Tag Archives: Mikhail Bulgakov

Leonid Gaidai statue, Moscow

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I must say this is the first time I have posted a work of Zurab Tsereteli in this space. I’m not a fan. Everybody in Moscow knows him for several reasons, few of which work in his favor. He has long been the main art consultant for Moscow, overseeing the erection of numerous tasteless monuments created by himself and his cronies. He created the monstrous (in all senses of the word) sculpture of Peter the Great that looms uglily (you think that’s not a word? go see what I’m talking about…) over the Moscow River and the New Tretyakov Gallery. The legend on that is that Tsereteli wanted to give the statue to St. Petersburg and they refused it. Several sources even tell us that he planned on making it a statue of Christopher Columbus and giving it to the U.S., but the Americans – that time at least – couldn’t be duped.
Enough of that, however, my real topic today is film director Leonid Gaidai.
Leonid Gaidai (1923-1993) had one of the great runs of success in Soviet film. From 1965 to 1973 he unveiled five consecutive hit comedies that were not just hit comedies. They were films that mythologized the comic characters of Soviet history for all times. They are films that everyone knows and loves even today because they all run frequently on Russian television. Their scripts are adapted for theater and played on stage. Their characters are beloved figures – the actors who played them are national heroes. The words they spoke are often quoted, the predicaments they got into are familiar and referred to often.
The string began with Operation Y and Other Adventures of Shurik (1965). It continued with The Prisoner Girl of the Caucasus, or, The New Adventures of Shurik (1966), The Diamond Arm (1968), The Twelve Chairs (1971), and Ivan Vasilyevich Changes his Profession (1973). The Twelve Chairs was based on the popular comic novel by Ilf and Petrov, while Ivan Vasilyevich was based on Mikhail Bulgakov’s play Ivan Vasilyevich. Gaidai was always a member of the team that wrote the screenplays.
Gaidai had a special love and appreciation of actors. He was a star-maker, and he was quite loyal to the actors who enjoyed success with him. His Russian Wikipedia article has an entire section devoted to actors and the lists there are quite impressive. Numerous actors worked with him on eight, nine or 10 films. Many of them, huge stars, owe their popularity specifically to their work with Gaidai.
The actor who played Shurik, Alexander Demyanenko (1937-1999) worked in an enormous number of films, at least 110, but throughout his career he was known to the public as “Shurik.” So important was “Shurik” to Gaidai, and Gadai to Shurik, and so popular was the figure of “Shurik,” Tsereteli gave his sculpture of Gaidai some of the same features as his beloved character. So, when you look over these images of Gaidai, you also see more than a little of Shurik. It was a rare clever stroke for Tsereteli, who is better at being obvious with overkill than subtle with humor.


Gaidai was born in a small town in the Far East, moving with his family later to Irkutsk. During the war Moscow’s Satire Theater was evacuated to Irkutsk where it continued performing new and old shows until the war ended. The young Gaidai worked as a stagehand for awhile at the Irkutsk Drama Theater, apparently handling many of the Satire Theater shows. Perhaps it’s a little romantic to think so, but one wants to think that the exposure to Moscow’s best satire (this was one of the capital’s most popular theaters at that time) had an effect on the young future film director. After the war, during which he was seriously injured, stepping on a mine, he attended and graduated from the Irkutsk Theater Institute in 1947. He studied film directing at the State Film Institute in Moscow from 1949 to 1955. That year he was hired as a staff director at Mosfilm. His first film, The Long Journey, co-directed with Valentin Nevzorov, was released in 1956. It was based on a story by Vladimir Korolenko and told the tragic tale of young love in Siberia. His second film, The Groom from the Other World (1958), was a satire of Soviet bureaucracy and caused the director enormous troubles. The authorities found this film so offensive that they cut half of it out before allowing it to be released. In the process, the film was downgraded from a feature film comedy to a short. In an effort to help the young Gaidai rehabilitate himself in the eyes of the authorities, Mosfilm’s general director Ivan Pyryev essentially forced Gaidai to take on a patriotic topic for his third film, Thrice Resurrected. Although it was scripted by the highly regarded playwright and songwriter Alexander Galich, Gaidai never warmed to this work. A few more years of floundering found him making a couple more short films until he hit his stride with Operation Y and Other Adventures of Shurik. Over his career Gaidai made 15 features and three shorts.
The statue that you see here is one of three made by Tsereteli for the foyer in Eldar Ryazanov’s Eldar Film Club, located at 105 Leninsky Prospect. The other two are of Ryazanov and still another great Soviet film director Georgy Danelia. More about them another time.


Vikenty Veresaev house, Tula

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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.


Alexander Vertinsky plaque, Moscow

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Few individuals in the history of Russian culture have lived more dramatic lives than the great singer and songwriter Alexander Vertinsky (1889-1957). It all began before he was born.
Vertinsky was the second child born scandalously in Kiev to Nikolai Vertinsky, a lawyer, and Yevgenia Skolatskaya, the daughter of the head of Kiev’s assembly of nobility. Vertinsky, Sr., was married and nothing he could do would convince his wife to agree to a divorce. The situation – this was the end of the 19th century, after all – was, indeed, dramatic. Alexander’s sister Nadezhda was separated from her brother and given to an aunt in the father’s family. Alexander was turned over to his maternal aunt, a severe woman who hated Alexander’s father, was extremely strict in her dealings with the young boy, and who told him that his sister was dead. His mother died when he was three; his father, who apparently spent much of his last years sitting by his lover’s grave, died when Alexander was five. Not the easiest start in life far a young boy, although this was just a prelude.
The story that follows is packed with details that I could never have collected without the help of a few good websites, Know EverythingPeoples.ru, and Russian Wikipedia. I doff my cap to them all. (Although I should point out that the sources differ on dates occasionally, with some claiming he moved to Moscow and began his film career either in 1912 or 1913. In unclear instances, I tend to side with Wikipedia, rightly or wrongly.)
Vertinsky received a good education, at least at first, studying at the No. 1 Gymnasium for aristocrats. His classmates included the future writers Konstantin Paustovsky and Mikhail Bulgakov. But Vertinsky’s independent nature was not to be tamed. For kicks he began stealing money that pilgrims left as honors on the graves holding the remains of saints at the Kiev-Pechersky monastery. He was caught and kicked out of school, and, when he refused to quit doing it, his aunt kicked him out of her home. His saving grace was a love for theater and music. He tried out his acting chops first and, when that failed, he took up singing. A chance meeting with an old friend of his mother gave him another “in” to high society. She took him under her wing, inviting him to her house where he met such individuals as Marc Chagall, the philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev, the poet Mikhail Kuzmin,  and the painters Kazimir Malevich and Natan Altman. This, apparently was an environment that began to serve and feed Vertinsky’s talent. His new benefactress helped him get a job as a theater critic and he turned out to be very good at it. He became well-known in Kiev with his notices about performances by Fyodor Chaliapin and others. He also began publishing short stories. When he had saved up enough money by the age of 24, he set out for the bright lights of the big city of Moscow. His primary goal was to make a career in literature, but first he made an astonishing discovery – his sister Nadya was not only still alive, she was an actress in the theater! Alexander began performing and directing, all the while continuing to write stories, poems and short plays, often under the influence of Alexander Blok and the Symbolists. An attempt to enter the Moscow Art Theater school ended in failure when the auditioning master Konstantin Stanislavsky complained that Vertinsky could not properly pronounce the letter “r.” This hardly stopped him. He made his debut in silent film in 1913 and, when World War I began, he volunteered as a medic. There he applied some 35,000 bandages to wounded soldiers before he was wounded slightly himself and sent back to Moscow where he learned that his beloved sister had died of an overdose of cocaine. Nevertheless, Alexander wasted little time getting his career going again, continuing to act in films and making his Moscow debut as a singer in 1915 at the Miniature Theater. A crucial choice was made to dress and make Vertinsky up as Pierrot, and it stuck, becoming his own personal image forever after. His early repertoire was based on the poetry of others, but he also began slipping in a few of his own songs, too. Before long he had become a star in his own right.

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dscn0971Vertinsky’s songs reflected the age in which they were written – one of violence, uncertainty and fear. The usual characters that he wrote about found themselves alone and vulnerable before a hostile world. There was a note of fatalism in Vertinsky’s voice that, together with his unique, personal sound of deep regret and profound understanding, gave his songs enormous emotional impact. It is not surprising (I say as I leap-frog over all kinds of interesting biographical details) that Vertinsky would increasingly feel himself an outcast in Moscow in the years after the Revolution. Even though the rhetoric was not even close to what it would become in the next decade/decade and a half, it was plenty to alienate Vertinsky almost immediately. Here’s a little story worth repeating from Peoples.ru:
Following the Bolshevik Revolution Vertinsky came to the conclusion that he would never get along with the new government. His romance titled ‘What I Must Say,’ written under the impression of the deaths of three hundred cadets in Moscow, aroused the interest of the Cheka [secret police], which summoned the actor to explain his sympathy for enemies of the Revolution. Legend has it that Vertinsky responded to the Chekists indignantly: ‘It’s just a song, and anyway, you cannot forbid me to pity them!’ He received a clear and concise answer: ‘If necessary, we can forbid you to breathe!‘”
Shortly thereafter Vertinsky – who was now a nationally famous singer – set out on a protracted tour through the southern regions of the new Soviet Union, as far from Moscow as he could get. In 1920 he slipped out of the country on the good ship Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovich, and set foot in the safety of Constantinople. He began performing there with success for the growing emigre population, but, being a restless soul, he kept moving, visiting in coming years Romania, Poland, Austria, Hungary, Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, Libya and Germany. When in Poland he made an attempt to return to the Soviet Union but was refused a visa. He settled in France from 1925 to 1934, where he, once again, became an enormous star. Yes, he was supported by the huge Russian emigre community, but the French, with their love of style, art and literature, took him in as well. He continued writing his beautiful, sad songs of longing, regret and stoicism, creating one of the greatest oeuvre of popular songs in the world.
In 1934 Alexander set sail for New York on the good ship Lafayette. He never felt comfortable in America’s financial capital and set off on tours that took him to Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles. There was an attempt to get him started in Hollywood as an actor, but his lack of knowledge and deep dislike of the English language were a barrier that could not be breached. There is a tale that Marlene Dietrich, seeing how Vertinsky struggled with English, suggested that he just “get a grip on himself” and learn the language. He couldn’t, however, and ended up turning down the offer to act.
Disillusioned with the States, Vertinsky set sail for China in October 1935. It was a decision that would change his life, and the history of Russian/Soviet performing arts.
He set up base in Shanghai where he continued to perform, and, even, for a short while was the owner of a cabaret. But life was getting more and more difficult, and when he unexpectedly received an invitation from the Soviet consulate in Shanghai to return home, he was intrigued. He even began writing for a Soviet newspaper. Still, the road home was not easy. His final papers from Moscow were delayed, in large part because of the beginning of World War II, and so, when he married his second wife Lidia Tsirgvava in 1942, he was still in Shanghai. Vertinsky was then 53; Tsirgvava, the daughter of a Soviet official in China, was 20. Their first daughter Marianna was born several months later. When Japan invaded China Vertinsky made still another, now desperate, attempt to return home. He wrote Stalin’s right-hand man Vyacheslav Molotov, who immediately made arrangements for Vertinsky and his family to receive traveling papers. They were given an apartment in a prestigious building on Tverskaya Street (occasionally and exaggeratedly called Moscow’s Fifth Avenue or Champs Elysses) in building No. 12. You see that building here, as photographed in the fall of 2016.
Just a few months after arriving here in Moscow in 1943, the couple’s second daughter Anastasia was born. Both Marianna and Anastasia would become successful actors themselves, Anastasia, especially, becoming one of the Soviet Union’s most popular actresses in the 1960s and 1970s.
Vertinsky himself found an uncomfortable mix of success and alienation upon his return to a nation that had nothing to do with the country he left in 1920. He was allowed to act in films and to give concerts, and yet, he was kept on the outside of mainstream Soviet cultural life. His songwriting muse pretty much dried up in this period. One source claims he wrote barely two dozen songs over the last 14 years of his life.
In 1956, the year after Nikita Khrushchev launched his de-Stalinization campaign, Vertinsky wrote to his wife:
Look at this whole story with Stalin. It’s false, base and disingenuous, At the convention Khrushchev said: ‘Let’s stand in honor of the 17 million people who were martyred in the camps.’ How do you like that?! Who, when and how will the ‘mistakes’ made by these scums ever be repaid? How long will they continue to  mock our Motherland? How long?

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Grisha Gurvich’s Bat Cabaret No. 2, Moscow

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One could write a book about this building. In fact, I used to own a small book about it in one of those libraries I collected along my way before jettisoning as I moved on in life. The way some people are with umbrellas, sunglasses, gloves and the like, I am with libraries. They come of their own, but when I go, they go. Be that as it may, I don’t need any book to write about his distinctive building at 10 Bolshoi Gnezdikovsky Lane in the center of Moscow. My memories are full without books.
Still, let me begin with some acquired information because this really is an extraordinary location. Two plaques hanging on the exterior wall are of interest to us here. One (the first above) reads as such: “Memorial of history and culture. This is the first ‘skyscraper’ in the capital, engineered by E[rnst] K. Nirnzee in 1912. Beginning in 1915 Nikita Baliev’s the Bat Cabaret began working in the basement, as did the Romen Gypsy Theater and the F[yodor] Kaverin Theater-Studio and others. A winter film pavilion of the V. Vengerov and V[ladimir] Gardin Film Partnership was located on the roof of the building. This building is associated with the names of M. Bulgakov, K. Paustovsky, Yu. Burliuk, V. Mayakovsky and others.”
(The reference to “Yu. Burlyuk” appears to be an error. The avant-garde poet, painter and all-around artistic hooligan David Burliuk was a close associate of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s, while his brothers Vladimir and Nikolai were of some note, too. I suspect it is David that is meant here. I don’t know of a “Yu. Burliuk.”)
The second plaque is significantly more economical in terms of facts, but it tells a similar story: “Apartment House 1912-1923. Engineer E.K. Nirnzee. This building is associated with the history of the development of Russian theater and film.”
This is all very impressive, and I am sure there are plenty of facts and stories out there waiting to be tracked down and retold about all those mentioned here. But I only have room in my mind today for one person and his work and vision. He is not mentioned on either of the plaques from the past, and who knows what eras overseen by what kind of people we have yet to go through in the future? Does anyone today care about Grigory Gurvich? Obviously, many do. He touched the lives of thousands. But does anyone in a position of power and authority remember him? That’s a harder question to answer. Who knows what folks like that are thinking these days.
Grigory Gurvich (1957-1999) was utterly unlike anyone else. He came into prominence during the hard, harsh, ugly era of the death of the Soviet experiment, and he greeted it with humor, style and elegance. It was not a particularly friendly time, but Grisha – as I will allow myself to call him – was everybody’s friend. He had a smile, a good word, a handshake or a twinkle in his eye for everyone who ever came through the doors of his theater located in this building. The idea for his theater was a small stroke of genius. It was not so much a resurrection of the famed Bat Cabaret opened here on the same stage by Nikita Baliev in 1915, as it was an attempt to do that famous enterprise honor in a new age. It was better than a resurrection. It was a whole new theater, with a new idea and a new plan, but one that took inspiration from Baliev and his company which, soon enough, disbanded and headed for world-famous tours of Europe and then a fairly long residency in New York under the name of La Chauve-Souris. (I should mention that Baliev’s name became Balieff in the transition from the Soviet Union to Europe and the States.) Baliev’s theater was a true cabaret, with actors coming in late nights after performing in the “legit theater” to sing songs and improvise skits with other famous actors, who mingled with the performers from Baliev’s troupe. Opening its doors late at night, when actors and audiences got out of other performances, it would run into the wee hours of the morn.

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Grisha Gurvich’s Bat Cabaret Theater (note the addition of “theater”) was an actual theater company. It put on plays and performed them in a repertory schedule like most other Russian theaters might do. What distinguished Gurvich’s work (he wrote or, at least, compiled most of the plays he directed) from other theaters was that each piece was put together from the kinds of skits you might see in a cabaret variety show. But he tied them together, put them into a connected, winding string that created a narrative story. His first show, which opened right here on May 26, 1989, on the basement stage at what has been known over the decades as the GITIS student theater, was called The Reading of a New Play. It was a mystification of sorts that mixed the characters of Baliev’s troupe on the verge of breaking up, with the individuals of Gurvich’s company, which was on the verge of a great beginning. It was nostalgic, sweet, painful, intelligent and always funny. Gurvich, as was his wont, moved through the piece as a narrator or an emcee, tying loose ends together, or, sometimes just leaving them to hang and dangle. The first performances of The Reading of a New Play were wildly successful, as few things can be wildly successful in our days. News of the fabulous new show and theater traveled like wildfire. The next night (when I attended) there may have been two people crashing the door for every seat in the house. The audience was electrified. It exploded into fiery bursts of laughter and applause constantly throughout the evening.
Originally, Gurvich had rented the space for six performances. But because this was right where Baliev’s Bat Cabaret had performed, he very much wanted to stay right here. And the success of that first short run did guarantee a residency that lasted for nearly half a decade. As a resident company in this space, Gurvich’s Bat Cabaret Theater opened its next four shows here, including: I Tap Dance about Moscow (at the turn of 1991/92)and 100 Years of Cabaret (November 1994). It was the latter show that caused me to write a few paragraphs that I have treasured throughout the decades. 100 Years of Cabaret was not Gurvich’s best show. It was slicker than the deeper, more successful first outings. But it lacked none of the excitement, energy and humor that Gurvich always put into everything he did. So, in a review for The Moscow Times that acknowledged a few flat spots and sour notes throughout evening, here is how I wrapped up what I had witnessed:
But Gurvich has the ultimate trump card up his sleeve: his own personality.
Call him the sultan of suave, the wizard of wit, or the king of charisma, but when he takes the stage to the slinky accompaniment of Roman Berchenko at the piano, he soothes everything over. He isn’t just the show’s author, he is its heart and soul.
Meanwhile, amidst the uneven collection of sketches, some are as good as ever. The best include a wildly energetic medley of American pop from Elvis Presley to Chubby Checker; some thunderous, top-flight tap-dancing; and a beautifully-done interactive film skit that has actors climbing onto and off of the screen a la Federico Fellini or Woody Allen.
But the star is Gurvich. Were there such a thing, he would be Mr. Moscow, the man who brings warmth and respect to the town he loves. And a few slips notwithstanding, it is always a pleasure to watch him do it.”
Pleasure, hell. It was an honor. It was the opportunity of a lifetime. It all ended much too fast. After Gurvich directed five shows in the wonderful old space of the basement stage at 10 Bolshoi Gnizdikovsky Lane, the landlords at the theater – GITIS – kicked Gurvich out. He had become too big a star and, for some reason, they couldn’t handle the competition. Grisha took his company elsewhere; they performed on rented stages around town, but it was never the same. Then around 1996 he became the host of a hit TV show called This Old Apartment. That took most of the air out of what was left of the Bat Cabaret Theater. Moreover, what most of us did not know was that Grisha Gurvich was deathly ill. He died of leukemia in Israel before the century could run out.
One very visible trace of Grigory Gurvich’s short tenure in this famed building remains for us to see. That is the art nouveau front door and awning that Gurivch had put in before he was asked to vacate the premises. It was his little gift to history – a door erected in the 1990s to honor an era gone by, the last few years before the Russian Revolution. Had Baliev put in a fancy front door to his Bat Cabaret, it might well have looked something like this door that Gurvich had designed and built 80 years later.
These days, frankly, it looks forlorn and out of place. Without the crowds storming the door to get in for the night’s performance, without Gurvich there to greet you, without any rhyme or reason for its being there, the beautiful, well-illuminated entrance strikes one now as a heavy reproach. It seems to frown on those fools who kicked Gurvich out of here 20 years ago. It seems to mock those who walk past or even enter the premises now – as if to say, “Who are you and what are you doing here? You have no idea what my purpose was!” For me personally, it stands as a small cluster of light amidst the darkness that has descended on Bolshoi Gnezdikovsky Lane ever since Grisha Gurvich last left it. Every time I pass it by it seems to say, “Grisha was here and you and I remember that. Can’t speak for the rest of the folk around here.”

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Bulgakov-inspired bas relief, Moscow

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Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940) again. He is as ubiquitous in Moscow as Pushkin. This time we’re looking at another in the series of illustrations of characters from BB’s writings that showed up on city walls and archways as part of the Best City in the World Festival in 2014. This particular bas relief, etched out in a thin layer of cement, is of Tsar Ivan the Terrible, from BB’s play Ivan Vasilyevich. Like the others, it was created by Novatek Art. Unlike most of the others, this image is not in a readily visible position. In fact, it occupies a fairly forlorn spot behind a wayward post not far from some junk gathering behind a tiny, leftover wall, and squeezed on all sides by a rough paint job. If you’re looking for it, go to 36 Starokonyushenny Lane in the Arbat district and peek around the right corner of the building from the street.
Ivan Vasilyevich is simultaneously an obscure Bulgakov play and one of his most popular. How does that work? Easy. It was made into a film called Ivan Vasilyevich Changes his Profession by the great Soviet comic film director Leonid Gaidai in 1973. The film – the top grossing Soviet film for that year (it was seen by over 60 million spectators) – became an instant classic and still maintains its cult popularity today.
The play itself – a comedy about two Soviet citizens being carried back into the 16th century by a time machine which also tosses Ivan the Terrible into the 20th century – has lived a much quieter life. It was written in the mid-1930s for the Satire Theater, but it didn’t see the light of day until it was published in a small collection of Bulgakov’s plays in 1965. Even then it was not until Gaidai got hold of it that anyone really paid it any attention. And, truth to be told, even following that wildly popular film, theaters did not clamor to stage it. In my nearly 30 years of theater-going in Russia I have never seen a production of it.
In fact, Ivan Vasilyevich began life as a play called Bliss. That early variant was written roughly between spring and fall of 1934 but the Satire Theater declined to stage it. Director Nikolai Gorchakov and actors at the theater encouraged Bulgakov to keep working on the play. He did just that and it is considered that he finished it on Sept. 30, 1935, giving a reading of the play in his home for the Gorchakov crew on Oct. 2. The play was proverbially received enthusiastically by the company, although that did not stop them or Bulgakov from believing that it needed to be reworked severely. That mutual agreement was reached on Oct. 29. Bulgakov went back to the drawing board, changing the comedy drastically – the new version was no longer a science-fiction tale of time travel, but now became an unreal tale of a man having a strange dream. This version was completed in April 1936. I haven’t found when the play went into rehearsals (it was  probably before April), but a dress rehearsal was held on May 13 and was promptly banned after that.
Gaidai’s film of the play introduced a large number of changes and innovations. Not surprisingly, in it the characters travel back and forth between the 16th century and the 1970s, rather than the 1930s of Bulgakov’s original.

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Gaidai (1923-1993) was one of the most beloved makers of comedies in the Soviet era. I think we would be safe in calling them screwball comedies. He made approximately 20 films between 1955 and 1992. Ivan Vasilyevich Changes his Profession was the last in a fivesome of unsurpassed successes. The run began in 1965 with Operation Y, and Shurik’s Other Adventures, hitting stride with The Captive Girl of the Caucausus (1966, aka Kidnapping, Caucasian Style), The Diamond Hand (1968) and The Twelve Chairs (1971, not to be mistaken, of course, for Mel Brooks’ Hollywood version of this classic comic novel by Ilf and Petrov). Every one of these films is spoken of with the greatest love and reverence by virtually anyone who has grown up in the Soviet Union or Russia since the 1960s. The films are wacky, off the wall and fast-paced, and Ivan Vasilyevich is no different.
What is interesting about Ivan Vasilyevich Changes his Profession is that Gaidai – despite the wave of success he was enjoying at the time – apparently had a difficult time casting it. He wrote the script with the great clown and actor Yury Nikulin in mind, but Nikulin – who had starred with such success in The Diamond Hand – curiously wanted nothing to do with the project. According to Russian Wikipedia, the reason for Nikulin’s reticence was that he didn’t expect this film featuring a satirical vision of Ivan the Terrible ever to pass the censor, and he had no desire to waste his time making a film no one would see. Frankly, that sounds a little simplistic to me, but I have no reason to buck Wikipedia’s received wisdom.
Another eight actors – most of them big stars – auditioned for the lead, which was a dual role of Ivan the Terrible and one of the hapless Soviet citizens being sent back into the past. They included Yevgeny Yevstigneev, Georgy Vitsin and Yevgeny Lebedev – all of them legends in their own right. However, the part eventually fell to Yury Yakovlev, who emerged in the 1970s as one of Soviet cinema’s finest lyrical/comic actors.
Of course, it is Gaidai’s film, and not Bulgakov’s original play, that made the Novatek artists want to memorialize the character of Ivan the Terrible in the series of Bulgakov-inspired bas reliefs that still dot the city of Moscow today. Bulgakov only returned to Russian readers in the 1960s when the unofficial ban on his works was lifted. As such, Gaidai’s film of the obscure Ivan Vasilyevich Changes his Profession was the first successful film adaptation of the writer’s works. It helped cement the writer’s fast-growing reputation as the people’s favorite.

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Mikhail Bulgakov plaque, Moscow

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It’s not much of a plaque, and, frankly, it’s not much of a reason for one: A “house where M.A. Bulgakov spent time.” Russian cultural bureaucrats haven’t honored many others with memorial plaques for such a skimpy reason. I would hazard to guess that only Pushkin and Lenin get similar treatment. As for the plaque, it’s not one of those nice ones done by some artist getting a cushy commission; just one of those functional things that lets you look the place up on that cool Know Moscow website.  (The Russian page is here.) But if you happen upon it – as I did a few months back – you have to take notice, don’t you?
Bulgakov met and befriended the attorney David Kiselgof in 1922 and that is why he occasionally hung out in this house at 25 Skatertny Lane. Kiselgof lived here in Apt. No. 2. It’s possible that Bulgakov would have come here, at least on occasion, with his wife Tatyana Lappa. (She was the first of three.) In September 1922 the couple was reunited in Moscow after a good deal of journeying which had taken them to Tiflis (now Tbilisi), Batumi, Odessa and Kiev. Bulgakov at the time was a military doctor and was being sent wherever he was needed most. Tatyana, whom everyone usually called Tasya, would follow him as best as she could, sometimes falling behind, sometimes catching up. In any case, the couple mostly remained in Moscow after the autumn of 1921 (divorcing in April 1924), so we can imagine the two approaching the door you see in some of the pictures below.
I should add that some sources say Kiselgof and Lappa first met only in 1923 at the home of another lawyer friend of Bulgakov’s, Vladimir Komorsky. But even if that’s true, there would still have been plenty of time for Lappa to visit this location before her break with Bulgakov.
Why is this of particular interest? Because some 25 years later, around 1947, Lappa would marry Kiselgof (he would be her third husband). It is quite obvious that this is not a case of the lawyer and the writer’s wife falling into a passionate affair that they hid until they could hide it no longer. I am guessing it was more a case of two aging people attempting to recapture some special moment from their younger days. Consider it something like Bob Dylan fan Steve Jobs falling in love with Joan Baez, an occurrence that Jobs himself described as “a serious relationship between two accidental friends who became lovers.” Rolling Stone magazine adds that some of Job’s friends “believed that one thing that drew Jobs to Baez was the fact that she used to date Bob Dylan.” Well, I’m thinking the Lappa-Kiselgof relationship had similarities. I’m not saying at all that it wasn’t serious – I have no idea about that one way or the other. I’m just saying it probably grew out of the mutual affection both continued to feel for someone – Bulgakov – who had gone out of their lives long ago, and who died in 1940.

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A nice biography of Lappa on the internet Bulgakov encyclopedia contains several observations that suggest my hunch is correct. It gives voice to the general belief that Lappa continued to love Bulgakov to the end of her days, and that, after they parted, Bulgakov occasionally turned to her in difficult moments (such as when he had just asked Stalin in person to let him emigrate, and received a refusal). Much is made of the jealousy of Lappa’s second husband (their marriage was common-law), a certain Alexander Kreshkov. He, too, might have been another Bulgakov substitute for Lappa, since he was the brother of one of Bulgakov’s best friends from his youth. Kreshkov would rifle through Lappa’s possessions, tossing Bulgakov mementos around and accusing her of still loving her first husband. He finally destroyed everything – photos, letters, other items – that Lappa had kept and cherished.
In any case, the connection between the former husband and wife was strong. We are told that, when he lay dying, Bulgakov called out for Lappa.
Indeed, Lappa had saved Bulgakov’s skin more than once. When he was a raging morphine addict in the ‘teens, she is the one who pulled him out of the tailspin – even though he chased her with a gun and threatened to kill her if she didn’t get him more of the drug. (She is the prototype of Anna Kirillovna in his famous story, “Morphine.”)  In 1920, when he fell deathly ill with typhus,  Lappa stood by him until he recovered.
Many years later, in the 1970s, Lappa reminisced about her third husband, Kiselgof, at precisely the time she might have been visiting him as Bulgakov’s wife: “Davy loved writers very much,” she said. “He had a marvelous room with beautiful easy chairs. He worked as an attorney, but he loved literature, was interested in it, and he would invite various writers to visit him.”
As for Kiselgof, he told the Bulgakov scholar Marietta Chudakova in 1970: ” You see, he [Bulgakov] was never able to make sense of Soviet reality, that’s the thing. That was his tragedy. He wrote like Ilf and Petrov, they were also comic writers, they also saw our deficiencies, but they also could see positive sides! He couldn’t do that. He looked on it all from a remove. I think that tormented him. Even now they’re afraid to publish him. If he had been able to make sense of our reality, his entire life would have been different.”
(See the Bulgakov Museum website for my source for these quotes.)
I’m not so sure we need to take Kiselgof’s conclusion seriously, and I’m not so sure the comparison with Ilf and Petrov is quite right. But, hey, today we’re looking at photos of the home in which Kiselgof received Bulgakov and (perhaps) his wife Tatyana as guests. I think that gives him the right to be heard.
But to wrap things up, let’s go back to Bulgakov and Lappa’s break in 1924. Here is what a Master and Margarita site has to say:
Bulgakov became famous in Moscow’s literary circles. One day he came home with a champagne bottle and said, ‘What do you say we part?’ These words came down, as if from heaven, breaking over her like a crystal vase. What could Tasya say? ‘All I did was wash and prepare meals and sell things at the market. He went everywhere, I stayed at home.’ They separated in April 1924. Mikhail said, ‘You know, it’s easy for me to say I’m married. Don’t worry. Everything will be as before. We’ll just separate formally.’ ‘You mean I’m Lappa again?’ Tasya asked. ‘Yes. And I’m Bulgakov.’ They continued to live on Bolshaya Sadovaya Street. But in November Mikhail moved out on Tasya.”
P.S. Despite Lappa’s comment that she usually “stayed at home” while Bulgakov was out on the town, I’m not convinced she never visited Kiselgof’s apartment. After all, she did go visiting with Bulgakov to Komorsky’s apartment in 1923, and, in that 1970 interview, she describes the interior of Kiselgof’s “marvelous room with beautiful easy chairs” as she would had she seen it with her own eyes. I think that nice room and lovely chairs were right here, behind these walls.

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Mikhail Bulgakov mural, Moscow

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I wish there were more of these around Moscow. The city is laid out in such a way that there could be many more full-building murals. There are countless blank and open building walls just waiting to have cool pictures painted on them. Street art, mural art is a wonderful way of personalizing a city. Look how cool this Bob Dylan mural looked in Minneapolis even before it was completed. I have written about several murals in Moscow – including ones depicting Stravinsky and Alexander Pushkin. The one I post today is of Mikhail Bulgakov. It was the first in a series of murals painted in the Heritage project. It was created jointly by the two main (and overlapping, as far as I can tell) “graffiti-advertising” organizations in Moscow – Novotekart and Zuk Club. It is painted on the north-looking wall of the apartment house located at 33 Afanasyevsky Lane in the Arbat district, and it appeared in September 2014. Showing a playful sense of humor, the artists depict Woland’s cat Begemot hanging out up on two stray balconies at the top of the wall. (Woland, of course, being the devilish character in Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita who comes to Moscow to do evil, but can do only good….)
Much of the action in The Master and Margarita takes place in this general Arbat region, so the choice of this location for the portrait was not random. Although I read and enjoyed the novel when I first encountered it a couple of decades ago, it has never been an obsession with me like it is with many. The cult of Bulgakov, his novel and his characters is one of the strongest in all of Russian culture. For this reason it is arguably the source for more public art in Moscow than any other artistic work. I ran a net check on the topic on Yandex (the Russian Google) and came up with a huge gallery of photos.
However, people far more impressive than I have been influenced by Bulgakov’s Master, Margarita, Woland, Berlioz, Begemot, Azazello, Pontius Pilate and the rest.

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Arguably the biggest splash that The Master and Margarita had outside of Russia was in the Mick Jagger tune “Sympathy for the Devil.” The first stanzas are pretty much built on Jagger’s reading of the novel:

Please allow me to introduce myself,
I’m a man of wealth and taste.
I’ve been around for a long, long year,
Stole many a man’s soul and faith.

And I was round when Jesus Christ
Had his moment of doubt and pain,
Made damn sure that Pilate
Washed his hands and sealed his fate.

Pleased to meet you,
Hope you guess my name.
But what’s puzzling you
Is the nature of my game.

The song then departs from the novel, but maintains the Russian context by adding:

I stuck around St. Petersburg
When I saw it was a time for a change,
Killed the czar and his ministers;
Anastasia screamed in vain.

A comprehensive Master and Margarita site has this to say about the Stones meeting Bulgakov:
“‘Sympathy for the Devil’ is one of the few Stones songs which Mick Jagger wrote alone, without the help of his buddy Keith Richard. At first, he said it was based on a poem of Baudelaire. But later he said it was inspired by The Master and Margarita, which Marianne Faithfull would have offered to him as a present. Faithfull, who was Jagger’s girlfriend at that time, said during an interview with Sylvie Simmons from the magazine Mojo in 2005: “I got Mick to read The Master and Margarita and out of that, after discussing it at length with me, he wrote that song.”
More recently, Patti Smith tossed a nod in the direction of Bulgakov by naming an album Banga. In a blog for The Moscow Times I pointed out that, “…as any net search will tell you, the mysterious title was drawn from a very minor figure in Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel, The Master and Margarita. Banga in Bulgakov’s creation is Pontius Pilate’s dog, a creature so loyal he is willing to wait for his master virtually forever.”
But Patti didn’t stop there in her plumbing of Bulgakov’s writings, for, as I wrote in the same article, “Smith references another Bulgakovian dog without naming him: Sharik from the novella Heart of a Dog. She name-checks the full title to kick off her narrative, which explores the dark side of loyalty. ‘You can lick it twice, but it won’t lick you,’ she sneers, later adding, ‘Loyal he lives and we don’t know why.'”

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Mikhail Bulgakov street art, Moscow

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This street portrait of Professor Preobrazhensky and the dog Sharikov from Mikhail Bulgakov’s popular novella The Heart of a Dog is one of many Bulgakov-related works of street art that were done in Moscow in 2014 by the 33 Plus 1 project as part of the Best City in the World festival. At least nine portraits were created in thin layers of plaster slapped on regular city walls. The plaster “canvas” was then inscribed, if you will, with an image, usually using the edge of a spatula-type instrument. To the fullest I can determine, the series was created by two artists, Pavel Shugurov and Pavel Zyumkin. Also, to the best I can determine, the entire series included images of Begemot, Azazelo, Margarita, Annushka and Korolyov from The Master and Margarita; Preobrazhensky, Shvonder and Sharikov from The Heart of a Dog; and Ivan the Terrible from the play Ivan Vasilievich. Many of the works are located in courtyards or archways tucked away from view. Many, like this one, are in the Arbat region, but some are in other places in the old, historic city center.  At least one of them (Annushka) was vandalized; I don’t know how many remain intact now. This one of Professor Preobrazhensky, in excellent shape, is located on a long, open wall at 3 Krivoarbatsky Lane, in front of building or corpus No. 2. You can see photos and read background stories about them (if you have Russian) on several websites, including  Live Journal and the 33+1 website.  Somebody named Valera who apparently was carrying around a very big black magic marker, or even a thin brush and paint, sort of claimed authorship of the work. Don’t believe him or her. It isn’t true.

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While The Master and Margarita is, hands-down, Bulgakov’s most beloved work, The Heart of a Dog does not lag far behind it. A film of huge cult popularity was made in 1988 by Vladimir Bortko. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that this film, to this day, runs 2 or 3 times a month on some Russian TV channel. Probably even more than that if we were to include all the regional Russian TV channels that show films. I run across it constantly as I channel surf, trying to avoid the bile and lies that dominate Russian TV these days. If you want to watch that film online, you can do so through several online cinema sites, including ivi.ru. The film is shot in a kind of sepia two-tone and it stars some very good actors, including Yevgeny Yevstigneev (as Preobrazhensky) and Boris Plotnikov.
Before the film was made, the novella debuted in performance at the Moscow Young Spectator Theater, where Henrietta Yanovskaya unveiled her dramatization in 1987. It was a monstrously successful production that toured the world and drew audiences for decades. Shortly thereafter a second dramatization showed up on the stage of the Stanislavsky Theater, right around the corner from the Young Spectator Theater. So for years and years there were two popular productions of the same work playing side-by-side in theaters located essentially in the same city block.
It’s probably worth explaining a thing or two about the work for Russian literature neophytes. It tells the story of a professor during the Russian Civil War who ignores the mayhem around him while continuing with his scientific experiments. He turns a dog, Sharik (or Ball), into a human, Sharikov. In step, if not in agreement, with the new Soviet state whose goal is to remake mankind and raise it to new levels, Preobrazhensky wants to show that animals can become human. Ultimately all he proves is that a human created out of a kind stray dog is a beast, indeed. Bulgakov’s tale, originally written in 1925 (though not published), seemed to predict early on that nothing would come of the Soviet experiment. For that reason it was banned for decades, and Yanovskaya’s production was the first to bring it to a wide audience simultaneous to the first-ever official publication in 1987.
In a book called What Was That? a fabulous dual memoir published by Yanovskaya and her husband Kama Ginkas in 2014, Yanovskaya wrote how “Bulgakov lived inside that time, while I staged it 60 years after it was written. I was older than he was at that moment and I knew more than he did. I also knew more about the further fate of Preobrazhensky and poor Shvonder. Rage and hatred boiled inside Bulgakov. I had no hatred. I believed all of us were the children who came of the union of Preobrazhensky, Sharikov and Shvonder. They were our parents; I was not about to judge them. When you talk about parents you speak only in terms of sorrow and tenderness. There are degrees of Sharikov, Preobrazhensky and the idealistic Shvonder living in every one of us in this country.”

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Konstantin Balmont plaque, Moscow

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It happens almost every time: I went out yesterday looking for one thing and ended up finding another. Finding much more, in fact, than I planned or expected. As these things go, I did not find a single thing I was actually looking for. And what I did find turned out not to be what I, or even others, thought it was. Let that sink in.
We have here a plaque claiming that the poet Konstantin Balmont (1867-1942) lived in this building in the Arbat region at 15 Bolshoi Nikolopeskovsky Lane from 1915 to 1920. That would mean he spent his last years in Russia here, between two periods of emigration – one lasting from 1906 to 1913 (obviously precipitated by the failed revolution of 1905), and a second that lasted from 1920  until his death in France.
A bit of research, however, turns up the suggestion that Balmont actually did not live at this address, but rather in the next building over, at 13 Bolshoi Nikolopeskovsky Lane.  You can see No. 13 in the last two photos below. It is the four-story structure to the “left” of the two-story building on which the plaque hangs. I don’t know how or why the plaque was hung in the wrong place, but it’s a nice plaque, rather more creative and atmospheric than most.
Whether or not the plaque belongs where it hangs, it suits Balmont well for, among other things, he was one of the spiffiest members of the Russian literary clan. He sported one of the finest aggregations of facial hair in the field. In the image on the plaque you see a well-trimmed mustache and beard. But at times Balmont went to wonderful extremes, making the beard into a goatee, letting his hair grow shoulder-length, sharpening, straightening, twirling or lengthening the mustache. You can see his admirable hirsutian creativity for yourself by googling his name and clicking on ‘images.’ It’s worth your while.

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Balmont was a hard-working writer. Assuming Russian Wikipedia has it correctly, he produced 35 books of poetry and  20 books of prose in his lifetime. He wrote memoirs, philosophy, essays, criticism and literary history. He was a major translator, putting into Russian the works of William Blake, Edgar Allan Poe, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Oscar Wilde, Gerhart Hauptmann and others. In all he translated works from Spanish, Slovakian, Georgian, Bulgarian, Lithuanian and Japanese. While he definitely knew English well – he even lectured at Oxford – he obviously often made use of helper translators who provided him with line-by-lines. Still, his talent for giving foreigners a voice in Russian was one of the finest and most enduring.
He was one of the leading figures of the so-called Silver Age of Russian literature and is routinely described as a Symbolist, although it’s obvious from what little I’ve already written that Balmont was much too heterogeneous to fit perfectly into a simple category like that. As for the label of Silver Age, I add the caveat because of an old, but recently-republished, interview with the respected scholar and historian Nikolai Khardzhiev. In it the learned man, somewhat famously already, poo-pooed the notion of a Silver Age. Following is what Khardzhiev said in an interview with Irina Vrubel-Golubkina in 1996 for the Israel-based journal Zerkalo (Mirror). It was dug up again recently for Moscow’s Afisha (Marquee) magazine and caused a bit of a flurry:
“In any case, there can be no talk of a second flourishing. These days some people try calling the beginning of the [20th] century the Silver Age of Russian poetry. That’s a myth, a fiction, and a very stupid one. This term belonged to the Symbolist poet Pyast, who applied it to poets of the second half of the 19th century – Fofanov and others. This was a period of decline in poetry, before Symbolism, after the 1860s. There were, of course, wonderful phenomena, such as Sluchevsky, but the Pushkin and Nekrasov (that is, the raznochintsy) periods of poetry were stronger. He came up with that term: silver – something that’s not gold. That was picked up by Sergey Makovsky, who published his memoirs in exile. And since he was a second-rate poet himself, he applied the term to the poetry of the 20th century, which was, in fact, a true golden age of Russian poetry including the Symbolists, the Acmeists, the Futurists and the Oberiuty (who came to flourish for inexplicable reasons). It was an unheard of, unprecedented flowering of Russian poetry, which did not exist even in the time of Pushkin.”
The original publication of the interview was also referred to in Omry Ronen’s book, The Fallacy of the Silver Age. That’s for all you folks out there with grudges against those calling Russian poetry in the early 20th century second best. 
So this was kind of a day of missed opportunities and wild goose chases. I went out looking for homes in which a bunch of actors lived in the 1930s and found none, but came upon this house where a plaque says Konstantin Balmont lived, but really didn’t, a poet who was a member of the Russian Silver Age which didn’t actually exist. What a day for discoveries and the overturning of myths!
For the record, as you look up and down the street here in the final photos, you can imagine Mikhail Bulgakov’s Margarita flying in one direction or another. This is one of the streets that Bulgakov described by name in his itinerary of Margarita’s magical flight.
And, just to bring the tale back to Balmont, allow me to provide a translation of a part of one of the poet’s early works, “The Black Year,” written about the famine of 1890. As so often happens these days, I find his words, written in the late 19th century, could easily have been written by my own contemporary:

My native people, you bleed profusely!
O, if only you could find a friend,
Who, leaning to you with affection,
Could shed the burden of wicked torment!
But he does not exist…

And one more thing. For those of you with Russian, there is a very cool website devoted to the study of Balmont’s life and work.  Give it a look.





Writer’s House (Pasternak, Olesha, Ilf & Petrov etc.) on Lavrushinsky, Moscow

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I would call this one of the greatest-kept secrets in Moscow cultural lore. This building, which you have surely seen if you have ever spent time in Moscow (because it is located right across the street from the Tretyakov Gallery and you, of course, have been there), is absolutely chock-full of literary history, real and imagined. This, for example, is the very place to which the slicked-up and scantily-clad Margarita flies and destroys a critic’s living quarters at the end of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. You see, Bulgakov was in line to receive an apartment here in the early 1930s, but was refused. A nit-picking critic who was always yapping at the heels of Bulgakov’s work did receive an apartment here. It pissed Bulgakov off enough that he famously avenged the nasty man through his literature. The only change Bulgakov introduced into the story was that in M&M the building ostensibly stands on the Arbat. In fact, this is it: 17 Lavrushinsky Lane, in the Zamoskvorechye region.
Just look at the list of people who were entered in the list of the winners of the “lottery” to receive apartments a full year before construction on the building was complete in 1937: Boris Pasternak, Ilf and Petrov, Konstantin Paustovsky, Ilya Erenburg, Viktor Shklovsky, Agnia Barto, Vsevolod Vishnevsky, Mikhail Prishvin, Lev Kassil, Nikolai Pogodin. Other luminaries who lived here in later years and decades included Veniamin Kaverin, Valentin Kataev, Yury Olesha, the theater director Anatoly Efros, the singer Lidia Ruslanov and more. In terms of literature and art, this building surely beats out the famed House on the Embankment, located just a mile or two away, for saturation of fame and infamy. I bother to add that second word in large part because of the fact that Vsevolod Vishnevsky, the rabble-rousing playwright, lived here. Vishnevsky was an acid-tongued, often jealous and envious, man who wrapped himself in the cloak of Revolutionary fervor and purity as, behind the scenes, he sent others to their doom. Vishnevsky played no small role in the downfall of Vsevolod Meyerhold, Zinaida Raikh and Nikolai Erdman.
If you know Yury Olesha’s famous last book, No Day Without a Line, you now know where it was written. Here is what Olesha had to say about living here shortly after having moved in: “Constant meetings. The first is Pasternak, who has barely come out his own doors. He’s carrying galoshes. He puts them on after crossing the doorstep, not while still inside. Why? For cleanliness’ sake? Going on about something he says, ‘I talk with you as I would with a brother.’ And then there’s [playwright Vladimir] Bill-Belotserkovsky with his unexpectedly subtle commentaries about Moliere’s long monologues…”
I’ve drawn this quote, as I have much information, from an article on the Writer’s House on the Big City website.

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This building, an article on the Travel2Moscow website tells us, was actually signed off by Joseph Stalin, in large part because Maxim Gorky had convinced him there needed to be not only a home, but a whole neighborhood or small city of writers. Many talk about the distinctive black marble frame of the entrance (see the photo immediately below). It, indeed, is impressive, if not off-putting. And it becomes increasingly so when you think about the reality of the people, the years and the events that converged in this structure. It was built in 1937 and people began moving in precisely as the Great Purges (about which I have often had reason to write, and about which I’m sure I will write more – such is the nature of that beast) were beginning. As such, there were numerous people who were arrested here and sent packing to Siberia, barely having had the opportunity to move in. Could it be that Stalin took Gorky up on the idea of putting a bunch of prominent writers in one place in order to make it easier to spy on them and round them up? I mean, why is the entrance to this building framed in black granite? It looks like a building in permanent mourning. Was Stalin – by way of his architect Ivan Nikolaev – telling the tenants something? ‘Beware all ye, who enter these premises!’ Am I making that up? Maybe. Stalin has been known to do much weirder things. One thing is certain, the building is “within reach” of the Kremlin. Look at the first of the grouping of three photos above. You will see the yellow buildings of the Kremlin rising up there in the distance. The Kremlin is just a hop, skip and trip across the Moscow River away.
Interestingly, the building was erected around an old 17th-century structure that now stands hidden behind the grand facades. You can see that 2-story building in the final photo below.
And now let me, again, turn things over to those who know more than I. This last lovely bit is from the Travel2Moscow site:
“The building’s most famous tenant, Boris Pasternak, wrote a poem that began, ‘The house loomed large like a watchtower…’ Neighbors spread humorous rumors about it, such as the one where Pasternak kept a huge dagger on his wall and could often be seen on the building’s rooftop. Indeed, Pasternak’s apartment was located on the top floor and even had an exit onto the roof. Valentin Kataev wrote that during the war Pasternak (‘at night, without a hat, without a tie, and with shirt collar unbuttoned…’) heroically battled incendiary bombs [launched by the Germans], putting them out with sand. In fact, two of these bombs destroyed five apartments and half of a wing, penetrating five floors into the building. During the bombings Paustovsky’s apartment was damaged. Pasternak himself, unlike many writers, did not leave the building during the war, writing that ‘all the dangers frightened and intoxicated.’ It was precisely in this building that he wrote his famous novel Doctor Zhivago.”
Absolutely fascinating stuff, if you ask me. I have just one question at this point, however. Why in the world would Kataev have considered it odd that Pasternak battled incendiary bombs on the roof of his home “without a hat or tie”? What was he supposed to do, don a tux to greet the German bombs?
I must add here a few words spoken by my wife Oksana after I allowed myself to scoff at bit at Kataev. “The humor is Kataev’s,” she said. “What that means is that Kataev, like everyone else, rarely ever saw Pasternak without a hat or tie.” I.e., the only thing that could induce Pasternak out without a tie were German incendiary bombs. Whatever the case may be, my fascination with this structure and its inhabitants is only going to grow.

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