Tag Archives: Konstantin Paustovsky

Alexander Vertinsky plaque, Moscow

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Few individuals in the history of Russian culture have lived more dramatic lives than the great singer and songwriter Alexander Vertinsky (1889-1957). It all began before he was born.
Vertinsky was the second child born scandalously in Kiev to Nikolai Vertinsky, a lawyer, and Yevgenia Skolatskaya, the daughter of the head of Kiev’s assembly of nobility. Vertinsky, Sr., was married and nothing he could do would convince his wife to agree to a divorce. The situation – this was the end of the 19th century, after all – was, indeed, dramatic. Alexander’s sister Nadezhda was separated from her brother and given to an aunt in the father’s family. Alexander was turned over to his maternal aunt, a severe woman who hated Alexander’s father, was extremely strict in her dealings with the young boy, and who told him that his sister was dead. His mother died when he was three; his father, who apparently spent much of his last years sitting by his lover’s grave, died when Alexander was five. Not the easiest start in life far a young boy, although this was just a prelude.
The story that follows is packed with details that I could never have collected without the help of a few good websites, Know EverythingPeoples.ru, and Russian Wikipedia. I doff my cap to them all. (Although I should point out that the sources differ on dates occasionally, with some claiming he moved to Moscow and began his film career either in 1912 or 1913. In unclear instances, I tend to side with Wikipedia, rightly or wrongly.)
Vertinsky received a good education, at least at first, studying at the No. 1 Gymnasium for aristocrats. His classmates included the future writers Konstantin Paustovsky and Mikhail Bulgakov. But Vertinsky’s independent nature was not to be tamed. For kicks he began stealing money that pilgrims left as honors on the graves holding the remains of saints at the Kiev-Pechersky monastery. He was caught and kicked out of school, and, when he refused to quit doing it, his aunt kicked him out of her home. His saving grace was a love for theater and music. He tried out his acting chops first and, when that failed, he took up singing. A chance meeting with an old friend of his mother gave him another “in” to high society. She took him under her wing, inviting him to her house where he met such individuals as Marc Chagall, the philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, the poet Mikhail Kuzmin,  and the painters Kazimir Malevich and Natan Altman. This, apparently was an environment that began to serve and feed Vertinsky’s talent. His new benefactress helped him get a job as a theater critic and he turned out to be very good at it. He became well-known in Kiev with his notices about performances by Fyodor Chaliapin and others. He also began publishing short stories. When he had saved up enough money by the age of 24, he set out for the bright lights of the big city of Moscow. His primary goal was to make a career in literature, but first he made an astonishing discovery – his sister Nadya was not only still alive, she was an actress in the theater! Alexander began performing and directing, all the while continuing to write stories, poems and short plays, often under the influence of Alexander Blok and the Symbolists. An attempt to enter the Moscow Art Theater school ended in failure when the auditioning master Konstantin Stanislavsky complained that Vertinsky could not properly pronounce the letter “r.” This hardly stopped him. He made his debut in silent film in 1913 and, when World War I began, he volunteered as a medic. There he applied some 35,000 bandages to wounded soldiers before he was wounded slightly himself and sent back to Moscow where he learned that his beloved sister had died of an overdose of cocaine. Nevertheless, Alexander wasted little time getting his career going again, continuing to act in films and making his Moscow debut as a singer in 1915 at the Miniature Theater. A crucial choice was made to dress and make Vertinsky up as Pierrot, and it stuck, becoming his own personal image forever after. His early repertoire was based on the poetry of others, but he also began slipping in a few of his own songs, too. Before long he had become a star in his own right.

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dscn0971Vertinsky’s songs reflected the age in which they were written – one of violence, uncertainty and fear. The usual characters that he wrote about found themselves alone and vulnerable before a hostile world. There was a note of fatalism in Vertinsky’s voice that, together with his unique, personal sound of deep regret and profound understanding, gave his songs enormous emotional impact. It is not surprising (I say as I leap-frog over all kinds of interesting biographical details) that Vertinsky would increasingly feel himself an outcast in Moscow in the years after the Revolution. Even though the rhetoric was not even close to what it would become in the next decade/decade and a half, it was plenty to alienate Vertinsky almost immediately. Here’s a little story worth repeating from Peoples.ru:
Following the Bolshevik Revolution Vertinsky came to the conclusion that he would never get along with the new government. His romance titled ‘What I Must Say,’ written under the impression of the deaths of three hundred cadets in Moscow, aroused the interest of the Cheka [secret police], which summoned the actor to explain his sympathy for enemies of the Revolution. Legend has it that Vertinsky responded to the Chekists indignantly: ‘It’s just a song, and anyway, you cannot forbid me to pity them!’ He received a clear and concise answer: ‘If necessary, we can forbid you to breathe!‘”
Shortly thereafter Vertinsky – who was now a nationally famous singer – set out on a protracted tour through the southern regions of the new Soviet Union, as far from Moscow as he could get. In 1920 he slipped out of the country on the good ship Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich, and set foot in the safety of Constantinople. He began performing there with success for the growing emigre population, but, being a restless soul, he kept moving, visiting in coming years Romania, Poland, Austria, Hungary, Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, Libya and Germany. When in Poland he made an attempt to return to the Soviet Union but was refused a visa. He settled in France from 1925 to 1934, where he, once again, became an enormous star. Yes, he was supported by the huge Russian emigre community, but the French, with their love of style, art and literature, took him in as well. He continued writing his beautiful, sad songs of longing, regret and stoicism, creating one of the greatest oeuvre of popular songs in the world.
In 1934 Alexander set sail for New York on the good ship Lafayette. He never felt comfortable in America’s financial capital and set off on tours that took him to Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles. There was an attempt to get him started in Hollywood as an actor, but his lack of knowledge and deep dislike of the English language were a barrier that could not be breached. There is a tale that Marlene Dietrich, seeing how Vertinsky struggled with English, suggested that he just “get a grip on himself” and learn the language. He couldn’t, however, and ended up turning down the offer to act.
Disillusioned with the States, Vertinsky set sail for China in October 1935. It was a decision that would change his life, and the history of Russian/Soviet performing arts.
He set up base in Shanghai where he continued to perform, and, even, for a short while was the owner of a cabaret. But life was getting more and more difficult, and when he unexpectedly received an invitation from the Soviet consulate in Shanghai to return home, he was intrigued. He even began writing for a Soviet newspaper. Still, the road home was not easy. His final papers from Moscow were delayed, in large part because of the beginning of World War II, and so, when he married his second wife Lidia Tsirgvava in 1942, he was still in Shanghai. Vertinsky was then 53; Tsirgvava, the daughter of a Soviet official in China, was 20. Their first daughter Marianna was born several months later. When Japan invaded China Vertinsky made still another, now desperate, attempt to return home. He wrote Stalin’s right-hand man Vyacheslav Molotov, who immediately made arrangements for Vertinsky and his family to receive traveling papers. They were given an apartment in a prestigious building on Tverskaya Street (occasionally and exaggeratedly called Moscow’s Fifth Avenue or Champs Elysses) in building No. 12. You see that building here, as photographed in the fall of 2016.
Just a few months after arriving here in Moscow in 1943, the couple’s second daughter Anastasia was born. Both Marianna and Anastasia would become successful actors themselves, Anastasia, especially, becoming one of the Soviet Union’s most popular actresses in the 1960s and 1970s.
Vertinsky himself found an uncomfortable mix of success and alienation upon his return to a nation that had nothing to do with the country he left in 1920. He was allowed to act in films and to give concerts, and yet, he was kept on the outside of mainstream Soviet cultural life. His songwriting muse pretty much dried up in this period. One source claims he wrote barely two dozen songs over the last 14 years of his life.
In 1956, the year after Nikita Khrushchev launched his de-Stalinization campaign, Vertinsky wrote to his wife:
Look at this whole story with Stalin. It’s false, base and disingenuous, At the convention Khrushchev said: ‘Let’s stand in honor of the 17 million people who were martyred in the camps.’ How do you like that?! Who, when and how will the ‘mistakes’ made by these scums ever be repaid? How long will they continue to  mock our Motherland? How long?

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Grisha Gurvich’s Bat Cabaret No. 2, Moscow

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One could write a book about this building. In fact, I used to own a small book about it in one of those libraries I collected along my way before jettisoning as I moved on in life. The way some people are with umbrellas, sunglasses, gloves and the like, I am with libraries. They come of their own, but when I go, they go. Be that as it may, I don’t need any book to write about his distinctive building at 10 Bolshoi Gnezdikovsky Lane in the center of Moscow. My memories are full without books.
Still, let me begin with some acquired information because this really is an extraordinary location. Two plaques hanging on the exterior wall are of interest to us here. One (the first above) reads as such: “Memorial of history and culture. This is the first ‘skyscraper’ in the capital, engineered by E[rnst] K. Nirnzee in 1912. Beginning in 1915 Nikita Baliev’s the Bat Cabaret began working in the basement, as did the Romen Gypsy Theater and the F[yodor] Kaverin Theater-Studio and others. A winter film pavilion of the V. Vengerov and V[ladimir] Gardin Film Partnership was located on the roof of the building. This building is associated with the names of M. Bulgakov, K. Paustovsky, Yu. Burliuk, V. Mayakovsky and others.”
(The reference to “Yu. Burlyuk” appears to be an error. The avant-garde poet, painter and all-around artistic hooligan David Burliuk was a close associate of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s, while his brothers Vladimir and Nikolai were of some note, too. I suspect it is David that is meant here. I don’t know of a “Yu. Burliuk.”)
The second plaque is significantly more economical in terms of facts, but it tells a similar story: “Apartment House 1912-1923. Engineer E.K. Nirnzee. This building is associated with the history of the development of Russian theater and film.”
This is all very impressive, and I am sure there are plenty of facts and stories out there waiting to be tracked down and retold about all those mentioned here. But I only have room in my mind today for one person and his work and vision. He is not mentioned on either of the plaques from the past, and who knows what eras overseen by what kind of people we have yet to go through in the future? Does anyone today care about Grigory Gurvich? Obviously, many do. He touched the lives of thousands. But does anyone in a position of power and authority remember him? That’s a harder question to answer. Who knows what folks like that are thinking these days.
Grigory Gurvich (1957-1999) was utterly unlike anyone else. He came into prominence during the hard, harsh, ugly era of the death of the Soviet experiment, and he greeted it with humor, style and elegance. It was not a particularly friendly time, but Grisha – as I will allow myself to call him – was everybody’s friend. He had a smile, a good word, a handshake or a twinkle in his eye for everyone who ever came through the doors of his theater located in this building. The idea for his theater was a small stroke of genius. It was not so much a resurrection of the famed Bat Cabaret opened here on the same stage by Nikita Baliev in 1915, as it was an attempt to do that famous enterprise honor in a new age. It was better than a resurrection. It was a whole new theater, with a new idea and a new plan, but one that took inspiration from Baliev and his company which, soon enough, disbanded and headed for world-famous tours of Europe and then a fairly long residency in New York under the name of La Chauve-Souris. (I should mention that Baliev’s name became Balieff in the transition from the Soviet Union to Europe and the States.) Baliev’s theater was a true cabaret, with actors coming in late nights after performing in the “legit theater” to sing songs and improvise skits with other famous actors, who mingled with the performers from Baliev’s troupe. Opening its doors late at night, when actors and audiences got out of other performances, it would run into the wee hours of the morn.

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Grisha Gurvich’s Bat Cabaret Theater (note the addition of “theater”) was an actual theater company. It put on plays and performed them in a repertory schedule like most other Russian theaters might do. What distinguished Gurvich’s work (he wrote or, at least, compiled most of the plays he directed) from other theaters was that each piece was put together from the kinds of skits you might see in a cabaret variety show. But he tied them together, put them into a connected, winding string that created a narrative story. His first show, which opened right here on May 26, 1989, on the basement stage at what has been known over the decades as the GITIS student theater, was called The Reading of a New Play. It was a mystification of sorts that mixed the characters of Baliev’s troupe on the verge of breaking up, with the individuals of Gurvich’s company, which was on the verge of a great beginning. It was nostalgic, sweet, painful, intelligent and always funny. Gurvich, as was his wont, moved through the piece as a narrator or an emcee, tying loose ends together, or, sometimes just leaving them to hang and dangle. The first performances of The Reading of a New Play were wildly successful, as few things can be wildly successful in our days. News of the fabulous new show and theater traveled like wildfire. The next night (when I attended) there may have been two people crashing the door for every seat in the house. The audience was electrified. It exploded into fiery bursts of laughter and applause constantly throughout the evening.
Originally, Gurvich had rented the space for six performances. But because this was right where Baliev’s Bat Cabaret had performed, he very much wanted to stay right here. And the success of that first short run did guarantee a residency that lasted for nearly half a decade. As a resident company in this space, Gurvich’s Bat Cabaret Theater opened its next four shows here, including: I Tap Dance about Moscow (at the turn of 1991/92)and 100 Years of Cabaret (November 1994). It was the latter show that caused me to write a few paragraphs that I have treasured throughout the decades. 100 Years of Cabaret was not Gurvich’s best show. It was slicker than the deeper, more successful first outings. But it lacked none of the excitement, energy and humor that Gurvich always put into everything he did. So, in a review for The Moscow Times that acknowledged a few flat spots and sour notes throughout evening, here is how I wrapped up what I had witnessed:
But Gurvich has the ultimate trump card up his sleeve: his own personality.
Call him the sultan of suave, the wizard of wit, or the king of charisma, but when he takes the stage to the slinky accompaniment of Roman Berchenko at the piano, he soothes everything over. He isn’t just the show’s author, he is its heart and soul.
Meanwhile, amidst the uneven collection of sketches, some are as good as ever. The best include a wildly energetic medley of American pop from Elvis Presley to Chubby Checker; some thunderous, top-flight tap-dancing; and a beautifully-done interactive film skit that has actors climbing onto and off of the screen a la Federico Fellini or Woody Allen.
But the star is Gurvich. Were there such a thing, he would be Mr. Moscow, the man who brings warmth and respect to the town he loves. And a few slips notwithstanding, it is always a pleasure to watch him do it.”
Pleasure, hell. It was an honor. It was the opportunity of a lifetime. It all ended much too fast. After Gurvich directed five shows in the wonderful old space of the basement stage at 10 Bolshoi Gnizdikovsky Lane, the landlords at the theater – GITIS – kicked Gurvich out. He had become too big a star and, for some reason, they couldn’t handle the competition. Grisha took his company elsewhere; they performed on rented stages around town, but it was never the same. Then around 1996 he became the host of a hit TV show called This Old Apartment. That took most of the air out of what was left of the Bat Cabaret Theater. Moreover, what most of us did not know was that Grisha Gurvich was deathly ill. He died of leukemia in Israel before the century could run out.
One very visible trace of Grigory Gurvich’s short tenure in this famed building remains for us to see. That is the art nouveau front door and awning that Gurivch had put in before he was asked to vacate the premises. It was his little gift to history – a door erected in the 1990s to honor an era gone by, the last few years before the Russian Revolution. Had Baliev put in a fancy front door to his Bat Cabaret, it might well have looked something like this door that Gurvich had designed and built 80 years later.
These days, frankly, it looks forlorn and out of place. Without the crowds storming the door to get in for the night’s performance, without Gurvich there to greet you, without any rhyme or reason for its being there, the beautiful, well-illuminated entrance strikes one now as a heavy reproach. It seems to frown on those fools who kicked Gurvich out of here 20 years ago. It seems to mock those who walk past or even enter the premises now – as if to say, “Who are you and what are you doing here? You have no idea what my purpose was!” For me personally, it stands as a small cluster of light amidst the darkness that has descended on Bolshoi Gnezdikovsky Lane ever since Grisha Gurvich last left it. Every time I pass it by it seems to say, “Grisha was here and you and I remember that. Can’t speak for the rest of the folk around here.”

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Alexei Novikov-Priboi plaque, Moscow

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There are few things I love to do more than to violate rules and standards set up by others. Any writing teacher worth their salt will tell you that you cannot begin an article or any piece of writing with an apology or a caveat. It is said to undercut your position as author. Pshaw! Reminds me of an editor I once had who cut a key phrase from one of my reviews. When I objected that that was my favorite phrase in the piece, I was treated to a stern lecture that can be boiled down to this: “My writing teacher always taught us that we should go through anything we write and cut out the phrase we love the most.” This left me pondering two things: Which is worse, a bad teacher or a bad pupil?
Anyway, sorry for the lousy photos today. This was not an easy place to get. The lush trees (a rarity in Moscow), combined with a locked fence surrounding the former home of Alexei Novikov-Priboi at 5-7 Bolshoi Kislovsky Lane made it a challenge to get any photos at all. In the old days I might have just hopped the fence and grabbed my shots, but the old days in Moscow are not the new days in Moscow. Somebody might mistake my eager leap for something it was not – and just you try explaining to a security guard (or worse) that, “I’m just an American taking pictures of cultural landmarks.” Especially when you consider that this building was, and presumably still is, occupied by many high-ranking military officials. (You can see plenty of other plaques in the few photos here – they’re all to generals and admirals.) No thanks. I got what shots I could through the cracks in the leaves and left it at that.
But enough of all that: Alexei Novikov-Priboi (1877-1944). I mentioned him to my wife Oksana as soon as she got up this morning and she said, “Oh! Something straight out of my childhood!” Yes, Novikov-Priboi would be one of those writers that young people would devour. Let’s see if the name will help you understand that. You see, this writer was born Alexei Silantyevich Novikov in the Tambov region. While spending time as a prisoner of war in 1903 during the Russo-Japanese War, he came up with the notion of describing the events of his life in writing. His first published works, Madmen and Fruitless Victims and For the Sins of Others (1906) addressed his activities on board a ship during the battle of Tsushima. He served in the Russian navy from 1899 to 1906 so that, for him, writing was an opportunity to  go back to sea in his imagination. His first collection of stories, published in 1917, was called Sea Stories. And that brings us back to Novikov’s name. For good measure, as a writer of sea tales, he added the second handle of Priboi – that is, Surf – to his last name. But that’s not all. He also simplified his patronymic (the “middle” Russian name which stands for “son of” or “daughter of”) from Silantyevich to Silych. Thus he became not “son of Silanty,” but “son of Sila” – that is, “son of Power.” You begin to feel the aura of the name – Alexei “Son of Power” Novikov-Surf!

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Novikov-Priboi led an eventful life. After the publication of his first two tales (as independent brochures), he immediately found himself on the wrong side of the political battles then still simmering following the failure of the so-called 1905 Revolution. Both works were banned and, in order to avoid arrest, Novikov left the country. Over the course of six years (until 1913), working as a merchant marine, he spent time in Finland, England, France, Spain, Italy and North Africa. In 1912 and 1913 Novikov lived on the island of Capri with Maxim Gorky.
Gorky, in fact, played a beneficial role in Novikov’s literary career. He very much liked Novikov’s story “In the Dark” – a description of the events of the 1905 Revolution – and he interceded in order to get the piece published in the Sovremennik journal in 1912. Of Gorky Novikov-Priboi  said, “Gorky put me on my feet. After studying with him I firmly and independently entered the literary world.”
The writer Konstantin Paustovsky penned a short essay about Novikov-Priboi in 1937 (yes, that year does make one shudder). In it he describes Novikov’s most famous book, Tsushima (1932):
“Tsushima was the writer’s great success. Its theme stuns so that you cease to notice what we are accustomed to noticing in writers: language, style, composition. When a book stuns you so that you cease to note how it was written – that is success. That means that it has been created according to laws of genuine literary mastery that are not yet revealed to us.
“Tsushima‘s power is not only in its simplicity and accuracy. Its power is in the abundance of exciting material, and in its topic: an enormous but clueless fleet goes to his death as if lying down beneath the executioner’s ax. Everybody knows what it happening. This [tale] takes us through the entire world, through sweltering oceans, the equator, the tropics, storms and calm, blue waters.
The tragedy of this funereal journey is so great that one wants to read more and more about it. In the general light of this tragedy every details takes on special significance and power.”
Novikov-Priboi lived in this home in the Arbat region from 1930 until his death in 1944. As such, his novel Tsushima was at least finished here, if not written in its entirety.
One final note on Tsushima – research in recent years has shown that Soviet editors, little by little, drop by drop, letter by letter, bowdlerized Novikov-Priboi’s original text. In each subsequent edition the details of the novel, its attitude toward the Tsarist navy, and even many of the historical facts were “amended” to suit current political needs. If you’re going to read the novel, I suggest you find an edition published in 1932.

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Mikhail Sholokhov monument, Moscow

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I have been photographing this monument to Mikhail Sholokhov, the Nobel Prize-winning author who claimed to have written the classic Soviet novel The Quiet Don, for several years now. I have never liked the photos I got. Often it was a problem of light – I usually happened upon it on very sunny days when I got nothing but black shadows and burned-out white spots. But there were other problems, too. One is the monument, which is sprawling and multifarious and, therefore, difficult to get an angle on. Another is the figure of Sholokhov. Controversial is no longer the word for him – it now seems certain that many will continue forever to call him a fraud -still another of those frauds, like the Stakhanovite shock workers or the child hero Pavel Morozov, none of whom actually existed, at least as the stories were told about them. Sholokhov may well have been one of those heroes that the Soviet state needed, but didn’t have, so chose to make up. And he turned out to be willing to play the part – why not? –  it made him rich, famous and powerful. Rumors, and not only rumors, have long posited that a certain Fyodor Kryukov, a soldier who was killed during the Russian Civil War, wrote most of The Quiet Don (English publishers traditionally have cut this work into two, And Quiet Flows the Don, and The Don Flows Home to the Sea). Over the decades other authors, or partial authors, have been put forward, including Alexander Serafimovich (who denied he wrote the novel). The 1999 discovery of the manuscript that Sholokhov first submitted for publication at the end of the 1920s gave support to those who believe in Sholokhov’s authorship. It was clearly determined that 605 of the 885 pages were written by Sholokhov, while the remaining pages were written by his wife and her sisters.
And yet, the doubt that hangs over Sholokhov’s head is just too serious to be dismissed. After all, who is to say that Sholokhov and his wife didn’t merely copy out Kryukov’s, or someone else’s, abandoned text? A highly detailed article about the controversy on Russian Wikipedia lists 17 serious accusations that have never been successfully refuted. It lists 10 detailed reasons to believe that Sholokhov wrote the novel.
I am no expert in this topic, which, as the Russians say, could easily make the Devil himself break a leg trying to maneuver the details. I did have the memorable, though, ultimately inconsequential, experience of once working with a TV producer who came from the Don region, knew the people there, the stories, the reality, and who passionately, even vehemently, supported the version that Sholokhov was a plagiarist.
Sholokhov was recently in the news again when the archives of the Nobel Prize Committee for 1965 – the year he won – were made public. You can read some details in an article in The Guardian, but here are a few tidbits: Writers passed over in favor of Sholokhov included Vladimir Nabokov, Anna Akhmatova, Konstantin Paustovsky, Pablo Neruda, Jorge Luis Borges, Somerset Maugham, Samuel Beckett and several others. Although records show that the choice of Sholokhov was unanimous, it was, according to a piece published by Colta.ru, far more controversial than it would appear at first blush. At one point a suggestion to give the Prize jointly to Sholokhov and Akhmatova appeared to gain traction. It was apparently shot down by Professor Anders Esterling, who declared, with some reason, that such an award would be pointless since nothing, other than their native tongue of Russian, unified the two writers.

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This monument, conceived by Iulian Rukavishnikov several decades ago, but eventually created by his son Alexander Rukavishnikov, and unveiled May 24, 2007, was the second monument honoring Sholokhov to be erected in Moscow. It has been – like its subject – controversial from the very start. It is located in the garden walk area of Gogol Boulvard immediately across from house No. 10, where Ivan Turgenev occasionally lived. Many felt that if any monument were to go up here, it should have been one honoring Turgenev. This is not, however, a fully arbitrary location for the present sculptural group, as Sholokhov lived for many years on Sivtsev-Vrazhek Lane, which runs perpendicular to Gogol Boulevard right in front of the monument. Sholokhov, sitting in a boat presumably navigating the Don River, looks directly down the street where he lived. Behind him is a fountain – which doesn’t always have water flowing in it, and certainly did not on the sub-freezing day I photographed it – that shows horses fording the river in the opposite direction from Sholokhov (who appears to be letting the boat float where it will as he poses for the sculptor). Across the walkway there is a two-sided bench, the backs of which bear symbolic images important to the Cossacks, the main characters in The Quiet Don (such as sabres and the Russian symbol of the two-headed eagle). Scattered around in the walkway around the benches are bronze imitations of stray sheets of manuscripts. The one I provide here (the second-to-last photo below) is of the title page from Sholokhov’s other famous novel, They Fought for their Motherland. You can’t help but wonder if this is the sculptor’s sly idea of a way to acknowledge the legend that Sholokhov came upon “his” Quiet Don as an abandoned manuscript.

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

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

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

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