Tag Archives: Marina Tsvetaeva

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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Ivan Bunin monument, Voronezh

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I got into the mood for this little excursion today by re-reading a Facebook post that many of my friends posted in recent days. You see, I will unleash a bit of bile myself before this is all over, so we might as well make this whole thing a journey down a ragged road. Actually, I’ll start with my own grievances. They have to do with this monument unveiled by Moscow sculptor Alexander Burganov in 1995 on the occasion of the 125th anniversary of Ivan Bunin’s birth in Voronezh. (For that event this little park located at the meeting of Plekhanovskaya and Ordzhonikidze streets, right in front of the local Oblast court, was renamed Bunin Square.)
Burganov is an ubiquitous sculptor in Moscow. It would appear that he is a good friend of that blight on Moscow culture Zurab Tsereteli, because, after Tsereteli himself, no one seems to get as many commissions to slap up monuments as Burganov. The latter’s work – like so many “official” Russian “public” artists, including Tsereteli and the abominable Soviet-era painter Ilya Glazunov – is simplistic and cartoony. Look at Bunin’s face here; you can’t see a feature anywhere that is not generic. There are the requisite attributes – a beard, cheekbones, ears, a nose, a mustache – but they look like they come from that kids’ game we used to play, remember? the one with the plastic parts of a body and a face that you slapped together on a slick surface to create different images of a human being? Look at the mustache and beard in the second photo below – they’re stuck on there like plastic strips. You almost suspect that if Burganov were to have received a more lucrative assignment while he was working on this one, he could have just used the basic carcass and slapped different features on it in order to have a quick turn-around time.
The dog, we’re told by Russian Wikipedia, symbolizes isolation and the fading of the noble class in Russia… What the hell? I’ll tell you what I think the dog is doing here: Burganov finished the sculpture (or, at least, the drawing and model) with just Bunin sitting there, and he realized, Holy Moses! this is boring! Just at that moment, Burganov’s dog ran up and licked his hand, or he heard a dog bark in the distance – and, voila! the monument was saved. Sort of. It’s like when a theater director doesn’t know how to end a scene and so he just turns the volume of the music up really loud. The dog is like bling. It sprinkles sparkly dust in your eyes so you don’t think too much about how vapid Bunin looks. You can just hear people coming up to the monument:
MAN: Aw! Isn’t he cute?
WOMAN: Coochie-coochie-coo!
MAN: Look at him stretching! Here, let me give him a rub on his butt!
WOMAN: Who is this guy here?
MAN: I dunno. Who cares?
Okay, so I made up the details, but not the essence. This monument succeeds in being pompous and bland all at the same time. That, of course, is an accomplishment, although not one you look for in your public art.
But, enough of that. Let me return to Bunin.

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I don’t know the original source, but the poet Andrei Permyakov posted an informational chart about Ivan Bunin on Facebook on Oct. 23 that really made the rounds. As of midday Oct. 28, it had been “liked” nearly 1700 times and had been “shared” nearly 200 times. (For the record, I include a screen shot of it after the last photo below.) This chart shows 16 nasty comments that Bunin, the 1933 Nobel Prize winner in the field of literature, made about illustrious colleagues.
Isaac Babel was “one of the most despicable heretics.”
Alexander Blok was “an unbearably poetic poet” who “hoodwinks the public with gibberish.”
Vladimir Nabokov was “a charlatan and a phrasemonger (often merely tongue-tied).”
Mikhail Kuzmin was “a pederast with a half-naked forehead and a funereal face painted up like a prostitute’s corpse.”
Mikhail Voloshin was “a fat, curly-haired aesthete.”
Of those Bunin rakes over the coals, the great experimental poet Velemir Khlebnikov seems to have come off relatively well amidst the insults: He was “a rather gloomy youth, silent, perhaps hungover but at least not pretending to be hungover.”
On Andrei Bely: “There’s nothing left to say about his simian furies.”
He wasted few words on Leonid Andreev (“drunken tragedian”) and Maxim Gorky (“monstrous hack”).
Of the 16 targets, only two are women. I don’t know if that means Bunin was more appreciative of women writers or less. In any case:
Marina Tsvetaeva is singled out for her “unending, lifelong flow of wild words and sounds in her poetry.”
Zinaida Gippius was merely “an uncommonly repulsive harpy.”
And to think that a man so bursting in personality, passion and opinion should be condemned to sit forever in front of a court building in his birth town with a blank, empty expression on his face, upstaged by a dog.
God works in wondrous ways.

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Bunin Chart

Ivan Bunin plaque, Moscow

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Povarskaya Street was a hopping cultural hub in the early 20th century. In 1905 Konstantin Stanislavsky rented a space in the Nemchinov building right at the beginning of Povarskaya where Vsevolod Meyerhold briefly, but famously, ran his Studio on Povarskaya. (That building was torn down in the Soviet era when Kalinin Prospect was widened.) Right around the corner from Povarskaya, on Borisoglebsky Lane, the poet Marina Tsvetaeva moved into her new digs in 1914 and remained there until 1922. The famous Lithuanian poet Jurgis Baltrushaitis lived at 24 Povarskaya from 1920 to 1939 when he was the first ambassador of Lithuania to the Soviet Union. But today we have our eye on Povarskaya 26, the next building over. This was the home of Ivan Bunin, who was later to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature during his time in European exile. As the plaque on the building’s front facade declares, Bunin lived here from 1912 to 1918. That is particularly interesting because it means that Bunin and Tsvetaeva were neighbors for the course of about four years. There’s a park right across the street from Bunin’s building and, assuming it was there 100 years ago, one wants to imagine the occasional warm spring day when both writers might have stepped out to catch some fresh air and ended up sharing a bench together, or, at least, one of them passing by the other, who might have been sitting and reading or jotting down notes.
A couple of people missed crossing paths with Bunin here. One was Mikhail Lermontov, who lived in a different building, now lost, on this very spot in 1829 and 1830 when he wrote, among other works, his great narrative poem The Demon. Anyone who knows Boris Pilnyak’s great novel The Naked Year will recognize my little homage to Pilnyak in that little phrase of “now lost…” In his novel, to great effect, Pilnyak lists things and places that were fast disappearing at the time he wrote The Naked Year. That novel begins with the words, “On the city fortress wall gates it was written (now destroyed): Save, O, Lord/This city and your people…” It’s just the first of many such times he plays with that device.
And so now I can bear my own device: Boris Pilnyak is one of those who lived in this very building, although not at the same time as Bunin. Bunin moved out in 1918, Pilyak moved in two years later, in 1920. Pilnyak’s presence here is not recorded in any way. Perhaps that is fitting, as if to say: Boris Pilnyak, now gone, did live here once, though there is nothing here to prove that true.

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Somehow Bunin (1870-1953) and I sort of pass like ships in the night. I have read his short stories (some, not all, by any stretch of the imagination); I have seen theater performances created of his stories; I have read about him and seen movies about him. I know the basic story well – the fine, subtle writer who spanned all the way back to the late 19th-century and the Chekhov era, yet who lived well into the 1950s, i.e., the post-war and even post-Stalin age. But I have never connected with his work as I have with so many others – Pilnyak included, I might add.
My little shortcomings in taste and knowledge aside, others have had a different view. Bunin was the first Russian writer to be honored with the Nobel Prize in Literature; he received it in 1933. Like other, later Russian winners of that prize, it is usually assumed that there was more than a little politics in the choice. Bunin was considered by some to be the greatest living Russian writer in exile (he left the Soviet Union in 1920 and never went back). The prize, say some, was intended to support the difficult situation surrounding Russian writers in exile, and to highlight the lack of freedom writers enjoyed in the Soviet Union. (Tsvetaeva, for example, would have a tough time in Europe and returned to the Soviet Union where she committed suicide in 1941.) Other Russian Nobel winners were Boris Pasternak (1958), the official Soviet novelist Mikhail Sholokhov (1965) and Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1970). Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn were both persecuted to varying degrees, and their prizes reflected that. Sholokhov, it is believed, was given the prize to mollify the Soviet authorities after the “insults” of Bunin and Pasternak’s wins. None of this will ever be proved until the Nobel committee opens its archives, which will probably be never. As such, the conversations and speculation continue.
Bunin was very much of the grand old school of Russian realism (whether that term is legitimate or not). He is often compared in style and impact to Tolstoy and Chekhov. He is similar to the former in his belief in the great power that literature can wield, while he is closer to the latter in stylistic spirit. Bunin, like Chekhov, was a master of the short story. He was concise, clear and unwavering in his insistence on painting the nuances of life in their proper dark tones.
Bunin was born in the city of Voronezh and, as fate would have it, I travel there myself for the first time ever in a few days. If, in any way, I have slighted the great man’s memory with this post, I will seek to rectify that with a post I expect to write soon after visiting his place of birth.

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Yury Zavadsky plaque, Moscow

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Yury Zavadsky (1894-1977) lived in this building at 15 Tverskaya Street, the very heart of Moscow, from 1940 until his death. We now remember Zavadsky as a famous director, the principal director of the Mossoviet Theater, also from 1940 until his death. But he had also been a leading actor at the Vakhtangov and Moscow Art Theaters, and was, according to legend, one of Yevgeny Vakhtangov’s favorite students. Marina Tsvetaeva happened to meet Zavadsky and see him on stage sometime in 1918, and she wrote an entire cycle of poems – 25 to be exact – inspired by him. Entitled “The Comedian” (as in the French, meaning “actor”), the collection bears the following dedication: “To the actor who played the Angel, or to the Angel who played the Actor – isn’t it all the same, since, by Your grace, instead of the snowy winter routine of 1919 the routine I carried out was filled with tenderness.” The first of the poems was written Nov. 2, 1918, the last of them – in March 1919. The Zavadsky Studio (1924-1936) was a well-known experimental theater in its time, and it gave starts to a number of major actors, including Vera Maretskaya, Rostislav Plyatt, Nikolai Mordvinov and Pavel Massalsky. Maretskaya was married to Zavadsky for a short while, as was the great ballerina Galina Ulanova. I’m a little confused about the dates because some sources say Zavadsky met Ulanova in 1940, some say he was married to her in the 1930s. In any case he was married to Maretskaya before he was married to Ulanova. If the exact dates are truly important to you – be my guest: research them.

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It is our good fortune – if not Zavadsky’s! – that one of Zavadsky’s actors at the Mossoviet was the great Faina Ranevskaya. Ranevskaya – about whom I’m going to have to find a reason to write in more detail – was not only considered one of the great Russian actresses of the 20th century. Possessing a truly bitter sense of humor, she was arguably the funniest. She and others have left behind a treasure trove of anecdotes and memoirs that have been gathered into several best-selling books. Because of her relationship with Zavadsky, many stories involve him. Here is one:
“Oh, did you know Zavadsky had a terrible misfortune?”
“What?”
“He died.”
Or:
“Ranevskaya was frequently late to rehearsals, which really irritated Zavadsky. One day he asked all the actors to merely ignore her when she entered. When she did finally come in, huffing and puffing, she said ‘Hello!’ Nobody answered. ‘Hello!’ she repeated. Still no answer. ‘Hello!’ she said a third time and still got no reaction. ‘Ah!’ she said. ‘There’s nobody here! Then I’ll just go take a piss!'”
Surely one of Ranevskaya’s most immortal pokes at Zavadsky was this:
“Zavadsky once shouted at Ranevskaya from the auditorium: ‘Faina, you chewed up my entire idea!’ Faina grumbled rather loudly, ‘Well, I thought I had the feeling I’d just eaten shit,’ to which Zavadsky reportedly shouted: ‘Get out of this theater!’ Ranevskaya walked to the edge of the stage and shouted back, ‘Get out of art!'”
Ranevskaya saved some of her most barbed epithets for Zavadsky. She reportedly called him: “a reduced-price Meyerhold” and she was heard to say that, “Zavadsky will catch a cold only at my funeral”; “Zavadsky gets awards not because he deserves them but because he wants them. The only award he doesn’t have yet is ‘Hero Mother'”; “Zavadsky dreams that he’s buried on Red Square”; and “How I would love to smack the faces of everyone who fakes it, but I hold my temper. I tolerate crudeness and lies, I tolerate a pitiful, poverty-stricken life. I tolerate them all and will continue to until the end of my life. I even tolerate Zavadsky…”
I didn’t intend to turn this into a Zavadsky roast, but, hey. He’s got all that stuff about being a Socialist Hero, a Hero of Labor, a Lenin Prize winner and a People’s Artist splashed out on his memorial plaque, so he can stand a few barbs tossed off by one of the best actors he ever worked with. 

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Marina Tsvetaeva plaque, Moscow

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This has to be one of the most horrible plaques in Moscow. It seems to me crudely done, lacking in nuance and feeling. The “likeness,” which I can only put in quotes, is abominable. And yet, what a pleasure to walk down the great Sivtsev Vrazhek street in the Arbat region of Moscow and happen upon a reminder that the great poet Tsvetaeva once lived here. It wasn’t for long, and she wasn’t quite Marina Tsvetaeva yet. But who cares? That makes it even more interesting. The plaque informs us that she lived at 19 Sivtsev Vrazhek from the end of 1911 until the beginning of 1912. The details of that short stay add some color to the tale. According to the great Know Moscow website, Tsvetaeva and her future husband Sergei Efron moved in here shortly after the building was built. They, along with Efron’s two sisters, occupied Apt. 11 on the 6th floor from Oct.  2, 1911 to early March 1912, when the couple set out for Europe on their honeymoon following a wedding on Jan. 27. Tsvetaeva herself wrote: “I have a big window with a view of the Kremlin. In the evening I lie down on the windowsill and look at the lights in the buildings and the dark silhouettes of the towers. Our apartment has come to life. My room is dark, heavy, clumsy and sweet. It has a large book shelf, a large desk, a large sofa – all very weighty and clunky. There is a globe on the floor as well as my trunk and traveling bags that I never part with. I don’t much believe that I will be here for long, I very much want to travel!”

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It was while Tsvetaeva lived in this building that she prepared her second book of verses for publication (The Magic Lantern). It was published in Feb. 1912 and she proudly presented a copy of it to her friend, the great poet Alexander Voloshin when he visited her at this address.
The novelist Alexei Tolstoy dubbed the building the “Nest of Numskulls” (Obormotnik) because it was inhabited by a large number of bohemians. At one time or another this building gave shelter from the elements to Voloshin’s eccentric mother, whom friends knew as “Pra” or “Proto,” as in “protomother” and the poet and novelist Andrei Bely. I’ve drawn these latter tidbits from a blog by Yelena Khorvatova.
Shortly after moving into this building, the likes of which were replacing many old, smaller structures, Tsvetaeva wrote a poem called “Little Houses of Old Moscow,” which begins:

The glory of our languorous grandmothers,
Little houses of old Moscow,
You are, all of you, disappearing
From these modest little backstreets

Like grand ice castles
At the wave of a baton.
Where are your decorated ceilings
And your great, ceiling-high mirrors?…

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Anna Akhmatova house, Moscow

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The building at 17 Bolshaya Ordynka, in the heart of the Zamoskvorech’e section of Moscow, is generally known as the Akhmatova House because the great poet Anna Akhmatova would live here for long periods of time when she made trips to Moscow from her home in Leningrad between the years of 1938 and 1966. The small but tasteful sculpture that commemorates Akhmatova’s connection to this building is a quote of a famous drawing of Akhmatova by the great artist Amadeo Modigliani. By some accounts this home was as important in Akhmatova’s creative biography as the famed House on the Fontanka in Leningrad, where she wrote many of her most important works. The actual Moscow apartment that she stayed in belonged to Viktor Ardov, a very successful comic writer, and his wife Nina Olshanskaya, an actress who was one of Akhmatova’s closest friends. Olshanskaya was an actress at the Moscow Art Theater and later, at the Soviet Army Theater. It was at the Ardov-Olshanskaya home where Akhmatova met face to face for the only time with the other great Soviet-Russian female poet of her time, Marina Tsvetaeva. That happened June 7-8, 1941, just two weeks before Germany invaded the Soviet Union, and two and a half months before Tsvetaeva committed suicide.

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The Ardov-Olshanskaya home was no common home, if for no other reason that Olshanskaya’s young son Alyosha spent his young years here, too. This Alyosha, in whose room Akhmatava would stay when visiting, grew up to be one of the greatest and most beloved of all Soviet film actors – Alexei Batalov. But beyond that this welcoming home was a meeting place for much of the Soviet intelligentsia over the decades. A partial list of other famous guests who would stop by for visits includes Osip Mandelstam, Mikhail Bulgakov, Joseph Brodsky, Mikhail Zoshchenko, Boris Pasternak, the great actress Faina Ranevskaya, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the poet Arseny Tarkovsky (father of the great Soviet film director Andrei Tarkovsky), Dmitry Shostakovich, Kornei Chukovsky and more. Not bad company. But one meeting that took place here must be considered the most amazing of them all. It happened in May 1956 when Akhmatova’s son Lev Gumilyov, the famous literary critic and son of the great poet Nikolai Gumilyov, happened to drop in on the Ardovs. This was no ordinary visit. Gumilyov had just been released following 14 years in the labor camps and he had no idea that his mother was in Moscow, at the Ardovs, at that moment. He was just passing through on his way back to Leningrad and happened to find his mother there.

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