature, and, yes, as I said, they involve the great Russian writers Pushkin, Gogol, Tolstoy and, perhaps, Ivan Turgenev, in various suggestive poses with each other or with seemingly faceless others…
It goes without saying that my ignorance is not shared by all. There is plenty on the internet about this structure that is one of several in Moscow called a “Broido home.” Like the one in question here, these were designed by the prominent architect Nikolai Zherikov for the jurist and businessman German Broido. Zherikov, supported by the evidently wealthy Broido, erected several memorable art moderne buildings around the city. Although the main structure of this five-story apartment house (an “income house” in Russian) is not particularly outstanding, the decorations interspersed among the second-floor windows are. It was built in 1907.
A bit of mystery swirls around the bas relief sculptures. Some sources declare the creator is unknown. Others say he is suspected to be Lev Sinaev-Bernshtein, while still others state unequivocally that the works belong to him. I am convinced by the arguments that posit Sinaev-Bernshtein as the author, so I, too, will take that stance.
A few words about the artist before getting to the art. Indeed, Sinaev-Bernshtein specialized in sculptures and bas reliefs of famous cultural figures, and he spent time with Leo Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polyana in the first decade of the 1900s. He was commissioned to create a commemorative medallion of Tolstoy in 1911, a year after the great writer died. Born in Vilno (Vilnius, Lithuania) in 1867, Sinaev-Bernshtein died in 1944 at the hands of the Nazis in the Drancy internment camp near Paris. The Nazis destroyed one of his last works, Youth and Old Age, on which he had worked the last 10 years of his life. He lived primarily in Paris from 1881 on, although he did come to Russia to visit and work from time to time.
Bear with me today. There are a lot of photos below and more text than usual. There was no other way to do this place justice.

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I first did a double take upon seeing that familiar bob cut hairdo on a forlorn figure staring at two lovers over the clumsy inconvenience of a drain pipe. I squinted and moved in closer, and, sure enough, realized I was staring at a pretty good likeness of Nikolai Gogol. (See photo immediately above.) Gogol, his right hand awkwardly inactive at his side, stares at the embracing couple as if trying to figure out what in hell are they doing? Gogol’s sexuality, or his lack of it, has long been the subject of discussion. My acquaintance Simon Karlinsky, the great Russian literature scholar from Berkeley, wrote a book suggesting that Gogol was gay, and I don’t know if anyone has ever successfully refuted that. Or whether it needs refuting. Gogol here does look like an outsider in the feast of heterosexual love going on around him. I wish the figure immediately behind him in the photo above had not literally lost its head. It might give us a few more clues. Gogol here, like Tolstoy and Pushkin elsewhere, is repeated in the same basic pose, no matter what the surroundings. Look, for example, at the photo immediately below. You’ll see Gogol jammed uncomfortably into others’ embraces again, the same limp right arm, the same frozen distance in his eyes. As far as I can see, Pushkin only appears in tandem with Tolstoy, ever the somewhat distracted and uncomfortable object of the big man’s clearly aggressive attentions. Tolstoy is also repeated in the same basic pose elsewhere in the sculptural ensembles, but, depending on the context, you actually see somewhat different stories unfold.
Tolstoy-Pushkin is a delight to behold. I’ve put up several photos that show the combination from various angles. The great author of War and Peace goes after the great author of Eugene Onegin with gusto and passion. Is that a manuscript Tolstoy is holding, or is it a rocket in his pocket? I think it’s the former, although in a different setting, when the object of attention is not Pushkin, you will see that it looks more phallic than bookish. Tolstoy’s fierce eyes and bold pose, in one case, virtually push Pushkin up against the wall. (See the second photo below.) Tolstoy – and this makes great sense – seems to be smelling Pushkin. Don’t you just know that Tolstoy would have wanted to know everything there is to know about the man who created the language he wrote in! The novelist’s left foot steps in boldly on the poet, giving him no way out of this weird encounter. Tolstoy is everything Tolstoy is – adamant, forceful, overbearing, and damned ready to get to the bottom of things. Pushkin, as would be proper for the founder of the contemporary Russian language and the poetry that is written in it, is almost oblivious. He’s clearly backed up in an awkward position, but he doesn’t seem to realize it. His gaze is smooth and unperturbed. He’s fixed his eyes on something distant, something intriguing – perhaps the perfect iamb? We don’t even know if that right hand is being used to ward Tolstoy off – I rather think not. I think Tolstoy just trapped Pushkin’s arm where it was. Perhaps Pushkin was getting ready to pose for a statue and he had grabbed his lapel. And here comes Tolstoy, all animal, all brain, all body, all curious, and he’s going to pin that damn Pushkin down, once and for all! I stood on the street below these marvelous figures and laughed out loud. How could you not? Tolstoy going after Pushkin, all business, all body! I love it.

DSCN9315 DSCN9320 DSCN9324 DSCN9325 DSCN9296 DSCN9299Gogol, as I have noted, looks almost virtually the same no matter what configuration the artist puts him in. As far as I can see, Pushkin only appears in the steamy encounter with Tolstoy. But Tolstoy is given a second encounter, one that looks a little more sinister. (See the third and fourth photos below.) Here Tolstoy is not only paired with a young woman, there is a third figure intruding on the tryst. This individual looks rather like an avenging angel, an angel with an attitude, an angel who does not like what he sees. (I’m assuming that arch over his head is a halo; if it’s not, then my premise falls apart. But I’ll stick with the halo variation.) The muscles in the angel’s left arm are clenched; he is tense. Do his fingers form a fist or are they just beginning to clench into a fist? I see real condemnation in his visage and his stance.
Tolstoy, of course, was famous for his dalliances with peasant women. One might even say he had a compulsion for the women who belonged to him. In his writings he often described men like himself going to “women like that” and it was always a heady intoxication followed by shame and self-loathing. Tolstoy’s attraction to women created enormous problems for his wife Sofya and for himself. One can’t help but think of this as you peruse this trio of figures. Whereas the put-upon Pushkin virtually paid Tolstoy no mind, this young woman, under the old man’s press, appears to be quite ill at ease. She’s been given the same basic pose as Pushkin, but the different circumstances give the whole image a different feel. She is truly trapped. Tolstoy here doesn’t want to know what makes her tick, he’s not sniffing out an ancestor and competitor in the literary game, he quite simply wants this woman. Even the “manuscript” that he holds in his left hand looks much more like a phallus pushing its way up under the writer’s robe as he guides it with his hand.
This one image, more than any of the others, pushes the whole lot over the line from light, humorous eroticism into unabashed, unflinching eroticism – though not without humor.
It is said that Sinaev-Bernshtein’s friezes were originally commissioned by Ivan Tsvetaev (the poet Marina Tsvetaev’s father) for the building in which he planned to open his new Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts on Volkhonka Street in the center of Moscow. The idea, apparently, was to depict the great Russian writers, accompanied by muses, on a procession to see Apollo. According to the story, however, Tsvetaev declined to accept the work when it was completed. It was deemed too risqué, if not downright shocking. So as not to waste good work, the figures were put to use, cut up and moved around, on this building. Over the years the house and the bas reliefs have been dubbed with various names including “the caricature house” and “the house with the naked writers” (although there are no naked figures to be seen). The rumor that this was once a bordello and the sculptures show supposed famous clients is nothing but an urban legend. More reliable – and intriguing to think about – is that this likeness of Tolstoy is apparently the first and only sculptural likeness of the writer created when he was still alive. Tolstoy died three years after this building was erected; Pushkin died in 1837 (70 years before), Gogol in 1852 (55 years before).

DSCN9294 DSCN9314 DSCN9313 DSCN9312 DSCN9322 DSCN9323A few sources suggest that Ivan Turgenev is also depicted among the revelers and onlookers here. I did not see him on my own when I discovered the building (Pushkin, Gogol and Tolstoy are obvious), and even after going back over my photos, I continue to have doubts that Turgenev is pictured here. However, since most everything is in the eye of the beholder, I offer a couple of shots that may – I say, may – show a young Turgenev in the embraces of a young woman. Look at the final photo below. Is Turgenev the second figure from the right? (He would be the one on the extreme left in the penultimate photo, just parts of his head and right hand visible on the corner behind the female figure/muse.) Something about the hair, the mouth and the eyes here are reminiscent of some images we have of Turgenev early on in his life. Take a gander at this drawing, for instance. Our bas relief lacks the beard and mustache, to be sure, but some of the other details intrigue, even if they don’t convince entirely. Is this the same figure who stands between Gogol and a woman in the photo immediately above? I don’t know. They look different to me, although the overall composition – minus Gogol – is quite similar.
In short, Turgenev remains a question mark here, but everything else about this place gets exclamation points. I am terribly torn between potential favorites – the fierce Tolstoy backing the oblivious Pushkin into a corner, or the somewhat clueless Gogol trying to squeeze into threesomes without quite figuring out how to do it. Whatever the case, unless someone comes up with some money to save these unique bas reliefs soon, they’ll be long gone and we’ll only have these photos to remind us that they ever existed at all. This building is included on the list of protected architectural sites in Moscow, although, as one can see, nobody seems to be doing anything about stopping the rot. Is it possible that this place makes the authorities too uncomfortable and they are simply waiting for it to self-destruct? You bet it is. And what a shame it will be to lose this wonderful, unexpected treasure.

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Maria Sollogub’s literary salon, Moscow

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This is one of the nicer homes in my expanded neighborhood. Someday I’ll have to leave it behind, but it will always remain strong in my memory. It stands cattycorner across from the Tretyakov Gallery, and directly across from the famous Writers’ house on Lavrushensky Lane. (If you’re one of those, like a benighted editor I once had, who doesn’t know the word cattycorner [or caddycorner], expand your vocabulary: The Grammarist, in a lovely, long article tells us that it means “positioned diagonally across a four-way intersection, but … can work in other contexts relating to one thing being diagonal from another.” It’s a very useful word.) But I already digress.
The main structure at 3 Bolshoi Tolmachyovsky Lane dates back to 1772, while most of the decoration, added after the Moscow Fire of 1812, dates to 1814. The gorgeous wrought-iron gate and fences were originally created in the 1760s, but were not put up here until the 1820s. The wings to either side of the building were added in the years 1849-1859 by then-owner Maria Fyodorovna Sollogub (1821-1888), who is the reason for this post today. (Note that in the historical record her last name is sometimes found spelled with a single “L” but the accepted spelling for her family is with the double “L”.) Maria was born into a well-known and well-connected family in St. Petersburg. Her father was Fyodor Samarin, a military man, and her mother was Sofya Neledinskaya-Meletskaya (whose father, in turn, was something of a poet – one of his poems became the popular romance, “Whenever I Go Out to the River”). Two of her brothers had connections to what today we might call the “creative class” – Dmitry Samarin wrote essays and small books defending Slavophile views, while Yury Samarin was a philosopher and a good friend of many writers, including Konstantin Aksakov, Ivan Kireevsky, Alexei Khomyakov and others. In this family of learned, prominent people, Maria had the opportunity to meet many of the early great Russian writers – including Alexander Pushkin and Nikolai Gogol. Maria was well-educated (at home) and had a sharp, inquisitive mind. She was known to her contemporaries as a brilliant conversationalist. The philosopher and jurist Boris Chicherin called her “one of the most worthy women I ever met in my life” and noted her “solid, clear and fundamental intellect.” As was the rule for the time, she was groomed for marriage and one of the pretenders, if I may put it that way, was Andrei Karamzin, the son of the great historian Nikolai Karamzin. However, her authoritarian father prevailed and in 1846 she was handed in marriage to Lev Sollogub, the older brother of the then well-known writer Vladimir Sollogub, best known for his light society tales and his vaudevillian dramas. In short, Maria was – right from the beginning of her life on through into the thick of it – surrounded by literature and writers.

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That marriage not only brought Maria to Moscow, it turned out to be something of a disaster when, after a few years, Lev Sollogub lost, shall we say, contact with reality, and Maria was left to care for him until he died in 1852. The couple’s only child – Fyodor Sollogub (1848-1890) – became a costume designer for theater, as well as a sometime poet and actor.  (Don’t confuse him with the symbolist Fyodor Sologub, whose real last name was Teternikov.) He was a good friend of Leo Tolstoy’s and stood at the origins of a small theatrical organization with the bland name of the Moscow Society of Lovers of Art and Literature. We remember this society today because it is the place where Konstantin Stanislavsky took his first baby steps in the theater world before moving on to found the Moscow Art Theater. In fact, Stanislavsky credited Sollogub with being one of the few people whose ideas and support helped him consolidate his thoughts on a new kind of theater.
Maria clearly loved and appreciated good company and good talk, for the “evenings” or “get-togethers” or “salons” that she hosted in her home were well-known and well attended. The Russian Field website tells us that “the Sollogub home became a popular literary-political salon, frequenters of which included Alexei Khomyakov, the Kireevsky brothers [Ivan and Pyotr], the Aksakov brothers [Konstantin and Ivan], Konstantin Kavelin, Ivan Turgenev, Boris Chicherin and others. In other words, Slavophiles and Westerners alike gathered here in comfort.”
Details about Maria’s salon are not easy to come by although I did find a description of a theater production of an early Turgenev play that was put on there. Here is a text drawn from a Turgenev website:
“The Provincial Lady was performed on the amateur stage of Countess Sollogub in early January 1851. The author ignored the first performance. But, having heard of its success, he attended the second. Countess M. F. Sollogub was the wife of Lev Alexandrovich Sollogub, a cousin of the Vasilchikovs and Countess Cherkasskaya. Visiting her home, Turgenev naturally met her many relatives, but Countess Cherkasskaya, who played the lead role in the play, disappointed the writer. In a letter to Pauline Viardot on January 5, 1851, he wrote, ‘Day before yesterday I had a great success. The actors were loathsome, especially the heroine (Countess Cherkasskaya), although that did not stop either the public from applauding excessively or me from going backstage to congratulate them heartily. Still and all, I was satisfied that I attended the performance. I think that my play will have success on the theatrical stage, since it has been appreciated, even though it was abominated by dilettantes… I received many congratulations, compliments et cetera. You know, it’s amusing to see your own work on the stage.”
In fact, Turgenev in another letter to his love Viardot (published on the Turgenev page of the az.lib.ru site), reveals that he was quite nervous about the little premiere. Here is an excerpt from a letter he wrote New Year’s Day 1851:
This evening one of my manuscript comedies will be played on the amateur stage at Countess Sollogub’s. I was invited to attend the performance but I, of course, will refrain from that; I am too afraid that I will play a silly role. I’ll write to you about what results.”
As such, in addition to all the interesting conversations and meetings that these walls witnessed during the years that Sollogub lived here, it was also the place of the world premiere of Turgenev’s The Provincial Lady. Sollogub sold the estate in 1882 and it became a gymnasium (high school). It is currently the K.D. Ushinsky pedagogical library.

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Ivan Turgenev visiting place, London

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London gave me my Turgenev comeuppance. Awhile ago I wrote in this space that, for all my respect, Turgenev underwhelms me. Shortly after that I ran into him in Greece, which surprised and pleased me unexpectedly, and recently, when in London, I ran into him all over the place. I even found myself seeking him out. Not him, you obviously understand, but his traces, his places, his ghost. And there are many of those in London. Actually, there are many of them throughout England. I had no idea. How could I possibly have known that Turgenev spent time on the Isle of Wight over a century before Bob Dylan made his famous appearance there with The Band? Or, to be more exact and detailed, that Turgenev began writing his most famous novel, Fathers and Sons, a work that continues to define the Russian psyche today, while living in Ventnor on the south coast of the Isle of Wight? Well, I could have known, of course; you can know anything. And one day we may be able to know everything. I, personally, am not quite there, yet, however. So all this came as a surprise to me. And a pleasant one, at that.
I rather suspect that of all the great Russian writers, Turgenev would have been one of the easiest to sit down with and share a meal or a drink. Don’t you rather imagine Tolstoy or Dostoevsky taking a bite out of you? Each in their own way, of course! Tolstoy would do it without thinking or even noticing. He would be so preoccupied with himself at the time he would probably eat you whole. (Tolstoy once challenged Turgenev to a duel, you know… Turgenev winced and refused.) Dostoevsky would be conducting an experiment of some kind – either on himself or on you… He’d leave part of you unchewed to see what would happen. Or Gogol slinking around darkly and weirdly and then slinking out of the room without saying anything? Or Pushkin brightly playing games with you behind your back and over your head?
Anyway, Turgenev. Turgenev and London. Thanks to a very cool blog by Sarah J. Young, we have a lot of information about Turgenev’s many visits to London, the first coming in July 1847, the last occurring in Oct. 1881. He hung out with Russian emigres, most of them exiles for political reasons, and he hung out with the hoity-toity of literary London. Young writes, “Turgenev cultivated a wide circle of acquaintances among English writers and politicians. In 1857, he met Thomas Carlyle, Lord Macaulay, Benjamin Disraeli, William Thackeray and the philosopher William Whewell…”  One might have added, “in 1957 alone…” Turgenev was a jet-setter long before there were jets. He was all over the place, often chasing after the love of his life, the French opera singer Pauline Viardot (and her husband), but oftentimes not. He was easily the most mobile, cosmopolitan, travel-experienced Russian writer of the 19th century.

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The address we study today is 36 Onslow Square, South Kensington, although, technically speaking, there is no such address today. The numbers at doors of entrance jump from 32 to 38. I didn’t have much doubt that the colonnaded window right next to 38 was the place I was seeking. There is a similar unnumbered window where 34 would be, and then comes 32, with its door. As bad as I am at mathematics, I felt sure I was okay photographing this portal as an entrance that would have existed in the mid-19th century. But it’s one thing to have a good hunch and some good evidence, and it’s another to actually know. So when a mailman walked out of No. 38 I asked him if, indeed, this is where No. 36 would have been. Yes, he said, this building took direct hits during the Nazi bombings in WWII and, when it was reconstructed, the configurations inside, as well as the outside entrances, were redone entirely. They did not renumber anything, but simply omitted those numbers where there were no longer entrances. I didn’t even realize it until I got home, but I caught the mailman in one of my photos – that is he walking past the former No. 36 in the second photo immediately below.
Another reason I felt quite sure I had found my place is a plaque informing us of the fact that William Makepeace Thackeray lived here from 1854 to 1862 (I have seen other dates for his residence, including 1853 to 1861, and 1860 for the end date). The plaque hangs down low, just to the left of the former entrance (see photo immediately below). Here is what Young writes about this address: “…on 9th May [1858], [Turgenev] visited Thackeray at his home at 36 Onslow Square, South Kensington (another address to which he would become a regular visitor), where we have the tantalizing prospect that he may have met Dickens. Thackeray’s diary states that they both called on that date, but there is no information about whether the visits coincided.”
To get a bit of a glimpse of what the property might have looked like when Turgenev was here, you can go to the Victorian Web site, which has a sketch of the building from 1913. Obviously at this time the square was still open to the public. These days it is fenced off and there is no public access.
I have no idea how close Turgenev was to Thackeray. In a link to Leonard Schapiro’s Ivan Turgenev: His Life and Times, the internet coughs up a phrase suggesting that Turgenev “did not much like” Thackeray, but Google will not open that particular page for me, so, until I get around to buying the book for myself, I can’t be sure of what Schapiro actually wrote. I do find the following quote from Alexander Melikhov in Russia Behind the Headlines: when Turgenev told Thackeray that the Russians had a writer named Gogol who was every bit as good as he, “the Englishman laughed. Later, Turgenev would write that ‘the author of Vanity Fair is himself infected with the vice he so mocks.'”

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Russian Literature on Crete, Greece

Crete Bookstore2 Crete Bookstore6Yes, I just happened to be wandering the tiny streets and alleyways of Chania, Crete, Greece, last week, and there he was in all his glory: Ivan Turgenev, or, as the Greeks – Nikos Kazantzakis and Alexandros Papadiamandis among them – would know him: Ιβάν Τουργκένιεφ.
I must admit, I did not recognize the name first, although anyone knowing Russian might be expected to do so relatively quickly, seeing as how written Russian, thanks to efforts of the monks Cyril (Kirill) and Methodius in the 9th century, is built on the basis of the Greek alphabet. But, no, it wasn’t the name that caught my eye: It was the photo of Turgenev, a fairly well-known image, that leaped at me through the window of the Mikro Karavi  (Μικρό Καράβι) bookstore at 59 Daskalogianni Street in the Old City of Chania (that’s pronounced khan-YA). Was this a moment of penance for my having slighted Turgenev a month or so ago in this space? Perhaps. But it is a fact that I reacted to Turgenev’s handsome, cultured and rather melancholy visage as if I had just run across an old friend. I can’t imagine seeing a book by Turgenev displayed prominently in the window of an American bookstore. Let’s not even talk about how long you might have to hunt to find this proverbial American bookstore… It was a jolt of joy.
In any case, Turgenev provided the magnet that made me put the day’s walk on hold for 15 minutes. My wife Oksana and I were headed for the seashore, located about two minutes ahead of us, but I simply could not pass Turgenev by that easily. And when I started to look around I was thrilled to see how prominent the Russians were at this lovely, clean, well-lighted place of a bookshop. Two literary maps on the windows put Leon Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Anton Chekhov, Vladimir Nabakov, Alexander Pushkin and Nikolai Gogol right there in the midst of Haruki Murakami, Jack Kerouac, Ismail Kadare, Amos Oz and many others. But this little ship of books (for that is what mikro karavi means) had more pleasures waiting for me inside, not the least of which was the huge board of writers’ names that hangs behind the cash register. On it, Dostoevsky’s name is matched in size only by those of Euripides, Jorge Luis Borges, Miguel de Cervantes and Omiros (whom you may know better as Homer). A quick search of the shelves – because I’ll admit, the call of the sea was growing stronger – led me to the letter ‘T’ where I found two volumes by Tolstoy (War and Peace and Resurrection) and another by Turgenev (Fathers and Sons). You can see those in the second-to-last photo below.

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There is a good reason why Russian literature would occupy a place of honor not only in Greece, but on Crete specifically, and his name is Nikos Kazantzakis. He was born in the city of Heraklion on Crete, perhaps an hour’s drive to the east of Chania. This was before Crete was part of Greece proper, but that is beyond the pale of my thoughts today. The fact remains that Kazantzakis, one of the great Greek writers, the author of Zorba the Greek, The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, and The Last Temptation of Christ, was deeply affected by Russian culture and literature. One nice little detail that connects Kazantzakis to Chania is that his grave lies near the Chania Gate of the wall surrounding Heraklion. The church refused to allow him to be buried in the city cemetery. Like Leo Tolstoy, who was excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox Church, Kazantzakis had been too much a free-thinker to suit the rigid requirements of the Greek Orthodox Church. According to a wonderful chronology of Kazantzakis’s life, published in The Selected Letters of Nikos Kazantzakis, in October of 1915, Kazantzakis, very much under the influence of Tolstoy’s writings, “decides that religion is more important than literature and vows to begin where Tolstoy left off.”
Kazantzakis had a serious flirtation with Russian culture, and Soviet politics, throughout the 1920s and early 1930s. He traveled to the Soviet Union at least four times between 1925 and 1929 (living and traveling there for a solid 18 months from 1927 to 1929), and he left behind many writings about his experiences. Some were for lectures that he delivered around the world, others were for an Athenian newspaper paying him to send reports, and still others were far more in-depth. Perhaps the peak of Kazantzakis’s involvement with Russian literature came in 1930 when he wrote a two-volume history of the topic.
At one point Kazantzakis had thoughts of settling in the Soviet Union for good. He was witness to a time of turmoil and difficulty. A convinced Communist, he could not have known about the deadly fire that would engulf the next decade and a half in the Soviet Union, but it’s quite clear he was a perceptive observer. On November 4, 1927, he wrote to his future wife Eleni Samiou, “The tempo of Russian life has changed – it’s different from 1925. The official rhythm of life is quieter now; there is a certain embourgeoisement. The arrivistes have arrived and do not budge; the women have begun to descend again to their lowest cravings; the men are tired. Fortunately, the great internal struggle between Trotsky and Stalin lends new life and fire to the Russian soul. This is a critical moment for Russia; everyone expects the Europeans to start a war against them, and every day a horde of women and men queue up at the stores to get an extra supply of flour.”
Thus it is that we now smile as we read Kazantzakis’s references to Moscow as “the red Bethlehem” (as he wrote to Elli Lambridi on the morning of the 10th anniversary of the Revolution). By the end of World War II he had abandoned Communism, though not his leftist beliefs.
Not surprisingly, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky probably had the biggest influence on Kazantzakis of all the Russian writers. He wrote a chapter called “Tolstoy and Dostoevsky” in his book What I Saw in Russia. But he was also moved by the writings of Lev Shestov, the incisive Russian-Jewish philosopher and religious thinker, and Lewis Owens, in his book Creative Destruction: Nikos Kazantzakis and the Literature of Responsibility, devotes an entire chapter to Kazantzakis’s ties to the work of the prominent philosopher Nikolai Berdyayev (usually known as Nicholas Berdyaev in the West). This chapter also notes that Kazantzakis became a close friend of the unique emigre Russian writer Alexei Remizov. In fact, the two were so in synch, that, as we are told, “they never quarreled.” It is interesting to consider and ponder these affinities and friendships, as Shestov, Berdyaev and Remizov were among those who “escaped” the Soviet experiment for the safety of Europe, while their friend Kazantzakis was still very much enthralled with the possibilities of the nation they had given up on and abandoned.

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Ivan Turgenev bust, Moscow

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I have always read an unkind cut into a line that Chekhov wrote in The Seagull. You may remember it; it comes as Trigorin, the veteran writer in the play, talks about his place in Russian letters.
When I die, my friends will pass my grave and say: “Here lies Trigorin. He was a good writer, but he wrote worse than Turgenev.”
This pithy little phrase is the punch line, if you will, of a long monologue in which Trigorin also admits he can’t hold a candle to Tolstoy. But it’s the Turgenev comparison that lives a life of it’s own – a good writer, but worse than Turgenev. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’ve always read a jab into that “worse than Turgenev.” It’s almost as if Chekhov originally wrote “even worse” but then thought better of it and cut that out. And yet the scribbled-out word continues to show through in the text even today.
I’m making a mountain out of a molehill. I’m probably wrong. But that’s never stopped me before. Being wrong is one of the ways we find out things about the world and ourselves. So I’ll just go along imagining that I can hear – even if I can’t see it – that crossed-out “even” in Trigorin’s little speech.
But enough of that, for we are here today to do honor to Turgenev. And, damn it, it’s rather hard to do! He was a good writer, but he was “worse” than Tolstoy, “worse” than Dostoevsky, his contemporaries. He was not as daring a writer as Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, not as expressive a writer as Alexander Ostrovsky, not as unique as Nikolai Leskov…
Maybe I got up on the wrong side of the bed today. Yesterday I took these photos of a bust honoring Turgenev (1818-1883) and I thought, “What a nice thing that I finally found something honoring Turgenev.” Because one doesn’t really sense his presence in Moscow. Gogol, Tolstoy, even Dostoevsky, who belongs to St. Petersburg, have a good grip on the consciousness of the city. Pushkin – well, Pushkin is everywhere. Turgenev is generally considered to be among that pantheon, but where do you find him if you’re looking for him in Moscow? Аside from a little bust among a dozen others on the facade of the Lenin Library (about which you can read elsewhere on this blog), it’s only here, at the Turgenev Library at 6 Bobrov Lane. And there’s something rather after-thoughtish about this bust and its environs.
It stands in the courtyard of the Turgenev Memorial Library. Sounds wonderful. Except that the original library, built specifically as a library honoring Turgenev in 1885, was levelled by the Moscow authorities in 1972 when they were “improving streets.” It was rebuilt, using old plans, between 1995 and 2004. It’s a nice copy, but it is a copy and so I chose not to include it in this selection of photos.

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The bust itself is also something of a curiosity. Nowhere on it or on the pedestal does it bear the name of the sculptor. There apparently is a good reason for that, since the image of this marble bust created by Nikolai Kosov is, in fact, a mere copy of a clay bust created earlier by Sergei Konenkov. This clay bust stood for some 30 years inside the library but time took its toll and, even well out of the dangers of Moscow’s severe weather, the clay deteriorated beyond repair. It was then decided to create this marble copy of the original, and to place it where it would be accessible to anyone passing by.
All of this just seems too little and too petty for the man who wrote Fathers and Sons (more correctly, Fathers and Children), The Notes of a Hunter, A Nest of Gentlefolk, Torrents of Spring, the seminal Russian drama A Month in the Country, and much more. This little bust, a copy of a clay original, doesn’t reflect the stature which Gustave Flaubert attributed to Turgenev: “I have considered you a master for a long time. But the more I study you, the more your skill leaves me gaping. I admire the vehement yet restrained quality of your writing, the fellow feeling that extends to the lowest of human creatures and brings landscapes to life.” (That’s pulled from a New York Times review of a publication of the correspondence between Turgenev and Flaubert.) But even there, look at Flaubert’s much sexier, much more explosive comment that the NYT editors pulled up into the title of the review article: “Thank you for making me read Tolstoy’s novel!” (He meant War and Peace, naturally.)
Ai-yai-yai! Does anyone hear a “Gosh, you’re a good writer, you really are, but that Tolstoy, you write worse than him!”
Turgenev, like Trigorin, knew full well what it was like to live in the shadow of those who were greater still.
Then there’s the insult that adds disgrace to injury… Take a close look at Ivan’s nose in these photos. Yes, it’s true. Some nasty, culture-hating street urchin hauled off and gave the marble Turgenev such a whack on the nose that he knocked it clean off. You can see quite clearly where the bust has been repaired.
But by bothering to drag that into my story I have really sunk too low.
Turgenev doesn’t deserve my sarcasm. I am giving free reign today to all that is base and mean in me. Turgenev was the third Russian writer I encountered (following Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, in that order). I read him with… I read him with… I read him with thoughts of, “Mmm, this is nice. I wonder where I can get some more Dostoevsky…” Damn, there I go again. But as the Russians say, you can’t toss words out of a song, and what was is what was. And what did, indeed, take place as I swept through Russian literature in my youth (as it swept through me) is that Tolstoy and Dostoevsky put stakes in my heart. Turgenev was nice. Very nice. And then Gogol and Pushkin put me flat on my back. Those are the words of that song, and it’s the only way to sing it.
It’s a whole other thing that I, and maybe not only I, could use a rediscovery of Turgenev. Maybe I’m not seeing him, like Muscovites can hardly see him. Maybe I’m blinded and prejudiced and ignorant and confused. If so, all I can say is: Bring on enlightenment. I’m ready.
Finally, I ran across a piece hanging around in the internet for over two years that indicates there have been conversations about erecting another, more prominent, monument to Turgenev in Moscow. This would be outside the house on Ostozhenka where the writer’s mother lived in the 1840s and 1850s. It is now a Turgenev museum, an affiliate (hear that?! hear that?!) of the Pushkin Museum. Anyway, as far as I know, nothing has ever been done about actually making the proposed monument a reality. Maybe everybody just got bored and fell asleep after bringing the topic up…
Slap my hands! Slap my hands!

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