Tag Archives: Lev Tolstoy

Vikenty Veresaev house, Tula

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Vikenty Veresaev, real last name Smidovich, was born in this house in Tula in 1867. He lived here until 1884, when he left for St. Petersburg to study literature and history at St. Petersburg University. Even as his various professions and aspirations took him to other cities for long periods of time – notably Tartu, where he studied medicine, and later Moscow, where he was a famed writer – this was a home he would return to frequently. Its address today is 82 Gogolevskaya Street (Peshekhonskaya Street when Veresaev lived here), just five blocks from Tula’s main drag, then called Kievskaya Street, now called Lenin Prospekt.
Veresaev is one of an elite club of Russian writers, whose first job was as a medical doctor. The most famous of them are Anton Chekhov, Mikhail Bulgakov, Vasily Aksyonov, Grigory Gorin and Alexander Rozenbaum. In fact, Veresaev felt so called to medicine that he chose to take it up as a profession after already completing his first degree as a historian-philologist. He officially became a doctor in 1894 upon graduation from Derptsky University in Tartu (it actually had been renamed Yuryevsky University in 1893 – and is now known as the famed Tartu University).
Veresaev moved to St. Petersburg in 1894 where, in 1896, he took up a position at the city’s hospital for contagious diseases (later to be named Botkin Hospital) where he doubled as a resident physician and the head of the hospital library.
Veresaev had had inclinations to write ever since his school days. His first publication was a poem called “Contemplation” in 1885. He published his first story, “Enigma,” in 1887. By this time he was using the pseudonym of Veresaev. Even as he completed his medical studies, Veresaev was embarking on an active literary career. He wrote and published numerous short stories in the early 1890s and, in 1892, he published a series of essays, The Kingdom of the Underworld, about the life of miners in Donetsk. For the most part he published his work in the Marxist press. The same year that he graduated from medical school, 1994, he published his first significant novella, No Way (aka No Road), following it with another highly-touted work, Pestilent Air, in 1898. Both works captured the growing sensation among Russian youth (and not only youth) that the stagnant political and social realities of the time were leading the country to a crisis. At this time Veresaev was more or less in complete agreement with liberal and social groups. In fact, his decision to become a doctor had been influenced by his desire to have the opportunity to “go to the people” and help them. The notoriety that Veresaev earned with No Way and Pestilent Air turned to downright popularity when,  in 1901, he published his first major, and still best-known, collection, A Doctor’s Notes (aka Memoirs of a Physician). Here he shocked some and thrilled others with unblinking portraits of real life told from the viewpoint of a doctor. Veresaev addressed the mixed reaction in his introduction to the collection as a book:
This resentment strikes me as symbolic. We so fear the truth in all things, and are so unaware of how important it is, that all we need do is barely open up one small corner of it for people to begin feeling uneasy: Why did you do that? What is the use? What will the uninitiated say? How will they understand the truth presented?
Plus ça change, I guess I want to say to that!

Notes of a Doctor not only put Veresaev into the first ranks of contemporary Russian writers, it also brought down on him the attention of the Russian secret police. For his “crime” of protesting the brutal treatment of students demonstrating against the government, he was sent back to Tula in 1901 to make it easier for the authorities to keep an eye on him. In 1903, however, he was allowed to return to Moscow, and, shortly thereafter, was drafted into service as a military doctor for the duration of the Russo-Japanese War. This led to his next prominent work, a series of essays written from 1904 to 1906 about his experiences at war.
From roughly 1905 until the Russian Revolution in 1917, Veresaev wrote and published less than he had in the past, although he did not stop writing altogether. Significantly, he published a work titled A Life Alive: On Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, in 1910. At the time it may have seemed like an unexpected foray into history and criticism, but, in fact, this would be a pointer to his future. Also in 1910 Veresaev travelled to Greece where his lifelong love for that culture was reawakened. When he reemerged after the revolution, it was primarily as a literary historian. It was his second birth, if you will, as a writer. His books about Gogol, Chekhov and Pushkin have been highly regarded ever since they appeared in print in the 1920s and 1930s. Of particular value are Pushkin in Life (1926) and Gogol in Life (1933).
According to one online Russian-language biography, “Vikenty Veresaev linked his literary destiny with the ‘new life,’ in this he echoed Maxim Gorky. His writing style is characterized not only by vivid realism, but also by the subtlest psychological observations about his own experiences. Autobiography was a distinctive feature of his work.
Translation was another field of activity that Veresaev devoted himself to for almost his entire adult life. He began toying with translation as a young man – he knew ancient Greek – and his translations of Homer’s The Odyssey and The Iliad are still read today. He was awarded the Pushkin Prize in 1919 for his translations of ancient Greek literature, and he was awarded the Stalin Prize (first degree) in 1943 for the sum of his life’s work.
One doesn’t see much commentary about this former liberal’s attitude to events as they unfolded in the early Soviet years. There is, however, his novel Deadlocked (1922), which showed an aversion to the violence being unleashed at the time by the Bolsheviks. In any case, two facts stand out – 1) his increased interest in the past in his writings after the Revolution, and 2) his receiving of the Stalin Prize, something that was always handed out by the Leader as thanks for perceived loyalty. Veresaev appears to have receded into a relatively safe space in the years leading up to and including the Purges, when so many of his colleagues would have suffered or disappeared.
A few words on Veresaev’s parents who were rather remarkable people themselves. His father Vikenty Smidovich was of Polish and German extraction, and was one of the leading Tula doctors of his time. He founded the first hospital in Tula as well as the city’s first sanitary commission, which sought to minimize unhealthy public practices. Veresaev’s mother Yelizaveta Yunitskaya was a noblewoman from the Mirgorod area of Ukraine. She also had Greek ancestors. The organizer of the first kindergarten in Russia in 1872, she gave birth to 11 children, of whom eight survived.
Veresaev died in 1945, just less than a month after the end of World War II. He was buried in Moscow’s Novodevichy cemetery.

 

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Alexander Herzen house and plaque, London

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Of all the places I could be today (save Chania, Crete), I think I would choose London. Maybe it’s the old blood burbling up in whatever is in me of my mother’s line. Maybe it’s because I seem to have the extraordinarily good luck of invariably hitting London when spectacular weather reigns supreme. Maybe it’s because the city is just so damn beautiful, I can never devour it enough with my eyes. So, it’s to London we go today.
London has been the choice of many a good (and shady) Russian over the centuries. I don’t give a hoot about the sold souls who own football teams and sell colleagues into prison or worse. My gaze is a bit more fastidious. Surely one of the most famous Russian residents of London was Alexander Herzen (1812-1870), who lived in the British capital from 1852 until 1864. I have written several times already about him and specific places connected with his name and work in both Moscow and London. He is a man who left his mark, and left it in a way that has made people want to remember him. One of the great liberal or even radical Russian thinkers, Herzen’s name stands for revolution, for freedom and for equality. Most of all, perhaps, it stands for bucking the status quo. He had a quick, insightful mind and a talent for words that made him a focal point of most any society he found himself in. That is certainly true of his time in London, where he produced important revolutionary writings of his own, published an important newspaper (Kolokol, or, The Bell) and ran an important publisher (the Russian Free Press, which I will get to someday in this space). He spent some of his time in London in close contact with his great friend and romantic rival, the poet Nikolai Ogaryov (see elsewhere on this blog site), the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin, and many others. In her wonderful, all-too-brief series of blogs about Russians in London, Sarah J. Young provides this list of Herzen’s visitors: Ivan Turgenev, Nikolai Chernyshevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Nikolai Nekrasov, Pavel Annenkov, the critic and translator Vasily Botkin and the leftist writer Vasily Sleptsov. She adds: “It’s certainly true to say that neither his closest friend Nikolai Ogarev nor Bakunin would have ended up in London if Herzen hadn’t been here.”
The building we peruse today is a lovely piece of architecture, still in excellent condition. You walk up to the door of One Orsett Terrace in Westminster and you can fully imagine what that very experience would have been like for Turgenev, for Dostoevsky, for Tolstoy as they came by for an evening’s visit. It really makes you want to lift that heavy brass, lion-headed knocker and let it whack a couple of times. I actually fought back my desires to do that because – well, do you know how easy it is to become the stupid American tourist? Imagine someone answering my knock and I, covering my disappointment, saying, “I was hoping Herzen might open up. Who are you?” Or something like that. So I left that experience to my imagination – which could well be why it still affects me so viscerally when I see that brass lion’s head in my photos. Anyway, Tolstoy would have come by here in March of 1861. The indispensable Sarah J. Young writes: “Tolstoy arrived in London on 2nd March 1861, and left on 17th. He had not met Herzen before, but it is known that they saw each other regularly during the sixteen days of Tolstoy’s stay.  Lucas (p. 33) describes Herzen’s daughter Natalya’s recollections of seeing Tolstoy, whom she knew as the author of Childhood, at Orsett House, Westbourne Terrace. He states that Natalya was disappointed that Tolstoy wasn’t the heroic figure she was expecting, but he doesn’t give a source for the scene. Lucas also quotes Herzen as saying ‘I am seeing a great deal of Tolstoy. We have quarrelled. He is stubborn and talks nonsense, but is naive and a good man’, from Aylmer Maude, Family Views of Tolstoy (p. 71).”
(It is thanks to this specific post of Young’s that I hunted down and found this place to photograph.)

Dostoevsky would have been here a little over a year later. Again, I turn things over to Young, for there is no point in pretending I know more than she does: Dostoevsky “visited London for 8 days – his only trip to Britain – arriving on 9th July [1862]  (Dryzhakov, p. 328). Like many other writers, one of his chief aims was to see Herzen, and he certainly did so on 16th July, as well as probably also on Sunday 11th. According to [Joseph] Frank, the two men, who found they had a great deal more in common than they had on their previous meeting, in 1846, discussed recent events: Chernyshevsky’s arrest, the spate of fires that had engulfed Petersburg that spring, and the revolutionary Young Russia proclamation that had been published to much furore in May (Frank, pp. 145-59, 188-92). Given the closeness of Herzen’s circle, and his habit of entertaining on Sundays at Orsett House, it seems likely that on 11th July, Dostoevsky also met Bakunin and Ogarev.”
Turgenev, who was a frequent traveler to London and the U.K. in general, met often with Herzen. How frequently he came to this specific house, however, is less certain. Young, God bless her, tells us this (she begins with a reference to a passage in Patrick Waddington’s Turgenev and England and then clarifies): “…in May 1862, when Turgenev finally arrived with the writer Vasily Botkin after many delays, there was no room for him at the Herzen residence on Westbourne Terrace and ‘he had to stay with neighbours, possibly in the very house where Michael Bakunin was now living’. But we know that Bakunin was by this time living at 10 Paddington Green, which by no stretch of the imagination could be described as neighbouring Orsett House. A rift with Bakunin marked the end of Turgenev’s visits to this most famous group of Russian exiles….”
It is also worth quoting a section from Leonard Schapiro’s book Turgenev: His Life and Times (pp. 195-196): “On his short visit to London, Turgenev had engaged in lengthy argument with Herzen on the nature and future of Russian society. The result of this debate was a series of eight articles by Herzen, entitled ‘Ends and Beginnings,’ cast in the form of open letters to a friend, published in the Bell in the second half of 1862. Turgenev originally intended to print his reply in the same journal, but in consequence of a general warning from the Russian authorities not to write for that paper, thought better of it. Turgenev’s views in the debate therefore appear in his private letters to Herzen of the period, and in summaries of his arguments incorporated in Herzen’s articles. Herzen’s open letters, written with the brilliance and exuberance which characterized his style at its best, expound a theme which is familiar enough in his writings – that Western civilization has reached the end of its creative potential, and is destined to sink into the slough of vulgar, bourgeois self-satisfaction.
Well, I guess it’s good to see that Western civilization is still dying – for, surely, it is doing that these days. I am less happy to see that Turgenev did what so many of my contemporaries now do – agree to self-censorship when confronted by the authorities. But what is eternal is eternal, I guess.
Finally, Schapiro’s comments allow us to say that Herzen’s “Ends and Beginnings” were surely written right here in the home you see pictured today.

 

 

Lev Tolstoy museum on Pyatnitskaya, Moscow

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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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Anna Golubkina home, Moscow

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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!

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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.”

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