Tag Archives: Nikolai Erdman

Cathedral of Sergei Rachmaninoff farewell, Los Angeles

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The location of this neat, compact and beautiful Russian Orthodox cathedral is quite unexpected. Partially protected from the neighborhood around it by medium-height hedges, it stands in the middle of a mostly residential area at the corner of Micheltorena and Ellsworth streets in the Silver Lake region of Los Angeles. The official address is 650 Micheltorena.
According to an informational leaflet that you can pick up in the modest, but lovely front courtyard, the first liturgy was read here in 1923. The cathedral has played an active part in Russian emigre life ever since. As these photographs attest, it is in beautiful shape today.
We come to this cathedral today because this is where several services were observed in memory of Sergei Rachmaninoff after his death in 1943. (I have written about the house in which he died in Beverly Hills elsewhere in this space.) The cathedral’s website notes that the composer and pianist was a member of its parish. I do not know how frequently he came here during his relatively brief sojourn in Los Angeles. But, according to information contained in a short, but detailed piece on the Russian Novy Journal site,  there were actually three services for Rachmaninoff at this cathedral over the course of 39 hours. I draw this conclusion from the article, “At the Coffin of S. V. Rachmaninoff,” originally printed April 2, 1943, in the San Francisco-based New Dawn Russian-language newspaper. (The article, signed “V.K.,” is given as a facsimile on the cathedral website, but I couldn’t make out much because the image was so small.) It is packed full of information and I will refer to it liberally below. I would like to acknowledge George (Zhorzh) Sheron, who republished the article in Novy Zhurnal and wrote the commentary to it.
The chain of events begins at the end: Sergei Rachmaninoff died at 1:20 a.m. on Sunday, March 28, 1943, at his Beverly Hills home. He had been given the last rites on Saturday morning. A requiem was read at home over the body Sunday morning before the composer’s body was removed from his deathbed. The body arrived at the cathedral at 7 p.m. on the 28th, and at 8 p.m. a great requiem was observed. Incidentally, one of the wreaths presented at the coffin was from the vice-consul of the Soviet Union who attended the service. A second requiem was observed the following day, also at 8 p.m. It was followed on Tuesday, March 30, by a requiem Mass at 11 a.m. Newspapers, including the Los Angeles and New York Times (“Rachmaninoff Rites Held in Los Angeles,” The New York Times [March 31, 1943]; “Rachmaninoff Paid Tribute in Russian Services,” Los Angeles Times [March 31, 1943]) and San Francisco’s New Dawn, indicated that the body, now in a 2,000 pound zinc coffin (as New Dawn reports), was to be held at Rosedale Cemetery until such time as it could be returned to Russia for final burial. In fact, the burial took place two months later in Kensico Cemetery in the town of Valhalla in upstate New York. I have not seen an explanation why it ended up in New York, rather than Russia, but if one considers that World War II was then raging, it probably doesn’t take much imagination to figure it out.

On the burial in New York, Rachmaninoff’s widow Natalia wrote the following: “I could not go home to New York for an entire month because of various formalities. Sergei Vasilyevich’s coffin was temporarily placed in the city mausoleum. At the end of May Irina and I returned to New York and we quickly were able to purchase a plot for Sergei Vasilyevich’s grave in the Kensico cemetery. The burial took place on June 1.”
In her memoirs, Natalia also left a fairly detailed description of Rachmaninoff’s death and the aftermath (like the previous quote, this is drawn from a Live Journal blog entry titled “The Grave of Sergei Rachmaninoff.”): “…On March 26 Doctor Golitsyn suggested we call a priest for the last rites. Father Grigory (who also read the requiem) read the last rites at 11 a.m.. Sergei Vasilyevich had already lost consciousness.  The death throes began on the 27th, around midnight and on the 28th at 1 a.m., he died. He had a wonderfully calm and good expression on his face. People from the funeral parlor took him quickly in the morning and then transported him to the church. This was the marvelous little Holy Virgin Mary the Savior cathedral somewhere on the outskirts of Los Angeles…”
There is something touching about knowing the exact (or, in this case, almost exact) hour of someone’s death. It makes death not quite so abstract. It gives it a specificity that marks the precise, irreversible end of a life. It gives death itself an end, for death can only happen at that one moment when it happens. Everything afterwards is something else. Prior to that very moment Sergei Rachmaninoff (in our case) is a world-renowned musician and composer, however hampered he may be in his final hours. After that moment he belongs to history. His widow writes that he died at 1 a.m., which, since we have the more specific time of 1:20 a.m. from the San Francisco correspondent, encourages me to believe she was giving an approximation. I can’t help but think of a monologue from Nikolai Erdman’s tragicomedy The Suicide, in which a man contemplating taking his own life philosophizes on the difference between “tick and tock,” that is, the vastly different states of being that are separated by that brief, precise moment when death cuts life short. To paraphrase Erdman slightly, “I understand everything about ‘tick,’ I understand nothing about ‘tock.'” Thus it is that I am pleased in some deeply scholarly way to know that Sergei Rachmaninoff passed from one world to another at 1:20 a.m. Somehow it seems to provide a modicum of solace.
Our sources (V.K. and Rachmaninoff’s widow) tell us that the choirs sang beautifully at all the services. There were some celebrities in attendance (Michael Chekhov was apparently there), and the church was said to be packed, although it is a very small space and it wouldn’t take many people to fill it.
As V.K. sums up his account, “The funeral services of the great musician and a Russian man of great soul, were conducted simply but in a touching manner.”
Such was the farewell to Sergei Rachmaninoff.

 

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Nikolai Zadonsky plaque, Voronezh

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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.

 

 

Alexander Ostrovsky birthplace, Moscow

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The calendar in 1823 had turned to a new day just four hours prior to the appearance in the world of Nikolai and Lyubov Ostrovsky’s latest son. At the time, when Russia was still using the Julian calendar, it was in the wee hours of March 31. In the rest of the world where the Gregorian Calendar was in use (as it has been in Russia since 1918), it was April 12. Thus we now celebrate the birth of Alexander Ostrovsky, one of the greatest figures in Russian theater on this date of April 12.
The house that the family inhabited was relatively new to them. They had just rented it and moved in a short time before. The landlord was a local priest and the house, in fact, stood directly across from a church that was originally built in the 17th century. It looks old to us now; it would have looked old even to the Ostrovsky family.
The address today is 9 Malaya (or, Small) Ordynka Street. It is a short side road stuck neatly in between two major thoroughfares – Pyatnitskaya Street and Bolshaya (or, Big) Ordynka – in the Zamoskvorech’ye neighborhood, so called because it is located “beyond” the Moscow River, south of the Kremlin. I lived a few blocks from Ostrovsky’s home for 17 years until Oksana and I packed up and left the area behind a few weeks ago. We did that for several reasons, one being that a former neighbor was murdered one night a year and a half ago not far away on the Bolshoi Moskvoretsky Bridge. His name was Boris Nemtsov and he was the leader of Russia’s political opposition. He lived a few blocks from us, quite near to where Ostrovsky was born, even closer to where Leo Tolstoy once lived, and he was on his way home after a late supper when six assassin’s bullets to the back cut him down. Ever since that night the whole area has seemed cursed to us. Out, out, damn spot. It will not come out. The blood on the bridge that led to and from our home became too much to bear. It seemed to spread and seep into our every thought and sensation. It spoiled this beautiful place with so much history and beauty. The beauty and history remain, and they will inspire and please others for as long as Moscow remains standing. But it could not inspire or please us anymore. Our love, our connection, our sense of belonging were cut down together with Boris Nemtsov. Fiends took his life, and extinguished our love.
So it was that on my last day as a resident of Zamoskvorech’ye, as a neighbor in space, if not in time, of one of my most admired historical figures, Alexander Ostrovsky, I decided to take a stroll around the house in which the great writer was born and lived for the first few years of his life.
I also need to say that I had never stopped by to visit Ostrovsky in all my years as a neighbor. I passed his home countless times going to and fro. I always nodded and wished him well, admiring the beautiful old wooden home ensconced among towering, modern buildings. I often stopped to look through the gate at the home’s facade before moving on again. Once, when the territory was closed, I trained my camera on the Ostrovsky monument by the side of the house and hit the zoom lever, but the lighting was so bad, the distance so great, and the surround foliage so rich, that my photos were useless. I never came back to try again. Always in a hurry, always in a hurry. I once attended an exhibit here of photographs by my friend Ken Reynolds, who, in a neighboring building, showed a series of his images of Chekhov productions that he had photographed all over the world. But even for that I just tossed some shoes on bare feet and raced over to look at the photographs and spend a few minutes with Ken, who had flown in that day from the U.K. Then it was back to my own home, back to my work.
Is this what Bob Dylan calls Time out of Mind? A sensation of eternity, of time stopped, even as time ticks down? It never bothered me that I had not stopped in to see Ostrovsky because I could always do that, couldn’t I? That house wasn’t going anywhere, nor was I, was I? We were eternal neighbors; it certainly seemed that way for 17 years. Seventeen long years there was no need for me to hurry over to spend time with Alexander Ostrovsky because I could do it any time. Any time I wanted. Not today, because today I’m busy. Probably not tomorrow. But any other time. Any day, any time. Next week, next month, next year.

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And so on my last day as Alexander Ostrovsky’s neighbor, I paid him a visit. The murder of Nemtsov put the lie to that notion of eternity; his blood washed me out of the neighborhood we all had shared. One day was left. Tomorrow I could not come see Ostrovsky as a neighbor. Tomorrow I would be a “foreigner,” a guest coming from afar, an alien from another borough. I made the short trek and stepped through the wrought iron gate I so often had passed, and through which I often sent vague, warm thoughts.
I was almost immediately transported into another world. Right here in the middle of the city, the city is held at bay. Flower gardens blooming almost madly, thick tree canopies seeming to billow overhead, quaint sandy paths leading around the house, and the simple, but attractive, wooden house itself – they all conspire to erase the 21st century. You take a seat on one of the wooden benches surrounding Ostrovsky’s bust and you realize that Moscow is not at all what you thought it was. At least it was not at one time. This is the countryside! Ostrovsky, the man who almost singlehandedly created the great Russian theater that we know today, the first great Russian playwright, the first great Russian theater manager (he turned the Maly into the institution it is today), the great social activist (he pioneered the notion of social support for actors), was born right here in a sleepy plot, where breezes lap lazily at leaves and the humid air of summer makes you want to wilt and fall asleep every other step you take. A woman sat nearby reading a book. Reading a book?! In the middle of Moscow in the 21st century? Birds twittered. What birds? Where do you see birds besides crows and pigeons in Moscow? Where is this place? Where have I landed?
I had landed in the past. I had entered the last few hours, the last few minutes, of eternity. It was a fine, fitting final day in Zamoskvorech’ye. The past had brought me to Russia in the first place. Tolstoy. Erdman. All the rest. You know the names. You know the alphabet soup. And the past would usher me out of my sad, soured Moscow neighborhood, the place I loved so long but could not bear any longer.
Ostrovsky. He will weather all. When all of it’s gone, when all of them are gone, Ostrovsky will remain. Ostrovsky will reclaim Zamoskvorech’ye. He will redeem it. But that will be done without me. I will welcome it and celebrate it. But I’ll do that from afar, a foreigner again. An alien.

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Emil Gilels plaque, Moscow

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DSCN9201The structure at 25 Tverskaya Street is one of those many in Moscow that has a rich cultural heritage. I have already written about the fact that playwright Nikolai Erdman lived here in the 1950s with his ballerina wife Natalya Chidson. I’ll have occasion to write about others who occupied apartments here, but today we consider Emil Gilels (1916-1985), one of the preeminent pianists of his era.
I, a child of rock and roll, find it ironic, at least, that the first time I ever heard the name “Gilels” was when I was having a conversation with a KGB agent who was following me around Washington, D.C., where I lived in the early 1980s. I’m not quite sure whether the agent befriended me or I befriended him, but the fact of the matter is that we often got together on our lunch breaks to chat about all things – or, at least, many things – Russian culture. It was during one of these chats that my acquaintance mentioned meeting and accompanying Gilels somewhere. The lack of understanding was probably clear on my face and he asked, “You do know who Emil Gilels is, don’t you?” I blithely admitted I did not and my interlocutor eliminated my ignorance on this topic for ever more. “He is the greatest living pianist,” he said. Those words stuck; I never forgot them. When I came to Moscow in the late 1980s and learned that Nikolai Erdman, the topic of my first book (and the reason that the KGB agent had tracked me down in the first place), had lived side-by-side with Gilels, I could not help but be amused. Indeed, the Lord works in wondrous ways.
But that’s a story for another day.
Gilels, like many of the luminaries who lived in this attractive “Stalinist” building, moved in shortly after it was built in 1950. When you look over the plaques on its walls selectively honoring some of its famous inhabitants, you notice that they all began living here in 1950 or 1951. This was because this huge residential building occupying the better part of a long Moscow city block was built to house the elite. Specifically, it was built to provide housing for people who worked at the Bolshoi Theater, although one didn’t necessarily need a direct connection to the Bolshoi to get in. Gilels would be a good example of that. As a famous, touring solo musician, his connection to the Bolshoi would have been tentative, but it would have been enough to put him on the list of people waiting for prestigious apartments when they came available.
In fact, the history of this building is rather complex and quite interesting. Originally, this block was occupied on the north end by a church known as the Church of the Annunciation (erected in the 17th century) and on the south end by an eye hospital that occupied an old private estate  built around 1773. The church, as was often done in the Stalin era, was knocked down in 1929, and construction of a new apartment building was begun alongside the eye hospital. However, Stalin decided in the late 1930s to widen Tverskaya Street and give it a more imperial look. As such, the eye hospital on the lower half of the block was put on rails and moved off of Tverskaya Street, making room for a new building. (Not only was it moved back by about 50 meters, its facade was turned sideways to face what is now the Young Spectator Theater, which now is famously run by Henrietta Yanovskaya and her husband Kama Ginkas.) However, World War II interrupted plans to build the new structure, and construction only got under way in 1949. As indicated above, it was completed a year later. Wisely, the authorities engaged the same architect who had built the first half in the early 1930s to build the new half in 1949. His name was Andrei Burov. He connected the two structures by way of three tall archways somewhat to the left of the middle of the city block. Both sections look virtually alike today.

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One assumes that the building looked much spiffier during Gilels’ tenure here (he lived here until his death in 1985). The facades now are rather grimy and neglected. The runaway capitalism of the 1990s still leaves scars in the way that storefronts do not match the building’s decor or design. The place needs a bit of sanding and paint, but it’s also obvious that even a little work would make the building sparkle. It is a potential jewel standing two blocks north of Pushkin Square.
(At this very moment, the street is completely torn up as current Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin, for some reason, decided to undo Stalin’s widening of Tverskaya and is now putting Muscovites through the painful process of having to stand by and watch everything be ripped up as the authorities narrow Tverskaya back down – this time with widened sidewalks and bike lanes.)
But back to Gilels. He began playing piano at the age of five and his first public performance took place in 1929, the year that church was destroyed to make room for the right half of his future home. He performed with success in Odessa in the early 1930s then gained national fame when he won the first All-Union Musician’s Competition in 1933. He graduated from the Odessa Conservatory in 1935 and immediately began winning prestigious competitions in Europe. In 1945, as World War II was ending, he was one of the first Soviet soloists given permission to perform concert series abroad, and in 1950 – the year he moved into the building we see here – he formed a famous trio with Leonid Kogan on violin and Mstislav Rostropovich on cello. He was the first Soviet musician to perform the Salle Playel in Paris in 1954, and the following year became the first Soviet soloist to tour the United States.
Of the famed trio, one Western critic has written: “This group stayed together for most of the 1950s, and broke up largely because Kogan and Rostropovich had very strong political differences and could not continue to get along. What a pity – I’m not sure there has ever been a more spectacular chamber ensemble.”
Russian Wikipedia keeps the list of Gilels’ awards at a neat 22, almost half of them coming from foreign countries. He was, in fact, one of the great musicians of his age, and the 35 years he spent at 25 Tverskaya Street were the time of the flourishing of his talent and fame.

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Nikolai Okhlopkov plaque, Moscow

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I have tried to photograph the Okhlopkov plaque and the Mayakovsky Theatre several times. I have never liked what I got, now matter what the time of day, no matter what the season. The plaque is an awkward one to get, right there on the corner of Maly Kislovsky Lane and Bolshaya Nikitskaya Street. There are a bunch of street signs in the way, traffic is always humming, people parking where they shouldn’t be, narrow sidewalks leaving no space, electrical wires making a mess of sight angles from a distance, the light and shadows playing nasty tricks.
Or maybe this place is just jinxed. One of the times I was photographing here, I noticed somebody shooting me. When he dropped his camera from his face I recognized my friend, the playwright and journalist Mikhail Kaluzhsky. We exchanged pleasantries and went our own ways. Later that day he posted a photo of me on Facebook that made my usually steely nerves begin wobbling like water. Until then I hadn’t known that the beer belly of a person taking a photo increases three times in size – even if you don’t drink beer. Jinxed, jinxed, the place is jinxed!
Consider this: Vsevolod Meyerhold took this theater over in 1922 when it was called the Theater of the Revolution, but was gone by 1924, when he moved on to create his own Meyerhold Theater. It was actually here that Meyherhold first expected to stage Nikolai Erdman’s The Warrant, but when he bolted and went out on his own, he took Erdman’s play with him (it eventually premiered in 1925). The theater was run by Alexei Popov from 1931 to 1942. When Nikolai Okhlopkov (1900-1967) took it over it was renamed the Moscow Drama Theater and the year after Stalin died, that is, in 1954, it was renamed the Vladimir Mayakovsky Theater. Okhlopkov remained in charge of the playhouse until it killed him in 1967. Okay, so I’m pushing the jinx thing.
Okhlopkov had been an actor in Meyerhold’s theater, so there was a certain justification in his being named to take over the Revolution Theater. Moreover, during the time that Erdman’s The Warrant was performing as one of Meyerhold’s most popular productions, and as Erdman was sitting down to write his next play for Meyerhold (it would be The Suicide), Okhlopkov undertook to make a film of Erdman’s filmscript Mitya. This was in 1926. But that is hardly the end of the connections. As Anna Kovalova writes in the excellent introduction to her anthology of Erdman’s film scripts (Nikolai Erdman/Film Scripts), in 1925 “it was expected that V.E. Meyerhold would direct [Mitya], and Mitya would be played by Erdman himself. Later, N.P. Okhlopkov was assigned to direct, and he ended up playing the lead role…”
Okhlopkov, seemingly out of his league, had a hell of time making Mitya, and he begged Erdman to come south where the shooting was taking place to lend a helping hand. Erdman did travel down as soon as he could, but the problems remained. Again quoting from Kovalova’s essay: “The press noted that the creators of the film got carried away with models of American lyrical comedies in which the main hero, usually someone of uncertain means, constantly becomes the victim of curious circumstances.” Many years later the film director Sergei Yutkevich wrote about the innovative nature of Mitya in his memoirs, but by that time not only was the film long forgotten, it could never be seen again. The only copies had been destroyed. These days we only have the screenplay to judge it by. I found an incomplete copy of it when I was trawling the archives in the late 1980s, but Kovalova came up with the whole thing and published it in her book. It’s hilarious, touching, subtle and – as everything Erdman ever wrote – incredibly well-suited to performance.

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Why do I linger on this obscure, early episode in Okhlopkov’s life, you ask? Well, here’s why. Because when Stalin died in 1953 and the so-called Thaw got underway a couple of years later, Okhlopkov did what appeared to be a wonderful thing. He reached out to Erdman and offered to stage The Suicide, banned since 1932, and the main cause of Erdman’s arrest and exile in 1933. He payed Erdman an advance and asked for the play script. This was an extraordinary move on the part of Okhlopkov. It would mean the rehabilitation of one of the Soviet Union’s greatest playwrights (Erdman had abandoned writing for the theater, focusing exclusively on writing his own screenplays or doctoring those of others). But it was not meant to be. Okhlopkov, having re-read the play, got cold feet. A few other famous “friends” of Erdman also put in their two-bits that the play was “not right for the times,” that it “needed work,” and other such nonsense.
That’s when things took a turn for the bizarre. Rather than just quietly let things drop, Okhlopkov pulled a nasty, petty move. He demanded that Erdman return the advance on the grounds that Erdman “did not deliver the play” they had agreed upon. Erdman, who was an extraordinarily calm, even-keeled man, figuratively hit the roof. Fury turned to farce, though, when Okhlopkov’s Mayakovsky Theater sued Erdman and sent authorities to his apartment on Tverskaya Street to confiscate his furniture until such time as he would pay up. Erdman wrote a scathing letter to the court, but, as far as I know, he lost that battle. Okhlopkov, after figuratively pulling the rug out from under his old friend’s feet, got his money back. What I don’t know for a fact, but what I strongly suspect, is that following this ugly incident Erdman and Okhlopkov never communicated again.
And so, having somewhat clumsily wended my way through this story today, I finally think I have come to understand why my pictures of Okhlopkov’s plaque never come out. I don’t like the guy. He begs Erdman for help in dire times and Erdman comes to his side. Then he goes and sticks a knife in his old friend’s back 30 years later. And that, folks, is why I can’t get any decent photos in these environs. The place isn’t jinxed, but I have no love for it. And, as anybody knows, you can’t do anything of value without love. These photos are the best I’m going to get.

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Alexei Tolstoy monument, Moscow

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Alexei Tolstoy (1883-1945) will always be a controversial figure in Russian letters. Here is the brief intro to a long, fascinating, highly-respected article-length biography of Tolstoy, originally published by the political activist Valeria Novodvorskaya in 2008:
Alexei Nikolaevich Tolstoy lies farther from grace than even Sholokhov. He was the Bolshevik’s greatest acquisition. A man of impeccable, brilliant talent. Fantastic imagination that playfully, with his left foot, created entire worlds. The gift of a glossarian and reflector of history. A rich, precious style, pictures that cut into your memory forever.”
But, at least in Novodvorskaya’s interpretation, Tolstoy was a man that hungered – perhaps a bit too much – for success and acceptance. He was quite surely an illegitimate child, born into the family of Count Nikolai Tolstoy (a distant relative of Leo), but not the product of true Tolstoyan blood lineage. His mother was a bit of a free-thinking, free-living individual and, by the time she gave birth to little Alyosha, she had long been spending her days and nights with a man by the name of Alexei Bostrom. However, in a gesture of largesse, when the official father died in 1900 he conferred legitimacy and the title of Count upon the son that was not his (and whom he never saw). This put the young man in line to receive a fine inheritance, although Alexei’s mother was already hip to her son’s appetites. She put his inheritance under lock and key and the newly-created count had to live a life much more frugal life than he wished.
Still, Tolstoy found ways to feed his desires. He was a womanizer, he traveled when he could, and – as Novodvorskaya tells us – when his mother sent him money to buy a baby carriage for his new child, he used the money to buy a fancy suit. Once, while visiting his in-laws and his wife (who had taken their child and run from him), he bragged about trying to seduce a local lawyer’s wife, nearly getting whipped for his audacity, which was enough for his in-laws to send him packing.
Tolstoy’s need to be “taken seriously,” to be revered not only for his shaky noble heritage, but for his literature and his so-called social activism, often made him the butt of jokes over the decades. Maybe there was a good dose of jealousy in that. I don’t know. I wasn’t there. And I don’t present these attitudes as proof of their legitimacy, but rather as a picture of what you inevitably get if and when you delve into the Tolstoy story.
I remember being quite surprised by a different attitude when working one day in what was then still called TsGALI, the Central State Archive of Literature, in Moscow. This was back in 1988-89. I was devouring the Nikolai Erdman documents being brought to me daily, and one morning I received a whole pack of letters. In one of them, Erdman went off into dithyrambs about the brilliance of Tolstoy’s new novel, Peter the First.  (It was one of the biggest works of Tolstoy’s prolific career. It came out in two parts – the second never finished – starting in 1929 and running until after his death, as his notebooks were edited to finish the work.) Erdman was not one to say much of anything (let alone praise) other writers. I rarely saw that in his letters (although he loved Dostoevsky and Maxim Gorky). Erdman saw Peter the First as a major work of Russian literature, sufficient to put its author on a level with all the other greats. I don’t know how the novel would read today, but I was surprised to see such lavish praise coming from Erdman back then.

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Whatever history will end up saying about Peter the First, Tolstoy’s place in Russian culture will always be safe for another reason. He was the first to write a major science fiction work Aelita (1923), which was picked up almost immediately and made into one of the biggest cinematic hits in the young Soviet Union by the future great director Yakov Protazanov (with memorable, influential futuristic costumes by the great designer Alexandra Ekster). He followed that with another successful sci-fi novel, The Hyperboloid of Engineer Gagarin (1927). But there was much more to Tolstoy than that. He wrote some 40 plays in his career. He wrote eight novels, including one of the most popular – actually a trilogy of novels – of the Soviet era, The Road to Calvary (1921-40).
The uncomfortable caveats you hear shining through almost everything I have written up to now come about because of Tolstoy’s apparent need to be accepted at all costs. At a certain point, he began to put his work at the service of individuals and a state that were interested in using him to serve their own purposes. He apparently had no qualms about doing that. As the Soviet government began flushing out “undesirable” elements in the world of culture, Tolstoy took up positions and took on tasks that helped them do that. What makes this especially paradoxical is that Tolstoy ran from the Civil War in Russian in 1920, professing his hatred for the Bolsheviks and Lenin. But he was lured back just a few years later with promises of immortality (of the mortal kind – awards, titles, riches and monuments). Here is how Novodvorskaya describes this turn of events: “He would walk over corpses and bones. He would lose the ability to have pity. He would not undermine anyone, would not denounce anyone, would not demand anyone’s head. But he wouldn’t defend anyone either. Not Mandelshtam. Not Meyerhold. He would play the fool for Stalin…” Gleb Struve, the great figure of Russian literature in exile, wrote similarly about Tolstoy as early as 1941. Confirming Tolstoy’s high level of literary talent, even calling him one of the “most gifted Russian writers of the 20th century,” Struve put a stake through Tolstoy’s reputation by stating that he lacked “one quality which distinguished all of the great Russian poets and writers : a sense of moral and social responsibility. His essence is that of a cynic and opportunist.” Throughout the 1930s, Tolstoy was an important Soviet functionary, praising the prisoner-built White Sea Chanel in 1934, acting as chairman of the by-now-repressive Writers Union from 1936 to 1938), becoming a deputy of the Supreme Soviet (1937) and so on.
The Moscow monument to Tolstoy stands just a few hundred meters from the home in which he lived at the end of his life. We’ll come to that someday. He sits, quite contentedly, it would appear, staring at the church where Alexander Pushkin married Natalya Goncharova. That, folks, is one of the most revered little plots of land in Russia. You wonder if he was told in advance that he would get that spot when the time would come. Designed by sculptor Georgy Motovilov and architect Leonid Polyakov, the monument was unveiled July 3, 1957.

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Literature in the metro, Moscow

Click on photos to enlarge.

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One encounters the tool of literature in the Moscow metro relatively frequently. Even when it’s not used as a club, you come away feeling as though someone is trying really hard to make an impression on you.
I immediately think of two examples of this more benign, latter, approach that I encountered in recent years. I would guess one occurred 4 or 5 years ago – this was on the circle line – the other 3 or 4 years ago, on the light blue, Filyovskaya line.
In the former case, almost every single car traveling the circle line for a month or more was completely wallpapered with children’s poetry and colorful kid-like drawings. Stepping into a car on that line at that time felt like stepping into the hermetic set of a children’s theater show. As one might imagine, there were a lot of poems by Alexander Pushkin and the great fabulist Ivan Krylov, but there were also excerpts of short stories by various writers from Pushkin’s time up to the middle of the 20th century. I couldn’t possibly remember them all, and I don’t think there were any contemporary authors, but the scope of writers included was impressive.
This was actually the second time I had seen the space of the metro turned into a platform for literature. The first incident, maybe a year before that, was when official stickers of mostly patriotic poetry were pasted above the windows and doors of the metro cars – this method proved to be more long-lasting, for we still come upon it today, as can be seen in the photo following immediately below – which I took yesterday. It shows a portrait of the Slavophile essayist and poet Ivan Aksakov next to a phrase he once wrote:
If a hue and cry arises about Russia’s lust for power and lust for expansionism, you should know that some Western European regime is preparing a most conscienceless seizure of someone else’s territory.”
Frankly, as often as I have seen this kind of crude utilitarianism in my 28 years in Moscow, I continue to be astonished when I encounter it. It reaches the kind of low-blow propaganda – rather on the level one hears in the U.S. these days from, say, Donald Trump, Ted Cruz or Sarah Palin and their ilk – that is so blatant and transparent, that you can’t believe anyone would actually resort to it. For the record, this particular quote is offered up as part of a program called Russia, My History, which is now underway at the Historical Park of the All-National Exhibition of Economic Achievements.
But, back now to that literary campaign I encountered on the Filyovskaya Line.  (Unfortunately, I did not get photos of it or of the kids’ literary paradise on the circle line – I was not yet doing this blog; it didn’t occur to me to photograph them.) This one was extremely short-lived. In fact, I saw it just once, even though I then traveled that line with some regularity. I don’t know if it was just a try-out on a single train, or if it was a larger program that was abandoned quickly, but it was gone virtually as soon as it began. It was also my favorite of them all. You see, the interior of every car in the train I rode was painted deep red, and every free centimeter of space was covered in photographs of Vladimir Mayakovsky. There were all manners of photos of him reciting poetry, making drawings, talking to friends, reading books, sitting in chairs, standing at podiums. You name it, it was there. I, Nikolai Erdman’s biographer, was especially gratified when I noticed right before my face, a photo of Mayakovsky standing next to Vsevelod Meyerhold and Erdman. Other photos had him with other greats – Boris Pasternak, Dmitry Shostakovich, Sergei Eisenstein – and it was then, even then, right there in that metro car, that I began to wonder seriously about this curious exhibit. If you think about it, every individual I mention here was, to one extent or another, at serious odds with the Soviet cause – at least at some point in their lives. Meyerhold was executed. Erdman and Pasternak’s literary output was seriously curtailed. Shostakovich and Eisenstein found themselves doing the bidding of the state against their will. At least to anyone who knew, there was something downright seditious about this whole thing, which, of course, made it especially delicious. What a shame I never saw it again, nor had the opportunity to photograph it…

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Far more common, of course, is the use of art to buck up the patriotism of the lumpen proletariat. The Aksakov quote, appearing as Russia continues to pursue military objectives in Syria and Ukraine, is, perhaps, extreme. But I was not the least surprised to see patriotic, war-themed poems by Mikhail Lermontov suddenly appear in metro cars shortly after Russia went to war with Ukraine. The last photo above and the three following were all taken in June 2014. They show a series of Lermontov’s war poems plastered just above the eye-level of any standing passenger, though banked conveniently to point them toward anyone seated as well. (One photo shows a woman in a red jacket looking at a biographical text about Lermontov affixed next to the door.) The poem pictured in the last photo below reads,

And he said, his eyes a-flashing,
“Men! Isn’t Moscow behind us?
     Then let’s die near Moscow,
As our brothers died!”
And we promised to die
And we kept our oath of honor
     During the Battle of Borodino.

Perhaps my favorite photo is the one immediately above. Click on it to enlarge it and then look it over well. That’s what a subway car in a time of “petty,” “dirty” wars looks like.
Finally, there is the photo I offer at the top. It was taken in May of 2013, before this blog began, although I was apparently beginning to suspect I might one day need photos like this. A whole series of texts bearing patriotically religious messages went up over metro escalators at this time. I remember seeing quotes from Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Leo Tolstoy, in addition to the one I photographed of Fyodor Dostoevsky proclaiming, “Christianity is the Russian land’s only refuge from all of its evils.”
I don’t recall now if the Solzhenitsyn and Tolstoy quotes were as provocative (or as double-edged) as this one, but this clearly made me want to save it for posterity.
There is something of the train wreck in these things. Something lurid, distasteful, obnoxious and impossible to ignore. The problem is that when art is turned into a weapon it can only be a weapon. There is no room then left for art.

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