Tag Archives: Nikolai Gorchakov

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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Remains of Angelina Stepanova home, Moscow

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I made my first post on this blog exactly a year ago. It’s changed quite a bit since then. Maybe it’s even grown some. Maybe it will continue to do that in the future. At first I saw it as an opportunity to post photos I thought would be of interest. But as time went on I began looking more and more for stories behind the photos, some directly connected, some not.
The photos in this particular post might not look like much at first glance. In fact they are quite extraordinary. Not the photos themselves, of course, but what is pictured in, and suggested by, them. This is all that is left of a building in which the Moscow Art Theater actress Angelina Stepanova lived in the late 1920s and early 1930s – a single wall, stripped down to the bricks on one side, still painted yellow on the other. To be honest, I can’t be sure this wall was actually part of the structure where people lived. It might have been a garden wall of some sort. One detail in the two photos above makes me suspect it was part of the building proper – that window, which is still visible from the “inside” of the wall, and the traces you can still see on the “outside” of the wall where it was blocked up at some point. The address of 4 Krivoarbatsky Lane, which is where Stepanova lived, is now occupied, if you will, by a fancy new, faux old building. I’m sure the architect thinks it is beautiful and I suspect the people that paid the architect all that money to build it agree with him or her. I think it looks like a damn doll house. It sticks out like a sore thumb. It screams of arrogance. Faking the elements of old architecture, it screams, “I am new and I am hot!” I really took a disliking to it as I walked around it. It made me love the crumbly old wall all the more. There is a sense of reality in that broken, abandoned wall that the new building will never have.

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I should add that Stepanova lived with her husband, the Moscow Art Theater director, Nikolai Gorchakov at this address. They were married in 1924. Before long they would part. That happened in 1933. The reason for the rupture was that Stepanova began a serious affair with the playwright Nikolai Erdman. In her memoirs, edited and published together with her correspondence with Erdman, Stepanova wrote, “The feeling that arose in me for Erdman was so strong that it forced me to divorce my husband.” The two did, however, remain friends for the rest of their lives. Gorchakov worked on several of the Art Theater’s famous productions and he was the author of several books about the Art Theater that retain value even today.
Stepanova’s story of returning home from the theater after performances is worth providing in some detail.
“I performed with Vasily Vasilevich Luzhsky, a splendid actor of the theater’s older generation, in the productions of Tsar Fyodor Iannovich, The Cherry Orchard and The Merchants of Glory. After shows he would return home by carriage and, knowing that I lived on the Arbat, he often gave me a ride. On the way we usually exchanged thoughts about the night’s performance, discussed successful or flawed performances and the public’s reaction. When I would part with him at my Krivoarbatsky Lane, I would thank him and jump down from the cab, and Vasily Vasilyevich, without fail, would say to the cabby, “Oh, oh, Semyon! How much money I have wasted on this actress!!!” Semyon would smile, nod his head, and they would go on further.”
Here is the way Stepanova recalled her home in general (published, like the previous quote, in Nikolai Erdman, Angelina Stepanova, Letters, ed. by Vitaly Vulf, 1995):
“My husband and I lived on Krivoarbatsky Lane. Our home – one large room – was loved by our friends for its warmth and hospitality. Writers, artists and our friends and colleagues from the Art Theater often visited us. We were always able to find something for our guests to snack on, or with which to serve them dinner or supper. Our frequent guests included [Pavel] Markov, [Isaac] Babel, the then-inseparable [Yury] Olesha and [Valentin] Kataev, the artists [Vladimir] Dmitriev and [Pyotr] Vilyams, […] Vladimir Yakovlevich Khenkin, […] Vsevolod Emilievich Meyerhold and Zinaida Raikh. […] Vladimir Zakharovich Mass spent a great deal of time at our place. He was working with my husband then on a dramatization of the melodrama The Gerard Sisters. Vladimir Zakharovich also introduced us to his friend and co-author Nikolai Robertovich Erdman and his wife Dina Vorontsova. We became friends and in our free time we would go as a group to exhibits, concerts and the theater club. It was fun and interesting. Erdman began coming to visit us often. He would come alone. Then he began coming when I was alone. A romance began which lasted – not much, maybe, but not a little – seven years…”
This wall here – now knocked down to a single story in height, still painted yellow on the north side from some time in the past, and scraped back to the original material on the other – is all that is left of the world Stepanova describes. This wall was there to see Vasily Luzhsky drop Stepanova off after performances in his horse-drawn carriage. It witnessed Babel and Olesha and Meyerhold and Raikh coming to visit. It caught glimpses of Erdman when he began sneaking in and out. It was there to watch Stepanova’s marriage to Gorchakov fall apart. It was there in the early 1930s to see her move to another apartment on Ogaryov Street near Tverskaya Street – an address I have written about elsewhere in this blog.
There is something incredibly moving about this – a fragment of lives lived and lost. Everyone mentioned in this story today – although it seems as though they are very much a part of our lives – is dead. Stepanova, who was born in 1905, died in 2000. Erdman died in 1970. Gorchakov died in 1958. Vorontsova, whose real name was Nadezhda Alexandrovna Yashke) died in 1942. They’re all gone. Only this wall remains, threatened, but not yet conquered, by the big blue monster that now towers over it. Knowing how these things go, the wall probably will not last much longer. Take a look while you can.

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