Tag Archives: Pushkin Theater

Alexander Pushkin bust, Pushkin Theater, Moscow

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Bear with me or abandon me now. It’s a long one today. But I will get to Pushkin. Trust me. But this comes first:
I can’t help but take Masha Gessen’s recent piece in the NY Times Sunday Book Review as a personal missive. After all, she calls it a “Dear John” letter (random readers may not know that is my name) before launching into one of many key points as she addresses the city of Moscow directly:
“What we should talk about, Moscow, are the monuments. When is enough, enough? Walk down the Boulevard Ring, the misnamed three-quarters-of-a-circle road that fails to circumscribe central Moscow, and you will see, block by city block: the composer Sergei Rachmaninoff; Vladimir Vysotsky, a 1970s singer-songwriter; Nadezhda Krupskaya, the wife of Lenin…”
In part, anyway, these are “my” monuments she’s talking about, my Russian Culture in Landmarks. Shortly thereafter, Gessen adds: “There is something obstinate and deeply uncharming about this commitment to the immobilized human form. Other cities can find room in their hearts for abstract statues, symbolic monuments — but not you, Moscow: You want every single one of them looking like a giant human (stork excepted)…”
Well, now, this is really hitting close to home. Moreover, as the great Yogi Berra said, this for me personally is almost like deja vu all over again. But I’ll get to that in a minute because I’m not through plumbing Gessen’s essay yet. Closing out her arguments, Gessen picks up on the theme of love and, more importantly, the loss of love, as she again addresses Moscow itself:
“And yet I thought I would always love you. I loved you desperately as a teenager whose parents had decided to emigrate. While we waited for an exit visa, I spent every day with you as though it were our last — I walked the center of town every afternoon, making sketches…”
Well, now, damn it, this is just too close for comfort!
I’ve never said this anywhere, it’s been my little secret – the motor that you keep out of sight. But Masha Gessen’s pained, heartfelt declaration of her loss of love for Moscow and its culture leaves me no choice but to say it: I began making this blog precisely because I fell out of love with Russia.
Russia has been my intellectual, emotional and aesthetic raison d’etre for many, many decades. I have lived in Moscow for many decades. I’ve published a lot of books about Russian culture. I have been followed by the KGB and the FSB. I have been, essentially, kidnapped and interrogated. My phones and my apartments have been tapped. My car has been stolen (probably by the authorities), I have been recruited openly and otherwise to be a snitch. I have lost most of what little money I had in various defaults, financial crashes and monetary reforms. I have been the victim of vandalism and slur campaigns. And through it all I didn’t give a damn. Because my love for Russia and its culture was that strong. It was that strong. All that other crap was just that, crap. All I cared about, figuratively speaking, was Pushkin. Erdman. Dostoevsky. Tolstoy. Gogol. Kurochkin. Korkia. Klavdiev. Mukhina. Ginkas. Bakshi. Krymov. Yukhananov. It’s unfair to begin a list because the list must stop somewhere and the riches of Russian culture, the riches that have fed me for most of my adult life are such that the list could damn near be endless.
So when Masha Gessen writes about love, I know what she means. I have lived that love. And that love has held me strong through trying times. And then “the present” came. I’m going to say “the present” came in late 2010. It’s an arbitrary choice, but it’s more or less when Vladimir Putin truly began pushing his people over the edge and some of them began pushing back. What we have witnessed since then is something akin to the mayhem of a slaughterhouse gone mad. The arrests, the harassment of peaceful citizens, the murders of journalists and lawyers attempting to do their job, the bizarre machine of lawmaking that seeks to ban the human being from thinking at all (outlawing curse words, outlawing the questioning of official history, outlawing “propaganda of a gay lifestyle”), the use of hatred to inspire love of country, the vilification of anyone daring to have his or her own opinion, the use of lies, lies, lies, bold, brazen lies as an excuse for anything the state wishes to do, the character assassination of a neighboring people (the Ukrainians) that has been considered a “brotherly nation” for centuries, the use of subterfuge, chicanery, mendacity and lies, lies, lies and more lies to “justify” a slow-bleeding invasion of Ukraine that the state swears is not happening until it blithely chooses to admit it has happened before going onto the next lie… Enough. You get my immediate point.
But the bigger point is this – as this tsunami of insanity has inundated those of us living in Russia, the worst, the most horrible, the most untenable, the most inexcusable aspect of it all has been the way the vast majority of Russians have either turned a blind eye – “Oh, I don’t know anything about it!” – or embraced it: “Crimea is OURS AGAIN, so f*%k you!”
Oh, there are a lot of people pushing back. I can’t tell you how I admire them. There are people asking hard questions, making impossible, but necessary, demands. But for every one of those in my circle – in my personal and professional circle of artists, writers and performers – there are two shouting at me “CRIMEA IS OURS!” I have been accused – by former friends and by utter strangers – of being a spy, of being here to undermine Russia, of being one of those from the West who has destroyed Russian values…
As this cacophony of nonsense and words built up, I found myself drifting farther and farther from my love until we lost touch with one another. This was followed by despair and utter confusion fueled by outrage and deep, gnawing sorrow. One cannot live like that. One either loves or one dies.
And that is when the idea for this blog, something that had been percolating in my mind for years, came into focus. It would be a way for me to reconnect with everything I have loved and championed for decades. It would force me to articulate the reasons for this love, sometimes in obvious fashion, sometimes under the obscure veil of metaphor. But that has been the purpose of every 100+ posts I have made here over seven months – to rediscover love. Sometimes it’s tough love – read the entries on Vsevolod Meyerhold, for example. I do my best to avoid drooling. But sometimes it’s such a joy to unleash love unreservedly – as I have done with Bulat Okudzhava, for instance.
Now, I’d really like to move on from Masha Gessen, but I can’t until I tie up another loose end or two. I want to make this very clear: I am not setting myself up in opposition to her at all. My comments are not a rebuttal to her or her experience in any way. On the contrary, I share with her that love and loss of it. It’s traumatic, believe me. Moreover, Gessen is talking about losing her own native culture and a feeling for it. She grew up with Pushkin and Rachmaninoff – they for me are acquired loves. These are different things. One is not better than the other, but they are divergent beasts. And I also want to say that I, as an American, can fully share Gessen’s disillusionment with her own native culture. I mean, let’s be honest, I am writing this as streets in many U.S. cities are burning once again, because still again, because, yes, again, a young black man or boy has been shot by a white policeman who gets off scot-free. This is to say nothing of my disgust over the complete collapse of the American political system, which now has been simplified to this: He with the most dollars wins (notice I don’t bother to add “she” because it’s always a “he”). I, too, like Masha Gessen gazing upon a home culture that nurtured her and then scorned her, know that horrible feeling of realizing that my home is no longer my home. The shock of realizing that your home has been lost while you were making tea, flirting with the neighbor, or scrubbing the toilet, has never been described better than by the great poet Alexander Timofeevsky, who wrote in his long, narrative poem Tram Car No. 37:

Russia was pilfered by aliens.
In five minutes they beamed her up,
Squashed her down, and stuck her in a trunk.
Meanwhile, as you and I were busy dreaming,
Somebody replaced her with a counterfeit.

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Alexander Pushkin is the real deal. If you doubt it ask Timofeevsky or any other Russian poet, or any other Russian. Masha Gessen makes it a point in her long essay to come back to Pushkin repeatedly. Because, for all that she has lost, Pushkin is still there.  So in the spirit of love and loss, I, too, present to you a bust of Alexander Pushkin. I don’t find this bust, which stands in the second-floor foyer of the Pushkin Theater, obstinate or uncharming in any way. Actually, even though it’s pretty much another cookie-cutter image of Pushkin in 3D, I find it a warm and welcoming chunk of bronze. Today I choose this Pushkin as a hook on which to hang a few thoughts for the very specific reason that there is no reason whatsoever for this sculpture to be here.
Pushkin was never in this building, or in any building that may have preceded it. He has nothing to do with it. Zilch. Zero. Zip. Nada. The theater was named after Pushkin in 1950 after the authorities drove out the theater’s founder Alexander Tairov. Throughout Tairov’s long tenure this was known as the Kamerny, or Chamber, Theater. Tairov, whose spirit was broken when he was fired and attacked as unfit to run a Soviet theater, died within a very short time. I wrote a month or so ago about this and the curse Tairov’s wife may have put on the theater. You can read about that here. Perhaps the authorities, hoping to assuage some dull, dim sense of guilt for this crime against one of Russia’s greatest theater directors, chose Pushkin’s name as a way to cleanse themselves. Pushkin, as I have said elsewhere, has always remained pure and unsullied, no matter how the authorities have tried to enlist his name in their dirty deeds over the centuries. Was the name Pushkin here employed to atone sins? It’s just a thought, and can never be anything more. The desire, however, among those who worked in this theater to attach themselves to the imaculacy of Pushkin’s name reared its head again in the 1980s, when the second-floor halls were “restored” and refurnished in the so-called Empire style and – renamed the “suite of Pushkin rooms.” The whole thing is a sham. Pushkin, Pushkin, where is Pushkin? He isn’t here and yet he is everywhere. The Pushkin bust stands proudly amidst the suite of Pushkin rooms, in which nothing but the mere thought of Pushkin has ever visited.
My point is this: We can choose to call this fraud if we wish. Because it is. Or we can accept Pushkin here as a legitimate forbear to anything involving Russian culture today. Because that is true too. Moreover, it’s not a matter of accepting one while rejecting the other. It is more a matter of degrees. It is an opportunity to express one’s free will – to choose what myths you will cling to because they, for you, have meaning. You don’t ignore that Pushkin’s name here may be a ruse by evil people who destroyed Tairov and his theater to portray themselves in the best light possible. You accept that and you acknowledge it. And then you look for what truly deserves your love. Russia may have been pilfered and stuffed in a trunk by evil aliens, but Timofeevsky, by writing about that with soul and humor, helps us to rise above that tragedy for at least as long as it takes to read his poem. Is that not much? Maybe. But it’s no little thing, either.

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Tairov and Koonen plaque, Moscow

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This plaque commemorating the great husband-and-wife theater team of director Alexander Tairov and actress Alisa Koonen hangs in the left-hand foyer of the Pushkin Theater. It is located next to the door leading backstage, where Koonen and Tairov would have spent most of their time when they worked here between 1914 and 1949, and when the theater was called the Kamerny, or Chamber, Theater.
Tairov (born Kornblit) is usually the fourth-mentioned of the great names of Russian directors who worked in the early part of the 20th century – Stanislavsky, Meyerhold, Vakhtangov and Tairov. Tairov was different from the others. He was something of a walking contradiction, a talented creator of light spectacle in the vein of commedia dell’arte or bouffonade, and at the same time a great lover and practitioner of tragedy and theatrical pathos. Productions such as Charles Lecocq’s Girofle-Giroflia (1922) and E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Princess Brambilla (1920) were popular examples of the former. Famous stagings of Innokenty Annensky’s Thamyris Kitharodos (1916) and Racine’s Phedre (1922) were examples of the latter. Tairov discovered Eugene O’Neill for Russian theater and audiences with productions of The Hairy Ape (1926), Desire Under the Elms (1926) and All God’s Chillun Got Wings (1929, as Negro). It was, in part, Tairov’s love of non-Russian drama that got him in trouble in the 1930s and 1940s. The Kamerny Theater was closed by government decree in 1949 and Tairov (1985-1950) could not bear the injustice and humiliation. He died within the year.
Koonen (1889-1974) was the muse, the spark, the material, the talent that brought out the best in Tairov. He, who had acted for Meyerhold in several productions at the Komissarzhevskaya Theater in 1906-1907, found Koonen at a turning point in her life and career. Having been a highly-touted student of Stanislavsky, and playing several major roles at the Moscow Art Theater, she shocked her master by jumping to the new Svobodny, or Free, Theater headed up by Konstantinov Mardzhanov (aka Kote Marjanishvili) in 1913. That company did not last long and, within a year, many of its members made up the new Kamerny Theater run by Tairov. Koonen was, from the very first show in 1914, to the very last, in 1949, the theater’s undisputed star.

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The legend is that when Koonen left the stage at the Kamerny for the last time in 1949, having performed in Tairov’s famous, 30-year hit production of Ernest Legouvé and Eugène Scribe’s Adrienne Lecouvreur, she damned the stage and the theater. Never again would it know the success and the greatness that it had known while she and Tairov reigned there. One could easily write a book about all the details of the curse, the proof, the suggestions, the eye-witnesses, the tales… And maybe I’ll do that some day. It’s a hell of a good idea. But for now suffice it to say that – whether or not Koonen did actually curse the theater – for over half a century afterwards directors, actors, administrators, priests, shamans and just-plain-crazies talked of it as if it were as real as a sharp stone in a slipper. This fed the legend and, often, directors took direct action to try to overturn the curse.
When I arrived in Moscow at the end of the 1980s the talk of the curse was very much alive. I remember Yury Yeryomin’s 1992 production of Erik (based on two plays by Strindberg), during which the theater’s firewall was lowered with a slow, screeching, rumbling racket, and then raised back up again. There was talk that he did that as reverence to Koonen – as if he were saying, “You see? We’re closing the theater off. We’ll open it back up and begin anew, this time with your blessing, rather than with your curse.” But the truth is that from 1950, when the Kamerny was rechristened the Pushkin Theater, until the early 2000s, no director, no company, no repertoire was capable of returning this space to the ranks of the city’s best venues. Despite many talented people working here, and despite the occasional hit, over the decades the Pushkin acquired the reputation of a musty, dusty, unwieldy, miraculously unsuccessful Moscow theater. That changed slowly in the 2000s after it was taken over by Roman Kozak.  For the first time since the first half of the 20th century the theater gained a sense of coherent purpose. Perhaps having the curse in mind, Kozak staged his first show (Koki Mitani’s Academy of Laughter, 2001) not on the famous main stage that Koonen cursed, but on a small affiliate stage in a building located a block away. It was a monstrous success, so that when Kozak staged a beautiful, energetic Romeo and Juliet with a very young cast on the main stage, he came to that troubled space as one who had already triumphed. Still, when the tall, strong, handsome director was stricken with cancer and died just nine years later at the age of 52, there was more than one whisper that he had taken on the battle of the curse and lost by winning.
These days there is no sign of any curse at all. Under the direction of Yevgeny Pisarev, the theater has become one of Moscow’s most popular evening destinations for theater-goers.
The plaque that hangs in the foyer of the Pushkin Theater was designed by sculptor Vyacheslav Klykov and architect Roman Semerdzhiev, and was unveiled in 1984 for the Kamerny’s 70th anniversary. It was apparently intended to be placed outside, but permission was not granted. When Pisarev applied for permission to place a plaque on an outside wall of the theater for the 100th anniversary of the Kamerny in the 2014-2015 season, he again was turned down. I don’t know if the plaque in question would have been a new one, or if it would have been the one you see here. In any case, curse or not, it seems everything that happens at the Pushkin/Kamerny Theater is fraught with additional resistance from the gods.

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