Tag Archives: Leonty Usov

Marina Tsvetaeva statue, Moscow

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Monuments and statues are often a compromise. By which I mean to say that we, as consumers of them, end up making compromises in order to live with them. The ideal, of course, is the brilliant work that you not only embrace, but are thrilled to encounter. Something that continues to inspire you long after you have walked away from it. I would argue that Leonty Usov’s monument to Anton Chekhov in Tomsk is one of those – a model for what a genuine monument is all about. (Keep in mind that many wanted Usov’s head for what he did to Chekhov, but this is my space here, not theirs. If you’re interested in what I’m talking about, look to your left and click either on the name Leonty Usov or Anton Chekhov.) The absolute nadir is the monument that you just cannot bring yourself to look at . Or, one that is so banal that you really don’t care if you look at it or not – it really doesn’t exist in your line of sight. (I guess I’d put Yury Dines’s statue of Pushkin in that category – again, find Dines on this site to see what I mean.)
Today we’re dealing with something in between. Call it a victory (the word ‘triumph’ would be too strong) of compromise. This is a statue of Marina Tsvetaeva created by Nina Matveeva for a small square next to 9 Borisoglebsky Lane in the general Arbat region of Moscow. It was unveiled Oct. 8, 2007, on the 115th anniversary of the poet’s birth. It stands directly across from the home in which Tsevetaeva lived at 6 Borisoglebsky Lane from 1914 to 1922. That home is now the Tsvetaeva Museum, and is an active cultural center which hosts, poetry readings, art exhibits and concerts. More about that another time.

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The truth of the matter is that you are most likely to be disappointed when you encounter this likeness of Tsvetaeva. It’s not bad or off-putting in any way – it just… it just has something missing. It’s a big enough work in a relatively small city space, but it has no sense of volume or presence. The little square itself is rather haphazardly done, leaving the impression that maybe someone will come along some day and improve the environs. Or maybe the sculpture will be buried in the context of a redesigned square. That could happen, too.
The image of the poet pining while lost in her private thoughts, half-defending herself from our gaze with both of her hands, seems dismayingly cliched. Tsvetaeva had plenty of reasons to give herself over to melancholy. But as a poet she was muscular, bold and inventive. The words ‘cliche’ and ‘Tsvetaeva’ cannot possibly be used in the same phrase unless it is one like this – one that proclaims the impossibility of those notions standing side by side. As interesting and as compelling as Tsvetaeva’s difficulties may have been – she ultimately committed suicide at the age of 49 in 1941 – it is her extraordinary writing that makes her one of the leading figures of Russian literature of any era.
I don’t see any hints of the extraordinary in this sculpture. You get the draped clothing (although this can be justified historically, there was a period when Tsvetaeva was partial to floor-length dresses), that allows the sculptor not to have to create any complex detail. You get the pillar that just happens to be standing there, thus justifying the awkward positions of the arms. But most importantly, I find no passion, no real point of view in this work. It feels like the sculptor didn’t really care. There’s no humor, there’s no irony, there’s no attachment, there’s no pain; there’s virtually nothing that suggests we ought to care about the person depicted here, or that the person sculpting her cared.
The sculpture has a mute, vague resemblance to Tsvetaeva’s face, although I see this rendition as more generic than well-sculpted. The hair seems to get it right, that kind of pageboy cut was a style Tsvetaeva came back to often enough. The hair, which is a prominent aspect of this sculpture, is sufficient to tell us this is Tsvetaeva, but it is hardly enough to make us fall in love with Matveeva’s work.
As I have said, the predominant feeling one has is disappointment. You experience joy the first moment you realize you have come upon Tsvetaeva, but your excitement is quickly deflated when you realize that no real encounter has taken place.

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Chekhov’s choice restaurant, Tomsk

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This is to satisfy everyone’s craving for Chekhov porn. I could write the most interesting little essay of my life about some fascinating person you haven’t heard of and I’ll get a handful of brave readers. I can write “Chekhov” and quote the phone book and readers will swoop in drooling from all over the world.
So, swoop in and drool.
I once got in huge trouble being facetious about Chekhov. An editor at a Chekhov newsletter asked me if I’d like to shake up the somnambulant Chekhov community around the world by writing a polemical essay for him – you know, a little thing done tongue-in-cheek? I’d just written a review of a horrible production of Ivanov and I had admitted I was sick and tired of seeing bean-pushing productions of Chekhov, those soporific outings in which “innovation” lurks in the director’s decision to have the actor playing the doctor sit with legs crossed or arms akimbo. I gladly took on the challenge and I unloaded a bit of frustration – leaving plenty of admiration in place for those who know how to read – and always leaving my tongue in my cheek.
It turned out there are a lot of people who can’t read, and who haven’t the vaguest notion what to do with a tongue in a cheek! My humble little essay “Back off, Chekhov!” (the title itself being a pun on the famous essay by Anatoly Lunacharsky, “Back to Ostrovsky!” – I still haven’t seen anybody pick up on that) stirred a real hornet’s nest. I was ridiculed by Chekhovites and Chekhovians the world ’round. Being someone who has always taken Satchel Paige, John Lee Hooker and Bob Dylan seriously, most of the time I don’t look back. So I knew nothing of the tempest in the teapot in which my essay was being boiled to a nub until a friend one day asked me, “What did you do to tick off all the Chekhov people?”
I won’t go into that any more at this point. If you’re interested, I wrote a bit about it in the bibliographical entry to “Back Off, Chekhov!” on my website. Just follow this link then drop down to that title to find the text in fine print. I also referred to the situation in a blog I wrote for The Moscow Times in 2009.
But all of that is prologue to what I’m really up to today – casting about a few thoughts about Chekhov’s brief stay in Tomsk. It’s a place where Anton Chekhov once ate a hearty meal at the Slavyansky Bazaar restaurant, and a place where a – God forbid! – irreverent statue of Chekhov now stands. I wrote about Leonty Usov’s great monument some time ago in this space – go there to see some photos of his fabulous work.
Chekhov came through Tomsk on his way to Sakhalin, about which he wanted to write a book – and did so later. He arrived in Tomsk on May 15, 1890 and took a room at the Rossia Hotel (on the corner of Nechaevskaya and Spasskaya Streets, a structure torn down long ago). It was a hard trip, made on trains, carts, carriages, boats, rafts and maybe even horseback. As such, we must understand that our Shining Example of a Writer wasn’t always in the best frame of mind. Things obviously came to a head in Tomsk. There was a policeman who wanted to talk shop – that is, literature – with Chekhov, but only succeeded in keeping the Great Man from writing. Here is what Chekhov said about him in a letter sent back to Moscow:
“I have been informed that an assistant of the Chief of Police wishes to see me. What is that all about? But my alarm was unfounded. It turns out the policeman is a lover of literature and even writes, thus did he come to me to pay his respects. He went home in search of his drama and, I think, he wants to entertain me with it. He’ll come now and again interrupt my writing…”

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Chekhov continued, “The policeman came back. He did not read his drama although he brought it. But he did entertain me with a story. Not bad, but too local. He showed me a gold ingot. Asked for some vodka. I can’t recall a single Siberian member of the intelligentsia who hasn’t asked for vodka when visiting me. He told me that he has acquired a “little love girl,” a married woman, and let me read the petition sent to a high-placed official asking for a divorce. Then he suggested we go take a look at the Tomsk bordellos.”
It’s uncertain how much of that vodka Chekhov himself partook of, but here is how he described his visit to the ladies of the night:
“Returned from the bordellos. Disgusting. Two a.m. Tomsk is a boring city, drunken, not a single pretty woman, filled with Asian lawlessness. The only fine thing about this city is that the governors in it die.”
Oops! What happened to everyone’s refined, sad, pouting, melancholy, wistful, sensitive, kind Anton Chekhov?
The Slavyansky Bazaar, pictured here and built between 1886 and 1888,  is practically the only 19th-century building left in this part of the city, on the banks of the Tom’ River. Chekhov ate here around May 16 or 17 and apparently enjoyed it.
“They have a Slavyansky Bazaar,” he wrote to his publisher Alexei Suvorin, hinting, presumably, at the famous Slavyansky Bazaar restaurant in Moscow. “The dinners are good, although getting to this bazaar is not easy – unsurpassable mud. Today (May 17), I’ll go to the bathhouse. They say there is only one good bath attendant in all of Tomsk, a man named Arkhip.”
By the way, a brief digression on bathhouses: My friend Bryon MacWilliams wrote a wonderful book about Russian bathhouses called With Light Steam. In it you learn why a good bath attendant is so important, as well as many other important things.
But back to Chekhov and Tomsk.
“The folks here are good, kind and have wonderful traditions. Their rooms are arranged simply, but cleanly, their beds are soft, made of down with big pillows and their floors are decorated and covered with homemade canvas rugs. … True, one old woman who gave me a teaspoon wiped it on her backside, but at least they don’t sit you down to tea without a tablecloth. They don’t burp in your presence, they don’t hunt in their heads [for lice?], don’t hold their fingers inside the glass when bringing you water or milk. The plates are clean and the kvas is transparent… They bake the most tasty  bread. Their pies and pancakes and potato pies are all tasty too…”
Still, the women of Tomsk gave him no peace and inspired no respect.
“The women here are not interesting,” he wrote. “They are cold, do not know how to dress, don’t sing, don’t laugh, and are not good looking…”
Chekhov left Tomsk on May 21 (which, according to the contemporary calendar is June 4). He never returned. The people of Tomsk have never forgotten him.

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Anton Chekhov Monument, Tomsk

DSCN1657.jpg2Ah, the Chekhov sculpture in Tomsk! I love it! This was hugely controversial when it was erected in 2004 for the city’s 400th anniversary. Many thought (and still do) that this interpretation of a slightly grumpy Chekhov by sculptor Leonty Usov was an abomination. I say this is what statues and monuments are all about – witty, honest, bold and filled with chutzpah. The text ringing the base of the sculpture says, “Anton Chekhov as seen through the eyes of a drunken peasant, lying in a ditch, who has never read [the beloved children’s story] ‘Kashtanka’.” It is intended to be, and succeeds in being, a light-hearted response to Chekhov’s famous blasting of Tomsk in a letter he wrote while on his way to Sakhalin Island, “Tomsk isn’t worth a brass nickel,” he wrote in 1890, “an incredibly boring city…. the people are incredibly boring… the city is full of drunks… endlessly muddy… the maid at the local tavern wiped my spoon on her butt before giving it to me… The dinners here are excellent, unlike the women who are rough to the touch…”


The statue stands on the banks of the Tom River, for which Tomsk, naturally, is named, and it faces the Slavyansky Bazaar restaurant (the red brick building below), where the writer apparently had at least some culinary satisfaction.

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Nikolai Erdman Memorial Plaque, Tomsk


The appearance in 2011 of a plaque commemorating the fact that the great playwright Nikolai Erdman worked at the Tomsk Drama Theater was one of those little miracles that make life worth living. Erdman, arrested in 1933 during the filming of the great “first Soviet musical” Jolly Fellows, was exiled to Siberia in less than a week’s time. He was sent to Yeniseisk; his co-screenwriter Vladimir Mass on the film was sent to Tobolsk. Although the two had worked together frequently since the mid-20s or so, they would never do so again. Erdman, apparently in gratitude for his good behavior in Yeniseisk, was moved to Tomsk in 1934.  He remained there until his three-year sentence was up in 1936.


Tomsk has long been one of the biggest, most important Siberian cities. It was a central point for political prisoners and exiles being moved further into Siberia or keeping them from moving back to European Russia. As such, the city has a rich history of political prisoners contributing to the local culture. Erdman during his stay was officially employed at the Tomsk Drama Theater as literary director, and, while he was there, he wrote a dramatization of Maxim Gorky’s novel Mother, which was performed with some success.

DSCN1634.jpg2DSCN1637.jpg2The plaque on the wall of the former Tomsk Drama Theater (now the city’s Young Spectator Theater) was unveiled on a crisp day at the end of March 2011. The event was the culmination of four years of work carried out by Professor Valentina Golovchiner, a Yevgeny Shvarts scholar, who had studied under the most important Erdman scholar of the Soviet era, Nikolai Kiselyov. According to Golovchiner she got the idea of launching the campaign to erect the plaque (designed by great local sculptor Leonty Usov) from me when, one day, without thinking, I blurted out that someone ought to commemorate the fact that Erdman once worked in this building at Pereulok Nakhanovicha, 4. Be that as it may, this is the essence of the matter: Golovchiner showed heroic tenacity in pushing the plaque through all the stages of permissions, bureaucratic hoop-jumping and signature-collecting that were required to bring the project to fruition. As much as it is a truly satisfying recognition of Erdman’s contribution to Russian literature, drama and theater – for me it will also always be a monument to Valentina Golovchiner’s commitment to her calling as a scholar and historian of Russian culture. Following is a 2014 snapshot of Golovchiner pointing to the desk where Kiselyov used to work at the Tomsk State University Library, followed by a portrait of Kiselyov that hangs in a corridor on the second floor of the main university building.