Tag Archives: Pyatnitskaya Street

Lev Tolstoy museum on Pyatnitskaya, Moscow

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Still another point of interest on the newly renovated Pyatnitskaya Street. Look at the luscious new peach-colored paint on the wall around the plaque proclaiming this modest building at 12 Pyatnitskaya Street the Lev Tolstoy Museum and the Tolstoy Center on Pyatnitskaya. According to one laconic, but fact-filled website, this was just one of 22 homes that are associated with the great writer’s life in Moscow.
Tolstoy rented rooms here from October 1857 to the end of 1858 after returning home from the Crimean War. According to the museum’s website, the building was originally erected between 1789 and 1795. While renting furnished rooms here Tolstoy lived with his brother Nikolai, his sister Maria and three nephews, and he also became friends with the poet Afanasy Fet and the playwright Alexander Ostrovsky, the latter of which who lived a stone’s throw away. As the site tells us, Tolstoy routinely received such guests as the satirist Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, the historian, lawyer and philosopher Boris Chicherin, and the Aksakov brothers, Ivan and Konstantin. While Tolstoy lived here he worked on his famous novella The Cossacks, as well as on the stories “The Perished (Albert),” and “Three Deaths.” Some sources indicate he also wrote his tale “Family Happiness” here. It would make sense since all these works were written at more or less the same time.
Gaidarovka.ru provides some details, perhaps somewhat embellished, about this time in Tolstoy’s life: “The young count [Tolstoy], after moving to the Zamoskvorechye region, led a busy social life, spending time at the English Club, restaurants, the Bolshoi and Maly theaters, literary and musical salons. Having donned his tricot and mounting his steed, he would head out from Pyatnitskaya to sports halls where he would do gymnastics and practice his fencing. Tolstoy attended dinners for invited guests and he hosted such dinners himself. While visiting Tolstoy, Fet read aloud to guests his translation of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra and, as Tolstoy wrote in his diary, ‘ignited me for art’ with his conversations.”

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Because it’s such great stuff, I continue to quote from Gaidarovka.ru: “[Tolstoy] described life on Pyatnitskaya on Dec. 6, 1857 as such: I have lived in Moscow all this time, doing a little writing, spending some time with the family, going out into society a bit,  dawdling about with SMART PEOPLE, and life, therefore, is fair to middling – neither good nor bad. Although more likely it’s good.”
Chances are, the following description of Moscow from The Cossacks is drawn from what Tolstoy saw on Pyatnitskaya Street: “Everything was quiet in Moscow. Only very rarely could a squeaky carriage wheel be heard on the wintry street. There were no lights in the windows and the street lamps were doused. The sounds of bells wafted in from the churches, rippling over the sleeping city, reminding all of morning. The streets were empty. Here and there a night cabby’s runners would mix sand with snow and, when the cabby reached the next corner, he would fall asleep, waiting for his next passenger. An old woman might enter a church where a few wax candles standing helter-skelter and burning red were reflected in gold icon frames. Working people were already waking up after the long winter’s night and going to work. For gentlemen, however, it was still evening.”
Chances are, the church Tolstoy saw the old woman entering was the Church of Paraskeva Pyatnitsa, for which the street is named. It would stand for another 70+ years just south of Tolstoy’s house on the other side of the street until it was destroyed by Joseph Stalin in the 1930s. As for the “bells of churches wafting in” – it must be remembered that there are numerous churches in this area and bells from most of them would easily have reached Tolstoy’s ears. Especially in the quiet state of solitude he describes in his tale.
For those who love irony (and a bit of stupidity, perhaps), consider my previous post on the Tolstoy museum on Prechistenka and my story about never having visited that location in my 25 years in Russia. We can now add to that the fact that I have lived on Pyatnitskaya Street for 15 years and have never visited the Tolstoy museum located just a mile or two away from me. I can’t explain why that is. So I won’t try. I will get there, though. I promise.

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Vasily Lebedev-Kumach plaque, Moscow

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We continue our stroll up and down Moscow’s renovated Pyatnitskaya Street today by turning our attention to Vasily Lebedev (1898-1949), a poet and song lyricist who, during the period of the Revolution, added the appendage Kumach (calico red, turkey red) to his last name. He was born  at No. 6 Pyatnitskaya Street and lived here more or less until his 12th birthday. Lebedev-Kumach is a wonderfully evocative name in Russian, with hinted references to swans and turkeys, white and red. I used to run across his name often when researching my book Silence’s Roar: The Life and Drama of Nikolai Erdman. Not only did the two writers begin their careers at approximately the same time (Lebedev-Kumach preceding Erdman by about two years) and in the same general circles, but they had the opportunity to collaborate several times in the 1930s. Lebedev-Kumach wrote the songs for three works that Erdman collaborated on with others. They were: The Musical Store (1932), a musical/dramatic sketch written with Vladimir Mass for the popular jazz musician Leonid Utyosov; Jolly Fellows (1933/34), a film scripted with Mass and based very loosely on the idea of The Music Store; and Volga-Volga (1938), a film scripted with Mikhail Volpin.
Lebedev-Kumach was a hugely successful figure in the Soviet pantheon. He was the winner of a Stalin Prize (1941) and his songs were wildly popular, bringing him a financial security that could not be dreamed of by the average person in the workers’ paradise. It’s enough to know that he was the author of the words to the once- song “Wide is My Native Land” to understand the scope of the writer’s fame.
I really don’t want to step into the controversy about Lebedev-Kumach’s alleged plagiarism of some of his best-known lyrics. I don’t know enough to do that. Although it is now a part of his biography and can’t be ignored either. I will say this – the songwriter’s popularity was such that he could easily have had enemies who would have been happy to take him down a rung or two. One of his greatest detractors was the novelist and head of the Writers Union Alexander Fadeev (see an earlier blog about him on this site). But Fadeev was a slippery character, having caused untold numbers of writers to suffer pain, humiliation, loss of freedom and even death. Were his claims legitimate? I don’t know. It appears to be a fact that as he aged Lebedev-Kumach became horribly depressed by his wealth, fame and high position in the Soviet hierarchy. According to Russian Wikipedia he was asked late in life to write a poem about Joseph Stalin and he refused. (He had previously written numerous songs about and featuring Stalin.) I’m not sure Fadeev would have been able to refuse something like that…

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The building in which the future poet and song lyricist was born is one of the oldest buildings on Pyatnitskaya Street. In the second half of the 19th century it either replaced a one-story building that was built in 1842, or had a second floor added. As best as I can understand, the one-story version was erected at the end of the 18th century and replaced structures that were part of the property of Count Mikhail Dashkov in the 17th century.
One website devoted to Moscow’s neighborhoods has this to say about Pyatnitskaya: “Eclectic and gaudy, Pyatnitskaya still retains that charm of a secluded, isolated corner of the city which is characteristic of the Zamoskvorechye region. It’s as if it was created especially for knowledgeable connoisseurs of architecture and hosts of old buildings that are steeped in urban legends and attract curious researchers hoping that the city will reveal something of its past to them.”
As for Lebedev-Kumach, I would add that he translated Horatio into Russian; worked for a time in the organization connected with the famous ROSTA Windows (where Vladimir Mayakovsky also worked); wrote for the great humorous publications The Whistle (Gudok) and Krokodil; and took part in the famous and influential Blue Blouse traveling theater projects. According to one website, an incomplete listing of his songs numbers more than 150. He is buried in the cemetery at Novodevichy  Monastery.

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“Foreign Literature” editorial office, Moscow

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I live on Pyatnitskaya Street in Moscow in the Zamoskvorechye, or “Beyond the Moscow River” section of the city. It is a glorious place, filled with churches, old architecture and cultural connections. It is, at once, the old merchant section of town and the place where, hundreds of years ago – and today, too – immigrants from the South would arrive and make their home. Over the last two months Pyatnitskaya Street has undergone a radical facelift, old buildings being renovated and repainted, the street being narrowed for automobiles and widened for pedestrians and bicycle riders. The neighborhood has undergone a transformation of a kind I have never experienced in any neighborhood I have ever lived in – and I have lived in a lot of neighborhoods.
One of the most nondescript buildings on all of Pyatnitskaya (named after the Church of Paraskeva Pyatnitsa, which was destroyed in the 1930s) is the one bearing the address of house 41. If you peer past the iron gates into the entryway set back from the street and sidewalk you can make out a plaque proclaiming this the home of the editorial offices of Inostrannaya literatura, or Foreign Literature, magazine.  Inside the building one is greeted by a most wondrous atmosphere of old. You feel as though you have stepped back in time into the Soviet Union of the 1970s. The creaky, loose-boarded floors; the floor attendant who buzzes you in when you ring the doorbell and sits indifferently by a stack of books and magazines for sale; the dull, gray walls and air, and even the murky light straining to come in the windows. Everything here seems to have turned its back on whatever is happening outside the walls, just as it might have been in the 1950s, when the journal was founded (1955), the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s. Although the publication drew its pedigree from several earlier magazines of the type, primarily The Messenger of Foreign Literature, which was published from 1891 to 1916, Inostrannaya literatura was a child of the Thaw era, bringing readers novels, poems, stories, essays and other writing from the West that could not be had anywhere else. As a text on the journal’s website proclaims, “At the dachas or in attics of practically every reading Soviet household it used to be that one could find lovingly bound packs of Foreign Literature.  These [magazines] allowed dreamers firmly ensconced behind the Iron Curtain to discover the works of Samuel Beckett, William Goldin, John Updike, Jerome J. Salinger, Kenzaburo Oe, Tennessee Williams, Jean-Paul Sartre, Franz Kafka, Evelyn Waugh, Umberto Eco, Julio Cortazar, Milorad Pavic and many, many other writers.”
When I married into the Mysin family in the late 1980s, the huge library I inherited, indeed, included large packs of old issues of Inostrannaya literatura tied together with coarse string. We donated these old issues to the Russian Theater Union’s research library when we moved 15 years ago.

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Inostrannaya literatura was one of the great promoters and defenders of the art of translation in a national tradition, both Russian and Soviet, which has always excelled in this sphere of belles lettres. Translators in Russia have been revered almost as writers themselves, and, in fact, often have been major writers in their own right. The names are legion, but we can mention a few – Samuil Marshak (see my post from a few weeks back), Kornei Chukovsky, Boris Pasternak, Joseph Brodsky, Vasily Aksyonov, Innokenty Annensky, Dmitry Merezhkovsky, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Alexander Pushkin… You get the point. Inostrannaya literatura these days often publishes the magnificent work of translator Natalya Mavlevich, who functions equally at ease in French, German and English. Mavlevich created one of the finest translations I have ever encountered – a virtuoso rendition of Valere Novarina’s experimental masterpiece L’Operette imaginaire, although this was not published in Inostrannaya literatura.
In the photo immediately below you see the journal’s editorial office as pictured from the opposite side of the street, while the final photo shows a view of Pyatnitskaya Street looking south from directly in front of the building.
NEXT DAY ADD: I got a note this morning (Aug. 25) from Inostrannaya literatura with a couple of corrections. One was the year the magazine was founded – I’ve made that correction. The other I insert here without changing the original because it’s one of those things I see as point of view. Here is the correction:
“A Soviet editorial office wouldn’t have any ‘stack of books and magazines for sale’ (except maybe in the 1920s, when some private and semi-private publishing houses existed), so this is a sign of new times.”
What I was leaning on was my memory from the late 1970s of going into writers’ organizations and other non-bookstore places where, indeed, books that the average person could not find in bookstores were there for the “elite” members of these places to buy. So I may be wrong that books were for sale at magazine editorial offices, but my reference was wider. That said, I’m more than happy to provide these corrections.

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