We continue our stroll up and down Moscow’s renovated Pyatnitskaya Street today by turning our attention to Vasily Lebedev (1898-1949), a poet and song lyricist who, during the period of the Revolution, added the appendage Kumach (calico red, turkey red) to his last name. He was born at No. 6 Pyatnitskaya Street and lived here more or less until his 12th birthday. Lebedev-Kumach is a wonderfully evocative name in Russian, with hinted references to swans and turkeys, white and red. I used to run across his name often when researching my book Silence’s Roar: The Life and Drama of Nikolai Erdman. Not only did the two writers begin their careers at approximately the same time (Lebedev-Kumach preceding Erdman by about two years) and in the same general circles, but they had the opportunity to collaborate several times in the 1930s. Lebedev-Kumach wrote the songs for three works that Erdman collaborated on with others. They were: The Musical Store (1932), a musical/dramatic sketch written with Vladimir Mass for the popular jazz musician Leonid Utyosov; Jolly Fellows (1933/34), a film scripted with Mass and based very loosely on the idea of The Music Store; and Volga-Volga (1938), a film scripted with Mikhail Volpin.
Lebedev-Kumach was a hugely successful figure in the Soviet pantheon. He was the winner of a Stalin Prize (1941) and his songs were wildly popular, bringing him a financial security that could not be dreamed of by the average person in the workers’ paradise. It’s enough to know that he was the author of the words to the once- song “Wide is My Native Land” to understand the scope of the writer’s fame.
I really don’t want to step into the controversy about Lebedev-Kumach’s alleged plagiarism of some of his best-known lyrics. I don’t know enough to do that. Although it is now a part of his biography and can’t be ignored either. I will say this – the songwriter’s popularity was such that he could easily have had enemies who would have been happy to take him down a rung or two. One of his greatest detractors was the novelist and head of the Writers Union Alexander Fadeev (see an earlier blog about him on this site). But Fadeev was a slippery character, having caused untold numbers of writers to suffer pain, humiliation, loss of freedom and even death. Were his claims legitimate? I don’t know. It appears to be a fact that as he aged Lebedev-Kumach became horribly depressed by his wealth, fame and high position in the Soviet hierarchy. According to Russian Wikipedia he was asked late in life to write a poem about Joseph Stalin and he refused. (He had previously written numerous songs about and featuring Stalin.) I’m not sure Fadeev would have been able to refuse something like that…
The building in which the future poet and song lyricist was born is one of the oldest buildings on Pyatnitskaya Street. In the second half of the 19th century it either replaced a one-story building that was built in 1842, or had a second floor added. As best as I can understand, the one-story version was erected at the end of the 18th century and replaced structures that were part of the property of Count Mikhail Dashkov in the 17th century.
One website devoted to Moscow’s neighborhoods has this to say about Pyatnitskaya: “Eclectic and gaudy, Pyatnitskaya still retains that charm of a secluded, isolated corner of the city which is characteristic of the Zamoskvorechye region. It’s as if it was created especially for knowledgeable connoisseurs of architecture and hosts of old buildings that are steeped in urban legends and attract curious researchers hoping that the city will reveal something of its past to them.”
As for Lebedev-Kumach, I would add that he translated Horatio into Russian; worked for a time in the organization connected with the famous ROSTA Windows (where Vladimir Mayakovsky also worked); wrote for the great humorous publications The Whistle (Gudok) and Krokodil; and took part in the famous and influential Blue Blouse traveling theater projects. According to one website, an incomplete listing of his songs numbers more than 150. He is buried in the cemetery at Novodevichy Monastery.