No, it’s not Tomsk. It’s smack dab in the middle of Moscow, a long block from the busy thoroughfare known as Prospekt Mira (Peace Prospect), the metro stop named after that prospect, and a stone’s throw from the Olympic Sports Complex, the rounded roof of which you can see looming in the low sky in a couple of photographs below. Today we’re looking at the old, wooden home in which Mikhail Shchepkin, the great Russian actor of the 19th century, lived for the last four years of his life, from 1859-1863. There are still a few wooden structures left in Moscow, but this is surely one of the biggest and most interesting, in part because of the good shape it’s in and in part because of the history attached to it. The street here was named Third Meshchanskaya Street when Shchepkin was resident; it has been called Shchepkin Street since 1962. As several of the photos show here, the structure is rather under siege from less attractive, less ornate, more imposing modern buildings. It does look a bit out of place among its neighbors, I must say, but that only makes you appreciate it more. Especially when you step through the gate and see the house from the inside courtyard (the first two photos in the final block below). The address here is house No. 47. These days the official address also has a “building 2” attached to it.
Still, having said all these nice things about this building as one of the few such remaining in Moscow, the truth must also be told. Shortly after Shchepkin’s death the house passed into the hands of a family that significantly reconfigured the facade, and not only the facade. It was given a facelift with stone columns and detailed, fanned bas reliefs that lasted until the late 1990s when the additions and changes were removed and the building, more or less as Shchepkin knew it when he lived here, was restored. You can see photos of what the building looked like from 1865 to the late 1990s at the wonderful Know Moscow website. Today the structure houses a museum honoring Shchepkin, as well as a working theater company called the House Theater at the Shchepkin House, run by a very cool cat, Anatoly Ledukhovsky.
Shchepkin (1788-1963) had something wonderfully warm about him. You can see that a little, perhaps, in the statue of him that I wrote about here back in May. He was plump enough that you know he enjoyed his food, and surely his drink, too. And there was something in his sad sack face that oozed generosity and understanding. Indeed, he was so willing to help out anyone in need of it that any house he lived in – this one included – was usually full of guests. Often enough they were people Shchekpin didn’t even know. He just wasn’t the kind to turn away a fellow human in need. Maybe this came to him naturally, as the son of a serf who, against all odds, became famous and at least financially independent, if not wealthy. He would never have been given the opportunity to study acting or to become a professional actor if the master who owned him and his family had not recognized the young man’s talent. Shchepkin began by acting in the home theater of his master Volkenstein and then began working in various provincial cities. He played his first theatrical role ever in 1800 in Alexander Sumarokov’s comedy The Lady Cut-Up. Afterwards he is reported to have said that on stage he “felt so good, so happy” that he “couldn’t describe it.” He was not officially given his freedom until 1822, when he was 34 years old. Shortly thereafter he was invited to work in Moscow and, in 1924, he joined the Maly Theater, one of Russia’s two top dramatic playhouses, the other being the Alexandrinsky in Petersburg. By that time Shchepkin had established an enviable reputation as a comic actor. During the next few decades, when he was Moscow’s leading actor, he also exhibited his genius for dramatic and tragic roles. Alexander Herzen defined Shchepkin’s greatness by declaring he was the first person in Russian theater to be “nontheatrical.”
I have drawn some of this latter information from the Chronos biography site.
This is one of my favorite homes in Moscow. Even in a city with lots of original old buildings, this one has more authenticity and personality than most. In part that is because the people who maintain the Maria Yermolova home museum at 11 Tverskoi Boulevard have done a fine job of keeping the “home” in the “museum.” When you walk around the rooms, beautifully furnished and generously outfitted with live house plants, you really feel as though Yermolova will return home any minute following rehearsal or a performance. But it also has to do with the house itself, its architectural style. I love the small-pane bay window in front, something you’re more likely to see in Boston than in Moscow. I love the few steps you take down to enter the building from a lower level. I love the unexpected colors and the small decorative details. It was originally built in 1773 by a member of the Masons, and secretive Masonic orders met here regularly in the early years. It was even said that a murder or a suicide was committed here at one point, thus giving rise to stories of a ghost haunting the home’s chambers. The house was purchased by Yermolova’s husband, a wealthy lawyer, in 1889, the year my maternal grandmother was born.
Yermolova (1853-1928) was one of the first great Russian actresses, and probably the first to reach her level of renown. She was a star at the Maly Theater (during her prime years the Maly was the only major playhouse in town, with only three to five other theaters providing dramatic entertainment), and she was the first to have a theater named after her – the Yermolova Theater in Moscow in 1925. (St. Petersburg’s Komissarzhevskaya Theater, founded in 1942, was named after Yermolova’s great contemporary Vera Komissarzhevskaya.) Here and there you can read that Yermolova was inconsistent, that on any given night she might be brilliant or she might not be. I don’t know about that. Sounds like malarkey to me. I suggest it’s more likely that the people making comments like that were more or less attentive on the so-called “given nights,” giving rise to pointless, subjective conclusions about the actress’s work.
It’s possible that the Yermolova House holds the record for plaques hanging on its outer walls. There are three. The first two you see below are of the traditional type – the first identifying the building as the place where the great artist lived, the second identifying it as a building of note maintained by government funds. The third is the most interesting. It has a lovely lack of officiality about it.
NEXT DAY ADDITION: My friend Svetlana Gladtsyna wrote the following comment on my Facebook post announcing this little blog. It’s so interesting I had to add it:
Just a couple of remarks if I may. This house is situated in the area called “Kozikha” ( named after the two Kozikhinsky bystreets – Bolshoy and Maly), which was a kind of Moscow Latin Quartier, because most of the dwellers there were lecturers, musicians and students. The reason for that was that the biggest and most famous Moscow educational institutions – University and Conservatoire were under a few minutes’ walk from the area. And since the Maly Theater was also nearby, quite a few actors lived there too (e.g. Ostuzhev, Sumbatov-Yuzhin and some others). Maria Yermolova’s house was known among the Muscovites as the ‘Pink Window Glass House’. It was stated that the actress had poor eyesight (a very dangerous case for acting!) and doctors advised her to have specially made glass of the pink color put in her room window (it is still there, as a matter of fact). This district is believed to have been the least dangerous and the most democratic one in the city. (A ‘freak’ entrepreneur Savva Morozov also used to own a mansion there). When it comes to Yermolova’s ‘histrionic powers’, I would dare remember the words of the Russian satire writer of the late XIX-early XX centuries, the so-called ‘King of the Russian Feuilleton” , Vlas Doroshevich: “When she is making ‘varenje’ (the Russian-style berry or fruit jam) on the stage, you get the feeling she is making it from her own liver.” Well it was a sort of joke of course. According to her contemporaries, she was truly the favourite actress among the then Moscow theater-goers. After her death, the funeral service took place in the Bolshoye Voznesenie Church, where Alexander Pushkin married Natalia Goncharova. And there were lots of people who wanted to say their last and sad farewells to her… Well, hope all this is not too boring…