Tag Archives: Oksana Mysina

Maximilian Voloshin apartment, St. Petersburg

DSC05160

DSC05184

Three people come together in today’s brief and fragmentary tale: Maximilian Voloshin, Oksana Mysina, and Konstantin Olonovsky.
I never met Kostya Olonovsky, although his role in, and influence on, my life has been enormous. Kostya was a film director, an experimenter who loved to play with images, music, poetry and the intersection of art and life. My wife Oksana performed in a couple of his films; his last – unmade – screenplay was written for Oksana; and he made music videos of at least two songs by Oksana’s band Oxy Rocks (The World on Edge, and The Sky Above Me). When Oksana and I were looking for advice on where to travel in Greece a few years ago, she called Kostya and asked him because he – with partial Greek heritage – had lived and worked there for a time. His answer was that we should go to Chania, Crete, because “Chania is like a living film location.” We took his advice, we immediately fell in love with Chania and the island of Crete, and it has now become an integral part of our lives. A few years ago Kostya made a film called Whisper. The Silver Age, for which, among others, Oksana recited the work of several Russian Silver Age poets. As he prepared to enter the film in a European festival he wrote and asked me to look over some internet translations of the poetry – he needed to submit the film with English subtitles. I immediately came back to him with the offer to translate the poems myself. I do not consider myself particularly adept at translating poetry, but I knew I could surely do better than Google. The poets whose work I Englished for Kostya were Alexander Blok, Vyacheslav Ivanov, Andrei Bely and Maximilian Voloshin. I don’t know if he ever inserted the subtitles, I don’t know if he ever submitted the film to the festival. (The internet version of the film which I link to above does not have subtitles.) I do know that at about that time he was diagnosed with a virulent strain of cancer that soon after stopped him from working, stopped him from leaving his bed, and finally killed him in late summer 2017. He was 33 years old. Oksana, with Konstantin’s creative team, and the blessing of Konstantin’s widow, is currently preparing to make a film based on the director’s last screenplay. To do so, she has removed herself from the cast of actors and will take on the task of directing.
I thought about a lot of this the last time I was in St. Petersburg. Among the many landmarks I happened upon was the one pictured here today – the first building in which Maximilian Voloshin lived in St. Petersburg. The address is 153 Nevsky Prospect and it is located almost at the very end of that famed thoroughfare – not far at all from the Aleksandro-Nevsky monastery, and on the same side of the street. Voloshin was 26 when in 1903 he took up residence in apartment No. 61, one of the living spaces high up under the roof. Voloshin wrote and published his first poetry while living here, although at the the time he was more inclined to see himself as a future painter. He apparently only spent a few months here before moving on.
When one reads the excerpts of the Voloshin poem that Olonovsky included in Whisper. The Silver Age, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that he already sensed danger in his near future. Even more than that, however, one sees in the verses the sensibility that marked Kostya as a director. Kostya clearly had a kinship with Voloshin. I’m grateful for everything that Konstantin Olonovsky brought to my family – including the opportunity to allow even just a little bit of Maximilian Voloshin to pass through me into English.

DSC05161

DSC05162

DSC05166

DSC05168

Maximilian Voloshin
A fragment chosen by Konstantin Olonovsky from the “Rebellion” segment of the poem cycle “In Cain’s Footsteps” (more literally, “By the Paths of Cain”).
Translated by John Freedman

The world is a ladder on whose steps
Man rose.
We can feel
What he has left along his way.
Animals and stars are the toxins of flesh
That burned in the creative fire:
They all in their turn served man
As footing,
And every step
Was a rebellion of creative spirit.
Only two paths are open to any being
Caught in the trap of equilibrium:
The way of mutiny and the way of conforming.
Mutiny is madness;
The laws of nature do not change.
But in the battle for the truth of the impossible
The madman
Transubstantiates himself,
And, having conformed, stops still
On the step that he passed.
The beast adapts to the inflections of nature,
While a man stubbornly rows
Against the waterfall that carries
The universe
Back to ancient chaos.
He affirms God by his mutiny,
Creates by lack of faith, builds by denial.
He’s an architect:
His model is death,
His clay – the crosswinds of his spirit.

A man’s flesh is a scroll on which
All the dates of being are noted.

They are waymarks, leaving on the road
His brothers fallen by the side:
Birds and beasts and fish.
He walked the way of fire through nature.
Blood is the first sign of earthly mutiny;
The second sign
Is a torchlight blowing in the wind.
In the beginning there was the only Ocean,
Smoking on a white-hot bed.
And from this heated womb there sprang
The inextricable knot of life: flesh,
Shot through with breathing and beating.
The planet cooled.
Life caught flame.
Our progenitor, the one from the cooling waters
Who dragged his fishy carcass onto land,
Kept with him all that ancient Ocean
With the breathing of the swaying tides,
The primordial warmth and salty water –
Live blood coursing through its veins,
The monstrous creatures multiplied
On the beaches.
The sculptor, ever the perfectionist,
Wiped from the face of earth and made anew
All likenesses and forms.
Man
Was nowhere seen amid the earthly flock.
Sliding from the poles, great icy masses
Pushed out the life that teemed in the valleys.
Only then did the blaze of a bonfire
Inform the beasts about man.

DSC05170

DSC05159

DSC05164

DSC05169

Advertisements

Fyodor Dostoevsky plaque, St. Petersburg

DSC02892

DSC02898

I’m coming to you with Dostoevsky today because I have been inside of Dostoevsky’s head all morning and afternoon. I began my day at my computer early this morning as my wife slept and I translated (portions of) Dostoevsky’s The Idiot into English on an empty stomach. It was one of the most memorable few hours of my life not only as a translator, but of my life, plain and simple. By the time Oksana came out and we shared our breakfast of oatmeal, I felt as though someone had plugged me into an electrical outlet. I think my eyes were giving off light. I think my skin was twitching. I could feel the air move through the hairs on my arms. I was as alive as one gets on a Sunday morning before breakfast. When she got up, Oksana asked me the usual question, “Did you have your glass of water?” I said, “No. I’m translating Dostoevsky. I’ve never felt so alive.”
Dostoevsky has followed me my entire adult life. He came quickly after Tolstoy when I was in high school. It was War and Peace then Anna Karenina then Crime and Punishment. I don’t remember the order anymore, but the next three reads were: The Brothers Karamazov, The Demons (The Possessed), and The Idiot, whatever the order was.
As I said, I was with The Idiot this morning. One of the segments I was translating (for supertitles for a theatre production of The Idiot) was the famous description of a condemned man waking in the morning, thinking he has a week to live – a whole, long week – and he finds out he has hours left to live – whole, long hours. It’s one of the great passages in world literature and I was privileged to have it pass through me today and emerge in English of some kind.
Dostoevsky is surely the most crooked, whacked-out, unorthodox, clumsy, prolix, confusing writer that ever put pen to paper. And therein, of course, lies his greatness. He is one of the chosen few who trusted his own instincts to the very end and went with them. Nobody ever wrote like Dostoevsky, clunking, tripping, stumbling, slogging along with interjections, bare naked adverbs, truncated thoughts, U-turns in logic, ellipses run amok, feverish exclamations, sentences jammed into one another that seem never to end, falling over commas, semi-colons, colons, dashes and whatever other signs he could conjure up and throw in between his words. And every trip and every stumble and every whip-around back in the opposite direction drives deeply into your heart, your soul and the soft matter of your brain. That man, that writer, was plugged into the truth. The truth is messy and complex and Dostoevsky, writing the truth, wrote messily and complexly. He is hell on steroids for a translator, and I’ve never enjoyed hell as I have done translating large excerpts from The Idiot these last weeks. Today was an epiphany, it was fireworks, it was the piece de resistance, the cornerstone of the work I’ve been doing. It was as if I climbed Olympus and Homer was there to greet me. Only Homer had Dostoevsky’s beard. It was joy, sheer, unadulterated joy.

DSC02910

DSC02912

DSC02915

DSC02913

DSC02905

In honor of this splendid day I have spent, I am showing you ground zero in St. Petersburg: the building in which Dostoevsky lived when he wrote Crime and Punishment. Surely when you think “Dostoevsky,” you think Crime and Punishment. As I say, it was the first Dostoevsky novel I read, and it was my third Russian novel in a youthful, drunken literary spree that – thank you, Lord – took me in different directions from Brett Kavanaugh. But my connections to Crime and Punishment are deeper than that, for I have lived the last quarter century with one of the seemingly peripheral characters of Dostoevsky’s great novel of suffering, discovery and redemption. By that I mean to say that Oksana Mysina, my wife, has, for 25 years, played Katerina Ivanovna, the wife of the drunkard Marmeladov, in Kama Ginkas’s great (the word is used properly here) production called K.I. from ‘Crime’, which, in its two and a half decades, has performed in some 20 countries even as it continues to run in Moscow. I could write a book about what it’s like to live with a character shaped not only by a genius writer, but by a genius theater director, but I won’t say a single other word about that now. That’s a whole other can of worms.
The building pictured here (now a light pink – I don’t know what it was like 150 years ago) stands at the corner of Stolyarny Lane 14 and Kaznacheiskaya Street 7. (Kaznacheiskaya was called Malaya Meshchanskaya Street when Dostoevsky lived there.) The plaque hanging on the wall on the Kaznacheiskaya side declares: “Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky lived in this house from 1864 to 1867. Here was written the novel Crime and Punishment.” But that only tells one quarter of the story of this street crossing. Dostoevsky lived or spent time in all four of the buildings that stand on this corner!  Two have plaques, one has information put up by a cafe proprietor, and the other was under reconstruction when I photographed it this summer. I couldn’t tell if anything was written there. But the point is, when you stand in the middle of this intersection, Dostoevskian winds blow at you from all sides – rather like they do in his novels.
When Dostoevsky lived here the building belonged to Ivan Alonkin, a merchant, tea-seller, and apartment-house owner. Dostoevsky occupied Apt. 36 on the second floor. In addition to Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky wrote the novellas Notes from Underground and The Gambler while living here. The building was originally erected in 1822 and was rebuilt/restructured several times since.
This is the place where Dostoevsky declared his love for his stenographer Anna, who subsequently became his wife and, quite probably, saved his life. Thanks to Anna’s memoirs, we even know a little about Alonkin and the apartment. According to an online Dostoevsky encyclopedia, Anna recalled Alonkin describing Dostoevsky as a “great worker. When I go to morning prayers and I see the light on in his study, it means he is working.” Anna went on about Alonkin: “He never bothered reminding us about the rent, knowing that when money would come in, Fyodor Mikhailovich would pay him. Fyodor Mikhailovich loved talking to the venerable old man. In my opinion, Fyodor Mikhailovich relied on his [Alonkin’s] physical appearance to shape the merchant Samsonov, Grushenka’s patron, in The Brothers Karamazov.”
The rent for Apt. 36, Malaya Meshchanskaya was 25 rubles a month. Dostoevsky paid two months in advance (without signing a rental contract), plus a 10 ruble deposit the day before he officially rented the space.

DSC02908

DSC02901

DSC02900

DSC02902

DSC02899

 

Maria Mordasova plaque, Voronezh

Click on photos to enlarge.

Everything about Maria Mordasova shouts joy. That face, that voice, that attitude, that entire life (or, most of it… read on). Here is a woman whose first job as a girl was as a milkmaid. The first job she took after moving to Voronezh when she was around 20 was at a garment factory. Nothing at that time pointed to the fact that she would soon be one of the most famous and beloved stars in the Soviet Union. Well, except for one thing – that voice. It was a voice that was made to sing Russian folk songs and chastushki – those quick-witted, comical little run-ons of life observations. She made them sparkle and ring out with a perfection that may never have been matched. Give a listen if you’re interested – I dare you not to be smiling within seconds.
Despite what I said just above, folks in her native town of Lower Mazovka, near Tambov, knew she was special. Like her mother Praskovya – the best singer of folk songs in the area – she was a favorite at public gatherings and celebrations and festivals. The legend is that, even when she was still a girl, she would entrance audiences so that they would not let her leave the stage and she would perform for them until morning.
Yeah, maybe a legend. But where there’s smoke, there’s fire. And there certainly was fire in Mordasova’s voice and her manner of delivery. When she sang it was like she was unleashing a volcano of pent-up Russian energy. Hers was a voice that could fly like an eagle over birch woods, fir forests, and grassy meadows. It was a voice that could embody those very Russian images.
Mordasova was born February 14, 1915, and she died in Voronezh September 25, 1997. After winning the plaudits of a talent show in her hometown in 1938, and, apparently, escaping a bad marriage, she moved to the big city of Voronezh. A few years later she was instrumental in founding a folk music ensemble in the village of Anna. This happened in late 1942, a time that was very dark in the Soviet Union. The war at that time was taking a horrible toll. Surely, the founding of a joy-filled folk group would have pleased the authorities, and one assumes they had plenty of help. With Mordasova’s voice in the lead, they deserved it.
In fact, Mordasova’s first big break as an entertainer came in January 1943, shortly after Voronezh was liberated from the German army. She and her group performed at the celebrations and it brought her national attention.
Mordasova married the accordionist Ivan Rudenko in 1945 – it is his accordion you hear on most of her recordings – and as soon as peace was declared, they and their ensemble set out on a tour of the entire Soviet Union, bringing light, joy and hope to a nation ravaged by death, destruction and hopelessness. I mention all of this in a tone that helps explain why this singer’s fame and popularity spread so quickly and so deeply.

One gets a feeling for Mordasova’s impact on a nation in a paragraph from one of the online biographies in Russian:
New collections of songs and chastushki, recordings on records, recordings on the radio, and articles in the newspapers appeared regularly. Maria Nikolaevna’s song lived in her heart. It was her manner of speech, her gift of communicating with people. Everyone knew Mordasova, from small to big. And she was welcome in any house. Her songs have always been welcome!
When I mentioned to my wife Oksana that I was going to write about Mordasova, she struggled to make the connection at first, but, relying on the instincts of her cultural upbringing, she immediately said, “Oh! That’s something great! That’s something huge! It’s from my childhood. I’m not sure what. But I know it’s huge!
As it turned out, Mordasova spent 30 years singing with the Voronezh Folk Choir, and, later, the Regional Philharmonia. She traveled over all of Russia and much of the world, bringing her self-styled understanding of the Russian spirit to those who were interested.
Aside from her incredible singing style, however, Mordasova was also a brilliant writer and an important collector of folklore. Many of the songs she sang she either wrote or had collected herself. The site mentioned just above informs us that she wrote over 300 of her own songs. The heart and soul of the kind of song she sang was wit, humor and brevity. In “Everyone Has Young Husbands,” she sings, “I have a young old man for a husband…” In “Heartbreaker,” she sings, “My face is very pretty and I stole a handsome man from you, now go ahead, you beauty, just try and steal him back…”
One source informs us that losing the joy of the stage brought the singer serious complications. “Maria Mordasova left the stage in 1982 and began writing her memoirs. Leaving the stage seriously undermined Maria Nikolayevna’s mental health. She began to experience depression and nervous breakdowns. In 1994 she became an honorary citizen of Voronezh. September 25, 1997, 82-year-old Maria Mordasova died of a hemorrhage in the brain.
The plaque we gaze upon today hangs on the wall of a relatively nondescript building located at 8 Lenin Square in Voronezh. (I hate to say this is uncertain information. Net sources do not agree on the address –  my photos show that the next door building is No. 9, and that is where the Mordasova Museum is now located. But the address of her home is alternately given as No. 6 or No. 8 in various sources.) The official order to erect the plaque was issued April 20, 1998.

 

Vasily Zhukovsky bust, Tula

Click on photos to enlarge.

Vasily Zhukovsky is the guy who came before Alexander Pushkin. Talk about getting thrown into the shadows. If you’re a baseball fan, call him the Wally Pipp of Russian literature. Or, if American music is your thing, call him the guy who set the stage for Bob Dylan. These are all silly comparisons, of course, intended solely to get a grin or a groan, either of which is fine. The fact of the matter is that Zhukovsky was the greatest Russian poet for awhile, until Pushkin came along… He had only recently surpassed the previous “great Russian poet” Gavriil Derzhavin, thus taking over that coveted place. Of course, there wasn’t much in it at that time. The stakes were raised, a tradition was solidified, a national literary heritage was established once Pushkin came on the scene. The writers who preceded him were stepping stones, of a sort. Still, having said all that, Zhukovsky was, and remains, one of the great Russian writers. He had every right to wear the laurels of “the greatest” in his time. Listen to this lead-in to an article in a Tula online encyclopedia: “Vasily Andreevich Zhukovsky went down in the history of Russian literature as a poet, prose writer, journalist, publisher, editor, critic, artist and educator.” I’ll bet he did windows, too.
Zhukovsky was born in the village of Mishenskoe in the Tula region on January 29, 1783. He was the illegitimate son of a provincial landowner (Afanasy Bunin) and a Turkish slave houseworker (Salha – I don’t find her true last name, although she apparently told her son she was from a family of pashas from the Silistra region of Turkey. When forcefully christened, she was given the name of Yelizaveta Dementyevna Turchaninova). Zhukovsky’s last name and patronymic were “lent” him by a neighbor friend. Despite the uncomfortable circumstances of his birth, his father’s wife (and other family members) welcomed him into the family. He was given a good education in Tula and, later, from the age of 14, in Moscow. While still in Tula, he attended school while living with his aunt, who often organized literary and artistic salons, thus awakening in the boy his earliest interest in the arts. In 1817 he was appointed to teach language and literature to the children of the Russian royal family. He was tutor to Alexander II. He continued to work in this capacity until 1841, at which time he moved to Germany where he married the 18 year-old daughter of one of his friends and sired a son and a daughter. He  died April 12, 1852, in Baden Baden.
Zhukovsky’s first published poem was “With Thoughts at a Tomb” in 1797. Throughout his early years as a student in Moscow, he published many other poems, most of them exhibiting the popular youthful sentiment of melancholy. After completing his education at the Moscow University Pansion, the future poet returned to the village of his birth for a full six years (1802-1808). Here he did not publish much, but clearly used his time to work on his craft. As noted in a Tula website, he wrote a letter to his friend Alexander Turgenev at this time, relating that he was continuing a program of self-education, studying world and Russian history, while also acquiring other “serious and weighty” knowledge. During this time he translated and adapted several works from European languages, and tried his hand at prose, also adapting the works of others, including Mikhail Karamzin’s short story “Poor Liza.” Zhukovsky considered the great Karamzin to be his mentor.

The first half of the second decade saw Zhukovsky fight in the war against Napoleon only to be mustered out when he fell ill with typhus. At this time he experienced an unhappy love affair that was blocked by the mother of his intended. Both young people suffered long and terribly from their failure to unite. Although it came too late to solve his romantic sufferings, Zhukovsky’s place in the world was settled in 1814 when he wrote “Missive to Emperor Alexander.” This work came to the attention of the Empress Maria Fyodorovna (whom, incidentally, my wife Oksana Mysina played in Vitaly Melnikov’s great film Poor, Poor Pavel) and she reportedly declared on the spot that she wanted this poet to come to St. Petersburg. The poet, indeed, picked up and went to the Russian capital, leaving behind his unhappy love, but not before writing her a beautiful, heart-wrenching letter of farewell.
I will never forget that all the happiness I have in life is due to you, that you always offered the best intentions, that all the best in me was bound up in my affection for you, that, in sum, I owe to you the most beautiful act of my heart, which was compelled to sacrifice you… I shall try to be worthy of you in my thoughts and feelings! Everything in life is a tool for the marvelous!
These years – roughly the second decade of the century – were arguably Zhukovsky’s peak as a writer. His value as a translator was enormous, especially when you take into account the fact that his translations of Shakespeare, Schiller, La Fontaine, Goethe, Homer and dozens other major writers, made these works available to the Russian reader for the first time. Consider that Zhukovsky introduced Russia to the world. So good were his translations of classic literature that great numbers of them are still published and read by readers today. It is no wonder that Zhukovsky has always been one of my favorite “characters” in the pantheon of Russian writers.
The bust shown here stands in the courtyard of the former Lugin Palace (now the Leo Tolstoy Pedagogical University in Tula), a place that is connected to many of the great cultural figures in Tula. Sculpted by the prolific Moscow sculptor Alexander Burganov, it was unveiled on February 14, 2014. I’m not often happy with Burganov’s work, but I am pleased that he chose to show Zhukovsky in his youth. The usual depiction of Zhukovskys is as a rather rotund, balding, aging man. This likeness (we can hardly know if it really is a likeness, of course) allows us to see Russian literature in its youth, which is precisely where it was when Zhukovsky came along to help it mature.

 

Leo Tolstoy grave, Yasnaya Polyana

Click on photos to enlarge.

The first time I visited Yasnaya Polyana it was in the dead of winter. Shoveled snow was piled up shoulder-high and higher alongside the walkways and paths around the sprawling gardens of Leo Tolstoy’s former estate about a half hour’s drive south of Tula. It was one of those wonderful Russian winter days when the temperature had dropped below -10C (14F), which meant the snow underfoot was giving off marvelous squeaky crunches with every step Oksana and I took.  If I remember correctly, the temperature that day was around -13C or -14C (8F), so the crunchy briskness around us was downright delicious. I might add that this is not at all a cold temperature. When the temp falls below -10C pretty much all of the moisture is frozen out of the air, so that the air is very dry and quite comfortable. Naturally, you’re well dressed and that takes care of it. But back for a moment to the crunchy briskness all around us: you see, one of the marvelous things about Yasnaya Polyana is that you rarely run into other people, and the noises of the city are far, far away. Sure a few people pass here and there, a handful of other pilgrims like yourself, or gardeners or tour guides making their way from one place to another. But for all intents and purposes, Yasnaya Polyana provides you a one-on-one experience. You are virtually alone with your thoughts and with whatever nature has to offer you that day. On my first trip that made the crunch and the crackle of the snow underfoot (as well as of the tree branches bending and occasionally groaning under the weight of heavy snow) all the louder. It was more than enough to throw one into a state of revery.
There was much that was remarkable about my first trip to Yasnaya Polyana, but the unequivocal highlight was our long walk through the woods to Tolstoy’s gravesite. I would guess that it is at least a 15 minute walk from the house, maybe 20. The entire way takes you through wild woods, apple groves, small, grassy glades, and gorgeous, winding pathways. On that winter afternoon in the early 2000s, there was a special quality to the day’s waning light. The trees, as I have said, were laden down with snow, thus cutting out much of what was left of the available sunlight. Everything around us seemed dark and mysterious, making the beauty it commanded even more powerful. The walk is long enough that you are lulled into thinking you might never reach your destination. You become so attuned to the sounds and sights around you – constantly changing and monotonous all at once – that you become one with the road. The journey becomes the destination and you accept the fact that what you are doing – walking down a winding path – is entirely a self-sufficient activity. You give yourself up to the moment and to the specific location that you occupy at each passing moment, understanding that this, in itself, is what you have come for.
And then it happened. We turned a slight bend in the path and both Oksana and I gasped together. We both saw it, it hit us both. Up ahead of us, around a small patch of snow-covered ground, light was emanating from below, from the earth itself. This was not light coming from above, it was light shining as if coming up out of the earth. A few steps more and we realized: this is where Leo Tolstoy is buried. There it was, a long, narrow mound of earth stacked with pine branches all covered in snow. We could not help but ask – and I did ask Oksana out loud – can it be possible that Tolstoy’s burial place gives off light? Well, of course it doesn’t, and, of course, there is an explanation. We recognized it quickly enough. Throughout the forest the entire way to the gravesite no one bothers to clear away thick, old dead branches that clog up the light from the sky, especially when they are covered in snow. You feel you are making your way through an enchanted darkness. All around Tolstoy’s grave, however, gardeners are careful to keep the tree canopy at a minimum. They also clear away fallen branches and other natural debris that might fall near it. The result is that more sunlight pours down upon the grave in this small spot than anywhere around it. Furthermore – and this is the key to the magic – the brilliantly white, snow-covered ground all around the mound where Tolstoy’s body was laid to rest fully reflects all of the light that reaches it from above. In short, the gardeners at Yasnaya Polyana work hard and meticulously to be certain that, during snowy weather, it will seem as if the earth Tolstoy is buried in gives off light.
Believe me. It doesn’t matter that it is a kind of sleight of hand. The effect is stunning and lasting. In my mind, ten or more years later, I still see that light emanating from the earth around Tolstoy’s grave.

After traveling to Yasnaya Polyana in mid-October 2017, I can say that the “special effects” of the walk to Tolstoy’s grave are different in fall, though no less stunning. The golds and reds and greens and yellows and browns shimmering against a milky gray sky offer a sensory overload of visual pleasure and spiritual calm. This time the sounds are of rustling and shuffling as your feet traipse over a bed of fallen leaves and the wind ripples gently through the hundreds of thousands, or millions, or billions, of branches and leaves. As you see from the photos here the gardeners are fast at work in autumn, too. They keep the grave covered in fresh pine branches, while making sure that falling leaves do not blot out the green mound standing amidst a sea of yellow.
As I walked around the grave taking photos, I was fascinated to find that my camera refused to let me place the grave front and center in the frame. I am a fan (though not a fanatic) of purposeful “flat, frontal” photography. Especially in urban settings. I like that simplicity. I like to take measure of a thing centered in its surroundings, shown front on, with its face able to speak to us. But Tolstoy’s grave simply would not “go” to the center of my viewfinder. It wanted to be in a corner, it wanted to be a part of an ensemble of figures (whether that be trees, carpets of leaves, green spots, ravines or walkways wandering away). It wanted to be modest, though not necessarily shy. Now is that not another aspect of the magic of which I wrote above? I believe it is. Of all the photos I took of the grave only one (the first in the block above) allowed me to bring the grave close to center (although not entirely). This was only because I was already walking away and was already at some distance. But look at the first photo I took upon seeing the grave for the first time (the first photo at the very top): even there my camera lens wandered off to the left of the grave. The focal point point was the road leading us to the grave, not the grave itself. Although in my mind I was photographing the grave, not the path.
Two facts:
1) Tolstoy himself chose this site for his grave. It was one of his favorite spots in childhood, a place he called “the place of the green wand,” where his beloved brother Nikolai and he used to come to play.
2) Tolstoy insisted that there be no marker over his grave. He reportedly said (I am paraphrasing, not quoting), “A rich man will spend much money to erect a grand monument to himself, but no one will come see it. A righteous man will do nothing to mark his final resting place, but if he has deserved it, people will come.” His long-suffering wife Sofya was adamant that her great husband should be honored with a fitting gravestone. She even went so far as to have it designed. But her children prevailed and stopped her from having any marker erected. It’s a good thing. Leo Tolstoy’s gravesite provides an astonishing spiritual experience.
Epilogue: I have written at length elsewhere on this site about the influence that Tolstoy and, specifically, War and Peace, had on my life. I won’t repeat that now. But I will add this: when I was preparing to leave for my first trip to Russia in 1979, it was entirely a result of having read War and Peace and then Anna Karenina and then Resurrection, and then… and then… By that time, Dostoevsky and Gogol and Turgenev and Pushkin and Lermontov had all made deep impressions, but it was always Tolstoy, and War and Peace, that brought me to that moment in my life that my bags were packed and I was to head to the airport the next morning. That evening, on the eve of my departure, I stood in the dining room of my parents’ house and talked to my mother. I wasn’t much of one to open up emotionally to my family, but at that moment, I was compelled to say, “Mom, you know, I feel very strongly that I will not come back from Russia the same person. I will come back a different person.” Mom, with the wisdom and understanding that she always had, looked at me as if I didn’t even need to have said that. “I’m sure you will, JEF,” she said, calling me by the name everyone uses for me in my family. “I don’t doubt it.”
Mom was right, as she always was.

 

Fyodor Dostoevsky plaque, Wiesbaden, Germany

Click on photos to enlarge.

And now back to Wiesbaden, Germany, where we are able to travel in our minds thanks to my wife Oksana Mysina, who shot these photos when she was on a theater tour there last fall. This, according to legend, anyway, is the casino at which Fyodor Dostoevsky came up with the idea of writing a novel, The Gambler, which would save him financially. The plaque that hangs on the wall of the casino and spa (for it was originally built as such) indicates that is true, noting that the writer depicts Wiesbaden as “Roulettenburg” in his novel. The plaque also adds that the building was erected in 1808-1810, was the center of Wiesbadian haute société, and that Johann von Goethe lived here in 1814-1815. (If my rusty German has failed me, feel free to let me know, just don’t tell my old professors at Harvard who, probably, generously passed me on my German reading exam.)
In actual fact, Dostoevsky’s “Roulettenburg” was most likely a composite portrait of several casino cities that he knew – Wiesbaden, Baden-Baden, and Homburg (today known as Bad-Homburg). We know his first trip to Wiesbaden took place on June 12, 1862. Return trips were made in late summer 1863, the second half of 1865, and again in 1871.
The visit of June 12 was apparently the first time he gambled. He did not lose much that night, but was fortunate he had to move on soon in his travels. For he could tell that the gambling bug hit him.
His second trip to the casino we see pictured here came at a dramatic moment in his life. He was on his way to Paris to meet withAppolinaria Suslova, his lover and the model for many of the femmes fatales in his later novels. He did not know it yet, but it would be the end of his affair with Suslova. When he did finally make it to Paris, she was informed that it was all over, she had fallen in love with another. One can, perhaps, imagine one of the reasons why: Chances are Dostoevsky arrived looking like something the cat had dragged in, because the gambling bug had hit him hard this time. He had gone to the tables believing he had discovered a foolproof system to beat the croupier. And, indeed, he won big at first – 10,400 francs. He did have enough presence of mind to take half and send it to friends and family – even after he had lost the rest. Frankly, that’s no small sign of character. Here is how he described it in a letter to a friend (as quoted in the Delphi Complete Works of Fyodor Dostoevsky):
I have, dear Varvara Dmitriyeva, won 5,000 francs; or rather I had won at first 10,400 francs, taken the money home, put it in my wallet and resolved to depart next day and not go into the gaming rooms again. But I did not hold out and played away half the money again…
He actually sent the 5,000 that he had the wherewithal to hang onto to friends and relatives. Still, he arrived in Paris with nothing in his pocket, which can’t have made him look very attractive in Appolinaria’s eyes.

His third trip to Wiesbaden was even more dramatic. After his brother’s death, he had taken on his sibling’s debts and had no way to clear them up quickly. Presumably recalling the quick win on his last trip (and not quite remembering how quickly he lost the second half of his winnings), he set out for Germany precisely to win a large amount of money and correct his financial situation. Naturally, the opposite happened. He blew everything he had brought with him and was not even able to pay his hotel bill. To add insult to injury (as well as to make his situation totally unbearable), the hotel owner essentially put him under house arrest until he paid up what he owed. From his room Dostoevsky began shooting letters out to friends and acquaintances, asking for money. Ivan Turgenev, God bless him, was among those who sent him small sums. But it was a local priest who finally came and bailed him out, paying up the entire amount owed and even providing enough to send Dostoevsky home.
This, of course, is the incident to which the plaque on the Wiesbaden casino refers. For when Dostoevsky returned to St. Petersburg he was faced with signing a brutal contract by which he would have given away the rights to everything he had written for nine years, in return for having all his debts paid up. He was given a month or so to write a new novel that the publisher could sell, in order to avoid having the bad contract take effect.
As bad as Dostoevsky’s luck may have been on the roulette tables, his luck in life, at least this time, was significantly better. It was precisely at this moment that he hired a young woman, Anna Snitkina, to whom he would try to dictate his new novel in the small amount of time given him. Anna was modest, a hard worker, smart and organized. And, largely thanks to her, Dostoevsky delivered his novel, The Gambler, in 26 days. At 57 pages, it was more a novella than a novel, but it was enough to save him from a most humiliating fate. Anna Snitkina, became Dostoevsky’s third wife and, to the extent that it was possible, she was the one who tamed the tiger in him. One might even go so far as to say we have her to thank for the great novels. Would Dostoevsky have been able to write them had he lost the rights to his work for a nine year period? What might have happened in those nine years? No one can know that, of course, but one thing is certain: the impact of Snitkina on the great writer was enormous.
One more visit to Wiesbaden finishes off this little story. It came in 1871 – six years after Dostoevsky’s last debacle. He had sworn off gambling and, with the support of his wife Anna, had held true to his oath. But there is no victory without a fall. Dostoevsky just could not deny his desire to try his luck again, and so headed out for Weisbaden. When he blew the first amount he had taken with him, he wrote his wife and asked for a small sum that he would use to come home with. She sent it. And, what did you really expect? He blew that too. However, Anna finally got him home, and Dostoevsky would never gamble again.
So, there, in short, with a few corners cut and a few frills added, is the tale of Fyodor Dostoevsky and the casino at Wiesbaden.

 

Marina Tsvetaeva plaque, Všenory, CZ

Click on photos to enlarge.

I come back today to some photographs that my wife Oksana Mysina took when she was recently in Prague to participate in a documentary film about Marina Tsvetaeva. The photos are wonderfully evocative. Even though there isn’t all that much left from the time when Tsvetaeva lived here in the village of Všenory with her husband Sergei Efron and her daughter Araidna, there is more than enough to trigger thoughts. Primarily what is left are the old wall on which a plaque was erected in honor of Tsvetaeva in 2012; the little green side house which stood next to the building (now gone) where the family resided; perhaps a garden gate; and the steep slope across the road from the residence. In the last photos below you can see the road leading up to and down to the Tsvetaeva site, with the slope across the way.
In a letter quoted by my brief, but honored, acquaintance Simon Karlinsky in his book Marina Tsvetaeva: The Woman, Her World, and Her Poetry, the poet wrote: “A tiny mountain village. We live on its very edge, in a simple peasant hut. The dramatis personae of our life: a church-shaped well to which I run to fetch water, mostly at night or early in the morning; a chained dog; a squeaky garden gate. Directly beyond us is a forest. To the right a high rocky crest. There are brooks all over the village. Two grocery stores, like in our provinces. A Catholic Church with a flowery churchyard. A school. Two restaurants. Music every Sunday.”
There are many confusions about this place and this time. I was all set to speak of Všenory unquestioningly, until I ran across a note on a Tsvetaeva page on LiveJournal reminding us that there were two Všenorys, Všenory I and Všenory II. It was in the latter that Tsvetaeva and family lived from November 1922 to August 1923. As the author, Ellenai, points out, one should not mistake this Všenory with the Všenory (Všenory I) that the family moved to in 1924, where Tsvetaeva gave birth to her son Georgy.
If you are to look for this location today, you must seek 521 V Chaloupkách. However, at the time Tsvetaeva lived here it was 33 Horni Mokropsy. In a letter to a friend, here is precisely how Tsvetaeva gave her address: New address: Praha P.P. Dobřichovice, Horni Mokropsy, čislo 33, u Pana Grubnera — to me, name of Efron. Dobřichovice would appear to be the train station nearby. Is Horni Mokropsy the name of the village or the name of the road? Or maybe both, since the place was so tiny. Pan Grubner’s home, where the Tsvetaevas occupied one of three rooms, was the last building on the street at that time.
In her memoirs, No Love Without Poetry: The Memoirs of Marina Tsvetaeva’s Daughter, Ariadna left a description of this time and place by way of a quotation from her own diary:
The house where we live lies in a valley. It has three rooms, one of which we occupy. The yard is small, the garden medium, and there is a dog named Lowe and some chickens. The house is painted yellow and white, and the roof is pink tile. Seven people live here, four of them children. Not far from here is a large village called Všenory. It has two stores, three-story houses and a railroad station…

Another description of this location comes in a letter Tsvetaeva sent to Boris Pasternak on November 19, 1922, that is, almost immediately after moving in (quoted from the LiveJournal site above):
I live in Czechia (near Prague) in Mokropsy, in a village hut. It’s the last house in the village. At the bottom of the hill is a stream from which I haul water. A third of the day is expended on stoking a huge tile stove. Life is not much different from that in Moscow, the daily chores of it – probably even more meagre! – but in addition to poetry: family and nature. I see no one for months. All morning I write and walk: there are marvelous hills here.”
Tsvetaeva wrote some important works here, including Poem of the End, and she apparently began her tragedy Theseus-Ariadne here.
The plaque was unveiled June 22, 2012. For reasons unexplained on the website that provides the information, it was made in Carrara, Italy. In addition to providing the barebones information that Marina Tsvetaeva lived here in 1923, it shows a fragment of a Tsvetaeva manuscript. It has a drawing of a lion (Efron, whose knickname was Lev/Lion) balancing on a chair while it madly prepares a meal, as a kitten (a child?) lies almost cowering under the covers in bed. The text says: “Cheese, butter, milk outside the window. Cheese and butter on the right. Don’t neglect the milk. (!!!) Don’t forget the letters. – Say goodbye!!!-
The implication is that this text refers to Tsvetaeva’s time living here in Všenory a/k/a Horni Mokropsy, but our friends at LiveJournal once again throw shade upon this assumption.
The commemorative plaque unveiled at house number 521 replicates a note from M. Tsvetaeva (with her drawing), which was addressed to her husband. However, this note, now kept in the Marina Tsvetaeva Museum in Bolshevo, refers not to 1923, but to a later time – probably it’s already Paris, where the family moved in November 1925.”
The author, Ellenai, suggests that the child cowering in bed is the baby boy Georgy who had been born in Všenory I, i.e., after the family had lived at Všenory II, a/k/a Horni Mokropsy…
In short, this kind of stuff is right up my alley. As my old friend Volodya Ferkelman would say, “The devil himself will break his leg” on this one.
One final note:
Take a look at the middle photo below. The pinkish house in the background behind the green structure (which, as I said, is an original from that time) is where the Tsvetaeva/Efron house was located. I cannot determine without a doubt whether the orginal house has been torn down and replaced, or whether it has just been renovated and expanded. In any case, this little view offered by Oksana’s photo is one that approximates what Tsvetaeva might have seen when coming home lugging pails of water.