Tag Archives: Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy monument, Tula

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I had about five or six hours to photograph everything I could reach in Tula. The city is not huge, so I had high hopes. But it’s not exactly small, either, and many of my hopes were dashed. I also made the mistake of wearing a bad pair of shoes that day and by the time evening fell I was ready to fall into a ditch and be washed away with the daily slop.
I started out as I always do on my photograph hunts with a bold step, a keen eye, and visions of sheer pleasure. By the time I reached the monument to Leo Tolstoy at the far end of the city, I was, as The Band put it so succinctly, “about half-past dead.” If that wasn’t enough, I had lost the light of day. The last few objects I photographed before Tolstoy were done in a murky, grainy gray that makes the photos borderline unusable. They may have to wait to be posted here until I have used up virtually everything else in my huge photo archive. At the rate I’m posting these days, the chances are good I will die before I get to those photos. But I digress.
I was encouraged when I came upon Tolstoy from behind – having worked my way through the Belousov Central Park of Culture and Recreation – because there were lights everywhere. And most of them were there to illuminate Tolstoy. In fact, the results were mixed at best. These photos don’t give an honest, all-around picture of the monument that was sculpted from bronze by Vyacheslav Buyakin in 1973. Most of the details are lost in unnatural sparkles and shadows. The camera couldn’t decide whether to flush Tolstoy in gold or in silver. But my camera did capture something otherworldly in a few of the shots that I find intriguing. In fact, when I did a little research and saw what this hunk of metal looks like in natural light, I began to feel I had lucked out. Buyakin, I’m afraid, was not a sculptor of great subtlety. His well-known monuments of Lenin in Moscow, Syktyvkar and elsewhere seem to have made his fame more than any great personal vision he brought to his work. He is semi-notorious for being the sculptor who in 1967 hammered out a Lenin that replaced a Stalin which had stood in Moscow’s Izmailovsky Park for several years.
Buyakin’s Tolstoy is the proverbial peasant-friendly figure in his peasant shirt, the rope for a belt, and the wind blowing his beard as he presumably steps forward through a field of – shall we say – wheat. He’s really big, so that clearly makes us think of Tolstoy, and the rough-hewn facial resemblance, never realistic, leaves no doubt as to who it is.

But there’s the rub. It is virtually impossible to make anything negative stick to Tolstoy. I don’t care if this isn’t the greatest image of him ever done. I don’t care if it blends into the sea of all the other Tolstoy likenesses ever done. I don’t care that they stuck a bathetic quote at his feet – “My writing is all of me,” or, “My writing is all that I am” – something that now seems so Soviet, and so pompous. I don’t care if this is just another of those monumental monuments that can start out in the workshop as Lenin, Stalin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky or God for the first half of the job, and then only be turned in one direction or another by a few strokes here and there. None of that matters. What matters is that you’re in Tula, more or less Tolstoy’s hometown, and you have come across something resembling the great man casually striding across a plaza (officially – Tolstoy Square) as if there were nothing curious about that at all. The more I walked around this Tolstoy and photographed him, the more I didn’t want to leave. I had a theater opening to make and it was a good long walk from way out here at the end of Lenin Prospect to where I had to go, but I just kept lingering, looking for one more angle, one more shot. For those of us who never had the opportunity to meet the author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina, this is the about the best we’re ever going to get – to run around his big bronze feet and stare up into his metallic gaze and pretend that we are in attendance at his presence.
I’m not sure why, but in such moments I never waste my time thinking of all the reasons Tolstoy drives me mad – from some of those horrible, misogynistic late stories, to so many of the holier-than-thou passages that increasingly populated his writings as he aged. I love to shake a fist at Tolstoy. I know what a despot he was at home, how he mistreated his wife, and used his servant girls as playthings. That’s all there. It’s part of the package. I don’t forget it. But I never feel as though I have the right to judge this man too harshly. I have never walked a step, let alone a mile, in his shoes. In his presence – the presence of artistic likenesses – I am humbled. Here is what Gary Saul Morson wrote about Tolstoy in the Encyclopedia Britannica: “Some viewed Tolstoy as the embodiment of nature and pure vitality, others saw him as the incarnation of the world’s conscience, but for almost all who knew him or read his works, he was not just one of the greatest writers who ever lived but a living symbol of the search for life’s meaning.”
Beat that.

 

Alexander Pushkin statue, Sofia, Bulgaria

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Surely there are more monuments erected to the memory of Alexander Pushkin than to any other Russian cultural figure – or of any other Russian, period. I can’t imagine who could beat him at this point. Lenin, perhaps? Stalin must have had more at one point, but, like the monuments to Lenin, the Stalin statues were pulled down at a high rate for about 60 years following his death in 1953. True, he’s making a comeback as Russian cities rush to show their support for Vladimir Putin’s re-Stalinization of Russia. So, maybe this little topic requires a bit more research.
Somebody else will have to do that, however, because, frankly, I don’t give a damn about monuments to Lenin and Stalin. And, anyway, I digress.
Pushkin. What is there left to say about Pushkin? I have a whole stash of photos of Pushkin monuments in my archives but I never get around to posting them because I have no desire to repeat myself and I have kind of exhausted my thoughts on this be-all and end-all of Russian everything. It doesn’t mean I love him any less, maybe I love him all the more for that – how many writers have taken you all the way to the end of your thoughts? But it doesn’t make me want to rush to my computer to squeeze a few new words out of my increasingly addled brain.
But I just happened to pass through Sofia, Bulgaria, a week or two ago, and I had the good fortune to encounter still another monument to Pushkin. This one is located behind the Russian church  in the center of the city on Tsar Osvoboditel (The Liberator Tsar) Boulevard at the intersection with Georgi S. Rakovski Street. Seeing as how this will be my first post originating in Bulgaria, I didn’t want to delay posting it.
There are at least three monuments to Pushkin in Bulgaria – the one you see here, another in Burgas and another in Pliska. There may have been a fourth addition just recently that Wikipedia hasn’t found yet – I ran across an article from 2016 about a new sculpture unveiled at the A.S. Pushkin Middle School in Sofia, just  few blocks from the Russian Church.
The Wikipedia article about monuments to Pushkin is chock full of fun information. We won’t take its numbers as absolutes, but it definitely provides an impressive picture of the world’s attempts to further the memory of Russia’s greatest and favorite poet.
There are nearly 290 monuments to Pushkin around the world. Around 142 of them are in Russia, 145 more are spread out among 45 other countries. There are over 60 such monuments in Ukraine alone. Several Ukrainian cities, such as Kiev (4), Kamenka (2), Lugansk (2), Mariupol (3), Odessa (3) and Ternopol (2) have multiple monuments.
Moldova comes in a distant second to Ukraine with 9 statues, busts, what-have-you spread out over 7 cities. Of course, Moldova, known as Bessarabia in Pushkin’s times, was the site of Pushkin’s first period spent in exile in the early 1920s – he was there for three years – so it makes sense that people there would feel a strong connection to him. Two of his most popular works were written there – The Captive of the Caucasus and The Fountain of Bakhchysarai. An article by Anastasia Fletcher in the International Identities online journal , “Alexander Pushkin in Bessarabia: literature and identity politics in the periphery,” offers a great deal of information about Pushkin in Moldova/Bessarabia:
Memory of the great Russian poet’s exile in Bessarabia has been inseparable from the identity collisions in the region. Pushkin matters as heritage both as text and as context. The category of ‘text’ includes Pushkin’s own writings and the various texts of his contemporaries. The poet invented Bessarabia as a romanticized and exotic land of released authentic freedom. Various memoirs authored by people who met, or pretended to have met, Pushkin in Chisinau, reinforced this image of the region. This urban mythology is an auth- entic piece of the intangible cultural heritage of the city and of the region. The category of ‘context’ includes scholarship of local origin, a monument, topography and two museums.”

Pushkin, of course, never traveled to Bulgaria, as he did not travel to almost all of the “foreign” countries that now offer monuments to his memory. Most of the statues erected in relatively recent times (the Sofia monument was unveiled in June 2001) have had some sort of political undertone to them – they are usually attempts by cities and governments around the world to find common ground with Russia and Russian culture – and who better than Pushkin to embody such a thing? (A few years ago in this space I wrote about a monument to Leo Tolstoy that went up in Budapest just before Putin visited that gorgeous city, and was specifically intended to make the Russian leader feel “at home” in Hungary.)
Some of the monuments, however, were probably not expressions of political expediency. A few are very old, thus predating the era of contemporary global politics. Some of the oldest outside Russia include a bronze bust in Tbilisi, Georgia (1892); Chișinău, Moldova (1885); and Ashgabat, Turkmenia (1911). I am fascinated to see that there are three Pushkin statues in the United States – one each in Washington, D.C., Jackson, New Jersey, and Monroe, New York.
The oldest object memorializing the poet is no longer in existence. It was erected August 12, 1817 in Tsarskoye Selo near St. Petersburg by Pushkin’s fellow classmates. Pushkin had just turned 18 at the time. It was a marble block engraved with the words “genus loci.” It was moved into the city in 1844 then lost. The oldest extant monuments appear to be the one in Moscow on Pushkin Square – it was unveiled in 1880 – and one on Pushkin St. in St. Petersburg – it went public in 1884.
For the record there are 9 monuments to Pushkin in St. Petersburg (not counting the lost marble block), and 11 in Moscow.
The monument in Sofia was created by Russian sculptor Vyacheslav Klykov (1939-2006). He is known for his monumental sculptures, often on patriotic topics. He was a monarchist in his later years and was involved in numerous right-leaning political movements. His likeness of Pushkin – a more or less human-sized work – is perfectly passable, though, to my eye, not distinguished in any way. It’s a vision of Pushkin that we recognize and have seen a million times or more. According to one Russian blog post, the idea for erecting the monument belonged to the Pushkin Fund, while the mayor of Sofia covered the local costs that were incurred in putting it up. Klykov appears to have donated his work to the city free of charge.

 

Lyubov Orlova statue, Zvenigorod

 

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My wife and I happened to drive through Zvenigorod a few weeks ago, and who should I see when we stopped to make a left turn, but Lyubov Orlova. I’m probably the last person – in Russia, at least – who did not now that the popular actress, the Soviet Union’s first sex symbol, was born in Zvenigorod, a sleepy little town due west of Moscow. The statue is relatively new – it was unveiled September 10, 2016. To be entirely honest, I can’t say I’m much of a fan. Sculptor Alexander Rozhnikov seems to have conjured all the kitsch he could muster. It doesn’t help that the square on which the statue is located is terribly nondescript. Bits and pieces of Zvenigorod have the feel of a cozy old Russian town, but not the area that is dominated by the Lyubov Orlova Cultural Center. That building – the creme colored structure behind the statue – is as faceless as everything else on this block. As for the statue, it shows Orlova in a “typical” glamour shot – one hand behind the back of her head, the other saucily planted on her left hip. Presumably the image is inspired by Orlova’s performance in her first major film – Jolly Fellows (1934). In any case, in that film she wore a similar top hat with a feather on the left-hand side, as you see in the photos of the sculpture here. I have to take issue with my old friend Nonna Golikova, Orlova’s great-niece, who said at the unveiling that the dress made of film reels “is a very precise metaphor, wonderful!” I’m more inclined to say that the dress flowing down into rolls of film is about as cliched as one could get. As for Orlova’s face, is it generic or is it completely lacking in character? Sorry folks, I just can’t get behind this one at all.
Having said that, I have to admit it was a thrill to run across something like this in a small Russian town. The Orlova Cultural Center tells us that this is the first and the only statue honoring Orlova in Russia.
Orlova was born on the summer estate belonging to her mother Yevgenia Sukhotina in Zvenigorod in 1902 – February 11 according to the Grigorian calendar, January 29 by the Julian calendar, which was in effect in Russia at that time. Both her mother and her father Pyotr Orlov were from noble families. They were sufficiently well-known and well-placed in society that Fyodor Chaliapin was a frequent family guest in Zvenigorod when Orlova was a girl. According to legend, she once performed in a children’s production at Chaliapin’s home in Moscow, making an indelible impression on the great singer. Here is the account of that great event from the Lyubov Orlova website.
At his Moscow home on Novinsky Boulevard Fyodor Ivanovich Chaliapin often organized holidays for children. Sometimes they staged children’s plays. Lyubochka Orlova participated in one of these productions, the musical fairy tale Mushroom Trouble. She was then no more than six years old. The performance was carefully prepared, rehearsals were conducted, the little performers were outfitted in fine costumes. The production was prepared by two directors: Chaliapin’s wife Ilya Ilyaevna and Alexander Adashev, an actor of the Moscow Art Theater. Lyubochka performed the role of the Turnip, and her singing and dancing charmed the audience. Following the performance, Chaliapin picked the girl up in her magnificent pink dress and shouted: ‘This girl will be a famous actress!“‘

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Be that as it may, Orlova’s parents were not convinced that their daughter’s future lay in acting, and they sent her to the Moscow Conservatory in 1919 where she studied piano for three years. She did not complete her education there, however. Some sources say that her musical ear was damaged due to an illness and she could not continue, while others suggest that the hard times hitting Russia in 1922 forced her to go out into the world and earn a living. She did, however, switch over to what we now know as GITIS (the state theater institute) to complete her education. Upon graduating from GITIS Orlova joined the company of the Moscow Art Theater strictly as a dancer in the corps de ballet. From 1920 to 1926 she earned extra cash by accompanying silent films at various Moscow cinemas as a pianist. Apparently the one she most often played at was the Ars cinema on Tverskaya Street. It so happens that I now work for the theater – the Stanislavsky Electrotheatre – that is located in that very space. Orlova was famously discovered by the filmmaker Grigory Alexandrov in 1933, and he cast her in Jolly Fellows, his first full-length film, making both of them overnight legends. They were married that same year and remained together until Orlova’s death in 1975.
The Orlova family, in addition to counting Chaliapin among their friends, were also related to Leo Tolstoy by way of Orlova’s mother’s family. Orlova’s great-Uncle Mikhail Sukhotin married Tolstoy’s daughter Tatyana in 1899. Supposedly, Orlova would bounce on Leo’s knee when he came to visit. She owned a copy of Tolstoy’s The Prisoner of the Caucasus, which he signed and presented to her, although it’s possible that she herself had little to do with that gift. One can find a story which states that Orlova’s mother actually wrote to Tolstoy asking him to send her daughter the gift. According to this source, “The fact is that her mother was an incredibly vain woman who composed family legends and did shocking things on behalf of her daughters.” Still, we are inclined to take Orlova’s own account into consideration. This is what she wrote about the gift in 1945. “One day my mother let me read Tolstoy’s children’s stories. I liked them very much, and I asked her to give me another book. Mother did not have anything more like it. So I said I would write to Grandpa Tolstoy and ask him to send me another book. Mother laughed, but let me do it, and I wrote the following: ‘Dear Grandfather Tolstoy! I read your book. I liked it very much. Please send me another of your books to read.’ Responding to this child’s request, the great writer sent as a gift the book The Prisoner of the Caucasus with the inscription, ‘To Lyubochka – L. Tolstoy.’

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Nikolai Beloborodov house and plaque, Tula

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Nikolai Beloborodov ran a dye business in Tula. His father had been the manager of a rich man’s estate. His mother came from a family that had made its living working in the famous Tula armory factory. None of this gives us a hint as to why we remember Beloborodov today – which is because, in the first half of the 1870s, he invented the first accordion (button box, squeeze box) that was equipped with half-tones.
A paragraph on a very nice Tula-based website tells the story with both brevity and interesting detail:
At the age of 11 he became fascinated with playing the accordion, for which endeavor he independently learned to read music. Possessing extraordinary abilities, he achieved notable success in his mastery of the instrument, but the primitiveness of the harmonies existing at the time severely limited his performing abilities. Therefore, in 1875 (according to other sources, in 1870) he commissioned a fundamentally new instrument from the renowned Tula master Leonty Alexeevich Chulkov.  The novelty of the instrument consisted in the construction of a right-hand keyboard consisting of 23 keys, which included all 12 sounds of the chromatic scale.”
Still, apparently, the difficulties of the new instrument were such that it required further development. Beloborodov, who was now fascinated by new plans and ideas, did not continue work on the new instrument. At first his thoughts were occupied with the idea of putting together the first accordion trio – which he found relatively easy to do, since he took up one of the places, while his daughters Maria (Kuvaldina by marriage) and Sofya Beloborodova took up the other two places. Then he was inspired to create an entire orchestra of accordions. He gathered amateur musicians (for the notion of a “professional” accordionist was ahead of its time) and rehearsed them at his home on Sunday afternoons and evenings. All of them played on the new-fangled chromatic-scale accordions.
Ah, but our hero was not even close to being finished. Presumably somewhat taken aback by the roar of an entire orchestra of identical accordions – no matter how many half-notes they could play – Beloborodov began to realize that a whole array of different accordions was needed. As such, he commissioned the creation of a series of accordions “of different ranges and timbres: piccolo-accordion, prima-accordion, alto-accordion, cello-accordion, bass-accordion, and double bass-accordion” (I’m quoting from the same site). Even I, as I sit here and write 150 years later, can hear the drastic changes taking place in Beloborodov’s living room as he gathers each week with his musician friends. All of a sudden a monotonous wall of sound begins morphing into a nuanced pattern of sounds that begins to sound like sophisticated music.

And yet, and yet… Beloborodov was not done. Now that he had put together such a versatile combination of accordions, he began commissioning works written or adapted specifically for accordion or an accordion orchestra. Thus his orchestra was able to play not only sophisticated versions of folk music, but it could also play popular classical works by Mikhail Glinka, Franz von Suppé, Johann Strauss and others. When this greatly enlarged repertoire was not enough to satisfy Beloborodov, he began writing his own works. His “Fantasia” polka, “The Hunt” quadrille and his Waltz were, therefore, the first works ever written for chromatic scale accordion. If that wasn’t enough, Beloborodov also wrote the first instruction manual for this new instrument.
Once again, that Tula website provides a nice description of the orchestra’s activities:
The orchestra’s first performance took place in the hall of the Tula Assembly of the Nobility in 1897. Further, the collective repeatedly demonstrated its skills not only in Tula, but also in Kaluga, Serpukhov, Aleksin, and Yefremov. Great events in the life of the orchestra were a concert at the Moscow Conservatory, a recording session, and, in the summer of 1893, a performance for Leo Tolstoy in Yasnaya Polyana, where the orchestra presented the great Russian writer with an honorary address and a membership card at the Tula Society of Music and Dramatic Artists.”
Beloborodov was born February 27, 1828 and he died December 28, 1912. He lived his entire life in Tula. His mother died shortly after he was born; his father wanted his son to be educated, but not too educated. He saw to it that a priest taught Nikolai to read in Old Church Slavonic, but one the pupil began making progress at that, the father stopped his education. He considered that that was enough to get him through life. His father also died when he was relatively young, and the young man set up his dye business in his home. It brought him precious little money and he and his family were often short of necessary funds.
The point here, of course, is the extraordinary nature of Beloborodov’s fascination  with, and dedication to, his chosen – it was never really a profession for him, but rather more an obsession.
The plaque at the top of this post reads: “Nikolai Ivanovich Beloborodov (1828-1912), the inventor of the chromatic scale accordion, and the organizer of the world’s first accordion orchestra, lived in this building.”
This building, located at 16 Lenin Prospekt, was turned into a museum commemorating Beloborodov’s life and work in 1995.

 

 

Vasily Gilbert plaque, Tula

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It was getting late in Tula in October and the sun was not providing a lot of light. That, combined with the still-blue sky and the blue building I was photographing, gave a wonderful blue hue to all the pictures I took of this building in which the artist Vasily Gilbert once plied his art. I had just finished photographing a neighboring building that had something to do with Leo Tolstoy – one that was on my list – when I happened upon this one at 49 Gogolevskaya Street – which was not. I had never heard of Vasily Gilbert and, if you’re not from Tula, you may not have either. He is not mentioned in John Milner’s massive A Dictionary of Russian and Soviet Artists, 1420-1970, and the cookie cutter bios on the Russian net suggest his work is not held in collections far beyond Tula. These biographical accounts also bury the fact that Gilbert was murdered in the Purges of 1938 at the very end of the bios, adding no explanation or elaboration. We’ll get to that in a moment. The only English reference I find to him is in the ArtHive website, which provides a translation of the basic circulating Russian text.
Gilbert was born in the city of Samara in 1874. His father was an Englishman, surely named Thomas since Gilbert’s patronymic in Russian is Foma. Thomas immigrated to Russia in 1860, for reasons I have not discerned. In any case, he apparently had some artistic talent, because he gave drawing and painting lessons to all his sons when they were young of age. In 1894 Gilbert began studies at the Moscow College of Portraiture, Sculpture and Architecture where he was fortunate enough to study at least some under the tutelage of Valentin Serov and Isaac Levitan, two of the finest Russian painters of that time. It’s hard to tell how much he actually worked with them, but it is a recorded fact that he did his graduate project with another artist, Alexander Stepanov, described by Milner as a “painter of landscape and animal subjects” who was “known as one of the so-called Young Wanderers.”
Gilbert moved to Tula in 1904 and remained there until his death in 1938. He apparently made the move to take up a position teaching art in three different schools, including a local boys’ gymnasium. He also taught at a trade school and the famous local arms factory. According to an online Tula library, “The students immediately fell in love with their new teacher, an incredibly gentle man with a friendly manner of teaching. The artist taught students to see nature, to understand the subtlest shades of its moods, to apply light, soft tones in their painting.”
In addition to the landscapes and animal portraiture that Gilbert created, he spent a good deal of time illustrating texts for some of Russia’s top publishers. He drew and painted illustrations for the popular periodical Nature and Hunting, and illustrated the poetry of Alexei Koltsov, Alexander Pushkin, and Leo Tolstoy for the famed Moscow publisher Ivan Sytin.
Gilbert lived in Tula during the last six years of Tolstoy’s life. I do not find any proof that they met or knew each other, although it is a fact that Gilbert would often take his students on Sunday excursions to Tolstoy’s estate in Yasnaya Polyana to paint and draw the landscapes there. I don’t know whether these trips were taken before or after Tolstoy’s death.

The same online library mentioned above has a fairly concise description of Gilbert’s place in Tula’s artistic life and I might as well just let their text speak for itself:
Gilbert took an active part in the life of the Tula Arts and Crafts College, where he taught artistic casting, forging from metal, and where he gave lessons evenings and Sundays for anyone who wished to attend. At the beginning of the 20th century, the artist made a trip to Arkhangelsk and Solovki, whence he brought many watercolors depicting the harsh, poetic nature and architecture of the North. Gilbert’s Mooses, painted in 1910 and exhibited at the Tula Museum of Fine Arts, is done in the best traditions of Russian art of the second half of the 19th century. Gilbert took the revolution to heart and worked hard for the new government. He wrote slogans, posters and panels, and decorated public houses and clubs.”
Gilbert occupied a visible place in Tula’s cultural life for the first four decades of the 20th century. Whenever there was an art exhibit, it seemed he was a participant. Whenever a new school or new classes were opened, it seemed he was there to help and participate. His illustrations were frequently published in local magazines and journals. He appears to have been a truly popular and genuinely beloved figure in the city. That online biography ends with these words: “Gilbert’s works are held in Tula museums and private collections, and when you study them, you see a figure of an outstanding, intelligent, kind person, a talented painter whose whole life and work placed him in the ranks of the older generation of Russian artists.
I’m not entirely sure what an achievement it was to be “placed in the ranks of the older generation of Russian artists,” but we’ll skip over that for the time being in order to come quickly to two sentences in the bio that kill me: “His last personal exhibition opened in 1936. Soon he was arrested and in 1938 he was shot near Tula in the Nikolskoye forest.”
What?! What happened to all the “love” and “respect” and “adoration” that the city lavished on Vasily Gilbert?
The Russian Nekropole website has only the barest of information. His date of execution is given as April 7, 1938. The sentence is listed as VMN (ВМН in Russian), which means literally, “highest degree of punishment,” usually translated into English as “capital punishment,” and, in actual fact, meaning that Gilbert was shot.
Another site, Open List,  repeats this basic information, adding only that Gilbert is buried in the Tesnitsky forest.
I spent more than the usual time surfing the net to find more details, if not an explanation, about Gilbert’s demise. Every one of the deaths in the purges was unbearably heinous. Gilbert’s is no less so and it makes me want to have answers. If anyone knows more, I would love to hear from you.

 

 

Leo Tolstoy grave, Yasnaya Polyana

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The first time I visited Yasnaya Polyana it was in the dead of winter. Shoveled snow was piled up shoulder-high and higher alongside the walkways and paths around the sprawling gardens of Leo Tolstoy’s former estate about a half hour’s drive south of Tula. It was one of those wonderful Russian winter days when the temperature had dropped below -10C (14F), which meant the snow underfoot was giving off marvelous squeaky crunches with every step Oksana and I took.  If I remember correctly, the temperature that day was around -13C or -14C (8F), so the crunchy briskness around us was downright delicious. I might add that this is not at all a cold temperature. When the temp falls below -10C pretty much all of the moisture is frozen out of the air, so that the air is very dry and quite comfortable. Naturally, you’re well dressed and that takes care of it. But back for a moment to the crunchy briskness all around us: you see, one of the marvelous things about Yasnaya Polyana is that you rarely run into other people, and the noises of the city are far, far away. Sure a few people pass here and there, a handful of other pilgrims like yourself, or gardeners or tour guides making their way from one place to another. But for all intents and purposes, Yasnaya Polyana provides you a one-on-one experience. You are virtually alone with your thoughts and with whatever nature has to offer you that day. On my first trip that made the crunch and the crackle of the snow underfoot (as well as of the tree branches bending and occasionally groaning under the weight of heavy snow) all the louder. It was more than enough to throw one into a state of revery.
There was much that was remarkable about my first trip to Yasnaya Polyana, but the unequivocal highlight was our long walk through the woods to Tolstoy’s gravesite. I would guess that it is at least a 15 minute walk from the house, maybe 20. The entire way takes you through wild woods, apple groves, small, grassy glades, and gorgeous, winding pathways. On that winter afternoon in the early 2000s, there was a special quality to the day’s waning light. The trees, as I have said, were laden down with snow, thus cutting out much of what was left of the available sunlight. Everything around us seemed dark and mysterious, making the beauty it commanded even more powerful. The walk is long enough that you are lulled into thinking you might never reach your destination. You become so attuned to the sounds and sights around you – constantly changing and monotonous all at once – that you become one with the road. The journey becomes the destination and you accept the fact that what you are doing – walking down a winding path – is entirely a self-sufficient activity. You give yourself up to the moment and to the specific location that you occupy at each passing moment, understanding that this, in itself, is what you have come for.
And then it happened. We turned a slight bend in the path and both Oksana and I gasped together. We both saw it, it hit us both. Up ahead of us, around a small patch of snow-covered ground, light was emanating from below, from the earth itself. This was not light coming from above, it was light shining as if coming up out of the earth. A few steps more and we realized: this is where Leo Tolstoy is buried. There it was, a long, narrow mound of earth stacked with pine branches all covered in snow. We could not help but ask – and I did ask Oksana out loud – can it be possible that Tolstoy’s burial place gives off light? Well, of course it doesn’t, and, of course, there is an explanation. We recognized it quickly enough. Throughout the forest the entire way to the gravesite no one bothers to clear away thick, old dead branches that clog up the light from the sky, especially when they are covered in snow. You feel you are making your way through an enchanted darkness. All around Tolstoy’s grave, however, gardeners are careful to keep the tree canopy at a minimum. They also clear away fallen branches and other natural debris that might fall near it. The result is that more sunlight pours down upon the grave in this small spot than anywhere around it. Furthermore – and this is the key to the magic – the brilliantly white, snow-covered ground all around the mound where Tolstoy’s body was laid to rest fully reflects all of the light that reaches it from above. In short, the gardeners at Yasnaya Polyana work hard and meticulously to be certain that, during snowy weather, it will seem as if the earth Tolstoy is buried in gives off light.
Believe me. It doesn’t matter that it is a kind of sleight of hand. The effect is stunning and lasting. In my mind, ten or more years later, I still see that light emanating from the earth around Tolstoy’s grave.

After traveling to Yasnaya Polyana in mid-October 2017, I can say that the “special effects” of the walk to Tolstoy’s grave are different in fall, though no less stunning. The golds and reds and greens and yellows and browns shimmering against a milky gray sky offer a sensory overload of visual pleasure and spiritual calm. This time the sounds are of rustling and shuffling as your feet traipse over a bed of fallen leaves and the wind ripples gently through the hundreds of thousands, or millions, or billions, of branches and leaves. As you see from the photos here the gardeners are fast at work in autumn, too. They keep the grave covered in fresh pine branches, while making sure that falling leaves do not blot out the green mound standing amidst a sea of yellow.
As I walked around the grave taking photos, I was fascinated to find that my camera refused to let me place the grave front and center in the frame. I am a fan (though not a fanatic) of purposeful “flat, frontal” photography. Especially in urban settings. I like that simplicity. I like to take measure of a thing centered in its surroundings, shown front on, with its face able to speak to us. But Tolstoy’s grave simply would not “go” to the center of my viewfinder. It wanted to be in a corner, it wanted to be a part of an ensemble of figures (whether that be trees, carpets of leaves, green spots, ravines or walkways wandering away). It wanted to be modest, though not necessarily shy. Now is that not another aspect of the magic of which I wrote above? I believe it is. Of all the photos I took of the grave only one (the first in the block above) allowed me to bring the grave close to center (although not entirely). This was only because I was already walking away and was already at some distance. But look at the first photo I took upon seeing the grave for the first time (the first photo at the very top): even there my camera lens wandered off to the left of the grave. The focal point point was the road leading us to the grave, not the grave itself. Although in my mind I was photographing the grave, not the path.
Two facts:
1) Tolstoy himself chose this site for his grave. It was one of his favorite spots in childhood, a place he called “the place of the green wand,” where his beloved brother Nikolai and he used to come to play.
2) Tolstoy insisted that there be no marker over his grave. He reportedly said (I am paraphrasing, not quoting), “A rich man will spend much money to erect a grand monument to himself, but no one will come see it. A righteous man will do nothing to mark his final resting place, but if he has deserved it, people will come.” His long-suffering wife Sofya was adamant that her great husband should be honored with a fitting gravestone. She even went so far as to have it designed. But her children prevailed and stopped her from having any marker erected. It’s a good thing. Leo Tolstoy’s gravesite provides an astonishing spiritual experience.
Epilogue: I have written at length elsewhere on this site about the influence that Tolstoy and, specifically, War and Peace, had on my life. I won’t repeat that now. But I will add this: when I was preparing to leave for my first trip to Russia in 1979, it was entirely a result of having read War and Peace and then Anna Karenina and then Resurrection, and then… and then… By that time, Dostoevsky and Gogol and Turgenev and Pushkin and Lermontov had all made deep impressions, but it was always Tolstoy, and War and Peace, that brought me to that moment in my life that my bags were packed and I was to head to the airport the next morning. That evening, on the eve of my departure, I stood in the dining room of my parents’ house and talked to my mother. I wasn’t much of one to open up emotionally to my family, but at that moment, I was compelled to say, “Mom, you know, I feel very strongly that I will not come back from Russia the same person. I will come back a different person.” Mom, with the wisdom and understanding that she always had, looked at me as if I didn’t even need to have said that. “I’m sure you will, JEF,” she said, calling me by the name everyone uses for me in my family. “I don’t doubt it.”
Mom was right, as she always was.

 

Anna Sten home, Los Angeles

Click on photos to enlarge.

Anna Sten, the star that wasn’t. At least that is the impression one gets by reading up on this Kiev-born actress who actually had a pretty remarkable career. She was discovered by Konstantin Stanislavsky, performed in film for husband Fyodor Ozep, Yakov Protazanov, and Boris Barnet in the USSR in the 1920s before having an impact in Germany, again with Ozep, in the early 1930s, and then moving on to Hollywood where Samuel Goldwyn famously or infamously planned on making her the “second Garbo” in the mid-1930s.
Sten (1908-1993) can be found under a host of different names. Her maiden name was Fesak, but she also appeared at one time or another with the last names of Stenska and Sudakevich. Her mother was a Swedish ballerina; her father a Ukrainian theater producer. In addition to the numerous names under which she was known, she also had a large number of birth years to choose from. Although most sources now use December 3, 1908, as the correct birthdate, some documents claim the year was actually 1906 or 1910.
Sten (the name came from her first husband Boris Sten [Bernstein]) got her feet wet in cinema in Boris Barnet’s classic comedy Miss Mend (1926) where she played an episodic role. But she obviously made an impression on the director for he chose her to star in his next film, The Girl with the Hatbox (1927). This was followed by several starring roles in films that, to one degree or another, left a mark on the history of Soviet cinema. They include Ozep’s The Earth in Captivity and Protazanov’s The White Eagle, both made in 1928. The White Eagle, especially, is historic for Vsevolod Meyerhold’s performance as an imperious dignitary. It is one of the few examples of the great director captured on film. In one of the most memorable duets in early Soviet film, the great Moscow Art Theater actor Vasily Kachalov played opposite Meyerhold as a star-crossed governor. Sten played the governor’s wife.
Ozep and Sten (who were a married couple between the years 1927 and 1931) went to Germany in the early 1930s to ply their careers there. Ozep’s film The Murderer Dmitry Karamazov (1931) was a major release in that year. (He also released a French version called Les frères Karamazoff.) Over the next year she played leads in three more German films, including Robert Siodmak’s Storms of Passion (1932) where she starred opposite Emil Jannings.
But it was Sten’s starring turn as the femme fatale Grushchenka in the two Dostoevsky adaptations that attracted serious attention in the cinema world. Variety raved about her.
Anna Sten brilliantly performs Grushchenka on screen. With her a new heroine has arrived in the German cinema. She is Russian by origin, but at times she appears to be a double for Marlene Dietrich. That should not be taken literally; we are talking only about external similarities, the correspondence of her appearance, face and figure to the standards of continental beauty.” (I’m quoting this excerpt back from the Russian where I found it on the kino-teatr film website.)
This is the moment when Samuel Goldwyn entered the picture. Smitten by Sten’s beauty and presence on screen (to say nothing, perhaps, of the review in Variety), he resolved to put her under contract in the U.S. and to make her the next great foreign star in Hollywood.

On one level it is clear that Sten never became the star that Goldwyn envisioned. The name Sten is hardly an equivalent of Garbo, Dietrich,  or Bergman. And yet one also wonders how much of a “failure” she was? Perhaps she was more a victim of a system trying to plug her into slots that did not suit her?
Whatever the case may be, Sten starred in three consecutive Hollywood films that were intended to make her a star, but did not. The first was Nana (1934), based on the novel by Emile Zola, which was considered a major flop. It was followed by We Live Again (1934), an adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s novel Resurrection that was directed by the Russian emigre director Rouben Mamoulian. Next up was The Wedding Night (1935), a comedy directed by the legendary King Vidor and starring Gary Cooper in his debut. Her next film, A Woman Alone (1936) was made in England by her third husband, Eugene (Yevgeny) Frenke. They were married in 1932 and remained together until his death in 1984. This was, however, the end of Sten’s attempt to become a major Hollywood star. She was tagged with the weighty moniker of “Goldwyn’s folly” and did not make another film until 1939.
In fact, Sten worked with some regularity throughout the 1940s and 1950s, performing in 11 films over that period (albeit, with a seven year hiatus between 1948 and 1955). She made her last appearances on film in 1962 and 1964. Four of her last six performances were in television projects.
As is fitting of a star – or is it a non-star? – with three birth years and at least four names, there is a bit of confusion surrounding this house where Sten apparently lived in the early 1930s. I say “apparently,” because the Movieland Directory, which puts her here in the 1920s, is clearly mistaken. Sten did not live in Hollywood until the early 1930s. Perhaps this house at 601 N. Rexford Dr. in Beverly Hills was a temporary place of residence before she settled into a more stable existence with her new husband Eugene Frenke. This house, which Movieland Directory posits as Sten’s first Hollywood address, was, indeed, built in 1921. Judging by its appearance today it has undergone a facelift or two since then, but it is clear that this very structure was there to shelter Sten when she arrived in Hollywood around 1932 or 1933.
A final tidbit. The flop of Nana, which premiered February 1, 1934, had such resonance that its star even made her way into Cole Porter’s 1934 song, “Anything Goes”:

If Sam Goldwyn can with great conviction
Instruct Anna Sten in diction
Then Anna shows
Anything goes.”

It must have been a bitter pill.