Tag Archives: Joseph Stalin

Alexander Fadeev plaque, Moscow

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This is one of the gloomiest places in Moscow, I think. I feel the oppression of the surroundings whenever I am here, and I have been here many hundreds, if not thousands of times over the last 28 years. The heavy, stone walls. The pompous columns crammed into space too small to fit and too high to see properly. The messy pipes and sloppy stray wiring and unused decorative grills. The noise and the arrogance of Tverskaya Street… All of these things influence what I feel when I am here. But there’s a lot more to it than that. One building away from here is the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall, stolen from Vsevolod Meyerhold before he could build his planned theatre here in the late 1930s, and before he was shot in a Lubyanka basement in 1940. A towering monument to Vladimir Mayakovsky, all bright and  bushy-tailed, stands a few hundred feet from here on Triumphal Square – yes, the poet who shot himself out of despair at the age of 37 in 1930. I’ve written about all these places elsewhere in this space. Go to Meyerhold or Mayakovsky or Lubyanka if you’re interested.
But there is another reason for the morbidity and despondency that overcome me here. Alexander Fadeev lived here at 27 Tverskaya Street from 1948 to 1956. I’ve written about Fadeev a time or two on this blog, so I’ve already laid out the basic facts of this tragic personality’s biography. It goes from the high hopes and praise garnered by an early novel (The Rout, 1927), to a self-inflicted bullet wound that in 1956 killed the man, an alcohol-soaked, bought-and-sold government functionary at the age of 54. Although this precise spot on the map is not where Fadeev did his final deed – that was done at his dacha in Peredelkino – still, as his last address of record it is closely bound up in his ultimate, despairing act of self-destruction suggesting that conscience had not yet abandoned him entirely.
Look at how short a human being’s life is. Consider how little time we have to make our mistakes, take our chances, and reap what we will from that. First major success in 1927. Dead by suicide 1956, 29 years later.
The fact of the matter is that Fadeev supported or led many of the most heinous Soviet policies by which writers and other artists were not only driven out of their professions, but were often arrested, tortured and/or killed. He once called Joseph Stalin “the greatest humanist the world has ever known.” (Interesting fact: Most of today’s leading Russian writers and artists – I know many of them personally – would not be caught dead sharing space with the “humanist” word. It is considered an evil, horrible notion. When we look at the way the notion of “humanist” was mutilated and transmogrified into its precise opposite by folks such as Fadeev, we begin to understand the squeamishness of our contemporaries.) Fadeev stood by as dozens of the greatest Russian artists of his time were persecuted and executed. Occasionally he just stood by silently; sometimes he even helped them out; but there were times he was part of the machine that sent the most talented minds of the time to a bitter end. What did this do to the man? Here is something he said about himself later in his life, drawn from a detailed biography on the So People Will Remember website:
God gave me a soul that is capable of seeing, remembering and feeling good, happiness and life, but since I am constantly distracted by life’s swells and am incapable of controlling myself or putting my will at the service of reason, rather than express to people this life-spirit and good in my own personal life – as elemental and vain as it is – I transform this life-spirit and good into its opposite and, since I am easily offended and I have the conscience of a tax-collector, I am particularly weak when I feel I am guilty of something, and, as a result, I torment myself and I repent and I lose all sense of spiritual equilibrium.”

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Throughout his adult life Fadeev mixed the life of a writer with that of a bureaucrat. He once admitted that he could not imagine life without conflict – it wouldn’t be life otherwise. Even before the publication of his first major novel he played a major role in the creation and running of RAPP, the notorious Russian Association of Proletarian Writers. It was one of the first “cultural” organizations in the early Soviet period that took it upon itself to police and chastise artists who strayed from the Communist Party line. Remaining with RAPP until its dissolution in 1932, he immediately joined the Writers Union and worked his way up the ladder there. That increasingly repressive organization made him one of the most powerful, feared and hated individuals in the Soviet literary world. He was secretary of the Union from 1939 to 1944; the general secretary from 1944 to 1954; and secretary of the board from 1954 to 1956. You will notice that within a year of Stalin’s death (1953) Fadeev was kicked upstairs and that within three months of Nikita Khrushchev’s famous denunciation of Stalinism at the 20th Party Congress in February 1956, Fadeev was dead.
If you like numbers, you will also see that Fadeev moved into the prestigious digs at the apartment building on Tverskaya Street just two years after his most famous novel, the patriotic The Young Guard, was published in 1946.
Fadeev’s suicide note (not published until 1990) was long, angry and despairing. The writer/bureaucrat lashed out at all kinds of enemies, but also revealed his own personal pain and, perhaps, guilt. Dated the day of his death, May 13, 1956, and addressed to the Central Committee of the Communist Party, it begins with the following words:
I see no possibility of living on since the art, to which I devoted my life, has been destroyed by the self-assured, ignorant leadership of the party, and now nothing can be done to correct that. The best cadres of literature –  in number so much greater than the Tsar’s strongmen could ever have dreamed – were physically destroyed, or were lost due to the criminal connivance of those in power. The best men of literature died too early; the rest, still of some value, and capable of creating true values, died before reaching the age of 40-50.”
He rants at bureaucrats and other evil people who destroyed lives and art, almost as if he doesn’t realize the brutal irony – that he stood at the head of one of those horrible machines. But then he adds:
Born to make great art in the name of communism, associated with the party, workers and peasants for 16 years, and possessing extraordinary, God-given talent, I was filled with the highest thoughts and feelings which can come into being only due to the life of the people, coupled with the beautiful ideas of communism.” Then there comes that but, that huge, crushing but: “But I was turned into a draft horse. I spent my entire life groaning under the weight of mediocre, unjustifiable and countless bureaucratic affairs that could have been performed by anyone.”
Backing off slightly from his former adoration of Stalin, Fadeev declares that the new people who have come into power are utterly worthless and that “we can expect worse from them than even from the strongman Stalin. He was at least educated – these are ignoramuses.”
Yes, yes, yes. All of that, I say all of that blows in the wind around the building at 27 Tverskaya Street. The place has the look and the temperature of death, ignorance, lies…
And of messy paradoxes… Let me add one more story from an article by Pavel Basinsky in 2015. Just one month before Fadeev shot himself, the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova presented Fadeev with a collection of her poetry and signed it, “To a big writer and a good person.” That may be even more bizarre than any of the contradictions wending through Fadeev’s biography. After all, Fadeev was one of the leaders of the so-called Zhdanovism attacks on writers in 1946. He personally called Akhmatova out as a “vulgarity of Soviet literature.” In 1939, doing his bureaucratic duty, he personally banned the publication of some of her poetry. Meanwhile, as a bureaucrat, he helped her find an apartment when she needed one and he even nominated her for a Stalin Prize in 1940.
Go figure. But I come back to what I say. The air around 27 Tverskaya Street is as rotten as it is anywhere in this city.

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Pavel Vasilyev plaque, Moscow

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It  seems to be a time of discovering poets for me. A few days ago it was Richard Ter-Pogosian. Now it is another. I was walking through my former city of Moscow yesterday and happened upon a plaque I didn’t know commemorating a poet I’d never heard of – Pavel Vasilyev, who lived in this building at 26 Fourth Tverskaya-Yamskaya Street in 1936 and 1937. Yes, you probably guessed right: that latter date is also the poet’s year of death. The meat grinder year. The year of blood. The year of hatred, lies, villainy and infamy. What will ever be done to wash away the sins of that year? Nothing? Can nothing wash those sins away? And what happens if that is true?
But let’s narrow the conversation a bit; bring it back to this new poet in my life. These days, with our instant access to information, it is not difficult to begin understanding the stature that Vasilyev enjoyed for a brief time in his life. The number of poets, writers and others singing his praises in the late 1920s, early 1930s is more than merely impressive – it is downright imposing. As Valentin Antonov wrote in an eye-opening blog in 2009, you can begin the list with Alexei Tolstoy, Anatoly Lunacharsky, Ryurik Ivlev and Vladimir Soloukhin. Our purposes today will be served by Boris Pasternak, who wrote in 1956 (presumably taking part in Vasilyev’s “rehabilitation,” which occurred that year):
At the beginning of the 1930s Pavel Vasilyev impressed me upon first discovery approximately as had Yesenin and Mayakovsky before him. He was comparable to them, particularly to Yesenin, by his creative expressiveness, the power of his gift and his great, infinite promise, because he lacked the tragic explosiveness, which internally cut short the lives of the latter two, and he commanded a cold composure allowing him to control his turbulent instincts. He possessed that bright, happy and quick imagination, without which great poetry does not exist, the likes of which in such abundance I have never seen again in all the years that have passed since  his death.”
That is no rote, routine recommendation. Pasternak here, in just a few lines, places Vasilyev among (and to some extent, above) the greatest poets of his time.
Wolfgang Kasack, the great German scholar, called Vasilyev’s poetry “antiurban, erotic and associated with the free life of the Cossacks.” Later in his entry in his Dictionary of Russian Literature since 1917, he adds: “Vasilyev’s poetry is characterized by an earthy, graphic power. Fairy-tale elements mingle with Cossack history and a revolutionary present. Strong characters, powerful animals, fierce action and the colorful landscape of the steppes are expressively combined in scenes that create great forward momentum with varied rhythms. Bloody revolutionary events experienced in Vasilyev’s childhood are presented without reference to historical persons or incidents.”
Vasilyev’s stance – and one did have to have a stance in those years; it was virtually impossible to stand and watch tumultuous events pass by – was a confused one. As an 11 year-old schoolboy he wrote a poem dedicated to Vladimir Lenin that was picked up and turned into a song by his teacher and classmates. He seemed to sing the praises of the Revolution at times, while at others he was clearly at odds with its consequences. By the early 1930s he was constantly running into trouble. His fate was probably sealed when Maxim Gorky (yes, that slipperly ol’ Maxim Gorky again) in 1934 accused him of “drunkenness, hooliganism and violating the law on residence registration.”
What the hell? Was Gorky playing the role of the pot calling the kettle black? I don’t know; I’ll have to look into this some day. But here are some of the facts of the end process:
Vasilyev was first arrested in 1932, although was released before long. Gorky jumped on his back in 1934 and, surely consequently, Vasilyev was kicked out of the brand-new Writers Union in January 1935. Six months later he was arrested again, this time for engaging in what, by all accounts, was a nasty, drunken, public fight with a poet known as Jack (Yakov) Altauzen. Judging by the record, Vasilyev’s antisemitic views were well known, and this brawl appears to have been a flare-up of racist behavior. Vasilyev was released early again, in 1936. In February 1937 he was arrested still again for the supposed crime of belonging to a terrorist group whose purpose was to assassinate Joseph Stalin. He was condemned to be shot and the sentence was carried out July 16, 1937, in the Lefortovo prison. Similar to his contemporary, Vsevolod Meyerhold, his remains lie in an unmarked grave in the Donskoi Monastery.

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Pavel Vasilyev (1909-1937) was a restless man. Even with his family as a youth he traveled often from town to town. His father was a teacher and held many different jobs. The poet was born in the town of Zaisan in what is now known as the Republic of Kazakhstan. Other cities figuring in his biography are Pavlodar, Sandyktav Station, Atbasar, Petropavlovsk, Omsk, Vladivostok, Khabarovsk, Novosibirsk and Moscow. He spent time as a fisherman and prospector on the Irtysh and Selemidzha rivers. He also worked as a journalist, leading him toward the life of writer and poet. His first published poem was called “October,” and was printed in Vladivostok on Nov. 6, 1926. His poems were soon picked up by many of the top publications in the Soviet Union, including Izvestia, Novy Mir, Literary gazette, Ogonyok and many others. At the same time, much of his work could not be published. For example, in the early 1930s he wrote a series of ten folkloric, historical verse epics, although only one, The Salt Riot (1934), saw the light of day. Either because of his poetry, his personality, or his intolerant world view – or, perhaps, because of all three together – he eventually came upon his downfall. It is accepted knowledge that Vasilyev was the prototype for the main character, an antihero, spy and ruffian named Andrei Abrikosov in Ivan Pyryev’s popular film The Party Ticket (1936). Note that he was portrayed here as a spy a year before he was executed for being a spy…
I don’t know enough about Vasilyev to take sides for or against him in regards to his character or lack thereof. I do, however, see a depressingly familiar case of a talented, unusual person being singled out by the in-crowd and turned into a victim and a scapegoat. The story of Pavel Vasilyev may be messy and paradoxical. But it ends with a gunshot – probably to his head – which gives him certain rights in retrospect.
Here is a poem written in February 1937, presumably after he had been arrested:

Red-breast finches flutter up…
So soon, to my misfortune,
I’ll see the green eye of the wolf
In hostile northern lands.

We shall be heartsick and forlorn,
Though fragrant as wild honey.
Unnoticed, time frames will collapse
As gray enshrouds our curls.

And then I’ll tell you, sweet:
“The days fly by like leaves upon the wind,
It’s good that in a former life
We found each other then lost it all…”

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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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Dmitry Shostakovich plaque, Voronezh

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Dmitry Shostakovich made two trips to Voronezh, one in 1933, and another in 1957. It’s an interesting spread in time. When Shostakovich performed at the Spartak cinema house on Dec. 20, 1933, with Vissarion Shebalin, he was still probably something of an unknown outside of musical circles. Among the cognoscenti he was already tabbed as one of the potentially great figures of the future. In any case, at that moment he still saw a cloudless sky stretching out before him. His works were being performed with increasing success in the West and throughout the Soviet Union, he was collaborating with such luminaries as Vsevolod Meyerhold and Vladimir Mayakovsky. It was just over two years later, on Jan. 28, 1936, that the famous “Muddle Instead of Music” attack – provoked by Joseph Stalin – hit him in Pravda, one of the Soviet government’s two main mouthpieces. That came as a response to Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which was written in the two years immediately before the composer visited Voronezh, but premiered (in St. Petersburg) just one month after that visit, on January 22, 1934.
By the time of his 1957 Voronezh concert on Oct. 11, Shostakovich was a veteran of the Soviet culture wars. He had been chewed up, wrung out, spat out and fully embraced  by the government apparatus (one of the worst things that could have happened to him). By this time he had, in other words, two contradictory reputations – one as someone who had run afoul of the authorities and had suffered seriously for it, and another as someone that the authorities had taken under their wing and used as propaganda whenever and wherever they saw fit. It was a nasty place for an artist to be and it – to use that horrible word that Pravda threw at him – has “muddled” his reputation ever since.
The hall which hosted the 1957 concert was, and still is, the Officers House, located at 32 Revolution Prospekt. Shostakovich conducted an orchestra that played his compositions, although I have not determined what those works were specifically.
In my searches I did, however, run across another tidbit of interesting information (that may be an overly strong word) that would appear to be connected to Shostakovich’s appearance in Voronezh. A book titled 40 Songs of V[ano] Muradeli, V[enedikt] Pushkov, and D. Shostakovich, published in Moscow in 1957, showed up at an auction in Voronezh a few years ago. One can’t help but wonder if an extra lot of these books was sent to Voronezh in the hopes that it would sell well during the composer’s visit. Thus it was that the relatively rare book showed up in Voronezh, rather than some other city, many decades later. Just enjoying a bit of speculation here…

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The unveiling of the plaque honoring Shostakovich was a major event for the city, as much thanks to Mstislav Rostropovich as to  the memory of Shostakovich. Rostropovich (about whom I have written several times on this blog – click his name to the left) traveled to Voronezh specially to attend the ceremony. On that occasion, Rostropovich told a local newspaper, “I love Voronezh very much, but from this day on I will love it even more. Because this city has risen in my esteem by unveiling a plaque to a genius. And I am very grateful to you for that, for this was my favorite composer and teacher. Shostakovich came to Voronezh twice. He gave a concert in the auditorium of the Spartak cinema house in 1933, and in October 1957 – at the Officers House. It is right here where the memory of Dmitry Dmitrievich has been memorialized.”
Without quoting Rostropovich verbatim, Vesti.ru reported that the great violist recalled the difficult circumstances in which Shostakovich had to live and work, although he added that the harassment of the Soviet state and the official banning of his concerts never broke Shostakovich’s innovative spirit.
Several people who attended the 1957 concert were present to bear witness on that day, Dec. 11, 2006, when the plaque was revealed to the public. One was Tamara Yurova, a professor at the Voronezh Academy of Arts. “There were not many people in attendance,” Yurova is quoted as saying, “probably because the scope of Dmitry Dmitrievich’s gift and the true scope of his personality, the beauty and depth of his works, were then not obvious even to all musicians. However, the atmosphere was marvelous. The people of Voronezh received Shostakovich warmly.” (This quote combines two different versions that are posted on kommuna.ru and on Vesti.ru.)
I direct those interested in minutiae to the official Voronezh city document that set the unveiling of the plaque in motion, the Resolution No. 2117 of the Head of the City Region of the City of Voronezh, dated Dec. 21, 2005, and officially titled: “On the Mounting of a Memorial Plaque Honoring D.D. Shostakovich.” This document, signed by B.M. Skrynnikov, the Head of the City Region, establishes the place where the plaque shall be hung, what shall be written on it (“The great composer Dmitry Dmitrivich Shostakovich [1906-1975] performed here in October 1957”), and who shall pay for it – the Voronezh region NTV television channel.
For the record, this was still before NTV turned into the blood-sucking, lie-mongering pack of snakes that it has since become…

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Sergei Eisenstein base, Los Angeles

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I must explain the odd, even misleading, title to today’s post. This home at 614 North Arden Drive in Beverly Hills was not Sergei Eisenstein’s home. It is, however, one of the physical locations closely connected to his Hollywood sojourn in 1930. (He traveled from New York to the West Coast in the second half of 1930 and left for Mexico in December of that same year). The house belonged to the novelist Upton Sinclair, who may or may not have said to Eisenstein at one point, ‘mi casa es su casa.’ In any case, the two at this time were just beginning their short-lived collaboration on the ill-fated Que Viva, Mexico! project – Sinclair producing, with Eisenstein directing and overseeing the writing of the script (attributed to Grigory Alexandrov). To round out the Russian team, all of whom were in L.A. together, the cinematography was the work of the great Eduard Tisse.
According to Lionel Rolfe’s Literary L.A., during the Great Depression Sinclair “was able to lease a genuine Beverly Hills mansion at 614 North Arden Drive; it was cheap, he pointed out, because there was no market then for big houses. Sinclair was doing very well financially – so much so that his old friend Charlie Chaplin got him both financially and creatively involved with the great Russian film director Sergei Eisenstein. Eisenstein spent several months and a pile of Sinclair’s money working on his Que Viva, Mexico! – later Thunder Over Mexico, which remained uncompleted.”
It was a confusing time. Sinclair was a leftist writer who dabbled in politics (running unsuccessfully for the office of governor of California in 1934). Eisenstein was an artist doing his best to stay out of the way of politics, but not doing a sufficiently good job of that.
Joseph Stalin’s name runs in and out of the thread of the story. Ronald Bergan’s book Eisenstein: A Life in Conflict, tells us that Sinclair wrote to Stalin on Oct. 26, 1931:
You may have heard that I have taken the job of financing a moving picture which the Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein is making in Mexico. It is going to be an extraordinary work, and I think will be a revelation of the moving-picture art… Some day you will see the picture which Eisenstein is making, and realise that Soviet technique has advanced another step and been crowned with fresh laurels.”
It’s easy for us to laugh now. Appealing to Stalin on the assumption that he will value artistic achievement! But Sinclair was just following what, at that time, was becoming a tradition – artists appealing to Stalin’s aesthetic taste and/or pride in Russian/Soviet artistic accomplishments. Pasternak did it. Gorky did it. Stanislavsky did it. Only the lazy, it would seem, didn’t do it. Not that it did any good. And it surely didn’t do Sinclair or Eisenstein any good. Just one month later, on Nov. 21, 1931, Sinclair received a cable from Stalin. As quoted in Bergan’s book, it read:
EISENSTEIN LOOSE [sic] HIS COMRADES CONFIDENCE IN SOVIET UNION STOP HE IS THOUGHT TO BE DESERTER WHO BROKE OFF WITH HIS OWN COUNTRY STOP AM AFRAID THE PEOPLE HERE WOULD HAVE NO INTEREST IN HIM STOP AM VERY SORRY BUT ALL ASSERT IT IS THE FACT STOP MY REGARDS STOP STALIN.”

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Eisenstein wasn’t the only one under scrutiny, however. Sinclair ran into some serious bad publicity precisely for acquiring this Beverly Hills home which was the site of much of the planning for Que Viva, Mexico! He positioned himself as the champion of the poor and downtrodden – leading the EPIC (End Poverty in California) movement – yet was snapping up choice real estate while the economy was tanking. The L.A. Times, by way of owner Harry Chandler and star attack-dog columnist Henry Carr, went after Sinclair publicly for making big profits on real estate in Long Beach and for acquiring the Beverly Hills mansion from a financially strapped owner. As reported by Kevin Starr, in Endangered Dreams: The Great Depression in California, Sinclair and his wife Mary “picked up the forclosed Beverly Hills property for a song… and with no down payment demanded by the distressed owners.”
So there we have it – the leftist writer/producer/politician is making a killing off of real estate deals, and the Communist film director is squandering both the capitalist’s money and his Communist leader’s confidence. All of that happening in the short time that the two men were brought together, in part, by the structure you see pictured here today.
In fact, this building, to a certain extent, was witness to the failure of both men’s big projects at the time. In order to continue running for governor in 1934, Sinclair was forced politically to unload the Beverly Hills home, but it was too late. His candidacy failed. Meanwhile, Eisenstein had been compelled to return to Moscow, leaving New York by ship on April 19, 1932, and arriving in the Soviet capital in May 1932, because Stalin was already beginning to move against the director by targeting his family. (The secret police had made several visits to Eisenstein’s mother, and had confiscated the family jewels.)
To make the whole story messier, a cache of beautiful drawings by Eisenstein, many erotic and homosexual in nature, had been confiscated by U.S. customs agents when Eisenstein was on the way out of the country. Again, according to Bergan’s book, Sinclair learned of this and acquired some copies. And then this fine man who so often tried to do the right thing, committed a fateful and heinous act. He denounced Eisenstein to the Soviet authorities, writing on March 19, 1032, “It appears that Eisenstein spends all his leisure time in making very elaborate obscene drawings. I have a specimen of his work brought from Mexico. It is identified as Eisenstein’s by his handwriting on it. Believe me, it is not an anatomy study nor a work of art or anything of that sort; it is plain smut. Hunter [Kimbrough, Sinclair’s brother-in-law] tells me that Eisenstein presented a series of such drawings to the young owner of the hacienda, and they were so bad that this educated young Mexican refused to put them up in his den.”
Perhaps angered by the photos, certainly unhappy about dumping a huge amount of money into the now-defunct Que Viva, Mexico! project, Sinclair tried to minimize losses by releasing his own film Thunder Over Mexico (1933) using a small amount of Eisenstein’s footage. This all made the once-friends and collaborators into enemies forever. The house at 614 North Arden Drive stands as a monument to their brief friendship and all the bright hopes they both harbored for future success.

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Fyodor Dostoevsky monument, Moscow

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I recently hinted I would write about this monument to Fyodor Dostoevsky soon and I’ve been itching to ever since. Because I love this thing. It seems like a great big secret right out in the open of the big city. That is not just me talking, it was actually intended that way. You see, this monument created by Sergei Merkurov was originally unveiled November 7, 1918, on Tsvetnoi Boulevard, where it would have been extremely prominent. But guess who didn’t like it there in the 1930s? Yeah, well. If it wasn’t Joe Stalin himself, it was someone very close to him, close enough to answer for the Big Man. And so this strange, wonderful piece of sculpture was relegated to the square by the building where Dostoevsky was born (see my blog of a few days ago) and in front of the former hospital where his father worked. The removal of the monument to this location took place in 1936. It is set back quite a ways from the street behind a tall fence with several locked gates. To get to the monument you have to circle way around the left side of the building complex and come in from the garages. When you finally get there you feel very isolated and you sense Dostoevsky’s isolation. There are no people around. Nobody really seems to be caring for the space – the grass is left to grow as it will and I traipsed through knee-high weeds to get some of my favorite shots here, including the two immediately below.
Those who know Dostoevsky will understand that these are quite incongruous shots, and that this is an unusual setting for a monument to Dostoevsky. He was an urban animal through and through. Tolstoy and Turgenev loved Russian nature and they described it with beauty and power. Dostoevsky, one might think, never noticed a tree or, at least, a group of trees in his life. His settings were the jungle of St. Petersburg, its asphalt streets packed with indifferent people, its artificial canals, its dark, foreboding, manmade buildings. And here he is, exiled, if you will, to a tiny patch of lush, billowing nature in the middle of Moscow. It’s almost shocking to see when you come upon it.

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The image itself is almost daunting. It is actually off-putting at first glance. You rebel against it. It is too weird and too sick. Those hands, twisted and clenched, suggest a man losing his mind. The hunched posture combined with the severe gaze aimed at the earth all suggest pain and confusion. There is in this a reminder of the fact that Dostoevsky always provided an earth-bound view of humanity in his works, as opposed to Tolstoy, who so easily slipped into a God’s-eye view of things. Dostoevsky, for all his religious sufferings, grappled with the battles that occur on earth. And when you draw back from the sculpture and consider the image in relation to the earth on which it stands, you can even see a tad of squeamishness in Dostoevsky. Is he horrified by what he sees? Is it something awful? Is that the dead pawnbroker lying in a pool of blood down there, or is it Raskolnikov refusing to repent?
Why has Dostoevsky’s drape slipped off his left shoulder? Is he in an asylum? Is this a hospital gown? Then look at the left-side profile (third photo in the next section) and you realize the extent to which this is not a realistic portrait at all. The haircut, the shape of the beard – they’re not abstract, but they are definitely geometrical or Cubist-influenced.
Of course, all of these things together provide the answer to why the Soviet authorities finally had to hide this masterful piece of sculpture. It called into question too much of what they then were preaching.
What’s interesting, however, is how strong and powerful a figure Dostoevsky makes here. Yes, he’s sick. Yes, he’s confused and, perhaps, squeamish. But look at that massive body, that thick, powerful neck rising from broad shoulders. He is, with all of his pallid sickliness, a robust, almost crushingly mighty presence. Paradoxical? Weak-strength? Strong-weakness? Well, you see, Merkurov was working his way right into the essence of Dostoevsky. Which is why, when you spend time with this work of art, you are drawn into its orbit. It’s beautiful. It works.

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Merkurov (1881-1952) was a much-lauded Soviet sculptor, winning two Stalin Prizes and an Order of Lenin. He created numerous statues of both Stalin and Lenin. He was a leader in the genre, or movement, of monumentalism. He was the creator of the three largest monumental sculptures in the Soviet Union. Many of his works – because they were of Lenin and Stalin – have been destroyed in the last 25 years. But Merkurov was already a major artist before the Soviet period began. This Dostoevsky sculpture was actually conceived in 1905 and created in 1914. Interestingly, one of the two individuals commissioning this sculpture was Lev Tolstoy. Every bit as interesting is the fact that the future great cabaret singer Alexander Vertinsky stood in as the model for the work. That, actually, partly explains the monument’s fluid, rather odd physical gestures. Vertinsky had a very distinct physical manner about him.
Merkurov studied philosophy in Zurich beginning in 1902, where he occasionally attended lectures and discussions involving Lenin. At that time he became interested in sculpture and he moved to Paris where he lived and worked from 1905 to 1907. Merkurov was considered one of the great creators of death masks, and he was specifically invited to create the death mask of Tolstoy in 1910. He created the fine sculpture of Tolstoy that stands in the courtyard of the main Tolstoy museum in Moscow. (You can see photos of that in a blog I wrote a year or so ago.)

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Alexei Koltsov monument, Voronezh

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I think this monument to Alexei Koltsov (1809-1842) is absolutely fabulous. I love it. I’m not always won over entirely by the Soviet monumental style, although I’m rarely able to reject it entirely. There is something about it, when it’s done with talent, that just comes right after you. That sure happens with this monument by sculptor Pavel Bondarenko and architect Igor Savichev (I’m not 100% sure on that first name – Russian sources are stubborn in listing him only with his initials, I.A.). In fact, it is so bold that many in Voronezh did not like it when it was erected in 1976. Twenty-one years later, in 1997, it was moved away from a nearby church (Pokrovsky cathedral) and re-positioned more deeply among the trees in Soviet Square where it wouldn’t be quite as dominant. I don’t know, I think it’s wonderful. I love everything about it – the granite-wave coif; the huge, single-fold “dress” he’s wearing; the pockmarks in the granite; the severe gaze out from under the monstrous eyebrows; the graceful, left hand with the elongated fingers; the clunky, brute fist of his right hand;the angle of the “dress” coming up at the bottom that reveals he has no feet or legs; the clearly visible horizontal lines marking where the separate chunks of granite were attached to make a single piece big enough to handle this monster. I like the pedestal with the old-fashioned lettering. I like the fact that the bottom support platform is low enough and deep enough for young people of flesh and blood to gather and sit leisurely beneath this mighty chunk of rock. I even love the deep blue Voronezh sky, dotted with pure-cotton clouds behind his head. Okay, I realize that’s not the doing of the sculptor, but he knew what kind of skies Voronezh has, and he knew people would be looking up at them, when he designed this thing. I give him credit for that. A good artist thinks of everything, including what he can’t entirely control.
Oh, wow, I was just digging around for some more information and I ran across one tidbit that is quite intriguing. There apparently exists a legend that this was originally to be a monument to Joseph Stalin. Bondarenko (1917-1992) was, in fact, awarded the Stalin Prize in 1950 for bas reliefs that he made of Lenin and Stalin. That could very easily have engendered a subsequent commission to do full honor to the so-called, self-proclaimed People’s Leader. That would certainly explain the huge size of it all. I find it hard to believe that that lovely left hand could ever have belonged to Stalin, even in an artist’s wildest dreams. But that clunky right fist might well have.
Does this make me rethink anything I have said up to now? No, it doesn’t. I look at this thing from left to right and top to bottom, over and over again, and I only see an admittedly exaggerated, heroic monument to the so-called “people’s” or “folk” poet Alexei Koltsov. It all looks very organic and germane to me.

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Koltsov was born Oct. 3, 1809, into a well-to-do “bourgeois” family (as the Soviet and Russian tradition often puts it) in Voronezh. A website called Litra.ru declares, with similar cliched phrasing, I fear, that Koltsov’s father was the proverbial crude, cruel tyrant and his mother was the proverbial “kind, illiterate woman” who had such an influence on her son. He was not particularly educated. He started in at a local Voronezh school, but didn’t last long. Vissarion Belinsky, the critic, and a champion of Koltsov’s work, had this to say about the poet: “We have no idea how he was advanced to the second grade, or what he studied at that school, because, although we knew him only a short time, we never saw any signs in him of even the most basic education.” I am quoting this from a biographical website, which also adds: “Koltsov’s first mentor in poetry was the Voronezh bookseller Dmitry Kashkin, who gave the young man the opportunity to use books from his library for free. Kashkin was direct, smart and honest, for which the city’s youth loved him. Kashkin’s bookstore was something of a club for them. Kashkin loved Russian literature, read it often and wrote verses himself. Presumably Koltsov showed his first experiments to him.” Another major influence on Koltsov was a tragedy visited upon him by his father, who would not allow him to marry a peasant girl that he loved. Koltsov wrote his first poetry at the age of 16 (“Three Visions,” which he subsequently destroyed); he published his first verses at the age of 22 in Literary gazette. He was championed in Moscow by Belinsky and, when he traveled to St. Petersburg in 1836, he met Alexander Pushkin, who apparently took a liking to him. Pushkin published his poem “Harvest” in the literary journal Sovremennik (The Contemporary). None of this impressed Koltsov’s family, his father particularly. As much as the young man wished to devote himself to a life of literature, his father would not have it. And when the young man contracted tuberculosis, no one in his family seemed to care much. He was, essentially, left to die in isolation at the age of 33.
This makes Koltsov a contemporary of Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol and other writers who basically brought Russian literature out of the past into the present. Over time, his poetry tended to last because it was suited greatly to music. Many of Koltsov’s best writings became popular songs.

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