Maxim Gorky is a writer I have a hard time relating to. Solzhenitsyn’s condemnation of him as someone who turned a blind eye to the Red Terror was an enduring blow. Gorky did not see a lot of violence and perfidy, or he chose not to see them. Either way, he was too big a figure, too famous, too smart, too talented, too well-connected to allow himself such an egregious error. In his favor, I am being one-sided. He supported young talent and came to the defense of many who were in trouble. Surely he will always remain a paradoxical figure in Russian-Soviet literary history.
Gorky’s literature is another thing. He was held up during the Soviet period as a sort of Soviet Tolstoy and his stature as a cultural giant, though somewhat diminished, continues today. I’ve always found him to be a royal bore. It seems to me that he has all of Tolstoy’s pretensions to greatness, but none of the greatness. His most famous play The Lower Depths – still frequently staged today – strikes me as a pack of cliches about workers, intellectuals and lowlifes. His much better Summer Folk is, in fact, a rip-off of Chekhovian devices, but without the lightness or wit of Chekhov. His Ostrovsky-inspired family sagas – such as The Petty Bourgeoisie or Vassa Zheleznova – can be very powerful in the hands of a good director. I’ve never been able to stick long with his novels, famous as some of them are – Mother, The Life of Klim Samgin and others.
The monument that now stands behind the House of Artists on Krymsky Val is one of hundreds of “abandoned” sculptures that make up the Muzeon Park, or, as it is sometimes known in English, the Fallen Monuments Park. Gorky stands here rather ignominiously stuck up against some trees not far from old statues of Joseph Stalin, secret police chief No. 1 Felix Derzhinsky and other politicians whose reputations have suffered in recent years. Gorky, who used to stand in the plaza before the Belorussky Train Station, ended up here for a different reason. The plaza and everything around it was dug up in 2005 to begin reconstruction of roads and intersections in the area. Nine years later the construction is still going full force and Mr. Gorky – if there ever were any plans to return him to his proper place – still stands in the Muzeon Park. This monument, an impressive one no matter what you may think of the man or his writing, has a curious history. It was designed by sculptor Ivan Shadr in 1939, three years after Gorky’s death, but was not completed until 1951 (10 years after Shadr’s death) by sculptors Vera Mukhina and Nina Zelenskaya.
The appearance in 2011 of a plaque commemorating the fact that the great playwright Nikolai Erdman worked at the Tomsk Drama Theater was one of those little miracles that make life worth living. Erdman, arrested in 1933 during the filming of the great “first Soviet musical” Jolly Fellows, was exiled to Siberia in less than a week’s time. He was sent to Yeniseisk; his co-screenwriter Vladimir Mass on the film was sent to Tobolsk. Although the two had worked together frequently since the mid-20s or so, they would never do so again. Erdman, apparently in gratitude for his good behavior in Yeniseisk, was moved to Tomsk in 1934. He remained there until his three-year sentence was up in 1936.
Tomsk has long been one of the biggest, most important Siberian cities. It was a central point for political prisoners and exiles being moved further into Siberia or keeping them from moving back to European Russia. As such, the city has a rich history of political prisoners contributing to the local culture. Erdman during his stay was officially employed at the Tomsk Drama Theater as literary director, and, while he was there, he wrote a dramatization of Maxim Gorky’s novel Mother, which was performed with some success.
The plaque on the wall of the former Tomsk Drama Theater (now the city’s Young Spectator Theater) was unveiled on a crisp day at the end of March 2011. The event was the culmination of four years of work carried out by Professor Valentina Golovchiner, a Yevgeny Shvarts scholar, who had studied under the most important Erdman scholar of the Soviet era, Nikolai Kiselyov. According to Golovchiner she got the idea of launching the campaign to erect the plaque (designed by great local sculptor Leonty Usov) from me when, one day, without thinking, I blurted out that someone ought to commemorate the fact that Erdman once worked in this building at Pereulok Nakhanovicha, 4. Be that as it may, this is the essence of the matter: Golovchiner showed heroic tenacity in pushing the plaque through all the stages of permissions, bureaucratic hoop-jumping and signature-collecting that were required to bring the project to fruition. As much as it is a truly satisfying recognition of Erdman’s contribution to Russian literature, drama and theater – for me it will also always be a monument to Valentina Golovchiner’s commitment to her calling as a scholar and historian of Russian culture. Following is a 2014 snapshot of Golovchiner pointing to the desk where Kiselyov used to work at the Tomsk State University Library, followed by a portrait of Kiselyov that hangs in a corridor on the second floor of the main university building.