Tag Archives: Leo Tolstoy

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.

 

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Anna Sten home, Los Angeles

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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.

 

 

Konstantin Leontyev and Chania, Crete

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Awhile back I wrote about Russian writer, critic and philosopher Konstantin Leontyev in regards to the neighborhood of Chalepa in the city of Chania, where he lived when he was a Russian diplomat on the island of Crete in 1864 (maybe or maybe not catching a few days or weeks at the tail end of 1863). As I pointed out, Leontyev was quite enamored of Chalepa and of Crete’s villages, to which he apparently traveled with frequency. He was less fond of Chania proper, which, in those days, was still closed entirely behind fortress walls that were locked shut each evening and did not open again until morning. Here is how Leontyev described it in an exotic love story titled “Chryso”: “Our city, you know, is cramped. The streets are narrow. The walls surrounding the city are fat. The gates of the fortress are locked up overnight and there is no way to escape unless you throw yourself into the sea. The city’s Christians were terrified. [Leontyev refers to a time when the Turks went on a rampage against the local Christians who could not escape the city.] As soon as night came not a soul was to be seen. It was as if cruel death were trailing after you! What do you do? Where do you run?
Today I select several photos of Chania (Leontyev, using the name of the time, called it Canea) that represent images which Leontyev probably saw more or less as they still are today. Before I begin I should allow Leontyev to make one of his most categorical statements about Chania (this, too, is drawn from “Chryso”): “I almost never go to Canea.” But the “almost” and the great detail that he provides of why he did not like the city makes it quite clear that he did in fact go there and remembered it well. As such, I feel safe suggesting that he would have seen much that I show here today.
I start above with four shots of what was, and still is, one of the main entrances and exits from the city in the far east of the Splantzia neighborhood nearby the Sabbionara Bastion, or Rampart (the rounded structure that juts out into the Cretan Sea). The gate located here, the only one that still exists in the city, was called Sabbionara Gate (the Italian meaning of which is the Gate of the Sand) or Koum-Kapi (the Turkish name meaning the same thing). Of course, there is no actual “gate” today, just a gaping hole that vehicles and pedestrians walk through. However, the post for the guards at the gate is preserved, as you see in the arched section of the wall in the topmost photo. That interior there is now used for art exhibits. If you look closely at the upper part of the wall of the bastion, you will see the Venetian emblem of the lion of St. Mark with wreath and insignia. It dates to 1591, when the structure of the bastion was built on an artificial peninsula jutting out into the sea. The “gate” and fortress walls that we see today were changed forever in 1645 when the Turks attacked the wall and destroyed much of it. Leontyev, when walking into Chania from his home in Chalepa, would have passed through this area many times and would have seen it very much as it looks here. Since the Turks still ruled Crete for most of the 19th century (they slowly wrested it from the Venetians between 1645 and 1669), Leontyev probably would have called this gate and area Koum-Kapi. (He probably didn’t see the gate in snow as the second photo depicts, as snow is quite rare in Chania. But since he arrived in December or January, he would have experienced the local winter, which is spectacular in its skies, winds, rain and rapidly changing weather.) If you wish to see an old photo of the gate and bastion as Leontyev presumably would have seen them, here is a good one.
Five of the six photos below show aspects of Chania (Canea) that Leontyev would readily recognize today. The first looks back at the central part of the city over the famed Venetian Port. It would have looked very similar to this, though perhaps less colorful. The Muslim mosque that you see at left center, and which is an exhibition hall these days, would have been a functioning place of worship in Leontyev’s time here.
The famed lighthouse which is arguably Chania’s central focus nowadays, began to appear in the last five years of the 16th century, constructed by the Venetians (who ruled Crete from 1206 to the middle of the 17th century). It was rebuilt by the Turks who completed renovations in 1839, making the tower resemble a minaret. It was reconstructed again in 2006, softening, but not removing entirely, the Turkish influence, and returning, to some degree, the original Venetian design.
Right across the port entrance from the lighthouse is the famed Firka fortress. It was built in 1629 and has virtually not changed since then. Aside from the slightly modernized lighthouse on the right, the only real anachronism in the photo of the fortress below is the Greek flag flying high above it. That first appeared here in 1913 when the Turkish flag was lowered for the last time.
Next in line is a photo of the church of St. Nicholas (Agios Nikolaos), located in the heart of the Splantzia district. Construction on it was begun in 1205 and completed in 1320. After the Turkish conquest began in 1645, the church was converted to a mosque, and we still see the minaret which was erected by the Turks to tower over the Orthodox Christian bell tower. I find it fascinating, and telling of the local world attitude, that the Greek Orthodox Church has never attempted to remove the minaret. It remains as a monument to history, as do many other minarets around the city. (See one of the photos in the last block below.) Leontyev could very easily have seen an image like my photo of the church against a full moon and winter sky.
The last two photos in the block below show two aspects of the wall that reaches from the far east of the old city out to the lighthouse. It serves as a breakwater that is especially important in stormy weather. The penultimate photo in the section below shows what was once the Bastion of St. Nicholas of Molos. As part of the active defenses of the city where soldiers could take cover and fire on the enemy, this was also a small chapel. I do not know if this would have been functioning during Leontyev’s tenure in the region, but he would have seen the structure itself more or less as we do now.

In his story “Sfakiot” (1877), Leontyev wrote, “You know, the walls of the Canea fortress are enormous, high, ancient, right by the sea. And the whole city (it’s not big, only 14,000 residents) lives inside the walls. And the sea is right there. Right beneath the walls at the sea there is a smooth place, sand.
The first photo below, of the north wall of the Sabbionara Bastion, could be one of the places that Leontyev had in mind when writing those phrases. For the record, in this same photo  one sees Leontyev’s neighborhood of Chalepa in the distance across the bay. With one exception, the other photos below are simply images that I feel quite certain Leontyev would have seen in Chania to one extent or another – the narrow streets, birds and bougainvillea, and the spectacle of nature showing off audaciously over the Cretan Sea.
The fourth photo below shows the Venetian dockyards, which, since the 16th century, have been among Chania’s most prominent structures. At their peak, in 1599, there were 17 dockyards where you now see seven. In all, there were 23 dockyards spread around the port of Chania. Leontyev, a lover of taking walks, despite his distaste for Canea, would surely have walked out on the spectacular breakwater and would have looked back, like I, to see the remaining docks, numerous sailboats, as well as one of the city’s minarets rising up over the rooftops.
Leontyev’s dislike for the cramped, dark quality of 19th-century Chania was preponderant, even if, on occasion, he allowed a grudging admiration to slip into his comments, as he does here in a general takedown of the city in his tale “Chryso”:
But Canea is Europe. The powers that be here are worldly – a Pasha who speaks French; here hang the consular flags of every nation, there is ‘la colonie européenne’ here; a handful of merchants of moderate wealth, doctors, European skippers, bureaucrats. Canea is our St. Petersburg, the ‘crayfish of Crete,’ as Rosenzweig [a character in the tale] put it.*
True, I don’ t know if it’s a crayfish or not and whether it will devour our national physiognomy, but I do at least know that the city is dirty and stuffy and locked up in a fortress, cramped and boring. But there is in it, if you like, a certain poetry. It reminds one of descriptions and pictures of the Middle Ages: narrow streets that until recently (under Veli-Pasha) fairly flowed red with blood… There are no carriages. Hordes of pedestrians and horse riders. All heavy objects are transported on mules and asses. Clothes are motley, conversations are loud, the shops are bad. As soon as the sun goes down the fortress gates are locked and they won’t let anyone in or out of the city except, of course, for consuls and consulate clerks, but even for them they open up the tiniest little wicket gate, through which even a man of modest size passes with the greatest of difficulty.”
* [Crete on a map looks something like a crayfish or lobster.]
Leontyev was a virtual unknown when he lived briefly on Crete. He had published only one novel, in 1861. A second was published in 1864, apparently when he lived in Chalepa/Chania. His writing took off and gained a readership in the 1870s and 1880s. Leontyev wrote in many genres on many different topics. He wrote journalism, essays, short stories, novels, philosophical treatises and literary criticism. I personally first discovered him as an astute critic of Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky when I was inhaling Russian literature at Widener Library at Harvard in the 1980s. A meeting with famed Russian religious figure Amvrosy at Otyma Pustyn in the mid-1870s had a major impact on Leontyev’s world outlook. Throughout his adult years he grew increasingly conservative, coming to believe that “liberalism” was the greatest danger that the Russian empire had to face. He moved to Optyma Pustyn in 1887 and took monastic vows in August 1891, assuming the name Kliment. He died three months later.

 

 

 

 

Alexander Ostrovsky birthplace, Moscow

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The calendar in 1823 had turned to a new day just four hours prior to the appearance in the world of Nikolai and Lyubov Ostrovsky’s latest son. At the time, when Russia was still using the Julian calendar, it was in the wee hours of March 31. In the rest of the world where the Gregorian Calendar was in use (as it has been in Russia since 1918), it was April 12. Thus we now celebrate the birth of Alexander Ostrovsky, one of the greatest figures in Russian theater on this date of April 12.
The house that the family inhabited was relatively new to them. They had just rented it and moved in a short time before. The landlord was a local priest and the house, in fact, stood directly across from a church that was originally built in the 17th century. It looks old to us now; it would have looked old even to the Ostrovsky family.
The address today is 9 Malaya (or, Small) Ordynka Street. It is a short side road stuck neatly in between two major thoroughfares – Pyatnitskaya Street and Bolshaya (or, Big) Ordynka – in the Zamoskvorech’ye neighborhood, so called because it is located “beyond” the Moscow River, south of the Kremlin. I lived a few blocks from Ostrovsky’s home for 17 years until Oksana and I packed up and left the area behind a few weeks ago. We did that for several reasons, one being that a former neighbor was murdered one night a year and a half ago not far away on the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge. His name was Boris Nemtsov and he was the leader of Russia’s political opposition. He lived a few blocks from us, quite near to where Ostrovsky was born, even closer to where Leo Tolstoy once lived, and he was on his way home after a late supper when six assassin’s bullets to the back cut him down. Ever since that night the whole area has seemed cursed to us. Out, out, damn spot. It will not come out. The blood on the bridge that led to and from our home became too much to bear. It seemed to spread and seep into our every thought and sensation. It spoiled this beautiful place with so much history and beauty. The beauty and history remain, and they will inspire and please others for as long as Moscow remains standing. But it could not inspire or please us anymore. Our love, our connection, our sense of belonging were cut down together with Boris Nemtsov. Fiends took his life, and extinguished our love.
So it was that on my last day as a resident of Zamoskvorech’ye, as a neighbor in space, if not in time, of one of my most admired historical figures, Alexander Ostrovsky, I decided to take a stroll around the house in which the great writer was born and lived for the first few years of his life.
I also need to say that I had never stopped by to visit Ostrovsky in all my years as a neighbor. I passed his home countless times going to and fro. I always nodded and wished him well, admiring the beautiful old wooden home ensconced among towering, modern buildings. I often stopped to look through the gate at the home’s facade before moving on again. Once, when the territory was closed, I trained my camera on the Ostrovsky monument by the side of the house and hit the zoom lever, but the lighting was so bad, the distance so great, and the surround foliage so rich, that my photos were useless. I never came back to try again. Always in a hurry, always in a hurry. I once attended an exhibit here of photographs by my friend Ken Reynolds, who, in a neighboring building, showed a series of his images of Chekhov productions that he had photographed all over the world. But even for that I just tossed some shoes on bare feet and raced over to look at the photographs and spend a few minutes with Ken, who had flown in that day from the U.K. Then it was back to my own home, back to my work.
Is this what Bob Dylan calls Time out of Mind? A sensation of eternity, of time stopped, even as time ticks down? It never bothered me that I had not stopped in to see Ostrovsky because I could always do that, couldn’t I? That house wasn’t going anywhere, nor was I, was I? We were eternal neighbors; it certainly seemed that way for 17 years. Seventeen long years there was no need for me to hurry over to spend time with Alexander Ostrovsky because I could do it any time. Any time I wanted. Not today, because today I’m busy. Probably not tomorrow. But any other time. Any day, any time. Next week, next month, next year.

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And so on my last day as Alexander Ostrovsky’s neighbor, I paid him a visit. The murder of Nemtsov put the lie to that notion of eternity; his blood washed me out of the neighborhood we all had shared. One day was left. Tomorrow I could not come see Ostrovsky as a neighbor. Tomorrow I would be a “foreigner,” a guest coming from afar, an alien from another borough. I made the short trek and stepped through the wrought iron gate I so often had passed, and through which I often sent vague, warm thoughts.
I was almost immediately transported into another world. Right here in the middle of the city, the city is held at bay. Flower gardens blooming almost madly, thick tree canopies seeming to billow overhead, quaint sandy paths leading around the house, and the simple, but attractive, wooden house itself – they all conspire to erase the 21st century. You take a seat on one of the wooden benches surrounding Ostrovsky’s bust and you realize that Moscow is not at all what you thought it was. At least it was not at one time. This is the countryside! Ostrovsky, the man who almost singlehandedly created the great Russian theater that we know today, the first great Russian playwright, the first great Russian theater manager (he turned the Maly into the institution it is today), the great social activist (he pioneered the notion of social support for actors), was born right here in a sleepy plot, where breezes lap lazily at leaves and the humid air of summer makes you want to wilt and fall asleep every other step you take. A woman sat nearby reading a book. Reading a book?! In the middle of Moscow in the 21st century? Birds twittered. What birds? Where do you see birds besides crows and pigeons in Moscow? Where is this place? Where have I landed?
I had landed in the past. I had entered the last few hours, the last few minutes, of eternity. It was a fine, fitting final day in Zamoskvorech’ye. The past had brought me to Russia in the first place. Tolstoy. Erdman. All the rest. You know the names. You know the alphabet soup. And the past would usher me out of my sad, soured Moscow neighborhood, the place I loved so long but could not bear any longer.
Ostrovsky. He will weather all. When all of it’s gone, when all of them are gone, Ostrovsky will remain. Ostrovsky will reclaim Zamoskvorech’ye. He will redeem it. But that will be done without me. I will welcome it and celebrate it. But I’ll do that from afar, a foreigner again. An alien.

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Erotic Pushkin, Gogol and Tolstoy bas reliefs, Moscow

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

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

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

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

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Leo Tolstoy estate, Moscow

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I have a heck of a time visiting Leo Tolstoy. This is the third Tolstoy home/museum that has been closed when I came to visit. In the case of this estate where Tolstoy and much of his family wintered from 1882 to 1901, I picked the one day in the month when it was closed. Consequently, I ended up sneaking around taking whatever photos I could from the outside. To get some shots of the inside grounds I either stuck my hand through the gate slats (second and third photos in the block immediately below) or shimmied up a narrow space between two walls on the property’s south side. From there I got a bit of a view down into the back yard (the last two photos at the bottom). It was here among the trees that Tolstoy would set up a skating rink for the family during the months of ice and snow.
None of my walk-around left me with much of a feeling that I had encountered the writer in any meaningful way. Everything seemed to have its back turned to me that day – walls, gates, fences, houses, ghosts… But with a little help from Tolstoy’s diaries – and the copious annotations done by Tolstoy scholars – we can slip back the curtain on life here, if only ever so slightly.
Tolstoy purchased this home and plot of land in the Khamovniki district west of central Moscow on July 14, 1882, from Collegiate Assessor Ivan Arnautov. The street name at the time was Dolgo-Khamovnichesky Lane. Today, not surprisingly, it is Leo Tolstoy Street. The Tolstoys actually moved into the house only three months later, on October 8, 1882. Among other things, the house and its fences and various wings were among the very few structures to survive the great Moscow fire of 1812 when Napoleon invaded the city. Later, it was one of the first major literary museums created in the Soviet period. It has had that status since 1921. That’s quite an event when you consider that the young Soviet state was still bogged down in a Civil War and was struggling seriously financially.
The State Tolstoy Museum website tells us that of Leo and Sofya Tolstoy’s 13 children, 10 spent at least some time living in this house. They were Tatyana, Maria, Alexandra, Sergei, Ilya, Lev, Andrei, Mikhail, Alexei and the couple’s last son, little Vanechka, who died of scarlet fever at the age of seven.
Vanechka was born here at the Khamovniki house in 1888. He went down in the memories of his parents as an angel of love who came to bless them before he left. The stories are legion and they are touching. Vanya was a handsome boy (see a photo here), who had a lasting effect on everyone who encountered him. There was an asylum on the other side of the wall where a man came to live when he had a nervous breakdown after his own son died. In a turn of events that might strike us as prescient if not miraculous, he befriended Vanya and was cured of his illness. Here is an account of that transformation from Tolstoy.ru:
In a clinic for the mentally ill that stood next to the garden of the Khamovniki house there lived a patient who fell ill after the death of his only child. He found comfort in spending time with Vanechka. They often communicated over the fence. But the conversations were of the most serious kind. The boy assured the sick man that there was still much love in the world, and that one must love everyone. After these conversations the desire to live again awakened in the sick man’s soul. In a thank you note to Sofya Tolstoy, he wrote: ‘It wasn’t the doctor who cured me, but God sent your Vanechka, that angel, for my comfort. He gave me the happiness of a new love for him, and through him, for all children and all people.”
The Tolstoys lost another child here. Alexei was born in 1881, the year before they moved in, but died January 18, 1886, before reaching the age of five. This terrible event would have happened when the family was at the Khamovniki house.
The only child, aside from Vanechka, who was born during the Tolstoys tenure in Khamovniki was the last daughter Alexandra (1884-1979). However, she was born in Yasnaya Polyana on June 18, in the dead of the summer when the family was always together at that country estate near Tula.

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Men and women, great and otherwise, made pilgrimages to meet and greet with Tolstoy at his home. We see evidence of this in some of the writer’s diaries, all of which are available online. Because of the nature of diaries, we don’t always get more than a barebones report, and we obviously get nothing more than what Tolstoy jotted down. But, for the record, we know that the writer Vsevolod Garshin paid Tolstoy a visit at his home in Khamovniki on January 31 (or thereabouts), 1885, “but did not find him home.” Anatoly Alexandrov, a tutor of one of Tolstoy’s sons and later a well-known literary editor, actually lived in the wing of the main house in 1988 and 1989. At some point in 1891-92, the Serb Giuseppe Modrich stopped by, later describing his talks with Tolstoy in a chapter called “Visiting Count Tolstoy. His Social Catechism” in his book, Russia: Notes and Memories of Travels (Rome, 1892). The French literary historian and translator Jules Legras visited in 1893.
One of the best known visits to Khamovniki was paid by Maxim Gorky on January 16, 1900. It was the first meeting ever of the two writers. In part because Gorky was with the journalist Vladimir Posse, and in part because the event made such an impression on Gorky, there has been quite a bit written about it. Posse recalled that Tolstoy was very animated during the meeting, speaking with Gorky openly and freely. Tolstoy told Gorky that he hadn’t been able to slog through his novel Foma Gordeev. “Everything in it is artificial,” he told his young visitor. He did, however, name other works that made a good impression on him – “Varenka Olesova” and “26 Men and a Girl,” among them. Still, the initial criticism apparently blinded Gorky so that he didn’t fully hear Tolstoy tell him how much he enjoyed meeting him, that he would do well as a writer, and that he was a “real man.” What better praise could a Russian male give a Russian male?!
At first blush, Gorky wrote to Posse that the visit had not made much of an impression. He compared it to Finland: “nothing familiar, nothing alien, but quite cold.” However, as a sign that Gorky did have a conscience, he seemed to warm up to the experience the more distant it grew in time. On January 18 or 19 he wrote an almost gushing letter to Tolstoy: “I’m very happy that I saw you and I’m very proud of having done so. In general I knew that you are very straight and kind with people, but, to be honest, I didn’t expect you to be so kind to me!”
If you’re interested, there’s a fairly detailed description of the visit and later comments by all concerned on the site that publishes Tolstoy’s complete works.
In all, Tolstoy wrote some 100 works at the estate in Khamovniki. Among them were the novel Resurrection, and the stories “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” “The Kreutzer Sonata” (one of the most odious pieces of literature ever committed to paper), and “Father Sergius.” The very last thing he wrote here was “My Reply to the Synod,” after the Russian Orthodox Church excommunicated him for breaking with its teachings. It is a rift that continues even today, as the Church continues to claim Tolstoy cannot be reinstated because he never renounced his heretical  views.

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Tolstoy at the Athenaeum Club, London

Click on photos to enlarge.

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In her book Tolstoy: A Russian Life Rosamund Bartlett writes, “There is sadly very little documentation about Tolstoy’s only visit to England, but we do know that the well-connected lawyer and journalist Henry Reeve sponsored his honorary membership of the Athenaeum Club in Pall Mall from 5 March to 6 April 1861.”
This dearth of information about Tolstoy in London, and at the Atheneum in specific, is repeated all over the place. I chose to quote Bartlett’s phrase because it appears to have more information than any other, adding the name of the person who helped Tolstoy join the club, and adding the dates of his membership. These bare shards of tidbits came as a result of Bartlett’s own research at the Club, as her footnote on pg. 466 indicates – the source was Jennie de Protani, the club’s archivist.
Well, here it is, the Athenaeum Club located at the intersection of Waterloo Place and Pall Mall (official address appears to be 107 Pall Mall, but I didn’t see that anywhere). It’s a beautiful place that fairly sparkles in the sunlight, and – thanks to the bronze statue of Athena – in the shade as well. Here is how the official website of the club describes itself, in part:
The club was founded as a meeting place for men and women who enjoy the life of the mind. Over the years the membership criteria have been widened and now extend to persons of attainment or promise in any field of an intellectual or artistic nature and of substantial value to the community.
“Today many of the Members of the Athenæum, indeed a majority, are professionals concerned with science, engineering or medicine, but the clergy, lawyers, writers, artists, civil servants and academics of all disciplines are also heavily represented on the roll, with a small number from business and politics.”
The frieze surrounding the top of the building is a copy of a marble frieze salvaged (or is that “plundered”?) from the Parthenon in Athens at the time that the club was being built around 1824, four years before Tolstoy was born.

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As I wrote in a previous post about Tolstoy in London (his visit to the Octagon School), he had primarily come to Europe to study school systems. In 1859 (still four years before he would begin writing War and Peace) he had opened his own first schools in Russia. On Sept. 20, 1860 his oldest brother Nikolai died at the age of 37, distressing Leo deeply. It is said he went into a period of depression following that, and one can’t help but assume that the trip abroad was also expected to help bring him out of that.
In fact, the Spring 1861 trip to London finds Tolstoy at a crossroads. Having just lost his brother, he also now nears his marriage to Sofya Behrs in September 1862. He will begin writing War and Peace in 1863 (finishing it in 1869). For a bit of perspective, his first literary publication (the novella Childhood) had taken place in 1852. Furthermore, just as Tolstoy was arriving in London, on March 3, 1861, Russian Emperor Alexander II officially abolished serfdom, an event that was extremely important to Tolstoy. In other words, he was, at the time of this trip, a fledgling, though published, writer, who had just experienced a traumatic loss and was on the verge of great and momentous changes in his personal life, his public life and in his career as a writer. He, of course, would not have been known at all in London at this time. Or, if he was, it could only have been by a handful of people who either might have crossed his path personally, or who would have been impressed by his wealth and aristocratic position. Apparently Londoners have a long tradition of bending the knee before wealthy and powerful Russians coming to town…

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