Tag Archives: Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy bust, Budapest, Hungary

Click on photos to enlarge.


It is a gorgeous, sunny, warm day in Budapest. But rather than getting up and getting out to enjoy it, I sit here at my computer in my hotel room in order to recall a journey I took a few days ago on a cold, clammy, foggy, uninviting day when I set out to find Leo Tolstoy. Before coming to Budapest I began searching for examples of Russian culture that I might find in the Hungarian capital. The first I found was a famous old restaurant called Tchaikovsky. That sounded like an interesting subject for photos and stories and so I headed out that bone-chilling day to find Tchaikovsky first. When I arrived at the proper address I was chagrined to learn that the venerable old restaurant had been transformed into a strip club. So much for that, and I hit the foot path again. The second destination I had was a bust of Leo Tolstoy that the internet told me had been erected in Budapest City Park in early 2013, rather as a sign of genuflection to Vladimir Putin before he paid the city a visit that year.
Let’s be honest. Russia (and/or the Soviet Union) has often enough had rocky relations with Hungary. Let’s just say “1956” and leave it at that. So I was curious to see what this Tolstoy might tell me.
To paraphrase one of the great bands of all times, The Band, I arrived at the bust feeling ’bout half-past-dead. It was a hell of a trek from the strip club to my next destination. It was made even worse by the weather and the fact I really had no idea where I was going. With the help of a little pocket map I did finally reach the Budapest City Park. I knew it was big; I’d seen it in internet maps and it was clearly large. But when I came upon it in real life I was taken aback. I wonder if it’s bigger than Central Park in New York. If you’re really interested, compare on Google and let me know. My point is that I had very little idea where, exactly, this bust was located. I found no map that pinpointed it, and only a few gave quite vague descriptions of it being located on an “alley” – now called the Leo Tolstoy alley – “just off of” Mihály Zichy street, which runs through the southeast side of the park. But where exactly? No answer. And, as it turned out, the pocket map I was carrying did not name the streets inside the park. So I did what I have learned to do in this life and I just forged on ahead. I went to my “right,” toward the southeast side of the park. I thought I would at least find Mihály Zichy street and could go from there, but, God bless ’em, the makers of this park didn’t see fit to put up street signs anywhere. Okay. I’m okay with this. I just turned on my inner radar and headed across the grass, keeping a fairly large street that I rather suspected, but did not know, was Mihály Zichy to my left. I passed crowds of people exercising their gorgeous borzoi hunting dogs – a whole crew of them – and I took that as a positive sign. Tolstoy writes with great passion about borzoi hunting dogs in various of his works. I headed through a muddy path beneath a balding hill (Bolkonsky’s Bald Hills estate in War and Peace?) and came upon an ornate building that, at one time, appeared to have been a cultural center of some time but now appeared to be abandoned. I saw a statue ahead of me and I walked toward it instinctively. It clearly was not Tolstoy, but at least it was a statue. Having reached it I saw another statue, clearly not Tolstoy, in the distance and I headed to it. From that to another and another until finally across the huge, muddy lawn I saw a gold head almost glisten in the murk. It was too tempting to head straight for it. I rarely allow fate to lure me quite that easily. I appreciate circuitous routes. Instead I headed to see another  bust and was well rewarded for my choice. Right next to this bust commemorating Somlyo Zoltan Kolto (1882-1937), about whom I know nothing, I spied a street sign proclaiming the little promenade in front of me as Leo Tolstoy Alley. I looked down in the direction of the golden glare I had seen a few moments before. From here I could now be sure: It was Tolstoy.

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He looks a bit forlorn there on his pink marble pedestal. The fact that the trees have not yet recovered from winter don’t help at this given moment in time. I set aside the smug satisfaction of having discovered Tolstoy in the Budapest City Park in relatively short time, almost as if I had found the needle in the haystack by sticking my hand in, rustling it around for a moment and pulling the prize right out. The first thing I noticed is that I do believe the sculptor Vasil Roman is a true fan of Russian literature. So much so, in fact, that he decided to put a bit of Fyodor Dostoevsky into his Tolstoy. Call him Tolstoevsky. Take a look at the en face photo leading the second bunch of images above and let your mind wander just a little. If you know Russian literature’s faces even cursorily, Dostoevsky will surely creep into your mind. It may be the beard, it may be the dark eyes that the gloomy day gave this bust – I don’t know for sure. But as I stood and looked at this image of Tolstoy it started doing tricks with my mind – flipping back and forth between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky rather like a low-budget hologram. The ears are Tolstoy’s, nice and big and ready to hear everything the world has to say, and so the most “Tolstoyan angles” are the ones from the sides.
I have no idea what Hungarians think of Tolstoy appearing here amongst them in this place. He seems a little lost to me. He stands on his pedestal, staring blankly at grungy walls covered with graffiti and also staring at the back of that abandoned, ornate building I mentioned. Folks seemed to walk by him as if he wasn’t there. The sign proclaiming the path Leo Tolstoy Alley was defiled with graffiti on both sides. I have no idea if the scribbles actually say anything. It looks to me like someone gave their two year-old a blue felt marker and said, “Here. Practice.”
But there it is, folks. Leo Tolstoy in Budapest. I had looked forward to finding him ever since I learned in late 2014 that I would be traveling to Hungary. And my nose for Russian culture did sniff him out.
Some facts for the interested. The bust is officially a gift of the Tolstoy Association for Hungarian-Russian Cooperation. It stands 235 centimeters tall and is mounted on a 90-cm by 90-cm base. As Charlotte Alston tells us on the History Today website, the Hungarian philosopher Jenö Henrik Schmitt was a friend of the Russian writer. Tolstoy’s hardscrabble religious views somehow coincided with the beliefs of the Hungarian “religious anarchist.”
Epilogue: The notions of religious anarchy, Vladimir Putin and Russian culture all came together in a bracing, clanking way on this dark, cold, funereal day. This was just 36 hours after the Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov had been murdered under the blood-red brick walls of Putin’s Kremlin, and just 24 hours before Mr. Nemtsov was to be buried in the frozen Moscow earth at the Troekurovsky Cemetery. I could not attend the funeral and so internally I dedicated this trek to Tolstoy to Nemtsov. I thought about both at deep length as I wandered around the statue. The current Russian president never entered my mind. He only comes to me now, as an afterthought.
P.S. My friend Michael Nemirsky took my Google challenge and found I was way off. Budapest City Park is spread out over 302 acres. Central Park in N.Y. encompasses 778 acres.

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Anatoly Lunacharsky plaques, Moscow


Still another of those questionable personalities. It couldn’t be any other way, not from the time of the Russian Revolution. People are paradoxical enough as it is – toss them into the vortex of paradoxes that any revolution is, and you have a genuine mess. That said, this building at 9/6 Denezhny Lane in the Arbat region is the home in which Antoly Lunacharsky, routinely labeled as the first Soviet Commissar of Enlightenment [a commissariat combining culture and education], lived from 1923 to 1933. Lunacharsky (1875-1933) was one of those there to make the Russian Revolution happen who is often (but not always – see below) well spoken of. He was smart, he was idealistic, he was talented, he recognized talent. Not only was he the equivalent of the first Soviet Minister of Culture, he was a well-known writer himself. He was the author of numerous plays, several staged at the Maly Theater in Moscow, and he was a trusted and respected critic of literature and theater. He wrote something like 15 full-length plays between 1906 and 1930, and he wrote another dozen or so one-act plays. None remained in the national repertoire any longer than he occupied a position of power, but he is credited with being one of the writers of that era to introduce contemporary themes into his plays. He had the misfortune of bearing a certain resemblance to Lenin, something that in subsequent generations may have dampened his reputation. He rather looks like a nasty son-of-a-bitch. The writer Leonid Andreyev surely didn’t have much good to say about him.
“[Bolshevism] ate up an enormous number of educated people, destroyed them physically and decimated them morally with its system of baitings and buy-offs,” Andreyev wrote in a letter in 1919 that is published on the Chronos biography site. “In this sense Lunacharsky with his fox tail is more terrible and worse than all the other Devils of this vicious pack. He is a coward and a goodie-two-shoes. He wants to maintain proper appearances while confusing as many people as possible… A bright ray of light in a dark kingdom; that is probably the way he sees himself, for in addition to all else, he is a vulgar and short-sighted man.”
Wham! You always wonder: Who is going to write something like that about you? Andreyev, of course, got his comeuppance from no less than Leo Tolstoy, whose take-down of Andreyev and the “scary” tales that made the junior writer famous, is one of the most quoted in all of Russian literature. “Andreyev frightens us,” Tolstoy wrote, “but we are not frightened.”
Some facts come down in Lunacharsky’s favor. He was the only member of the commissariat system who never belonged to the Central Committee of the Communist Party. I.e., either he kept his distance or they held him at a distance. He threatened to resign when the advancing Bolsheviks launched bombs at the Kremlin in November 1917 because he was horrified at the damage that might be done to cultural relics. Chances are it is no coincidence that Lunacharsky was moved out of a position in power in 1929 just shortly after Stalin began to consolidate power. Say what anyone will, Andreyev included, Lunacharsky was not of Stalin’s ilk.

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I heard plenty of less-than-flattering things about Lunacharsky from his nephew Anatoly Agamirov (1936-2006), a well-known music critic and commentator (and a former student of Mstislav Rostropovich). Agamirov, who co-wrote a circus sketch with Nikolai Erdman in the 1960s, told of the day Lunacharsky invited  Erdman to his home to read his play The Suicide, which was already becoming controversial.  Pardon me while I now pick the story up from my book on Erdman, Silence’s Roar: The Life and Drama of Nikolai Erdman.
“According to a family legend related by Agamirov, and confirmed by Erdman’s niece Irina Kamyshova, Lunacharsky planned to provide Erdman a showcase for his newly written play. This would have been natural, since Erdman was a frequent visitor of Lunacharsky’s regular Monday gatherings which were always attended by the elite of cultural Moscow. To provide the most influential audience, Lunacharsky purposefully invited a large contingent of his political colleagues. When the crowd had gathered, Erdman read the play in its entirely. […] But while Stanislavsky and other artists may have appreciated the subtlety of Erdman’s art [at readings at the Moscow Art Theater and other places], it had a decidedly different effect on the group of politicians and petty bureaucrats gathered at Lunacharsky’s apartment. They listened in stone silence… not once responding to the humor of his play or his delivery. After all the guests had left, Lunacharsky reportedly took Erdman aside and told him that he had written a play of genius, ‘but as long as I am the Commissar of Education, your play will never be produced on the Soviet stage.'”
How closely does Agamirov’s tale capture the reality of that evening at Lunacharsky’s house? While there is no doubt that Agamirov loved to embellish a good story, I never found reason to doubt the essential truth of anything he told me. So there we are, left with this tantalizing story of Lunacharsky setting out to be of aid to a struggling writer, but actually turning against him in a moment when he sensed he was standing on shaky ground.
Be all this as it may, as of 2013 there were 565 “geographical objects” throughout Russia honoring Lunacharsky’s name. They included streets, plazas, theaters, schools and a conservatory, Russian Wikipedia tells us. The museum located at Denezhny Lane is generally known as “the Lunacharsky office.”

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Leo Tolstoy monument, Moscow


After posting photos of a monument to Dostoevsky a few days ago, it just didn’t seem right to follow up with anyone besides Leo Tolstoy. You have to give it to sculptor Alexei Portyanko – this one of the author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina is big. It is massive. It is so big they had to take fat chunks of granite and glue them together. Look at Tolstoy’s head in the top photo above – it’s stuck on there with glue. Look at the side of the monument – it’s a kind of building block approach to sculpture. Tolstoy’s head is gargantuan. The beard, like the hair and the back are unfinished. Tolstoy’s hands are huge. His gaze – his glaring stare – comes somewhere out of the deepest depths of the universe and shoots through you like a laser. Everything’s so big here it doesn’t all fit. Tolstoy is either in the process of returning into unformed granite, or emerging from it, I’m not sure which.
From a distance you seem able to get a grip on this sculpture. From a distance the features are familiar, your mind turns them into the Tolstoy you think you know. The closer you get, the more you lose your grip. It’s not that anything depicting Tolstoy here ever becomes unknown, but you realize you’re only privy to a part, to a surface.
I guess that means Portyanko’s sculpture works for me. I was actually trying to work myself up to a rejection. There’s something “too too” about it all. There are moments when you walk around this piece of rock and you think, “This guy’s going too far to say what we all know.”
But I will never forget what Kama Ginkas taught me about art and consumers of it. He was talking about theater spectators and their opinions. How he sees people walking out after attending one of his shows with clearly shaken visages and tears running down their cheeks, as they say to one another, “I don’t think that was a very successful show…”
“I don’t give a damn about your opinion,” Ginkas says. “Everybody has an opinion. I look at their reactions. Their physiological reactions.”
You see, I could start picking away at Portyanko’s monument to Tolstoy: it’s too generic, it’s too obvious, it doesn’t go past the surface… And yet, there I am, walking around and around and snapping more and more pictures and increasingly feeling that something of the power, the unbridled, elemental force of this writer’s presence on our lives, is reaching me loud and clear.
If I tried to tell Portyanko why I don’t think his Tolstoy sculpture is a complete success, he could just say, “I don’t give a damn about your opinion,” and he would be right.

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It’s another thing when you know that this sculptor also did huge monuments to Lenin all over the place. That’s a bit of a low blow on my part, because the Tolstoy monument is there to stand on its own. But I think that is what I’m talking about when I say something irritates me about this Tolstoy. It’s that Leninistic feel. It’s that sense of unequivocal Victory. With a capital V. It is the sense of the right of might. And these aspects do, indeed, hinder my ability to give myself fully to this work.
It becomes even more interesting when you consider that this monument, standing at the beginning of Devichye Pole, or Girl’s Field, on Bolshaya Pirogovskaya Street, replaced another in 1972. I wrote a little about that other, created by Sergei Merkurov, in a post on this site on Aug. 2. That one is very folksy, earthy, and human, even as it recognizes the scope of Tolstoy’s larger-than-life presence. The Merkurov sculpture,  significantly smaller than Portyanko’s, stood in Devichye Pole from 1928 to 1972, when it was moved to the courtyard of the Tolstoy museum on Prechistenka Street.
Ultimately I will probably always remain in a constant state of agitation about Portyanko’s monument. This I can say – I doubt I will ever put it in a category with the great Nikolai Andreev monument to Gogol, the weirdly powerful Alexander Rukavishnikov monument to Dostoevsky, or the brilliantly satirical Leonty Usov monument to Chekhov in Tomsk, all of which I’ve written about on this blog site. Still, this is an imposing work. If you want a sense of Tolstoy as a whole universe, this likeness of him provides that.
If you’re interested in more, there are nice Russian texts at a site suggesting walks around Moscow, and on a website library of posts about Russian sculptures.

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Lev Tolstoy museum on Pyatnitskaya, Moscow


Still another point of interest on the newly renovated Pyatnitskaya Street. Look at the luscious new peach-colored paint on the wall around the plaque proclaiming this modest building at 12 Pyatnitskaya Street the Lev Tolstoy Museum and the Tolstoy Center on Pyatnitskaya. According to one laconic, but fact-filled website, this was just one of 22 homes that are associated with the great writer’s life in Moscow.
Tolstoy rented rooms here from October 1857 to the end of 1858 after returning home from the Crimean War. According to the museum’s website, the building was originally erected between 1789 and 1795. While renting furnished rooms here Tolstoy lived with his brother Nikolai, his sister Maria and three nephews, and he also became friends with the poet Afanasy Fet and the playwright Alexander Ostrovsky, the latter of which who lived a stone’s throw away. As the site tells us, Tolstoy routinely received such guests as the satirist Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, the historian, lawyer and philosopher Boris Chicherin, and the Aksakov brothers, Ivan and Konstantin. While Tolstoy lived here he worked on his famous novella The Cossacks, as well as on the stories “The Perished (Albert),” and “Three Deaths.” Some sources indicate he also wrote his tale “Family Happiness” here. It would make sense since all these works were written at more or less the same time.
Gaidarovka.ru provides some details, perhaps somewhat embellished, about this time in Tolstoy’s life: “The young count [Tolstoy], after moving to the Zamoskvorechye region, led a busy social life, spending time at the English Club, restaurants, the Bolshoi and Maly theaters, literary and musical salons. Having donned his tricot and mounting his steed, he would head out from Pyatnitskaya to sports halls where he would do gymnastics and practice his fencing. Tolstoy attended dinners for invited guests and he hosted such dinners himself. While visiting Tolstoy, Fet read aloud to guests his translation of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and, as Tolstoy wrote in his diary, ‘ignited me for art’ with his conversations.”

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Because it’s such great stuff, I continue to quote from Gaidarovka.ru: “[Tolstoy] described life on Pyatnitskaya on Dec. 6, 1857 as such: I have lived in Moscow all this time, doing a little writing, spending some time with the family, going out into society a bit,  dawdling about with SMART PEOPLE, and life, therefore, is fair to middling – neither good nor bad. Although more likely it’s good.”
Chances are, the following description of Moscow from The Cossacks is drawn from what Tolstoy saw on Pyatnitskaya Street: “Everything was quiet in Moscow. Only very rarely could a squeaky carriage wheel be heard on the wintry street. There were no lights in the windows and the street lamps were doused. The sounds of bells wafted in from the churches, rippling over the sleeping city, reminding all of morning. The streets were empty. Here and there a night cabby’s runners would mix sand with snow and, when the cabby reached the next corner, he would fall asleep, waiting for his next passenger. An old woman might enter a church where a few wax candles standing helter-skelter and burning red were reflected in gold icon frames. Working people were already waking up after the long winter’s night and going to work. For gentlemen, however, it was still evening.”
Chances are, the church Tolstoy saw the old woman entering was the Church of Paraskeva Pyatnitsa, for which the street is named. It would stand for another 70+ years just south of Tolstoy’s house on the other side of the street until it was destroyed by Joseph Stalin in the 1930s. As for the “bells of churches wafting in” – it must be remembered that there are numerous churches in this area and bells from most of them would easily have reached Tolstoy’s ears. Especially in the quiet state of solitude he describes in his tale.
For those who love irony (and a bit of stupidity, perhaps), consider my previous post on the Tolstoy museum on Prechistenka and my story about never having visited that location in my 25 years in Russia. We can now add to that the fact that I have lived on Pyatnitskaya Street for 15 years and have never visited the Tolstoy museum located just a mile or two away from me. I can’t explain why that is. So I won’t try. I will get there, though. I promise.

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Lev Tolstoy museum and statue, Moscow

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You could say I was 43 years in getting here. And I felt the weight of all those years one recent early evening as I was walking around the Arbat/Prechistenka region of Moscow, arguably, one of the city’s most beautiful. You see I first encountered Leo Tolstoy in late 1971. I’ll tell that story in a minute, but what I want to say right now is that, although I’ve lived in Moscow since 1988, I, for some reason, have never been to the Leo Tolstoy Museum. There are actually three or even four in Moscow, God love ’em, but this is the main one, at 11 Prechistenka Street. I came upon the building for the first time ever on foot. I’ve driven by countless times, thinking each time I must one day come here. And then life would interrupt. But here I was, walking along and there it was – the Tolstoy museum. I walked around it warily, like one might when finally discovering a treasure you’ve been after forever and now you’re afraid to put out your hand because it might be an illusion and disappear right before your eyes. It also seemed like there was something inadequate about the whole, sudden process that was going on inside me. To put it bluntly, where were the fireworks?

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So, rather than going in right away, I walked around the building several times, looking in through a wrought iron fence at the back of a statue that was clearly an image of Tolstoy. Looking at the walls, looking at the grounds. I walked up and down in front of the building’s facade, crossing back over the street to photograph it. I kept trying to find reasons that I belonged here, but I couldn’t. The place, beautiful as it is, kept slipping through the fingers of my mind, if you will. Finally, I saw a woman walk through the gate into the courtyard and I thought, why don’t I do that too? And I did. And I was inside the grounds.
I walked past the open door to the museum itself because I was, at that moment, fixated on seeing the statue, which I could only see from behind from the street. Statues can have a very strong effect on those who encounter them. They can fool you into thinking you are encountering the real thing. I wanted to encounter Tolstoy. Before I could get there, however, a man in a black uniform came out of the museum and started shouting at me. “Where are you going?! We’re closed!” I ignored him and kept walking towards Tolstoy. The man grew angier and shouted louder, following after me now. “You can’t come in here! We’re closed! Leave now!” he barked. Loudly enough so that I hoped he could hear me I muttered, “Lev Nikolaevich will forgive you!” and I kept walking towards the statue, which I succeeded in photographing twice before I, indeed, had to leave. Frankly, that was what had been missing for the 15, 20 minutes  that I worked up the nerve to pay the great writer a visit. I needed a little bit of an obstacle to overcome and I needed something that united me with Tolstoy against everything and everyone else around me. That grumpy guard did it, although I can’t say I feel the gratitude for him that I perhaps ought to. Authority figures irritate me. Authority itself, like that which Tolstoy commands, does not. But those “figures,” those “authority figures” – man they get under my skin.


Okay, the tale of finding Tolstoy in 1971. I’ll try to do this as painlessly as possible.
I was in my final year of high school. For my English studies I was enrolled in a free form class that allowed the students to follow their own muse. We had a brilliant teacher, Dorothy “Dottie” Shamah, who knew exactly how much rope to give a young, arrogant high school kid before he hung himself. So when she explained in September that there was no curriculum and that we all would make the class happen ourselves with our independent reading and discussions, I apparently sensed a tremendous opportunity. I say “apparently” because I don’t know this for a fact. Not only do I not remember, but I doubt I understood anything of it at the time. My point is this – my best friend Clete (who was also in the group) and I gratefully used class time every Friday to go climbing in the mountains that rose up behind our homes. To this day I think those hours spent forging streams, climbing trees, hiking up steep crevices and clambering over mountain rocks taught me more than I had learned up until that point in my life in all my 11 years of schooling. It taught me danger, it taught me fearlessness, it taught me exploration, it taught me stupidity, it taught me luck (like the time we got running downhill so fast that the only way we could stop was to throw our bodies on the ground and when we came rolling and bouncing to a stop our legs were hanging over the edge of a towering cliff), it taught me teamwork – together Clete and I got out of every tight spot we got ourselves into. It taught us the value of disobedience and it brought us around to a sensation of responsibility. The mountains behind Claremont, CA, taught me all that, but they only did so because I was cutting Dottie Shamah’s Friday English class all the time. The fact that it was “stolen” time made it incredibly valuable. But I did say “responsibility” here a moment ago, and Clete and I would occasionally deign to visit classes. On those occasions, so generous on our part, Dottie was her usual self, unperturbed, sanguine, and non-judgmental about the actions of her wayward students.
But on one of those occasions specifically, in early December as I recall it, Dottie realized it was time for something to change. She turned to me and, as if the conversation were happening in September, she said, “So, John. We don’t see you all that often. You must be very busy.” Oh, yes, I suppose I answered, ever the smart aleck. Absolutely. “Well, then,” Dottie smiled, “I think it’s time you share some of that with the rest of the class. Tell me, what is it you are reading?”
And it hit me like a punch does to the gut – you’re had. You’re down. Now get yourself out of it. So I, certain that I am as calm and collected as Dottie herself, let my mind race madly in search of the name of the biggest, fattest, longest book I could possibly think of. Without breaking my serene smile – or, at least, that is how I remember it – I looked Dottie in the eye – this all took place in a split second – and I said, “War and Peace.”
I don’t know why I said War and Peace. I don’t know how or why I knew it was a big book. But it came to me from somewhere. And that’s what I said. I said I was reading War and Peace.
“Well,” said Dottie, very pleased, “then next week we will look forward to your presenting the first half of the book in class.”
Do you realize what a brilliant teacher Dottie Shamah was? She didn’t say the whole book, she said the first half. It was her little way, instinctive, surely – the instincts of a great teacher – of letting me know that she knew I wasn’t reading any War and Peace at all and that I didn’t have the vaguest notion of what it was or why I had said it. She let me know that and she let me get away with it. Well, sort of – I mean reading half of War and Peace in a week isn’t easy, but it’s doable. Reading the whole thing would have been punishment. But she wasn’t interested in punishing me for being bad or for lying, she wanted me to learn something from this moment, from every moment that had led up to it, and from each which would flow outward from it now.
That, essentially, is the story. To put it simply, after that moment my life changed. Everything that followed is the life I have lived. So when I say I was 43 years in getting to the museum at 11 Prechistenka, I mean exactly what I say.
A few words of wrap-up. Tolstoy never lived at this address. It was chosen to be the main seat of the chain of Tolstoy museums because it looked like the Moscow of the War and Peace era. I didn’t know that until I looked it up in order to write this blog. And that struck me. It makes sense then that I wasn’t making contact with this place when I first approached it. The aura was missing. That nasty guard and Sergei Merkurov’s statue out back helped me overcome that. But the absence of a real-life connection to Tolstoy was true – there is none. As for the nasty guard, you can sort of see him in the photo below, preparing to come kick me out. I’m pleased that he has no face. He’s lost to history.





Anna Golubkina home, Moscow


It’s curious what it takes sometimes to learn something. I essentially knew nothing about the sculptor Anna Golubkina until a friend of my wife began working on a film that was/is to be set in the Golubkina house museum in Moscow. Then I started hearing fascinating stories after every call Oksana’s friend would make to her to discuss what they were going to do. Golubkina (1864-1927) is considered the first important Russian woman to do sculpture. Her work puts her among the first rank of all Russian sculptors. I was particularly fascinated to learn that she had studied with Rodin. She replaced Camille Claudel as his assistant in 1897 and remained with him for about three years. According to Wikipedia, Rodin “requested her work on the hands and legs of his sculptures.” I think I’m amazed as anything by the fact that Golubkina is another of those relatively frequent Russian natural talents. Growing up in a strictly religious home, she was not sent to school, but was taught the basic elements of literacy at home. When a  local art teacher in her home town near Ryazan suggested she study art in Moscow, she was already at the ripe age of 25. And then comes another of those marvelous moments you just have to love. Again, I’ll let Wikipedia take over for me: “In 1889 she took entrance exams for Otto Gunst’s Classes for Elegant Arts, an architecture school. Having no formal education, she failed some exams; but an examiner, sculptor Sergey Volnukhin, challenged other examiners to name a sculptor able to produce anything like her ‘Praying old woman.’ He convinced them not only to admit Anna, but to waive her tuition as well.” One Russian biography describes Golubkina as being headstrong, unsure of her own powers, prideful to the point of being arrogant, and quite modest.  What a wonderful combination for an artist!


Moscow Art Theater junkies know Golubkina’s work whether they realize it or not. It is her sculpture, “The Wave,” that hangs over the entrance to the theater’s small stage. She did several sculptural portraits of  major writers, including Andrei Bely, Alexei Remizov, Alexei Tolstoy and Lev Tolstoy. Golubkina met the latter Tolstoy in 1903 and, as was her wont, she gave him some straight talk, telling him outright that she did not share many of his views. So forceful was she in her manner that when she came back to see the great writer, his wife Sofya Andreyevna  told her that Lev Nikolayevich was sick and could not receive visitors. Many years later, in 1926, when she was creating her famous bust of Tolstoy, she said, “Tolstoy is like the sea. But he has eyes like a hounded wolf.” Golubkina left an unfinished wooden sculpture of the poet Alexander Blok when she died in 1927. In that same year her Moscow apartment on Bolshoi Levshinsky Pereulok (Lane) was turned into a “museum house,” setting a precedent for many such museums that subsequently appeared in the Soviet era. In the photo below you can see the balcony extending from the back side of Golubkina’s apartment. It is said she would come out here and chat with many of her writer friends who lived in the next building over. Golubkina suffered from severe rheumatism for much of her adult life and it often interfered with her work. Most often she is considered an impressionist or a modernist. She always considered herself a student of Rodin. She was sympathetic to the Revolution when it took place, although relatively early on she began to refuse to collaborate with the government in protest against its executions of “enemies.”





Dostoevskaya Metro Station, Moscow

DSCN1363.jpg2When the Dostoevskaya metro station opened on the gray line a couple of years ago – it’s located right next to the Russian Army Theater and a hop-skip-and-jump from the fabulous Ten’ (Shadow) Theater – it raised a veritable ruckus. Oh, there was all kinds of nonsense about how it was going to scare metro riders away, how it was going to create murderers with its portrait of Raskolnikov, and how it was going to foster suicide by encouraging young people to throw themselves on the tracks as trains were coming in. You get the picture. The typical damned nonsense that people write and say and think and propagate this crazy day and age. In fact, the entire underground part of the station, designed by Ivan Nikolayev, is a brilliant monument to the world of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novels. What I particularly love is the way, for instance, that Nikolayev even gave a nod to Nikolai Gogol, the most important early influence on Dostoevsky. A Gogol-like figure depicted on the wall of the stairwell appears to be hurrying down to catch a train as actual riders pass him by. It’s a lovely touch, smart and witty. I also love the black, white and gray color scheme that suits Dostoevsky’s art so well.

DSCN1367.jpg2Down on the actual platforms, mosaics on wide columns illustrate various scenes from Dostoevsky’s greatest novels. I happened to click my camera at two columns depicting the characters and events of Crime and Punishment, maybe because that was the first Dostoevsky novel I ever read way back when in another lifetime. For the record, I read Crime and Punishment on the heels of having read Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Anna Karenina and I didn’t notice the slightest drop in quality. This was in high school. The 1970s had just gotten underway. That little bit aside, I should mention that I wrote about this wonderful metro station in a Moscow Times blog several years ago. Should the spirit move you, you can read that hereDSCN1369.jpg2DSCN1375.jpg2