Tag Archives: Maksym Kurochkin

Varlam Shalamov plaque, Moscow

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Varlam Shalamov, as the text says on the plaque, “lived in this house between arrests from 1934 to 1937.” The house is in the Arbat district of Moscow, building No. 8 on Chisty (Clean, or, Pure) Lane. The image of the long-suffering writer peering out at us from behind three books, was created by Georgy Frangulyan. It was unveiled to the public on Oct. 30, 2013, and was timed to coincide with the annual memorial day for victims of political repressions.
Shalamov today is a giant in the pantheon of Russian writers. But I’m hazarding a guess (without running much of a risk, I think) to say that outside the tight world of Slavists, Shalamov is either under-appreciated or not known at all. If I write “Alexander Solzhenitsyn,” everyone has a response. Everyone knows, at least in general, who he was, what he did and why. There are some who would criticize Solzhenitsyn for his fame, which I feel is going much too far. Solzhenitsyn earned his fame and his notoriety. Whether you buy into his belief system, or even accept his picture of history, you cannot deny his courage, his strength and his enormous impact.
But there is a reason why Shalamov, among those in the know, is placed on a pedestal far above that of Solzhenitsyn. One reason is that Shalamov was a genuinely great writer. Solzhenitsyn was a powerful, controversial thinker and revisionist historian. Shalamov was an artist, a writer who had perfect command over every letter, every sentence, every paragraph that he wrote. Like Anton Chekhov, perhaps, he was a man of such detail and perfection, that he could only write in short bursts. But fate, as it often has done to humans over the centuries, put him in the way of an evil state machine that saw fit to attempt to destroy him. The machine could not destroy Shalamov, but it wreaked havoc on his life. As such, Shalamov’s brilliant stories and poems were mostly written about life in the prison camps, or at least were “inspired” by it, if I dare use such a word in this context. In English, as in Russian, his main body of work is known by the title of Kolyma Tales, or Tales from Kolyma, Kolyma being the Godforsaken outpost where Shalamov and hundreds of thousands of others lived and died in the Siberian prison camps.
Shalamov (1907-1982) began to publish as a writer – both as a journalist and a short-story writer – in the early-to-mid 1930s. This was after he spent three years in the camps (1929-32) for the crime of  supposedly belonging to a Trotskyite group. He was arrested again in 1937 – the year of the Great Terror – and remained in prison work camps until 1951. (He claimed that he was re-arrested for the crime of calling Ivan Bunin a classic of Russian literature, and there is evidence to back up his claim.) While in prison he began writing poetry, probably because poems were easier to commit to memory than prose. He began writing what would become known as the Kolyma Tales around 1954. But, as I have said, these stories were often extremely short – his story “Through Snow,” written in 1956, consists of just two paragraphs and 236 words. Surely, the genre of brevity, which living in the camps forced on him originally, by now had become a kind of artistic method. This is how life and reality had shaped Shalamov’s talent.

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A couple of years ago my friend Maksym Kurochkin was commissioned to write a play for Breaking String Theater in Austin, TX. Graham Schmidt, who did the commissioning, asked Max to write something that would resonate in Austin. It was not an easy task for the playwright, not the least of which reasons was the fact that Russia had just attacked Max’s home country of Ukraine. To put it lightly, Max’s thoughts were fiercely occupied at the time. The writing of the play and the staging of it became something of a torture for many, although, as often happens in art after a bit of a struggle, it came out quite well. But my point here is that one of the many sticking points was a little detour that Max tossed in at the end of his first act. The main character in the play (Dulcey and Roxy at City Hall) decides to put on his teaching cap and inform the public about someone and something they probably don’t know. He offers a brief narrative about Shalamov, his nature and his importance, and then he quotes one of Shalamov’s poems. Keeping in mind Max’s anger over the Russia-Ukraine war, you will easily understand why he introduced this writer and this poem into his play. But aside from that, I’ve always thought Max’s brief excursus, together with the poem he quotes, is as good an introduction to Shalamov as any.  Here it is, Varlam Shalamv via Maksym Kurochkin:

…VADIM: There was this writer and poet by the name of Shalamov. He was like Solzhenitsyn only he was talented. As talented as O. Henry. But he was also diabolical. Righteously diabolical. Because he went through the prison camps and he remembered everything. And he came to the conclusion that you can’t forget murder. This is a poem. And it has a context. Shalamov opposes killers. Killers of all times and nations. He opposes cannibals as well as their mercenaries and volunteers. And their damn jesters. Here he is: Varlam Tikhonovich Shalamov. “A Slavic Oath.”

VADIM recites.

I swear until my death
to avenge those foul bastards
whose sick science I now know by heart.
I’ll wash my hands with my enemy’s blood
when that blessed moment comes.
For all to see, in Slavic fashion,
I’ll drink from a split skull,
that skull of mine own enemy,
as Svyatoslav did drink.
I’ll throw this funeral feast
the way the old Slavs did –
Eclipsing every fame and glory
of those who disappeared in death.

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Dead Show “Gravestone,” Moscow

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This, as Lewis Carroll might have said, is one of the curiouser memorial plaques in Moscow. Maybe anywhere. It lies in a corner of the Aquarium Garden just off of Triumphal Square (known popularly still as Mayakovsky Square), in front of the right side of the Mossoviet Theater. It first showed up in the year 2000, when Oleg Menshikov, the popular actor and founder of the 814 Theatrical Association, decided to mark the closing of his production of Alexander Griboyedov’s Woe from Wit with a bit of macabre humor. (Menshikov’s shows, until he took over the Yermolova Theater a few years ago, invariably played in Moscow at the Mossoviet, a venue where he once briefly was a member of the company.) Menshikov had a gravestone-like marker made up with the inscription “Production of A.S. Griboyedov’s play Woe from Wit, 1998-2000″ and he sunk it into the ground. Later he added other “dead” shows to the plaque – Maksym Kurochkin’s Kitchen, 2000-2002, and Nikolai Gogol’s The Gamblers, 2002-2005.
However, don’t take everything you read, especially on gravestones, to be the gospel truth. The Gamblers is actually still performed from time to time to this day.  The story on that is as follows: Menshikov is famous for being a dynamic kind of guy. He doesn’t linger long in any once place, doing any one thing. When he begins getting bored with something, he moves on. His credo is that it’s better to close a show when it’s at the peak of its popularity than it is to keep playing until audiences realize the old magic is waning. And anybody who has ever seen an old, wheezing, gasping show that should have been closed long ago will understand this well. Thus did Menshikov close both Woe from Wit and Kitchen when both were still packing audiences in like sardines in a can, raisins in a box, stars in the sky. He did the same with The Gamblers in 2005, but his friend, and one of the performers in the show, Viktor Sukhorukov, was furious. Viktor simply did not understand why anybody would stop playing a production that was so fantastically successful. And so he badgered Menshikov until Menshikov gave in and brought the show back to life. Surely there are few people capable of badgering Menshikov like that, so let’s all stand and give Sukhorukov a round of applause. Very rare instance, indeed. By the time Menshikov brought the show back, however, the news of the “death” of The Gamblers had already been impaled in stone for all of eternity. True or not: RIP – 2002-2005.

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I was present at the unveiling of the second renewing of the plaque on June 25, 2002, the day of the last performance of Kitchen. My wife Oksana Mysina played one of the leads (Queen Kriemhild) and so I was there to attend the big afterparty, which for many, who regretted that the show was ending so soon, did resemble a funeral as much as a celebration. Anyway, after everyone had had plenty of drinks and all the celebrity guests were full of smiles and laughter and had tried out a few wobbly dance steps, Menshikov called everyone out into the late-night dark of the park. The Woe from Wit gravestone was covered with a veil that, when it was ripped off, revealed the birth and death dates of Kitchen itself – a show we had seen still living and breathing just hours before.  At that time nobody knew Menshikov was susceptible to being badgered, so we all took it as final proof that Kitchen would never rise again. At least not in that incarnation. And we were right.
A few more details on this marker.
It spends several months a year buried under snow, so that in the winter few are aware of its existence. Actually, because this is a corner where snow gets dumped when it’s shoveled off the sidewalk, the marker remains buried even for some time after much of the snow is gone. These photos were taken shortly after the last snow disappeared, but well before any of the grass or other greenery began coming in this spring. It seems fitting for a gravestone to be surrounded by gloomy, raw earth and tangly dead branches…
Finally there is the lovely fact that shortly after Kitchen was added to the marker, some grim grave robber came into the park one shadowless late night and made off with the whole plaque as a souvenir. Menshikov had to have a second version made and this time, the word is, he attached it to an incredibly deep and heavy base that goes who-knows-how-far into the earth.
Still, not all is gloom and doom here, as you will notice if you click on the last photo below and take a good look. It so happened that as I was taking that picture, I entirely by accident caught a couple embracing and kissing against the neon backdrop of an American diner that stands across the park from the Mossoviet Theater. As the Latin scholars said, art is short but love is long. Or something like that…

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Lenin Library busts, Mosow

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These things can look rather like cemeteries or crematoriums or -what is not any better, really – bad facades of bad schools. I’m talking about long rows of busts on important public buildings attempting to honor great men. Don’t get me wrong – I’m more than happy to honor great women. I hunt out opportunities to do that as often as possible in this space. But you don’t always have that opportunity in the real world when the topic is Russian literature, ca. 19th century. In the case at hand I deal with what I’m dealt – a whole bunch of men, many of them with beards.
The good thing about the east wall of the Lenin Library, located in Moscow at 5 Mokhovaya Street, is that it rises above the level of a crematorium. It’s a little surprising, perhaps, because the building itself is, in my opinion, a disaster. I don’t care if it is one of the few Constructivist-inspired buildings in Moscow to have been completed. It has a deathly gray pallor and its boxy, cinderblock construction almost looks like it’s ready to have urns of ashes slipped into each one.
But I’m letting sarcasm get the better of me today.
I’m actually writing this post because I love this wall. There is something exciting in having the opportunity to commune with a whole bunch of great and good writers all at one time. And, when it’s autumn, as it was when these pictures were taken, you have the added stroke of some beautiful, bright yellow fall leaves playing against the monotonous gray-bound background.
A few steps from left to right and back again and you can travel from Pushkin to Tolstoy, from Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin to Ivan Turgenev. Each of them looks down upon you with a sense of purpose, that purpose that most of us, at least, have grown to expect from a Russian writer.
I did an interview last year with the Ukrainian playwright Maksym Kurochkin. I asked him about some of the difficulties of living in Russia and writing in Russian as his homeland was under attack from Russia. You can imagine the corner he is backed into – or maybe you can’t. Not many of us have been in his shoes. Anyway, at one point Maksym admitted that part of him is completely alienated from his environs and those surrounding him. And yet he declared that he is proud to be considered a member of the new Russian drama movement, because, he said, “it is honorable to have a relationship with the best of Russian drama. Russian new drama for me is undoubtedly a progressive force.”
You see, that’s what Russian literature has always been – at least when it is at its best. And when you look up at the faces on the Lenin Library wall, you sense that quite clearly. Principled writers with something to say gathered here in one place.

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I am particularly grateful to the makers of this pantheon for including Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin (1826-1889, the first photo in the block below). I don’t know any place else in Moscow where one can go to pay respects to this wonderful, bitter, satirical writer. If there are any monuments or plaques in Moscow commemorating his life and work, I don’ t know of them. This makes some sense because Moscow did not play a large part in Saltykov-Shchedrin’s life. He did study for awhile as a boy at the Moscow School for the Nobility. But most of his adult life was spent either in St. Petersburg or in the provinces to which he was occasionally banished. Since I touched briefly on the topic of the sexes at the beginning here today, I think it’s worth pointing out that, while Saltykov-Shchedrin was in political exile in Vyatka in the late 1840s – he called these the years of his “Vyatka captivity” – he expressly wrote a history book for young women. He was appalled at the lack of education for girls and he wrote and published a series of lectures to counteract that.
“Captivity” and “exile” during the Tsarist years – Alexander Solzhenitsyn has written about this – were nothing compared to what occurred in the Soviet age and later. While in “captivity” Saltykov-Shchedrin continued to hold a government post and he ended up marrying the daughter of the local governor. Imagine Osip Mandelstam marrying a Soviet commissar’s daughter before being murdered in Siberia in 1938; or imagine one of the Pussy Riot members marrying the son of a local bigwig before being released. Still, Saltykov-Shchedrin’s experiences were galling enough to turn him into one of the most wickedly critical writers ever to wield a pen in Russia. He has never quite received his due abroad and even in Russia he still remains somehow almost too hot to handle. It’s good to see him here as a colleague among equals.
I haven’t been able to pin down who, exactly, are the sculptors who created the busts on the east wall. The best information I found was that a large group of artists was involved. They included Sergei Yevseyev, Matvei Manizer, Yelena Yanson-Manizer, Nadezhda Krandievskaya, Vsevolod Lishyov and Vera Mukhina.

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Teatr.doc, Moscow

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This post aims to look at the present as if it were the past. It will be easy to do, because Moscow’s ground-breaking Teatr.doc, although it is alive and well, is on the verge of great changes. A murky, backroom conflict with the authorities in Moscow – specifically the Moscow Property Department – has led to the demise of Teatr.doc as we know it. I emphasize “as we know it,” because founders Yelena Gremina and Mikhail Ugarov are currently taking steps to find a new space for this little playhouse whose influence on Russian drama, theater and film in the 2000s is enormous. The city chose to break off its rental agreement with Teatr.doc, forcing it off of the stage it has occupied since 2002. There are all kinds of reasons tossed around as to why the city wants Doc, as it is commonly called, out of the center of Moscow. Is it too politically bold? Does it occupy a space the city could receive much more money for? Does somebody not like someone personally? The official reason is that Doc allegedly violated safety rules when putting in a new entrance door from the street. But it was the Moscow fire marshal who demanded that they do that, and all the construction work was carried out under the guidance of officials. In short, the real reason as to why Teatr.doc is vacating its famous quarters is still yet to be determined. But the fact that it will no longer occupy this space, beloved of its army of fans, is incontrovertible. When the December schedule is played out, Doc at this space will be no more.
It is (was) a theater that is (was) hard to find the first time you went. Only a tiny little black sign with an arrow at the bottom gave you directions back into a tiny courtyard it would never occur to you to go into otherwise. (Even that wasn’t there in the beginning, of course.) And, a few steps later, when you reached the tiny courtyard, nothing here really looked like it had anything to do with a theater. In the last few years stencils of “Teatr.doc” appeared on window blinds and the door, but for years there was only a tiny little sign by the door, almost as if someone wanted to keep the place incognito.
Doc, once it got going, was anything but incognito. Young people made a bee-line for this place almost from the very beginning. Here was a space where they could hear and see people talking about hard issues in a language that was familiar and accessible. Shows here touched on difficult social issues such as homelessness, murder, prison life and such. Over the years the shows and readings and evenings hosted here became more and more political. This is not the place to write a history of Teatr.doc, but suffice it to say that such productions as September.doc (about the Beslan terrorist attack at an elementary school), One Hour Eighteen (about the murder to muckraking attorney Sergei Magnitsky in prison), BerlusPutin (a spoof of Russian president Vladimir Putin and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi) and Two in Your House (about the aftermath of rigged presidential elections in Belarus) could not possibly have been pleasing to the authorities. Nor could they have been happy with the many politically charged evenings, such as those organized by Varvara Faer to bring attention to the plight of Pussy Riot, when the members of that group were still in prison.
But all of this – and this is a lot – cannot come close to giving a sense of the importance of all the new play development projects hosted by Doc. The major one was (and, one assumes, will continue to be) the Lyubimovka new play festival, which has run every Sept. for many years. Over the last decade and half I think it is safe to say that Doc, through its various play development works, has unleashed 400 to 500 new plays into the world. It has been a place that discovers new writers as well as helping established writers try out their new work. Maksym Kurochkin, one of those whom Gremina considers a co-founder of the theater, has used Lyubimovka virtually every year to unveil some new, wonderfully wild work. You can sort of see Maksym in the second photo below, chatting with my wife Oksana Mysina near the entrance to the performance space. Beneath that you see a typical use of the stage space – this was for a production of Kurochkin’s Circuit Breaker, mounted by the Brusnikin Studio, but it could have been for any number of Doc’s barebones shows.

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On some days or evenings, one suspects that the walls at Doc bulged outwards. Look at the photo immediately below. This was taken during the reading of Yury Muravitsky’s Pornography a couple of years ago, presented at Lyubimovka. That’s the stage you’re looking at. And those are spectators packing the stage – leaving the actors only a tiny space on which to move. And, yes, that is a photographer taking pictures from outside through one of the windows, while below her a spectator who couldn’t get into the hall found a decent vantage point from which to follow the goings-on. It was at this very event that I counted, I believe it was, 136 people in the hall. The two outside topped the attendance off at 138. It is an example of how a tiny stage fit for about 50 or 60 spectators could handle more than twice as many. The next photo below shows Doc’s minuscule foyer, including the table where Vika Kholodova has sat selling tickets and handing out comps for I-don’t-know-how-many-years. On the right you see a few of the dozens of awards and plaques that the theater has earned over the years. Finally, below, is the stage entrance door. Behind it is the cramped little dressing room, if it can be called that. When the theater is overflowing with spectators at a reading, this door will be thrown open so that another eight to twelve people can stand on chairs or a table and peer from behind the backs of others in front of them to get a feel for what is happening. When that door closes for the last time later this month it will be a shame. And from that point on, the little basement at 11/13 Tryokhprudny Pereulok, Bldg. 1, will pass into history.

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