Tag Archives: Oksana Mysina

Vasily Zhukovsky bust, Tula

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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.

 

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Leo Tolstoy grave, Yasnaya Polyana

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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

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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

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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.

 

 

LA school hosts Russian artists

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I would never have known about this place were it not for my friend Volodya Ferkelman who drove my wife Oksana and me around LA in 2015 looking for places connected to Russian culture. I had a big list I had put together from my research, but the Michael Jackson Auditorium of the Gardner Street School was not on it. If I remember correctly we were on our way from shooting an old home where Vladimir Nabokov had lived out west of the 405 Freeway and were on our way to shoot a home in Hollywood where the emigre actor Akim Tamiroff had lived just north of Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards. Volodya didn’t even slow down as he said, “You could photograph this place, too, I guess.” “Why’s that?” I asked. “Lots of Russians come here to perform,” he said as he pulled up even with the school. “Like who?” I asked as he drove on by. “Shenderovich. Voinovich. Yelena Kamburova,” he said, continuing on down Hawthorne Avenue. “Whoa!” I said. “Back it up, please!”
And that’s how these photos came about.
Gardner Street School, located at 7450 Hawthorne Avenue (don’t ask me!) at the juncture with Vista Street, is a pretty cool place actually. It has more than the usual share of fame and notoriety for an elementary school (K through 6). You see, this is the last public school that Michael Jackson attended (apparently for a few months) before stardom subsumed his life. There was a big to-do when the school named the auditorium after its illustrious alum – Jackson actually attended the opening in Oct. 1989. There was then a big kerfuffle when Jackson was accused of improper behavior with a minor in 2003 and concerned parents and other folk had the name covered over with plyboard. That changed again after his death in 2009 – a year later it was decided to rededicate the auditorium to the singer in his memory.
As such, I realize that in the grand, popular scheme of popular things, nothing more I can say will interest 99.9% of my potential readership. After Michael Jackson, who cares about anybody else, right? But I’m going to plow on ahead anyway.
I’m guessing that Shenderovich, Voinovich and Kamburova are not the only Russian artists who have visited Gardner, because, after all this is one of the few schools in LA with a large Russian-speaking student body. It is located more or less in the heart of the Russian district in LA. It all makes perfect sense. And yet I still find it noteworthy that this place, christened by Michael Jackson, if you will, has also hosted Russian celebrities.
The first of the trio I mentioned performing here was Viktor Shenderovich, the satirist, playwright and wicked political commentator. Shenderovich (born 1958) is one of our great contemporaries. He was the chief writer for the famed Puppets political satire series that kept Russians glued to their television sets until the then-new Russian president Vladimir Putin took offense and had the program shut down in 2002. In fact, Shenderovich left the program in 2001, after which the bite of the satire was not nearly the same. The closing down of Puppets was closely intertwined with one of Putin’s first big attacks on free speech when he crushed the NTV channel, the freest, leading source for independent information at that time. Shenderovich studied directing and taught at a handful of theatre institutes in his early years. He published his first book of satirical stories in 1991. Since then he has published over two dozen more books. His plays have been performed at several Moscow theaters, including the Tabakov Theater and the Satire Theater. Even now, over 15 years after the Puppets and NTV incidents, he is still under an unwritten – as far as I know – ban from appearing on major Russian TV channels. He is a popular political commentator on such outlets as Echo Moskvy radio and Dozhd (Rain) TV.
Shenderovich appeared at the Gardner St. School on November 1, 2003, when the hoopla around Puppets and NTV was still quite fresh. The Los Angeles Times ran a large piece about him, quoting his thoughts of the time and putting them in perspective:
“‘If things in Russia keep going at this rate, we’ll be eased out, forced to become dissidents in the Soviet sense of the word,’ he said, referring to the intellectuals and writers sent to the gulag as opponents of the Communist regime.
“‘My friends and I are not kamikazes. We try to find compromises. We are trying to stay in the media. But you have to know where compromise ends and defeat begins and to know the point where you have given everything away. If I began to praise the war in Chechnya, they would find me a job at any national television station tomorrow, but I wouldn’t be able to practice my journalism anymore.‘”
A Russian site advertised the evening (titled “Raisins from the Bun”) as such: “In Russia [Shenderovich] is sometimes compared to Saltykov-Shchedrin. The English language equivalent to that could only be Swift. Viktor Shenderovich’s political  acuity and acerbity and his metaphorical style give every reason for such a comparison.”
Ticket prices for the Shenderovich recital ran from $20 to $30 and the evening began at 7 p.m.

Next up was the singer Yelena Kamburova. A listing on Baraban.com, a site devoted to Russian cultural events in the U.S., announces that she was to perform at the school on April 2, 2006, from 7 to 9 p.m. Tickets that night ran from $30 to $35 and the listing was accompanied by the following blurb: “You can not forget her voice. Her every new performance is a discovery. The best poets and composers dream of her performing their works. She is the only one of all the Russian performers who received standing ovations from audiences at the most prestigious venues in the world: “Olimpia” in Paris, “Queen Victoria” in London. Elena Kamburova comes to Los Angeles with a new program, “In the evening vanity” – one concert only. Sellout crowds are expected!
Kamburova (born 1940) has been a popular singer since the 1960s. She put out her first record in 1964 and has either released or been represented on over 70 albums or CDs since then. She opened her own theater, the Yelena Kamburova Theater of Music and Poetry in 1992. Her enormous repertoire of songs ranges from folk and contemporary songs to songs in the classical tradition and contemporary tunes written to classical poetry.
As fate would have it, novelist, playwright and poet Vladimir Voinovich (born 1932) spoke and read from his work on June 5, 2015, just a month before the photos here were taken. As reported in a short piece on TheHollywoodTimes.net, “Renowned Russian writer and dissident Vladimir Voinovich held a reading for an audience that numbered in the hundreds at the Gardner School’s Michael Jackson Auditorium located at 7450 Hawthorn Avenue in West Hollywood. Voinovich spoke from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. and a question and answer period followed. Highlights from the reading included stories from both Soviet and émigré life.”
A poster that is reproduced with this article, as well as with an announcement on a Russian-language site, stated that, “Chonkin lived, Chonkin is alive, and Chonkin will live!” This, of course, is a reference to Voinovich’s most popular, one might even say immortal, novel, The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin (1969 – originally published in Germany because the Soviet censor would not pass it.) The ad also declares, “Voinovich’s singular humor makes miracles – you will laugh until you cry!”
Voinovich was stripped of his Soviet citizenship in 1980 and he lived in the US and Germany until 1990 when his legal status was restored by Mikhail Gorbachev. Although he was one of the famous dissidents of the late Soviet period, he has retained his relevance and position as a respected writer and commentator on current events. I saw him speak at Harvard in the 1980s, but that tale will have to wait for another prompt because I’m out of time and space today.

 

Marina Tsvetaeva’s Slavia Cafe, Prague, CZ

Click on photos to enlarge.

I rarely do this, but I’m fudging again. I did not take these photos. My wife Oksana Mysina did while she was recently in Prague shooting scenes for a documentary film about the great Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva.
Tsvetaeva (1892-1941) spent the better part of the years 1922-1925 in Czechoslovakia. By all accounts she loved the country and its capital Prague and she missed it greatly when she had to leave it. At the same time life here was never easy. Her family life was undergoing enormous stress and she had little, if anything, to live on. She had come to Czechoslovakia to be with her husband Sergei Efron, a former white army soldier, who, at one point she had thought killed in the Civil War, and who would attend Charles University in Prague. But they had virtually no money and lived, at best, from hand to mouth.
Tsvetaeva’s was a seeking heart and while struggling to stay alive with her husband and her daughter Ariadne, she fell into a widely publicized affair with a former military officer Konstantin Rodzevich. After this ended in 1923 she embarked on an epistolary love affair with Boris Pasternak. Although they did not actually meet until 1935 in Paris, the peak of their epistolary relationship made theirs one of the most famous love affairs joining Russian writers. For good measure, the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke also briefly became a part of the relationship as they all exchanged thoughts, poetry and emotional aspirations in a lively correspondence that ended abruptly with Rilke’s death in 1926.
My friend and colleague Alexandra Smith posted what appears to be a text by Anastasia Koprshivova that describes the details of this period so well that I hereby just turn things over to it:
In Prague itself, Tsvetaeva lived less than a year, from autumn 1923 to spring 1924. In the capital Efron settled in an attic room in the Smikhov area on Swedish (Švédská) street in house number 51, on whose wall a memorial plaque dedicated to the poetess was unveiled in 1989. Remembering this apartment, Tsvetaeva wrote: ‘In Prague I have fine, large windows revealing the whole city and the whole sky, the streets with their stairs, distances, trains and fog.’
Marina Tsvetaeva daily visited places teeming with Russian emigres, whose center was the church of St. Nicholas in the Old Town Square and the Hotel Beranek (Bělehradská 110, Tylovo nám.). In the spacious hotel halls, cultural evenings were organized by the Czech-Russian Association headed by Anna Teskova, who later became Tsvetaeva’s closest and most faithful friend. In her letters to Teskova from France to Czechoslovakia, Tsvetaeva wrote in detail about her fascination with Prague. Their correspondence lasted almost ten years, from 1925 to 1939, and was permanently interrupted after the Efron family returned to the USSR.
Marina Tsvetaeva loved long walks, she measured out Prague in her own steps. In letters to Teskova, she often recalls Deer Trench near Prague Castle, calling it Bear Trench in honor of the Siberian bears that lived there. She liked to wander along the paths of Petrzhin hill, which reminded her of ‘the breast of a recruit laid low by a projectile.’ For hours she would admire the city’s patches of parks, the sea from graying, time-worn roofs and observed the bends of the Vltava River with its islands.
She loved the black and white cobbles of sidewalks resembling a chessboard, along which the invisible hand of fate rearranged people like pawns – ‘as someone plays at being us.’ She loved the lights after sunset, which plunged the city into an atmosphere of mysteries and riddles. She loved Charles Bridge. There, on the banks of the Vltava, a monument to Brunzvik, a knight with a golden sword and a hairstyle just like hers, was always waiting for her. In the thirties, in a letter to Anna Teskova, Tsvetaeva asked her to send photos to Paris of ‘my knight,’ the general view of the city, and ‘the sea of ​​roofs with Prague’s bridges.’
The Prague period remains one of the brightest in Tsvetaeva’s work. Throughout all subsequent years the poet carefully preserved in her memory the city she loved.”

Aside from the places mentioned above, another of Tsvetaeva’s favorite haunts in Prague was the Slavia Cafe. She often had reason to be in this neighborhood because the editorial offices of the Russian emigre journal The Will of Russia were located nearby. Tsvetaeva often published her poetry in this publication that was edited by famed emigre literary figure Mark Slonim (often spelled in English as Marc). Tsvetaeva, who had no spare change to spend on the luxuries of a popular cafe, reportedly would often take just a glass of water and sit here for hours writing poetry. The building itself dates back to the 14th century. It has housed the famed Slavia Cafe since 1881. Even today one easily sees the romanticism and old-world charm of the place. One assumes that not much has changed here since Tsvetaeva was a regular. One thing that has changed is the famous painting hanging on the cafe’s back wall. Today we see a copy of Viktor Oliva’s The Absinthe Drinker, while in Tsvetaeva’s day the painting in that space was of Slavia, the mother of the Slavs. (That painting, despite the protests of Prague’s residents, was moved to Prague’s gallery of art in 1997.)
The Slavia has been a hangout for artists and artisans almost from its very beginning. It is located on the Smetana Embankment directly across from the National Theater, and right on the banks of the Vltava. Lore has it that the great Czech composer Bedrich Smetana was a regular here in the cafe’s first years, while in later decades it was also frequented by writer-turned-president Vaclav Havel, poets Jiři Kolář and Jaroslav Seifert, and Symbolist painter Jan Zrzavý. Surely Tsvetaeva was not the only Russian emigre to spend time here in the 1920s, although I have yet to find record of others.

 

 

Maya Plisetskaya monument, Moscow

Click on photos to enlarge.

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I will begin this little journey by grumbling. But this time, instead of grumbling at what I’m writing about, I’ll grumble at those who have grumbled at what I’m writing about. In short I think Viktor Mitroshin’s new monument to Maya Plisetskaya on Plisetskaya Square in Moscow is wonderful. I have read all kinds of nonsense about what is wrong with this statue, located between houses 6 and 12 on Bolshaya Dmitrovka Street. It captures the great ballerina during a single, expressive moment in her famous performance of Carmen. I love that choice already. The obvious (read: cliched) choice would have been to put her in a classical tutu and picture her dancing Swan Lake or The Dying Swan. Then she would have looked like all other ballerinas on all their bronze and marble stands all over the world. But in choosing Carmen, Mitroshin emphasized not only Plisetskaya’s physical prowess, grace and beauty, he put a big exclamation point after character! Plistetskaya was a spit-fire right down to the end of her life in 2015 when she died at the age of 89. And she looks it here. This is a woman that’s going to mess with you. Whether you can handle it or not.
Maya Plisetskaya was born November 20, 1925, in Moscow. She died May 2, 2015, in Munich. She had lived in Germany most of the time since the Perestroika era. In fact, she spent several years growing up in Germany (1932-36), where her father worked, first as the head of a Soviet mining company, and then as the General Consul of the Soviet Union. He was arrested in 1937 and shot in 1938; her mother Rakhila Messerer, a silent film actress, was arrested and exiled in 1938. To keep the state from sending Maya to an orphanage for children of enemies of the state, her aunt Sulamif Messerer, a soloist at the Bolshoi Theatre, adopted Maya. The influence of a tight, artistic family would surely have exerted itself on the young girl even without this development, but now the imprint of Sulamif’s profession clearly had every reason to be felt. In fact, Maya debuted as a dancer when she was around 15 or 16. It occurred while she and her family were in the city of Sverdlovsk (Yekaterinburg today) from 1941 to 1942 during evacuation from Moscow due to the war.  She joined the troupe of the Bolshoi Theater in 1943 and soon was dancing solo parts and taking on the role of prima ballerina.
Hers was an enormous, rich, eventful life, and I won’t even try to dig into that. Suffice it to say that some five years after her retirement from the Bolshoi (at age 65! – absolutely unheard of for a dancer), none less than Maurice Bejart created a show especially for her – Ave Maya – for her 70th birthday. The following year she danced The Dying Swan in St. Petersburg, Moscow and New York.

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I saw Plisetskaya dance in Boston in – I believe it would have been 1987 or 1988. I was (and am) no ballet expert, but during a short stint in Washington, D.C., I frequently saw performances by Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Alexander Godunov and others, so I had a certain grounding for good dance. I remember sitting in the hall at the old Opera House in downtown Boston and thinking that she was doing little more than moving gracefully around the stage – but with what extraordinary grace! The main piece in which she danced that night was in a ballet adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Lapdog,” with music written especially for Plisetskaya by her husband Rodion Shchedrin. I just dug into the net and found a clip of that very performance (not the Boston performance, of course, but of Lapdog). And there she is again, “not dancing,” but performing with astonishing grace, precision and feeling. Give the video a look.
The last time I saw her dance was at a concert on Red Square. It was 1992, at the first Red Square Invites! festival where she performed The Dying Swan. Oksana and I had great seats – fourth row – because I was covering the event for The Moscow Times. Here is a video of what we saw that night. Again, I must say it – what astonishing grace, elegance and precision. This is not anywhere even close to the norm for a dancer of her age. It is virtually unprecedented. Four years later – without me in attendance – she danced that part for the last time in her career.
Several years later I wrote a play and Plisetskaya emerged immediately as an inspiration. The play begins as a mother talks to her daughter about Plisetskaya and it ends as the daughter, alone, remembers her mother talking about Plisetskaya.
Plisetskaya is in no way, shape or form to blame for the fact that I could not stop myself from pointlessly adding still one more play to the world’s endless oceans of plays, but she, for, me, was a tuning fork throughout the writing of Dancing, Not Dead. Enough of that. I allow myself that little bit not to insert myself in this story, but to indicate the power of the effect Plisetskaya had on me.
A few words on the photos and the monument. If you look closely you may see something that looks like defects in the photos – blobs or streaks of white. That is just the way a fairly heavy snowfall was captured by my camera. As for the monument itself – look at those gorgeous arms, hands, legs. Look at the sassy sway of the dress. Look at the dark, hard eyes and the tight, determined mouth. Look at the sway of the back. Look at that crazy flower on her head. Look at how all of it strains upward into the sky. I’m telling you, the whole thing is beautiful.
If I’m going to grumble a bit, I might suggest that the sculptor didn’t spend enough time thinking about the base on which his fabulous Plisetskaya dances. It’s very clunky, a big rock half-hidden by a bronze drape. I give it a minus, but I give such huge pluses to everything else it just doesn’t matter in the end. I also, as a parting comment, want to say that I love the muted colors. First of all, they don’t try to compete with the gorgeous mural that stands beside the monument (I’ll write about that another time), nor do they try to conjure up the fiery red and midnight black that were Plisetskaya’s costume in Carmen. As for Carmen, I won’t bother to link to videos. Just go to YouTube and search “Plisetskaya Carmen.” You won’t get anything done for the next hour or so.

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