Tag Archives: Serafima Birman

Angelina Stepanova apartment, Moscow

Click on photos to enlarge.

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Here is still another of those buildings in Moscow that housed large numbers of interesting people. It was built between 1930 and 1933 as a cooperative intended for actors working at the Second Moscow Art Theater. As of today it still bears no markings of its historical value. In fact, as photos taken from the courtyard show, it is in pretty bad shape. It doesn’t look like it has ever been painted, and the bricks are showing wear and tear from the harsh Moscow winters. It would appear that the top floor was reconstructed with new bricks sometime in the recent past, but I can’t verify that. The street-side facade, with its cement covering on top of the bricks, still looks fairly good, if heavily weathered.
I took note of this building at 1/12 Gazetny Lane after going through one of the directories of theaters and theater workers that I have in my personal library. (At the time under discussion Gazetny Lane was called Ogaryov Street.) This Theater Directory, published in 1936, provides addresses and phone numbers for many actors, directors and writers for that year. I kept a running list as I ran through the book and was interested to see this building crop up with high frequency. There were more people of interest who lived here, but here are some of the residents:
Vera Pashennaya, actress, Maly Theater, apt. 10. Her phone number was 3-80-55.
Olga Androvskaya, actress, Moscow Art Theater, apt. 36. Tel. 1-29-80.
Angelina Stepanova, actress, Moscow Art Theater, apt. 49. Tel. 2-43-19.
Serafima Birman, actress MOSPS Theater (today’s Mossovet Theater), apt. 60. Tel. 1-14-14.
Alla Tarasova, actress Moscow Art Theater, apt. 71. Tel. 1-10-93.
I am attaching this post to Angelina Stepanova (1905-2000) for several reasons, one being that I photographed the entrance she would have used when living here. The door itself would have been different, of course, but the entrance below, providing access to apartments 41 to 65, would have been Stepanova’s. It stands in the crux of the building’s bend in the courtyard area. Stepanova moved here from her previous places of residence on Krivoarbatsky Lane and Maly Vlasyevsky Lane, which were (are) located in the famous Arbat district. More about them some other time.
Stepanova was one of the leading ladies at the Moscow Art Theater from the 1920s through the 1970s and even ’80s.
I came within a hair of seeing her perform in her last role in Lyudmila Petrushevskaya’s The Moscow Choir (1988). She played the character of Lika in turn with Iya Savvina, and Savvina performed the night I saw that show.

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Another reason I chose to write about Stepanova today is that she played a large part in the life of the playwright and screenwriter Nikolai Erdman in the late 1920s and first half of the 1930s. They were lovers, although both were married: he to the dancer Natalya Vorontsova, she to the director Nikolai Gorchakov. The affair was strong and deep and it undoubtedly meant much to both. It is also clear that Stepanova would have liked it to become permanent, while Erdman, not the greatest committer-to-relationships, ultimately remained emotionally ambiguous and sexually promiscuous. The building pictured here is a physical reference to that time when Erdman and Stepanova lost touch with one another – 1935/1936. Surely one of the great culprits in that break was Erdman’s arrest in mid-October 1933 and his exile to Siberia which lasted until fall 1936.
By the time Stepanova moved into Apt. 49 at Ogaryov Street she was well on her way to finalizing her divorce with Gorchakov and marrying the writer Alexander Fadeev (about whom you can read more elsewhere in this blog). That marriage took place in 1936.
Stepanova’s affair with Erdman began no later than 1928. In her archive there remains a short note from Erdman that year which reads:

If you knew how many times I began writing letters to you, you would understand how often I think about you. I am agonizingly bad about writing letters. Don’t incriminate me, Lina, but rather allow me to write to you without end and without beginning as often as I am able to. Answer me, sweetheart, the very day that you receive this note. I miss you very much. I dream of seeing you, Nikolai.

The last letter from Erdman to Stepanova, whom he often affectionately called “Skinny,” was written from Erdman’s place of exile in Tomsk, probably in 1935, but possibly in 1936. As he usually did when writing her from Siberia, he sent the letter to Stepanova’s place of work, the Moscow Art Theater. This last letter begins as follows:

My mother writes: “Lina is very sad, she receives no letters.” My young lady, what are we to do? I wrote you letters, then began sending post cards – for awhile I wrote them every day, then I began writing letters again. I hope you have received at least some of them. I had nothing from you for over a month. Nothing at all. Not a single line. Before that were a few stray post cards. I don’t know if others are writing me or not, but I receive almost no letters at all – perhaps, of course, because no one is writing...

Stepanova once traveled to the small city of Yeniseisk, where Erdman lived in exile from 1933 to 1934. But by the time he was moved to the larger city of Tomsk in 1934, they were drifting apart. Stepanova learned that other women were making the long trek to Siberia to visit the writer and it understandably didn’t sit well with her. That does not mean she forgot the man whom many decades later she called the love of her life. In fact, in a rather twisted turn of events, she began to hound her new husband Fadeev, who was in good standing with Soviet officials, to help ease Erdman’s lot. For several years in the 1950s Erdman and Stepanova lived in buildings just two long blocks from each other on Tverskaya Street. As strange as it seems, they never once saw each other, or so Stepanova claimed. Their last meeting took place in 1957 after Fadeev’s suicide. It happened in the apartment of Erdman’s brother Boris, and Stepanova recollected that  “oceans of time” had passed since their last meeting, nothing was left of their former feelings.
I’ve drawn quotes and information on the Stepanova-Erdman relationship from Vitaly Vulf’s annotated collection of their correspondence.

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Serafima Birman home, Moscow

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Serafima Birman (1890-1976) is one of the names from the Soviet era of theater and film that invariably attract the epithet of “great.” She was among the first group of actors to study with Stanislavsky, officially a member of the Moscow Art Theater into the mid-1920s. She was also a member of Mikhail Chekhov’s Moscow Art Theater 2. She was a founding member of the Lenkom Theater. She acted, directed and taught both disciplines. Her appearances in film were few and far between, but once seen, she was impossible to forget. A Russian blogger who calls herself Mary Quite Contrary wrote this about Birman’s performance of Yefrosinia Staritskaya in Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan The Terrible: “But the real shit hits the fan, of course, with Serafima Birman’s Yefrosinia Staritskaya. She is such a snake in the grass, but is performed so brilliantly that you can’t take your eyes off her massive black silhouette and hissing voice.” You can find this comment as well as a couple of stills of Birman in the film at Contrary Mary’s blogsite. You can see one of Birman’s scenes from the second half of the movie on YouTube.  Birman actually got this role in a backhanded way. It was originally going to be Birman’s great contemporary Faina Ranevskaya who would play Yefrosinia, but the studio decided that they did not like Ranevskaya’s “strong Semitic features.” As a result, the role went to Birman, every bit as much a Jewess as Ranevskaya, but who was listed in her passport as “Moldovan” because she was born in Kishinyov.
A lot is made of Birman’s physical appearance. One female journalist on the Russian Showbiz Daily website goes really overboard by calling Birman “unbelievably ugly” (neveroyatno nekrasivaya), although she does, at least, allow that she was a “genius.” This same post, as well as many others, go into great detail about Birman’s “unusual” visage, her desire to be “beautiful,” etc. It gets pretty damn annoying, I must say. I’d love to ignore this part of Birman lore, but it’s everywhere, and so I mention it in order to call it out. Not only is it bunk, it has nothing to do with anything. Period. Let’s be done with that nonsense.
Birman’s pedigree in Russian acting couldn’t be better. She began studying with Stanislavsky with Mikhail Chekhov, Yevgeny Vakhtangov, and Sofia Giatsintova. I haven’t found a source in English for one great story about Birman, but it’s worth quoting the Russian (Showbiz Daily) just in case it’s true. Arthur Miller was in Moscow and someone took him to see a dramatization of Dostoevsky’s Uncle’s Dream starring Ranevskaya and featuring Birman in a small role. Supposedly, Miller said, “Ranevskaya is a marvelous actress, but what she does is two-times-two-equals-four. What Miss Birman does is two-times-two-equals-five.” (That’s a back-translation from the Russian and doesn’t pretend to be a true quote of Miller.)

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Birman in the late 1920s lived in Apt. 6 at building No. 18 on Vspolny Lane, just a block from the famous Patriarch’s Pond. There’s nothing on the yellow building to indicate she lived here, but I know she did thanks to a wonderful catalogue of theater addresses that I own and which I mentioned in a recent blog about Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko. In a couple of years she moved to another address and I rather imagine I will have to show you that place in good time.
Birman had – and still has – the reputation of an extremely demanding artist. As we all know, that means that the label of “hard to work with,” or “difficult personality” has also stuck to her. And, as we all know, that just means that people who don’t know what they’re talking about are writing about her. Still, it makes for some good stories, and good stories are always welcome. Here’s one I have shaved down a bit from a site called So People Will Remember:
Birman once dropped in to see her friend Ivan Bersenev rehearsing a show at the Lenkom Theater where they both worked. Peering in from the wings, she was horrified to see Bersenev, sitting at his director’s table in the hall, munching on a sandwich. Birman was furious. “How could you? You?! In the cathedral of art! And you call yourself a director! This is a cathedral, a holy place!” That evening Birman refused to ride home with Bersenev in his car, as was her custom, choosing to walk instead. Bersenev and the actress Sofia Giatsintova drove slowly alongside her in the car. “Sima! Don’t be silly!” they shouted at her. Birman pretended not to hear them the whole way home.
My wife Oksana Mysina played Birman in a relatively recent TV biopic about the actress Valentina Serova, one of Birman’s best friends. You can see one of their scenes from Yury Kara’s “A Star of the Age” on YouTube.

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