Tag Archives: Maxim Gorky

Vikenty Veresaev house, Tula

Click on photos to enlarge.

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.


Nikolai Zadonsky plaque, Voronezh

Click on photos to enlarge.

Until today I knew zilch about Nikolai Zadonsky (1900-1974). But, again, I am fascinated by the way a long, wandering walk around a city of culture can bring you bits and pieces of an education that you lack. Had it not been for this plaque hanging on the flaking walls of building 6A on Kommissarzhevskaya Street in Voronezh, the chances are I would never have found my way to this writer.
The first thing that struck me when I began digging into the facts is that Zadonsky has a weak, though glancing, connection to Nikolai Erdman, about whom I like to think I know quite a bit. The connection – and I said it was weak – is that Zadonsky, from his home in Voronezh, chose to align himself with Sergei Yesenin’s Imagist group of poets. Here’s how Zadonsky put it remembering those days in the early 1920s:
In those days there was a fashion of sorts – you joined up with some sort of literary school. We had Futurists and Acmeists and even some ‘nobodyists’ in Voronezh. Well, Boris Derptsky and I declared we were Imagists.”
The point here, of course, is that Zadonsky would not have crossed Erdman’s path and so there is no reason I would have run across his name. And yet, knowing this little fact about Zadonsky widens the picture for me. The Imagists are generally considered the runts of the poetic movements of the ‘teens and ‘twenties in Russia in the 20th century. The Futurists and Acmeists, especially, were high-octane. They had followings all over the country and the high quality of the poets that attached themselves to one or the other group, ensured that there was good reason to keep them in mind. The Imagists, grouped around Yesenin as the only well-known member, were often disparaged as a not-very-serious group who were more into playing pranks than anything else. Group members Anatoly Mariengof, Vadim Shershenevich, Erdman, and a few others have grown in stature over the decades, but only Erdman has achieved a fame that can stand, to one degree or another, in the vicinity of Yesenin, Vladimir Mayakovsky (Futurist), Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam (Acmeists at one time or another). All of these poets and their groups would have had strong support and popularity outside of Moscow. I’ve never thought of the Imagists in that way – but here we have Zadonsky and his friend Derptsky (born? – 1923, a little-known Voronezh poet and journalist who committed suicide when still quite young) choosing to attach themselves to Yesenin’s group. That, for me, is a small, but interesting discovery.
Zadonsky’s connection to the Imagists did not last for long, however, He traveled to Moscow in 1923 (just as the Imagists were falling apart as a group) and, with the help of Shershenvich, was introduced to Yesenin. The young poet from the provinces handed over some of his poetry to his famed hero and asked what he thought. Yesenin put an end to the young man’s illusions of grandeur. Again, let’s let Zadonsky himself tell it (as reported, like the previous quote, in a bibliographical work about Yesenin and his circle):
Yesenin reportedly told Zadonsky, “There are some good lines in your poetry. But you are a long way from genuine mastery. You’ve got to work hard. You must write poems in such a way that they set the human soul on fire, turn it inside out, and leave no one impassive. If you can’t write like that, you’re better off not writing at all!”
Zadonsky sums up the little story by adding, “After that I quit writing poetry.”

Zadonsky did not, however, quit writing. Throughout the 1920s and ’30s he wrote plays and worked as a journalist. A well-researched online biography published on the excellent Literary Map of Voronezh Oblast states he wrote over 2,000 newspaper items between 1918 and 1924. His first play, “Money,” was published in Voronezh in 1920 and he wrote a large number of plays after that. Again, I must say that, although I have studied Soviet-era theater and drama in relative detail over the last few decades, I had never come across any plays by Zadonsky. Leaning on information in various places I can verify that he wrote a minimum of 15 plays, but since sources often add the words “and others” to their lists, I suspect the real number was higher yet. In 1934 Maxim Gorky signed the paper declaring that Zadonsky was admitted as a “candidate” to the Writers Union – and throughout his life he preserved this document as a keepsake. He received full membership in the Writers Union in 1939.
The most successful and fruitful years of Zadonsky’s life as a writer began in 1942, prompted by one of those wonderful haphazard things that life tends to throw our way, and continued even after he suffered a stroke in 1965. That great Voronezh Literary Map website tells the story as follows: “The soldiers of the Workers-Peasant Red Army and the partisans of the Denis Davydov squadron sent the writer a letter in 1942 in connection with their reading of Zadonsky’s essay, ‘Partisans.’ In their letter the soldiers gave the writer the idea of researching and telling the story of the life of D.V. Davydov in more detail.
And, indeed, Zadonsky began traveling around the country, visiting places connected to life of Davydov, a famed poet and hussar from Alexander Pushkin’s group of friends, and he ended up producing a work of such depth, detail and veracity, that he almost had no choice but to accept historical prose as his new calling. Zadonsky’s first so-called “historical chronicle,” Denis Davydov, was published (to the best I can determine) in 1952 in Kuibyshev. It has been reprinted countless times since then. He followed this study with other, equally popular “historical chronicles,” such as,  A Troubled Time (1954), Kondraty Bulavin (1959), Liberia on Don (1960), The Decembrist’s Grandson (1963), Secrets of Bygone Days (1964), and Mountains and Stars (1965, about Nikolai Muravyov, a Russian statesman whose life was devoted to developing Siberia). Again, there appear to have been even more of these historical studies/novels, but the online sources are incomplete and sometimes contradictory.
Zadonsky apparently carried on a long friendship with fellow Voronezh son Andrei Platonov, about whom he wrote in his literary memoirs Amid the Stream of Life (1969). Among other books about writers was his There, Where a Great Writer Lived, about Lev Tolstoy and Yasnaya Polyana.
Zadonsky (whose real last name was Koptev) was born in the city of Zadonsk in the Voronezh gubernia (similar to a county). He  struck out on his own by finding work as a typographer in Yelets at the age of 16 then moved to the big city of Voronezh in 1918. He later moved back to Yelets for awhile, but lived the majority of his adult life in Voronezh. He occupied an apartment in the building pictured here from 1953 until his death in 1974.



Fyodor Chaliapin star, Hollywood

Click on photos to enlarge.


I can’t bring myself to write “Feodor Chaliapin” as is done on the great singer’s Hollywood star. I know that’s the way his name is usually spelled in the West, but it still irks me. Chaliapin’s whole name is a mess in English. The “proper” simple transliteration is Fyodor Shalyapin. Hardly like what you’re used to seeing. I have to go with the spelling of his last name as “Chaliapin,” because, indeed, that’s what we’re accustomed to. “Shalyapin” seems clumsily hyper-correct even though it’s “merely” correct. Whatever. If you’re really into this topic you’ll find plenty more alternate spellings – “Fiodor,” “Fedor,” “Chaliapine,” and more. It’s an alphabet soup of major proportions. I’m sticking to “Fyodor Chaliapin”; it’s my blog and I can do what I want to, as Lesley Gore almost sang about 50 years ago.
Chaliapin (1873-1938) is one of those names that gives shape to the 20th century. Long before the superstar status of opera singers like Pavarotti, Chaliapin set the mold for the super star opera singer. He was wildly, fantastically popular. In fact, there are those who would say that he – rather like Franz Liszt – was a rock star well before anyone had heard of the blues, let alone rock. Chaliapin was one of those outsized characters, big and prominent in every way. His appetite for everything was enormous. He loved to laugh as much as he loved to eat, sing and make money. He was, as far as I can determine, loved by virtually everyone he came into contact with, except, perhaps, for a few disgruntled husbands. One of my favorite photos is of Chaliapin clowning around with Maxim Gorky. The writer apparently is pretending to poke the singer with a traditional Russian broom made of twigs while Chaliapin plays at being horrified.
I don’t seem to find a solid explanation for this photo. (If you haven’t gone to the link above by now, please do so. You won’t regret it.) Some suggest it was made in Crimea. It may well have been shot in 1905. Some are quite certain that Gorky and Chaliapin are playing around with political notions of the time as the “proletarian” writer Gorky is seeking to “whisk away” the bourgeois Chaliapin with a broom. I am more inclined to follow the suggestion of one commentator that this is even more of a theatrical joke than that. His reasoning, which makes sense, is that Chaliapin looks more like he is opening his mouth wide to make room for the broom to be inserted and to, perhaps, clean out his vocal pipes. Indeed it does not look like a “performance” of the political variant. I’m wondering if this, in fact, isn’t part of some greater amateur theatrical. Look at what appears to be the laughing servant standing between the two. To my eye he is holding a theatrical thunder board. I think it’s all part of a show. An audience member is peering out the window, getting a kick at the goings-on.

img_7606 img_7611

Chaliapin was quite truly a man of the people. He was born into a peasant family near the southern Russian city of Kazan. He began singing in amateur opera performances in Kazan in 1889-1890. After a journey that took him through Ufa, Tiflis (today, Tbilisi in Georgia) and Moscow, he began making a name for himself in St. Petersburg in 1894. Chaliapin was lured back to Moscow in 1896 where he performed in Savva Mamontov’s opera company until 1899, solidifying his status as a major star. Soon to come were the Bolshoi Theater (1899), La Scala (1901) and a tour through the United Stages and Argentina (1907-08). He debuted in film in 1915, memorably performing the title role in Tsar Ivan Vasilyevich the Terrible.
Although it would appear Chaliapin usually did his best to avoid politics, his peasant roots showed during the revolutionary year of 1905, for he often donated his performance fees to workers in need. It made him a champion of the proletariat which worked in his favor in the early Soviet years. He was the first performer to receive the honor of People’s Artist of the Soviet Union in 1918, and was named the artistic director of the Mariinsky Theater in Petrograd that same year. Still, beginning in 1922 the great singer – now a world-famous artist – spent more time abroad than in the Soviet Union. Eventually, in 1927, Soviet authorities took the unusual step of rescinding Chaliapin’s status as a People Artist. This punitive act seems to have been caused by the fact that Chaliapin, again, donated performance fees to needy Russian emigrant children. It caused a ruckus in Moscow, where he was accused of catering to enemies of the Soviet Union.
Chaliapin died of leukemia in Paris in 1938, mourned as one of the great musical performers of his and any other era. It was not, however, until the 1970s and 1980s that his name was taken out of the deep freeze in his own homeland. At the behest of his son, the well-known actor Feodor Chaliapin, Jr., the singer’s remains were moved from France to Leningrad in 1984. His status as a People’s Artist of the Soviet Union was reinstated only in 1991.
Chaliapin is famed for being one of the great bass singers of all time, although he also sang baritone parts and even tenor at times. He was a multitalented individual, showing remarkable abilities in sculpture, painting and drawing.
The Chaliapin star at approximately 6792 Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles was unveiled February 8, 1960. He is enshrined as a recording artist.

img_7605 img_7609


Pavel Vasilyev plaque, Moscow

Click on photos to enlarge.

dscn0664 dscn0678

It  seems to be a time of discovering poets for me. A few days ago it was Richard Ter-Pogosian. Now it is another. I was walking through my former city of Moscow yesterday and happened upon a plaque I didn’t know commemorating a poet I’d never heard of – Pavel Vasilyev, who lived in this building at 26 Fourth Tverskaya-Yamskaya Street in 1936 and 1937. Yes, you probably guessed right: that latter date is also the poet’s year of death. The meat grinder year. The year of blood. The year of hatred, lies, villainy and infamy. What will ever be done to wash away the sins of that year? Nothing? Can nothing wash those sins away? And what happens if that is true?
But let’s narrow the conversation a bit; bring it back to this new poet in my life. These days, with our instant access to information, it is not difficult to begin understanding the stature that Vasilyev enjoyed for a brief time in his life. The number of poets, writers and others singing his praises in the late 1920s, early 1930s is more than merely impressive – it is downright imposing. As Valentin Antonov wrote in an eye-opening blog in 2009, you can begin the list with Alexei Tolstoy, Anatoly Lunacharsky, Ryurik Ivlev and Vladimir Soloukhin. Our purposes today will be served by Boris Pasternak, who wrote in 1956 (presumably taking part in Vasilyev’s “rehabilitation,” which occurred that year):
At the beginning of the 1930s Pavel Vasilyev impressed me upon first discovery approximately as had Yesenin and Mayakovsky before him. He was comparable to them, particularly to Yesenin, by his creative expressiveness, the power of his gift and his great, infinite promise, because he lacked the tragic explosiveness, which internally cut short the lives of the latter two, and he commanded a cold composure allowing him to control his turbulent instincts. He possessed that bright, happy and quick imagination, without which great poetry does not exist, the likes of which in such abundance I have never seen again in all the years that have passed since  his death.”
That is no rote, routine recommendation. Pasternak here, in just a few lines, places Vasilyev among (and to some extent, above) the greatest poets of his time.
Wolfgang Kasack, the great German scholar, called Vasilyev’s poetry “antiurban, erotic and associated with the free life of the Cossacks.” Later in his entry in his Dictionary of Russian Literature since 1917, he adds: “Vasilyev’s poetry is characterized by an earthy, graphic power. Fairy-tale elements mingle with Cossack history and a revolutionary present. Strong characters, powerful animals, fierce action and the colorful landscape of the steppes are expressively combined in scenes that create great forward momentum with varied rhythms. Bloody revolutionary events experienced in Vasilyev’s childhood are presented without reference to historical persons or incidents.”
Vasilyev’s stance – and one did have to have a stance in those years; it was virtually impossible to stand and watch tumultuous events pass by – was a confused one. As an 11 year-old schoolboy he wrote a poem dedicated to Vladimir Lenin that was picked up and turned into a song by his teacher and classmates. He seemed to sing the praises of the Revolution at times, while at others he was clearly at odds with its consequences. By the early 1930s he was constantly running into trouble. His fate was probably sealed when Maxim Gorky (yes, that slipperly ol’ Maxim Gorky again) in 1934 accused him of “drunkenness, hooliganism and violating the law on residence registration.”
What the hell? Was Gorky playing the role of the pot calling the kettle black? I don’t know; I’ll have to look into this some day. But here are some of the facts of the end process:
Vasilyev was first arrested in 1932, although was released before long. Gorky jumped on his back in 1934 and, surely consequently, Vasilyev was kicked out of the brand-new Writers Union in January 1935. Six months later he was arrested again, this time for engaging in what, by all accounts, was a nasty, drunken, public fight with a poet known as Jack (Yakov) Altauzen. Judging by the record, Vasilyev’s antisemitic views were well known, and this brawl appears to have been a flare-up of racist behavior. Vasilyev was released early again, in 1936. In February 1937 he was arrested still again for the supposed crime of belonging to a terrorist group whose purpose was to assassinate Joseph Stalin. He was condemned to be shot and the sentence was carried out July 16, 1937, in the Lefortovo prison. Similar to his contemporary, Vsevolod Meyerhold, his remains lie in an unmarked grave in the Donskoi Monastery.

dscn0660 dscn0665 dscn0682

Pavel Vasilyev (1909-1937) was a restless man. Even with his family as a youth he traveled often from town to town. His father was a teacher and held many different jobs. The poet was born in the town of Zaisan in what is now known as the Republic of Kazakhstan. Other cities figuring in his biography are Pavlodar, Sandyktav Station, Atbasar, Petropavlovsk, Omsk, Vladivostok, Khabarovsk, Novosibirsk and Moscow. He spent time as a fisherman and prospector on the Irtysh and Selemidzha rivers. He also worked as a journalist, leading him toward the life of writer and poet. His first published poem was called “October,” and was printed in Vladivostok on Nov. 6, 1926. His poems were soon picked up by many of the top publications in the Soviet Union, including Izvestia, Novy Mir, Literary gazette, Ogonyok and many others. At the same time, much of his work could not be published. For example, in the early 1930s he wrote a series of ten folkloric, historical verse epics, although only one, The Salt Riot (1934), saw the light of day. Either because of his poetry, his personality, or his intolerant world view – or, perhaps, because of all three together – he eventually came upon his downfall. It is accepted knowledge that Vasilyev was the prototype for the main character, an antihero, spy and ruffian named Andrei Abrikosov in Ivan Pyryev’s popular film The Party Ticket (1936). Note that he was portrayed here as a spy a year before he was executed for being a spy…
I don’t know enough about Vasilyev to take sides for or against him in regards to his character or lack thereof. I do, however, see a depressingly familiar case of a talented, unusual person being singled out by the in-crowd and turned into a victim and a scapegoat. The story of Pavel Vasilyev may be messy and paradoxical. But it ends with a gunshot – probably to his head – which gives him certain rights in retrospect.
Here is a poem written in February 1937, presumably after he had been arrested:

Red-breast finches flutter up…
So soon, to my misfortune,
I’ll see the green eye of the wolf
In hostile northern lands.

We shall be heartsick and forlorn,
Though fragrant as wild honey.
Unnoticed, time frames will collapse
As gray enshrouds our curls.

And then I’ll tell you, sweet:
“The days fly by like leaves upon the wind,
It’s good that in a former life
We found each other then lost it all…”

dscn0672 dscn0674 dscn0666 dscn0684



Pushkin and Gorky Posters, Moscow

Click on photos to enlarge.


What better way to do a dirty deed than to cover it up with Alexander Pushkin? That is, if you can cover it up. Some things just can’t be hidden.
Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin is going to improve the city he runs come hell or high water. And the best way for him to do that – as he has proved many times in the past – is to make life as difficult for the city’s residents as he possibly can. Like, first turn every nook and cranny of the city’s streets into income-generating parking spaces. Then, narrowing half the city’s streets to wipe out those income-generating parking spaces (after sucking money from the populace for a year or two), so that you can neither park your car anywhere, nor can you drive anywhere with any speed because the streets are so narrow they’re always jammed. Stores, restaurants and cafes that people used to be able to stop in and patronize are empty and going out of business because there’s no place to park your car anymore.
Sobyanin has decided to undo what Joseph Stalin did back in the 1930s. Stalin went to great lengths to widen Tverskaya Street, Moscow’s main drag, even going so far as to put buildings on rollers and roll them back 16 to 20 meters (tearing down churches that were in the way, of course). Now, Sobyanin has decided to narrow the street back down again. He’s turning much of the thoroughfare into a fashionable walking and bicycle zone. I’m assuming he’ll plant trees, but one is often loathe in this nation to assume anything of such a modestly positive nature. Just a few years ago Sobyanin already “improved” Tverskaya by putting in new parking spaces and trees. They are all gone now. For at least the next few months there is hardly anywhere to walk on Tverskaya between the Kremlin and a block  past Pushkin Square, nor is there any place to drive. There is constant gridlock on Tverskaya these days.
Which brings me back to my first comment above – if you’re going to spit in people’s faces, why not do it in a cultured way, right? Make their lives miserable and shove Pushkin and Maxim Gorky down their throats while you’re at it. Actually, there are four figures that the authorities decided would make Muscovites’ lives more pleasant while Tverskaya is an absolute and total mess – Pushkin, Gorky,  Ivan Filippov and Grigory Yeliseev. Filippov (1824-1978) was a famous baker and merchant who controlled much of the commercial space on Tverskaya in his day. Yeliseev (1864-1949) headed up the family concern that opened and ran the famous Yeliseev grocery store on Tverskaya Street until the Revolution put the store in the hands of the state. Muscovites, however, never accepted the new name of Gastronom No. 1, and called it “Yeliseevsky” throughout the Soviet era, even as they do now, after the original name has been restored. Pushkin and Gorky need no particular introduction, but they are held up as decoration to this construction project for specific reasons.

DSCN9180 DSCN9252 DSCN9254

Gorky, of course, lent his name to Tverskaya Street for many decades during the Soviet period. Curiously, I’m having trouble nailing down the actual dates when Tverskaya was renamed Gorky Street. Russian Wikipedia and other sites tell us it was in 1932. Other seemingly trustworthy sources say it was 1935. In either case, Gorky didn’t die until June 18, 1936, so the authorities had figuratively put his feet in cement already when he was still kicking.
The Gorky banner on Tverskaya declares that the street was renamed for the writer in 1932, but do we accept that information? After all, earlier in the text we can read this carefully worded description that, in fact, distorts the truth seriously. “Considered the founder of Soviet literature, M. Gorky went abroad for health reasons in 1921 and only in 1928, at the invitation of the Soviet government, came to Moscow for a short while. Thousands of Muscovites met him ceremoniously on the square in front of the Belorussia train station.”
The problem with that is that the real reason Gorky remained abroad in the 1920s was because he was highly skeptical of what was happening following the Revolution, and had had serious disagreements with his former friend Vladimir Lenin. So what we have here today on Tverskaya Street is a whitewashing of the facts. But, then, tell me something new.
The text accompanying the Pushkin banner is less controversial. Let me reproduce it in full:
Tverskaya Street played an important role in the life of the famous poet. Whenever he came to Moscow he customarily stayed in one of the local hotels, spent time at balls hosted by General-Governer D.V. Golitsyn (bldg. 13), and regularly visited the literary salon of Countess Zinaida Volkonskaya (bldg. 14). It is said that, not far away, on Tverskoi Boulevard, the poet, for the first time, saw his future wife Natalya Goncharova. In 1880 a monument to Pushkin, financed by a subscription conducted by graduates of the Tskarskoe Selo Lyceum, was erected on Tverskoi Boulevard just across the way from Gorky Street (now Tverskaya). However, in one night’s time in 1950 it was moved to the square which had been created on the spot where Strastnoi Monastery had been razed.”
Since we began with a few snide comments about “General-Governor” Sobyanin, I can’t help but recall here another of his recent “great deeds,” now fixed forever in the history books as The Night of the Long Scoops, a bitter take-off on Hitler’s Night of the Long Knives. On the Night of the Long Scoops, Feb. 8 to 9, 2016, Sobyanin’s henchmen, wielding skip loaders, wiped out nearly 100 small stores and kiosks around Moscow, virtually without warning. Most still had their wares inside, a few had people. Just as it was in Stalin’s time, it’s the way things are done in Moscow/Russia these days. Somebody somewhere in a big office decides something – wipe out someone’s livelihood, destroy the city’s historical layout, or snarl city traffic – and it’s done overnight.
One final note in the event that you are unconvinced by my argument that the current Moscow authorities are barbarians hiding behind the cultural luster of bakers, grocers and writers. Consider this: During the digs accompanying the current reconfigurations of Tverskaya Street, the spectacular discovery of an ancient 16th to 17th-century wooden sidewalk was made. But no sooner had they found it than than they busted the thing up and went on about their business of “improving” Moscow. There are some excellent photos of the sidewalk, which, as the blogger Anna Nikolaeva suggests, had survived the Time of Troubles, the Napoleon Fire and German bombs, but could not survive Sergei Sobyanin’s urban improvements. Yeah, but we got Pushkin! Yeah, but we got Gorky!

DSCN9245 DSCN9258 DSCN9154


Leo Tolstoy estate, Moscow

Click on photos to enlarge.

IMG_8650 IMG_8651

I have a heck of a time visiting Leo Tolstoy. This is the third Tolstoy home/museum that has been closed when I came to visit. In the case of this estate where Tolstoy and much of his family wintered from 1882 to 1901, I picked the one day in the month when it was closed. Consequently, I ended up sneaking around taking whatever photos I could from the outside. To get some shots of the inside grounds I either stuck my hand through the gate slats (second and third photos in the block immediately below) or shimmied up a narrow space between two walls on the property’s south side. From there I got a bit of a view down into the back yard (the last two photos at the bottom). It was here among the trees that Tolstoy would set up a skating rink for the family during the months of ice and snow.
None of my walk-around left me with much of a feeling that I had encountered the writer in any meaningful way. Everything seemed to have its back turned to me that day – walls, gates, fences, houses, ghosts… But with a little help from Tolstoy’s diaries – and the copious annotations done by Tolstoy scholars – we can slip back the curtain on life here, if only ever so slightly.
Tolstoy purchased this home and plot of land in the Khamovniki district west of central Moscow on July 14, 1882, from Collegiate Assessor Ivan Arnautov. The street name at the time was Dolgo-Khamovnichesky Lane. Today, not surprisingly, it is Leo Tolstoy Street. The Tolstoys actually moved into the house only three months later, on October 8, 1882. Among other things, the house and its fences and various wings were among the very few structures to survive the great Moscow fire of 1812 when Napoleon invaded the city. Later, it was one of the first major literary museums created in the Soviet period. It has had that status since 1921. That’s quite an event when you consider that the young Soviet state was still bogged down in a Civil War and was struggling seriously financially.
The State Tolstoy Museum website tells us that of Leo and Sofya Tolstoy’s 13 children, 10 spent at least some time living in this house. They were Tatyana, Maria, Alexandra, Sergei, Ilya, Lev, Andrei, Mikhail, Alexei and the couple’s last son, little Vanechka, who died of scarlet fever at the age of seven.
Vanechka was born here at the Khamovniki house in 1888. He went down in the memories of his parents as an angel of love who came to bless them before he left. The stories are legion and they are touching. Vanya was a handsome boy (see a photo here), who had a lasting effect on everyone who encountered him. There was an asylum on the other side of the wall where a man came to live when he had a nervous breakdown after his own son died. In a turn of events that might strike us as prescient if not miraculous, he befriended Vanya and was cured of his illness. Here is an account of that transformation from Tolstoy.ru:
In a clinic for the mentally ill that stood next to the garden of the Khamovniki house there lived a patient who fell ill after the death of his only child. He found comfort in spending time with Vanechka. They often communicated over the fence. But the conversations were of the most serious kind. The boy assured the sick man that there was still much love in the world, and that one must love everyone. After these conversations the desire to live again awakened in the sick man’s soul. In a thank you note to Sofya Tolstoy, he wrote: ‘It wasn’t the doctor who cured me, but God sent your Vanechka, that angel, for my comfort. He gave me the happiness of a new love for him, and through him, for all children and all people.”
The Tolstoys lost another child here. Alexei was born in 1881, the year before they moved in, but died January 18, 1886, before reaching the age of five. This terrible event would have happened when the family was at the Khamovniki house.
The only child, aside from Vanechka, who was born during the Tolstoys tenure in Khamovniki was the last daughter Alexandra (1884-1979). However, she was born in Yasnaya Polyana on June 18, in the dead of the summer when the family was always together at that country estate near Tula.

IMG_8648 IMG_8653 IMG_8654

Men and women, great and otherwise, made pilgrimages to meet and greet with Tolstoy at his home. We see evidence of this in some of the writer’s diaries, all of which are available online. Because of the nature of diaries, we don’t always get more than a barebones report, and we obviously get nothing more than what Tolstoy jotted down. But, for the record, we know that the writer Vsevolod Garshin paid Tolstoy a visit at his home in Khamovniki on January 31 (or thereabouts), 1885, “but did not find him home.” Anatoly Alexandrov, a tutor of one of Tolstoy’s sons and later a well-known literary editor, actually lived in the wing of the main house in 1988 and 1989. At some point in 1891-92, the Serb Giuseppe Modrich stopped by, later describing his talks with Tolstoy in a chapter called “Visiting Count Tolstoy. His Social Catechism” in his book, Russia: Notes and Memories of Travels (Rome, 1892). The French literary historian and translator Jules Legras visited in 1893.
One of the best known visits to Khamovniki was paid by Maxim Gorky on January 16, 1900. It was the first meeting ever of the two writers. In part because Gorky was with the journalist Vladimir Posse, and in part because the event made such an impression on Gorky, there has been quite a bit written about it. Posse recalled that Tolstoy was very animated during the meeting, speaking with Gorky openly and freely. Tolstoy told Gorky that he hadn’t been able to slog through his novel Foma Gordeev. “Everything in it is artificial,” he told his young visitor. He did, however, name other works that made a good impression on him – “Varenka Olesova” and “26 Men and a Girl,” among them. Still, the initial criticism apparently blinded Gorky so that he didn’t fully hear Tolstoy tell him how much he enjoyed meeting him, that he would do well as a writer, and that he was a “real man.” What better praise could a Russian male give a Russian male?!
At first blush, Gorky wrote to Posse that the visit had not made much of an impression. He compared it to Finland: “nothing familiar, nothing alien, but quite cold.” However, as a sign that Gorky did have a conscience, he seemed to warm up to the experience the more distant it grew in time. On January 18 or 19 he wrote an almost gushing letter to Tolstoy: “I’m very happy that I saw you and I’m very proud of having done so. In general I knew that you are very straight and kind with people, but, to be honest, I didn’t expect you to be so kind to me!”
If you’re interested, there’s a fairly detailed description of the visit and later comments by all concerned on the site that publishes Tolstoy’s complete works.
In all, Tolstoy wrote some 100 works at the estate in Khamovniki. Among them were the novel Resurrection, and the stories “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” “The Kreutzer Sonata” (one of the most odious pieces of literature ever committed to paper), and “Father Sergius.” The very last thing he wrote here was “My Reply to the Synod,” after the Russian Orthodox Church excommunicated him for breaking with its teachings. It is a rift that continues even today, as the Church continues to claim Tolstoy cannot be reinstated because he never renounced his heretical  views.

IMG_8657 IMG_8659 IMG_8661


Alexei Novikov-Priboi plaque, Moscow

Click on photos to enlarge.


There are few things I love to do more than to violate rules and standards set up by others. Any writing teacher worth their salt will tell you that you cannot begin an article or any piece of writing with an apology or a caveat. It is said to undercut your position as author. Pshaw! Reminds me of an editor I once had who cut a key phrase from one of my reviews. When I objected that that was my favorite phrase in the piece, I was treated to a stern lecture that can be boiled down to this: “My writing teacher always taught us that we should go through anything we write and cut out the phrase we love the most.” This left me pondering two things: Which is worse, a bad teacher or a bad pupil?
Anyway, sorry for the lousy photos today. This was not an easy place to get. The lush trees (a rarity in Moscow), combined with a locked fence surrounding the former home of Alexei Novikov-Priboi at 5-7 Bolshoi Kislovsky Lane made it a challenge to get any photos at all. In the old days I might have just hopped the fence and grabbed my shots, but the old days in Moscow are not the new days in Moscow. Somebody might mistake my eager leap for something it was not – and just you try explaining to a security guard (or worse) that, “I’m just an American taking pictures of cultural landmarks.” Especially when you consider that this building was, and presumably still is, occupied by many high-ranking military officials. (You can see plenty of other plaques in the few photos here – they’re all to generals and admirals.) No thanks. I got what shots I could through the cracks in the leaves and left it at that.
But enough of all that: Alexei Novikov-Priboi (1877-1944). I mentioned him to my wife Oksana as soon as she got up this morning and she said, “Oh! Something straight out of my childhood!” Yes, Novikov-Priboi would be one of those writers that young people would devour. Let’s see if the name will help you understand that. You see, this writer was born Alexei Silantyevich Novikov in the Tambov region. While spending time as a prisoner of war in 1903 during the Russo-Japanese War, he came up with the notion of describing the events of his life in writing. His first published works, Madmen and Fruitless Victims and For the Sins of Others (1906) addressed his activities on board a ship during the battle of Tsushima. He served in the Russian navy from 1899 to 1906 so that, for him, writing was an opportunity to  go back to sea in his imagination. His first collection of stories, published in 1917, was called Sea Stories. And that brings us back to Novikov’s name. For good measure, as a writer of sea tales, he added the second handle of Priboi – that is, Surf – to his last name. But that’s not all. He also simplified his patronymic (the “middle” Russian name which stands for “son of” or “daughter of”) from Silantyevich to Silych. Thus he became not “son of Silanty,” but “son of Sila” – that is, “son of Power.” You begin to feel the aura of the name – Alexei “Son of Power” Novikov-Surf!

IMG_5703 IMG_5701

Novikov-Priboi led an eventful life. After the publication of his first two tales (as independent brochures), he immediately found himself on the wrong side of the political battles then still simmering following the failure of the so-called 1905 Revolution. Both works were banned and, in order to avoid arrest, Novikov left the country. Over the course of six years (until 1913), working as a merchant marine, he spent time in Finland, England, France, Spain, Italy and North Africa. In 1912 and 1913 Novikov lived on the island of Capri with Maxim Gorky.
Gorky, in fact, played a beneficial role in Novikov’s literary career. He very much liked Novikov’s story “In the Dark” – a description of the events of the 1905 Revolution – and he interceded in order to get the piece published in the Sovremennik journal in 1912. Of Gorky Novikov-Priboi  said, “Gorky put me on my feet. After studying with him I firmly and independently entered the literary world.”
The writer Konstantin Paustovsky penned a short essay about Novikov-Priboi in 1937 (yes, that year does make one shudder). In it he describes Novikov’s most famous book, Tsushima (1932):
“Tsushima was the writer’s great success. Its theme stuns so that you cease to notice what we are accustomed to noticing in writers: language, style, composition. When a book stuns you so that you cease to note how it was written – that is success. That means that it has been created according to laws of genuine literary mastery that are not yet revealed to us.
“Tsushima‘s power is not only in its simplicity and accuracy. Its power is in the abundance of exciting material, and in its topic: an enormous but clueless fleet goes to his death as if lying down beneath the executioner’s ax. Everybody knows what it happening. This [tale] takes us through the entire world, through sweltering oceans, the equator, the tropics, storms and calm, blue waters.
The tragedy of this funereal journey is so great that one wants to read more and more about it. In the general light of this tragedy every details takes on special significance and power.”
Novikov-Priboi lived in this home in the Arbat region from 1930 until his death in 1944. As such, his novel Tsushima was at least finished here, if not written in its entirety.
One final note on Tsushima – research in recent years has shown that Soviet editors, little by little, drop by drop, letter by letter, bowdlerized Novikov-Priboi’s original text. In each subsequent edition the details of the novel, its attitude toward the Tsarist navy, and even many of the historical facts were “amended” to suit current political needs. If you’re going to read the novel, I suggest you find an edition published in 1932.

IMG_5700 IMG_5702


Ivan Bunin monument, Voronezh

Click on photos to enlarge.


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.

DSCN3028.jpg2 DSCN3033.jpg2 DSCN3035.jpg2

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.

DSCN3037.jpg2 DSCN3030.jpg2 DSCN3039.jpg2


Bunin Chart

Marietta Shaginyan plaque, Moscow

Click on photos to enlarge.


Marietta Shaginyan (1888-1982) is not one of the first names that comes to mind when you think of Soviet/Russian literature. I, frankly, have never read any of her work. The first time I ever heard of her was when I was in grad school and my colleague Cynthia Vakareliyska told me she was writing a research paper on Shaginyan. I had to ask who that was and Cynthia’s response was enough to make me carry Shaginyan’s name in my mind with a deep sense of curiosity  for the last 30+ years.
Shaginyan was a highly controversial figure, but she was fascinating. Of Armenian descent, she was born in Moscow, was well educated and became active in public life at a relatively young age. She graduated from the history and philosophy department of Moscow’s Higher Women’s Courses in 1912. She became friends with Zinaida Gippius and Dmitry Merezhkovsky during a trip to St. Petersburg that very year, and she went on to study philosophy in Heidelburg  from 1912 to 1914. She worked for several years as a newspaper reporter and she taught aesthetics and the history of art in the Rostov-on-Don conservatory from 1915-1918. Not bad for someone just reaching the age of 30.
Much of the rest of her life was equally full and eventful. She ended up winning most of the “great” Soviet awards during her life, including a Hero of Socialist Labor award, the Lenin Prize, and the State Prize of the USSR. You didn’t receive honors like that for nothing – see below. These awards are trotted out on the plaque that hangs by the doorway at 43 Arbat Street, honoring the fact that Shaginyan lived there from 1936 to 1961.
After spending five years in Armenia at the end of the 1920s, she returned to Moscow in 1931. And throughout the 1930s she continued her unusual life path. Suffice it to say that she entered the State Plan Academy to study mineralogy, energetics and weaving (!) and, after graduation, lectured on these and other topics at factories around the Soviet Union. She eventually earned a PhD in 1942 for her book on the Ukrainian writer Taras Shevchenko and she became a member of the Academy of Sciences of Armenia in 1950.
And I’m just skimming, here, folks.

IMG_9058.jpg2 IMG_9060.jpg2

The Arbat today looks nothing like it did when Shaginyan lived here. There was no Moo-Moo Restaurant on the corner (see last photo below) and there was no Wetzels-Pretzels cafe next to the door Shaginyan would have used to come and go. If the sanctions and economic crash currently underway continue much longer, these places may soon disappear from the current-day Arbat too, but that’s another topic. The Arbat in Shaginyan’s day was not a walking mall, but rather a cozy, regular street with two-way traffic on it.
Shaginyan wrote her first poetry at the age of 15, in 1903. Over the next 10-15 years she published numerous books of poetry, some quite popular. Russian Wikiipedia, which I have plundered for much of the information in this little text, declares that in the ‘teens the Russian public appreciated Shaginyan’s poetry more than that of Marina Tsvetaeva. A ten-day trip to Germany in 1914 apparently caused Shaginyan’s political sensations to awaken and, after the Revolution, she wrote numerous prose works putting forth a woman’s point of view on a changing world.
One can find in the record plenty of smart-aleck comments about Shaginyan. Maxim Gorky – who, if you ask me, shouldn’t have been throwing stones – once wrote that “for her novel Changes she should have to eat a sandwich of English straight pins.”
But it’s true that she earned some of the harshest criticism.
Gaito Gazdanov, an emigre Russian writer, damned Shaginyan with strong language in 1971: “There will always be authors like Marietta Shaginyan,” he said, “who began writing poetry like this:

On this night from the Caspian to the Nile
No other maiden shall smell as sweetly as I…

and finished by writing a book in honor of Beria and spending her nights reading Lenin.”
It’s a fact that the Soviet era was a strange one, an unnatural one in many ways. People were bent backwards by the elements of the times. Some of them snapped.
I’m not here today to defend, justify or condemn Shaginyan. I don’t know enough to do any of those things. She was obviously a strong woman and, I’ll tell you what, throughout history strong women usually have not received the benefit of the doubt. Still, questions arise, serious ones. But for me they remain questions. I also know that Shaginyan was attracted to such figures as Ivan Krylov, Johann von Goethe, William Blake, Sergei Rachmaninov, Vladislav Khodasevich and many others, about whom she wrote. Khodasevich himself wrote a small piece about Shaginyan in 1925. It is available in full on one of those wonderful internet library sites. In it the poet writes with a great deal of irony about Shaginyan’s ecstatic, perhaps even disingenuous personality.
“…I recall [Shaginyan] and I want to smile. Not without bitterness, perhaps, but I want to smile. Poor Marietta! […] Who knows who her idol is these days? Or what she understands about this idol? From whom is she taking dictation for her articles, even though she doesn’t realize it herself? Who will dictate what she will write tomorrow?”
One other curious Shaginyan moment was brought to light by historian Alexander Kutenev. He declared in an interview in 2008 that Shaginyan, while researching a book about Lenin, discovered that the great Proletarian leader was gay. Shaginyan was moved to report this news to Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, whose right-hand man Mikhail Suslov argued that Shaginyan should be shot. Brezhnev, however, called her in for a talk. According to Kutenev, a deal was made. Shaginyan would get the Lenin Prize for her book and, in return, she would bury her evidence and keep her mouth shut about her discovery.

IMG_9062.jpg2 IMG_9059.jpg2 IMG_9053.jpg2


Vladimir Lenin apartment, London UK

Click on photos to enlarge.


I’m cheating a bit today. I do that from time to time. Vladimir Lenin was not a writer (although his complete collected works fill 55 volumes with over 3,000 documents). He was not a cultural figure in any strict application of that term. But you don’t need me to tell you that Lenin’s influence on Russian art, literature, music and other cultural activities after the beginning of the 20th century was enormous. If you look at the list of tags to the left you will see I have “preferred” Joseph Stalin when writing about the state’s effect on Russian art. Isn’t it time Lenin got his due?
Lenin, like that ever-buzzing gnat Stalin, is on one’s mind a lot today. There are so many reasons for that, I will end up skipping most. But here are a few:
1) Lenin lived in London. as the plaque above shows, in 1908. He lived at 21 Tavistock Place (the building is now numbered 36) while he was – yes – writing one of his essays, “Materialism and Empirio-criticism.” Not exactly beach reading, but, hey – neither is anything I do. London and Russian culture are deeply intertwined. I’m not talking about Roman Abramovich and the Chealsea football team, I’m talking about Herzen and his group of intellectuals and revolutionaries in the 19th century. Vladimir Nabokov spent time in England as a young man, matriculating at Trinity College in Cambridge. That experience was reflected in at least two of his novels, Glory and The Real Life of Sebastian Knight. These days its not culture but politics, dirty politics, that dominates the Russia-England connection. The murder of former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko, probably at the orders of Vladimir Putin, stands at the center of that.
2) As these words are typed into my computer, the world is on a Vladimir Putin watch. He disappeared on March 5 and it is currently March 14. Where did he go? Nobody knows. There are lots and lots of rumors, but one of them is that the guy who oversaw the murder of Litvinenko has masterminded the “disappearance” of Putin. Probably not, but it’s one of the rumors out there, and it’s got me thinking about London. You see, as things have gotten worse and worse in Russia for thinking people over the last three years, we see definite signs that the Russian state, under the tutelage of Mr. Putin, is returning more and more to policies, attitudes and practices originally put into place by Mr. Lenin and his wayward pupil Mr. Stalin. We are currently seeing an outflux of intellectuals and writers that may soon match the peak emigrations of the 1980s, 1970s and 1920s. It was Lenin who codified “emigration” as a useful government policy when he oversaw the so-called “philosopher ships” in 1922 and 1923. That was sort of his attempt to be humane. Rather than arrest, torture and murder them, like he was doing to many “lesser” people, he had great Russian minds put on boats and sent abroad. A book was written about this in 2007: Lesley Chamberlain’s Lenin’s Private War: The Voyage of the Philosophy Steamer and the Exile of the Intelligentsia.

IMG_9401.jpg2 IMG_9399.jpg2
3) Lenin’s tastes in literature and art were quite simple and direct. He liked the Russian classics such as Tolstoy, but was suspect of classics like Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky, in fact, after the Russian Revolution, went into a period of 40 or 50 years in eclipse. He never quite disappeared – he was too strong for that – but his works were hard to find and were not “appreciated” by official critics. Dostoevesky, by the way, owes a certain debt to one of England’s greatest writers, Charles Dickens, and there is a Dickens-Lenin connection, as reported by none less that George Orwell, who satirized Lenin’s ideas brutally in his novels Animal Farm and 1984. In his essay “Why Socialists Don’t Believe in Fun,” Orwell wrote that Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was read “to Lenin on his deathbed and according to his wife, he found its ‘bourgeois sentimentality’ completely intolerable. Now in a sense Lenin was right: but if he had been in better health he would perhaps have noticed that the story has interesting sociological implications.”
4) Lenin was the guy who honed, if not perfected, the use of chaos, confusion, misinformation, lies, fear, terror and violence as a basis to build a political power base. (The “perfection” he left to Mr. Stalin and we are seeing this method revived in new forms under Putin – or his successor? – today.) This is why Russia inseminated world literature with such an embarrassment of riches throughout the 20th century. Ivan Bunin, Nabokov, Yevgeny Zamyatin (Orwell’s biggest direct influence) and Marina Tsvetaeva are just a few of the major figures who left or were driven out of the Soviet Union in the early years. It’s easy to see why these individuals skipped town. Look at the list of some who didn’t – Osip Mandelstam, Isaak Babel, Vladimir Mayakovsky and Vsevolod Meyerhold were all murdered in prison. Tsvetaeva chose to come back home and ended up hanging herself. That is work Mr. Lenin can take credit for.
5) Lenin liked Maxim Gorky. Gorky liked Lenin sometimes, and even liked Stalin sometimes. Solzhenitsyn hated Gorky. I often don’t trust Solzhenitsyn (while admiring him greatly), but I share his dislike of Gorky. Does that put me within the six degrees of separation with Lenin?
Whether it does or not, I feel entirely safe in stating that I and my contemporaries in Russia today are grappling with the living legacy of Vladimir Lenin. It is a world of madness, suspicion, evil plots, dastardly deeds, death and assassination.
I feel as safe saying that as Lenin surely felt safe cozying up to his books and working on his revolutionary essays in his London abode. Thanks, London. Thanks a lot.

IMG_9408.jpg2 IMG_9404.jpg2